Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Nola Kane: A Character Study

Nola sighed. Another utterly exhausting, yet heartwarmingly fun day was coming to an end. The clock read 6:02 pm and she had just, moments ago, waved goodbye to the last kid still somehow teeming with energy and her significantly less energetic mom. Nola sighed, not because she was tired, though she was. Looking outside at the darkness of the late fall evening filled her with a great appreciation for the working electricity inside as well as the vastness of the universe. She smiled a wry smile at her ability to be so deep after a long day.

As she surveyed the now-deserted room that only a short while ago was bordering-on-but-never-quite-reaching chaos, she felt something akin to satisfaction or fulfillment, but it was hard to tell as she was also quite hungry. Nola just loved these little ones who attended her daycare. When she first started years ago, her mother claimed that she had found her calling, while Nola, even though she thoroughly enjoyed her work, wasn't always quite sure.

Back in school, she had been one of those "most likely" types whom teachers fawned over and fellow students both admired and teased, usually behind her back except that one time when she had sensed their presence and turned around really quickly exclaiming "aha!" The world had been her oyster even though she never quite understood what that meant even after she took up oyster fishing and oyster shell collecting as hobbies. To this day the smell of oysters always makes her feels slightly nauseous.

Despite having so many options in her senior year which was almost debilitating, but not quite, unlike that time when she broke her foot which was actually quite debilitating, she surprised everyone by studying early childhood education and eventually opening up her own daycare. She's learned at an early age that it is much easier to surprise people if you purposely surround yourself with easy-to-surprise people.

Others wondered if she was selling herself short and she kept claiming that she wasn't for sale unless we were talking big money as even she had a price. Others also wondered about her choice of cardigans. While running a daycare appeared to be a perfect match for this fun-loving, yet sensitive, young woman in her mid-20s, in the back of her head she always felt like she should have rolled the dice and pursued her true love, and no, that wasn't referring to her love of games of chance involving dice or the stunning Gill Brooks who lived across the street, though those too.

From her early 20s she'd concealed her true love because she couldn't face the music or the laughter or even the sink without calling a plumber first. Privately she'd always wanted to solve crime or crimes, if one wasn't enough to satisfy the itch. Satisfying itches was one of those things that helped her unwind as well as cutting back on winding herself up which had a very limited upside anyways. She had spent her years in college fantasizing about becoming a childcare provider by day and the catcher of bad people at night and then the president-elect of a fantasy world made up of elves who was slowly bringing down the government from the inside while she slept. But something held her back and she was never quite sure what.

Nola shook her head from side to side, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until she grew tired of it and neck grew sore. She was disinfecting the toys that the kids had slobbered on and shared and then slobbered on some more and just wondering if she was truly as happy as she felt when a certain, key part of her, the desire to solve crimes, lay dormant and unused. Maybe she was too sensitive or maybe she was too fun-loving or maybe it was the precise combination of the two that had her trapped in this world of solely watching and washing children for a living.

Or, maybe, just maybe, her struggles were due to her fear of heights; her debilitating fear of heights. A fear that would be a source of pride, if fears ever could be, which they couldn't. She stopped in her tracks at the front door as she was about to lock up and head home and she looked up at the tall building across the street and shuddered involuntarily. Tops of buildings had always had that effect on her.

In an instant she was taken back to her childhood as she stood there in the doorway of her dimly lit daycare she had build brick by brick from the ground floor all those years ago. True, someone else had actually formed the bricks into a building, and true, there was only a ground floor, and true, she had just turned some of the lights off which explained why things seemed dimly lit, and why she was visiting her childhood as she stood there was a mystery to her. Another mystery. So many mysteries. They surrounded her and kept her up at night; well those, and her addiction to caffeine. All she wanted was to throw off the shackles of her fear of heights and solve them all. She also wanted to buy some ice cream.

She turned back to look at the daycare, knowing that in a few short hours, she'd be back here on Burdett Avenue in the morning. The little ones would arrive once again, and she'd play with them with a joy that naturally emanated from her as she was just such a fun-loving woman. And yet, there was so much more to her that she kept concealed, as if locked away in a small safe hidden underneath her pile of big wool sweaters in her closet. She started to cry and wasn't sure why. If only she wasn't so sensitive. Nola sighed. Time to go home.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why Teach? A Somewhat Brief Overview of How and Why I Became a Teacher

For my whole adult life, I have worked in schools; first as a high school teacher and for the past 10 years, as a counsellor. In fact, since the age of 2, I have been in school. And, while it isn't a heart-pumping thrill-ride each and everyday, I love what I do and consider myself so fortunate to wake up and actually look forward to going to work and that I leave each evening feeling like I made a difference and have had an impact on the lives of the youth I work with.

Recently I was cornered by one of my recent graduates, but to be fair and accurate, I was already near the corner of my office when he entered so it wasn't entirely his fault. Turns out he was looking for some career advice and he wanted to pick my brain, metaphorically speaking of course, or else I would not have been interested in the slightest. Career counselling is one of my favourite aspects of my job and I love helping a student figure out who they are, what their strengths are and what sort of careers would be a good fit. We also, if time permits, try on fake mustaches.

This student was considering becoming a teacher himself and, after a short, but enthusiastic, round of applause, he asked about my story - why I went into education and didn't pursue a more obviously lucrative career like pig farming. The whole thing felt sort of like how a researcher who is interested in how a mouse responds to different stimuli must feel, just on a much larger scale. I paused before replying to make sure it wasn't part of an elaborate prank or that he wasn't asking solely to check the status of my sanity. Then. after attempting to sneak out the back door before remembering that I only had one door to my office which he was not-so-coincidentally blocking, I began to think. I took a few moments to stroke my glorious summer project, my beard, as well as considering the answer to his question, a question I've been asked many times before.

Why teach?

A question that is gloriously simple which, coincidentally, is also how my kindergarten teacher described me to my parents on my final progress report.

A question that is as good as it is short and it's also a question kids used to ask me when I assigned too much homework, only hopefully including a comma in those instances.

A question I'd first been asked all those years ago when I was about to enter the Teacher Education program at UBC in 1994 and many many times since by the bartender at my summer job, my friends becoming doctors or lawyers, my private section squash league teammates, a random passerby dressed as a banana who was being pursued by a pack of other guys dressed as monkeys as well as so many others.

Obviously there is no one correct answer, but before I relaxed too much I reminded myself, there are plenty of wrong answers with my having a God Complex and wanting a daily excuse to hear myself talk being just two of them. And my response, when asked this question, is not solely why I chose to teach, but also why anyone would go down that suspiciously well-lit path in the forest when other paths are also well-lit while also having far better signage. Each time this query arises I feel as if I am having to explain/defend my profession as, unlike in other areas of the world, teachers are just not universally held in high regard by society. The implication always seems to be: why did you settle on teaching?

My answer to my student on that day, which was clearly lacking in eloquence thanks to my genetics, was that I just always knew I wanted to be a teacher. He appeared to be considering backing away slowly or creating a diversion so that he could flee to safety or find higher ground in case of a flood, but instead he stayed partially to ask some follow up questions and partially because he'd paid for parking and felt like getting his money's worth. I liked his moxie and said as much, just not in those words.

In the conversation that followed I told both my rags-to-riches story as well as the infinitely more enjoyable, though less based in reality, riches-to-rags-as-part-of-an-elaborate-hoax-to-find-true-love story that I'm trying to get made into a modern rock opera as I write this. I really wanted to try to help my student figure out if education was the career for him, as it is not for everyone. To help, I'd brought along props and a light snack.

My story all started when I was young boy who was often intentionally mistaken for Little Orphan Annie because of my curly red hair and my propensity for breaking out into song while wearing a red dress. That boy, let's call him Frank just in case the Feds are reading, got up each day and went to school, because that's what little boys named Frank do. When not in school, Frank spent a lot of time in an elaborate dreamworld populated by highly intelligent unicorns who bullied him mercilessly. Frank also was highly proficient at the ancient art of whining.

All joking aside, I loved school from the beginning - the classrooms in all their rectangular and nondescript glory, the hallways full of joyfully poor children's artwork, the bells or buzzers or jazzy saxophone riffs that mark the start and end of everything and the sense of community which I am contractually unable to joke about until the year 2024. 

I distinctly recall being in grade three or four and I was, among other things, quite cute, like a smaller, less disillusioned and more infinitely more adorable version of my present self. It was recess and as we ran after one another, screaming, the conversation on the schoolyard turned, as it invariably does among 9 year olds, to our future careers as we had exhausted all that could be said about more macho topics like cars and sheet metal and the negative impact steroids may one day have on professional sports.

We went around the circle, naming jobs we were dreaming of doing and, maybe this is an indirect critique of my ability to dream big, but I was the odd one who didn't want to be an astronaut or a doctor or a cowboy or a princess. I mean I sort of wanted to be a princess, but only a fictitious one or a cowboy but only the kind that has absolutely nothing to do with cows do to my irrational fear of being recruited to "their" side. I remember telling everyone, especially my somewhat proud and somewhat worried teacher, that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Then she made a note using her special long, red, tapped teacher's pen in her book while glancing up at me and shaking her head slowly from side to side.

I'm not sure what initially interested me in teaching. I'm not sure about a lot of things, but I'm attempting to keep this piece focussed. What initially attracted me to the job? The power? The responsibility? The ability to unfairly grade others on a curve? Being referred to as "Mister" or "Sir" or "O Bearded One" with only small amounts of sarcasm? For those wondering, I planned from an early age to one day grow a beard and, if all went well, to go full-Muppet at some point after that. But, I did like the idea of standing up in front of a class of wide-eyed kids with all eyes on me, but I also liked the idea of my sitting in front of a classroom of an empty classroom equipped with multiple containers of thick molasses and vats of feathers, but that is a story for a different day.

I'd be lying to say the power didn't interest me. This will be the last time I lie to you. And the responsibility spoke to me with a thick German accent who turned out to be my imaginary German exchange student, Hector, the entire time. I loved the idea that I alone would be given the immense responsibility to fill these impressionable young minds with ideas and the ability to think critically and to problem solve, just like I had the immense responsibility to fill buckets full of hot, sudsy water each Saturday afternoon for reasons my father refused to reveal.

Some would argue that it was my long-term exposure to teachers from a young age, while others would argue it was my exposure to large amounts of toxic glue, but all I know is that I just always wanted to teach and I often wondered why the trees always appeared to be melting before I remembered the glue. Back in elementary school, I was fortunate to have a number of passionate, caring and fun teachers who directly influenced my career path with only somewhat-obvious brainwashing, while also indirectly influencing my love of chalk. Chalk, I must say, is fabulous and to this day my spare time is often spent going outside and drawing immaculate coastline vistas using nothing but white chalk as my family decided that I wasn't ready for colours yet.

But sure, I spent so much of my formative years eating toast as well as sharing the space in and around teachers and school it left a mark which thankfully didn't leave a scar. The scars you see are from my short-lived desire to erase all of my freckles using extra-coarse sandpaper. I just really loved elementary school and, when no one was watching, I often hugged it. One time I called it "mom". Some may wonder if it was my first love, but that was my Raggedy Ann doll with Raggedy Andy being a close second. I believed that teachers were cool as they knew stuff and used their mouths, and occasionally their eyes, to teach things to us. I loved learning and the feeling in my brain as I learned, which I often described to my parents as being akin to how a garburator works. I'd sit there, in my desk, and multi-task - one part of my brain was actively learning, one part was strategically planning on either training to become a teacher or using my newly obtained powers of ESP and the other part was eating tuna fish straight from the can.

I dreamed of being a teacher and on expanding my caveman-like vocabulary too along the way. I wanted to be one of them; to write "nice try" or "close" or "come see me" on top of someone's paper, to enter the staffroom without feeling anxious or at least feeling less anxious then I did doing it as a kid, to resolve conflicts between students using the silent treatment juxtaposed with barking like a dog, to force others to raise their hands when wanting to talk to me which never worked on the schoolyard and to gain entry to their elusive club where I figured there was lots of hidden perks and free nougat.

And throughout high school and into university, I continued to love school and look up to my teachers mostly due to my lack of height, but also because I appreciated how hard they worked and how much they cared. Despite all of the rain, I never wavered from my future career goal. I got up each morning, brushed my hair into a wonderful afro, carefully made sure not to step on the cat, before feeling guilty and going back and stepping on him and then I continued marching towards my destiny as an educator. Others occasionally scoffed at me and my desire to be in school for the rest of my life, while others claimed they were just clearing their throats and that their proximity to me at the time was merely coincidental.

Though I was occasionally confused as to where I was going in life as evidenced by a glazed-over look not dissimilar to a glazed doughnut, I never really considered any other career. "Was this fate or just evidence of a lack of any real imagination" I was once asked? I spent many summers wondering why it couldn't be both while also liberally applying sunscreen. I mean sure, I had the flash-in-the-pan ideas of being a world-famous NBA broadcaster or a world-famous flamenco dancer or even a world-famous frying pan designer thus making all flashes in pans easier what with the copious amounts of pans on hand, but all roads pointed towards education and I skipped all the way there and I haven't stopped skipping till this day. Literally.

But, while I sat there on my chair, swiveling around slowly and dramatically, I considered the question "Why teach?" and all of the times I have had to explain or justify or fight off a pack of hungry wolves with the answer, which happens much more often that you'd think. Teaching in North America, unlike in many other countries, just isn't held in high regard by society. The age old joke that those who can't do, teach persists no matter how many times I demonstrate my ability to "do" things. So often I've found myself not only explaining my love for the work that I do, but also justifying teaching itself.

I strongly believe that teachers are as important to society as doctors and nurses and only slightly less important than creative writers. It just feels like important work, and as I sat there in front of my student, remembering so many amazing and cathartic experiences along the way - my education degree, student teaching, substitute teaching, my first permanent position, directing plays, my year of exchange teaching, and becoming a counsellor - it took all of my power not to weep. I always try, by the way, to weep outside in the rain.

As we continued to chat, I thought about my own path towards teaching and also about what continues to motivate me today, after over 20 years in education, to keep getting out of bed in the morning and head off towards school. My student wondered aloud if I ever found the job and the routines boring, while also wondering numerous other things that I was able to pick up on what with my natural telepathic abilities. Again, the answer is quite simple; I just really enjoy working with students and helping guide them. I feel that the job is a true higher calling which initially made me quite concerned what with my debilitating fear of heights.

Sure there is repetition, and some days are monotonous and mundane. Other days are a tad dry and uneventful. Still others are tedious and dull. And let's not forget about those days that are unvaried and unstimulating. It is just a fact that not every moment of every day is exciting, but that is true about all professions. But, the good moments and days heavily outweigh the bad or boring. Sure, I sometimes look out the window of my office like a trapped-inside-puppy dog and briefly flirt with the idea of becoming an accountant or an accountant's brazen, no-holds-barred assistant, before I come back to Earth and snap out of it. Thank you mom, for the travel set of smelling salts!

Though I've been at this for a while, and there is an occasional feeling like I've seen and done it all, what prevents it from becoming stale for me are the students. Each group of students is unique and they come with their own challenges and original personalities and I love getting to know them all as people. I see working with a new group of students sort of like doing a similar yet new puzzle with a similar yet different answer to the last puzzle I did. As one group leaves, I miss them and bemoan that my work will never be as enjoyable, and then the new, young and exciting group comes in and I get hooked once again. I honesty care about helping them all and that is something you can't fake or grow tired of, unlike that week when I attempted to convince my friends that I was a part man part frog which got old really fast.

And my colleagues. Too many to mention now and even if I could it would really negatively effect this piece of writing to the point where I'd just abandon it and go for a walk. Going for a walk every once and a while is great exercise by the way - give it try. Anyways, I have really been so fortunate to work with so many passionate and enthusiastic teachers in my 20+ years, who have greatly added to my overall love of my work. Sure, I have also seen with my own two eyes, aided by thick, constantly-smudged glasses, a small number of people who were ill-fitted for the profession. Teachers who didn't inherently like students and seemed to be in the job purely for the vacations or those were bored by their subject material and taught on auto-pilot or ones who just seemed unhappy and cranky all the time. But, these types of educators are few and far between, sort of like random, but pointy, thorns in the strawberry patch that is education. As I spoke to my student, I took a minute and imagined I had a big bowl of strawberries and whipped cream in front of me right now and I exaggeratedly licked my lips which was one of my bad habits along with stupidly fondling thorns.

The focus from my friends in the private sector when the topic of public education is brought up is often on the bad apples, the teachers who aren't that good. They argue that teachers are glorified babysitters who have it so easy with too much vacation time who leave at the bell and don't work hard. I always find that line of reasoning so offensive as it is so far from the truth. Sure there are a few bad apples, but I always say to them find me a profession where there aren't any including, but not limited to, apple farmers as some of those farmers are totally mailing it in. For the most part, the schools I have worked in have a staff that really cares and that is clear as soon as you take a few steps inside the building. After that I usually take a few more steps, followed by a short break to stretch my hamstring and then I resume stepping until I find a place to sit down.

And the pay is sufficient, at least for my current lifestyle. Sacrifices have had to be made along the way. I mean I won't be holding any champagne and caviar parties anytime soon unless it is BYOCandC, and then I'm all in. But I'm doing better than okay what with my full head of hair and new sneakers and set of shirts and sweater tops that don't scream "80s!" To be clear, I definitely wouldn't turn down more money if someone was in the mood to pay me more, unless it was hush money as I staunchly refuse to hush unless I have some sort of diagnosed throat ailment or if they sweeten the deal as I have a sweet tooth or, more accurately, a mouth full of sweet teeth.

So, to the question "why teach?" I told him, the answer is because deep down inside you love working with youth. It definitely isn't for everyone and it has to be much more than loving the hours and the holiday time. There will be plenty of days when you are tired or stressed or don't feel like going to work for a variety of reasons, but once you are there, you'll find yourself rising to the occasion because you just care, a whole awful lot. If that describes you, I finished, then yes, teach. But not everyone is as lucky as just knowing like I was. Not everyone has taken such a straight path towards education. So, volunteer at a school or community centre or youth group. Tutor or coach or mentor. See how it feels. You'll know. It will either fit like a boot or it won't and remember as my preschool teacher always said "never wear boots that don't fit".

I watched him leave just wishing I could be the one doing the leaving at some point in the future. I'm not sure if my student will pursue teaching and I'm not sure if he found our chat illuminating or helpful or coherent. But I enjoyed the chance to take a trip down memory lane and to reflect on my journey. I have some days when I daydream about "what if" I had gone a different route in life and whether I'd be even happier or more satisfied or at least write using fewer travel metaphors. Impossible to say, but what I do know, is that I am fortunate to be where I am at this approximate midpoint in my career. I experience satisfaction, fulfillment, reward, and accomplishment each day and I'm just so lucky to enjoy what I do. I just hope my student is able to find the same for himself, either in education, or wherever his path takes him.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Playing Ultimate Part 1: My First Game

I have been playing ultimate for 28 years. I am also a writer. After a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to combine these two skills, I settled on writing a series of stories about my life as an ultimate player which, if all goes well, will also be turned into a groundbreaking psychedelic rock opera entitled Tommy unless someone has beat me to that already.

Here is Part 1: My First Game

It was late spring 1989, flowers were blooming, love was in the air for the local birds and bees and I had just turned 18 and was finally on the cusp of graduating. While I was excited for university and couldn't wait to get out of that "hell hole" (author's note: not an actual hell hole), all in all, high school was pretty good for me - above average grades, minor roles in school plays, and minimal amount of long-term permanently scarring moments. But, there was one major thing missing from my To Do list for school; one glaring thing, in fact. I had never played on a school sports team. And I loved sports! I was literally in love with sports, seriously, it was a huge problem. Honestly, I followed almost every sport as if my own existence depended on them (maybe they didn't, but was I going to take that chance?) and it had always been my dream to be a star on a team with the bleachers full of adoring fans cheering for me (true story - I spent hours in the backyard completely dominating my solo version of tennis-ball-against-the-aging-wooden-fence baseball and as well as being a virtuoso at one man balloon basketball in the rec room). Unfortunately, in reality, I lacked what is commonly known as skill and thus, I never made even one team.

Not that I hadn't tried. If they gave awards for trying, I still wouldn't win one, but I'd be close. There were numerous failures and shortcomings that I just don’t have the room to adequately give justice to here, but am happy to send interested parties the entire DVD collection. I remember going out for the basketball team in grade 9 after a summer of watching Bird, Magic and Isiah on TV and believing that my time brazenly dunking on the kiddie hoop in the lane was all the prep I needed. Sadly and unfairly, I was wrong. Laughably wrong if you were someone else, which I wasn’t. Instead of walking around the halls full of pride after making the team, I came away psychologically and metaphysically knocked down as I had to finally confront that I didn’t have what it took. I still walked down the halls as I needed to exit the building. Turns out that I couldn't dribble well enough to be a guard, wasn't tall enough to be a forward and couldn't shoot well enough to be on the team at all, but I could be a manager if I didn't find that too insulting, which I didn't...till now. I was an amazing grade 9 basketball team manager, by the way, years ahead of my time.

I so badly wanted to wear our school colors with the nickname "Grey Ghosts" emblazoned on the front to hopefully terrify, or at least confuse our opponents (“why were the ghosts, grey, and what did that mean?”) and I wasn't ready to give up. I considered volleyball (too short), soccer (hilariously uncoordinated with my feet) and rugby (scared of everyone and everything hitting me). Don't misunderstand, I wasn't a stereotypical glasses-wearing, calculator-carrying, member of the chess club nerd decorated with skin blemishes and freckles, I mean I was, but that’s not the point, or not this point I’m trying to make presently. It wasn't that I wasn't athletic, I played competitive racquetball, squash and tennis as a teen, but unfortunately, no school team sport worked for me and those individual sports carried next to no cache, which I had cleared ample space in my backpack to carry. My parents consoled me the way that only my parents could (although to be honest I didn't go around trying out other parents approaches to compare and contrast) with well-meaning clich├ęs such as "keep your chin up", "don't take it on the chin" and other chin-related expressions and idioms that were meant to motivate and inspire me, which they did, while also making me fairly self-conscious about my chin.

And then, just when I was ready to give up all hope, I found Ultimate. Looking back on things, it must have been destiny or fate or a result of being stalked.

I grew up vegetarian, though that isn't important for this story, and also loving throwing Frisbees, or more accurately, being totally frustrated that I couldn't really throw one to save my life which thankfully never came up. I was told that a ball dreamed that it was a Frisbees, which was but one thing that a ball and I had in common. My parents always brought a disc with them whenever we went to a park and they were just so good at chucking it to each other and then turning to me and smiling in a perfect mix of taunting and love that only they could master. All throughout my youth, I vividly recall being in awe of how they would effortlessly wing this colorful plastic disc to each other at a good distance without it wobbling or hitting the ground. I would just lay there, under the big ol' oak tree, reading Nancy Drew, and eating sugar-free snacks, just wishing that I could throw like they were. Occasionally I would be permitted to join in and I clearly stood out as "NOT A THROWER!" (why my mom had to continually, and quite joyfully call that out each time I was about to throw, was beyond me) as my discs posed immediate health hazards to all humans and animals nearby as the Frisbees would rarely get to one of my parents and when they did it wasn't pretty. I always looked up to their ability to throw so crisply and accurately while humming the hits of the 70s and early 80s while doing so. I really wished that I could do the same.

For much of grade 12, my friends and I had spent our lunch hours walking outside, eating lunch and throwing Frisbees, usually in that order. It came as quite a shock one day when they approached me unknowingly carrying large amounts of static. They cornered me (to be fair, I was already in a corner at the time marveling at the practical application of angles), and asked me if I wanted to come out that evening to play on their team. I instantly said "sure" a little too loudly and enthusiastically for the librarian's taste before inquiring exactly what kind of "team" this was and whether I'd need to be vaccinated beforehand, which, for me, was a deal breaker. I found out that my friends had been leading a secret, double life for years now while also playing ultimate on Wednesdays as well, without telling me or possibly they had told me and I was lost in the bliss of yet another incredible peanut butter sandwich.

Why they wanted me, a guy who couldn't hit the side of a barn even when provided with a barn ahead of time to practice on, was beyond me. Also beyond me was quantum mechanics, as well as why orange shirts just don't go well with brown pants. Maybe they had done their due diligence and research and realized that I was the missing piece to the puzzle for their team and that they saw within me great potential and just wanted the opportunity to help me unleash it or, conversely, they were fresh out of options and were incredibly desperate and I was their final hope so they wouldn't default. Either way really, I was just so excited to have been invited out to join their team as long as dogs weren't involved in any way, which they assured me they weren't, though I swear I heard barking and the cackling of laughter in the background on the phone when they hung up.
I remember my first game so well.

It was a late Spring Wednesday evening in 1989 at the idyllic Jericho Beach Park in Vancouver with the coastal mountains looming in the distance and that ever-present and beautiful aroma of the woods after a rain all around. The grass was still damp as I dropped my bike on the sideline and ran over to join my team just hoping that this wasn't all part of an elaborate hoax, though, like all of us, I do love a hoax from time to time. The previous summer, the team had been called The Pink Lungs, but with many lineup changes, the new team was called Hat Head (we all wore hats...on our heads) and eventually we morphed into Bandana Republic (we all wore bandanas while also feeling strongly that supreme power should be held by the people and their elected representatives, if you are into that sort of thing, which we were). I jogged around in my running shoes warming up, trying to ignore how damp my socks were already getting while also attempting to look like I had some idea of what I was doing, and failing miserably. I was a pro at attempting and failing to fit in, though this was the first that my socks were wet at the same time, so there was that.

To get ready for the game, our side performed a detailed routine of ritualistic stretching that the director of the local dance academy said was mediocre at best while we claimed that we weren’t auditioning and that she should leave us alone. Then we started a “simple” throwing drill where my discs went everywhere but their intended targets. I considered either specifically not aiming at the targets or breaking down and crying or both. One friend came over and seemed to be threatening me not to screw up the game, though in retrospect, he was probably just struggling with seasonal allergies. While looking forward to a relatively relaxing sporting activity between friends, I was mostly hoping that I would escape, body, glasses and psyche fully intact (or least no less intact than when I started) and that they would want me to come back next week if, for nothing else, as some comic relief or to throw over ripe fruit at. My heart was pumping a mile a minute and my head was spinning (both par for the course for a Wednesday evening); I never played team sports ever since I swore off soccer after that rabid dog tried to eat my leg on the gravel field during a lunch time game back in grade 5 as I figured “why did someone invent a game that involved a rabid dog in the first place?” 

As I looked across the field, I noticed that the other team had MATCHING SHIRTS (!?!?!?) which seemed to either be their attempt to intimidate us (it was working!) and/or encourage us to buy or invest heavily in Adidas. In my shaky-at-best memory, they were tall, lean and spectacularly tanned. It seemed totally unfair that our ragtag bunch of pseudo, quasi athletes who could have easily been mistaken for a group of foreign exchange students from Eastern Europe or a youth community theatre troupe for wayward teens had to go up against these veritable Olympians. In my paranoia (which my grade 7 teacher once referred to as “impressive”) I was sure that the other team had already sensed my blood in the water and were plotting and scheming to expose the imposter (me) on their way to total domination. As I stood there shaking in my boots (no one told me not to bring boots!), I was completely consumed with not screwing up or being the primary reason that we lost. As we huddled up in a circle before the game, I complimented our team on our ability to form a circle so well on such short notice with next to no practice. I remember in my panicked moments before the game hearing these strange terms thrown at me like "the force", "the stack", "hucks", "striking" and “macroeconomics” while I employed the time-honored strategy of smiling and nodding to give the illusion that I had any idea what they were talking about.

The game began. To say that I had dreamt of this moment ever since I was a child would be completely inaccurate, because how would I have had any idea on any level of consciousness that I’d ever be in this exact position. No, I had only dreamt of this moment since a couple days before when they invited me to play. In my dream, I was the star. Small in stature, but huge on the field as I made awe-inducing play after awe-inducing play. There were a series of incredible dives for Frisbees, amazing and improbable leaps into the sky to grab discs that were seemingly out of my reach and a game-saving play for the ages that was commemorated by a local artist who used primarily watercolors on canvas. Alas, my idiotic reality never lives up to the stupid expectations of my dumb dreams.

We started on defense. I was told to do “whatever it took” not to let that guy standing across the field from me to score. I tried to wink at my teammate to show that I got it, but, honestly, I’m a really poor winker and it probably came across like I was hitting on him or that I had dirt in my eye, which are often easily mistaken for each other in my experience. I learned quickly that not wanting your check to score wasn’t enough and you had to actually do something about it as he was unlikely to listen to your fancy reasoning. The game went by in a blur, and that was even after I cleaned my glasses. I spent the evening huffing and puffing, trying not to run into people, and standing around waving and calling for the disc. I slipped and fell constantly all over the place (remember: running shoes on damp grass) and I did not complete one pass or catch one disc. Aside from that, it was an unqualified success on par with the tuna salad I had made that past weekend. I was thrown to a few times, partially out of pity and also sympathy, which are really hard to tell apart while playing a sport for the first time. 

Despite losing and not really getting involved, I was in love, even though I was a bit scared and had no idea what exactly I was getting into, which was, sadly, eerily similar to many of my first human relationships too. In my short experience, I felt something deep inside me that ended up being heartburn, and then I felt something else, a stronger feeling, like I had finally found my game, my people, my home. If I were a stronger, less-in-touch-with-his-emotions man, I wouldn’t have cried. First thing the next morning, I got dressed and had some breakfast, again not really essential to the story, and then went off to get some cleats to greatly eliminate the falling as well as being able to help my father aerate our yard. Though I had only played one game, I just knew that Ultimate was for me. There was just something about this game and this sport and the people that grabbed me (quite aggressively I must add), shook me to my senses and wouldn’t let me go until I ran away from home leaving only a short, cryptic note like it was a cult, which I was totally okay with as I had been considering running away to join one at some point in the near future regardless. 


Stayed tuned for Part 2: Learning the Game

Thursday, November 10, 2016

She was Leaving

She was leaving.
She couldn’t stay, not here, not now, not any longer.
She was tired and frustrated and lonely and sad and trapped.
She was done with him; his smell, his smile, those eyes, that feeling she got each time he was there.
She had wanted so badly to go for days, weeks, months, but couldn’t because she always stayed.
She was emotionally and physically spent; her reserve was empty, she was done.
She ran.

He knew she was gone.
He smoldered, literally as he stood in their, his empty place.
He had really screwed up; broken the one thing in the world that made him feel sane.
He missed her, them, what they once were but hadn’t been in so long.
He should have loved her, the way she needed, but just couldn’t and didn’t know why.
He wanted to go back, to fabricate one less lie, to hold her, to caress her hair just so.
He fumed.

She finally breathed.
She melted into her sister’s arms.
She sat in the big chair by the window; crying, yet finally happy.
She wasn’t sure where to go or what to do or who this person sitting here even was anymore.
She needed to find herself, again; rebuilding from the bottom floor, brick by brick.
She knew that as low as now was, that it was temporary and that bouncing back was inevitable.
She dreamed.  

He was lost.
He had never really been on his own, ever.
He was the sort of guy who needed someone, to feel accepted and whole.
He always chased them away; his own worst enemy friends told him.
He kept busy by throwing himself into work, the gym, the sidewalks at night; trying to think.
He prayed for one last chance to win her back, to show the improvement he had made for her.
He longed.

She was a new person.
She felt alive and free and happy.
She used to believe that life was something that happened to her, that she was but a passenger.
She was finally moving up and going places and not looking back at her old self and life and sadness.
She thought of him here and there; a song, a movie, a fragrance, but the thoughts were fleeting.
She enjoyed being single, no compromises or concessions; totally able to be herself all the time.
She laughed.

He was a new person.
He struggled and struggled, felt pain, but time did heal his wounds.
He looked like a whole different man; new clothes, new apartment, new approach, new life.
He listened to others when they spoke, really listened and really cared unlike he ever had before.
He thought of her; hoping she was happy, holding no grudges, remembering all the good about her.
He knew that she had helped him, when they were together and by leaving; ripping off the bandage.
He grew.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Finding "The One"


The year was 2004 and I was single again; a fact that would have been hilarious if it wasn't so soul-suckingly frustrating and that is saying something as I happen to enjoy a chuckle at some good soul sucking from time to time.

I had finally faced the facts after years of looking sideways at them; I was ready for a change. A big change. A change with a capital C smack dab in the middle of a sentence regardless of what those grammarians would say. Those particular grammarians live just down the block.

Here's what happened - I had realized that I was tired of dating for all of the reasons that I had been dating for up until that point. Like many others, I too had dated for companionship, for love, so others would stop staring and once out of spite. That short-lived, spite-filled relationship was emotionally damaging while also the motivation I needed to get rid of that junk I had in the trunk. I wasn't sure why, but I had been carting around junk in my car trunk for months with the only benefit being my ability to employ a misleading expression in my writing.

But now, at the ripe age of 33, I was ready for something more out of my dating experiences, something meaningful and something much deeper, and no, I didn't want to just walk over and stand on your suspicious pile of banana leaves that you claim will lead me to this deeper place I'm looking for. "How do I move from where I am now to where I want to go?" I asked myself each morning while brushing my teeth which led to a disgusting amount of toothpaste and spit on the mirror. I believed I was doing all the right things and going to the right places and that I was made up of the right stuff, unless aerospace travel was involved. I'd even bought a spectacular new hat.

I was rolling the dice and playing my cards and I even spent hours spinning a roulette wheel grinning like the town idiot and nothing was happening. Maybe giving out signs to the universe that I liked games of chance wasn't the answer? Maybe attempting to emulate the town idiot was the wrong call? Possibly filling my afternoons asking myself rhetorical questions while scaling freshly caught trout was too meta? Was I sending out sort of a signal causing all of the great women to flee, sort of like how animals sense a storm coming before humans do? Did I need to "lose" my glasses or "be" taller or stop seeing deodorant as optional?

Regardless, something had changed in me from the past and it was not solely my brilliant decision to stop wearing thick woolen knee-high socks in summer, though that didn't hurt. What did hurt was the cut on my middle finger on my left hand. I was more confident now than ever before, moving up from "hiding in my room" to "not leaving the house without a Groucho Marx-esque disguise" to "so that's what the sky looks like". Also, I now knew, after numerous failed combustible experiments that would have made amateur chemists run for cover, exactly what I was looking for in a woman. Aside from the obvious - sense of humour, sense of taste and no rap sheet - she would have to be active, want to start a family and, most of all, "get" me even when I was being my cute, adorable, illusive and wax-covered self.

I found myself stricken by a new feeling which my doctor claimed was only allergies, while I argued that it was maturity. We fought over it, until we decided to split the difference and he only charged me half price for the session. This maturity hit me like a sack of bricks and the sack of bricks I paid my next door neighbour to throw at me for comparison's sake also felt like a sack of bricks, only infinitely more brickier. No longer was I a little boy or a young man or easily confused with a particularly vain orangutan, I was an adult who now had gained access to all of the clubs the adults hung out in if they hadn't just changed the locks and installed new security measures.

As a tribute to the important work of our early settlers, I just had an urge to settle down. I initially wasn't totally sure what that entailed, so I "hit the books" which lead to an immediate ban from the library. Who knew librarians could get so angry? Armed with knowledge, I was now ready to enlist and join the troops on the front line to win the war up until my best friend telling me that that analogy was as misleading as it was unfunny and if I ever, years later, decided to write about this experience, it's inclusion would be seen as quite obvious filler.

Touche.

As I committed to leaving singledom behind, I shed a small tear, although it very easily could have been sweat as I was perspiring at the time. To be clear, I am always perspiring, which, aside from the obvious psychological upsides, is quite frustrating especially when I am in the mood to appear dry. Being single had been "okay" and dating was "not bad", but I was finally completely ready to transition from "how are you still single?" to "who is marrying that guy, oh it's you, well congrats". 

But it's not as if they rolled me off the assembly line ready for a relationship. Despite how it looks now, it took a lot of work and sweat and rolling around in the mud trying to avoid getting trampled by pigs. True story; avoiding getting trampled by pigs was the goal I included in my high school yearbook. After years of baby steps, which I only discontinued when the laughter starting sounding more hurtful, I gradually worked my way up to having the courage to speak to a human female in person. Turns out that all of that practice in the lab with female mice was good for nothing outside of developing and perfecting no fewer than 7 different squeaks and knowing which cheeses to provide after arguments. 

I was tired of meeting a girl, being enamored and literally transfixed by her shiny jewelry, going through a truncated "feeling out period" that usually involved absolutely no feeling aside from the totally "accidental" bumping of elbows, and then going our separate ways. This painful routine happened again and again like a borderline-unwatchable community theatre production only with a tad fewer boos. But, I was slowly and deliberately, sort of like a semi-conscious koala hopped up on a strong dose of eucalyptus leaves, figuring things out. I now knew what I wanted and the sort of person who would fit that bill - no, not the comically large set of duck bills I have for special occasions - but the relationship bill (okay, you got me, the duck bills too); the big challenge was either finding her or somehow setting a trap.

I was looking and looking. Not knowing any better, or knowing better but choosing to do things how early humanoids would have done them, I was actively looking primarily using my eyes while also allowing the others senses their turn so they didn't whine and complain. (My nose never stops sniffling about how unfair and unjust things are). I wanted to find the woman I could spend the rest of my life with while playing up the positive aspects of that and all the while avoiding using that as my pickup line unless I could nail the perfect mix of pity and sarcasm.

Where was she? Locked in a women's prison for a crime she either didn't commit or didn't commit well enough which is why she got caught? I wanted to find her now! The clock was ticking, loudly. The incessant ticks and tocks were giving me a headache as well as providing a helpful metronome-like effect that helped with the pacing. I was trying as hard as I could though I'd been warned by others not to appear too desperate. After months and months of trying, including hours of late night practice in front of the bathroom mirror, I thought I'd nailed the perfect level of desperation, and yet still, no dice as well as not finding "Miss Right." Having a good set of dice to roll would have helped when things got slow. 

I'd also been told that it would happen when I least expected it which, while comforting for some, made me feel like I was a bit character in a horror film who didn't make it past the first 5 minutes. When I least expected it? "How could I live with this hanging over my head," I wondered until I just couldn't wonder any longer and I tried to hang something equivalent from my ceiling to give me some approximation. Oh, the neck spasms!

In this period of time I consecutively dated a few different women for relatively long expanses of time. The actual amount of time in each case was short, but when compared to the zero days of dating when I was single, it seemed much much longer. Each relationship possessed some of the character, spirit and chutzpah that I was searching for, while also sadly having glaring holes in their resumes. The unique combination I knew I needed to provide me with a lifetime of happiness was proving as elusive as the unique combination I needed to open my locker at the gym. "Perhaps they are the same combination," I wailed in desperation at the moon before my neighbour threw her entire family's collection of rain boots at me - all the wrong size, I might add. As I went my separate way with each of these women, I told them that bringing in stacks of newspapers as well as empty glass bottles and aluminum cans was an odd, yet strangely sensual manner, to say goodbye while they kept asking if I would, pretty please, stop talking and do their recycling one last time.

I'd hit the proverbial low. My self-confidence and lack of dating success met like two fronts in my living room until it started to rain. Turns out I was outside at the time, but that was beside the point. With nowhere else to turn (I'd tried left and then right and was all out of options), I lay on my back on the hardwood floor for a while and closed my eyes before attempting the same steps only on my bed. The bed was much more comfortable. "Dream big," my grandmother was always telling me in a slightly threatening way "and while you're at it, would it hurt you to do something big in your waking hours as well?" 

That night I had a series of crazy and crazier dreams that gave me some wonderful ideas for new pasta sauces. Upon awaking, I walked, as if in a trance, to the bathroom and washed my face or, what I later figured out, what was the reflection of my face in the mirror and yet somehow, I felt cleaner or at least looked cleaner in the mirror. I left the house with reckless abandon, shortly after vowing to live life with more reckless abandon. Instead of standing in the corner thinking about asking that girl out, I was going to stand somewhere closer to the middle of the room. No longer was I going to psych myself up in car that today was going to be different and the drive home at the end of yet another failed day cursing myself for missed opportunities. "Don't worry; there's always tomorrow sweetie" I reassured myself in the best Fairy Godmother voice I could muster up after a full day of barking out math instruction to teens - it may come as a surprise, but teens loved my German Shepherd impressions.

No, I was prepared to take life by the lapels and refuse to let go until I had a set of new, slightly ripped, lapels. When I used to zig, I was going to zag. When I used to loudly whimper, I was going to still whimper, only more quietly. When I used to stare a beautiful woman in the face, albeit from across the block, I was now going to approach her face and talk to it. I had no reason to cower or be meek or hide behind an intricate Chinese mask, even it meant that my mask collection would just sit in my closet gathering dust. Everything I had ever done had led me to this moment. The failures, the rejections, the notarized letters to cease and desist had attempted to knock me down, but instead that had given me something closely related to and rapidly approaching pride. She was out there, I just knew it, and I was going to find her and I'd even packed a light lunch for the trip.

I ventured far and wide. I crossed the tracks and climbed the trees. I spent hours of back-breaking labour digging up my backyard, before remembering I lived in a second floor apartment. I read the tea leaves and rode the waves and even considered taking a glass blowing class at the local community centre before coming to my senses.

And then one day, it happened.

I need to say a quick word to all of you who were hoping for a sad, depressing, atypical non-Hollywood ending where I end up never figuring things out and I spend my days alone sitting by the fire chewing tobacco, I'm sorry, this is not that story.

I turned around, slowly for dramatic effect and she was standing there like how you'd imagine someone would look if they were standing. She moved her head from side to side as if in a shampoo commercial or to demonstrate for all watching that she had a full range of motion with her neck. I introduced myself smartly resisting the urge to insert the word "the" at any part of my name. She quickly retired to huddle with her assembled team who could have easily passed as either a group of very liberal accountants or the best mime troupe this side of the Mississippi to consider her options while I was left to flap in the wind which I did, as those moments are rare and fleeting.

It all just worked with her; I couldn't explain it. For a good week I was rendered speechless and the outright joy of all who knew me both for my good fortunate as well as my speechlessness was a real treat. Our relationship, while early still, worked both literally and figuratively and on as many levels and dimensions as either of us could comprehend with an average layperson's understanding of quantum physics. We were like two peas in a pod, or more accurately, I was, while she was supportive of my strange, yet oddly endearing, vegetable-themed hobbies.

Where all other attempts at relationships in the past felt difficult and tenuous, this was easy. Almost too easy, and yet it wasn't. It ended up being exactly the right amount of easy. We just hit it off from the beginning. To break the ice, I brought a chunk of ceremonial ice. Then we went on one date and then another and then another and I'd keep going, to give you the full and accurate picture of how many dates but I'm trying to wrap this up before dinnertime. We laughed a lot, so much so that we both complained of sore jowls. We talked a mile a minute which is, ironically, not that fast especially if the car you are in is on a highway at the time - believe me, it makes sense.

I was amazed. I was stunned. I needed to be roused every few hours with smelling salts that she oddly insisted on going Dutch on. Everything about her was on my list - especially not having a warrant out for her arrest as that is just a turnoff for me - and I found myself gleefully checking off all of the boxes that needed to be checked off until she cleared her throat as she was attempting to tell me about her day. And I wanted to hear about her day and was also happy to watch a short marionette production about her day if she had happened to stage one on short notice.

One thing led to another (this is always true and not really worth noting) and the next thing I knew I was proposing. I, Tommy Paley, was asking a woman to marry me and I felt a little nervous. Not that it was in any way the wrong thing to do, but nervous as the sheer weight of what this meant descended upon me like a pack of hungry bats (don't ask). Being married wasn't something I was planning to venture into unless it was the real deal. And this was it. I just knew she was the one. I knew it from the moment I met her. Or, in actual fact, like somewhere in the first several moments as I can't say for sure that it was the very first as I was pretty excited and not my sharp, analytical self at the time. 

It was like a fairy tale, aside from the distinct lack of evil witches and moats. Exactly like a fairy tale in every other regard though. As I dropped to my knee, I thought back on all of the years of loneliness, of questioning as to whether there was something horribly wrong with me, of those days in my youth when a simple drop to a knee wouldn't have hurt at all and I smiled. She smiled as well, looking down at me on one knee before her almost as if to relish that she was even taller than me than usual. And after I asked her the question to end all questions, she replied with the words I'd always wanted to hear but never totally thought I would,

"Yes, of course yes. You do have a ring, right?"

I knew I'd forgotten something.

In time, after numerous pay cheques and salmon-wrapped-in-filo-served-with-sauteed-vegetable meals later, she got her ring alright, several in fact, of all different sizes and materials before she had to ask me to stop as the joke had ceased being even slightly funny.

I had found "The One" and I wasn't letting her go.







Tuesday, November 1, 2016

My Letter to Roger Federer

Disclaimer: I am writing this as myself and I do like Roger Federer, but I am NOT this crazy about him in any way. I am attempting to be funny and the huge majority of what follows is completely ficitonal. 



Dear Mr. Federer,

Let me start by saying that I have been a huge, huge fan of yours for many, many years and it is just so exciting to write this letter to you! I have been a tennis player my whole life, but when I started following you I became inspired me to work harder and train more often as well as become a better person, which I believe that I have and I owe it all to you. Whether on a court, in the gym or running through the cemetery in the middle of the night wearing a bear costume – it makes sense, but you’d have to be there – I am always thinking about tennis and of you, you wonderful man, you.

Now, please don’t get creeped out by this, because I am totally normal – exact words from my therapist, scout’s honour – but I have dedicated the past ten years of my life to you, all to you, trying to live my life how Roger would, which is tougher than it sounds from afar. Now, I know what you’re thinking, I have done my meticulous and thorough research, I am not a crazed lunatic who wants a lock of your hair – though I wouldn’t turn one down if you felt so inclined or were getting a haircut anyways and you don’t want to let all of that glorious hair just go to waste, do you? You do not need to alert the authorities, or if you must, at least order your favourite chicken salad off the lunch menu as you do need your protein, beforehand.

I remember the day I first watched you play, when your slim, yet muscular and positively gleaming Swiss body smoothly graced my television screen like a smooth, silky bar of wonderfully delicious Swiss chocolate. For a short moment I thought a bomb had gone off in my mind as I sat there, on the edge of my seat, watching you play like I was watching a god, until I realized that my roommate was loudly and abruptly pulsing ice in the blender while sitting right behind me, so he could observe me and take notes for science. He is always claiming to be a behavioural scientist, but I’m fairly sure he just makes smoothies at the mall. My mom claims he’s imaginary, so who knows.

If you came to my house, and I hope you do one day – a special seat at the dining table is yours as well as much orange juice from concentrate as you can drink – you’d see that my house is decked out in Roger gear! From my custom-made throw pillows in the shape of your racquet, to the Roger-themed museum housed in my garage, to the huge close-up photograph of your face that makes up an entire wall of my living room, you’d love my place. I often stand there, looking at the huge photo of your face for motivation, while swinging an imaginary tennis racquet wearing nothing but knee-high white tube socks and cut off jean shorts.

Each night before I go to sleep, I drink a cup of warm milk, check and re-check my list of people I must exact revenge on, and trim my toe nails, before dropping to my knees in front of my lamp that my girlfriend snidely, yet aptly, christened “Roger” before she angrily slammed the backdoor and left my life forever, and I pray that you will fully recover from your most recent injury and fight off your increasing age to once again take your rightful spot atop the tennis world. Those who say you are over-the-hill or too old or clearly a robot are so wrong and hateful and jealous and need to stop demanding that I forward her mail to her. 

You have provided me with years and years of joy! I just want to repay you in some way especially if it meant a larger tax return for yours truly. Each time you win and raise your toned and tanned arms, I feel like we have both won and that you couldn’t have persevered without my screaming “Go Fed” at the top of my lungs until my neighbour called the police to complain. Just being there, with you, as you stand with yet another trophy raised triumphantly above your head, a feeling of pride rises from deep within me. And when you look to the camera and smile, our eyes meet for a moment, and I know that smile is all for me, almost like we are sharing a private joke that the rest of the world just wishes they were in on, but they aren’t because they are losers, not like us. “Wonder twins activate”, I barely audibly whisper as my fingertips caress your face on the screen before some moronic commercial begins, taking you away from me once more.

As I sit alone in the darkness, or as I called it, Fridays, I clutch my gigantic Federer plush toy to my chest, I think of the amazing day when we will finally meet and I mutter to myself “you can do this” and “nothing and no one will stop me, this time” and “cut down on the air quotes while talking to yourself Tommy, people will think you are a tad strange.”

All the best Roger. I can’t wait to watch your return to form in the New Year.


Tommy