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Coming back from the pool the other evening, I saw a neighbor dressed in a suit, pacing by his car. He was going to his son’s high school graduation, and worrying that his family was going to be late. I hadn’t thought of my own graduation in years, but before I had reached my front door, the memories drifted back.

For me, graduation came about two years too late. My last two years were memorable largely for Creative Writing, Literature, cross-country and track, and a boredom that I increasingly hid under a diffident politeness while I waited for school to be over. I was given a grudging respect for my running championships, so none of my classmates ever bothered me, but I had developed a reputation as a loner, and was mostly content to keep things that way.

Moreover, for the last six weeks of the year, I had convinced all my teachers except one that my time would best be spent preparing for the provincial exams, in which I was expected to do the school proud. So far as I was concerned, I had already made my mental good-byes.

Still, the ceremony meant something to my parents, so I dutifully climbed into my suit. The summer weather had hit early, and almost immediately I was sweating.

My diffidence had found a new gear, so I remember little of the ceremony. I remember looking from the stage over the gym, where more mothers and fathers and siblings had been crammed into the bleachers and the folding chairs on the floor than I would have imagined. I remember sweating under the lights, and being more bored than I had been in Grade 12 French, which for some months previous had been my standard for measuring boredom against.

Dimly, a small corner of me was scorning the platitudes that speaker after speaker offered to the graduating class. Did these people even remember what being a young adult was like? I wondered. Most of them seemed to have no idea that the advice they offered would have been out of place in an idealized 1953.

I no longer remember the name of the guest speaker. But I do remember that he was an architect of some small local fame, and that he took ninety minutes to develop some analogy between growing up and building a house that I stopped trying to follow after ten minutes.

All I remember of his speech is that, seventy minutes in, a fat old man stood up, pulled on his suspenders with his thumbs and said something like, “If you’re such a great architect, could you build a gym that would house all of us here tonight without half of us collapsing from the heat?”

He was cheered, but the guest speaker gave only a sentence or two in reply before returning to his topic.

Finally, the boredom was over, and the graduates duly marched across the stage. There would be another ceremony in September, after the provincial exam results were released, in which those of us who won scholarships would be officially presented with them, so this exercise was token. We shuffled forward to receive blank sheets of rolled paper, then descended the stairs to the stage and rushed into the hallway to open the back doors, tearing off our jackets and taking turns at the drinking fountain.

Then, suddenly, boys and girls I had known for years – some since I was six – were shaking each others’ hands, and saying things like, “Good to have known you.” They sounded like they were trying to voice the sentiments they had put into year books.

Still stupefied by boredom and heat, I couldn’t understand what they were doing. Most of us would be living in our parents’ houses for the next few years – we lived in a privileged municipality, where the university attendance rate was well over 90%. We would still be neighbors. We could still see each other, if we liked. In most cases, I didn’t like, but we would still probably encounter each other regardless.

I felt like everyone was mouthing the sentiments they thought the occasion demanded, not anything they really felt or believed. After a few minutes of such glad-handing, I escaped upstairs to join my family, anticipating getting home and changing into shorts and a T-shirt.

However, as things turned out, the farewells were warranted. That was the last time I was together with my graduating class until seven years ago when I went to my first reunion (who knows why). Almost all my class was headed to the University of British Columbia, while I opted for the younger, then edgier Simon Fraser University on the other side of town, which reduced the chance encounters and what little socializing I might have done. By the time a handful started at Simon Fraser, I was ahead of them, and had even less in common with them than I had had in high school.

Since then, I haven’t looked back very often. All that really remains of my graduation is a sense of pity that, at this time of year, millions of young adults are enduring boredom for the sake of their families, while the families are enduring an equally acute boredom in the face of platitudes for the sake of the young adults. I hope that none of them have to endure guest speakers like the architect who graced my own graduation ceremony.

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Most of my friends claim to have had a harrowing time at high school. They complain about being picked on by teachers, bullied by older students, hopeless at sports, and stressed by a combination of part-time jobs and homework. They paint such a Dickensian scene of horror that I feel ashamed to admit that my main complaints about high school was that it went on too long and taught me lazy habits.

The truth is, I never had any serious problems at school. I may have been good at academics (in fact, I won one of the two major scholarships the year I graduated), but I was also a minor sports star, scoring regularly in rugby, and winning races and setting records on the track and in cross-country races. If I became increasingly solitary as high school dragged on, it was because of my growing realization that I had little in common with those around me. Nobody was going to bother me, because until I stopped growing at fourteen, I was big for my age, and afterward I carried myself like a big man, and looked fit enough to cause anyone who went after me some grief.

The result of all this was that I was left to do more or less as I pleased. Teachers trusted me, and my running especially gave me respect, and most people left me alone. The only exceptions were the boys who responded sarcastically to everyone, and I had no trouble answering them in kind.

The only trouble was, I was ready to leave about Grade 10. I realized that to do any of the things I wanted to do, I would need to graduate, but all I could really do was endure and try to appreciate the fact that these would be last years free of serious responsibilities. So I kept to my routine of study and training for running, mooned about over one girl after another, and waited for it all to be over. I was bored, and I knew it.

In fact, my boredom was responsible for one of the few times a teacher kept me after class. Warming up for typing class, I had written “B—–O—–R—–E—–D!!!!!” repeatedly across my page, and, the next class, the teacher decided to admonish me. “You’re bored before the class even starts,” she said, in an accusing tone, as though I had been caught stealing the principal’s day book. After enduring a rambling lecture about how I had the wrong attitude, I muttered something about it being a joke and slunk away as soon as I could.

By Grade 12, I would take any excuse possible for getting away from school early. I would use my free period to go for a run, especially if it fell just before lunch or the last period of the day. I didn’t bother to attend graduation – officially because the girl with whom I was currently infatuated had moved back to her small town and I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but truthfully because I didn’t care.

For the last six weeks of the year, I even had permission to skip most of my classes to study for the government scholarships. The suggestion was taken by the councilors as an important step in my maturity, although they insisted that I keep attending French class, where my struggle with boredom was causing my grades to slip. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get out of classes altogether, but decided to be satisfied with what I could get. By the day of the graduation ceremony, I was already mentally far removed, and thinking of my planned trip to visit my far-away infatuation (which, needless to say, ended badly)

So, no, I can’t say I suffered much in high school, inflicting boredom not usually being regarded as cruel. But, years later, I realized that, in another respect, high school had failed me badly.

In those days, no students skipped grades. It was thought better to keep students with their peer groups. And if that meant that I mooched around a year of Community Recreation as the class loner because I had nothing in common with the rest of the class, that was supposed to somehow help me socialize into a normal North American man – something I was already resolved not to become.

Nor were there any enrichment classes to speak of. The closest equivalent was the Humanities program I took for two years, which was delightfully free-form, but meant that I had to fill many of the gaps in my education – Macbeth, for instance– for myself.

But the point was, there was nothing to challenge me, a fact that I always thought said more about the curriculum than about any brilliance in me. For two years, I drifted along bored, not trying nearly as hard as I could have. In the end, I developed a lack of self-discipline in everything except running, and had to scramble during my first semester at university to learn some proper study habits. Far from preparing me for anything, what high school really did was encourage me to take everything far too easy..

Still, after all these years, in all honesty, I can’t blame anyone else for my own shortcomings, not even a conveniently vague system or spirit of the times. So when someone else starts bemoaning the terrors of their high school years, I listen attentively and make suitable noises at suitable intervals until an opportunity to change the subject arises. My fear is that someone will learn that I lack the requisite background of torment, and consequently don’t qualify as any sort of geek at all.

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Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.

The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.

Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.

Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.

My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.

I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.

The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.

I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.

I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.

The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.

I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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And if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running

-OysterBand

“Aren’t you the guy who used to be running all the time?” a man I went to school with asked when we met recently in downtown Vancouver. I’ve been hearing variations of that question all my life, from everyone from clerks in local stores to potential employers. That’s not surprising, really, because, aside from reading and writing, few things have been a part of my life as much as running.

When I was in the first grades of school, we used to play tag in a little pieces of woods on the edge of the school ground. I soon found that, while I was only the third or fourth fastest of the boys participating, the longer the game went on, the less likely those faster were likely to catch me. The same thing happened on the soccer field, where by the last minutes of the game, I could outrun everybody.

However, it was in grade three that I first took up running seriously. Like many decisions in my life, it was taken by a wish to prove someone else wrong. The school’s PE teacher had assigned people from each grade to participate in a track meet with two other schools – and he hadn’t included me. Stung by this unfairness in a way that only the very young and self-righteous can be, I determined to make him regret his decision. While his chosen few practiced each morning on the makeshift track on the playing fields, I started doing laps of the school ground, sure that he would see me and be so impressed that he would have to reconsider.

If he ever noticed, he gave no sign of reconsidering. But the habit lingered, and soon I was running three mornings a week before school with several of my friends. I was reasonably athletic, although in team sports I made my mark by enthusiasm and energy more than skill, and I took running very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that when I discovered that a couple of people had cheated on an after-school training run that, when I saw them a block ahead of me, I charged towards them, yelling “Cheaters!” at the top of my lungs, wild with rage and determined that they weren’t going to get credit for finishing first. I beat them, too – although probably I was helped by the fact that they didn’t care as much as I did.

In high school, I had more than my share of firsts in cross-country and distance running, largely on the strength of having discovered that all you needed to beat most rivals was to train every day. Moreover, since my only strategy was to rush to the front of each race and then hold on, I learned the importance of psychology. I won several races when woozy from ‘flu solely because everyone else expected me to be out in front.

Somehow, though, I didn’t have get the victories in the provincial finals that everyone expected from me in grade 12. I was sick at the time, but I wonder now if the illness wasn’t an unconscious rebellion against the increasing seriousness I was finding in sport. By that point, I had been several years in the Vancouver Olympic Club, training under the legendary Lloyd Swindell, and not only had I found several rivals, but the seriousness of the training I experienced seemed to take the fun from the sport.

In university, the seriousness intensified. Not only that, but, as a team member, I was expected to help paint posters for other athletic events and show up to football and basketball games. Since I was commuting three hours a day to university, I couldn’t have given the time to these things if I had wanted to.

Moreover, the competition was tougher, too. At eighteen, I didn’t have my full adult strength (such as it is), and I was competing with fully grown men from across North America. Increasingly, I realized that, judging from the success of some of my older peers at the university and at the Vancouver Olympic Club, I might make qualify for the world championships or the Olympics in the five or ten thousand meters if I devoted four or five hours a day to training – but I almost certainly would not reach the finals, let alone finish with the medals. Reluctantly, I acknowledged to myself that I was a good runner, but not a great one, and somewhere near the end of my second semester, I ran my last race.

But that didn’t mean I quit running. Even then, it was too much a part of my life to give up. It was a form of meditation, a collection of peak moments of exertion and early morning sights that I could never give up. I’ve run up hills in Glacial National Park while on holiday, and several thousand meters high at Mount Lassen with my lungs on fire. Early in the morning, I’ve run through the streets of Berkeley on glorious summer mornings and Tacoma’s skid row, through the fog, and the outskirts of Indianapolis in the snow and stabbing cold. I sometimes feel that, until I’ve run an area, I haven’t really experienced it.

Admittedly, my mileage has dropped and my speed is a joke, especially in the last few years, when I’ve started varying my exercise with swimming and cycling to spare my knees some strain, but I don’t expect to quit altogether so long as I can hobble, however slowly. I sometimes joke that I won’t consider any retirement home that doesn’t have an all-weather running track.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running.

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The concept of alternate worlds has fascinated me since I first heard of it as a young teenager. Not just the big ones, like a world where William the Bastard went down to defeat at Hastings and a Saxon England looked to Scandinavia rather than the Mediterranean for culture, ir the Haida had an empire built on muskets and the slave trade when the first European explorers came by, but also the small ones of my own life. Sometimes, in the few minutes between turning off the light and falling asleep, I like to think of them.

For instance, if I hadn’t had trouble pronouncing a hard “C” sound when I was six, would I have become so interested in reading and writing? If an elementary school coach hadn’t ignored my request to run the half mile and made me determined to prove him wrong, would I have started exercising regularly?

And consider the girls I had a crush on in elementary school. If I had ever had the courage to date one of them, would we have split after a few months? Would I have preferred them to the girls I met in high school? Perhaps we would have married, and had children or even divorced.

Similarly, if I hadn’t dropped off the track team after my first year at university, would I have eventually reached the Olympics in the days before it became so tarnished and tawdry? The idea is not impossible, since a couple of those in my training group did go to the Olympics, although my chances of being in the final, let alone the medals, would have been remote – that’s why I dropped out in the first place.

Then there was my choice of grad school. I had a double major in English and Communications, and I applied for both. But the Communications Department was only admitting grad students in the Fall, and I was desperate to get out my dead-end job and back to school in January. So, I gave up the studies I’d planned to do in imitation of Irene Pepperberg and Alex the African Gray and started looking for a literary topic for a thesis instead.

For that matter, what if I had stuck out the poor job prospects after I had my Master’s degree a few years later and gone for a Phd.? We almost certainly would have had to travel, if not for another round of grad school, then certainly to find employment. Would we have gone to some place like Edmonton or Toronto? Or would the search for tenure have led me to life in the United States? Or perhaps I would have stayed as a lowly sessional instructor, doing twice the work for half the pay as tenured faculty, and bitter for having wasted time and money on a degree that did noting for me.

And what about the trauma that almost destroyed me? (you’ll excuse me if I decline to give details) Had I had less of a sense of responsibility or a belief in human goodness, or made a different decision in a couple of places, perhaps that sequence of events need never have happened. But if it hadn’t, would I have had the courage to become the freelance writer I had always dreamed about?

That’s the trouble with imagining other outcomes. You can’t just change one event and manufacture a happy ending. Sometimes, the imaginary outcomes are no better than the real ones, or fortunate events can come from disasters. And most outcomes, I imagine, have more than a single cause or result.

Still, playing at alternate worlds gives a satisfyingly complex view of the world, especially if you suspect that the idea of an afterlife is based on nostalgia or wishful thinking. While I regret very little about the outcomes I have actually had, somehow it’s comforting to think I’ve taken eveny opportunity, that nothing is ever wasted, and that all the other paths I might have taken are metaphysically close at hand yet forever out reach – if only in my imagination.

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In high school, I ran long distance track with some success. But it was the four meet cross-country season that I loved best. Long distances around a track require a tolerance for repetition that even the most disciplined teenager lacks, while cross-country requires endurance over changing terrain, making it better suited to the strengths of a boy with overly short legs. Over five years, I received two first place season total and two second place ones – and would have had a strong chance of another first place finish, if a crippling ‘flu hadn’t caused me to miss a couple of races. But, of all my victories, the one that was most satisfying was the first race of my Grade 9 year – not least because it was a group victory as well.

I had been a strong but largely untrained runner in elementary school, finishing fifth in the provincial championships in Grade 7. I managed a consistent second place finish in my Grade 8 cross-country season, and was well-satisfied with it; I’ve never been one to believe that “silver is the first loser’s metal,” and was pleased to be a contender.

However, at the same time, I was determined that, next year, I would beat the runner who had always finished first to my second. That was the year that I began to train seriously, running every day over the summer and fall, and boosting my daily mileage, first to fifty miles a week, and then to sixty and seventy, and encouraging some of the other lead runners on the team to do the same. Come the March cross country season next year, I was fitter than I had ever been in my life.

Nervous but focused, I arrived with my school team at the first meet of the season. As I warmed up, I kept looking for my nemesis of the previous year, but couldn’t see him. However, with a couple of hundred runners in each of eight categories, that wasn’t surprising.

At the gun, I was running hard to take an early lead, certain I’d see my nemesis near the front with me. I didn’t, but I kept going strongly. Taking an early lead is a tactic that can sap your strength if you aren’t well-trained, but can be psychologically devastating to others, especially when they face you repeatedly; I believe that I won one of the races in the year of the ‘flu simply because people expected to see me out front, despite the fact that I was still feeling weak.

Besides, my nervous tension left me little choice except to explode into action at the start.

Before half a mile, I had enough of a lead that I couldn’t hear any footsteps behind me. However, as a Vancouver runner, I had been raised on the story of the 1954 Miracle Mile, in which Arthur Landry lost to Roger Bannister because he looked back at the last moment, and I was determined not to do the same. For the first mile, I ran all out, and kept my eyes front, resisting the temptation to look back.

At the halfway point, when the course turned into a path through the woods, I could wait no longer. I twisted back, and suddenly I had one of the moments of pure joy in my life.

Ten yards behind me was another runner from my school. Twenty yards behind him were another two from my team, with the next runners a good thirty years back.

I was elated, but also alarmed to see the next runner closer than I had imagined. As the cedar chips began to fly up from under my shoes, I accelerated down the trail as fast as I could. By the time I reached the finish line, I had at least a thirty yard lead. Then, bending over to catch my breath, I watched with fierce exaltation as our team took the first four positions.

Considerable wordless shouting and thumping of backs ensued, you might say. Even our coach, whose normal mode of expression was sarcasm, couldn’t help grinning happily at us.

The only disappointment was that my rival from the previous year was no longer running. But I did beat his course record by almost thirty-five seconds, so I felt that, in one sense, I had defeated him regardless. I kept hoping for the rest of the season that he would show up, but he never did, not until a couple of years later, when smoking and lack of training made him finish well back in the pack.

We couldn’t keep up our perfect score all season – not quite. But we did win the team score that season, as well as three of the top four individual positions, including my perfect first place score. Yet none of the other wins could quite compare with the feeling of pure victory of that first one, or the sense of being part of an apparently unbeatable team.

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