At Your Own Pace

Chaos in Print

I remember taking Religion 100 from Dr. Hans-Dittmar Mundel. I liked him, but I don’t think he liked me. He always looked at me in that way that your parents look at you when you’ve really pissed them off. One day in class, the subject turned to the good old creationism vs. evolution debate. The student who was presenting was giving us a run down of what God made on the first, second, third, etc. days. When she started taking questions, somebody asked, “How come in all these days it makes no mention of the dinosaurs?” Our presenter then explained that we have no concept of “God’s time,” and that by seven days the Bible could mean the 70 million years between when dinosaurs lived and our time on Earth. It was then that I began thinking that God’s time is a lot like my time.

Going back even further, we find myself in the eighth grade. Social studies as taught by Mr. Robert Twerdoclib (no, that name is not a typo). As part of one of our history lessons, Mr. Twerdoclib was going to make an example of the development of razors. At this point, Mr. Twerdoclib asked the class, “Which of you young men have begun shaving yet?” None of the young men raised their hands. Mr. Twerdoclib had a puzzled look on is face and then asked, “How about the young women?” About four or five of my female classmates raised their hands. This prompted Mr. Twerdoclib to say, “Huh. This is the first time I’ve ever had to go to the female population to get a response to that question.” Just about everything in the room turned a slight tinge of red from all the embarrassed young men. Even though I have no concrete evidence, I am fairly certain that all of my eighth grade compatriots went home that night and shaved for the first time. Except, of course, for myself. I wasn’t going to let the words of my Social teacher get me down. And besides, I was, as I am now, a very practical person, and I felt I didn’t need to yet.

Years passed. Soon, Grade 11 was upon me, and the peach fuzz was getting pretty thick. It was that year for Christmas that I got a Remington electric razor. I was impressed and thanked my parents for the gift. It sat unopened in the box until March, and that’s when I figured that the time was right for me to start shaving. So I plugged in the Remington, and with a few quick cuts, I was baby faced again. When it came to shaving, I used that Remington religiously until this very day. For on this day, things began to change.

The screen to my Remington began to have holes in it. I know what you’re thinking, “But Mark, it’s always got holes in it.” Har har. These were huge, gaping holes. The cutting heads would come through and scratch up my face something fierce. I thought I’d have this licked, and I put a piece of scotch tape over the hole. Problem solved, or so I thought. Soon, a second hole opened up, and another piece of tape. Then another. And another. The top of my Remington was soon covered with scotch tape, and the only effective cutting surface was two millimeters wide. I had said to myself that I had always wanted to try shaving with a good old fashioned razor. I also remembered a line from one of my favorite cartoons of the 80s: “This is not a tragedy. It is a cleverly disguised opportunity.”

The time had come for me to learn to shave with a razor. There was only one little hitch. I needed a teacher. Usually, when a boy is 12 or 13 he goes to his father and asks to learn how. But I am a boy of 23. I’m supposed to know by now. Although, I have set precedent in the past for doing things at my own pace. No way around it. I wasn’t going to attempt this on my own and cut up my beautiful, beautiful face. I had to ask Dad to show me.

A day soon passed. A week. Two weeks. The beard was starting to get pretty thick. I had to ask Dad. But this was kind of embarrassing. I was having trouble working up the nerve. I bought myself a bag of BIC disposable razors and a can of shaving foam, hoping that owning the tools would help build up the courage. They sat unopened for three days. Finally, one Wednesday night, I turned to Dad, and explained the situation with my Remington. “So,” I asked, “Could you show me how to shave with a razor?”

“No problem,” Dad said. He took me into the bathroom, dug out his razor and good old fashioned shaving soap and brush, and gave me a 10 minute primer on everything I needed to know. Always go down, don’t use long strokes, go slow so you don’t cut yourself. He then left me alone to give it a shot.

Shaving with a razor just sounds different that with an electric razor. It’s so quiet. You can actually hear each and every individual whisker getting clipped. It sounds like something’s scratching you, but nothing is. Things were going quite well. It wasn’t as hard as it looked. The whole moustache area was a bit tricky, though. But I got through it unscathed. Now, time to do the neck. Look out for that zit! OWW!! Well, I didn’t expect to get through this unscathed. The battle must continue, and soon my neck was as smooth as an android’s bottom.

I gazed at my clean-shaven face. I was still stunned as to how easily it went. I decided to slap on a little bit of after shave. God, did that hurt. A regular razor leaves your face a lot more raw than an electric razor. I did my best silent scream as the stinging of the after shave subsided. As I pulled myself up from the bathroom floor, I looked at myself in the mirror once again. “Today,” I thought to myself, “I am a man!” (Well, not quite a man yet. There’s still one more thing I need to do before I hit that plateau, and I’ve already ranted about it in one column too many.)

As I walked out of the bathroom, I couldn’t help but think about how long it took me to reach this point. How come, way back in grade 8, I didn’t join in with my comrades? How come Mr. Twerdoclib’s words didn’t have the same bite on me that they had on all the others? Maybe that’s where being branded a genius at an early age came in helpful. Ever since I got that label, I was always told to do things at my own pace. If my pace was faster than everyone else, that was OK. If it was slower, that was OK, too. And while I was faster than everyone else at things like math and science, there were the things were I was painfully slow. It wasn’t until the third grade that I could tie my shoes. It wasn’t until the fourth grade that I could ride without training wheels. There are things in my life where I know that they aren’t important to know now, but I’ll learn them when I need to. Shaving was one of them.

Every thing for me happens in “Mark time.” It gets done when it gets done. God wasn’t working under any deadlines. He got things done when He got them done. Not that I’m saying I’m God, mind you, just saying we have similar concepts of time. And if people like Dr. Mundel can’t wrap their brains around that, I’ll live with it. They’ll learn to love me in their time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a shave.

Toy Store Stories

Chaos in Print

Ahh, the whimsical days of my youth. As I’m sure most of my loyal readers know, I have a certain fondness for the things of my youth: Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, MASK and the like. As we grow up, we are expected to cast these things aside, and begin focusing on the things of the adult world. And it might seem easier for me, because not only have most of those toys gone missing, but most of the stores where I got them now cease to exist.

I bag groceries. That grocery store is in a mall. And trust me, it’s the deadest mall in the world. That grocery store and the TD Bank are the only things that I remember having been in that mall forever. But, when I was a kid, that mall had the best little toy store that I could remember. Sadly, I don’t remember the name of that toy store. It was just “the toy store in Drayton.” But it is the one toy store that I have the most stories for. Here’s a smattering of them:

One wintry evening, my Dad and I were waiting around in the mall for my mother to return from somewhere (where, I don’t remember). As we waited, I eventually started browsing through the toy store, and found their huge display of He-Man figures. I looked over the stand, and spotted Spikor, “evil master of armored combat.” Now, what had always distressed me about my Masters of the Universe collection was how the villains were vastly outnumbered. How could Skeletor stand a chance at conquering Greyskull if his only ally was the moronic evil He-Man clone Faker? I went to Dad, and I pleaded my case as to how my villains were vastly outnumbered. My Dad, opened up his wallet, and gave me enough money to get Spikor. Of course, the villains still failed to conquer Greyskull, but now it wasn’t because they were outnumbered.

A few years later, the toy I was deeply into was MASK. In the store one day, I spotted the Pit Stop Catapult. It was this little gas station thing that turned into a tank. And, it was the last MASK toy that they had on their shelf. I knew I had to have it. I went to Mom and pleaded my case. My Mom said no, pointed out that we were running late, and said we should get going. But I wanted the Pit Stop Catapult. It was the last one on the shelf, I pleaded. It’ll be gone when we come back next time. But Mom still said no. Time to pull the ultimate stunt. This is the only time in my childhood I consciously decided to throw a tantrum to get what I wanted. (I’m sure Mom can think of more, but this is the only one I remember.) And it worked. Mom bought it for me, and I loved it. Of course, next time I went to the toy store, the Pit Stop Catapult was the only MASK toy they had in stock. But I didn’t care. I got what I wanted.

Yup. Most of my Masters of the Universe collection was purchased at that store. A lot of birthday presents, too. I’m fairly certain that’s where my parents bought me Autobot Headmaster Highbrow and Castle Greyskull. I remember they had this little corner in the back full of model railway stuff, and that’s where my brother got all his model railway stuff. But that store is gone now. It closed down about 10 years ago. There’s a frame store there, now. I didn’t notice that it had closed until about 3 years after the fact, mainly because my parents’ business affairs now took them more towards Stony Plain/Spruce Grove than Drayton Valley.

It was in the late 80’s that a mall was built in Spruce Grove. And in that mall, there was another great little toy store: Hillhaven Toys. As soon as you walked into the store, all of the G.I. Joe stuff (and the whole action figure section) was on your immediate left. I never had to go farther into the store than that. I remember Visionaries had just premiered, and I spotted the Spectral Knight Witterquick on the shelf. I thought I’d go back for him later, as I didn’t have the money that day. (Of course, he wasn’t there again). They had a section devoted to model rockets, and it was from that store that I had my brief flirtation with rocketry (something I always consider getting back into on sunny summer days). It was where I first spotted the G.I. Joe Space Shuttle the Crusader, and I’m also fairly certain that’s where Santa bought it for me. Also, that toy store is gone now, closed down in about 1991 or 92. A Work World is there now.

Alas, not even the city of Red Deer was safe from my poison touch. Of course, my grandparents live in Red Deer, and whenever they’d take us kids to Parkland Mall, we’d have to go to Toys and Wheels (was it Toys and Wheels? It was Toys and something.). My grandparents were wonderfully soft touches, and that’s where a lot of gifts from the grandparents were bought. I remember that all the board games were on the far east wall, action figures on the next aisle over, and right by the tills were all these bins full of $0.99 toys. Lots of G.I. Joes and Transformers were bought there. Then, in the early 90’s, they did a massive remodeling. Rather than running north-south, the shelves ran east-west. Board Games were moved to the back corner. Action figures were moved to the second shelf in. But that didn’t last long, though. They closed around 1995, and a health food store sits there now.

My first exposure to a “big box” toy retailer was Toy City in West Edmonton Mall. I have two really fond memories of Toy City. The first one was my tenth birthday. In the mail, from those aforementioned soft touch grandparents, I had gotten $20. It was the first time I had ever called a $20 bill “mine,” and it was the most money I had ever held at that point in my life. I knew exactly what I wanted to buy with it. One week after my birthday, I was going to go up in a helicopter with my Dad (it sometimes works into his line of work, and he’d bring one of us kids along). But, sadly, we were rained out, so a contingency plan was put into play. Dad was going to take me into the city and…Toy City. When we arrived at Toy City, I charged though the aisles as though on autopilot. Either fate or grand design brought me to the right place, and much to my joy, there were hundreds of them on the shelf. As if to really make it seem like greater forces were at play, the total cost of this toy was…$19.99. I snatched it off the shelf, walked up to the till and purchased…Soundwave! Only my most favorite and most coveted Transformer. Seeing as to how Soundwave turned into a walkman with an actual belt clip, I wore him with me wherever I went for the next month. I still haven’t forgiven Sheldon Allen for breaking him.

The second memory involves my brother. His most coveted toy was the G.I. Joe helicopter the Tomahawk. He had his paper route for about a year, and had dutifully saved his money to get the Tomahawk. When he had enough, he pleaded with our parents for a Saturday in the city just so he could get it. Like with me and Soundwave, he went into the store on autopilot, and was led to it as though by the Fates. When he took it up to the till, my Dad made it a point to tell the cashier that this was a special trip to the city just so he could buy it.

Toy City in West Edmonton Mall closed around 1993. I had just begun collecting action figures professionally, and the last thing I bought there was a Borg Drone from the Star Trek: The Next Generation action figure line. That glow-in-the-dark go-kart race track is there now.

Now, there are no small toys stores in small malls, only Toys R Us. Yes, I collect action figures and I’ve bought a large percentage of my collection at Toys R Us, but it just lacks the charm of these smaller toy stores. Why did they close up? Sure, it would be easy to blame all this on Toys R Us, as all these stores closed in the early 90’s, just as Toys R Us was making their big push into Western Canada. I e-mailed quite a few friends as I this column first occurred to me, hoping that this would have been more of a universal thing than just me, but sadly, my pleas went unanswered. The only who did respond was Chuck, who told me that Camrose had always been devoid of such small toy stores, but that he had equally fond memories of the toy section in Zeller’s. But Zeller’s still stands, and they still have their toy section. Me? They’re all gone, replaced with stores of the adult world. It’s sad in a way. It’s as though the fates are telling me that it’s time to grow up. But I still defy those tricky fates. I still buy my toys, even if it means the toy section at Zeller’s.


Chaos in Print

Most folks think they know who they are and where they’re going. They’re the dangerous ones. — From the file card of the G.I. Joe figure Footloose

Like most kids of my generation, I was into G.I. Joe action figures. I loved them all. I had Jinx, the ninja, Fast Draw, the mobile missel specialist, and Wet-Suit, the Navy SEAL. Along with Payload the astronaut, these four comprised my shuttle crew; the best of my best. But, whenever I looked through the catalogues that came with the vehicles, I was always drawn to this one figure. Not for the reasons you’d expect, though. The figure’s name was Footloose, and he was an Infantryman. Next to all these ninjas and mobile missel specialists and laser troopers, there was…an Infantryman. I’d talk to all my friends, and they’d talk about people like Snake Eyes and Law & Order, but no one wanted Footloose. Next to all these military specialists, a plain ol’ soldier just didn’t seem exciting. I spent a great deal of time thinking “Why did they even bother making Footloose? No one wants him.” Well, I never took the time to think about how Footloose may have felt about this.

As you’ve heard me harp on about in the past, I am currently employed as a grocery bagger. Now, have you ever taken a close, hard look at the front end staff of a grocery store? It’s divided by gender. Women are cashiers, men are baggers. That’s just the way of things. And in a store like mine, I often find myself the only man on duty, surrounded by six or so women. Some of you more hormonal people may be going, “Yeah! I gotta get me a job like that!” but let me finish. If I’m working the daytime shift (which I usually am), then I find that the women I’m surrounded by are middle-aged, supplementing their husband’s income, and waiting for retirement. When things get slow, they gather together and gab in that way that two-degrees-away-from-being-old women do. They talk about who won in bingo last night, what their idiot kids are up to, and their hot flashes. Of course, being a young, virile, good looking male, I have nothing to jump into the conversation with.

When I’m working the evening shift, I find the women to be teenagers/recent high school graduates trying to make a few extra bucks. Keep it in your pants, boys, it’s not as good as it sounds. I’m sure longtime readers will remember my highly illogical puritanical ways which just kinda happened. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and a 23-year old virgin, so this all adds up to the complete lack of self-confidence to talk to a girl. When things get slow, they gather together and gab in that way that teenage cliques do. They talk about their boyfriends, what they bought on their last shopping trip, and how drunk they got last night. Well, sometimes they talk about other things. A few days ago, two of these people were having a conversation. Being on the outer reaches of my hearing, this is all I heard:
Cashier #1>> Murmer, murmer.
Cashier #2>> Murmer, murmer, murmer.
Cashier #1>> Murmer?
Cashier #2>> Mark!
[Hysterical laughter]
So, as you can see, when you’re name is the punch line, you have somewhat of a reluctance to strike up a conversation with these people. Because of my silence, I’m sure I’m starting to develop a reputation as the “quiet, creepy guy” among those people.

And then, there was yesterday. One of my co-workers has turned into quite the male-basher. She was taking great pride in showing off the poster she had taped to her till: “Cell phones are the only things men brag about being small.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there long enough, and I’m starting to find stuff like that offensive. Oh, and obviously she doesn’t know about my computer geek ways, because she bad-mouths technology at every available opportunity. So, when her cash register crashed and she had to spend three hours on the phone with the SysAdmin in Edmonton trying to fix it, I couldn’t help but smile to myself and think what goes around comes around. It turned out it crashed because of her attempt at reprogramming it to recognize a bar code. Not long after this, the store manager came to me with “a special job.” Turns out the big bosses are coming out soon, and someone had to sweep out the back room. Did I mention it’s a huge back room? It’s like being a seaman on an aircraft carrier, being given a mop and bucket, and ordered to swab the deck. It took me an hour. All alone in the back room. The guy no one will talk to.

That night, I had my latest meeting of the Liberal association. There, I have a very similar problem, only its ageism. Being a 23-year old young, virile male in a room where the average age is 55, it’s difficult to reach out. You can’t start a conversation with, “So, have you seen X-Men yet?” You’d be better off opening with, “Did you catch Judge Judy this afternoon?” Talk about behind on the times! Even the fiftysomething lecturer giving us advice on election preparedness said, “Oh, we don’t expect the Internet to be a major part of campaigning for at least two more elections.” And being the treasurer, it’s almost like they’re waiting for me to screw up. As I was giving my financial report, there was this one guy who just glared at me. Nothing more. Just glared. And I’m sure he didn’t like my answer to his question. He asked how much money we get back from the Liberal party for the sale of memberships. My very honest answer: “I won’t know that until our President gets the key to the mailbox and goes to pick up our first check, which has probably been sitting in the mailbox for a month now.” And when people were looking over the copies of my financial report that I passed out, there’s this one who chimes in, “You’re out by $0.23.” So I copied down a number wrong as I was typing it up. Big deal. At least I’m not like our President, who sat in the corner with a pad and pen and whipped up the agenda 30 seconds before the meeting commenced.

I went home that night and flopped down on the couch, feeling very much alone and unwanted. I’m very confused in my life right now. At college, the students’ union president once told me I had a reputation for being outspoken. When I saw something go wrong, I’d speak up. When I saw someone I’d like to get to know, I’d walk up and say, “Hi!” But now, I’m at home, and things have changed. At work, I’m left out because of my gender. With the Liberals, I’m left out because I’m young. With my friends, I’m left out because I live so far away. My mind started wandering, and it soon came back with, “And you left out Footloose because he was just an Infantryman.”

I hopped on ye ol’ Internet and went to to read Footloose’s file card. Let’s find out about this guy I always left out. According to his file card, Footloose was the Valedictorian of his high school and captain of the track team. He was halfway through getting his Phys Ed degree when he dropped out of college, moved to California, and got “quite weird for about three years.” Then, one day, he decided to join the Army. This was the standard “quote from a buddy” on his file card:

“Some of the Joes think that Footloose is out there, but all he’s trying to do is find himself. He’s the All American Boy who got lost on the way to the fair and now he’s simply trying to go home any which way he can. Most folks think they know who they are and where they’re going. They’re the dangerous ones.”

So, what do you know? The one I always left out was the one I had the most in common with. We are both two lonely travelers, trying to find ourselves. He with the army, and me in my life. Right now, I’m coming back with that it’s not with a bunch of old people, and it’s not with a gaggle of women. Perhaps I should seek out Footloose on eBay or some such auction. Now I know that we weird, spacey ones aren’t all that uncommon. Perhaps, together, we can find the strength to find ourselves, speak up a little more, and not always be the ones excluded.

I Am Jack’s Colon Cancer

Chaos in Print

I’ll only be gone for six months — Diane Chamber’s parting words, on her final episode of Cheers.

This real world thing sucks. When I finished university, I thought “That’s it! I’ve had enough of this classroom! Let me go out there and experience that real world people always tell me I’m not ready for!” So, I left university with my two degrees in hand, ready to go face the world. And do you know what I discovered? All degrees are worthless. I know people with all sorts of degrees that you think would just guarantee them a job, but no. They find themselves flipping burgers or being video store clerks. And when you try to take a few moments away from these jobs to go see your friends, you have “other commitments.” Yup, we are all dogs, and life is the cruel master that chains us up and beats us with a stick.

Let me tell you what drew me to this latest conclusion. My longtime best friend/recurring character Chuck is in a similar situation as me. He too has had enough of this real world and is retreating to the safety and comfort of the classroom. I was OK with this at first, but then Chuck told me that he decided to go to some french immersion university in Nova Scotia. His reason had something to do with “wanting to regain [his] bilingual status, plus that’s where [his] siblings are going.” So, not only is he going back to the classroom, he’s going to one on the other side of the country. Knowing that this might be my last opportunity for a year to see my best friend, I knew that we had to get together sometime in August just to spend some final, quality time together.

The initial plan was a grand one indeed. Chuck was to come up to Entwistle, where we would spend a day hanging out at my place, watching old Batman cartoons and showing off the new additions to my collectible action figure collection. A week later, I’d head on down to Kingman and we’d spend the day at his place, doing pretty much the same thing, and forcing L, the woman he happens to be dating, to watch Titanic. I find it a crime that she has never seen that movie. Yup, it was a brilliant plan. But, the best laid plans of mice and men….

The week that we had selected for Chuck to come up to Entwistle soon drew nigh. We sat down with the schedules of when we working that week and discovered that we had no compatible days off. None whatsoever. So, Chuck canceled plans to come up to Entwistle. The plans for me to come down to Kingman, however, were still on.

So, the next week soon came along. I knew that we could probably do it on Thursday, as my boss always gives me Thursday off for some odd reason. I knew this time that we would have compatible days off, as Chuck was taking that whole week off to finish packing and putting the stuff he wasn’t taking in cold storage. I got my hot little hands on my schedule only to discover that my boss had me working straight through from Monday to Friday. Our last hope was the weekend. I e-mailed Chuck right away, asking how this weekend looked for him. Things didn’t look good. Chuck had to work, and he dare not call in sick on his last two days. So, he proposed that perhaps I come down for the whole weekend, and that we could spend some time together in the precious few hours he had before work. But, I had a brainstorm. “Before I commit to that,” I said, “let me try super-dangerous, bad karma inducing, Plan Z. I will go to my boss and beg for a day off next week.”

At work the next day, I showed up early, with the purpose of taking a few minutes before my shift to beg the boss. I even put my kneepads on underneath my pants, fully prepared to literally beg on my knees. I marched up to my boss’s door, knocked, and discovered that MY BOSS HAD TAKEN THE NEXT FEW DAYS OFF!! No one to beg! I took a second look at the timetable. The only other person I could switch with was taking the whole week off, hence why I was working straight through from Monday to Friday. Oh, I should have never told my boss I have no life! When I did that, I instantly became the go-to guy for days off and holidays. Somewhat begrudgingly, I phoned Chuck that night to tell him that this weekend was a go, but on one condition.

My parents had went camping for a week, and decided to leave our dog at home. Now, it would be unfair of me to coop my dog up in the house for the whole weekend, so I asked Chuck if I could bring my dog along. Chuck reacted negatively to this, and said he’d half to ask the other parties involved. I waited by the phone for Chuck to finish asking around. When he called back, things were not good. Chuck’s roommate/landlord was allergic to dogs, and thus could not stay there. L (the woman Chuck is dating) couldn’t take in my dog either, as she feared that her landlord would spot my dog, quote the “no pets” article in her rental agreement, and thus be evicted. So, my dog had to stay home. Chuck then proposed that perhaps I could just come up on Sunday, and we could spend a few fleeting hours together before he had to go to work. This being the only option left, I took it.

So, what had originally been conceived as two days of cartoons and merriment soon got compromised and negotiated down to a few fleeting hours before work. He’s a video store clerk. I bag groceries. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that we are hopelessly dedicated to our jobs, or that these are the jobs we are dedicated to. When we first started planning this at the start of the month, we should have just said “We will do this on that day,” then go to our respective bosses and book that day off. But no, who needs to do that when you’re job is only part time? I mean, what would have been so wrong with asking my boss for a day off to do this?

In an earlier column, I swore I wouldn’t get this way. John Lennon said that life is what happened while you were making other plans, and I swore that I would never find myself making other plans. And now, what have I spent the last few weeks doing? Trying to work my friends around my job, when things should be done the other way.

I don’t know, I guess I’m just haunted by how things are going to change with Chuck not being around. I mean, when I take a glance at it, I think to myself “What really is going to be different? We spend all our time talking through e-mail anyway.” But then, I realize that things will be changing. We’ll no longer be able to get together and hang out at the mall, like those two time we did it. I won’t be able to go down to Kingman and hang out with him those few times I did, and he’ll never come up to Entwistle again to hang out like he did that one time. What little connection we had will be weakened even more.

I once read somewhere that, after college, you’re forced to decide which friends you want to keep for the rest of your life, and which ones you’ll have to let drift away. Chuck was the one right there at the top of the list; the one I wanted to keep forever. Now, quite literally, he is drifting away. Maybe, with our incompatible schedules the past few weeks, the fates have been trying to tell me something. Maybe I do have to cut him loose. But it’s so hard to let go. Of all the friends I made at college, he remains the one I am closest to. I’ve tole him things I’ve never told anyone else, and been grateful for the fact that he actually seems to like me. If anything, I hope that in all the grand adventures he goes on, that he only remember me. It’s going to be hard with him gone, but I’ll survive. Some how. Goodbye, Chuck.

Yeah. The real world sucks.

The Ghosts That Haunt Me

Chaos in Print

Most of us have those points in our lives where we look back and say, “Gee, I should have done that instead.” I, like you, have a few of those. Some may say I have too many for a man my age. My mind, however, always casts back to the very first of the moments; the very first one where I was cursing myself for not having done something different as soon as I walked out the door. And, like the beginning of oh so many classic movies, it involves a girl.

Her name was Jolene Riou, and when she first joined our class in the fourth grade, I was smitten. She had a beauty and grace that my fourth grade eyes had never seen before. Sure, I had crushes before this, but something about this one was different. It was so much stronger than a crush. I actually think it was love, but my nostalgia may be warping it into something that it never was. But the point is, as far as my fragmented memories are concerned, it was love. I felt it with every fibre of my being. To quote John Cage from Ally McBeal, “I was drawn to her.”

But, even as a forth grader I was quite shy, and so I never did anything about this. I fooled myself into thinking that it was just another crush, and that in a few weeks or so I would move on to someone else. But, that didn’t happen. It remained. Throughout the next few grades, I satisfied myself with admiring her from afar. It was soon discovered that she could sing like an angel, so she became a headliner at most of the talent nights and school plays for the rest of our school career together. One time, she joked about how I could use my intelligence (I was quite the geek in elementary/junior high) to earn lots of money, and then use that to finance her singing career. She even dreamt of being a marine biologist. Yes, I think it was love.

Junior High soon came. I don’t know about your experiences, but Junior High was an interesting time for me. Once those hormones kick in and you start “developing,” it’s more than just your physiology that forever changes. Up until this point, I had always envisioned myself as being a knight in shining armor of sorts, allying myself with the girls in several boys vs. girls playground battles. Now, with no more recess, I could no longer be the knight in shining armor. The knights had become those playing on the basketball and volleyball teams, winning trophies for the school that would be forgotten in a matter of months. Being, as I am now, a rather nonathletic person, my knighthood was taken from me, and I was relegated to the role of geek. I drowned my sorrows by discovering Star Trek. It made me rather emotionally unstable, and I’d burst into tears at the drop of a hat. And trust me, when the hormones are kicking in, the last thing a girl/woman wants to be around is someone like that. But Jolene did. While those so-called knights took to teasing and taunting me, Jolene was one of the few who showed me kindness. I believe I made this comparison before, but it’s still valid. It’s as though I were Quasimodo, and she was the gypsy Esmeralda. Of course, like Quasimodo, my love could not be realized. She started dating some high school guy named David, and seemed quite happy. I met him. He was the big, athletic type who could easily kick my ass. And since she was happy, there was no need to fight for her. She was happy, and that was all that mattered.

In the closing weeks of Grade 9, as we prepared to voyage to that strange new world called High School, I was hit with a bizarre inspiration. I felt like writing a short story. So, during a class that was free because the teacher felt there was nothing left to teach, I whipped out my binder and began writing. Jolene just casually asked what it was, and I said it was a story. She asked if I would name a character after her, and so I did. She then asked if she could read it when it was done, and I said yes. I then had the best ever reason to keep writing.

The final day of school soon came. It was only a half-day, with the majority of it being the awards ceremony. As you may remember from some previous columns, that bitch Colleen Ozee walked away with everything (Jolene and Colleen were best friends, how’s that for irony?). We all returned to the classroom. Hand were shook, good-byes were said. You see, living on the border between two school divisions, people have a choice as to which high school they can go to. Some of us were to never see each other again. Jolene and I were two of those people. I caught up with my parents, and gave them the stuff from my locker. I told them to go on ahead, that there was one last thing I needed to do. Alone. I went back into the classroom, to find that Jolene was the only one left. It was just her and I in there. I gave her the binder and said that my story was done. She took it from me, and leafed through it. She gave it back to me and said, “It’s good.” I don’t think she actually read it, but I didn’t really care. She thought it was good, and that made me feel like I was walking on air. We said our farewells, and then I walked away. Never to see her again.

As I walked down the hall, the regrets started settling in. It was just her and I in there. One of those perfect moments that you’ll never have back. True, fate can arrange you to meet the person of your dreams, but ultimately it is you who decides weather to speak up or not. I chose not to. And I regretted it as soon as I walked out the door. Up until this point in life, I was haunted by that. For all of high school, it would always go back to, “You should have said something, Mark.” It wasn’t until my freshman year of college and a young woman named Jen Ripley that I was able to get on with my life, but Jen is a story for another day. I started thinking I was over it. I even casually mentioned it in one or two of my previous columns, and that got nary a blink from my loyal readers. Yup, it was a chapter in my past dead and gone.

Until Jolene signed my guestbook. Go ahead and see for yourself, you can come back later.

She says in her private message that after reading some of the things I wrote about her, it was the least she could do to at least say “Hi.” (Well, she did say more, but it is a private message.) A flood of old memories and emotions came back to me. Here, this voice from my past actually found me and was speaking to me. Not quite as over it as I thought. I spent the next day trying to figure out how best to proceed. Should I let the message go unanswered? Should I try to take the road not taken and wash away that years old regret? The conflict of emotions and logic and rational thinking was unbearable. I just didn’t know what to do. Until, this one single, clear, loud thought came roaring to the forefront. Say something. Anything.

So, in my usual Scarecrow way, I wrote her a very rambling e-mail. I wrote to her of the flood of emotions that came back to me. I wrote of my confusion as to how I should approach this. I wrote of my confusion as to how I should tell her all that she meant to me. And then, I asked her one simple, humble, question: how are you? Finally, I answered a few questions she left me in the private message. This was about a week ago, and at the time I write this, I still have not gotten a response. But I don’t really care if I get one or not.

I had always envisioned what it might be like if Jolene came back into my life someday. How it might happen or where. One dream had her simply wandering into my place of business one day. Another would be at one of my book signings, and she is one of the many people in line. However, one scenario I had never imagined was her just stumbling across my website one night and reading all about how I felt. And that’s why I don’t care. My regret had been the fact that I never told her how I felt. Now, be it due to some twist of fate or dumb luck, she knows. The e-mail was unnecessary, and whatever happens next is a bonus. But the point is, she now knows.

Regret is a funny concept. It was Spock who said, “Having is not as pleasurable as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” That defines what regret is right there. I want to have that single moment with her back, but it will never happen. What I have is a life filled with regret. And now, it seems as though one of them has been washed away. We have to learn to let go of our past; the moments that we’ll never have again. And if we get the chance to remedy one, we should seize it. But wallowing in self-pity, waiting for those chances, is no way to live. No more regrets. One down, oh so many more to go.