Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Out Damn Spot!

"My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain."
(Richard III, Act 5, Sc. 3 - William Shakespeare)

            I may not have understood the compulsion, or even understood my actions, but as a child I was very curious about the human body. In particular, the male forms with whom I attended public school commanded my attention. I think on this curiosity with much remorse, as it led me, in my mind, to who I would become. Had I not been so driven, like some invisible force controlled me, I might have turned out a different way. Although I do believe there was a genetic predisposition influencing me all the way back then, I also strongly believe it was environmental factors which reinforced and secured my homosexual inclinations. I had always tried to cage the beast within me, yet it consumed me as far back as I can remember. 
            Fenside Public School housed a litter of suburbia. North York, in the early 1970s, was just that, a large district of greater Toronto. It seemed every child from the surrounding neighbourhoods came from the middle class. We all appeared to have more than to have not. Almost exclusively Caucasian, the roll call in my classes almost always contained names like Ian, Ashley and John after John after John. For a child of 7, it was like finding sustenance in a loaf of white bread. Eventually, mould began to grow. I don't recall how I first gave in to my proclivity; I am sure any reason matters little now. I know that temptation gave into flirtation and flirtation gave into exposure. I figured out early on that I was good at being what society called a bad boy. I never really understood why I felt the need to consider myself that way.
            I was not aware or informed of any social, moral or theological reason that what I was doing was inappropriate. I cannot even imagine how I came to think it would be. I simply knew it, deep inside, as if I had been told to me. At that age, it was not about right and wrong. It was all about the craving inside me, one I found hard to ignore. I was only a boy, but I was drawn to it like I thought a woman would be. The more I fought it, the more I gave in. I sometimes think I was convicted by the underlying condition taught to me through Church and Sunday school. I knew that stealing was wrong and so was cursing, so too was this thing, a thing which I knew dare not speak its name.      
            It started innocently enough. I offered Greg Cody a dollar to show me his stuff. There was nothing to it really, just a look and no touch, but I was fascinated and knew I wanted to see more. One dollar led to another, then to another, and soon I had seen many of my male classmates, standing in the bathroom with their pants around their shoes. With my sin came the inevitable price. I started stealing from my parents just to feed this addiction. Any chance I could, I stole some change here and a dollar there, just to have a taste of this forbidden fruit. For well over a year, I played with this devil.
            Greg and I were out behind George S. Henry High School on a hot summer's day when around the corner he came. Inspection had turned to exploration, something clear enough from our state of undress. Greg grabbed his clothes and stole away, never to give me the time of day again. I stood helpless, my shorts in the grass five feet from my face and Jim Duncan sneering at me from behind his braces. What happened next does not merit explanation, but over that summer my innocence turned from searching to quite lost. The threat he would tell everyone what I had been doing was enough to keep me silent. The things he had me do turned mere blackmail into something warped and abusive, even though I did not think so at the time. Like a child might think, I was sure he had become my friend, and would eventually leave me alone. As school resumed that September, I believed I was finally free of the mess. One day after classes, as I strolled down Roywood Drive towards home, Jim cornered me against a green electrical box, one of the large ones you can sit on. What I thought had become a relationship (of sorts) was now nothing but a menace, something to fear rather than covet.
            I had made the mistake of telling him how I paid to see my classmates, and now he demanded the same money just for his silence. When I threatened him in return, he laughed and dared me to try. I decided to keep quiet. Shame and my inner conscience told me to do so.  Once or twice a week, I paid a ransom on my dignity. I was trapped by my own doing. With one hand he would jeopardize my reputation, and with the other he would sneak me away into bushes or the outer stairwells of apartment buildings in the neighbourhood. Although he was only 11 or 12 years old, I began to think of him in terms of an adversary rather than a playmate. I knew that eventually something was going to have to give.

"Company, villanous company, hath been the spoil of me."
 (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3, Sc. 3 - William Shakespeare)
            Just before Halloween, in the year of my shame 1973, my Mother called me into her room to talk. She had noticed my demeanour had changed, my joy was missing and I seemed secretive and distant. At first I denied there was any problem, but her concern sent flashes of guilt through my being and I decided that enough was enough. I was very careful not to reveal my dirty little secret; instead I added fuel to the fire Jim had set ablaze beneath himself. I came clean, but only up to the elbow. I revealed how he had been threatening me for money, that he had convinced me I owed him for the privilege of him not beating me up. Then, as if blood had splattered all over my hands, I sealed his doom. Perhaps it was the anger, perhaps it was the hurt he made me feel, I have never been sure, but with one lie I changed everything forever. Instead of leaving well enough alone, I turned a bully into a monster. Although I never once mentioned anything sexually related, I pushed beyond what had really happened. I suppose it was to protect my own secrets, and to get him good, but he never threatened to hurt me the way that I said he had. Perhaps I was trying to put nails in his coffin, but the idea of someone kidnapping me and killing me did little to stabilize the situation. My Mother grew hostile. I said I didn't know him, that I didn’t even know his name, that he just appeared one day out of nowhere and started his tirade. The police were called and they took down the minimal information I said I could give them. They left new rules for my safety and a contact number should any new evidence find a path to our door. I would no longer be allowed to walk home by myself, at least not until the identity of this villain was discovered.
            At this point, I figured that the coast was clear, but it was murky at best. For almost a week, the dust settled and I finally felt like the situation had resolved itself. I was wrong. I was standing at the west end doors of my school waiting for my brother. Jim approached me and informed me that I couldn't hide forever. When Phillip appeared at the end of the corridor, Jim took off outside in a flash. As we walked home for lunch, suddenly Jim sped by us. I can only speculate the reasons why I did what I did, but his threat lingered in my mind like I had read it in a comic book. I took one last chance and threw down the gauntlet. "That's him," I said. "That's the guy." Jim kept going, not looking back, and then he ran up a driveway and into his home.
            Back in the 70s, his house was the same as it is today. One thing, however, stands out in absence. The dead giveaway, sitting on his front lawn, was a tree stump, painted white with his address in black cast iron pinned to it, a contrast that truly stood out. A large black rock has taken its place now, Jim's family long gone. When we finally made it to our home and through the front door, Phillip explained all that had happened to my Mother. The police left a few hours later.
            I do not know what became of Jim Duncan. I know that I never saw him again, either at school or in the neighbourhood. My Mom told me he was sent to reform school, that his threats were very serious and he was in big trouble. She explained that for the rest of his life he would know what he did and would have to live with it. Even though it was over, I felt as if I had played with his life, as if I had dipped my fingers into the reddened pool of his future, which formed puddles around his feet.   

"What's done cannot be undone."
(Macbeth, Act 5, Sc. 1 - William Shakespeare)

             One person can alter your direction, even if you fail to see any change in the sea. I have little trouble recognizing that this brief but unforgettable series of events still travels with me like a bloodstained helm. I am often covered in it myself. No matter the time or distance, my hands will not come clean. For me, the shame of homosexuality was ingrained by this overall experience. Deep roots have grown for well over thirty years. I believe my entire sexual ideology has basis in this childhood nightmare. My social need for others not to know, that privacy and my secret disgrace, each of these had much foundation, resulting from this matter. It is not that I believe I was all to blame for what happened. It is not even that I have expunged Jim from his part in it. It is like some well-aged level of post-coital remorse. It just keeps coming. Like some Pavlovian dinner bell, my shame is relentless under its control. I stand accused and I plead guilty.
            As I lie in bed thinking, I sometimes wonder where Jim is now. Did he rise above what we had done, or did he suffer more from the consequence of my vindication? Just before puberty kicked in, I used to scare myself thinking of him returning, having hunted me down. I told myself he had plenty of reason should he do so. Years later, I used modern technology in an attempt to find out what became of him. There is no record I can find.
            Hindsight tells me that had I left the situation to itself, I would have escaped all these years of wonder and self-deprecation. Perhaps some cold-hearted bitch might punctuate that he got what he had coming, but my sentence was silent and lingered for years. The entire thing was such a small amount of time, but has been part of my life ever since. It was once my greatest secret. The choice I made to "sweeten the pot" stays with me and occasionally still stains the fabric of who I am now. I have had to learn to live with it and no amount of scrubbing will make it go away.  
"And oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse."
(King John, Act 4, Sc. 2 - William Shakespeare)





Tuesday, January 22, 2013


"Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence."
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American Poet)

            With life, it does not take some grand experience for one to be affected. Almost every endeavour, every person that we meet on our voyage, can help build or hinder who we are and who we will become. While we may think that strangers, and distant relationships, serve little or no purpose, quite often they can have just as great an impact on us as anything long lasting and continual. From the smallest creature to our worst and most vicious enemy, it is the not the time invested in each that matters most. On the sea of life, the ships that pass us by can shape us with just as much consequence as the ships which anchor beside us in the harbour.
            We believe that because something is long gone that it does not remain with us. To some degree, everything lingers on. Everything holds within it a lesson, a truth, the embodiment of those fundamental insights we are supposed to learn along the way. Life isn't just a highway. It is also the ocean, the sea below our vessel which carries us along.  We flow with the current and are rocked by the waves. We face storms and tides, each directing and influencing where we are supposed to go or whether we are to remain. Storms may come and storms may go, but they lead us to a place, and guide us with the winds that blow. Even the stillness of the water, resolute in its peace, can hide both danger and the unknown. There is no safe harbour.
            If our lives are our voyages then here we travel by boat. We are bound to pass others as we all float on by. Whether close to shore or out at sea, the type and size of our ship matters little. The journey is what counts. From distant shores to friendly ports, what lies beneath means little on a sea of tranquility. It reflects the sky above. It is inevitable that other vessels will pass, stirring the calm and occasionally even the deep.  Each ripple can be for good, or for ill, some can even be for naught. All ships have an aft; all have a bow and all just seem to sail away, simply fading long into the night.
            It's not easy out there once you sail into the dark. Without a compass to guide you, the chance is good you will ram an iceberg or hit another ship. Radar is God's way of saying you have been warned. The captain who refuses to recognize the warning signs ends up going down with the ship. When the day was good and the ocean our friend, the twilight turns into twinkles, shimmers to lead the way back home. If the day was grey and clouds your only mate, there is no hope of a star to light the way. A tempest always comes and the waves crash all around us. We are tossed and turned in the perfect storm. We take on water so we start to sink. As we pray for something to rescue us, it never fails to speed past us into the midnight. We get left in the ripples, with no other option but to swim about in the deep blue. Our ship goes down and we are lost at sea. 

“The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.” (Amelia E. Barr, British American novelist)

            For all my experiences, and regardless of how many people I have met, human beings never fail to surprise me. We are capable of so much goodness, we hold such promise, yet we treat each other so badly and we limit our options by behaving so. We seem to thrive on the suffering of others, as if taking refuge in their misfortune. We love to watch their descent, as we pass, their ship sinking from the weight of the world. Most times, we do not even seem to care about their obvious peril. We even drop our anchor, but only to watch. We delight in the stupid mistakes they make as we forget to secure our own weight. We want then to stop, but the current just carries us away. 
            On every ocean there are pirates, other people who will attempt to take advantage of your being out at sea. The only motive they have is to bring harm to those who casually cross their path on the water. They are villains, driven by selfishness and greed, caring only for their own voyage and what they can get out of it. They rarely stay for any lengthy stretch of time. They board your boat, take what they want and leave you floating in a giant puddle of "what the fuck?" Be afraid, be very afraid. People who cannot see past themselves tend to leave no witnesses. Your mode of transportation matters little to men like this, as you linger in the water watching your way home burn until it floats no more. If you're going to travel by boat, you might want to learn how to swim.
            Passing ships tend to travel in different directions. Some may guide along beside us, but eventually we all go our own way. In the moments of intersection, when each journey overlaps, we catch a glimpse of the reasons they are out to sea. It is here we can discover that we were going the wrong way all along. If their sails hang down, we can ascertain the course they follow is not for us, a hopeless undertaking that leads to nowhere. There are lessons in their folly. Our convergence was meant to be. Each vessel revealing a unique way of steering, a directive we can learn from if we take each crossway as an option to understanding. Our way is not the only way back home. Sometimes we have to turn around, return to port and start all over again. There is no guarantee on the open sea. Quite often, we have to follow each other into safety.
            Occasionally, we shipwreck like fools. We become castaways, standing on the shoreline calling out for assistance. Usually, we have to rebuild our own boat. More often than not, people just aren't willing to help us. They wave as they pass us, taking pleasure in our predicament. They even mock our doom. We set bonfires to call attention to the place where we stand but to no avail, at least not until darkness comes. Sometimes there is no rescue, no way back home. We are stuck in the sand wishing we had sailed our ship away from the shore. This does little to raise the titanic mistakes we have made along the way. As the fury of your alienation meets the horizon of your hope, we recognize that we are not bound to survive, for fate has called us like Ishmael.
            Not all hope is lost. It goes without saying that others are usually in the same boat. Sometimes you have to roam to find an alternate vessel, a different form of floatation. If you stand facing your disaster, you will only find your own wreckage. Sometimes it is that fractured wreckage which may hold the only ray of promise. From the greatest mast may appear the strongest raft. Such constructions often find the current with greater ease. Most people are strange, they would rather sail on a ship with a compromised hull, thinking it could not sink, then head to sea on a sturdy means.

"I will sail my vessel
'Til the river runs dry
Like a bird upon the wind
These waters are my sky
I'll never reach my destination
If I never try
So I will sail my vessel
'Til the river runs dry"
(The River, Garth Brooks 1994)

            We waste so much time worrying about how we were carried to where we are that we don't realize there is a cruise ship on the other side of our desolation. We become stranded because we stop following the course. We miss connections that might have otherwise brought us benefit. The ocean, the lake and the river are but a means for travel. We miss the ship for the sea. We expected the ocean to pay us favour because we thought we knew the way. Rough waters always seem to come and the calm never stays. Life is like the sea. It flows by its own means. It gives way to no one and to nothing. It is its very own force. It is an element that cannot be denied. It gives life, it holds life and it takes life. That is the chance you charter when you are out on the water.
            People are like ships. A boat or a canoe would be just as appropriate. Even a floatation device may carry us one day. Anytime someone enters your life, they reveal their mode of transportation. Some people are like huge ocean liners, with all the fixings. Some people are like some little craft and they row row row their boat. There are a few that stay anchored for the long haul. Many are simply ships sail that by us. Even these ships that pass will disturb the water.






Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ships that Pass


Chapter Four

Ships that Pass

"There's a boat on the line
Where the sea meets the sky
There's another that rides far behind
And it seems you and I are like strangers
A wide ways apart as we drift on through time
He said, it's harder now, we're far away
We only read you when you write
We're two ships that pass in the night
And we smile when we say it's alright
We're still here
It's just that we're out of sight"
(Ships, Barry Manilow 1979)