Mark resolved to travel from The First Unitarian Church of Hamilton to Soccer World, on foot, as directly as the crow flies, and to hell with any obstacles between the two.
By Mark Fenton
Published December 18, 2010
"If I am going to be drowned - if I am going to be drowned - if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?"
-- Stephen Crane, from "The Open Boat"
On Monday evenings at 7:30 I teach Tai Chi at the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, on Dundurn Street. This conflicts with my daughter's Monday night game at Soccer World, on Frid Street. I try to make it to the end of her game after I've done teaching and then we go home together.
(This essay isn't meant to be an advertorial, but if any of you are interested in attending my Tai Chi class feel free to just show up at 7:30. Though as with anything on the internet, note the pub date of this article, and if, decades hence, it's still floating directionless in cyberspace like Astronaut Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey,
it's a fair bet I won't be there, and in fact I may be as dead and forgotten as Astronaut Frank Poole. [This digression isn't meant to be a meditation on the space program, but I'm sure you're familiar with the inspirational T-shirt/bumper sticker slogan "Shoot for the moon. If you don't make it, at least you'll land among the stars." Ignoring the fact that even my rudimentary knowledge of astronomy pronounces this interstellar flight plan spatially challenged, whenever I read these lines I immediately picture Astronaut Frank Poole flailing towards nothing, and that doesn't inspire me to do a zero-gravity dive out of my safe zone. I'm just saying.])
Since Monday nights are so busy, I am tempted to drive to these events. However, I recently discovered that the two locations are in such close physical proximity that there simply has to be a better pedestrian route.
I consulted Google Maps for an aerial view.
The First Unitarian Church is labeled. Soccer World isn't, but it's one of those soft white buildings that get puffed up with air so that people can move rapidly around in the interior space. It's even divided down the middle so you can have two games going at once.
The amateur physicist in me likes to imagine that the players are molecules and it's all I can do to resist adopting the role of Maxwell's Demon and moving all the fast players onto one field and the slow players onto the other to demonstrate how thermodynamic energy might be increased without thermodynamic work.
I haven't tried to do that yet, so they still allow me in to watch the games. Soccer World is the long rectangle at the left.
The recommended route is to go SSW along Dundurn Street, take a right onto Chatham, continue WNW past Forsythe Lubrication Associates, then take another right onto Frid Street, continue NNE and finally arrive at Soccer World.
This is a really long route between two building that are literally a stone's throw from each other, and every time I do the walk I find myself frustrated at about the point where I pass Forsythe Lubrication Associates. In fact I've probably developed an unfair hostility to the very name Forsythe Lubrication Associates as a representation of time that has slipped away on me through needless travel.
I resolved to travel from The First Unitarian Church of Hamilton to Soccer World, on foot, as directly as the crow flies, and to hell with any obstacles between the two.
To make my proposal clearer, I have modified the above map. The blue arrows indicate the "safe" pedestrian route along the sidewalk. The black arrows indicate a route as close to direct as I can make it without a helicopter. (Who says I never shoot for the stars?)
(Note to computer screen users: The markers I used say they're dry erase, but let me tell you, once you've marked up your computer screen with them, they're a lot harder to wash off than you might think, and I now see the cyberworld through a blue-black fog. So you may not want to use markers on your screen unless it's absolutely essential (as, obviously, it was for me.)
Like Don Quixote arming himself for adventure in trappings completely out of touch with his age, and which adventures have succeeded only in wasting tens of thousands of hours out of the lives of four centuries of readers (my estimate - do the math yourself if you think you're so much better at this stuff) I armed myself for passage from the first Unitarian Church to Soccer World, to travel on foot by the most direct route possible.
I was fully aware that more even than most of my journeys, this one would be the very definition of Quixotic.
My gear consisted of winter gloves and a bag of mixed nuts in case I became hungry. It wasn't, for crying out loud, as though I was about to scale the Eiger.
I chose 10:00 am on a weekday in late November to test the route. I passed the church
like someone with every right to be around it (I do, after all, teach Tai Chi here on Monday nights at 7:30) moving quickly to the outskirts of the parking lot, as though I was the merest observer of accidental urban beauty.
I assumed a Yang Style Tai Chi commencement stance. My body became balanced. My mind became serene. I was no longer a sentient being. I was simply another element of my environment. Satisfied, I leapt down into slope, into the wilderness.
The plan was to land like a cat and pounce the rest of the way into the valley. Instead I fell and slid through the painful brush. I found my torso skidding on gravel. I cursed audibly. When my body came to a halt I was bruised and cold and on my back a few yards from the railroad track.
My body was unbalanced. My mind was unserene. I was in all ways sentient. My being was entirely separate from my environment.
I pulled myself together. I was fully committed now. I took stock of my new space.
Before me the peak I would have to ascend loomed up.
I don't want to make too broad a comparison between the route from Dundurn to Frid Street and the challenges of climbers who scale the Eiger, but it looks to me that the North face of the Eiger is more or less one single piece of solid rock.
The trick with the mountain I was climbing, which for the sake of reference I'll refer to as Urban Debris, is that its pieces don't hold together. A climber keeps sliding back. I don't know that mountaineering gear would have helped me even if I'd brought some along and knew how to use it.
At one point I tried setting my foot on a solitary slab of concrete, which appeared before me like a gift.
However, if it was a gift it could only be from the seven mad gods Steven Crane speaks of in "The Open Boat" (his story of men fighting to survive like Captain Bly and his last loyal sailors, on a life-boat in treacherous waters.) It proved more slippery than the asphalt. I barely stopped myself from rolling back down to the base.
Finally I pulled myself up onto a recently constructed road. It was the perfect place to rest; like a base camp on a Himalayan climb. I ate a few nuts. I formulated what I would say to the workers farther up the road, working hard to improve the quality of life in Hamilton.
I like to think that these cogitations distinguish me from Don Quixote. Don Quixote on seeing these men would deem them vassals of a competing feudal Lord (despite feudalism being centuries dead) and would have charged at them before they could charge at him. By contrast, I know that the people who harass me are honest working people concerned both for the integrity of their worksite, as well as for my safety, and I know that they have every reason to tell me my journey is nonsensical and to infer that I am truly, dangerously, DSM-IV delusional.
And, paradoxically, I feel that such self-awareness in fact proves that I'm not truly, dangerously, DSM-IV delusional, in the way that Don Quixote actually was truly, dangerously, DSM-IV delusional. Though I'm not as comfortable with this reasoning as I'd like to be and feel I may be thumping the psychopathology Bible here much the way a murderer might thump the Criminal Code of Canada, while crouched next to the carnage he was wrought.
I was more than half way there but the toughest part lay ahead. I faced the steepest rise so far, which opened upon a cavity some six feet or more below. My only way in was to lower my body backwards over the tenuous ridge of asphalt chunks, steel myself up with long steady breaths and a mishmash of half-mastered meditative disciplines, separate myself from the ridge of asphalt chunks and allow my body to descend freely through space at the rate of 9.8 m/s2.
This went better than my dive down to the railroad tracks had. I found myself standing comfortably in a hollow surrounded on all sides by rubble.
Here, finally, I did feel balanced and serene. I recalled the lines of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. "As if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kin." Perhaps I could be author of myself and never leave this haven. Perhaps this is what Fletcher Christian and his sailors felt, when they torched the Bounty on the desert island of the rest of their lives. Burning all bridges (literally). Perhaps Fletcher dreamed a micro-civilization of his own.
Of course, I quickly realized, Fletcher
and his sailors had brought women with them,
and there were things to eat on the island, both of which facts make starting a civilization from scratch a whole lot more workable. Still, I wanted to stay there. To each man the Sirens sing a different song. Can I help it if mine is the sound of hydraulic systems and oversized vehicle backup-warnings?
Getting up the other side of the rubble out of my haven proved even easier than getting down into it had, and I scrambled up it in seconds like a rodent used to slinking through the jagged and toxic detritus an inscrutable species has delivered onto the earth.
I was fully engaged in my journey now, and had learned the path's pitfalls and stumbling blocks and deceptions. In the manner of Tai Chi practice, I didn't try to conquer forces larger then myself, but simply surrendered to them, like a surfer to the waves, using their power and nuance to carry me to my destination.
This turned out to be the parking lot of a building facing Frid Street. My only witness was this squirrel, whose movements were as furtive as mine. I'll admit to having once scoffed at the shamanic notion of the Power Animal, but now, as my quest drew to a close, I had clearly found my own.
I was so struck by the revelation that I later cut a print from the image and pressed seasonal greeting cards to send to loved ones.
The rest of the passage is barely worth speaking of. In moments I stood before Soccer World
feeling the way I imagine Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen
must have felt on being the first Captain to traverse the Northwest Passage successfully.
I stood in the December drizzle trying to affect Kapten Amundson's aspect of fortitude, fittingly tempered by humility, and having neither the thick wool coat nor the wicked-cool facial hair for the pose I gave an is-that-all-there-is-to-breaking-a-new-path? shrug and turned and walked away.
Here's where things get random. After I'd finished this photographic journey (which took roughly 14 minutes, as opposed to the 11 minutes it would have taken to walk the Dundurn, Chatham, Frid Street route.) I realized I hadn't yet burned very much of my Tuesday morning, and that if I returned home now, I should really get busy downloading these photos and writing up a photo-essay for my 37 (again, your estimate could be better than mine) dedicated readers.
But I knew that I wouldn't. I knew that I'd just sit idly in the kitchen finishing the mug of the now tepid coffee I'd half-drunk before my adventure. The George Jones playlist I'd felt inexplicably compelled to put on continuous loop early this morning would still be playing, and I would once again hear Mr. Jones's pained confession that he was "still doin' time in a honky-tonk prison," as though I were the parole officer of his alcohol dependency.
I couldn't face this. I turned and walked North on Frid.
At this point everything went blank. I can only assume I suffered a blackout from the toxicity of the rubble.
(This rupture in the narrative of my consciousness is as good a place as any to share some of my challenges as a writer. In addition to the smeared dry-erase marker all over the computer screen, our household is experiencing a whole host of computer problems this week. The least impaired machine right now is the family laptop, but even it is challenged by the fact of the 'h' key having come loose
in such way that no one in our family, not even my youngest daughter Nora with her small nimble fingers,
has been able to reattach it. [I intend to put all the 'h's in at the end; forgive me if a few get missed.] I mention this only so you understand the quotidian impediments I'm shouldered with, and which I try really hard not to make a big deal out of.)
My next conscious recollection was wandering the labyrinthine basement of Togo Salmon Hall at McMaster University. Having not been back here since 1998, I had no memory of the way out. The students and faculty members I passed were so unaware of me or anything else in their sensory sphere that they might have been spirits of the era during which I had a legitimate reason to walk these halls.
It occurred to me on about the third circuit that I might have died and that this might be the loop of my afterlife.
As an outsider now, I noted that university campuses are the one place where people resist assumptions based on dress, ethnicity, age or any surface indicators of a particular social status.
Here's an example of what I mean. I was walking through the University of Alberta Campus in Edmonton for the first time since I'd been an undergraduate (I'll get to what I was doing in Edmonton momentarily) and had just entered Hub Mall, which, if you don't know the campus, is an indoor mall/nexus on the east side of Campus.
I was stunned to see that Java Jive, the place where I bought coffee in my freshman year, was still there and with essentially the same signage. (I'd assumed it would have been bought out by Starbucks by now.)
Excited, I ran up to the server and shared with her that finding Java Jive was like a big reunion for me, and that the spot I was standing on was exactly where I was standing when I bought my first cup of coffee ever!
The server would have been roughly the age I was then. I assume from her uncertain English she was an exchange student or recent immigrant. She looked frightened, as though I maybe expected a hug or something.
She asked nervously, "Oh...are you... professor now?" (I'd hoped she'd be in the photo but she's hiding from me. You can just see the top of her head above the yellow sign.)
By contrast, in Hamilton, as I moved upstairs and out of the labyrinth of Togo Salmon Hall, I was handed the following card
So at the University of Alberta I'm a professor, and at McMaster I'm a mature student scrounging seasonal work. Read into that whatever regional differences you chose to.
From the years 1995 to 1998 I lived at McMaster University as a Residence Hall Director. This was a live-in position where I was the presence of the University Housing Office in the residence building itself. Basically a Hall Director was hired on as a guide, counsellor, mentor, and guy-with-tools-that-students-could-knock-on-the-door-to-borrow-24/7/365.
One of my less pleasant duties was enforcing the residence discipline code. In cases of extreme infractions (basically behaviour that was a danger to the life and well-being of a student or students) I was called upon to expel students from the residence.
One such incident involved a student living on the top floor of our residence who had climbed onto the roof of our building (whose monumental cube structure is the apotheosis of unadorned, 70s minimalism,
with about as many geometric surprises as a late Mondrian,
and this starkness made climbing onto the roof even a bit more dangerous than it might be with the occasional decorative ledge.)
In an inebriated state (which I discovered is when most of these behaviours take place, and from a safety standpoint the last state in which they should take place) he devised a method of passing his upper body through the open window, bracing himself with one foot on the sill of the window on the wall perpendicular to the window which supported his other foot
grasping hold of the roof trim, and from there pulling himself onto the roof,
where he could then open the facilities door from the outside (which he seemed to somehow know would be unlocked and in writing this now I wonder where this adventure might have progressed to had it turned out to be locked on both sides.)
The manoeuvre worked as planned and he opened the door, on the other side of which his friends, whose blood alcohol was at similar George Jones-worthy levels, were waiting, no doubt with shrieks and giggles and euphoric exclamations, to join their companion in moving hither and thither on the roof with spontaneous undergraduate abandon.
This activity was brought to my attention, and in the interest of safety I brought the incident to the housing office, where we then had the initiating student brought in and where we advised him (with extreme prejudice) to consider other accommodation.
This seemed a necessary directive at the time. However, as I was taking these photos of the residence in which I had once lived and worked, I realized that my subconscious had directed me back to the campus for a reason.
I felt deeply conflicted. For hadn't I trespassed similarly in the Urban Debris, risking not only my own safety, but, by writing up a report of my travels which I would then distribute, encouraging others to take similar risks?
Wasn't I kidding myself in pretending that smearing the computer screen with markers and working on a machine with a missing 'h' canceled my credibility as a reporter? Wasn't I kidding myself that the general silliness of the journey absolved me as a role model?
Wasn't I the worst kind of hypocrite? The kind that laughs the dangerous episode off as a harmless joke? (Which now that I think of it is the very tactic that the student we expelled from the residence had used in our meeting.)
I began, naturally to unpack the various similar transgressions committed in my past, and the hypocrisy of then enforcing safety rules no more serious that ones I'd committed myself and continued to commit.
The most dangerous trespass I could recall from personal experience was one night in 1989 when I'd decided to walk track on the very top level of Edmonton's high level bridge, stepping carefully on each railway tie.
Thinking back on this episode, I immediately knew I had to revisit the bridge that I'd passed over so foolishly in my youth. Could there be a better metaphor than a bridge for passing from one stage of life to another?
I got a flight back to Edmonton. Fittingly, this was the last week Westjet offered a direct flight from Hamilton to Edmonton. Clearly this is was a journey ordained for me by the seven mad gods.
I drove across the bridge and examined the structure. I suppose when I did my walk I had some half-baked notion of being able to make it down those diagonal supports to the actual pedestrian walkway if a train had come.
Equally perilous was the 14 inch gap between the ties themselves, which, if fallen through would have dropped me into the constant 24/7/365 stream of automobile traffic. I'm sure that during the microseconds of the fall's duration I would have envied the slow weightless death of Astronaut Frank Poole.
Here's a picture of the ties as photographed from the car below the railway.
It was shot with my hand out the car window pointing upward (a high risk activity in itself. What in the name of the seven mad gods is wrong with me?) It doesn't give the best sense of what I'd been walking across, though I quite like the composition, and can't help but feel that this is the kind of work Mondrian might have progressed to, had he lived another decade and thickened up his black lines and went nuts with the Pantone 292.
As usual, my mind succumbs to aesthetic vagaries to evade moral shame. I suppose it's preferable to climbing onto the roof of a sixth floor building, or walking the railway ties of high level bridge, or scrambling up and down the Urban Debris.
In reviewing these photos, it's clear that I made the trip home to Edmonton to view the larger conflicts of my personality, using a physical structure that both the older me and the younger me have traveled. To see clearly my need to be both punisher and punished, transgressor and enforcer. To stand before a puzzled barista as both student and professor. To be Apprentice-Officer Fletcher Christian and Vice-Admiral William Bly. To assume both roles simultaneously, in a Quixotic assault on the twin tyrants Time and Mortality.