My stepfather and I had not talked in 14 years. Our relationship had never been that terribly close because we’re both suspicious, distrustful characters, and we’d both given up on each other by the time I got to be about 10 years old.
My little sister got married last month and the old man and I spent some time together. I was struck by how terribly similar we are in so many ways. It’s the similarities that are the source of so many of our disagreements. They’re not really even disagreements so much as they are gaps in understanding from which we both backed away in hostile silence until the gaps became as expansive as the Canadian prairie.
My stepfather is a quiet prairie boy who prefers the company of a few close friends and his dog, and would much rather be out in the mountains than at a party.
I’m a quiet desert boy who prefers the company of a few close friends and his cat, and would much rather be out in the mountains than at a party.
Neither of us particularly like people. I think I can speak for my stepfather also when I say that we don’t trust people much. They don’t have our best interests at heart. They are loud & aggressive or quiet and passive aggressive, they always seem to want much more than they are willing to give, and social interaction always seems potentially dangerous unless you keep your guard up. And we both find that to be exhausting.
There is a good chance I learned most of these things from him. He raised me from the time I was 3 and taught me almost everything I know about social interaction. All the things I needed to be afraid of I learned before, from a larger-than-life father whose moods would swing rapidly from oversized love to brutally violent rage. My father showed me that humans were to be feared and distrusted. My stepfather showed me how to deal with that distrust and how to carry on human relations. His primary lesson: avoidance. Try to get as far away from people as you can. An animal is a much more trustworthy companion. If you need to be around people, make sure you have a buzz on.
My stepfather has a lot to do with who I am, and yet we’ve never been able to understand each other, and in many ways couldn’t be more different. I often think we are opposite people who tend to react to most things the exact same way. By all accounts my father was very, very different, and I find myself sometimes heading to the territory that defined my father. I guess there’s something to be said for genetics and blood.
I used to blame my stepfather for the parts of me I didn’t like. Now I just accept those parts because to dislike them is to dislike myself, and wishing I was someone else is not really a healthy way to live.
We were at my sister’s wedding reception.
The volume suddenly escalated for no apparent reason, as often happens when there are a lot of people around. The old man, who doesn’t say much anymore, turned to me and said “People sure are loud”.
“People sure are loud”. I suddenly felt more connected to him than perhaps I ever have. My life is about two things: the noise of people – aural, visual & emotional noise – and my desire to get away from it. People and their loudness is why my greatest happiness comes from lacing on a pair of trail shoes and running 20 miles through dirt and rock.
When I ran Calico there were significant chunks of the race during which I did not see another runner. I was running through country that you can’t get to except on foot or perhaps on horseback. When I ran the San Diego Rock’n'Roll marathon last June there were 20,000 other runners, including one guy who was running beside me shouting woohoo! woohoo! woohoo! at the top of his lungs while pumping his fists. Then he settled down to bellowing along with whatever was on his ipod.
There’s a reason why I don’t run road races anymore.
My stepfather came from a tiny prairie town called Glenaven, Saskatchewan, current population 104. If you look up images of Glenavon you will mostly see grain elevators. I’m a bit surprised that pictures of the town even exist. On Google maps you will see a town that’s about 6 square blocks, potholed roads, and lots of vintage cars and pickup trucks. And a stormy sky. Here in California it’s the ground that’s unpredictable. Out on the prairies it’s the sky.
He never talked much about growing up. I don’t suspect it was the best of times. The only story I ever heard was of an older sister trying to drown him. He still hates the water.
At some point he drove away from Glenavon. He went to the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Calgary Alberta, Turkey, Gabon, Libya, back to Calgary, Dallas, Egypt, Norway, Denver, Vancouver Island, and now back to Calgary again. He’s not so young anymore, and his one passion seems to be driving. After all that traveling he’s brought it back down to a car and the road.
He might have more passions, actually. He’s never been the most expressive guy, and now that he’s old he’s particularly hard to decipher. 80 years of practice has made him pretty much inscrutable.
And so we sat together at a table on the roof of some building on Venice Beach, enjoying the fact that neither of us had anything that needed saying, and that there could be a little oasis of quiet amidst all the annoying and sometimes alarming noise of a bunch of loud people making occasionally inappropriate toasts as they celebrated the union of two of them. A few hours later he quietly slipped out the door without much in the way of a goodbye to anyone, back to his hotel to relax and rest up before the long drive home to Calgary.