The Philosopher Rune: A Wordcarpenter Biography

Overview: The author of the Wordcarpenter Books has a story, and in this work his story is told. From his upbringing in British Columbia and Ontario in Canada, to the extremes of his travels in Asia such as Burma and Vietnam, everything in this biography is true. And from this life story comes all 20 books published here at wordcarpenter.com

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PART 1

“The only reason for human failure is man’s lack of faith in their true self.” – William James

 “In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Life without music would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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Table of Contents

AUTHOR’S NOTE

INTRODUCTION

PROLOGUE – How Bad it Became

CHAPTER ONE – “The First Identical Twins Born in the Centennial Year”

CHAPTER TWO – Abuse

CHAPTER THREE – Going West

CHAPTER FOUR – The Ski Boot Incident

CHAPTER FIVE – Trinity College School

CHAPTER SIX – Family Divorce

CHAPTER SEVEN – The Gambler Rune

CHAPTER EIGHT – Badminton

CHAPTER NINE – The Eye Incident

CHAPTER TEN – Remarriages

CHAPTER ELEVEN – Golf and Fletch

CHAPTER TWELVE – University Rowing

CHAPTER THIRTEEN – The Running Incident

CHAPTER FOURTEEN – Criminal

CHAPTER FIFTEEN – The ‘Maxi-pad’

CHAPTER SIXTEEN – Tree Planting

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – Third-year University

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN – Vancouver Film School

CHAPTER NINETEEN – China

CHAPTER TWENTY – Motorcycling in Thailand

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – Australia

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO – Graduation and Visigoths in Tweed

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE – Graduate Work and Writing Zeitqualia

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – Post-University

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – Japan

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX – Taiwan

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN – Motorcycling in Cambodia

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT – Into the Heart of the Dragon

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE – The Penghu Islands

CHAPTER THIRTY – Professional Writer

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE – Germany and the Taipei 9/21 Earthquake

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO – Howie the Earthquake Puppy

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE – Manila

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR – Motorcycling in the Philippines

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE – Brush with Death

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX – The Coup

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN – Hong Kong and Touching the Empyrean

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT – Finding the Tomb of Jesus in India

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE – The Himalayas

CHAPTER FORTY – Michelle and the University of Hong Kong

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE – Motorcycling in North Vietnam

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO – Attending the University of Beijing

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE – The Mad Dogs Motorcycle Club

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR – Finding Orwell in Burma

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE – The Burmese Colonel

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX – The End of the Line

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN – Finding my Writer’s Cabin

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT – Manitoulin Island

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE – Ecuador

CHAPTER FIFTY – Brush with Death

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE – Stem Cell Transplant

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO – In Summary

AUTHOR’S NOTE

In due course I will be adding photographs to this piece. When I do this I will re-read and edit any grammatical mistakes contained herein.

INTRODUCTION

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The western breeze caroms off the break in the hill that flows through my kitchen on Manitoulin Island. It is the summer solstice today – the longest day of the year. From my house atop the escarpment, a century-old farmhouse built of kilned limestone to withstand the heavy winds from the North Channel from the northwest, I can see the leaves flutter in the wind from the heavy forest below. Having grown up and worked in cities throughout my crazy life, I have come to realize that this island in the middle of the Great Lakes is a paradise where nature rules and there are no urban noises that anger me here, unlike the honking horns and sounds of traffic in cities today. I am safe here, to walk my dog without a leash and enjoy the perfumed air and quietude that I have now come to crave. Instead of waking up to the headaches of urban life like I used to, I wake up to the sounds of Sandhill cranes and animals waking up in the forest all around me.

It is respite from a life lived in the fast lane.

I relish the aroma of fresh coffee, taking sips of the black nectar. My German Shepherd Tumbleweed is happy to run outside and make sure the property is free of the deer that sneak out of the virgin forests to eat the many cedar trees on my property. I feel relaxed and calm, as if I have completed some long race, finally deserving of a rest at the long-sought finish line. There is no job or party for me to go to today. There is only the symphony of sounds of the woods rustling through the trees. I know now that I am in fact a fortunate man to have survived living such a crazy and unusual life. So full of vigor and such an earnest refusal to do anything in a normal way brought me around the world, writing down my adventures for the sake of a record, myself incredulous that a person could do so much, be so reckless and still somehow thrive.

Yet I nearly died several times along the road.

Today I am known as the author Peter Higgins, creator of Wordcarpenter Books. Thousands of young readers around the globe have been inspired by my books since being published online that are free and ready to read on my website. I never sought to make money. My aim has always been to offer my stories for those young readers to learn from what I have done and be inspired to become who they are. This is my life story for those who want to know the truth. Everything in this book is true, as unbelievable as some of it might seem.

Some of the crazier things I did include:

I once motorcycled over 500km in one day in the Philippines, in order to make it to work on Monday morning, falling asleep at the wheel near the end as I was riding, and waking up just in time in a ditch to steer my CR250 dirt bike back onto the road, just outside of Manila.

I once mountain-biked across a frozen Lake Manitou in February from the Sandfield boat launch to the Silver Water boat launch to get rid of my ‘cabin fever’ – a distance of about 10 kilometers of cycling over choppy ice with fierce cross winds.

Caught in the fire of love, I once walked clean across Beijing in one day to buy a film for my new love, who ended up being part of a US intelligence agency.

Going to meet a friend in downtown Hong Kong, I once mountain-biked over the top of Hong Kong Island not realizing how big the mountain was.

I once did a portage on a canoe trip that was more than 20 kilometres of carrying tack and our canoe in one day over rocky terrain in Lake Temagami.

I once partied for seven days straight on a cocaine binge in Quito, Ecuador.

I was once held at knifepoint in Xi’an China by the boyfriend of a girl I had just met locked in a cement shack in the wee hours of the morning.

I once saved the life of a friend of mine when he suffered a heart attack while we were out running when I was 20 year’s old.

I was once mugged at knifepoint in Quito with a fishing knife held to my throat, and survived it.

In 1995 I once hacked into the CIA database while I was studying to become a systems-analyst by following simple instructions from the UNIX Red Book.

I once jumped off a chairlift while skiing when I was in grade six because I was late to catch the bus back to Toronto.

At the age of two I climbed out the milk box and crawled to the street and was found several blocks away.

These are just a few of the highlights I can think of here, right now over my morning coffee, but there are more- many more – that will be exposed here in this memoir. My aim was always to live my life like a work of art by immersing myself into the qualia of life experience no matter what the cost. It was a dangerous, laissez-faire game but it was a game I chose to live and I was wise enough to write down my experiences. My novels and novellas are almost entirely based on true events in my life – a sort of autobiographical style of novel writing.

Most of my novellas are about 98 percent true with a twist of fiction thrown in for dramatic effect.

But to put the record straight, this is my honest recollection of my life written now at 55 years old while most of the details are still somewhat fresh in my mind. Before too much longer, my recollections will fade into the passing breeze and this original life will be forgotten to those who are interested in knowing what truly happened to me during my time on Earth.

This is my uncensored life story.

PROLOGUE

How Bad it Became

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When we arrived at the airport and I had to walk across the parking lot into the departures section I could hardly walk. I couldn’t breathe. I kept stopping to catch my breath and still unable to catch it I would force myself to carry on, pulling my suitcase along the cold cement floor. Once inside the airport, my sister found a wheelchair for me, which helped. I checked in. My sister told the woman at the check-in counter that I had just finished a bout of chemo and that I was tired from it so they took that as the reason for my sluggishness. I was still very aware that my face had a grey hue that was very sickly, so in the back of my frantic mind I knew that I was having a problem, but at the same time I was too weak to speak up and still determined not to miss my flight.

My sister left as I boarded my flight. I sat down and promptly fell asleep. Or more accurately passed out. I remember the stewardess coming around after we had departed but don’t remember what she said. My next memory was waking up on the floor stuck in between my seat and the seat in front of me. The stewardess looked concerned when I pushed myself up to my seat so brought me oxygen from a tank to breathe. I remember insisting that I felt a lot better. I thought maybe I was in the clear if I could just breathe in the oxygen but I soon was told that they were turning around the airplane.

We were turning back to Ottawa!

But my arms and legs were like lead and couldn’t find the energy to speak at all. The stewardess seated a doctor beside me during the 30-minute return journey just in case I had an emergency. This likely saved my life. The airplane did a U-turn over Kingston and returned to Ottawa. We landed and they escorted me off the airplane on a gurney, everyone else remaining on the flight as they were about to leave again for Toronto.

I was received by paramedics in an ambulance that was waiting for me. They immediately took my vitals and were concerned about my low oxygen levels. My oxygen levels were at 75 percent. They set me up with an oxygen mask and they did an EKG on my heart, the results of which gave them some concern. Somehow they had retrieved my bag from the airplane and then I was transported back to Ottawa General Hospital where I was taken into the ICU and set up with forced oxygen, and they put a line into my arm. There I sat for the rest of the day with hardly anyone speaking to me, shivering and cold. It felt like my lungs had turned into stone. I just couldn’t breathe.

CHAPTER ONE

“The First Identical Twins Born in the Centennial Year”

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To be honest, I had an amazing childhood. My twin brother and I and my sister and my parents made a great family unit, but it was having an identical twin brother that made it really special. I was never without a buddy to play with and do mischief and push the boundaries all the while laughing and taunting each other all in the name of humor. In fact my childhood was so solid that it propelled me into my twenties and thirties at the speed of light. At university my peers watched me dance past them at the speed of light – a dance full of adventures, study, partying and mischief. While others had never had a steady playmate or best friend or sibling, I had had Mike: my brother. And the two of us made a very good team. We gave each other such a solid foundation that I would forever be apart and ahead of my other friends in terms of confidence and experience. It was my leg up and my super power, and was directly responsible for the life I chose to live.

All of my life decisions can be traced back to my childhood, as I guess most people’s lives are. But since my early youth was spent moving constantly across Canada with Mike and I always together trying to make each other laugh and outdo one another, with each passing year we became more and more extreme and daring until we reached the point where we were let loose from the family home and were unleashed into the laissez-faire recklessness of university in the mid-eighties: a time life was a permanent beer commercial. The sixties had come and gone and we were the first generation to grow up with accepted weed smoking despite it still being illegal. There were not yet computers and the internet and CCTV cameras and satellites and surveillance so we – for a brief period of time – had the sweet spot of the apple to bite.

And we bit…hard.

But let me begin at the beginning as each event is a brick that was to become the creation who writes these words and who indeed has written over 20 novels aimed at inspiring people.

The first brick was my birth! The majority of people are born head first but I came into this world feet first. I was the second birth for my mother that day, five minutes after my identical twin brother Mike was born head first. Maybe because I was born a twin, I always felt that it was on that day, February 2, 1967, that for me the adventure began because I was not alone. My playmate and fellow mischief-maker was right there with me along for the ride. I had a built-in best friend at birth who had the exact same genes as me. And as it ended up: the exact same sense of humor as me.

On that winter’s day in February in Vancouver, Mike and I had already made a splash: we were the first identical twins born in the centennial year. Canada was now 100 years old, its birthdate being in 1867 when Canada become an independent country. My Dad knew we were due but had been told by the attending nurse that he had time to have lunch with his work pals so during this lunch was the time we were born. My mother was furious. He never was able to live that down. Still today, as an old man at 84, he still chuckles about that day.

The surname Higgins is Irish, coming from O’Higgins, but before that from the Gaelic O’huighin, meaning ‘akin to Viking.’ There are several Irish surnames that still exist today from over a thousand years ago when the Norsemen built forts in Ireland, such as Dublin, Wexford and Limerick. These were prosperous trading forts that were never destroyed as both the local Irish population and the visiting Norse tolerated each other’s presence, indeed accepting each other until eventually they intermarried. I am considered to be of ‘Norse-Gael’ descent. And because I have Viking ancestry, this is why I have titled my life story as The Gambler Rune. (The reason why is explained in chapter seven). My mother’s maiden name, McFetridge, is Scotch-Irish, and come from the McLean clan. Both bloodlines were fiercely anti-English, and to this day I have zero percent English blood in me.

For centuries us Scotch-Irish kept away from the English invaders, even here in Canada.

We were big for twins, weighing in at 6.6lbs each. Healthy and identical, nurses crowded around our bassinettes and googled at us. Again, attracting attention right at the get go. My brother Mike had to remain in the hospital for a few days after the birth because he was a bit jaundiced. It is natural for identical twins to fight over the umbilical near the end of a pregnancy and I had won the struggle. This dynamic would play out over the years to its fullest degree, a necessary and difficult aspect of this ideal – and almost perfect – set-up of having a twin. Competition between us was something that my parents would choose to control by separating us in both sports and schools.

And so we would each grow into becoming individuals rather than inseparable. I know there was wisdom in this because it is not uncommon to see identical twins as adults who are completely reliant and inseparable from each other to the point of ill-health. Many cannot survive life without the other. It is a very real and serious affliction.

But Mike and I were good. My grandmother, who stayed with us every year for at least two weeks, described us not as cry-babies but as laugh-babies. She would like to tell us as young adults before she died that we would sit there and look at each other and laugh. But as soon as the initial laughing was done we set out to make the other laugh more by doing something silly and mischievous, which would spur the other on to outdo the other, soon resulting in a broken toy or a damaged wall, or bent handlebars. It was this dynamic that would set my upbringing apart from all my other friends. We didn’t know life apart from this firm and safe dynamic so we developed a fierce taste for pushing the limits for the sake of laughter.

Mike and I were born 14 months after my sister Susan, who was born in Dec 1965 in Montreal, where my father grew up. My poor sister would grow up always overshadowed by her boisterous twin brothers, who only cared for mischief and mayhem. It must have been tough for her. People were always talking about how charming the twins are, and never spoke about her. In adulthood, she would grow a serious resentment towards both of us for this – something that was never meant to drive us apart.

And it is almost impossible to overcome another person’s resentment no matter how hard one tries.

My parents were normal products of the fifties, or so I thought. None of us knew that my father was handicapped as bi-polar, nor that he suffered from ‘immature personality,’ a psychological illness defined as emotional immaturity. This, it was believed, to have been caused by my grandmother’s babying of her favourite child that resulted in him never growing up. Essentially he was an adult boy who had the emotional age of a six-year old. Nor did any of us know that my mother was emotionally unstable who would attempt suicide four times in the span of her life. But when we were babies we were the normal, close-knit family who had it all. My father was an executive who had a job in an office who came home after work wearing a suit and trench coat with his sideburns and eyeglasses: the picture of a successful executive in the seventies.

These were some of my earliest memories: seeing my father walk to the house wearing his trench coat.

As children, my sister and brother and I were unaware of our parents’ shortcomings. In time though these cracks in their foundation would serve to add a rather explosive spice into our home lives, which would not survive the heat. It was a furnace that forged three children into diamonds with such intensity that all three of us would live original and extraordinary lives. Each of us had what others would call ‘character.’

And the abuse the three of us would get from our father also scarred us for life.

My grandfather Edward Wheeler Higgins was born in Bognor Regis on the south coast in England in 1906. He was a very cool guy, the one man in my life I looked up to the most. He looked just like Ernest Hemingway, right down to the hair style and moustache. He played professional soccer for, as he said: “Barclay’s Bank,” which became the Barclay’s Premiere League. He boxed and was the rebellious youngest of ten children, choosing to leave England in the 1920’s to cycle all of Europe. He settled in Paris in the 1920s and soon was hanging out with his best friend Jean Berotra – one of the Three Musketeers of tennis in France (along with Henri LaCoste and XXX). I mean he was that cool. I never asked him because he was dead before I was cool enough to know to ask him, if he ever met Hemingway. But it didn’t take me long to see that he was a good-looking guy who left home to live and learn French in Paris in the 20s, hanging out with professional tennis players. He likely grew his requisite trimmed moustache in Paris that he would wear for the rest of his life.

His brothers also went all over the place – one of his brothers married the daughter of a bank owner in Spain and another one married a princess, and another became a famous engineer. These were the stories I grew up with at a young age but we never met any of them because they were all living in Europe. What I do know was that my dreams of what I would do with my life were born from my grandfather’s life. The mystery and romance of cycling around Europe and marrying princess took a hold of my young imagination and never let go.

It is quite clear to me now at age 56 that I took after my Grampa Higgins – a man of action who carved out an original path as did many of his siblings.

Grampa Higgins stayed in Paris until the early 30’s when he left for Vermont on a skiing trip. That was when he met my grandmother, who was on a train in Vermont. When they met it was love at first sight. The courtship and wedding didn’t take long. My Grampa was in his mid-thirties then so he thought it was time.

My grandmother, who was French and a descendant from the famous LeVasseur family, was an orphan whose parents had died. My great grandfather Carmel had died of TB in a sanitarium in Vermont, and my great grandmother’s family, LeVasseur, had arrived in New France over 350 years earlier during the time a Samuel de Champlain. Having arrived during the first fifty years of the French settling New France, my Canadian blood goes way back to the earliest times of European colonialism. Despite my grandmother having bright blue eyes and fair skin, one can be pretty certain that we have Native American blood from this French line since the early French settlers were only male and very often took Native wives. That being the case, it was recently confirmed that I do not have any native blood and am 37 percent French, showing that our line remained French for many generations. From our genealogy, our French line came from one of King Louis the XXX’s dames, who were chosen as wives for the French colonials by the king to populate the new colony.

So it could be said that this is Canada’s Mayflower. And the blood in my veins runs with these pioneers who built this land we now call Canada.

My father grew up in Montreal as the eldest and most entitled of the three children. He was the centre of attention and spoiled beyond comparison. As the golden boy he was expected to win contests, be the top of his class and find the best job. My grandfather was pretty cool about it but my grandmother, since she had come from nothing, was insistent that he achieve financial success. I remember whenever I was around her all she spoke about was money. It was foreign to me why a person became so irate because someone didn’t pursue money. Right up to her final days it was money, money, money. My father had this affliction that I believe profoundly skewered his perception of the world – haunted by the never-waning voice of his mother insisting he was nothing if he didn’t have money. And this embodied itself in the way he treated others. My father believed he was always right and because he was brought up thinking money was the only thing that mattered he would become incensed when others were making mistakes that would hinder him from making more money. This severe intolerance was, I believe, the cause of him losing every job he ever had because he wouldn’t hesitate to show his anger at their stupidity. Even as a top executive he angered his investors and lost everything he had, ending up in a middle-of-the-road government job at the end of his career that paid him anything but an executive’s wage. For this he was berated constantly from his mother, who viewed him as a failure, and who lived almost until she was 100 years old. This emotional scarring he inherited from an irrational mother influenced me deeply, as he naturally let loose on me in the same manner and for the same reasons.

He was never able to appreciate the arts for art’s sake nor appreciate the beauty and mystery of travel or creativity because it didn’t produce an income.

My mother’s family was much different. My mother, Nancy McFetridge, came from a loving and fun family who had come from Northern Ireland in the first decade of the 20th century. My grandfather, Alexander Caruth McFetridge was a family man with eight kids who worked at Eatons all his life. Gregarious, sociable and gifted with the Irish gift of the gab, he was a natural around people and had many friends. He settled in Kelowna, British Colombia when he retired from Eatons, after living in Winnipeg for most of his life. He traveled Canada as a salesman and met many people, becoming a solid middle-class family man with his five sons doing well at school. From Ballymena in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, he chose to move to Canada in 1906 to seek a better life than because he didn’t want to inherit the general store from his father there.

Nor did he want to battle the Catholics, whom he detested. He was a fervent Orangeman, even during his life in Canada.

When my Grampa McFetridge was 65 he had a second family. My grandmother Mildred Maud Pearl Reid, who was a nurse and about 37 years old, approached him asking him if he was interested in having some more children. Almost as a business deal, he accepted. They married and she promptly had three children. My mother was born in Winnipeg in 1940 from this union. My grandmother, born in 1900, was a pretty unique woman at the time, having a nursing degree and becoming a nursing instructor. Having grown up on a large farm on the prairies in Cardale, Manitoba with nine siblings, she had known tough times. She was frugal and strict but valued family above all else. She visited my mother every year for two weeks for my entire life until she died in 1997 at age 97.

Because of this, I came to know the McFetridge family very well as a child.

To me the McFetridges were full of laughter and adventure. All five of my uncles fought in World War Two and all of them survived. They never spoke of the war but there was an air of mystery to them. They were all over six feet tall and had piercing blue eyes and bleach white hair, and drank a lot. When my mother’s family moved from cold Winnipeg to mild Kelowna in the Rockies in the 1950s, the family moved west too. My mother was given a horse for her fourteenth birthday. My grandfather had a solid pension from Eatons and the family was firmly planted in a nice part of town. I never met my grandfather McFetridge because he died when my mother was 18 but I certainly met and liked all my uncles.

CHAPTER TWO

The Soap Incident

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My father grew up in Montreal and my mother grew up in Winnipeg and Kelowna. They met at a party when my Dad was 26 in Montreal. They were married within the year and immediately had my sister Susan, who was born in Montreal in 1965. My father found a decent job in Vancouver so the family moved west in 1966. That was when they had the twins (Mike and I) in February 1967. We were born in St. Paul’s Hospital on Groundhog’s Day, Mike first and me coming out five minutes later feet first. As I previously mentioned, there was a struggle for the umbilical cord near the end of gestation and it was me who won it. Mike was therefore kept in the hospital for a week. (This, I believe, was what caused a slight difference in us: that I was consistently a faster runner and a stronger athlete, proved time and time again as young boys at school and in competitions).

Like all of my father’s jobs, he soon was fired so we moved within the year to Don Mills in Toronto, Ontario where he was able to find another job. My father was a good-looking, smart man and sure of himself so he often was able to get his foot in the door by smooth talking the interviewer and with his exceptional education, but would soon show his true colors by being a prick. He would come home and tell my mother what was going on at work and she would know he was about to get fired. He just never had a clue but it didn’t take long for my mother to identify this pattern. He was “lacking the middle part” when it came to perceiving human relations and how he fit into these relations. He was fired from his job in Vancouver after two years, and then fired from his job after two years in Don Mills, and then fired from his next job in Mississauga, Ontario, and then was fired from his job after two years when we moved to Winnipeg.

And so it went throughout my childhood.

It was in Don Mills when I somehow crawled through the milk box and crawled down the street, eventually found by a neighbour. Of course I don’t remember it but it did show an element of independence that would manifest itself later in life.

My father had earned a degree in civil engineering from the prestigious McGill University but had decided he didn’t want to be an engineer because there was no money in it. Under the influence of my Gramma Higgins (Carmel), he decided he would never become rich as an engineer. Only businessmen and business owners became wealthy, so he went to the University of Western Ontario for an MBA, which completed his education. This impressive resumé opened many doors to him but throughout his life he was unable to hold down a job for more than 18 months. It was only a matter of time before this frustration would find its outlet in his wife and children. Some of my earliest memories are being yelled at and being hit by my father. The wooden spoon was used constantly during my early years, which I know only now as being too harsh for a three or four year old who only wanted to laugh with his twin brother. Often Mike and I were hit or punished because of our penchant to laugh and have fun. I have so many clear memories of his approaching us white with rage with the wooden spoon in his hand, demanding we pull down our pants and get on our hands and knees so he could strike our bare bums with the spoon.

This child abuse was chronic throughout my childhood – the one negative in an otherwise great childhood.

Or that was how I remember it. It is natural for a child to suppress these memories and being so young come to the conclusion that it had been me who had misbehaved and who therefore deserved to be physically assaulted. Mike and I had just assumed that that was how disciplining was taught.

As an adult I had suppressed many of these horrific moments from my early childhood but having settled on Manitoulin Island where it is peaceful and calm I have experienced a series of suppressed memories resurfacing. I can recall the palpable fear of seeing his angry face staring at me, knowing I would be hit or punished. There was a helpless horror because many times I was innocent of the crime I was convicted of, my father only serving his own anger and rage, not caring if his child was innocent or not. And I can clearly remember the look of absolute fear in my brother’s face when he looked at my angry father. It wasn’t the physical pain that hurt the most; it was the injustice of it that hurt the most. It left a bitter rage inside me when I was humiliated with this caning when I had not done anything wrong except laugh with my brother. I didn’t know he was ill. None of us did. My mother did her best to protect us.

Strangely we both loved our father and sought to make him proud at all costs as we grew up, apparently accepting that all of our punishments were deserved.

The reason for this was that my father had such charm. His laughter would light up a room (during one of his manic phases). My mother nor anyone else knew he was bi-polar, so it was normal for the three children and my mother to walk of eggshells when he returned from work, waiting to see if he was in a good mood or not. We could tell he was in a bad mood – or dangerous mood – by the shape of his mouth. We used to call it ‘envelope mouth.’ My mother I think spent her all her time protecting his kids from his wrath. Being a mother and a nurse, she knew that his rants and moments of abuse were disproportionate, so it was in Winnipeg when I was six years old that she took the first steps to leave him. They went for marriage counseling and it was soon determined that my father was not only bi-polar (at that time it was called “manic-depressive,”) but that he also suffered from what was called “immature personality.” Immature personality is when a person skips a stage of personality development, going from a child to an adult without the stage of youth or teenager. My father, because he had been treated as the golden boy by my grandmother, had assumed he was an adult when he was a child so he never developed skills such as empathy and social skills that healthy teenagers develop. He had skipped a stage in his development.

Even today it is very difficult to communicate with my father because of this glaring blind spot he has.

For my mother, she knew the writing was on the wall. Her priority was to protect her children at all costs but when the doctor assured her that many of his symptoms of highs and lows would be solved with regular doses of lithium, she thought she might try it out to see if it worked for the sake of keeping the family unit together. But she was warned by the doctor that nothing can solved his “immature personality” – no medication existed to treat it. Therefore it was something she had to be aware of all the time.

The reason my mother finally sought professional advice about my father was because my brother Mike had become a violent little kid on the playgrounds of kindergarten. My mother had had a call from his teacher, telling her that her son was causing problems at school. Called in for an interview, she learned Mike was getting into fights, and that he was a little boy who was emulating his father and trying to get respect. My mother wasted no time finding a psychologist, who interviewed Mike and my mother and my father, finally determining that my father was not a normal man. The bi-polar diagnosis and immature personality disorder were massive blows to their union, but what was the heaviest thing she took with her after that was that the doctor warned her never to leave the kids alone with their father.

From then on my mother tried with all her strength to make sure we were never alone with our father.

But my mother was a full-time nurse so there were times when we had to be with him without her. There are photos from this time that show fear etched in our faces, a fear that is a universal look that something is not right and yet we all tried our best to be good kids. And maybe this is where is started: whenever we were not with our father we tended to try to have more fun. When the threat of authority and punishment was not present Mike and I went a little overboard when having fun. So repressed from smiling and being ourselves when with our father, Mike and Susan and I developed this tendency to let loose and be ourselves and laugh and have fun when the threat of punishment was not there. This unnatural behaviour was caused from having such an abusive father.

It was many years later that I witnessed my own friends being such kind and supportive fathers with unconditional love for their own children that it became clear to me that my own childhood had been so deeply marred by this man who was mentally disabled.

But other behaviours soon surfaced. I didn’t get into trouble in Winnipeg on the playground in kindergarten but it wasn’t long until I did start getting into trouble. One incident that occurred in Winnipeg was the bus incident. Before kindergarten Mike and I went to Montessori pre-school, me in the mornings and Mike in the afternoon, again to encourage we developed independently from one another without relying on the other. Since both my mother and father worked, we were instructed to walk down the street and take a public bus to the Montessori school, which was only about three blocks down the road. Every morning I would wait for the bus, get on the bus with everyone else and then step down on the lower step at the back of the bus and disembark, and walk into the school that was right there. But one morning I was late. I boarded the bus and I remember stepping down on the lower step of the bus back door but the bus didn’t stop. It drove right past my stop. Not knowing what to do, I went back to my seat and rode the bus all the way to the end of the line when the bus driver told me I had to get out.

So I stood there in a bus stop alone in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of town waiting for a bus. A police car drove past and saw me, a five-year old, standing there looking lost. They stopped and asked me if I was lost and I remember telling them that the bus hadn’t stopped and I should be at Montessori school. They were very gentle with me and asked me over and over who my parents were and where I lived. At five I didn’t know my address but I told them I could show them where I lived. They put me in the back of the cruiser and slowly drove me back to my house. I had told them my sister went to grade one at the school just down the street from where we lived and so they could figure out I lived in River Heights. When we drove past my house I yelled to them that that was where I lived. I remember becoming so confused when they kept asking me if I lived there.

I must’ve told them ten times that that was my house.

They must’ve thought I was retarded. But it was simply a situation of me not knowing that you had to pull the cord down to stop at a bus stop. No one had ever told me that. But I think for the police they were flabbergasted that my parents would allow a five year old to take the public bus to pre-school on his own. For me it was no problem. I had always a good sense of direction and I liked being independent. However, looking back on it today it was pretty irresponsible of my parents letting me travel like this. But it shows the level of independence I was given at a very young age.

Again, after two years we moved again, this time to Etobicoke in east Toronto. I remember getting into my first fight on the playground as a new kid. I would soon become very used to being the new kid at so many schools from our constant moving. I remember being humiliated by another boy at Lampton-Kingsway School by stepping on a pile of dirt that was covering a pile of dog shit. When the other kids started laughing I fought the kid who had coaxed me to step on the dirt. I still remember it clearly today. There were a few things in play here: a desperate need to fit in (like any normal boy) and then the humiliation at others laughing at me. Bitter and betrayed, I was angry at this kid for the rest of the year. But it didn’t end there. In the classroom for some reason I kept putting up my hand to go to the washroom but my teacher at the time, Mrs. Noble, wouldn’t let me go. I told my mother and she stormed into the principal’s office who defended Mrs. Noble as one of their best teacher’s. My mother, then and there, pulled me out of the school and put me in the next school over, which was out of our district.

I finished grade one there and spent grade two there as well, for the first time separated from my twin brother.

There too I soon began acting out. First of all I had to get out of bed much earlier than my siblings and had to walk down three long blocks to Mimico Creek, where I had to follow the creek and then walk through a park and across railroad tracks, and up another long block to school – a distance of perhaps four kilometres. For a seven year old this long walk was something of an adventure but also something of an imposition. I had no sympathy ever from my father, who looked at the long walk as a way to build character, which, in retrospect, was right. But because it was so far from my brother and sister, and such a small and less attractive school (it was newly built and lacked the beautiful architecture and stature of Lambton-Kingsway School), I soon began to resent being so separate and apart from my family and friends.

I remember walking home with a friend of mine at the time and we were walking along the creek. I lured him to a rock and then for no apparent reason pushed him into the creek, laughing. I thought it would be funny but when he started crying and he stood up and was covered in muck, I felt terrible. Trying to be tough and not showing weakness, I kept laughing and then walked away. The poor boy was crying – waling – and I left him there knowing he had a long walk home in the cold. I never knew what happened to him bit this was the first time this inner dick had surfaced – and it would not be the last. But the best thing about Islington Public School in grade two was Darla – the first girl I fell in love with. It’s amazing the intensity of these first feelings of love, and I still remember her face all these years later.

What is most important from this time was what was going on at home. We lived on Wilgar Road in a nice house but things were far from rosy. This was the time I was learning swear words. One time I was on the toilet and I yelled for my mother because there was no toilet paper. I yelled but I don’t think she heard me. But my father certainly heard me. He was in the master bedroom next door and he came storming into the toilet, white in the face. “Where did you learn those words?!?” He grabbed me by the arm, ripped me off the toilet and turned on the tap in the sink. He took a bar of soap and washed my mouth out with soap. But the way he did it was so violent that my gums bled. It was one of the worst experiences in my life, and a memory I suppressed from my memory for years. What was so terrible about it was how I truly felt how much he hated me – his hands rubbing the soap so violently against my teeth, lips and him holding me so tightly. It was cold and my mother wasn’t there and I felt a deep fear that I still carry with me today.

I was only seven years old and it felt like I had been raped.

But things in Etobicoke weren’t all bad. I started to play hockey, which was a true Canadian rite of passage. Mike and I loved playing hockey. My father had even made a rink in the backyard in Winnipeg during the cold winters there a few years before. I remember it was very uneven and even dangerous but Mike and I would play on it all the time. In Etobicoke we played novice hockey and were very good players. Unfortunately during one of the first games of the season I was skating for an iced puck in the opponent’s end but when I went to stop I caught the outside of my blade and fell over, shattering my right kneecap. In the quietude of the very early morning, I can still hear myself screaming and crying as the hockey fathers sipped there black coffees from the Styrofoam cups. I thought hockey was something I would excel at but that put an end to my hockey for that season.

I would later return to hockey but this was a tremendous blow to a young kid starting out.

The spanking and the disciplining with the wooden spoon and the washing-out-my-mouth-with-soap incident all contributed to my mother choosing to leave my father that spring in 1975. My brother too was experiencing some issues from the chronic abuse so my mother packed up half the furniture and we left my father in Etobicoke, driving across the country to where my grandmother was living in Kelowna, British Colombia.

I must admit, my mother is fearless when it comes to protecting her children.

Of course at the time we didn’t know my mother was leaving our father. We were told we were spending the summer with our grandmother who lived by the beach on Lake Okanagan. The four of us had a wonderful time road-tripping west, getting away from the ever-present sickness of abuse to a new vista, where we could be kids without the threat of unjust physical punishment. My mother succeeded in making us believe everything was okay and that Dad would join us later, so we loved the adventure. I still regard this road trip as being among my best childhood memories. We had driven across Canada before, spending our summers with my grandmother McFetridge in Kelowna, but my father was always driving and the tension was always there. We were never allowed to stop and check out neat things like teepees and nice beaches and charming little towns, but with my mother driving this trip was full of stops and laughter. But what was a little different this time was that school hadn’t yet finished for the year. My mother had told us one day to stop going to school because we were “going west to see Gramma.” And this only added to the adventure. Playing hooky from school!!!

CHAPTER THREE

Going West

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When we left Toronto, we didn’t know it yet but it was a turning point. I remember my father as being a very mean and scary man during my grade one and two years when we lived on Wilgar Road. The first signs of trouble began to surface, with me being transferred from Lambton Kingsway School to Islington Public School in the next school district, which caused me to walk for about an hour each morning to school.

It was also the first time my brother and I were separated.

There are arguments on both sides for separating twins – mainly so each can develop on their own – but at such a young age this might have been a wrong decision. I loved my brother and we hung out all the time, laughing and playing and of course attracting the other kids on the block to join us. We became a team of two who were greater that it parts, who were “something” rather than just another normal kid. This “package” brought us notoriety, even at this very young phase in our lives. Even years later, when studying at university, people approached me asking if I was one of ‘the Higgins Twins’.

And these were people who remembered us from way back then during our childhood.

As a child I wasn’t aware that my mother and father were having problems. Nor was I aware that I was being abused. Children whose hearts are fundamentally good never think there is something wrong with their parents; they naturally believe that they deserve all the punishment they get. But I remember that I often felt that justice administered by my father was often selective, and that most of the time it wasn’t my fault. Nor was it my brother’s Mike’s fault. Mike was never the kind of guy to frame me to get me in trouble. We just weren’t like that. We were always focused on the purity and fairness of play. It was a simple case of my father experiencing one of his many depressive episodes looking for an outlet to his frustration and rage. I didn’t understand at the time that being hit on the bare ass with a wooden spoon beside my brother, who also got whipped, wasn’t a normal way of disciplining, nor that it was something illegal.

But again I remember crying a lot and the bitterness and humiliation of being half-naked, being whacked a dozen times for something so minor and innocent.

But my mother did. As a nurse, and having being consulted by psychologists in Winnipeg, she was aware of the long-term detrimental effects of such abusive behaviour on little kids, especially two sensitive, well-meaning, happy-go-lucky kids who only wanted to play, have adventures and laugh. So when we left the house with our station wagon loaded up, I was thrilled to be leaving Dad behind and go west to see my gramma in British Colombia. We had driven across the country a few times before for a visit but this time it was without my father and we all thrilled.

We were told Dad wasn’t joining us because he was in Florida on a business trip.

The trip across the country was one of the first beautiful experiences of my life. Every day was sunny. My mother was so happy. And we kids spent our time laughing and expressing all those good, healthy emotions that we had been bottling up for years. Canada has so many parts and pockets of landscapes and micro-climates that for the first time we passed through them unmolested by the fear of punishment. The four of us laughed our way across the country, with glimmers of hope in our eyes, free of oppression and threat and danger. We stopped often at crafts stores and at fleabag motels where were able to run around and play freely, swim in the outdoor pool and play without strict curfews and random yelling. The lush foliage of boreal forests above the Great Lakes region opened up to the unlimited flatlands of the prairies where our imaginations flourished with new dreams of possibility. And then when we reached the foothills in Alberta we salivated with anticipation of crossing over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains with endless waterfalls and bear sightings and curving roads and steep descents. I remember driving through Roger’s Pass and marveling at the colour of the rivers that flowed alongside the road, a green colour that pushed my mind to new limits beyond the boundaries of old. I wasn’t aware of why I was so happy other than for the first time I was free to speak without fear, as were my siblings.

And my mother, who had finally taken control of her life and our mental health, I’m sure felt the boundless optimism that accompanies a fresh and healthy start.

On the other side of the mountains was the dry, semi-arid climate zone of the ponderosa pine, which has the smell of perfume. Pear and apple orchards spread across farmland spreading outwards from Lake Okanagan and there were people out working the fields and new roads freshly paved in this area of the world where people had found a slice of paradise. Kelowna was just a small town of about 25,000 people then in 1975, but it is now a city of over 350,000 people.

My grandmother McFetridge was always old to me – her white hair in a bun and her face draped with a stern look, but she was always fair and just with us. There was some laughter from her, usually coming as a result of me explaining something to her or her witnessing the playfulness of Mike and me throughout the day. She was a retired nurse on a decent pension, my grandfather long dead, and lived in a nice house just three minutes’ walk from the lake. The good thing was she was right beside Strathcona Park and beach that Mike and promptly took over as our own. We spent all day on the swings and the teeter-totter, and on the beach swimming and building sandcastles, and at dinnertime we ate fresh cherries and hairy raspberries for dessert after a big meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. We ate outside enveloped by twenty-foot high cedar hedges that were hemmed in with fresh smelling flowers of all kinds that attracted huge bumblebees, safe and far away from the complicated life under my father’s care.

I think for the first time I was happy. It was a great summer with a noticeable absence of punishments and hitting, Mike and I finally finding our footing as a team of two who were capable of taking on any other kids at games or at contests of athletic prowess. We were best friends and an invincible combo game for almost anything. Instead of resenting the other for getting on the wrong side of Dad, we supported each other unconditionally and began to really care for each other, seeing how cool each was in our new environment. This of course was at the urging of our strict-but-fair grandmother who was quick to admonish us if we betrayed each other’s trust, waving her finger sternly at any behaviour that didn’t support one another. Her old sense of traditional values came as a refreshing oasis of morality, a new world that was far away from the bitter, hateful and violent world under the roof of our father.

I still to this day remember that summer as being the first carefree time in my life, a time that we grew closer as a family and a time when I found that I was a good person who had many unleashed talents.

Mike and went fishing and caught fish on our own, unsupervised and untutored, downtown at the dock at City Park. And we snuck onto the diving platforms down at the park, first the three-metre diving board and then the five metre, which was frightening. But we did it! We developed our true selves into strong, individual voices, something that had always been impeded.

Every single day was a new experience in this new wonderland.

But like all good things, the summer came to an end and we drove back to Toronto. Except this time it was supposed to be different. We were told that Dad had a new job (again) but because it was a higher-paying job we were moving from East Toronto (Etobicoke) to North Toronto – an upper-middle class area where there were lots of big houses. It all happened so fast for us – still sun-tanned from the long summer on the beach. We started at yet another new school just down the street at Allenby Public School in grade three. There was plenty of momentum for us and we fit in nicely. My mother had read the riot act to my father, saying either you go on medication or she is leaving him. So my father started taking Lithium.

And it helped.

Gone were the violent surges of punishment handed out arbitrarily without my mother around. The medication caused him to be more balanced. It was a strange change because I think once a child has witnessed a violent side to a father’s character they are always aware that it is there. There is always trepidation present somewhere in the child’s mind. There was still the fear but my mother, who was witnessing her children blossom under her eyes, protected us with a firm hand from the wrath of my father. What then began was a new dynamic that I was to learn about years later: my father resenting us for taking his wife away from him. Up to that point my mother had catered to my father’s needs, being the dutiful wife and waiting on him whenever he wanted, but now, with him on Lithium, he felt ignored and neglected. And because of his chronic abusive behaviour to his children, particularly Mike and I, we feared him so we weren’t inclined to cuddle up beside him or share with him our day’s experiences.

As a means of protecting us from our father, my mother enrolled us in every sport she could. Anyone could see that the three of us were athletically inclined so we were given every opportunity to play sports. Starting during our days in Winnipeg was the sport of competitive badminton. We played it constantly at the Winnipeg Winter Club and then once we were living in Toronto, we played at the Boulevard Club, down on the Lakeshore. Every Saturday morning the three of us would take a bus and then subway and then streetcar down to the waterfront on Lake Ontario to play in the badminton clinics they were running. We all excelled at it, diving into the drills and the high-level of coordination required to play the sport. Susan and I particularly loved playing, while Mike kept losing to me so he became discouraged rather quickly. Sometimes this competition between Mike and I became a bone of contention between us so my parents were wise to separate us in sports at an early age. Mike was encouraged to play hockey while Susan and I were channeled into competitive badminton, playing tournaments throughout the province of Ontario from a very early age.

But the distractions didn’t end there. Mike and I were enrolled in Cubs down the street at the local church, where we loved going on field trips into the woods, learning how to tie knots, camp overnight and other outdoor skills that we both thirsted to learn. We soon earned our badges and impressed our Cub leaders but cracks began to appear. On the way home at night after Cub meetings my brother and I would walk on either side of the street and throw rocks at each other. Once we hit each other a few times the rock-throwing grew into throwing at houses. At first we would throw a rock way into the air and over a house, hoping for a loud sound as the stone landed on the other side of the house. But more often than not there was no sound so we soon increased our speed running down the street and threw stones directly at houses. It didn’t take long for us breaking a few windows. And nor did it take much time for our neighbours to identify us – those twins who were always laughing and getting into mischief – as the kids who threw the rocks.

It seemed as if our allowance went into paying for broken windows more than it did for sporting equipment or candy.

During one field trip to the Bruce Trail along the Niagara Escarpment, Mike and I were to spend the weekend camping with our troop. My father had decided to join us. We had just arrived and we had all our camping equipment all set up. There was a campfire and all the Dads were standing around talking about adult stuff. Mike and were milling around too, waiting for the others to set up their tents. So I took a stick and took out my knife and began carving out a bush knife – by sharpening the end of the stick. Somewhere along the line, perhaps through my father’s insistence on things being perfect, I had become a bit of a perfectionist, trying to beat my brother and make my father proud. So when I undertook the sharpening of the stick, coupled by the intensity of the overnight camping weekend as a Cub, I overdid it. My hands became so tired from carving the end of the stick that I thought it would be a good idea to reverse the movement and instead of pushing the sharp edge of the knife along the end of the wood away from me, I proceeded to push the sharp edge of the knife towards me. One, two and then the third push of the knife skidded over the wood and cut the top of my left hand deeply. When I looked at it I saw the cut flesh but there was very little blood. In fact the cut looked so clean because of the sharp edge of the blade that it looked white. But I didn’t make a sound or say anything. Instead, I put my hand in my jacket pocket and walked around as if nothing had happened. I didn’t want to get the wrath from my father, especially in front of all my fellow Cubs, and I didn’t want to wreck the weekend for Mike. I must have walked around for five or ten minutes, maybe longer, taking the acute pain of the cut as just another bump or abrasion but when I finally took my hand out of my jacket pocket I was scared at all the blood. Still being as quiet as a mouse, I finally approached my father as a last resort.

“Dad,” I said. “I cut my hand with the knife by accident.” I showed him my hand and he freaked out. Instead of dealing with it quietly and with compassion, he yelled at me in front of the others, thoroughly embarrassing me.

“And how did you do that?!” No comforting. No nurturing. Just yelling and blame. And so it went. Curiously I wasn’t taken for stitches that night and we spent the night camping until the next day when we left without partaking in the activities for the weekend. I was so ashamed and humiliated, and ridiculed for my stupidity. When we finally made it home, my mother was furious – and with good reason. My father’s attitude was to let me bleed and suffer for being such a careless idiot. There was such an absence of love and empathy in my father that I think me (and Mike) developed a hyper-sense of empathy for others during our childhood and as adults. Each of us today always sticks up for that kid who is being abused. But for my father’s defence, he didn’t have the faculty of empathy due to him having his mental illnesses.

I never complained to my friends about being abused because I just assumed they were disciplined the same way. For many years I defended my father’s actions because I loved him and chronically wanted him to be proud of me. It was something I would do for most of my life – defend his shortcomings and his meanness – until perhaps my forties when I saw my friends being kind and empathetic fathers who had never once struck their children. Only then, all those years later could I see how wrong my father had been.

But settling in North Toronto was a very good decision because we fit in well. Our family, beset with constant moving because my father kept being fired from his jobs, craved to lay down roots so North Toronto became our home. Our place was good size brick house a few blocks away from Allenby and the neighbourhood was full of our school friends. We played hockey and badminton and baseball and soccer, and through these sports met kids our age from all over the neighbourhood. The more time we spent outside the house with other kids, the better. We were safe outside the reach of our father. My mother had implemented a good plan but soon my father lost his job after barely a year. Once again we faced a move except this time the family decided to move out west to Kelowna where my father would go into business with my uncle Peter.

Bad idea.

CHAPTER FOUR

The Ski Boot Incident

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The dynamics in the house had changed dramatically. My father, despite all his charm and education, could not hold down an executive job. He thought it might be Toronto so he voted to go west. He saw how the kids had morphed from being nervous little kids tiptoeing on eggshells to more confident, able and adventurous kids, ready to take risks and excelling in sports. His character was more muted from the Lithium he was taking for his bi-polar condition, so going west was an idea that he decided to invest in. But this did nothing to change the new underlying problems. Now, my mother was protecting the kids and spending her time with us, which didn’t sit well with my father. He wanted more attention from her and thought that by living in a small town in British Colombia running a small printing company might give him more relaxing time with his family.

It was an emotional decision that wasn’t thought through.

And he had perhaps underestimated the power of my grandmother McFetridge.

I remember at the time being rather sad to leave our little area in North Toronto. Mike and I had made so many good friends and enjoyed Allenby Public School, and otherwise were thriving in life. Much of the early fear from my father’s depressive episodes were more or less a thing of the past so there was a new confidence. Perhaps a new maturity. Mike and I were both playing hockey and badminton and doing well on the ice and on the court. But to us as nine year olds the west held a special place in our hearts because of all the fresh air, mountains and endless activities that were at our fingertips.

So we again packed our bags after one year and packed up all our things and drove across the country once again. Except this summer it was the five of us. And that’s where the problems began. It was if right from the beginning things went sour. That carefree laughter was not there. Instead there was suspicion, fear and repression. The four of us sat in our station wagon watching the beautiful scenery pass by without a word. Perhaps my father was regretting leaving Toronto and the rich market of executive jobs and heading to a small town of 30,000 people in the interior of BC. But that trip was brutal. I remember crying the whole way. One incident was when Mike and I had a big bag full of cheesies and we ate them really fast in the back seat because we each wanted to eat more cheesies than the other. My father yelled at us to stop laughing and be quiet but because we ate so fast I threw up in the car. He was livid. I remember my mother looking back when I said I was going to be sick and my father said: “No you aren’t.” She put her hand out and I barfed on it. I mean it was a techno-colour yawn with a serious orange hue. He flipped out. His anger wrecked our buzz and gave us the fear in our collective guts. None of us laughed.

We then drove through the tunnels and over the Rocky Mountains with the stench of barf thick in the air. It was tense.

Mike and I started grade four in Kelowna at Dorthea Walker Public School. We had a 10-acre field in our backyard and once we bought a house and my Dad started running the printing business with my uncle Peter, things seemed to settle into place. This was the seventies and my father really tried to let his hair down, buying Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles for the eight-track player in the station wagon. As a way to ensure the twins were busy and having fun, one day Mike and I were in the car with my father and we came across a motorcycle shop on the west side of Lake Okanagan. We pleaded with him to stop so we could check out the mini bikes that we wanted so badly since we could remember. I think we had just been go-karting so we were really excited about any type of motorized vehicle. And when we went inside the store, it just so happened that there were two identical Kawasaki 75cc mini bikes on sale. We were allowed to take them out back for a test spin and when my father saw how much fun we were having – we were practically peeing our pants laughing as we test rode these mini bikes – he agreed to buy them for us.

This decision was perhaps the first that ever gave me the sense of independence and responsibility: owning a minibike.

Now there are certain events in a child’s life that prove to be formative, and without a doubt, this was one of them. Buying two little Kawasaki minibikes for us as nine-year olds was something that was to have a profound effect on me in particular. It would, without a doubt, change my life.

We had the bikes delivered the next day and proceeded to ride them virtually every day, all summer and well into fall. My father had to lock them up in the basement during the winter so we wouldn’t take them out on the snow. After school we rode them in our backyard, creating trails and jumps and attracting the other kids in the neighbourhood to also buy mini bikes.

The area behind our house was designated as a subdivision where homes would be built so it was flat, open land with a few trees, so it was perfect riding for a little kid. We never wore helmets (it was the seventies) and we rode in shorts. The bikes had three gears with no clutch so it was automatic gear changing with the left foot. At first we rode them cautiously, taking care not to hurt the bike or injure ourselves, but by the end of the first summer we were speeding down paved roads, taking jumps and corners at high speeds, really developing our hand-eye coordination and riding skills. There were spills and scrapes and cuts but it was all within reason. It was our real life video game where a wipeout would hurt. So both of us became excellent riders. These skills of coordination would take me to the farthest outposts of the known world 20 years later when I lived in Asia.

My sister rode horses and Mike and rode our Kawasakis. We visited Gramma McFetridge beside the lake and spent lots of time swimming in the water and playing on the swings, but already the swings were not enough to feed our growing passion for the thrill. And this thrill buzz grew in desire and intensity. In the winter we spent our time skiing at Big White. Lots of time spent skiing. All in all it was a year of outside activities.

There was one incident that stands out from that year in Kelowna, when I was driving a homemade go-cart that my neighbour owned. There was a mound of dirt in front of our house where a new house was to be built and we had somehow got the go-kart on top of the mound of dirt. Racing down was the point of the exercise but when I raced downwards instead of just going straight I for some reason steered to hit my brother in the legs. It was the first incident of me trying to hurt someone else in such a clearly malicious manner. I tried to laugh but it was troubling to see one twin aim to hurt the other. There had always been a tit-for-tat between us but it had never reached a point of severe or dangerous maliciousness with the aim to hurt the other. As soon as I hit Mike he started to cry. I can still hear his cry to this day. And I know it wasn’t so much the pain of being struck with a go-kart; it was the hurt of being betrayed by his twin brother.

For a psychologist it might be seen as the first instance of me acting out to channel the resentment and anger I had towards my father, aimed at the ones I loved.

My brother, still today, talks about it.

We became such accomplished outdoorsmen from all our activities that when the spring of 1976 came we were so reckless on our minibikes that Mike and I rode them to school. We were becoming very serious rule-breakers and were looking at another year of extreme riding and skiing when we were told we were moving back to Toronto – again. It was a huge blow to us because we were thriving as kids. And it was a decision that would have profound consequences in our lives: moving from the country back to the city.

My father had lost his job again, but this time had had a serious falling out with my mother’s brother, my uncle Peter, which would have a lasting impact on our family in the years ahead.

We were sad to leave Kelowna because of our natural penchant for outdoor activities. Again we had thrived in small town BC and felt suffocated by the thought of moving back to big city Toronto where there were no areas to ride our minibikes. I felt such a profound loss for my motorcycle that I promised myself that I would buy one as soon as I turned 16 with money I planned to save from working during the summers. For years after moving back to Toronto I bought dirt bike magazines and spent hours at the local motorcycle store browsing the different models of dirt bikes. I spent a lot of time on my pedal bike as a substitute, something I did throughout the rest of my life.

But I vowed to buy my own motorcycle many years later.

There were other incidents during the year in Kelowna that come to mind. Mike and I spent lots of time with our cousins while the adults seemed to spend many hours by the barbeque cooking hamburgers and laughing with drinks in their hands. Chris, the younger of our two cousins, was a bit odd in our eyes so Mike and I spent hours bullying him. I was never a bully and I came to detest bullies in all forms, but our fun-hearted abuse to our cousin Chris again was an example of me acting out some form of aggression to others with no provocation. Mind you my brother and sister also chimed in.

And it was in grade four that Mike and I had our first experience with smoking cigarettes. I thought it was cool. Mike and I were with our neighbour who had a Honda trail bike so he was cool enough to hang out with us. We stood hidden by some trees beside a tennis court at one of the many parks on the shores of Lake Okanagan and tried to smoke. When I inhaled I burst out coughing, having no idea that it would be difficult. Smokers looked so casual when they smoked!

How was it that I couldn’t inhale?!?

Mike ran away one time due to the continual abuse. I think it also had something to do with me hitting him in the shin with the go-kart. He walked so far that my mother found him walking along the busy road maybe 10km from our house. When she found him he kept walking and started crying and said: “Pete doesn’t love me anymore.” I never really knew about what he had said until years later but even now when I think of it, it breaks my heart.

Maybe my parents were worried Mike and I would turn out to be country hicks who rode Harley Davidsons and were part of a gang. I can’t say for sure, but I do know that my father was pretty serious when it came to raising kids who were educated. And my mother had come from a wealthy family with a strict, traditional moral code and being a criminal or hanging out with bikers and driving a truck were not what she wanted either. Regardless, it seemed like we had just started to find our flow in Kelowna when we moved back.

It was a profound interruption of our flow.

We moved back to the same neighbourhood a few blocks away from our old house on Courtleigh into a smaller house only a block away from the school. After a few weeks back at Allenby, it was as if we never left.

But I felt different. That year riding my motorcycle had given me a different way of seeing the world. Some kids spent their time watching TV or playing dungeons and dragons, but I had spent my free time controlling a dangerous vehicle that – if misused – could have killed me. I felt like I had somehow grown in ways that my peers had not, thus I had a new confidence in almost everything I did. We returned to playing hockey and badminton, and track and field and soccer and baseball, and Mike and I again excelled at each sport. Like a fish to water, we both had become naturals.

And in this way Mike and I became leaders.

Grades five and six and seven were very good years for us. We did well at school and in sports, and my father had found a job where he had learned to be more flexible and less of a prick to his fellow co-workers, so we had some money. (The lithium was working). We spent two years living in a small house on Briar Hill Avenue where we played every night on the street with the other kids, hide-and-go-seek and catch with Danny Moscoe across the street and the countless other games kids play. There were barbeques and baseball games and sports days where the Higgins twins became a sight for the neighbours to notice. Many of the friends I have today are from this era of my life.

This was indeed the golden age of my childhood.

We went back to Cubs, which was now the Scouts, and we participated in after-school crafts, and went to friend’s cottages. We went to parties and played spin the bottle, hoping that the bottle pointed at Karen Kirkland or Kim Naylor. Sports took us out of the house and into an arena of praise, so that’s where all three of us spent all our time. On sports day at Allenby I won all eight races and Mike came second, all except the one race I didn’t race in because it was Mike’s event. And that’s what we did from that point on: we were separated when it came to sports. It must have been tough for Mike to come second every race we had that day in front of everyone. It was embarrassing for me. And no fun humiliating Mike like that. It put me off in some profound way of over-achieving. It was right after that sports day that we were both given a choice of what sports we would pursue. Mike chose hockey and Susan and I chose badminton.

It was a very significant decision and one I came to question years later.

I loved the toughness of badminton. It is the fastest sport in the world – real competitive badminton is an amazing sport but it never gained popularity in the States and there was no money in it. Had I known how much money was to be made in professional sports, I would have likely chosen tennis to pursue. But these things are in the past and when I hit university, all my priorities changed. I loved badminton and still love the sport to this day. I gave me so much that I still have – discipline, athletic skills, hand-eye coordination and a tough mental game.

When I went into grade seven at a new school, things started to change. Mike went to private school and I went to Glenview Public School. My parents wanted to separate us so that we developed on our own, individually, and not hampered by competition, something that we had had all our lives. We had each taken numerous exams during our grade six year but were never told by our parents what it was for. I remember one exam, for Upper Canada College, one of the exam questions was: “Look before you leap. Discuss.” I had no idea what this question meant. I stared at it and couldn’t put up my hand to ask what it meant. I’m sure I did poorly on that exam.

That year we took many tests. One of them was to test our IQ. We were never told the results, and even if we were told, we would have most likely not understood the importance of the result. Many years later I found the certified test results of these exams and discovered that Mike and I have an IQ of 133 and 134. I never knew which of one us had the higher score.

Despite the fact that Mike was pursuing hockey as his main sport, I still played house league hockey. I focused on badminton but during grade seven, when I was twelve years old, I found hockey was the key to being cool at my new school. Everyone at that time wanted to be on the MTHL double “A” team at North Toronto Arena. I had missed the tryouts but when I found out there was an opening I somehow was asked to attend a game. I ended up scoring a goal and getting an assist and was then asked to join the team. It was a huge thing for me in grade seven. I don’t think I scored again for the rest of the season but I played with all my friends and earned enough respect to be part of the cool crowd at Junior High.

I joined a ski club that winter and took the bus every Saturday up north to ski at Georgian Peaks. It was fantastic because I did it all on my own and met a whole new set of friends. My sister and brother didn’t like skiing but I had fallen in love with skiing when we had lived in BC. I even had all my own equipment because every summer I spent working and had saved up enough money to buy my own skis. (My parents would usually pay half the cost if I paid half). I didn’t have enough money however to purchase ski boots so I was given my mother’s ski boots. They were unisex and cool enough that I could wear them without being laughed at. I looked forward to Saturdays so much I could seldom fall asleep on Friday nights, but I got myself up, and my mother usually gave me a lift to the bus station where I would pay for a bus ride to Collingwood where the ski slopes were. I did this all year until the very end of the season when the bus had dropped me off and I was waiting to be picked up by my mother I realized that I was missing my ski boots. The bus was still there so the bus driver and I searched the bus high and low but the ski boots weren’t there. I figured I had left them at Georgian Peaks – the ski resort.

This sucked but my reaction to this mistake was unusual.

I feared my father so much and the avalanche of verbal abuse I would get from him that I left the bus station with my skis over my shoulder and ran away. I couldn’t face my father’s wrath. I knew my mother would be upset but she would be understanding and not abusive. I didn’t have a plan but my instinct was to run away. My day had been great but I could not go home. Here I was a spoiled kid and given such a great opportunity and I had been so absentminded and irresponsible and careless that I couldn’t even manage my own equipment! I sensed the danger I was in and I had grown so much that winter that I couldn’t go back to the dark, mean harshness of the wooden spoon and the fear and humiliation associated with it. I would be responsible for the darkness to return to Mike and Susan and my Mom, so I simply started walking. Out of sheer fear. And I walked – not knowing where I would go. I didn’t have a friend I could go to who wouldn’t immediately call my parents and I didn’t have any money to buy a bus ticket but I was set on not being punished. So I kept walking.

After hours of walking and over 10km later I found myself exhausted and it was dark out but I was close to this private badminton Club I had played a tournament at. It was where the Canadian National Badminton Team trained so I went in there. The club pro there was the same coach who used to teach us during those Saturday morning clinics at the Boulevard Club back when I was in grade one and two. I just walked in and sat watching players play games on the courts below. I didn’t say anything and no one said anything to me until Gord Smith, the pro, approached me. He was such an empathetic guy that he could see my misty, red eyes and my slouched posture under my skiing attire and just listened to me. I told him I was afraid of my Dad and the punishment I would get. And instead of yelling at me or cursing me for what I had done, he showed compassion and understanding. It was such a new experience for me coming from a male. He assured me that I could stay there for the night if I wanted and offered to make me a cheeseburger at the snack bar, which he did. I felt so safe and secure in the midst of my dread as I sat there and watched the senior national team members do their drills on the court. Just as I was finishing the cheeseburger my mother arrived, thrilled I was safe. He had done the right thing and called my mother without me knowing. When I was finally taken home my father stayed away from me. It was the first time my mother was able to stop abuse.

I was never physically assaulted for the ski boots.

But again some rogue elements in my character began to surface. There was a cool, smoking crowd at Glenview who hung out in the ravine beside the school grounds. They wore lumberjack jackets and grew their hair long. (It was 1978 after all) I was the jock but there was something that lured me into this world of darkness. There was some unknown adventure and sin in the shadows that pulled me towards the ravine, but because I was a jock I couldn’t cross that line. However, I could tell there were a few of my friends who felt the same way and would likely “graduate” to the ravine crown the following year when we were in grade eight. One day, one of these guys told me of a friend of his who was growing marijuana in his backyard. This was the era of Led Zeppelin and Rush and The Who so being a stoner was something you just did. So we went on a special op and found his house, climbed the fence and when we saw the pot plants we pulled them out of the soil, one plant each. We hopped the fence and ran off into the night, with the thrill of adventure and daring in our hearts.

When I made it home that night I stashed the plant in our garden and then the next day confided in Mike.

We decided to put it in the oven to dry it out so we could smoke it. And it worked! I smoked it with a few friends and my “girlfriend” at the time and we laughed and had a great time. But I knew I was breaking some serious rules. It scared me how it all transpired. And soon enough my brother told my mother about it and I was promptly sent to boarding school in grade eight. It didn’t help that I had also gone out and bought a lumberjack jacket, which was like announcing to the world that I was a stoner. Part of me was jealous that my brother was attending a private school and I wasn’t so when I was offered a spot at Trinity College School, an old, established private school part of the “Little Big Four,” I was excited to go.

Little did I know how profound this experience at boarding school would be.

CHAPTER FIVE

Trinity College School

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It was one of the scariest days of my life when my parents left me on the campus in front of the lower school. I didn’t know one person and was just left there. They just drove away, just like a movie. I was twelve years old and had never spent time away from my family.

I was in a “12-man dorm” that was basically one big room with twelve cots. The windows were leaded panes cut in the old fashioned style. It was a cold room. The inner glass would frost during the winter. There was absolutely no privacy: just a large room with small beds, four equally spaced against the four walls. The large bathroom was at the back of the room and the laundry room was across the hall. I found the boarding school culture novel at first, with the jacket and tie and chapel six mornings a week. The early morning breakfast of porridge and toast and hot tea was all new to me but I was smart enough to be quiet and respectful until I found my voice. The teachers (masters) were very supportive and enthusiastic when they found a fertile mind eager to try hard and achieve at sports, so I fit in with them rather quickly. What was the most surprising were the number of troublemakers who had been sent there as a means of disciplining. There was one guy who was smoking behind the lower school and outwardly anti-authoritarian who was kicked out within the first months of the school year.

Being someone who received all their praise from achievements, I found my footing soon in the rigorous routine of boarding school. The choices of sports in the fall were either rugby or football so I chose football, but I didn’t do that well, getting injured during practice and otherwise not achieving much during the season. But during the winter I chose to play hockey and excelled on the ice, earning the MVP award at the end of the year honours banquet. In the spring I chose to play cricket over soccer, which I loved. Since I had played a lot of baseball I found it easy to bat in front of the wickets. One game against St. Andrew’s School in Oakville, I spent the entire match at bat “not out,” an enduring achievement for me knowing that it would likely be the only time I would ever play cricket in my life.

But achieving was not the way to earn respect among my fellow students. In fact being a “brown nose” or a “suck up” tended to get you shunned by the others, so I learned to nurture my rebellious and mischievous side. I allied myself with some like-minded classmates and proceeded to be one of those guys who always participated in after-dark adventures, such as undertaking dares. We were “B Dorm” and the other grade eight dorm was “D Dorm” that was on the next floor above us. Some of these dares entailed running up to D Dorm and throwing something at them. One guy who was by far the most fearless – Marc Hogan – stuck himself in the dumbwaiter elevator but got stuck. Another time involved us taking off to the local river where we found a dead fish, which we promptly brought back with us and put into the bed of one of the weaker guys in the dorm. Pillow fights were common but they usually escalated into fights.

You had to be tough and stand up for yourself in this kind of environment to earn respect because if you didn’t the group would make your life a living hell.

I found my way into the cool crowd, not as their leader, but as a trusted friend, and when we made fun of some of the weaker guys I felt for them but didn’t show it. There were graded shades of acceptable behaviours that behooved one to learn promptly, and showing compassion for a fellow student who was being hazed was one of the things you didn’t do – at least during the beginning of the school year when each of us were learning how to survive. There were some who were really smart but nerdy and I would try my best to talk to them alone to apologize if I could if I had caused them grief. It’s difficult to describe how tough it could be for some of these guys who didn’t fit in. The torment was unending and many of them either left the school or chose not to return. It was the old way in the lower school, and the final year of the large dormitories because of this tradition of unsupervised hazing that could be brutal. It was the last time Boulden House would have these large dorms as the following year the lower school would move to the new Burn’s House where the lower school students would be roomed with others in much smaller rooms.

You hear today a lot about sexual abuse in these old British style boarding schools but being in grade eight we were all still pre-sexual so there was none that I saw; it was really serious mischief that was the main focus: how much could we rebel without being caught? And how far could we push things until someone “spazzed.” At all costs one could never lose their cool. It was an instant red card from the boys who ruled the roost. And it was imperative never to be a narc. To betray a trust was the fastest way to be ostracized and seriously abused by your fellow students. It was a tough environment but if you were careful enough to learn the rules and etiquette then you could survive.

I was amazed at how terrible some guys could be. There were all sorts of personalities in there, but the one that really stuck out for me was one guy who fostered false rumors and created trouble wherever he went. He flourished at first but as the year progressed and his ways were discovered, at the end of the year we all knew that he was the troublemaker and disruptor. None of us thrived on hurting others. What we thrived on was getting an upper hand on the school and undermining authority. This included breaking out of the dorm at night and hiding in the darkness to get into town where we could by a package of cigarettes and smoke and play video games at the local arcade, and then make it back without being caught before sunlight. Because if you were caught you would get the cane – a larger version of the wooden spoon. And we did take off at night often.

Those of us who went for adventures earned respect but those who chose not to join were regarded as inferior and weak.

And for the most part there was no room for kindness. The soft kids who focused on academics were verbally abused but left alone because they were good at something and didn’t bother us by trying to be cool or by telling masters of our misdeeds. One couldn’t ignore what was going on within the dorm either. It just didn’t work. You were forced to state your piece and defend yourself. And for these softer kids it was pretty dramatic to witness them hitting their breaking point. Shaky voices and pleading to be left alone sometimes worked, as long as the posturing was sincere. Once they were “broken down” usually they were given a pass and left alone, and protected by one of the stronger kids.

I eventually became one of these stronger kids. But when I defended the weaker guys from the bullies, I had to be very careful how I did it. Usually it was without the bully losing face. But I only became a protector after having endured the rigors of sport and mischief and school work. And proving myself to have the necessary moral code to be acceptable. This morality included being loyal, never betraying your fellows, never spazzing, and most of all showing honour.

Of course there were rival cliques that formed, with the leaders usually being the brashest and most criminally inclined. To think of where some of those guys ended up! Some were really tough guys who had no purpose being at one of the most well respected schools in the country. But that was the purpose of the traditional boarding school: student hazing that had nothing to do with teachers or adults. It was a world unto itself – like a prison full of twelve-year olds.

So I was careful not to succeed too much otherwise I would be branded a know-it-all and a “brown-noser.” So I adopted a nonchalant, not-trying-too-hard attitude that included shirts not entirely tucked in and a tie that was frayed at the end from snapping it on others. And that was another thing: the washroom in the dorm. A common behaviours was wetting the end of a towel and snapping it on an unsuspecting bare leg, which caused pain and would leave a welt. Fights were common but again they were kept in the dorm and were no one’s business other than the boys in the dorm.

And being a twin and having an entire lifetime of mischief and daring, I had all the skills needed to not only survive but flourish.

We had students from all over the world and we could tell the ones with the money. They had the nicest clothes and all the right gear, and they were usually the nicest. But the ones who were poor were the ones who resented the wealthy. Most of us were middle class and had a grounded sense of fair play, which I think looking back at it now was the most coveted of all virtues and most respected. It was a degree of objectivity that said: “Look, we all know life isn’t fair and we know what goes on in the dorms and at night, but granted that, this isn’t right. This is too much man.” It was all about accepting that there was mischief but drawing the line at the stuff that was not right – that went too far. And I think that was what I learned: a strong sense of being mischievous in a fun and good way and knowing what was beyond the line and speaking up when needed. I was never the puritan because it was too boring and to me defeated the point of living life, nor was I an extreme rebel who put others in danger or otherwise acted in a dishonourable manner. From boarding school I learned the British sense of fair play and justice, something that governs my life still to this day.

It was a very intense year for me, full of challenges and new experiences, something that provided a template for the rest of my life. We walked across the campus every morning to chapel (maybe a kilometre each way) where we prayed and sang hymns and then sauntered back to Boulden House for a day of classes, with each class being different than the other because of the eccentric masters who taught. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we had morning classes only because on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons we had sports days. This was when we traveled to other private schools to compete, whether it be football, cricket, hockey, soccer or rugby. Saturday mornings were the only times we didn’t attend (Anglican) church. And if you misbehaved or were late for class you were given “lates.” This required you to wake up the following morning an hour before wake-up (wake-up was at 7am), to run around the campus. One “late” was one lap around the school grounds. It didn’t matter if it was raining out or snowing out, you were required to run the distance, shower and then get to breakfast on time. There was always a master on duty in the mornings to supervise the lates. For more serious punishment you were given “quarters,” which were the same thing but meant that you missed sports day. These were very serious as it was frowned upon to let down your team. A quarter (or late) was a distance of about two kilometres. Many of us were given lates and we would run together.

Some mornings it was so foggy in Port Hope that we could cut across the campus and the master in Boulden House wouldn’t know.

I was caught once coming back from a night adventure and was given 12 quarters. I had been given another 12 quarters earlier in the week so I had 24 quarters to run one Saturday afternoon. Few of us ever had that many and it was both a shame and a badge of honour to have been given so many quarters. I was called into the headmaster’s room and was expected to be caned for the offence of leaving the campus at night but instead our headmaster Charles (Lord) Tottenham sat me down.

“Higgy,” he said. “I know what you get up to at night. Students here have been doing it for a hundred years and they have been caned for breaking rules like this, but you-. I don’t think it is right to cane you.” And he proceeded to speak to me like no other man had ever spoken to me. He spoke to me like a young man. With respect. He said I had talent as an athlete and I was a smart student and that he liked me. He warned me not to get carried away with those ringleaders who are wayward. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me I was a good kid and that I could go far in this world if I kept a level head. I think my eyes welled up at his overwhelming kindness and from that day on I never forgot what he said. If I felt I was going too far I would take a step back. If I doubted myself I could succeed at undertaking a certain project or challenge, I remembered Charles Tottenham’s words. I knew that he had caned the others who I had been with that night because they had shown their cane marks on the back of their thighs. But I had been let off.

I didn’t tell anyone and most of my fellow students assumed I had been caned too but it was our secret that I kept with me until this very moment, writing about it now.

After this event I know I was being watched by the headmaster, that I was regarded as someone with talent, so I put extra effort into everything I did. It happened just as the cricket season started in the spring. It was the season of sporting contests and I again went into my mode of achieving. My entire life was an example of a son trying to impress his father and earn his praise that never came, so now I had a new ‘father’ who I strove to impress. I ended up winning the annual lower school math contest (I scored 102% on the test having figured out the bonus question), and winning both the badminton tournament and squash tournament, but losing the tennis tournament in the finals. I collected many trophies at the end of the year banquet. (My name was called so many times I was embarrassed and was again put off from extreme achievement). I was to learn later that I had been granted a full scholarship to return for grade nine when it was discovered that my father had lost his job again and my parents were having troubles. At Trinity College I had found what I had been looking for: an environment rich with opportunities and challenges, with someone watching me and caring about my progress – a male role model I tried to make proud after a lifetime of hoping for praise from a father incapable of giving praise.

When I left at the end of the year I didn’t have any idea that my parents were about to divorce and I didn’t know how bad things had become with my father and his tendency towards rage and violence.

CHAPTER SIX

Family Divorce

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When I returned to Toronto I could immediately feel the tension in the house. Mike told me about what had happened at the dinner table between my father and Susan. My sister hadn’t been abused nearly as much as Mike and I but nonetheless had suffered the humiliation and shame of being spanked on hr naked ass with the wooden spoon, so naturally there was some emotional scar tissue and therefore there were some behaviours that were surfacing as she was going through puberty. And part of this was a snotty, bitchy attitude. It didn’t bother me because I was happy with what I had learned and achieved at Trinity but it certainly bothered my father. It had gotten into his craw. One night when I was at boarding school and my grandmother was visiting, my father lost his temper with Susan. She refused to eat her spaghetti and proceeded to say something bitchy to my father, who was having none of it. Disrespecting my father could turn his mood from pleasant to nasty at the drop of a dime. And that’s what happened. One comment from Susan and my father flew into a rage, leapt out of his chair and grabbed my sister by the neck and pinned her against the wall. It all happened in a flash. There was hysteria and screaming, my grandmother remaining quiet in her chair witnessing the whole thing, refusing to become embroiled in a family fight. My brother knew the consequences of getting involved so he too stayed silent and watched as my sister stared into the eyes of a madman. My mother jumped in to protect her, trying desperately to push my father away.

It was a turning point in the family.

In fact it was the end of our family unit of five.

This had happened when I was at boarding school so the tension was still lingering when I returned in June, 1980 to Toronto. My sister stopped speaking to my father, who carried on as if nothing had happened. That summer a similar incident happened to me. I refused to eat my salad and my father pounced on me, grabbing the salad from my bowl and trying to force it into my mouth. His rage caused us all to sit there silently except for my mother who once again jumped into to protect her child. I was in shock. Not eating salad that tasted horrible I didn’t think was such a bad thing, but when it happened I felt like I deserved the punishment.

Just like countless times before, I forgave my father and apologized, not knowing that his reaction was so completely abnormal.

Yes, my childhood was troubled by an abusive father but he was also a great Dad, always willing to play catch on the front yard, or game to go down to the local pool hall and shoot snooker. He knew he was flawed but he tried his best, and therein lay the tragedy of the situation. His handicap was chemical. It wasn’t willful maliciousness. I was aware of this but as a child and then young man I didn’t fully understand or appreciate the tragedy of it. All I wanted – all I ever wanted – was for my old man to be proud of me. And this has perhaps been the central theme/conflict/desire of my life, yet to have made him proud all I had to do was to become a chartered accountant. But I did not do this. I chose instead to live my own life based on what I value as a life of meaning.

And it is this cleavage that is the hallmark of my inner, psychological life.

It was about a month later when my father was in Las Vegas for a convention that my mother left him a note and took us three kids to our aunt and uncle’s house where we lived for a few weeks. Having grown up in a family where this type of anger was commonplace, I was very surprised that my mother left my father. My brother and sister on the other hand were not surprised. My first reaction was that it was temporary – that my mother and father would work it out and we would once again be a family. But I was wrong. Not only did my parents never reconcile, but my father had a girlfriend within two weeks of the split. My mother was devastated. I think she too had hoped that they could work things out for the sake of the children but when my father reacted by getting a girlfriend, my mother took it hard.

Very hard.

In the months that followed we put the house on the market and looked for a new place to live. Things were tense, especially with my father having a girlfriend. I stayed busy and looked forward to beginning at a new high school. Trinity College School was calling asking whether I would return. Since the family was breaking up I didn’t think we would be able to afford the tuition. With my parents splitting up, there was no money left. I wasn’t told until years later that they were calling to offer me a full scholarship to return. In retrospect not returning with a full scholarship was a life-altering decision, a decision that was not mine to make.

I often wonder still to this day what would have become of my life if I had returned to the routine and regime of boarding school at Trinity College School. It is something I will never know. I met Charles Tottenham a few years later when I rode my mountain bike to watch a game of cricket on the campus of Upper Canada College and we had a great chat. I remember I told him I was planning on going into the corporate world like my Dad, but I was also interested in film. He encouraged me to pursue film. I see now that he wanted me to pursue something creative. Because that was what he saw in me: an original and creative force. Even choosing to write was based on my interest in films – writing being the very first and most important step in making films.

After my father returned from Las Vegas and found the note, he left the house and the four of us returned after Thanksgiving weekend in 1980 and began the long slide from wealth into poverty.

And during this dark time was the first time my mother tried to kill herself. Since my mother was a nurse she had knowledge medications and could get her hands on things like morphine if she wanted. She took over thirty sleeping pills I think. I was the one who found her passed out with vomit in her mouth at the top of the stairs. I screamed and my sister was there, so we went to our neighbours and they called 911. They also called my aunt who was living close by at the time. When the ambulance came they picked up her limp body and I swear a wave of fear went through me like I’ve never experienced. Without my mother there to provide for us and protect us from our father, what would we to do? It scared me to the bone. And sports and schools and all the other stuff for the first time became such a small matter of importance. And then to make matters worse, my aunt stomped around the house after the ambulance left and pointed her finger at the three of us frightened in the corner and said: “This is all your fault! You spoiled little kids!” This also scared me because I feared she was right and that we were spoiled kids but what could we do? What could I do? Say: “Sorry Mom and Dad, I don’t want to do that or have that?” As a 13-year old kid I didn’t have the backbone or objectivity to choose to live as an ascetic or change my lifestyle because I thought I was spoiled. I wanted to better myself and succeed in life. That was my focus. When I worried about being a spoiled kid I would just work harder at sports and work harder to bring home good marks.

In no way did I ever think I was taking advantage of anything or anyone.

We said goodbye to a lifestyle we would never have again. It was an end of an era. We went from being an envied middle-class family living in a huge house living in a rich area of Toronto to a broken home living in a duplex in an area of Toronto far less wealthy than before. Despite the outward slide, our lives were permanently transformed for the better as each of us broke free from living under the house of an unpredictable tyrant full of suffocating repression to an expressive unit of mutual love and support where each of us could let our true personalities out. It started a time where we all laughed and felt safe and fortunate to have each other, where anything was possible despite being short of money. My mother had saved us from serious abuse and chronic psychological trauma and provided us a safe and nurturing house where there was always food in the fridge and sports to play, where we were for the first time happy to invite friends over.

But for my mother, life was to become almost unbearable.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Gambler Rune

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During my early childhood it was all about play. Mike spurred me on to play more and more creatively, building forts and playing cowboy and Indians as well as the usual games of hide-and-go-seek and tag, but when it was a rainy day or when Mike was not available, I built models. It didn’t matter what it was, a helicopter, a ship, a racing car, or a tank, I loved piecing them together. If there wasn’t a sport to play, I was building a model. I would spread an open newspaper across the table, place all the parts on the table and follow the illustrations on the instruction sheet patiently gluing each piece together, seldom able to wait until the glue dried. It was the act of starting with an unarranged array of separate pieces and then ending up with a beautiful end result that astonished me.

Out of the chaos came a polished, beautiful piece.

And it had to look good. It had to have the decals all glued neatly in the right spots to give it snap.

I branched out to balsawood airplanes, each one more difficult than the last. Then I had to buy a racing car set, piece together the track and then place the cars in the slots to create a race car track. Soon, to satisfy my thirst for more challenging projects, the cost became an issue. As a kid I always had a paper route. My parents instilled a very healthy deal with me that if I wanted to buy something, such as a new model to put together, if I paid half they would pay the other half, so delivering newspapers in the neighbourhood was the best way to earn money. I was never a kid who watched television. I always regarded television as something people did as a last resort. There was something fundamentally wrong with someone staying inside and watching TV when it was beautiful and sunny outside, ideal for a bike ride. That’s just the way I was. Even as an adult, I turned off my television when I was 22 at university and still to this day, age 56, I do not watch television.

Too many commercials. Too much of a waste of time.

So with my paper routes I could save enough money to buy the next model, but the models became real things in real life. I branched out to real life, such as my bike. I loved my bike. There was something both impossible and magical about balancing on two wheels while moving forward, danger all around you if you fell. Graduating to minibikes and then dirt bikes was a natural progression, all the while arranging all the variables into a coordinated whole that created a smooth flow.

Out of the chaos came repose.

And into adulthood, the same dynamic manifest itself. From my philosophy studies came an urgent desire to record and then arrange all the brilliant ideas I encountered reading the greats, soon spending countless hours processing these ideas into a coherent life philosophy in a system of first principles that worked in real life.

This obsession with making something harmonic out of the insanity would find the ultimate manifestation in writing novels, using the incredulous extreme events of my life into a coherent story, complete with plot points, character build up, climax and resolution – all in five acts. What made my books different was that I used real-life pieces of empirical data to weave into something readable and interesting. This, of course, fed itself, leading me further afield, such as traveling to India to track down the tomb of Jesus (The Hellmantle Testament), or to northern Vietnam to check out Dien Bien Phu, or to northern Burma to investigate the Kachin as possible tribal remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (Prophecy Seekers). All of it followed the same pattern. And all of it was done in earnest. All of it was written with passion and urgency. None of it was written with literary artistry because that was secondary. Paramount was creating something seamless out of the chaos.

Recognizing this passion – this gift of organization out of random, stray pieces – put me into a dilemma. Do I become an executive like my father and have a normal life, or do I go forth into the wide world and dip my toe into the unknown to accumulate pieces of experience to rearrange into a work that would inspire others? One path was safe and well-trodden, and the other was dangerous and untrodden. Spice up this decision with lots of existential philosophy and the decision was clear: choose the original path.

And in this sense I gambled my life for my art – I rolled the dice. I seized the gambler rune.

This dynamic would not make itself clear to me until my early twenties right around the time I graduated from university, but now I can identify the currents that were swirling around in me during my childhood and how this need to organize from the chaos was born in me from an early age. Mike spurred me on to evolve as a playmate, which create this omnipresent urge to evolve. Time wasting was a crime I could never allow in this one, short life we had to live. Television was deemed superfluous early on, which freed me up to make models and build race car tracks, and then branch out to bikes, minibikes, dirt bikes and horses and ATVs. All of it was an effort to create a harmony of parts. And this passion grew over time so that the mere idea of sitting in an office and adding and subtracting numbers became anathema to what burned hot in my heart; the urgency to explore and gather experience in the world like a squirrel collecting nuts. It was what marked me as different relative to my friends, who were more than happy taking the office job and known security of both bank and handicap on the golf course.

This was why, when I discovered Hemingway, he inspired me to see that there was a different way to live than just a domestic worker bee. It rang true in my guts that a man could go forth and use his experience to create a work of art using words, like a carpenter with words. A wordcarpenter. I never had nor was I ever really interested in literary creation as an art; I was interested in creating something meaningful and inspiring from the melee – from the chaos. So it was logical that I would become a technical writer as a career while living and working overseas mainly as a means to support myself while I was busy gathering the nuts of experience for my larger projects of writing novels. Plus I was a natural math guy and never good at English as a subject in school, so for me writing was always about arranging words in a long algorithm to create ideas that would fit into a cohesive whole. I never had the magic dust of literary writers, such as Herman Melville. These guys are in another league. For me it was all about the mechanics of writing. The discipline of writing. And all about originality in writing. But mainly about philosophy and inspiring your people to become who they are and live meaningful lives.

But I get ahead of myself…

CHAPTER EIGHT

Badminton

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Badminton as a sport is a unique piece. It is not football or hockey or golf. It is the world’s fastest sport, full of mental challenges that forces the player to hot shots to defeat his opponent. And in many ways as an activity it fed into this desire I had to make something beautiful out of the chaos. Badminton can be a rather ugly sport when it is not played well. So many people regard it as a past time people do in someone’s backyard, but true, competitive badminton is an art form. The physical demands are obvious, the player literally leaping from corner to corner striking the feathered shuttlecock to the opponent’s side of the court, trying to outdo him. Yet in this mayhem there becomes a smooth poetry of motion and a beautiful sum of parts that can be achieved that gives the player a tremendous rush.

And it was this rush I was after when I played.

It elevated one’s spirit when a point was one by hitting a good shot. Having started playing badminton in Winnipeg when I was in kindergarten, I had stuck with it throughout the many years of my childhood, knowing intimately that it forged extreme hand-eye coordination and physical stamina like no other sport. I became quite good and soon starting winning badminton tournaments. We joined first the Winnipeg Winter Club in 1973 to 1974 when the three of played every weekend, and then we joined the Boulevard Club in Toronto from 1976 to 1978. Again we played every weekend and did drills to develop our game. After returning from Kelowna to Toronto, we joined the Granite Club from 1980 onwards. It was a posh club and had a fantastic badminton program with world class courts. So Susan and I trained there while Mike played hockey as his main sport.

Susan and I found the training fulfilling, and soon we became part of a group of kids who traveled throughout the province of Ontario to compete in “the circuit.” We were young – Susan about 14 and me about twelve – when we started to train seriously. A few years before, in 1979, the year before I left for boarding school, a few people from the club traveled to the Manhattan Beach Badminton Club in Los Angeles to complete in the Pan-American Games. I played in the under-12 category and did rather well, losing in the semi-finals in singles. But it was the experience of being in Los Angeles in 1979 that was to have a long-term impact on me. Furthermore, I was allowed to travel with a 19-year old chaperon and a few other players. There were no adults present.

Let’s just say there were parties at the club around the pool at the end of the tournament that I had never seen before. Girls and guys necking in the moonlight, people smoking grass. Rock music under the palm trees and no parents at all to protect me – as an 11-year old – from this type of life. It was a privileged trip to be sure, but it did too things: it motivated me to train harder to use sport to travel. And two, it fashioned an interest in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

It was from that trip that I first wanted to write.

Write films.

Not novels.

I figured to become involved in the making of films the most important step was the writing, so why not master the art of writing? That was why I would eventually study scriptwriting at Vancouver Film School in the fall of 1989, learning the structure of a story. It was only later on once I started writing that I realized that I much prefer writing in the novel format than following the rigidity of screenplay format.

So from a very young age I wanted to become a writer. I was likely not aware of the fact that it fit directly into this gift of organizing pieces from the chaos that I had had from my early childhood. It just seemed to fit my world view.

But once I returned from the Pan-Am Games in California, and then having finished my year in Port Hope at Trinity College School in 1980, I threw myself into my badminton. I was 13 and I was empowered in every way to do my best in the sport and achieve as much as I could, my aim being a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, and later the Olympics. (Badminton would become an Olympic sport in 1988). Whereas most people my age would go to school and return home and watch TV, I would go to the Granite Club and train hard for two hours, being instructed by the badminton pro Raphi Kanchanaraphi – ex-world champion and All-England champion, former world number one in doubles for three years.

Raphi would become a father figure to me over the years, I think fully aware of my father’s lack of enthusiasm and support for my efforts on the court. It was a very productive and safe environment for Susan and I and we dedicated ourselves to our sport. Susan did well during her under-14 year, winning several tournaments in both singles and doubles whereas I still had not grown enough to physically compete against the bigger players. At least until I was in the under-16 category. That was when I won all the singles tournaments I entered that year in 1982, winning the singles titles at the Oakville Club, the Boulevard Club, the Granite Club and the final end-of-year Ontario championships. And at the Canadian national championships in Winnipeg that year, I lost in the final 15-13, ending the year ranked second in the country. It was a true achievement for me, one I still feel immensely proud of. My future in badminton looked good, but at the same time was doomed from the beginning. There was no money in the game and with the divorce money became tight. We barely had enough to maintain our membership at the Granite Club and there was no money for tournaments. The time and energy required to carry on at the top level was simply impractical. But what I learned in terms of physical coordination and discipline carried with me even to this day. I would remain athletic my whole life until I became sick only recently. And this athleticism paved the way for most of my exploits that appear in my books, from motorcycling to remote locations in far-off countries, to mountain biking or walking extreme distances to fulfil a goal. In a lot of ways, my physicality distinguishes me from many other writers throughout history, many of whom really only sat on a chair and created tales out of the vapors, or some who drank in pubs and weaved their stories from the threads of sailors and explorers who did the actions written about. In almost all instances, the exploits written about in my works were actually done in real life and I was merely a recorder of these events. That trip far into Burma was based on fact in Prophecy Seekers, as were the three parts in The Hellmantle Testament. And certainly Road Sailors is based on a true story. That heart attack happened to me during my first year of university in Visigoths in Tweed. These events were written as a non-fiction events in an otherwise fictional work. ‘Write what you know’ has never been more applicable than to me as a writer!

And no one could have written No More Waiting to Die without having lived in that fervor of immanent death in the Andes Mountains peppered with so much cocaine. 

But the most hard core scene I ever wrote was based on a true event: my coma in Hong Kong that makes up the crucial moment in Prophecy Seekers. And I assure you: I did not go out and do that just to be able to write about it! But I used it to help tell a story that I hope inspires people around the world.

I can see now how I would apply this template of discipline and single-mindedness from my badminton playing days to my new life as a man of the world, philosopher and traveler pursuing my life as a writer.

CHAPTER NINE

The Eye Incident

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When you’re growing as a kid you never think something serious will happen, like a life-altering event, so when Mike was struck in the eye with a beer bottle, things went sideways for me in a lot of ways. There had been the odd broken bone from sports, and many instances of stitches from mischief gone wrong, but never anything permanent or life-changing. Serious detrimental life events were still outside of the realm of consideration for Mike and I so when the ‘eye incident’ happened in grade twelve, all our momentum was affected.

As this narrative has made clear, Mike and I never just wanted to do nothing and hang around the house, especially on boring Sundays. More than half the time we had something to do – a tournament, a hockey game, a field trip – but during those Sundays when nothing was happening we would ask for some money from Mom and go see a Sunday afternoon matinée. We would watch the latest James Bond movie or something from Disney – anything to let our imaginations grow during an otherwise bland day. The one thing I always fought against was watching television. For some reason the sight of people watching TV was something I loathed. The image of human beings sitting together in front of a little box was – to me – a painful image, one that was the epitome of wasting time. In the first book Visigoths in Tweed I make a big thing about “Kill Your Television” because it’s a TIMESTEALER. I believe that still to this day, though TV has come a very long way from the seventies and eighties. It was the commercials I detested. (Still to this day I have not watched TV in over 35 years). But in a darkened movie theatre there were no commercials, no interruptions. It was a fertile place where ones imagination could take flight and transport an individual to new vistas and new possibilities. One of my most formative experiences was watching The Sound of Music at a drive-in theatre in Kelowna when I was in grade four.

The music and the imagery was simply magical to me sitting there in our station wagon beside a peach orchard.

I soon became aware that movies were what made me happy – that the escapism into something so pure and seamless was where I loved to be during early high school. The unpredictability of a volatile father and the omnipresent threat of physical abuse were non-existent within the safety of a movie theatre. And Toronto had some pretty awesome theatres, unlike the Cineplex theatres of today. Being with my brother meant I was safe and we could have fun too. Sunday afternoon movies became something I enjoyed more and more as I grew up. I could laugh and cry and feel limitless joy and optimism and dream as big as I could. Possibilities of what I could with my life lit me up. My inner life of my imagination became a force within me that spurred me on to achieve at school and in sports so I could get to these new vistas I saw in films. My father had been hammering into me that the best thing any man could do was to become a business man because the world revolved around business. He always said there would be no world without business. So being the dutiful son I positioned myself to become a business man just like him.

My brother too would also become a business man.

When I was growing up I always put on the radio at night. I enjoyed listening to music – and there were so many great songs on the radio in the late seventies and eighties. I listened to CHUM FM and on Sunday nights I discovered they had something called ‘Theatre of the Mind.’ They would enact stories written by writers like Edgar Allen Poe and others. And the stories they performed tended to be scary. At first I remember really resenting the late-night audio plays because I was usually pretty high from all the activities I had done over the weekend and yearned for the calming effect of good music. (I would turn off the light and hit the “sleep” button so the radio would shut off after 60 minutes). But once I let myself listen to some of these stories I was hooked. I loved how I could be taken into scary houses and dank rooms in my imagination and yet be safe and secure under my covers, sharing the fears of the main character when something sinister befell them.

From all the unjust abuse I had suffered I had developed a huge capacity for empathy so I could empathize with characters on the radio and on the silver screen.

This was the beginning of a long fascination with the art of storytelling. And the more and more I was exposed to, the more and more I would come to know characters in books and films. My hyper-developed faculty to empathize with others – both in real life and in stories – was the power behind my love for cinema and novels. And this empathy was all mine. No one could wreck it or take it away or hurt it. It was a power I could experience that helped me heal my own wounds, and it was this force that came out to protect others when they were being bullied. But at the time I didn’t know about empathy or my own deep emotional and psychological wounds.

I just knew it felt good – like a balm to my battered and fragile spirit.

So it was in this inner milieu that I first started to think about being a writer. This sense of wonder had taken over when I was in grade six – the endless possibilities open to any young boy – that I first thought I would like to write films. I wanted to be the creator of stories that people could see in movie theatres. I was about 13 years old, right after my badminton trip to Manhattan Beach Badminton Club in Los Angeles. Of course I didn’t dare tell anyone, not even my brother, for fear of being laughed at. Even with my twin brother there was fear of ridicule. It was my own personal dream that no one would sully with a reckless comment.

I was, even back then, a sensitive artist that hurt with a careless comment.

But that’s all it would remain – an inner thought with which I could wonder. I never really took any steps to pursue the art of storytelling. I barely even read. I spent all my time playing sports. I remember the first book I read – Charlotte’s Web by Judy Bloom. And it was an emotional experience. I remember crying. I was truly a sensitive boy with an incredible yearning for understanding and someone who empathized with others’ pain.

I cried for the spider.

And this was to continue later in life. Now, at 56, my house is full of books that I have read and am simply unable to depart with. Each book I have read I have developed a close intimacy with the main character so that this ‘relationship’ is too close to discard. Each book represents something that has become part of my inner life and therefore I need to keep that relationship close by to revisit if I need to. It’s almost as I developed an over-sensitive empathy with characters I became friends with through reading.

And I have the same connection to characters in films.

I didn’t come from a family of any artists. In fact we were what people might call “anti-artist.” My father frequently bad-mouthed the pointlessness of art and how artists starved. It was far away from the stern and practical world of business. Artists were flakes and we didn’t know any artists. Still to this day my father regards art as fluff and artists as failed businessmen. So I kept it all to myself. And to avoid the wrath of my father’s rage, I never said a word to him about it. My mother too, who was more inclined to art than my father, I never spoke to her about being a writer. My mother worked as a nurse full time and ran the household and raised a family so she didn’t have time for anything other than that.

After my year as a boarder at Trinity College School, I was on a roll. I felt like I could do anything. I did well at school and I dedicated myself to training for badminton, went to all the tournaments and soon was winning. As an under-14 competitor I was among the top players but when I went into under-16, I started winning. It was thrilling and scary to win a badminton tournament. You put so much pressure on yourself throughout the year to train and to perform well at a tournament and then when you suddenly win there is a muted silence. You hear the applause and you feel the pride but then it’s all over minutes later. I found it a rather difficult experience to win a tournament and then go home into a household that didn’t value the victory as much as me. I had supportive parents but not to the degree I felt it. It was ultimately a lonely experience. Hollow. Empty. Other players soon fear you and want you to fail because they wanted to win. And I hated that feeling. I hated being someone they didn’t like. Champions are hated because they have the top spot. Seldom are champions loved. It is a fleeting moment at the top, a short-term victory that is built on sand because time passes and those who are under you are training hard to overthrow you.

I succeeded in winning many tournaments but I didn’t have the personality to hate enough and not mind being hated to sustain it. Champions today, whether in badminton or tennis or the Grand Prix, are tough. They hate when they are competing because you have to hate to win. Afterwards there are handshakes and things are back to normal. The hatred simmers but it is still there. Winning taught me that I preferred to love rather than hate. I preferred to compete against myself rather than others. I preferred not to spend all that time winning a trophy that ultimately was a hollow experience. So after I won many tournaments and faced the under-19 age bracket, I soon lost interest. There were so many other things I wanted to experience – like girls and parties and travel. To continue with ignoring these aspects of life was to make myself one-dimensional and what I wanted more than anything was to become cultured and multi-dimensional, someone who has seem all of life so that maybe one day I would be interesting enough to write down some stories.

So after badminton, I focused on that: exploring life.

Living under the same roof as my father was a strict experience. Almost military. So when he was asked to leave, things changed dramatically. He went to live with a friend of his down at the waterfront on Lake Ontario until he found an apartment right across from our high school. During the separation Mike and I saw him once a month for pizza. And that was it. But I never remember missing him. I saw him enough that he was in my life but not too much that he was able to hurt me with an offhand critical comment. My mother sold the house and we found a duplex that was farther away from our rich neighbourhood but close enough that we were able to attend North Toronto Collegiate with all our old friends.

It was also the best high school in Toronto.

I was the disciplined jock throughout high school until I reached grade 12 and fell madly in love with Michelle Hauswirth. I played football one year and hated it and then played on the badminton team as the top singles player and won all the time. But badminton was hardly the prestige sport that football or hockey was but that didn’t bother me. I was never after that kind of glory or attention. I knew the noble attributes of badminton and I didn’t have to go around and show off to others.

I was very comfortable with achieving in the shadows.

I gave up hockey in grade nine, which was a big change for me. It had been Mike’s sport but I was still very good on the ice. I focused entirely on badminton and this took most of my time. My sister Susan and I both spent countless hours on the courts training and going to tournaments, which was a whole culture unto itself. We met many good people in the badminton circuit, people we would see later in our lives achieving in other aspects of life. I also gave up baseball, which was time-consuming. Without my father around there were no lifts to games and the logistics forced me to focus on badminton because Susan was also playing. I competed in track and field at high school and did well at the long distance events. In grade twelve I competed at pole vaulting only because it was the coolest and most dangerous of all the track events. For three years I was a pretty normal kid at high school, staying to the straight-and-narrow and being a jock. As a family we went from being wealthy to poor in a matter of a year, but my mother was cool enough that she sat us down and explained that now all the money was cut in half and that we had to pull together as a team. I understood that and was happy to get onboard. It never bothered me that we didn’t have any money despite living amongst people with money.

We were all aware that we had exchanged money for a higher level of happiness and that it was a much better deal.

We laughed more at our Brookdale Avenue duplex. We became the Higgins’ kids who were funny and full of life, as if a lid had finally been opened and all those creative energies were released. All three of us had many friends and were popular at school. But one change that happened within the family was that my mother started to drink. Of course it was natural that she would spread her wings and become more of an independent person now that my father was gone. But did she ever hit the bottle. She made new friends and in that zeitgeist of MTV of the early eighties, there were lots of parties. And she went to them. She had a boyfriend who took her down to the Caribbean and courted her but she was a classy lady who wanted to choose well. Unfortunately her emotional state was still fragile and despite all the glee and optimism of the time, she had depressive episodes. And one night again she attempted suicide. This time Mike found her and called the ambulance on his own. And again we were faced with this dramatic fear of facing life without a mother. It is a sobering and profound fear to face the abyss at that age without a mother to care for you. Only later in life did I acknowledge the trauma of these suicide attempts on my person. I think we all began to think that our entire house was built on egg shells that could all fall apart at any time.

At this time in our lives it couldn’t have been worse to be coming from such a fragile home. 

Outwardly we were all well-adjusted achievers who excelled at sports and academics but behind the scenes we had a mother who suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts and a father who was abusive and bi-polar. The more this situation sank in with me the older I became, the more sports and outward image meant less to me. I began to realize that there was nothing behind me except a hollow shell. There would be no inheritance or easy transition from school life to professional life so essentially I was on my own. I think I started to identify with my Gramma McFetridge who had grown up during the Depression and had come from a family of ten and had grown up on a farm in the middle of the prairies. I became a team of one who relied on no one.

And this was how I would operate for the rest of my life.

Then Michelle happened.

Like most young men who fall in love for the first time, it was a very tough and confusing experience. I fell in love with her to the point that I was insanely jealous if she spoke to anyone other than me and I fell apart even when we did speak! I was such a nervous kid around her but soon discovered I was cool and relaxed with a few beers in me. This started me off on a long path of boozing and playing the cool card when drinking beer. Not until thirty years later when I finally become sober did I see that underneath all the booze and weed there was the same nervous kid. I spent so much time doing sports that I hadn’t developed other aspects of my personality so when I started to step away from sports I found that I was awkward and shy. Beer and the great eighties zeitgeist of Reagan and pop music seduced me into living in a perma-beer commercial for years. I was both preppy and cool and athletic and good-looking so all I had to do was be cool, which actually did come easy to me because I had the handy six-pack at my fingertips. I had very good marks as did my brother, and we both had our picks of universities to go to. Everything was rosy for us until something terrible happened. And it became a turning point in our lives forever.

My brother was hit over the head with a beer bottle at a party in grade twelve.

It was an easy time in the mid-eighties when there was no terrorism and no 9/11, only the Cold War that seemed thousands of miles away. We were safe and there was a lot of money around, people playing golf and perhaps smoking a little weed. There was the Blues Brothers and Saturday Night Live and M*A*S*H on TV and preppies and rockers and now pop music led by Madonna and WHAM on the radio. There were lots of parties at parent’s houses when the parents weren’t there and loud music and wet floors but there was never any violence or conflict so when my brother was assaulted it was big news. Let’s just say there was a lot of testosterone there that night. I was talking to a classmate of mine from TCS I hadn’t seen in four or five years in the backyard of this party when a big guy bumped into me as he passed. I forget what I said but he was a troublemaker. He stood over me – he was very tall and very big – and raised his voice, making a scene. We were standing at the top of a small lip in the lawn so when he pushed me I went flying backwards landing on my ass. I was not a fighter – and have never been a fighter – so I was scared. He was a pumped-up, pissed-off football player. So when I got up on my feet I actually walked along the side of the house to the front lawn away from him. I was out there talking to someone else when someone came over to me and said my brother had been hurt. What had happened was that Mike had seen me pushed and had come over to this big guy and pushed him back without knowing that this big guy’s brother was behind him with an unopened bottle of beer, which he used to hit Mike over the head. It shattered and the glass cut Mike in the eye and face very badly. When I came around back and went into the bathroom there was blood all over the place.

I remember him looking at me in the mirror and his eye was mangled and his cheek was flapped open cleanly as if cut with a knife.

When the ambulance arrived they were going to take us to Sunnybrook Hospital, which was closer but for some reason I insisted on going to Sick Kids Hospital downtown. (Because of all the various sports injuries throughout our young lives, and because my mother was a nurse, we knew Sick Kids was the best hospital in the city). When we arrived at Sick Kids Mike immediately went into surgery. It took seven hours, six hours of which was spent on sewing up his eyeball and eyelid and one hour sewing 270 stitches into his face in several layers because the cut was so deep. It was a very serious injury that would affect Mike permanently. After my mother arrived at the hospital I went outside into the night and cursed God. I screamed and screamed at the injustice of it, feeling it was my fault. I swore to never believe in God nor be the dutiful son anymore.

It was a pretty heavy moment for me and especially for Mike.

It happened in the spring of grade twelve so Mike had the rest of the year off. He spent three weeks in the hospital bandaged up. He suffered a complication with his retina detaching, which was very hard for him to return to surgery. But it was successful. By going to Sick Kids rather than Sunnybrook, I had saved his eye because the surgeon at Sick Kids was on call and had the expertise to undertake such a delicate surgery. Mike lost some vision but the scarring on his face was pretty severe, leaving a long line along the crease of his cheek and a little one near his ear. Lots of girls said it looked good on him and I always thought it suited the structure of his face and looked like a dueling scar but Mike was the more sensitive of the two of us and I know it hit him hard. He was always the one who was good with animals who had a natural inclination to take in stray dogs or people.

His compassion knew no bounds so his character was somewhat incongruous with the macho nature of his scar.

It took him a long time to recover. He didn’t go into the sun for a long time because he didn’t want the scar tissue to burn dark so he kept rubbing vitamin E on it and putting sunscreen on it for years. It took him over a year I think to bounce back and when he did he bounced back with some serious purpose! He went to visit a friend of his in California during the summer before university and when he returned he had grown his hair long and wore Ray Bans and smoked. He transformed himself into a very cool guy who didn’t give a shit about what others thought. He had worked out the issues that had beset him and pushed through with a new identity, letting the natural rebel out, but it had without a doubt changed the trajectory of his life. He could no longer play hockey nor could he be the athletic jock. He was now the cool rebel who smoked and had his hair long. And the timing couldn’t have been better because he went from the family house right into living in a fraternity house in his first year of university at the University of Toronto. He sued the guy who had assaulted him and was awarded a substantial amount of money that gave him the means to do what he wanted. His head was on straight and he came out of the ordeal a better guy but one thing that came out from this was a passion to drink. At first it was the thing to do in the eighties at university, but as the years rolled by and the drinking persisted, those close to him knew there was a problem there.

It became a coping mechanism for him to deal with past abuse issues and his eye accident.

CHAPTER TEN

Remarriages

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It hit me hard too but I think in other ways. To see Mike transform himself so quickly was amazing but I had stayed the same. I remained the jock, and by default, the ‘uncool’ one. I was dating Michelle and the pressures I put on myself to be a good boyfriend sort of backfired on me. I didn’t have the ability to relax. I had been bred to train and hurry and achieve, there was nothing there to have fun. I discovered a hollow centre and this brought on a rather serious self-consciousness that led to me imploding, especially around Michelle. I just couldn’t pull out the goods. So our relationship disintegrated, and this was triggered me to opening the door to my rebellious side too.

I followed mike into the long-haired, smoking rebel caught up in the laissez-faire beer commercial parties of the eighties.

And there were other things happening too. My mother had started dating and had met someone: Charles Lennox. He was cool but he was so much older than my Dad. And, well, he wasn’t my father. He just seemed so different. But they were engaged and married during our final year at high school. And when that happened our beloved and safe duplex on Brookdale Avenue was sold. This, in retrospect, was the worst thing that could’ve happened with everything going on. We no longer had a house to return to. Our childhood safe-haven bedrooms were permanently closed to us. My mother and stepfather moved into an apartment and my sister joined them but Mike and I were told to go live with our father. Just as we both needed the stability of a home and family, it all disintegrated. I don’t blame my mother because she had tried so hard to hold everything together and having found love who were we to prevent her from starting a new life? But it was devastating.

Of course at the time we said: “Okay Mom, no problem,” but it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

My father had re-married also at the same time. And he and my stepmother had moved into a renovated bungalow in Leaside. There was a room in the basement made up for us but it never worked out. Mike and I sharing a room at 19 years of age was never going to work. So Mike was able to find a room to rent in the fraternity he would eventually join, and I was left to live in a tense and dank house with my father and his new bride. I had graduated from high school a half year early because I had excellent grades and I wanted to gain some work experience. My father at that time had landed on his feet professionally and was managing a venture capital firm that invested in small businesses. So I was able to secure a job at a company called Digital Media Networks selling advertising space on electronic message boards. It was a good job and I did very well at it but our clients were bars and restaurants! So I found myself going into all these bars and talking to the managers and owners about their electronic message boards that hung over their bar broadcasting up-to-the-minute sports scores and ads from local businesses. It was both a great job but also not the kind of environment a 19-year old should be exposed to.

I found myself ordering a pint of beer after my business was done and staying there all afternoon, and then going to Cherry Beach on Lake Ontario and windsurfing for the high winds from four to six.

I found I was a natural salesman, having had many sales jobs throughout high school and during my summers (I had always worked during the summer since I was 13 years old). I did well and made the company lots of money since advertising revenue was the primary source of profits. But more importantly I was exposed to the real inner workings of a business. I wore a suit and tie and drove my car downtown to work while all my friends were still at high school studying for tests. I liked having money but I spent it as fast as I could make it. I bought clothes for work and I bought a car for work and weed – I had discovered the joys of beer and weed. It was just small bits here and there but it wasn’t the proper thing to be doing, especially for such a fine-tuned athlete. I began to smoke and party regularly, thinking it was the right thing to do. Years before, when I had flown down to Manhattan Beach California for the Pan-American Games and competed in the under-12 tournament, I had first been exposed to the culture of partying, and clearly being in California in 1979 had left a huge impression on me. After losing and being out of the tournament I just hung around the club and watched all the teenagers party. They lounged by the pool and at night they necked with the California girls who loitered at the club at night. My chaperone at the time was 18 years old and more interested in girls rather than keeping an eye on me! But that was fine because I didn’t get into trouble. I was so overwhelmed with the California vibe that I thirsted to be old enough to join the fun. So when I turned 19 and was legal to drink and was working downtown and making money without the need to pay rent, I threw myself into all of it.

And having kept myself on a leash training and eating well, I let loose into the eighties zeitgeist, turning my life into a prolonged carefree party.

The partying did catch up with me though. One night, after coming home from yet another party I fell asleep at the wheel of my beloved Volkswagen Super Beetle and crashed into a parked car. It woke me up so I put it into reverse, backed up and drove home only a few blocks away from the incident. The owners of the struck car knew it had been me so they contacted the police and a deal was struck that I would pay for the damage I caused and that would be it. My bug was a right off. But there was no breathalyzer and no charges. It was a bad scene and my father wasn’t happy but it was cleaned up and I was rushed off to university, but it was a sign of things to come for me.

I was as reckless and out of control as any 19-year old could be.

I succeeded that year in securing a spot at the best university in Canada and getting myself there. Queen’s University in Kingston was a great experience for me. Just as being a boarding school student at Trinity College School had been in grade eight, I wanted my years at Queen’s to be the same. I didn’t want to be in Toronto or close to my family. I wanted to be independent and on my own, free to meet new faces and study interesting subjects. I expected my parents to pay for tuition, which was I think about $600 per year in 1986, since they both valued education highly. But I didn’t have to take on a part-time job and had spending money. I knew my parents didn’t have much money and that this was my last shot at a free ride so half of me wanted to utilize it as a great adventure and half of me didn’t want to miss out on a great education, so I arrived there a walking conundrum. One side of me was determined to study economics and become a successful businessman, perhaps an accountant because that was what my father wanted me to be, but also I was determined to experience as much as possible because maybe one day I would write about what it was like going through university during the late eighties.

The end result was that I burned the midnight oil during my years at Queen’s, both partying and studying hard.

An incident that occurred during this time that had a lasting effect on me was what happened with Ginny Ray. Like most young men, I was keen on girls and had a knack for one-night stands. One such night happened when I was at the local pub with my friends – a place called The Morrissey. Most of us were underage – about 18 – but this didn’t stop us being served booze at this tavern. High school students from many areas across Toronto knew they could get served there, so it was there one night when I had a one-night stand with this girl Ginny. We drank and then snogged in the parking lot nearby the pub, and then exchanged numbers. I didn’t know much about her other than she lived in Ottawa and was there in Toronto visiting a friend. The problem was that I never called her after we were together. Then one night she called me, about three months later, and told me she was pregnant. I was shocked and scared. I didn’t know what to do other than encourage her to get an abortion. I had no clue about what was going down, didn’t talk to anyone about it, and kept calling her trying to get her to abort. But she strung me along and then finally said she was going to have the kid.

For me at that time it was probably the worst thing that could happen to me because my entire vision of my life was seen traveling and exploring and seeing the world.

Ginny became so unreasonable I couldn’t talk to her anymore, so it festered, with me thinking I would have to pay for the kid for the next twenty years. I couldn’t understand why she was being so unreasonable. Then one day, about six months later, I bumped into her friend at a party and she told me that Ginny had lied about everything. When I asked why she said she was mad at me. That fear that I carried throughout my grade twelve year stayed with me for a very, very long time. I developed a deep mistrust with women and the power they had over a man’s life. And they became a source of unpredictability and danger to me.

Never again would I put myself in that position again.

Go to: The Philosophy Rune: A Wordcarpenter Biography Part 2

19 thoughts on “The Philosopher Rune: A Wordcarpenter Biography

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