The Philosophy Rune: A Wordcarpenter Biography Part 2


Golf and Fletch


After my under-16 accomplishments in my grade ten year, I chose to step away from the intense, serious training that had characterized my previous two years. And to fill in this void I developed a serious interest (and addiction) to golf. At the time a Canadian golfer was doing very well on the PGA Tour, Jim Nelford, and for some reason I took a keen liking to him. I read his book and proceeded to play at the local Don Valley Golf Course three times a week. I used my father’s old golf clubs that he had left in the garage and proceeded to teach myself. I was surprised myself because right off the bat I had a natural swing, and if you have a good swing, 90-percent of golf falls into place.

During my summer job I would finish work and then drive to the golf course and squeeze in a round of 18 holes, playing by myself or with others who were also teeing off at the same time. I just couldn’t play enough golf. It was not nearly as intense as badminton and the surroundings were beautiful and it gave me time and respite away from the cauldron that had been simmering throughout my entire childhood. It gave me time away from Mike, who was playing a lot of hockey before his eye accident, and from Susan who was now a full blown teenager in high school, and from my mother who was drinking and suicidal.

I thought I had found my calling.

Once the season had finished, the following summer I went to the posh, private Rosedale Golf Club and asked to work in the field house where they hired me to clean the golf clubs. And I loved it. They let me play for free on the well-manicured gold course if I teed off before 5am or after 6pm, so I regularly played after my shift. I was so full of beans and keen to soak in as much as I could, that’s all I did that summer. During this second season of golfing, I became quite good. I purposely stepped away from the grade eleven parties and social scene and threw myself into golf, hoping to perhaps earn a golf scholarship. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jim Nelford and attend Brigham Young University and play on their golf team. I had never played a golf tournament and my scores were still in the high eighties, but I did think I could compete.

But I never did play in a golf tournament. I think all the competition from badminton had worn me out. I just wanted to play golf for the sake of the game. No more high pressure competition. I had done too much too young, and simply didn’t have the stomach for it.

The early eighties were quite a unique time. There was no Internet nor satellites nor CCTV so with so many nooks and crannies and with a great infrastructure of golf courses and track and field stadiums and shinny rinks, Toronto was full of resources to use if you had the inclination. My childhood had been full of activities and sports, so I knew where all the best resources were. But inevitably I reached burnout. But the one thing I did develop was an interest in reading. Having never read a book in earnest, except perhaps Charlotte’s Web, when I watched the film Fletch with Chevy Chase I fell in love with the dry humor. I researched the writer and found Gregory MacDonald had written almost a dozen Fletch novels.

So I went to bookstore and found as many of them as I could.

And for the first time I threw myself into reading. Still staying as far away as possible from the television, I had the time and space to find the time and space to read. I loved the little novels he wrote. And sometime during the reading of one of them, I knew that that was what I wanted to do: write novels like Gregory MacDonald. But I dared not tell anyone this. I was, after all, the dumb jock who shunned reading novels. In fact at school when we were supposed to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Great Expectations, I was the one who bought Coles Notes. I never read them. It wasn’t until I took a year off university and lived and worked in Australia that I set out to read all the novels I hadn’t during high school. I read 1984 and Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World – all of them. I loved each one. And I rated each one in my journal.

I made up for skipped time.

But soon my gold frenzy waned and I prepared myself for university. I was a straight ‘A’ student at North Toronto Collegiate and earned a place at the prestigious Queen’s University. I planned to study economics and become an accountant like my father wanted. Little did I know how far I would meander away from this initial plan. As Paul Theroux wrote: “Being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale.” And I would indeed treat university as a one-time opportunity and adventure like a trip to a far-off world, taking advantage of everything it had to offer.


University Rowing


I was thrilled to start university in the fall of 1986. Only limitless possibilities lay at my fingertips. Finally I was out of my father’s dank basement and my job had ended, so I deserved everything coming to me. I had money saved up and I was more than ready for the best four years of my life. As a kid Mike and I and my Dad used to take road trips to places like Florida and South Carolina as a ‘boys’ road trip. We used to spend countless hours grilling my father what it was like at university. To us it sounded like the best time in life – a time of partying and girls and new adventures. For me it sounded like boarding school without the chaperon and discipline – without the threat of the cane.

When Mike arrived at the University of Toronto (we went to different universities to ensure we would develop on our own), he already had the long hair and the smoking and partying habit down to a fine art. He was accepted into his Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke) fraternity with open arms. He had morphed into a cool guy, but for me it was different. I had spent so much time achieving and excelling at sports that I had not let my hair down yet, so when I found myself moving into my residence in McNeil House on that first day, I felt stiff and uncool.

I had two swift-flowing streams running through me when I arrived for my first-year university in the fall of 1986. I wanted to taste the fabric of university life leaving no stone unturned but I also wanted to ensure I studied hard and succeeded in my academics. This created a healthy – Nietzschean – tension within me that spurred me on to live two lives. I pursued both paths with fervor, saying yes to almost anything so that I wouldn’t miss out but also seldom missing a class or not going to the library despite massive hangovers. I would embody the work-hard, play-hard philosophy to the full.

It was at this time when I discovered the usefulness of coffee.

I met many people I had known in sports. It was amazing to see all sorts of hockey players and badminton players and baseball players I had met during high school and earlier. We all melted into one first-year scrum where each of us tried our best to stay afloat and find our way through. Political correctness was just coming into existence so the student populace was still predominantly white and privileged. During my time at Queen’s University – that would span from 1986 to 1994 -I witnessed a revolution. Arriving with hardly no idea of anything happening around me because I was literally a dumb jock, I soon opened my mind to the currents of thoughts and feelings that would define a generation.

I was surrounded by spoiled rich kids who wanted to party and only squeeze through academically until they could get a corporate job selling US bonds, but I was also with kids who were keen to participate in the new paradigm that was destined to replace the old. Queen’s was a place where there was true academic freedom and professors had tenure and encouraged debate, never shunning the opinions that went against the mainstream. It was a time of Dead Poet’s Society and Animal House, when computers were still so primitive that nothing was compatible. It was pre-USB and pre-Internet, so things were still done the old way. Essays were still hand-written that required good handwriting technique. Micro-fiche was regarded as modern at the library but required an entire tutorial to figure out. Hippies had been usurped by preppies who wore topsiders and Lacoste and Polo. Drinking at football games was still allowed without any rules. It was a time when if you were injured or hurt during one of these laissez-faire events it was tough luck.

Suing the school was never an option back then as it is today for some.

The eighties were truly free, perhaps the last time in our society that there were no rules to protect the weak. We had inherited the old ways but were being bombarded with debate about introducing safeguards and rules to protect those who were not capable of flourishing. It was a capitalist system that was becoming socialized where everything was becoming monitored. It was 1986 and Orwell’s 1984 was just now edging itself into reality that would find itself the new bedrock of Canada in 2024. But because we were all so busy having a riot, we let it all sneak in right under our noses.

The liberals took a toe hold and the conservatives spent the next decade drinking beer at their cottages.

I had always had a penchant for adventure, but being unchaperoned and feeling like I was suffocating under the thumb of my father for twenty years, I let loose. There were instances in my past that pointed to this adventurous spirit. There was that time when I was two years old and living in Don Mills in Toronto I crawled through our milk box in my diapers when my mother wasn’t looking and crawled down the street with a smile on my face, sauntering for over a kilometre until I found a shopping mall that looked interesting so I began walking in that direction until I was tracked down by my mother.

Nothing prompted me to take off other than the sense of adventure.

And that other time when I took a bus to pre-school and missed my stop, and ended up on the outskirts of Winnipeg. For my parents to grant me the trust and responsibility to take a public bus on my own at five years old to nursery school shows the kind of independence and competence I had from a very young age. I liked having this trust and I liked doing things on my own. I liked walking 3km to school in grade two across a creek and through a ravine and across a park to school twice a day. I liked taking a bus and then a subway and then a streetcar to the Saturday morning badminton clinic down at the lakeshore when I was in grade one. I liked riding around on my minibike unsupervised over jumps and through bushes when I was in grade four. I liked taking a bus up north to go skiing on my own when I was ten years old. These were normal practices for me, so when I hit university I felt I was an old hat of sorts at being independent and capable of figuring things out.

I fit in university like a glove.

The first day of school we had orientation, which meant long line ups and getting course materials all the while being soaked with water by the older students and verbally abused and hazed by “Gaels.” I remember very clearly standing in line alone and awkward as hell bumping into some friends I knew from high school who were drunk. They were having a great time, laughing and pushing each other around while I stood nervous and shy in contrast. So after we had signed up for classes, I tracked him down and joined his Gael group. Orientation Week (‘Frosh Week’) was a time of parties and getting used to our new environment. It was the cool Gael Group and from that point on I joined in the festivities and never looked back.[1] From that point on I always tried to get a few beers into me to make things fun. And that was the plan but never to the detriment of my studies because I loved the architecture and the traditions of university, like some transplant from the movie Chariots of Fire.

I knew I would squeeze as much toothpaste out of the tube of university as I could.

That first day when I tracked down my old friend, he told me he was going to the rowing tryouts the next morning and asked if I wanted to try out too. I had never rowed and never thought about rowing but in the spirit of maximizing my experience at university I said I would join him. So the next morning, after a long night of drinking, he came by my dorm room and woke me up at 5:30am and we drove to the Gananoque Canoe Club on the Gananoque River near old Fort Henry and the Royal Military College. I pulled for five minutes on that highly complex and challenging ergometer and placed in the top five. For a boat of eight, I made the novice crew – and so did my buddy. This started what would become a fantastic season of rowing during the first four months of university. It didn’t bother me at all waking up at 5:30 in the morning every weekday for four months. It was all part of the adventure. And it didn’t mean that I missed out on any parties either. I was stepping out of my shell like my brother had done a year earlier after he had returned from California with his long hair and dangling cigarette, and nothing would get in my way from doing exactly what I wanted.

I worked hard and played hard, and met lots of people who were trying to do that too.

There were some who regarded university as something merely to get through quickly in order to begin earning money. I understood that and accepted that but that wasn’t what I wanted. To me university was an once-in-a-lifetime experience where after university was a life fraught with bills, crowded subways and indignant spouses. I had had a good taste of working downtown in a suit and tie and wasn’t in a rush to return to it. I wasn’t poor because tuition was low and my parents had agreed in their divorce settlement to provide for me until I was done with university. What challenged me the most was what to study. I didn’t want to study math or economics or anything I felt wasn’t interesting. I wanted to study the greatest minds in history and to expand my horizons that were, at this point in my life, pretty narrow from a life overly focused on sports.

I was imbalanced and sought to balance myself and fortify myself as a person so I could tackle all that life would throw at me when I left.

At six-foot one and 185lbs with no body fat I was strong enough and coordinated enough to perform well in the boat. And because of my good technique with the oar I was awarded the bow seat position since this was usually given to the rower with the cleanest technique. It is true I had never rowed before but most of us had never rowed. I only followed instruction well and adhered to the right technique. The guy who set the pace was in the eighth seat so I was far away from him in one seat. He had the toughest role. I enjoyed rowing in bow seat because I could see everything. Mind you we rowed hard. Training was brutal but it was without a doubt one of the most enjoyable things I ever did. Those early mornings out of the water when the mist was still thick and the ducks and swans and loons were on the water we would slice across the surface silently and in complete unison, hitting those perfect moments of harmony. We often engaged in the “dreaded 20-minute piece” when we rowed hard for 20 minutes without a break. Muscles burned and technique suffered greatly, which would put the boat in danger from “catching a crab.” This was when the face of an oar would catch the surface of the water and gouge the rower’s stomach and literally lift him out of the boat into the water. It seldom happened but it was common to catch a semi crab – an oar face would catch the water and jolt the boat.

Everyone would feel it so you couldn’t have an off day without the whole crew knowing about it.

There were three of us on the boat that year who were always at the late night parties who would always make it there in the mornings and give it our all. And during these mornings I could smell the alcohol emitting from the sweat. The guy in front of me was one of these guys so we would have a laugh because I always knew when he had been on a bender the night before.

We had our first regatta after only a few weeks on the water. And these regattas at other universities were as much fun as I had ever had at any event, and full of unknown traditions like drinking Schnapps. Since we were on the novice crew we would often race first so we could get our Schnapps and then enjoy ourselves for the rest of the day watching – or semi-watching – the other races. There were lots of good-looking girls to meet and there was a core group of us who were very inclined towards mischief. This made for some fun times. In my novel Visigoths in Tweed I describe one such event when we went into a bowling alley after the finals and proceeded to pile onto each other at the pub inside until we were booted out but not until we – on our way out – stole two bowling balls. This ended up with one of us rolling the bowling ball down the bowling alley driveway onto the busy road just as we were departing on the rowing bus. Such examples of extreme recklessness were somewhat common during that fall of ’86.

These things happened just as they were described in the book, non-fiction events that found their way into a work of fiction, as most of my books are.

At one of these regattas I met Michelle, my first love from high school, who was rowing for the novice crew at the University of Western Ontario. She looked stunning in her rowing gear and I was completely smitten once again. I felt I had gained some more confidence from all my exploits since grade 12 and proceeded to demonstrate my newfound confidence. (Michelle was a year older than me and had therefore left high school earlier than me but she had taken a year off before going to university, which put us both as freshman students). We rekindled our relationship but it turned out to be a non-starter because I was much too reckless and self-centred to have any sort of meaningful relationship. She was aware that I was in the midst of some sort of hedonistic rage so she was smart enough to give me my space and not expect phone calls except if I was drinking, which is precisely what I ended up doing. I would call her after a few beers or when I returned from the pub, and she came to expect these calls. I sometimes insisted I had not just come from the pub but she knew from the way I spoke.

Michelle was very tolerant and understanding but I’m sure she was weary about me being a good candidate to be her spouse!

As described in my novel Visigoths in Tweed, I ended up with Michelle at the end-of-the-season regatta at Brock University in St. Catherine’s. After we had come in fourth, which was disappointing for most of the crew but not to me, the dance was held on Saturday at the local armoury. As usual we drank too much before the dance. We consumed peppermint Schnapps all day at the regatta, still watching as the bigger boats and crews competed for the bigger events. We hardly watched as we chose to party it up along the riverside. I made sure we had migrated towards the Western University crew where Michelle was watching so I could impress her with my drunken escapades.

A good friend of mine, the number two seat on the boat, was a master at serendipitous stealth so it wasn’t surprising that when we arrived at the armoury he disappeared while we sat in the corner at the darkest table and he returned with a pilfered bottle of vodka under his jacket and four cups of orange juice. He was a master! So we spiked these virgin cups of orange juice heavily, getting drunker and drunker throughout the night. I was focused on drinking with particular gusto that night because Michelle was in play and I needed all the liquid courage I could muster to overcome my debilitating shyness around women I loved. I succeeded in getting wildly drunk but I of course overdid it. We danced a number of times throughout the night but just when it was last dance I chose to return for a drink to my table before returning for Michelle’s hand for last dance. When I found her she was flirting with some guy on the stairs outside the armoury. I flipped out in a jealous rage, pent-up emotions from a season of rowing and the shock of utter failure with her. I had built up such intense hope only to fall flat on my face. I thought I had done everything right that night, but here she was playing the field and showing indifference to me just when I thought we would get back together. I freaked out, ran down the stairs and away from the dance out into the darkness of St. Catherine’s and screamed in a rage or frustration and betrayal, all the past tapes of abuse and injustice surfacing in an ugly thrust.

I felt I had been stabbed in the back and I overreacted with such fervor that I became livid, like a little kid.

I was a running bundle of anger that ran in a state of distress down these quiet streets, farther and farther away from my crew and where I should have been, so that very quickly I was lost. But this didn’t matter. What mattered was that I again, just like the night my brother was assaulted with a beer bottle, cursed God and promised to never be the good boy I had been my whole life. I wanted to embrace the dark side and rebel against an unjust world. I ran across the street and pushed over a motorcycle that was in my way, then punched a car and then, for the final curtain call, punched a screen door that shattered the glass. Incoherent drunk, not sure why I punched some random screen door at the one of the many houses I passed, I kept running with a severely cut hand and arm, somewhat relishing at the sight of the blood.

War wound I thought.

I kept running but my intensity soon morphed into concern about my bleeding arm. I began to worry I had cut an artery so reluctantly I went to the nearest house and knocked on the door. An old woman answered the door and she saw my crying and holding my arm with all this blood dripping on her walkway. She went to get a towel, wrapped my arm and then brought me into her kitchen and put my arm under the tap. I didn’t know that her husband had called the police but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew they would eventually show up. I remember telling the old woman all about why I was so upset and incredibly she was empathetic, telling me that it was very rare for a girl to act in such a way and that I was better off to find another girl. It was such a refreshing reaction that it calmed me down instantly.

“Who would ever do that to a nice boy like you?”

She knew what it took to calm a young man down in the midst of an intoxicated rage.

The police took me to the local hospital where I received five stitches in my arm and several stitches in a few different places on my right hand. I was devastated. I had hoped Michelle would be my saving grace, my co-pilot who would take me under her wing and heal me and love me but instead she treated me with indifference just when I needed her most. It still gives me the chills how she dismissed me like I was a bothersome stranger. Regardless, I was charged with mischief by the homeowner and motorcycle owner the charges would be dropped if I promised to pay for the damages I caused. Again the police were very friendly and totally understood why I was so upset. They actually sympathized with this cruel woman who had shunned me in this callous way. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Queen’s bus had waited for me for hours until the wee hours in the morning until they left without me, not knowing what had happened to me. There were no cell phones in those days so I wasn’t able to call anyone to tell them. They left for Kingston and I spent the night in the hospital and then at the police station where I called my mother in the middle of the night and she came to get me.

I showed up the next day at school with my bandages and a black eye, which I still to this day don’t know how I got.


The Running Incident


That fall of 1986 was a fast-paced party full of new experiences and new ideas. Despite the fact I had enrolled in economics to appease my father so that I could become an accountant, I was unsettled with this area of study. There was no doubt I was strong in math as I had achieved an ‘A’ in all three math courses, (calculous, relations and functions, and algebra), but the thought of sticking with math while at university was like being a vegetarian at a buffet of steaks and sushi. For me not to explore the arts seemed to me a type of academic crime I could never live down, so I enrolled in a philosophy course and a film course for my electives. I hated economics because of all the graphs and math but I loved film and philosophy, particularly philosophy. I had never been much of a reader (other than the Gregory MacDonald Fletch novels) but to read philosophy was a revelation. Never had I read any kind of writing where the author spoke to me as a reader so directly and without bullshit. I immediately became addicted to reading philosophy because it spoke to the voices in my head and began to answer burning questions I had had for years. It was so refreshing to be able to sneak into the beautiful study halls of any number of the old buildings on campus and lose myself in these books. I read primary sources first because philosophers were so careful to point out the obvious truths that I needed to hear first before jumping into the minutia of academia and arguments for and against their ideas. I could spend four hours reading one page and savour the eureka that flooded me, safe and secure in my thoughts, exploring the importance of the idea and implementing it into my life and dreams.

It was a special time in my life, going from such a dynamic childhood and fragile home to such a coveted and rich place full of books with nothing but time to explore.

There were some students who often skipped class but I never did. In fact skipping class made absolutely no sense to me. There were some who were clearly in the wrong place. One friend of mine wanted to be an actor and he never fit into Queen’s. Another friend wanted to be an artist (painter) and he didn’t fit in either. And another friend who wanted to be a skier and he too didn’t survive first year. It was all about finding your niche and surprisingly I found my niche in philosophy and film. Fortunately both of these subjects leant themselves to the party lifestyle so I took that option too. I was always at parties but with a curious mind, ready to engage anyone in an intellectual discussion about passion and dreams and about the meaning of life. Many were not interested in anything to do with these types of questions and I soon found myself hanging out with those who did value these questions. And these people were the rebels and individuals who had thought things out and reached a point where they too were looking for answers. They were multi-dimensional thinkers who had a reading pedigree, who could quote from books and novels I had never heard of. I, on the other hand, was practically illiterate, who had never really read a novel let alone a nonfiction academic book. Again I was the dumb jock who was fortunately blessed with an open mind and had the integrity and courage to follow questions through to their logical end.

It was a luxury few had but one I felt I deserved after working so hard throughout high school to be given this one chance to attend the best school in Canada.

It was because of this that my station in life was to change dramatically. I chose intellectual integrity over the superficiality of presentation. I chose universal, timeless ideas over Polo shirts and Topsiders, and intellectual honesty over money. I went from being a one-dimensional jock to a curious and honest student of philosophy. I started going to philosophy colloquiums and lectures that had nothing to do with my courses. I spent hours in the library reading William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche because they both spoke to the burning voices in my head. These authors became my surrogate fathers in the haze of alcohol and smoke. It was an exciting new world that scared and thrilled me but it was a world that I had discovered on my own. No one had forced me into this new world. It was a new colour and a new perfume that I soon craved more and more. And the deeper I went the more doors opened. But it was a dangerous world that led to nihilism: a state of being where you destroyed all your previous beliefs so that you had none. It was the road to anarchy and a reckless rudderlessness but it was a path that lured me deeper into the forest that promised to reach a Shangri-La somewhere at the end. The deeper I went the darker it became.

But I was fortunate enough to have met a professor that took the time to help me through the tough times that came.

Often professors provide the thought-provoking ideas that enlighten their students and the readings that will help explain these new ideas but they don’t have the time or inclination or interest to help their students find their way. Queen’s was a small university and this was one of the reasons I chose to go there. And due to its small size there was still a strong sense of professors connecting with their students. I was very fortunate to meet a professor who took the time to talk to me and hear my concerns that were almost entirely separate from the course material. When reading Nietzsche it can be overwhelming because his ideas are radical and violent to the soul. Without proper hand-holding and instruction it is easy to see how one can go too far and get lost. Professor Albert Fell was a man who took the time to explain to me the importance of moderation and how many of Nietzsche’s writings were taken out of context and even taken from his unedited notebooks and published by his racist sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche. He was a calming influence on me when I was full of fire and latent anger likely from my incendiary upbringing. We would spend hours talking and he never once asked me to leave. He was always dressed in a tweed jacket, well-groomed and the epitome of a British professor. I knew him for years and I’m sure he saw the transformation in me – from preppy, sloppy undergraduate to dishevelled intellectual, poor as a pauper. But he had seen this type of transformation before during his 40 years of teaching. I hate to think how I might have ended up without the finesse of his instruction and his calming voice in the midst of my self-created chaos.

Studying philosophy was without a doubt one of the most significant events in my young life during my first years at university, but also meeting some key people.

One of these people was Nicholas Shaw.

Most of first-year students lived in residence. This was to encourage students to meet others in their year both in their residence and in the dining hall. For many this was a completely new experience but for me it wasn’t because of my time as a boarding student at Trinity College School. There are several people I’m still in touch with today that I met at McNeil Residence at Queen’s. Nick Shaw was my neighbour and what a crazy guy! Like me he always found himself in the middle of the scrum, slightly sweaty and with beer breath but nonetheless laughing and in full participation of the moment. I have numerous photos from that era and so many of them had him right in the mix. But he was also a serious athlete. Like me he employed a military discipline in order to undertake his ‘word-hard play-hard’ philosophy so he could achieve his goals.

And Nick’s goal was the make the Canadian Olympic equestrian team.

He had had a very good upbringing in Etobicoke where he lived in a big house and had access to his horse not far from his neighbourhood. He took me to a farm north of Kingston during first year where he kept his horse and he could train. So despite partaking in the ruckus of freshman partying, he would find solace and refuge from the craziness on the farm with his horse. He was already competing nationally and was shortlisted to find a place on the Canadian Olympic team for the 1988 Olympics. We became very good friends very quickly because of our similar sense of humor and our willingness to push the limits of mischief to new heights.

While I competed on the rowing team, he competed in some fall equestrian competitions, which both closed down when the snow came in November.

By then we had lots of school essays and exams hanging over our heads, which we were able to tackle because of our discipline. We never joined the group of students in the common room to watch TV because to us it was a waste of time. But if we had a spare few periods we could be found throwing around the football outside in front of the residence so we could meet girls and try to get into harmless trouble. I had some success with some girls that first year, especially around Christmas because I no longer had to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, often waking up in the women’s dorm Victoria Hall in an unfamiliar bed. But already I was feeling the lure of Aristotle as I had discovered his writings from my philosophy class. I spent lots of time hiding in the “stacks” (the lower four floors) at the library and did the work needed to be done. I spent Christmas in Toronto staying at my father’s house in the basement, which turned out to be a terrible experience. I wanted to share with him all the new stuff I had learned, especially in philosophy, but all I had in return was what a waste of time the arts were to my future corporate career. My father epitomized the close-minded conservative mindset while I was in the fervor of discovering the richness of liberal arts. So I weakly conveyed to him that my economic classes were “interesting” and that I was doing well enough to get a good report card at the end of the year. What happened during that week in Toronto was that I was re-oriented back to my old business-minded self so that when I returned I tried to eschew my film and philosophy courses and focus on reading the business section of the newspaper get deeper into my economics studies. The problem was that it was next to impossible to find anything deeper in first-year economics.

In economics it was so simple and straight forward, there was nothing to discover.

So again I was awash in a swirl of contradiction, with half of me wanting to stay on the straight-and-narrow and study business to get good marks so I would be hired by a good company upon graduation, and the other side of me who thirsted for the reading that would answer the burning questions within my heart. This tension was to define my early years at university and to give rise to an enormous struggle that would play out in front of my friends.

So it was in this context that Nick and I regularly went running through the snow-covered sidewalks in January and February. We talked about the pressures of our fathers and the direction we were each heading and how we both categorized things so that we could achieve little segments in a larger puzzle. But it was never a dread or a heavy when we talked as we ran side-by-side. We inspired each other and laughed because we were both good listeners because our situations were so similar. So it was that on one cold February day sometime in the afternoon we were running up a hill just outside of Kingston near the penitentiary that Nick suffered a heart attack.

Nick was a tall guy, maybe six-foot four and lanky, like a basketball player. I am just over six-foot one so his stride was longer than mine and he was the better runner, so he went first through a narrow spot on the sidewalk where there was a misplaced telephone pole. So we ran one behind the other through this narrow gap in the sidewalk and up the grade towards the crest of the hill. As he was pressing ahead he slowed down so I passed him. I kept running a for a few strides and made a funny comment about him being lazy but when he didn’t reply I turned around and saw him sitting on the side of a lawn holding his chest. He was having difficulty breathing. In fact he was struggling to breathe so violently that he sounded like a horse, his lips making the flapping sounds of a horse.

At first I thought he was making some sort of joke because as if he were mimicking a horse but then he fell flat on the snowy ground. My first reaction was to straighten him so he could breathe, thinking his windpipe was obstructed. But his violent bursts of breathing became fewer and farther between. His eyes had closed and he had fully collapsed, so I realized that he was having some sort of seizure. So not knowing what to do I hailed the first car that went by, who fortunately stopped. I opened the door and somehow dragged him inside the backseat and told the driver to get to the hospital. He drove fast towards the hospital that was close by, proceeding to pass cars on the shoulder. Within a few minutes we at the emergency room.

On the way he turned blue.

When we arrived he wasn’t breathing at all.

The doctors took him immediately and got him breathing again with those electrical paddles.

It was very cold that afternoon and it became dark very quickly. I was wet from sweat and freezing cold as I sat in the waiting room. I still didn’t know what had happened. Nick suffering a heart attack had not crossed my mind because 20-year old athletes don’t have heart attacks. I thought he might have had a seizure of some kind but had no idea what had caused it. The blue colour of his face haunted me as I shivered in that waiting room waiting for word. When the doctor finally showed up he told me Nick had suffered a heart attack.

I was at a loss for words.

This event is covered in detail in Visigoths in Tweed and it happened exactly how it is described in that novel.

And it did have a big impact on me but perhaps not in the way you might think.




Nick’s heart attack didn’t make me adhere to the straight-and-narrow, or make me redouble my efforts to do well at school and achieve more accolades. It had the opposite effect. Ribbons and trophies no longer had a pull on me anymore, perhaps because ribbons and Olympic glory had been the reason Nick had pressed himself so hard. The sole focus of my young life had been achieving more ribbons and trophies but now, having been so discredited by this unwarranted and irrational event, I now faced a life without a focus. No longer was my orientation sports and the “apple pie” life. With this old horizon diminished and demoted and discredited, I now faced a shadowy horizon with no discernable beacons. It was a very scary place to be for me and a very dangerous time in my life. My enthusiasm for this world of light had been permanently diminished, leaving me clawing my way through the dark. Words of support from my mother or father fell on deaf ears.

My only solace was booze and philosophy.

And I hit them both very hard after that.

My marks began to suffer almost immediately. I spent long hours – literally days – closed off in the dark study halls reading. I found Nietzsche and his angry voice, polished in the art of polemic, lifted my spirits in an angry chorus of rebellion, finding fruitful soil and in my thirsty soul. Seeds were planted during this period that began to grow ideas of a new life that bucked convention and forged what can only be called my own original path, far away from all that I had known. The well-worn path of business and making money and living in Toronto and the Granite Club and taking the subway to work no longer had any pull for me. In fact that life took on the mantle of utter failure for me – an unoriginal life taken by those with no imagination and no original purpose.

It was a life devoid of meaning.

So I threw myself into Nietzsche and all his cohorts, getting deeper and deeper to a way of thinking that was beyond good and evil. This period of my life was full of nihilism. I had taken down my entire belief system but had not yet being able to come up with a new belief system, so there was a time when I had no rudder.

I only had confusion and disbelief.

I think there are many people who suffer tragedy and go through this process but are unlucky enough to never reform a belief system. They become caught in this perennial state of nihilism and therefore suffer greatly throughout life. I became cynical and sarcastic, a bitter husk of my old self and a tremendous worry to many of my friends. Nietzsche wrote that “nothing brings a man down quicker than the passion of resentment,” and I saw this playing out in me. I resented the Nick Shaw incident just as I had resented my brother’s eye incident. It brought with it all that unresolved anger and emotional turmoil from my brother’s incident, and the unresolved emotions swirling around my parents both re-marrying within two weeks of each during my grade 13 year. And unbeknownst to me I’m sure it stirred-up the unacknowledged physical abuse I had suffered at the hands of my mentally ill father. However, on the outside I was a good-looking kid with Polo shirts and a neat smile who was funny and laughed a lot when I drank, but this too was also changing. More and more there were times when I drank too much and I would black out or lash out verbally or physically at a friend. A Doctor-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde scenario came into play, and those close to me were the first to see it come out. Some spoke to me about it but I would usually choose to regard it as a one-off event and leave it behind, forgetting it in due course, but more and more this became the norm until I found myself preferring to be alone rather than surrounded by shiny happy people.

And so it went for me during university. It was the best time of my life but also the most unsettling and turbulent time. I discovered coffee to get me through my morning classes after a long night of partying, still unwilling to skip classes because my classes still held the promise of answers to my inner conflicts. I was able to get through the rest of my first-year of university, still maintaining my preppy front and trying to manage this newfound dark, restless side of my personality that had a voice gaining in strength and urgency. There was a girl I met who I really liked and thought could be a long-term girlfriend of mine but I found that I preferred to spend my time reading and studying and drinking, all the while focusing on my inner demons and burning questions of what to do and where to go in life.

I regret to this day not pursuing her but how could I when I could hardly govern myself?

That summer I returned to my job at Digital Media Networks in downtown Toronto and lived in my father’s basement again, hating every minute of it. I became a creature of the night – partying now legally anywhere I wanted in Toronto with money in my pocket, thinking dangerous thoughts of traveling the world and climbing mountains. No longer was I keen to wear a suit and tie and work like the other sheep in downtown Toronto. It was probably the worst job I could’ve had during this time in my life. I still did well but instead of visiting bars to talk with owners of our product “Scoreboard,” I went to the bar and started drinking and then spoke to the owners, a completely different form of approaching work. Some owners were fine with it but many others were very sceptical about this young salesman who drank quickly and seemed more interested in his beer rather than closing the sale.

I spent more time with new people. My old friends were still interested in their old goals but I was now working on a new inner vista of life and I kept reading my Nietzsche wherever I went. I had purchased “A Portable Nietzsche” paperback that I brought with me everywhere. Passages were underlined and the pages were dog-eared and crumpled from extreme use. I now kept a journal and wrote in them constantly, always looking for an answer to the meaning of life. Page after handwritten page I filled journal after journal, sometimes finding myself at a café all alone writing for hours. When I had drank ten cups of coffee I convinced myself beer would calm my nerves, so that started, often ending my writing sessions with volatile ideas and messy writing. Everything was urgent for me. Everything was intense because time was passing and if I couldn’t find a new goal then I was going to miss the boat.

Urgency soon gave way to recklessness, and this brought with it numerous dangerous moments.

I wasn’t one to fake things so when my heart wasn’t into my studies I couldn’t fake it enough. When my first-year marks came during that summer, I was amazed. I passed all five of my classes but my average was 52! I had 50, 50, 51, 52, 58 and 72. (The 52 and 51 were both half courses). What was the most revealing was that my 72% was in philosophy, a class I truly enjoyed. My 58 was in film but the rest of my marks were in economics. I was placed on academic probation, which I didn’t tell anyone about, and that was a tremendous blow to me after being on the dean’s list during high school. I had been an A student for years. But this performance was also a badge of honour for me to have lived through such a tumultuous year and having survived with all five credits! And I had done so much! I told myself that it was an accomplishment to have succeeded with earning all my credits so I was still on course to graduate in 1990 with my classmates. I was called in to the Dean’s office and talked to him about my courses, and when he learned that I was the one who was with Nick Shaw when he was running I was accepted back into second-year due to ‘exceptional circumstances.’ I convinced myself that no graduate school really looked at first-year marks; that it was only the last two or three years that were important. The tricks and games had begun and I would fool myself into thinking my behaviour was acceptable enough. I suppose in the back of mind it did occur to me that I was on a one-way road towards disaster but I wouldn’t let that voice have a say within my inner government. I had triumphed through a tough year and I would pull it together to reach my goals!

But when I realigned myself to my old goals of being a businessman, an accountant or successful businessman, it didn’t take long for me to smash these goals down, leaving me limping in the wreckage.

So this inner dynamic had started to take root: my setting up false goals only to destroy them with a sledgehammer. This was what being a true nihilist was: the smashing down of anything deemed false. So my focus became finding out what I truly wanted to do in my life.

Who was I?

Who was my true self?

What gave me the most meaning?

These were the primary reasons I read Nietzsche. I also started reading novels for the first time. Most people read novels during high school and then taper off during university but I was the opposite. As previously mentioned, I had chosen to read Coles Notes for novels during high school so I could get away with writing a decent book report. But the truth was I was a very weak reader and never made the effort to get into a novel because I couldn’t see why some fictional story could help me get to where I needed to be. But when I began smashing down my belief system I turned to novels to give me insight into myself, I was surprised. I immersed myself into the world of fiction and non-fiction adventure where I identified with the characters to such a personal extent that many fictional characters became my friend.

Still to this day I can remember characters from novels so well that I can speak about them as if they’re real people.

I particularly took a liking to Herman Hesse novels. His bread and butter were the inner spiritual life of young characters – a perfect theme for me as a young man trying to find my way. This would culminate with his masterpiece Narcissus and Goldmund, which I would read at the end of my third-year university.

And undoubtedly this would change the curse of my life.

During this intense summer between my first and second year of university, the summer of 1987, I was arrested and convicted for drunk driving. I was at a friend’s cottage up in Muskoka for a weekend of partying and for some reason I had my boss’s car. I left the bar with a friend and we went on a drive, with me speeding down the roads at top gear laughing like a maniac – complete and utter reckless behaviour. I even made time to drive onto the local golf course and do donuts, not even thinking of the aftermath. We made it back to the bar and proceeded to drink more, me hot and proud that I had accomplish a “special op” without being caught. In my own world and drunk and almost incoherent, I again left in my car except this time I went alone. I didn’t make it far when I was pulled over by the police. They didn’t even give me a breathalyzer until I was back at the police station in Bracebridge because I was so drunk. They told me they had had a call about a crazy young man speeding down the roads in the area.

I don’t remember much of the incident but I do remember the police were very polite.

I called my friend the next day to say I would make my way back to Toronto as I had met a family friend and had gone there for the night etc. So none of my friends knew, even now, of this event. My mother was who I had called and she had come north to pick me up after spending the night in the drunk tank. I went to court later that year and pled guilty. None of it really registered with me because I never really regarded drunk driving as a serious crime. (For years drunk driving was only a misdemeanor, but only recently in the eighties it had morphed into a felony. I was now a criminal and with a criminal record). I had my driver’s licence suspended for a year and paid a fine but I didn’t need a car while I was at university. But this conviction caused me to turn down returning for another year selling at Digital Media Networks the following summer because I needed a car to travel around the province. Without a doubt this affected the course of my life because for the first time I was forced to make decisions that would take me off course of my original plans.

And it was the first permanent stain that would push me towards the edge that would be played out through reckless danger, rebellion and determination.


The ‘Maxi-pad’


Since I had been incredibly social during my freshman year I had met many people at school. I was part of the “in” crowd so finding a house and housemates for second year was an important event. And in this decision I was torn. I had close friends who were achievers and athletes, who were a little bit more “apple pie” than my other friends, who might have been a bit crazier and inclined to party. I found myself in a bind at the beginning of my second year of school when I was forced to decide where to live. I had a place reserved with my athletic friends in a house in the “student ghetto” and a place in a house with my more liberal party friends. I knew this decision would be an important one but after a summer of living with my father and being once again programmed and conditioned to be a businessman, I was all ready to live with my friends who were on the rugby team and studying commerce. However, at the very last minute I chose to live in a duplex with fifteen people! It was our “Animal House” or our fraternity since Queen’s had outlawed fraternities fifty years previously.

I chose to live at what I coined “The Maxipad.”

During the fall of 1987, I fit right in to this well-run party house where five of us lived in each duplex and then another three lived in the converted garage. Every night there was some party going on, whether someone’s birthday or a friend’s celebration of something-or-other. For my second year, a year that I was academic probation, it was a very dangerous move for me. However, I thought I was disciplined enough to pull it off. I was enrolled in a strict course load of economics classes and business classes, redoubling my efforts to do well so I could get into graduate school, like an MBA program. My aim had become my Dad’s aim for me: to become a chartered accountant. I had always found math easy so working with numbers seemed like a logical step for me and it would ensure I would earn good money that I could use to travel and explore the world.

It’s just that I would have to do all this mindless and uninteresting work first to get there, I reasoned.

But I knew it was flawed logic, especially when I was still studying philosophy. With a cold objectivity, I had reviewed my first-year academic performance and had surmised that philosophy was where my interests were but that I could never get any kind of job with a degree in philosophy, so I would continue with economics and take philosophy as my elective. This is what I did but I hadn’t foreseen how influenced I would be by the thinkers I was reading. My second-year course in philosophy was existentialism so I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre, Heidigger, Kierkegaard, Frankl and of course Friedrich Nietzsche. These were thinkers who also wrote books that were not traditionally philosophy textbooks. Sartre was a novelist with heavy philosophical themes, as was Albert Camus and a few others. And it was this class that really let the floodgates open. I had enjoyed Nietzsche but now I consumed him. I had a professor later at university who often said that no one should be allowed to read Nietzsche until they were 26 years old. And he had a point. Nietzsche’s words were so full of passion and truth that one can become rather unhinged if they aren’t careful.

But I was already pretty much unhinged at this point.

My family had basically disintegrated. My sister had dropped out of school and my brother had been awarded more than $100,000 in damages from the guy who had assaulted him with the beer bottle so he was talking some time off university and traveling the world, without a care in the world. I would never live with my father again nor live with my mother and her new husband so in effect I was now completely on my own. The only thing I did have was guaranteed tuition payment until I graduated. It was a very scary time for me so I again fluctuated between being wise and playing it safe by studying hard and working hard, joining the varsity badminton team and writing for the school newspaper, but this couldn’t stop me from spending countless hours hidden in my favorites nooks and crannies in the beautiful study halls throughout the many buildings of Queen’s University.

I kept hearing from my brother who was exploring all these interesting places throughout the world, from Europe to South America and Asia. It’s exactly what I wanted to do but I couldn’t. So I bit my lip, buckled down and worked my ass off. I went to all the parties but I was noticing my drinking was becoming even more extreme so I tried for the first time to limit my engagements to only the big parties. I really threw myself into film and spent lots of time watching art films at the student-run theatre on Princess Avenue. I would use the theatre as a way to get away from the crazy party scene and a way to let my brain take a breather from all the reading I was doing.

I found I had lots of time in second year because I wasn’t rowing. I was playing on the varsity badminton team but the practices were so easy for me compared to the intense training I had been doing during high school. I would even go to badminton practice stoned. At The Maxi-pad there was lots of weed smoked. We had two guys who were pretty obsessed with weed so we all were exposed to it. I really enjoyed it but I never bought it and if there wasn’t any around then I didn’t miss it, but these two were very enthusiastic smokers. So it wasn’t long before I said yes to a puff after my classes so I would be high when I went to the courts to do drills and play games. It was a novel experience but it can also be a heavy drag. I didn’t really care about the badminton team. Sure I was still one of the top players in all universities across the province and the country but my heart wasn’t into it at all. I played often and none of it was enjoyable. I traveled to other universities with the team but it became an imposition rather than an adventure. And there was no peppermint Schnapps at the end of a tournament. It didn’t have the zing I wanted it to have. It was part of my old life.

I wanted something new because I had discovered a new kind of life.

And this is what led to the biggest decision of my life. And like most big decisions, it felt like a relatively small decision at the time.

At one of our many parties I was standing outside on the front yard drinking beer before a football game, talking to a film major friend of mine who wanted to become an actor. We were with a few other people and we were talking about what to study at university. I had come to the conclusion that there was a practical rationale as to what to study: study something that will get you a job. For me that was economics. But I had also come to agree with the notion that one should study what they are interested in. What’s the point in passing up an opportunity to study what interests you while at university? This friend of mine was a smart guy from a good family who had known me since my early hockey days, so knowing I was studying economics, which had to be the most boring of all subjects offered at university, he said to me: “If you were at a party and a girl came up to you and asked you what you studied at university, you would say: ‘I studied economics.’ She would go ‘Oh, and then turn to someone else and talk to because what does anyone say to that?’ But if you answered: ‘I studied film and philosophy,’ they would say: ‘Oh that’s so cool, what kinds of films do you like?’ and stuff like that. It’s interesting, not boring.”

I totally saw his point. To him I had a lot of character and personality so for me to say I was studying something so boring like economics didn’t reflect my character. He had been in both my philosophy class and my film class and knew they were both my favorite classes, so when he put it to me in these terms, that to study something interesting like philosophy and film, it would be a much cooler conversation piece with the girls. It was fantastically superficial I suppose but put in that kind of language, I knew I had to save myself from making a dreadful error. This was a Thursday night, and the next day was the very last day to change courses, which is exactly what I did. The next day I dropped out of economics and chose to major in philosophy and film. I had now officially detached myself from my old, secure world and had now entered that new world I knew existed. I had defied my father in one fell swoop. I was now on the road to destruction and oblivion, with no safety net or sure bet to carry me on my way. I was now on a free for all falling into the abyss of unemployment and pauperism.

This one decision changed the course of my life.

It didn’t mean I studied less. It meant that I studied more and the stuff I was studying spoke deeply to me. I discovered William Blake and the poets like William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman. I went off on crazy tangents for days, choosing to read Blake and Whitman instead of researching for an essay. But to me it was all education. To quote from a friend of mine, “Never let school get in the way of your education.” I was a sponge who became stronger the more I absorbed. The transition was immediate and palpable. I grew my hair and I wore Birkenstocks and I hung out at cafés and wrote non-stop in my journals. I went to lectures and colloquiums and tried to grow a beard. My pants were no longer pleated and pressed and my Polo shirts became stained and ripped. I started to talk to my professors with that eager tenor in my voice, chomping at the bit for the next insight. I spoke to friends about things that mattered instead of the stock market and bonds. It’s as if I had joined a secret society where those who chose to learn were honoured with respect.

I had taken the first step away from being an unknowing phony to becoming who I am.

But this road was fraught with danger.

I was always self-centred but now I had reason to be self-centred. My reading and studies became the biggest thing in my life, and thus many things in my life started to wane in importance. My friendship with Nick Shaw had been a big part of my first-year experience but since his heart attack I hadn’t seen much of him. He had taken the remainder of his first year off due to what happened and had been awarded his marks at the time of his heart attack, but because of this he had missed a lot of the course material. So when he returned for his second year he was beginning at a deficit. And mentally he had suffered. His heart attack had been caused by what doctor’s call Marfane’s Syndrome. Basketball players with tall, lanky body types are prone to sudden heart attacks due to the design of their bodies and the wear and tear of athletics. It was a fluke incident with no rhyme or reason for me that left Nick with brain damage. He suffered from cognitive dissonance, which was the result of the lack of oxygen to the brain. I felt guilty every time I saw him and so I didn’t see him that much. I found it very difficult to speak with him because he was so handicapped. But for him to be back at school I think was a big mistake. All his friends were moving forward so fast, and were so impatient to begin their lives that he was left behind. He found his course work too difficult and his best friend was studying engineering so he was always at class and didn’t have enough time to hang out with Nick. When I went to visit him around Christmas time he lived in this big room and it was a mess. And he wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol. He had been such a big character but was now riddled with curfews and medications, which I think hampered him both physically and emotionally. I was always drinking so this was awkward too. He had regressed to a little boy, his intellect shattered by what had happened. His speech was slurred and his confidence shattered.

My heart leapt into my throat.

I left him after a short visit and I remember him looking at me with eyes that pleaded with me not to go but I had to because there was a party to go to. His house was so depressing and the room he had was so big and empty that it must have compounded the loneliness he was feeling. And having been such a social guy with such a light step it must have killed him not to go to the local campus pub for beers and dancing. I thought he would fail the year because he couldn’t do the academic work, and maybe he would take some time off to regroup and do some physio but when I heard just after Christmas that he taken his father’s shotgun and blew his head off I was completely shocked. It was such a dramatic way to kill yourself, and an expression of rage at what had befallen him. His father was the president of the national association for psychiatrists so for him not to have seen this coming was a further tragedy for the family. I felt an immense guilt that I hadn’t made more of an effort to see him but at the same time I had made an effort and we had connected. Again, in retrospect, I think returning to university that year was not the right thing to do. His brain injury and his motor skills were indicative of the severity of his accident and these required more finesse than just throwing him back into the scrum at school. I was asked to be a pall bearer at his funeral and the entire experience was very surreal.

It greatly contributed to me feeling isolated in my own world, very much like Camus’s main character in The Outsider.

I tried to push it out of my mind because it wasn’t my problem but my mind kept harboring it, poking me with questions that fostered guilt. And those inexplicable questions returned that were very unhealthy for me. I again started to question the fairness and justice in life, concluding again and again that there was no justice and that it was all some crap shoot. And because the game was unjust I could do anything I wanted in a broken system. It gave me permission to attack nihilism head on, by throwing myself into the mix head first knowing full well that there was a strong likelihood I would end up like Nick. He hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact he had done everything right and look what had happened to him. He was disciplined and smart and funny and a hard worker and he was now dead. And he had blown off his head in his father’s study with his father’s shotgun, spraying his brains all over the wall. I had deserved my drunk driving conviction but Nick hadn’t deserved this nor had my brother deserved to be hit in the head with an unopened beer bottle and having his eyeball cut, leaving him with limited vision and a 270-stitch scar in his face. Nor did I deserve to have been physically abused by my father or have my family abandon me just when I needed them the most.

These were the burners that fueled my rebellion during that cold winter in 1988, which led directly to the path in life I took.

Sometimes life is really about timing. And it’s one thing philosophers never take into consideration enough when philosophizing. This would become one of the major themes in the books I would write later on. But before I thought about writing books, I still had a lot of obstacles to overcome first.


Tree Planting


With my DUI conviction and Nick Shaw’s death, I didn’t want to return to Toronto and see the corporate world again. I wanted to begin a new life of adventure and new vistas, applying what I was learning in philosophy to my life, so when a friend of mine told me he was going tree planting in the forests of northern Ontario, I thought it was a good idea to go as well. It sounded like just the adventure I craved in a summer job, especially for someone who had never really spent much time in the country. Most of my friends were from wealthy families and they spent their summers at their cottage or at camp. When my father was still in the house we were well off but never wealthy. We never had a cottage so we were always busy in the city going to sports camps, whether it be for badminton, playing at a nice private club, or track and field camp or hockey camp. My parents were very careful to make sure we were always busy. So the notion of going into the bush to plant trees and live in a tent was something both scary and exciting for me.

Part of me was worried I wouldn’t be able to do it – roughing it in the bush – but another part of me was over-the-wall excited to dive head first into a job that took me out of the office and into nature.

When I went to apply for the job in Toronto I knew one of the guys doing the hiring, and I happened to find out that my old first love, Michelle Hauswirth, was also going tree planting. It was the cool thing to do if you were in university. It was really good money if you did well, and it was good for the environment. Sure, you could clear cut a forest but it had to be re-planted right? So that’s what we did: we went into the devastated forests and repaired them.

So when I was in Toronto I asked to be put on the same crew as Michelle to hopefully let fate take over. She never knew what had happened to me first year when I lost it and ran through St. Catherine’s crying like a baby and pushing over motorcycles and punching glass doors, so maybe there was still a chance. I told myself I was different now – more worldly and wise – so it would be different. And it gave me added incentive to do well and impress her.

The power of love has no limits!

So I finished my second year of studies and promptly bought the equipment I needed and took a bus going far north from Toronto. We traveled over six hours north to Timmins where we culminated and were assigned camps. It was intense right from the beginning. I’ve never been one for physical labour so this was tough for me. Sure I was an athlete but to carry forty pounds of seedlings (very small trees) in a bag wrapped around your waist, bending over and planting each tree after digging a quick hole with your shovel is a very physically demanding process. But that wasn’t the toughest thing for me. The black flies that swarmed around you and the mosquitoes that always found a way to sting you was the big challenge for me. Instead of sitting in an air-conditioned office selling advertising space on electronic message boards hanging from walls in bars and restaurants earning a good wage, I found myself on the other end of a summer job: outside physical labour.

The tree-planting company took many of us from the North Toronto area so I knew many of the planters. I ended up planting with friends I knew from hockey and friends of my brother’s, who went to the University of Toronto and friends from high school who went to the University of Western Ontario. It was a bit of a social thing but after the first few days it was all about the work. In no time everyone was bitten and bleeding and blistered and battered physically, some already making noises about going home. I feared whether I could endure the discomfort but Michelle was there and that pushed me to quietly take the hack and get through each day.

The first few weeks were the toughest because of the black flies and the stiff muscles. We had foremen coming around to our plots of land to check on the quality of our planted trees to see if we had just thrown them into the ground or if we had planted them properly. Among tree planters this was the biggest worry: to be pegged as a bad tree planter. It revealed to others that you didn’t care whether the trees survived or not and therefore that you were a fraud. I took special care to learn the proper technique and did well planting the trees I had. I wasn’t the fastest tree planter but I had good technique and held my own. There were planters there who had been doing this job for decades, who could take a bag of trees and plant them in a straight line acre after acre without taking a break. They were rock hard both mentally and physically. And they made a lot of money. We had one guy on our crew who we called Ironman. I didn’t know much about him other than that he had a master’s degree and tree planted every summer and then spent the rest of the year living in northern India.

He was a tree-planting machine.

I had a decent tent and I had the proper boots so I survived the first month. Without good boots you couldn’t get through. For those who ended up buying the cheap boots, they were going home after two weeks or going into town to buy the proper boots. And tents were important because if you had a crappy tent then when it rained at night your tent would flood and you couldn’t really deal with soaking wet gear. You needed clean, dry socks and you needed a good wool sweater that could soak up sweat but keep you warm.

For me it was boot camp in every sense of the word.

The best moments when tree planting was at the end of the week when we went into town to do laundry and have a day off. Most of us went straight into the local bar and drank until it closed. Laundry was a secondary thought that happened the following day in a haze of dehydration and a grueling headache, but we all managed to get things done and be back in the bush the following day. And during these forays into town we stayed at a hotel and socialized. Those were great moments, when we were all bronzed and cut from the sun and labour, when our beards were coming in and our hair was long and disheveled, but with our wallets growing exponentially with opportunity. Each of us had plans for that money because without a clear goal the work would batter you down. So we each had a light step when were persevered our way through cold weather and rain and drought and cuts and abrasions and insect bites and all the others things that hit you when you’re in northern Canada with just a tent and a pair of boots.

I was full of philosophy quotes and passion to talk about dreams of adventure while we had moments to talk between bags of trees or when we were gathered around the campfire at night after dinner. I was so eager to hear what others wanted to do with their lives so I could figure out what I wanted to do. I still hadn’t realized that my path in life was to become a writer despite the fact that I was spending lots of time writing in my journal. So I became a very good listener, not out of any altruistic impetus but rather through an extreme selfishness. I came to know almost everyone on the crew and knew of their hopes and dreams. And this was the beginning of a central aspect of my character: a sincere interest in others. Due to my upbringing under the cruel hand of a bi-polar father, I had developed a capacity for empathy that was finding an outlet in the real world. I came to be a guy who had a good heart and who was a good guy – not one of the usual crowd who only talked about themselves and who always had a witty word that when dissected was a sarcastic remark clothed in humour. I soon could determine those who were not worth talking to because they were shallow and mean in their cynicism, so that eventually my friends were only the good people.

I didn’t seek to become a leader or well liked, but I became both because of my penchant to listen.

As a coping mechanism when I was a child, my brother and I focused on our humour to get through the tough times. For such a high percentage of our childhood we lived in fear of being punished so we tried our best to be funny and to make each other laugh and feel better, and this quality also came out during my summer tree planting. There was a lot of growth and I did a lot of growing up that summer, and met many good long-term friends who I’m still in touch with today.

My desires with Michelle however didn’t bear fruit. We did hang out a lot but she was just too tough for me. She was the prettiest girl I had ever known but there came a point when you have to give up. But just at that point when I was giving up she warmed to me and indicated that I was cool enough for her. I didn’t think love was so difficult. I thought love was supposed to be easy – two people have feelings for each and they develop a relationship, but with her none of that happened. It was the most surreal and stubborn relationship that I have ever had. My girlfriends after her were so easy and natural and flowed so easily. But the damage she did to my self-confidence with women would last a very long time. I don’t know if she did that on purpose or whether it was just how things happened, but I do know that I was deeply scarred from the years of me wanting to be with her. We did get together and she did tell me she loved me but it was just too tough, too difficult. Too many missed opportunities and too many looks of indifference from her. I could see it in her face that I wasn’t the cottage guy who went skiing every weekend and who came from a mansion in Rosedale. But I did know that she loved me. But the problem was that I knew then that I would never dedicate my life to wealth. My passion was elsewhere. My dreams resided beyond the horizon in far-off lands and in unusual accomplishments that would have a far-reaching impact on the world. Michelle wanted security and safety and wealth and a cottage – all the things I would never give her. So that summer of 1988 was the last time we had a chance. It was all too complicated for me.

At the time I couldn’t figure out why she never just stepped forward and hugged me.

During one of these days off when the entire crew were in Thunder Bay I went to see a movie with a few friends that ended up having a major effect on me: Dead Poet’s Society. Some films do have the capability to influence teenagers and impressionable young men and women but this film struck a serious cord with me. Perhaps because it was based at a private boarding school so similar to Trinity College School, or perhaps because of the Carpe Diem philosophy, I was inspired by this film to follow my dreams and carry on down the path I had chosen to see where it would lead me. There are many lines from that film that became part of my vision of the world, from how Robin William’s character Professor Keating says: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. THE POWERFUL PLAY GOES ON AND YOU MAY CONTRIBUTE A VERSE.” These words from Walt Whitman for some reason spoke deeply to me and I took that to heart. I found that I did want to contribute a verse, whether a screenplay or a film or a novel. I wanted to join the play. I wanted to say my piece. So now I became aware that I needed something original to say. I needed to live a life worth writing about. This was when things really took off for me. I felt I had some degree of backing from the words of Tom Schulman, the scriptwriter who had penned the film.

I became very excited about my upcoming year at school and couldn’t wait to delve deeper into my readings.

About halfway through this 1988 season many of the labourers working for companies that harvested wood went on strike. This caused many tree planting companies to cut their season short however our company, Outland, didn’t go home. We stayed out there in the bush trying to get new contracts, which we did. The problem was that we were forced to go so far north that we were north of Highway 11, which is very north. (It’s basically just south of Hudson’s Bay). So we found ourselves in very remote areas. One of these spots was with Abitibi and at this site we literally had to cross the line of strikers and become scabs. None of it concerned us as lowly tree-planters but we were in some degree of danger and it would never happen today with so many laws. The night we arrived at the new job we went about our business to pitch our tents and prepare for the next morning of planting when we heard this heart-stopping BOOOM! The strikers, who saw us arrive on their jobsite, pushed over the truck full of trees. We ran over to the commotion and could plainly see the strikers were liquored up and hostile, yelling at the Outland owners to leave. Just as we had set up camp we were told to quickly decamp. We left that night and drove to a tiny town called Sioux Lookout where we proceeded to take over the town for a few days. The only bar in Sioux Lookout was a tiny place called The Best Little Honky Tonk in North Western Ontario! There were three picnic tables inside and a tiny stage but the owner took the bull by the horns and served us all beer and called the local band to come in to play. We had ourselves a great time! It was likely the wildest, wild-west type of experience I had ever had up to that point, and something about it stuck with me.

I liked that extreme taste of adventure – of being so far from corporate Toronto and so free to as wild as I wanted to be.

But the season was a success. I made quite a bit of money for the two months I spent tree planting but the real victory and gain from that job was how much I grew as an individual. My generation would never go to war and I thought that tree planting might be the closest we would ever get to basic training. It was tough, demanding and rewarding, just as basic I think would be. I was fit, strong and had confidence in myself to do what needed to get done. But I still had two months left in the summer before school started so upon reviewing my options I decided to go to Kingston and join my friend’s painting crew.

Mark Johnston, one of my best friends from high school, had been a close friend at university as well so he and I found a house on campus to rent for the upcoming year, finding a third housemate whom we both knew from high school. It was a great change from the craziness of The Maxi-pad since both Mark and our other housemate Derek Williams were very good students and naturally smart. They were both patient and compassionate people, never quick to criticize and mock, which is what I craved after living in such a fast-paced second-year party house and first-year residence. They were calm and well-read and both did very well academically. (Mark would eventually become a high school teacher in British Colombia, and Derek would become a professor at the University of Toronto). I know they were both concerned with me and my reckless behaviour but Mark had the ability to see my sensitive side and I’m sure he saw the crisis I was in. He was particularly gentle with me, being patient to listen to me as I fumbled my way through basic questions of liberal arts and the beginnings of becoming my own person. For so many years I had adopted mainstream ideas that were not mine and called them my own because I never thought things through myself, so now that I was studying philosophy and reading novels on my own I was like a young kid coming out of his shell with simple questions that needed to be asked. Mark and Derek were so good for this stage of my life. They were both compassionate guys who saw in me someone making a sincere effort to grow and evolve.


Third-year University


My third-year university was a fantastic year for me and epitomized the transformation that happened to me during my time at school in the late eighties.

Mark was a very laidback guy so he was great to paint with. We were a crew of two for College Pro Painters and we had a cool foreman who let us do our jobs without getting too uptight. Mark had been painting during the summers since high school so he knew the tricks that we needed to do in order to complete some pretty tough jobs. I was volatile and emotional, but I was never not a hard worker. I was the worst when I was hungover and always felt terrible when I didn’t put in a good day of painting. And because Mark was so understanding and tolerant, instead of impatient and mean, I quickly modified my behaviour so that I was seldom hungover during the week while we worked. Mark taught me how kindness could bring about change in someone and that someone was me. My father was the opposite. He sought to mold my brother and me through violence and cruel verbal abuse so it was a totally new experience for me – and a very healthy one at that.

And part of being so patient was his ability to listen to my hang ups. No matter what I threw at him he would listen to me and not judge. It was a very special skill and one that likely saved me from taking a different path in life. He guided me by showing me what was good behaviour and what being a good person was rather than being petulant and selfish and spoiled and immature. Mark’s father was a minister and he came from a large family, many of whom I had met when I used to hang out at his house during high school. And Mark laughed a lot. He laughed at me but with kindness in his eyes. There was no derision or contempt in him – only patience and hope. I felt safe and protected for the first time, which enabled me to spread my wings and dream with hope. I was able to understand things better whereas before I had held many things in suspicion because I had never understood them. I had been a snob and a money-obsessed Regan-era fiscal conservative who had never valued the arts or those involved with anything outside of gathering money. Mark had never been interested in making money so this was new to me. He clearly saw my honest intellectual curiosity blooming and he made sure I found my way with minimal trauma. He and Derek fostered and learning environment during my third year of university so that we could relax and laugh and talk intelligently about things that were topical and mattered. It was where my real education took place that year – a decompression zone where I felt safe enough to embarrass myself with stupid questions. And I could be left alone to read if I wanted rather than always drink beer and get into mindless chatter about things that were superficial and full of gossip.

It was where my education took root and started to grow.

With the safety and post-Maxi-pad calmness of living with Mark and Derek, I began to spread my wings. I met many different people during my third year of university. One guy, Andrew Peppal, had a huge impact on me. He was a year older and like me had gone to a private boarding school but Peppal had been Head Boy. I met him through mutual friends and discovered that he too was studying philosophy. But he was so much different than anyone I had met. He was a great athlete but didn’t care about sports. He was good looking and well socialized but cared more for his books than anything else. He saw in me similar qualities and took me under his wing and schooled me in the important books to read. He literally gave me a list of books I had to read. So still being a novice reader, I was more confident now after having spent so many hours reading philosophy. I read every book he lent me and still thirsted for more.

I trusted Pep that he knew the cool books that were defining our generation.

He also spoke at length about traveling and about this other world of visionaries who did different things, like Peter Beard in Africa and Joseph Campbell and his research into myths. He was a walking encyclopedia yet he never watched television. He walked around campus in cut-off jeans wearing wool socks and Birkenstock sandals until there was snow on the ground. I would go into the philosophy office to pick up another essay I had written only to see I had scored a 67% again, never quite being able to break a 75, but I would see Peppal’s essays in the pile with the neatest handwriting and with a 98%. It was so strange that this guy who was so entrenched with reading novels and dreaming of going to Africa and who hardly ever went to philosophy class could write a paper and get 98%. It added to the mystery of this guy, so we became friends and he opened the door to this new world I knew existed but hadn’t yet fully discovered. He always told me never to let school get in the way of my education. Fortunately and unfortunately I adhered to this philosophy. I discovered a true passion for reading novels, first tackling the numerous books by Herman Hesse – philosophical and spiritual books that spoke to me as a young man who was struggling to find out who I am. I was shocked that there were books like this in existence because my only exposure were of Charles Dickens, who had never grabbed me in any way. There were always too many words and I could never figure out what was going on.

I needed a precise setting to get grounded in a book, and without that I just couldn’t get into it.

I started to think seriously about traveling because I didn’t want to screw up at university by not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I began to think that taking a year off to travel and learn about myself was the wise thing to do. I had spent my entire life at school and had never had a year to myself. I had never gone to camp or had a cottage, and had always had a summer job since I was 13 years old. I had never had a few weeks off and I was 22 years old. But I was also very into my studies during my third year. I spent a lot of time talking to professors of mine who took the time to coach me away from the dangerous precipice while I was so passionate about Nietzsche. At the same time as my unending Nietzsche readings I was also very into feature film. I went to see movies all the time, getting into the films of Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, loving the wit and humour and character-driven plots. As I have mentioned, I found the film Fletch so funny that I found Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books at a second-hand bookstore and read them like they were water. It was my third-year of university that I read one after another and somewhere in the midst of this flurry I thought for the first time seriously of how cool it would be to be a writer like him. This was the first inkling I had that maybe I would not live in Toronto as an executive. I had always harboured an unspoken dream of being a screenwriter but I was seeing there were many ingredients in filmmaking and that I preferred to be solo rather than in a team.

I had always done individual sports rather than team sports so I think this contributed to me becoming happier alone.

But before I was allowed to start my third year of university I had received a letter from the Dean of the university that I had to take a year off school because of my low marks. I had failed a half course during my second year so I got 4.5 credits but my average was still below the minimum of 60%. I was still very keen to be at school so I wrote the Dean a letter citing Nick Shaw’s sudden suicide as the primary reason for my crappy marks. It was my only move, and soon after mailing the letter I had a letter from the Dean telling me that I would be allowed back to Queen’s. And the letter was a very sincere and compassionate piece, with the Dean stating that he had been personally moved by the events of what happened with Nick Shaw and he knew of my involvement with it from the beginning. I never did meet the Dean but with his letter and his understanding I think I began to think that I had a good reason to be disgruntled and anxious about things, and that I was entitled to special treatment.

And this was not the correct interpretation of that letter, which led to problems down the line later in the year for me.

When my third year was underway I was pretty thrilled at how far I had slid away from the beginning of my second year when I was enrolled as an economics major. I can’t think of once that I regretted my decision to dive deeply into the liberal arts because I was so barren in this aspect of my life. I was solid when it came to mathematics and business because I had grown up in a family that valued business and numbers, so for the first time I loved what I was learning and I was laughing a lot more. But underneath my laughter was a hard edge that had developed because for the first time I knew I could fall very far down from where I had come from. I had always taken comfort that I would remain in the upper-middle class niche I had been accustomed to but now, since I was essentially being an artist, there was no safety net for me.

If I failed at being a film writer or novelist then it was pauperism for me and a hard life.

This fear motivated me and scared me simultaneously. This tension fueled my journal writing that stepped up during my third year substantially. I took to copying passages from books into my journals and illustrating them with hand drawings and cut out pieces from newspapers or books I would buy. Each unlined blank page in my journal took on an artistic hue that I became very proud of. This was a good example of something within my personality that was obsessive about recording wherever I went. I wanted to take with me all the nuggets of wisdom I learned from my book reading at university. And in later life, when I was living and working and traveling overseas, I had the same obsession to record what I did in order to share it with others.

And this strict journal writing and recording gave rise to many of the novels I am known for today.

The freer and more liberated I became in my mind from my studies, the more liberated I sought to be from my surroundings. Queen’s is a conservative school, built on the strict Scottish traditions of Upper Canada but with some give for craziness. This mixture for me was good but soon became not enough to handle my expanding world view. I wanted to taste more of that Sioux Lookout wildness where you could do anything like it was the Wild West. So during a Christmas party at a bar downtown Kingston things got pretty wild and, after drinking gin with a girl I liked, I went a little too wild and started dancing on top of the counter at the bar. Everyone was wild that night as exams were over and essays were done and the Christmas spirit was in us all but the bouncer didn’t think so. He came up to me and was very rough when he pulled me down, which brought my friends to my aid. I don’t recall any of it until I was pushed out of the bar. There in the cold I woke up from my slumber. I felt I had been unfairly dealt with, which I think brought with it all those skeletons in the closet from the abuse I suffered as a child, and I freaked out. I crossed the road on my way back to my house on Aberdeen Street but not without punching the headlight of a guy who nearly ran me over. The stupid thing was that I thought the headlight would shatter. Instead two of my metacarpal bones in my right hand broke. I woke up the next morning with a very harsh headache and a broken hand.

Rage stirred in my breast and I was not happy during that Christmas of 1988.

My mother and step father had bought a bungalow in Leaside in Toronto so I was able to spend Christmas there but it was an uncomfortable time for me. When I returned to Toronto I felt that I had changed so much that there wasn’t the same comforting hearth I had always felt before. The bourgeois life I had always known had become distasteful to me and my thirst for a change went into higher gear. I saw my father and it was the first time I told him I had dropped out of economics and was now studying philosophy and film as my majors. He was not happy. New stresses started to weigh me down. Wherever I went I had my Portable Nietzsche or a Herman Hesse novel tucked under my arm.

I knew my days were number at Queen’s but I still didn’t have a plan.

As injured and scarred as I was as I started 1989, I still tried to keep up appearances. I wasn’t playing on the badminton team or writing for the school newspaper but instead I was going to many films and philosophy lectures in Watson Hall. I was spending more and more time writing, and when I felt like writing everything else was put aside. I didn’t realize it at the time but this behaviour was telling insofar as it showed how much I cared about writing. If there was a party that started at 8pm and I was writing in the library, the party would have to wait. 9pm, 10pm, 11pm – it didn’t matter because my writing trumped the party. I would still show up at the party, flushed from the success of my time spent writing in my journal and ready to drink quickly to catch up to my friends. If they asked me where I was I never told them I was busy writing.

I would give them a white lie and say I was writing an essay and couldn’t stop.

I found writing in my journal way a very good way for me to work out things in my mind or something troubling me in my heart. I would read something in a philosophy book or novel that would act like a trigger and I would put everything I was doing down and open my journal and write. I would literally write for hours. I made sure I had more than two or three pens because at times I would write so much I would run out of ink and there was nothing worse than being interrupted while writing. The words would flow out. I’m not even sure if I was aware of who I was writing “to,” whether it was to myself or to my father or to Professor Fell; all I knew was that these words were rumbling around within me and needed to get out. I would get cramps in my hand from writing so much, and kinks in my neck from long hours sitting at a desk, so my behaviour compensated for this new development in my life. I would go on long walks at strange hours or take my mountain bike on long rides during unusual hours, and would end up very far away ill-prepared with a crappy jacket when it was raining out. I often took my bike deep down the trails that started at old Fort Henry and ride until I knew it was getting too dark to return, again and again finding myself in strange situations where I would be soaking wet in darkness walking home with a flat tire but with many new pages of writing. I had a rule – that if the urge to write hit me I would stop and write. This included when I was riding my bike. It became a common sight to see me crouched over sitting on some field or beside a tree writing, completely oblivious to people walking past me.

It was if I had some subconscious understanding of how this act of journal writing was the only way to my salvation.

Part of the reason I started to write so much was that I was finding my course load of extreme interest. I think it was my enthusiasm that my professors liked so they were inclined to let me take their fourth-year classes. I did as much reading as I could before I hit a tangent and wrote for my own purposes. One thing that was becoming apparent as I kept going into smaller classes in the philosophy department was that I never spoke in class. I mean I never spoke. There were numerous times when I was the only silent one in the class. Three hours of discussing an idea where each student contributed to the discussion as we all sat around one large table in a very small room and I didn’t speak. For the first years I could easily get away with sitting at the back of the class and not speak, or in a lecture hall, but in intimate surroundings it was very bad form. From ever since I could remember I have always been shy and sensitive. When I was a young boy if someone said something to me that was mean I would start to cry. I was always told I was too sensitive and that I should toughen up but how exactly does a child do that? And the shyness I think was partially due to the abuse from my father. I learned very young that it was better to remain silent and watch what I said because if I spoke up it would often result in punishment. This chronic negative reinforcement would wreak havoc on me for years, until I started using alcohol to step outside of my shell, but I never used alcohol in the classroom. I regarded university as a church and the classroom as a confessional so the vice of boozing was incongruous with the divine nature of academia. So I suffered silently during my third year rather severely. My professors I’m sure had seen this type of shyness before but some of my fellow students didn’t like it at all. I compensated by writing in my journal and by speaking to my professors one-on-one after class in their office.

I was very good at that, asking my questions to my professors in their office outside of class.

But this dramatically added to the tension within me. One side of me thought I would become a professor because I had come from a long line of teachers and professors. I enjoyed studying and I enjoyed discussing ideas but I was simply unable to speak in a classroom environment. This glaring shortcoming weighed heavily on me as the year proceeded and the expectations for me to “perform” increased. Most of my professors were very empathetic to my delicate nature and took steps to protect me in the classroom from bullies who purposely directed discussion at me. It was really an incredible display of tact and finesse. But because of this I knew it could not last and so out of desperation I began to look for another outlet outside of academia.

What else could I do outside of academia?

This question for me at the time had no answer. I simply could not see where my niche lay. So I buried myself into books. I read a lot during the second half of my third year, reading Herman Hesse and novels like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Paul Theroux and other authors who always had an interesting story to tell. But the book that inspired me like no other was Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse’s masterpiece. Having spent time as a boarding student at a private boarding school, the setting of this book of two boy ages 13 at a monastery in Germany in the late 19th century struck a chord in me. One boy being a scholar and the other an artist, the story for the first time explained to me how ones nature can be so different to another’s despite being such close friends. For me I realized that my struggle was between my intellectual side and my artistic side, that by finding my place in the world would pull my gifts out of me and thus would bring me life and give my life meaning. I had spent so much time pushing myself back and forth into various areas of life but I had never thought of going out into the world and trying everything to see where I flourished. I had been too scared to do this and I had always felt too restricted, whether by paternal punishment or by financial threat. If I left university I would be own my own financially for the first time so this encouraged me to be safe and stay in school even if it meant studying the wrong things.

So when I read this novel by Hesse, I had found the story that perfectly explained my conflict.

I remembered crying during the last ten pages of the book. I was curled up on my bed not wanting the book to end. When Goldmund returns to the monastery to see his friend at the end of his life it was one of the most emotional experiences in my young life, and it left a deep impression on me. I had never experienced art being so powerful before. I had seen sad movies that I cried at the end but with a novel it was infinitely more powerful and personal because the entire story had taken place within my imagination, complete with smells and coldness of temperatures all based on my experience at Trinity College. And even the closeness between the two friends was something I had experience in too, being an identical twin. The book was written with such honesty and with such candid language that I hung onto every word, as if Hesse was my spiritual father. Never had I had such an experience, and only a few times after this with perhaps two or three other books have I had such a personal evolution.

This was a novel recommended by Andrew Peppal who saw in me this conflict. It was the perfect balm for me at the time and went a long way to point me in the right direction for me to find my calling, however, the timing of it couldn’t have been worse. I read the novel about a month before the end of school. I had many essays due and some exams to write but after I put the book down I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I spent time riding my mountain bike and taking long walks – anything other than more study. I felt that I had found the answers that I was looking for and that there was no more purpose to studying academic philosophy. I had discovered that I had two selves within my soul: the academic and the artist. And that it was my task to find out who I was more comfortable being of the two. Nietzsche had taught me the purpose in life was to “become who you are,” and William James had taught me that one must discover their true self. I felt like I was equipped to face the world with theory and that I was strong enough to undertake an adventure into the world on my own so the writing was on the wall. I couldn’t see myself returning for my fourth year in philosophy when I still wasn’t convinced that becoming a philosophy professor was my true calling, so being in this state of mind during the final month of my third year, I was handcuffed. I could not motivate myself to complete my essays or to study for my exams. I can’t remember exactly the details but I’m sure there were at least two essays I didn’t even hand in.

I basically dropped out, not caring how I did.

I had reached the end of the road.


Vancouver Film School


I ended up taking home only two credits that year, which was a shame considering how much time I had spent reading and studying, but it didn’t concern me in the slightest. Perhaps I was being a spoiled brat and stomping up and down like a child, or perhaps I had discovered something that was so valuable to me that I could not value the old world anymore. The Hesse novel had shown me that I had a true passion for novels so I set out to read all the novels I hadn’t read during high school, like Brave New World and Catcher in the Rye and 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird so I could have a good grounding in literature. I became my own literature teacher, keeping a list of the books I read and rated them from one to ten on the back pages of the many journals I wrote. And for each novel I wrote about them. They weren’t book reports; they were insights I had from them. Just like I had done with the philosophy textbooks and primary sources during my time at Queen’s, when I was provoked by something in the book I used it to write. I felt I had used my time at Queen’s studying philosophy in order to find what it was I wanted to do, and in doing this I had discovered I had a true interest in novels, so this was my next stage of education, but coupled with this was travel. I would return tree planting to earn enough money for a plane ticket overseas somewhere where I could seek adventure and discover new truths about who I was so that when I did eventually return I would have a plan.

My father wasn’t thrilled with my decision but my mother was supportive. My brother had been traveling so much that there was some element of envy there but it was easy for him because he had so much money. I felt that if I kept working hard at the things I could do then eventually I would have my chance to have my overseas adventures too. So I flubbed the end of my third year and then whisked myself off to the bush in northern Canada tree planting to earn some serious money so I could travel.

Being prepared for my second year of tree planting gave me a tremendous leg up on the other rookies. I knew what to expect and knew the importance of good equipment so I prepared well and hit the ground running. I again engineered myself in such a way that I was on Michelle’s crew, this time not caring whether she took notice of me or not. I was now a returning planter and was given the respect of being a veteran. I had a new sense of freedom now because I was on my own for the first time in my life. I was in charge now. There was no more school. There were no more training wheels. There was only what I wanted. Many people in my shoes might thirst for a job in downtown Toronto with a suit and tie but I wanted the opposite. I wanted to go places that were in the novels I was reading, far-off lands where only the intrepid went, like Goldmund. I can’t say I had a more level head now because there was now an abyss that followed me wherever I went. The recklessness was still there and surfaced often but in the aftermath of my drunken escapades there was a quiet reserve of someone getting used to them. I had accepted that unusual outbursts of anger or dangerous behaviour was par for the course for someone like me who was on their own path seeking different vistas and new experiences. With a head full of Nietzsche, I wanted to take the dangerous path, often times blurring the understanding between his polemic metaphors and literal interpretation. I was essentially willing to use my own life as a guinea pig to the ideas I had accumulated while in my ivory towers.

It was a recipe that often resulted in extreme injury and death – both of which I would encounter.

I was now embodying the gambler rune.

Hungry to earn money, I worked hard to achieve that. I endured the mosquitoes and black flies and blisters and rain to earn $8800 in the ten weeks I worked, good money in 1989. With nothing to spend the money on during the season, I received a large cheque after the season was over, but that was the problem: I received it in the following April instead of in July. This was because when I filled out my tax form at the beginning of the season I checked the box that opted to get the money at the end of the tax season rather than at the end of employment. I hadn’t a clue how to fill out the form and had a fifty-fifty chance of checking the right box. But when I discovered my error in July I wasn’t that upset. I was very proactive and lasted about a week in Toronto before hopping on a bus with a tree-planting friend to catch the final concert of my favourite band The Who in Vancouver. We traveled across Canada with a backpack and a change of clothes with dreams rumbling in our stomach. We arrived the day of the concert with no money and no tickets but I was somehow able to meet my brother at a bar in Gas town and proceed to get drunk on cheap beer and then hop a fence at the arena and get into the concert for free. All the serendipity of getting to see The Who in Vancouver that night reassured me that I was on the right path and that I would find my way. I found a crappy apartment in Gas town for a few weeks before I landed a job delivering pizzas. I loved the job because they supplied the car and it gave me a great schooling in Vancouver’s geography.

And I ate the free pizza they supplied.

I didn’t need much and I soon learned how to cook for myself in that tiny room and how to save my money by spending long hours drinking bottomless cups of coffee at cafés writing in my journal. I was in Vancouver but I felt like I was in Paris. I wore a beret and walked everywhere, spending any extra money going to see movies at the second-run theatre on Granville Street. Determined not to let the time pass me by, I decided to enroll in Vancouver Film School to study scriptwriting. We met every Wednesday night for one term – from September to December. When asked about my writing experience I said I had studied film at university and that I was a regular writer, so I took the intermediate course, which turned out to be a good call. There were only five or six of us in the class so we all had good instruction by our teacher, who was a middle-aged man with white hair pulled back in a ponytail. Having spent so much time at a prestige university like Queen’s, I was enamoured by the hands-on approach of Vancouver Film School. It was made clear during the first class that each of us were responsible for coming up with a full story that would be hammered into place with proper structure and plot points, and completed as a full screenplay by the end of term. I was stoked! But I wasn’t really given any time to come up with an idea outside of class because the teacher asked us to outline a story in the classroom during the first class. And the only story I could think of was the story of Nick Shaw.

This is how my novel Visigoths in Tweed was born.

I told the teacher in class about what had happened and he helped map out the story with some structure, explaining to us all the importance of character development, plot points and clean structure. From his instruction I never could watch a film the same again because I could see precisely how they were structured – with the first plot point introduced after the first fifteen minutes of the film, etc. I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be after Queen’s. I felt comfortable and I surprised myself with my confidence speaking in class. I wasn’t talking about philosophy. I was talking about storytelling. It was my story and it was based on real life so the writing of Visigoths in Tweed had a non-fiction foundation, something I would do with almost all my books.

I soon found a job as a bartender at a restaurant in Gas town that served pizza, which paid much more money than delivering pizza. But what I found was there was no money left after each paycheque. It was a real slap in the face. I paid rent and barely had money for food so there wasn’t any money for beer or travel. It was a real eye-opener. My hunger increased dramatically so of course I ate at the restaurant without my boss seeing, whether it was eating leftovers from customer’s plates or stuff about to be thrown out because it was past due.

It was the first time I had experience prolonged hunger but not the last.

I threw myself into the study of film and the writing of Visigoths in Tweed. It wasn’t written as a novel; it was written as a film script. There were no laptops back then so I was forced to write bits and pieces in my journals and then copied it out into my film notebook. I could write different scenes on different sheets of paper and insert them into my three-ringed binder so that it soon took shape. To be producing something of my own was a great experience for me. It might be similar to a musician recording his first single or a painter painting their first painting. If Aristotle defined happiness as not wanting to change your present situation, I was – for the first time – happy. I relished the class and the act of creating on the page. I had structure and I knew the content so it became a matter of sitting down and drinking coffee at a café and writing it out. Some writers find it difficult writing dialogue but I never found that perhaps because my initial training was in scriptwriting that is so heavily dialogue-based.

So with each passing week my story expanded and took shape.

But since I didn’t have any money and the scriptwriting course costs over $600 just for the one course, I knew I couldn’t afford it. I told the administration that I was working and that I would pay after my next paycheque that kept coming and going until finally they gave me an ultimatum: pay or you need to stop the course. I bought as much time as possible so I could save, which I was doing but I was simply unable to save any money. I found a place in Kitsilano where I shared a house with a guy and his girlfriend, paying less than I was when I was living in that crappy hotel in Gas town but still I was unable to save. It was a horrible experience living in that house because the guy was so angry. He used to stomp around the house with his feet striking the floor with purposeful impact as if he was trying to wake me up or disrupt me. And that poor woman who lived with him. He used to yell at her and treat her so disrespectfully that I’m sure he could sense I didn’t like him. In fact I became just plain scared of him. He reminded me of my father – his black moods and the hair-trigger fuse. So being so freaked out in that house and facing an insurmountable tuition at film school, it occurred to me in late November that my story was all hammered out and that I could just pick up and leave.

And that’s what I did: I picked up and left for Toronto where I could pick up my large cheque from tree planting.

I did feel badly that I wasn’t able to pay Vancouver Film School but I had no recourse. I was never the type to ask my mother or father for money, (unlike my brother, who when he ran out of money had no problems asking for a monthly cheque from my mother). I never had a chance to thank my teacher for being such a great scriptwriting teacher. Perhaps now, at age 56, I see that it wasn’t so much the money that was the tipping point for me to return to Toronto but rather it was the environment I was living in – the increasing terror this guy had on me. Near the end he was pushing me to the limit – going into my bedroom and taking things of mine and eating my food. And he was such a great ball of rage that it was just a matter of time before he struck out at me. There was one yelling incident just before I left that sealed it for me. And instead of standing up to him and confronting him in conflict, it was preferable for me to sneak out the back door to avoid the emotional scarring associated with confrontation. It would become a pattern in my life the deeper my life choices took me in different situations and countries around the world.

So with my final paycheque I bought a cheap plane ticket that left from Seattle rather than Vancouver and flew home to Toronto.

When I returned I learned that my cheque would not be there for me in January as I had thought but rather sometime in April so I had to find work until then. I worked temporary office jobs in downtown Toronto and stayed in the basement at my mother’s, which would be the last time I ever stayed at ‘home.’ It was a terrible time for me because I knew my friends were at university having a ball and studying and about to graduate while I was ‘at home’ and working a crappy series of jobs. I knew I had made a rash decision leaving beautiful Vancouver for the gray winter of Toronto after two weeks of being back east. This truth would also have a long-term impact on me in the future. I refused to ever leave something too early again just because I missed ‘home.’ I endured this four months and counted the days until my cheque arrived, spending lots of time polishing my script. I had read a novel that influenced me greatly around this time titled The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, the same novel that inspired Steve Martin to attend university to study philosophy. I had planned to follow the footsteps of the main character Larry Darrell and go to Paris to live the life of a writer but my decision to do this changed when I was in Vancouver. A co-worker of mine argued that I should go to Southeast Asia because every traveler went to Europe. It was a similar argument to the one that saw me change out of economics to study philosophy and film during the first month of the second year of university. He made a good point because the point of me traveling was to get off the beaten track and see parts of the world that very few had seen before me. So when I did finally get my cheque in the mail I booked a flight not to London England but to Bangkok, Thailand with a stopover in Hong Kong.

This seemingly small decision was to have a lasting influence on the course of my life.

I had an uncle in Hong Kong and could not escape the logic of stopping there to see him since I would literally be flying over Hong Kong on the way to Thailand. To me it was all so far away so I had to stop over to see family on the way to Thailand. I didn’t know what to expect in either place so I was pretty flexible as to where I went. Hong Kong was British in 1990 and it suited my interest in colonial history in the Far East. But Thailand for me was full of parties and beaches and lagoons and fun, so that was my focus. When I finally stepped onto the plane I was ready. I didn’t know where I would end up. All I knew was that one day I would return to Queen’s to finish my degree when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

One thing happened during this time that had a lasting impact on me: I dislocated my right shoulder. I was at a pub with my brother Mike and a friend over Christmas that year in Toronto and Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy was playing in his band and when he wandered off stage and was playing his guitar as he walked down the stairs, I followed him. Dancing. When he arrived on the main floor the bouncer approached me and shoved me against the brick wall hard, and at the angle I hit my shoulder popped out of its socket. I was shocked the bouncer did this because I was only dancing. But he was mad and he pushed me hard. At first I just thought I had a sore shoulder, but it hurt so much I took a taxi home and called it a night, but unfortunately I couldn’t sleep due to the pain so I went to the emergency room at the local hospital and they said my shoulder was dislocated. They laid me on my stomach and swung my arm and then pop! It slipped back into place.

The issue for me was that at the age of 22 I still harboured thoughts of returning to competitive badminton. There were many examples of players who took a few years away from the sport only to return to renewed passion and discipline. I had these thoughts but once my shoulder ligaments had been stretched, my shoulder never really worked the same again. I tried my best to strengthen my shoulder by swimming and with weights, but my shoulder did dislocated many times again in the years to come. This would culminate in shoulder surgery. This injury was the beginning of the end of my old athletic life.

When I finally received my fat paycheque in the mail from tree planting the summer before, I booked a flight to Asia and left within the week.




My stopover in Hong Kong to visit my aunt and uncle and cousins turned out to be a very cool adventure for me. My uncle Peter McFetridge, my mother’s brother, was a professor at the Polytechnic in Kowloon Tong, a brand new school with all the amenities a school should have: spacious hallways, massive lecture halls, balconies, an Olympic-size swimming pool all nestled in the rocky ridge near the airport surrounded by palm trees. I mean it didn’t even look like a traditional school. Modern and air-conditioned, it was the opposite of Queen’s, with its drafty limestone buildings, beautiful and classic in its own right. My uncle and his family lived in the residential condominium right beside the school that formed a little colony of professors, with their own campus and palm trees, balconies and awesome view of Hong Kong harbour to the south.

But like all accommodations in Hong Kong, it was small.

My cousin Mike, who was a year younger than me, was at university in Australia but my younger cousin was there but she was only about 12 years old. My uncle was always teaching so I hung out with my aunt mostly. My aunt Joan was very cool but she had gained a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. She must have weighed close to 300 pounds. I could tell she was embarrassed but I did my best not to talk about it. She did bring it up but I couldn’t talk about it because I was too sensitive to her pain. Being an empath there are certain things I simply cannot do – one of them is to engage in small talk about someone’s obesity. The first thing I thought of was how the Chinese, who were all thin and limber, would laugh at her behind her back. The Chinese I could tell pretty quickly stuck together and regarded westerners with suspicion, awe and scepticism, so to have gained so much weight placed a target on her back. But my Aunt Joan was very cool and we had a good time for the little time I was there in the apartment, which was hardly at all.

My uncle understood that I was there to explore so he did his best to give me the rundown of the place.

“There are some great restaurants here and down this street,” he said as was walked near the harbour in Kowloon, “and the yellow signs with the barber wheel – they are brothels.” I gave him a double take but he grinned and I knew I was being shown around not as an awkward boy but as a young man who wanted to see life. It was what I wanted and my uncle Peter was cool enough to treat me the way he would have wanted to be treated at the same age. After that I relaxed and spoke to him not as my uncle but as my friend. He too responded well to the subtle shift, and we both had a good time. We relaxed and had a few beers beside the water and spoke to one another without any more awkwardness. I told him I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and he laughed. “Well, why would you? You’re only 22. I was 45 when I got my PhD. Relax. Have fun. It will fall in your lap.”

I wish my father had said this!!!

And so I explored Hong Kong on my own. It was very British and very safe, easy to navigate but very populated with a high density. Buildings shot up into the sky so dramatically from the rocky landscape it was dizzying. But everything functioned well, from the double-decker buses to the subway system to the ferry system. The Hong Kong Film Festival was on so I went to a few films, I hung out beside the water and drank beer and wrote in my journal feeling very cool and groovy finally being somewhere other than Canada. One night we all went out for Peking duck at a fancy dinner, which was fine but it ended up becoming something else for me. My uncle was having fun, drinking with me and enjoying my spunk. I loved the Peking duck – very tasty dish. There was this white sauce that was very hot and spicy – hotter than wasabi. My uncle, with a mischievous grin, pushed the sauce towards me and gave me the rest of his Peking duck telling me I had to finish the sauce because it was so expensive. Being a very gullible young man and not wanting to question his motivation, I complied by drenching the Peking duck with this white sauce. It didn’t take long for my face to turn beat red and break out in a flash flood of sweat, dripping off the end of my nose. My uncle, who was sitting across from me, had a very good laugh at my expensive. To squash the heat in my mouth I drank my beer very quickly, and then he offered me his beer too, which I drank very quickly. Man did he get a kick out of that.

I was to become very close to my uncle Peter throughout my life but I don’t think I ever saw him laugh quite as hard ever again.

Of course I ended up becoming very drunk so that on the way back to their condo in Kowloon Tong I said I was going to go off on my own to a nightclub, which I did. I had a lot of fun and ended up testing his theory about the yellow signs with the barber wheel, which turned out to be true. The clubs are open all night in Hong Kong – almost everything is open all night in Wan Chai – so when I finally returned to the condo the following morning my uncle was seated at the table eating his breakfast when I walked in and passed him on my way to my room. I was still wearing the boxer shorts they had given me at the brothel but had somehow lost a sock, so when I went by him he said: “I see you lost a sock.”

That was all he said but the way he said it conveyed to me that I had graduated to a higher level of respect in his book.

It was exciting and new but was still a British city like Toronto so ultimately it didn’t have the snap I wanted. But that all changed after my uncle suggested if I wanted a real adventure I should travel to the mainland.

“I thought China was closed to foreigners?” I said, but he told me they had recently opened the borders a few months earlier. The Tiananmen Square massacre had just happened nine months before, in 1989, but I didn’t know much about politics and I didn’t think any of that unrest and demonstrations would affect my safety. My uncle, a professor of economics and a man of few words, simply said that if I wanted to go all I needed to do was to go to the Chinese embassy downtown and get a travel visa, then buy a train ticket. It appealed to my sensibilities and because he made it seem so easy I couldn’t refuse.

Two days later I was on a train moving north to Beijing.

Mainland China was completely different to Hong Kong. It was like stepping back in time 200 years. This was in April of 1990 when the country was just beginning to modernize. At the time it was still full of hutongs – old housing complexes that were simple bungalows all connected with inner courtyards and walkways. It was really beautiful but so simple, with many people riding simple bicycles and selling wares and foodstuffs on the streets. One of the first things I noticed was how most people wore the same clothes – Mao suits – a blue cotton outfit that was supplied by the communist party, or more precisely, by the one clothing outlet run by the communist party. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life because it was so abrupt and I had had no previous traveling experience. I had gone from Queen’s University and Toronto to Hong Kong and then to rural China. Even the train was colonial.

It was right out of a David Lean film!

So few foreigners had traveled mainland China in 1990. The country had been closed to foreigners since the Cultural Revolution in the 1950s so when the Chinese saw me they pointed and stared. I couldn’t figure out why they were staring at me until much later in the trip when I went off the beaten track and people would approach me to touch my hair and touch my white skin. There was no shame doing this because their curiosity was so sincere. They are very sensitive and shy people for the most part, timid to offend and lose face. I never once in all my years living among the Chinese felt threatened or in danger. Of course some would look at me like; “What are you doing in my country” but that was to be expected. Usually I would try to bow my head to show respect and this would usually quell any hostile looks. Sometimes I would smile and nod as well, which surprised most but left a positive vibe with them. Never once did I pushed any of my anger on them.

Only a fool would do that and put their lives in danger.

I found I was a natural traveler. I loved every minute of the adventure because it felt like I was a character in one of the novels I read. I wanted the experience to last as long as I could make it last. When I bought my train ticket to Beijing I had a choice of first class, soft sleeper, hard sleeper or fourth class. I bought a fourth class ticket, which was a spot on a wooden bench with eight other people. But it wasn’t just people, it was chickens and bags and food and babies, so I was squished in there for a few days with people staring at me. I packed very light and felt safe with my knapsack on my back so I could wander the train. It wasn’t as wild as the train I took in Burma 15 years later, but it was still a jolting experience for me. We passed by endless miles of farmland, people on the rice fields working the land. There were rice fields but nothing like that of Vietnam, which is the top producer of rice to China.

I remember it being dry and dusty and old, with the homes barely standing.

I had purchased a Lonely Planet guide book, which was my Bible because it gave me some information that was crucial. Without this book traveling mainland China in 1990 would have been virtually impossible. There were only a handful of intrepid travelers at the hostel in Beijing, mainly Europeans who were keen to explore this now open ancient culture. Many of them drank green tea and poured over their guide books, looking for places to go. I was less keen on the guide book, instead looking around wide-eyed and smelling the jasmine in the air. That was the thing about China: it smelled different. The China of today also smells different because of the pollution, but back then there was a quietude and spiritual quality that is now drowned out by the noise of traffic. There were hardly any vehicles on the roads. Everyone was on bikes. There were buses too but barely any cars.

There was still plenty of old China to see back then, but not no. Old China is long gone.

I stayed at a gigantic hotel that was empty. It had been designated as a hotel only for foreigners but because there were so few of us there, it was empty. When I walked down the hallways my steps echoed. I felt like it had been built by the communist system – everything equal and void of charm. And very cheaply constructed. But I had a room to myself and the woman who showed me my room left me a thermos of hot water for tea. This was strange to me that in a massive hollow-feeling hotel that was all concrete and had no pictures or decorations on the walls had thermoses of hot water at every corner for tea. Because everyone drank tea. When I had traveled on the train to Beijing every single person had an enormous mug of tea in front of them, as if it were the only possession they had. What I didn’t understand was why they had lids on them. I found out quickly that it was because of the tea. They would grab ground up jasmine tea leaves and put it into their hot water. The tea leaves would float but with a lid the hot water would steam up to the lid and therefore saturate the floating tea leaves so they would sink to the bottom, thus steeping better in the water.

I developed a real passion for Jasmin tea that trip.

Right beside the hotel was a Chinese dissident who spoke English and had spent time in jail, so the authorities assigned him this small café where he could watch visiting foreigners. The food was great and he served us beer all day long, which suited me. I smoked the local Chinese cigarettes and drank the big bottles of Tsing Tao Beer and even played my Who tape in the stereo. The guy was really laidback about things and let us drink and dance and party until all the surrounding lights were out. And that was another thing: there were no street lights or lights in general so when it was dark people went to sleep. People were in bed by 9pm. Conversely people were up very early in the morning with the sunrise.

One night I ate a couple of meals and drank all day and went to pay my bill and it was $3.50. I told him there had to be a mistake but upon calculation it was correct. The big 750ml bottles of beer were only $.25 each, and the meal was about $1. It was cheap!!

One of the things I did was visit Tiananmen Square. It’s difficult to describe but the size of it right in the heart of the country’s capital is a very powerful thing. In the middle of the square is a statue and on one side of the square is a museum, the other side the People’s Government building where the government meets and the other side is the Forbidden City, where the emperor used to live. I took the tour of the Forbidden City and it was a mini city unto itself, with countless little buildings all interlocked but hardly any of them had doors – only doorways. It was a lot of walking and I didn’t find it too stimulating, but the square was different because of the massacre. When I walked around the square I was looking for blood marks. I didn’t find any but I did find tank tread marks on the steps of the statue in the middle of the square. There were still banners and ripped up signs scattered along the perimeter of the square but they were all in Chinese and were of no interest to me.

I almost left Beijing without seeing the Great Wall. Even at that young age I was cynical about going to tourist traps. But I was told by a foreigner that it was well worth the effort, and I was very happy I went because it is truly an awesome sight. When you stand on it you can see it snake over the landscape mile after mile into the far distance and simply wonder how much time and effort went into its construction.

They must have really wanted to keep the foreigners out.

But I didn’t stay long in Beijing because it was a big city. I wanted to get out there and see the nitty gritty so I left with a girl from London I had met at the hotel and we went to Datong to see these massive Buddhist caves, and then we traveled to Xian, where were checked out the Terra Cotta Warriors that were still being unearthed. Xian is the end of the Silk Road and full of history. I men it is ancient. There was an old wall surrounding the old town that was still intact, offering only four ways out of the city centre. There was a neat little café where I again took advantage of the huge $.25 beer that was right beside these massive old walls.

This was what I had thirsted for when I was in Kingston reading about traveling and writng.

It is not my intention with this memoir to record all of my adventures because it would become too long-winded and tiresome. This is not a travelogue but there are some events that need to be mentioned. This next thing that happened to me was significant because it was the first time I encountered danger. As a young man protected from life’s dangers in comfortable surroundings in Toronto and at university, I was a bit too trusting of others. One night when I had explored a little too long in the old city of Xi’an I took a bus back to my hostel but because it was now dark I couldn’t find it. The streets were empty and dark and the only thing moving was the bus. I never saw another foreigner the whole time I was in Xi’an so I stood out like a sore thumb. This young couple approached me on the bus right around where I was to get off the bus. They talked to me with their very limited English but I could see they were inviting me to their house for the night. We all got off at the same bus stop and I walked along the street looking for my hostel but couldn’t find it. It was so dark and I think I did see it but it was all locked up and closed for the night. I finally agreed to go to their place. It was literally a ten by twelve-foot concrete block with no windows. It had a small table and a very big bed and piles of clothes and shoes in a corner.

It seemed like it was in the backyard of a house but it was simply a small abode common back then.

I had a Chinese-English dictionary so we used that to communicate. Flushed with the thrill of living an adventure perhaps I should have been more skeptical but I gave the couple the benefit of the doubt as they seemed genuinely interested in hosting a foreigner in their house. We made jokes and laughed for hours until about 2am when we all went to bed. I thought I would crash on the floor but they insisted I take their bed, which was strange to me. We had drank a few beers and I was pretty tired from exploring all day so when I lay down I fell immediately asleep. They had left me in their tiny shack and went to stay in their parent’s house next door. Then, perhaps an hour later they both returned and crawled into the bed with me. I was still clothed (as it was cold) and above the covers, using a thick blanket. But when they crawled into the king-sized bed the girl positioned herself against the wall and directly beside me while the guy was on the other side of me with his head down at my feet. Strange but what the hell, maybe that’s the way they did things in China, so I fell back to sleep. Then I was awoken by a wandering hand – she was making a move on me, putting her hand on my chest and then mounting me. I tried to stop her as her boyfriend/husband would obviously wake up, which he promptly did.

And he freaked out.

Immediately he turned white with rage and went to the door and locked it. He was trembling with anger as he stood and yelled at me, and then yelling at his wife/girlfriend. She started pointing at me and yelling back in Chinese, no doubt placing the blame on me. That’s when he really laid in to me, hitting me in the leg, really erupting with rage. When I tried to frown and yell back at him that it wasn’t me who started it he turned around and took out a huge knife – a butcher’s knife – from a drawer. He grabbed my wrist and slammed my hand on the bedside table, motioning that he was going to cut off my hand. Man was I scared, not only because I was locked in a small concrete shack with a crazed Chinaman with a butcher’s knife in his hand, but because I had learned in my psychology class during first-year university that a man who was white in the face was much more dangerous than a man who was red in the face. (He was so mad that his blood flow was constricted, and therefore much more likely to act on his anger).

Realizing my situation was dire, I took a different tack and tried to calm myself down and speak to him in a calm voice. I knew he had no idea what I was saying but it was the tone that I hoped would calm him down. I explained to him what had happened in very slow English, taking my time to explain how she had placed her hand on my chest etc., pointing at her. For a moment he focused his anger on her but then turned again to me, but when he did he was now red in the face. I knew I was out of the danger zone but still vulnerable to him doing something stupid. I then got off the bed and knelt down beside the bed and said the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t look at them but I’m sure they looked at each other and wondered what the hell I was doing. I didn’t do it to pray to God. I did it to buy time and hopefully calm him down. He again grabbed my wrist and motioned to cut off my wrist but I took my hand back and shook my head. That’s when he took out a ten yuan note from his pocket and showed it to me, and then flashing his five fingers at me twice. I took this to mean he wanted me to pay him money. Again I shook my head, but he insisted. I was practical in my alarmed state at this point, calculating that 1000 yuan was about $100, so I offered to pay him I think 500 yuan. I could rationalize paying his $50 to get the hell out. After some back and forth I stood up from the bed and gave him 500 yuan and then went to the door where I waited. He refused to open the door so I began to yell at him. Fearing I would wake up others near his shack, he finally relented and let me out.

I will never forget the cool morning air as I walked through slumbering Xi’an with a sweaty brow, thankful as hell to have escaped with both my hands. (This event is recorded in Visigoths in Tweed as a letter sent from German’s brother who was traveling in China).

After that I felt I had been baptized in the art of serious adventure, not really caring that I had put my person in danger. I realized that I thirsted for the edge and if I encountered the edge it was a badge of honour and not a mark against me due to stupidity. Still to this day I don’t think the couple planned it. I think she had a crush on me and it happened because we were young and carefree. I don’t think someone can fake that pale face when they are so freaked out.

I walked away that morning contrasting where I was and what had just happened with all my friends still in class at Queen’s dreading over their exams and term papers that were due. I felt liberated and stronger from the event, not at all embarrassed or hurt. I thought that it symbolized the kind of life I wanted to live – one full of danger and a life that exemplified Nietzsche’s philosophy of becoming who you are and bucking convention. The truth of the matter was of course much different – that I could have very easily disappeared completely because there was no recourse and no police that were around, and no one really knew where I was except my uncle, who I had not called since taking off in the train.

After Xi’an I hit the train and went to Shanghai. It had been a month since I left and I started to think my uncle might be worried, but instead of taking a train back to Hong Kong I decided to take a ship. So I did some digging in Shanghai and found a shipping company who took passengers. It was far from a cruise ship. In fact it was a container ship who took passengers and put them below deck on bunk beds. The air was thick with body odour and diesel but I loved the three-day journey because it wreaked of adventure. I had in my head all these images of colonial adventurers taking ships across the seven seas to far-off countries where they fought wars and had adventures, so this fit the bill for what I wanted. I played cards with Philippinos and drank beer and breathed in the salt air again thinking of all my friends in their stuffy rooms worrying about tests and summer jobs. I loved the moments of this contrast more than anything I had previous experienced, but I knew it was all fleeting as traveling was not a full-time job and I needed money to travel. I remained extremely thrifty with my spending, which truly added to the experience of maximizing my excitement while exploring the world.

When I finally arrived in Hong Kong and walked past the guard to my uncle’s condo, I bumped into my uncle as he was walking to class. His stiff upper lip said it all.

“Where the hell have you been? I gave you one more day – one more day – before I was going to call your mother and contact the consulate. Have you ever heard of a telephone?” He was furious. But somehow it didn’t bother me because of what I had gained. I was so used to getting in shit – from my father and my mother and my teachers and my coaches, but getting yelled at for undertaking independent travel in such an exotic country with such a different culture was well worth being chewed out. I was damn proud what I had done. There was not trophy or paycheque that could be taken away; it was an adventure – a memory nugget – that I would have for the rest of my life. I finally had had a taste of real-life adventure and I loved it.

And I wanted more.


Motorcycling Northern Thailand


Feeling the tension from my aunt and uncle for being so irresponsible during my trip to China, I didn’t remain long in Hong Kong, so I flew to Bangkok where I found the exotic Koh San Road with all the hostels and international travelers sitting around studying maps and drinking. I never knew there were such places as Koh San Road. I loved it as soon as I arrived in June of 1990. Backpackers; I had found my tribe.

I knew immediately I had found my niche.

Not much happened during the month I spent in Thailand except for two things. One was that, after spending two weeks hanging out on the beach swimming, reading and drinking beer, I learned that “hanging out on the beach” was overrated. Sure you meet people from all over the world and you drank beers on the beach and ate well at the cafés and even smoked a few joints but what else was there to do? How many times could one take a dip in the ocean? How many books does one read per week? I read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, and loved it. I had found an author I really liked, but reading on the beach in Thailand seemed rather incongruous to me. I wrote in my journal and dealt with my hangover each day but after two weeks I couldn’t wait to get out of there, so I went north to Chiang Mai where there wasn’t anything to do except – thank God – rent a dirt bike. When I rented a dirt bike from some small rental store in Chiang Mai, my life changed. Not since I was a little kid in grade four riding my mini-bike around in British Colombia had I experienced that thrill of riding. Like a fish to water, I had now really found my niche: exploring far-off countries on a dirt bike. Right then, at that moment riding in northern Thailand, I was truly happy in the Aristotelean sense of what happiness is: I did not want to change my present situation. Riding on that 125cc Honda dirt bike gave me that true sense of contentedness that had eluded me for years.

A new life for me had just begun.

When I lived in Ecuador during the midst of my cocaine addiction, my Danish friend Kenneth often told me that he was chasing his first high. He believed that when people got high again and again they were always trying to relive that time they first got high. If so, then my motorcycling experience in Thailand was a great high for me that I kept seeking for the rest of my life. It was such an extraordinary experience for me on many different levels. The sense of freedom I felt was something I had been seeking for many years – from the onset of my childhood when I was trying my best to live my life but was continually used as a punching bag for my mentally ill father, and through to the years of unrest at university and the confusing events of Nick Shaw. I knew what freedom was but I had not experienced freedom until Thailand. I had had lots of motorcycling experiences with my minibike in British Colombia growing up as well as my chronic mountain biking activities in Kingston, but I had never mixed two-wheeled riding in far-off countries. Mix in a baggie of weed and a compass and a map and a few months of free time and a loaded bank account, I found something that utterly transformed me as a person. It was a perfect storm of ingredients. I had already discovered I loved exploring foreign countries after China but to throw me onto a functional and reliable dirt bike was the icing on the cake. The feeling that came over me was a sensation I had never really experienced. To think of my friends back home now working at their full-time jobs in stuffy downtown Toronto after graduation and me in northern Thailand riding back roads with hardly an idea of where I was going, was a contrast that threw me into the realm of ecstasy.

I’m sure other people have their own version of serious fun but this was it for me: a dirt bike exploring in a foreign land.

And I was good at it! Sure I had a map but the instinct of where to veer at a fork in the road using a compass or ones inner sense of direction was something I was very good at. To me my dirt bike was my horse and my mission was a special op and I was a Special Forces unit of one. Excitement well-up inside me so that I could hardly contain the urge to pop a wheelie!

Having been surprised at how boring it was sitting on a beach in Thailand, and having already experienced the raucousness of partying, I was dismayed at my over-expectations I had had about the magic of traveling. However when I sat on a dirt bike, revved the engine and rode for the first few blocks with no one telling me where I could go and not go, something came alive within my soul. Ever since I was a kid in grade four on my minibike I had thirsted to ride a proper dirt bike and have the freedom to ride it the way I wanted and where I wanted. There were no traffic lights where I was and no one honking their horns behind me and no road signs telling me what I couldn’t do; it was just pure freedom. So having left the beaches of Koh Samui and having arrived in northern Thailand in Chiang Mai, where there was nothing to do but sit in your hostel and eat large meals and drink beer and talk to Thai girls who could hardly speak English, I had been crestfallen until I heard from a fellow traveler that I could rent a motorcycle.

After that for me it was a question always of how much time do I have left to ride?

I met a young lawyer from Tasmania at the hostel who owned a motorcycle in Tasmania who agreed to rent a motorcycle with me. We planned to ride to the Golden Triangle in the very north of the country where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia meet. It also was one of the world’s centre of the opium trade. To me that didn’t matter. To me what mattered was that it was an adventure and it was dangerous. So we took off with a baggie of weed and dirt bikes and a map of northern Thailand that showed the way to the Golden Triangle. He was a very good motorcycle rider but I wasn’t at the beginning. Overeager and too heavy of the throttle, I found it difficult to contain my excitement on the roads, which led to some early problems. My Tasmanian friend was cool riding the bumpy roads that wound around mountains leading to the north whereas I was erratic. He had the expertise to slow the bike before the sharp turns before accelerating while exiting the turn. But I didn’t.

So it didn’t take long before I had my first wipeout.

The roads in some Asian countries in the mountains are designed differently that in North America and Europe. And this is because of the rainfall. It’s more practical for these high mountain roads in Asia to slope outwards rather than inwards because of the extreme rainfall during the rainy season. This is to prevent flooding on the roads. By angling the level of the road so that the rain ran off the road rather than accumulate on the inside of the road prevents flooding and problems with erosion, but it makes for more difficult navigation around the corners. This is why there are way more fatalities on the roads in Asia than in the west. Often people hear of a foreigner dying overseas. This is one of the main reasons. People like me who wanted some adventure and danger rent a motorcycle and then take a corner while riding through the mountains and they literally ride over the cliff. There are small guardrails but often these are not enough to save a life. Buses driven by inexperienced drivers hit these corners and lose control and fall to their deaths. In the west the roads are angled inwards so that that rider is leaning in and better tucked into the turn, using their momentum in a balanced way.

So when I first took my motorcycle around these corners I lost control of my bike.

There is no doubt in my mind that I would have died if it had not been for my years of mountain biking experience. As any mountain biker knows, when you are about to wipe out you have two choices: either you stay on the bike and try to recover, or you jump off. Usually you jump off to save yourself from a broken leg. This instinct saved my life. When I took a corner in high gear I didn’t brake enough (or downshift) going into the corner so that when I began turning the speed took me out of my balance, and the angle of the road took me to the oncoming lane and the road’s edge. Once you hit a corner going too fast it’s more dangerous to brake hard than jumping off. So when I knew I had missed the turn and was heading straight for the cliff I jumped off my motorbike. The bike slammed hard into the guardrail and I tumbled on the pavement into oncoming traffic. In the mountains of Thailand there is hardly any traffic so I tumbled like a tumbleweed and ended up pretty close to my dirt bike that had hit the guardrail so hard that it bounced away from it and left a dent in the guardrail.

The bike, designed for wipeouts and built of steel, was fine.

It happened all very quickly so I found myself sitting on the highway scraped up a bit, stunned it had happened. I skidded along the pavement and left a hole in my jeans at the knee with some blood but other than this I hardly had a scratch. I stood over my dirt bike lying on its side and my gut leapt into my stomach when I saw the steep drop beyond the guardrail. It was, without a doubt, a sheer cliff. My Tasmanian lawyer friend came riding back and told me to slow down. And that was it. I hopped on my dirt bike and followed his lead riding north. The thing was that I didn’t learn from this wipeout because 15 minutes later exactly the same thing happened: I hit a corner going too fast, was heading to the guardrail, jumped off the bike and let the motorbike slam against the guardrail, denting it. The angle of the road was again slanting towards the cliff face for better runoff and I had failed to negotiate it properly. The only difference was that this time when the Tasmanian dude came back he yelled at me and shook his finger at me. He was very mad.

Only then did I listen to him.

“I have been riding motorcycles all my life,” he said, “and I know how to slow down into a corner but you don’t so don’t go as fast as me because you’re going to kill yourself! Respect your motorcycle!” I thought I knew how to ride a motorcycle but he was right. The next time I disrespected the danger might be my last.

Never again did I ever disrespected my motorcycle.

He watched me pick up my motorcycle and saw that the hole in my jeans was now a lot bigger and there was even more blood coming from the same cut on the same knee. It was truly the exact the same wipeout as the one I had 15 minutes before. There, standing on the highway in the oncoming lane beside the cliff and a dented guardrail I learned a life lesson that I’m sure saved my life many times over – that things were different over here. Danger was real. Roads were designed differently. Recklessness was not funny. And that no one really cared if I hurt myself. There was no friend around to scrape me off the road and no sanitized hospital just down the road to save me. There was no ambulance waiting to treat me if I injured myself on the road. That reprimand hit home, not because someone had given me shit once again, but because I realized that if I were to be responsible and respectful of these new dangers then I would be able to experience more of this amazing sense of freedom. If I played my cards right and didn’t injure myself I could spend more time riding.

Surrounded by palm trees and with a seriously pissed off Tasmanian motorcyclist beside me, I chose to respect the danger.

We somehow found a hostel way north beside a river but the next morning, wanting to get rid of our supply of weed because there were police around due to the opium trade being an issue in these parts, the lawyer poured the rest of the baggie of weed into his morning noodle soup. I declined the marijuana meal so he had the whole baggie, which turned out to be a bad call. When I had woken up that morning I could not wait to turn on the engine and ease the throttle open. That was my high – that nervy lightness in the stomach. I remember looking around as I sat on my motorcycle and smelling the fumes of a warming engine that I was getting away with something great – like I was stealing a diamond ring or ingots of gold. I remember looking around as if half-expecting someone to run out to me, grab my handlebars to stop me but there was no one. There was just me, my motorcycle, my compass, my map and my helmet dangling by the strap from my knapsack. (I never wore a helmet because I always felt it infringed on my sense of freedom). I eased open the throttle and let the wind blow back my hair and I squinted into the morning sun from behind my sunglasses and felt that lightness in my stomach grow the farther I rode into the extreme countryside of northern Thailand.

At some point during the ride we stopped at the side of the road to consult our maps when a group of three Thais on dirt bikes stopped beside us. Neither of us wore helmet so they could see we were westerners. One guy spoke good English and like so many Thais they were super friendly and asked us if we wanted to go off-roading with them. I told them we were going to the Golden Triangle and they smiled and said they were too so I agreed to join them. My Tasmanian co-rider said he was too high to ride and that he would meet me at a hostel we had decided on in the Golden Triangle. And so I left with these crazy dirt bikers on an adventure that took us along the border of Burma through the mountains and along narrow trails that were only trodden by man and ox. Some parts of the trail were open and exposed to wind but others were almost completely enclosed with thick forest foliage and palm trees, as if a long tunnel of green.

They were real dirt bikers and were very nimble on their bikes. I had no idea how they knew these long trails but they were real and challenging and stretched for miles up and down and across streams and along mountain ledges and through villages that were inaccessible by cars or trucks. When we rode together we were constantly passing each other and laughing at the same time, each super excited to be riding this breathtaking region completely devoid of other motorized vehicles. It had to be an ancient trading route that joined mountain villages in Thailand with neighbouring Burma and China to the north. Each of the Thai riders were on top notch dirt bikes whereas mine was not as good. I impressed them and myself that indeed I had what it takes to ride well and with crucially needed coordination that is the difference between surviving and crashing.

I was a natural and they were super keen to ride alongside me: the friendly foreigner with the long brown hair.

We spent the entire day riding non-stop. The sound was like a beehive – the high-pitched buzzing of four screaming two-stroke engines doing what they were made to do: ride off-road.

When we crossed another stream that was pretty deep, my chain buckled. The problem was that it buckled inside the crank casing, which popped off a portion of the metal. My bike skidded to a stop and we were literally in the middle of nowhere. I felt fear for the first time but was amazed when all three of them stopped. One of the guys was a professional mechanic. He took out a tool from under his seat, undid the casing of the engine, tightened the chain, and then used some wire he had with him to keep the chain in place and we rode on!

The dirt bike was fine after he had tightened the chain.

Just as darkness started to fall we came out of the sticks and were in Chiang Rai. We all stopped and smiled, each covered in mud but each with a glowing smile. We all shook hands and nodded at one another, each wishing that perhaps one day we would see each other again for another ride. It was a sad parting but I was flushed with happiness and pride after an incredible day of riding. I found a hostel, parked my dirt bike and slept soundly. The next morning I had the bike checked out at the local mechanic and then rode north to the Golden Triangle on a paved, smooth road.

The Golden Triangle was a small town of a few hundred people and several opium dens. I saw the mighty Mekong River, had an ice cream cone and looked for my Tasmanian riding buddy but couldn’t find him. Being a day late from my meandering route, I wasn’t surprised he had continued on. I never saw him again. I always wanted to thank him for speaking to me so forcefully after I had crashed my bike the second time. His pleading for my safety surely did have an impression on me that I carried with me to the numerous countries I rode motorcycles in in the years ahead.

I skipped the opium dens because opium scared me. After all, I was only 23.

I had been traveling for three months (a month in Hong Kong, a month in mainland China, and a month in Thailand) and my money supply was running low so I started making my way south to Singapore where I planned to buy an air ticket to Sydney so I could find a job. While I waited for my paycheque in Toronto from tree planting, I had decided that the best idea for traveling was to work as I traveled. I had an uncle in Australia so I decided to live and work in Australia after I had traveled Southeast Asia. I liked the idea of working overseas so I had applied for a work visa at the Australian consulate in Toronto so I could work for one year. (A work visa was available to Commonwealth citizens who were between the ages of 18 to 26). So after returning to Bangkok I hopped on a train and rode south through the long thin stretch of Thailand and then through Malaysia to Penang where I took a ferry to Singapore. I found Singapore a lot like Hong Kong and not really what I wanted to see as a traveler. It was clean and efficient and corporate, and the hostel was expensive so I was happy to board a plane and fly to Australia. I had a week to wait for my flight in Singapore so I found the local badminton club and introduced myself to the coach. I was asked to play so after a few minutes I was challenged to a match by Malaysia’s top junior. We played a fantastic match but I lost in three games. We had an audience watch the match and I felt great to be able to pick up a racquet and play at such a high level, but I knew my competitive badminton days were over. It was here, on the courts of Singapore, that I realized that my shoulder mechanics were not right and that I would never regain my natural stroke again. A new life waited for me beyond the lines of the badminton courts now.

When I finally reached the day of my flight, I realized that I had a problem: I was completely out of money. I only had $50 in my pocket when I arrived. By law I needed more than $1000 in the bank to enter the country but the guy at the immigration counter didn’t ask me how money I had.




When I arrived in Australia I loved it. The vibe was open and free and the sun was bright and the lawns were green and the palm trees were lush. I arrived in July but it was cold – Australia’s winter. And I only had a thin sweater and t-shirts so when I fumbled around that first week looking for work I stood on subway platforms wearing all five of my t-shirts and my sweater shivering uncontrollably. I simply had not planned on Australia being so cold! I think I eventually found another sweater at the youth hostel where I lived for the first month or so, and so I started to acclimatize to their winter. I found a decent job in an office for a few weeks helping an insurance broker, soon learning that there was no business done on Friday afternoons because everyone went to the pub! But after some effort answering ads in the local paper I landed a great job as a bartender at a private club right in downtown Sydney in the old Sydney Harbour.

The Royal Automobile Club of Australia hired me as the bartender in the private lounge where men went to drink Scotch and share war stories. I dressed in a tux and served drinks to men who were eager to hear me speak because of my Canadian accent. I loved the job because they were all so friendly and very nice to chat with. I found the members to be sincere and all very interested in sports. They asked me about rugby often because I was so fit. Having dislocated my shoulder while I lived in Toronto after Vancouver I had started to do a lot of swimming to strengthen the muscles in my shoulders. I wanted to continue this rehab so I found an Olympic-sized pool in North Sydney in a place called Luna Park that was open until 9pm so I could work from 11 to 7 and then go swimming. It was right on the edge of the water in the harbour on the far end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so I would walk across the bridge after work and swim.

And man did I swim. I was in the best fitness of my life. I once swam for 63 minutes non-stop in that huge pool. But I remember the first time I swam there! The length of the pool was so long I could hardly do two lengths. And I was so slow that those Aussie swimmers would pass me, which was not cool. It was bad form to swim so slowly in a narrow swim lane so I learned quickly and went just before the pool closed so I wouldn’t piss off any Aussie. I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t go to the pub so I worked and swam and read. I was writing a hell of a lot then and reading all those high school novels I had skipped reading. I read one after another, writing about each one and rating each book out of ten. I read Orwell and Huxley and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, all of those books that people knew because they had all read them – except me. I was finally putting in the time and reading all those books I should’ve read and it felt great. I soon hit my stride, reading, writing, swimming, bartending and living in King’s Cross in a hostel where all the international traveler’s lived. It was a bit like Koh San Road in Bangkok but it was in Australia and it was beautiful. The tree-lined street had cafés where you could bring in your own bottle of wine that were filled with people. But King’s Cross was also a bit seedy where the prostitutes were. There was that stale smell of beer in the air in some areas but that was all right because I was now of age and I was part of the adult world. I had paid my dues and had studied hard and had worked hard to get here so I felt I deserved it all.

Nothing had been given to me on a silver platter.

So I employed discipline, worked and saved and relished my time in Australia. One of the things about my work visa – in the small print – was that I was not allowed to work more than three months at one job so it seemed out of nowhere three months passed by so I took myself north to the Great Barrier Reef where I found a job as a bartender at a resort on an island called Hamilton Island. It’s known as the island where the Beatle George Harrison had a home. In fact I worked with the son of the family who was in charge of taking care of the property while George Harrison wasn’t there so I of course checked it out. And it was cool. The house was built at the top of this rocky shoreline where you could see sea turtles swimming. When I went inside I could see it was designed as a home to host parties. The main room was two levels, with an area for a piano and a huge bay window facing the water, and a sunken in area where there was a fireplace. The inner sanctum of a Beatle was revealing because it was a reflection of his personality. The high ceilings and how it fit into the landscape showed creativity and intelligence, but unfortunately George never really lived in it because of a disagreement he had had with the local mayor. Over a handshake he had agree the buy and develop the property if the mayor promised never to sell the adjacent lot. The mayor had gone ahead and sold the lot to a developer where I could see from George Harrison’s lawn condos that had a direct line into his backyard. Not cool. For a guy who had grown up in the spotlight because I was an identical twin, I don’t blame him for not wanting to live there because strangers could see into his backyard.

He didn’t have any privacy!

I loved my time on Hamilton Island. I shared an apartment with three chefs. There were several resorts and this small apartment complex was designated for employees. Many local Australians spent their summers on Hamilton Island as well as many international clients. With the white sand beaches and the great scuba diving, it was a paradise. Even the little town at the harbour had charm, with its very old pub and Wild West styled Main Street. The entire island closed down during the afternoon of the Melbourne Cup horse race and everyone descended to that small pub.

It was a real cultural event.

I spent a lot of time on the beach and snorkeling, getting a very serious tan. And the chefs I lived with were serious partiers so there was a lot of drinking too. It was a life for a young guy and I had fun while I was there. It was while I lived on Hamilton Island that the Gulf War was being fought. As short as that war was, I was immersing myself into the Australian way of life. My girlfriend at the time Sophie was a server for the off-season as she put herself through law school. She lived in Brisbane south of Arlie Beach along the east coast so when the three months were up, we drove south to Brisbane where I lived with her for a while. Restless and wanting to explore, I didn’t last long in Brisbane. Sophie had her studies and things to do and I couldn’t sit in one place without doing something, so I moved on back to Sydney where I landed a good job at a flour mill. This job paid very well and was fun as hell because it was only operating at about 25% capacity. It was a huge old mill, built a century before right on the water in Sydney Harbour. The guys who worked there were very funny and fooled around all day because there was literally nothing to do. We did have some flour to process, throwing bags down a long chute to the loading area where we packed them onto a rack and then organized them with a forklift. Yearning for the immediacy of a dirt bike, I drove that forklift recklessly nearly killing myself taking a turn too sharply.

I wasn’t respecting the danger.

I found a great place to live in Bondi Beach, a suburb of Sydney with a great beach and a fun nightlife. I swam on that beach every night after work, loving the warm water and the danger of the riptides. I shared a house with a half-dozen other travelers, mainly Brits. It was a party house and I had a lot of fun living there. One of the guys there was a fireman from England who was there for a few months. He told me about this annual 10km run called The City-to-Surf Run that went from downtown Sydney to Bondi Beach. He told me about it while drinking beer on Saturday night and asked me to join him the next morning, which I did. We showed up at the start line two minutes before the 10am start time. I paid my fee and the guy gave me a number to put on my shirt. The number was 46999 because I was the 46999th runner.

It killed me so I asked for 47000, which he happily gave me.

It was a great run. It took us a few minutes of running just to cross the start line because there were so many people racing that morning. We passed people sitting on their front lawns and in front of stores drinking in the early morning, dressed up in funny costumes and yelling things at us as we ran by. We ran closer and closer to the ocean where it became crazier and crazier, the onlookers becoming drunker the closer we came to the finish line. Very close to the finish line I saw a person fall in front of me. It was a very hot day and I assumed it was from heat exhaustion but later I discovered he suffered from a heart attack. Three runners died that day from heart attacks – two runners in their forties and one runner in his twenties. But for me it was a wonderful experience, finishing in the 9000 range after starting literally at the back of the pack at number 47000!

I share this only because it indicates how healthy I was just before falling ill.

It was right around this time when I was back in Sydney that I visited with my uncle Jack McFetridge. He was rich and lived in a very posh area in Sydney. He was a very cool guy who was a war hero. He had been captured during the Dunkirk debacle and had been a POW for four years until he escaped in 1944 and had two toes shot off during his escape. He was an officer and often spoke of how well he was treated by the Germans. He ended up working for a German corporation after the war, eventually being transferred to Australia as the CEO. He loved it in Australia and was happy to see me as a young man. He took me around the nice areas and we ended up drinking beer at a seaside café. When I went back to his place I ended up going out to a party with his maid – a good-looking redhead who liked to drink. The party was great – just like a good party in a nice neighbourhood in Toronto. It was later that night, after the party that I ended up in King’s Cross in a dubious area of town. Drunk and lonely I found the company of a woman of the night. It was the second time I had had an encounter with a ‘professional’, all done for “research” and for the sake of experience. Unfortunately I was ill-prepared and so a few days later, when I was at work taking a leak I began peeing rusty nails.

I caught the clap.

When you’re young you never think anything can stop you. You think life is endless – without end- and you live accordingly, without any consideration for time. Lifelong decisions are made from this perspective – that health and life are endless lines stretching beyond the horizon. This only changes when there is a change of health. But even so, when ill-health does trike, it’s very easy to employ denial as a way to cope. I went to the doctor who stuck a swab up the end of my wang and it hurt. He gave me medicine that squashed the infection but I was not out of the woods. The clap was a trigger for a more serious illness – something called Reiter’s Syndrome. Basically the bacterial infection of Gonorrhea caused my immune system to attack my joints, such as my knees and ankles and toes. I had the HLA-B27 gene that is responsible for auto-immune disease.

After a few days my knees and ankles swelled up badly so I hobbled into the doctor’s office and he stuck a large needle into my knee and drained three tubes full of a yellowish liquid. He explained to me what I had and it made no sense to me – why would my immune system turn around and attack my joints? I tried to ignore it but it was very painful. And there was no cure! He said that it would last between two weeks and two years, and that the only thing I could do was take anti-inflammatory pills, which I did. Still determined to work, I went to the mill on crutches hoping I could somehow resume my duties but when my boss saw me he freaked out. He waved his hands at me and told me to get off the property.

When I was on the sidewalk he calmed down and spoke to me in a relaxed voice.

“Sorry mate but you can’t come on the property. It’s a liability thing. We don’t want to be sued or anything. Besides you’re on crutches so you can’t do this job.” I was genuinely heartbroken because it was such a high-paying job and a fun job and an easy job that would have given me a leg up so I could continue to travel around the world. I was really upset. I went back to my place on the beach and realized I couldn’t do anything until this Reiter’s Syndrome went away. I think because I had been so healthy this Reiter’s Syndrome really hit me hard. It didn’t leave me after two weeks. In fact it finally left me two weeks before two years had gone by, showing that my immune system went to town on my joints. My Australian doctor warned me that I had to take care of myself throughout my life so that this would not occur again. He said that if I ever became run down that something worse of this nature could hit me. So after waiting a month hoping the pain and swelling would subside, I reluctantly faced the truth: it was time for me to return to university despite not having found what I was looking for. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was still reading novels and writing in my journals searching for that thing that I wanted to do. So I bought a plane ticket and flew home just in time to return to Queen’s for my fourth year of university.

I arrived in Toronto in a wheelchair, my ankles and feet swollen and unable to walk.

[1] For an in-depth look at my time at Queen’s University, please read Visigoths in Tweed, a novel all about my time during those heady years.

Go to: The Philosopher Rune: A Wordcarpenter Biography Part 3