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I'm No Athlete

I'm No Athlete

While deep within the, “Joel’s New Wave of Cinema,” phase as I went through as a kid, my entire extended family was riding a different wave across the city. Wave is too weak of a word, actually, it’s more of a current. A current that runs deep beneath the canola fields and even deeper than the oil basins scattered around the province. The current that can only be described as the flurry of wood, steel, teeth and ice, known only as hockey. I have four cousins roughly my age—four little boys on skates, on ice and ready to go. They probably dressed themselves and everything. They actually like the sport. They have favorite players and would idolize the superstars of the NHL. Me, I’d do what ever mom would encourage me to try and at that age, there didn’t seem any way of escaping the puck.

Mom grew up in a house with five brothers, all but one of which, she was older than. On the island, the main pass-time for the boys was hockey, and they all loved to play. Now that they had moved west, settled down and had children of their own, their love of hockey started to manifest itself in different ways. For my uncles, it was playing with their sons. Living vicariously through the young, maneuverable body they’ve brought into the world to live vicariously through. Mission accomplished. For my mother, it was a while different story. She was a girl in the hockey house and had no desire to play, but when her only son—her only son in the entire universe—decided that he wanted to play, she knew he wasn’t tough enough for the game. She knew because of her brothers.

Of course, for most rational adults, the answer is clear—and my mother was no exception. The plan was to hip-check me into oblivion and establish a constitution for being hit unexpectedly while trying concentrate on something else.

I’d be doing menial everyday tasks, like putting my dishes in the sink or walking down the hall, when my mother would fly around the corner, throwing her hip into me and sending me into the drywall, and, eight times out of ten, straight to the floor. It was instant tears most of the time, until finally she relented. I was not ready for hockey. Yet one fateful morning at 5:30 a.m., she came into my room and dragged me out of bed and down to the rink.

She man-handled my padded and sock-covered legs, taping them up securely. I didn’t want to be there, so like a little dick—I made her dress me. I would have no part of it. I passively put my arms over my head when told, stepped into this, stood like that. When I was taped up and locked inside my sweaty prison of anxiety, she took me by the arm and I wobbled beside her, down the black rubber mat to the rink.

My ankles buckled as soon as I stood on the ice. I could barely skate. Hunched forward and leaning on my stick like an old man on his walker, I made my way to the group of boys in the center of the ice. These kids knew how to do it; they were only here to get better. They would glide around the ice with ease, some of them even going backwards (a concept I still don’t understand), and the way they handled the puck made me realize that I missed an entire early childhood of practice.

We stood in a single file line with our instructors on either side of a net—they wanted to see how we could shoot, how we handled the puck in motion.

Oh Christ. I’ve never, ever done this.

One by one, the other boys’ names were called and I zoned out into a tiny world of panic that was only broken by my name being screamed in our general direction.

“MORGAN!?”

My head snapped up.

“Is that a first or a last name!?”

I panicked. An older boy was talking to me—probably just before he was gonna string me up. Oh Christ.

I stammered, “uuuuh… First name!” And that’s how I became Morgan Joel for one and a half practices.

“Alright,” he slid me the puck. “Let’s see what you got.”

I reached out and fumbled for the puck like I was trying to get a resilient hairball with a broom. Once I had it firmly secured in front of me, I tried to conjure the images of Gretzky, Messier and my cousin Cory shooting the puck. It seemed so simple: shoot the puck. Why couldn’t I figure it out?

The only image that came to me was of my cousin, Kyle. He was a wizard wearing skates. I had the image of him circling around the net and turning before he made his shot. That must be how you have to do it.

I pushed off awkwardly, still unsure of my skates. I slid out in front of the net and went to make my turn around the net when the voice boomed again.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?”

I froze. I really don’t know, dude. Help a kid out here.

“Go back! Shoot the puck!”

The kids behind me erupted in laughter, and I shrank. I skated back to my spot and tried again. I don’t remember much of my hockey career after that—I’ve probably repressed it; I seem to do that with intense moments of shame.

After hockey, I played it safe. Stuck to the sports I knew I could play, and ones that my sisters could play with me. My uncle Mike was sponsoring a local softball team, “Handyman Mikes,” we were called. We wore a little cartoon of him on our shirts. I ended up on the team with two of my cousins and two of my friends, so slow-pitch stuck—even though I was terrified of having a hole shot through my chest by this Gatling gun of a pitcher.

When I grew too old for sports with my sisters, I decided it was time to try my dad’s sports. In school, as Canadian as we could be, we had a curling program. At least I think it was at school—all my friends and I would head down after school, strap on sliders or duct tape a shoe and haul out the brooms. We had a good time, but I think we were mainly there for the poutine. I started going just to hang out, but I came to take a liking to the sport. It was easy pace, kind of physical and it gave me a defined position on a small team.

When I was in the sixth grade, my dad came to me. He had a few friends that he curled with and their sons were putting together a team for the Saturday morning league, and they were short a man. Still to this day, I’m not entirely sure why I said yes. Maybe it was to seize the bonding time with my dad, maybe it was an effort to make him finally think I wasn’t such a wimp after skirting yard work for eight years. Whatever it was, it’s probably the best decision I made as a kid. It’s good to have friends from a different school, and the rinks were my primary social environment during grades six through nine.

On Saturdays, it was different than curling with my school friends. We weren’t just here to hang out, there was an actual drive to win in the air. I played on a team with Greg, Terren, and Michael. As far as I could tell, they were cool kids—we were friends and they were cool with me, but I knew for sure Greg was the cool kid at his school. We all went to different schools, but our dads knew each other, so here we were. Our regular seasons were fun, dragging ourselves into the rink, week after week with our dads sipping coffee behind us, finally waking up halfway though the second end, wondering who the hell threw your rocks. It was great.

At the Sexsmith Curling Club, they would hold several bonspiels per year. My dad, mom and sisters and I would compete in a family event, and then I would do the youth bonspiels with my Saturday morning team. The last time we entered, we were up to win the B division. We were playing a team of pretty girls for the gold and devising our strategy not ten minutes before game time. When our plan was solidified, we headed to the bathroom for our pre-game team whizz.

Yes, together.

We’re sending out the bad and breathing in the good when I get a knock on my back door—I had to get some pre-game paperwork out of the way before I focus. Things went well, until my final motion. I moved my left arm to pick some paper off the roll when I heard a snap and my hand fell back beside the bowl. It’s not supposed to do that.

To this day, I’m still unsure of what happened. Maybe I pinched a nerve? Maybe the muscle gave out? I don’t know. All I know is that I had to wipe with the wrong hand and then find my coach and tell him that I couldn’t hold a broom. I need to, maybe, sit out for the first end.

He pinched my shoulder from the front and back, judging my pain reaction. He made me hold a broom doing the same thing and when I would wince uncontrollably, he called the boys over.

“Joel got injured in the shitter and has to sit out the first end.” Gee, thanks, coach!

The guys erupted in laughter and trotted back out onto the rink. I had a bag of sour cream n’ onion chips while I watched the girls glide up and down the ice. It wasn’t the worst injury I’ve had, and I joined back up at the second end to make sure I was there when we got trounced.

We weren’t a good team. At one point, we were almost a good team—almost. Then we switched members and our enthusiasm kind of waned. In one of our last seasons, we had the chance to go play in a tournament in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. We loaded up on a charter bus outside the rink on a cold night and drove through the frozen countryside until it wanted to be night again. We crossed the MacKenzie River on the only ferry I’ve taken to date and ended up, eventually, in what I remember as the large and icy parking lot known as Yellowknife.

If you’ve been to Whitecourt, Alberta, I feel like you’ve been to Yellowknife. They have the same vibe to me, but that could just be the Wal-Mart factor. On a high-school road trip from Grande Prairie to Edmonton for a concert, my friends and I stopped at the Whitecourt Wal-Mart for nothing in particular. I guess you could just say that we were young and had money. We picked up some CD’s, some DVDs—because people still used both regularly—and by the time we had gotten in and out of the store, a dark cloud of sadness had descended from the rafters of the low-price superstore. We were all kind of quiet, a little despondent. Dead inside.

Either way, all of Yellowknife is tainted with this memory of sad and grey for me. Maybe it’s because it was dead in the middle of winter and the weather was terrible the entire time we were there, or the fact that we never left the two-block radius with the rink, the hotel and a Pizza Hut? Or maybe—probably, actually—maybe it was just teenage hormones making the poet-on-the-road personality come out in me? Regardless of what it was, on this trip, I was steered towards music for the first time.

My parents had given me enough spending money that, even after setting aside food money, I could waste a bit. Greg and I were killing time while Terren, his dad and Michael went to take care of something else. We wandered into the Wal-Mart and were looking at CDs, when I found the soundtrack to 8-Mile, the Oscar winning film from 2002 starring everyone’s favorite slim shady (real category): Eminem!

Eminem was forbidden fruit to me. My sister had his CDs, but hoarded them because I was the little brother. She knew why the songs in the video sounded funny, with some words blanked out. She knew words to the songs that weren’t there in the versions I knew. She was the gatekeeper out of boyband land, a place where I lived with pre-pubescent Justin Timberlake and pre-failed astronaut Lance Bass.

When I saw the soundtrack, I knew I had to have it. I started looking around and found some Sony Discman’s (Discmen?) on sale for cheap, so I grabbed one, a stack of batteries and the album and headed back to the hotel with Greg.

We had two rooms between the four team members and the coach. Coach in one, team in the other with one bed and a pullout couch. Being teenage boys, we became total fucking terrors. We wrestled, built an obstacle course and everyone took their shirts off as I continued extra self-consciously in mine as we tumbled through blanket/pillow forts. Eventually, things settled down after we got yelled at, Terren and I resigned to bed, and Michael and Greg took the first shift on the pullout. Like everyone does when their young, we stayed up talking and telling jokes. This was the first time I had ever head the joke: “…you call the addictions hotline and say: ‘Help! I’m Hooked on Phonics!’” and I very nearly peed myself.

The second night was much quieter, all of us wrecked from the day’s sporting. I took to the Discman right away, but for the first while, I never moved past that first song, Lose Yourself. I needed that song in me, I’d sleep with it on repeat, write the lyrics down and rap it in my head while waiting for my turn on the ice. It was as necessary as food and oxygen to me.

I loved Eminem like only a white, middle-class child raised in the suburbs could. An angry young man who looks like me and doesn’t play guitar or anything? I was sold. Once those headphones came into my life, I shut everything else off as much as I could. The bus ride back was a journey for me, I eventually explored the whole album—discovering 50 Cent a year before he blew up, finding out about guys like Jay-Z and Nas, and even older stuff like Rakim. The 8-Mile soundtrack was my hip-hop introduction, and a stepping stone into a way of life for the next six years.

Curling lasted until grade nine when I found the guitar, but, in the off seasons, I was still trying to find my game. I went down the path of my father—old man sports, and being the summer that Mario Golf dropped, I figured I’d give that a shot.

I took lessons at the golf course my dad’s friend belonged to. The instructor was a nerdy looking, sexually ambiguous adult who seemed to get a kick out of “correcting” your form. We practiced driving, putting and chipping. The basics, I guess. I still value this little weekend, because I still keep all those tips in mind whenever I find a club in my hand. I’ve still got a nasty left hook, though.

With my fury for golf heated to it’s flashpoint by video games, I grabbed my good driver, my buddy Walter and hit the road on our bikes to the Pitch n’ Putt: a magical nine-hole golf course and baseball diamond tucked away behind our neighborhood. Walter and I spent hours in the early light of the morning collecting balls in the trees surrounding the range and selling them back to the club house for a buck a pop. We’d then use our money for more balls to hit down the same damn driving range. So, in actuality, our days were spent picking up the previous day’s round and hitting out a fresh one to be collected the next morning. Free golf, though.

On one particularly sunny day, my dad had decided to join us. He, Walter and I were just digging into our buckets when one of those “hot shot, just about at my mid-life crisis, wanna-be pro-golfer” types struts up the walkway with a bag of what are very obviously brand-new clubs. He takes the plastic off his driver, gives it a loving wipe, and hunkers down with his bucket.

Before long, he’s laughing and carrying on with the guys around him. Talking about, “how nice these new clubs are,” how much they cost, and “how far they make me shoot now.” Every time he and his buddies erupted, Walter and I would glace over at them. It was hard not too—they were obnoxiously loud, but my dad would just say quietly to us, “Let it go boys. Work on your shots.”

After a particularly raucous outburst, he and I locked eyes and into the depths of my mind, I heard him say, “Watch this, fatty.”

He picked out his favorite Titleist and placed it on the tee. He shrugged his shoulders back into position. He rocked slowly from one foot to the other and back again. His pinky fingers locked in position around the grip and he drew the club back.

THWACK!

The ball goes flying- no, soaring. It’s a hell of a drive and a sight to behold. That is, until it’s overtaken by the head of the club. Detached and finally free of the douche bag that had been toting him around all morning, the head of the club flew through the air and past the meter markings way at the other end of the field.

Being no more than fourteen at the time, Walter and I drop to our knees laughing. We’re louder than the man and his friends ever were—just pure obnoxiousness in the face of obnoxiousness. Thank God, my dad was with us, we would have gotten our beaten if it weren’t for him walking over to the guy and engaging him in a conversation that let him vent his frustrations on the super expensive, super shitty clubs he had just bought.

But now, karma is a bitch, we mustn’t forget.

Less than a month later, Walter and I are back at the Pn’P driving range working on our shots. We started trying to make it interesting, calling out shots, trying to put spin on the balls, wagering root beers for every hundred meters. Like I said before, it was the summer of Mario Golf, so I had the bright idea of trying to emulate Donkey Kong on the driving range.

Now, for those of you who aren’t in the know—Donkey Kong is a large, tie-wearing, barrel throwing, former nemesis of Mario, whose physiology unfortunately doesn’t allow him a proper golf stance. Being as such, the great ape makes his shots in the game using a club clutched in just one of his apey hands.

Great—that’s perfect. That’s my shot. That’s what I’m doing.

“Walter, check this out.” I motion to the club with my eyebrows, “Donkey Kong.”

I clutched my driver in one hand, just past the rubber grip so I could get proper leverage. I pull the club back into launch position, feeling awkward. This is a bad idea. I swing the club and my old habit came back, the club head dipped to the left and so did my ball.

THWACK! THWACKTHUD!

“AAAAAAAaaaaaaahhh FUCK!”

With full force, I hit the ball with my hooked club, sending the dimpled projectile into the divider beside me, which only sent it careening in another direction. A facial direction. In a moment of perfect triangulation, I had managed to catch the golf ball with the more nasally part of my eye socket. Everything was black for a split second, then I’m on the ground beside Walter. The both of us were writhing in pain—mine from the cruel bitch that is physics, and he from laughter. When he finally managed to collect himself, he ran to the club house to fetch one of the coveted root beers to lay upon my face.

We sat on the bench watching the kids taking advantage of an empty range and collecting their balls for a buck a pop. We laughed about the ricochet incident that had just occurred, talked about the time we saw the head of a driver eclipse a ball, and I hoped to hell I’d end up with a black eye.

Being what my mother called, “a husky boy,” I was always pushed into football. It’s a part of the fat-boy experience, along with being called “big man” by every bouncer you ever meet when your older. No one seems to realize that just because you’re big doesn’t mean you want to play football, nor does it mean you can. Especially when you’re a massive wimp like I was. I still have a marking from the day this experiment began.

Jazzed from the adrenaline of signing up for the youth league, my dad and I shoved and pushed each other on the way back to the car, me stumbling all over the place, and my dad remaining an unmovable object. In a moment of desperation, I took a few steps back, got into my best tackler pose (that’s what they call them in football, right? Tacklers?), and charged my father. The type of man that he was at the time, was one of those men with a cigarette constantly hanging out of his mouth. I connected with him in a moment of weakness and sent the cigarette flying. Flying straight onto my arm. The cherry latched onto my soft, hairless, pink inner arm and began to sizzle. I turn my arm upside down to rid myself of the pain but we’ve become one, this cigarette and me. I scream and my dad plucks his smoke off my newly formed pile of bubbled flesh and pops it back into his mouth.

“Gotta be tougher than that if you wanna play football.”

The phrase fell on deaf ears, but I didn’t realize it at first. We, being my buddy Jonah and I, picked up our equipment from a strange little shack at the end of one of the fields and headed over to find out what teams we were on. The first game was in a week, with a practice in three days and another the day before the game.

Three days pass and I find myself on a field, struggling to breathe with through snot and rubber, my balls in a cup, my ass on display in spandex and drooling from the sides of my mouth guard. I’m told that we’re to warm up with four laps around the field. You’re kidding me right?

With every step I took, the shoulder pads bounced into the safety bars of the helmet, which knocked my head around in the container like dice shaken up for a game of Ten Thousand. I got a smaller helmet after that, safety and all, but the running was still heavy and excruciating. I started to think that this is how they did it in the army. If I could play football, I could be a god damn marine! Let’s do this!

I managed to man up for the duration of two entire practices, and even managed to get excited to play the game. Forgive my lack of knowledge on the sport, but I was one of those guys that just shoves the other guy when the ball is snapped. Defensive somethingorother. In my first game, I was pared with a boy who seemed like a hulk of a man. I may have well been blocking Lou Ferrigno in my mind, only he wasn’t the gentle giant that Lou is: this boy wanted my blood. He wanted to make a necklace from my teeth and hydrate his family with the tears of my family for generations to come. If we were in a cartoon, he would have just round-house pounded me with his fist into the ground like a fence post. But, unfortunately it wasn’t a cartoon, and the aggression was all too real.

The play was called, the ball was snapped and the boy-Ferrigno began to work through some things with his father using me as a conduit. He slapped me like a mule, shoved me with rigid arms of concrete and stood against me like a wall. I tried to shove him back, but my hands slipped under his pads and into the arm pits. I can still remember his particular brand of damp angst. I still feel it staining my fingers as I write this now. I’m continually pummeled until I almost fall over backwards and the whistle is blown.

“Thank God—wait, what’s going on?”

I had to talk myself through the entire experience. I couldn’t let the boy-hulk win, I couldn’t let him break both my body and my mind. I had to stand up for myself.

My teammates begin to cheer, apparently while I was fighting for my life. We had scored a touchdown. One of the many guys who wouldn’t talk to me turned out to be pretty good at this football thing.

The rest of the game is a blur of alternating sitting on a bench and being pummeled by Lou on the field. The game moved fast, so my beatings were quick and severe. I was hot, sweaty, annoyed, pissed off and demotivated. Destroyed actually. It wasn’t until I started preforming alone that I’d feel the sting of helplessness in the face of a lost situation like that again. By the end of the game I had made up my mind. This wasn’t for me.

I kept the decision to myself though. The next week, when my dad came to wake me up on a Saturday for practice, I flatly told him I wasn’t going. He raged at me a little. I quit everything and wasted a lot of his money when I was little. I just couldn’t find my sport. I wanted to take the easy way out and just not show up anymore, but my dad laid down the law and told me if I didn’t want to do it, I had to at least be a man about it.

I’m sitting in the truck, my bag of rented equipment at my feet. My dad spoke sternly over the rain pummeling the windshield. “You’re going to take that bag, march up to your coach and tell him you quit.”

I slogged my way through the wet grass, hardly even able to hold the bag. The team was gathered around on a knee. Not only am I quitting, but I’m now showing up late and interrupting the whole practice to do it. With each step, I could feel the coach’s eyes narrowing in on me.

“Morgan,” he had the same sternness that waited for me in the truck. “Why aren’t you dressed? Suit up!”

I looked him in the eye and despite my best efforts to not, I welled up. I managed to squeak out a small, “I have to quit,” through the knot in my throat.

“Leave your bag by the shed.”

I slogged back towards the truck, dropping the duffel against the shack in a fit of shame. I cried because I had disappointed my dad. I cried because I was lost. It seemed like there were no sports for me and I was doomed to continue to go through my life as the family’s black sheep. The non-athletic fat cousin that no one has anything in common with.

When I was in the ninth grade, after three solid years of benign video gaming passion, my mother convinced my father to get me an electric guitar. Due to my years of wasting his money on sporting equipment, he wanted to rent something, but my mom knew better. With her gorgeous blue eyes and giant lashes, she convinced him to spend the money on something shiny and new. Something to hold my attention over a passed around, beat up rental guitar. With my Peavey Raptor/Rage combo, I headed down the road towards rock-stardom.

Saturday mornings still came and went as they did, but we were all more concerned with girls, getting drunk, cooler sports, and for me, music. Curling practices now came with a healthy dose of air guitar on my broom and tales of finger bangin’ the ladies from Gregory. Someone was always dragging their ass in the mornings. I stayed up all night playing guitar, some of us started to drink. Some of us were just hyperactive kids with easy houses to sneak out of. We went from improving to declining and before long, we decided that we’d opt out of the year end bonspiel and leave the game at the end of the season.

Our little crew of broom brothers parted ways and went off to grow up. None of us curl anymore and I haven’t seen Paul, Matt or Terren since our last game. I ran into Greg in college, we both had to upgrade our English and it was nice to see a familiar face. Though, we had become such different people we didn’t even sit with each other. Like always, he sat surrounded by gorgeous women, and I found my goofy restaurant buddy, Lee, to sit with. Lee told me stories of a guy he knew dying while getting busted with thirty keys of coke in his jet-black Lamborghini after the cops set down a spike strip to figure out what would set off their radar at 300km/h in the middle of the night. Lee was a cool dude.

Never again have I searched for validation on a court, in a rink, on the field. I found out shortly after picking up the guitar, much to the relief of my dad, that I have the soul of an artist, not of an athlete. My dad had a little bit of both, so it was a relief to me too. I wasn’t robbing him of a son he could toss a pig skin around with, I was giving him a son he could sing The Stones with.

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