I sat in a sterile-white room, perched atop a bike designed to go nowhere, breathing into machines while my legs pedaled indefinitely. Like some sci-fi, supercomputer-sized future cigarette, the convoluted apparatus pursed between my lips plumed smokily from its opposite end every time I exhaled. The exercise didn’t feel particularly difficult at first, but the vapory echoes before me soon grew labored and erratic.
Efforts to make a quick return to rowing proved frustrating. Confused pulmonogists prescribed me a laundry list of inhaler genres to try, none of which helped me to get back onto a rowing machine or into a boat. A fresh variety of medicinal nausea within my lungs, it actually seemed like my chest was swelling itself shut quicker than before. The results from the bicycle test had revealed that, while most people’s breathing capacities maintained (or even expanded) during exertion, mine was dropping more than 25 percent after no more than a light, five-minute workout. I wondered how far it might have fallen during the 500-meter sprints I was doing earlier that week.
Brittle optimism at the boathouse began to break as the days turned to weeks. For a while, I tried to remain a ‘team player’ despite my sudden inadequacy. I was briefly made an “official” freshman coach and helped teach the kids form on the river for a few afternoons — until it became evident that we already had more real, adult coaches than needed — and I would of course attend the races. That latter of which was, in truth, one of the hardest things I’ve had to do: watching my boat go by without me, no longer able to do any better than a distant third. Team parents would accost me at the sidelines, offering suspicious inquiry as often as condolences. The implication that I had simply bailed on the team for some change of heart with less than a month left in my last high school season wasn’t painless — especially considering how we had been in such close contention for some gold medals, and all I wanted in my life at that time was to win them. Thankfully, the majority of the team knew me well enough to know better, and they were very supportive — but it was still hard to go from being the captain and cornerstone of the crew to its biggest disappointment in the course of a night and day. Freshmen who had once upheld me as a kind of mentor now looked at me with pity and disappointment; my boatmates tried to put up a kind facade, but it was clear that beneath the surface they were no less frustrated than I was; and my coaches were so confused that sometimes their own doubts about me bubbled to the surface. Only making it harder was the knowledge that I couldn’t blame any of them — I probably would have felt the same.
Around this time my senior project began, and as days wore into weeks, crew became too much of a mental stress for me to keep hanging around — especially after doctors of all shapes and sizes told me I wouldn’t be getting back on the river anytime soon. While I still occasionally showed up at practice and sidelined it for all the races, I really needed to get my mind off of rowing and focus on things I could actually still do. It was one of the weaker willed decisions I’ve made, consciously or not, but soon I was avoiding as much as possible that beautiful old building that used to feel like another home.
My senior project was to make a movie, into which I poured hundreds of hours of my time and energy — but like many things from that spring, the project went unfinished. It sounds a little melodramatic, maybe, but I was strung out from four years of trying way too hard in high school, more than a season of strange and then unexplained physical ailments, and finally the mental stress of so badly letting down my coaches, my friends, my team and myself. Embarking to make a 40-minute video was, in retrospect, probably a bad idea. I was completely spent, inside and out.
The defining moment came at the start of June. Ever since a slapdash pep rally-type video became a runaway hit and scored 10,000 views in a single week — an experience that, for a brief time, made me some kind of local hero and resulted in at least one practically life-affirming standing ovation — I had been more or less assigned to make the video for the senior dinner that was coming up, by that point, in a week. I put my own project on hold and made an effort to find some specific almost-hundred people and film them over the course of two days, then began the unnecessarily protracted editing process. My computer was too slow for the software I was using, so a single effect or reordering of clips could take ten minutes to load, even if I just wanted to try something out. Everything was taking so long that I had to get an extension on my main project, which was to be a satire of the college admissions process.
It came down to the night before the video was supposed to debut. I pulled a very reluctant all-nighter, then traveled to the school media lab to continue working. The school principal, Rind, stopped by to check out the work-in-progress and said he liked what he saw. I asked him how he thought we might project the video to the audience, and he reassured me that Harold — who had the uniquely improbable distinction of being both school president and head of the audio/video department — would have all the needed equipment.
Several hours passed, and it was now around 6pm. The senior dinner was beginning, and as the video needed a little more work, I had opted out to keep working. While my friends and peers upstairs dined and reminisced together as classmates one last time, I tried to put the finishing touches on my rogue FinalCut file. Sometime during the meal, Harold moseyed on down to the lonely lab and kindly asked me what’s up. I relayed Rind’s comments about Harold’s A/V equipment, which, to my horror, seemed to be the first time the young prez had ever heard about it. Even more to my horror was Harold’s revelation that the necessary cables were stowed at his house — some 45 minutes away.
Worse yet, Rind hadn’t thought to check in with me again, and instead had already directed the students to the auditorium where the clip was to be debuted. Had they been left to sit and chatter at the dinner table, all would have been well — but now they were sitting in uncomfortable foldout chairs before a large, blank screen, expectations and impatience rising with each passing minute.
A scramble ensued, and I’m not exactly sure how everything was resolved, but some forty minutes later I turned up before the audience to boos and jeering. Excruciatingly, the recently recovered equipment took another ten minutes to set up. Finally I played the clip off my laptop, cradling it on my knees from the top of a precarious rolling ladder that was necessitated for some reason or another, grinning with every big laugh and applause the video elicited. But it was still just a modest eight-minute clip that could never make up for a bored and restless hour spent inside an empty auditorium, and I knew it. Once it concluded, most politely clapped away while a few others made their parting shots from beyond the stage, filing out of the building while I descended from the staircase to gather my things. Just as I was zipping up my laptop, Rind approached me.
“Hey great work, great job,” he said tonelessly. “I mean, if you could have gotten your other video done and this one, that would’ve been really great. But, I mean…it was nice.” And then he walked away, leaving me to ponder.
As I left the building, I realized how hungry I was, and made my way over to the dining hall to see if there were any leftovers. A kind employee hooked me up with a tray of cold steak and sog-sopped vegetables, which I sat and ate alone in this cavernous room that had been brimming with familiar faces just over an hour ago. There was a display of childhood photos of everyone in my grade, as provided by the class parents, I guess, and once I finished eating I took a moment to peruse them. What must have been a fun and nostalgic diversion for my classmates just a little bit earlier now felt like the pastime of some sordid voyeur. My own photos only made me even sadder, for some reason. I walked back out into the moonlight, past a bench where Rind and an associate were conversing freely, seeming not to notice me.
On the drive home, I realized how the night summed up exactly all that I had gotten wrong in high school. I had spent too much time worrying about creative projects, tried too hard to impress people into being my friends rather than just going out there and letting my personality speak for itself. I often told myself that I’d sometimes rather try to be productive than socialize with a lot of the people that surrounded me at that time, but probably more honestly I was just shy — the idea of having some creative work vouch for me had always seemed appealing. It’s a neurosis that, to this day, I’m not entirely sure I’ve shaken.
It was an easy realization to make that night, having toiled away on a video for people to whom, after four years, I had come ultimately to feel little connection. They ate together, laughed and cavorted, while my eyes practically wept blood from nearly 30 uninterrupted hours of laptop radiation. Now, as I was having this epiphany, my tired eyes welled up with tears. Having to quit rowing still fresh on my mind, I felt pathetic — as though I couldn’t get anything right anymore.
As the other facets of my life began to fall apart, I found it increasingly easy to invest myself in something new. Athletics, ‘filmmaking,’ even friendships seemed to be falling at my feet. And with each collapse, the luster surrounding my newfound musical aspirations grew ever brighter.