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.


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Comments ( 13 )

[...] I went ahead and re-upped an old piece from the summer called “The Final Cuts.” It’s all right. It might not be up for long though, just because. It’s like [...]

» {microthoughts: volume #1} wrote on Jan 06 09 at 2:25 am

[...] But since the next increment is in the pipe, I want to take this time to bring to your attention the most recent chord in the progression. It was written last July, which isn’t very recent for the most recent of [...]

» {microthoughts, vol. 2 — “boiling in the snow”} wrote on Jan 19 09 at 4:35 pm

[...] The Story that began with “the unreasonable” and most recently continued with “the final cuts?” That was three whole posts ago. It’s about to be four. I promise you, the next one [...]

» {3 quick deals} wrote on Feb 07 09 at 10:06 am

[...] be my first tan in a couple-or-few years, pretty much ever since I had to set down my oars for the last time. A healthy, shaded pallor wouldn’t be a thing to rue, no, not at [...]

Anonymous wrote on Mar 24 09 at 7:32 am

[...] and again. In a way, he helped me find my strength and a sense of identity in a time when my sudden trouble breathing while rowing had stripped me of both. And though we agreed that our limited means at the time would have to make [...]

» “The Vision” / “The Curse” wrote on Sep 06 10 at 8:25 am

Cue the eerie “city sprawl” music from Shawshank Redemption, scene after Brooks is paroled back into the world and is lost in the concrete jungles of modernity. Deep, yo. And depressing, too, but well written indeed.

thisismysonhw wrote on Jul 25 08 at 9:58 pm

“A scramble ensued, and I’m not exactly sure how everything was resolved…”

Haha, it was quite a scramble indeed. Getting those cables from my house was probably the only time I’ve ever done 65 on Montgomery Ave.

Harold wrote on Jul 26 08 at 9:59 am

harold: i did not know you read this, nor did i know that facet of the evening. thanks for doing your best to make a horrible trainwreck of an evening a little less gruesome.

soyrev wrote on Jul 26 08 at 3:00 pm

It always impressed me the way in which you seemed to be good at and very talented in nearly everything you tried but it was the quality of your character that i thought spoke for you. This was exemplified in the support you gave to your team when you could not row your senior year. I know that it killed you not just by what you said but also by your demeanor and body language. It was so evident that you wanted nothing more than to be out on the river with your teammates and they knew that as well. Don’t think that you let your team or anyone down because you were there for them every way you could have been that senior year.
Though I only really knew you through Jimmy, initially and being around Undine, I could tell that you were the type of person that would do anything and everything for his friends and to help others, but would ask for little to nothing in return and reading this makes that seem even more evident to me.
One day you will be able to make your triumphant return to rowing. You have the technique, and the fitness will return.
Keep on Rockin’

David wrote on Jul 27 08 at 6:20 pm

that was really touching, David. thanks for the kind words and encouragement….it’s definitely still something of a sad/sore subject for me, so that really does mean a lot to me.

i know that my breathing problems and their timing weren’t my “fault,” per se, but i’ll still always feel bad for having let my coaches, friends and teammates down. if that stuff had hit me just a couple months later, i really do think we would have brought some gold home and done barker proud. =\

on the plus side, we did do a pretty remarkable job in recruiting a new freshman base when the team had grown really shallow and needed depth more than ever. a lot of those kids really loved it too, and show a lot of potential…the fact that the JV quad nailed nationals this year (and by a margin great enough not to get their medals taken away) definitely bodes well for the future. plus, eric, a sophomore getting a varsity gold for the double at city’s is definitely impressive…and i know that there were some other nice triumphs for the season too. i pray that the crew of freshman that i helped put together will realize their potential, stick through it all and really dominant for barker and haverford their senior year. it would be nice to know that, despite having to disappoint during my own senior year, i still managed to help bring about the team’s return to glory.

soyrev wrote on Jul 28 08 at 10:02 am

The Freshman from your senior year are sick. they will be juniors now I guess. Eric Malumed is gonna be real strong, Marcus is a beast, Tim is getting stronger and is really tall now and as a class they are so good, so I am not gonna speak to soon but if they go after it and work hard they should be able to complete what you Ben, Matt and Harrison started. Even with a tough season after losing you that year they really persevered to win the double at nationals and silver in the JV quad i believe. Then this year a step up from that previous year, the gold in the jv quad at stotes was sick and the v4 getting silver was awesome they rowed a spectacular race. At nationals they basically doored the competition in a majority of boats. Next year could be the year for Haverford to get back to that glory that you speak of and i think part of it being due to the additional coaching and influence that Coach Barker (III) brought to the team (keeping his father in line at times and grounding everyone a bit when his old man flips a shit) and the way you and the rest of your class helped as leaders to that team and to the seniors that just graduated.
I cant count how many times I have heard Coach Barker’s talking anxiously about the Varsity quad for next year. I guess we will have to wait and see.

David wrote on Jul 28 08 at 8:53 pm

That EA Day video was awesome, props to you for that. And I’ve had a life-affirming standing ovation as well (my salutatorian speech at graduation, which was also interrupted a few times due to raucous cheering/applause) and it’s moments like those that really keep you going. I understand what you mean when you talk about letting your creative projects vouch for you, but sometimes it seems like there’s not enough time for creativity and socializing, and recently I’ve found myself turning more toward my projects. Again, awesome video. If I lived a bit closer I would definitely want to collaborate with you on stuff.

NoobcakesMcGee wrote on Jan 06 09 at 8:04 am

Thanks man — that video was definitely very compromised, considering we went from zero ideas to completely finished filming in 4 schooldays, and I was left to edit it all from 8pm to 8am the night before it was to debut (in iMovie, no less). All things considered it came out pretty well, but it would’ve been nice to have had some more time to really do it up. Oh well…I’ve only been able to finish one clip since then. It’d be nice to get back into it sometime.

soyrev wrote on Jan 06 09 at 9:49 am

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