Initiating Incident no. 5

“At the start of a [drama], there is some sort of stasis. The initiating incident interrupts that stasis, and the [drama] ends when some form of stasis is regained.  The status of stasis can change many times throughout the [drama]; therefore, when a “shit disturber” causes bullshit, dramatic action begins, and continues until either shit happens, or stops.”
Alan Holman

I walked west across the bridge toward the boathouse on a cold January evening in some other year.  Freezing rain was beginning to fall, and a change to snow was forecast.  The sun had set at least two hours earlier, so the sidewalk was illuminated only by the glare of passing traffic and the glow of lights from the boathouse 100 meters away.  A thin skin of ice was already forming on the worn concrete pavement.

Evening practice started at 7, after the college crew training session was over and they’d had a chance to shower and head off to dinner.   I walked through the parking lot and approached the front door of the boathouse.  Despite the shadows on the north side of the building, I could see the head coach out in front, sprinkling road salt across the concrete apron beside the door.  Although I barely knew him, I couldn’t just walk silently by, and knew that I needed to say something [to break the ice, so to speak], but didn’t know quite what.  I began to get a bit uneasy as I drew nearer.

Then, inspiration struck, sparked by the still and silent walk I’d just enjoyed across the low, arching span of the bridge across the lake.  As I came within earshot, it seemed only appropriate to say, “Bridge freezes before road surface.”  He chuckled.  Another socially awkward situation averted.  Whew.

Elated at my impromptu quip, I entered the boathouse foyer smiling … and glowing inside.  “Bridge freezes before road surface. hehehe.”  The stairs to the second floor erg room curved up to the right less than 8 feet ahead, but I wasn’t really paying attention.   In two strides I’d reached the foot of the stairs, and looked up … into the eyes of ████████ ██████  rounding the staircase corner as she descended with a friend.  I was completely taken aback.   ███ ███████ ████ ████████ ██████.   It was all I could do to keep smiling and say, “Hiii!”  The happiness and openness in my voice was definitely not lost in translation: I could practically hear the crackle of the electric arc that jumped between our eyes, and she flinched as though she’d been zapped by a cattle prod.   She managed a “Hello” and continued down the stairs.  Her friend, behind her, was absolutely astounded, eyes wide with shock.  As they reached the door, I heard her ask in a low voice, “Do you know him?”  I couldn’t hear the reply as they went outside, but ████████████████████████████.

It was an unnerving experience  –for both of us, I’m sure.   I don’t really remember much about the workout that followed, not only because of what had just happened but also because of what happened afterward.

Generally, about a dozen people from the club showed up at the evening winter workouts.  We erged for about an hour and then did twenty minutes of core exercises to wrap up.  As usual, there were a two or three elite-level women training on ergs at the front of the room or on the weight machines down the hall.  They’d already been working out when we club rowers arrived and, as was generally the case, they finished about ten minutes before we did.  These magnificent Amazons are among the finest athletes in the world, and it was difficult to even conceive of the possibility that we were participating in the same sport.  Without even thinking about it, I guess I regarded them as somehow bionic.  Certainly, as very different creatures from we mere mortals: further, faster, harder.

When our workout ended some time after 8:30, I put on my coat and hat, walked down the stairs and out the door.  The other club members were still chatting upstairs in the training room.  As forecast, the freezing rain had changed to sleety snow.  A quarter-inch already lay on the pavement and the grass, and more was falling every second.  The bridge was a faint shadow across the lake one hundred yards away, obscured by clouds of steadily falling snow.  Despite the nasty weather, it was a picturesque scene.

I walked across the snowy lawn, passed through a gap in a post-and-rail fence,  crossed the road to the north side of the bridge, and started along the sidewalk to the east bank, where my car was parked.  Although there’s no railing between the sidewalk and the roadway, a thick, hip-high stone parapet prevents pedestrians –and vehicles– from blundering over the side into the lake.  It’s topped with a concrete capstone 18 inches wide interrupted at intervals by low piers that project a few inches higher.  Like the bridge itself, the parapet forms a gentle arch across the lake –its highest point in the center of the span.

By this time, almost half an inch of snow had collected atop the parapet, but I was mostly looking over the side at the surface of the lake, watching the falling snow vanish into the dark water fifteen feet below.  Very picturesque.  I reached the apex of the bridge’s arch, and suddenly noticed that something was written in the snow atop the parapet, having been carefully printed with a fingertip just minutes before.  Here was an instant message destined to disappear almost as soon as it had been written:  the first few letters were already filling with fast-falling snow.  I walked along beside the parapet, reading each word letter by letter in the headlights of passing cars as the swirling snow swept down.  Here’s what I saw:

“Oh Chris[t?], my love!  Would that this cold west wind could blow you here from the coast, into my arms and into my bed!”

I retraced my steps along the sidewalk to read it again, to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything.  By the time I reached the beginning of the sentence, the first few words were unrecognizable.   Wow.  This had been written by someone who’d crossed the bridge just minutes before I did, someone who had written a message for no one else to read, to pour out her soul on a bleak and dreary night, more as a kind of prayer than anything else.

A pair of extremely intense emotional moments for both the author and the only reader under the sky, only slightly offset in the onward-flowing current of time’s relentless stream.

Who was the writer?  Let’s review:  it wasn’t one of my teammates, because I’d been the first to leave.  It wasn’t one of the college crew, because they’d left much earlier, they didn’t park on the far side of the lake, and in any case the campus was in the opposite direction.  It was unlikely to be a random rambler, because this was no night to be rambling, no matter how lovelorn.  The only remaining plausible candidates were the handful of elite women rowers who’d been in the boathouse until shortly before I left, and who did park across the lake.  In addition, several of them were graduates of  powerhouse rowing programs in California and Washington State:  very likely to have long-absent lovers back on the West Coast.

So I began to think about how the wintry scene might have appeared when seen through another’s eyes.  As seen by someone who is:

  • separated from family, friends and familiar surroundings
  • striving for the pinnacle of personal success, but constantly confronted by the imminent possibility of utter, abject failure or serious physical injury
  • routinely pushed up to –and beyond– her physical and mental limits
  • pitted against herself and her own teammates
  • relentlessly faced with the prospect of being used and then discarded by her coaches
  • almost completely dependent on her own resources, capabilities, and will to endure

That’s a tough, tough daily grind.  A hard, hard life in an almost pitiless world.

And that was the moment when I finally understood how foolishly mistaken I’d been for so long.  These women weren’t modern-day Amazons, weren’t alien, exotic cyborgs, but instead were all too human.  Like the rest of us mere mortals.

That being so, what is to be done?  More to the point, what is it I could do?

At the very least, I decided, I could be nice, be friendly, be supportive when I encountered them in the boathouse: smile, say hello, exchange pleasantries.  I could provide psychological and emotional support that made random acts of kindness more than a bumper sticker slogan.  My past and recent experience had shown that quiet affirmation from a complete stranger can be much more effective precisely because it’s so unexpected –in the cold, heartless Northeast, anyway.  And although we’d long been told by our club officers not to ‘bother’ the university crews and elite rowers around the boathouse, this was clearly a situation that required low key, personal intervention.

So that’s what I began to do, in fits and starts.  When I remembered.  When it seemed appropriate.

Kindness is well received.

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