Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday night in Fairwater

The early evening air is cold. Huge clouds of breath churn from my body as I run through the city's dirty western fringe. The cold is preserving my legs and I am moving faster than usual, half sprinting through the world of orange and black and swirling white light. Shadows stretch and turn and twist, the uneven pavement disappears into darkness and I am running on faith. My left foot finds only air, misjudging where the pavement should be, but momentum carries me forward. Faith in speed and strength.

Up ahead, fat man and a Staffordshire terrier, a metal barrier between them and the road, the pavement two feet wide. I refuse to slow. On my right shoulder I can feel a car coming, can feel its headlights, can feel its speed -- another Ford KA rushing to get home in time to watch "The Simpsons" or whatever the hell it is that people rush home for. I don't look. I can see the car in my mind. There is still space.

Where the barrier begins I fly into the road in full sprint. Fifty feet of metal fence to keep the man and his dog from stepping out into traffic. Fifty feet of metal fence to keep me from returning to safety. The strength of the car's headlights licks at my heels, starts to consume my legs.

This is where I'm best, I think. This is where I live. In these stupid decisions, in these times when I pick up speed to face challenges. "Headlong into adversity" -- that's what I wish they would say about me. Hornet's nest breaker. Wall kicker. Shit-storm creator. Bridge burner. Romantic and wild. Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs.

A oes heddwch? Nac oes, motherfucker. Nac oes.

My legs strain. In the thighs and calves, muscles pull and push and demand more energy; they claw strength from my gut, set my lungs on fire. Swirling shapes and sounds and colours and the white light growing brighter behind. There is no need to look. Just as I can see the car in my mind, I can hear the driver's thoughts, I can feel him refusing to take his foot off the accelerator.

"I won't speed up," he thinks. "But I won't slow down. He's the one darting out into the road. If he wants to take that risk, it is his to take, but I'm not slowing down. I'm not losing this battle of will."

The spring of the concrete, dust of exhaust swallowed, roar and whine and rattle of engines, legs powering, straining, burning, and ravenous to devour the space. Speed, strength. And in my mind I can feel the heat of the car's engine pushing, taunting, threatening.

Pop step jump back onto the pavement -- the car's engine throttles as if growling: "I could have, you know. I could have had you, easy." -- and into a pack of teenage boys all with their hoods up and jumping in excitement at the act. Laughter and sarcastic cheers as I weave through them: "Go on, runner-man!" "That's it, me ol' son!"

"W'hey!" I shout, fist raised in the air, and still sprinting. Past the car, now stopped in traffic. Turning left, away from the main road, uphill, slowing, laughing. This is where I'm best, I think.

But one day I will be too old and there won't be enough strength in my legs. What then?

Monday, November 9, 2009

9 November 1989

I remember the first time I ever went to the trouble to identify Germany on a map. I was in high school, in AP European History. I remember looking at it and thinking: "Wow, that's really close to England."

In the United States we tend to teach history in terms of good guys and bad guys. Generally, in situations where Americans or the Irish are not involved, England is good. Defeat of the Spanish armada? Good. Defeat of Napoleon? Good. The 1968 Eurovision contest in which Cliff Richard lost due to Francisco Franco's interference? Not so good.

And for some reason I had up to that point assumed that geography worked in a similar vein, that "good" places were sort of looped together. I mean, the United States is good, Canada's pretty good, and Mexico's alright as well. Even in Texas history I always felt that Mexico was not so much "bad" as "misguided but with tasty food." So it was a shock to see Germany so close to good ol' England.

I had assumed it would be over there in the bad part of the world, perhaps nestled in the bosom of the USSR. And yet, even before I knew where it was, and even longer before all the historical importance and connection made any sense, I knew that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big deal.

Twenty years ago today I was 13 years old, lying on my bed in my little room in the basement of a four-bedroom suburban home in the middle of America, watching television. I had no idea of the world outside of America; I had no interest in it. But one of the few things I did know was that the Berlin Wall was not just bad, but evil. And now all these people were standing there, had been standing there for days, gathering and gathering.

I don't remember understanding why, or what was happening, just that it was big and that I was terrified. I kept thinking: "This whole thing is going to turn. The bad won't tolerate this. Someone somewhere is going to decide they've had enough and all these people are going to be cut to shreds in machine gun fire."

And then the crowd went at the wall with sledgehammers and saws and whatever they had. They started climbing on it and tearing it apart with their bare hands. I didn't fully understand the significance, didn't know the history or the ramifications, but I sat there with tears in my 13-year-old eyes because I knew that somehow the whole world had suddenly changed.

It had changed for the good.