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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Track Meet (p. 184)

From chapter "Insatiability"

Violations come not only in paroxysms of rage, spasms of violence and violent orgasms. They come more often with constant erosion, as at Mount Graham, as everywhere, with an incessant imparting of the full knowledge that there is nothing, no one, nowhere, no thought, no action, that the violator will not seek out and attempt to control.

All through college I maintained some minimal contact with my father. I’m not sure why. I never called him, but he called me, once a month, or every other month. I spoke civilly to him, not bringing up the past.

Nor did I bring up the present. These evasions of all that was important gave our conversations a surreal, ungrounded feeling that I still can’t quite wrap my mind around. What did we talk about? I couldn’t bring up the present because he hadn’t changed at all—he was still attempting to control me—and I couldn’t bring up the past because I hadn’t changed enough—I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to his denial. The smell of his abuse still clung to my skin and to my clothes. It hung in the air around me.

He kept “spies” on me all through high school, college, and after. One morning in high school I nearly got in an automobile accident, and that night received a call from him asking if I was all right. Fellow students in high school—acquaintances, and even people I didn’t know—upbraided me for mistreating my father. During college I was forced to ask many of my instructors not to reveal information about me to anyone without my written consent. I’ve since found they were bound by law to do this anyway, but the law never prevented my father from calling, nor did it prevent the instructors from talking to him.

The last time I saw my father was on the night of my senior collegiate conference championship. I had attempted to prevent him from finding out I was a high jumper; my attempt was unsuccessful. Four weeks before my final meet he called and asked if he could fly down to attend. I said no. He asked again. I said no. He asked a third time. I told him that if he attended, I would leave.

As I mentioned earlier, the only thing that got me through college was high jumping. I loved it as I had loved nothing before. Every waking, and even dreaming, moment during my senior year was focused on winning that meet. The meet came. Two of us were ranked even odds to win. My main competitor was from Pueblo, where the meet was held, and had a huge contingent to cheer him on. He was a flashy jumper, all movement and rotation and explosive energy, while I was faster, and more fluid. During warmups, each time he jumped, the crowd of maybe a thousand erupted. To silence the crowd, I made sure to begin my approach even before he cleared the pit.

The competition was close, but, breaking my own school record, I won. I still remember my exhilaration as I began my descent on the winning jump without having felt the bar on the back of my legs, meaning I’d made it. We said good-bye after a good season, and I took a lap to cool down. A line of people streamed onto the field to congratulate me, and I began, still in something of a daze, to shake hand after hand. I heard someone say my name, and looked up to see my father.

I walked away. I found out later he had tried to approach me before the competition, and had been prevented by security. I thought about this incident on the way home, and over the next days and weeks. Had he come to the meet, I thought, then sat in the back, leaving quietly after it was done, my frustration at having my desires trampled would have been mixed with a certain respect and understanding of his desire to silently be a part of my life. But that wasn’t what was happening. I understood—knew in my heart and bones and muscles, and most especially in my anus and mouth and penis—that the primary reason he came was because I asked him not to. There could be no area in my life, whether high jumping, school, automobile accidents, my body, my emotions—or even, had he known, the stars—that he would leave alone.

Violence, and evil, doesn’t always come dressed in black, and it doesn’t always look like Charles Manson. Nor does it always come to us as obviously and arrogantly as the breaking of my sister’s hymen, the blackening of my brother’s eye or the discoloration of my mother’s back. Often it comes to us with a simple plea to be reasonable. Why can’t I come to your track meet?

Just this week, steelhead—oceangoing rainbow trout—were listed as an endangered species in the region. Once, they swarmed the rivers thick as the now-extirpated salmon. They are now following their larger cousins to extinction, to the final and perhaps only refuge from our culture.

The Spokesman-Review predictably wrote an editorial stating that we all need to approach this reasonably, emphasizing that no one wins if recalcitrant parties dig in their heels. The author mentioned Indians in particular, and made a sidelong reference to the “crazy ideas” of environmentalists and scientists whose plans for saving steelhead impede the commercial activities that are driving them to extinction.

What if we said No? What if we were to be unreasonable? What if we forbade those who will destroy from determining for us what is and what is not within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Within Nazi Germany, the reasonable thing to do, of course, was to go along. Even within the ghettos, the reasonable action was to obey and cling to daily existence. But you know what? The percentage of people who survived the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto was higher for those who took up arms in resistance than it was for those who, reasonably, went along.

I’ve not seen my father since the night of the track meet, and with one exception, I have not spoken to him since. But still, many years later and many states away, he knows who my friends are, he knows the names of people I’ve dated, often knows what I am doing: I checked one day into a hospital, and received a call from him the first night. After I checked out a nurse told me that through my stay he had regularly spoken with both nurses and doctors.

I’m not suggesting my father is the culture. He clearly is not. He is one sad, pathetic, fearful, controlling, violent person. He was merely my own personal catalyst for the life of activism I’ve chosen. But he is not alone.

I open my window, and the sounds of bulldozers treble in volume. I think about the coyote tree, dying steelhead, being reasonable, and what it will take for us to survive. I don’t know how much longer I can take this sound, nor especially the knowledge of what it means, but I don’t know where to go.