After hitting bottom, I did the unthinkable: I moved back into the home I’d grown up in, a Gen X cliché. It was the most depressing thing I could imagine for my sorry middle-class ass (short of freak misfortune or the plight of nearly anyone with a life that’s actually hard). But I was broke and I couldn’t think of any solution better than running back to Mom and Dad, high school teachers in a little Northern Canadian logging city, Prince George.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for a young man who’d once assumed I’d be in New York working on my third best-selling novel by that age.
Welcome to Prince George
Prince George, PG, a.k.a., “The Pig” is about 800 kilometres north of Vancouver. There were about 80,000 people there back then, almost entirely for the sake of the spruce trees that carpet the landscape for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, a natural resource much bigger than any European nation. Everyone in Prince George was either in the logging industry or just one small degree of separation from it — one of the most unregulated and efficient land-raping industries the world has ever known. The pace and scale of the tree harvest in British Columbia over the last several decades is still largely unknown, even to most of the people living on its profits. I understood none of this when I was growing up there, but I was soaked in the context of it: an idealistic, tree-hugging kid growing up in a rednecked town with a sick soul.
I cannot overstate how much I disliked Prince George, particularly then (I’m a little more at peace with it these days). It’s a drab, dirty, freezing, stinking place (the pulp mills). Winter drags on for months and the mercury plunges below -40 C for at least a couple weeks every year.1 Spring is painfully late and slow and as much about dog turds popping out of snowbanks as it is about buds appearing on the plants. When the short summer finally arrives, it is infested with astounding swarms of mosquitoes and blackflies.
And then there was the danger
But it wasn’t just the aesthetics: it was also a dangerous place. Everyone knew someone who’d lost loved ones to drinking and driving. Bullying was as socially acceptable as beer, and regular after-school fights drew crowds like they were rock concerts. The most familiar phrase of my adolesence was, “You want a shot in the head?” A rhetorical question I heard thousands of times, directed at me, or someone nearby.
I had seen a few horrible beatings, and by the time I graduated from high school almost every smart, arty, dorky person I knew and liked had been a victim — something I somehow avoided, although I was menaced and insulted constantly. There are many stories I can laugh about now, but there are others that still make my heart skip a beat and my eyes narrow to grim slits.
When I returned, it took just a few minutes to be reminded what Prince George is like. It was summer, late August, and I was driving through downtown with the window down. As I pulled up to an intersection a truck pulled up beside me with several older teens packed into the cab. The driver was holding a can of beer, and he yelled at me: “Hey, faggot — nice hat!”2 And they all laughed like hyenas as they roared away.
Ah, home sweet home.
But it’s certainly not all bad, and there were plenty of good people there. Like my first good boss.
The good boss, and deciding on massage
I resolved to straighten out and fly right, to be pragmatic and boring — horrors! — for the first time in my life.
I got lucky with a decent job right away — some pleasantly open-ended technology and design work for a little internet service provider. In particular, I had an unusually intelligent and decent boss, and what a stroke of luck that was. She was invaluable in helping me to feel good about my fragile, tentative resolution to be more sensible and boring. I even felt better about living in Prince George, because my smart, nice boss seemed to actually think of the place as a home (something previously unconsidered, even though my parents and my best friend still lived there). After a few months, I felt pleased with myself and my very ordinary accomplishment — just working and saving up a bit of money.
While I was in Prince George, I wrote many tedious, bloviating diary entries and pseudo-essays about what a life should be about and how to turn mine around. I can summarize the results of all that angst-ridden navel-gazing in a sentence: I decided to become a massage therapist, which I figured would be good, serious “day job” to support my writing habit. (I was right about that.)
After just eight months in forestry city, I moved several hundred kilometres south to BC’s arid Okanagan Valley to begin three years of full-time training in massage therapy … much, much more than most massage therapists get.
Next: Chapter 4: Elite, expensive massage training
One night in the winter of 1996, I woke up in the morning with my hair frozen to the wall. That was an interesting situation. ↩︎
Thing is, there was really nothing odd or even noteworthy about my hat, unless you were a typical PG youth, hypersensitive to even the subtlest signs of social abnormality: it just wasn’t a standard issue CAT hat — the major heavy equipment brand — and that’s really all it takes in Prince George. Almost anything will trigger the city’s immune system — reject the weirdo intruder! ↩︎