Looking back, I never stood a chance.

by John McManamy


IF YOU HAVE EVER read news accounts of airlines that crashed, you will inevitably find they were doomed to crash. Sleet build-up on the wings, a five-cent bolt that worked its way loose, a runway that was too short for the conditions at hand - you get the picture. The pilot taxies into position, gets the all-clear from the control tower, and races down the strip, fully expecting to become airborne, taking comfort in the roar of four Pratt and Whitney engines outside his cockpit, blithely ignorant of the fatal defect that will put him and his passengers in the bottom of a swamp ...

So it was with my first college experience. I had no study habits to speak of, and I was subject to depressions that I thought everyone experienced as a matter of course. On top of that I suffered bouts of mania that I mistook for normal moods. I entered my first year full of bright hope and promise only to crash and burn my second year, with no hope of putting the pieces back together.

It was the late sixties, and everyone seemed to be enjoying it except me. I should have been fitting right in, but some hidden malfunction inside my brain seemed to reach out and warn away all those who should have been my companions. Inevitably my thoughts turned to suicide or of speculating what it would be like if I cryogenically froze myself and woke up say around the turn of the century.

Would the world be ready to accept me by then?

In the meantime, of course, I was seeing the world with different eyes. I would go to the art galleries in Washington DC where I was living at the time, and at the National Gallery I would inevitably find myself in front of Vermeer's "Woman Weighing Gold." Perhaps it was the painting's overall sense of stillness and balance that intrigued me, qualities I could only experience vicariously.

I tried my hand at various jobs, driving taxis, picking up garbage in a suburban department store, and playing trombone in a soul band. Fortunately the army wouldn't have me. My pathetically skinny frame that made me the object of so much ridicule in my youth turned out to be my life-saver when so many my age were needlessly dying in a stupid war.

Ultimately, I left Washington DC saying no farewells, and slipped back into my hometown with my tail between my legs to temporarily stay with my parents, maintaining a low profile, afraid to show myself in public lest I draw attention to my spectacular failures.

My next stop was Cambridge, just outside Boston, where I wound up sharing an apartment just off Harvard Square with a folksinger who made me look like a barrel of laughs. "I wish I wasn't a Pisces (I can't remember the sign here)," he would lament as if his particular sun sign were a very real handicap. Maybe it was. The poor guy should have been famous, but recognition - it turned out - was not in his stars.

"Socrates, where have you gone?" he cried out in one of his songs. For some reason it struck me as profound. Off he would go with his trusty dog Gypsy to sing on Harvard Square, and when he returned he invariably had another musician with him or some new admirer who had become spellbound by his music. He was that good. I'm sure his depressions or his drug habits got to him in the end. Otherwise the world would have heard of him by now. His failing was our loss.

One day, after living in Cambridge for about a year, I woke up. I literally woke up. It was the fall of '74 and I was driving a cab at nights. I was 24 going on 25. I was lying in bed in a semi-haze when I got an idea. Why don't I buy a motorcycle? A very ill-timed proposition with winter coming on, of course, but then I thought some more. The hell with living here where it's cold, I decided. Why don't I move to California instead? followed almost instantly by this revelation: Why don't I buy a motorcycle and ride it - to California?



That fortuitous joining of two thoughts during a fleeting idle instant in bed is known to me to this very day as The Day I Woke Up. From that moment on I was a man possessed, a man on a mission. Others seemed to sense it in me and responded accordingly, and soon I began to feel like I was almost fitting in. By the time I was ready to ride out of town on a bitter cold December morning, I felt sad at leaving several good friends behind. On the other hand, I was glad at being sad. Something good was beginning to happen to me.

There is a stretch of the Route 101 Coastal Highway in Marin County north of San Francisco that has probably washed into the Pacific by now. Yes, I had found California.

I leaned my bike into the curves of the road, first one way, then the other, testing my Jedi reflexes to the limit, delighting in the roller coaster, speeding up on the straightaways and gearing down on the hairpins perched high above the Pacific, my ears ringing with the roar of the waves crashing against the rocks below.

I was just leaning in for another sharp turn when I came upon some rocks that had worked their way loose from the hills above. There was no time to think. I swerved to avoid the obstacle, then gently hit the brakes to avoid spinning out and methodically geared down and leaned on the bike harder than I would like to, trusting I would stop before I found myself with nothing between me and the ocean but several hundred feet of air.

I brought the bike around 180 degrees, but it was going backward toward the ocean on its own momentum. I felt the sickening sensation of the back wheel leaving the shoulder and losing traction in the soft earth behind. For a brief fleeting instant I had the sensation of being suspended in midair, rather like Wile E Coyote in those Roadrunner cartoons. Then the bike found purchase, jerked forward, and stalled on the shoulder.

I turned off the ignition, wheeled my bike to a safe place, and took stock. Something had shifted in me in those two or three seconds. Whatever had been holding me back before was holding me back no longer.




Not long after, I met the woman who would be my first wife. We moved first to Vancouver, then to New Zealand where she is from, where we both enrolled in law school (law is an undergraduate degree there), and in our second year of law our daughter Emily was born. As if making up for lost time, I was elected President of the Law Students' Association, founded a community law center, completed my honors dissertation, took on my share of the parenting, and tutored in the Law Faculty.

It never would have occurred to me that I was operating in manic overdrive. Why would it? My life was finally going right.

Meanwhile, my first marriage was flaming out on me. During my last year of law school, thoughts of suicide - which I thought I had left behind forever - were returning and some of my behavior was bordering on bizarre. The inevitable break-up came during my second year in the work force, in a strange new town where I was editor of a financial/accounting journal. I knew nothing of journalism and even less of finance - let alone of managing a complex publishing operation - but that did not stop me from applying for the job.

My second or third issue I put King Kong on the cover. My boss began to suspect I was not quite the same bill of goods he had thought he had taken on, but my readers apparently loved it. I followed up with a chimpanzee behind a desk and called it "Evolution of the Accountant."

Amazingly, no one fired me.



In the meantime, my marriage breakup brought on the kind of depression that dampened my eccentric behavior. Oddly, had it not been for the disaster of a failed marriage, I might have flipped out completely, before I had a chance to demonstrate my worth as a writer and journalist. To set the record straight, my editorship was no fluke. I had already written two unpublished novels and numerous short stories, not to mention a book-length dissertation and several other lengthy honors assignments, plus orchestrate a very successful PR campaign for the law center I had founded. Also, the exam system in New Zealand stresses concisely-written answers under tight deadlines. I was good - notwithstanding all I had to learn - and I finally had a chance to prove it.

My ultimate crash and burn would have to wait. It was doomed to happen, of course, just like all those accounts of airline crashes you read about, the ones about sleet on the wings no one was aware of at the time or that five cent bolt that worked its way loose. The pilot guns his engines, fully expecting to become airborne, and instead the next day divers are fishing for that black box lying beneath the bottom of a harbor somewhere ...

Reviewed July 16, 2016


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