Man in the Middle

Well, I read all of John Amaechi’s autobiography this afternoon. See the previous article, “As Others See Us”, for my reaction to the bit about me. Since the book isn’t about me, I’ll try to keep this post about him.

It was very interesting. He worked very hard to achieve something he wanted to do, and now is using the influence and money gained to do something he believes in. It’s something I can wholeheartedly approve of, too. While I wouldn’t do basketball, the ABC Foundation is the sort of thing I’d like to think that I’d do with the money if I had that much. John, of course, actually has it, and actually is doing it, which puts him a long way above my pure talk.

It’s also clear from the book that it is deeply unpleasant to be gay and in the closet, particularly in a homophobic society. I’m glad he’s been able to come out.

Overall, though, it sounds like his life has not been very enjoyable. Starting from the betrayal by his only friend at primary school (it wasn’t like that, honest), he doesn’t seem to have had much luck with friends, and wasn’t even doing a job he particularly liked. It’s hard to shake the impression that it all starts now: now that he can give his time to mentoring young basketball players, and doesn’t have to worry about the press picking up on his sexuality, he can actually get on with living his life.

I guess you would get more out of the book if you knew anything about basketball; I’d heard of some of the people he mentioned, but not all, by a long chalk, even of the ones mentioned without any other reference, as people “everyone knows”.

With the perspective of the whole book, it looks like I really hurt him back when he was 12, enough that it still smarts 25 years later. It would be nice to have the chance to apologise for that. Alas, I can’t think of any way to do it that might sound even vaguely sincere (“Hey, famous millionaire, I’m really sorry I was mean to you at primary school, can we be friends again?” Hmmm…), and 25 years after the fact is, after all, a bit late. I don’t even have any clear memory of what I did anymore, although, as I mentioned, I do remember feeling that I’d got it wrong, somehow. I’d like to apologise, because it hurt him and I think I must have been in the wrong (I can’t even directly remember that). Public expressions of regret don’t count; I would need to apologise directly. And that looks impossible.

On the other hand, it looks like it smarts 25 years later. It doesn’t look like I played a major negative role in his life. I certainly hope not.

Anyway, I can go on playing no role in his life, as, I can hope, the best is yet to come.

As Others See Us

So, John Amaechi’s autobiography has arrived, and I’ve read the first couple of chapters. I am in it, briefly. I will quote (fair use covers it, because it’s really brief).

“In primary school I had but one friend, David, who was similarly nerdy only smaller, slight, and pale. We were united as powerless outcasts, so we spent our time together imagining ourselves as various superheroes, destined for glory and the redemption of revenge.”

Can’t argue with that. I remember the imagining ourselves as superheroes bit very well. I don’t actually remember the incident he relates afterwards, of defending me from people throwing snowballs, but I do remember that sort of thing going on. Given how selective memories of early youth are, I strongly suspect that it did happen pretty much as he describes it. His account of his lurking father neatly explains why I seem to have exactly one memory of him being round at my house, a memory that, I think, must have taken place after his eleventh birthday, because I remember having my ZX81, which I got for Christmas in 1981.

OK, next quote.

“Not long after the snowball incident, Mum threw me a 10th birthday party. Only one kid showed up. As a reward for my loyalty and protective instinct, David had dumped me, apparently not wanting to associate with school whale any longer.

“Because he was a year younger, he had declared that he needed to “move on”, since I would be graduating and he needed to find new friends anyway. I sent him a sorrowful “but we were friends, I trusted you, you lied to me” note. He mailed it back with no comment other than having corrected my spelling mistakes in red ink.”

Ouch. I don’t remember correcting his spelling mistakes in red ink. Unfortunately, it’s entirely plausible that I did. My social skills were a little lacking. Actually, I think he must have conflated several events here, because I’m pretty sure we were friends until he left our primary school, which was nine months after his eleventh birthday. So, here’s what I remember. My details are just as likely to be wrong as his, of course. (Mum, if you remember any of the incidents around here, feel free to email me to let me know what actually happened.)

It is entirely plausible that I missed his tenth birthday party. He might have been dreaming of becoming a psychologist at that point, but I was seeing one. I remember one birthday of mine from around that time going spectacularly wrong, although I think it must have been a bit later. My birthday is very close to his, and slightly before. If we’d had an argument at my party, I could well have still been sulking when his rolled round. I was also asthmatic, and prone to attacks from over-excitement (which meant that I could never be told in advance that my father was coming to visit, and was often ill on my birthday). So I might have missed his party because I was looking forward to it.

However, I distinctly remember us still being friends in the summer of 1982, before he left primary school. I remember this because I remember us getting into trouble for playing kind-of tennis off at one end of the playground and losing a couple of balls over the fence. Also, our primary school only did swimming lessons in the final year at that point, so the “whale” incident can’t have happened until almost a year after his tenth birthday. (The year I was in the top class, they started giving the next class down one term of lessons. I remember being annoyed at losing a term of swimming; I enjoyed it. Hated the moment of actually getting into the water, mind you.)

I do remember writing to him to say “look, we’re never going to become superheroes”, and getting a reply back saying “I think we both knew that really”. (He’s come a lot closer to it than I’ve managed, that’s for sure.) I have a feeling that that letter was an attempt to somehow reconfigure the friendship, and that it happened after he had left primary school (and thus, when he was around 12).

The critical point was that we went to different private schools after leaving primary school, schools about six miles apart. John had wanted me to go to the same school as him, which, if I really was his only friend, makes sense.  In the end, I’d opted for another one.

I also remember feeling a bit guilty about the end of the friendship for years. I remember feeling that I had, somehow, handled things badly and made him angry with me. It looks like I was right about that. I didn’t know how to patch things up, or what to patch them up to, and by the time I had enough social nous that I could probably have managed it, it was five or six years later, which is a bit late.

I am, however, sure that it was nothing to do with him being the “whale”, or being picked on by his peers. I don’t think I ever noticed that he was picked on.

Had we both been mature, confident adults, I have no doubt we would have worked through the problems, and might still be in touch now. But, of course, we weren’t. And now we have twenty five years of completely different life history behind us, so fixing it is unlikely. Plus he’s a millionaire basketball star and I’m… not.

So yes, basically, this is a bit painful, and not because I feel slandered. Rather, it’s because, although I think he must have details wrong (maybe that was the ghost writer, though), the broad sweep fits my memory. We were good friends at primary school. I messed up and spoiled the friendship at the end.