If you haven’t seen Shawshank Redemption six or seven times, do yourself a favour. There’s a scene where wrongly-convicted, nice guy banker Andy Dufresne tells his pal Red, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice: Get busy living, or get busy dying.” This scene’s dialogue came to mind when I was learning of Bill Nikolai’s adventures and exploits. Like Andy, Bill has chosen to get busy living, or more accurately keep busy living. Luckily, he didn’t have to break out of federal prison and crawl through a half kilometre of excrement to do it.
It would seem there are two main types of people: those who view retirement as a well-earned rest for a life well-worked, where cranking the handle on the recliner is the apex of adventure they desire; and those who continue to challenge themselves, mind and body, seeking to test limits and extend boundaries. Bill Nikolai, mild-mannered librarian by day (more on that later), is the proto-typical limit tester and boundary extender.
A couple of years short of retirement, but looking like he could go on forever, it’s tempting to call Bill a man’s man, but that label is limiting and, in some sense, demeaning to women. No, he’s a people’s man. Instead of grabbing it by the horns, Bill would rather befriend the bull, buy it a drink and swap stories.
Bill’s passions include skiing, SCUBA diving and paragliding. The list is by no means exhaustive; it scratches the surface of the breadth of his recreation.
“With skiing, I really enjoy the feeling of nicely carved, superefficient turns. Of course, deep, fresh powder and the very different technique required to ski that provides a whole other aspect of satisfaction,” says Bill. “SCUBA diving offers a unique perspective on a world that is so different than our terrestrial one. It’s mind-boggling, the universe that exists below the waves. With regard to paragliding, I really like the feeling of soaring slowly, high above terrain that I get to view as much as birds do. It’s the kind of sport in which you can never stop learning. That in itself provides a lot of delight.”
His place in and relationship to the big, spinning blue ball we all cling to is not lost on Bill, nor is his recognition that much of the joy he experiences is due in large part to the camaraderie his pursuits foster amongst enthusiasts.
“Whenever I come down from the mountains, or dive and surface, or fly and land, the transition back to my usual existence is almost mystical and surreal in terms of contrast to the natural and very stimulating magic that I’ve experienced in one of the other domains,” he says. “Lastly, all of those activities are often done in a social context, where you’re sharing the magic with others. Paragliding, in particular, has enabled me to meet wonderful like-minded passionate folks all over the world. I’ve flown in BC, six US States, as well as France, Japan and Turkey. When you fly, you instantly make connections with other pilots and experience a very real sense of community.”
The thrill of the chase ultimately isn’t what motivates Bill. For nearly 30 years, his wife, Linda, has been his driving force and inspiration.
“She is truly a compassionate and empathetic person who demonstrably cares about many people, both in her personal life and professionally. She works incredibly hard at her job as a leukemia and bone marrow transplant nurse.”
The work Linda does with people who are fighting for their lives reminds Bill how lucky he is to be in relatively good health. She also happens to be his skiing partner and SCUBA buddy. She grounds him, gives him wings and goes for a dip with him. Red Bull never stood a chance.
Not a fan of the term “adrenaline junkie,” Bill’s the kind of guy who throws down the gauntlet judiciously and with forethought. Throwing caution to the wind cautiously is part of what allows him to continue throwing without rotator cuff issues.
“I like to do things that may seem risky, but it’s not without a fair bit of consideration as to my limits, as well as benefit versus downside,” says Bill.
That doesn’t mean once the decision to play is made, he doesn’t play hard.
“With skiing, I used to love the airtime, the jumps and drops. The joints aren’t as resilient as they used to be, so I don’t ‘fly’ on my skis like I did when I was in my twenties (a skier since age five). I still love speed. I hit 100 km/h recently, as measured by my iPhone.”
Not to mention flying like a bird.
“It’s tempting to acquiesce,” says Bill, “to listen to the infomercials and the body’s insistence. When it comes right down to it, though, capitulation is not an option. Keep the RPMs near redline and pray you don’t blow the engine or vaporize all the octane before your destination. Because to give in and throttle back is to hasten the decline.”
Pedal-to-the-metal mode does take its toll, though, and time ravages indiscriminately, if without malice. Bill is philosophical about the inevitable. A nagging hip has become his Achilles’ heel.
“I’m reminded by a retail flyer – much to my dismay – that I’m now eligible for a 20 per cent seniors’ discount on replenishment of my ibuprofen stockpile, something welcomed by my bottom but eschewed by my head,” jokes Bill.
We often watch someone like Bill and admire his living life on the edge, as it were, the courage necessary to take the risks he does to reap those rewards. But Bill downplays the idea of courage in this sense and suggests that a kind of courage within the context of caring for others is a much richer version.
“Sports endeavours – whether extreme or otherwise – may require some variation of ‘courage’ (I’m really not sure what to call it), but they lack the necessary components of altruism and selflessness that would put them anywhere near the same league, as say, for example, Oskar
Schindler’s efforts to protect Jews.”
Professionally, Bill is a card-carrying actor, and a claim to fame was that he was MacGyver’s stand in. Yes, that MacGyver. Later, when MacGyver became Stargate military man Jack O’Neill, he stood for him, too. Stand-ins stand most of the time, unless they’re sitting. They hold the place of the actor for purposes of blocking and lighting, basically setting up the shot in the film and television industries. Bill is friends with MacGyver and O’Neill a.k.a. Richard Dean Anderson. It’s not a claim to fame, just another fact.
Though the acting bug never goes away, it lies dormant under the skin waiting for its host to present with the itch to get back in front of the camera. For now, though, Bill is asymptomatic. Practical about the prospects of a life on the silver screen, Bill went back to school at age 50. So, what does a guy do who, in a single year, has run 1,725 km, biked 2,200 km, hiked and walked an additional 167 km, and gained more than the equivalent of Mt. Everest in elevation? Bill became a librarian, of course. Oh, and that year he also knocked out 49,750 push-ups, 70,550 crunches, 34,160 dips, and 7,671 chin-ups. Seems Bill has a bit of a cataloguing problem. This stats freak laments that all that work was slightly less than he’d done the year before.
“As a boomer, I’m used to reinvention, scheming to distinguish myself from the pack. Film and TV are uncertain. Ninety-five percent of my acting guild mates earned less than $5,000 per annum.”
Now, Bill sits behind the information desk, “offering call numbers and factoids about article retrieval, and planning info literary classes,” but he still pays his ACTRA dues just in case that rash flares up. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” is an oft misquoted and misattributed saying. Bill would advise rather to live spontaneously, joyfully, playfully and gratefully for as long as you can. Let the undertaker take care of the corpse.
How does Bill reconcile the perceived dichotomy between the sedate and cerebral librarian and high-flying paraglider? With his trademark, self-deprecating humour.
“I like being seen as a ‘flybrarian.’ I don’t believe in stereotypes, so it’s fun breaking moulds. Librarianship is perceived as being an intellectual endeavour and I’d like more people to realize that flying is similar. It’s really not about just chucking yourself off a cliff. There are lots of technical considerations, and paragliding, like any other kind of aviation, is a thinking person’s pursuit. At the same time, if you mess up as a librarian, generally nobody will die; if a pilot miscalculates, it’s serious business. Strangely enough, I suppose that’s another thing I like about the three sports I’ve talked about: they’re all three-dimensional activities with consequences (if you ignore limits). They focus your concentration in a very real way, taking you out of mundane everyday life, if only for a few hours.”
Oh, and there was that day in August when Bill biked, with 21 kilos of gliding gear on his back, to North Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain, hiked up over 1,000 metres, flew down, and then biked back home.
A stand in? Bill is not a stand in. When the lights have cooled, the cameras are being cared for like Fabergé eggs, and the last of the set dressers has driven away in his rented cube van, Bill remains. When adult make-believe time has wrapped, when producers commiserate over costs, Bill hits his mark. Where’s that mark? Ocean? Mountain? Sky? Your guess is as good as any, but it’s far from a colourful piece of gaffer’s tape stuck to the floor.
Bill’s is the story of “sucking the marrow out of life.” I thought twice about using the great American poet’s quote given the critical, lifesaving work Linda does for fear of sounding flip or casual. But there is nothing casual in tackling life head on, in shaking every last grain of soil from the root, in ringing the rag until it is dry. It is Bill’s approach. Thoreau should have been so thorough.
When a final few questions lingered, Bill said he and Linda could be reached in Panama. He would get back to me from a hang glider around the rim of the Baru Volcano or a Sea-Doo ripping up the canal.
And there’s Andy Dufresne in the Mexican sun, sanding that old boat to get it out on the Pacific. Busy living.
Snapshot with Bill Nikolai
If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give him?
“Think carefully about the consequences of your choices (and even the decisions you don’t take), but allow yourself to be impetuous and spontaneous. Dream about goals and how you might achieve them, but be willing to re-assess and take side trips and detours. Work at acquiring, developing and expressing a sense of humour, but not at the expense of others. Go lightly on the fart jokes. Develop and nurture relationships.”
Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
“My wife, Linda. Not just because we’ve been together almost 30 years and I continue to try to score brownie points… She works incredibly hard at her job, and always has work-related stories that make me realize two things: 1) her empathy and work ethic know no bounds (putting me to shame) and 2) I’m so lucky to be in relatively good health while so many people are valiantly – and literally – engaging in life-and-death struggles.”
What does courage mean to you?
“Wow. Courage means to do something in the face of personal fear, adversity, and the possibility of negative consequences. In my opinion, however, true courage is something that occurs primarily in the realm of supporting others.”
What does success mean to you?
“That, perhaps, is the toughest question. Taking responsibility and acting accordingly. It certainly doesn’t mean being wealthy. Living a life that makes a positive difference to those around you would be my main criterion.”