Sunday, July 30, 2023

Outfoxed and Overthought: A story about time slipping away

Zapruder-like photo quality of my soulmate lurking at the edge of the woods.

There’s this fox that lives in my neighborhood. I bet I’ve seen it more times than anyone else has because I look for it. 

Most mornings I sit on my back porch having coffee. If I’m up and out there just before dawn, there’s a decent chance I’ll see it trot right past, presumably on its way back to its den after a night out carousing. 

Then later, when Kris and I take our walk, there’s another chance we might see it out sunning itself in the field, not too far from the safety of the woodline. It’s gotten so it will sit and look right at us without moving as long as we don’t get too close, not that I would. I think it knows who we are—a little bridge of understanding between our two worlds.

And then there are just occasional random sightings, like the time walking in a different area we saw it come trotting around a small grove of pine trees with a deer it must have roused chasing it maybe ten yards behind. I swear that damn fox turned its head toward me as it rounded the corner, a grin affixed to its face as if to say, “I’m just toying with that slow poke. It’ll never catch me.”

By the way, I’m 53 and I’m lost. I think I’ve been so from the moment people told me I had to be something other than a cowboy or an Indian when I grew up. 

I may as well be 15 all over again, never having kissed a girl or maybe one awkwardly, not yet able to drive, no longer a boy but a long way from being a man. Only 3 years from heading off to college, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with myself. I still feel the same way today, only a lot older and tired of thinking about it.

I managed to write my way into a pretty decent job this past year—a 10-month tryout of sorts as a contractor that I parlayed into a full-time gig. Now that I have it, I don’t want much about it besides the steady paycheck. 

I liked the cafeteria during my freshman year at Grove City College. You could go to the salad bar as many times as you wanted, so I did. They had stuff on there besides salad, like pudding. Sitting at dinner for two hours beat the hell out of trudging back to my room to study.

A high school buddy helped me pick that school. He was a diligent fellow and tried to do right by me. We both thought the small atmosphere and academic focus would be perfect for me. 

It didn’t work out as we planned. Channeling Holden Caufield, I nearly failed out and transferred to WVU after a year. To be fair, I’d kissed a girl by then, and a little rift between us played a role in my demise.

Being back on familiar turf was better, but I changed majors three or four times, including crying uncle once after picking up a hot Bunsen burner with my bare hand during a chemistry lab. I only finally graduated in journalism because it seemed to be the one for which I had the most natural ability, and word processors weren’t nearly as dangerous as open flames. 

Despite incessantly pondering how I’d earn a living writing for the hometown paper at five bucks an hour, I could still push through with a passable news column. My skillset was about as wide as a piece of thread though, and so it seemed were my employment prospects.

While I had no answers, lots of other kids, content to float from one party to the next, didn’t even have any questions. Many of them also didn’t make it to graduation.

Once I got a little foothold, however, the place couldn’t get rid of me. I amassed two graduate degrees and an alphabet soup of letters after my name, far more out of not knowing what I wanted to do and avoiding a depressed Gulf War-era job market than out of ambition.

Fast forward to the present and with several years after age forty where my tax return shows an income under $25,000, I’ve not only avoided a career but also narrowly avoided living in a homeless shelter at times. Luckily, the closest I came was as the fundraising director for one during one of my better recent years income-wise.

My working life has been a joke, moving from one dead end or wrong turn to the next. I wouldn’t begin to know who to blame, but I suppose pointing that fucking finger up my ass like Tool advises the kid wearing Vans and 501s in Hooker with a Penis is a good start.

The cafeteria is pretty good at my new job, too. Sometimes they make stuff I’ve never heard of, and I almost always order that. I invariably like it and end up looking up what it is and where it came from, but I doubt I’ll ever make any of it.

Ah, but the work. What can I say about the work? 

The work is fast-paced and tedious, a combination about as pleasant as pickles on chocolate ice cream. I’m a ball of nerves most days waiting on edge for that stupid Microsoft Teams messaging platform’s annoying ding to alert me that I’ve been “tagged” in another “deliverable.” That just means someone is telling me I have an assignment to write the same thing I always write—only differently, thanks.

Three months in, and I’m already out of stuff to say and ways to say it. What creativity I may have had for this line of work has been squelched by frenetic monotony.

My work computer is right here beside me on my desk, but I’m writing this instead of logging on to that. Like Kate Moss checking her weight in her heroin chic heyday, I also obsessively review my 401(k) balance daily, dreaming of retiring to a beach town before they figure me out or I reach the end of my rope and quit for no good reason, or maybe for a really good one. 

Apart from hearing occasional stories about otherwise healthy people dying, I enjoyed the slow pace of the pandemic. I wasn’t tethered to a strict schedule and didn’t have to worry about running hither and thither. I wasn’t making much money working part-time from home and putting my personal training side hustle on hold, but I wasn’t spending much either.

My time was more my own, and I was free to write a little most days and lift weights whenever I wanted. But even as much as I enjoy those pursuits and willingly engage in them, I don’t want to bang weights or the keyboard forty hours a week, never mind doing someone else's bidding.

As long as my basic needs are met and I’m comfortable, if I have a choice between working the long hours it seems to require to have one of those fancy cars I see in the parking lot of the office building where I work or having the time to myself, you can keep the car. I’m choosing the time every time. People make such a big deal about work ethic and hustling just to acquire more stuff, but sometimes, more than most people I guess, I’d rather bang on my metaphorical drum all day.

Kris and I made every meal at home and lazed around most evenings watching TV together during lockdown. We still mostly squeeze in both of those activities, but our days were more relaxed then.

We watched a miniseries called Maniac starring real-life besties Jonah Hill and Emma Stone—a neat little backstory that drew me in before I knew anything about the plot. Quirky nerd sparks friendship with pretty girl on set of coming-of-age comedy, then they both go on to achieve stardom before reuniting years later as adults so they can work together on this new project… sign me up! 

Far from my usual straightforward revenge or survival fare, it was disjointed and trippy. I had a little trouble following until I figured out that underneath all the plot twists, the show somewhat parallels their actual journey. Turns out it’s a pretty familiar story about finding that special connection that brings life into focus and helps give it some meaning. Unless I’m wrong and that’s not what it is at all.

Speaking of connections, it seems like I was a little more connected to the people who matter in my life and a little less connected to those who don’t. Kris and I had a weekly FaceTime call with my mom during which we would all play Yahtzee together. It wasn’t as good as being together in person, but it was better than we’d managed during many other busier times in our lives. 

I could tell Mom looked forward to our call as much as I did, even as she was starting to slip and have trouble articulating what she’d rolled. When the pandemic ended, so too did those FaceTime calls. Just a couple of short years later, she’s no longer well enough to take my calls.

These days, that 401(k) balance is rising like it’s supposed to as I diligently follow the standard advice to “stay the course” with my monthly contributions. What they neglect to mention about that much-ballyhooed time value of money equation is the inverse relationship with the more valuable of the two resources. 

Bean counting like a modern-day Mr. Potter, I think about the desperate race I’m running. Will I exhaust my good health and decent days before my balance is sufficient to walk away, or will I make it to that beach before the sun sets? Considering my father's death from a heart attack at 55 and my own type 1 diabetes, the odds may be as close as a coin flip. Faintly, I hear Mom’s soap intro whispering, “Like sands through the hourglass of time….”

Winning that race—not power or recognition—is my only work goal now. It’s not that I’m too earnest for the petty concerns of less righteous men and want to pursue a nobler calling like helping people; it’s that I’m simply too tired to care. Sometimes, I’m even a little relieved I don’t have to worry about figuring out how to pay for Ruby’s education or wedding, and my shame in admitting that doesn’t make it any less true. 

A classmate of mine recently died. We didn’t keep in touch after graduation, but this wasn’t just any classmate. He was a good-looking, athletic kid who also had a rare genuineness about him. Nice to everybody, he was universally well-liked by jocks, nerds, gearheads, stoners, and any other group you can name. He was arguably the face of Bridgeport High School’s class of '87.

I doubt I'll ever attend another class reunion, but I considered attending his funeral. Being the type who stealthily dodges coworkers when I spot them at lunch so I can enjoy a quiet meal rather than endure forced conversation, I guess it makes sense that a somber setting suits me better than a social one. I saw it as a way to see a few people without the usual phoniness.

People suffering from extended illnesses often cling to life, never quite wholly ready to go despite their pain. Others never see it coming, assuming they still have more time one minute and dropping dead the next. Regardless of how it happens, if this fellow I remember so fondly can die before his time, then I’m damn well sure someone like me can too.

I’ve seen two foxes together on a few occasions. For all I know, the one that runs past the porch in the morning isn’t the same one that suns itself in the field in the afternoon.

I certainly don’t know if it’s male or female. That’s why I usually just refer to it as “it.” I don’t know if it’s hungry or full; if it has a mate and a litter of pups or is flying solo; if it’s sick or well; or anything at all.

I just catch these small glimpses and pretend they mean something, like that the fox and I have some sort of unspoken relationship similar to Jonah's and Emma's souls finding each other out of all the souls in the universe. Well okay, not exactly, but I do imagine a connection.

There's a line in the Robert Redford fly fishing movie A River Runs Through It where the narrator ponders how well he knew his deceased brother concluding, "...maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman." My pretending about the fox that I actually don't know any better than any other is not too dissimilar from my understanding of most people, even some with whom I claim to be close.

I do know one thing about the fox. I know it isn’t wasting time thinking about me. When it’s time to hunt, it hunts. When it’s time to rest, it rests.

The Byrds wrote an old folk song about that sort of thing. Maybe I should go and listen to their lyrics about the seasons and all. Maybe I don’t need to unless I just feel like it.

Either way, my time is coming.

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