Retirement

          The golden age of action movies happened in the early nineties, and Steven Segal was a demigod. I forget which, but in one of his movies, he wrote “fear of death is worse than death itself” on a mirror with lipstick as he stalked one of his villains. The villain came along and read it, became petrified with fear, and then died a few moments later after getting his balls blown off by a shotgun.

***

          I retired at age thirty-seven. Just to be transparent, I should tell you that I’m jerrymandering semantics quite a bit: my former supervisor would use a different word than “retired,” and I’ll eventually need to make more money, so my retirement is finite. However, regardless of labels, right now, I’m on top of the world. Decades from now, when they ask me about the best time in my life, I’ll tell them about the 2016 holiday season. I’ll tell them about how I lost my job right after my birthday and I’ll make mention of the fact that I walked into October with the biggest shit-eating grin that’s ever been worn. I’ll tell them that in the twilight days of this year, my life changed permanently.

          I’ll need to catch you up before you’ll understand fully. For the last sixteen years, I sold my soul daily to the oilfield. The money was good, but I loathed my occupation—it felt like socially accepted prostitution. My true opinions had to be smothered in ignorance and kept quite as to not startle the rednecks, and every professional moment was a lie lived. I went to work day after day as a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing just so the rest of the pack wouldn’t sniff me out. “Hey, look over there,” they’d say, “that man isn’t one of us. He’s different and he writes things just for fun. He thinks too much. Get the tar, get the feathers.” My discontentment was a palpable thing. It grew and grew through years of accretion because I hated what I did for a living and I hated the people who worked alongside me: assholes in zipper-free wolf suits. I snapped a couple years back. The unhappiness was a whole bale of hay on my camel’s back. I made some changes and I faced a few things honestly. I went back to school and I started to write for real. I kept my job to pay the bills, but I was just going through the motions. A layman would say that I didn’t give a fuck. My performance was laughable but I was still the best at what I did because, frankly, my left testicle was smarter than my competitors. And I waited. I just waited and waited for the end to come. Every day was purgatory while I waited for the axe, and then when it finally came, life exploded: it exploded in a good, cathartic way, like the victorious bombs of flame that blossom in fanfare at the end of every Chuck Norris movie. I’m walking away from the oilfield in slow-motion as my past life burns behind me. I won’t even blink when the wind from the explosion tousles my action-hero hair. Boom bitch, I win.

          Just to be honest, I’ll put in writing the valid point you’re saying to yourself right now: if you hated your job so much, why didn’t you just quit? The short answer: I was a coward. After that many years of indentured service, I became institutionalized just like a Shawshank inmate. The outside world was a scary place full of uncertainty and murky paths. My job, even though I hated it, seemed like the lesser of two evils so I never mustered the courage to leave on my own. It’s pretty pathetic and it’s hard to admit, but if you’ve lived a lengthy life, I’m sure you can relate. I’m sure there were things you should’ve done that you never did because fear of the unknown kept you “safe.” So don’t judge me too harshly.

          Even though I wanted what came to me, those first few days were hard. Losing my job was like breaking up with a bad partner. You know in your heart that he or she is the problem, but he or she is too narrowminded to admit it. He or she thinks that you’re the problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and you never get the validation you need from you ex. It’s frustrating. There were tears and middle fingers held high, appalled laughter and regret and happiness, all mixed together like a confused soup. However, I had my family. When I lost my job, it felt like a too-taunt cord was severed quickly, it felt like freefall. Life was frightening chaos for a while, but it didn’t do a damn bit of harm because my girls came in and set things right. My cold teenage daughter warmed with love and encouragement. She supported me. Cacti rarely bloom, but when they do, their flowers are extra special. My eight-years-old daughter told me that everything would be okay. That’s her truth because for her, everything really is okay because I always make it so. And my wife came through. She asked me how long it would take to graduate if I didn’t go back to work. She asked me how long it would take to write a book. Those questions felt like mana from above and my vision always clouds when I think about her support because I might’ve crumbled without it. There’s really no way to fail when I have those three girls pushing from behind.

          I don’t care if this reads like a cliché, but I’m one of the lucky ones, and not just for the obvious reasons. I was just one of thousands who lost his job. The oilfield is dying. Some people who’re still in it will tell you otherwise. They’ll say that it’s coming back, that the bust is turning to boom, but they’re wrong. Sure, it’ll come back for a while early next term as commodity prices and greed surge, but it’ll be short lived. The oilfield is a feast or famine world, as many know, but what they don’t see is that the feasts aren’t as good as they used to be, and the famines worsen as the generations pass. Three steps down and two steps up still leads you down. This impending “boom” is nothing more than a final gasp before a drowning industry goes under. Who knows? Maybe I’m a bit too fatalistic, and maybe big-oil can kick to the surface three or even four more times before death comes. Whatever. The important takeaway is that death is coming, and most of the displaced cogs like myself don’t have my advantages. They don’t have means or education, they don’t have dreams. The oilfield is their life; for me, it was a means to an end. I didn’t lose any of my identity when the axe fell, but I know men who have. Just last year, if you would’ve walked up to one of these men and asked “what are you?” most of them would’ve lead with their job title. If you do something for long enough, it becomes part of you, you become it, and when it’s taken away, there’s nothing left besides feelings of inadequacy and depression. I despise the oilfield as I mentioned and I have similar feelings for the archetypical oilfield-man, but I also have boundless empathy for all the good people who’ve lost and who’re anguishing. Right now, there’s an entire demographic suffering through an identity crisis, but luckily, I’m not part of it. I’m the crab who clawed his way to the top of the bucket and escaped.

          You see, throughout all those days I sold my soul, I never let the oilfield get into my soul, if that makes sense. I never acclimated to oilfield culture, I was never assimilated. Even before my birthday, this is how our conversation would’ve gone:

          “What are you, Jesse?”

          “I’m a father, husband, writer.”

          “Okay, but what do you do?”

          “I make sure my family is good and I write things. I work in the oilfield, I guess, but that’s about as important as my job replacing the toilet paper when it runs out.”

          See what I mean? The secret is this: fuck it. Fuck all of it. Work to live, never live to work because that’s not living. Don’t get tied up in your day-job because what you do to buy toilet paper isn’t who you are. Don’t feel bad if you’re just now getting it; plenty of people never do. The trenches I escaped are still there. There are still people working there, blaming their woes on my departure and giving birth to rumors. Those fools are just crabs still stuck in a bucket, jealous of my freedom, clawing at their coworkers with negativity as they long for escape. They’re just like I was: they hate where they’re at but they’re too afraid to seek greener pastures. I know how that feels, intimately. But that’s not my reality anymore, and I have a plan.

          Plan “A” would be to take a year off and plow through my degree, earning money as a freelance writer along the way, and then lock down a remedial job of some sort while I earn my master’s. Maybe I’d publish a book along the way. Plan “A” is super sparkly, but it’s not too realistic. Plan “B” is to take a full-load for the spring semester and take just six months off work. I’ll find a job if I need it and it’ll only push back my graduation by a semester or two. This is where I’m headed. I have an internship at a local newspaper set up for the spring and it isn’t a stretch financially or morally to go through with it. It’s painfully exciting. Plan “C” is by far the most realistic: get a job, peck away at the degree. Wait to be a writer, wait and wait longer because it’s safe and secure and that’s what the fear says to do. My resume is on point and I’ve already turned down a few jobs. I had an interview this morning for a position that’d be a step up from the one I just left. Things went well. It has the six figures we’re programed to chase and all the benefits that lead away from unsure dreams. I have another interview the first week in January. This job would be a step up from the step up. I set these things up and chase things I’ve already had because I’m afraid to jump; I’m climbing down the cliff slowly.

          But what happens when one of these jobs is offered to me? It isn’t unrealistic to think that one of the two could be mine, and they’re both perfect. They’re local; they’re in a field that isn’t dependent on barbarian controlled fossil fuels; they pay ridiculously well. Will I be able to turn one down, and even if I could, should I? “Actually, sir, never mind. You can keep your perfect, realistic job because I want to be a writer when I grow up. I don’t need all your stupid money and benefits because I’m an artist damn it!” Right… that’s bullshit. My hypocrisy is alive and well, and of course I’ll take the money. Of course I’ll go back to selling my soul, albeit to a different devil, because principal and freedom just look good on paper. I like to travel and I like brand names and I like the crust of the upper-middle class because it tastes better than generic foods from the grocery store. But jumping on a job is just probably what I’ll do. I have until January seventeenth to make a final decision regarding my spring semester schedule, and that leaves me where I am, right here, right now: In the best months of my life, telling myself that the possibility is finally a reality, that maybe I can be a writer without waiting. There: you’re all caught up.

          This is going to sound trite, like a middle-aged man pining for younger years; I promise it’s anything but. I never had a young adulthood. My wife and I were married before she was legally allowed to drink, and we had a baby on the way. I went from living in my dad’s house with nothing more to my name than a burgeoning drinking problem all the way to living in my first mortgaged home with a new car. It took me about three months. A baby will light that proverbial fire under your ass. The point is that my wife and I skipped that whole “find yourself in your early twenties” thing. We didn’t travel the states in a piece-of-shit station wagon, we didn’t try to find some little town thousands of miles from home that we could call our own, and we didn’t spend the time trying to find our passions. The missed romance of such formative years is regrettable, but it wasn’t all bad. We got a head start on life—for it, we have investment properties to show, a nest egg for periods in life just like this one, and a lifetime of adult experience that many of my peers are just now jumping into. So, it is what it is. I’m not going to make some vain attempt to recapture a part of life that I missed: I’m just going milk out of these winter months as much enjoyment as possible because I feel like I deserve it.

          During these holidays, I have true freedom. The fall semester just ended, so this period is the first time in my adult life wherein I have nothing to do. No class, no job. And oddly enough, this period is the first time in my life that I don’t have a boss. Seriously. I went from living with a parent directly into a career so there was always an authority figure looming. There was always someone who could call and ask me to do something. But not right now. I’ve untethered myself from my cell phone. The first time I left it behind, I took my youngest daughter to the park. I told her that I didn’t bring my phone on purpose. I told her that I wasn’t available to anyone else in the world besides her, and the smile I saw was love painted into an expression. Hell, that single moment was worth all the stress that came along with my severance. And that’s how I’m living life right now. For me, for my daughters and wife, for the fucking moment. I’m watching cartoons and eating Lucky Charms. I’m working out like a beast and growing my beard in accordance. I’m cleaning and cooking (as it turns out, I’m quite the domestic diva), and for once, I’m writing daily. The twenty-five hundred words you just read equal only half of what’s come out of me today, and it honestly feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s wonderful. These three months will surely turn into halcyon days of remembrance and I’m not going to make the mistake of cherishing them less than I should while I’m living in this temporary-retiree paradise. And that’s why I wrote this. These five pages I just banged out are nothing more than a sticky note reminder, a string tied to my finger: Jesse, you have what you wanted. There’s no excuse to be unhappy. Don’t worry about what’s coming because it’s manageable, and just enjoy this time off because it’s okay, and it’s deserved.

          However, I need to write something for you as well, some nugget of verity. So, here it is. Steven Segal was right. All those days I waited for the end were far worse than the end itself. There were months and years of “something’s got to give” feelings before something finally gave, and when it happened, it didn’t carry with it the pain I saw coming. The world didn’t end and I didn’t lose who I was. My family didn’t reject me and I wasn’t instantly homeless. I wasn’t shunned by the rest adulthood like some beggar pariah and I found the support I needed and the tools that’ll take me forward within myself. Everything, every bit of it, has been awesome. So, if death is coming for you, if an end of your own is forthcoming in the near future, just deal with it when it comes. All the days between now and then are for living, and that’s not something you can do if you’re not right here, right now, where you’re supposed to be.

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Belize

          I’m not a travel writer, but I’m a writer who just traveled so I should probably let logic take the tiller and write about my travels… I just swam with fucking sharks in Belize. For real. Our boat stopped out in the reef and we moored to a cemented anchor. I’d like to say that the ocean smelled fresh just to paint the perfect picture, but it didn’t. It never does; it depends on which way the wind is blowing. Sometimes the breeze is a clean thing, telling your nose about new life and a refreshing swim. Sometimes the breeze is dirty and pungent, and it talks about the death and decay down below. The ocean is half life, half death. Our reef was huge—the world’s second largest—and we were surrounded by the sea; two fathoms of water that stretched on and on. Greens and blues you only see in the tropics. Life swam beneath our boat. Sharks and rays and barracudas and all kinds of creepy shit that bites and stings. The man said to jump in, so I jumped in. I landed somewhere in the middle of the food chain.

          I’m a decent snorkeler, but irrational fear controlled my lungs. In out in out, quick and quicker. The man noticed and suggested a lifejacket when I got back to the boat. I could just lie on it if I needed and relax. It’d put Styrofoam between me and the teeth. Hell yes. I swam back out floating on top of my orange security blanket. I calmed down. There was a small nursery shark that just moments before was doing an awesome impression of Jaws. There was a peaceful ray flapping her wings in the sand (I assume she did it to look majestic). There were two barracudas lurking in my peripheral, holding still and playing the cat in cat-and-mouse; I showed them my lifejacket. The man swam down before my eyes and coaxed an eel out of his den; he breathed with his huge gills and proffered translucent teeth. Holy shit it was wonderful; it was like snorkeling in the movies. The man was our docent through house-sized outcroppings of coral. Explorers in an underwater canyon, we swam left and right through schools of curious fish and other tourists, pale on bottom and burnt red on top. My fish of a daughter would swim under me and then away, a fearless eight-years-old beast on a mission, and then she’d swim back all the while trying to tell me something through her snorkel. I’d just nod, smile, wave.

          Our reef was a barrier reef, one that protects all of Belize from the predatory ocean, but the barrier had a channel in it: a submerged portcullis in the reef wall. We swam across it and I felt the tug of the ocean pulling me out like the ensnaring song of a deadly mermaid, but we made it across easily. Life and wonderment lived everywhere and we swam through it for close to an hour. We got back to the boat and the man said it was time to go to “shark ray alley.” That’s where they all are he said: the big ones. It was a short boat ride and as soon as we moored off, they came slithering in. Dark shadows, wraiths of the seas, swam everywhere. The white noise of the engine pulled them close. Guides who don’t follow the rules bait the sharks with handfuls of fish food and the beasts know that one way or another, when they hear an engine’s purr, food is getting in the water.

          Look. I know that my fear of sharks is ridiculous, but I don’t care. They grow teeth like I grow hair, they’re cold and stoic like serial killers, they’re hungry and carnivorous, and they do that creepy sideways swimming thing. Sharks are bullshit. Saying you’ll face your fear is a shit-ton easier than actually doing it, so I’d been trying to get out of our snorkeling trip for days: “Terra, you’re allergic to shrimp, so maybe you’re allergic to the ocean. Terra, I promise that I’ll freak out and ruin everybody’s day. Terra, this is dumb, so let’s just stay in our rented condo and lock the doors.” Granted, these were nursery sharks, but a ten-foot nursery shark doesn’t look anything like an animal that belongs in a nursery. And the man said that he’d seen the occasional reef shark. Um, that’s the type of shark that attacked James Bond in Thunderball. Fuck that. But when the man said jump in, I jumped in… There was a big asshole right underneath our boat, growing teeth and swimming side to side right at me. I tried to show him my lifejacket but then I realized I jumped in without it. Shit. On he came. Luckily, he turned away when he was about ten inches* away from my face (yards*). I was scared shitless, but that youngest daughter of mine wasn’t. She kept complaining about how the man had told her not to let go of the life ring that was tethered to the boat. Who the hell complains about that? Who the hell thinks that holding onto a “life” ring while floating above a murderous school of monsters is a bad thing? My daughter. She wanted to swim off on her own so she could name and tame the sharks; she’d cuddle them into submission.

          I was nervous. Everyone was nervous. Even the man didn’t like this part of the trip. He stood safely out of the water and kept yelling “stay by the boat, stay by the boat!” But about halfway through the experience, my fear vanished. I don’t know if something broke in my brain or if confronting my fear diluted it down into extinction, but either way, I simply wasn’t afraid of the sharks around me. We eventually got back in, all extremities accounted for, and I started making small talk with the man. So, has anyone ever been bitten? He laughed, and then he told me the “after the tourists get back in the boat story.” He pointed down to his leg to show off his puckered foot-long scar. He’d taken out a group of Polish tourists a few months prior. They brought with them a translator. They were snorkeling along shark ray alley when the nursery sharks rose from the depths en-masse and formed a feeding frenzy, stoked by the man’s outboard motor and its diner chime. The translator, ever the center of attention, dove down below the frenzy and then swam back up right in the middle of it. That Pollock would’ve made my daughter proud. Can you imagine what it’d look like to do such a thing? I can. I see this roiling bait ball of death centered perfectly in the salty openness. When you dive down, you see the ocean darkening beneath you in gradients of blue. The sandy white floor shimmers below like a mirage. As you swim back up, you watch the swirling ball of beasts get bigger and bigger as you pick up speed, pulled towards death by your buoyancy. Then you come up in the middle, surrounded by rasping grey skin and bloodied teeth. Terrifying.

          In a feeding frenzy, sharks lid their eyes to protect their vision—they just bite blind and randomly in the churned confusion. The translator in the middle was taking hits, bleeding in the water. And that’s when the man jumped in (and incidentally, that’s why I call him “the man”). He grabbed the translator and pulled him out of the melee. He kicked the sharks away (in my mind, I picture Chuck Norris kicks just destroying shark faces), but one shark was a bit to wily. He bit the man right in the calf. The man knew that if he tried to pull his leg free, the shark would thrash and he’d lose a chunk of muscle, so he just waited patiently for the shark to let go. That’s the part that blows my mind: the man was swimming away from a shark feeding frenzy, he was pulling with him a bleeding Pollock, and when a shark tried to eat his leg, he just waited patiently until the ancient predator decided to let go. He got the translator back to the boat and then took everyone to shore. He got some stitches and then he healed and then he went right back into the water. There’s an aphorism in there somewhere.

          The man finished his story just as my once-dead fear of sharks started to breathe again. He took us back to shore and I tipped him with the colorful money that seems to be everywhere else in the world except our country, and we went back to our condo. The rest of our trip followed suit. We drank bottomless mimosas by a saltwater crocodile lagoon; we gorged ourselves on soursop ice cream and conch ceviche; we parasailed over a flock of manta rays. I’m sure the proper group noun for manta rays is something like “school” or “pod” or some other nautical nonsense, but it shouldn’t be; things that fly do so in flocks, and we could see those creatures flapping their wings underwater even though we were soaring high above with a parachute. And when we landed, a sting ray, the manta ray’s nimbler kin, jumped out of the water and flapped his wet, leathery wings until he splashed back down. Our guide that day was a bona fide Rastafarian and he looked exactly like he looks in your mind right now. He yelled out “Ay man! You saw that ray mon? Ya mon!” His dreads bounced around his head like pasta as he did his Rasta dance. As he was unhooking my harness, he leaned in close and made a joke about why the sting rays jump out of the water: “because they be getting excited mon.” “The be getting BJs from the other fish mon.” “Ya mon!”

          We finished the parasailing day by eating at a truck-stop that’d be hard to stop at with a truck. It was out of town a bit: twenty minutes in our sputtering golf cart along a muddy single-track. The food was fresh and local. Five converted shipping containers encircled a few park benches and tables. We ordered spicy noodles and chicken wings and then sat below an umbrella until the rain pushed us to the bar. It was a sign. We drank beers and plotted our retirement. Now, before I continue, I’d like to type out a little disclaimer: I don’t eavesdrop intentionally, but I do it nonetheless and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I was born without the brain part that lets most humans filter out background noise. It’s a handicap. Chewing noises, too-loud laughs, obnoxious conversations happening anywhere around me: I hear them all. I’m forced to listen to every conversation I hear like some unwilling voyeur. My mind categorizes all the conversations and then files them away for moments like this one: There were two other couples sitting at the bar. Couple number one said “we just moved here” and then couple number two said “why?” and then couple number one said “Trump.” Holy shit! Here they were. Here were two Americans who’d said that they’d move if he won—he won, they moved. Two disenfranchised Americans, two patriots without a nation. My wife cheered. And she cheered rightfully because couple number one had the collective balls to move out of middle ‘merica and into Central America just to honor their convictions. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Objectively speaking, couple number one won. They stayed true to their word and they got paradise while the rest of us liberals are stuck here at home with nothing more than the “I-told-you-sos” that we’re about to dish out.

          Our last day came and we flew back to Texas to sleep for a night before making the connection to Durango. I had mosquito bites and a new cold. I won’t lie: I thought about malaria and the Zika virus more than once. I imagined being “patient zero” and about how horrible it would be in Durango once my exotic disease decimated the town’s population. But that hasn’t happened yet and I promise to keep covering my mouth when I cough. Our lives have gone back to normal, but the first three days back in my home felt special. True, they were hard—we were stressed after so much time so close to one another, and we came back to a Colorado winter—but those days reminded me how ridiculously good we have it here in the States. The conch ceviche in Colorado is outrageously expensive, but we have doctors and teachers and infrastructure (all three have debatable efficacy, but that’s irrelevant). We have freedom (sort of), we have rights (most of us), and we have opportunity (if we’re lucky). It’s not perfect here at home but it’s a lot better than it is in Belize. So, even though I too have an urge to pack it all up and head for foreign latitudes, maybe I (and all of us) should just suck it up. And that’s good advice no matter which side you’re on because the present day winners will be someday losers and it’ll just go back and forth forever. We Americans are fond of fighting back and forth on a constrained field, a ceaseless game of inches (just think about our favorite sports). So maybe we should just jump into our nightmarish political cesspool, into our regressing culture, and face it straight on like a sideways-swimming shark. Or maybe moderation is where it’s at: leave sometimes, travel, get prospective. But come back. Come back to fix what’s broken instead of moving someplace like Belize where there’s lots of sand to stick your head in. Running away to paradise is still running away. And that’s where I’m at right now. I want to fly away on a special airplane equipped with windows you can roll down just so I can stick out my hand and flip off everything behind me, all the uncertainty, but I’m just going to write instead. I’m just going to be a travel writer when I travel and a writer-writer when I’m stuck here in this small office and I’m going to face life and fear with my craft, because unlike my lifejacket, writing isn’t something I can leave behind when I jump in.

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