Thursday, October 15, 2009

I skidded to an awkward halt

near the lift and began cleaning the excess snow off my jeans. An intermediate skier (at best) taking on the expert slopes of Copper Mountain, Colorado, I’d been coloring my day with a series of spectacular falls. Only way to get better I kept telling myself, refusing to dwell on the possibility that I had no health insurance whatsoever.

I’d driven up from Boulder alone, hoping I’d somehow run into a couple of the people I knew would also be up there that day. When I spotted Beth gliding along, heading for the space between me and the end of the lift line, I took off – and immediately crossed the tips of my skis and dropped like a rock.

I didn’t know if I wanted her to see me or not.

‘Hey, what’s up?’ I said as I caught up to her, nobody having gotten on line behind her. She turned her head, her stocking cap whacking me in the nose.

'Oh, hi...'

Silent pauses sometimes speak louder than words. In this case, it was pretty clear she’d forgotten my name.

Things like this stopped bothering me years ago.

I was single at the time, which made Beth look a bit more attractive than she might have otherwise. Plus I have this thing for healthy women in jeans, sweaters and knit stocking caps. But her allure lay more in the fact that she’d done a bit of traveling. ‘Thailand and New Zealand,’ she’d said with palatable satisfaction the first time we met. I’d tooled around Europe with a couple friends after college, and then after grad school went on a cross-country odyssey with a good friend and fellow adventure addict, but these had only served to whet my appetite. There was a whole wide world out there to see. And this girl had gone off to see part of it – on her own no less.

She was more than happy to talk about it all the way up the mountain.

At the top I looked out over the surrounding peaks and hills, down the slopes and at the little toy ski resort far below. As Beth picked out her line I envisioned two possible futures. Both of them scared the hell out of me.

‘That is so cool Beth, what you’ve done.’ I chewed the chunks of snow off my gloves and waited for her to look at me. ‘But I’m thirty.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘So?’

Thirty and three months, actually, with a Master’s degree, a string of half-ass jobs behind me and not a glint of a career in sight. And I didn’t want to be asking myself at forty what the hell I’ve been doing with my life.

‘Yeah, but you know what?’ She adjusted her cap and looked straight into my eyes. ‘When everyone else is forty they’re going to be sitting in an office wondering the same thing.’

A year and a half later, unsuccessful in my attempts to put my education to use in Florida, California and Oregon, I found a job teaching English and moved to Fukushima, Japan. If I couldn’t land a career, I reasoned, opting for this cushy working holiday seemed like a healthy alternative. Life in a world as foreign as this would be a daily adventure. Weekends and vacation time would be devoted to exploration – across fields and over mountains, from Hokkaido to Shikoku and a hundred places in between.

After eighteen months I managed to wriggle into an even better gig, taking on short-term teaching assignments in schools from Akita to Osaka. Always meeting new people; always seeing new places. And making more money than I was spending on plane tickets to places further overseas. At times I had two apartments at once. On occasion I had two girlfriends at once. Emailing accounts of my new life to my family and friends made my adventures seem even bigger than they were. I couldn’t imagine holding down a real job let alone throwing myself into the confines of a career.

Beth, it seemed, was right on the mark.

And here I am now, back in Fukushima, two days away from forty. I’m married with a little boy and a second child on the way. I’m freelancing as an English teacher, which in this economy in this small town doesn’t translate into mounds of income. Yet I’m traveling as much as ever.

Maybe too much?

Convention would have it that I’ll soon be mired in some kind of mid-life crisis. Fortunately I have a reactionary aversion to such ideas. Besides, the very term is dangerously misleading, as it is based on the assumption that we are going to live 82.4 years. Enjoy yourself, warns the Chinese proverb. It’s later than you think.

If I am faced with any sort of dilemma regarding the rest of my existence it is balancing my enjoyment of the present with my irrepressible desire to chase my dreams. It has nothing to do with job, since by the common definition I don’t want one. It has nothing to do with retirement, which is a spiritually illusory concept as far as I am concerned. It doesn’t even necessarily involve money – though I suppose I’d go ahead and accept the wealth if it was part of the package deal of realizing my dreams.

My dilemma – the perfect mid-life crisis, perhaps – has everything to do with love. Love of adventure, of traveling to faraway lands. Love of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with my family. Love of day-long bicycle rides. Love of late-night ten-mile runs and mornings with no alarm clock. Love of envisioning the future I want for me and my family, and then giving everything I have to the long, difficult, beautiful chase. Love in the knowledge that I can have all these things.

Yet I only have so much time.

So how much to devote to each? It was such a beautiful day today – so beautiful it hurt to have to choose between a bike ride along the Abukuma River and taking a few more steps toward the completion of my novel and giving birth to the dreams in my heart. Tomorrow I’ll have to decide whether to go to Japanese class, do more writing or go on a nursery school picnic with my wife and son. Of course I can not forget the necessary evil of making money, so in the coming weeks I’ll need to choose whether to commit to a year of teaching part-time at a nearby university – if I’m lucky enough to be given the option – or continue down this uncertain road of freelancing freedom. As my son approaches elementary school age my wife and I will have to decide together what kind of education we want for him.

The devil on my shoulder keeps whispering things like equity and security and 401(k). I keep telling him to go stick his fork in someone else.

This Saturday I’ll blow out a few candles and listen to my little boy sing and have ice-cream and cake with the family I love. Maybe I’ll open a small present or two. And at some point I’ll probably think of Beth.

She’s probably got the same problems as me.