And then something happened that changed everything.
I wish I could start the story that way, because that’s how it felt when it happened: startling, vivid, breathtakingly transformative. Even now it makes my heart race, the moment when I looked down and saw what I saw on our front porch, and the follow-up moment when I pulled the car out of the garage and saw what was there. But you can’t be jolted out of a world without there being a world to be jolted out of. That’s an awkward way of saying it, but I’m a storyteller, not an expert in metaphysics. Bear with me.
And then something happened that changed everything.
We’ll get to the something. But first, you have to know what the everything was.
We were renting a house on a cul-de-sac in northern Virginia. The purplest part of a purple state, in the section of territory that, viewed on a map, looks like it was carved out of D.C. Someone probably fought a war over this patch of land, once upon a time. Historic battlefields were everywhere, replaced now by highway interchanges and big-box stores. Progress marched along. Even decent old brick houses like ours were being torn down in favor of ersatz palaces with fake-stone facades, their walls rising up from the very edges of the small-sized lots.
One nice thing about living in a purple state was that my vote mattered. What was less nice was that my next-door neighbors put up an Obama sign and the kids who lived across the street shot it up with their BB guns.
We had left New York City so that our toddlers could play in a backyard. And now this? Young political activists? With guns?
I had not moved to the suburbs so my kids could be caught in the crossfire.
But we had signed a twelve-month lease, so what could we do? We settled in and kept the blinds pulled. Our kids could play in the backyard. Away from stray bullets.
Since we were renting, there were a few things we had to do to convert the house to something suitable for our family. We took down a hammock after it caused too many problems. (Hammocks are lovely for grownups. They can propel small children halfway across a backyard.) We drained the hot tub on the back deck out of similar safety concerns.
Inside, there was a pull-down ladder to the attic. I loved the attic: it was huge and roomy, and we could stash plenty of clutter up there. The one downside was that the owners had left a few things of their own: a metal rack holding some coats, a letter jacket, and a wedding dress in plastic, and four or five boxes of trophies and other knickknacks. I knew I should have been grateful that they had not left those things in the house itself. Instead I was irritated and tempted to throw it all out.
What were we paying for? Dammit, we were renting a house. We were not renting a storage unit.
It was an unreasonable position, but there it was. Those items were a reminder that we did not own this house, and I did not like how that made me feel.
It was frustrating, for example, that the owners had not trusted us with the remote control to the automatic garage door opener. Every time we entered or exited the garage, we had to park the car, get out, punch buttons on a key pad, and get back in the car. In rain. In snow. In wind. With the kids asleep. With the kids screaming. Every single time it was a pain, and every single time I thought about how temporary and transient our lives were.
Twenty addresses in twelve years. It’s one thing to live like that when you’re poor and living in dirty old apartments. The life of the struggling writer. Paycheck to paycheck, meal to meal, crummy surroundings, cold nights spent under the covers on a hand-me-down futon. It’s living! It’s living free! Hello, Bohemia! But this? Rent at this place was a sizable expenditure, and it was for a house, with a finished basement and a backyard. This was a place for grownups to live in.
And we were grownups, whether we liked it or not, because parents have to be. Granted, I was a baffled, confused parent, a father with no idea what fatherhood meant or how to handle it, with zero strategy other than the single tactic that as a 35-year-old man, I could present what seemed to small children like wisdom and authority. Eventually they would figure me out. For now, I faked being an adult. And it worked: faced with a three-year-old and a one-year-old who believed in me just as they believed in Santa, their optimism and expectations overcoming what was in front of their very eyes, I pulled off a great con, day after day after day. I bluffed them.
So then: a grownup I was, or appeared to be, most of the time. But this house did not make me feel like a grownup. It felt as if the real grownups – the ones with the stuff in the attic, and the ones in possession of the automatic garage door opener – had gone somewhere and left us in charge.
On a morning that spring I went to retrieve the kids, who were playing next door at the neighbors—the Obama-sign neighbors, not the camouflage-wearing junior soldiers of fortune. I left via our back door, walked across the deck, and headed for the gate that separated our two yards. Even from here I could admire their house, built to appear in Architectural Digest, which was literally the wife’s dream, or perhaps I should say vision. She had acquired two dogs, not because she wanted dogs particularly, but because their butterscotch coats matched the house and would look fantastic in the photo spread.
Her husband had told me this one day with a heavy sigh. I nodded as if I understood, but I felt like I was from another planet. Our house had two rooms that had no furniture at all, and a third that only had two beanbag chairs. Maybe Architectural Digest would have a Minimalist issue we could get in on.
I hopped down the steps and walked around the waterfall that no longer worked, hopefully through nothing my kids had done. And then, as I passed the back of the hot tub, I heard something strange. It sounded like growling.
I stopped in place, afraid to move until I heard what it was.
More growling. Like someone’s loud stomach, except more feral. It was an animal sound, there under our deck, behind the lattice woodwork.
Now I was afraid not to move. This was not a cat or a squirrel or even a dog. This sounded more beastly. Alarmed, I sped up, racewalking my way across the backyard and into the safety of the neighbors’ fenced-in paradise. The noise subsided as I got farther away, and by the time I rang the doorbell, I told myself that I’d been hearing things. Sleep deprivation can do that to you, as all parents know.
Inside the neighbors’ house, Tammy welcomed me into the kitchen and offered me a glass of wine. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon but I took one to be polite. She poured out a goblet for me and refilled her own, which did not appear to be her first of the day. Their nanny was supervising the kids, who were rolling down the hill out back. Through the windowpane, we could watch them in silence. It was so different from my house, where the four of us basically lived in one of the two rooms that had furniture and the boys climbed all over me, all day long.
I told Tammy about the growling. Her eyes grew wide.
“I meant to tell you. There’s a fox that sits at the end of our street and stares at your house.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “Stares. All day long.”
An eerie feeling crept over me. We lived on a leafy street, a couple of houses away from a golf course. It felt like we were surrounded by nature. But that was not the same thing as living in the wild. Growling in the backyard? And now hostile, vigilant beasts, singling us out for scrutiny? Why would a fox be staring at us?
“Maybe we need to get out of here,” I joked. “Nature’s turning on us.”
“Maybe he knows you’re from New York,” she said. “Ha ha ha ha ha.”
“Ha,” I said. “Maybe so..”
She swung her glass in the air. Somehow she had already managed to finish it. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
After I rounded up the boys I walked them back to our house via the front yard, exposing ourselves to the weaponed mercenaries across the street but avoiding whatever beasts lived under our back deck. This was not good. Our house was under siege.
My wife didn’t believe me when I told her about the growl.
“It’s the sleep deprivation,” she said. “The other day I dreamed I was on a beach in Hawaii. Sand between my toes, ukelele music. Then I realized I was actually awake and staring at the checkout lady at Trader Joe’s. It was not a good experience.”
But later that day my wife heard the growl too, and panic set in among us both. I told her about the fox at the end of the street.
“Nature’s turning on us!” I cried.
“It’s not safe here!”
“It’s like a Stephen King novel!”
Wild theories burst out of us—ancient burial grounds, plantation ghosts, animals pushed out of their natural habitat by development, rising up and joining together and coming back to seek revenge…
This was more than we could face. Nature hated us. That seemed clear. Logical. Inevitable. In fact I wondered what had taken it so long. Or had Nature always hated me, and this was only the first time I had noticed? There were plenty of others out there – individuals and forces – who hated me. Why not nature?
A few days later we had a more reasonable explanation. At twilight we were greeted by a scrabbling sound coming from our back deck.
“Look!” my wife called from the kitchen.
I joined her at the back door. Through the window we could see a litter of baby fox cubs, six or seven or eight of them rolling around, batting each other with their tiny paws, gnawing each other’s fur, skidding into one another, testing out their high-pitched growls.
They were adorable but frightening nevertheless. These were wild animals, miniature and cuddly for now, but they were growing, and anyway their presence meant that older, more mature, more threatening animals were nearby. Their mother, for example, who apparently had been the growling protector we had heard as we passed by the hot tub, and their father, who must have been the stoic sentry who watched our house from the end of the road. Creatures with weight and girth and serious claws and teeth that could do vicious damage. Creatures who attacked. Hunters.
And we had boys. Boys who were young and vulnerable and plump.
I checked the back door to make sure it was locked—somewhat absurdly, as if these baby foxes would somehow manage to jump up and turn the knob with their tiny paws, but this is the kind of nonsensical thing parents do a hundred times a day out of caution. Then I went to get the boys out of bed so they could watch this special treat. A nature special, happening in real time right before our eyes.
The boys loved it. It was better than television, which they only got to watch 15 minutes a day anyway. This live-action nature show we let them watch for a full 35 minutes. (My wife has rules I do not understand.)
And we did it again the next night, and for the rest of the week. Every night at dusk we came to our kitchen, stood silently in the doorway, and watched the baby foxes tussle around.
It was fun, and cute, and adorable, and it felt safe enough, but I had a nagging feeling throughout the week that this was not sustainable. These things had claws and teeth and looked hostile even when they were playing. My oldest son had deer-in-the-headlights instincts when danger approached, and my youngest could barely walk without falling down.
Our backyard was off limits now. It was just not safe.
And what about the front yard? What if the family of foxes trotted around the side of the house? How could I protect my boys against a marauding litter of foxes, and an angry mama fox, and the father who would approach from a different angle?
We were housebound. Thank god for the garage: we could not have left the house that week without its security. We moved in and out in secret, like Dick Cheney.
But what did this mean? We couldn’t use the backyard at this house? Ever again? What were we paying for?
But really, what were our alternatives? To trap the foxes? Kill them? I supposed I could have the neighbor kids come over with their BB guns…no doubt they’d relish the task.
It was a sickening thought. This was not the country! We were five miles from D.C., if that. We were not barbarians. We were not going to slaughter a litter of baby fox cubs. The neighbor boys across the street would need to find other targets, like windows or recycle bins.
My wife called the humane society. Inwardly I congratulated myself for having the good sense to marry someone with such good ideas.
“They said they couldn’t come out,” she told me after she hung up the phone. “But they expect the foxes to move on.”
“Move on where?” I asked. “Move on when?”
“Days. Weeks. Months at most.”
“Months? And until then?”
My wife smiled. “We enjoy the show.”
It was true, every night we had a spectacular show. The days grew longer, the weather got better, and we were watching the adorable little cubs grow up.
It was educational, but there was something more to it than that.
I felt as if there was something shared among us all. Two families, sharing the same shelter. The fox cubs reminded me a lot of my kids, active, energetic, roly-poly, a little dumb in figuring out how their bodies worked. I could understand my boys a little better after watching these baby foxes. It was natural to wrestle around. It was normal. Healthy.
We were all growing together. We shared being alive.
Was I so different? Well, obviously, as a standard human, I was more than an animal ever could be—I could think, and feel, and be afraid.The mama fox growling as we walked by—I was way ahead of her on that. I could worry in ways she could never come up with. The experience – the thoughts, or the raw instinct, or whatever it was – seemed like something I could relate to, but it was fairly one-sided. She could resemble me, but I was miles ahead of her in terms of actually understanding why I was afraid.
And the father, keeping vigil? Standing by and observing as the mother gives birth and suckles the young? Developing a bond with them that I could only monitor from a close distance? I thought I could understand that too. But once again, what could that fox know about making the rent, getting the car fixed, trying to find a preschool that didn’t serve Oreos right before lunch? Nothing. He just stared at us because he couldn’t understand anything further. Dumb instinct, no intelligent thoughts.
That was my first bit of understanding, my preliminary analysis. It made me soften toward these foxes.
Nature didn’t hate us. Nature was trying to be us.
And then something happened that changed everything. (Now we’re really at that point.)
One bright, cool morning I opened the front door to retrieve our newspaper. Something was on our porch. Next to the paper. Right where we would see it.
It was a dead bird.
It was a hapless thing, mashed, twitching, killed but still warm.
My first thought was the neighbor kids. Had they shot this thing out of the sky, smashed it up, and deposited it on our porch? Were they that cruel? We didn’t have an Obama sign in our front yard. Why? Why? What had we done?
I looked for drops of blood or other clues. Footprints in the yard. A flash of metal behind the parked cars. Boyish laughter in the morning air. Some other sign. But nothing.
I glanced at the cul-de-sac. All was quiet. Beyond the fence, an electric golf cart zoomed past in near silence, then all was still again. And yet, suddenly something made me shiver. He was there. Watching.
The fox. My fellow father. He was watching me. I could feel it.
With my mind racing, I finished up breakfast, scrubbed three faces, brushed three sets of teeth. I got our traveling army’s worth of gear ready and finally loaded up the boys in our vehicle. Finally I backed the car out of the garage and stopped in the driveway. I opened the door and got out to punch numbers in the keypad. As always, I moved quickly, trying to get the door closed before any foxes or neighbor kids could sneak into our inner sanctum.
But today, after I opened the car door, I stopped and stared. There on the driveway, right where I always stood to enter the numbers into the keypad, was another dead bird.
Two dead birds in one morning. In the two places I always stand. Someone—something—had scouted me, knew where I would be, and had sent two messages exactly in the place I would be most likely to receive them.
Now I was sure this was not the work of the neighbor kids. This was from the fox.
A message. For me. But what?
I know you watch my babies. Don’t mess with them. Take this as a demonstration of what I can do.
I shuddered. It was mafia-like. A horse’s head in the bed.
But as I backed out of the driveway and glanced again at the cul-de-sac, a second thought occurred to me.
Maybe it was an act of gratitude:
Your house is protecting my family. Apologies for the inconvenience. Here’s food. I know it’s not what you usually eat, but it’s all I have to give you. Please accept it with my thanks.
Maybe it was both? An act of gratitude and a sign of strength? Was that what offerings were?
I did not know how I could ever know. But it hardly mattered. Either message was humanlike.
If our roles had been reversed, if it were my kids so dependent on the care of others, I’d have wanted to do the same thing. I was sure of that without even knowing exactly what that meant.
All day at work I felt odd trying to sort through my thoughts and feelings. I had never communed with an animal mind in quite the same way. Before, when I felt a shared experience with these foxes, I felt as though they had stumbled into behavior that mirrored my own, though in a more primitive way. Their minds weren’t as developed as mine, but their instincts made their behavior resemble mine. They became humanlike. If there was a comparison between us, it was aspirational on their part. They could never think like me. They could only marvel at how intellectually advanced I obviously was.
This was different. This was an intellectual move on the fox’s part that I myself did not quite understand. This was a fox – a beast, an animal – thinking through some issue in a way that I could not fathom. A growl or a stare might be instinctive. This had more behind it. This had planning, and acquired knowledge, and intention. This had thought and care. This was a deeper mind at work, drawing upon a kind of understanding and assumptions about communication that made me shiver. I was floored by the complexity of it, as if there were an entire animal world – the inner mental life of animals – that had suddenly been revealed.
Something was connecting me and the fox. I recalled how disorienting it was to be a new parent, trying to protect my family, knowing how dependent I was on others. And how much I depended on a few basic things like thin walls. That winter a storm had raged through our area, snowing us in and cutting off power, and for hours we may as well have been alone on the prairie in the nineteenth century, forced to survive for the night in the back of a covered wagon. I still felt the anxiety of that night, wondering how we would survive, if I had done all I could to make sure we would.
The fox had had his world undermined too, only it was undermined permanently. His home in the wild did not exist anymore, and he lived among humans in a way his ancestors had never needed to.
Each of us—the fox and I— were adapting, doing our best. The compulsions of fatherhood transcended our circumstances.
I was the fox. The fox was me. Our families needed us. We fought to survive. The generosity and hostility and fear: all that was part of it. We would both do whatever we could so that the young creatures in our care could play and grow and survive and thrive. And the fox had thought through this all and had done something about it, just as I spent my days. Both of us the same, him outside, me inside, thinking through, thinking through, thinking through.
In a few weeks the foxes did move, as the humane society had predicted. A few weeks after that we did the same, which everyone who knew us had predicted.
Once again we packed up our lives. As I piled books into boxes and threw out lesser artworks, I thought about how nothing is permanent, including ourselves, at least our bodies, anyway. What does that mean? It seemed to mean that all we could do was to feel whatever animated us—call it spirit, call it life force, call it a soul—to try to feel it as it expanded, and to try to make that happen even more than it naturally would. To push out and share whatever energy we had with the world. Emotions are ephemeral, yet somehow they last longer than things or bodies.
How did that work? Was there some pool of emotion that could somehow be added to? Some floating invisible storehouse of abstract feelings and ideas? It did not seem to me like time or individual thoughts ever really went away. But how did they last? Where did the past go? How did memories work when they weren’t residing in people’s minds? How did emotions continue beyond the instant in which they were discharged into the air? Maybe their effects would exist, would continue on in the world as the world moved forward, like canyons being carved out of rivers and rain, or those stones in tourist caves that become smooth and polished by hands rubbing them?
Are emotions and impulses and moods and feelings like that too? Do they exist somewhere? Exist in the form of the impressions they’ve made? Do they disappear forever? Or do they live on in a chain, transferred from person to person? From animal to person? From animate to inanimate? Vice versa?
We ascribe that power to love—if you give it away you get more back, you make the world a better place somehow, there’s karma, there’s a cosmos, there’s something that keeps track, there’s something that’s changed for the better—and that’s a nice thought. But there’s more than just love: there’s anger and cruelty and hate and greed and manipulation and everything humans can feel. There’s fear. And concern. And tender expressions of shared feelings.
And there are offerings to something larger than ourselves. There are those too.
That’s how I view it now. That’s the only way I can make sense of what I felt when I saw what the fox had done, those two gifts he had given me.
It’s this: that in sharing with the world an emotion, in drawing connections and living with the unexpected, in pushing and challenging and feeling everything there is to feel to the greatest extent possible, we realize we have more than love to share, just as a chord has more than one note and a palette more than one color. In connecting with the world, with all the humans and all the objects and all the animals, whether it’s my two little boys thrilled by the merry band of cubs on the deck or my own locked eyes with the proud and lonely father at the end of the street, in all of that emotion pouring out of us and pouring out of everything, there aren’t just bodies and objects churning through the world like the mechanism of a clock, and it’s not just love driving us all, there’s more, there’s more, there’s more.
There’s not just love but life. And it doesn’t go away. It’s there even when it isn’t. It’s there, it’s there, it’s always there, it’s always there and it will be forever. It’s there.
Oh people! It’s been a while! I’ve been distracted by our traipses through the absolute worst posts of the year (and the handful of best). And our writers laughing (Hello Zora! Hello, Georges! Hello, dear Flannery!). But the Objects are back! For those of you new to the series, you can find links to all the others at the 100 Objects page. Or you can run through this list:
- #25 – The Equation – trying to prove the Great Unprovable
- #24 – The Rope – falling up
- #23 – The Passage – a literary genius and a wise professor knock some literature into my head
- #22 – The Sound – two young lovers don’t believe their apartment is haunted…and then they hear a noise…
- #21 – The Speed Trap – a boy, a dad, a grampa, and the long arm of the law
- #20 – The Sign – the consequences of demanding a little more from the Deity
- #19 – My Roommate’s Books – Philosophy welcomes a disciple with ambitions
- #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece – want faith with that?
- #17 – The Shirts and Skins – three small lessons in shame, compliments of two small basketball players and their earnest coach
- #16 – The Laundry – summer job turns into an unexpected (and somewhat tragic) love story
- #15 – The Coffepot – smart kid throws the spelling bee, gets more than he bargained for
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise emerges from Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the Chinese furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with an assist from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
I’ve bolded the ones about parenting for those of you interested in reading more about Hopeless Dad bluffing his way through an entire childhood of two growing boys. It’s working so far! Especially when I get help from comedy gods!
Other things to check out are my books (not much about parenting in there, one is about politics for people who hate politicians and the other is about the law for people who hate lawyers. They’re comedies. Kind of like my Nietzschean feminist musical, with its bouncy tunes. Ah well. Sometimes creative freedom produces great results, and sometimes it spins out of control like a merry-go-round sticking a shiv into a cell mate as the warden wraps his tentacles around the John Hancock building to pull it back into the wormhole from which it emerged. (Down freedom! Down boy!)
Books are at Amazon.com and some other places. Podcast episodes 1 and 2 are here. Everything is free if you know how to work the system. The podcast is free naturally, and the books are free if you’d like to review one of them rather than spend the 99 cents to five bucks or so they cost. Just shoot me an email or leave me a comment and I’ll ship a review copy your way.
Take care, everyone. Be good to others. Connect where you can. And do try to go onward, when possible, and upward, where it makes sense to do so.