I was that guy who woke up at 7am every day, even on weekends. I would stalk out of my dorm room, but not before putting on a sweater for those chill September mornings. The drawer that I kept my shirts in squeaked really loudly every time I opened it, and I’m sure that it woke up my roommate sometimes.
There are a lot of things I regret doing. Like when I stole a salt water taffy from the jar and tried to hide it underneath my place mat. There were plenty left, but it was the last one of my favorite flavor: a mixture of brown, pink, and yellow. I tried to act cool even though I knew my whole family could see the large lump I couldn’t obscure with my plate. I also regret falling for a phone scam out of the hope that I could go on a tropical cruise, but I don’t regret waking up at 7am every morning in college, even if it disturbed my roommate.
I was that guy who would walk across campus barefoot through the dewy grass instead of staying on the sidewalk. The cold was a small price to pay for the benefit of feeling the contours of the ground beneath me. I used to own a pair of toe-shoes that felt nearly as good, but those wore through quickly, and my feet haven’t yet.
I’ve put my feet through a lot more than I put those shoes. When I was four years old, my brother convinced me to step on a rusty nail. In those days, I didn’t think twice about things. Another time, I chased my friend down our gravel driveway, finding out afterward that both my feet were bleeding. One feeling most people know is the pain of bare feet on hot concrete. If you don’t walk quickly, your skin will burn.
I was that guy who would sneak into the dining hall barefoot just after it opened and eat a breakfast entirely of fruit. In order for people not to notice your feet, you have pass them quickly while making eye contact. They still caught me a few times, and on those mornings I would walk back to my dorm and grab my shoes, perhaps rousing my roommate again.
Soon I would start carrying my shoes in my backpack, just in case. Soon after that, I gave up entirely and just wore my shoes in the dining hall. Our concepts of ourselves, our ideals, our footwear, all change with circumstances to become more convenient. I once told myself I would save the planet, but after reading a few books and listening to a few lectures, I told myself that it was too big to be my problem.
I was that guy who would sit on the cold concrete bench outside the library waiting for it to open. While I waited, I would read about semiotics and observe the squirrels. The squirrels won my attention time and again. Like me, they were always awake at 7am. As I studied them each morning, squirrels became my favorite creatures. They are fast, agile, cunning, and despite what you might think, fearless.
There’s only so much you can learn through observation from a distance. A real scientist observes, but also interacts. When I was little, my brother told me that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. An uncharacteristically logical child, I immediately evaluated what I could. Certain things proved Santa’s existence: the fact that he ate cookies and drank milk, the sounds of sleigh bells I’d heard Christmas Eves past, and of course the presents with his name and the names of his reindeer on the “from” part of the tags. Yet all these could be fabricated. Still unsure of Santa Claus’s existence, I decided I would catch him.
I was that guy who chased after squirrels at every opportunity, even if it meant slipping in mud and falling on my butt. I never caught one, but that was never my intention. I learned about how they move, and how they think. You’ll find that a squirrel always has an escape route planned. They generally stay within ten feet of a tree. If provoked, they’ll run to the opposite side of that tree, then wait. If you continue pursuit, they’ll corkscrew up and around the tree, never letting you get a good look at them. Once completely out of your reach, they’ll find a convenient branch and stare at you. If you keep staring, they’ll chirp at you angrily, and may even find something to throw.
I did not learn nearly as much about Santa Claus. My trap at the fireplace remained unsprung in the morning, proving my brother right. This realization simultaneously disproved all other holiday spirits: the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, etc. I still played along, though, and many years later, my Dad pulled me aside to explain. Unfazed, I responded by saying, “I know, Don told me.”
I am not that guy anymore. I generally wake up sometime after eight and eat a bowl of cereal. I don’t walk around barefoot as much as I’d like, because I’ve realized the impracticality of doing so. I eat my own food now, and don’t need to trick anyone if I want to eat with no shoes on. I no longer live near the library, and don’t watch squirrels early in the morning. I may only chase squirrels occasionally now, but I am that guy who will not shut up about how awesome they are. Much to the chagrin of my friends, I once shouted to one, saying, “You are the glory of nature!” If you haven’t taken the time, just watch one jump from one tree to another. They’ll run along the skinniest branches without a second thought, like my four-year-old self stepping on a nail. They’ll jump several feet horizontally without concern for the twenty feet below. They trust their bodies and abilities completely, and it amazes me every time.
A squirrel’s identity never changes, bends, or breaks with circumstance. Sometimes I envy them, like right now, as I watch one run along the top of my backyard fence. Somehow he manages to balance on a surface only several fractions of an inch in width while eating an acorn. He doesn’t concentrate at all on balance; he just lets his feet do the work as his teeth dig into acorn meat. Does he enjoy his food, or does he think of nothing at all from his perch on my fence?