The lockdown kitten crouched poised on the edge of the lounge. Tail swishing. Blue eyes focused with deadly intent on the colourful tropical fish swimming inside the aquarium. A quiver of tension rippled through his body, before he launched himself through the air towards his prey.
Soaring gracefully through space. Legs outstretched. Mouth open in anticipation.
His flight was abruptly terminated. Flying kitten meets aquarium glass wall with a thud. He plummeted into the toy box with a crash, before leaping out in an explosion Transformers and wooden train tracks.
Colourful guppies and swordtails briefly paused from cannibalising their young, to grin and do the piscine equivalent of flipping him the bird.
The lazy cat was sprawled in her preferred perch on top of the aquarium. It was warm and (for now) out of reach of the hyperactive younger feline. She opened a single eye, uttered a passable impression of my younger son’s “meh”, then went back to sleep.
I paused while emptying the cat litter tray to stare forlornly out the window at yet another rainy day.
The first lockdown featured months of sunny and warm days, briefly enjoyed between endless conference calls and homeschooling. Open schools and my seasonal working pattern solved that time-poor problem during the second lockdown, yet the weather gods have displayed their sense of irony by making it rain nearly every day.
My lady wife swooped down from her eyrie in the loft, like a hungry bird of prey in search of a meal. Beautifully coiffed. Immaculately made up. Work blouse worn over yoga pants and fluffy slippers.
Fresh from making a seasoned outsourcing partner cry, she rummaged in the fridge in search of sustenance. Her search punctuated by a verbal download of her mornings worth of meetings.
History teaches us that during these downloads my input is neither required nor particularly welcome. While my lady wife verbally organised her thoughts, I tuned out. Finished changing the cat litter. Emptied the clothes dryer. Began washing up the breakfast dishes. The glamorous life of the semi-retired!
I soon became aware of an uncomfortable silence settling over the kitchen. The cat flap clattered shut as lazy cat sensed danger and bolted outside. Two wary blue kitten eyes peered from the darkness beneath the lounge.
“You need to get a job” my lady wife decreed.
“You don’t appear to be working towards any goals or ambitions. You aren’t studying or volunteering or making any visible contribution to society. You are stagnating. Marking time. Filling in your days with chores and errands and helping with homework. It sets a bad example for the kids!”
Having lobbed her truth bomb, she grabbed the treasures she had looted from the fridge and returned upstairs for an afternoon of back-to-back video calls with her work colleagues, followed later by Zoom drinks with her friends.
With the precision of a highly trained assassin, my lady wife had managed to shatter my sense of inner peace. Normally the verbal assaults bounce off with no harm done. This one had struck home.
“Could she be right?” I wondered. My inner saboteur chortled gleefully. Bastard!
Sensing weakness, the hyperactive kitten launched an ambush.
He shot across the kitchen floor, leapt onto my knee, then clambered his way up the leg of my jeans with the crazed wild-eyed look of a Primark shopper during the Boxing day sales.
Glaring down at the kitten, as his claws turned my hip into a human pin cushion, I tried to grab him.
He was too fast. Pushing off with a mighty leap. Flying through the air once more.
It appears he had not fully thought through his escape plan, as momentum carried him skidding over the edge of the sink and into the soapy dishwater with an aggrieved yowl.
By the time I finished washing the dishes, it had stopped raining. Following the trail of water and bubbles, I found the wet kitten sound asleep in my basket of freshly washed clothes. Sigh!
I grabbed my coat and headed outside for a walk along the river. The Thames Path was heaving with hordes of dog walkers, lockdown busting old ladies gossiping in packs, and red-faced joggers jostling their way through the crowds.
While I walked on autopilot, my thoughts wandered. My inner saboteur started asking self-indulgent curly questions.
Was I marking time?
Padding out a meaningless existence, like a lonely pensioner who has exceeded their “used by” date?
Filling in my days with low-value tasks. Things I once outsourced to a cleaner or after school nanny?
Sometimes it did feel that way.
My days bookended by school drop-off and pickup times. Mornings occupied with reading, thinking, writing, and tinkering.
Afternoons spent with my children. Homework. Hearing about their day. Cooking up culinary “dadsasters” for dinner. Rinse and repeat.
My elder son already resides in a teenage bubble of monosyllabic grunts and anime. Emerging from his room for meals, before swiftly escaping back into a world of gaming, group chats, and study.
There are still a few years left before the younger one makes a similar leap, rendering my services largely redundant. At that point, I do foresee having a time surplus, as the bookends are removed.
I would like to believe that I am putting in time with the kids now, while it is welcome and still makes a difference. That may even be true.
Was I lacking drive and focus?
When I hear about people being driven by a purpose or a mission it always produces a wry smile.
Evoking imagery of religious zealots evangelising. Or recent converts to the latest fad, gluten-free or powerlifting.
That kind of passion and fervour is beyond my experience. Not something I understand.
Sometimes I wonder whether it really exists, or if it might not be the product of self-delusion and wishful thinking?
Other times I am a little bit envious of the simplistic certainty that those single-mindedly following their dreams seem to enjoy. A clear direction. Well-defined goalposts.
My life has largely been lived as a series of means-to-an-end. Surviving. Making do. Getting by.
“Had to” became “should do”. Survival yielding to obligation.
“Should do” evolved into “could do”. The obligation monkey eventually shed from my back.
“Could do” became “want to”. Free to pick and choose, or to not play the game at all.
An interesting evolution. My feelings of control growing along with my financial means.
Dancing to the tune of others less and less. Except having won the game, I now rarely dance at all.
“Want” requires desire, focus, and imagination. As with passion and fervour, this is something I rarely have experienced. A privileged position, but one that removes the excuses we often hide behind.
Could this be what my lady wife meant?
Was I bored?
Boredom. An affliction that strikes the under-occupied. Children. Inmates. Understimulated workers. Retirees.
It seems to be particularly prevalent amongst FIRE seekers, once they cross the finishing line.
Doing “nothing” seems to be a struggle for the driven personality types who make it past the point of financial independence. Personal finance bloggers the ermine and Finumus both recently admitted to suffering from the affliction. Succumbing to a malady which has previously seen the likes of RetirementInvestingToday and YoungFIGuy “retiring from being retired” by returning to work.
Perhaps the struggle to find a sense of purpose within is more common that we would care to admit?
Having one externally imposed by a job or a cause would be one way to resolve the struggle.
To some, that may appear to be simply kicking the can further down the road, until a more traditional retirement age. Those difficulties are likely to rise from their shallow graves, returning to haunt the now older retirees like zombies in a low budget horror movie.
Except by that age, retirement is socially acceptable. A lifestyle choice shared with spouses and peers. Perhaps having people to play with during the working day makes all the difference?
Which leads me back to my lady wife’s truth bomb. Did it strike a nerve because it was unreasonable, like being accused of a crime I did not commit? Or did it hit closer to home than I would care to admit?
Had I swapped out client projects and selling time for money with busywork, box sets, and idleness?
Had I then found that existence wanting? These unusual COVID-times of travel restrictions, social isolation, and remote working have certainly been challenging. The regular cadence of socialising, beach holidays, and visiting far-flung family has been thoroughly disrupted.
Motivation has been sorely lacking. I’m no fitter, faster, prettier, or smarter than I had been at the start of the pandemic. Instead, I have rotted my brain catching up on a decade worth of “must-see television” that had passed me by while I had been busily focussed elsewhere.
Following the news, social media, and blogosphere during my work commute had provided a welcome respite from the daily grind. Now it provides a distraction. Same content, different context.
Lunchtime walks at a client site provided a healthy chance to organise my thoughts, clear my head, and stretch my legs. All those things still hold true for my riverside meanders, though now I am escaping the house rather than the client.
If I’m brutally honest, my day to day routine isn’t all that much different to what it normally would be.
Except for the working part, and insourcing the afternoons which the kids used to spend with a nanny.
Readers who have followed my journey for any length of time will no doubt have spotted its cyclical nature.
Summer ends and the sun departs. Ennui arrives with the changing of the wind.
I talk myself into taking on a client project, to ride out the winter in a warm client office.
Then in the spring, as the days get longer and warmer, I start to get jaded and cynical. Complaining about C-suite toddlers. Pointy-headed bosses. Acceptable incompetence.
Roughly around Easter time the project successfully concludes and I seasonally “retire” once more. Take my kids to visit our family back home. Decompress and recharge while enjoying the summer.
Except in so many ways, this year feels different.
What comes next?
Even with the promising news of a vaccine, restrictions and lockdowns are likely to feature for at least another year.
Economic uncertainties of many different flavours make walking into a new client project a far from certain outcome.
Suiting up again requires some re-skilling. Brushing up on vocabulary. Replacing old product names with shiny new ones that perform exactly the same function. Putting lipstick on a bulldog, then selling the same old shit using a bunch of new buzzwords.
Each time I have sat down to do the work, I quickly become bored, invent some errand, and escape outside away from the computer. The whole proposition fills me with the sort of existentialist dread normally reserved for updating my legal will or preparing my tax return.
My lady wife would no doubt say that was me being lazy. Seeking to prolong my idleness.
Or it could be time to move on to something entirely new. A thought I am experiencing more frequently of late.
My chimping inner saboteur chuckles each time. Observing that venturing on to something new requires drive, imagination, and motivation. Qualities that, by my own admission, are in short supply!
Perhaps it is time to be less like the lazy cat, and more like the lockdown kitten. Seize the moment. Take a chance. Leap into the unknown with all the enthusiasm I can muster.
The inevitable falls and missteps providing entertaining fodder for future learnings.
Which leads to the inevitable question of what comes next?
- ermine (2020), ‘on paying for an arts education’, Simple Living In Somerset
- Fire and Wide (2020), ‘Is FIRE Really The Dream For You?‘
- Finumus (2020), ‘Early Retirement: Boring‘
- The Accumulator (2020), ‘What if FIRE doesn’t work?’, Monevator