Saturday, August 27, 2011

Feeling squirrelly after attack

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I’d known from the start of the week that Wednesday was going to be a challenge. I was not particularly dreading it — in fact, I was looking forward to seeing how well I would handle it.
 
But some things you just don’t see coming.
 
I sometimes had considered it tough working long hours on one job, particularly when I was commuting as much as two hours daily. That ended more than eight months ago when I was laid off. Since then, I’ve been searching with little luck for full-time work.
 
But other opportunities have coalesced.
 
For example, after Sun-Times Media let me go, I started work as a part-time reporter for BocaJump.com, a hyperlocal website in my hometown. That small step helped supplement my unemployment check, but it also served to remind me, along with this blog, that after 20 years of working as an editor, I really had missed writing much more than I had realized.
 
By the end of May, I had landed another part-time gig, editing stories for 12 Patch.com websites in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. That was enough to knock me off unemployment. But this group of talented journalist have been kind and appreciative of my contributions. They liked me.
 
Soon, I was contacted by another Patch.com editor who wanted me to copy edit for 12 websites in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. So on Monday, I began copy editing for this group, as well.
 
Because some news is cyclical — the Elgin City Council, for example, meets twice a month on Wednesdays, and Aug. 24 was one of those Wednesdays — I had a full plate before me this week.
 
So I tried to plan my workload accordingly. I spent a large portion of Sunday poring over the Elgin City Council meeting packet, formatting the materials I would need when I live-blogged from the City Council meeting for BocaJump.com. I also began pre-writing some preview stories I would refine or rewrite as needed later, after a Monday morning press briefing at City Hall to go over the agenda.
 
Monday proved busy but uneventful. I headed over to City Hall in the morning for the press briefing and on my way in, noticed a squirrel scampering around in the grass at the base of a tree. In retrospect, it seemed to be chittering something at me, but I ignored it and headed inside. Perhaps if I had just stopped to listen …
 
The rest of Monday and all of Tuesday, I alternated between editing for the 24 Patch.com sites, in between, writing more stories for BocaJump.com. I also ran out once to get a photo or two for a story. They were intense days, but I knew Wednesday would be the real bear. Funny, I almost wrote “a real squirrel.”
 
After hours of editing and writing, I stayed up well past midnight Tuesday to finish and post a couple of stories to BocaJump.com. So I started Wednesday with some sleep deprivation, but nothing a little coffee couldn’t handle. I had two 16-ounce mugs as I went through the afternoon editing, one story after another, until nearly 5:30, when I shut down and packed up my laptop, grabbed the day’s third mug and headed to City Hall.
 
The day was beautiful and sunny but humid, and I enjoyed the warmth of the sun, even though its glare was fierce as it hung low in the western sky. I found a piece of trash, which I balled up in my left hand, and walked across the municipal parking lot toward City Hall, where a trashcan stood near the curb in front of the courtyard.
 
In retrospect, perhaps I should have noticed that it was quieter than usual. Too quiet.
 
Typically, squirrels would be chasing each other up and down and around trees or sitting in the grass, eating whatever squirrels eat when they sit in the grass. But there were none out this evening. At least, that’s what I thought.
 
As I approached the trashcan, my hand dropped reflexively to release the wadded up piece of my trash.
 
The loud rustling that erupted from inside the trashcan as I dropped in the wad of paper startled me. Still in midstride, my eyes darted down and left as I turned my head to see what was making the noise.
 
The ensuing moments are etched in my memory as if frozen images taken from a video:
  • The squirrel rocketing toward me, framed by the black depths inside the mouth of the trashcan. It was in an almost Superman flight pose, sans the multihued leotards and cape
  • A ball of gray fur bouncing off my left forearm
  • Suddenly clearly defined legs with tiny clawed feet reaching out and glancing off my shoulder.
  • A fuzzy glimpse of whitish squirrel belly, edged with a thin line of orange fur, flashing before my face.
  • The squirrel landed on the ground in front of me, leapt through the grass and up onto the trunk of a nearby tree where it stopped. Its beady eyes glaring at me, the little furball seemed to be taunting me: “Scared you, uh-huh. Screamed like a girl, you did. Who’s your daddy?
Hot coffee was all over my right hand and dripping onto the sidewalk. I’d not spilled much, but it still stung my hand. As I shook it off, staring back at the little bugger, I started to laugh.
 
Halfway across the parking lot, Elgin Public Works Superintendent Dan Rich had missed seeing what had happened, but he did hear me squawk. As he approached, I said hi and he asked what was up. I told him. By this time I was well into the humor of my odd encounter.
 
The rest of the night unfolded uneventfully. The council meeting ended by 9, I headed home and did more editing for Patch.com, then worked into the early morning hours of Thursday, writing a couple of follow-up stories from the council meeting for BocaJump.com.
 
Later in Thursday, after I’d had some sleep, I decided to have fun with the squirrel attack on my Facebook page, posting squirrel pics and comments about the “attack squirrel” at City Hall. Others joined in the fun, posting their own spins on the odd situation I’d encountered.
 
There were occasional references to a nut. I tried not to be insulted.
 
Life has a way of flinging surprises at you. Sometimes they are heartbreaking, like witnessing the death of a 3-year-old on an ice-slick stretch of highway near Cheyenne, Wyo. Sometimes they can be terrifying, such as a shooting in a church parking lot in Fort Collins, Colo., 19 years ago. Other times, they can be painful and disheartening — even dismaying — as was the case when I was laid off in December.
 
Life happens, and then it moves on. Sometimes it sails, sometime’s a struggle, sometimes it’s a riot. I try to find the humor in each circumstance, usually at my own expense.
 
We’ve learned to laugh at America’s Funniest Videos, frequently even when it’s apparent someone may be suffering a serious injury. And even as I laugh, I’ll feel a chill run up my spine in which I liken to sympathy pain.
 
I’ve also found over the course of my life that I sometimes can laugh at others without regret, particularly if they are friends who understand my laughter is not derisive. More frequently, however, I’ve learned that when I laugh at myself, I can do so with a clean conscience.
 
It’s in moments like that — in the moments after the “squirrel attack,” for instance, that I frequently find joy and maybe even feel God’s presence watching over me, grinning and perhaps, just perhaps, chuckling as well.