About five years ago in an enhanced state of mind, I remember suddenly being struck by the infinite number of events that had to occur for my life to come into being. From a linear point of view, the odds seemed absolutely preposterous, but somehow there I was staring at my hands for ten minutes on the kitchen floor, completely bewildered by the interdependence of it all. That I would claim responsibility for much of anything in an infinite universe felt like a cosmic joke.
It is in the spirit of this awareness that I share some words about a friend who has not been an active part of my life for many years, but whose profound influence is undeniable. Looking back now, there is perhaps no friend from my youth that had a more transformative effect on my path than Tim Fox.
Middle school was tough. I often say you couldn't pay me to go back and do it again. I went from being celebrated for my scholastic achievement and eccentric personality as a 5th grader, to being considered a teacher's pet in 6th grade who got called "faggot" every day. Though I never went to church and had essentially no relationship to religion, I remember praying to a God I didn't even know if I believed in - "Please, just don't make me gay."
Meanwhile I spent my days pining away for the affection of Breana, one of my best friends from 5th grade. We'd been constant companions for a couple of years, but when we got to middle school I got less cool while Breana, who was beautiful, got much cooler. She started "dating" a popular kid named George, who was really just an asshole, and at the ripe age of 12 I learned that nice guys truly do finish last.
This was confirmed when I made the lamest pick up of my entire life by sending a letter several pages long in the ACTUAL mail, confessing my feelings for her in hopes of winning her heart. I concluded by recognizing that she was currently dating George, but pointed out that he wasn't a great guy and that it likely wouldn't work out. So, when they broke up in the future, I'd love to take her to a dance. Not only did I not get a response, she stopped acknowledging me on campus completely and her friends let me know that she had told them about the letter. I was mortified.
The pinnacle of this early adolescent torture came after months of agony and daily harassment, which had increased after I showed up at school with make up residue on my face from my first paid acting gig. After countless days fearing the attack of 8th graders, a pack surrounded me at my lunch table, threatened to beat the shit out of me and poured a slushie on my head in front of my friends. Unable to defend myself or contain my emotions, I cried and was completely humiliated.
I share all of this to set the stage for the start of my friendship with Tim Fox the following year in Mr. Coursey's 7th grade Language Arts class.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how it happened, but one day Tim and I started joking around on opposite sides of the classroom as if we were having a phone call with each other. We mimed using cellphones and ignored the fact that we were in the middle of an educational setting. The whole class laughed and Mr. Coursey even played along with us. Later that day Tim invited me to eat lunch with him.
BOOM. Just like that I had leveled up. It was exactly like the cheesy movie tropes. I'd been invited into a social world that was previously off-limits. Tim was a cool kid. He was charming and had older brothers which seemed to automatically put him in a class above the rest. Naturally he was friends with tons of girls, most of whom had crushes on him. I was just hoping my stint as his sidekick wouldn't be short-lived.
Fortunately for me, our friendship continued to grow. We kept riffing on jokes in our Language Arts class and whenever there was a substitute teacher we'd pretend my name was Michelle. During roll call I'd put on a shitty french accent and correct the teacher about the pronunciation. Inevitably they'd be skeptical, but Tim would back me up with complete seriousness, convincing them I was from France. The class would then hold back laughter for the rest of class every time the sub referred to me as Michelle.
Soon Tim and I took Drama together as an elective and found ourselves excelling at improv. In our most famous bit we played elderly nuns that basically just grabbed various items from around the classroom and blessed them by singing "Holy, holy, holy" over and over again in our falsettos. Obviously, IT KILLED. In fact, it was so celebrated that people requested we do the bit around campus for months, the best time being when we blessed some raffle tickets at the quarterly raffle and won.
As Tim and I spent more time together, people stopped picking on me as much and middle school overall got a lot better. We learned that Robin Hood was both of our favorite animated Disney movie, so we performed the opening song together in class for fun. (Tim was the fox, obviously.) This led to our performance in the school musical together, playing the comic relief. It was hard to believe that just a year after being teased for my involvement in theater, I was being celebrated for it. Much of the credit for that change goes to Tim who enjoyed my sense humor enough to encourage others to give me a chance.
This also marked the beginning of me getting attention from cute girls. Though most of them only befriended me to get closer to Tim, I usually didn't mind too much.
Later that year Tim invited me to a party he was hosting. I was without a doubt the least cool person there and found myself shrinking back into self-consciousness around all the older popular kids. I knew they knew I didn't belong at an event like this. It was a pool party. In a backyard. With girls in bikinis. So I spent the early portion of the evening fumbling around the snack table inside.
Tim's angel mother Liz knew I needed a little help and pulled me away from the cream cheese and salsa long enough to get me outside with the other kids. Tim then began introducing me to people and suggested a race in the pool. Fortunately I was a swimmer and immediately established myself as one of the fastest swimmers at the party. Instant street cred. Without this, I'm not sure I would have been invited into the esteemed "Suck 'n' Blow" circle. For those not familiar, we stood boy-girl and passed a playing card around with our mouths by way of sucking and blowing simultaneously. You better believe there were some accidental kisses.
As exciting as that was, the highlight of the night was the extremely cute girl who was "putting chapstick on guys" by first putting it on her own lips and then essentially kissing them. When I found out this was a service being offered to everyone, I sprinted to the other side of the yard to get in line. I can't describe how seminal this night was in my young life.
The only hiccup came when I was on the couch with Katie, the very cute and very developed girl, talking about music and she asked, "So are you a rapper or a rocker?"
I was stumped. I had never thought about it before. Didn't even know there were categories. Were they the only categories? Did you have to pick one? Which one did she want me to pick? FUCK!
In one of my earliest political answers on record, I told her that Limp Bizkit was my favorite band at the time (I'd seen their sticker on her binder in class) and that it was hard to say whether they were strictly rock or rap as they seemed to be a blend of both genres. She agreed and we began a more intimate flirtation that led to a few weeks of hand-holding.
This dramatic turnaround had me feeling pretty high on life, but by the end of the year I received some devastating news. The district had built a new middle school and I was going to be transferred. Tim wasn't.
I'm not sure I would have been able to articulate it then, but something in me knew that Tim had completely changed my life in just one year. I was terrified that without him, school would return to the nightmare it had been previously.
The last day of school was an emotional time for everyone, but I remember saying goodbye to Tim and completely falling apart. I was balling as I hugged him and he reassured me that we would continue to be friends. He was definitely a bit overwhelmed, and naturally so. I'm not sure he knew how much his friendship meant to me at the time, but my tears surely were an indicator.
In 8th grade we rarely saw each other, but I had a significantly larger social circle because of my friendship with Tim. I'd been grandfathered into his crew that transferred to the new school. This in turn gave me way more confidence to be myself. I took on duties to produce the morning school video announcements in which I delivered the news via an exaggerated newscaster persona and signed off with the SNL Weekend Update tagline, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it." Ironically, though I was using Colin Quinn's line, I came back from vacation once to hear that a fellow classmate had taken over my duties and copied my delivery and tagline. I was absolutely furious. That was MY bit that I stole!
A year later Tim and I were reunited in high school, but we didn't hit it off right away. The first couple of weeks of freshman year I walked past him every day as he waited outside the pool for water polo practice. And each day he pushed me to join the team. Tim was highly persuasive and I trusted him, but I had never played before, and even though I grew up swimming, I was hesitant. I had just failed to make the soccer team and was terrible at handling rejection. My young heart wasn't ready for another team to tell me I wasn't strong enough.
Another year later and Tim was again pushing me to try out. Since I was in good shape fresh off a summer of swimming, I decided to give it a whirl. I'd go to a week of practice and if the team decided I was good enough I'd stick with it.
Though I was never the fastest on my swim team, I was immediately one of the stronger swimmers playing water polo and easily made the team. Though it took me a while to get used to the violence of the sport, by mid-season I was putting in time on the Varsity squad and holding my own. Blessed with some natural instincts, I began to love the game. Soon it had taken over my mind and all I could think about during the school day was getting back in the pool.
Tim was my right hand man in the water and the two of us had a ball playing together. While I was known for my passion, he was famous for his showmanship and had a couple of signature moves. One was taking the ball on a penalty throw and bouncing it off the head of his defender, which would count as a pass, allowing him to immediately throw a shot on goal. The other was "the no-looker-hooker" in which he'd post up, usually in a six-on-five situation and take a pass while looking towards another player, then hook the ball into the goal as the goalie assumed he was going to pass it again. Even though we were used to Tim making people look foolish in the water, any time he'd execute one of these plays we'd be in stitches.
It's hard to say just how impactful joining the water polo team has been on my life, but the fact that it is the era I am most nostalgic for 15 years later is a pretty clear sign of its significance. It was also the first activity I'd ever engaged in that allowed me to channel the inner-angst and masculine drive to compete and dominate. After spending a large part of middle school and freshman year with no courage to stick up for myself, suddenly I had learned how to defend myself in the water, which carried over into my daily life on campus. Of course, it didn't hurt that I now had Tim at my side.
Playing water polo also gave me a new community on and off campus. In the summers most of the players were lifeguards at the local pool, and once again, Tim encouraged me to give it a shot. I spent my spring break taking the certification classes and got the job working along side him the summer after my sophomore year.
By junior year, our underdog polo team was winning games and the good times were rolling. We had a swagger on campus and built a reputation for being defenders of the little guys. Every Friday night we'd tailgate at the football games and lead the Superfans in frenzied cheers to support our dismal football team. It was around this time that Tim dubbed me "Mitchapalooza" and I dubbed him "Timmo da Great," which is still the name I have for him in my phone.
Even more impressive is that Mitchapalooza made its way into the gmail address I created years later. So if you've ever wondered why the fuck that's my email, it's thanks to Tim. Even I hadn't put the pieces together on that one until I sat down to write this and realized his literal impact on every piece of digital communication I've made over the past ten years.
Our senior year was an absolute blast. We were called into the principal's office often, but somehow managed to escape for the most part unpunished. We always danced right up to the line of what was permissible behavior. For instance, when we were instructed not to use large plastic horns at the football games to make noise, we began using them to do "fruit juice beer bongs" every time the team scored a touchdown. After enough of this, we'd get called into the office again to be told, "We know this is isn't technically a rule, but we're asking you to stop."
For our senior prank, we wanted to do something that made a statement, but wouldn't cause any damage or give the administration a reason to discipline us. We settled on driving several trucks up into the mountains on a Sunday night, piling them full of snow, then driving back to campus and shoveling it into a giant mountain in the middle of the quad with a flag standing atop it waving our "Class of 2004" t-shirt. On Monday morning our school, which never got any snow, was mildly shocked, but more so impressed at how we pulled it off. Again we were called into the office for a verbal warning.
It was this meeting in which Vice Principal O'Malley dropped the most asinine line of reasoning in an attempt to minimize our efforts to transform the culture of our school. He opened by saying, "99% of revolutions fail" as he sat under an American flag that represents perhaps the most celebrated revolution in modern history. The irony of the moment was completely lost on him.
Possibly our greatest accomplishment in O'Malley's office came when one of our buddies had been shoved by another administrator. After being called into their office week after week and complying with each new rule, we were absolutely pissed that an administrator had become violent. I went on a tirade in the office about assault being a crime, telling him that the school was lucky we hadn't already filed a report with the police. We demanded a public apology from the administrator to our friend at the next game. Watching a grown man who had been giving us hell for months publicly apologize to a teenager at our request was fulfilling in ways I cannot describe.
Without question, there is no chance I would have had the audacity to confront authority figures on their unchecked power in the ways I did had Tim Fox not been sitting next to me.
Now, all of this isn't to say that Tim and I never butted heads. In fact, we often got into little scuffles, but it was always born of a brotherly love. Because I didn't grow up with brothers as he did, this was my first foray into buddies just wrestling with each other for the fuck of it. One day before a water polo game against a rival school, Tim started giving me shit in the locker room, which led to some rough-housing that ended with the two of us throwing each other around pretty intensely until I hit my head on a sink. I can't recall who got the one up, but I do remember being VERY concerned that I was going to have a bruise on my forehead for senior pictures.
One of my final memories with Tim from high school was when he and I approached a military recruiter on campus. Always ready to goof, he asked the uber-serious serviceman something along the lines of, "My friend here is really into plays and drama...you guys got any of that?" With not a moment's hesitation, the soldier responded completely deadpan "We've got plenty of real drama in the Army, but I'm not sure that's what he's looking for."
This moment marked the symbolic fork in the road for us as I went on to study musical theater in college before moving to NYC to "make art," while Tim went on to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.
We kept in touch sporadically throughout college and the first few years after, mostly thanks to Tim's efforts to do so. Though I became less responsive, he was still insanely supportive. When Greg and Nik and I started The Kloons, Tim was one of the first people to regularly watch our videos and share them online. He'd also send ideas for ways we could grow the business and generally make sure I had my eye on the future. All those years later and he was still looking out for me.
The last time I saw him must have been around 2010 when he docked in NYC and invited Greg and I to come take a tour of his ship. Not surprisingly, as we walked down the corridors nearly everyone that passed had a little joke or fun interaction with Tim. He was clearly as beloved aboard this ship as he was in the halls of our high school.
Eventually we came to his sleeping quarters where I was shocked to find out how modest and grueling his life was at sea. A triple-stacked bunkbed, each with a thin mattress pad laid out over a single drawer filled with all of its inhabitant's possessions provided me with an instant shift in perspective. All of the sudden my shitty apartment in Brooklyn with mold, mice and old clanging pipes felt like a luxurious haven.
In the years since, I've continued to reap the benefits of my comfortable civilian life, creating subversive comedic videos online by day and enjoying lavish dining experiences by night while Tim has continued to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.
A few months ago I got a message out of the blue from Tim after he had read my article on Miles. I didn't respond at the time because I knew that I wanted to write one of these for him and I didn't want to waste words on Facebook Messenger that belonged here. Of course, it's taken six months to get these words out, but finally here they are.
Tim's acceptance of me, allowed me to come out of my shell. It also gave me social approval in a way that completely transformed my potential. He was the guy who told the metaphorical bouncer at the door of the club, "This guy's with me, he's cool." And just like that I was in. People stopped calling me faggot and started listening to my jokes.
Timmo, I apologize for falling off the past several years. As many people in my life can attest, I'm not great at maintaining friendships over time and space. But that doesn't mean you're not in my heart. Your presence in my life unlocked worlds at a young age. I can't imagine what would have happened had we not met, and had you not encouraged me to be myself.
And the thing is, I'm not even sure you were conscious of what you were doing back then. We were just kids. But your nature did for me, what it did for so many others: it put those around you at ease and encouraged us all to lighten up and enjoy the ride.