Sunday, February 27, 2011

The dark and sunny sides of the Sunshine State...

The Dark Side: OK - so you've heard a lot of it before:  the vast distances and the car culture, the strip malls, the constant complaint that, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity" and finally, the big one... the cultural barrenness.   Well, we were prepared for all these and other not so desirable paradigms of this State of tropical climes.
The distances are great but driving 20 minutes to pick up milk doesn't seem like much of a run when Gavin is flying to Ft. Lauderdale (on the other coast) just  to practice!  As far as living in one's car, we are new car-owners anyway.  Owning our first car this late (relatively) in life means we can probably drive every day across the State until we are well into our octogenarian years before we match the carbon foot-print of most of our contemporaries.
  The malls do abound, it's true.  One could spend 6 hrs in a different one of these air-conditioned temples of consumption every day for a year and still not make a dent in any in the next county. So we do visit these from time to time - when retail activity is required.  But we adjust our entertainment expectations and avail of nearby free diversions (surprisingly plentiful and expounded on in the next section) as our financial profile becomes ever leaner.

Regarding the issue of humidity, many of you know that I have lived for decades with a natural humidex on top of my shoulders.  So, when it comes to humidity, I have enough tragic hair days behind me to have learned that there isn't much that an entire bottle of product and some creative air flow redirection won't solve.  Of course, humidity affects more than just hair.  Nothing really ever dries here unless you put it directly under the sun during that sliver of a window between 11:45am and 12:30pm.  And with some things, even that  won't work..

The tiny - and I am emphatic here - soon to be completely renovated - kitchen has enough counterspace for a spoon and.... maybe another (smaller) spoon.  So, everything has to be mounted on walls on hooks or placed on (also scarce) shelves.  We thought a magnetic knife rail on the fridge would be a great space saver.  We nearly gave up on that idea after finding it loping downward days after it was installed or walking into the apartment after being out, to find a crime aftermath-like scene with knives splayed all over the floor.  The adhesive didn't dry properly so the rail didn't stick to the side of the fridge and just slid right off and onto the floor.  Finally Gavin, braving the possibility of collision between his Dremmel and a freon pipe actually drilled the rivets into the side of the fridge to hold the fr*&@!#ing thing up!

I address the issue of the absence of culture as a segue into.....

The Sunny Side: So, we have all been the bearers of jokes at the expense of this saw-grass State or laughed heartily when someone pointed out that its geography is nothing but swamp with beaches at it's edges sprinkled with Perkin's restaurants flying  hilariously oversized flags out front.  I have been coming to this area of Fla. since I was a child but my concerns then never reached beyond how to maximize my tanning time by employing the right kind of air mattress in the water so as not to overheat before I had bronzed sufficiently (of course, this was before ozone awareness and climate change).
Now as a resident, I have deepened the search for meaning in these marshes.  The immediate scarcity of things to do beyond baking oneself by the pool leads to full on scouring of any available resources.  Despite being familiar with the area, I never really committed to finding a place in the community - who does that, after all, on vacation?  So, as a result of afore-mentioned scouring, I have found free kayak trails, a very decent zoo, a historic railway that still runs sightseeing trips, dozens of free parks and playgrounds, an impressive library system, a not laughable theatre scene and two large, nearby and very respectable concert venues.
The dame of diversions should not be forgotten either: the beach.  Yes, it is when I hear the waves from my balcony (did I mention the beach is right across the street?), walk on the strand, watch Luca carrying buckets of sand to and from the construction site of "Yuca's (Luca's) castle", follow windsurfers up and down the coast that the toppling knife rail, the fast-food drive throughs, the billboards advertising outlet malls dissolve into the background.
The other thing is that my partner, who I have loved for a long time, who has always been generous and wonderful, reserved yet friendly and who has a lot of characteristics that make him a generally likeable, well adjusted guy is finally, well and truly complete.

No, I know that this is a blog meant to reach a wide audience of friends and acquaintances, give you some idea of what we are up to and entertain...maybe garner a few chuckles and - if I do it right - one hearty guffaw (or two) per post.  So, I will tread lightly in this area of relative emotional depth and just say: the feeling you get when you see someone you love unearth a sliver of themselves they have just found as if it they knew it was there all the time is indescribable.  So, do I like it here in sunny Fla.? If the Gavin that returns from a day of flying with his spirit still some 2000 ft off the ground is my litmus, I belong here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Suddenly....a quarter is worth so much more than 25 cents.......

Not since the last label-less period in my life have I felt so ingenuous.  After University - not yet identifiable by one's profession but long past adolescence - there is no name for what one is.  You are not yet a parent or a professional but no longer a student or a child.  And now again, with the notable exception of very definitely being parents there is nothing else to identify us as part of a group with our peers. 

In fact, we really have no peers and as such, no peer support.  Gavin, especially, has no peers.  He is a middle aged student in a vocational, career shifting area of study.  I am a stay-at-home mom and we are all living in a retirement community disguised as a resort development.  It's true: when you live near the beach, your neighbours are all white (I refer here, to the colour of both skin and hair), Bermuda short sporting, socks-with-sandals wearing, golf club bearing, shuffleboard stick brandishing seniors.  Real, normal people our age - almost peers - don't live here.  They live in houses with garages far from the beach, from tiki huts serving margaritas and golf courses and close to grocery stores, pharmacies and schools.  The fact that everyone here has children - and sometimes grandchildren - older than me entrenches further our position of "young family starting out".

And so, we are transported back to a time when were much younger, much less established and much more poor.  Just like those days back in University - before the proliferation of cell phones, we are again without the mobile apparatus that keeps us connected and we hunt for working payphones (much harder to come by than even 5 years ago) with our pockets laden with quarters (local calls actually cost 50 cents).  So, quarters are our communication link to each other and the world outside.

They are also the link to hygiene.  Every week, I haul the duffel bag full of laundry down to the launderette. Last week, as a result of a combination of poor planning and too many phone calls made from payphones (!)  we were dangerously low on quarters.  In my rush to get back upstairs before Gavin had to leave for school,  I pop both loads in the washer and run upstairs feeling triumphant:  I have managed to do laundry, feed our child, and generally prepare for the day in enough ways to make me feel self-satisfied and super-momish.
Except that when I return to transfer the load to the dryer, I find I am short a quarter.  Horror of horrors: I am 25 cents away from sleeping on dry sheets.  I dig in my pockets in a last ditch attempt but...nothing but pesky dimes and nickels.  Outside of this moment dimes hold more than 1/3 the value of the quarter.  In fact, nickels and dimes combined can have an even greater total value ....but right now they are worthless.  An idea comes to me, I hold out 30 cents and ask the only other person in the launderette, "Excuse me, will you take three dimes for a quarter?"  She considers "OK, that sounds fair - next time you best come prepared."  I nod sheepishly and put the last quarter in the slot, hear the confirming "clink" as the dryer starts and step away wiping the sweat from my brow. That was a close one.

There is another thing about those suddenly scarce 25 cent pieces that - you would think - are made of platinum rather than the copper/nickel alloy of which they are comprised. You need to stuff them - you guessed it - into a machine,  this time one that gives you access to the only entertainment that occurs in these parts after sunset that a "young family starting out" can afford: TV.  I have always regarded cable as a luxury, even in the most prosperous of times.  Now with financial reserves being metaphorically sliced by the rotor blades of a helicopter (get it?) ...not a chance. 

So, instead we wait for the Sunday paper that has - buried within the hundreds of pages of coupons - the TV listings for the week.  But of course the trail that leads to TV programming enlightenment is treacherous.  We have to race downstairs early on a Sunday morning to get to the newspaper machine before the hoards of the blue rinse set descend upon it.  Then with the precision of a plaid clad golden- age golfer making his morning drive on the fairway,  I feed in the four quarters required to get the extra fat Sunday paper last.....the low down on the week's evening diversion.

Wasn't it Winston Churchill who said, "..Never have so few given so many quarters for..." ..uh, the rest of the quote escapes me.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Arrival

Each day we drove I noticed the negative space between our belongings shrinking as our clothes, books and the material sum of our life as a family all compressed ever more compactly into the space of our trunk.  This was strangely comforting in light of the fact that the space that would soon be our home was actually not much bigger than the trunk of our car and surprisingly similar in its "coziness" or "charm" or insert another appropriate realtor's adjective here.  Our apartment  - unlike our car - did have plumbing though.

This progressive compression made me think of what we left behind.  The destination of some of our items was lovingly considered.  Some of our furniture went to  Meredith to be equally lovingly looked after in our absence.  Some found new permanent homes or returned from whence they were generously donated - like our baby stuff that went via Kristen to soon to be parents.  Some met a lonely, dark and damp fate relegated to a too small (still bigger than our car though!) storage unit in a bad part of town.

And what of the fate of the consumable items? Simply throwing them away - the easiest but most heinous of solutions - would not do.  On the day before our departure, I realized that just because the refrigerator and pantry have doors on them allowing me to ignore their contents doesn't mean the new resident would do the same.  Does it?  Nope.

So, I opened said doors.  Then I panicked.  How is it that denying myself the pleasure (yes, I mean that) of grocery shopping for weeks in preparation for our departure resulted in such an insignificant reduction of food-stuffs?  Well, this would all have to be donated - thoughtfully.  After all, donating amaranth flour and candied chestnuts to a food bank is inconsiderate and naive.  Even in my state of emergency I would not succumb to this middle-class insular behaviour even if the alternatives were inconvenient...very inconvenient.

I began to consider carefully the recipients of the food. All the baking ingredients and accoutrement would go to Melissa who, were she making her living from baking rather than from nursing, would be causing health issues instead of solving them (but would be extremely rich from her cheesecake sales!)

Obscure grains, bulk items and so-proclaimed (by myself) healthy foods go to my recently reduced brother.  Staples go to practical Erika.  And any exotic, hard to find items go to my foodiest of foodie friends - Dana (props to Norma, Meredith and Kristen though).  Despite her creativity with food as well as other media, I have no idea what she will do with rose petal preserve!

When we arrived, as we started to de-compress (our nerves and our stuff) I found myself caught in this contradictory meltdown.  First, "there is no storage space here - where will we put our special jumbo muffin tin?"...and then a minute later, " doh, I forgot my electric pepper grinder" or "aw, I wish I HAD brought those rice paper wrappers after all".  Now,  I longed for the rose petal preserves and all the stuff we left behind....anything to anchor me here, to make me feel like I was just here on vacation and that this year of drinking hormone injected milk and pee-pee coloured, weak beer would fly by in a flash like the choppers Gavin would soon be piloting.

We all felt disconnected - suddenly with no sense of place - vagabond like in our bottom of the barrel clothes we were left with while everything else waited in the laundry basket.  We felt tattered and homeless especially during those first few days during the unpacking phase.  Gavin and I might glance at each other tacitly agreeing not to dwell out loud on this feeling.  'It will pass' we thought.

Only Luca acknowledged the elephant in the Florida room.   I don't know if he was referring to the little rolling Travel-pro luggage we used every time we checked into hotels - or as he was calling each inn - Luca's hotel house.  Maybe he was talking about the little case with a handle that he got for his toy cars for Christmas from his cousins, Noah and Tyler.  But when we asked him as we walked about the condo complex of our new home on our first day there, "where is Luca's house?" he pointed to our building and said in his adorable, squeaky voice with its upturned inflection at the end making everything sound like a question, " suitcase(?)".

Sunday, February 6, 2011

the prep - the trip - the border - PART II

The barometer for our sense of control over this odyssey was Luca's mattress.  Before we left, we gave Luca's crib away but felt a desperate attachment to the mattress.  Luca had been successfully sleeping through the night and for really long naps in the afternoon on this mattress. Besides, what better symbol of home is there than a bed? ...a good night's sleep; a place to lay your head to rest.  So, we thought:  it'll fit - we know he likes it -  why mess with a good thing?  Now it was the final item to be packed  - perched (initially...and then eventually tightly strapped and bagged within an inch of its life) to the top of our roof. 

I humbly amend Lao Tzu's famous quote, " become learned each day add something.  To become enlightened each day, drop something."  by adding, " en-lighten your car enough to reach the minimum speed  on the interstate, leave the toaster oven (and any number of other household items easily purchased at Target at your destination) at home!    To make sense of the task of packing the car that had become an advanced, life-size game of Jenga,  Gavin enlisted the help of our friends: the spatially skilled and vertically endowed Gilad and Jason.  I left the capable crew of three scratching their heads in the midst of what looked like a cargo hold's worth of personal belongings strewn about the car on the floor of the parking garage.  Three hours later, the team emerged thirsty and bleary eyed but triumphant.  I went down with Gavin to look at the car and saw a house of cards: simultaneously precarious and beautiful in it's engineering.  I was so proud of them and impressed.  I wanted to immortalize this success...this show of efficiency.  I wanted to gaze at it, photograph it and explore it.  I moved to open the back door to get a better view of everything stuffed (artfully) in there.  Gavin lurched at me, " I wouldn't do that if I were you!"

We left Monday morning, our collective mood uncertain and fragile.  After finally surmounting delays related to forgotten sippy cups, missed exits and a final fix of Commons' coffee (decidedly out of the way but so worth it!) we were on the highway.  After a few minutes of coasting we looked at each other no longer able to ignore the high decibel flapping sound coming from outside.  Gavin pulled over and got out to investigate.  He returned a few moments later, "'s the mattress", he said.  "I am going to have to pull the straps out from the bottom of the trunk, double bag it and tighten it to the roof".  Ah - so just as for the mattress, we too would have to search inside ourselves, the deepest part of our "trunks" to find whatever tool we had that would tighten our resolve; that would make us  unflappable for what lay ahead.

After just a few hours of driving we reached the border - the apex of this road trip.  This was the point after which, we thought, everything would be actually and metaphorically - coasting.  The following dynamic is universal: it applies to everyone crossing a border and to every officer presiding over every border of every country.  WE are supposed to be nervous;  THEY are supposed to feel omnipotent.  This is the way it is supposed to be and should not be tampered with in any way.  WE simply have to remain nervous until we survive this uncomfortable (at best) interaction.  THEY have no choice but to behave omnipotently because backpeddaling and being magnanimous might get them fired and - worse - mess with the natural order.  So, we sail secondary inspection where we get through a series of challenges.  First, the officer does not want to allow myself, Luca or our stuff entry.  Then after agreeing that we would be entered as Gavin's dependents (ironically allowing us more time than if were were there as carefree tourists) he peruses the paperwork and we all discover that Gavin was issued the wrong visa by the consulate!  So, the now helpful officer waives the visa, agrees to let everybody through and is poised to stamp the final stamp in all of our passports.....then......he realizes...that we haven't paid some fee that was meant to have been paid after the visa was issued.  So, of course we agree to pay the fee immediately especially as that is the only thing keeping those double doors under the EXIT door closed to us.  But....the fee can only be paid online... and.... there is no internet access in the processing room.... and.... they are not allowed to help us in any way including jumping online for us.  So, we are given special permission to use the otherwise restricted cell phone to call someone who has internet access to go to the site and pay the fee for us.....get a receipt number to plug get a fax to the officer who is standing 30 inches from us.

Three hours later we are "landed" in our new home. We have been through the wars and we have the wounds - and the spoils - to show it.  We decided to make that travel day short given the stress we had been through and the commensurate pallor of Gavin's face.  We check into our hotel still too far north to see any dramatic changes in the weather.  That night  - in the darkness that falls too early this time of year - from the window of our hotel, as the snow begins to fall gently,  Gavin's shadowy form can be glimpsed atop our car.  He is  repositioning the mattress and securing it tightening it and tightening it with a focus that is visibly unshakeable .  He had found the straps - that mattress wasn't going anywhere.