April 22, 2006

Florida Trip Log

I’m always interested in excellence in others and the eight-year old boy on the plane was the Derek Jeter of annoyment. Definitely top 2%, but then, as I always think when I see anyone excelling, someone has to be in the top 2%. By definition. He projected with a megaphone voice his displeasure over every event, real or imagined. Odder still was when an a rather eccentric-acting lady in her 50s came up to offer ...what? She and the mother were obviously strangers, and my wife could smell the strong odor of alcohol about her person. Surprisingly, after a conference of great suspense, the mother agreed to move to the stranger’s seat, two back and across the aisle, and for the twenty minutes during the seat switch the child was quiet. We couldn’t be too obvious about trying to look over the seat at how she was doing this, although I think it’s safe to say there was no caning or duct tape involved.

Then it was on to Bill Luse’s straight from the airport because it was the only opportune time for our mutual schedules, which was unfortunate because we didn’t get to meet Bill’s wife, who, like all really, really good Catholics, goes to Easter vigil instead of vacationing. (I later learned she fainted during it, but is fine now.)

Meeting bloggers is a fascinating little exercise since it’s one of the few times in life you learn to like someone before you meet them. I was already familiar with Bill’s voice due to listening in on a streaming audio radio station debate concerning stem cells, and now I got to meet the real McCoy, not something that every Tom, Dick or Harry gets to do. Bill's work schedule and court case (he’d witnessed a crime in his neighborhood) made it perhaps not the best of weeks for a meeting but he was the gracious host, succoring us with delicious barbecue and some of earth’s greatest beers, Guinness and Bass. (Bass is slightly more bitter than Guinness but I’m liking it. A nice complement to Guinness.) Weeks ago he wrote something that had resonated with me long after, concerning how keenly he (me too) feels about interruptions to his schedule but if we were an interruption Bill gave no indication of it. There were wonderful pictures of his lovely daughters on the wall, including Bernadette on her First Communion Day. A very Catholic home. One handed down over the generations and I admit a bit of jealousy over his rootedness. Sure a house is just a thing, but the Crunchy Conifers seem to argue for the importance in rootedness to land, perhaps even land handed down in a city. My wife is drawn to the piano like a blogger to his keypad, so she played a bit, and generally performed the role for which she was destined: my better half. Bill, perhaps knowing we were still without groceries at that point (we’d come straight from the airport) provided beer for the drive home, er, I mean when we got home. (Just a joke, don’t sue.)

Easter Sunday
“I’ve recalled it often, here in my hole. How the grass turned green in the springtime…how the bell in the chapel tower rang out the precious short-lived hours.” – Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
We managed to arrive twenty minutes early, which means just in time to find the last available seats, it being Easter. We’d gone to Our Lady Star of the Sea at New Symrna Beach and the only row left was being saved by just two people, trying to reserve spaces for twelve. The usher was aware of this and appeared increasingly unhappy about it. Finally at six minutes before Mass, we have a scene in the making. He insists the guy move over and let the people standing in the back sit there. And in that moment before fisticuffs ensued (I was ready to play my part in law enforcement since the usher was much older and thinner) the woman holding down the other side of the pew pointed and said, “they’re here!”. So the usher relented and eventually the row was filled, not two minutes before Mass. Needless to say, the distraction level was off the charts and to say it wasn’t a prayerful atmosphere is to put it mildly. This has convinced me I should be going to Easter vigil, where the long service scares away big crowds. Still I would miss that triumphant song, the one that creates goosebumps on goosebumps: “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”. It’s the rarity, sung but once a year, which evinces the rarity of the singular event: the Resurrection.

We are staying at the unusually named “Errol by the Sea”, unusual because few under forty know who Errol was and I’m not sure I do either. Errol Flynn? The name sounds of a different era, sort of a Dean Martin at the Sands feel, or Coney Island or Route 66 with the upended caddies. I’m always fascinated by borders, by where one country really ends and where another begins, where the ‘60s ended and the ‘70s began, etc… Class differences are also interesting. As one who is ruthlessly middle class (if you can juxtapose “ruthless” with “middle”) I find them interesting even though they’re indicative of nothing important. It’s a bit more rednecky than Hilton Head clued by the shuffleboard here as well as a big container labeled “Cigarette Butts Only!” (punctuation matters!) and I ponder what else you’d put in this big sand container. Cigars? I ask my wife. “It means ‘No Loogies’,” my wife explained. That’s just gross. The room has the world’s shortest book and judging from its condition, the most unread: “Shuffleboard Strategy”. There was also a fake camera in the elevator, which I managed to take a picture of before it was …stolen?

We head to the pool where we romantically share Bud Light out of a pitcher and otherwise read and relax. Kitschy ’60 songs come to mind, like “Hey There, Georgi Girl” and some of the hits of Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Later, as I became more “Floridated”, John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” came unbidden. Fatigue and vacations are those things most likely to thin the membrane that separates the present from the past. I write from a platform about eight foot above the sand and ocean and we are now on sun-dial time. The sun, gilt as a robber baron, lay suspended just a metre or two west of the pool. When we are shaded, we’ll head in and leave the heron-smelt sea. (I don't know what that means.)

I have a hunger for newspapers and magazines. I read the Orlando and New Symrna Beach newspapers, devour the latest National Review and half of the New Yorker. I submit without comment a line from a newspaper article: “Radiation does not exist because you can’t see it.” So said a 71-year old resident of Chernobyl, who continues to live there despite government warnings. I also read an article about the disastrous crystal meth problem on Indian reservations. Two interesting and somewhat insulated communities are the Amish settlements in northeast Ohio and the Indian reservations in the southwest USA. Both are attempts to preserve a culture in the face of the overwhelming assimilative processes of modern media. Based on the book “Crossing Over”, an account of one woman’s escape from the Amish, and now this article in the Orlando paper, it seems the communities are in some sense use opposite approaches. In rural Ohio the Amish use a force called “shunning”, strong societal pressure, in order to limit crime and drugs and ensure at least outward religious devotion. It is also to some extent a self-selected society since teens are given a summer to travel and experience “the English” before making a final commitment.

With the Indian reservations, the problems with alcohol are well-known but now comes a bigger menace in the form of meth. Polices say of the 300,000 Navajos in Arizona, meth is a bigger problem than alcohol. If the Amish culture is too controlling (the Crossing Over author naturally paints an ugly picture), it seems native Americans have the opposite problem.
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People reserve chairs at the pool and it feels vaguely unsavory. They get up at 7 or 8am and hustle down to put towels on chairs and then return hours later, if at all, when the sun is warmer. There are no signs prohibiting this but it seems contrary to the spirit of pool etiquette. Still, if this is the unwritten practice and everyone is aware of it (as they will be almost immediately) then what’s wrong with it? It’s an equal playing field. I suppose the problem is the inefficient use of resources which limits the maximum common good. There are long periods of time when prime real estate goes unused.

From the cave-cove
raised patio shaded from
the heat-sweat showered-off
cigar’d up after the mad dog
Englishman run I overlook
the last gasp of humanity
before the breeze-blue sea.

Shrieks of children’s voices
mingle with bird cries
the gulls hunt food
and refuse to say
if it’s just another day at work for them
or just another day of play.

Monday: Steven Riddle & Ancient of Days

It’s Blog Tour 2006! Lollapalooza has nothing on us as we travel twenty miles to the odd-sounding Titusville, Florida which my wife memorably immediately rechristianed “Tightass Ville” (which seemed fitting when we passed a “Pinch-a-Penny”, a place evidentally tailormade for Ham o’ Bone). We arrived at a popular local restaurant and found Steven and family. Samuel, their seven-year old child, broke the ice marvelously by using the word “excrutiating” in a sentence, a true vocabulary savant. (I was reading “Freakeconomics” later that week and learned that “Samuel” is the second most-popular name chosen by the most highly educated parents - that fits their family!). Things went swimmingly and Samuel is a charmer and a ham and his picture on Steven’s blog does not do his presence justice. He’s a curious sort, the observer observing the observer. Steven’s wife also was very engaging and helped keep the conversation ball rolling which allowed Steven and I to talk about stuff that might be of less interest to the gals. My wife loved the blog tour, bonding with Bill as well as Steven’s family. I have a socialable wife. I’m not sure I’d be quite as thrilled if the situation was reversed.

Steven relayed an anecdote that seemed mythological, about the time he stayed in the country and at night heard ominous crunching sounds outside his room. Turns out corn can grow two to three inches a night and the expansion and stretching makes the noise Steven heard. It sounded a bit surrealistic, like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was also interested in Steven’s patience with “Cafeteria Catholics”. I’m sure I’m not telling tales out of school to say that he used to be more a liberal/progressive Catholic and that his patience is therefore understandable from the standpoint of it being really difficult to be against something you once were, at least without feeling hypocritical. What gets me is a Catholic blogger like Talmilda who used to consider the Pope has having nothing to offer her, nothing to say to her. I can understand that perspective from an atheist or agnostic. I can understand it, though less so, from a non-Catholic Christian perspective. But from a Catholic?

Tuesday: The Ocean is a Ride That is Always Open

An overcast morning presented an opportunity for a shopping run.

“As the military says, let’s go with Plan Baker,” I said at breakfast.

“That’s bravo,” my wife retorts. She gives me no slack.

I drop her off at Walmart while I browse a bookstore next door. A half-hour later she’s still shopping so I walk down what looked to be a promising path through the nearby woods. The dense foliage and narrow, sandy road were a welcome respite from the traffic nearby and the jackhammer workermen working on the condominium improvements. (A rather interesting experiment is taking place here. How much of relaxation is a function of reclining in the sun and how much due to a general absence of noise? Here we have one foot in warm water and the other in an ice bucket, figuratively speaking, because they are fixing hurricane damage via jackhammers next to the pool deck.) I soon came to a rather serious looking “No Trespassing” sign. I stood pondering if it meant only vehicular traffic before turning around. The forest here is packed with dwarf palmettos, fan-shaped plants that give this area’s woodlands their messy, jungly look. The palmettos jut at all angles, like exploded fireworks that have just reached their apex and haven’t yet begun to fall.

So it’s Tuesday and I’ve been remarkably beer-shy so far this trip. What kind of vacation is this? Bill, thoughtful host and loyal beer-drinker that he is provided me with two Bass and one Perch, er, I mean Guinness. The open refrigerator looks like….well, art. I can see it in my mind’s eye as a great oil titled, Two Bass and One Guinness in Condo Refrigerator. The black labels against the white. Better yet I can imagine them as three consumed beverages.

Took a bike ride before the beer. Florida seems to be to kitsch what Minnesota is to lakes. On just one stretch of road I saw pink flamingos, plastic manatees and dolphin mailboxes, rusty anchors with driftwood, and an attractive mermaid statue.

Back at the pool, an old gent of genial smile appears to be on a solo vacation. His belly would be the envy of many a Buddha statue and one leg appears to have been injured as he walks with a pronounced limp. From afar I see he’s reading “An Unlikely Angel”; his white hair sprouts from his shoulders like halos, the sun irridating each filament of follicle.

Everything is allusive here, the wet bathroom stones of Italy’s Ostia Antica ruins, the dry warm condo pavers of our front walk, the deep shoe prints on the sand of the Apollo moon mission, an umbrella planted alone in the sand of the American flag planted by John Glenn. The sea itself is un-allusive, the primordial allusion or great uncaused from which all allusions come. It stretches, like the sky, across a limitless expanse and we take it (the sky) for granted because we see it endlessly. We see the sea only sparingly. The white-topped waves crash unpredictably, or at least predictably in their ubiquitousness. The Spirit moves where it will but not ungenerously. There’s the rub: to marry exclusivity and generosity.

“Old woman, what is this freedom you love so well?” I asked around a corner of my mind.

She looked surprised, then thoughtful, then baffled. “I done forgot, son. It’s all mixed up. First I think it’s one thing, then I think it’s another. It gits my head to spinning.”

– Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
Reading the book quoted above, I recall C-Span’s In-Depth with author Shelby Steele. Steele loves freedom, perhaps too much I think sometimes. I suppose it is possible to love a version of freedom too much, the version that is simply personal, individual autonomy. Not that my opinion matters or should matter but I feel ambivalent, wishing it on everyone who will use it and not fail, although that fails to recognize that the freedom to fail is inseparable from freedom. If you believe in freedom can you believe that hell is empty? Can you believe that all of mankind, in freedom, chose universally for God?

In Mother Angelica’s biography, Raymond Arroyo paints an unflattering portrait of some of the nuns in Mother’s 1950s monastery. You’d think monastics would, by virtue of their initial obedience to God, be protected somewhat from the foilbles that afflict the rest of mankind. But that’s not the way it works of course. You can’t “store up” obedience behind a plexiglass plate and a sign that says “break in case of emergency”. The nuns labor under the same gut-shot wounds of original sin that we all do. As a kid, it was a comfort to know of the existence of monasteries. I imagined them as natural wildlife refuges for saints. Poor diocesan priests looked like bastard step-children compared to the holy monks. Just knowning there were saint factories seemed to offer hope.

Wednesday: Family & Epcot Center

Wednesday was Epcot Center Day with the family, who are staying in houses southeast of Orlando. Epcot is basically a large campus of buildings designed to part you from your money. (As one employee said, Epcot stands for “every purse comes out lighter”). The cashier at the gate suggested that we try the wine or beer specialty from each country in the world showcase. Doing the math, twelve countries, two people = 24 drinks and at about $6.50 apiece that would be $156. You’d have to be drunk to do that.

My brother-in-law was the only one brave/foolish enough to ride the astronaut simulator machine, after which he humorously simulated vomiting. But this was the ride that precipitated the death of a 49-year old woman last week and the rest of us figured we'd pass, thank you very much.

There are about a dozen nations requested at Epcot’s “World Showcase”. I’m often amused by national pride being what it is. Here Norway is apparently proud of its Viking past, of which there are positive things one can say but not many. Let’s just say it’s no surprise that the Viking museum there was big on swords and not ploughshares.

We made our way from England (“the Beatles” live!) to France to Morocco. Islamic art, unlike Western art, prefers geometric patterns instead of figures of plants or animals or humans. Why? Their lack of belief in the Incarnation? [Update: Steven explained it's due to Islam forbidding graven images of pretty much anything that moves.] We stroll towards Germany. Little Matthew, Holy Terror, was throwing around a French wine cork souvenir with great energy when it nearly caused an international incident by straying into a German glassware shop and causing a glass to break. My brother-in-law rushed over to pay for it but unlike what the Italians might’ve said (“you break-a, you buy-a”) the German fraulein smiled sweetly and refused payment. A $50 glass!

In “Future World” we waited a half-hour before standing a half hour watching a long Kodak commercial. (One could wish that the future lacks these sorts of unpleasantries.) Finally we are allowed to sit down and put on our 3-D glasses in something called, “Honey I Shrunk the Audience”, which was amusing if light entertainment. The fountains and flowers outside the building were quite beautiful. Matthew humorously inched towards the water of one springing fountain by degrees, like our dog does towards forbidden food.

The enormous physical exertion of a vacation makes sleep delicious, almost in the way a fine meal is. A co-worker tells me rapturously of her sleep and I get it now, only now. Normally one may toss or turn for that slightly more favorable position but now all positions are a delight, all turns reward. Dream life flourishes on the banks of this Nile. In non-vacational life, a math-oriented job induces a sort of nightly mental tundra. Here the nights are too short to resolve all the sights and people experienced during the day.

In a sleep stupor, I answer the cell phone just after 11pm and it’s my brother and sister. They are at an Orlando nightspot thinking of me because there is Irish music there. Cue Jackie Mason: I would they think of me less! They have the energy of ten and my latest theory is that non-readers have more energy because reading is a sedentary activity and sedentariness begets sedentariness just as activity begets more activity. The thought of staying up at a crowded bar is also more appealing without the alternative of a good book.

Thursday: Everybody Into the Pool

We hang by the pool at my bro & sis’s rental house. A little gin (the card game) and a margarita or two (the drink) and the time flies. Pool dodgeball with the kids. (My toddler neice calls her older sister “he, he”, short for “sis, sis”. ) Later, tennis in the sweltering heat, 95 according to one thermometer. My bro now drinks Guinness after his previous favorite Killians, proving that tastes can improve with age.

Nice dinner with mom & dad where Dad feints left and steals the check at the last minute. Said he didn’t want to let me know ahead of time since he figured I'd order the most expensive thing on the menu. So untrue. But it does illustrate the basic problem with the welfare state: if you give people anything for “free” they’ll abuse it.

Friday: You Can’t Store Relaxation

Last day already!? We take a walk on the beach. I’m relaxed but you can’t store relaxation. Coming back late Thursday eve and it was a pang to see the old sea again and hear the wave-swell and imagine the heat on the skin again. On Friday the sun is plaintive. These Florida streets are paved with sand drifts like gold dust, the houses down Van Krecken St. so different - and yet in the glow of the horizon-full road, the little sandy uptick and the unnatural blue behind, the lack of hills and buildings giving way to land’s end, the same vertiguous feeling of a coming canyon and the notion that something’s coming - those houses all seem worthy. Lawns of grass or colored stones, of dark-hued or light frames, of roofs streaked with rust, none seem less attractive on a gold-mint day.
At a beach hotel
A sand driller relocates the shore
The waves become carmelized.
There’s a kind of juvenilization of time, beginning the week serious, a news junkie, problem maker and resolver, would-be scholar, host and family clanner, till by Friday a child again, rubber tires on the bike chase the asphalt lines zig-zagging on the sidewalls to the samba beat in my head. The bike ride creates a thirst for beer and Bill’s good soldiers would’ve gone down like Austrians before the Prussians if they were still around. Along with Guinness I was trying some Heineken Darks, not bad. There’s not enough Saturday in a Saturday and so it is on the last day of vacation where the calculus is ruthless. Bike ride, bike rental back, last surf, last walk on beach, music and beer on deck, pack, airport. Cue old gospel song on Brad Paisley’s latest:
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day.
Oh, the land of cloudless days
Oh, the land of an uncloudy sky...

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