Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Carolina on my mind

You have seen me write about growing up in Florida many times.  And it is true most of my formative years were spent in the sunshine state.  But before I lived in Florida, I was a child of the Carolinas.

My father was military--Air Force, specifically. I was actually born in New Jersey, but I left way too early to have any memories at all of that place.  When I was one, Dad was assigned to Germany.  We lived off-base for a few years.  I only have one memory of that house in Mackenbach, and that's of my family's horror at discovering me playing with a dead rat. Hey, I was only two or three...and I haven't actually played with dead rats in...weeks, honest.

We lived on base for several years, and that was the first home I can recall in any level of detail.  An air force base, however, is both a place yet not a place.  All bases are pretty similar, and they are all insulated from their surrounding areas.  On Ramstein, though, that was amplified somewhat by us actually being in the middle of a foreign country. It was cool leaving base, but whenever we did so, we were definitely outsiders stuck in tourist mode.

So when Dad was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, it was a big deal for me.  My brothers and sisters had memories of America.  I, however, did not.  On the plane ride over, I tried to imagine what my home country, the country in which I was born would be like...but failed miserably to come up with anything tangible.

Upon arriving in Charleston, my observations on living in America were as follows:
  1. It was hot.  I had lived all my life to that point in cold climates.  Then you dump me in the middle of a 95 degree summer in the South? Whenever I stepped foot outside, I feared I would spontaneously combust...but then I realized the heavy layer of sweat probably kept me from igniting. To this day, I still hate the heat.
  2. There were bugs everywhere.  Along with beginning to smolder every time I stepped outside, I also was immediately attacked by hordes of little vampires I soon learned were called mosquitoes. They would gravitate to me before even looking at anyone else around me.  Then there were the palmetto bugs, giant roaches which crunched when you killed them.  And don't even get me started on my shock upon seeing my first cicada. If you've ever seen a shot of civilians fleeing from a rampaging Mecha-Godzilla, you get the picture.
Beyond that?  Not much.  I was, after all, still living on a base, and as I was only in second grade, I really couldn't drive around exploring or sight-seeing.  When we did leave base, I noticed a distinct lack of castles, and I noticed the people had a different (and slightly more comprehensible) accent.  But otherwise, being in the United States of America wasn't all that least from the perspective of an eight year old.  Shouldn't, I thought, there at least be regular parades or something?

This year was my parents' fiftieth anniversary, and they decided to rent a beach house just outside of Charleston for the family celebration.  So we all converged on the Isle of Palms so we could be closer to our memories...such (in my case) as they were.

Driving into town was surreal. One of the things about being a military brat is that unlike most people, you really cannot go home again. Seriously. I cannot gain entrance to the base to see where I used to live (even if the house hadn't been torn down). Sure, I could (and had) explored my old neighborhood using Google Maps, but the perspective is off way more than for any normal adult visiting childhood haunts.  And since, for the most part, the base was my existence, my experience is particularly skewed.

But then I started noticing some of the street names on the exit signs, and I recognized tons of them.  But the names had utterly no connections to any mental pictures.  It was the damnedest pseudo-nostalgia one can possibly imagine.

We had been to the Isle of Palms often when I was a kid.  Yet while driving over to the island, it became clear this was by no means the same place.  Forget the common-place changes brought on by decades past that most experience.  Post-hurricane construction had gentrified the island into a whole new social class.  This was effectively a new place, with wealth-dominated getaways not just replacing the ramshackle beach shacks of years past but effectively obliterating any trace of them or the island which used to be.

Yes, there were some similarities.  It was still way too hot.  I still got eaten alive by mosquitoes whenever I went outside.  There was still good fried seafood. Tourism was still the main business.  And palmetto bugs still made a distinctive crunch when stepped upon.

Mostly though, I spent the trip trying to fit the visions I was seeing to the memories I never got to experience in the first place.  And the first time I really had a chance to contemplate this disconnect was when my lovely wife and I were sitting in a beach bar I had never entered before...yet still remembered its theme song from the early 1980s radio commercials.

As the trip wound down, I was unable to see Charleston, my home of many years, as anything other than a nice place to visit.  I couldn't even start to experience anything of what I remembered of my life there.  Our day trips did bring some memories, but only of the day trips of my youth...not of my actual life.

Our last night together, we hit this small, out of the way restaurant specializing in Carolina Low Country cuisine which my Dad stumbled across.  I chatted with my brother, tried to freak out my nephews and niece, and watched my daughter pull my wive around the restaurant while I drank my sweet tea.

For my meal, I ordered a South Carolina Low Country specialty, shrimp and grits.  I took one bite.  Within seconds, I dropped the spoon and just stared into space for a full minute or more. It was awe-inspiring food.  The grits were smooth, creamy, and rich.  The shrimp were staggeringly fresh and had obviously been swimming the night before.  The gravy exploded in my mouth.  Even after just one bite, it had already entered my top five meals ever.

Here's the thing, though. When I actually lived there, I had utterly no interest in South Carolina cuisine...or in Southern food in general. As much as it pains me to publicly admit, I didn't even try grits with an open mind until my thirties.  And now, I had my best Southern meal of my life as a tourist visiting from his Ohio home, where he had lived for fifteen years...not when I had any real claim to be a southerner.

You might expect this to be a sad realization, something about the folly of youth.  While I did find it revelatory, I took a different view.  Yes, my childhood. is either unattainable or superficial.  Would my life have been richer if I, as a youth, were more around of the glories around me?

Possibly.  But there was another (and I thought better) interpretation.

Yes, I had to wait until year 43 of my life to finally "get" and experience the best of South Carolina cuisine.  Yes, this filled an absence in the experiences of my youth. Yet when I did finally partake, I was mature enough to fully appreciate the magnitude of the experience.

More importantly, however, I was able to come to this awareness while watching my daughter shove food down my wife's throat...while tweaking my nephews and niece...while talking to my brother...and while being with my parents who are full, complete people to me rather than just one dimensional mother and father figures.

There's something to be said for perspective...but there's also something to be said for a mean bowl of shrimp & grits.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

two years of changes

Yesterday morning, after my girl awoke, we did our customary half hour of snuggle time.  Her first tangible conscious act of the day was, after shaking the sleep from her eyes, to rock her head from side to side while saying "tick...tock...tick...tock."  She stopped to see if I was paying attention, giving me her special smile as she checked my reaction.

As I changed her, I told her that two years ago, at that hour, we were on our way to the hospital for the third trip in three days.  We were sleep-deprived and punchy.  We were also unbelievably optimistic.  We had no idea what lie ahead...certainly not for the endurance test that was the delivery...nor for the roller coaster ride that has been the last two years.

As I finished cleaning her, my mind went back to that day of her birth.  I remember going over to the warming bed where they were performing tests. My first words to her were "Hi, Sylvia, I'm your Daddy."  She reached over and grabbed my finger.

I remember the hell that was the first eight months, with its bouts of all-day screaming (the result of acid reflux, or dairy intolerance, or who knows what).  I remember days being so thankful when my wife came home so I could pass off my daughter, crawl on my bed, curl in the fetal position, and cry uncontrollably for an hour until I could face her again.

I remember the landmarks...such as when she learned to roll over on her own for the first time.  I filmed her next success, and then she laughed for a minute.  I remember the first time I made her laugh on command (with the toy owl experience which I commemorated in a tattoo).  I remember the first time I fed her and had her eyes lock with mine...the first time she said "Daddy"...the first time she kissed me on the cheek...the first time she said "miss you lots"...the first time she said "I love you."  With each of these (and many more), my heart softened, exploded, and then grew at least four times.

Later yesterday, when we went out and about, it was not possible for me to not note just how much she's quit being a baby girl and has become a the way she waves and says goodbye to people she sees, the way she holds my hand as we cross parking lots, the way she insists on wearing her ball cap backwards, to the way she just generally interacts with me and the world at large.

I do have regrets. I regret we have to move because the neighborhood kids and the next door neighbors at our old place loved Sylvia.  We stopped by last night to grab a few things, and she and her mom ran over to the neighbors.  I grabbed some things and packed the car.  As I was shutting the trunk, I heard some kids yell...and Sylvia came running from their back yard, grinning ear to ear, as one of the kids chased her.  When we finally corralled her and shepherded her to the car, she started to cry.  She looked at the next door neighbors, waved, and said "miss you lot." It both broke my heart and increased my desire to punch our idiot landlord in his bearded jaw for not letting us have our daughter grow up on that street.

My biggest regret, though, is that so few of the really wonderful people I know are part of my daughter's life.  We have friends who do spend lots of time with her.  Their daughter babysat Sylvia last year when I was working.  And Sylvia loves the whole family. Every time the two of us do lunch with the guy, when I tell my daughter of our plans, she lights up and says his name over and over...and runs to him when she sees him.

That family, however, is the only one to have such a relationship with my girl, and this frankly also breaks my heart. I'm sad that my friends, who live elsewhere (other cities, other states, other countries) cannot spend time with her. Understandable, yes, but still sad.

What is less understandable, though is the people who could be part of her life but, for whatever reason, are not.  It hurts me that they don't get to experience this wonderful girl first-hand. Even worse, though, is that they don't get to help shape my daughter into the person she will become.  I love my friends, but it devastates me that they either cannot or will not be part of this wonderful gir's life.

It is a troubling thing bringing a new life, a new blank slate into this uncertain and unstable world.  I'm frightened by a lot of things.  I'm scared she might feel at some point that life has let her down.  I am much more terrified that she might ever think I let her down...and it has becomemy main purpose to never give her a chance to doubt me.

Gotta admit, though...when she smiles at me, when she snuggles into me, when she laughs with me, or when she just gives me that special look which I cannot nor care to explain, those fears go away.

I am not, in general, a strong man.  I keep up a good facade, but in spite of the medication, I still feel uncertain more often than not. When I get to bond with my daughter,when she leans in close, when she lifts my heart by words, by laughter, or by just being close, all that melts away...and all becomes right with the world.

If only more people could experience this.

Happy birthday, my girl.

Moving, part 3 (unpacking): Schrodinger's apartment

Moving into a new apartment, house, or what have you must inevitably involve higher levels of physics and quantum mechanics.  It would be simple if this was only a matter of space or motion, but no, bigger issues are at hand:  namely uncertainty.

This is both our home and not our home.  All our stuff is certainly there is a certain element of familiarity in operation.  My couch, for instance, is still in front of my television, so this is definitely my living room...yet the juxtaposition is off.  The love seat, for instance, is on the wrong side.  There's all this extra space as well. So is this my living room or not?  Every time I sit down and look at it, I experience some form of quantum double vision.

I could look over the alternative arrangement of my possessions if it were not for the little things.  In these apartments, for instance, all of the electrical outlets are, for some mysterious (or at least forgotten) reason, upside down. Every time I go to plug in some appliance, any conception I have of being in my own home is shaken...almost as if some quantum mechanic is playing with my life's vertical hold.

And then there are the possessions.  Out of all possible factors, my "stuff" might hold the key to the sneaking suspicion of being trapped in a Schrodinger thought experiment. I know, for instance, that I own an mp3 player...that my television has an accompanying remote control.  Yet neither of these two (or any other of a thousand objects) are anywhere to be found.  Am I really sure I in fact had them in the first place?

This, incidentally, is where we do quantum mechanics one better.  You might be able at some point to prove if that damn cat is alive or dead.  Can you, however, ever definitively prove my mp3 player existed in the first place without actually laying hands on it?  Moreover, if it never turns up, it will remain in uncertainty in perpetuity.  After all, I only really have my memories to prove it existed in the first place..and can I really trust anything so intangible as evidence?

(This is, incidentally, not the first time I've experienced such uncertainty vis-a-vis objects.  I have lost many books to the alternate quantum dimensions of possibility...or "the aether" if you prefer (as I often do).  I have no rational explanation for the complete and utter disappearance of an Edgar Rice Burroughs collection.  And a large "missing book fine" is the only evidence I had it existed in the first place...that is, if you consider government records to be in any way quantumly certain.)

I should, for the record, note my daughter experiences none of this, so far as I can tell. Of course, she is only two, and, as such, often keeps her own counsel. Yet if there are tangible clues to some struggle to adjust, I am utterly unable to observe them. 

Maybe I will slowly adjust.  Maybe the uncertainties and incongruities will eventually coalesce.

It certainly is preferable to the constant suspicion this place in which I now dwell both is and is not my home.

Moving, part 2 (during): age, pain, and ephemera

(programming note:  after the last post, we decided to move that (last) weekend.  This part is from Sunday, in the midst of and after actually hauling crap to the apartment.)

As I was starting to load the truck for trip one, it rained.  It only lasted for five minutes...just enough for nature to say, "If I feel the need, if it appears things are going too smoothly, I can make your life incrementally more difficult."

Moving makes me feel...not nostalgic, not sad, but simply old.  I feel the move in my body in a very tangible and visceral way.  Every trip up those stairs adds on a couple of years.  My hips radiate pain, even after gobbling Aleve.  This is especially traumatic, as I never have hip pain.  I sincerely hope this is not another chronic condition emerging.

As the day progresses, the rooms fill up and get increasingly junky.  Boxes upon boxes, furniture quickly stacked in blithe disregard for living arrangement, Hefty bags of clothes, papers, and various flotsam mound up in a multitude of locations.  In random corners of the apartment, empty and half-filled sports drink bottles gather in an effort to enhance the general ambiance.

Finally, the last helper leaves.  I return the rental truck and pick up my car...which now feels low, small, inconsequential by comparison. I have but hours to assemble at least part of the apartment into something liveable. If only I can find those damn allen wrenches and other tools.  Now (in what will be my refrain for the next week or so), in which box did I pack them?

Moving, part 1 (pre-move): temporality, motion, & science fiction

(programming note:  as I'm finally largely moved into my apartment and now have internet access restored, I am now posting this three part missive (written in the last week or so) about the moving process and all the thoughts it brought up.  This part was written on June 4th.  After this, regular programming resumes.)

The great move of 2013 is swiftly approaching.  You would imagine this would lead naturally to conflicting emotions about leaving this house where I imagined raising my daughter.  And, without a doubt, there is some of that.  The main issue, however, is one of temporal displacement.

One of the biggest annoyances about this move is the massive last minute nature of it all.  We only found out that we had to move a few weeks ago.  Then a rushed housing shop, now a rushed packing job. Add this to the previously scheduled week of family gathering, and you start to see my dilemma.

I now have no earthly idea when I'm supposed to move my stuff.  Originally, I thought of moving when we returned from vacation. After dinner, though, we studied the calendar.  Problems emerged...mainly we would have six days to move, clean, and get the carpets done.  And since my wife works ten hour days in the summer, we had the matter of my daughter with which to contend.  I either a) move on the weekend (which means when are we gonna schedule carpet cleaning?), b) find someone to watch her (which, as I might have trouble arranging moving help, this might be a bit of a long shot), or c) put Sylvia to work hauling couches (which, as she has to hold my hand going up and down stairs, could be slightly problematic.

The other option is to move before the vacation.  This, however, is also fraught with peril. The child care dilemma (from point b above) still does the difficulty in finding help in general.  It would,however, give me tons of time to clean our house...and to schedule carpet cleaning.  But could I get cable, electric, and internet hooked up in time?  The mind boggles.

This would all be so much easier if we lived in a time which was at least a little more science fictiony.  Because what I ultimately need to do is figure out a way to bend the time/space fabric.  A time machine would be nice.  I could quite comfortably get along with teleportation.  A robot nanny would also help.  Hell, what would be ideal is if I could simply punch a hole through the said time/space fabric and just cross over to another quantum dimension where the alterna-Mike has already done the move for me.

Of course, magic would also be a possibility.  Maybe I could get a wizard to levitate my stuff...or magically transfer....

Nah...magic is just silly.