El Norte

After graduating from college for the first time, I was struggling to figure out what to do with my life, so I took a series of jobs. None of them were a perfect fit, but they all taught me a great deal.

At one point, in an effort to keep the student loan wolves from the door, I took a minimum wage job at Video Action, a video rental place in Apopka, Florida that, needless to say, no longer exists. I was only there for two months because I needed to make more money than that, but I remember the place fondly.

Working there was fun. To prevent theft, they’d leave the video boxes empty on the shelves, and then when the customer brought them up to the counter, you’d have to go get the vhs tape from the back for them. There was a lot of running around, and a lot of fascinating people to meet. The shift always went by quickly.

At Video Action, I met an octogenarian woman who would come in every week and rent about a dozen porn videos. She gave me hope for the future. Getting old doesn’t mean you’ve died.

Another person that gave me hope for the future was the 16-year-old girl who owned and managed the place in order to raise her baby. Jessie was amazing. She showed me that your life is what you make of it. I often wonder how her life turned out.

There was a large Mexican migrant population in Apopka, because it was a farming community. I was kind of drawn to them because I majored in Spanish in college, mainly because I got tired of people being able to talk about me on the school busses in Apopka without me understanding them. They kind of shaped my life without knowing it.

Whenever they came in, I’d recommend the movie El Norte, ostensibly because it was the only bilingual video we had, but also because it is an amazing film about Guatemalan refugees who are forced out of their country due to violence, and they travel through Mexico and sneak into the US, undocumented, in an effort to have a better life, with very mixed results. I figured these people could relate to this video on a lot of levels.

And it’s a beautiful movie, too. In Guatemala, in particular, it’s infused with rich color. And I truly believe it makes you get inside the immigration experience in ways you could never understand otherwise.

Recently I was thinking of this movie and decided to watch it again. Yes, it’s as beautiful and moving as I remembered. The horrible thing about it is that even though it came out in 1983, it’s still relevant to our current immigration situation. If anything, things have become much worse under our current racist administration. How heartbreaking. Shame on us.

See this movie. See the special features that come with it, too. Your eyes will be opened.

El Norte

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Chicken Gizzards

I had my first job when I was 10 years old. I used to buy large plants, break them up into much smaller plants in smaller pots, nurture them until they were thriving, and then sell them at the flea market. 25 cents here, 50 cents there…I wasn’t exactly on a path to riches, but it allowed me to buy school clothes, and it helped me fulfill a dream. I wanted to go to Disney World like it was killing me.

We had just moved to Central Florida, and we were in dire straits financially. Getting enough money for food was the priority, but I was still a kid. I wanted some fun, and I knew we’d never get to Disney if I didn’t take matters into my own hands. Back then, the admission for three people was 20 dollars. (That tells you how old I am, right there.) 20 dollars seemed like an all but unreachable goal.

I enjoyed working with plants. I took pride in offering a wide variety, and I knew all their names and could give advice on their care. But my biggest sellers, by far, were the Chicken Gizzards. They were very colorful, with their green and white stripes with the occasional quirky splash of red, and they were not very common at all. People would laugh out loud when they heard what they were called. I always sold out of Chicken Gizzards.

I haven’t seen one since, or I’d have bought it right away. I loved those plants. I almost thought it was a misremembered dream until I googled them, and sure enough, here’s a picture. Aren’t they cool?

chickengizzard

As much as I loved working with the plants, I hated the sales part. It was torture. I was painfully shy. As often as I could, I would bury myself inside a book until a customer approached. I remember the senior citizens that frequented the flea market telling me that I needed to smile more. Sage advice, I’m sure, but I had very little to smile about back then. Poverty is a lot more stressful on children than most people realize. It’s scary, feeling like you have no stability at all.

My profit margin was thin to begin with, what with plants, pots, and potting soil, and then a lot of those profits had to go for clothes. So it took me about a year, but finally, I was able to scrape together that 20 dollars, and my mother, my sister and I piled into the car and off we went to Disney World. My mother must have paid for the gas, the parking, and for lunch, too, because I don’t recall including those things in my calculations. But there we were! I was so excited!

I’m willing to bet that I’m the only person on earth who has Chicken Gizzards to thank for a trip to Disney World. It was a wonderful, hard-won adventure. Somewhere I have dusty old pictures of me with Pluto, me in front of the Country Bear Jamboree, and one of Cinderella’s Castle.

It was so exciting that about halfway through the day I worked myself into a major migraine and didn’t want to tell anyone for fear that we’d leave early. After it took so much for me to get there, I didn’t want to cut the day short. I had reached the promised land, and no amount of excruciating pain would keep me from it.

I managed to keep it together until we got back to the parking lot that evening. I then proceeded to throw up all over the place. Much to my chagrin, I drew a crowd. I was relived when we were finally able to leave the (by then almost empty) parking lot.

Come to think of it, the fetid pool I left behind kind of looked like Chicken Gizzards. Things do have a way of coming full circle.

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Looking Back on a Massive Change

Five years ago today, I arrived in Seattle, knowing no one. I’d never been here before. I knew nothing about the place. I may as well have landed on the moon. The very first thing I did was sit in a public park with my dogs. I felt very overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “Now what?” But I was also excited about the possibilities. Hanging on to that feeling is what saw me through the more challenging times.

I had spent the bulk of my life in the conservative South, where I always felt like a liberal turd in a republican punchbowl, so to say that Seattle was a culture shock was putting it mildly. I didn’t know my way around. I hadn’t even heard of the Seattle Freeze yet, so I had no idea about all the extra hurdles I’d have to jump through to make friends. (I must confess that I struggle with that to this day. I find many people out here to be flakey, unreliable, standoffish, and confusing. It takes a lot of effort to find the gems amongst the unyielding rocks, but that tends to enhance their value.)

At one point, an obnoxious distant relative accused me of running away. I wrote a furious blog post about that. Starting fresh is not always a massive avoidance scenario. Sometimes you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. But on that first day, I had no idea what the gains, if any, would be.

Every time I pass that park where I first sat, I wish I could go back and hug that girl and tell her everything will turn out okay. My, my, how time does fly. I can now say with complete confidence that moving here was the best decision I ever made. For the first time in my life, I’m relatively financially stable. More often than not, I love my job. I purchased a house. I’ve had a lot of adventures, the greatest of which was finding love and getting married. I’m exactly where I should be.

Sometimes you have to take a leap and hope the net will appear. That’s what I did. Thank goodness it turned out well. I could have just as easily landed with a massive, irreparable splat. So three cheers for nets!

Incidentally, if you’d like to read about my epic journey across the continent, start here. And if you’d like to read other posts about my transition, do a search within my categories section for My Jacksonville to Seattle Do Over. (That category includes the epic journey, but contains many other posts as well.)

me cross country

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What Makes Home?

The other day, I was settling down for an afternoon nap. My dog Quagmire was curled up beside me, and I could hear my husband doing something or other on the opposite side of the house. The sounds of home. How lucky am I?

I do feel at home in my home, thank goodness, and with my husband and my dogs, and at work… but to be honest, I still don’t feel at home in the Pacific Northwest, even though I’ve been here nearly 5 years. People confuse me out here. I don’t understand them. And the weather is strange. And I still don’t know my way around. When people talk about small towns in another part of the state, I don’t know where they are. All these things make me feel like an outcast.

So the question is, what makes home? What follows are my stream of consciousness thoughts on the subject. (Special thanks to Cris, Ray, and Martin for ideas.) It’s a dense topic. And, spoiler alert, I don’t think I’ve managed to fully define it, but here goes…

Home is familiarity. It’s knowing where everything is, and also knowing alternate routes to that place. I think GPS has punked me in this regard. I no longer have a full map in my head. I don’t know where places are in relationship to other places anymore.

To help me with this, my husband has hung a local map in the garage for me. It has made a difference. But I really need to stop being lazy by relying on a mechanical voice to get me to my destination. I need to get some sense of context.

Home is also being able to make your way around in the dark without stubbing your toe.

But it’s not just familiarity, because I knew my way around Jacksonville, Florida, and there was a sense of relief there, a sense of predictability, but I don’t miss it, and if I never go back again it wouldn’t upset me overmuch. I miss my friends, I miss the fried chicken, I miss bodies of water that are warm enough to swim in, and I miss a few other places, but I don’t miss the city at all.

Home is what you’re used to. I’m used to flat land and straight roads that are on a grid pattern. If that’s what I need to feel at home, I’ll never feel that way in the curvy, hilly, mountainous state of Washington.

Home is knowing what neighborhoods you can walk through after dark. Back to familiarity again. But maybe there’s a feeling of safety wrapped up in it.

It’s recognizing the priorities, the politics, and the culture of the place where you are. Is it where everyone shares your politics? If so, we’re all screwed these days. But I must say I feel a lot more politically at ease in Seattle than I ever did in Florida.

Home is knowing the history of your location. I’m working on that.

Home is what makes you feel normal. It’s what you expect. I’m definitely not there yet. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt completely normal.

What is so un-homelike about where one is living that so many people are willing to leave everything they’ve ever known and relocate to another part of the planet? What’s missing? Why do they think they’ll find it elsewhere?

Do nomads ever feel at home? Is home where your yurt is? Does home reside in the people you love? I’m loved out here. And I’m at home in my house. But then I drive away from it, and I’m back to feeling like I’m in a foreign country again.

Is it a sense of belonging? Is it being made to feel welcome? Is it having a restaurant where you can say, “I’ll have the regular,” and they know what you mean? Is it being worthy of the gossip of your neighbors? (God, I hope not.)

I always felt at home in Western North Carolina. Even the very first time I stepped foot in the area when I was 17. Whenever I am there, it feels like I can exhale. Like I can breathe. The mountains embrace me. I can sleep, knowing the crickets and fire flies mean me no harm. But why? Why that place?

If all you ever knew was prison, would you consider that home? Is home where you’re resigned to your fate?

How can one person’s home be someone else’s hell?

Home is a feeling, more than a place. Because you can feel at home in more than one place.

Is it an emotion? It’s not happiness. Because you can be sad at home. Is it contentment? Contentment is fleeting for me, albeit highly appreciated when it comes around.

And I think home takes time. I never feel at home at first. I can’t even sleep the first night in a hotel room. But jeez, how much time does it take?

The craziest thing about home is that everyone will have a different definition of what that is.

I know it’s more than the house you live in. It’s your community, your region, your environment, your loved ones. It’s the place where you’re accepted as you are. It the place you can find your way back to.

Home is your comfort zone. But what causes you to feel like you’re in that zone?

I love to travel, but I can never 100 percent relax while I’m doing it, and after a few weeks, I want to go home. Home is where you can rest. I can’t completely rest here. And I want to be able to. So I need to figure out what makes home for me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, dear reader.

Home

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People Have to Live Somewhere

Every single day, I commute past tent encampments for the homeless here in Seattle. When I first came out here, I found this shocking. I came from Jacksonville, Florida, and I had never seen anything quite like this. You’d think the Florida climate would be more amenable to homelessness, but no. The West Coast experiences much more of it than the East Coast does, according to most homeless counts. It disturbs me greatly that I’m getting used to the sight of these encampments. The shock is gone. The sadness remains.

I’ve got a few theories, now, as to why there’s such a difference from one coast to the other. First, of course, is that living out here is about 3 times more expensive than it is in Jacksonville. A lot more of us, here, teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Second, there are fewer places to hide such encampments. While Seattle has a much lower population than Jacksonville, it’s much more densely packed. There are not huge swaths of woods in which one can disappear. Third, I suspect we’re a good deal more tolerant out here. I know for a fact that the Jacksonville police tend to drive people out to the county line and dump them, making them continually walk the 20 or 30 odd miles back to civilization in the oppressive heat, without food or water.

That county line solution is just cruel. People have to live somewhere. Every creature on this planet does. It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a home problem. And it isn’t new.

A friend of mine shared with me this photo of Seattle’s Hooverville from the 1930’s. After reading about it on historylink.org, the amazing free online encyclopedia of Washington state history (specifically here and here), I discovered that this photo only captures about half the shantytown that existed there at the time, and there were others scattered about as well. The conditions were appalling. People built shacks out of whatever they could find. The city burned them down twice before they recognized the futility of it all. People have to live somewhere.

Incidentally, that Hooverville is not far from where Starbucks corporate headquarters now stands. Irony, anyone? And as long as REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) are allowed to exist, giving the richest among us the ability to make huge profits from housing, thus artificially inflating rents, this problem will only get worse.

When I get off work at 11pm, on my way home, I often see an old man with a walker standing by the stop sign at the end of my highway exit ramp. He holds a sign that says, “Homeless veteran. Please help.” The cynical side of me thinks about all the stories one hears about people making very good money through panhandling, and the stories about how some people want to be homeless. But this guy… I’ve seen him out there at midnight, in the pouring rain, in 35 degree temperatures. No financial return or lust for a freewheeling life can explain that.

The man needs help. And I feel very inadequate to the task. I couldn’t even help one person for more than a few days. And there are just so many out there. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I resent this man. He doesn’t let me forget. He doesn’t give me the peace to drive home to my nice house at the end of my shift and climb into my hot tub and forget.

But then I realize that he probably would like to forget, too.

Seattle Hooverville

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Welcome to Elsewhere

For much of my life, in times of strife, my default response was, “I wish I were somewhere else.” Abuse, loneliness, danger, poverty, extreme heat or cold, even just a general feeling of being a misfit would cause me to feel this way. If only I were elsewhere, things would be so much better.

Dorothy may have decided that there was no place like home, but I always thought that Oz looked like a lot more fun than that dreary farm in Kansas.

But it’s a dangerous thing, assuming there is a geographical solution to all your problems. It often gives you an excuse to avoid solving them. Because Elsewhere is an elusive place. If your solution lies elsewhere, and elsewhere is just out of reach, well, then you’re just out of luck, aren’t you? You may as well hunker down and be miserable.

Wishing you were somewhere else also means that where you are right now is never going to feel quite good enough. How can anyplace compete with this fantasy world that lies just on the other side of the rainbow?

But on the other hand, I do honestly think that life is what you make it, and part of choosing your path in life is deciding what destination you want to strive for. If I hadn’t opted to pack all my stuff and move 3100 miles across the country, I’d probably still be miserable in Florida, dreaming about elsewhere.

Instead, I live in the Seattle area, with a job that pays well, an amazing man who loves me, and a home for which there is no place like.

Lucky me. I finally found elsewhere. May you find your perfect place, too, dear reader, and may it be a little closer than 3100 miles from where you are right now.

somewhere else

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Developmental Greed

I’m very grateful that most cities now have rules in place that require developers to have archeologists examine their land, especially in historically sensitive areas, before they’re allowed to build upon it. Most builders, of course, consider this a massive nuisance, and a waste of their time and money. But if these requirements didn’t exist, a lot of history would be lost to us, and we would miss out on opportunities to discover more about who we are and where we came from.

Those of you who think government already meddles too much in our business need to think again in this instance. Laws, rules, regulations, none of these things would be necessary if we could all be counted upon to do the right thing. Unfortunately, greed seems to be the primary motivator for most people.

Here’s a prime example: The Miami Circle. Once upon a time, a developer planned to put a high rise on some very well-placed real estate in downtown Miami, which he had purchased for 8.5 million dollars. Unfortunately for him, some archeologists discovered what Wikipedia describes as “the only known evidence of a prehistoric permanent structure cut into the bedrock in the Eastern United States”

Much time and political wrangling occurred while everyone tried to figure out what to do about this situation. Needless to say, the developer was not pleased. And he was no doubt losing quite a bit of money while everyone was spinning their wheels.

Finally, the State of Florida decided to buy the land back from him. I agree that he deserved to be made whole. No doubt about it. And that would probably mean giving him more than 8.5 million, considering all the wasted time. But the guy asked the state for 50 million. Because he could.

I have no respect for this guy. I mean, yeah. I could see where he might want 15 million. But 50? Come on, dude. You’re holding the Florida taxpayers for ransom.

The state finally gave him 26.7 million for the site. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. We are still learning more about the Tequesta Indians, who were the original developers of this site. The wood found there may be 2000 years old. You can watch an interesting documentary about the site on Youtube here.

We would never had the chance to learn all the fascinating things we’ve learned from this discovery if one greedy developer had been allowed to have his selfish way.

miami-circle
The Miami Circle

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