Observations in the Field

Before I became a bridgetender, I was a Maintenance Management Systems Engineer for the State of Florida, Department of Transportation, based in St. Augustine. I loved the work, but I hated the job, because the morale in that office was abysmal. The tension there was so thick that you could cut it with a knife, and management, to a man, was insane at worst and irrational and paranoid at best. One of the best things I ever did for myself was to become a bridgetender, but for several years there I just had to keep my head down and muddle through in a job I didn’t want to go on most days.

Fortunately, much of my work was out in the field. I jumped on every opportunity to get out there, away from the office, away from the idiots. I function best when I’m left alone to do my job.

I was tasked with doing crew studies, to ensure that work crews were making efficient use of materials, equipment and time, and that they were correctly completing their paperwork to account for same. It always made me inwardly laugh when they’d see me coming and immediately stop leaning on their shovels and actually work. I wasn’t the crew police. I wasn’t there to get them in trouble. I was more of an efficiency expert. But they never seemed to relax around me.

Another one of my duties was taking road inventory. This was driving along the state roads, determining the number of signs, pipes, road markings, drainage ditches,  deliniators, attenuators, and raised pavement markers per mile, so that we could better determine how much to budget in order to maintain those things. Geek that I am, I actually found this rather fun.

The counties in my territory were extremely rural. I often had the highway to myself. But I spent many hours out there, and I saw quite a few really strange things in my time. Here are a few:

  • A pickup truck’s wheel came off, with the axle still attached. Needless to say, the truck came to an abrupt halt, but the wheel and axle rolled an unbelievably long way (about 200 yards) before it finally came to rest in a ditch.

  • A woman’s black lace thong on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, next to a potato field.

  • A leatherback turtle trying to dig a hole to lay her eggs, right next to a busy highway. I had to stop a guy who was waiting around to take the eggs, and I had to relocate the turtle (per advice from the Fish and Game Department) before she started laying. She was not at all pleased with me.

  • I used to do road inventory near a rural Border Collie Rescue facility. I had to walk down the road, measuring stuff. About a hundred Border Collies would run up to the fence line and silently walk with me, the entire length of the field. (I really looked forward to working that stretch of road, but didn’t get to do it very often.)

  • Several water moccasins chasing my van as I was measuring the circumference of a retention pond. (They were extremely persistent. I was grateful that the van didn’t stall or get stuck or it would have been grounds for a really bad movie. Snakes on a Van.)

  • A cop car blasted past me, sirens wailing, out in the boonies. Turns out he was in a hurry to get to the bar-b-cue place 2 miles further down the road, where I, too, stopped to have lunch. (Can you say abuse of power?)

  • People putting superglue in our padlocks on retention ponds that were 15 miles away from civilization.

  • An unmelted scoop of ice cream in the middle of a hot summer road, with no one in sight.

  • A burning rag on the side of the interstate during fire season.

  • A terrified chihuahua running down the interstate.

  • A guy trying to cut the tail off a dead alligator with a Swiss Army knife. I suspect he’s the one who ran it over.

I sure have seen some things. You’d never guess how exciting the middle of nowhere can be. Fieldwork can be a fascinating adventure. I miss it.

Rural Florida Highway

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A Perfect Mess

I could never live in one of those neighborhoods where all the houses are identical. I could never even live in an area with a homeowner’s association. I’m full of too many quirks and perfect imperfections. That, and I resent authority. Nobody is going to tell me what color to paint my mailbox.

But I must admit that I’ve been fascinated with New Urbanism as a concept ever since I saw the movie The Truman Show, which was filmed in Seaside, Florida. New Urbanism consists of meticulously planned communities that give off this 1950’s vibe of perfection that never actually existed. Spotless, flawless homes with spotless, flawless yards and spotless, flawless streets, restaurants, and shopping areas. Mixed-use buildings with cute little high-end shops and condominiums. A place where all the movies are rated G, and all the neighbors look exactly like you.

I love visiting these places because they are the embodiment of Trump’s idea of what a great America used to look like. It’s like peering into a misguided fantasy. It’s hard to look away.

These places are so immaculate and unblemished that they are disturbing, in the way that robots designed to look like humans are disturbing. You look into their smiling, robotic faces and you know that there’s no “there” there. Beneath the surface, something is extremely not human.

I visited the planned community of Celebration, Florida a few times. It was fun, in a voyeuristic kind of way. I blogged about it and places like it in a post called “Too Perfect.”

When I go to one of these communities, I’m impressed by their beauty, but at the same time I’m constantly on edge. I’m afraid I’ll scuff the sidewalk or something, and these men in white coats will burst from the bushes and carry me away. There’s an underlying tension required to maintain perfection, and that makes it unpleasant.

I can just imagine the neighborly infighting. “The third slat on Mr. Jones’ white picket fence is 1 degree off center. This is not to be borne. We need to report him.”

It’s unsettling to gaze upon perfection and yet be unable to shake the feeling that just below the thin veneer, there’s some kind of moral decay. Or maybe even a physical decay. And so it was that I wasn’t overly shocked to read an article entitled, “Celebration, Florida: How Disney’s ‘Community of Tomorrow’ Became a Total Nightmare”.

It seems that many of the residents of this community have filed a lawsuit, because the place is, in fact, falling apart. Disney sold much of Celebration to a private equity firm in 2004, and ever since then, Celebrationites claim that this firm has been pocketing homeowners dues and not making any repairs whatsoever. There’s so much water and termite damage that some people have had to leave, or put up with swathes of black mold, swaying floors, and unusable stairways. The firm is also threatening to slap the homeowners with fees that are higher than the original price of their residences, all while their property values decline.

It must be awful to think you’re investing in perfection, only to discover that, even in that magical place, human greed and incompetence still rises to the surface to muck everything up. That would be like gazing upon the forbidden fruit, and then realizing that, if not nurtured, it can rot before it’s even harvested, just like all the other produce in the world.

I wish these people good luck with their lawsuit, but I think their dream was inherently flawed in the first place. I’ll take my one of a kind, unregulated home any day.

Celebration_banner_Skyline

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Lightning Stories

I find lightning fascinating. From a distance. And from inside a safely grounded shelter. You don’t see much of it here in the Seattle area, though, and I miss it.

But I also have a healthy respect for lightning. At the age of 10, I moved from Connecticut to Florida, and quickly discovered that Connecticut’s lightning is child’s play by comparison. Florida has epic downpours with thunder that rattles the fillings in your teeth and lightning that can render you speechless. In fact, Florida is the most lightning-prone state in the U.S.

That kind of weather gets magnified tenfold if experiencing it for the first time while living in a tent as I did. Back then, I was terrified by Florida storms, and used those unsettling events as an opportunity to wail and howl out my rage and fear about having been rendered all but homeless at a time in life when I had absolutely no control.

With age and an improved living situation, I learned to take shelter and enjoy nature’s free light shows whenever possible.

Once, a friend of mine was visiting from Holland, so I took her to the beach. She wandered along the shoreline as I sat and enjoyed the Atlantic waves. But storm clouds rushed in from the East, and me and the rest of the savvy Floridians took off for the safety of our cars. I was desperately hopping up and down and motioning to the black, looming clouds and waving at her to come the eff on, and you’d think that that, and the fact that she suddenly had the beach to herself, would have been some sort of a clue. But no. She continued to slowly amble down the shoreline. When she finally came back, I explained to her how much danger she had been in, but she simply got angry with me for rushing her. She rarely took me seriously. For a variety of reasons, we’ve lost touch.

Later in life, when I worked for the State of Florida Department of Transportation, I was friends with the district lighting inspector. One of his tasks was to drive around at night and make sure street lights were functioning, and report them for repair if they were not. One night he drove up to a light pole just after it had been struck by lightning. The pole was in sand, and the sand was still glowing. He came back after it cooled and dug up several chunks of multicolored glass from the ground. He gave me one. I still have it. Somewhere.

Another time he showed me a dead turtle, frozen in place, its legs extended, its neck outstretched. He said that it had been struck by lightning before his very eyes. You never knew what you’d see when you worked in the field.

When I first became a bridgetender in Florida, I quickly got used to lightning striking my bridges. All of our structures came with lightning rods which were attached to copper cables that stretched down to the water, but the fishermen often harvested said copper, so you never knew what was going to happen from one strike to the next. But when the lightning was at a distance, I enjoyed the light show, along with the blue glow of transformers being struck on the horizon, with the accompanying patches of dark city skyline.

Nature, man. It’s awesome.

Recently I learned about something to add to my bucket list. The Maracaibo Beacon, also known as the Catatumbo lightning is a phenomenon that happens in Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo. Lightning can strike up to 280 times per hour, 160 days a year, for 9 hours at a stretch. It happens so much that it draws tourists, but it also kills residents, and drastically impacts economic pursuits, so scientists are attempting to predict these storms as much as three months in advance. I wish them luck.

There are several theories about these storms. The most reasonable one is that the warm, moist Caribbean air is forced upward into the cold surrounding mountains, causing electrical storms. Another has to do with the methane in area swamps, while a third mentions the uranium in the ground.

It’s hard to say, but it sounds like it would be a fascinating place to indulge in my lightning fetish! I only wish the politics of that country were a little more stable. Maybe someday. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with watching this amazing video.

Catatumbolightning (4)
Catatumbo lightning

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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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