Scarred for Life

I am currently sporting a three inch gash on my right cheek. The worst part about it is that I have been so sick that I don’t have a clue where it came from. I just surfaced from my swirling pool of delirium at one point and there it was. And of course the minute I knew it was there it started to hurt.

I hope it doesn’t leave a scar. I guess it’s actually more like a scratch. A bright red, deep, angry scratch. Maybe it’s something my enthusiastic dog visited upon me, or else the result of a bad wrestling match with my CPAP mask. I have been known to sleep walk and wind up in strange places, and Nyquil does tend to keep its secrets. I only know it looks like I’ve been in a bar fight. As people stare at me, I’m tempted to say, “You should see the other guy.”

It’s embarrassing to go out in public looking like this, especially since I don’t have a funny story to go along with it. It’s a good thing that I’m feeling so weak and unmotivated that I’m naturally lying low anyway. But in retrospect I needn’t have worried, because I forgot that I am now living in the Pacific Northwest.

You see, in Florida, if I had gone out like this, strangers would be stopping me on the street. “Child, what happened to you?” If I had been walking with my husband they might even say, “Did HE do this to you?” All while giving him the hairy eyeball. In the South, people are all up in your business.

But here in the Pacific Northwest you could walk down a busy street with a sucking chest wound and no one would even bat an eyelash. Here, no one wants to intrude. Its as if everyone walks around wearing a cloak of invisibility. You could have a second head growing out of your chest and the most intrusive interaction you’d have with somebody would be their inquiry as to what floor you are going to when you get on the elevator and can’t reach the buttons because your second head is in the way.

This has its pros and its cons. Sometimes I genuinely don’t want to be bothered with people, and here people make that very easy. You do you, I’ll do me. But I do miss that sense of community, and that honesty. Because come on, if you see a gash on a woman’s face, you really do want to know what the hell happened. At least I do. I’d rather someone asked than that they make up a story. I’d rather think that someone gives a shit rather than feel like I’m all alone in the world. I like my privacy, but I’d also like to think that there’s help out there if I should ever need it. Yes, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. I just always seem to live out in the lunatic fringe, where all the extremes of behavior come home to roost.

In the meantime, until this wound heals, I’m kind of liking the Pacific Northwest realm of things. Here, my gash doesn’t exist. No one but small children will even look at it directly. No one will ever inquire about its origins. Therefore no one will never know that in this instance, their guess is as good as mine.

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White Boy

Growing up in a small town in the rural south, I encountered my fair share of interesting characters. One guy that I’d occasionally see around was known as “White Boy”. He was a huge guy with a huge chip on his shoulder. He was intimidating. He used to fight a lot. I never saw him smile. We weren’t friends.

White Boy came by his attitude honestly. He was actually African American. He also happened to be an albino. This made him the subject of ridicule from all sides.

As an African American in the South, he was already treated like crap by a huge segment of the population. But his albinism meant that he didn’t fit in with African Americans, either. I don’t know who started calling him White Boy, but no one seemed to know him by any other name. I wonder how he felt about that.

I can’t even begin to imagine what his life was like. I just knew that he was angry. As far as I was concerned, this made him one to be avoided. So that’s what I did.

A true test of one’s character is how one treats those who happen to cross one’s path. Looking back, I’m ashamed that I never learned White Boy’s name. I’m ashamed I never gave him a chance. I’m ashamed that I stared at him and avoided him, basically treating him as I would a strange and dangerous animal in a zoo. I never called him names or bothered him in any way. I just kept him trapped on the other side of the glass. That was cruel enough.

I have absolutely no excuse for my conduct, other than the fact that I was in my early teens, and no one was modeling better behavior. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to choose another path. That particular defining moment in my life is one of my everlasting regrets.

Wherever Wh… wherever that fellow human being is today, I hope he found, and continues to find, reasons to smile.

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A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

 

Moving Ten Meters South

Recently I listened to a speech by Noam Chomsky on my local NPR station, and one of the many things he said that struck me was that given the unprecedented rise in temperatures on this planet, it’s as if we all are moving 10 meters south every single day. Okay, that kind of freaked me out.

First of all, I hate moving. The thought of having to do it every day leaves me cold (or in this case, hot, I suppose). Second, it took me 40 years to get out of the South, and now I’m being dragged slowly back to it? No! Not fair!

Just out of curiosity, I decided to do the math. First, I had to find the latitude of Seattle,  Washington, which is 47.6097N. Then I had to find the latitude of Jacksonville, Florida, my old stomping grounds. That turns out to be 30.3369 N.

Now, we’re going to pretend that Jacksonville is directly south of Seattle instead of being on the opposite side of the continent or this is going to get waaaaaaay beyond my math skills and patience.

Next, I had to figure out what that converts to in (due south) miles. This gets complicated, because the earth is all curvy and stuff. (And all you flat earth folks, don’t flame me. I’m not interested.) So I went to the NOAA Latitude/Longitude Distance calculator, and pretending that both cities were at a longitude of 122.3331 W, I discovered that that’s a distance of 1,193 miles.

But good old Noam, being the science-oriented guy that he is, gave us our southward drift in meters. So I also had to convert to metric. Sigh. That means it will stop being mentally imaginable to me, but here you go: 1,193 miles is 1,919 kilometers, or 1,919,000 meters.

So, if I’m drifting 10 meters south every day, that means it will take me 191,900 days to get back to Jacksonville’s latitude. That’s more than 525 years. (And if you mention that I forgot to allow for the extra day every leap year, I’ll slap you silly. This is a thought experiment, people!)

Whew! I can actually live with that. Mainly because I won’t be alive. And besides, I’d in fact land in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Baja California. And that may as well be Jacksonville at that point, because Jacksonville will be completely submerged, as will most of the rest of Florida. Lucky for me, the vast majority of Seattle will remain high and dry. That is, if the next major earthquake hasn’t dumped it into the sea.

But even though I wouldn’t be literally drifting southward into the ocean, and supposing Seattle hasn’t been earthquaked into oblivion, it will be hot, and the climate will be so drastically altered that the city will look nothing like its current lush, green, beflowered, beautiful self. But still, my toes won’t be getting all pruny.

Of course, there’d be the refugees from other flooded states and nations desperately trying to find places to live and totally invading my space along with a population that had already exploded beyond comprehension, and they’d be using up all the drinking water and fighting over what few fresh vegetables were left… Shades of Soylent Green or Waterworld.

I don’t know about you, but this thought experiment has stopped being fun. But if you’re a glutton for punishment and really want an eye opening experience, go to the Surging Seas website and type in various coastal cities. It will tell you what’s going to happen if we don’t get our act together and drastically cut carbon emissions.

We need to stop bringing snowballs to Capitol Hill and start taking action. Otherwise future generations will curse our names, and laugh bitterly at our stupidity. All this while figuratively drifting ever southward.

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Bye bye Florida. Image credit: National Geographic

Rooting for the Home Team

When I was 10 years old I moved from my waspy, upper middle class New England house and wound up living in a tent in the rural South. It was quite the culture shock. But the biggest shock of all was finding myself in a public school where only 1 percent of the students looked anything like me. This was something I had never experienced before, and I got beaten up quite often as a result.

I also had a great deal of trouble adjusting to the backward Florida school system. It was several years before I started learning anything that I hadn’t previously been taught in Connecticut, and when they tested me and determined that I was reading at college level at the age of 10, they weren’t nearly as impressed by that as they were that I was voluntarily reading anything at all.

At one point my mother asked me if I even had textbooks. I told her yes, but that I did my homework in class, as it only took a minute. No reason to lug those books home.

Once, my teacher was talking about the Civil War and she asked whose side everyone would be on. “This is easy,” I thought. “Union, of course.” But I was stunned to discover that all the children of color around me chose the Southern side.

I was normally quiet and kept to myself to avoid the inevitable beating. But this… I couldn’t handle it. “Are you guys crazy??? You’re supporting the side of slavery!” None of them changed their minds, however. I was speechless.

As an adult looking back, it’s a bit more understandable. In that school system, they were taught virtually nothing about history or human rights. Most of them were so poor that they’d probably never stepped foot outside the backwater town in which we lived. They were simply rooting for the home team, as if this were a football game. I have no doubt that every one of them came to their senses when they entered the real world.

It wouldn’t be the last time I felt like the only voice of reason in an insane situation. I feel that way now when I see people supporting Donald Trump or denying global warming. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

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[Image credit: theblaze.com]

Environmental Meddling

Anyone who lives in the Southeastern United States is familiar with kudzu. This amazingly insidious vine was introduced to this country by the Japanese at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and since then, according to Wikipedia, it’s been spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres annually, which seems really intimidating until you realize that that’s roughly equivalent to the amount of rain forest that’s chopped down every day.

A great deal of time and money is spent attempting to keep the kudzu invasion in check, and nothing seems to work. It has been known to suffocate acres of trees, pull down power lines, and crush abandoned houses under the sheer weight of its proliferation.

Like it or not, we need to accept the fact that kudzu is here to stay. And since that’s the case, we should try to turn this negative into a positive. Most Americans would be surprised to know that kudzu is edible. It’s a great source of starch and is eaten regularly in Vietnam and Japan and other parts of Asia. It also makes great grazing fodder. Goats, in particular, love it. The vines can be used in basket weaving, and its fiber can be made into cloth and paper. Some people use it to treat migraines, tinnitus, vertigo, and hangovers.

In light of this, I say, why not let kudzu run rampant? Help feed and clothe those in need, and reduce the cost of feeding grazing animals. Even better, if we really let it take over, think of the time we’d regain by never having to maintain our lawns again. Each time we fertilize our lawns, more harmful nutrients are entering our water table, causing algae blooms in our rivers and doing untold amounts of damage to the environment. Kudzu is the perfect solution for that. All we’d have to do is cut new holes where our doors and windows should be every few weeks, and voila! No fertilizing, no other yard work.

We wouldn’t ever have to paint our houses, because no one would be able to see them. Also, as our ozone depletes, skin cancer is on the rise. Kudzu would greatly reduce this problem because it’s an excellent source of shade. In fact, if given half the chance, kudzu would ensure that we never see the sun again.

I also have a theory that if we introduced kudzu to the moon and mars, they’d both be lush and green and producing oxygen within a year. All thanks to a pretty little plant that never should have been here in the first place.

We humans are just sooooo good at fiddling with the planet. Why not go for it? What’s the worst that could happen?

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Yes, that’s a house.

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Kudzu gone wild. Every Southerner in the US has seen this somewhere at least once in their lives.

My Four Compass Points

I’m recovering from a cold and completely devoid of inspiration today, so I’ll leave you with the 4 extremes of my travels.

The furthest west that I’ve been is Santa Monica, California.

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The furthest east that I’ve been is Göreme, Turkey.

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The furthest south that I’ve been is Mitla, Mexico.

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The furthest north that I’ve been is Saint-Siméon, Canada.

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How lucky am I? 🙂

Reliving the Battle of Olustee

On February 20th, 1864 the battle of Olustee was fought here in Florida. It was the largest Civil War Battle in the state, and the second bloodiest battle for the Union. 296 soldiers died that day, only 93 of whom were Confederates. In the end the Union soldiers retreated 40 desolate miles back to Jacksonville, their collective tail between their legs.

One weekend a year each February, thousands descend on the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park to observe a reenactment of this battle, and in 2005 I bore witness to this event myself. The irony is that I live in Jacksonville, so heading out there I sort of experienced a reverse retreat. And I’m here to tell you that that section of Florida is still pretty darned desolate. I could only imagine the hellish journey amongst the snakes and swampland and sharp-leafed underbrush.

And the thing about that part of Florida is that the deeper you get into, well, absolutely the middle of nowhere, the more you can’t shake the feeling that you’re traveling back in time, and not in a good way. There’s this feeling of free floating anxiety that you can’t quite put your finger on. I wouldn’t want to be there after dark during that weekend. And I wouldn’t want to be there even in broad daylight if I were black. And indeed, amongst the throngs of people and reenactors I only saw one minority face, that of a black union soldier. This just isn’t an event you want to attend if you’re not a WASP, because for this one weekend a year, people who are proud of the south and its history, in all its ugly and misguided glory, get to celebrate. There are confederate flags everywhere, and there’s beer. Lots and lots of beer. That’s never a good combination, if you ask me.

I must say, though, they really pull out all the stops. While you’re there, you can visit the confederate and union camps, and check out a lot of the historic armaments and medical tools, which is kind of interesting. There’s also an arts and crafts fair, a fun run, and even a square dance.

I’m glad I experienced this once, but have to say I’ll never go back. Not only because I came down with the worst case of sun poisoning in the history of mankind, complete with turning a dark purple and vomiting for 48 hours, but also because, more than anything, I got the feeling that here was a crowd of people that were longing for those days, wishing they could have back what so many feel that the south lost when they lost the civil war. Instead of witnessing a battle and thinking, “Never again”, they were thinking, “Yeah Buddy! The South will RISE AGAIN!!!!” And that sort of made me sick. You’re supposed to learn about history so as not to repeat it, not revel in its darkness and long for it to return.

So would I recommend that you go to the Battle of Olustee? Yes, with caution and a rather large companion. But that’s a decision you’ll have to make on your own. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of the pictures I took while I was getting sun poisoned.

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The Cigarette Girl and the Waving Man

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Connecticut, so when we moved to a small Southern town in the 1970’s, it was quite a culture shock. The segregation was more subtle than it had been in the 50’s, of course. We all went to school together. But we certainly didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same churches or socialize in any significant way. Every rural town has its characters, but in Apopka, Florida where I grew up, ours were even more tragic or heroic or, I suppose, both, due in part to this unofficial segregation.

Every day, rain or shine, you were bound to come across the cigarette girl. She looked like she was in her early 20’s. She was always in a ragged house dress and barefoot, summer or winter. I never saw her move, but she must have, because she popped up on various street corners throughout town, and she’d just stand there in a catatonic state, looking like an impoverished, unkempt and extremely neglected statue. The saddest thing about her was that she always had cigarette butts stuck haphazardly in amongst her corn rows. It was disgusting. It was tragic. And the fact that her family and the powers that be in the city did absolutely nothing for her, and I felt completely unequipped to do anything myself, made me feel like the world was not a safe place, and that you couldn’t count on adults at all. Whenever I saw her I was mesmerized by her, but was too afraid to approach her. I tried to find out her story, and I did hear a rumor that she had been gang raped when she was 5 years old, and hadn’t been “right in the head” since. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I do know that the entire town seemed to be content to let her roam the streets like a stray dog, and there’s something very, very wrong with a community that’s willing to do that.

On the way home from school or the library or the drug store, we would have to drive through the poorer neighborhoods because we were extremely poor ourselves, and therefore lived on the outskirts of town. Every single day unless it was raining, we would pass this broken down shack next to the railroad tracks, and sitting out front on one of those ratty old webbed lawn chairs would be a very old, weathered man. Whenever a car would drive by, he’d wave and smile, so I called him the waving man. I knew nothing more about him. He never had anything with him. No newspaper, no radio, no book, not even a glass of sweet tea. But he never looked bored. He just sat there and waved his wrinkled old hand as if that was his calling, as if he had always been there and always would be.

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(Image credit: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/lreyns/interesting/ )

At the time it never occurred to me to stop and talk to him. I think I’d have been too scared because of the neighborhood or too intimidated to cross our great cultural divide. But I was always curious about him, and would have loved to know his story. He looked happy, and yet I’m amazed that shack he lived in didn’t fall down every time a train went by and rattled its already shaky foundation. I never saw him with friends or relatives, but he looked much too old to be taking care of himself. Still, he was there, day after day, smiling, waving, enduring and apparently timeless, living his life. And I would always wave back. I hope he was content and cared for by his neighbors during his last days, but I’ll never know, now.

The last time I went back to Apopka it had changed so much that I could barely find my way around. The drug store was a mere shadow of its former self. The library, once housed in a cozy corner of a strip mall, had moved on to bigger, more modern accommodations. Everything seemed bigger and more modern, in fact. My town had joined the 21st century at last. But I will always remember it as a small town that looked the other way, and maybe that was good, and maybe it wasn’t. That was just the way Apopka was.