There’s nothing like growing up (and throwing up) together

I recently reconnected with a childhood friend (whom I’ll call L) and we enjoyed a couple of long visits before she and her husband decamped for another part of the country. Frequent playmates when we were very young, we pretty much took each other for granted by the time we hit high school, then went our separate ways until The Magic of Facebook brought us back within hailing distance of each other. I have been delighted to rediscover the bond we forged before kindergarten. While we’ve led very different lives, it didn’t take long to find our footing on the old common ground. Our parents had been neighbors and post-WWII newlyweds together, long before either of us was born, and our families stayed close.

We had a big time a few weeks ago, going through old pictures, resurrecting memories for each other, and gossiping about everybody we could think of. L recalled one time when she spent the night at our house. We must have been older than kindergarten age but maybe not by much. My little sister and I argued bitterly over who would get to share her room with our guest (L was between us in age and proprietorship was murky), so Mama opted for peace and quiet and put the three of us in her double bed (and herself and Daddy in one of our rooms). The reason L remembers it–and probably the reason I blocked the memory–is that she got sick during the night and threw up in the bed. Remembering how childhood nausea worked in our family (wildly contagious), I’m betting my sister or I–or maybe both of us–vomited, too. Anyhow, that was it, just one of those things that sticks in memory for no particular reason.

We drank some more beer and kept playing “Whatever became of so-and-so?” Hearing a particular name, L chortled and said, “I remember throwing up in the backyard with him at one of those parties at __’s house.” This would have been in  high school, when we had all determined that our small town was the most boring in the universe and the only way to endure our captivity was to do all the things we thought our parents didn’t want us to do. Smoking cigarettes and drinking too much figured largely in those activities. That incident is not L’s only memory of the boy we both knew for as long as we could remember. She just happened to recall it right then.

I grabbed my high school diploma and hit the ground running. My hometown was a very small place and I had some damned big ideas about how the world worked. There couldn’t possibly be anything else to learn in that place where too many people were my kinfolks and WAY too many people knew my business. For a long time, I hardly ever looked back.

Fast-forward a few decades to now–my parents aren’t there any more, so I’m no longer obligated to visit. Imagine my surprise when I realized I want to go back. Turns out you can’t move fast enough or far enough to outrun your hometown. It’s like trying to outrun your hair. And that’s a good thing. Reconnecting with folks I grew up with has been interesting and fun. We aren’t going to suddenly become BFFs, just because we’re back in touch. A lot of us don’t have that much in common, really, except that we come from the same place. But that’s not nothing. Maybe I’ve finally outgrown a blind spot, or maybe this is some of that wisdom that’s supposed to make up for the bifocals. For whatever reason, there’s something I like about having known these people–and them having known me–way back when.

I have to wonder, though, whether anybody remembers the time I threw up in English class in the seventh grade. I really hope not.


Beach tar redux

Beach tar was always a nuisance, but in a good way. As in…..a bad day with beach tar on your feet beat a good day at the city swimming pool, hands down. Joni Mitchell sang about beach tar on her feet and made it romantic. Never mind that she was talking about the Mediterranean, probably then (in the 1970s) and probably now one of  the most polluted of our seas. In the Gulf of Mexico, beach tar just didn’t seem like something we should worry about.

I’ve thought about beach tar a lot more this summer than in the past twenty summers combined—maybe in all my summers combined (which number more than twenty and fewer than a hundred, thank you very much).  When I  was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s beach tar was always around—not lots of it, but you never knew when you might step on it or sit on it. We wondered sometimes where it came from, whether it was natural or constituted man-made pollution. From oil wells? From boats? We saw fishing boats every day, easily within a mile or two of the beach. We didn’t spend much time on it, though, because we mainly cared about getting a tan (we always burned) and logging as many days as possible with no seaweed and no flies. About fifteen years ago we  stopped seeing the boats inshore and eventually noticed we’d stopped getting tar on our feet. Was the problem gone, or just pushed out past the horizon? Or was it even a real problem?

By all accounts “our” beach—in the Florida Panhandle, now officially dubbed the Northwest Florida Beaches—is as  beautiful as ever, unsullied by recent catastrophic events. And as of this week, it seems all the news reporters want to talk about is the absence of oil on the surface of the Gulf. That’s great, so far as it goes. But what about below the surface? We’ve never spilled this much oil before, and we’ve never spilled oil this deep before. We’ve never before used chemical dispersants the way we did this time. We don’t know what is going to happen to the Gulf’s ecosystem. We don’t even know how we’ll know when it does happen. This is definitely a real problem—an unspeakably huge mess.

Maybe those little 1970s beach tar blobs were natural, a part of being at the beach that created just enough nuisance to keep us honest about where we belonged in the grand scheme. Maybe the next time I see one, that will still be the case. But it won’t matter, because now I won’t be able to keep from worrying. Nowadays, beach tar reminds me of a different Joni Mitchell song, the one that reminds us that we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

When beach tar was a good thing

I remember bobbing gently in a warm, gentle sea, nestled against my mother’s body, feeling her heartbeat and hearing her murmur in my ear, with no idea my world might ever be different. Pre-birth memory? Nope, I was a toddler. A few yards out from a Florida Panhandle beach, my mother knelt in the water and held me close, her cheek against mine, making sure that I wouldn’t fear the water as she had in childhood.

By my fourth summer, a new baby had appeared and I happily joined two big sisters riding the waves on inflatable plastic floats. I can’t remember not knowing how to swim, and could never understand—still can’t—why so many of my friends preferred motel pools, even if they had no diving boards. For me, swimming pools were invented to ensure survival between beach trips.

From the age of nine or ten, we were allowed to go on the beach without grown-ups, heading out at sunup and staying until suppertime if we wanted to. One law prevailed: my mother insisted her fair-haired daughters stay indoors between 10 AM and 2 PM. Sunscreen didn’t exist in those days and we fought bitterly against wearing shirts and hats in the water. We couldn’t get tan to save our lives—except the one of us four who could, disgustingly. I tried to be content with making my blond hair blonder, thanks to an old Tame bottle filled with hand-squeezed lemon juice that I combed through my hair all day long. No beach chairs or umbrellas, just a towel apiece and—if we were lucky—a float that didn’t leak. We agitated (in complete futility) for a trip to the Miracle Strip at Panama City Beach; but we also knew, in our bratty-adolescent hearts, that we had a kind of paradise right where we were.

The Gulf is a wilderness, magnificent in ways even a child understands. It changes colors every hour. The waves are gentle, exciting or scary, sometimes all three in a day. Pests and nuisances abound—sneaky jellyfish, toe-pinching crabs, the odd remora, confused but relentless. Seaweed appears so you’ll  know things aren’t perfect. It plays tricks on your eyes, making you think you see a shark every two minutes—or making you ignore one that’s really there. The sharks are always there, by the way, whether we see them or not, along with their pals, the rays and barracuda. And if the varmints don’t get you, the currents might. By the time I could ride a bicycle without training wheels, I could detect the undertow and respect it absolutely.

Our beach vacations weren’t frequent or usually very long, because Daddy didn’t like to get sand between his toes. Seriously, he wore shoes on the beach! He’d rather stay home and go fishing or watch baseball games. (There was no TV at the beach, only a transistor radio we turned on once a day for the weather report.) But we loved every second of every trip, and hoarded every shell and sand dollar we brought home.

Home again, even a peeling nose and salt-stung eyes hurt good, reminding me of where I’d been. I remember feeling a little sad when the last of the beach tar would disappear from the bottoms of my feet, knowing another chunk of the summer was behind me. Fall loomed—without, somehow, the next summer seeming any closer.

My family ties are made of clothesline

Halfway through building my clothesline, I recognized it as part of an ongoing attempt to recreate the backyard of my childhood. There’s a post or three right there, but at the moment I’m obsessed with the clothesline.

When I was little, every decent home had a clothesline in the yard or on a porch. An unexpected rain shower sent a “code red” sweeping through the neighborhood as screen doors banged and women dashed out to grab dry or nearly dry clothes off the lines. Yes, at the risk of dating myself, it was all up to the women back then! I even remember being sent next door to rescue our neighbor’s laundry from the rain when she wasn’t at home. Nobody objected to clothes lines in general, but it was considered tacky to hang clothes outdoors on Sundays, or in the front yard ever. (At our house an exception was made on Sundays for wet bathing suits.)

Hanging out laundry and bringing it in is probably the first chore I learned to do on my own, and it remained one of my favorites.  Handling cool, wet clothes felt good on hot days (and in the wintertime, probably offered just the right taste of hardship for an eight-year old). Dry, they smelled fresh and clean and somehow made me feel like things were being kept in order. The clothesline was a great place to examine interesting bugs–it seems to me now there were always big, weird beetles and dragonflies out there–and a wonderful place to dawdle undetected. Still, the arrival of my mother’s first automatic clothes dryer was like Christmas in July. (My sister and I honestly believed a dishwasher–our first choice, by far–couldn’t be far behind, but that didn’t come until we’d both left for college.)

I expected to use my new clothesline just when I felt like it. Mainly, I wanted it as yard art. But I haven’t turned on my dryer in over a month. I like the crisp feeling of my t-shirts and nightgowns and sheets, and find towels are more absorbent when air-dried. Everything has a fresh, clean smell that no dryer sheet can replicate. Most of all, I like feeling connected with my mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers and aunts whenever I use it. Hardly anything else I do around the house gives me that feeling of connectedness. I hope I never have to do without a backyard clothesline again.

Be careful what you wish for

Last year a house nearly fell on me. On the way to move my friend’s SUV out of my driveway–so the house wouldn’t fall on it–I stepped up on the front porch to set down a water bottle. That’s when the house fell, landing on the SUV and the driveway where I’d been walking, and the front steps and the back gate. It stopped a few feet short of collapsing onto my house, thanks to that tall and very sturdy SUV.

It spooked me because I’d been wishing for years that old house would just collapse and disappear. Vacant for nearly ten years, bought and sold more times than I could count, it had been painted twice (or three times?), given a new roof (laid on top of the old one), and gussied up from time to time in various slapdash ways, none of which disguised the fact that it was rotten from the ground up. The place was a fire hazard, a haven for rats (eventually displaced by a tribe of feral cats), and an eyesore. Finally–miraculously, incredibly–somebody bought it to renovate.

After stripping the house to its thoroughly rotted frame (leaving the double-thickness roof intact), they raised the whole thing about three feet and left it propped on unsecured, single-course stacks of cinder blocks. Then they removed the original foundation, creating big holes around the bases of the cinder block columns, and disappeared. A few nights later, heavy rain started around midnight and continued into the next morning. By 8:30 AM there was at least a foot of water in the crawl space (more in the old foundation holes). When the cinder block columns started collapsing an hour later, I ran out and moved my car across the street to safety, then went back to move my friend’s son’s SUV. It was parked in my driveway because as a brand-new college freshman he couldn’t keep it on campus. (“Park at my house, there’s plenty of room. It’ll be much safer than parking on the street.”) That’s when the house fell down. It didn’t make much noise, really, but the way it collapsed was somehow gentle and violent at the same time. So in addition to scaring the bejesus out of me, it gave me a major case of the creeps.

I ran inside my house and peered out. Then I came back out on the porch but the swirling dust made it impossible to breathe, and it was too thick to see anything, anyway. It sounded like things were still falling, so I went back inside and spent a few minutes hopping from one foot to the other, flapping my hands back and forth and saying bad words. When the major collapse seemed to be over, I called 911.

It kept raining all morning and it was August, so it was hot. Before the day was over, the scene attracted three fire departments (I live yards from the city limit, so it attracted attention from two cities and the county), one police department, at least half a dozen folks from various departments in City Hall, all four local TV news crews, and an ever-shifting cast of friends, neighbors, and flabbergasted bystanders. News choppers circled off and on all day, and the story made all of the local evening and late-night newscasts.

It took a lot longer for the dust to settle inside my head. My house wasn’t crushed and neither was I, so I felt grateful and lucky. But part of me thought I should feel a lot more thankful than I did, and maybe less disgusted. I was simply and thoroughly pissed off because–as many a neighbor commented after it happened–anybody could see that house was going to fall down. I’d complained over and over about the unsafe and deteriorating situation, so now I felt completely vindicated and absolutely unsatisfied.

At a certain point, the only thing left to do was look for the lessons. Not surprisingly (if you’re me), here was yet another opportunity to work on letting go of anger and resentment. Obviously, lots of people learn this lesson in kindergarten but whatever, I’m still learning it now. Give me credit for admitting it. Another good lesson is to make a lot more noise–a LOT more noise–if it seems like something is badly wrong. But my favorite lesson of all, the one I’ve embraced with all my heart, is this: When you wish for something, BE SPECIFIC. As in, “I wish that house would fall down, but it should fall in the other direction and not when I’m standing next to it.”

Many are called

This morning I got up early–well, not much earlier than usual, but it involved an alarm clock–and reported to the courthouse for jury duty. Many are called but few are chosen and I was back home by 11:00 AM, free and clear until the next summons (in three years or so, they said). The worst part was having to use the alarm clock. Self-employed in a home office, I usually get away with sleeping until I wake up without external interference. It’s a luxury, I know–and one for which I pay dearly in other ways. So the alarm clock made me feel whiny. Coasting on my annual 4th of July boost of patriotism, though, I cheerfully got dressed and went to town, ready to do my part to keep the republic lurching along.

Parking was easy, the courthouse security screening line moved briskly, juror check-in was fast and efficient, and the seating in the jury assembly room was comfortable.  Things got started on time and we spent part of the morning listening to two different judges talk about how jury selection works, but mostly about how important it is for people to serve when summoned.Then we viewed a 20-minute video featuring clips of interviews with various judges and former jurors, reinforcing the message that we all need to serve when called. After a break, we were treated to more video footage of judges talking about….well, I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but I’d bet they were discussing how important it is for people to turn out for jury duty. Finally, a clerk called the names of several dozen folks and sent the rest of us home. Parking was free, and as civic participation goes, it was pretty painless.

One thing bothered me a lot, though: spending the morning listening to what amounted to a defense–and a not very compelling one, at that–of our jury trial system. It wasn’t surprising to hear the exhortations to step up and serve, given that it’s not only socially acceptable but almost de rigueur in some circles to wriggle out of jury duty if you can. But it was deeply disappointing that the point of departure for the big message was, “Yes, we know you have better things to do but we need you anyway.” In my opinion, nobody has anything better to do than serve on a jury when summoned (and vote when the opportunity arises). It may seem that other obligations are more important, and individual cases provide exceptions that prove the rule–there are times when it just isn’t feasible to stop the presses of daily life and appear. But in this country, under the system of government we purport to cherish, civic duty should trump most other things

I believe the speeches and videos at the courthouse need to be communicating why showing up for jury duty should be a no-brainer. How much more worthwhile could the morning have been if we had received a refresher micro-course in civics? (Leaving aside, for this post, the sad fact that for many it wouldn’t be a “refresher”–but then, that’s the problem, isn’t it?) Some vivid description of what it would mean to “regular people” if we didn’t have the right to trial by a jury of our peers.  A bit of history about how legal disputes and criminal allegations were resolved in pre-Revolutionary America, and how that led the founding fathers to formulate our Constitution as they did. Make the pragmatic case for jury duty as everyone’s responsibility, along with the philosophical case for it as a privilege that we should embrace.

Inconvenience is a small price to pay–a very, very small price–for the freedoms that we enjoy. We are all in this together, whether we like it or not, and jury duty is a chance to have a say in what happens next.