Riding the Rails (to trails)

Cheryl and I did a half day on the bikes yesterday, peddling through the flat rural landscape of north Florida. We did an out-n-back along a twenty mile stretch of paved trail, converted from an old rail line between Keystone Heights and Palatka, FL. It was my first ride of forty miles (or more) in at least four years – and late-forty legs REALLY felt the last five miles. But it was a great ride. Some folks find the long straightaways a bit monotonous, but I find ‘em hypnotically peaceful. The air was cool (for FL), the wind was calm, and the soft whir of spinning spokes and churning chain made it easy to forget the rest of the world for a few hours.

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Florida, my home

I’m a hair more moody these days, looking at life through my azure tinted glasses, but there’s a good reason. It’s nothing serious, just your garden variety, mid-medication change depression. I just thought I’d say this post is an example of effect, not cause.

Last week we said goodbye to my in-laws. They’re doing something I haven’t done since the leukemia diagnosis, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.

They’re taking a vacation.

The kind where you go someplace.

What’s worse, they’re going to New England – my first home, making stops in New Hampshire and Maine. Then they’re going to Canada, specifically Montreal.

I wanna go.

Most people would be satisfied with a self-pity party, but I’m the type to throw myself a parade. Poor me, I can’t go on vacation while the nation grapples with crippling unemployment.

Before we said goodbye we all went out to dinner to celebrate Beth’s birthday early (since they’ll be gone for the real thing). Due to a series of events I won’t bore you with, I ended up meeting everyone there… and driving myself home. It was on this drive, thinking about the vacation I wasn’t taking, that I took a few back roads I hadn’t seen in a while. I passed the hill I rode my skateboard down as a kid, on a dare. I passed a relatively new subdivision of homes. I saw a flat wasteland of tasteless, identical snout-houses, and a conspicuous lack of shade. Instead, not so many years ago I saw dense woods, often with a friend around, tempting our childhood eyes and imaginations, but thwarted by chain link, dark shadows, and countless warnings: “NO TRESPASSING!”

Well, it kept us sufficiently warned most of the time.

I turned left at a traffic light and looked in my rear-view mirror. The four-lane divided highway that used to stop at the traffic light, now wound it’s way down the hill, where more woods had succumbed to asphalt. Although I’m used to this sight (I see it twice every day), it still brings more pain. These woods were ours – all of the adventure and imagination, and none of the chain link. It was a jungle of hardwood canopy, dense hanging moss, saw palmettos, hard fought trails, and dug-in, hidden nooks to hide if on the run. There was always some reason to be on the run, those ruthless palmettos sawing at our shins with every misstep. It was a seemingly endless expanse of adventure on demand.

In the moment, this moment of negligent musing behind the wheel, this same intersection contained my parents’ neighborhood – another walled in subdivision, protected from the unknown evil of the wandering outsider’s eye. When we first moved in, the lots sold but no one built. Oddly, our upper-middle class house and a few others like it spent my childhood surrounded by well protected, abandoned sand. It was all that was left of another clearcut orange grove, ground up to feed the beast we call sprawl. Over the years this sand grew wild watermelons. For a while it grew into a small test track for my (off-road) motorcycle. It was lots of room to line up imaginary, long, game winning field goals off a kicking tee, over a swing set in my back yard. I only broke a few of the cement tiles on our roof.

Down the street, on the other side of the neighborhood, we had another natural playground – a mix of pine, gentle undergrowth, and relatively hard packed sand. It was more open, the ground more accommodating to bikes, allowing deeper expeditions further from parents’ eyes. We were on our own, or so it felt, and it was exhilarating. Then as startled kids we watched the fences go up, the trees come down, and a giant hole appear. Now it’s the county’s largest manmade, drainage detention asset, tastefully decorated with chain link.

The moment passed. In a blink, my mind shifted from the present to my childhood an back again. It was all gone. It’s been gone for a long time.

I drove down one hill, up another and I was home.

Or was I?

They say you can’t go home again, but what if you never really left?

What if home left you?


First time

Cheryl was headed out the door early this morning to take Adam to a soccer game, and I felt compelled to give her a warning. A Floridian for most of my life, I’m almost certain these words never crossed my lips before:

“Be careful, there may be ice on the roads.”

It came out so naturally, you’d think it was a memory encoded in my DNA – from generations of ancestors living in much colder climates. It was a really odd experience.

I don’t mean to make light of the much, much worse conditions folks faced in other parts of the country. I hope you don’t take any offense.


You’ve done this before

If you haven’t I don’t want to hear about it.

I’ve been working with weights for a while now, trying to build up a little strength. You can do a fair bit with free weights alone, but there were a few exercises I wanted to add that required a bench. The kids have finally grown to the point where I’m not worried about having my old weight bench sitting out, so I set out to harvest its parts from around the house.

Don’t ask me why I didn’t have all the parts in one place. I won’t have a good answer, and I’ll only get angry (again).

I had the main frame in the garage and the rest of the parts in the attic. I found the frame without any trouble, but when I went up to the attic for the rest, they weren’t where I’d left them. In fact, lots of things in the attic weren’t where I’d left them. I immediately thought back to the last time I saw the pieces up there, and the last time someone else had been up there – when the guys from Terminix treated our attic for termites.

Then I got mad. I hate it when folks mess with a carefully organized mess. It might have been a mess, but it was my mess damn it!

I shucked off my good clothes for some cooler ones, anticipating a long search through hell. There’s no other way to describe an attic in a typical Florida home. They’re incredibly hot, poorly ventilated, and hard to navigate. I suppose you could say that about a lot of attics, but in Florida they’re built like fortresses, with reinforcing beams crisscrossing everywhere. It’s a hurricane thing. It’s like a really hot, humid, Children’s playground – with roofing nails protruding everywhere – or a tetanus playground, if you will.

I’ve watched several home improvement shows talk about converting attic space with envy. The only thing you could convert mine into is a drying rack for the neighborhood’s clothes.

I won’t tell you how much mass I shed in sweat, though I know how much you’d like me to.

I came down from the attic exhausted, covered with insulation, and with no weight bench. I was all kinds of mad – as in not completely rational. First I was mad about the mess made of my attic. Then I was mad about having to hunt for my bench. THEN I was half convinced someone took it – those bastards from Terminix. No, it didn’t make much sense. Who would risk their job over half of a beat up, twenty year old weight bench? Maybe I’d inhaled too much insulation.

Now here’s the kicker. Cheryl had THE NERVE to ask me if I’d checked the garage! Of course I didn’t check the garage – not after all the times I saw the bench in the attic. “Don’t tell me where I put MY stuff woman! My mind is a vault of valuable information – impenetrable under interrogation and infallible in a crisis.

Mind you, I didn’t say those things. I kept them secure in the vault. Good thing too.

In this case, life was clearly mocking me. Naturally, it was in the garage. That’s the way these stories work. Didn’t you know that by now? Has life taught you nothing? My heretofore missing bench was in a big box marked “weight bench,” in big black lettering. I’m a big proponent of labeling boxes.

Now let’s go back and check the score. I assumed the worst of strangers, I dismissed the wisdom of my wife, I failed to yield to the “never say never” rule, and I (fittingly) tarred and feathered myself with sweat and insulation.

Maybe a little lock jaw wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

In session

I almost hate to say anything before it’s over, but the truth is this won’t be over for a long time, regardless of when our legislature is in session.

I’m being cryptic again. Sorry.

The Florida Legislature is in a special session to deal with the 2 billion hole that appeared in the state buget last quarter. There’s been a similar hole in each of the last several quarters, so it’s getting to be old hat by now. Still, folks are a little more worried this time. It may be a little worse than thought, with holiday sales dropping off a cliff, and revenue so dependent on sales taxes.

So far the hurt only goes as far as the positions we’ve been holding vacant – my department is smart that way. Like many of you we’re increasingly accustomed to the “more with less” chant, happy to still be employed.

Governor sun tan has been cranking out the optimism as if his life depended on it. And maybe his political life does.

We also heard what we already knew – caseloads are way up, almost certainly due to our plumeting economy. There’s a lot more people out there needing help, and the calvary ain’t walking through that door.

Nothing new here. It’s time to get creative.