Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Mice of St. Marks

I woke up early this morning and drove south toward the coast. It was about a 30 minute drive from Tallahassee to the road that leads into St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge. I didn't realize the road itself goes on for another 15 or 20 minutes winding through marshes and inlets before you finally arrive at St. Mark's lighthouse. Somewhere along the way, there's a guard post where I guess they'd usually charge an entry fee. But it's shuttered now, along with all the rest of the buildings in the refuge. So I drove on through without stopping till I came to the lighthouse.


I had come dressed to run, but realized I didn't know exactly where. A friend had told me there were some trails around, and that they'd been nice to run on, except that all these mice kept running across the path. I wasn't sure I believed this last part — and walking around the parking lot that seemed surrounded by water on every side, I started to doubt that there were trails at all. I eventually wandered around behind the boarded-up lighthouse and discovered what looked like a path leading between some battered looking palm trees. I set out onto it at a jog, and was almost immediately accosted by a mouse.


Or rather, a hispid cotton rat. As I trotted along, more and more of the little creatures sprang up off the trail and into the thicket on either side to the point it started to feel a little excessive. This only stopped when the trail came out into the grass along the shore and became increasingly marshy, so it almost felt like I was running in the surf and I could feel the watery sand sucking at my sneakers every step I took. 

A hispid cotton rat.

The little path ended at the point of the narrow finger of land that it was on. Water on three sides, I couldn't go any further. I was disappointed it hadn't lasted longer, but stopped at the end to take in the view for a few minutes. It had been cloudy when I arrived, but the sun was still low in the sky and a few rays were breaking through the clouds. Then I turned, and fought my way back through the mice. 


This little adventure was my first excursion out of Tallahassee in almost four months. I haven't thought about that often. I've been busy, and in some ways my life has changed less than most people's this year. But this morning I realized how much I miss going places and doing things. It feels like it's been a long year already. And it has been. But I suspect we'll get through it. And I look forward to doing things like I did this morning a lot more often.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Take pictures of what matters

I was chatting with three old friends on WhatsApp the other day when the conversation turned—as it often does—to reminiscing about the year we spent living in Lebanon together. It's been a full five years since that chapter in our lives. We're all spread out across the globe now. We have careers and significant others and, in one particularly extreme case, even a baby. We still use the same WhatsApp chat that we used to coordinate with each other back on the streets of Beirut and in airport terminals across the Middle East. But now it's mostly used for sharing updates on where we are and what we're doing now. That is, until we start talking about days gone by, and sharing photos and videos from back then.

But what's surprising is that—for a team that was devoted entirely to taking photos and producing videos—there's oddly little documentation of our actual lives together. This is something one of my friends lamented the other day, and said we should remember how fast our lives go by and to make an effort to capture what really matters. 

What it seemed like really mattered back then was our assignments. And we still have hard drives full of dramatic wide-angle time-lapses from Casablanca to Abu Dhabi, and reams of staged, stock-footage of locals interacting with each other. Yet the only videos of ourselves are some shaky shots with snippets of conversation when we left the camera rolling between takes. If we scroll back in our Instagrams, there are lots of slick photos of our silhouettes jumping on the horizon that got lots of likes. But the only photos of us in our normal life situations are a few that one of us shot with a disposable camera for the sake of being ironic. 

What we were working on at the time seemed important. And taking candid photos or videos of ourselves seemed like a distraction. But looking back now, I think we all agree that our relationships with each other probably had more lasting value than anything else we did that year. As everything else we did continues to fade into obsolescence, that will only become more true.  

I get a similar feeling when I watch home videos that my parents took from when I was a little kid. The are grainy, and absurdly long for modern attention spans, but they really focus on what clearly mattered then, and what still matters now: People and our lives together as they really are. 

Today, we all have cameras in our pockets that are a thousand times better than any camcorder in the 1990s could dream of being. And we use them with a regularity that would've been unimaginable a decade ago. But when I look at what we use them to capture now, in the age of Instagram and Snap and TikTok, I wonder if any of it is anything that will have any meaning at all to us 10 or 20 years from now? And I think it's even more true what my friend said the other day: Remember to take lots of photos and videos of your life and the people who matter to you now. It goes by so fast. 



Saturday, December 21, 2019

Music

Today I pulled the guitar out from behind the sofa for the first time in a month or so. I played a couple of old Christmas songs, and then the half dozen or so others I always play on the nowadays-rare occasions when I dust the thing off.

I don't have any reason to do this other than it's mildly relaxing and I'm worried if I don't I will forget how—and that seems a shame. But it's been literally years since I jammed with anyone else, let alone played in a band or performed in any way.

This state of affairs is something that snuck up on me.

Throughout my teens and early twenties, music was a gigantic part of my life. It was the common denominator among all of the few friendships I had as a teenager; most of the time I spent with them was jamming or recording music. As a kid I played on the band at my family's church, was part of a rather awful attempt at a rock band in my late teens and at college I was involved several groups where music was a regular activity.

It wasn't just because I was interested in playing music or enjoyed it—I was—but just as much that nearly everyone around me played, and it was a natural part of the social fabric of most of my relationships with individuals and organizations. It was something intimate that I did with my best friends, and it was a way I bonded with people I'd never met before.

Instruments themselves were something I talked about and obsessed over and collected the way that people I know now talk about cars or boats. Playing those instruments was something I did on meticulously rehearsed Sunday mornings; something that spontaneously happened around Friday night bonfires or on porches during lazy summer afternoons.

And that's why it really feels like another lifetime when I think back on it. Today, I'm not a part of any band. I don't go to church or participate in any other groups where music is a thing. Heck, I'm not sure if I even know anyone now who plays guitar.

There are many things about that time in my life that I don't look back on wistfully at all. Things I'm glad I've moved beyond. But I hope I didn't somehow leave music with it.

Looking forward into what—barring some unforeseen catastrophe—appears to be another decade on this planet, I hope I can find some sort of community where music can be a part of things again.

Till then, I'll keep taking the old Taylor out from behind the sofa every few weeks.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Finite Falls / Infinite Autumns

It's beginning to finally feel and look like fall here in north Florida. The air is cold in the mornings and the leaves are trending toward gold.

Autumn always puts me in a wistful, contemplative sort of mood. Something about a great coming-to-an-end for everything that makes me look back on what everything has been. And that's true even here.

I've thought a lot over the past week about the people who are dear to me, and the reality that nothing—as far as we can tell—is infinite. There will be a specific number of autumns that I feel this way again. And a specific number of times that I see or talk to each of the people that I care about again.

Even the seasons aren't really permanent. Most of world only has a rainy season and a dry season. It's just two bands of longitude that experience what we think of as fall. I'm on the southern edge of one—just a five or six-hour drive south and there's no such thing. 

I don't have any children, but I wonder if I did, would their children still experience fall? And would they ever feel the way I do now? It's almost certainly not something I will find out, as the unsustainability of my individual existence is bound to catch up with me long before that.

There are times when this has caused me to feel like nothing really matters. And I suppose in a way that's true. But in another light—the one I'm feeling right now—it might make each interaction and experience we have much more meaningful, and something we ought to treasure while we can.

I'm the worst at being friends with people. Like, for real. I tend to live in my own little world, and even the relationships that should be easy, I tend to keep at arms length. But seasons like this make me realize how important those relationships likely are.

I hope that there will be a lot more autumns, and I hope that I get to see and feel quite a few of them. But I also want to keep it always in the back of my mind that nothing is infinite. The moments that we have are limited in quantity, and the moments we can spend together are magical if only for their improbability and rarity in the brief time and space when they might have occurred. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

How Do You Feel When You're Sick?

I woke up at 5:50 this morning with a bad sore throat. It got progressively worse throughout the morning till this afternoon I was feeling downright awful. But not just awful about my sore throat. Awful about everything.

All my life I've had this weird but pervasive experience any time I get sick. I'm writing this now mainly because I'm curious if anyone else out there experiences it too.

Nearly any time that I get physically ill, be it a cold, flu, stomach bug, near fatal reaction to a Yellow Fever vaccine, etc, the physical discomfort is accompanied by what I can only describe as something like an emotional breakdown. Like all of the anxiety, doubt, regret and other painful feelings that seem to be always churning just below or above the surface of my consciousness suddenly break free and go flying around my mind like a flock of angry seagulls.

When I get under-the-weather, things that I was anxious about before go from code yellow to code red. I start to second-guess decisions that I made years ago and thought that I'd put behind me only to now see them as terrible mistakes that got me—however implausibly—into the discomfort that I now feel. And while even on my best days I'm rarely very optimistic about the future, I begin to envision it as some grim march down an ever-narrowing corridor of impossibilities — that are not quite impossible to the extent that it would absolve me their possibility — to an early death in failure and ignominy.

Which is ridiculous right? I mean come on, you have a cold! Drink some more coffee and take a cough drop.

And yet it's real. It's a real thing I experience every time I get sick. And I don't like it.

When I was a child, and then on into my teens, I tended to interpret all of this as a clear sign of Divine wrath. God, so I thought, was taking corrective action to discourage or chasten me from whatever dreadful perceived sin I must clearly have been committing at the time. Or more rarely the inverse: That I was engaged in some effort such eternal import that the forces of darkness were attempting to thwart it. INSERT BIG PARENTHETICAL INTERJECTION HERE: (I'm sure to many folks reading this, that will sound ridiculous and harsh, but it was actually well within the logical framework of the community I was raised in.)

This explanation seemed so unavoidable to me for many years that I just accepted it without really ever talking to anyone else about it or questioning if there could be other ways to interpret the phenomenon.

Now, however, I find it to be quite unlikely. And am therefore curious: 1) If there's a (more) rational explanation for such feelings during an illness and 2) If other folks experience similar feelings during illness.

To the first question, if you take the premise that our bodies and minds and hearts are really all the same thing and any distinction we draw between them is purely fictitious, then I suppose it makes sense that when a condition like a disease or injury or fatigue occurs, the whole thing starts to fray at the edges and something that you had been holding in check successfully when the whole thing was strong could get out of control when it's weak. That said, my understanding of science is limited to an A+ in the undergraduate biology class that my prof introduced on the first day as "not a class for biology majors," so I will probably have to ask some of my seemly ever-multiplying family members with more impressive scientific or medical credentials to weigh in here.

To the second question: I don't know. I feel like the few times I've really tried to talk to people about their emotions while being sick (Qualification: This is limited to annoyance-grade illnesses like what I've described so far, not life-threatening or chronically debilitating things), what they've told me has been pretty limited to annoyance, and possibly self-pity. That said, I think that I'm pretty good at hiding the fact that I spend most of the time when I have a common cold vacillating between the urge to curl up in a ball and tearfully call figures from my distant past to beg their forgiveness for perceived wrongs on the down swings, to wanting to throw myself out a high window on the upswings.

So could it be that (gasp), other people feel the same way and are also good at hiding it?

Or maybe I'm the only one, and now I've outed myself as someone with severe (if controlled) mental health issues.

In either case, I'm eager to find out, so do let me know. 


Monday, August 19, 2019

Warm Countries

After a good six or seven years, I'm rereading one of my favorite travel books, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, and came across this exchange between Port and Kit in Chapter 13. I've decided to post it here, because it made me think of Florida, where I live right now.

***

               “Sunset is such a sad hour,” she said, presently.
               “If I watch the end of a day—any day—I always feel it’s the end of a whole epoch. And the autumn! It might as well be the end of everything,” he said. “That’s why I hate cold countries, and love the warm ones, where there’s no winter, and when night comes you feel an opening up of the life there, instead of a closing down. Don’t you feel that?”
               “Yes,” said Kit, “but I’m not sure I prefer the warm countries. I don’t know. I’m not sure I don’t feel like it’s wrong to try to escape the night and winter, and that if you do you’ll have to pay for it somehow.”

***

Photo I took on Florida's Forgotten Coast this 4th of July.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Civilization & Its Discontents


I’m at an impasse right now. For the last four or five years I’ve had this craving for stability and routine and security. I’ve been pursuing those things with varying degrees of success for at least the last three. The first half of my twenties were a protracted rebellion against those same things — at first a passive rebellion — then a headlong rush.

When I came back to the states in 2016, I seriously wondered if the whole first half of my decade had been a waste and I was five years behind where I should be. And I devoted myself to normal American life with the same white-knuckle abandon I’d fought against it. I felt like I needed to get things together or I’d never have another chance. And maybe that was true.

But now, as I’m careening toward the end of my 20s, I’m conflicted. This is my normal — and apparently healthy —  mental state, btw, so don’t be too concerned.

I feel the need to keep moving forward with the plan. To buy a house. To marry someone nice. To finally suck it up and get that graduate degree everyone has been saying for ten years I need. And all of that could happen. There’s a clear path to victory on every front right now.

But the problem is, I also equally want to fly off into the sunrise and have another decade of bloody adventures. I want to ride that Trans-Siberian railway. Want to hop around the Greek isles and see the sunset on Naxos again. Want to go on that pilgrimage to Vietnam. Want to never be normal or attached to one person or trapped in one place.

I guess there’s the chance I could sort of do both. Not right now certainly, but with enough money and enough vacation time, I could do quite a bit. But I also fear that may be a lie, and it would never actually happen. The same way it would probably be a lie if I didn’t settle down but told myself I always would “someday.”

There are the practical considerations of course. The world is made of practical considerations. Like the fact that I’m getting older and will eventually get sick and die. And that takes money, or so I’m told.

But then, ironically, routine and stability seem to have hastened that as much or more than all of my misadventures before it. Two years ago, I blew out a disk in my back during my daily regimen at the gym, and at some point between the once-in-a-lifetime job where I had to quell weekly 200 person protests outside my office and the next once-in-a-lifetime job where I was (briefly) the lead public contact for an entire state while it was getting smashed by a Category 5 hurricane and then the official tasked with reporting how many people’d been killed every day to an eager media, I developed this condition where my heart beats out of time. So now I need to always have health insurance.    

I guess that’s just Civilization entrenching itself in its host.

But all that considered, I’m still alive. And I can still run 20 miles, see clearly, stay up all night, and lots of other things I’ll almost certainly not be able to do if I wait till when society would have me wait to someday, maybe, stop contributing to it.

And honestly, if you took all the money I have now and gave it to 20 year-old me, I’d have backpacked around southern Europe for five years no-questions-asked.  Of course, now it doesn’t seem like that much. Now it just seems like closing costs + 20% down on a big house. Or grad school + textbooks. Or a few weeks in a hospital. Or some other drudgery.

Then there’s the fact that I’m just not that impressed with how the world works. I learned a lot about it from wandering around on its surface, but I’ve learned even more from being part of it these past few years. And the more I learn, the more depressed I become about it and the less keen I am on really participating in any meaningful way. But that’s a whole other story I guess.

For now, I’m just where I’ve always been, not wanting to leave, but wishing I was somewhere else.