Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Second Banana: Seattle 1987

This is but a tiny memory. It's from when I was working at Brock's father's print shop in Seattle. Brock, Matt and I lived in the house next door to the print shop, on First Avenue West in Queen Anne--the house belonging to Brock's father--and so Brock's father--a good guy--was nice enough to give us some work at the shop. So, I worked there for a while and it was a noisy place. This was before the computer revolution and desktop publishing, so there were big machines clacking and clanking away all day long, there was ink and paper and box sets, dust and dirt. It was sad and interesting.
So, Brock's dad was the owner, he ran the shop and made the big decisions, but beneath him was his right-hand man--and I can't recall his name right now, but we'll call him Herman--the shop foreman. This guy, Herman, was middle-aged, balding, had a family. He had worked for Brock's father for many years and was in line to buy the shop and business when Brock's father retired (a retirement which was, in my impression, always imminent but never quite there year after year). Herman probably had a high school education. I'm not trying to say he was stupid, because he wasn't. He was a quiet guy, really, soft spoken, a nice guy, but he also had an edge about him, a side that you could tell was hidden--he had more to him than he revealed at first. Anyway, I had no problem with Herman. I recall a story Brock told me about him: Herman was driving out across the west, moving from somewhere--this was in the 1950's or 60's or something--driving across the vast western states and in Montana his car broke down; I think he had his wife with him, possibly a child; a man stops to help him with the car and, seeing how Herman handled the situation, right then and there offers him a job to work his ranch, to be the foreman for the ranch--Herman didn't take the job, but I found that a strange thing, to be offered a job because your own car broke down.
Anyway, the shop would always take a coffee break at 10am. The whole business would stop and we'd all gather together in the small front break room for free coffee, maybe a snack. It was that kind of business--friendly, family-like. What I remember was that, after the break, I went back to my machine, got it going and watched it make its canned salmon labels or Seattle Opera pamphlets or whatever it was making at the time and Herman was standing near me finishing a soda and suddenly he balls up the can and violently throws it into the small trash can near the door. I see this out of the corner of my eye, but more than that I hear the balled metal can crash into the metal trash can and it made me jump. I mean, the printer machine is clacking along, loud and in rhythm (it always made the song Cecelia by Simon and Garfunkle get stuck in my head) but the can smashing in the trash is big enough to startle me. And so I jump and look over at Herman and he looks at me and he's got this very stern and angry look on his face, anger and despair, and I just shrug and go back to attending my machine, but that's when and where and how I had a different opinion on Herman's character. I could tell that he'd been thinking of something other than just tossing away a can.
A small thing, but I saw and heard how he line-drived that can into the wastebasket.
What I found out later was--this was the start of Seattle's housing/real estate boom--Herman had put his house up for sale, on his own, I think, as a lark maybe, and it had been snatched up in one day. He had sold his house without thinking it through, had probably asked too little on the price, and now he had to find a new place to live (and prices were rising). Ah. Herman had screwed up. But to me, it was more than that. He had mistakenly sold his house, but he was also tied to a print shop that wasn't his--a small business where he was always promised something that seemingly wouldn't come--and he had to work day in and out in this noisy little place as the second banana. Like that ranch job he'd been offered, where he would have been the second banana--the ranch owner saw this in him, that he'd make a great second-in-command, the bridesmaid but never the bride--he was or had been a second banana all his life. (This is my pop-psychology analysis anyway.) So, there was a lot of anger and despair built up in Herman and it came out as he so violently--and out of the blue--threw that can into the trash.
He finally did get to buy the business--many years later--just in time for the advent of computerized and electronic printing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hotel Life: Fort Lauderdale 1996

In 1995 I'd been accepted at Florida International University for graduate school. I'd started my MFA at Iowa back in 1986--but dropped out. I'd gone to the University of Montana in 1988--but quit after they wouldn't give me a teaching assistantship. So, now I was ready to do it and finish it. But . . . though we'd come to Ft. lauderdale and Fru had been offered a job, when we got back to Champaign her bank offered her a great financial deal to stay for one more year, so, I deferred my enrollment at FIU for one year and we finally moved to South Florida in May of 1996.
As good luck would have it, by that time Fru had been offered a better job at Sun Trust Bank in downtown Fort Lauderdale--so our move and our first lodging was paid for by that company. And they put us up at the Riverside Hotel.
Ah. Hotel life.
We'd stayed at the Riverside before, by blind choice, when we first came as a family to visit the city. And we'd loved it. It was an old hotel right on Las Olas Boulevard right in the heart of downtown. Sun Trust Bank was almost across the street from the hotel, so when they put us up there we were very pleased.
And we lived there for over a month, in a single room with two queen beds, on the third floor. I watched the girls, who were five and three years old, respectively, and prepared for grad school at FIU (where I would teach as well). But that late spring into summer, Fru would get up and get ready for work and walk across the street and I would get the girls up and, usually, take them to the pool. And the Riverside had a fantastic pool. It was big and heated, it was across the small back street and along the river so that you'd see big boats go by as you swam. The girls would bring their toys and other stuff and we'd swim and play and lounge. Yes, a tough life, I know . . . Of course we did other things, but it's the pool I remember the most.
We had a small fridge in the room and there was a Hyde Park Market next door, so I'd go there to buy drinks and snacks and deli meat and cheeses for sandwiches. We ate out now and then, had room service once in a while, but mainly it was just the four of us ensconced in the Riverside. And it was fun. Sure, it got old, it was crowded, the girls became bored. There was one other family living there at the time who we became friends with, they had two daughters about the same age as ours, so the girls swan with them, etc. That family was prepping their sailboat to get ready to live on it (a typical Ft. lauderdale thing, as we discovered over the years).
There was a small Lebanese sandwich shop on Las Olas near the hotel which we frequented. The guy who ran it and owned it was a nice guy, his wife was Swedish and he was Lebanese. Fru and I thought we'd have to buy a house out in the west of Broward County because of schools and prices and such, but I talked to this guy one day and he said, nah, there were good schools right in town, one in a neighborhood just blocks from Las Olas. Hmmm. Fru and I had looked at some homes and condos out west, the realtor taking us into the nether-reaches of Broward to new home construction sites, but we didn't like them. We wanted to live in town. So, one day I took a walk over to the neighborhood the sandwich shop owner had told me about and I was delighted: small homes, small streets, heavenly vegetation and a cool public magnet school--Montessori--named Virginia Shuman Young.
The neighborhood was Victoria Park.
So, it ended up that we rented a house in Victoria Park, that First Daughter started kindergarten there. We loved it. And though we ended up buying a house south of downtown a year later, both daughters went to VSY and it was a great school, and we still have good friends in Victoria Park . . . but our first taste of living in South Florida was the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
The hotel has changed quite a bit--it's grown, things have been redone and moved around. But it still looks pretty much the same from the front, it still has the Mexican tiled floors, the same garden and the same old-south subtropic vibe. And the pool is still there. We go to the hotel now and then, have even stayed there again and swam there agin.
You can still watch the boats motor by as you swim.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How I Met a Good Friend from Canada, Excuse Me, from Quebec: Mexico 1990

I had already been to Tijuana, had already taken a Tres Estrellas bus from that border town to La Paz in Baja Sur where I spent a few days, I'd taken the ferry across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan where I immediately took a cab to the bus station in that resort town--I did not want to stay in Mazatlan--and after some confusion, got on a bus headed south to Tepic. I was traveling alone in Mexico, doing it on the cheap without solid plans. My Spanish was less than so-so. I'd never been to Mexico before, had never really been out of the country except to drive through British Columbia and the Yukon to get to Alaska. So, in Tepic I was at this little bustling and discombobulating bus station (all Mexican bus stations seemed to be this way to me) trying to figure out how to get to the small Pacific-seaside town of San Blas.
The station was narrow and crowded and though I'd been in Mexico for a while by then, I felt lost. I wasn't real sure how I could get a bus from Tepic to the little town, but then I saw someone in the station that was not Mexican. I figured he was an American (a United States-ian?--really, we of the north and south continents are all Americans if you think about it), so I approached him and asked him if he knew how to get to San Blas.
He was a guy about my age, medium build (I'm tall, more or less) and almost bald. He smiled, was receptive, but English was not his first language. French was, because he was from Montreal. Okay. But of course, he understood and spoke English, so it wasn't much of a problem.
"I am going there, too," he said.
His name was Francis. We introduced ourselves and we bought tickets. San Blas was not far from Tepic and Francis had been there before, a few years ago. he was also traveling alone and--seeing as how we got along well enough--we decided to get a room together once we got to San Blas. He said he knew this great seaside hotel there.
Francis' English was good, though a little thick. He taught me some French (which I had taken one semester of at Iowa before switching back to Spanish) and he was a good, intelligent and pleasant fellow. So, we took the short ride into San Blas--a groovy little town with business' and a square, a beach--and got our luggage and began to walk. He knew where we were going, he knew of this hotel.
I was married but Fru had gone to visit family in Illinois while I went on my solo trip, and we had been living in Missoula, Montana for a few years, so walking down the street of the town, then down a sandy-dirt road lined by palms and pastures with longhorn cattle in them, was very interesting to me. It was sunny and hot. It was good to talk with someone after being alone for days. And finally we came to this hotel along the beach--forget the exact name of it but it translated as the Brothers Hotel or Three Brothers Hotel: Hermosas or Tres Hermosas Hotel. But this place didn't look so grand, not like he had described it. In fact, it looked dilapidated, it looked abandoned. Francis was a bit confused. The landscaping was all overgrown, there were no cars or anyone to greet us, fountains were still and weed-choked. In the lobby, which was large and open, everything was dirty, dusty, empty. We went to the counter and rang a bell--then up popped this guy, a slovenly guy but funny looking. He surprised us both and we laughed a bit. He said his name was Antonio.
Antonio was drunk.
But, Antonio checked us in--sort of--and took us to a room.
Francis and I made many jokes about Antonio after that, through the rest of the week and even years (I still know Francis and now and then we still make references to Antonio, to the trip in San Blas). The room was horrible. Door did not lock. Water did not really run. The two beds were so ugly I did not even pull back the covers that night, but slept on top of them. Francis was apologetic--a few years ago this had been a wonderful cheap hotel on the beach. Now it was a run-down piece of crap, but still on the beach and cheap. We met a few other Americans there--hipster-like Californians--but they were all stoned out of their gourds.
We spent only the one night there and the next day we took a place in town, Maria's, which was like a family place, like a hostel in a way, full of fellow foreigners. It was fine. It was fun.
So Francis and I became good friends. We walked around the town, ate at the cafes, drank in the bas, met other people in the town.
I left before Francis did--by a day or so. I think maybe he was taking the train to Guadalajara then flying home. I took the bus all the way from San Blas to Nogales--man that was a long trip (and then the bus from Nogales to Missoula).
But Francis and I stayed in touch. I was surprised. And after we moved back to Champaign, he came and visited. This was after our first child--First Daughter--was born and we drove up to Chicago to get him at the airport. We stayed at Don's, who lived in Chicago by then. And Francis came to Champaign and stayed with us, learning about my new family. . .But, who wants to come to Champaign, Illinois for a vacation and spend it mainly sitting around the house watching a one year old? Francis did, I guess. he came and visited a number of time in Champaign. And then later in Fort Lauderdale (which makes more sense). And we went, unfortunately only once so far, to Montreal to visit him.
But in that bus station in Tepic in Mexico, when I thought I was asking a question of a fellow American, I had no idea that I'd meet one of my best friends, some guy from Canada--excuse me, from Quebec, as Francis is a separatist and we talked much about this in Mexico--who I still know to this day and who still comes to visit.
Strange how some things happen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Was a Human Mule: Champaign 1994

I wasn't a mule like a drug-runner mule, what I'm remembering was when my kids were babies/toddlers. What I'm thinking of was when whenever we traveled somewhere--on vacation or weekend trips or what-have-you--we had to take a multitude of baby/toddler
accoutrements with us and I'd have to lug them into the car, out of the car, back into the car and back into the house.
In particular I'm thinking of one family reunion (Fru's family) in Wisconsin where I became acutely aware of how things had changed with babydom.
Every year, Fru's extended family has a reunion in the midwest on the weekend of Father's Day, in June. It's from her mother's side of the family and someone plans it and they all get together for food and conversation, swimming and golf and poker. It's a great time and I'm glad to have become part of it. And it's almost always in the midwest because that's where almost all of them live: Wisconsin and Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, Indiana and such. So it'll often be in these small to smallish towns which I enjoy visiting.
So, this year it was in Wisconsin, in Oconomowoc, at this very nice resort and we had a room on the second floor. So, we check in and get to our room and Fru needs to stay with the girls, maybe take them to the hospitality room to see all the relatives, and I need to go back down to the car to start hauling up our luggage. But the thing is, it's not just simply luggage. Yes, I go down the stairs and out into the heat and unlock the car and lift the trunk and pull out the suitcases and toiletries bag and lock the car and go up the stairs and take them down the hall and unlock the room door and take them into the room, but then I go back--repeating all the unlocking and locking--and take out the bag of toys and the bag of extra pillows and more luggage, and then there's the trip with the diaper bag and the bag of extra kid's clothes and then there's the stroller and there's the playpen and maybe the bed rail we brought just in case and the car seats maybe or the "bouncy chair" and maybe a high chair to feed them in--who knows what the heck we brought. I just recall going up and down and locking and unlocking, carrying big and heavy and unwieldy tons of luggage to the room. It was then I realized I was a human mule and would be one for quite a few years.
Ah. All that stuff. From cans of formula (the girls did not nurse--a long story there) to more and larger toys, over the years I got used to the routine. It was like a caravan where I was the only pack animal, a safari where I was the only porter, an ascent of Mt. Everest with me--yes, me--as the only sherpa. Hmm. But, it wasn't so terrible either. But all that stuff we'd have to have to go anywhere--from "spit-up rags" to extra diapers and diaper rash creams and . . . Oh I can't even remember it all. But then it does come to an end, doesn't it?
Eventually the little babies sit and talk and then walk and feed themselves. Eventually they can be alone in a room while you take a shower, alone at the house while you go shopping, they can run around a hotel or park with an older cousin or with friends, can sleep over at a house, take a weekend trip with a trusted family. Eventually they can go out the door and just tell you where they are going. They can go out the door and not tell you. They can, eventually, go out that door and not ever come back--figuratively at least (and you don't even want to think of it literally).
So, those early years with kids are so shocking and enveloping, they seem long and intense, but then they're gone.
Those years go away and are part of the past and you wonder how in the world it could happen so fast.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Small Memory in Idaho #4

This was when I was coming back from Mexico. I'd taken the Greyhound Bus up from Nogales, AZ and had told Fru--who was back in Missoula--that'd I'd be home, that the bus would pull in at about nine that night. I'd called her from somewhere on a pay phone, in Tucson, I think. The problem was that I'd been wrong. As the bus traveled northward, I realized the mistake in my calculations, which was off by about, oh, twelve hours. It was nine in THE MORNING when I'd be getting back to Missoula.
It was night time, dark, snow had been falling (this was March in 1990) and finally the bus pulls into this little town of Blackfoot, Idaho. Like a lot of small western towns, the place hadn't changed since maybe the 1950s or 60's: things were old, retro-looking, even the people, even the very air and aura had an antique back-in-time feel to it. So, we had but a short stop in this strange bus station in Blackfoot and I rushed to the pay phone to try and get a hold of Fru to let her know I was wrong (once again in many once agains). There was no Internet emails or cell phone calls or texts in those days--had to use pay phones and maybe a phone card at that phone, but think I used coins (it was even tougher to try and call her when I was in Mexico, where you'd go to theses shops where you paid someone to connect you through--interesting, though)--so I got into this old-fashioned phone booth which were, even in '90, becoming obsolete and called our home number in Missoula.
No answer.
I left a message saying I was sorry, that I'd miscalculated. And that was all I could do.
Turned out she'd gone to the bus station and had waited for me, all dressed up to look nice for me, and the derelicts at the station all ogled her, made her feel uncomfortable (sorry, Fru!), and didn't know why I wasn't on the bus until she got home and listened to my message . . . But I still recall that old station, that rush to the booth inside that crazy place. And outside the night was dark, the mountains stood tall and snow-capped, trees black columns against the black night with the snow falling. It was cold compared to Mexico (as you might expect). It was a sad feeling but also, almost, an Xmasy feeling, like I was coming home for the holiday to my loved one, my beautiful wife, after a long journey away from her (though it was only two weeks or less). There was also some talk that the route would be delayed or canceled because of the snow. And when I got on the bus--we changed buses there in Blackfoot--it wasn't the Greyhound anymore but a local one, Inter-Mountain, I think--but the driver was a good guy, reassured everyone that the roads weren't that bad and we'd be going up into Montana. And there was this old lady sitting across from me and she kept looking at me and the bus driver asked if there was a problem. The lady said she was a afraid of me. And no doubt I looked kind of scary--I'm a big guy and I hadn't shaved, was unwashed and sad about Fru and depressed knowing how much more time I had on the bus (and I'd been on one since mid-Mexico along the Pacific coast for the past two days or so) and I'd just come up from Mexico. And the bus driver looked at me and asked if I was a bad guy and I said, "No. I'm just trying to get home" and he laughed and reassured the women--like reassuring us about the weather--that all was okay.
I don't know.
It was just one of those sad/beautiful moments that we all have, many of which for me seem to happen in Idaho.

Where's The Baby?: Champaign 1992

This was at the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana. Urbana is the cooler town of the twin cities of Champaign and--you guessed it--Urbana. Anyway, we were at the mall because they had an exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs, that is, electric giant-sized robotic-moving dinosaur statues. And First Daughter, my darling little daughter, was crazy for dinosaurs. (Dinosaurs are always a big thing with kids, but in the 90's they were especially huge.) This possibly could have been in 1991, as Fru was not pregnant with Second Daughter yet and First Daughter didn't talk that well at the time, though I'm sure she was walking--so it must have been '92 . . . Anyway, her favorite toys were smallish plastic animals and of those she loved her dinosaurs (she loved the movie Land Before Time--but also had this thing for The Brave Little Toaster, ahem) and we used to travel with what we called the Cup-O-Toys, which was simply a big plastic drinking cup filled with her favorite plastic animals. So, Fru and I saw they were having this exhibit at the mall in Urbana and took First Daughter there, who was just barely a toddler.
But what I remember was, after we saw the dinosaurs with their noises and their stiff repetitive electronic movements, which was inside an empty "store" space, we went back out to the mall and sat along one of the fountains there.
I don't know where Fru went--shopping, no doubt; at Art Mart no doubt--but First Daughter and I sat there, quietly, doing not much of anything. Then she looks at me--she was the most beautiful little girl with yellow-blond hair and big blue eyes, and she was the sweetest, had the most calm and happy disposition--and she goes: "Where's the baby?"
Now, she didn't say it like that, more like, "Whey de bebe" or some version of such because she couldn't quite pronounce her words yet, but it was cute (believe me, it was). At first I didn't know what she was saying, but she repeated herself a few times and then I understood.
"Where's the baby?"
And what she wanted was to play a game. See, Where's The Baby? was a game we played at home where I'd hold her and we'd look in the big round wall mirror and I'd go, "Where's the baby?" and pretend I couldn't find her--my baby--even though she was right there in my arms and in front of the mirror (yes, I built up a sense of absurd irony in her at a very young age). I'd keep saying "Where's the baby?" and look everywhere but at her or in my arms and she would find this very funny and then I'd finally see her in the mirror and say, "Ohhh, there's the baby!"
So, this was what she wanted, to play this game.
But we were at the mall. People were walking around. This was a private game, played at home when it was only the two of us. I was a new father, I was--essentially--a stay-at-home father and was sometimes embarrassed to be so. So. So, I tried to talk her out of it. I said something like, "Oh, you don't want to play that here." But I was smiling. I was laughing a bit because she wanted to play that game and because of the way she went about asking me. But, she kept saying: "Whey de bebe?"
She was such a sweet girl. I loved her more than I knew I could love someone or something. And she was so funny in asking. What was I going to do: deny her because I was embarrassed to play the game in public, or go ahead and look foolish to please my little girl?
Of course I opted for foolishness.
And so we played Where's The Baby? at the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana while Fru was at Art Mart, just First Daughter and me. And, it was fun. I maybe didn't do all of my exaggerated voice and facial expressions, but we went through the routine of me looking for her and asking where the baby was and then, finally, discovering that she was right there, next to me and how delighted I was to find her. And, she was happy, laughed.
Ah. There is no such thing as foolishness when it comes to making your children happy. Or when it comes to just caring for or teaching your children. And I would prove that to be a fact many many times from that moment on.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Starting a New Life While Illegally Parked on Las Olas Boulevard: Fort Lauderdale 1995

We had driven down from Champaign, IL to south Florida. To Fort Lauderdale. I had decided that we'd be moving there. In the car was my wife, Fru, First Daughter (4 yrs old) and Second Daughter (2 yrs old). We had made reservations at the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It was one of the oldest hotels in the city. It was about the only hotel located downtown. I had picked it out because of those two things but otherwise knew nothing about it.
So, we--my family of four--pulled off Interstate 95, found our way into downtown, found our way to Las Olas and found the hotel. But, I didn't know where to park. Sure, we saw the hotel's entrance, but there was no way to pull up and get in there--unless you were a pedestrian. Huh. So, not knowing what else to do, I simply pulled over to the curb in the only place there was space--across the divided boulevard, in front of the bus stop and at the corner of a light. Okay, it was essentially an illegal parking job but I and the kids remained in the car while Fru got out, crossed the street and disappeared into the hotel to check in and see where the heck we were supposed to park our car.
Sitting there, exhausted and a bit discombobulated from the long drive, from being in a place foreign to me, with my girls being good in the back seat, I expected trouble. I figured people would start honking at me, or a cop would come and tell me to move along. But, no one did. I mean, we had lived in the midwest for the last six years or so, where rules were rules. But, people didn't even look at us, they just went around us and about their business.
And as I sat there, windows open, the sounds and smells of south Florida coming in my window, I looked around and realized that this was it, this was where we were going to live. I looked at the buildings--though Fort Lauderdale was not a big city, especially in 1995--those buildings were much bigger and denser than old Champaign/Urbana. I looked at the trees: many trees with drooping foliage, palms and their fronds, flowering and creeping stuff everywhere; the sun streamed down and down and the shadows of the plants were heavy. And the smells. Sure, there was the smell of traffic and concrete and dust, but the whole texture of the air was different, thick and redolent of plantlife and decay, of water and salt and musky mustiness. Hard to explain, but everything was thick and heavy and sweet--slow--which was both pleasant and unpleasant. And I thought, this is it, this is where we will indeed be, what we will get used to, what my little girls will grow up with for the next two, three, five, ten years--I had no idea how long we would live in Florida.
I had lived in north Florida for a number of years, knew it quite well. I'd spent a lot of time in the Keys and Key West. But, I'd never really stopped in Miami or in Ft. Lauderdale or Palm Beach. I knew little about it or what it held--knew little of the urban Florida environment.
So, there we sat, illegally parked on Las Olas, me contemplating a new life, my girls happy and basically unaware of the changes coming . . . and then Fru came out of the Riverside Hotel, back to the car. She had our room keys. She said we had to pull in back, that's where the check-in entrance was.
Okay. I pulled in back.
Now I at least knew that much about Fort Lauderdale.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

ABC's: Champaign 1993

What the heck was I doing? I was in my mid-thirties, Fru and I had returned to the midwest--to Champaign--and we'd started a family. By spring of 1993 we had two children--two daughters. All of that was fine. But what the heck was I doing being the one to stay home and take care of them?
That's right. I was a stay-at-home father. It mainly came down to who--Fru being in banking and me being an unpublished novelist--who could make more money? And guess what, a controller at a bank makes more money than an unpublished novelist! Who would have thought it . . . So, by the time Second Daughter was born in March of '93, I'd quit my part time job at Agriseed in Savoy (just south of Champaign) and was a full time caregiver of a two little little kids. And I knew so little about it.
Really, that wasn't true. By '93 I knew a lot about raising babies, because First Daughter had taught me. I was the main caregiver for her and now I only had to do some of the same things for the next baby. Man. I did a lot of feeding and cleaning, of playing and laughing, rocking and going crazy.
It's hard for me to recall it all, those baby days in the early to mid-nineties. Some of it because it all blends together, my girls' childhoods and my place within it. Some of it because I was miserable and have no doubt blocked it out. Now, it wasn't a misery because of my girls. No. I loved them dearly, triumphantly. I'd honestly give my life for them--then and now. No, my misery was probably more to do with my not writing (like I thought I'd be able to) and with the fact that I was a man trapped at home with little kids while my wife made the money. Yes. If it wasn't for the love and enjoyment of my two girls, I would have been completely insane . . . of course, as anyone who has ever stayed home to raise kids knows, that time with kids can also drive you insane.
But, let's look at a couple of things. Let's look at the sudden influx of toys and games, some twenty years after you yourself had given these things up. It's quite fascinating to see your own children with toys, how important they are to them, what things they make up with them. I know on Saturday mornings, as Fru slept in, I'd get up with my girls, put on cartoons, feed them, change them, etc etc, then we'd often get out their waffle blocks and their box of plastic animals. then we'd play Captain Rhino. Yes, First Daughter had a big black plastic rhino and I'd build a boat out of the plastic waffle blocks (they were flat "blocks" that interconnected so that you could build boxes or other structures with them, they were bright red and yellow and blue). Then the black rhino was the captain and the other animals--the crew, I guess--traveled with him over the ocean of carpet . . . We also had a game of Roly-Poly Pudding, from a video of theirs. This involved laying out blankets and comforters and they'd lay down in them and I'd wrap them up and they'd roll back and forth while saying, "Roly-poly pudding." Sure, it doesn't sound like much, but they'd laugh and laugh and were--I swear this is true--the cutest little kids in the world.
And, of course, there was the ABC's song. I'd gather them up--two blond-haired little girls--in my arms, one in each, and we'd stand in front of the big wall round wall mirror (which had been Fru's grandmother's) and we'd sing ABC. I'd turn back and forth with them in my arms as we did so, until at the end, we'd go in full circles, then fall into a bed. Ah. They laughed and laughed at this, also.
Man. I don't know if I'll be any good at this: writing about my daughters' childhoods, about my many many days with them, the hours upon hours spent, just the three of us, doing all the inside-the-house childhood games and things--good and bad and wonderful and miserable. All those things that go into raising a child and raising yourself up so that you are good enough for your child. Well, I'll give it a try and hopefully do better than I have right here. Will try to make as simple as ABC.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Return to Key West: 1995

It was like this: Fru and I had been living back in Champaign, Illinois since August of 1990. I was trying to get out of Champaign and get back into graduate school. Our two daughters were around, what?, two and four years old by then. I'd turned down the top spot at the University of Oregon the year before, had reapplied and did not even get in. But, I had been accepted at Colorado State--in Ft. Collins--and Florida International University in Miami. Hmm.
So, I'd been out to Fort Collins to talk to the people there and now I was in Fort Lauderdale to talk to the people in Miami. I'd chosen Ft. lauderdale because I was a little leery of Miami as a place to raise little kids, but Broward County seemed good enough. But anyway--this is about how I went back to Key West.
I hadn't been in Key West since 1983. Twelve years prior. And you've got to understand, Key West was a big thing to me. I'd gone there first in 1977--fresh out of Urbandale High School (Des Moines, IA)--and was blown away that such a place existed. An island city? With flat tropical waters that came right up to the highway? Warm all year? What wasn't to be amazed about? I'd never really been to Florida, let alone the Keys, so I was duly impressed--and influenced. And I went back, stayed for a spell, then came back every year--sometimes twice a year--from '77 to '83. But then I didn't come back. I went out west, I went to the deep south, the midwest. It's not like I forgot about Key West--I was just busy.
So, I was staying by myself at a Days Inn on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale. Fru and my little girls were back in Champaign. I'd rented a car, had driven to Miami, to FIU, and met the director of the program there (the director of the program at Colorado State wouldn't meet with me, passed me off to a student--this was all the MFA Creative Writing program) and now I had a little time on my hands. And a car. And I was in South Florida. So, I decided to take a little drive.
I wasn't going to go to Key West, just dip down into the Keys for a bit and return to Ft. Lauderdale. And so--sunny day in the spring--I took off down 95 to U.S. 1, through southern Miami and into the swampy/Everglades land of mangroves and hidden lakes and then into Key Largo.
The Keys! Key Largo!
Ah, it felt good. Good enough that I kept going to the next Key. And then the next.
I made it to Marathon--about half way down the string of islands--and stopped. In Marathon I went to Sombrero Beach and hung out. Swam a bit. This was all pretty much impromptu, an unplanned drive. In Marathon I called Fru, talked to her to let her know everything looked good, that there was the best chance we'd be moving to South Florida (which she had misgivings about, but was willing to go if that's where I wanted to go) and I told her I was in the Keys but was headed back. She said to do what I wanted. (Money was tight back in those days--so we didn't just have a room one place then take off and do other frivolous things.) So, I got back in the rental, hit the main road and started back north, towards Miami.
But something got into me. After a few blocks in Marathon, I said to myself--what the heck, I'm down here, I haven't been to Key West in twelve years, why not?--and I made a U-turn.
Headed south (and west).
I got to Key West by evening time.
And it was strange to be there. Like I said, Key West represented a magical place to me, a place that defined my independence, my adulthood in many ways, it was the exotic realm I'd dreamt about while in the lousy years of high school and living in the suburbs of Des Moines. It was my escape, my fantasy island--as much based in reality and in the power of my own imagination. So, I was back. And--though it had changed, much busier and gaudier (gone were the old-stooped houses on eastern Duvall Street)--it was still Key West. The same silky atmosphere, the same easy-going slow-time feel, the vacation-world vibe. The night with music spilling out of bars, the palms and smell of saltwater, the city itself loose and immoral and live and let live. That feeling was there. I hit a few bars, ate dinner at an outdoor spot, walked old streets and just reveled in an inner revelry. Fun. Internal excitement. A sense that I was where I should be . . . but of course, we weren't moving to the Keys, but to Ft. Lauderdale (if we even did that--had no housing or jobs lined up, no real decision of the move yet), just the same, we--Fru, First daughter and Second Daughter, me--we'd be close, but a long drive.
I hung for a while. Played with the idea of getting a room. But decided--few beers or no--I should head on back. It was pretty late--close to midnight--but the good thing about that was that the highway would be clear and easy for a return drive. I mean, Key West is only about 170m miles or so from Miami/Ft. Laud but once you hit Key Largo, it's a slow drive (a nice drive) with other cars. It takes about four hours to do that 170 miles. But, at night--late at night--you can cut that drive time in half almost.
So, that's what I did. Put all my windows down and threaded my way back through the Keys with the warm dark night enveloping me. A sweet drive with barely another car. And I made it back to my dingy beach room at the Days Inn, happy to have been back in Key West, even if just for a few hours.
Who knows. Maybe that drive to KW helped me to make up my mind to move back to Florida--to SoFla instead of the panhandle where I'd lived before. I think Fru would have preferred Colorado, but a lot of things made more sense to come to Miami.
It all ended up good.
My family knows Key West quite well now.