Every time I drive somewhere in the traffic nightmare that is sub-and-urban living, I see European-style bumper stickers with their requisite two or three letters. However the letters don’t have universal meaning any longer, watered down as they are with our national allegiances to a million different places, teams, hobbies and events. Regional holiday spots, local football teams, favorite computer brands, local bands and political sways have been compacted down into three-letter obscurity with a peculiarly American marketing savvy. I found myself tailgating offending SUVs (another unfortunate American trend, this one now being exported to Europe at an alarming pace … but at least their petrol taxes, good sense and tiny country roads are holding that at bay) to read what obscurity might be referenced this time.
(Go Bears not Great Britain, Dance Addict not Denmark, Grave Diggers Reunion not Germany ... the car below boasts Stone Harbor, Beach Bum and Avalon. I will admit I am a bumper sticker snob, but I believe this snapshot, taken at random this week, seals my case nicely.)
One acronym I noted with increasing frequency during my sojourn into east-coast traffic has been OBX. I finally came to read that this referenced the Outer Banks, but this was meaningless to me since I can draw a more accurate map of Southeast Asia than the United States. I later gathered from Peter this was a popular summer destination on the coast. After much ridicule of this frequent entry, it was with some chagrin that I realized these very Outer Banks were our destination for a late-June, pre-move family shindig on the beach.
As we approached the single road heading down onto the small, sandy strips of dunes and salt scrub that make up the costal barrier islands that are the outer banks, I began seeing the OBX acronym on more and more cars, trucks, SUVs and boat trailers. It was not hard to miss, as traffic piled and slowed until I felt like we were driving into New York City rush hour, and not out to a placid week of sun and sand. Only the back windows packed with beach towels, sun block and sand buckets, and boogie-boards on roof racks trailing their shredded leashes in the breeze gave me confidence we were headed in the appropriate direction. On some level, I felt like I was taking part in a truly American Cultural Phenomenon for the first time. Here I was, stuck in nose-to-tail traffic with thousands of identically packed cars, heading for respite from the heat at the coast on a hot summer’s Saturday afternoon. I was living a Don Dilillo novel. Delightful!
As we drove south, the traffic thinned. Eventually, we made our way to the house we shared with Peter’s family for the week. It was a wonderful week, full of sand and sunburn and pruned fingers. We slept with the sound of waves crashing through the windows, and nearly lost breakfast to gulls on the deck. Best of all, Peter and I rented two sit-on-tops for three days. I have been chomping at the bit to introduce him to the addiction that is kayaking, but finances (mostly) and situation (landlocked) have kept me at bay. We tried them out as soon as we got them back to the beach house. I gave a mini-tutorial, and we launched, paddling into a nasty headwind along a thin stretch of island next to the highway. We were primarily over a very shallow sandbar, the car drone was constant, seabirds nowhere to be seen, and the heavy wind (and Peter’s recently broken glasses) made the whole affair a rather miserable introduction.
I was, to put it very mildly, disheartened. Peter carefully noted that he wouldn’t mind all the other things if we weren’t paddling next to cars and houses and power lines. It didn’t help. I had tried to introduce my best friend to the thing I love most besides him and the hound (who, for the record, has been kayaking several times and hates is almost as much as she hates being *in* the water) and it was a spectacular flop.
The next day, I was determined to make up for it. We loaded the Kayaks on Annie (my faithful Subaru wagon … and I get plenty of flack as it is for naming my cars, thank you very much) and headed north, to the hope of better paddling. We drove right into a torrential downpour. My heart began sinking, and did not stop for over an hour. We plodded up and down the One Road, looking for put-ins or interesting coast line, dreading the cold drizzle but determined to try. Eventually, we reached the bridge at the end of the island. Instead of turning around, we drove over it to get gas in the next town. From the bridge we could see (on the far island) a wonderful network of channels between pockets of salt-grass, full of birds and possibility. We drove to the gas station, and while we pumped, the rain let up, sky cleared, and a beautiful evening followed the clouds down the coast. We booked it back to a public boat ramp we’d passed near the bridge, unloaded and slid into the water.
It was a perfect evening. The sky was clear, there was just enough breeze to keep the shore-bugs at bay, and the channels near the inlet were packed full of birds, fish and (apparently) a water snake. Peter took to the rhythm quickly as we covered the ground from the dock to the bridge. We explored as much as we dared as the sun set slowly over a continent we could not see. It did not take long for Peter’s face to take on the giddy, peaceful air that comes with being on the edge of the world, paddle dipping into another realm altogether, sliding silently up on birds with impossible colors and beaks, watching a small heron scoop a fish from the water yards from our bows.
When we finally caved to the dying light and began paddling back to the docks I realized, with a sweep of contentment, that our evening had fallen on summer solstice: the most generous of them all.
I'm going to miss the little buggers. I have totally fallen in love with them, and it rips my heart that by the time we get back down for a visit, they won't remember us at all. But I know my little monsters are well on their way to growing up big and strong like little boys do ... and one day they'll come up to Alaska to visit us, and we'll be sitting around the yard with some sweet little girl from down the road they've made friends with, and I'll say ... "Turtle, you used to spit your food back out of your mouth at me, and I'd scoop it up off your chin, and turn around with the spoonfull of spit-up-goopy-baby-food to Monkey and say 'yummy! open wide ...' "
What a good terror of an Aunt I'm going to be.
My mother went to Jordan for awhile after college, and my father started working Mississippi river boats right out of high school, then spent the next several years as a merchant marine and then a captain of tankers in the South Pacific before returning to Texas to 'settle down.' When I was nine, they packed us off to Southeast Asia for “a year or two” on a business venture. I returned stateside for college when I turned eighteen.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I woke up on Sunday to the realization that I am the only member of my immediate family currently in the United States. My parents are trapsing around South Africa and my baby sister just moved to Paraguay for some indefinite period. Even though Peter and I are packing the car for our northward migration in a few weeks, I am feeling a little left out. For many of my friends who grew up following a similar global migration pattern, this is only a blip on the radar. But my context is so different now that I am married to a man whose family has lived in the same house since he was five – the type of background that garnered violent jealousy in me for a period in college - that it threw me for a loop when Sarah called me from the airport on her way South.
Peter has been to all but two of the fifty states – we will tick off one more on our trip north, leaving him with only Hawaii (bummer!) to traverse at some point - and has driven across the country enough times to be well versed in state character and quirk. I could probably count my state travels on my hands, and have only memories of generic gas stations and on-ramps blending them to a vague mush in my mind. Peter can tell intricate stories of our shared national history and the characters therein, which require a shameful amount of back story for me to even begin to follow. I have a lot to learn, and for the first time I am actually craving it. Living here has thrown my brain, usually piling up plans for crossing Mongolia on horseback or looking for long-term beachfront rentals in Goa, into spasms of “sea to shining sea.” Suddenly I want to risk life and limb in the Needles as well as Tibet, spend weeks trekking through the Badlands and the Road of Bones. I actually want to visit obscure historic sites for the stories they tell, and don’t always feel like I have to be in Ireland graveyards to find good ones. My genetic border itch is no less pronounced, but it has been broadened now to appreciate boot shuffling opportunities a little closer to home.
Home. Hmm. Where was that again?
Yesterday, Peter decided it was time for a summer shearing (click here for the story.) This was the result.
When my sister saw the New Peter, she had a positive reaction - but one that differed significantly from my own. I think this difference demonstrates a concrete gauge of our polarized socio-political persuasions. Our reaction to the new look was instantaneous. Both pronouncements were intoned with affection. But they were very, very different.
Sarah saw an newly shorn Army Recruit.
I saw a Buddhist Monk.
PS. I got my new passport this week in the mail. When Peter saw this picture
he said, "You look like a serial killer."
Um. Thanks, man. I'm not even going to try to analyze that one.
They spend a lot of their summer days sitting on the back porch (watching birds & bunnies feast, watching flowers grow) or mulling over the yard with a trowel. Whenever we come and go (if its not raining) we are stopped for a minute (or hours) of conversation. I try to leave the house a little earlier if I see one of them through the kitchen window filling birdfeeders or picking up twigs downed in the last storm. I know I will be asked where I am headed, and before I answer, they will begin a careful dictation of whatever is on their minds: the weather, the dog, their granddaughter’s schedule, groceries, the War (as in WWII,) Norm’s heart surgery & recovery, “Those People” - the rowdy pot-smoking kids who live in the next building, their van’s transmission, the (lack of) mothering skills demonstrated across the alley, Mormon missionaries, the river in spring.
Today I stood on the sidewalk for almost an hour, listening to Norm talk about the state of the world. Several months ago, I joined them for coffee at the bar down the road. Several bar tables had been set up in a row, covered in a pastel table cloth and decorated with ceramic Easter Bunnies and plastic flowers. There were about fifteen retired folks sitting around the table, sipping coffee and detailing every local scandal, divorce and delinquent as morning traffic piled up on the main road through town. Several unemployed young men played a slow game of billiards, dark, sweaty bottles already in hand, flirting good-naturedly with the elderly women, cursing roundly when they missed a shot, then excusing themselves dramatically to the group. Someone’s granddaughter was visiting, and sat curled around a book on a bar stool, trying to avoid the questions peppered at her by all of these strange adults. I remember being taken to ‘morning coffee’ by my own grandfather when I was ten, squirming under the scrutiny of his boisterous friends, wanting to melt into the floor but also fascinated by their wild stories and weathered faces.
On the walk home later that morning, Norm stopped to look at the overflowing contents of a trash bin taking up the sidewalk across from a new construction site. Much to my amusement and Evelyn’s chagrin, he began pawing through the mess, picking out recycling and muttering about the waste, the idiocy of the non-recycling workers, the state of America’s landfills. Until that moment, I had never heard a person over the age of seventy talk about environmental issues (beyond, perhaps, how the winters just aren’t what they used to be) much less rant on a public sidewalk while pawing through someone else’s garbage.
This afternoon, I was privy to Norm’s entire philosophy of conservation, which is personal, practical and followed with a vehemence unusual for this laid back gardener and lover of birds. He talked about our culture’s demand for pre-packaged, disposable wares. He talked about buying sugar in bulk, cookies from a jar and TV tubes as needed, as a young man. He spoke of seeing almost-new appliances thrown on the side of the road, of the landfills, of his practice of taking yard waste to the woods above town. He told me about rinsing reusable diapers for his children, and his horror at generations of petrified baby poop piling up around the country. He reminded me to recycle, and said that if he were our age, he would reconsider having children. What, he asked, would my grandchildren be left with?
None of these lines of thought were new to me, but listening to them flow from a man on the other end of life made for a new voice, a new timbre to the growing chorus. Peter pointed out later how much this makes sense: The WWII generation is generally a disciplined, practical bunch. They lived through wartime and depression – the real thing, not voice-overed TV battles and high gas prices - and internalized the practice of sacrificing individually for the good of the whole. “They would be such hard-core recyclers!” And it is true. Our culture has changed so rapidly over the last two generations, shifting towards individual freedom, convenience and choice, and we are beginning to see where that shift is taking us. It is not a very pretty horizon. Just before I walked out to my car, Norman sighed and said, “I’m sure glad I’m not going to have to see where all this is taking us.” The anxiety in his voice was genuine. I have never heard a person who loves life as much and lives it as fully, look upon its timely end with such a palatable sense of relief.
The mad dash to get my sticky little paws on the B&H box before we left turned out to be an adventure unto itself.
The goods were scheduled to arrive sometime Wednesday, so I’d have them before we left Thursday afternoon. I harassed the Marysville Post Master several times both days, until I realized that it had been shipped UPS, not USPS. (Yes, somebody accidentally let me into graduate school. Please don’t tell them.) On Thursday, I found out delivery had been attempted to the empty apartment downstairs the evening before – and that the UPS man would not arrive for a re-attempt before we left. After lots of gentle persuasion, I got the dispatcher to get the delivery guy to call me so I could meet him on his route somewhere. A few minutes later, I got a call from a truck on the other side of the county with no relevant package on board. I waited for a follow up call for the rest of the afternoon.
Driving to get Peter from work, I saw a UPS truck in an alley one town over. I sped around the corner, blocked the alley, and ran up to the startled driver waving and looking panicked. No, he did not deliver to Marysville. No, he did not know who did. Please, could I move my car now? I decided to call UPS back. This time, I was told to meet the appropriate truck driver at the Marysville Post Office in half an hour. No problem. I picked up Peter and we headed home at full (legal) speed while I filled him in. Fifteen minutes later, the truck driver called, wondering where I was. No, he could not wait. We could try to catch him on Valley Road, if we hurried.
We hurried, and ended up overshooting him by several miles. I called back.
Me: Where are you?
Driver: Where are you?
Me: Orchard Road.
Driver: Whoa! What are you doing all the way out there?
Me: Um …
Driver : Do you know where the P&R Garage is?
Me: P&R Garage, yeah. We can do that.
Peter (driving): Pee in Our Garage? What kind of sicko is this guy?
Me (glaring at Peter, covering mouthpiece): What are you talking about? Turn around quick!
Driver: I’ll be there in three minutes, ok?
Me: OK! (hanging up) Hurry Hurry! No! SLOW DOWN!!!
In the end, the UPS man got to the P&R Garage and I got my precious box (which Peter accused me of fondling from here to St. Louis & back. Yes, I held it in my lap the whole time. It is a sensitive piece of equipment! Stop looking at me like that!)
In the end, my birthday turned out pretty close to perfect. It involved waking up in an incredible old Columbus row house, a thoughtful conversation with a long-lost friend over excellent indie-shop mocha, getting lost in Columbus’ intricate, twisting alleyways, driving across some beautiful (and some not-so-beautiful, ahem!, Illinois) country, playing with my new camera, and getting some much needed chill time with Peter in the car: nothing to do but drive, talk, think, laugh and be together without the overhanging threat of lists (thank you notes!!) and obligations breathing down our necks. The day ended in a down bag under the stars. A hunting owl shushed me to sleep. A good day.