Saturday, November 26, 2016

Adventure Time

Over the last few present-worthy occasions - birthdays, Father's Days, Christmases and so on - my wife has been helping me build a collection of camping and outdoors equipment. The latest item was a pretty incredible three-seater inflatable kayak. The thing about camping, or really anything outdoors in South Florida, is the heat. I really enjoy camping and kayaking and the outdoors, but I can't stand the heat. I tell my wife all the time that my people come from the land of snow, not the land of sun. So there's really only a small window of opportunity in the late fall and the winter when sleeping under the stars is actually comfortable, and not just a sweaty insomniac test of will and character. When the weather gets cool enough I try to take any opportunity I can to use my gear and get out in the wild.

Sometimes my son will come with me, and that's some good male bonding time. Other than that, I'm on my own, out there like Grizzly Adams, just me and the bears. This weekend, however, I decided to try to take the littlest, just overnight, to see if she would like enough to make a habit out of it. It went exactly the way I remember all of those family and church camping trips when I was a kid, which is to say that about half of everything went wrong.

When I was growing up, there was a real concerted effort on the part of the men in my church, my own father included, to get all of us hood kids off the streets and into the wilderness, to learn about nature and master some survival skills. Or at least, survival skills other than urban. I really did learn a lot about being outdoors, setting up tents and tying knots and cooking over fire. But we kids were always very aware that things were rarely going according to plan. For example, there was this one time when our camp leaders forgot to stake one of the tents down properly, and a strong Florida wind picked it up and carried it - intact and still erect, like Dorothy's house in the tornado - up into a tree about fifty feet high. It stuck to the side of the tree, looking like a nylon tree house for a few minutes, and then deflated and flopped over one of the highest branches. It was still there, in increasingly rotten condition, every year for the next few summers, whenever we would go to that campsite. I remember one chaperone trying to show us how to cook foil wrapped dinners of chicken and vegetables on the fire, and constantly burning himself every time he tried to snatch one out of the flames, because he left the tongs at home. We got more excited every time he did it, because he was one of the deacons, and kept  getting closer and closer to cursing every time he did it. Unfortunately, he gave up and went with the back up plan, hot dogs, before he went full on Def Comedy Jam.

So this time it was my turn to mess it all up. It was just one night, one single night of camping, and yet I spent two weeks covering all the angles to make sure it went smoothly. I went shopping specifically for the food, and then still ended up going back for a couple of items. I had marshmallows and hot dogs for the fire, which was a little tricky, since the park allows fire rings, but not gathering firewood. No problem. I called ahead to make sure that the rangers had firewood at the concession area, which they did, and even bought a special steel fire ring, just in case. I opened up the inflatable mattresses to check for holes or mold, and sprayed them down to disinfect them. I started pulling things out the weekend before, and even packed the car the previous night.

Knowing I had to get there before sundown, I left work as soon as the last bell rang, pushing aside some students to get to the parking lot. The plan was to run down to pick up my daughter from day care, swing by the house to collect the food and supplies that couldn't sit in the car all day, and then drive the hour and a half up to Jupiter to get to the park, racing the sun the whole way.

The sun won. Traffic was so bad that it nearly doubled our time, and I could feel the night closing in on us as the GPS ticked down the miles towards the park. It was just after six when we got there, and pitch black in that part of the country, but still, I didn't worry, because I figured I could use the car headlights to set up the tent. Building a fire would be a little tricky in the dark, but I had a lantern to help me see that as well. What I didn't realize was that the park itself closed at sundown.

My heart froze over for a moment when I pulled up to the entrance, the nose of my car a foot away from the closed electric gates. I had already hyped this trip up so much in this little girl's mind that I was having visions of trying to console her as she cried the entire two hour trip back home. Luckily, I found the number for the ranger's station and they picked up and let me in. But then they tell me the park store is closed, so the nearest firewood is down the street at the grocery store. So, in my mind, building a fire is out, and now I just have to use my Jedi mind tricks to get the baby off of the idea of hot dogs and marshmallows. Thank God she went for the idea of fast food, because I was already tired and still had to make camp.

The next day was almost perfect, the only hitch being that she remembered the campfire and the marshmallows and wanted that for breakfast. After more trickery, we were off to ride the ponies in the corral at the park. We stopped by the visitors center to get directions, and, of course, she got sidetracked by all of the kid friendly exhibits and just wanted to touch fake animals and color pictures at the art station. Since the center had chairs and air conditioning, I gave in and let her stay for a while.

Then came the horses. I thought there would be ponies for the little ones, but apparently they had all grown up into full sized horses. She got to ride around the pasture, led by a very friendly cowgirl, on a horse that would have been the right size for me. He was a brown horse named Cinder, at least four and a half to five feet to his back. She took a while to get used to balancing herself on top of that monster, but she had a huge smile on her face the whole ride. She could barely understand anything the cowgirl said to her, and could only whisper in reply, so lost she was in her haze of animal attraction.

And that's the thing that makes up for all the failures. One experience like that one, one night of successful sleep under the stars, one excited hike looking for wildlife, can make up for all the flaring tents, and driving, and planning, especially when the planning never works anyway.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Aftermath

I think I may have been living in a protective bubble throughout this election. Living and working in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in Florida, I don't really meet that many people who were Trump supporters. I knew some, and I suspected others, but since my neighbors come out overwhelmingly for Clinton, or just not-Trump, in most cases, I just kind of figured that the rest of the state, and maybe even the country would be pretty much the same.

But I've learned a lot in the last few weeks.

We've been through the harshest, most divisive and hateful election season that I can remember, as someone who has been voting since 1992. I've see things around the country at Trump rallies that any other candidate in my lifetime would have treated like a pack of dementors circling their campaign and immediately attacked and disavowed. People physically attacking minorities, even women, at events, and that sometimes when the victim is a Trump supporter. But instead of attacking these actions, he incited them, with his words as well as his silence. I've learned things about people that I thought I knew, that I can't just unknow now. I've learned that some people in my circle of influence either don't care about the welfare and safety of my family, or have secretly had outright contempt for us. I've learned that many people really believe that anything that doesn't include being an active, card-carrying, hood-wearing member of the KKK could not possibly be racism, up to and including accepting the support of active, card-carrying, hood-wearing members of the KKK. Anything else - physically attacking people of color at rallies, shouting racist things like "Get out of my country" or "Build a wall," reinforcing stereotypes and making insulting generalizations, proposing unconstitutional and oppressive policies like "stop and frisk" - can all be rationalized and excused as anger at the system or economic despair or political impotence. I've learned that even people who think of themselves as "good white folks" will send an entire salad back to the kitchen if one leaf of lettuce is wilted, but don't mind swallowing their pseudo-Christian party loyalty even if it comes with a heaping side of racism and immorality.

And now, after over a year of the nastiest campaign I can remember, after a fight that was nothing but low blows and head butts, after nationally broadcasts of personal attacks that most people wouldn't allow in their schoolyards or workplaces, after manipulation of the voting system and outright cheating in the primaries, now I'm told that the election is over, and as we go back to our lives, we have a moral and logical responsibility to pull together behind our president. I'm told that we should all go back to the way things were before all of this, and work together to make this country great again. People are even comparing any opposition to Trump's presidency or policies to self-destruction, saying that hoping that he fails is like hoping that the pilot crashes the plane, when we are all on board with him.

The thing is, I may be on board the plane, but I don't like where it's headed. I didn't sign up for this, and if the pilot in your ridiculous analogy changes direction midflight, I'm going to make a stink about it to the attendants, and a bunch of us just might do what we can to prevent him from taking us all into dark territory. If that plane is really supposed to represent America, then we still have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly on board, we still have the freedom, and the obligation, to oppose our leadership when necessary, and not to stow our consciences in the overhead compartments until landing. That plus in-flight WIFI, I hope. I'm headed to Miami, and if the pilot changes direction and starts taking us to Greenville, I'm not just strapping in for the ride and going quietly with him.

Seriously, though, I'm not going to Greenville, you all.

But I don't even agree with the analogy from the start. I don't think this is a choice between supporting the pilot of our flight or crashing the plane in a fiery mess. I think it's more like hoping that the hijacker who takes over the plane misses his target. I think it's more like sabotaging the plane after someone takes over the cockpit, pulling out wires and snatching controls to keep him from using that plane to hurt large numbers of people. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Trump stole the election, even with the huge difference between the electoral vote and popular vote. Until we get either smart enough or angry enough to get rid of the electoral system, we deserve outcomes like this one. What I am saying is that I now have a president who has stated his intentions to use his office to attack and harm citizens of this country, including my family.

This may not seem like a problem to some, because some people either want to go to Greenville, or at least don't mind a four year layover there, as long as they get where they want to go. If Trump actually employs "stop and frisk" as his solution to urban crime, it's not their sons that will get stopped and frisked, detained and harassed, and physically harmed if they don't react to the violation of their rights in exactly the right way. I've already got family members being harassed by emboldened Trump supporters about being deported, and half of these family members are American citizens, and the children of citizens, not that it matters. To all of the Trump supporters who knew that he was racist, but put that aside because he convinced you that he was anti-abortion or pro-Christian or whatever, it must be nice to not have to worry about the hurricane because you've got shutters and impact windows, but my family is living in a tent out here. And for those who swallowed the red pill because they were so concerned about a liberal Supreme Court expanding abortion and gay rights, just know that some of us are equally concerned about an alt-right Court dealing with issues of civil rights, freedom of expression, mass incarceration, and immigration law.

So, no, I'm not going to blindly support a president whose policies threaten my family's future and safety. I'm not going to lay my voice on the altar of so-called peace or patriotism. I'm going to continue to follow my conscience, and hope that everyone else does as well, with all of the courage and patience and wisdom that it will take to get through the next few years. I'm going to obey my God and obey the conscience that He has given me, alongside everyone else who prizes goodness above party loyalty or America. If we had all lived the last year that way, we wouldn't be in this mess now.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Murtaugh Effect

When I was worried about the idea of having another child after so many years, and just when I had expected to be sending my kids out into the world, instead of bringing new ones in and starting all over, a good friend who had been through the same thing told me "That baby is going to keep you young. She's gonna be your fountain of youth." At first, I thought it sounded like the kind of rationale for getting a dog. "You'll get more exercise, taking it out for walks and bending over to pick up poop. You'll be chasing it around the house and trying to get it back indoors all the time. You won't want to do any of these things, and you'll hate every second of it, but, hey, exercise, right?"

But he was more right than I could ever have thought. I just turned forty-three, and I feel younger and fitter than ever. A lot of that is lifestyle changes and positive thinking, but I know that even that is motivated by the disruption of what I thought was my destiny. I look at old pictures of myself, the few that my big kids have saved, that I haven't gotten rid of out of sheer disgust, and I cringe at my former self. Almost a hundred pounds fatter, slow and weak, settled. Forced singlehood, single parenting, remarriage, and immediate and unexpected fatherhood are the gauntlets that have shaped me into the man I've become today. I know so many guys my age that are starting to settle, and I can tell that this insane challenge is what is keeping me sharp and strong and smart.

Still, I can feel the age and decay creeping up on me sometimes. My joints are fine, but the plantar fasciitis comes and goes, and when it comes, it has me alternating between running like the wind and limping like the three legged labrador. I'm at peace with my hair going gray - have been since I realized that my dad's hairline was my destiny. There's even something liberating about just shaving it all off every couple of days, and not thinking about it. It's the hair in the ears that's bothering me, often popping up faster than I can control it, like playing a game of whack-a-mole with a pair of tweezers. I'm more active and physically fit than I've ever been in my life, and I'm always looking for new challenges. Next year's challenge is to do some kind of race every month, and I feel like it's going to be a tremendous effort, but also an opportunity to prove something to myself. However, I do wonder how long it's going to be before other people see that it's getting more difficult for me to straighten up after bending over for a few seconds.

And all of this is the product of these unexpected changes and challenges. There are days when I think I'm not up to it, that I'm getting to old to be at this stage of life, but my friend was right. There really is something about having that baby in your life, in your arms. Unfortunately, sometimes in your bed. There's a muscle memory that kicks in, just like on the basketball court or the gym. Your body remembers what to do, and your brain reverts back to when you were just a young man yourself with your first child. It inspires me to stay quick, both physically and mentally, because the commitment I've made is such an important one, and requires me to be in peak condition, just like any other race I decide to run. I think back to the guy I was fifteen years ago, how I planned to be done with kids about now. And these days my wife and I are even working on having another baby, which means that I'll be bringing another child into the world, at exactly the age when I had planned to be kicking them all out into the world, and enjoying an empty house and lots of leisure time.

Like I said, it's a disruption, and it challenges the very concept I had about getting older. It might mean that I have to work more than I thought I would at this age. It might mean that the novel(s) don't get finished on schedule, or that I'll have to sacrifice some time from something else to get them done. At least when I sit down to write these days, I really feel like I have something to say, stories to tell. It has definitely meant that I sometimes have to get creative about what it means to get exercise. I can get my HIIT on in the park with the toddlers, and they can run cones with me and play with the resistance bands when I'm resting. I'll have to get used to sleep deprivation again, just when I had gotten the insomnia more or less under control. But I know that I'm stronger, leaner, faster, smarter, saner, tougher, and all around better than I have ever been, and I am equal to any task. I might just need a couple of weeks of training to get ready.

Sometimes, I catch a view of myself in the mirror, and, for just a second, I don't recognize that guy looking back at me. But I think he's pretty cool.