Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kids and Cats n'at


The motel room was huge and everyone needed to recharge after all the driving so we stayed another day.  I took Sullivan and Juniper shopping for dog food for our new friend and some other essentials.    Amy and Ava had some girl time.  I love how close they are.  I feel so lucky that we get to have two daughters and one son.  I can’t imagine not having any of them.  It’s weird to me to imagine not having them.  My life would be so different and, to be honest, less meaningful.

Sure I have things I enjoy doing by myself or just with my wife, (that’s how we had three kids.)  But being a father is the most important thing you can do as a male of the species.  Your children are the only thing that will survive you.  Before I had kids I used to think art was a kind of immortality but it’s not the same thing.  Art doesn’t walk and talk and have ideas that are completely different than yours and give birth to more things that have trace elements of you in them but are also completely different and unique.  Art is certainly altered by the person that perceives it but it doesn’t accept donations of anyone else’s DNA.  For better or worse it’s an extension of you and when you’re gone, no matter how “good” or “influential” you were it will eventually turn to dust and no one will care anymore.

Children are the embodiment of hope.  Hope for happiness, for excitement, for more pleasure than pain in the things they do, and perhaps above all meaning.  Hope that there is meaning to what we do and say and believe and create. 

I’m not sure if the maid at that motel had children but she certainly loved cats.  There was a family of ten strays that followed her all over the motel as she went room to room cleaning.  They sat outside the door next to her maid cart, never getting close enough to let her touch them, just remaining in the immediate vicinity should she decide to put some food out for them.  I asked her about the cats and she told me they didn’t let her pet them but I could tell by the way she said it that she didn’t mind.  She appreciated why they cultivated distance from people who could hurt just as quickly as they offered affection.  I could not know whether she had some immediate experience with that fact, but her face was taut and wrinkled as if from staring into the wind and her blue jeans dangled off her hips like they were coat pegs.  She told me she lived at the hotel.  Her and her cats. 

Home of the King!


Our detour yesterday brought us back to Tupelo today but that worked out great because it meant we had time to see The King’s childhood home.  Graceland is where Elvis lived and died but Tupelo is where he was born and raised and the town is proud to claim him.  The museum was situated at the foot of a wide grassy hill and just in front of it the two room white wooden house where he was born still sits.  I was never a huge Elvis fan but like the guy in Orlando was telling me about the Beatles I don’t think you can listen to Elvis and hate it.  He was the conduit that brought Delta blues and the rock and roll that grew out of it to mainstream US audiences.


His twin died during childbirth so his mother was understandably protective of him.  Since she thought both the rifle and the bike he wanted at the hardware store were too dangerous the owner suggested a guitar.  His mother agreed and told Elvis that if he learned how to play it he just might be famous someday.  The museum was full of local anecdotes about him sitting outside black bars and churches in Tupelo so he could listen to the music and promising classmates he’d play at the Grand Ol’ Opry someday.  There was a statue of him as a young boy that made it even easier to picture the excitement and promise the young boy must have felt when he played.
Here's a picture of Juniper grabbing the butt of the Elvis statue.  She has such a funny sense of humor.  Gets it from her mom for sure.

I thought it was classy that the museum was entirely free.  You only had to pay if you wanted to see the inside of his actual house.  I’m guessing that was more for the die hard fans.  From Tupelo we stayed off the Interstate and took the scenic route northwest.  We saw huge tracts of farmland with rolling grasses and smaller plots with iron gates that led to elaborate houses beyond.  Verdant trees often shaded the roadway entirely as it twisted and turned through the backcountry.  We listened to country on the radio.

 We ended up in a motel just over the Arkansas state line.  I stopped at a liquor store where I bought a quart of Miller High Life for $1.36.  I love good beer but that was just too much of a bargain to pass up.  The guy running the store looked and talked a lot like Tickle from the show “Moonshiners.”  He had a wry grin like he knew a really funny joke he might tell you if you got enough beers in him after work.  The liquor store featured a walk in cooler and a recliner situated right in the middle of the store like he sat there when business was slow.  Behind the register there was a faded poster of a blonde leggy gal caressing a can of Natural Light.  Next to her was a black and white picture of a beagle putting his nose up under a girl’s skirt as she walked past him situated on his owner’s lap.  The text underneath read, “That Dog Will Hunt.”  I realize it’s a bit degrading but it interested me because it was a pun that only hunters would appreciate.  I imagine it’s a bit of a collector’s item at this point.

When I checked out the guy wanted to know how long it took me to grow my beard.  I felt compelled to mention this to my wife later since she’s the one who gets so much attention from the boys most of the time.  Sometimes people actually run into things from staring so hard at her.  I don’t mind.  I’ll always be happily surprised that I was the guy she wanted to marry.  But hey next time I spill half the milk from my cereal down my chin she needs to remember what a nice beard I have. 

Sullivan's Lucky 8 Ball

We drove back down to Mississippi in search of a plantation house.  The drive there was very beautiful but we lost the GPS signal somewhere on county road 8 and never really recovered.  We were a little frustrated at the time but looking back maybe it happened for a reason.  Amy took the dogs out to potty them while I gassed up the car and got some directions.  She got into a conversation with a lady that was standing outside waiting for her husband to come out of the bathroom.  This lady was apparently really into dogs and they got to talking and before I knew it we were following her out to her place to see some puppies her farm dog had given birth to a few weeks ago.

Yes, I know it’s crazy to bring kids around puppies and think you’re going to be able to walk away without getting one.  It was hard for Amy and me to turn down at least a visit though considering what the furry family has gone through over the past few months.  Losing Regis was a really hard thing for everyone and though Blanca seems to have recovered well we all realize how fragile life can be and, sadly, how little of it she and fellow 14 year old Abigail have left.  Puppies bring so much happiness to kids and we figured Sullivan was ready since Ava got Frank when she was four.  Everyone remembers their first dog and I think Sullivan will always remember the day we got the little puppy he named 8 ball.  He slept in Sully’s arms all the way to our hotel.   

As you can see he’s quite fuzzy and full of love for the kids already.  He is a Great Pyrenees.  They are known for their skills at guarding animals and children and even fostering orphaned sheep.  The lady told us they are very popular in this region because of all the large farms.  His parents live outside and are full time working dogs.

8 Ball has already brought everyone a lot of happiness doing the things puppies do: falling over while trying to navigate a parking curb, pulling on Frank’s tail to coax him into playing, chewing everything in sight and looking a little disheartened every time someone tells him “no.”  I told Amy he is the quintessential puppy, like he walked out of a Norman Rockwell poster or something.  The morning after we got him Sullivan rubbed his eyes when he woke and then said excitedly, “It wasn’t a dream!  It wasn’t a dream!  I got a puppy!”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Injustice and America


Today we took the kids to the civil rights museum.  This was the main reason we had come to Memphis.  I saw it years ago when I was on my way to Pittsburgh at my dad’s suggestion.  Amy was really struck by the fact that they had preserved the Lorraine Hotel where MLK had been shot and killed.

I can’t believe all those years we’ve known each other and I never mentioned that part of it to her.  The museum was under construction however so we didn’t get to see all of it.  I was a little disappointed as I was looking forward to the kids seeing some of the more interactive exhibits they offer there like the bus with the recording that shouts at you to move to the back or the video of the people getting condiments poured on them during a sit-in at a diner.

Despite the abridged experience what the kids saw still made quite an impression on them.  There was a video at the beginning where demonstrators got fire hoses turned on them.  It was hard to watch.  Even harder now that I have children and imagining if that had been one of my kids, if my kids were forced to drink out of a different water fountain than everyone else and attend a different school and fear for their life if they were out after dark in the wrong part of town.  The level of injustice that African-Americans experienced is truly astounding as is the amount of change the civil rights movement achieved in such a short amount of time.

I don’t flinch away from telling my kids what really happened, why people wanted to kill one of the leaders of a movement that only wanted for everyone to be treated equally.  They never disappoint me either.  We’ve talked about how slavery was one of the many things that led to the Civil War but Amy and I now had to explain how even after the slaves were freed African Americans were still treated like second class citizens for years.  We had to explain what segregation and discrimination was.  It felt bizarre telling them about these ideas.  To think that such things happened in such recent history, to think that discrimination still happens, just not legally.  Ava summed it up well saying some of the exhibits made her feel, “creepy.”  She said she just couldn’t understand how people could do that to other people.

I think it’s important not to gloss over things or worse lie to our children about things that make us feel uncomfortable.  They deserve to be offered the truth, or own subjective approximation of it, so they can turn it over in their own minds and take away something unique and real.  Perhaps it may make them uncomfortable or provoke questions that are hard to answer but that’s how we really learn about the people and the world around us.  Both Amy and I feel a lot of obligation as homeschooling parents to always strive for the best answers we can get for the kids, and not just on Google (though I am a big fan.)  When I listen to their questions sometimes I have to look really hard inside myself to find the answer and when it comes it’s not a date I was forced to memorize in school or a bland definition, it’s an attempt at fleshing out my understanding enough to share it with them.  Then they respond and I see a different side of it and I realize that learning comes not just from reading about difficult things but talking about them with people that care enough to really listen. 

“Why didn’t some of the white people want them to be treated the same, Daddy?”

“They thought it was right for them to be treated differently because that was how they had done things for a long time.  They were afraid of change.”

“Maybe they were afraid of the dark-skinnned people too.”

“Yes, you’re probably right.  Fear can make people do really awful things sometimes.”

I think it’s ok to admit to them that as parents we don’t have all the answers either.  The idea is that we should work to figure out the answers with them, for our own edification as well as theirs. 

I personally think one of the most dangerous things you can do as a parent is to be complacent or perhaps the better word is rote about learning.  For example as a homeschooler I don’t require my kids to learn that “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” as I did.  When we talked about Columbus earlier this month I instead told them how he enslaved indigenous peoples in the West Indies, forced them to mine for gold, and cut their hands off when they didn’t bring him enough.  I kind of think exterminating an entire island’s worth of people is what should be remembered about this jagoff, not the names of the 3 little ships he sailed over here.  If this sounds like I’m straying toward being openly negative about public schooling it’s because I learned earlier this month from some friends of ours that at least two different schools in Pittsburgh are still teaching that Columbus is this really great guy that “discovered” America.  (In quotes because no he shouldn’t be remembered for that either because he DIDN’T DO IT!)    
The part of the museum that was open houses a bunch of artifacts related to James Earl Ray, the gun he used, binoculars, and other pieces of evidence. One the second floor they had preserved the bathroom of the rooming house where he was staying from where he was believed to have shot MLK.  The kids, Sullivan in particular, were curious about how he was able to shoot someone from across the street.  This in turn gave way to wondering about why he would have wanted to do such a brutal thing to someone who had never done any harm to him at all.  Amy asked quite presciently if there were other people that helped him carry out the murder.  I said that seemed likely.  There was in fact an entire section devoted to the debate about whether Ray had acted alone or been part of a larger conspiracy.  Again learning is not about memorizing facts that float around and then disappear after test day it’s about sharing ideas and opinions. 


Waffle House!


This morning we wanted to treat everyone to breakfast at Waffle House.  We ordered as strategically as we could but still came out with a whole LOT of food.  Sullivan is like his dad: when he gets overly hungry his eyes are bigger than his stomach.  Since we had two of the classic breakfasts coming I got one of them with grits and biscuits.  Yum!  Everyone made a valiant effort to eat what was in front of them but no one succeeded.  Good thing we aren’t one of those eat everything on your plate families or someone might have ended up in the ER.  As it was I didn’t think I was going to be hungry again until the following day.


We arrived at Motel 6 Memphis early which was good because, as is often the case with da big red 6, there was drama.  The credit card machine was down they told me.  Should be back online in an hour or so.  How about I go ahead and get settled and I’ll come back over to the office in an hour.  No, she said, she can’t give me the room until it’s physically paid for even though they’re the ones with the bum credit card machine.  This is where Motel 6 really has you because if you go somewhere else you’re not teaching them a lesson, you’re just paying an extra twenty bucks.  After a few failed attempts at getting cash back I finally gave in and just made an ATM withdrawal I’d have to pay for.  I did get a free wifi code from them though.

Once we were finally settled in we had a pretty good time because it was Steeler Sunday.  It was typical Steeler football: lots of running, low scoring, but enough ball control to pull out the win against the team everyone in Pittsburgh loves to hate, the Ravens.  I often wonder how Edgar Allen Poe would have felt about the Ravens being named in his honor.  I am pretty sure football did not even exist in the 19th century.   

After the game Amy made us a fabulous spaghetti dinner complete with greens and a bacon wrapped fillet, all on the little camp stove.  While we were standing out there talking Abigail decided to sneak next door and introduce herself to our neighbor, a bearded guy wearing a long-sleeved black shirt with flames on the sleeves.  He had pulled up in a big truck towing a trailer.  Amy asked him what was inside. 

“A portable workshop,” he said.

“What do you work on?” we asked.

“I service funeral equipment.  You wouldn’t believe how much business there is for that.”

Like I said you get to meet some interesting people when you’re motel surfing.

Blanca is almost back to herself so we all felt like celebrating more time with that faithful, loving little dog. 

Art Wurks


Today was a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG travel day.  We drove from Alabama to Tupelo, MS.  We could not make it all the way to Memphis because we stopped at a really amazing art studio.  We were cruising along this country road, two lane divided so not a true country road but not the less scenic interstate either.  Suddenly I see this enormous (maybe 30 feet high?) rooster made out of metal and a little sign that says ArtWurks. The rooster is so lifelike it looks like he’s going to walk right across the highway.  I didn’t even ask anyone else if they wanted to stop.  I made a left about a quarter mile down and headed back.
The rooster is made completely out of recycled car bumpers!

“What are you doing?” Amy asked.
“We are going back to look at that rooster and you are going to check out that art gallery,” I said.

There wasn’t a driveway per se, just a grassy hill with a line of tire indentations leading up to the front door of an unassuming little one story brick structure with two metal sculptures outside.  Amy came out about ten minutes later and told me I ought to bring the kids in and check it out.  The lady manning (womanning?) the gallery was really interested in talking to us about the artist and seeing what the kids thought of it.  It’s hard for me to describe the level of this guy’s talent and his ability to create truly unique pieces in a variety of different mediums: metal art, clay, oil painting, even painting with smoke from a candle and charcoal.  The first sculpture below is not just art, it's a working see-saw!


We had been there about ten minutes or so when the artist himself, Larry Godwin, came in. 

He had come from visiting his mother who had recently turned 102.  All I can say is that it’s pretty seldom you meet people who are that artistically gifted who are also fun to talk to.  We talked about his work, particularly a series of “lawyer” pots, satirizing different positions in the legal profession.  He told me about some difficulties he had experienced with some local lawyers that led to him representing himself against them.  The negative response he received from the entire legal system sparked a desire in him to capture some of the many problems in the US legal system in his art.
I talked with him about the appointed lawyer and the guardian lawyer specifically since those were two I had enough experience with during my career in social services to sympathize with the way he depicted them: the appointed lawyer was holding a bag of cash and a belt with a notice that said “no bail” tucked into it.  He was perched atop a group of tearful black figures in old timey striped prison uniforms.  No explanation necessary on that one.  The guardian pro se lawyer was an enormous boar with breasts because he was “as useless as tits on a boar.”  We talked about how wide the range of skill and motivation appeared to be in the appointed public defenders I had met over the years.

Ava was so quiet I think it was close to a sacred moment for her.  I could tell that as a fellow artist she was just taking it all in.  She made some of her most amazing art later that day.  When he told me that what drives him is wanting to create what’s in his heart it made me think of her. 
Before we left he gave me a print of one of his cartoons.  The gal running the gallery told me she had been sending some of his stuff to the Smithsonian for review.  I told her to consider the Carnegie of Pittsburgh as well and also perhaps the Children’s Museum for some of his especially interactive pieces geared specifically towards kids.

I’ve never been very good at describing works of art or pieces of music I like so here’s a link to his website so you can check it out for yourself

It gets dark faster by the day it seems.  Back when I was punching the 8-5 clock I never noticed it much until the depths of winter when it was already dark before I got home.  But now being on the road and having to face setting up tents or navigating winding country roads in the dark I really notice if it gets dark 10 minutes earlier.
There are very few Motel 6s in that part of the south for some reason but we found one in a town called Tupelo, MS and turned in for the night.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013



I woke to Blanca crying out in terror this morning.  She was lying next to me on the smaller air mattress like usual only she was twitching and thrashing around like she was caught on something.  I lifted her up and she almost immediately peed on me.  I could tell right away she was having some kind of serious medical event.  We offered her water and food after it was over but she didn’t have any interest in either.  When she tried to get up she walked like was intoxicated and almost immediately fell back down.  Her gaze was distant and her gums and tongue were pale and dry—almost the color of her white fur.  By then we were starting to worry she had had a stroke.

 This was a lot to take in for us and the kids.  Amy and the kids took turns holding her in a towel while I packed up all of our stuff.  That was one of the few times I wished we had a home.  There was nothing to do but revert back to our default setting: DRIVE.

First we consulted with a veterinarian.  Then Amy gave her some Benadryl before we left which helped her settle down and sleep at Amy’s feet.  We drove all through the day, past Tallahassee and into Alabama.  When we stopped in Dothan, AL she was able to walk around a little bit and potty.  We all agreed this was a good sign.  She had some water in the room and tried to make herself comfortable on the comforter like she always does at hotels.  It was around this time we realized that she had lost some of her sight.  Every time someone said her name her head cocked up but weaved around in a circle like she was trying to find us.  She seemed fairly comfortable though and able to walk around the motel parking lot.

I went to Dollar General and got her some bologna.  We were all excited when she ate a piece.  It looked like she was probably going to make it.  It’s so strange.  I don’t know how Amy thought of giving her the Benadryl but I think it saved her life.

Goodbye Pine Island and White Sand Beaches of Ft Meyers


Our last day at Pine Island.  We went to the beach at Ft Meyers!  White sand, warm water, and blue skies.  Amy took the laptop to Best Buy for a warrantied repair while I spent time at the beach with the kids.  It was a sweet thing for her to do since I still felt so dumb about the whole thing and continued to occasionally visit the vague worry that the repair would take 4-6 weeks and the entire blog project would be derailed for good.  Yes, I know, sometimes I’m a horrible pessimist. 

A day at the beach was just what I needed.  I got the dogs a bowl of water from the ice chest before Amy left and tied them one of our larger bags so they couldn’t go anywhere.  Then I got in the water and sat down so it went right up to my chin.  All the stress I’d been carrying that morning seemed to fall away.  The kids and I got to see a sea gull or maybe it was a sea hawk? Swoop down, smack against the water, and emerge with a fish wriggling in its beak.  As it took back off you could see how the weight affected its flight.  Pelicans were in the vicinity too though none of them caught anything and little terns with skinny legs strutted along the coast line, peering their heads down toward the little fish flitting in and out of the gentle waves lapping up on the sand.

I took the dogs in the water a few times, more to cool them off than anything else.  Their indifference to swimming has been previously documented.  Amy got back right about the time I was starting to wonder about her.  She told me they had made her wait a good little while before telling her there was absolutely nothing wrong with the mouse.  We had tried it before bed the previous night so the morning sun must have dried it the rest of the way out.  No need to mail it anywhere.  Great news.  She was a very good sport about the trip down there too but then again it usually takes a lot to make my wife crabby.

Enjoying the Island


It was cooler in the night than I had expected and the morning was covered in fog, the sun a greasy hot smudge in the sky’s navel, but within a few hours of waking it was already hot.  We headed for the pool without delay.  Amy swam with the kids while I did some much needed catch up on the blog.  (see right there I’m blogging about blogging.  If it feels annoying just remind yourself it’s actually very self-referential and artsy.) 
ALL THE KIDS KNOW HOW TO SWIM NOW!  After much hard work, patience and as with most things very little intervention from Amy or me.
Everything was going great until I spilled a beverage on the laptop.  Um yeah.  In case you haven’t heard these things are sensitive to water.  I felt a little down because even after drying for the better part of the day in the sun we were pretty sure I had fried the mouse.  The kids made bonsai trees to cheer me up.

In the afternoon I played my guitar and Amy read.  The kids all took on their own activities.  Ava went looking for bugs, lizards and snails, (I love that she is so all about fashion, all things "girly" and still loves camping and exploring. )  Sully bowled (with lil hug jugs that he had been collecting just for that purpose), and Juniper did some of her yoga moves.


We went to the Ragged Ass for dinner again,  we justified the dinners out with the low-cost lodging and there was no way anyone could cook let alone eat while we ourselves were getting eaten alive.
this time for the meatloaf special, the one thing Amy can’t cook over a campfire.  One of the cooks came out to talk to us about the specials, tipping, and how his mother’s boyfriend took her to Hooter’s on her birthday.  You could tell it pissed him off.  He had that intense sincerity that comes with being in your earlier twenties and not having any kids yet.  We also got to meet Jim, a retired adventurer that lives at a marina on Pine Island on a sailboat that he built. 

Jim was one of the three people that tried to get the satellite to work so the kids could watch cartoon network while Amy and I finished our food and Amy tried to post blog entries with their free wifi.  The channel ended up on Animal Planet and Jim came over to watch with us since he had been watching in the bar until someone put a game on instead.  It was a show called most efficient predators or something like that.  When they showed footage of crocodiles leaping out of the water to kill wildebeests I was pretty happy we had passed on the alligator campground near the Glades.

Jim had seen alligators in the Glades and polar bears in the Arctic doing work for the military.  He said he was an expert in survival training and used to have his own team of sled dogs when he lived in the north.  It sounds a bit far-fetched as I write it but I can’t see any reason for him to have made it all up.  I chalked it up as one more of the interesting people we’ve met who have chosen to live their lives much less traditionally than most.  Somehow what we’re doing attracts them to us; perhaps it reminds them of their own adventures.
Jim bought the kids their first round.  A round of root beers for all 3.  We explained to them the usual niceties of accepting a round, "Say thanks and when he finishes his ask if you can buy him one too."  :)

Amy and Ava at the Ragged Ass.  Aren't they pretty?  I am a lucky man.

Pool tables, Swimmin and Biker Bars


I remember this pool table that my grandfather on my mother’s used to have.  It was heavy duty wood that was hand carved or made to look like it was.  It had red felt and even a stained glass Budweiser sign above it that really lit up when he clicked a black switch on the wood panel wall.  Every time we went to their house I eyed that pool table.  Pool was like one step down from magic when I was eight. 

I can remember watching my uncle or my mother’s father play on that table.  My uncle is short so he didn’t have to bend over as much as he just leaned forward over the table and with an effortless stroke of the cue stick he sent all 15 of the colorful balls bouncing back and forth from rail to rail and sometimes even falling in pockets on the first shot.  I was lucky if I could get anything besides the 1 ball to move on the break.

I always wanted to have that table to myself for just an afternoon.  Whenever we got there the sticks and balls were put away in a wooden display case on the wall.  Secluded enough that it felt intimidating to ask anyone if I could play so I just sort of hovered around the kitchen and the little wooden table and tv on a cart that made it an eat in kitchen.  Eventually someone would get a game started and once in a while my uncle would invite me to play too.  I think he realized why I had been hovering there all afternoon.  Only thing was he always played that you had to call your shot, no “slop.”  He had played almost every day when he was in the military so you can imagine how well I fared against him.  He meant well but really I just wanted to horse around with the table, not watch an adult clean my clock.

Today Sullivan and I had the pool table at the KOA clubhouse all to ourselves.  No hourly fees, no quarters, just a big table with faux hand carved wood, 15 balls, one stick with a cracked tip, and the two of us.  He was pretty interested in the 9 ball rack.  He hadn’t seen one of those before.  I showed him how to play 9 ball but he lost interest in that pretty quickly.  I have to agree with him that it’s a little too hard to be fun.  “Let’s play regular pool now, Dad,” he said.  Regular pool is where he hits in whatever ball he wants using any other ball he wants just for the fun of it.  As I watched him sinking balls I thought about myself as little kid Jeff, and I smiled.  For a minute I remembered how much I always wanted to do that and I felt happy that we had all morning to do that, just him and me. 

He made up his own game where we had to race to sink all of the balls in and another game where he paired each stripe up with its same colored solid counterpart and sent them all off to battle against one another.  He loved every minute of it and I didn’t try to insert any rules into the mix.  And I still got to sink a couple nice “adult” shots.

Later the girls joined us and we watched “Eragon” on the TV they had in there.  I was pretty happy we found a good movie mixed in with all of the hokey romantic comedies with titles in cursive on the outside and sappy B minus actors on the inside.  I realize that most RVers are seniors but where were all the westerns?  Do they let their wives pick all the movies for goodness sake?  The first 20 minutes of “Eragon” reminded me a lot of a cross between “Star Wars” and “How to Train Your Dragon” but it got better as it went on and the dragon was pretty cute.  The funnest park was how we were all lined up in front of the TV in wooden chairs laughing and talking through the whole flick.  I pointed out to Ava how we never could have done that in a regular movie theater.  That made it even more fun for her.

Meanwhile Amy was reading in the sunshine with the dogs.  She wanted to give the kids a break from the sun and the bugs.  One adult has to always stay back at camp while the other swims or in this case enjoys the comforts of a/c, movies and a pool table.  It was about 90* out and our dogs can’t be left unattended while at the tent.  Someone has to ensure that they have shade, water, etc.  I thought it was sweet Amy wanted to hang back so the kids could enjoy a/c and a few hours without bugs.  We always try to share that responsibility and it works out better than one would think.  Come to think of it, it was the first afternoon they spent in air conditioning in quite a while.  It reminded me of being a kid in Arizona, hiding out from the heat in the summer.  People used to go see dollar movies at Maryvale Mall just so they could sit in the air conditioning for a while.

Later I did two enormous loads of laundry while Amy and the kids swam in the sparkling pool.  We decided to have dinner out because the mosquitoes are worst right at dusk.  This campsite also had these weird little things called No see ums.  They’re about as big as a grain of sand only black.  You can’t see or hear them buzzing around you but when they sting you notice it.  Amy later learned it’s not really a sting.  Someone told her they actually pee on you and their pee is acidic or something and that’s why it stings so badly.  This didn’t make me feel a lot better even though they don’t leave a bite mark. 

Rather than do battle with the bugs we decided to eat out.  Pine Island has an interesting mixture of retirees, vacationers, and eccentric locals so picking out a place to eat was a little tricky.  The first spot we stopped at had too many whiteheads.  I know that is a really agist term and I’m sorry for it.  The vast majority of the older folks we have met on this trip have been so friendly but I have this theory that when you have high concentrations of old white people in places like Sun City and country clubs for example your chances of garnering a nasty glare increase exponentially according to the concentration of septuagenarians.  So we passed up the first spot and opted for a place that looked like it had some local flavor though it sported a somewhat non family friendly name.

The Ragged Ass is a big biker bar in the area. 
It still sports a small section of the parking lot painted for bikes but most of the people we saw there were locals and even a few retirees.  (You see in that kind of setting even if they want to sneer at you they can’t because they’re so worried about the bikers.  OK I’ll stop now.)  The place actually had three seating areas: a small dining room, a long bar, and, through a light wooden door at the end of the bar, a dock with its own bar.  This section was unlit except for the almost full moon.  In the shadows I could make out some barstools with torn seats, ashtrays, two bright cans of OFF, and a ramp down to the still, black water.  The loud talk of the outdoor patrons was punctuated by bottles crashing into heavy duty trash cans and the distinctive smell of marijuana wafting upward from the dock.  Still got the biker bar ethos!

Our waitress reminded me of my wife’s sister, Bernadette, and Amy agreed.  Her name was Debbie and you could tell by the way she handled the menus and the faded logo on her shirt that she had seen the R.A. through a lot.  She had the dry sense of humor that being a good server cultivates in most people.  I ordered the fried fish, a good measure of a bar.  I was encouraged by the fact that they had malt vinegar right on the table and Debbie confirmed that indeed belied the quality of the fried tilapia. 

The fish and chicken were both hand breaded and the fries were hot and golden.  The Miller Lite drafts were a buck fifty.  That’s what you call hitting the trifecta when you eat at a bar.  We had the dining room to ourselves so the kids got to spread out and really had a good time.  The doggies didn’t seem to mind waiting in the rapidly cooling night air but we checked on them frequently and brought them bowls of water just the same.

When we got back to the tent our fears were confirmed.  The no see ums started biting the minute we got out of the Honda.  Everyone retreated to the safety of the tent where Amy and I shared the fleeting but disturbing idea that perhaps the no see ums might be small enough to get through the tent mesh and bite us in the night.  We all had applied plenty of spray earlier in the day to protect us either way but unfortunately when you have as many bites as we did at that point you start to feel like there’s still something biting you even when you’ve finally made it somewhere “safe.”

Leaving Key West for Pine Island


BIG travel day.  We broke down the tent and I loaded the truck shirtless in the already hot 10 am Florida Keys sun.  At one point Ava held Juni in her arms and I overheard her say to her little sister, "You'll always be my baby, right?"  To which Juniper answered, "I promise, ALWAYS."
Here's a picture of the beauty we left behind.  This is the beach just a ways from our tent.
***This is Amy*** (just for the next paragraph)  Jeff was having me insert pics and he forgot a funny story.  As we were leaving, literally all buckled in the packed car, Jeff noticed a climbing thingy off the beach in the ocean at our KOA that he was suddenly curious about.  After me and the kids cheered, "DADDY, DADDY, DADDY!" he took the plunge, literally and climbed it.  It was funny because as he was trying to reach the top the whole thing just toppled over on him.  One of the park keepers came out and took pictures on his cell phone saying, "I never saw anyone try to climb that thing yet."  We were proud of his efforts and kind of envious that he'd be driving in wet shorts in 90* weather.

At the exit of our campground this guy came to say goodbye to Ames...
After we picked up our slice o’ pie to go and we all fought over it like crazy people...
WHY DIDN'T WE GET A WHOLE PIE???  Amy and Ava vowed to make an exact replica, promising hours in the kitchen until they could replicate it.  I can get behind that...
We drove all the way back up the Keys, following highway one up and down concrete bridges over the narrow channels between keys, past bars with grass roofs, oyster shops, boat outfitters, sandal stores, resorts tall enough to block the sun, past the long endless green beginning of Key Largo and finally over the last longest bridge back to the mainland.  From there we traveled through the everglades, this time on the less scenic but definitely more efficient Interstate. 

We did make a potty stop in the middle of the Glades.  On the Interstate there is only one gas station on your way in there.  It’s owned by the Miccosukee Indian tribe.  Once you pass that there isn’t any kind of services for a LONG time so we ended up having to turn a boat launch into a pee stop.  As Sullivan faced west the long, hay-like grass stretched out to meet the horizon.  We watched a solitary white crane pick his way across the lily pads while tiny animals made bubbles in the water surrounding him.  The sky was a limitless blue flecked with clouds like strokes of white paint.  The sun turned everything foggy and still as it slipped away over the edge of our sight.

We drove past Naples and Ft. Meyers to Pine Island and another KOA that was around 20 bucks a night.  Not a bad deal for an island!  We didn’t make it there until after dark but we’d set up the tent enough times at that point I wasn’t too worried about it.  The kids were excited to be another place with a pool but not so excited they didn’t pass out almost immediately after I got the air mattresses filled up.  In addition to the pool it was nice to know we had a place where we could do laundry.  You look forward to such small comforts when you’re on the road. 
Here's a little friend we met while setting up our tent (not quite the majestic iguana but we were happy to meet him all the same.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Of Pie and Polydactyls


The kids spent all morning building a trap to catch one of the wild kittens using a camp chair, a butterfly net, a dog leash, and some sticks.  Undeterred by the suddenly difficult to locate kitties, Ava drew 5 different ones and cut them out neatly so they could be trapped and given to each member of the family.  Mine is still in my guitar case.  Sullivan also fashioned a bow and arrow out of sticks and a hair tie.  Their creativity and imagination is literally limitless.  Amy read the new Stephen King book which she is obsessed with and I played my guitar.  I felt like I sounded better in Key West but that was probably wishful thinking.  

Today it was my turn to swim in the pool with the kids.  We spent almost the whole afternoon there.  The pool was sparkling blue and just cool enough to be refreshing.  The kids are all really beginning to develop confidence and swimming skills in the water.  They enjoyed trying to sink me when I was trying to teach them how to float.  Juniper likes to ride me all over the pool like a horsie.  The only drawback to this game is that she can continue playing well past the point of exhaustion since I’m carrying her.

One of the times I dropped her off at the steps for a rest I saw another enormous green iguana making his way across the pool fence.  He seemed a lot tamer than the ones we had seen up to that point and let me and Juniper get close enough to take this picture.  Amy came and fed him some grapes to try and lure him in a little closer. 

You could see his throat moving as he breathed.  A couple at the pool told me they had seen all shapes and sizes of them living there and they had lured them over to the pool yesterday using grapes.  Just then another guy spotted one high up in the palm tree, looking down at us from a horizontal reaching frond.  His face was much whiter than the others but his back was still a bright orange color.  I’m familiar with how camouflage works for various critters from butterflies to cheetahs but I was truly impressed by how easily these colorful iguanas could just disappear in the right background.

We gave the kids the option of staying at the pool all day but they actually wanted to travel down to Key West to see the Hemingway house, mostly because we had told them about the many kitties that live there.  We got there about an hour before closing, just before the last tour started. 
Juniper was excited to be able to pet some of the kitties that were surprisingly tame though they did exhibit that initial standoffish behavior that is trademark to all the cats that spell their name with a capital C. 
We walked through the house while we waited for the tour and decided it was going to be too stuffy for the kids who were tired from being at the pool all day.  Amy graciously offered to take them for ice cream so I could enjoy the tour without having to hold the dogs the whole time.

The house is encircled by a high brick wall that instead of seeming elitist or adversarial seems to have been placed there to keep the elaborate garden, an entire acre worth, from overflowing the property.  A cobble stone path winds its way through high palm trees and flowers of every color.  Nestled off to the side of the main walk Amy found the cat cemetery.

Hemingway was fond of cats as was Jack Kerouac and a number of other great American writers.  He came across a polydactyl cat while he was living in Key West and was told by someone from Cuba that they are considered to be good luck there.  For anyone who doesn’t know polydactyl cats have extra toes on their front paws and sometimes their back paws as well making it look like they are wearing boxing gloves.  Amy and I got some polydactyl cats years ago from the humane society and named them Sugar Ray and Ali.  Ali passed away but my dad is still taking care of Sugar Ray, now called Tubby for reasons that are obvious to anyone that has met that lovely orange tabby. 

Hemingway must have believed they were good luck as well because he got a male and a female and bred them to create offspring with the same trait.  When he was living at the house on Key West that his 2nd wife’s family’s money purchased for them in 1931 Hemingway had over 40 cats.  Today there are about 35 or so still living there, all of them descended from the original Hemingway cats and carrying the polydactyl trait to pass on to offspring even if they personally weren’t born with six toes.  They lounge on his bed, they snake their way under the chair in his study, they recline on the porch overlooking the wide lawn that’s now used for weddings. 

I get the feeling Hemingway would have been happy to see them living so comfortably, unfettered by humans except for the occasional veterinary visit, almost as if they were still waiting for him to come home.

Hemingway’s study was originally a carriage house back when the property was first constructed.  Someone else on the tour remarked that it looked like a man cave and it did with the taxidermied heads and ornate bookcases and the simple typewriter at the round desk. 

I won’t bore readers with a virtual tour of the rest of the house but I will tell you about the cat fountain because I thought the story was too funny not to be shared. 

During his Key West days Hemingway befriended a local guy who owned a bar called Sloppy Joe’s and ended up spending a lot of time there.  When the owner had to move he had contractors throw the old urinals out in the street to thumb his nose at the landlord.  Hemingway happened upon one of the urinals and supposedly remarked to a friend, “You know I’ve put enough of my money down that thing I think I ought to own it.”  He then proceeded to take it home and told his aghast wife that he was going to turn it into a fountain for the cats.  She decorated it up almost enough to conceal its true origination.  The cats however are apparently not fooled by the fancy tiles.  They drink the water as it flows down the Spanish vase and then lift their legs and pee in the urinal.

Amy told me while the kids were having ice cream next door at the Six Toed Cat they were approached by a rooster with gorgeously ornate plumage. 
Juniper tried to get close to him but he darted across the street and then crowed loudly at her from the other side.  Someone told Amy that his name was Richard the rooster and he was one of the many wild roosters roaming Key West that are descended from fighting cocks that were popular on the island years ago.  They are protected as “birds” and not foul.  Nobody is allowed to mess with them or harm them.  Key West has all kinds of wild things and people roaming around!
Here is some art I bought from a man outside of Hemmingway's for $1!
The one on the bottom is his impersonation of a Hemmingway cat.

On the way out of town we passed the original Sloppy Joe’s, a hole in the wall dive bar closer to the beach than the current incarnation on Duval Street that boasts a pic of Hem on all the shirts.  We had dinner at Mangrove Mama’s.  This was a cozy spot at mile marker 22, just across the street from our KOA.  A gal named Adrienne played acoustic guitar while we ate their famous lobster reuben while the dogs sat under the table hoping for stray fries.  Dogs are allowed on the patio there as they are at many places in Key West. 

The waitress even brought them a big bowl of water with ice cubes in it! 
Overall they were the most well behaved dogs there; the dog down closer to the stage tried to bark through one of the songs.  Guess he wasn’t a Steve Miller fan.  The only issue we had was when Abigail started to bark at the couple across from us.  It was her “I want something you’re not giving me” intermittent bark which goes like this: ruff (pause and count 2, 3, 4, 5) ruff 2,3,4, 5 ruff! 2,3,4,5 etc.  It really is that regular.  She has it perfectly timed so that it doesn’t fatigue her and it’s not frantic (that would be undignified) but it is too persistent to be ignored even by the most hardhearted human.  Amy realized she was begging for the guy’s food since ours hadn’t arrived yet.  Amy made her stop figuring the guy was almost certainly not as well trained as we are.     
Amy and Juni having some fun...

The food was really excellent but dessert was the best part.  I had only had Key Lime Pie once before and wasn’t very impressed, but then again I think it was at a Perkins in Arizona so what do you expect right?  The Key Lime at Mangrove Mama’s was thick and custardy, the perfect balance of sweetness and mildly tart lime juice.  All five of us were using our forks as weapons to get the last of it. 

NOW I understand why people make such a big deal out of this stuff.  It was so good we actually came back the next morning on our way out of town to get a piece to go and ate it right there in the parking lot. 

Ever hear of Doc Mc Stuffins?  She is a Disney veterinarian who has a show I haven’t ever seen.  While Juniper and Ava and I were in the bathroom we saw this book sitting on top of the toilet tank.  Juniper looked at it for a long time and asked me if she could have it.  I told her no because it probably belonged to the restaurant and they lent it out to kids who came in so they’d have something to do.  Ava pointed out that it probably wasn’t getting a lot of use in the bathroom.  This was a good point but I still didn’t think it would be right to take the book.

Back at the table Juniper asked her mom if she could have it.  Mom had pretty much the same response I did to which Juniper replied, “Can you ask them if I can have it?”  Amy told her it wasn’t really appropriate to just ask if you can have things that aren’t yours.  Well, Juniper had been pretty reasonable up to that point but we were at the end of a VERY long day so she burst into tears and the  meltdown began.  Rather than get frustrated with her I took her out to the car where we could have some privacy and she could be as loud as she wanted without anyone watching.  I could see how it was pretty disappointing she couldn’t have the book.

When we went back inside her big brother, Sullivan, had a surprise for her.  While we were gone he had told his mom that he wanted to ask the server if Juniper could have the book.  He said to Amy, “It’s OK that you don’t want to ask for the book so it should be OK that I do want to ask for the book.”  He could see how important it was to her and he didn’t think there would be any harm in asking.  Amy agreed that would be ok since neither of us likes to stifle Sully or any of the kids’ desire to talk to adults like, well, little adults.

According to Amy it went something like this:

Sully: Um you know I have a little sister

Waitress: (patiently despite having orders to put in) Yes I saw that.

S: We found this book in the bathroom and she really likes it and I was wondering if maybe she could have it.

W: Oh my goodness you are so cute you can have whatever you want.  Actually I think someone forgot it here a while ago so that’s totally fine.

(She then went and told all the other waitresses how sweet and beautiful she thought Sully was)

She told Amy she just thought it was so cute how he went to bat for his little sister like that.  They are a loyal group of kids.  It’s hard to remember that sometimes when they’re fighting like cats and dogs in the back seat, but they are the three tightest friends I have ever met.  I’m so thankful they have each other.  And that we have them!