Monday, January 16th
Tomas and I took a brief vacation from the current Pacific coast apocalypse to attend a soccer camp in southern Florida. Now we’re headed back West on a United flight, hoping to time our arrival just right between earthquakes and torrential storms. No, seriously, the three weeks since the start of Christmas break has been a rosary of alternating shakes and wind gusts and rains. The wind howls at night, moving the house with the strongest bursts. We’ve had three power outages, the longest lasting three days, outdoing our solar battery, and resulting in a tower of unwashed laundry and children. It’s been exhausting, and it’s been nice to have a break from it. Now we’re heading home. Just so you can picture my current arrangement, at his insistence Tomas the Prince is seated comfortably by the window, where he’s buffered from the world by his Beats and by his mother (that’s me), who is wedged in the middle seat, carefully keeping her elbows to her sides while Tomas occupies one armrest and the aisle seat lady needlepoints aggressively with her dominant left arm (the one next to me). I’m afraid of being stabbed.
With amazing luck and a break in the weather, we left Humboldt County last Thursday and flew without a hitch to Miami, where we spent a night with Chris and Cara, good friends from grad school in Ann Arbor. (Chris and Gary shared an apartment that lacked a bathroom door during our first year of the PhD program. That’s when Chris wasn’t living in a tent on a farm outside of Ann Arbor, which he did on and off.) Fellow field biologists, they’ve spent lots of time in the jungles of French Guiana (Chris’ field site) and Paraguay (Cara’s). I’ve wondered for a long time how they can manage to live in Dade County, Florida. My entire understanding of the area comes from careful and extensive reading of Carl Hiassen’s novels, and, with this reliable reference material in mind, it didn’t seem possible that these hearty outdoorspeople and conservationists could live in such a place. We spent Thursday night with them in their little cottage in Coconut Grove and toured Chris’ nearby project site, a botanical garden of native plants and tropical collections on the former estate of David Fairchild, a tropical biologist. (Both Chris and Cara are faculty at Florida International University, which owns the property.) Between their white stucco house, set back from the street and shaded by a wild tangle of palm fronds and vines populated by vociferous crickets, and the Fairchild property, which the explorer named “The Kampong” after his years studying botany in Indonesia, our friends have found a piece of jungle for themselves in Miami. Hiassen and my favorite character of his – Skink – would be pleased with the mangroves and blossoms and dirt.
Tomas loved the tropical feel of Miami and couldn’t get over how much our friends’ narrow street, lined with giant fig trees loaded with happy epiphytes, looked like our street in Bogor. Tomas also liked Chris and Cara, especially loving how Chris slips into a Latino accent after running into Argentinian friends and into a French accent after chatting with French colleagues; he was the same in grad school, our student chameleon. I’m pretty sure he once returned to Ann Arbor in a cravat after a trip to France. I was happy to introduce Tomas to more of our old friends, and I was so pleased when, after we left, he said to me, “Mom, you and Dad’s friends are good. I’m excited that in college I get to make friends like that.” By good he didn’t mean close, though that was implicit, too. He meant we have good people. I agree, and I’m glad Tomas sees it. He asked where else we have people, so that we might visit universities in those places and so that he’ll know good people wherever he ends up. It was so sweet.
On Friday, after our tour of Chris’ project, Tomas and I picked up our rental car and drove the Tamiami Trail across southern Florida. Tomas began to see alligators in the canal next to the road as soon as we were out of the city, and we stopped in a park to walk a boardwalk and see more. The beasts snoozed contently in clear, shallow water while gar glided past them and anhingas sliced gracefully through the pools. We continued along the ramrod-straight road through sawgrass prairies for a couple of hours, then through an endless series of strip malls, to our AirBnB in Naples. In search of dinner, Tomas and I were in awe that all the roads are three-lane highways. To go to dinner, you take a highway. To buy groceries, you take a highway. We never did make it out of the strip malls that night, settling for TexMex in one so busy it was hard to find a parking space. Where were all these people from?
Saturday and Sunday Tomas participated in the soccer camp, which was led by coaches from some good universities in which Tomas in interested. On Saturday the wind howled all day and it was very cold. (To think I packed a swim suit!) In exhaustion, that night we settled for take-out Thai. Sunday was, thankfully, warmer. While Tomas was in the morning training sessions, I spent the first part of both days looking for nature. It was hard to find. Hurricane Ian damaged the coast so badly that many parks are still closed. Hotels and private mansions line the coast, and all of them seem to be under construction; a port-o-potty, contractor truck, and heavy-duty fencing are prominent features of each property. After a few misfires, I found a beautiful beach called Clam Pass on day one – the shells, pastel pink, yellow, orange, were lovely and a huge mixed flock of terns and skimmers rested on a spit – and a decent one on Gulfshore Drive on day two. I watched the afternoon scrimmages at the soccer camp on both days, chatting with parents from Minnesota, Georgia, New York and watching Tomas do his thing. Tomas was pleased at the level of play and had a great time. The kid loves soccer.
Over the weekend, Tomas and I cemented our commitment to finding something other than highways and strip malls. Where was the REAL Naples, the old part, the original town? Turns out it’s in the southern part of the city, a 20-minute drive from our place. Sunday night we made our way south to the Naples core along the three-lane Tamiami Trail, found a place in a parking garage, and headed out to explore. Tomas was in charge of navigation and wanted us to aim for a cluster of restaurants on his Google map in an area called Olde Naples, with an E, of course. We found real neighborhoods with real streets – albeit very fancy ones – and eventually arrived at cluster of orange dots indicated on Tomas’ phone screen. OMG. Super high-end designer shops, all pink or orange or yellow stucco, lined the streets. The restaurants were filled with very finely dressed people drinking wine out of nice glasses in perfect lighting. I should have known from the E in olde. I was in sneakers, Tomas in shorts and a sweatshirt. We decided that this part of the original Naples wasn’t where we were meant to have dinner, and we headed back toward the neighborhood where we had parked and which had seemed a bit more lively and loud and, we hoped, casual. As we walked, Tomas said, “Mom, that reminded me of The Good Place.” He was totally right! It was like the fabricated, movie set neighborhoods in a Netflix comedy series about a sort of purgatory or holding place people go to when they die. Such an apt comparison! After an hour’s walk to The Good Place and back, we found the perfect restaurant a block from where we had parked – an Italian pescheria full of families and laughing and outdoor seating and delicious-looking dishes on people’s tables. We were seated immediately. Our table was wobbly and nobody cared about Tomas’ shorts, so I knew we had found our place. When I came back from the restroom, I found a waiter speaking with Tomas about the Italian’s underwater sprint routine, which he had used to train for futbol in his village on the coast of southern Italy. He was animatedly describing, with anatomical references to his own legs, which thigh and calf muscles this regimen had built up. The waiter had identified Tomas as a soccer player in a glance. It was sweet and funny. Tomas loved his pear salad and grilled salmon, and I loved my glass of wine and squid ink gnocci. The dinner was the highlight of the adventure and Tomas and I congratulated each other on finding an actual neighborhood to explore.
Tomorrow I start my fourth and final semester of nursing school. This year has been a dramatic improvement over last. Our teachers are excellent and are handling much better than last years’ the mayhem beget by Covid and the general underfunding and understaffing of nursing programs. Last semester I did a rotation in mental health, which I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did. It was eye-opening to learn about the deep and strong connections between trauma, substance abuse, and mental disorders, and it was frightening to learn just how poorly equipped our country is to help people stuck in this Bermuda Triangle of suffering. Once I graduate, I should probably work in a hospital for a while to build a full skill set in nursing, but I think there is a good chance I’ll eventually end up working on these issues. As it stands, it would be hard to avoid it on some level – both suicide and fentanyl are massive problems in Humboldt. Tomorrow I start a rotation in our Public Health Department; no further info yet!
Everybody’s doing well. Phoebe is in seventh grade at Saint Bernards. She played volleyball and soccer in the Fall, is doing great in school, and talks to me a lot about the challenges of being a middle school girl. It doesn’t sound like it’s changed since I was in middle school, and I feel for her. She’s tall and smart and looks great and is the target of some real bitchiness. I’m glad she seeks my advice (rather than keeping quiet), and she seems to understand that all the meanness is a way that some girls practice wielding power over others and that it’s not personal. Tristan is in fourth grade, loves school, begs to stay at aftercare as long as he can, and refuses to have his hair cut. Somehow he’s able to see through his bangs, like a Puli dog. He played soccer in the Fall and continues to do karate, now back in group classes with a few other brown belts. He had a school play in December and loved being on stage. He says he wishes he had more stage time. Tristan, Phoebe, and I ride the horses together, though not as often as I’d like since winter and crappy weather have set in. Tomas is a junior, between his high school and club soccer seasons, and working hard on a bunch of AP and Honors classes. He continues to obsess (in a fun way) over colleges, and Princeton is still at the top of his list after his soccer camp there last summer. Tomas has made a really nice group of friends, also soccer players, also nice guys who seem to have their heads in the right places. He likes to cook, is creative and talented with a skillet in his hand, and sometimes cooks for his friends. He’s driving now, a 1992 Volvo that I felt incredibly cool cruising in on the occasion that I borrowed it. Gary is planning a short sabbatical from work starting next month and looks forward to working on the farm – poor guy, I have a list for him – and having a break from early morning trans-oceanic Zoom meetings. A couple of months ago he made his first trip back to Indonesia since Covid hit; he was happy to reconnect with colleagues and friends and put into place his plan for the sabbatical.
We have an hour left in this flight. I made it a mission while in Naples to drive along a three-lane highway to a strip mall to buy the very first Carl Hiassen book. I want to revisit this important reference on southern Florida (which I haven’t read in 25 years), compare it to my recent experience, and refresh my understanding of corruption and environmental destruction in the Olde Sunshine State. Settling into my book now…
Photos below: kids, Gary, horses, a new puppy named Little Bear, the fruits of the summer and fall garden…