Thursday, January 27, 2011

Florida: Where Dreams Become Words

A couple of months ago, on Facebook, I reconnected with Sara, a former 9th grade crush from Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Florida, who let me down easily enough then with the information that she was in a long-distance relationship that she wanted to stick with. I'm glad I kept up with her, but not for reasons of hoping to rekindle whatever I thought there might be if we had begun dating.

Sara is one of the smartest people I know, and no, that's not a generalization. These people have the same brain type as me. There's also another good friend in Texas, Blake, who loves movies just as much as I do, and is currently attending film school. Why film school in Texas? Think about Robert Rodriguez. That's why. You can do it anywhere.

I think it was last month that Sara decided she was done with Facebook, that whenever she went to the beach, whenever she had a fun time doing something she liked, she always framed it in terms of the kind of Facebook status update it could be. She didn't want that anymore. She wanted to have life slow down considerably from the fast dash it becomes on the Internet. And she did. She let her friends and "friends" on Facebook know when she was deactivating her account, and that day came, and she was gone. But before she did, I asked her if she'd want to keep in touch. Not through e-mail (though I often send her jokes by e-mail), not by phone, but by letters. Actual, handwritten letters. And she was game.

So I wrote my first letter to her early on this month and got her first letter last week. Where I prefer to write on a legal pad for sentimental reasons (my maternal great-grandfather was a lawyer, used them all the time, and once wrote me a letter on a sheet of one when I was very little), her way is far more novel than mine: She writes inside a blank card, which, on the front, has understated artwork of a tree with multi-colored bubbles as leaves. At first, when I took her envelope out of my mailbox, I was disappointed, not because I had written so much and it seemed like she had written so little, but because I was worried it would turn out that she didn't want to write much of anything. My only measurement for this sort of thing at that point was from Blake, my erudite and dryly funny Texan friend, with whom I had started the same thing.

When I opened the envelope, took out that card and began reading, wow. She's just like me. We can say so much with fewer words, though I'm sure she would differ in her opinion, because my latest letter to her was 11 pages, with a separate 5-page follow-up because I had forgotten something else that I love about California, as she had requested in her letter. And yet, in those 11 pages, in those 5 pages, I had gotten right to the point, while including very detailed descriptions of things.

She still lives in Florida, "on a barrier island off the coast of northern Central Florida," as she put it in her first letter. In my first letter, I had imagined where she lived to be so peaceful, and she confirmed it was, but without a fountain, as I had thought. She told me about her cul-de-sac area, the flowers around her house, the makeup of her town. I was thinking about her card letter this morning when I realized that I was indeed born and raised in the right state. Not that I had had any nagging doubts; how could I when part of my childhood was spent going to Walt Disney World every weekend and sometimes during the week just for dinner? How could I when the two biggest things for me at Old Town ( were the taffy-pulling machine and the candle store, watching those candle makers dip the wax into various colors and then carve it to reveal a different-colored rainbow inside each one?

Florida is not a land of expectations. It is a land of dreams. It is where if one dream deflates, you find another one to carry with you. There is a social strata, but only behind gated communities, of which I lived in one, Grand Palms, in Pembroke Pines, but it was too spread out to be considered a community. It took us two miles after the gate to get home to our condominium, and two miles out again. We didn't live in one of the ritzier developments, and that was fine. It was enough to have the view of the golf course, to occasionally piss off the golfers playing when my sister and I would sometimes walk the sidewalks of the course. It wasn't only their course, and I don't care that they were peeved. My father and mother's money went into it each month. It was ours, too, in our own way.

In Florida, you live however you wish. You work, of course, in order to have what you need, if you can work, but you go about your life the way you see fit. One of the greatest governors Florida ever had was Lawton Chiles, Walkin' Lawton. In 1970, when he ran for the United States Senate, he decided to campaign by walking 1,003 miles from Pensacola to Key West. It took 91 days. He met people of all kinds throughout Florida, and it was by that close, personal attention that he became a senator through 1989, after which he ran for governor in 1990 and was elected, and served two terms, up until his death, which brought his lieutenant governor into office for a little over three weeks until Jeb Bush was sworn in. Chiles was one of the great men of Florida history. He lived his life the way he saw fit. That's how we do it.

In the years of my dreams (a.k.a. real life) in Florida, there was also the space shuttle. In Casselberry, we lived close enough to Cape Canaveral, that on the radio, there would be an announcement about the shuttle lifting off, and we would rush outside to the backyard, and see the shuttle, so close that we could see the American flag on one of the wings. And we would be well aware of the shuttle's return, listening closely for word of when it would re-enter Earth's atmosphere, because when that sonic boom hit, everything shook in the house. We've only had that experience twice here in the Santa Clarita Valley, and it was milder compared to those days. But I didn't mind it. Where else in the United States could you live like this, where it seems like the shuttle is taking off a mere few feet in front of you, and where Mickey Mouse is not only always close, but also inside your house? We were, and still are, Disney nuts. In that house, we had big Mickey and Minnie mirrors that faced each other on one wall, a Mickey telephone, I had Disney bedsheets, and whenever we went to the Land pavilion at EPCOT, I would always have the kids meal which included a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (Amidst my research for my second book, I'm also using the opportunity to track down exactly what kind of peanut butter that was in that sandwich because I can still remember the taste, and I wish I could have it again), and a Mickey's sorcerer apprentice figurine. At home, I filled up a whole bucket with just those.

Also at that house in Casselberry, I remember the basketball hoop next to the driveway, which began my lifelong love for basketball. I remember the tangerine tree next to one side of the house that survived many cold winters, except for the last one, which was the most bitter of all, at least when we were there. I remember the big tree plop-smack in the front yard, across from the front door. Could it have been oak, just like the one Sara says is in her front yard? Maybe. I just remember that it was big enough to inspire me to want to build a tree house, which happened just like the time machine I wanted to build. The biggest thing I did in that tree was fall out of it once, but I remember sometimes climbing into it and sitting there, imagining, but never dreaming. I already had the dreams all around me.

The biggest regret I have in my dreams was in 2000, when we visited Orlando for the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC), which my dad went to every year for a few years. I forgot where we stayed, but British tourists were also around at the same time, which meant British girls and lots of musical accents. I remember one night at the hotel, their clocks were running differently than our American ones, because at 9 p.m., they were still at the pool and in the pool. I wanted so badly to boldly go over there and just strike up a conversation, but I was too nervous. I watched them get out of the pool, go back to their rooms, and then those doors closed.

The last time we visited our old home was in 2003, starting on the Friday that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released (It was a 36-hour visit, and as soon as we got to Orlando, my parents dropped off Meridith and I at the AMC Pleasure Island 24 so we could see it. While we were there, our parents checked into the hotel), and it looked very run down. I don't remember if the basketball hoop was still there, but it was clear that even with the occasional messes to clean up inside the house, even with the salamanders that had managed to get inside the patio, even on those days where the house didn't always look its best, it still looked better than it did in that condition. It saddened me; I couldn't believe that someone would dare treat my dream like that. But that's how people are. And perhaps those who live there now aren't from Florida, but decided to spend the rest of their decades there. I hope it's at least in partly better shape than it was when we saw it.

I know I can't live my dreams again. Those times are gone. But I strive to still live my dreams in a different fashion. It's why I write. And with this second book, I'm living it all again. I'm remembering riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority at the Magic Kingdom over and over when we visited from South Florida. I'm remembering that same time in 2000 during the FETC, when my mom and sister and I went to the Magic Kingdom (My dad, still at the conference, came by later in the afternoon), and it was a morning of Early Entry for hotel guests. This very nice older gentleman who was manning one of the gates to the monorails listened to our stories of how we used to live in Casselberry, how we visited Walt Disney World every weekend, and he let us go through. We didn't tell those stories in the hope of that happening, but we were just recounting who we were when we lived there. We loved it. And I remember that because of that guy, I rode Space Mountain, my beloved Space Mountain, three times before it began to get crowded.

On that same day, we ate at the Crystal Palace buffet, and the Pooh that was walking around wrote me a note indicating that he knew me. I asked who, and Pooh wrote his name. It was Beth Lambert, who I went to school with at Silver Trail Middle. She disappeared into the back after her moments as Pooh were over, she re-emerged as herself, and we hugged, talked about the past, and about our current lives. I look on Facebook occasionally, haven't found Beth yet, but I want to know what she's up to now.

I started reading in Florida when I was 2, and I started writing when I was 11. I remember the exact moment that inspired me to become a writer. I was in a thrift store in South Florida, a big one, with racks and racks of clothing, merchandise in glass cases, and bookcases full. I looked through the books they had, and found one, a compilation of four of Andy Rooney's books. We watched 60 Minutes every Sunday night, and I remember seeing Andy Rooney once in a while, but I remember it most as the time of the week that had the most car commercials. I flipped through that book, looking at the various headings, and I was amazed. You could actually write about restaurants, about barber shops, about road trips? You could write about pencils, Sunday mornings, and beds? I was a voracious reader, but I thought those kinds of things were just part of the everyday norm. You just live them and that's that. He wrote about those like they belonged in a book, and I know they were, which astonished me. I wanted to do this.

At home, I tried writing about what Andy Rooney wrote about, exactly as he wrote about them. It was then that I realized that each person has their own style. I couldn't write like Andy Rooney because I wasn't Andy Rooney. I needed to write like me. I needed to figure out how to do that. And I think I have. I'm not a supreme egotist about it, because I know there will forever be something for me to learn about writing, but I'm satisfied so far with where I am.

My dreams are still here, even though I don't live in Florida now. I am a Floridian, forever and beyond.