We dropped the kids (girl, age fifteen; boy, age seventeen) off at the church on Saturday morning for their “Beach Breakaway” trip to Panama City with the youth group. There were two touring busses full of high school teenagers and adult counselors that departed about 9:00 am for the four and a half hour trip. When the wife and I got back home, she immediately set out to go on a walk. God, but she walks the streets of our leafy neighborhood relentlessly. She wanted me to go, and I had no good reason to refuse. As I pondered my way out of trudging through the neighborhood like a well-trained dog obediently heeled beside her (quite unlike the actual dogs we routinely see on walks, who lead their owners around, tugging at their leashes except to pause and shit wherever they please, while their “mommies” or “daddies” follow along behind with a plastic poop bag), the reality of facing two whole days with her and without the kids settled heavy on my shoulders. I wondered how I would endure the weekend if I had to go on walks with her, and eat tasteless dried chicken with her (what is it with women and chicken?), and generally just be bored out of my mind with her, stuck in the same safe rut on the same corner in the same adorably quaint neighborhood as we’d been for the last dozen years, all for the sake of the kids that were, at least temporarily, no longer around. So I said, “Why don’t we go to the beach, too?”
She of course looked at me as if I’d gone mad. But it wasn’t like we’d never done anything like leaving on the spur of the moment for a road trip before. Even in college, when I had to sell my plasma to keep from starving, we left one particularly nasty spring day in Tuscaloosa to head to the beach for a day—a four hour drive each way, but it was worth it. And ten years later, when we were dating again, we’d go pretty much anywhere our fancy struck. But not since the kids. It’s been all about them since then. I am riotously sick of the kids. They’re teenagers now, and my job of imparting values, i.e., of dutifully fucking up their heads by creating a fantasy world carved from accepted societal dogma for them, is pretty much over. They don’t listen to me anymore, and frankly I’m glad. They need to go figure out the world on their own. It’s not like I’ve got some secret recipe to living a successful life, however it is that success is perversely defined in America’s banal culture, and I’m not, like so many of my contemporaries, trying to build a mini-fief in which my kids define their existence by their relationship to me. They need, like all humans everywhere, to define their existence by their relationship to themselves, and the only way for them to do that is for me to get out of their way.
By my reckoning, God turns children into teenagers so you won’t miss them when they’re finally grown and gone. All those fun times during the wonder years are quickly washed away and forgotten when they pass through puberty to become like two-year-olds with pubic hair, replacing temper tantrums with angst and surliness, always bored because they can’t do what their newly-sexualized bodies, with hormones coursing through their veins and desire constantly tugging at their loins, wish them to do.
Amazingly, I was able to convince the wife to go. The weather was predicted to be beautiful, which helped sell the deal. We went to Destin, the same place we’d gone those almost thirty years ago during college. Unlike in college, we found a room in which to sleep for the night as soon as we arrived, in an off-beach hotel. It was only a ten-minute drive to the water, and we figured there was little hope of finding anything much closer.
The weather was as nice as I’ve ever seen it. There were no clouds and no humidity, and a fresh, cool ocean breeze to tamp the inherently oppressive nature of the blazing sun. I don’t generally like the beach, especially in the summertime. Once the water gets to bathtub temperature and the air is so dank with humidity that it feels like a dripping steam bath, I figure that all you get by leaving central Alabama for the beach in the depths of summer is to trade down from miserable heat and humidity to miserable heat and humidity accompanied by sand clogging every pore and fold of skin, (a good reason, outside of simple esthetic considerations, that fat people shouldn’t go to the beach). But the beach was extraordinary this mid-March weekend. It was weather that would exceed the hopes of even all those sunny optimists on the local Chamber of Commerce. It was the type of weekend weather that can’t happen more than two or three times a decade. Pretty much the rest of the time in Northwest Florida it’s either hot and humid (summer), or cool and humid (non-summer, i.e., the other three months of the year). This weekend, highs were in the low eighties, lows in the low sixties, and the air was as dry as a desert. It was remarkable.
Incidentally, no sign of the environmental devastation caused by the BP oil spill was evident. Roughly two years later—not even a blink of the geologic eye—and the ocean has already shrugged things off. Nature is indifferent to man like that. When man insults, Nature just ignores him. Maybe that’s why the marriage of man and Nature is such a contentious one. Man can shriek and scream and try to improve, like a blustery New Jersey housewife, the Nature to which he is wedded, but Nature just insolently disregards his exhortations and insults, doing what she will, the relationship be damned. Too bad man hasn’t managed to invent a Pill to neutralize her power over him. Man remains Nature’s bitch. There’s been no revolution, sexual or otherwise, to make things otherwise, no matter how much importance Man affords his frequent insults. Man is temporal. Nature abides.
When I was young and single and headed to the beach, I had a rule that I had to drink a beer as soon as I crossed the Florida line. Through twenty years of compromises and self-restraint in the service of marriage, and of course the kids—always the kids—I’d about forgotten the rule. Besides, drinking and driving? How irresponsible. Even if it’s just one beer, think of the profoundly terrible ramifications, (though it’s virtually impossible for a single beer to detrimentally impact the ability to drive). But I remembered the rule this time. It was that kind of weekend; it was that kind of attitude. I popped a Bud when we crossed into the land of the sun. Fuck the ramifications. Fuck the kids. At least for the weekend.
It didn’t take long after we arrived to find a hotel that looked to be in that sweet spot, somewhere between availability and desirability. When we checked in, and the desk clerk asked for our home address, I looked at the wife and asked her, “Should we use my address or yours?” The clerk looked perplexed for a moment, and then smiled. I explained that we were married but not to each other, and this was a weekend away from the spouses. Which was sort of true. I didn’t want a wife this weekend, and I didn’t want to be a husband. I wanted a girlfriend. If it happened that the girlfriend inhabited the same body as the spouse I’d left in Alabama, so much the better. But I didn’t want to hear anyone, including my “new” girlfriend, call me “Dad”.
We headed straight to the water after registering for the room, not even bothering to check out the digs. I mean really, who cares, right? I was pretty sure it had a bed and a bathroom, and I’m not so old that I don’t remember when sleeping inside with running water in a strange land was a luxury.
It was time for a late lunch when we arrived, so the first stop was a beach-side restaurant. A pitcher of beer, a couple dozen oysters (March has an “r”) and smoked tuna dip did the trick. The girlfriend even drank beer, something which the wife normally inhabiting her body would never condescend to do. The wife drinks wine, and only in moderation. But even moderation needs to be taken in moderation. Sometimes you just gotta let loose. I was glad to see the girlfriend appeared to still know how.
The romantic urgency of our youth, when we always teetered on the edge of sexual desire, unsurprisingly failed to materialize during our short two-day stay. It was more like taking a road trip with a friend that happened to be a girl that also happened to be the wife. She was a friend with benefits, and that’s about as much as I dare hope at this stage of the game.
I figured the trip a fantastic success. Having had the curious Protestant work ethic so indelibly inculcated in me during twenty years of immersion in American culture as a husband and father, an ethic that provides that the whole essence and purpose of being is constant activity in pursuit of acquisition and accumulation no matter how much one already has, I actually felt a twinge of guilt at not feeling guilty for having done what I wanted, and not worrying a bit about the kids. But I quickly rejected it. No matter what the Protestants may have believed, I’m pretty sure their somber view of life as God’s punishment for our original sin is dead wrong, or is, unless God is imagined to be so full of vituperation and hatred of mankind that he creates humans just so he can torment and torture them. I really don’t think God intends humans to suffer in misery all the days of their lives. What we see as occasional venality is likely just indifference.
I arrived home to a project I had planned on starting that weekend. The jambs on the front door to our humble sixty year old 3/2 bungalow had rotted and needed replacing. The door sits exposed at the valley formed by the confluence of two roof planes. When it rains, water rushes down the valley, which ends at the corner where the door is installed, and pools on the front porch just in front of the door. The front porch was another little project—the house previously had only a stoop—but I contracted that one out. I have my limits. I’m pretty sure it’s the new porch, because of the pooling effect, that caused the water damage, but it may also have been my crappy door installation the first time I replaced the thing. Doors are tricky things, and I’m probably foolish to try and handle them myself. But really, what’s to lose? There’s worse things than a hole in the wall. The subfloor under the original door had suffered some water damage, so this is not a new problem. The placement of the front door, just underneath a roof valley, is the true culprit, having been decided upon lo those many years ago. The house is otherwise solid. It actually has plaster walls and ceilings. It ought to fare well in a tornado, but thankfully none has ever struck it, or even the neighborhood in which it sits, for so long as the neighborhood has been here—about eighty or ninety years.
The wife had to go back to work. I’m retired or lazy or something, so was able to spend the next three days, until the kids got home, removing the old door, repairing the subfloor, and installing the new door. And it took all three, working from as soon as I got up and got juiced with coffee, until the wife arrived for dinner. (Incidentally, I call her “the wife” and not “my wife” because I have never felt comfortable with the possessive character of the appellation “my wife”. I don’t own her. I don’t want to own her and never did. I want a partner, not a possession. Human beings aren’t susceptible to ownership, not even wives, no matter how much of history is replete with attempts.)
My rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, populated in the main by metrosexual men and the women who own them, rarely sees homeowners take on projects as involved and visible as removing and replacing a door. I could sense the eyes of dozens of my neighbors crawling along my back as I went about my business of tearing out the old door and jambs, repairing the joist and subfloor, and installing and shimming the new door and jambs. I live on one of the busiest corners in town. I live in a fishbowl.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood, particularly the ones that have been recently remodeled, have fancy wooden doors, custom fit for non-standard entry ways, and stained to ensure that everyone knows, without looking too hard, that they are wooden. I had no idea, until a few years ago when I had embarked on the first door replacement project, how much stock these status conscious people put into their front doors. My mother even chided me when I told her of the first project, that the front door to the McMansion she and dad had built in the middle of forty acres in the middle of nowhere had cost five thousand dollars. No one ever sees the five thousand dollar door, of course, stuck as it is in the middle of a forty acre wood. But, wow, I was really impressed. My replacement door cost two hundred bucks, and came already framed. It was metal, but painted up just as pretty as could be. The front door arms race reminds me that I really am no good at competing for status, particularly when doing so involves something as arcane as a stupid door. I would have been much better at the other end of this American experiment, when it was young and everyone was poor, and the only status that much mattered was survival.
I was nearly finished with the door installation late Wednesday afternoon, a little after five, when the blasted home phone (why do I still have one?) interrupted my fumbling around trying to install the deadbolt. I was already irritated at the deadbolt. The ringing phone just added to my frustration. And then I got really pissed off, when I found out that the caller was some long-lost cousin I hadn’t seen nor heard from in over thirty years, who just wanted to “talk”. I was rude, but I figured he deserved it. He didn’t ask if it was a bad time. He just stated who he was and expected me to drop everything and talk to him. He got mad when, after I pointedly asked what he wanted (nobody but nobody calls after thirty years without wanting something), and he pointedly denied he wanted anything, I told him I didn’t have time to talk and took down his number to call him back. I’ll thankfully never know what it was he wanted, because a couple of hours later when I called back on the cell, he didn’t answer, but later returned my call with a text message that I had been so rude he didn’t want to talk anymore. Though I wouldn’t often recommend it, sometimes being rude pays off. I’m pretty sure he was prompted to call by someone on my mother’s side of the family, with whom I haven’t spoken since her funeral last August. It was probably my older half-sister, who thought at Mom’s death she would become the matriarch she always wanted to be, lording it over me again like she did when we were children, but she was too stupid to realize that once mom died, there was nothing left to be matriarch over, and even if there were, I had long ago vowed to never again, after escaping her clutches once before, be a part of any organization in which she played any prominent role.
William Faulkner said the past isn’t dead and buried, it’s not even past. Which is how my natal Southern family would like it. But what a depressing thought, that nothing ever really changes. I don’t think Faulkner was much of a naturalist. In nature, the present is always obliterating the past, not caring a whit for what went before, constantly in a wanton flux of creation and destruction that only seems slow and non-violent because of the limited capacities of human perception. Capitalism closely resembles Nature that way. In fact, capitalism abides so well precisely because it tends to allow, rather than fight, Nature’s course, or at least does in the portion of Nature that is populated by giddy humans and their naturally creative and destructive tendencies. But that’s a bit of the problem with the Romantic genre of literature in whose tradition Faulkner wrote. It has a very myopic view of Nature, wishing to project upon it some static condition that doesn’t, and never has, existed.
The last day of spring break was spent in Faulkner’s hometown. My son, along with the rest of the family, visited the campus of the University of Mississippi for one of those high school senior/prospective student orientation days. He’s considering attending Ole Miss, mainly because the son of a family friend plays football there. He’s not a football player, not even Pop Warner. Two bone marrow transplants sort of limit the athletic prospects. He stands about five foot seven and weighs all of a hundred pounds. The kid he knows that goes to Ole Miss is six feet eight, and weighs over three hundred pounds. When they’re together, it makes me think of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. While Faulkner is the literary giant of Oxford, I rather think of his contemporary, Steinbeck, as the literary giant of the age. Although my mother’s funeral reminded me a bit of As I Lay Dying, as our caravan snaked down Highway 78 behind her casket on the way to the grave, my journey through life has definitely been in a direction somewhere East of Eden, my favorite book of all time.
I told my son that I would not allow him to attend Ole Miss unless he could explain for me why Ole Miss can’t spell. What did I mean? “Ole” is not a word, at least not in the manner in which Ole Miss uses it. “Ole’” is a Spanish word; a shouted, excited greeting. But “Ole” as the University of Mississippi uses it is meant as a contraction of “old”. The final “d” sound is routinely dropped in the South from words like “old”, which is surely what the “Ole” in Ole Miss is intended to mean, i.e., a contraction of Old Mississippi, just like the good ol’ boys would say it. So why doesn’t Ole Miss spell it “Ol’ Miss”?
And what of their mascot? They had Colonel Reb for a number of years until abandoning him in 2003 as perhaps distasteful in his white plantation garb, which looked a lot like Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame. It was considered that the mainly black kids hired to do battle for the Rebels on the gridiron might not appreciate having the apparition of a real plantation owner looking over their labors. Then they got rid of the Confederate battle flag. Ole Miss was known as “The Flood” until the late 1930’s (it’s not clear whether the reference is to the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, or is trying to mimic the University of Alabama’s moniker of “Crimson Tide), when they chose the “Rebels” over “Ole Massas”, a term black slaves used in referring to their masters. Really, I’m not making this up. It was after they became the Rebels that the Confederate battle flag and Colonel Reb showed up. Finally, a couple of years ago, they changed their mascot to a Rebel Black Bear. No one seems to know exactly what a Rebel Black Bear is, so perhaps they’re safe, so long as one part of the Ole Miss Rebels believes the important qualifier for the bear is its rebelliousness, and the other part believes that it’s the blackness.
Of course, all the guides for our visit were black females from Mississippi that were either recent graduates or current students at the school. We were part of a group of out-of-state prospective students, and the school surely wanted to show how far it had come in dispelling its racist past. The prospects in our tour group were from as far away as Michigan and Los Angeles, so perhaps they might have been fooled. We’re from Alabama. Visiting Ol’ Miss for us was like visiting family. And as Jasmine (our first tour guide) reiterated over and again, Ole Miss was like a family. I wondered, did she mean a Faulknerian family, where the past isn’t dead and buried, it isn’t even past? Not much of a selling point, if that’s the case.
Jasmine started things off by herding us into a stuffy classroom and telling us that we would be there for an hour, no matter what, so we might as well ask questions. Had I been the prospective student, I would have made up my mind then and there to go elsewhere. Why keep people for any longer than is necessary? Of course, there was no way to tell how long was necessary, i.e., whether the task had been properly accomplished, because there was no task. So, like a good bureaucrat, she allotted a certain amount of time for it, and when the time was up, but not a moment before, the task would be deemed complete, revealing that the true task to be accomplished was staying in the stuffy room for an hour, which we did.
After the allotted hour, we went on a walking tour of the campus. It’s a pretty campus, with big, leafy oaks all around, shaded lawns (the Grove) for parties and tailgating (which is actually picnicking on the Grove at Ole Miss), and lots of buildings housing various education or administrative departments, or living quarters. In other words, it wasn’t much different than a host of other college campuses. I’ll never understand how walking around the grounds and looking at the buildings holds any relevance for deciding on a college. I never once took a pre-matriculation trip to any college I attended. I figured they all looked pretty much the same, and I was mainly right. Of the few interesting things we stumbled across in our tour of Ole Miss, the best had to be an old observatory, still awaiting return of the telescope it had once housed, which was stolen by the Union during the war. Less interesting was the archway over the “Walk of Champions” leading through the Grove. What champions? Ole Miss hasn’t won a football championship in almost as long as that telescope’s been missing. The football team was two and ten last year; two wins, ten losses. The athletic department was the only one in the SEC to lose money. Even lowly Vanderbilt (in terms of athletic prowess) turned a five or six million dollar profit. I wonder, how much will the Ole Miss students be asked to pony up to make up for the shortfall in athletic revenues?
After the walking tour, we got in the car and drove home—the drive was three and a half hours each way, and we’d spent almost exactly three hours in Oxford. Ten hours with the family, seven of which were behind the wheel, and one in a stuffy University of Mississippi classroom. I’m sure there’s worse ways to spend a day, but pertinent examples fail my feeble mind at the moment.
I paid very little attention to the goings on in the world during the week. It doesn’t appear that I missed much. Apple Computer still graces the top and front of the business pages every day, though all it really sells is enhanced time-wasting capability. In ten years, the idea of i-naming everything will be thought so quaint as to be a bit embarrassing. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are still slugging it out for the privilege of leading the sinking ship of state to the bottom of the sea. Some black kid in Florida was gunned down by a white vigilante, giving blacks everywhere a feeble excuse to pound the racist drums that animate and bind them. Ennui settles over the land, like the fog that rolled in off the ocean the morning of our trip to the beach. The past doesn’t die when a better future can’t be imagined. And it’d be hard, in this land of milk and honey, to imagine a much better future than today. Different, perhaps, but not better. But sometimes, the best can be hoped for is different, even if it’s worse. Nature abhors continuity, even more than it does a vacuum.