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Attitudes and Latitudes

I lived most of my life in California. It is nicknamed the Golden State for good reason – nearly perfect climate, plenty of sunshine, great agriculture, great industry, the best of everything. It has also been horribly mismanaged and its state government is in big trouble, economically speaking.

That’s neither here nor there because this isn’t about California. It’s about Florida, the state I currently live in. We moved here in 1998, the same year we got married and have lived in the same house since 2001. It’s an older house (and by “older” I mean it was built in the 80s…old is relative in the U.S.) that looks out into woods from my back window. In the mornings, I sometimes like to stare outside and watch the squirrels, lizards and birds do their thing in our yard. It’s a good life.

People have some different visions of Florida in their minds and I confess, I had my own images before I moved here. Many people see the Sunshine State as wall-to-wall theme parks and tourist attractions and I admit we have an abundance of those. Some see Florida as a haven for retirees from the Northeast and I admit we also have an abundance of those as well.

Florida is much more complicated than either stereotype, although there’s accuracy in both of them. Yes, we are a family friendly vacationland that also has its share of retirees. Certainly as much of the Northeast digs through the worst winter in decades, our mild winter would in all likelihood seem very attractive to someone who has done one winter too many of shoveling snow.

This brings to mind our summers. Florida is sub-tropical, which means plenty of humidity and lots of heat. Orlando, which is the major city nearest me, has plenty of days where the temperature tops 90F and the humidity 90%. At the same time. Think of it this way; Norwegians love their saunas but I don’t suppose many of them would want to live in one; that’s pretty much what Florida is like in the summertime. We go from air conditioned homes to air conditioned cars to air conditioned offices, then shop in air conditioned stores and eat in air conditioned restaurants.

Eating out is more common here because nobody wants to cook in the summer time. Heats up the house too much, not to mention any sort of exertion outdoors will get your sweat glands working overtime. Florida natives and those who have been here longer than I have seem to have developed an immunity to it, and a greater tolerance for the heat and humidity but Da Queen and I have yet to adapt. I suppose we would if we lived here the rest of our lives but I’m not sure we will.

It’s not that we don’t love Florida – there’s a lot to love about it, but we miss seasons. There’s none of that here; it’s hot and humid, or hot and dry and briefly during the winter months, cool and somewhat dry. There is no autumn and there is no winter; there’s no spring either, just endless days of summer. There’s much to be said for that and if I’m completely honest, there are seasons – they’re just much more subtle than you see in the Northeast and the Midwest. You don’t have the changing leaves and the budding flowers. I’m sure native Floridians would be able to point out these subtleties to me but I’m afraid I haven’t been observant enough to catch them yet.

The summers can be pretty brutal here, which is why much of the population flees – we call them Snowbirds here. When the weather starts to turn elsewhere in the country, the Snowbirds take wing and flock to sunny Florida. I don’t know that I’d want perfect weather all the time; a little rain, a little snow, a little sun – all are welcome.

Florida is also home to the Everglades, one of the world’s unique eco-systems. While eco-tourists flock to Costa Rica to ride on zip-lines through the jungle and hike through the underbrush of the rain forests, Florida really hasn’t done much to promote eco-tourism here and frankly, there’s a lot of potential for it here. And no, I’m not talking about those damn airboats that go skittering through the swamps on jet engines. Those are for NASCAR fans who love to screech “YEEEEHAWWWWW!” while munching on pork rinds. And yes, we have an abundance of that sort too.

What we really have an abundance of is plant life and animal life. I have never seen as many different critters anywhere as I have here. From my backyard I’ve seen rabbits, tree frogs, peacocks, squirrels, geckos, blue jays, robins, enoli and peregrine falcons. Elsewhere within a short distance of my home I’ve seen tortoises, armadillos, raccoons, deer, great blue herons, ducks, possums, geese, cranes, owls, turkey vultures, gophers and, of course, alligators. Yes, there is an abundance of those too – in nearly every standing body of water there’s at least one. Swimming in ponds and lakes here can be dicey, although they tend to stay away from people as much as they can.

There is also an abundance of insect life here, unfortunately. They range from merely annoying to downright deadly. We have palmetto bugs (which are sort of like cockroaches on steroids), noseeums (which are tiny little biting insects which leave incredibly potent bites) and fire ants which if you step in them in bare feet or sandals can give you quite a bit of pain. There are also banana spiders (hideous spiders that spin their webs in trees and drop upon the unwary who walk underneath them)  and love bugs, annoying flying insects that mate in mid-air and secrete a fluid that damages car finishes when they mate; during mating season one can walk and/or drive through swarms of them.

Unfortunately, the humidity has an additional annoying effect; things rot. De-humidifiers are a necessity here. Fruit left out can rot in a matter of days; sometimes hours if your house isn’t cooled down enough. Bread grows mold within a week, even inside plastic.

The people of Florida are mostly a conservative bunch, although there are plenty of people here who believe as I do. Some remember, with a rather critical eye, that this is the state that gave George W. Bush the presidency in 2000. There is a significant population of Southern Baptists and conservative Christians; you never forget for an instance that this is called the Bible Belt for a reason.

One thing I find interesting about Florida is that it’s not considered part of the South, even though we are the southernmost state in the continental United States with Key West southernmost point. In many ways, we are our own region; we are nothing like Georgia/Mississippi/Alabama/Tennessee/the Carolinas, considered by most to be the “true South.” Southern accents are pretty rare here. Southern gentility is much more common in Alabama and Mississippi than here. We’re far more casual; more Jimmy Buffett than Johnny Reb.

That’s not to say we’re not genteel or mannered either – we have our share of Belles here, even if Cypress Gardens is closed (and about to be converted to be the newest Legoland). Still, boat culture is popular on the coasts and here inland, we’re more of a generic suburban and rural culture. There are a lot of really nice people here too – Da Queen and I have friends who are extremely precious to us, some met through work and others through Facebook and other social networks. Our mothers both live here, hers before we moved here, mine after. Never underestimate the importance of family in linking you to a place.

As much as we love Florida, the summers are too much for us. We will eventually retire to the area around Asheville, North Carolina – the Blue Ridge speaks to us and the climate is perfect. Da Queen, who grew up in Colorado, misses mountains and the climate there. It’s not an indictment of Florida – it’s simply more of a preference for a place that touches us. Still, Florida is part of who we are; a little bit of the Sunshine State will always be in my soul. I may not be the person who “gets” Florida the best but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it in my own way. Besides, living near Orlando gives friends and family an excuse to visit – look me up when you’re coming to the theme parks, okay?

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Summer Memories

Summer Memories

In the winter, those who live in colder climates dream of the warmth of summer. So many of our memories as children, as young adults, revolve around this season of warmth and relaxation.

Summer is alive with fireflies and fireworks. It is the promise of vacations to come; the whisper of waves caressing the shore. It is camping in the wilderness, or in the backyard. It is s’mores and pup tents, barbecues and campfires. Summer lives in our memories as a kind of paradise that we return to again and again as we get older.

Every summer is different but some things don’t change. The weather gets warmer, the girls wear less, and the kids get out of school. Summer is a time of events, from family vacations to outdoor concerts to blockbuster movies. Summer is the realm of Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and Captain Jack Sparrow.

Summer is a time of bittersweet romance, of passionate flings and seasonal crushes. The magic of summer is punctuated by the hum of cicadas and the soft breezes of the evening. It is enveloped in a blanket of warm rain and the rumble of distant thunder. It is the magic of love’s first kiss and the thrill of holding hands on the roller coaster. It is walks in the moonlight and the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle.

It is the season of theme parks, visits to Disney World or Cedar Point, or a regional park like Lake Canobie, Holiday World or Kennywood. It’s the first visit to Six Flags, or that excitement of the first ride on the latest thrill ride at Alton Towers. It is reacquainting ourselves with the Coney Island Cyclone, or the Master Blaster at Schlitterbahn.

It is a season of water parks, swimming pools and lazy rivers. It is floating in an inner tube downstream, feeling the sun warm our faces as the sound of the breeze ruffling the grass and trees on the banks of the river fill us with contentment. It is a time when we take our time; summer is so rarely in a hurry.

The food of summer is also unique unto itself. It is hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, candy apples and cotton candy. It is fresh corn on the cob, potato salad and clambakes. It is ice cold beer and lemonade. It is peanuts and Cracker Jack at the baseball game, Lager and Lime at the soccer pitch. It is the freshness of cold watermelon on a hot day.

Summer is Wimbledon at the tennis courts, the U.S. Open in golf. It is pickup basketball games, and the Tour de France. NASCAR rules the summer months, as does Formula 1 racing.

We go fishing in the summer, with little or no expectation of catching anything other than a few hours of peace and quiet. We walk in the park in the summer, except here in Florida when we escape to the air conditioning, but even that’s not so true – it is also when South Beach flourishes and the attractions are packed with tourists.

My own memory is filled with an eternal summer of floating in our backyard swimming pool, the wind ruffling the chimes in the tea house. I fondly recall eating Dodger dogs at Chavez Ravine and rooting my beloved Dodgers to victory over the hated Giants. I remember camping in my backyard with Chris Maas, my dad taking all of us to Dairy Queen for soft serve ice cream and letting us stay up late to watch Star Trek when that was on at 10pm on a Friday night.

I remember driving to San Felipe in Mexico in a caravan of motor homes (yes, a caravan of caravans to my English and Aussie readers) with several families, including the Maas family. We camped on the shore next to the beach and watched the tide recede every day a tremendous distance. At night the adults would drink beer by a campfire while we kids would shoot off firecrackers from the bluff that overlooked the beach. When the moon rose, it would shimmer on the waters of the Sea of Cortes.

My summers were filled with the scent of wet summer grass and summer school field trips, of dining outside and going to the drive-in movies (my dad preferred the drive-ins because he could smoke while he was watching the movie). The long, long days that seemed to never end, and the warm nights that cooled us from the heat of the day.

As I grew older, my summers changed. Summers became hanging out at places like the Cactus Club in San Jose, sweating in the cramped interior and listening to the loud music of indie rock fill the nights. There were still theme parks, but now it was roller coasters and thrill rides that caught my attention instead of the kiddy rides of my youth. I hung out with my friends, drinking beer and barbecuing. We’d talk about sports and girls, the two things that occupy the minds of most young men. We were far more knowledgeable about sports than girls, although we didn’t know it at the time.

The summers of my memory are a kindly time. These days, I have a different appreciation of summer. I live now in the Orlando area, where summers can be much more brutal than the summers of my California. The heat and humidity drive people indoors where they stay in climate controlled air conditioning, hunkering down during the heat only to emerge at night when the temperatures are bearable. Here, summer is a time of afternoon thunderstorms that roll in around 3pm and stay only 45 minutes or so, with a ferocity of thunder and lightning and a downpour of rain. Those storms also make the heat less intense.

Summers are the makers of memories. While autumn is my favorite time of year, summer is next for me. So many of my fondest memories are painted in the hues of summer, from my childhood in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, to my young adulthood in San Jose, and of course now in my home of Apopka. Even though I’m aware that the summer heat can be trying, I still look forward to it every year; from the big-budget movies to the baseball All-Star game to the Fourth of July, summer has its charms and its magic that weave its way from the dream-like depths of our memories to the thrill of anticipation of our next summer adventure. I wish you all a summer of fond memories that will light up your winter imagination.