Tag Archives: Florida

Castanet Sleigh Ride

When it snows out, I play John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” a tradition that dates back to 21 years ago today when I returned to my apartment on Bleecker Street, got caught in a blizzard, and watched the city go silent. I owned two CDs back then: John Coltrane and The Black Crowes, and snow in Manhattan felt more Coltrane than Chris Robinson, plus “My Favorite Things” is a 17-minute song, so that’s ample time to sit by a large window and watch the snow fall. More than 20 inches fell on New York City between January 6-8, 1996, still among the best two-plus days I’ve ever enjoyed in Manhattan. I ordered Indian takeout. Outside, I walked Greenwich Village and watched people cross-country ski down Bleecker Street, as if they had been waiting for this moment for years. No one honked their horns because the cars were stuck. People threw snowballs and waved at each other. It was the most laid-back side of New York City I had ever seen.

I am playing Coltrane now, though we woke up to barely an inch of snow. As someone who grew up in the Snow Belt, this is quite unimpressive January weather (so far). During my childhood, winter wasn’t so much a season but a state of mind, one that involved time, preparation and equipment: the extra five or ten minutes to get into a snowsuit and boots; how I had spent all fall stacking wood for our wood-burning stove; the purchasing of rock salt; making sure the shovels could take another round; ensuring the snow-blower still worked; that we hadn’t outgrown our boots yet; that we had cans of Campbells soup somewhere in the cupboard in case we got snowed in and the grocery store was closed, because at the time there was only one store in town (and yes, it was Campbells—I can’t even look at the Warhol version without thinking of how salty that soup is). Snow piled up in feet, not inches. There was a hunker-down mentality to my childhood winters that I’ve always resented, and I’ve spent years distancing myself from them, despite the fun I had sledding down huge hills.

Last Friday, I was in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where it was around 65 degrees, and folks were bundled like the “Big One” was coming. Heavy scarves, long sweaters, hats, boots, coats. I get that Floridians, and Southerners in general, don’t do snow. They hunker down for hurricanes, a shared, but different mentality altogether. One of our waiters, who was originally from Georgia, joked with us how he keeps meaning to drive north to see snow, but when it gets to be around 60 degrees, he chickens out. I thought about this notion—driving a long distance to see snow, and here I was having just driven 1,300 miles to warm up on a beach. A friend of mine who lives in Phoenix drives her kids 170 miles north to Flagstaff to take them sledding. When I was a kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could afford to go to Florida for school breaks (and it was *always* Florida). Intense sunshine, powdery beaches and palm trees were as curious and exotic to me as snow was to this guy.

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So here I was, living out my Florida fantasies over the holiday break—doing exactly what I had always wanted to do as a kid. Originally, I had wanted to stay on Sanibel Island, but the rates were too high and the restrictions too many, so instead I lucked out with this awesome house attached to a private pool in Cape Coral, only a half-hour drive from Sanibel. I loved the Cape Coral neighborhood because it wasn’t travel brochure-Florida—it was Florida-Florida: manatee-shaped mailboxes, plastic flamingos everywhere, dolphins etched into glass doorways, very tanned, white-haired people walking dogs. Florida was my happy lamp last week, so I spent mornings walking around the neighborhood, and once, a young guy heading towards a pickup truck greeted me hello while holding a rifle in each hand. Yep. I had the real deal.

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Sanibel Island didn’t disappoint either. We went to the beach a number of times last week, including a beautiful stroll on Christmas Day. This was my first “warm” Christmas, and I reveled in Florida’s quirky mix of inflated polar bears and palm trees, its plastic candy canes jutting out of sand. We saw egrets trying to wait out the fishermen, and we saw dolphins swim past every time we went to the beach. Sanibel is known for its seashells, and there’s a posted guide displaying different shells and their names, which reminded me of being in the cosmetics aisle reading lipsticks thinking: “Which is more me, Red Hot Lover or Pretty In Pink?” I found an Atlantic Kitten Paw and a Florida Spiky Jewel Box. I only took a few shells home as souvenirs; I saw people carrying buckets of shells on the beach, and the roads in our Cape Coral neighborhood were a mix of asphalt and crushed shell, so perhaps seashells aren’t a limited resource—I don’t know. But I didn’t want to be greedy. I “shelled” because “shelling” on Sanibel is a very active verb, and I walked the edge of the Gulf of Mexico admiring the variety of shells. The waves off Sanibel weren’t ideal for boogie-boarding, so Mike dragged our kid across the water the way he used to pull her on her sled across snow.

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Throughout the week, the Sunshine State lived up to its name; it was in the 80s, abundantly bright out and warm enough to use our private pool almost all hours of the day. Except for last Friday, the day we went to Ybor City because I wanted to take my half-Spaniard husband to Columbia Restaurant, a Florida institution I had visited the previous year. This time, Columbia felt far more touristy than I had remembered. Maybe this was because of the holidays? We had reservations for dinner and flamenco dancing. At the table next to us, an older gentleman loudly asked his companion if it was “Flamingo or Flah-min-coh” dancing, and the companion had to correct him: “It’s ‘flah-mehn-co, not flamingo like the bird.” I kid you not—that was said out loud—very out loud—at the table next to me, and I was amused and slightly nervous because I knew then we were in for something marketed to tourists. Sure enough, the lights dim, the dancers come out dressed in bright gowns and wearing bright silk flowers in their hair, and they start dancing to “Sleigh Ride” blasted from an aging soundtrack system, keeping the rhythm of “Sleigh Ride” with their castanets. I burst out laughing, and then did all I could to maintain composure during the performance. My husband, whose father was born in Madrid and apparently didn’t speak any English, look horrified, which made me laugh even harder. We honeymooned in Spain, and had seen gorgeous flamenco dancing when we lived in Washington, D.C., and a troupe from Spain passed through. I had also recently seen beautiful flamenco dancing while in Havana in May. None of these past experiences involved a soundtrack. Flamenco dancing is a few women in dresses that crest and fall like ocean waves, castanets strapped to dancers’ fingers, and usually one guy dancing with them, another guy playing a box or a chair or some makeshift drum, and always—always a dude furiously strumming a guitar like it’s his last day.

Our daughter, who had never seen live flamenco dancing, looked confused and kept asking why I was trying to stifle my laughter. Repeating “Mom, what’s so funny??” while dancers are on stage trying to do their job is as awkward as it sounds. I had brought my family to a tourist trap. Playing castanets to a Muzak version of “Sleigh Ride” was meant for guys in the audience who can’t pronounce “flamenco.” The dancers were quite good, and the whole thing would’ve been better if they shut off the cheesy soundtrack, which, they eventually did. A skinny guy in a red shirt and tight black pants came on stage and saved the day with his singing and dancing, and my husband’s posture softened. A few minutes of something authentic-ish.

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It just added to the weirdness that is Florida. And, it humbled me. I can take my family down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, past its bars, the hookah lounges, the tattoo parlors, I can buy a cloche hat from La France, crave a Cubano sandwich I can’t eat because it’s not gluten-free, and convince myself I’m having a cool, authentic experience only to spend that same evening sitting before a stage of flamenco dancers working their assess off to “Sleigh Ride.” It was the perfect Friday night in Florida. You should try it sometime.

Crossing Borders

During a morning walk in suburban Florida this week, I passed this pile of discarded plastic flamingos on a lawn that looked cared for but not really used, and I couldn’t help but think about the American dream as we approach the inauguration of the next president. America is going through some funky, disturbing times. There is a sense of mourning among many, and yet, also around the corner from my rented house here in Cape Coral, Florida, a Trump/Pence sign, so not everyone is mourning. Also on my walk, a young guy greeting me “good morning” while holding a rifle in each hand, manatee-shaped mailboxes, and upright pink plastic flamingos adorning lawns filled with plastic candy canes and inflatable polar bears.

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Honestly, as I hang out in Florida, I’m in shock that I’m still in the same country that is also home to Portland, Oregon, and to Chicago and to Shamrock, Texas (had a layover there back in 1998), and to New York City, my backyard for the last 13 years. The fact we’re still a union at all answering to the same red, white and blue flag stuns me, and we should consider this progress even though there’s so much vitriol and bipolarity and -isms right now. We are 50 *very* different states. I celebrated my first birthday in Texas; I grew up in upstate New York; I lived in Seattle, then moved to Washington, D.C. (not a state, I know). I got married in Vermont. I have driven the width of the Contiguous 48 three times. I have visited 30-plus of America’s diverse states—haven’t yet visited Alaska or Hawaii—and each state functions as their own little universe. I lived in New Hampshire for six months about 20 years ago. New Hampshire, despite a shared geography with Vermont, has a completely different mindset from the Green Mountain State; it’s like comparing New Mexico with Arizona, or North Carolina to South Carolina, two states that still cannot agree on the proper way to serve barbecue. Despite shared borders, these are not apple-to-apple comparisons by any stretch. Why is that? Why do things change so much when you cross borders drawn by dead white guys?

It’s easy to happily function inside your bubble, mingle among like-minded people, never go beyond your borders, but I like going to other people’s bubbles, even if we disagree on who should lead America or the Second Amendment or the nutritional value of almond milk. America is just that, a string of bubbles, and communities feel increasingly less inclined to Venn-diagram with one another. Someone looked surprised when I mentioned I wasn’t going to unfriend Trump voters. I even had brunch a few weeks ago with a staunch Republican, who is a dear friend of mine. Our bubbles overlapped over eggs and Bellinis.

I’ve been fascinated by regionalism and differences long before Trump shocked millions of us by winning the electoral vote. To answer my own query, I started reading Lewis and Clark’s journal entries earlier this year, trying to picture what America looked like before being claimed, parceled and mapped out, before Texas was briefly its own Republic, before Abraham Lincoln had to fight to keep the country from ripping itself apart, before Los Angeles turned into Tinsel Town, before Wal-Mart took over the landscape, before “coastal elitism” became a term. Lewis spends several—and I do mean several—pages lamenting about the morning fog slowing things down, perhaps not thinking that two centuries later, a 40-something suburban mom who hates America’s ubiquitous malls and themed parks would be scanning his words for clues. Entries are spelled out phonetically, so it’s not smooth, intuitive reading; his meditations about what America used to be require stepping away from the puzzle pieces to see the bigger picture. And I’m still not sure on the answers, on when all these political, social and cultural tectonic shifts began, or where they’re going, and maybe these changes are harder to gauge because these movements are still moving.

Had America not been so goddamn big, had Sacagawea said to Lewis and Clark: “Find your own way! Jean Baptiste needs his nap!” or had Napoleon not needed to sell off “Louisiana,” which constitutes most of middle America, to fund his warmongering, what would America look like now? Who would be assuming power in four weeks? Where would the red and blue states be? Is there a singular American culture anymore or are there many American cultures? Those who drink their coffee with soy-free almond milk versus those who prefer whole milk from cows that grazed on pesticide-treated grass, and everyone else in between? Who is America today?

These “what if’s” are folly, as all “what if’s” are. Regionalisms will always prevail, no matter how much the Internet attempts to globalize us. As I write this, I am playing George Michael’s 1990 album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” a thoughtful, moody album about working out our differences, finding some common ground, and breaking free from the shoulds, coulds, and woulds. I keep replaying “Cowboys and Angels” a wispy, jazzy tune that feels like clouds floating by—perfect for a lazy day in Gulf Coast Florida. The day after tomorrow, I will be in a car with my husband and tween, driving about 800-plus miles back north, dreading the Northeast’s go-go-go attitude, its cold and darkness, missing clouds and sunshine and plastic flamingos and swimming pools surrounded by chintzy Christmas decor. All these things are closer than I realize, they appear not so far when I look at a map, yet when I am back in suburban New York City in just a few days, these things might as well be on the moon. We will cross seven states to return to New Jersey, a state that I thought would only be a pit stop, that after 13 years of keeping a residence there, still doesn’t feel like home. And as I pass through each state, I’ll be wondering who America is becoming, where are we going? And will we all get there together?

A Four-Day Vacation With My Former Self

There appears to be three primary reasons people fly to Florida: to visit an elderly relative, to attend the funeral of an elderly relative, or to party on the beach. On the flight home, I sat between two people returning from two different funerals. At age 42, I can proudly say I was the one who had partied on the beach.

I use the word “party” loosely. I couldn’t hold my drink then and I can’t hold it now. While sunbathing in my SPF-50 long-sleeved rashguard on Siesta Key, I barely drank my daiquiri, some ruby-colored concoction that melted the second it was made (I’m discovering I’m a high-end tequila gal, anyway). Everyone else looked leathery and was gulping down what looked like cheap beer or neon-colored drinks like mine. On the beach, I scuttled toward any bit of shade, like some frightened crab eager for protection. I’m not getting any younger, and have somehow remained wrinkle-free, like some freshly laundered white Oxford shirt. In fact, I received a few compliments on my clear complexion while visiting Florida last week and at first, I thought “What the hell? Are the labels on my overpriced skin care products actually true?” Then I looked around at all the raisins in the sun.

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So what brought me to Bradenton, Florida? Me and my mates from college try to meet up every few years to just hang and reconnect. Without planning for it, this trip fell almost exactly 20 years after our college graduation. Our last jaunt was to Savannah, Georgia, in 2012, so it was good to get everyone together again; our chemistry as a group is something I’d snort and sell because it’s so special. Come to think of it, we meet up in the Southeast frequently and I have no idea why. We’ve met up in Savannah twice and New Orleans twice. One year, they threw me a bridal shower in New Orleans’ delightfully spectral French Quarter, a fantastic time in which I received far too many skimpy pieces of lingerie, drank lemonade that could trigger diabetes, and danced with an eighty-something-year-old man who had some serious sweet moves.

Now we’re all a decade or more into marriages and mortgages, some of us have kids and menageries of pets, some of us are already talking early retirement, because, Holy Crap! the mid-fifties are closer than we care to acknowledge. We’re scattered across the United States, one in Los Angeles, one in Kansas City, one in Washington, DC, one in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and then me. This past winter we were all bitching about the cold, Florida came up in the conversation, and one of us mentioned her mom’s friend’s place in Bradenton where this friend’s mom’s friend snowbirds with her husband. My advice to you, at any age: when a friend’s mom’s friend says “Hey, I’ve got a house in Florida you can use!” you show up. No matter where it is. Just go.

For four days, we hung out in a house about twice as big as mine and purchased at less than half the price because everything is bigger and cheaper outside the New York City region. I was grateful the house wasn’t decorated in the aquamarine-seashell kitsch I expect of Florida. I sipped morning coffee on a lanai—a word I never get to use in the Northeast—while watching lizards dart everywhere. We affectionately referred to the area as “Del Boca Vista” (a Seinfeld reference for those of you who came of age after 1998). Next to the visiting grandchildren, we were indeed the youngest in the ‘hood. The best perk—besides being almost free—was that the house stood just feet away from a beautiful, inground pool—a Florida backyard staple—where the water temperature never dropped below 80. Every day, my friends and I sat in the pool until our skin pruned. The pool was where we chatted bluntly for hours about everything under that unforgiving Florida sun because that’s what you can do with friends who have known you since you were 18; you can say anything, anytime. That’s why we do these trips.

I’ve always been sensitive to my environment, and was worried Florida would get under my skin and make me feel old before my time. The exact opposite happened. If anything, hanging with my college friends made me feel 20 again. We blasted the Gin Blossoms in the car. We gossiped. We compared notes on sex. No one counted calories because no one cared.

Which made driving around Bradenton a little weird because the town, like the rest of Florida, had its fair share of funeral homes, and since I was the one skipping the second daiquiri to drive three forty-something women around town, I noticed these things.

But the area surprised me, too. We encountered Loggerhead turtle eggs on the beach. I ate fish tacos that were almost as good as the ones I ate in Mexico. We visited Bradenton’s quirky, thriving arts community where we bought the same kind of funky jewelry we used to buy 20 years ago. It wasn’t all Winn-Dixies and funeral homes; there was a heartbeat in Bradenton that was still going strong. The Del Boca Vistas in America may be cookie-cutter, but they haven’t flatlined. In fact, they’re oddly rejuvenating.

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By the time I boarded my flight home, I realized I’d had a Doctor Who moment. Yes, Florida is strange—the crazy aunt of the Continental 48, as someone once said—but I had enjoyed time travel. While in Bradenton with my college friends, I got to revisit the old me, which is still vocal, chugging along, and dropping a few too many f-bombs, but is also occasionally overshadowed by the forty-something stuff, which is to be expected. We can’t be 20 forever. Yet it was fun to fly alone. I wore artsy jewelry and bought a $12 dress at some secondhand shop (though I think the term is “upcycled” now). I didn’t feel like a suburban hausfrau. I went four days without talking to a neighbor about school districts, property taxes or who has what disease (their favorite topics, not mine; I’d rather talk about books, but no one in my zip code reads for pleasure). I was just Kate, the blonde woman blessed with good skin tone who always loved to travel but hated to fly, the girl who never could hold her liquor, the one working on a novel, listening to the Gin Blossoms.

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