The sun is swallowing my body. Walking in front of my mirror with no pants on, my leg appears to be just a beam of sunlight and cellulite, no contouring, no shape whatsoever, just a podium of puckered skin, illuminated. Mordy (my dog) hits me in the back of the legs with a large rope, the rope illuminated by the same sunlight, its underside full of gorgeous colours and its top half, white. This is our winter vacation. We are spending it in the sun.
When I was little, my family used to go to Florida every December.
We would stay in a “golf community” named Woodmont, it’s structure still a bit absurd to me, little pockets of houses that you could drive in and out of, each inter-community named (I forget the names but I remember each of them sounding particularly Floridian), and all of them surrounding a golf course and clubhouse complete with dining room, café, swimming pool and tennis courts.
It was not fun.
We would stay in my grandparent’s house, a home they had purchased because my Bubie’s family would spend winters in Florida.
After surviving the Holocaust, my Bubie’s family settled in New York and eventually Ohio. Florida would be their retreat from the winter, the classic “snow bird” formula for retirement, avoiding the annoyance and grief of winter for sunny skies and places like “golf communities” (you can tell I am skeptical of the term “golf communities” and I remain weary to even pronounce their existence but they are real things and I spent a real amount of time in one).
We would go to Florida to visit our family.
The family part was fun. My dad’s extended family is a congenial assortment of aunts and uncles, each very Jewish in their own way, by which I mean each person was harboring an uncomfortable but very comfortable balance of humour and pain. My brothers and I, aged infant-13, would sit eating Auntie Nancy’s (chocolate) cake while Uncle Freddy conducted a card game in the sun room, Auntie Hency would come by the pool after her tennis game to ask “what’s new” (as if children construct their own lives, as if we were manifesting our own newness versus the obvious “go to school and sit there until you go home” type of reality we could only report to her).
I have memories of each great aunt or uncle I was fortunate enough to get to know but my favourite Floridian memory and, actually my favourite vacation memory of all time, is of Uncle Art.
It is during one of our later visits to Woodmont. I am a bit older but I still cannot sort out the names of all the old people I am being asked to hang out with (I still have trouble).
The day we arrive in Florida, an hour after our arrival, Uncle Art calls. I pick up the phone but, anticipating my father on the line, he yells, “HOWIE, I HEAR YOU’VE ARRIVED”. He yells, clearly indicating a hearing problem. The irony of how his considerable geriatric deafness prevents him from “hearing” anything, let alone our arrival, makes me think that Uncle Art has been calling the house all day, prepared to make his joke about “hearing” that we had arrived. Or maybe it isn’t a joke to him at all.
I yell “HANG ON I’LL GET HIM” two or three times into the phone until my dad picks up in another room.
Ten minutes later Uncle Art appears at the door.
Short. So Short. Picture Mel Brooks but cuter and sweeter, a marked innocence due to his hearing loss and a gigantic smile, erupted across his face the second he sees my dad.
I have never met a relative of my father’s that wasn’t extraordinarily proud of him. My dad, being one of the older cousins in his family (I think, I don’t really know), and considering the very positive reaction his aunts and uncles and his parents seem to have to his presence, I imagine that growing up he was either the most champion-leader-smart-confidant-handsome little boy-come-teenager and so his success is just a mark of the wonderboy curve he has always constructed for himself or he was a little shit and his current achievements, both filial and professional, are really just shocking and therefore brilliant.
I think my dad was probably a pretty good kid. His family loves him so much.
Uncle Art lights up, he steps into the house, one hand on my dad’s shoulder, “HOWIE! HOOOOOWWIEEEEEEEEE!”, as if he has been waiting for this reunion all day, all year maybe, the expression of cheer of course amplified by his deaf yelling, his adorable mass of love for my dad and obviously for family in general, contagious.
I sit in the sunroom with him and my dad, not because anyone invited me to but because, despite hardly remembering this old man or who he is married to or which one of my bubie’s brothers he is, I love him so much. Just right now. Right now, I love him so much.
My dad asks him how things are going.
The following conversation is an example of why I love being Jewish and why I love my Jewish family:
“How are things going,” dad asks.
“You know, you know,” Uncle Art replies with no other comment, just a resounding phrase, as if it’s code, as if it’s already very true.
“No, I don’t know. How are things going?”
Uncle Art waves his hand once and slaps his own thigh.
My dad laughs a little, “I don’t know what you mean, tell me what you mean.”
Uncle Art opens his mouth and takes a breath, something I do, something a lot of people wonder why I do all the time, he takes one breath as if he’s about to say something and he says nothing. After a moment, he continues,
“Howie, you know, I have this hearing aid.”
And he stares at my dad.
“OK,” dad picks up his volume and starts yelling.
“Howie, next time someone tells you they have in a hearing aid, don’t yell.”
My dad laughs, completely unsure of how to continue communicating.
And whether or not he hears my dad, Uncle Art says, “It’s not on.” He points to his ear as he says it.
Dad laughs and looks at me. I am frozen, mesmerized. This is my future.
Uncle Art says, “I used to have it turned on because I couldn’t hear anything. So? They say, “get a hearing aid”, I get a hearing aid, and what happens to me with the hearing aid? They say, “Turn it on”, so I turn it on, and what happens to me when I turn it on?”
He waves his hand again and slaps his thigh. The gesture is the punch line but dad’s face can’t shake the look of a man who needs to know more.
“It’s too loud Howie.”
“It’s too loud.” My dad repeats, slightly laughing.
“And tell me something Howie, do you need your wife a little louder?”
He waves his hand one more time and looks out the window.
I used to complain, when we would go to Florida, I used to complain that it was boring. I had nothing to do at home. I didn’t have any friends at school, maybe a couple people who were nice enough to me but no one I could call a friend. Not truly.
My brothers would always complain about missing their friends over New Years, because we would often spend New Years at Woodmont, eating soggy Floridian Pizza and candy with my parents in the front den, on really comfortable green chairs that reclined. It seemed great to me. My brothers complained. I wondered constantly what I was missing.
I never knew what my brothers wanted.
They wanted to come home and be with their friends, on paper, yeah: I can read that, I get it.
But what would they have done with their friends?
They were pre-teens. What New Years plans would they be raging through?
I didn’t really have any friends.
The people I called my friends, I didn’t even really know what they were doing for New Years, if they were away.
I was bullied a lot by the people I hoped were my friends.
We would always leave a week early, dad would take us out of school a week early to go to Florida, I don’t know why, maybe the traveling would be less chaotic but I think it’s probably just because he loves to play golf and couldn’t wait to get there.
We would leave a week early which would sort of put my life on the radar of the other kids a bit, each of them finding a way to make fun of me because they were jealous I got more vacation time than them.
Every year, the girls would just find ways of being mean to me right before I left.
These are quotes I remember vividly, spoken by 10-12 year old “friends”:
“Maybe try to come back with a tan this time.”
“You should hook up with someone when you’re gone. Unless you don’t know how.”
“Do you just hang out with your family when you’re there? That’s so gross.”
First of all, if you are related to a twelve year old that is tanning in between hook-ups, go find her and hug her.
Second of all, a similar pressure exists in adulthood which is why I mostly stay home.
Growing up, there was a lot of pressure to be grown up.
It never occurred to me that we were going to Florida so that we could be outside in the heat and in the sun during the winter. It really didn’t occur to me that the trip was a privilege and that I could enjoy the sunshine, the water, the air just for the sake of enjoying it. I believed I should be doing other things and, when I couldn’t accomplish those things, because I was not built for tanning or hooking up in a Floridian golf community on a two-week vacation, I would feel pathetic and I would hide.
Everyone I grew up with went to Florida in December.
A lot of those people had fun.
They would tan, shop, be with their friends and families on the beach.
I really wondered why enjoyment couldn’t come easily to me.
It’s always been a struggle for me to stop thinking so much. I have trouble with ease.
I lack in enjoyment because I basically just talk to myself too much. I get stuck either in the same terrible memory of the same person doing the same shitty thing to me, or I tune out completely, vacating the world to exist in a space where my presence is merely spiritual, my body can just be and my mind is just a tool for processing creation.
It’s taken my whole life to find a way of experiencing without judgement.
We really don’t need to judge everything.
After all the time I spent in Florida and subsequent other warm vacation places, my favourite memory is of Uncle Art, sitting in our sunroom, just: Talking.
In that moment, I let go of Agenda.
I didn’t try to hide the worst parts about me or show off the (usually fantastical at that point) great parts about me.
I just sat and enjoyed the scene.
That type of enjoyment is all a trip should be. It should be “trippy”, so to speak, it should be a series of images guiding a fascinating sensory experience which might not make sense because it is outside our usual context and we cannot grasp it, we cannot be a part of it, we cannot even really be In it so much as we can just wonder At it, but we therefore beam at the possibilities enlightened by the trip, leaving it inspired.
It doesn’t have to be drug induced.
It doesn’t even have to be that exciting.
The pressure we put on each other to “participate” is false. Our participation is false when we contrive pressures to make sure that we are all doing the same thing in the same way.
Even as a kid those pressures were there.
This morning, I woke up in darkness. I got up, ate way too much goat cheese and lay on the couch at 7 AM wondering if I had ruined my entire day by not waking up as earlier as I usually do. Then my dog jumped on my stomach and I was forced to sit up. The room was slightly lighter.
As the sun rose, I opened our blinds, letting in the day and I dressed for a run. The absurdity of running in winter with a dog is so satisfying, I don’t even need to wonder about how it equates into my activity level or my dog’s activity level for it to be purposeful. It just was.
When we came home, the sun was beaming directly through our center window.
Mordy and I sat in the window and talked about the day to come. I promised he’d be in the sun for as long as possible and he walked away, sat in front of his bowl, awaiting life to appear in the form of kibble.
And it did. What a thrill.