Frames of Reference

Melissa Dominic, via the Pocket House, got me thinking recently about the places I grew up in, where I come from, and where I’m headed. The whole trajectory. You can read hers here.

Hard as I try, I don’t remember much about the first house I lived in. I was so small, and I don’t even remember what my own room looked like. All I remember is the cold beige tiles and how I would roll a plastic bowling ball down the hallway at a rainbow of plastic pins. I’d later grow to love bowling alleys because of it, the french fries with huge globs of ketchup, and the arcades, even though I could tell my friends found my birthday parties there boring. I also had a vegetable garden in our backyard. My family told me I had a green thumb and I told them I wanted to be a botanist. I grew bell peppers, string beans, and tomatoes, and Nana would use them in her dishes.

I come from an old town in Florida called Hollywood, where there are a lot of musty buildings, benches with graffiti written over the smarmy grins of real estate agents, big backyards, long alleyways, and streets named after presidents. We eventually moved to our second house located on one of these streets. A teacher of mine lived a few houses down from us and I was convinced she was a real-life witch because she would take our lunches away if we so much as breathed too loudly in class. I went to a private Catholic school not because of the religious education that was offered, but because my mom felt the other schools in the area weren’t up to her standards.

I always did well in school, always had really good grades and honor roll status. I had some friends, but not many. I didn’t like a lot of people there because I found a lot of things they said and did offensive. I was called a lot of things because of who I was, but I tried to shut it all out. I dealt with bullies on my own. I was the shortest boy in the class and a few girls had crushes on me because of that innocence I had simply because I didn’t curse and didn’t yell. If anything, Catholic school taught me that people didn’t know how to behave towards each other.

It is always hot and wet in Florida, and there are always thunderstorms and hurricanes causing periods of power outages. Sometimes the power flickers on and off for no reason. We had hurricane parties, where the neighbors would gather in the streets and start a barbecue and play dominoes. We had big combined garage sales with my little lemonade stand and painted signs pointing the way.

You could say I grew up in standard suburbia: shopping plazas, highways, and countless rows and rows of houses. Lots of time spent driving between places, getting to school. Lots of time in between to think and imagine and write down what I saw. If there weren’t these stretches, maybe I wouldn’t have been a writer. Who can know.

My sister was born and things changed instantly. I wasn’t sure how to react. My mom says I took one look at Paula and asked: Is that it? I don’t remember that, but it seems like something I would say at that age. I was happy though because I knew I wanted a sister from the beginning–there were too many boys in the family anyway. My sister was a funny person ever since she was born, and I am happy to say that we are still laughing a lot together.

I left Catholic school when I was going into the seventh grade. My mom was very worried to take me out, but when she told me about this new public school that was opening, I wasn’t fazed. I didn’t care about what I was leaving behind and I wouldn’t miss anyone. When we took a trip to see this school being built, I was curious. Ironically, I’d soon realize that this period would be the best transitional phase in my coming of age. No one knew each other at this school, so I didn’t really care what people thought of me. I made new friends quicker than ever before. I’d be nice and gentle and bright-eyed and people wouldn’t have an issue with that. Teachers started to notice how I could write, which was something I really never paid attention to before. It was just something I did because of the long distances.

High school was in a different place. High school was also very different because everything is slightly askew and slightly sideways when you’re a teenager. We moved into the third house, which was much closer to the high school. It is located in a very new, more densely populated city in Florida. There are more gated housing communities and senior citizens, and it is more multicultural. I continued my education and my sister would eventually follow suit by attending the very same high school. I got my license, got a small white car I named Atticus Finch, spent time with friends at the mall on the weekends. My grades went from really good to flawless. I didn’t have a lot of school spirit, but I did volunteer work with handicapped kids. I started reading and writing a lot, and took advanced placement English and creative writing classes. I didn’t go to school dances, but I did go to the senior prom–a limo and everything. A few girls asked me to go with them and I caved with the first choice. After graduation, I’d eventually go off to college in Miami, where I realized I wanted to study English. It was between English and psychology, but I decided on the former because I knew I’d prefer writing about people’s problems rather than trying to solve them.

Sometimes, there are moments of tingly nostalgia (this is bound to happen if you grew up in the 90s), but I like to think of myself as a long-term forward thinker now. I’ve grown morbidly afraid of watching home videos for this reason, and I’d rather not waste time watching someone I hardly know anymore. Also due to the obvious embarrassment and having to watch my mom cry or say things that make me cringe.

Sometimes, I do pass our old Hollywood house though, usually on a trip to the doctor’s office. Out of all the places, this is the one with the most memories that have stuck. The lawn is overgrown now, like a jungle, and the pool is just that color green too. There is ivy growing on the garage next door. The houses down the block are painted colors like bright chalk, colors that would get us a notice tucked in our mailbox now. It’s like returning to Wonderland and realizing something is amiss. There is a fear of what may happen next, but a confident cheshire glow of what still remains.


Writing from Home

Home has always been more strange than familiar.

This is a video clip I found while going through old stuff on my computer today. It shows my sister throwing rocks into the lake by our house. You can hear Nana laughing. I’m also laughing to myself right now because the clip is actually labeled “WhatWeDoforFuninFlorida.mov” in my videos folder.

I make fun of Florida a lot. I was born here and I’ve lived here all my life. It’s quite a strange place to live, to be honest, if you don’t know anything about it outside of your occasional trip down to Disney World (or any of the other theme parks) or to Sanibel Island for the nice beaches. Although, if you watch the news enough, you might know something about how often people get murdered too. The perpetual heat makes people do crazy things, I think. I also live in one of the most popular counties (and attended one of the most overcrowded universities), so it is the very definition of hot and crowded.

Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, often uses Florida as fodder for her fiction, spinning it into her own mythology and an eccentric ensemble of characters. I write about it sometimes too. I write about neighbors and neighborhoods a lot, and hurricane parties. I remember writing a short story once about a gated community where the neighbors all gather outside after a hurricane has passed them over. That’s one unique experience that I’ve lived through quite a few times. It’s an interesting experience seeing all the people gather into the streets – sometimes people you hardly know at all – and sit down together to share some lunch, games, and conversation.

Other than that, I write about escape too. I think about leaving. Really, there isn’t much here to see besides all the housing communities, shopping plazas, and miles and miles of sprawl. I sometimes wonder how things would’ve been different if I grew up in a city in New York instead, which is where my parents are from. How different it is there. I wonder if I would’ve grown up into a writer at all. I say this because, as a child, boredom and an overactive imagination were a potent combination, and Florida – despite how much I pick it apart – has proven to be the perfect place to grow something like that. New York would’ve made the process almost too easy, maybe, for something like that to happen. Maybe all the color and culture would’ve been too much – there would’ve been less reason for me to write as a kid because the stories would be happening to me instead of me having to make them up for myself.

Edit: I received a comment about this post elsewhere discussing how I was implying that people who come from the city are more likely to have a weak imagination, which is obviously not true. Plenty of great writers come from such environments and I didn’t mean to insinuate that. This post is more speculation about my own personal trajectory.