Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What I Learned on Vacation

Okay kids, I am back in action. It's been a while, I know, but I needed some time. A week in Florida with the family, and then a week being sick in bed, and then the past few days to process all the things I thought. I thought to get back in the game I would tell you all what I learned on my (summer) vacation.

I joined my family in central Florida for a week. It was the first time we have all been together in the last ten years or so for more than a few days. Slightly overwhelming at first, I grew into the multigenerational thing we had going on. Moreover, the trip seemed a constant meditation in memory and a process of thinking about the future. Here's what I learned:

Everyone needs a break at times, even me.

Hyperreality is a really interesting place to think about reality. I think that's why I studied cultural theory for so long in grad school. There's nothing like the extremely themed and the surreal to make you look at what you overlook each day. (Read that as I had a couple of days at Disney World and a lot of thought of philosophy and Baudrillard.)

Where we come from matters. I always say I am not from anywhere. Sometimes I answer I am from all over. It's the curse (or blessing) of having moved my whole life. I claim nothing and everything at once as my home. However, for all intents and purposes, I guess I might be from Florida. It certainly seemed like that while there. I was born there. My brother was born there. My parents were born there. The few folks who share my last name still reside there. Some part of those swamps, orange groves, lakes, and beaches remains in my blood. It is the first place I understood as a place, and the first place I had a sense of myself. Growing up in Florida in the seventies and early eighties was vastly different from the Florida of today. When I think of Florida, my mind naturally wanders to postcards of sandy beaches, desperate co-eds on spring break, and Disney. My Florida growing up was a world of hurricanes, pulling over on the side of the road to cut down sugar cane, and shooting at alligators in the lake of our suburban neighborhood. I remember the truly Floridian theme parks: Weeki Wachee, Cypress Gardens, Reptileworld, and Parrot Jungle-- the Florida of bathing beauties, Southern belles, and true wildlife. My Florida is closer to Ponce de Leon's dreams of the Fountain of Youth than Disney's dreams of Tomorrowland, and that has always been part of my personal mythology.

Neighborhoods mean something. They seem lost in many parts of Florida, especially central Florida. Neighborhoods there amount to status and real estate. In STL, we have real neighborhoods, and that is one of the greatest things about this city. Each neighborhood is distinct, and that helps to preserve our sense of place in STL, as well as our diversity. Imagine if Dogtown or the Hill, Soulard or Dutchtown got erased and became just about tax brackets, and not about history. We are lucky, and we need to remember that.

Chains and coroporate retail establishments erase place. Support small businesses and independently owned establishments and you are supporting originality, and helping to sustain a sense of place.

Going away makes you see your home more clearly.

It was nice being in sunny, humid, hot, hyperreal Florida. But it is a place where no one lives, an empty place without its own personality. It exists on borrowed history and by recycling reality. And there is something to be said for that. It's a fine place to visit, but I like my home to have meaning-- and real meaning at that. Here, we are writing our own story. In too many other places, someone else is controlling the action.

I'm back in the game, folks. And I'm ready to kick myself in the ass and make something happen.

Sometimes we all need some perspective. I just got mine.

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