With my vacation in full swing, Doc & I embarked on our first Road Trip!! We both went to the University of Florida, and now that football season is back, decided it was a great time to visit our old stomping grounds, see some sights, catch a game and meet up with some of my friends. Interestingly enough, our Gainesville time lines overlapped for a year, and we lived within a mile of one another. We also worked at UF two very different departments, so like your standard indie film, our paths never crossed. Even in a tiny town, people can pass one another like silent ships in the night. I’ve made several visits to The Swamp in my years since returning to the USA, but this trip in particular was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Celebrating my birthday was the primary objective for the visit, but I took a crash course in life lessons instead.
In the six years I lived in Gainesville, I met many people from many walks of life, most of which are now peppered across the map. UF is one of those college towns where thousands of students cycle through the front doors, but once graduation comes, everyone scatters to the wind. Very few people continue into permanent residency, ingratiating themselves into the small town living of Alachua County. Upon graduating in 2001 without a clue as to what I wanted to do with my Bachelors of Arts in English, I immediately started working at the University. While my friends from undergrad continued graduating and moving away, I fought to establish roots.
During the two years after graduation, I met some fantastic people in what could be best described as the academic version of Mike Judge’s Office Space. Many of us were fresh-faced, recent graduates, and all exceptionally overqualified for clerical work. We were a hurricane of dry humor, impeccable comedic timing, applicable film quotes, and the never-ending battle with the copy and fax machines. Our team of nerds with liberal and fine arts degrees were a force to be reckoned with as we bonded over cups of tea, rounds of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, war stories from the front counter, and après-work happy hours. We banded together, making lasting friendships as we whittled away the clock, and plotted our eventual escapes. Even within the office, there was a graduation process of sorts, as folks eventually chased opportunities outside our building or outside the city all together.
My prison break occurred in April 2003, when I received my letter of acceptance into the JET Programme. Leaving my office was harder than I initially expected, as my social circle at the time was so heavily entwined with my work colleagues. When I returned years later, after achieving my childhood dream of living in Japan, I learned the hard and fast truth: you can’t always return “home.” The rejection stung so badly that I refused to move back to Gainesville, despite getting into a graduate program. I loved my friends and wanted to see them again, but having the door slammed in my face hurt too much. My pride simply refused to let me apply for other jobs in Gainesville, but my mentor later told me, “You’re meant for bigger and better things. [Gainesville] was your home for a short time, but the world is so big. Don’t get stuck [here] for the wrong reasons.”
The friends I made during that time were part of my extended family. I love them dearly, but they could not serve as a logical reason to settle down in a city with a constant flux of transient people. These folks helped me through my transition of moving to Japan, supported me through my divorce, and welcomed me back home years later. Their friendships are an essential part of who I am, and every time I visit, I realize how quickly time has passed since my previous visit. Even now, I feel like Jessie Spano screeching how “there’s never any time!” This time around, I returned to my roots in a very short time frame, to introduce Doc to some of the key players from my time in The Swamp.
In the two weeks leading up to our trip, Doc battled bronchitis. Instead of canceling our plans all together and staying home, he was a real trooper in the name of Karen Fest. His determination to make our weekend plans hold true really made our adventure meaningful. With the afternoon rain attempting to thwart all out outside plans, we recharged at the hotel. Doc took a power nap, while I stretched out from the long drive. Traveling while under the weather is never fun, and when Mother Nature is being a little difficult, one truly needs to pick their battles. As far as I was concerned, the entire City of Gainesville wasn’t going anywhere, so if all of our plans didn’t pan out accordingly, I wasn’t worried.
With a little extra time between our arrival in Gainesville and our Football Friday plans at Swamp Head, we drove over to Allure Boutique. I have followed Allure on Facebook for several months without knowing that the beautiful brains behind the bountiful boutique (try saying that five times fast), was none other than my favorite university RA, Chelsee! I had no clue until a mutual friend enlightened me. I was so excited that I was not only checking out a place I longed to visit, but could possibly reconnect with one of the first people I met when I moved into the old Hume Hall back in Fall 1997. Unfortunately, we just missed each other as she had left for the day. Fingers crossed, I’ll be able to thank her personally for everything she did for me all those years ago on my next visit.
I selected one dress to take home with me, but I chose not to wear it to the game. I decided it would be better suited for my birthday celebration on Sunday where I would be enjoying cocktails, conversation, and quality time instead of sweating up in the Visitors’ Bleachers for three hours. Wandering the racks at Allure, I realized how Orange and Blue deficient my wardrobe had become! Over the years, I had let go of my collection of tank tops, jerseys, and even visors! I will need to make a conscientious effort to replenish my Gator wardrobe! I think Allure will be a great place to start, but I may need to branch out!
We headed over to Football Friday over at Swamp Head Brewery. I have been a fan of SHB for a while now, so I was excited to finally check out the brewery. The weather, however, was not cooperative and even by 5:30PM, there was not a chair available. The folks at SHB did their best to keep the patrons dry, but the rain really put a damper on the event. Arriving early, Doc & I started our first round while we waited. After milling around under the beverage tent, we relocated to the Tasting Room which was cooler, drier and far more comfortable.
Kate & Allyson joined us, and it was great chatting with them. Most of my girl friends are more staunchly entrenched in the wine, cider, and cocktail camps, so I was thankful that I could properly enjoy the brewery with some gal pals who share my fondness for good beer. Nothing particularly jumped out at us with regard to nibbles from the food truck, so we decided to relocate to the local Ale House for eats and seats. I would love to visit SHB again on a day that the weather cooperates, so I can make more of an exploratory adventure out of it. I’ll also need to order one of those orange HydroFlasks as they were sold out when we got there!
The following morning was perfect for sleeping in, though I trekked down to the complementary breakfast for bananas, fresh coffee, and a biscuit with gravy. With plans for lunch and an 11AM check out, a lazy morning was precisely what I needed. The funny thing about flying so much, is that my body is programmed to rise early. So even on days I want to sleep in, usually by 6AM, I’m rousing from my slumber. Seeing as I cannot remember the last time I attended a Gator Game, I think part of the feeling was that Kid on Christmas morning sense of excitement and anticipation.
At dinner the night before, several of us arranged to rendezvous at Mahzu Sushi for lunch. Going to Americanized “Japanese” is always a crap shoot with me as I can be a bit particular, having lived there for five and a half years. I set the bar exceptionally low, so I wasn’t disappointed. The hot tea was lukewarm and quite diluted, and despite opening at 11AM, I could tell that the sashimi fish was left over from the day before. The only decent item was the accompanying Miso Soup, which was instant and virtually impossible to mess up. I’ll stick to Bento Cafe on Newberry for my Pan-Asian dining needs.
Naturally, the quality time spent catching up with my friends Toby & Christy completely eclipsed the lackluster fare. I don’t mind picking at bad food, when the company is so engaging. Time keeps whizzing past in a series of airports, hotels, and rounds of laundry. I hugged Christy at least three or four times, purely because sitting across the table, I realized how many months had passed since we last saw one another. In the months since I last saw her, Christy wrestled with her own demons of which I was completely oblivious.
With social media, there is a semblance of constant contact with people, but I’m learning more and more, how isolating it can be. There is no replacement for face to face meetings, live laughter, and human contact. The superficial nature of social media tends to give the impression that “no new is good news” or “everything is perfect all the time.” When I used to live down the road from Toby and Christy, I was in the loop all the time. Now, I feel like I’m reaching and pawing at my social circles without managing to fully hold on. I never want those dear to me to feel like I have forgotten them or have started taking them for granted. I am too old to act like a selfish child. Relationships are two-way streets, but an active effort is essential for improving them, and more importantly, making them last.
One of my goals for the upcoming year is not only to catch up, but to patch up and bulk up my friendships. Like training for a race, I need to put in the time. I need to stop taking the short cuts because I am only short changing myself in the end. From a physical health perspective, I know that I cannot fly up or drive over to every single person, as rest is also an essential element in my professional performance. However, I should figure out a system to reconnect with people. Maybe I can block out an hour, and try to ring up a couple of friends? Or in between trips, I could schedule Skype dates? In the past, I used to have wine and crafting Skype sessions with friends, so I could resume that and add tea time. So many ideas, but I am always looking for more.
With a little block of free time between lunch and the Gator Game, Doc and I headed over to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and the Florida Museum of Natural History. I love museums, so when dropping by the Harn & FLMNH was proposed, I was thrilled. Very few of my favorite haunts on campus are open on the weekends or open to the public, so dropping by the museums really brightened up my rainy day. The rain didn’t lend to a visit in the Butterfly Gardens, so before we immersed ourselves in art and history, we had tea, coffee, and cake at the Camellia Cafe in the basement of the Harn. My eyes made a beeline to the desert section and without hesitation the Florida Sunshine Cake demanded to make an appearance.
We coasted through the open exhibits at both museums. For me, the highlights were the pieces by Andy Warhol in The Harn and the massive skeleton and fossil exhibit at the FLMNH. As we took in the sights, my mind wandered. The blessing of being on vacation is that my work-brain finally shut off. The curse was coming to terms with things in my personal life that had been neglected. Naturally, the relaxation and simplicity of wandering through a gallery would not be the Zen experience I had hoped for as my mind was unequivocally distracted. My stomach knotted and churned, but I couldn’t tell if it was lunch or my gut trying to tell me something.
I love traveling and reconnecting with friends, but there is a certain level of stress that comes along with it. When it comes to work travel, my destinations, hotels, and transport are all arranged for me, so the preparation and planning aspects are quite light. I simply set myself to autopilot and go with the flow. When it comes to social engagements, I worry. I worry that I cannot see everyone, and as a result, worry that people will be upset with me if they aren’t invited. I dislike large group dinners because I feel like I cannot adequately engage everyone in conversation. My concern grows over the mixture of social circles as I cannot guarantee that everyone will get along let alone like each other. I fret over the I get frustrated when monkey wrenches are thrown into plans, or plans wind up getting scrapped all together. I get angry when common social courtesies are not observed. I often sacrifice what I want to do to accommodate others. I try to make everyone happy, knowing full well, that I can’t. I over think things because I am still human.
The problem with realizing my frustrations that I tend to pick up on it when physical ailments present themselves. I internalize my stress. I always have. The problem with having a public job in customer service, is learning to pick and choose actions and reactions to situations. I have grown accustomed to taking time to process, prioritize, and decide before opening my mouth. I have conditioned myself to have a very high threshold when it comes to interpersonal interaction, but I have learned that it can also be exceptionally toxic. Sometimes, I care too much about what others think, completely bypassing how I feel. I realized this as nausea washed over me in the painting gallery at The Harn. Sitting on a bench in an alcove, I quoted Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtaugh: “I’m too old for those [stuff.]” In Year 35, I need to take care of me, inside and out.
This weekend’s Gator Game was Florida versus East Michigan. While I would have preferred to attend an SEC Conference game, obtaining a reasonably priced ticket for a home game is never easy. Luckily September 6th, was Educator Appreciation Day, so Doc scored tickets for $20 per person. Throughout my four years as a student, I loved attending Gator Games, but I had long forgotten the excitement that comes within the walls of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. When I lived on campus, Game Days breathed an unreal excitement into the city. Though traffic and parking was a bit of a beast, the positive energy that pulsed through campus melted close to fifteen years. I felt like a student again, beyond excited to be going to my first game.
When I was a student, Kim and I went to many games. While it’s quite likely that I’ll miss attending this year’s Homecoming festivities, going to the game together felt like our own miniature version. Unlike my years sitting in the swelling student blocks or packed in at the North End Zone, we had the pleasure of enjoying the lower row of the rather sparsely populated Visitor’s Section. Our seats were just over one of the concrete walls, so we did not have to spend the entire game on our feet. Traditionally, I get the tallest spectator who stands on the bleachers the entire time, and I am forced to crane my neck to watch the game. This time around, I felt like I was in a balcony box at the opera, comfortably seated on the bleacher.
As the crowd filled in, the stadium came to life– the Cheerleaders, Albert & Alberta (our mascots), the Pride of the Sunshine (the UF Marching Band), and a growing sea of Orange and Blue. I took a deep breath, looking at the fresh coats of paint, the brand new signage, Gator Heads everywhere, and sighed. The rumble of the bass pounding through the sound system. The swell of voices rising in a frenzy of school pride. From the opposite corners, familiar phrases embraced me.
“This is… Gator Country.”
“This is.. The Swamp.”
“Home of the Florida Gators.”
Yes, I am home. Being away from Gainesville for so long, I had forgotten how much I loved football season. I realized that though this Gator Gal had lived out of The Swamp for a long time, you can’t take Orange and Blue out of her blood. Although my years in Gainesville are behind me, when I visit, I renew my appreciation for my time there and the people who shared that portion of my life. Spending nearly half of each month away from The Sunshine State, I find myself searching for things that can keep me ground and feel connect to my sense of home. Sitting in the stadium, soaking in the sun and the sounds, I smiled. Right under my nose, was without a doubt one of the obvious anchors for keeping this fly girl grounded. I went to university with so many incredible people as well as networked with many after graduation. The Gator Nation is an integral part of who I am, and it helped shape the adult I have become.
I am thankful for the chance to rediscover one of my multiple hometowns as well as reconnect with treasured friends. While I can’t visit every weekend, I would like to make an effort to visit more frequently. There are many friends I did not manage to see, but I hope to slowly and surely make the effort to reconnect with them. Simply driving through the main thoroughfares of Gainesville, I saw countless shops and restaurants I had never seen before. The advantage of living away from a city is the opportunity to rediscover it with each visit. As I do lots of city exploration solo while on my layovers, it will be fantastic to tackle Gainesville with friends and loved ones. For those who took time to celebrate with me, thank you from the bottom of my heart.