Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Threads of An Old Life

What a long strange trip it’s been. Over the past 36 hours things have changed drastically as I’ve been plunged headfirst back into the real world. In some ways it feels like I’ve been on the road for years and today marks the beginning of a new life. In other ways it feels like I climbed through the wardrobe into Narnia and while I’ve lived a lifetime in another world, only minutes have passed back here in reality. But to top it off, today I experienced a new phenomenon that really signals the end of the summer – stress.

Let’s start with yesterday – the final travel leg of this journey. The easy afternoon drive up I-84 though New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and into Massachusetts wasn’t quite as easy as I had expected and I was constantly running against the wind as I fought my way home. The traffic began on the Garden State Parkway– once upon a time my favorite road. It’s easy to predict when there will be traffic on the Parkway: Just look at the sky. Is the sun up? Then there will be traffic.

I’m sure at one point that road was sufficient for the amount of usage it received, but those days are long gone. These days I often find myself looking for any possible route that takes me away from it, even if that means getting on the Turnpike. Hey, Chris Christie: First of all, you have a silly name. Second, how about you put thousands of people back to work while simultaneously improving the state’s infrastructure and leave a legacy for the people of New Jersey? It’s easy – build a second level of the Garden State Parkway. I’m sure the state would be able to recoup the cost of the project just out of the increased productivity of 2,000,000 people not sitting in traffic for an hour a day. Sadly, we all know that Chris Christie (I wonder if he’s met Tommy Thompson) won’t do this because he’s too busy fighting the real enemy of the state – the teachers’ union.

New York,(speaking of states with sketchy recent gubernatorial track records) was no better. Yesterday was one of those –traffic-on-287-backs-up-all-the-way-onto-the-Parkway-extension days. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, since it’s par for the course when dealing with the Tappan Zee Bridge, but yesterday was Sunday. After a 15-year multi-billion highway reconstruction project on that very road, there’s no excuse for it not being able to handle a Sunday’s traffic volume.

Luckily I’m only in New York for about half an hour on this route, and when I crossed into Connecticut, Copina Jr.’s traffic sensor thing indicated smooth sailing all the way home. Unfortunately the traffic sensor thing is usually wrong, and this was no exception. About halfway to Hartford I had to take the extraordinary step of getting off the highway and taking a detour to avoid what Copina called a 26-minute 2-mile delay. Instead, she took me on a somewhat scenic back road route, which was nice until it started thundering and all traffic slowed to a crawl.

If there was a saving grace in all this insanity, it was that Gordo, so often a loud unruly passenger, chose to be quiet on this car ride. After he spent 45 minutes trying to figure out how to turn around in his doggy car seat so that he could face me, he promptly went to sleep for the remainder of the trip.

Just as I crossed the line into Massachusetts, traffic stopped once again. This was a very bad sign, since the onramp to the Mass Pike is no less than 5 miles into the state. Once it became apparent that the road was a parking lot to at least that point, I again had to take evasive action. In a move normally reserved for Thanksgiving weekend travel, I eschewed the Mass Pike and took Route 20 all the way into Auburn. I knew I was almost home when I started questioning Copina and wondering if I knew another route in the area that was quicker than the one she was suggesting. As I moved along, I thought of when I used to live in Worcester and would take 20 to Hebrew School on Sunday mornings. As the history of those couple of years came rushing back, suddenly, for the first time all summer, I felt underdressed.

Finally, at 7:29 and 44 seconds, after travelling 11,335.1 miles, I pulled into the parking lots at The Heights at Marlborough and put the car in park. I didn’t have much time to rest on my laurels because my canine passenger has figured out what it means when I touch the shift knob – that it’s time for him to get out of the car. So I had to endure a few moments of barking, whining, and thrashing as I unhooked the poodle, grabbed a few bags of stuff out of the car, and went inside.

I found the apartment exactly as I had left it, with no discernable damage to anything (save for the plants, which obviously didn’t appreciate the 40 days of drought and responded by dying). It was warm, since I had left the thermostat at 80, but not too warm, since I’d also left the shades closed. All the fish were still alive (at least I think so – I can’t remember how many of the platys there were. Besides, if one had died the rest of the fish would have just eaten it), and I must have done a good job cleaning the kitchen before I left because there was nary an insect to be found. I plugged all my electronics back in and everything turned on and worked as if I had never left. I then spent the next half hour trying to remember which channel AMC was, so I could watch Breaking Bad while eating some of my 5-year-old Wisconsin cheddar cheese.

I began unpacking my souvenirs only to realize that I hadn’t gotten very much stuff for myself. A Navajo pot, a gaggle of refrigerator magnets, a couple of hats, and lots of school supplies came out, but I quickly found myself staring at the empty suitcases and thinking “There must be more that I haven’t unpacked yet.” In reality, when souvenir-hunting, I appear to have done a better-than-expected job of adhering to that principle of Leave No Trace – leave only footprints, take only photographs. As I began to pore over the 718 starred pictures in Picasa (Those are just the “good ones.” I took over 5,000 altogether), I realized that these are my most important souvenirs.

I must admit, there are some distinct advantages to having a home and being there. I have a real kitchen again – a place where I can cook any kind of food whenever I want, without limiting myself to microwavable snacks or having to build a fire or even assemble a stove. I also have a living room. An entire room devoted to sitting around and being entertained. The closest thing I’ve had to one of those has been the couch at that one hotel. Although, truthfully I haven’t had much occasion for a room like that as of late.

There are definitely some disadvantages to being home, as well. No one makes the bed, changes the towels, or cleans up the garbage (except for Gordo and select crumbs). With space to move around comes space to make messy and fill with stuff. Life is more complicated when it doesn’t have to fit in the backseat of a car.

Waiting for me on my desk was a to-do list I’d left myself in July. The real world hasn’t just begun to creep in, it’s charged through the front door and made itself comfortable. I took a trip this afternoon out to the central office of the school district where I’ll be working this year, just to make sure everything was in order. The hour-long drive over there was a bit strange. I felt unprepared, without having everything I might need in any circumstance in the back seat of the car. The sun was shining through the side windows and I had to fight the urge to search for a bottle of sunscreen, forgetting that I wasn’t settling in for a day-long drive. In fact, I was on a schedule tighter than I’d been on all summer, and it was one that had nothing to do with getting to the most photogenic location before the sun went down. In the real world, deadlines are dictated by lunch breaks and hours of operation. Most unsettling of all was that when I looked over to the passenger seat, I didn’t have my camera at the ready just in case something of interest popped up in front of me. Along with that realization came another – that there probably wasn’t going to be anything worth taking a picture of, anyway.

When I arrived, I was erroneously told that my job may have been given to someone else, and that I'd have to wait until tomorrow to know for sure. This set off a wave of panic, anger, and frustration as I prepared to head back to the drawing board and restart the job search. After an evening of brooding and sulking I finally received an email from my soon-to-be boss telling me, unequivocally, that I'd be teaching 6th grade science for her this year. Disaster averted.

The scourge of procrastination, which so seldom reared it’s head this summer, has apparently been lying in wait at my computer desk all this time, waiting patiently to unfurl upon me a month’s worth of I’ll-do-it-later-s once I returned. As a result, just like before I left, I’m up far too late writing something that I should have done in the 8 hours I spent looking at my pictures this afternoon. I’ll enjoy that freedom while it lasts. I go back to school on Thursday.


  1. I'd be perfectly content if this is your last post. Your blog feels like it's gone full circle with us following you as you've grown. (Not into an adult, but grown in terms of appreciating that around you.) The blog pretty much started and ended with you complaining about the world around you (i.e. too much free time, the white barking tribble, job issues) but we were there with you when you swooned over the snowpeaks and stopped to just smell- and photograph- the wildflowers. This last post would have read much differently for someone who didn't follow the blogs, but I found myself inadvertently read between the lines. I know you were "pulled back into reality" and had vacation-breaking moments, but I pictured you typing this at a desk and in front of you are hundreds of your photos framed, filling the wall so there's no paint (book cover idea?) and a faint smile on your face reminiscing about the stoves you had to build and that almost-living-room couch. Welcome back.

  2. You know those folks who wondered how you could do the trip alone? Well, as I sit here in Juneau, Day 6 into my 2 week journey with 9 other family members- I have never envied anyone more. You did good and you did exactly what you set out to do.

    Meanwhile I am trapped with a level of crazy that included a family member saying " it's just a pile of snow and ice- who wants to see that?" when I mentioned hiking at a glacier. Sigh.-Amysue

  3. All our lives a circle, sunrise & sundown. The wind blows through the night time, til the day break comes around. ....
    Harry Chapin also says it the best!

  4. Ah----it always seems that when you take a special vacation, a week or two later, its as if you never went. Unfortunate yes----but this is the reality.

    But be proud that you made this special journey. You'll be able to look back at it for years to come.

    And have no fear---this is not the last special journey you will make. Its only one of the many ones you will make through out life.

  5. You're right -- this definitely won't be the last one of these. I'm already eyeing Carlsbad Caverns, the Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend...