There are moments in our lives when insights reveal themselves in special events and the world is never the same again. The birth of a child. A marriage. A devastating illness or injury. A milestone birthday. A career change.
Or when you realize your TV screen isn’t big enough.
Hurricane Irma did it for me. We were staying with friends — designated by the county as the official Thompson evacuation shelter — and I was watching The Weather Channel, mesmerized.
“That’s a big dang TV!” I told my friend. “I mean, it’s like a Jumbotron. I’m seriously concerned Irma might just roar out it and bowl me over. If I still have a house after this, I need a big dang TV, too!”
He just looked at me and said: “Yeah man, I think you do.”
Thank you, Hurricane Irma. You have helped me to see the light.
The phone call came from my mother the night before St. Augustine evacuated for Hurricane Irma: “Brian! I don’t have any dry cat food to leave Missy Daisy and Little Joe! I only bought wet food in cans! What was I thinking?!? They don’t know how to use the can opener yet!”
I’m not sure where the mix-up occurred. The cats weren’t going with my mother when she left for the hotel. The stacks of cat food cans would be worthless. Even worse, when she finally realized this, there was no Friskies to be found anywhere. The kitty food shelves were bare.
These was desperate straits!
Now I was being dispatched on a secret commando mission to find cat food: “CVS HAS SOME! I JUST CALLED! REMEMBER … MISSY DAISY DOESN’T LIKE SEAFOOD … ONLY BEEF!!!” It sounded like something from a war movie. Some frantic soldier on the front line calling in artillery fire to keep the swarming enemy at bay.
I pointed at my daughter: “You’re coming with me. I want sanity on my side.”
“There’s a tree on my house.”
If you ever say these words out loud, your ears will hear them, question what was just said, and spark an internal debate: “A tree on my house? Is that what I just said? No! There can’t be a tree on my house.”
Only, yes. It IS a tree. And it’s leaning on my house. Look!
There it was. A photo in a text from my neighbor. My neighbor, Forest, stays through all the storms. Even better, he sends me texts, photos and videos at all hours. This year during Hurricane Irma he even streamed live video from his upstairs porch.
The news is always good. That’s what I was expecting when the texts came in the morning after the storm. But they showed damage on the street. A transformer dangling from a pole. A massive tree that took out power lines clear over to Riberia Street, two blocks away. Then I saw it. It was agonizingly slow to load, taxing the struggling cel network in the powerless neighborhood where my family had evacuated to. It was of a pink house — boy, that’s similar to mine! — with a big cedar tree parked against an upstairs porch.
GASP! “There’s a TREE on my HOUSE!!!”
So, here’s the thing: I’m supposed to sit down, right now, and write this thing. This column. Which is usually fun, and hopefully funny. Usually, that’s the goal when I sit down to write.
But here’s the thing: It’s Tuesday night. And I’m sitting down, and I’m thinking to myself, “Who cares? This thing comes out Sunday! Hurricane Irma may be here by Sunday. St. Augustine may be up to its eyeballs in water … again. And I’m supposed to sit down and write a COLUMN?!?”
And the phone keeps ringing. Mostly it’s my mother. She’s worried about where she’s going to go in the storm if we have to evacuate.
Actually, she wasn’t worried. Not until I made her worried. Because she had a hotel room booked by the interstate. They would take her dog. Maybe even her two cats, if she snuck them in with a picnic basket. She had it all thought out, and she was pretty proud.
Then she called me. I had to — no pun intended — rain on her parade.
“Tuesday!?!” I said. “You booked your rooms for Tuesday? The storm will be here already!”
How did I know this? I don’t! I didn’t know anything. Because I’m not a meteorologist. I’m just a guy who is supposed to be sitting down to write a column. But instead I’ve been staring at hurricane forecast models on the Internet. Spaghetti models by fancy computers that may or may not have been hacked by Russian hackers. I don’t know.
I paced back and forth. Up and down the block, under the cover of a hotel awning. Weary to venture out. Is that black ice? Can high-powered snowflakes kill? If you get hit by a snowplow, do they just shove you in a snow bank and leave you until the city thaws?
No Floridian should be here. In an epic spring-time storm. A winter-esque blizzard that even the northerners freaked out about. They were careful on the roads. They skipped work and school. They shutdown trains and fired up snow blowers. They sprinkled salt everywhere, even on their salads. And they mourned the tulips they had planted the week before when it was 60 degrees and supposed to be spring.
This was a Noreaster, combining with a polar blast of snow cutting across the Midwest. They called it Stella. A she-devil who was supposed to bring 12-18 inches of snow to New York City. I was there for a College Media Conference. It seemed like a good thing to attend … until I learned their HIGH temperatures wouldn’t crack the lowest I had seen all year.
Um … ha?
I paced back and forth, trying to decide whether to trudge into those cotton-candy whiffs of white drifting down. Piling up on the street like someone shaking powdered sugar all over the city.
To trudge out into it or not to trudge? That is a Floridian’s question.
But no Floridian — not one who had been through a hurricane last year — could live with himself if he didn’t trudge.
So, I went. To learn many new things about winter weather, and to remember lessons I had long since forgotten.
Hey, Old Man Winter! Is this the best you got? Can’t you do better? Can’t you send at least a little cold stuff down our way? That way I can wear this new sweater I got for Christmas.
Last time I tried, I didn’t make it a full day before it was heaped up in a ball while I panted and Googled: “how to cure winter heat exhaustion.”
The answer was: move north!
No, I don’t want to. And I sure don’t want it cold here all the time, for months on end. But a little moderation — a little nip to the air — would be nice.
Already it feels like spring has arrived. I’ve seen azaleas blooming, and after a rain, rings of yellow pollen collecting around the puddles in the street. I stood two feet from a hummingbird slurping away at porter’s weed in my front yard. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and had a suntan.
I don’t mean to sound over-dramatic, but I really feel lucky. I don’t mean to make light of the situation. It’s just that people have told me this in jest. Not because I made it through Hurricane Matthew, but because I made it through two nights in a stuffy hotel room with my mother. With her dog. Without electricity. With only a couple of cold chicken fingers and the few sandwiches I grabbed from work.
And maybe most of all, because my wife didn’t kill me for staying with my mother, and not with her and my daughter.
It certainly wasn’t the way I planned it. Looking back on it, I’m still not sure how it worked out that way. But I do remember a phone call one early morning, right before Matthew started huffing and puffing our way.
It was my mother: “Brian! The hotel just called to say they’re canceling my reservation! They’re evacuating the city!” (My mother talks with a Southern accent, but she is Cuban. And Cubans talk in exclamation points!)
St. Augustine, Florida — “Boy, one big bubba truck riding down the road could have swamped her,” the friend said. I was telling him about my mother’s house in downtown St. Augustine. When I got back into St. Augustine early Saturday morning — cutting down a side street clogged with debris and garbage and tree branches — I pulled into her driveway and shined a light through her door to see twinkling cat eyes staring at me. Then I noticed the high water line along the siding.
It’s where the flood waters stopped. Barely an inch from her doorway.
That was how close her house came to flooding. Had the storm jogged a few miles west — had that “bubba truck” ridden down Riberia Street — it would have been a different story.
She’s one of the lucky ones. I was, too, and my brother.
Boy, nothing prepares you for July in Florida. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here, or how many Florida summers you have under your belt. This month always rolls around and it’s just a shock to the system. Like we never saw it coming. So with the heat pouring on, it’s time to remember all the ways we Floridians know to beat the heat.
• Put your foot down. I had to do that on July 4th. My mother planned to have us eat at her house under the grape vine arbor, when the afternoon heat index was still hovering around the boiling point of lava. “There’s a nice breeze blowing,” she said. Only, it wasn’t a breeze. It was air that had caught fire and was racing by, searching for water.
“No, we’re not eating outside,” I finally said. “We’re not doing anything outside. It’s Florida, and smart people prefer to live.”
Clearly, we’ve got some work to do. I don’t mean to make light of a serious situation … it’s just what I do. But if there’s one thing that little puff of a Tropical Storm Colin taught us, it’s that we no longer know what we’re doing. We’re tropical turnips. We Floridians have gone far too long without serious weather threatening us. We’ve atrophied from battle-hardened, tropical troopers to sad, clueless chimps. (“So is a tropical storm when you crouch under your desk in fetal position or when you bring all the plants and cats in?!?”)
I feel you, friends. And that’s why I think Colin was a great wake-up call — a reminder to be better prepared in case a far-worse storm comes. Here are some of the most important lessons I learned this week:
• I don’t have a “mother” plan. This is not “what to do with my mother” — for the most part, she’s plenty capable of taking care of herself. What I’m referring to is a plan for how I DEAL with my mother. For instance, like the phone call I got at work on the day of the storm. It went something like this: Mom: “Brian, I need you to come over and move the silver to a higher location in case it floods.” Me: “Mom, it’s already in the attic!” Mom: “Yes, but I want you to take it up to a storage center in Charlotte, N.C., just to be safe.” Was NOT prepared for that! And it made me want to start drinking, which would have thrown all my other plans off.