When I was first getting sober and couldn’t keep a thought in my head and the whole world looked like some kind of Scrabble board, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. I read it and don’t remember much except an anecdote Lamott recounted about an old woman she knew who had reduced her prayer life to its simplest, and maybe most effective, terms: in the morning, the old woman got on her knees and said, “Whatever.” At night, she said, “oh, well.”
“Whatever,” I think, is a great prayer. Not the way most people use it in its trendy form right now, as a passive-aggressive dismissal of a situation someone doesn’t want to confront, you know what I mean: the “whatev” kind of response to life. To me, The Whatever Prayer is really handy for days like I had today. Days when I absolutely am not equipped for what is happening to me.
So let me bring you up to speed. Michael and I got here just fine, sometime around 11 p.m. on Sunday night. Buckshot Lee, our loyal hound dog, remained steadfast and resolute for the 13 hour trip, thanks mostly to the double dose of Acepromazine I snuck into a piece of turkey and crust of bread. Some of you know he suffered greatly from car anxiety when I had Vader, but somehow he doesn’t care about getting in and out of the 4Runner. I think it is his country roots; he couldn’t abide a 2-wheel drive. (Anyway, for those of you who are now concerned about the effects of the dog sedative–it all worked out well. For his trouble, Buckley enjoyed an afternoon romp on the Bonita Beach Leash-Free Dog Beach yesterday. He had fun and made some friends. He did pee on two people–separate occasions–who were sitting in lounge chairs. I don’t know why. We pretended like we didn’t see it the first time; the second time we pretended like he wasn’t ours.)
Monday we unpacked and organized. I briefly felt stupid for not bringing a couch. Or a kitchen table and chairs. Or a dresser. I called my new boss, Cristina, and we arranged for me to meet her at her house this morning at 9 a.m. for my first day of training. “We’ll go out there,” she said.
Out there? “To the Everglades?”
“Yes,” she said. Like there was some other Out There. I don’t know why I didn’t think I’d get in the Everglades right away. It was almost like my job was being an assistant to a famous person: “you mean I’m going to meet Prince Harry today? But I don’t know my job yet…” What if he doesn’t like me?
But that was the plan. So, I met Cristina bright and early on Ft. Myers Beach this morning, just as we’d arranged. I’m not a big woman, and for some reason I manage to make friends with women who are 6′ tall, so in “girlfriend” pictures I’m always hugging my friends’ boobs. I’ve spent most of my life as the extra-small friend, the one all the other dancers turn to when the choreographer says “…and now one of you needs to be lifted in the air and thrown like this…” Today, a miracle happened.
Cristina is about two inches shorter than I am, and so I finally got to have the experience of being a tall person. Taller person. Confucius was right: it’s all relative. She is bright-eyed, spunky, savvy, and knows cool phrases like “red mangroves are osmotically balanced” and “you know the basic scientific principle of the behavior of salt particles, right?” (I didn’t). She wears her hair long and zero makeup, so we’re different on both counts there. But she’s quick to laugh and deeply loves her job, and she picked me based on a gut feeling, and maybe one day I’ll tell you the hilariously anti-everything-everyone-tells-you-about-a-job-interview we had the night I got hired. I really like her, and I love the fact that today, while we were creeping along the Turner River Road in her F150 and looking at Great Blue Herons vs. Tri-Colored Herons and she was explaining to me that egrets always have black legs, she casually mentioned that I’ll have a stick in my van “in case the gators get aggressive. To deter them you can pop them on the face around the eyes.” You know, like the way I sometimes have to pop Buckshot Lee when he gets too close to the edge of my piece of pizza.
No one has had to do this to a gator before, but she’s telling me this because, as it turns out, sometimes people want to touch the gators because they forget that alligators are apex predators, shockingly fast, and, frankly, large reptiles don’t want to be touched by you. There is a part of me that thinks it’s unfair for me to have to wallop an innocent gator on his snout because you’re dumb. I kind of think that if you touch a gator you should get what happens to you. But I imagine that is a terrible public relations policy. All I’m saying is that I hope, in my career as a tour guide in the Everglades, that I never have to whop a gator in the face. For many reasons I hope this. If I have to give a gator a face-whoppin, 1) I will definitely cry afterwards and 2) I am going to cuss somebody Rocky Mount-style, which is like verbally skinning someone alive. Also, I think, a terrible public relations policy.
For the record, my company does not condone touching any of the wildlife. “It’s wild,” Cristina says, and I pretty much think that sums things up. Our job is to take people Out There and have a good time, hopefully teach them something fascinating and new about the incorrigible and heroic Everglades, and be good guides into that quirky wilderness. I love the glades. I knew that in Wilmington, but today, I knew it.
We drove about a hour and a half down the Tamiami Trail (a road initially made to connect Tampa to Miami, hence Tamiami), and reached the airboat ride. When we got there, to Corey Billie’s Airboat Rides, a guide was taking a family from Michigan out so we jumped aboard. I’d never been on an airboat before, and it was exhilarating. We sat in the “suicide seats,” the ones on either side of the driver.
I had a moment when we were ripping out of a waterway and into the open: a flock of white ibises took to the air like a handful of dice thrown from a cup, and the sky was a bright, deep, clear blue like stained glass, and the tall lemon-green sawgrass bent in the breeze…I literally thought to myself this is your life now. And I responded in the only appropriate way which was by weeping, although I did this silently to myself as not to alarm Cristina and the family from Michigan.
One thing that was clear today is that the wildlife is going to be the boring part of my work here in Florida. The people? Well, that’s my bet on where the real excitement lay.
There’s Corey Billie, a Seminole who privately owns the acreage of the airboat tours (it’s a lot, I can’t remember the number Cristina told me today, sorry), and Kim, the brassy and sassy manager at Corey Billie’s who wears Crocodile Hunter shorts and walked around the sales counter one day to find that a full-grown alligator had sauntered inside the gift shop, and then there’s the crew over at the Skunk Ape Research Center, a roadside attraction that’s on the tour that features an interactive-if-you-want-it animal exhibit (mostly large snakes, some tarantulas, birds, and a cute, cute parrot who blushes when you look at him).
It’s getting late, and I need to get to bed. As I write this, I realize that I need a whole different blog about the Skunk Ape Research Center and Animal Exhibit. I will say that I could not be more pumped up about life Out There, about Cristina, and about my new job. It’s obvious that I have so much to learn, and my shift from the role of teacher to student is a more than welcome one. Today I saw wild coffee, roseate spoonbills, a cottonmouth moccasin, swamp cabbage (what we eat when we eat hearts of palm), several wild alligators, captive pythons and a blushing parrot, a mind-bending roadside attraction run by a fourth-generation Gladesman who was cooking peanuts and cleaning guns when we got there, and I learned that red mangrove trees can literally walk from one area to another by sending out and dropping their roots.
I am uneducated, unprepared, ill-outfitted, and at the mercy of the Everglades and the people who know it. I find this an extremely desirable place to be. Sometimes humility feels like absolute liberation.
Yes, Lord. Whatever. Oh, well. Enjoy the pictures.
Night, night, beloveds. Sweet dreams.