En La Florida

SunRail in Winter Park

Bathed in light, I watched the cutest little bit of stimulus money creep into the green environs of Winter Park, FL. The station is tiny, and families waited along the palm tree-lined track to catch the three cars of the SunRail train. The destination was Orlando, five miles away. Driving (or even biking) would’ve been faster but this was some cheap fun for bored children a couple days after Christmas.

Kids love trains, as do most adults though they dismiss them as impractical. But if trains ran more often, and to more places, they would be practical.

Instead, we build roads. Near where my parents live, the state built a flyover at a suburban intersection, allowing traffic to soar on a concrete ramp twenty feet in the air, going from Red Bug Road to 436, one of those six-lane highways lined with fast food joints and gas stations that could be anywhere in America. In a car, you wait for the light to change, go under the massive flyover and then run into another traffic light.

After watching the train disappear into the verdant flatness of Florida, I drove to my favorite hipster coffee joint. I love how Orange Avenue meanders between Winter Park and Orlando, winding around lakes and passing lingering bits of Old Florida. Along the way is Foxtail Coffee, which makes a great cappuccino and has an outdoor seating area with fake grass and real palm trees. Next door, there’s a place for tiny, tortured salads and a local brewery. It’s about as Portlandia as Florida gets.

Foxtail is nine miles from parents’ place. Easily bikeable, where it not for the presence of six-lane roads like 436. The Google bike directions send you through the flyover.

In Orlando, people bike in subdivisions or they bike on trails but they don’t bike on roads, especially ones like 436. You don’t even see people walking along these suburban corridors.

There’s a tendency to think that this is the natural state of things, as if God ordained the car and America built a network of highways in response to his word.

I watched Secrets of Spanish Florida with the family. American history doesn’t begin with Jamestown but with St. Augustine in 1565, where Spain established a melting-pot colony of Europeans, Indians and escaped slaves. The first Americans were not Puritans, and the first Thanksgiving was not in Massachusetts. By the time the English got to America, the Spanish had been living here for decades. In La Florida, citizenship was available to all, no matter your race.

Perhaps if the Spanish remained in control, Florida would look like Spain, with high-speed trains and excellent ham.

Florida doesn’t have to be a place where retirees go to escape taxation. It can be different. America can be different, too.

The Joy of (Not) Driving

rental car, AspensFor someone who doesn’t own a car, I do like driving. There’s nothing I like more than a long road trip, especially one out west. Over the summer, I flew out to Colorado and then spent a week driving around, taking in hip Denver neighborhoods, the majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park and the wide open spaces of Wyoming.

The previous summer, I started in Las Vegas and did the drive of a lifetime, cruising down Highway 12 in Utah, enjoying red rock deserts and serpentine descents down black asphalt without another car in sight.

A few years before that, I rented a car in DC, drove over the green Appalachians and kept going, across the deep South, through a Texas blighted by drought and then up through New Mexico before returning via the endless prairies of Kansas.

There is something uniquely American about taking a road trip. It’s the experience of being the only car on the road, two lanes stretching to the horizon under a bright sky empty of clouds. Of driving beyond the FM signal, where you only have scratchy AM radio filled with preachers promising damnation. Of stopping in a small town somewhere, to hear your tires crunching under gravel.

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Every year, I drive down to Florida for the holidays. I love it. Thirteen hours of drinking coffee and listening to NPR. I have it down to a science – I leave on Sunday mornings (little traffic) and spend the night at a super-quiet Residence Inn outside Savannah. The next morning, I leave early, get to Florida, detour off I-95 to Jax Beach or Ormond Beach, then head on to my parents place in Orlando.

In Florida, people without cars are regarded as freaks. You assume they’re homeless – why are they walking? Biking is done on trails or sidewalks. Without a car, I wouldn’t even be able to get out of the vast subdivision where my parents live.

Over the Xmas break, I had a ton of fun driving. I went to the beach, explored new neighborhoods and went to my favorite Cuban place (twice).

Cuban sandwich

And seeing how cheap gas was – $1.65 a gallon! – I began to think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a car?”

For someone who doesn't own a car, I do like driving, especially when the gas is this cheap. Was having loads of fun until I entered the leviathan road sprawl of our nation's capital. 60 miles of stop and go traffic on I-95 reminded me how much I hate dri

I thought that way until I reached Richmond on the way back. Sixty miles of stop-and-go traffic, from exit to exit, accelerating and braking, three lanes of cars inching toward DC. An ambulance roared by on the shoulder. WTOP reported a gang of ATV riders terrorizing drivers on the Beltway. They had stopped traffic and were setting fires.

After Springfield, traffic accelerated again, a mad rush into the city, sixty miles an hour, cars on one side, concrete barriers on the other. With a massive thump as I hit a pothole, I crossed the bridge into the city. A homeless man limped toward me at a light. I paused to let pedestrians cross and the driver behind me yelled, “Fuck you!” Ah, yes, the traditional greeting to the city.

I watched the car disappear at Avis, leaving me on the sidewalk with my foldy bike. This feeling of relief as you get rid of a car – there needs to be a word for it. Freedom, I suppose. On the bike, I knew I could cruise up to Whole Foods and get dinner. Or go to the Greek place at Dupont. Or go down to the Mall. In a car, I’d have to navigate one-way streets, traffic and where would I park the damn thing? The ability to go anywhere is why a bike is freedom in DC.

Foldy bike at the Lincoln Memorial

Outside the leviathan sprawl of our nation’s capital, I am happy to drive. Within the DC metro region, however, I bike. It’s fast, easy and fun. Driving is none of those things in DC. I’ll save my driving for the wide open roads of the West.

Friday Photo: Beach Edition

Christmas in Florida is not always warm. I remember years with freeze warnings and rumors of snow. But when it’s nice, it’s really nice – Florida in December can be incredibly pleasant.

I’m fortunate that my parents live in Orlando. On my way home, I detoured off I-95 and cruised down AIA. I saw these condos from the road and had to stop. I walked down to the beach to get this iPhone shot. The long shadows and the soft afternoon light underscores the beauty and symmetry of these buildings. Living there must be a dream – it certainly looks like one.

Books That Are Too Long: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia!My favorite books are short ones.

The Great Gatsby is a slim 180 pages. That’s all it takes for Fitzgerald to recreate the Roaring 20s and give us the quintessential American striver.

Ernest Hemingway is a master of economy, using just 251 pages to tell the tragedy of The Sun Also Rises.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh is another brilliant little book from the interwar period. It traces the fall of the British aristocracy in just 264 pages.

Yet, contemporary books seem to sprawl unfettered, as if editors have just given up on their duties. Authors ramble, they discourse, narratives go off into tangents and down weird little cul-de-sacs.

For example, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. It clocks in at a wearying 416 pages.

The novel starts off incredibly strong, giving us the colorful portrait of the Bigtree family, famed alligator wrestlers of the Everglades. Being from Florida myself, I’ve felt that the comic potential of the state has been underutilized. From exiles plotting revolution to greedy condo flippers, if any state could produce The Great American Novel, it’s this one.

The collapse of the Bigtree family mirrors what’s going on in “mainland” society. Their struggles are shared by many in more prosaic circumstances – they lose it all and the family falls apart.

The section of the novel where the Bigtrees adapt to normal life is fascinating. I loved Russell’s depiction of The World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park on the mainland. It’s like a Disney World created by sadists.

But then the book rambles, in an endless journey through the swamp as 12-year-old Ava Bigtree goes in search of her older sister. Lush descriptions of flora and fauna are piled one upon another, creating a mangrove thicket of prose that nearly stops the reader cold.

It’s one of those books where you find yourself peeking ahead a few pages. When is the story getting back to the World of Darkness?

The odyssey in the Everglades takes so long that the ending feels rushed, unresolved, leaving dramatic threads hanging.

Swamplandia! is a good hundred pages too long.

Despite growing up reading books, even I turn away from novels that resemble doorstops. Reamde is a book that I desperately want to read. Yet, at more than a thousand pages, I don’t even want to start it. The novel represents too much of a time commitment in our distracted age.

It’s ironic. The Internet and our ever-present electronic devices have collapsed attention spans. Yet, our books keep getting longer and longer.

No wonder why so few people read novels.

Our lives are crowded with information. In order to break through the electronic din, a novel has to be concise and powerful, a book that looks more like The Great Gatsby than Swamplandia!