Thursday, September 13, 2018

Going to Carolina

Someplace warm: that was the goal.

A minivan on a mission, filled with four kids on their April break and two delirious parents.

It was the most spontaneous thing we’d done since we had kids. And, possibly ever. Certainly, the most unplanned trip since weekends in grad school, when we’d depart for Canada on a whim. Or that time we went to Sackets Harbor in December, almost two decades ago, because my parents had a gift certificate for a hotel that was going to expire. That story was actually a ruse – one that ended in a proposal.

This time, there was no plan, by either of us. We just headed south. With no place to stay. Not even a certain destination. Other than "someplace warm."

That’s what my wife kept mumbling after a Winter that wouldn’t relent, even as the Spring months ostensibly took charge of the calendar. She wanted to be warm. So, on we drove. Southward.

We left midweek. Wednesday, if memory serves. A few days away from work was all I could muster without more notice.

“My wife can’t take it anymore,” I told my boss. He understood. Everyone understood. Though, I’m not sure I did.

“I think your mom has lost it,” I told our eldest, as we cruised south.

“Just go with it,” she advised, with all of 15 years of wisdom under her wings.

So, I did.

And with each mile and each degree, the light returned to our eyes. Several hours into our journey to warmth, we picked a place out on a map: Carolina Beach.

We’d been there once before, briefly, for the wedding of a friend. I remembered liking it and hoping to return.
My wife had hoped to go further south to some island off Georgia, where it was going to be in the 80s. But that would take another six hours. Besides, I knew that come late June we’d make our annual trek to Hilton Head. And that would be spoiled if we went so close to it just two months prior. So, we settled on the mid-70s.

As I drove, and the kids slept and fought and complained about being hungry, my wife found a place on HomeAway that was available for the rest of the week. A small place, a few blocks from the ocean, with enough beds and good reviews.
She called the owner, and emailed her, and texted her as we hurtled down I-95, not sure where we’d end up.

No answer.

We started looking online at other places. Then at hotels in the area. Then cheaper hotels. Then motels.

Then the phone rang.

The place we wanted was available. And we could rent it for the rest of the week, into the weekend. The owner was a fellow New Yorker. She’d gone to the North Carolina coast and fallen in love with it. Bought a place and fixed it up. My wife liked that last part.

She said we’d love it. So, we booked it.

Suddenly, we had a destination. And a place to stay for that night and a few more. It was just south of Carolina Beach, in the small coastal community of Kure Beach, North Carolina.

To say the entire Carolina Coast holds a special place in our hearts would be an understatement. My wife did her undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill and took many trips to the coast throughout her college years. Before that, she was introduced to the region when her parents started going to Hilton Head, South Carolina, when she was a kid. Quite a hike from Pennsylvania. They loved it so much, they bought a timeshare. And, it was that timeshare that has drawn us to Hilton Head each summer since we started having kids, even though it's an even longer hike from Upstate New York. The truth is, our children have grown up going to the beaches of South Carolina.

But North Carolina was new to most of our family. And Kure beach, during that miserable Spring, seemed downright exotic.

The moment we arrived, we knew we’d chosen well. The towns of Carolina and Kure Beach crowd several blocks deep up against the ocean dunes, connected by a single road -- two places inseparable to the untrained eye. With the ocean on one side and cape fear on the other, the peninsula that’s also an island reaches down to the southern tip of what is called the Outer Banks. Though, this bank is much closer to the mainland than some of its northern brethren and is only an island because of an almost imperceptible cut in the land under a bridge on the north side of town.

Along the ocean’s edge of the peninsula, pastel homes on stilts and brown condos stand shoulder to shoulder, broken up occasionally by stout older homes that have yet to be torn down and replaced. As you drive south from Carolina Beach to Kure, the stouter homes become more common.

You know you’re in the center of Kure Beach when you arrive at the stoplight, with the fishing pier one block to the east, and small beach houses in rows and alleys to the right.

We found our place on 6th street, surrounded by other one-story brick homes.

And inside, we found what we’d come for. A comfortable, cozy, perfect little beach house.

And in the time that followed, we had a Spring Break for the ages. We ate well at Jack Mackerels Island Grill and Kure Beach Diner; A&G’s Barbeque and the Shuckin’ Shack. We explored to the state park with Venus Flytraps and to the coastal village of Southport. And we found the best donuts in the world at Britts, and we devoured them.

We walked along boardwalks, beaches covered with shells, and on the pier that reached into the ocean.

For a few days this April, Carolina and Kure beach were our refuge. Our Spring salvation. Our warmth.

Today, I’m thinking of these places and the people that call them home. Like the waitress at Jack Mackerels, who was originally from Ithaca. She moved south a decade before, like so many did, to Wilmington – just inland from Kure Beach. Then, she decided she wanted to see the sunrise each day and feel the ocean breeze on her skin.

She was the first person we met there, the one who put up with our stir-crazy kids as we relaxed at our first meal, and drank drinks made for island dwellers.

For a moment, I was jealous of her life. Thinking, maybe I belonged there. That we belonged there. 

My wife had often talked about convincing me to move to the Carolinas. When she did that, I always thought of places like Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Nice places, no doubt, but not places I longed to be.

If she had taken me to Kure Beach, she might have won that debate.

It felt like a place that could be home.

I think of that today. And I also think of all the things these days that divide us as a nation, in our minds and in our hearts. The North and South. The Red and Blue. The who did you vote for, and what news do you watch. 

As a storm for the ages bears down on this place that is special to me, a friend on Facebook joked that these people voted for that orange guy, they don’t believe in Global Warming, so they reap what they sow.

That’s no way to think. 

I know these places and the people. And they are as diverse in their thought as the neighbors on my street, and in my state. They come in all creeds and colors and beliefs. And they have no more culpability in what mother nature brings, than any of us. Not that it would matter much if they did.

And I know that they are good. And that we owe them one -- my family does.

So, now, I think of this place. And its people. And the pier, reaching out into the ocean. And I hope that what makes it special remains so, and recovers from whatever the days ahead hold.

And I pray for them.

For strength. For safety. And for warmth.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Real People and Pearls in the Crescent City

He reached into his pocket between spoons of etouffee and leaned over to us, showing the picture on his phone of the fish he’d caught that morning. What kind of fish is that, I asked, knowing a thing or two about the practice and the appropriate questions.

“That there is a redfish,” he said in low tone muddled with an accent, nodding and grinning in one motion. He was young and thin and had a stiff-capped baseball hat, turned to one side.

On the phone the fish was splayed out on the ground next to his boot – footwear included for scale, I assume. Then he wiped his finger on a napkin and swiped his screen, revealing an even bigger redfish next to the same boot. It was at least twice the length of the shoe, it’s white belly bulging a bit and the rest of it emitting a rusty hue beneath its long dorsal fin.

What did you catch it on, I asked. A rod he said. And I said, no, I mean what lure. So much for me knowing the right questions.

“Just a shad,” I think he said, pulling his phone back and picking up the utensil again with his free hand and digging back into his first course as we waited for ours to arrive.

It was loud and crowded in the restaurant, a dark space with neon lit signs on the walls and costumed customers at each table, and a long line out front of people waiting to get inside -- a line we skipped for the most part by having a small party and opting to sit at the bar.

And it was unlike any bar we’re used to. Instead of the makings of drinks and liquor bottles behind it, this bar was perched over sinks packed with unopened oysters where three men in black shirts and red aprons, donning gloves and wielding blunt blades, stood and shucked all night long.

The oyster shucker in front of us, named Michael, was also our waiter and our wisecracking host. He saw the exchange about the redfish between my wife and I and the other customer, and he put his knife down for a second, “You catch something today, Dee.”

The way they addressed each other breathed of familiarity, with knowing nods and grins preceding the words.

“Shore did,” Dee boasted with the subtle pride of a decent fisherman, turning the screen in Michael’s direction.

He bent over the sinks for a better view, the light from the screen illuminating his face for a moment. His brown eyes widening at the image on the phone.

“Wow-wee,” Michael exclaimed.

“You put a plate under dat and it’ll cost you twenty-two dollars,” Dee said.

“Or more than that,” Michael laughed, flashing the big bright smile we saw quite often during our brief time at the Acme Oyster House. Then, he was back to shucking.

He grabbed another black, stone-like lump from the pile in the sink, placed one angle of it down momentarily in a small, warn metal vice. Then his knife hand prodded and pried at the up-facing edge, almost instantly he popped off the top half of the shell, discarding it down a waste hole in the countertop, revealing the pale silky flesh of one of the most sought after culinary treats in the world. He then slid the knife underneath the meat, to make sure it was free from the bottom shell and placed both oyster and shell on a metal tray. Then he did it again. And again. And again, all while taking orders, fetching drinks, and greeting customers as they came in with jokes and wise comments. When one purple, green, and gold festooned woman upset about waiting in line with her party of ten came in asking for the manager, Michael flashed his smile again and said, “I’m the manager.”

He wasn’t the manager, he confided in us after she went back outside slightly appeased that her impatience was acknowledged. We figured he wasn’t, because of his youth and the mountain of shells before him. But, based on his skill and ease, he could’ve been.

In our brief time at the counter, eating oysters, raw and chargrilled, and crawfish ettoufee and bread, and having a few drinks, Michael shucked more oysters than we could count, several trays full and a few plates, too, as needed for those wanting to eat them raw, for which the place has been renowned for more than 100 years. The others were bound for the grill or the fryer or some other concoction. He told us he shucked close to 1500 a night, as he grabbed another giant mesh bags of the unopened shells from a crate below the counter and dumped it into the sinks, a new pile to be worked. And he’d been doing this job for four years.

The math on the number of oysters tumbled through my head, and I got lost in it for a moment. That’s a lot of years of prying and plating and playing jokes on the customers of this little restaurant with a big reputation. And, I imagine he was smiling the whole time.

As we ate and drank and watched him work, while next to us Dee ate his main course, Michael’s smile infected us. I wondered about his story and his life, and how long one could shuck oysters for a living.

We certainly enjoyed our first night out in the Big Easy, and our oyster shucker had another treat for us.

“Well, lookee here,” Michael exclaimed, after his hands and knife had worked over another, prying and gliding without pause. He tipped the opened oyster on it's side and a small pearl fell onto his hand.

He reached across the divide between us and handed it to my wife. It was small and dark, not like a pearl you see on a necklace.

Does that happen often, my wife asked.

“About once every few weeks,” Michael smiled, as he grabbed another oyster to start again.

“That’s pretty cool,” nodded Dee, just finishing a plate of twelve chargrilled.

We nodded back, as the math tumbled around in my head some more.

Pretty cool, indeed.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Making Good on a Promise at Mardi Gras

It only took 13 years for me to keep up my end of the bargain, but a promise is a promise.

Back in 2005, when my wife and I first moved from Washington, D.C, to Upstate New York, she made me promise that we’d go someplace warm in February as a way to deal with the long, cold, snowy, unrelenting winters. Unrelenting is her word.

She likely meant every February. But it didn’t work out that way. We had just one young daughter at the time, and I took a job for a state legislator, and it just so happened that January through June is the natural busy season for the legislature.

Then we started having more kids. And those kids started going to school. And the one week each February they had off from said school – a thing in New York known as the winter break – just happens to be the busiest and most expensive time of year to travel away from Syracuse in a mode of transportation that could get your and your kids someplace warm fast without losing your sanity.

So, every February since then, we’ve hunkered down in Syracuse and worked while waiting for winter to pass. Luckily for me, my wife has a good memory when it comes to things like promises. And every February, she reminds me of the fateful day that I shook my head yes and accepted her one request on the great move north.

It’s not like we never go anyplace warm, ever. We just have always waited until the end of the school year. A few times, we have piled in the car and made it as far as Washington, D.C., in February to visit my wife’s sister, her husband and the growing troupe of cousins there. But Washington in winter doesn’t count as someplace warm. Trust me. I’ve tried to make the case and lost. It’s warmer, but not actually warm. 
It was over 70 degrees in NOLA today. 
We did go to Florida with the kids once, but that was in November after an election and before the depths and true depression of an upstate New York winter take hold, turning everyone into Jack Nicholson in the Shining. The November trip didn’t count. And as much as I’d hoped we’d make that a regular thing, and get our warm trip in slightly outside the set parameters of winter, we have yet to go back. We want to, but the whole kids/time/money grid never quite aligns properly to make Florida a regular thing.

In any event, between 2005 and 2017, we never took a trip to someplace warm in February. I was 0 for 12.

This year, that has changed.

And to top it off, we’re doing it without the kids. (Sorry, offspring. I promise to take you next time -- whatever that is worth).

This morning, we got on a plane in the wee hours of the morning and we lifted off toward the south and away from all the snow, with our final destination in the much warmer climate of New Orleans. It’s not exactly the Caribbean, but I hear it’s a fine place to be – especially in February. Something to do with an approaching religious holiday.

There is a catch, of course. And here it is.
We are going to New Orleans not out of the goodness of my heart, nor because I’m turning over a new leaf in the promise-keeping category (I do happen to keep most promises), nor even to just thaw out. We are going because the annual dad blogger conference, the internationally-acclaimed Dad 2.0 Summit, is being held there this year.

You might remember the Dad 2.0 Summit from a past post, How to Make Virtual Friends and Find Your Tribe. Though it’s more likely you didn’t read that one – based on google analytics and this math thing called probability.

But, either way, it’s a conference I’ve gone to in the past and enjoyed immensely. And, if you did happen to read that other post you’d also know this conference brings together a strong community of writers and friends of which I’m proud to be a member.

Of course, you may also have noticed that I’m really not much of a blogger these days. I haven’t posted since November, and that was one of only a handful from all of last year. I’m also not vane enough to think anyone notices when I don’t write. Though I did have one guy see me and say, relieved, “You haven’t posted lately, and I was worried something happened to you.”

Like if I croaked, the only way people would know is that this blog went dark. Kind of a back-handed compliment, but I’ll take it.

The truth is, I was never much of a blogger to begin with. I learned that joining this community of dad bloggers and meeting guys who have thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of followers. If you look at the nifty, little Facebook plugin on the right side of this post, you’ll see I’ve got about 500, most of which are there because they are related to me or were pressured into liking my page by yours truly. Some are there for both reasons -- thanks, mom.

But, my insignificance in the blogging world doesn’t matter. Not this weekend. Because, this group of dads and writers and content producers are my friends. Some of them are a big deal in the “social media influencer” world. And some are just struggling writers like me with enough savvy to set up a blogger account. (That takes zero tech savvy, by the way). And some of them even read this dumb little blog of mine.

As an added bonus, this blog and this conference have helped me finally make good on that promise I made 13 years ago.

Our plan is simple: I'm going to attend most conference events. And she and I will hang out together around those events and in the days before and after the summit. When I’m not around, she’ll just bask in the warmth.

So, let the record state that over the next few days, my wife and I will be enjoying someplace warm in February, finally.

(Don’t tell her, but the forecast for Saturday says it’ll be in the 50s. Yikes. I hope she packed a jacket). 

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