Currency of Leaves

I can’t come up with anything academic to write about today, so I’m going to do something I very rarely do on this blog or my old one: talk about my personal life.

I’ve lived in Tallahassee, Florida, for eight months now, and it’s only recently I’ve stopped hating every minute of it. I moved here when my wife got into the PhD program at FSU—she’d applied to seven schools, and only got into this one, and since we’re basically Calvinists we’re forced to believe God must have had a reason to send us here. I’m functionally unemployed, doing engineering work for my father while I’m studying for my comprehensive exams. I leave the house once a day, to pick up Victoria from work.

The weather broke me for six months. I don’t mind hot weather, not even humid weather—I am from Georgia, after all—but I can’t abide it overstaying its welcome, and when it was 90 degrees on Halloween, that’s when I decided I’d had enough. Not that my having had enough actually meant anything. In my impotent rage, all I could do was listen over and over again to the Wilco song “You Are My Face”:

Why is there no breeze,
No currency of leaves,

No current through the water-wire,
No feelings I can see?

I trust no emotion.
I believe in locomotion.
But I turn to rust as we’ve discussed,

Though I must have let you down too many times
In the dirt and in the dust.

This is not the sort of song that’s conducive to making peace with a place you hate.

And it wasn’t just the weather, though that affects my mood much more than I’d like to admit. It was the fact that it took me nearly an hour to drive to the other side of this city of 300,000 people, that the lights seemed timed so that I’ve have to stop at every single one of them (truly a metaphor for Tallahassee’s status as the waiting room of my life). It was the biweekly reports of sexual assault on the FSU campus. (A woman got raped at 10 a.m. in the main library, for example.) It was the complete lack of a music scene. (I didn’t go to many shows in Athens, but I was somehow comforted by the knowledge that fifty were going on every night.)

Our pastor in Athens lived in Florida for several years, and he told us before we moved here that no books were ever written in Florida because everyone was too happy. I have to believe it’s the exact opposite—no books were ever written in Florida because it’s so hot that no one can move their fingers. No great bands come from Florida because the humidity destroys amplifiers. (Yes, Tom Petty is from Gainesville, but the Heartbreakers didn’t start up until he moved to Los Angeles; you can point to Lynyrd Skynyrd, I suppose. Or the Backstreet Boys.)

You don’t realize how thoroughly you belong to a place until you leave it. I was embarrassed to be from Georgia—to be from the South in general—until I moved to Omaha, Nebraska, for my master’s degree. Those coastal elites Sarah Palin hates so much are sometimes apt to combine the South and the Midwest in their minds as “flyover country,” but they’re not that much alike. Again the weather is helpful, as is the topography. Midwesterners struck me, by and large, as cold and flat; as I wrote in 2007, near the end of my tenure in Nebraska, “The Midwest is Thomas Kincaid, composed and nonchalant / And the people tell you everything but what they really want.” I’m not sure this is all that true, but it’s how I felt.

So I missed Georgia like crazy when I lived in Nebraska. By and large, I preferred the weather in Nebraska—it was nice to have four real seasons, complete with snow—but I went to college in the foothills of the Appalachians, and I found myself longing for the mountains in the autumn. Eastern Nebraska is not as flat and treeless as people sometimes imagine it to be, but it’s not Northeast Georgia, and it wasn’t the same.

Now that I’m even further south, I miss the Midwest, for reasons I can’t explain. I was miserable in Nebraska, through no fault of the state’s. I lived in downtown Omaha—probably, considering my chosen career, the only time I will ever live in the middle of a city—and I miss it now, in the middle of the winter.

I miss walking through the not-quite silent falling snow on Sunday mornings, the city barren and empty, the chords of the Gymnopedies ringing through my head. The city seemed like something out of a pretentious European movie, all atmosphere and no plot.

I miss smoking cigarettes in the alleyway between my apartment building and the Orpheum Theatre, trying to light them in the falling snow and watching the people file into whatever middlebrow show was playing that weekend. I don’t smoke at all anymore, and there’s something sad about that, too, even though it was obviously a good thing to give up.

I miss the signs of spring. They’ve already shown up here but mean very little without the deliverance from the snow—the freshness in the air and the return of the birds and the first signs of the green. There’s nothing like six months of winter to make you appreciate spring.

I guess what I’m getting at is that your geographical identity is not so much bound to where you were born and where you grew up—it’s malleable. The places you live become a part of you as much as the people you meet, the music you listen to, the food you eat. I am somehow a Nebraskan, even though I lived there for only two years and four months and was rather glad to leave when I did.

(When I moved back to Georgia, I was sure I would get to see my old friends from college on a regular basis. That didn’t happen—one of life’s deepest sadnesses is that most of your friends are umbrellas, there when you need them but designed to be folded up with no bitterness whatsoever when the rain ends.)

The strange thing is that this philosophy means that I will be a Floridian when I leave this place and move beyond this awful time. I will miss…something about Tallahasse, I am sure, though I have no idea what it will be. (My best guess is my backyard, which opens onto a pond complete with little turtles, Canadian geese, and the occasional blue heron. I do like my backyard.)

In the meantime, I am in a waiting room, waiting to take my comps, waiting to send out job applications, waiting to get hired somewhere—waiting to go to the next place that will form the next part of my identity. And all I can do until that time is try to be thankful, which does not come naturally for me.

4 thoughts on “Currency of Leaves

  1. I miss Georgia too! I don’t hate Houston as much as you hate Tallahassee, but here I am scared to walk by myself after dark, but in Rome, Ga I could go for long, barefoot, midnight rambles in the woods with the fireflies. And it’s so very very flat here! Like you, I want the Appalachian foothills, and I want to see them in the fall. I want it to stop raining with a rain that makes the city even more breathtakingly humid, I want to return to a place where I don’t get harassed on the street, where I don’t have drunks following me around the grocery store, and where I can go to museums without half the renaissance painting rooms being roped off for speciality shows featuring rodeo clowns that represent the spirit of Texas. This bloody state’s spirit is represented by a rodeo clown, and this is more important than renaissance paintings?!

    The last time I visited Ga, I spent half the train ride sitting next to a woman who was going home to Ga for the first time in 11 years after living in Hollywood and Las Vegas, and she said that while Atlanta is not without its problems,it has much more of a live and let live attitude toward those who are different than a lot of places, and as a transwoman with stories of fleeing rapists, she would know.

    Okay, nostalgic moment over. Back to work until I get to move back to Georgia.

  2. I actually don’t mind paintings that express local color taking over museums–makes the experience different than going to other museums. The Omaha art museum (The Joslyn, I think?) has all sorts of Midwest artists and far fewer of the type of work I prefer (first half of the twentieth century), and that’s all right with me.

  3. Oh, agreed, but these weren’t paintings, these were disadvantaged inner city children playing violins. I am, of course, supportive of such programs, but there are lobbies for that sort of thing.

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