Friday, May 25, 2007

The Summer of Sharks and Beaches. Chapter 2

Chapter 2

The first series of shark attacks occurred on Memorial Day weekend during that 23rd summer on the other coast – “the Space Coast” of the Atlantic Ocean. Three attacks in one day – all young people – two surfers and one girl boogie-boarding with friends in the small waves that lap the shore. Halifax Medical Center had treated shark attacks and surfers before but never like this - maybe three in one summer but not three in one day.

The news report was playing in the living room of the family’s home that he was staying with during this transition period – a break up with the college girlfriend had left Evan with no apartment of his own and, with the impending move one month away, a roommate situation was difficult to arrange.

That spring, Evan had taken a temporary job as a middle school science teacher. It actually worked out quite perfectly. While he wouldn’t graduate from college until late May, he was done with all of his course work. The middle school was a private institution so they were not tied to the same requirements for their teachers that would limit Evan from working in a public school without yet officially having received his college degree.

During that spring before graduation, his own school related responsibilities consisted of wrapping up the honors thesis project and arranging more applications and interviews for law school. The days were essentially free with no real commitments during any specific block of time. The opportunity to teach for a few months sounded appealing to Evan probably more for the chance to evaluate a potential future career choice than to earn his first real paycheck. While it’s true that Evan was about to head off to law school – a fairly prestigious law school at that, especially given his modest blue collar upbringing – he still didn’t really picture himself as a lawyer. Not that the profession wasn’t appealing or exciting to him – it was. For Evan, law was simply the best way he could think of to make his passion for marine life, the ocean, and invertebrate ecology into a career that fit his personality.

Evan was a rationalist and, for the most part, a fairly serious and bright student, but these traits were not enough to make him scientist material. His mind didn’t work that way. The dogma of scientific principle was too linear for his expansive curiosity. Plus, his mother, a nail saloon worker and self-proclaimed psychic astrologist, always told him that, as a Gemini born during the year of the Horse, he would have to find work crafting words and arguments in a creative way. Evan certainly didn’t buy into any of his Mom’s asinine psychic shit but, after years and years of hearing this advice, it became hard for him to separate out a mother’s true insight and experience from the $25 bookstore paperback garbage that cluttered her mind (and by proxy, his as well). Thus, he eventually came to believe this as solid truth – he was destined to exploit his interpersonal skills and for him, that meant exploiting those skills to protect and ensure the unharmed existence of the world that he was much more concerned with of Dusky pipe fish, sea cucumbers, and anemones that made their habitat in the shallow Gulf coastal mangroves and marshes.

Not too mention that Evan had an ego driven by a self-aware confidence not seen in most men until much later in life. This wasn’t an ego based on conceited selfish pride – no, this was different. This was an ego that came with the experience and realization that using words to maneuver into and out of situations could be a powerful social weapon and aphrodisiac. Thus, Evan’s word skills and oratory prowess gave him confidence that made up for his average looks and the just barely above average, slight-underachiever persona he conveyed as a student.

For these reasons, law seemed a much better choice to him than science. During college he had spent time in the marine biology and oceanography labs – first as a volunteer stuck with the scut work of cleaning fish tanks and hosing down the boats as the grad students returned from day trips into the Gulf of Mexico collecting plankton, deep core samples, and temperature readings for their dissertation projects with titles like “Variation by Latitude in Diurnal Pachycerianthus fimbratus Habitat” or “Florida Continental Shelf Changes and Energy exploration in the Holocene”. Later though, with his interest in the subject matter on obvious display to the faculty of the Marine Life Division of Biological Sciences, Evan found himself with a part-time paid position as the Lab Manager. He got along great with the grad students and the faculty treated him like a PhD candidate, not an undergrad 19 year old. By his senior year, he had developed his own interests in the lab and a project that explored short term changes in the population of Florida shallow coastal water fish in relation to public policy initiatives which had paved the way for increased condo development and oil drilling close to the shore line. Certainly, Evan would have had no problem finding a top-ranked PhD program to fund his work and education after college. Even with his state school and mediocre grades, Evan had received emails from the big Hopkins Marine Lab Project up on Chesapeake Bay and the Stanford Institute for Conservation Ocean Management (SICOM).

But, this line of work just didn’t seem quite right for Evan. Late at night, while waiting for samples to spin down in the centrifuge or for tanks to reach appropriate levels of salinity, he would wander around the department library – an old classroom up on the third floor of the Southside Tanks Building – stripped of desks and filled with shelves of the faculty and grad student dissertations and publications collected over decades and decades of academic life.

This room both amazed and depressed Evan. He saw the same ideas presented in slightly different ways across generations – ideas that were sentenced to a lifeless purgatory in black bound manuscripts published by the University Press. These brilliant professors at the twilight of their careers had worked hard to change the part of the world that they understood, that they could contribute to and that they would, during their lifetime, become expert in defining and describing. Nonetheless, even with that expertise, they toiled to have their perspective understood more broadly than that room without success, or – even more frustrating and difficult for Evan to comprehend – they didn’t try at all to find a broader audience for their work. Some of these people seemed perfectly content with their small world of Caulerpa taxifolia experts and annual conferences. Actually – and even more limiting to Evan – some of these ideas themselves seemed better suited for their small audiences and a life of anonymity for the author. Do you really care if Syganthus floridae is polyandrous? Does this have a broader impact on the world and global affairs?

That was the sticking point for Evan. If you were fortunate enough to have a choice in your career, the predictable part of the path of life, how could you pick a life that is, by definition, limited in scope and relevance?

Those late nights in the library and lab helped Evan figure out that he needed the audience of others to better know himself and, I suppose, to validate his existence and passion for something so seemingly trivial as the animals and plants that live in the water off of the coast of Florida. That is how he narrowed his professional life decision down to teacher versus lawyer – both professions that seek a broader audience to justify your ideas and interests.

He quickly adjusted to life as a middle school biology teacher and felt comfortable knowing that, if law school didn’t work out or if he needed a career change later in life, this was certainly an option. He was able to make biology accessible to most of the kids in his class and had a great way of forming individual connections with large groups through his youthful appearance and genuine excitement about the animal kingdom, cells, DNA, and even disease. Kids can sense a poser, a fake and a phony from miles away – luckily Evan was none of those things when it came to the subject matter he taught. This made up for his relative lack of skills as a teacher.

Of course, Evan did have quite a bit to learn as a teacher and a long way to go before truly teaching to the best of his abilities. In order to facilitate the development of young teachers, even the temporary teachers like Evan, the school had set up a mentor program in which the new teachers were paired with veterans. To qualify for the mentor program, the veteran teacher has to log over 20 years teaching with no disciplinary actions against them. This is an amazing feat in any line of work and most of the teachers in the mentor program were, indeed, amazing people. However, Evan was lucky to not just get an amazing veteran teacher, but an amazing, if simple, human being named Douglas Kuzka.

Douglas (Kuzka while at work) had been in the English department of the school for 22 years – as long as Evan had been alive. In his mid-50s, Kuzka connected with Evan over a 30 year age gap that filled quickly with mutual respect for the vibrancy of youth and the experience of age.

There was an air of humble dignity that radiated from Kuzka’s simple outfits of lose fitting brown khakis that he paired with thin Banana Republic sweaters or soft cotton T-shirts. Matched with alternating grey tennis shoes or slide-on loafers almost every day, Kuzka suited up in his uniform and, suited up as himself, delivering a calm exuberance that contributed to the credibility he had from his mix of education and experience. The man appeared oblivious to the natural environment of heat and humidity that existed outside and, while he was not in bad shape for a middle aged man, Evan could not picture him doing yard work or running outside, being forced to wear shorts or gym clothes. He was the kind of man who made drinking water from a plastic bottle look somehow sophisticated, natural and clean. Most likely, Kuzka’s decent level of fitness did, indeed, come more from his choice of drinking water and eating fruit almost constantly throughout the day, as opposed to any type of regular exercise routine. Douglas Kuzka was not a pompous man though. His appearance combined with his small, elite, private liberal art college background and his early history of teaching school in one of the New Hampshire prep academies might give Kuzka the perception of superiority. However, this wasn’t who the man was – this was a man who just fit in to himself with a soothing comfort that enabled him to transition from a respected peer among academics, a mentor to younger teachers and students, and a family man in the clutches of suburban America life with kids, a hedge, and a nice chunk of land nestled on the river.

Evan had become comfortable interacting with older adults in the marine labs – but the relationship with Kuzka was different. Aside from his parents, Evan had never been close and felt so comfortable with a person so much older. In addition, this was a different kind of closeness than Evan shared with family members. This was friendship – this was Kuzka talking about his wife’s inability to have orgasms after the birth of their second child 15 years ago and the shit-headed owner of the New York Knicks who was running that team into the ground by allowing bad coach and bad GM one after another to nearly bankrupt the franchise.

Evan and Kuzka became very close friends that spring. After Cori broke the lease in April, only a month before Evan’s graduation and their planned move to California, it was perfectly natural for Kuzka to offer Evan the spare bedroom of his comfortable home in the unincorporated, sprawling, outskirts of the city.

Evan’s apartment with Cori was near a string of strip malls on the busy drag leading to the public beaches and the small access road that ended at the large marine labs and docks of his department. Certainly the apartment was not waterfront, or really all that close to the water, but also not more than a 15 minute car ride or 30 minute bike ride away from the brackish bay he had grown up with and worked with these last 4 years. Unfortunately, Kuzka’s house was even further from this body of water, as well as the more touristy sandy beaches in the nearby county that Evan also liked to frequent. Nonetheless, the water was still in driving range and that was his only real requirement for a place of residence, especially with something as temporary as this current arrangement he would have with Douglas. So it came to be that Evan moved into Kuzka’s house during a very odd time of break up, of loneliness, of excitement, of waiting, and of change that defined his current status in this world.

Evan was standing in his bedroom at Kuzka’s house when he heard the news report in the background. The TV in the living room was always left on at ear-cringingly high volumes. This was mostly due to the lazy habits of Douglas’s 15 year old kid and his numerous friends who occupied the house eating microwave pizza rolls and playing video games. For some reason, the volume of the TV while playing the video game was softer than the volume of the cable TV feed. Inevitably, when the group of 15 year olds would tire of beating prostitutes with baseball bats in the newest version of Pimp! they would smash down the power button on the Playstation and run out of the house to satisfy the next short-term desire of their adolescent urges. Apparently this had just happened, leaving Evan with no choice but to listen to the evening news yelling at him down the hall.

As I said previously, the first series of shark attacks had occurred on the Atlantic Ocean coast – but now, a second and oddly similar set of attacks had occurred much closer to home. This time, three attacks occurred in one day in the Gulf. Not near the area of the Gulf that Evan knew well, but instead up in the panhandle of Florida, closer to the border of Alabama. Neither attack had led to death, but, according to the shrill blonde women whose face Evan could picture easily from her voice, both attacks did lead to very traumatic outcomes for at least two of the victims.

The boogie border in the Atlantic Ocean attack had lost part of her right hand. Apparently, the shark had struck while she was paddling the board out past the breakers on the sandbar approximately 50 feet offshore. The other victim, a young man who was graduating Panama City High School with a scholarship to play division two football at a nearby state college in southern Georgia, had his left leg mauled midway down the thigh. Unfortunately, this necessitated amputation upon arrival to the hospital, essentially ending a potential football career and free education before it started.

Evan thought of these things and his mind wandered back to the semester long internship he had done two years ago at the state Natural History Museum in northern Florida which houses the International Shark Attack Database. As Evan thought of the shark expert there who had a fetish for young girls with pigtails, he heard the shrill local anchor women exclaim, “Maybe instead of calling this ‘The Summer to Remember’, we ought to call this one ‘The Summer of the Shark’, what do you think Joe?”

Evan repeated the phrase “summer of the shark”, smirking at the stupidity of such a statement while thinking about how boring the Spike Lee movie Summer of Sam was too watch again on DVD. As a matter of fact, Evan recalled, this was the last DVD to arrive in the mail at the apartment he shared with Cori and was probably – no, definitely – the movie playing the last time him and Cori had disinterested sex on his blue futon mattress he kept spread out in the corner of the barren room they had used for sleeping, fucking, and watching TV over those past two years of their early 20s.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Summer of Sharks and Beaches Chpt 1

The thick heavy air that accompanies the reality and finality of adulthood had not yet settled on his life during the summer of sharks and beaches. No, this was still just the thick and salty Gulf air, all too familiar to Evan by this, his 23rd summer in west central Florida and, of course, his 23rd summer of life.

The subtle changes in season associated with mid-October in Florida are only appreciated by the most astute and observant natives of the swampy sunshine state. Many argue that there are only two seasons down here – hot and hotter. This is not the case though. While the state, especially the central and southern regions, is, indeed, always relatively warm, markers beyond temperature usher in each new season. It’s during mid-October that the taste of summer falls slowly and quietly away to unassuming and less oppressive warmth that marks the oncoming Florida autumn. Usually, no one knows that the change has occurred until weeks afterwards. Only then do you realize that your hands do not burn on the steering wheel and that your shirt is not soaked during a walk in the thinner evening air.

A Florida native and astute observer, Evan was certainly, if subconsciously, aware of these annual variations, attuned to the markers of change hinting at the coming seasons. However, he had never noticed the other climate - the context of his life and the air of his youth. Thus, it’s not surprising that Evan didn’t notice the slight difference in the flavor of his life that hung just on the fringe of his existence that summer like a 75 degree day at the end of September.