Sunday Morning~ Tampa
October 1, 2017
Zack had the greatest group of friends growing up. All cut from the same cloth: smart, funny, athletic, polite; they’ve been friends since we moved to Bar Harbor when Zack was starting third grade. They all spent a good part of their growing up years at our house and I loved it. I loved cooking for them, rooting for them at track meets, hearing about their social lives, girlfriends, colleges, jobs, and now wives. We’re all in Tampa for Brian’s wedding, the fourth of the guys to get married. Derrick marries Kristen in two weeks. After that, Zack will be the last bachelor among them. We were anxiously waiting a couple of weeks ago to see if Tampa would be destroyed by the hurricane, but the city appears to have been spared. All the trees have foliage and all the houses have roofs.
I left Maine last Sunday afternoon and hit the road for Albany where my brother lives. It was the start of my month-long road trip and I thought I’d get the New England leg under my belt right off. I had a quick stop to collect a crib for James and Zack’s best-man suit and then headed west. All the stuff others didn’t want to schlep on the airplane went into the car. After a seven hour drive and weekend traffic, I made it to Albany.
Monday: Albany to Washington. The most direct route on map quest said six and a half hours. But crossing the George Washington bridge and the New Jersey turnpike didn’t appeal to me, been there done that, so went west through Pennsylvania and Maryland. All was well, no problems, but the extra miles dumped me into Washington at six pm and that meant an hour and a half to go ten miles. Pretty sunset though. The red taillights blended nicely.
Tuesday: Capitol Hill. I drove into town with the friend I stayed with in Alexandria. She has the morning commute thing all figured out and we beat the traffic. I met up with Nora the Peace Corps congressional liaison and we headed to the Hill for the constituents coffee with Susan Collins. The timing was great as it would save me the time of sending her a thank-you email for utilizing the last remaining shred of decency in the republican party and voting no on the health care death sentence for poor americans. I really didn’t expect to meet her personally, the aide said she hoped the senator would have a few minutes to speak to me, but I figured she would be a dishrag by the time her colleagues got through with her, so wasn’t really expecting a face to face.
I love going to Capitol Hill. I’ve done it several times with the midwives from Maine to lobby for some bill or another to provide some basic services to women. Stuff it seemed should be a no-brainer but still was a huge effort. I heard a great line once: there are two things you should never watch being made, one is sausages, the other is the law. Boy is that ever true. It is, however, a great exercise as an American to have access to our representatives. You just make an appointment and show up. At least some aides will meet with you and you can speak your mind. In the past when I’ve gone there with a group of midwives it was a little intimidating. We had specific bills we were asking them to support and were worried about having all the facts straight and organizing who was going to say what. We had folders of information to leave with them and were schooled on the proper lobbying behavior and dress code. So with all that experience under my belt, I dug the simple black dress out of my canvas bag, pulled the black pumps I bought for the TED talk (and have not worn since) out from under the drivers’ seat in the car, threw a scarf around my neck and headed to Collins’s office with some confidence. I wasn’t quite clear on what message I was delivering. I guess I thought Nora would be facilitating the meeting. I didn’t ask. Funny now when I think about it. I guess I was so focused on just getting there I wasn’t worried about performance.
A few times a year Collins has a constituents coffee from 9-10 a.m. It’s like a cocktail party but with coffee and donuts. My timing was fortuitous as it fell on the morning of my visit. We arrived to find about fifty people swarmed around the senator. I was stunned to see she was actually there. I thought she’d be taping herself back together after the major coup she delivered to the old boys. I was introduced to her foreign affairs aide, (who looked to me like a high school student) and we started chatting about the Peace Corps program in sound-bite phrases that always has me hitting “refresh” on the brain browser. That kind of interaction makes me feel jumbled and unclear. I should have practiced a little more. While focusing intently on trying to sound intelligent, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned, and it was Susan Collins! Like two inches away. Not expecting that. I was not ready. I impulsively grabbed her hand and said, “Thank you so much for standing up! Be strong. All the women of Maine are rooting for you and willing you our strength.” She said, “Thanks, I need it.” Just as cool as a cucumber. She looked great. I couldn’t stop saying that to myself. “Jeepers, she looks great.” Then she said, “I read your bio and am so impressed with what you are doing.” Then I thought, “She read my bio? Are you kidding me? With all she has on her plate to stop the insanity in her party?” Then stuff started pouring out of my mouth about what’s happening to women around the world and in Maine. It was a crazy blur and I couldn’t believe it was happening, but she seemed in no rush and was incredibly present and listening. I was stunned. She gave me several minutes. I mean minutes. She asked follow-up questions about some things I said. I brought up what is happening in Maine and all rural areas in the country for health care for women. She said she was in total support of nurse-midwives as a solution, the same for nurse-anesthetists. She actually seemed really well informed. I repeat, I was stunned. She was talking to me like we were girlfriends. Like she had all the time in the world. No canned responses. Genuine interest. I was wondering if I looked as stunned as I felt. Someone came to her and started pulling her away and she said, “Wait, lets get a photo.” Then the aide said to me, “Take your name tag off. I’ll hold your coffee.” It was a little surreal. Then the smiling photo was taken with the flag in the background, so that was staged, but it was all more than I expected. I thanked her again and said, “I’ll be in touch.” Then thought to myself, “Why did I say that? As if we were going to go for a walk or something?” I have no idea why that came out of my mouth, but it did. She smiled and turned to the others waiting to talk to her. We sat with her aide for another ten minutes or so in a quieter room. She explained that the coffee is supposed to be for constituents and they require that there are actual constituents there, not just lobbyists. So maybe Susan seemed eager to talk to me because I was the only constituent or something, I don’t know. But it was really cool.
The afternoon in Senator King’s office was very different. There we met with four of his staff, two for international affairs and two for health. It was a sit-around-the-table type of meeting and I wasn’t sure what points to emphasize. They asked a few questions but mostly I rambled on about the program and tied it in to rural women’s health care and what’s happening in Maine. They were all a little poker faced and I wasn’t sure how I was coming across. Then when I said I believed that Peace Corps is the only foreign policy that really works and so many Malawians have told me their lives were changed by a Peace Corps volunteer and they tell me that they love Americans because “we’re always helping people” one of the international affairs aides lit up and said, “Really? They say that?” I told her, “Yes!” She put her hands together and said, “Oh thank God.” That was the high point of that encounter.
I left D.C. the next morning a little later than I wanted but thought since I’d be heading out of the city, traffic wouldn’t be too bad. I was wrong. Eager to get off the highway, I went into Shenandoah National Park and started south on Skyline Drive, where I was the only car. It’s a 109 mile drive but at 35 mph through the mountains, it takes a few hours. It was a nice change from the 80mph highway crowd though and I was enjoying it. I was starving and planned to stop at the lodge at mile 51 for breakfast (more like brunch) and walk around a bit. I saw two black bears on the side of the road, just hanging and frolicking in the grass. About fifty feet further, there was a guy waving me down. I thought he was in trouble and trying to get away from the bears. When I stopped he ran to the car obviously thinking I stopped to give him a ride. I have never picked up a hitchhiker. I didn’t realize he was hitchhiking. I thought he was in trouble. My little mini was packed to the gills including the front seat so there wasn’t really anywhere for him to sit, but I was thinking there are two bears right behind us so he’d better get in. I threw a bunch of stuff in the back and he crammed himself into the front seat with his backpack wedged between him and the dashboard. Turns out he hadn’t even seen he bears, he was just looking for a ride to the lodge for breakfast. He’d been on the Appalachian Trail for a week and was looking for a good meal. He seemed harmless enough, so I said, sure. I was going there anyway. We ended up having a totally delightful time. He’s a retired school superintendent who’d started out to through-hike the AT a few years ago but his dad got deathly ill so he had to stop. Now he does sections of it for a few weeks at a time. He said he’d seen several bears on the trail, but they hadn’t bothered him. I wondered if I’d be brave enough to do that hike alone. I was worried enough about seeing a docile moose. The bears had startled me and I was in a car! What would I do if I saw them while I was on foot? Hmm. I need to think about whether that’s a fear I want to face head on. I don’t hear stories about AT hikers attacked by bears so I guess it’s not a huge threat. Anyway, moot for now, but I do look forward to hiking in that park someday. It was beautiful. Not dramatic, but beautiful. What a spectacular country this is. Having left D.C. talking about the merits of the Peace Corps and then driving through all the natural beauty we have here, this trip has been a good therapy session.
I stopped for the night outside of Columbia, South Carolina at a cheap chain travel motel. I always think I’ll find someplace with more character and local flavor, but the reality is, it’s not worth it. I’d have to plan that ahead of time and I’m never sure how far I am going to get and don’t want to be restricted to a set destination. I ended up driving a little further that I’d planned, mostly to avoid having to go through the city at rush hour in the morning. But when I checked in I was sort of comforted by the woman at the desk, her familiarity with her job, and the predictability of the accommodation. I like the anonymity of it. The same with breakfast. Being a food snob, on the surface the free breakfast appears inedible. But a closer look reveals it’s not that bad, just packaged in poor clothing. Raisin Bran? I eat that. Hard boiled eggs? Love them. Ok, the shrink wrapped apples are unappealing, but dressed for travel? Yes. I threw one of those in my bag. The Tetley tea is now beneath my fresh Malawian tea standard, but will do in a pinch and that went into the travel mug. Oh, and yogurt. Little individual yogurts. I’ve seen the very same on expensive breakfast buffets. And the attendant actually talked to me when I asked which way to turn to get onto Route 20 west. “Oh, it’s right here”, she said, pointing out the window. Then, “Wait, is that east or west right there? I’m not sure. I go by it every day, but I never noticed if it’s east or west.” I could totally relate. I pulled out my large-print triple A road atlas. She pulled out her phone. Siri confirmed that the first entrance was indeed west. Off I went.
I arrived in Tampa at exactly 5 pm. How do I always do that? It seems no matter how I plan I arrive in major cities at rush hour. I’ve not been a big fan of Florida since they gave the election to W, but I must say, now that I’ve had some time to explore, the city is actually rather nice. I’m pleasantly surprised and glad I made the push to spend a couple of days here instead of cruising in just in time for the wedding.
It’s hot, but about what I’m used to in Blantyre during the hot season. Friday night the big gang met at a bar for Karaoke and last night was the wedding. I love seeing these guys still such good friends. Zack’s best man speech was sweet and he managed to get through it without sobbing, unlike the one he delivered at Ben’s wedding. When we were getting dressed I mentioned to Rachael that I was a little nervous and not sure why. She said, “Maybe because your favorite child is getting married.” No rivalry there.
Hitting the road now for Tennessee! Ten hours. I didn’t drink too much last night so might make it all the way today!
Love to all,