Right In Our New Backyard: First Gator Sightings

A few days ago, Bill and I decided we needed to get out of the house. He had an unexpected day off, and we found ourselves sleeping in (like we always do), going to the gym (like we always do), and still trying to figure out what to do with our day by 3 p.m. (like we always do). Still without a job solidified, I’ll be damned if I spend one more day lounging around the house when there is a whole new Florida world outside.

Oh man, did we find it.

Now, we’ve eaten at a lot of new restaurants, we’ve checked out the movie theaters and the comedy club, and we’ve seen our fair share of the inside of Fort Myers’ bars. What we hadn’t seen yet was the REAL Florida. Being from California, we weren’t really sure how to get outside in this part of the country without – first – melting, and – second – finding ourselves at the beach. Complaining about the former? Yes. Complaining about the latter? Not a chance.

But in all seriousness, we moved from a beautiful area with hiking galore and vineyards everywhere and amazing running trails and long bike paths and sand volleyball courts and amazing beaches. Not that they don’t have some of those here, but with the miserable humidity and the severe lack of local knowledge, I’ve been missing me some nature.

So I googled “Fort Myers hiking”, which was stupid because this place is FLAT. What came up wasn’t hiking, per se, but a plethora of nature preserves and trails and what have you. Well, we picked one. And HOLY SHIT.

We drove about 8 miles east, which took about 15 minutes, and found ourselves at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve. Now just a reminder, a preserve is an area of land that is protected so that the plants and animals can remain safely in their natural habitat. Safely in their natural habitat… both FREE and WILD. So imagine our delight when we found that this particular preserve built a boardwalk trail winding past lakes and ponds and through a forest about a foot above a swamp. The skinny planks did have a railing on either side except for when it didn’t, and there was really nothing from stopping any of the wildlife from climbing up there with us.

You guys, we found FLORIDA.

We started out the walk next to what was called Gator Lake. We stopped at the man-made viewing point to stare at the water for quite a few minutes before realizing that the namesake gator was not going to show himself. Bill made some comment about how placid that lake was, and I wanted to punch him a little because it reminded me of that monster movie from the ’90s about some made-up lake in Maine that was home to an enormous man-eating crocodile, and there actually is a Lake Placid in Florida. Oh, and I am apparently terrified of the very idea of alligators, because even though we hadn’t seen one yet, I know they are out there and it’s been giving me nightmares. (Apparently the thing to say if you’re Floridian and you are talking to me is something like this: “Just assume there is an alligator in every body of water. Even if you can’t see him, he’s in there…” Um, thank you? That’s terrifying.)

So here’s our placid lake and my wonderful husband.IMG_6587

At this point, which was really only a few minutes into our walk, I was starting to think we wouldn’t see too much. But the lo and behold, what I believe to be a flamingo flew by. I say “believe” because while this is the second time I have seen a flamingo actually flying in Florida, and even though I have googled it numerous times and confirmed that, yes, in fact, they do live here and they do fly… I still can’t wrap my head around it. But, THIS.Flamingo

We walked a little farther, and soon we heard a rustling just off the boardwalk that did not make us jump. This little guy was munching away to our right, where the railing had disappeared. Not in the least bit scared, was he.

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But then we heard a rustling behind us on the lake side, which made me pretty much jump out of my pants. Whipping my head quickly around to scan the water where the ruckus had come from, I saw small scaly stripes worming their way through the algae floating near the edge of the lake. “Bill, what is that? Is it a lizard? A snake? WAIT. Are those…?” BABY ALLIGATORS.

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Now, I don’t know about you, but I count SIX of those things.

Gators

Okay, one more time. Closer.

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If I know anything about alligators, it’s that mamas don’t like anything or anyone messing with their babies. These puppies are so brand new that she can’t be far. Time to keep walking. FAST.

The pathway lead us away from the lake and into the trees, which was unlike anywhere I’d ever been.

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I couldn’t believe we were in the middle of this.

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Just below was the murky swamp water, generally swarming with activity from bugs or frogs or other I-have-no-idea-what-is-in-there things.

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I couldn’t take enough pictures.

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The first turnout we came to led us down a bridge to Wood Duck Pond. We thought for sure we’d see a gator here, but instead we just heard bog noises coming from over here and over there and never seeing what made them. It’s a little unsettling when a giant splash happens a little way to the left, and all you see when you look over is a huge ripple in the water.

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Continuing on through the trees…

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…admiring the beauty around, above, and below us…

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…nabbing the photo ops that abounded. Here, at Otter Pond.

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After a few hot and rainy days, the sun was finally showing it’s face again, highlighting the gorgeous Florida clouds. Seriously, they’re the coolest.

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The colors and the textures were mind-blowing. Who knows what’s under there though…

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Okay, so time for a dirty little secret. I’m a birder. Like, for reals. I have birding binoculars and field guides. I guess that would be a “nerdy little secret”, wouldn’t it?

But right after I’d made some comment about not seeing any birds and how disappointed I was about that (I mean, come on Ashleigh… AMIRIGHT), Bill was the one to spot this little Black-crowned Night Heron standing as still as a statue on a log. Whether he was hunting for food or pretending we couldn’t see him, I didn’t care. He stayed put long enough for me to get a good look at him before continuing down the line and leaving him be.
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I knew we were about to come to a little place called Pop Ash Pond, a name which I am rather fond of. Childish? Don’t care.

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What happened next was entirely unexpected at this point.

THEY’RE REAL.

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Please forgive the quality of my iPhone camera, but COME ON.

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He was just chillin’! Hanging out! And couldn’t care less that we were sitting there watching him! AND HE DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TO COME OVER AND ATTACK US.

But a lack of gator attack (which is ridiculous to begin with, I know), didn’t mean that Florida was going to let us out without ramping up the grand finale in the worst ways possible. NOPE. Of course it would just throw one of these at us, in the form of Bill walking right by it without noticing, and me, who isn’t too afraid of snakes, pointing it out to him in the worst way possible. “Omigod, BILL. Look left!”

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SEE. I told you there was nothing stopping them from getting up there. But so far, I had handled everything. The gator had probably been the worst part, since now I can’t ignorantly pretend that they don’t exist. The snake? Ain’t no big thing. In fact, I know myself well enough that as I kept getting closer and closer to take a picture and being fully aware that I don’t feel the level of fear necessary to keep me away from such things, I asked, “Bill, is this stupid? Am I being stupid? I want to get pictures, but I need you to tell me if I’m being stupid.” Apparently, I was being stupid.

BUT THEN. Oh my goodness, BUT THEN. I didn’t lose my shit until this guy popped up. And then another one showed up on the railing, and then I had to walk a foot by another one. It was as if my worst nightmares were crawling out of hiding just in time to finish off our awesome afternoon in the worst way.

I. HATE. GRASSHOPPERS.IMG_6561

That thing was the size of my finger, and I’ll have you know that picture is blurry because it was purely for the purpose of this blog and not for my own well-being or enjoyment. In fact, I may have taken it while walking in the opposite direction very quickly. Let’s be real, it was time to get the hell out. After all that, when the bugs come out, I’m done. I seriously CANNOT.

So now we’ve had our formal introduction to Florida. We got down and dirty and exclaimed, “ohhhhh holy shit” enough times to pass the test, I think. And here we are, in the thick of it, just the two of us coming out swinging.

Unless there are bugs. Then, hell no.

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Let the adventures continue…

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Young Professional… Lost.

There is a part of this crazy journey that I haven’t acknowledged here yet.

Well, actually, that isn’t quite true.

There is a part of this journey that I’ve been too embarrassed to write about. Yes, embarrassed. Hard to believe coming from someone who has poured her heart into writing about anything and everything, no matter how humiliating, on a very public forum for the past two years, right? Well, this “thing” that I’m referring to is something that has always be a part of my self-concept, a key ingredient to my own perception of my self-worth. It has been a source of pride, of motivation, of identity. And now, in the last few months, that piece of me has vanished. So for the sake of the giant empty space in this Floridian room where an elephant should be, here it is…

My career.

Or current lack thereof.

I’m going to have a moment of self-pity. A giant, dramatic, cry-me-a-river-and-build-a-bridge, world’s-smallest-violin MOMENT and let it out: I’ve been struggling, I’ve been lost, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with myself.

I could say that I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for Bill and the unbelievable career move that brought us to Florida. I left my friends, my family, my beloved San Luis Obispo, my job that I loved and that loved me back. Not to mention my heart-of-hearts home state, for whom I cry grizzly bear-sized tears from the NorCal stars in my eyes and for whom I bleed In-N-Out special sauce through the map of my “5 to the 505 to the 80 to the 680 to the 101” veins. Oh yeah, and about whom no one in Florida really cares too much. I swear, I find myself wanting to go so SNL on everyone I meet that they know without a doubt I’m a “Californian”. 

I could say that I sacrificed all of that, but that wouldn’t be fair. Bill and I made the decision together, and this adventure is the bed we made. So I can either lie in it, tossing and turning all night, or I can put on my big girl pajamas and sleep well knowing there is nothing in this world I am lacking. I still have my family, I still have my friends. San Luis Obispo hasn’t moved, and neither has California.

However, there is still that pesky gnawing in my brain that just won’t quit. The unfortunate fact is that I cannot pick up the phone and call my career to tell it how much I miss it. It’s has been eating me alive.

So what’s been happening? First, a little back story. During undergrad, I had the privilege of studying what I loved. For me, that was Psychology and Theatre Arts, which in the real world is also known as Volunteering and Bartending. I’ve never known exactly what I wanted to do, per say, but I always knew that I would find it at the end of my passions. As a college student, I worked part-time at a local pet store, then Petsmart, followed by a brief stint at Victoria’s Secret, and lastly at the Children’s Center on my university’s campus while interning in the Gender Equity Center. Fast forward to right after graduation, and you’ll find me teaching kindergarten with some respite work on the side. The teaching job was on a 1000-hour contract, and when that ran out, well, I found myself right back to the drawing board. A random encounter with a former supervisor led me to a grad program, to which I applied. At the same time wanting to make a bit of money and explore my second major, I looked into jobs at our local news station and promptly landed a job in advertising sales. Right after starting, I found out that I got into grad school. In the scheme of things, I made a swift exit from sales and cracked the books again for my MA in Counseling and Guidance for Higher Education. During those two ragged, exhausting years, I interned with the sexual assault resource, the orientation program, the study abroad office, and Career Services, all on campus. Upon graduation, luck would have it that a counselor position opened up at the site of newfound passion, and I started my position as the Career Counselor for the College of Liberal Arts a few months after being hooded.

Best. Job. Ever. 

I had found a calling. I loved my job, I loved my students, I loved my coworkers, I loved my office, I loved my WORK. It was the first time this had ever really happened to me, this whole “do what you love, love what you do” thing. It felt great.

Now, I know you know how that story goes. A little over one year from my official full-time start date, I am now unemployed and in Florida – two of the very last things I ever expected to be. 

Making the decision to move was a very tough one, especially for me but also for Bill too. A lot was going to change so drastically, and although he had a new and exciting job, he had to live with watching his wife leave many things behind. Now, I haven’t experienced that myself, but I can see it in his eyes when I mention missing my friends or work through not contributing financially out loud or fighting being the one responsible for all the cleaning and maintenance and cooking and stocking of the fridge. But here we are, and I am missing my friends and working through a lack of contribution and fighting being responsible for our everyday lives, all while applying for jobs and networking like crazy.

You see, things are not quite going according to plan. At least for me.IMG_6403

When we first started dating, we had talked about the day that would come when we had to choose between San Luis Obispo (and all that it represents for me) and Bill’s career. At that time three years ago, in the car on the way to catch a flight at the Minneapolis airport, I stated that once I graduated from grad school, I wouldn’t be tied down to a job, and I would have my master’s degree in hand. I could get a job, easy, and this all sounded like an adventure that I couldn’t wait to go on. So Bill renewed his contract for two more years while I finished up. We got married a month after graduation.

But then he didn’t get a job right away, and opportunities in California opened up right before my eyes. Opportunities that I wanted to grab but didn’t know if I should since we might be leaving, but that I grabbed anyway because we might be leaving and couldn’t know for sure. So I applied for that dream job and ultimately got it. Once I did, I worried about accepting it. What if I accept and Bill gets a call next month? It was stressing me out. I did accept, and I had an amazing, amazing year there. A year of experience added to my resume that, with that same master’s degree, meant that I was set. 

Or so I thought.

I resigned from that position on June 30th. It is now a week into September, and I’ve been job hunting since May. No job. It’s all been a mystery, really. I have been targeting all the higher education institutions in the area with major emphasis on two in particular. Of course, there weren’t any career counselor positions, knowing that of course I wouldn’t be lucky enough to continue with my passion after 26 years of searching, but there are some great schools around here. As long as I’m working with students, I’m happy. The jobs I first started applying for were the ones that I read the job descriptions and the minimum requirements and thought, “I just might be able to get this.” In other words, they were at the top of my reach with the qualifications I was bringing with me, and testing out the job market, I thought that Florida couldn’t be any harder to break into than Cal Poly. But then I kept getting emails stating that I didn’t make it through HR – the first step in the application process in the higher education. They look at your degrees and your experience, and everyone who meets those minimum requirements gets through to the selection committee, regardless of how good your materials are. You meet it, you make it. I could have written my experience out in crayon, and as long as I meet the basic criteria, I make it through the first round. So back to getting the rejection email, nobody read all that work I put into my many custom resumes, my cover letters, my awesome letters of recommendation… In fact, nobody even looked at them.

Well, I took those first couple hits as a reality check, and maybe the market is more competitive than I thought. Time to step up my game even more. So I didn’t get a director position? At least I tried. As other jobs started popping up, I began climbing down the ladder. Surely I’ll get this assistant director position. Or that one. Or this job at this obscure school over there. Or maybe at that one? What is going on here? Can I please have a job?!?!

Now, I don’t want to sound pompous here, but I’m a career counselor. My area of expertise is to help people clarify their life purpose, define their career goals, work through the job search, and much more – the very basic of which is composing a compelling resume and cover letter. I know how to do these things, and do them well. I spend hours crafting targeted resumes, rearranging my experiences in terms of relevance and scouring the job description for ways to substitute their language for mine. I have countless files on my computer labeled by institution/department/job title, each containing a separate document for every piece of the application. My cover letters are the stuff of which dreams are made. So with all of these pulled up, I’ve called HR many times for feedback. “Hello, I recently applied for ______ position and didn’t make it through HR. I was under the impression that I met the minimum requirements. Do you have any feedback for me?” Then we nitpick each part of my application and why I didn’t meet the easy-peasy minimum requirements, and then there is nothing left I can do so I hang up the phone and sulk for a minute before throwing hellfire and brimstone into the next application, practically burning a hole through my computer with fury as I compose that next magnificent cover letter. 

IMG_6404The last straw came a few weeks ago. I applied for a job at one of the aforementioned university that required a bachelor’s and two years of experience. Well, I have two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and four years of related experience. Sounds promising, right? Despite the meticulousness I put in to yet another set of materials, I got that dreaded rejection letter AGAIN, and this time I’d had it. I emailed the head of the hiring committee, who I had just shaken hands with the week before, and got no response. I called HR yet again, and I tried everything I could think of before the sweet, sweet lady on the other end of the phone lowered her voice and said, “Well, we actually don’t count master’s degrees or graduate internships as experience here.” I’m sorry… WHAT?!?!? 

I just about blew a gasket. Had an aneurysm. Broke out in hives. Exploded into a million tiny little pieces due to internal pressure.

You have GOT to be kidding me. She basically had just told me that instead of spending two years running in a goddamn hamster wheel of stress, exhaustion, and mental Iron Man competitions – you know, those two years where I gave up my social life and cried more than I didn’t cry and forgot what sleeping was and yelled at Bill for no reason and missed out on amazing things so I could sit at home in sweats and write endless research papers on waitforit HIGHER EDUCATION – and instead of busting my ass working 40 hours a week at the university where they can only pay you close to minimum wage for only half those hours and INSTEAD OF SPENDING THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON A PIECE OF PAPER THAT WOULD ENSURE ME PROFESSIONAL SECURITY… Well, I should have just gone to work. Welcome to the last few years of my life, invalidated. 

And then to make matters worse, she added, “You should start applying for positions that require less experience.” Wait, less than those positions that according to your website I should technically be overqualified for? I’m confused. 

Look, it’s not that I should have gotten those jobs. It’s not that I think I’m entitled and some sort of super-professional. A lot of them are now filled, and probably with people who could be a much better fit than me. I know this. But at least give me a chance to show you why I think I could be a great asset. At least read those PDFs that I poured my occupational heart and soul into. But no, I am being held at the gate while I watch everyone else walk proudly through to their new positions, paychecks, and health benefits.

So what now? Well, I’m at a crossroads, but not really, because none of those paths seem to be going anywhere. I did a phone interview that went well, and I’m waiting to hear back. I’m working on my real estate license again, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ve been hunting for the perfect fixer house to throw myself into, which proves difficult when you don’t know your area. I’ve been hanging out with some new friends, and I just went to brunch on a Monday. I’ve been reading all the books that have been piling up, decorating and redecorating, cooking (affordable) gourmet meals, and laying on the floor face-up staring at the ceiling.

IMG_6411Doesn’t that all sound great?

Well, it should. However, it seems I haven’t been able smack myself into accepting it. I’ve had this time to distress and relax and catch up, but instead I’ve been digging my heels into the ground and resisting what is. I’ve been worried about the gap on my resume and concerned for the leaps we aren’t making in our savings and buying into all the outsider comments of how this may be the perfect opportunity to start a family when we are not quite there yet. If I could just let go of all it – the anxiety, the guilt, the confusion, the embarrassment – this could actually be a very productive time. The most productive, even. I could get healthy again and accomplish cool things. I could keep educating myself and become a Pinterest rockstar. (Fishtail braids and gallery wall domination have already taken place.) And I could just keep trying and do the best that I can and enjoy life as it is.

But it’s just so hard.

If I’m being honest, though, the hardest part hasn’t been everything I’ve been ranting about for the last five pages. The hardest part has been looking in the mirror this morning and having to face who I really am. It’s been figuring out how to deal with the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart without having a deadline to throw myself into or a button-up and heels to hide behind. It’s been about defining myself by my personality, my intellect, and my spirit instead of my profession. Nowadays we really do identify our worth through what it is that we do instead of who it is that we are. I’m mean, think about it. The first question we ask when introducing ourselves or making small talk is “What do you do?” Shouldn’t it be “Who are you?”

So who am I, if not my job? Well, I suppose I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a lover, a giver, a caretaker, an artist, a storyteller, an athlete, a big heart, a listening ear, and a kind smile. I am me.

So I guess in the meantime, while waiting for this whole job thing to work itself out, maybe it’s time to shift my focus. Maybe this is a great time to concern myself instead with all those things that I am, instead of all of those things I am currently not. That, it seems, may just be the real secret to getting ahead – and the best kept one, indeed.