Many years ago I lived for three years in Panama City, Florida.  Only three years but they were transformative years, years of strangeness.  I ended up in this odd town after dropping out of graduate school at Florida State University, after reaching a point of severe grad-student burn-out that culminated in a couple of days of sitting in my on-campus apartment staring at the wall.  It was a devastating disappointment to finally have to confront the harsh reality that my grand dream of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a researcher was not achievable.  My life had lost purpose, I had become untethered from the world and was drifting aimlessly.  I spent two months unemployed and living with my father in his Pensacola Beach apartment while I searched for computer jobs and drank a lot of beer.  Then I landed a job in Panama City working as a programmer/analyst for a company that did contract work for the Navy.

Thus began a strange period of my life.  My job turned out to be technically very challenging.  I found myself working very hard on some very difficult problems in programming and systems engineering, and solving them!  In fact during this period I undoubtedly did the best work of my entire professional career.  In my off time though, things were odd.  My traumatic break with academia had left me with a distaste for things academic and intellectual (at least outside of work).  I didn’t want to spend any time with thinkers.  I felt more comfortable talking to poor and uneducated people.  I rented a weird little ramshackle apartment, one of a group of five such (and of frighteningly amateurish construction), located behind a group of storage sheds in Panama City Beach.  My neighbors in the other four apartments were all single, alcoholic guys who worked odd jobs and were always broke.  Gradually I fell into an strange sort of social life, if you could call it that, with these guys and a few other raffish characters I met.  I got into a relationship with a good-natured but heavy-drinking woman who worked on and off as a landscaper.

For a while I led this strange double-life in which during the day I was working and thinking very hard on complex programming and computer engineering problems, working with scientists and engineers, and in my off time I was enjoying being free, unthinking, uncaring, and mostly aimless and devoid of purpose.  Drinking and going to the beach, just feeling the wind, the water and the sun, and hanging out with colorful characters, a few of whom were a little on the shady side.

Let me tell you what the place was like (keep in mind that I’m recalling it as it was in 1992-1995):   Panama City is divided into two parts: Panama City proper which is on the east side of St. Andrews Bay, and Panama City Beach across the bridge on the other side of the bay.  My recollections are mainly about the PC Beach side because that’s the side I lived on.  The Beach was definitely quite a bit wilder than the other side.  I’ve often thought it would make a perfect setting for a David Lynch film (in fact when I first heard David Lynch’s song, “Crazy Clown Time,” I was reminded of this place).  For the most part it was a poor town.  A few people who own the hotels and souvenir shops and amusement parks, and other places designed to rake money off of the hapless tourists from up north, were making money hand over fist.  But most everybody else was poor.  It was politically and socially very conservative.  The churches seemed to have a high visibility and were an influential force in local culture and politics.  Despite this, I always felt that there was a dark undercurrent of chaos that ran through the town.  Murders, suicides, armed robberies, people getting killed in bizarre accidents, people suddenly breaking out in psychotic episodes for no apparent reason.  The main industry in PC Beach as far as I could tell was stripper bars.  Liquor stores were also a major industry there, as well as various beachwear shops and other kinds of tourist-traps.  In the cold months the town was more bearable because most of the tourists were gone and it was much less crowded, with just a few from Canada who regularly came to PC Beach every winter.  In summer the place was packed with people and there were long lines of cars traffic-jammed all along the beach roads, and it was all heat and glare and tourists wandering around looking dazed and wilting.

Eventually I got restless and felt the need for a big change.  As for my work, even though I was doing good work for the Navy I was bothered by the instability and lack of job security inherent in my contract position, and the Navy organization I worked for had big managerial and organizational problems which I found very frustrating.  For another thing I was getting tired of the town.  What many people saw as a tropical paradise I saw as being a rather sordid and sleazy place, and I was getting bored and weary of all the drinking and the somewhat chaotic “social life” I had fallen into.  I started looking seriously for other jobs, in desperation broadening the scope of my search to the entire USA.  Which is how I eventually ended up here in upstate NY.

With hindsight I see that those three years, as messy and disorienting as they were in some ways, were a valuable period of transformation for me.  It was during this time that I finally assimilated, deep into my psyche, the important truth that I am not my career, I am not my job, I am not my degrees, I am not the work that I do or the titles that are affixed to my name.  I am not even the thoughts that I think.  I am not the person who I had thought I was.  I felt myself spreading out, the boundaries between myself and the world becoming less and less distinct.  I began to see that limits are, to a great extent, arbitrary creations of the mind.  By the time I left Panama City and moved north I was ready to reconfigure my life.  I was open and ready for the next phase, whatever that might be.

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