Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Burger Museum

(The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

Memorial Day presents itself to me as a holiday with a bit of a multiple personality disorder: on one hand it's a time to remember the dead - those who lost their lives in active military service. Yet it's also the unofficial start of summer - beaches, pool parties, beer and yes, hamburgers. This last item has me reflecting not only on service members who have passed on, but also on wonders that exist now only in memory. Hence my post of this previously published piece on the Burger Museum.

Though the museum is no more, it served as one distinct stage of the evolution of "Burger Beast" who I've come to know and appreciate for his extraordinary and highly specialized expertise. He continues to blog, he has a book that you should check out, he's opened a restaurant and he keeps serving up the freshest burger-related wisdom anywhere on planet earth. Who knows - maybe one day the museum will return. In the meantime, you can always revisit it here.

This shrine to bovine consumption and all things fast food is a slice of culinary history both rare and well done.

In a 1984 Wendy's commercial, actress Clara Peller carved out a permanent place in pop culture by asking, “Where’s the beef?” Some three decades later, we have a definitive answer in the Burger Museum at Miami’s Magic City Casino.

The museum, created by Sef “Burger Beast” Gonzalez, began as a blog documenting and celebrating his lifelong passion for burgers. When a friend familiar with Gonzalez’s particular obsession sent him an old Burger Chef restaurant sign, it sent him on a path toward amassing an extraordinary collection of all things burger-related. When his collection outgrew his old, unused bedroom at his parents’ house, he pitched the city’s Magic City Casino on the idea of leasing him space to showcase his fast-food fascination. The casino agreed, and in December of 2016, the Burger Museum was born.

Today the collection includes over 3,000 artifacts and collectibles, not only from the larger chains such as Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s, but from lesser-known restaurants (including a sign from the failed Burger Queen chain—no affiliation with the King) and “mom and pop” shops as well. From vintage uniforms and menus to dishware, toys, and statues of mascots (the Hamburglar, of course, makes an appearance), the vast collection tells the story of America’s enduring love for the ground beef patty on a bun.

Update: The Burger Museum closed its doors on September 29, 2019.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Finding, Losing and Restoring Balance (My COVID-19 Experience)

It's a lesson you might think I'd be better at by now. Looking around at my peers for comparison (something I generally try to avoid doing), it seems like many, maybe most of them  have worked out some approximation of a balanced between work, family and leisure - although it's hard to tell how much of that is real and how much is illusion. It's also easy to forget that many of them have a very different life than I do - in middle age now, most of them probably have a somewhat clear picture of how things will unfold in their ideal scenario. I, however, just upended everything again over the last few years - out the window once again went all plans and predictions. And balance. Of course, I was never great at maintaining that in the first place - no doubt part of why I gravitated to a creative project-based lifestyle - as it allowed me to hyper focus, work like mad, and then move on to the next project.. For a good ten years or so I found, if not what most would call balance, than at least some lifestyle that was workable for me and one that gave me the time and space to discover, cultivate and indulge a passion for seeking out curiosities and wonders.

Now though, in a manner truly reflective of my current home, I've introduced some new species into the delicate ecosystem of my daily life. It started with the first book, "Secret Tampa Bay," which created a new pattern, alternating between creating and then marketing and promoting, my work. With one book that was pretty simple. "Tampa Bay Scavenger" made it a bit more complicated - now producing a new book started to overlap with promoting the first. As I near completion of "Oldest Tampa Bay," I can see how this will become increasingly complex. Three books, still manageable I think. But I'm also starting work on a fourth, and in early talks about a fifth... and bit by bit, word by word, page by page, I can just start to make out the shape of a new life as an author. 

The introduction of the first tour for the Clearwater Jolley Trolley opens up yet another new doorway, one that I am eager as ever to explore. Again though, this alters my trajectory and with each new opportunity, I need to go back and measure it against what's already on my plate. That's not a complaint, in fact, it really just serves to highlight the benefit of having a portfolio of endeavors rather than just one job with a clear, linear path and progression. I get to pick and choose, I just have to be smart and careful about what I commit to.

The factor that most blindsided me though, the one I didn't see coming, was COVID-19. Jen and I both got it back in March of this year, despite having been vaccinated and boosted. It wasn't too bad for us, no worse than a mean flu. Most of our symptoms resolved after a few days - some hung on for weeks (in the form of a secondary sinus infection), and one has continued to linger for months now. Exhaustion, fatigue, whatever you want to call it. I've been feeling like an old cell phone that suddenly has a smaller battery capacity, can't seem to fully charge anymore and loses that charge much faster than it used to. For the first time in my adult life, naps have become not just a regular feature but a necessity. 

I was starting to wonder if maybe there would be no bounce-back. Maybe old age just showed up early and I'd have to get used to it. Just when I was starting to give up hope, something amazing happened the other morning. I woke up feeling rested. For the first time in months, I actually felt my energy at a pre-COVID level. So there's hope that things will improve, but in the mean time, I've had to learn some new tricks: 

  1. Prioritizing projects and deadlines - I've been doing this for years, but now I've had to become much more accurate and realistic with my projections. In the past, if I needed to put in an extra hour, or three, or ten, with enough pitch black coffee I could get it done. That's no longer been the case and some things (this blog being one of them), have had to take a back seat.
  2. Managing my energy - As previously mentioned, this wasn't really an issue before. I've had to  think now not in 8, 10 or 12 hour days but rather in 2, 3 and 4 hour mini-shifts factoring in rest breaks. 
  3. Sometimes just saying no - This is maybe what I've historically been worst at. I juggle something like five or six very different streams of revenue and my nature, my inclination, is to keep on adding to them. But I've had to turn away projects more frequently - grit my teeth and bite back the frustration at not being able to bill every moment of my day. 

Making these changes has been tough, but I think I am ultimately better for it. As my energy level returns, little by little, I plan to hold on to what I've learned. It will make me more efficient, it will allow me to focus on fewer things, thereby increasing their quality, and it will also allow me to increase the quality of my own life. 

Certainly the experience could have been worse - I am, after all, still very much alive. I did not need to be admitted to a hospital or put on a ventilator. Every moment of every day, I count myself lucky in this regard. But it hasn't exactly been a walk in the park either. Its lingering effects have reshaped my world - and I'm still trying to get my head around that. I feel like if I can learn something of value from this, it will feel like picking the pocket of the armed robber that burst into the bank and made off with my wellbeing. 

It's my way to take back just a tiny bit of what was stolen. 

I hope, if you need to, that you can do the same.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Who is What

It's been a while since I shared some poetry here, but lately I've been generating quite a lot of it. Here's just a little taste for you - I hope you enjoy it.

Who Is What

I said into the phone.
No response.
I repeated and waited.

“You know this is a real person, right?”

I started to apologize
But the voice cut me off,
“Just kidding,
you said ‘Dining’ -
let’s get you to the right place.”

Wait, what?

Did a machine just pretend
to be a human?
Did a person just impersonate
a recording?

My confusion lasted
exactly as long as it took
to connect with the
restaurant reservation system;
just as millions of dollars
in research and consumer analytics
no doubt predicted it would.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Riddle Me This: How "Tampa Bay Scavenger" Came To Be

Like solving riddles? Assembling puzzles? Decrypting coded messages? Well here's a conundrum for you - when is an activity book not an activity book? That's what I'm hoping "Tampa Bay Scavenger" will solve when it comes out in just a few short weeks. There's more than one right answer to that question I've posed, and I'll give you some of them below as a means of both recounting the book's genesis and providing a deeper, more personal perspective.

Answer: When it's a marketing idea that takes on a life of its own.

I feel for anyone who tried to release a book during the first several months of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Putting out a local travel book was especially challenging as most venues either cancelled their events or moved them to zoom and other online platforms. Thankfully, Secret Tampa Bay still met with more success than I expected, and I dug deep into my entrepreneurial bag of tricks to come up with clever and safe outdoor events. I had the idea of turning a couple dozen of the places and items from Secret Tampa Bay into a scavenger hunt, so I set about composing a series of rhyming riddles, leading people to parks, monuments and other spots throughout the area. Due to a spike in COVID cases, I was never able to get it off the ground, but I had shared the riddles with my publisher and they responded with a great deal more enthusiasm than I had expected.

"These are really good... do you think you could produce more of them?"

"Sure," I said, "I could crank out another couple dozen pretty easily..."

"How about another three hundred and forty of them? An entire book's worth?"

"Um," I really wasn't sure that either I or the Tampa Bay area could produce that many. "How long would I have?"

"Six months?"

Ok, I thought. That's simply impossible. Even if everything aligned perfectly, which it seldom ever does, it would push me well past the far reaches of anything similar I'd ever attempted before. I couldn't suppress the grin that spread across my face - how could I resist it? "I'm in."

Of course, at that time I hadn't anticipated how quickly things change, and that I would go from covering seven counties down to just four, having to adapt and reshuffle riddles as I helped pioneer a what has become a new line of books for Reedy. Even as I raced to complete the riddles, the things and places I had written about just weeks or days earlier were demolished, removed or closed their doors for good. 

In the end, it would take 12 drafts, roughly 500 riddles and something like 1,500 photos, but I did it, and whatever any critic may say about it, I am very proud of the final result, which I'm fairly certain is the largest and most elaborate scavenger hunt ever created within the Tampa Bay area.

Answer: When it's the next chapter in a larger story and another pathway back into your own childhood.

It seems to be the case in my life of late that the path forward sometimes begins behind me. With my first book, it was my desire to recapture some childhood magic and wonder following the death of my friend that set things in motion. This latest work similarly has its roots back in my past, deeper even than those memories which spawned my last book. I had to think back to a time when I would draw elaborate mazes on graph paper or take turns trying to stump friends with riddles - some from books like The Hobbit by Tolkien, and some that we created ourselves. I had to revisit that time in my early days when I would spend hours working on puzzles that provided glimpses into fantasy landscape and other worlds. I incorporated elements from roleplaying games, video games, treasure hunt movies (like "Goonies" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark") and books like "Ready Player One" and "The Thrill of the Hunt." Thus, at the age of 45, I have at last fulfilled the dream I had as a fourteen year old of being a real life dungeon master.

Answer: When it's an opportunity to explore your surroundings in a new way.

Each of the books I've produced for Reedy Press has allowed me to see and understand the place I live from a new perspective, like looking through a multifaceted gemstone, each time seeing things reflected in a new way. Secret Tampa Bay honed my ability to pick out what is odd, concealed and unusual. This time around, Tampa Bay Scavenger has enabled me to think about a place as something playable - the Tampa Bay Area as a gameboard or setting for an adventure. In short order I'll be putting on my time traveling gear to write Oldest Tampa Bay.

Answer: When it's a bridge between where you've been and where you're going.

Tampa Bay Scavenger forms both the connective tissue between Secret Tampa Bay and Oldest Tampa Bay, but also serves as its own standalone work. It can be used as an activity and scavenger hunt book, as a guidebook to the area, or even just as a 357 verse love poem to the place I live.

It also forms a bridge between my own past and future - between the person I've been and the one I aspire to continue becoming. In seeking to open up a new way to experience the area for readers, I have also opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for myself - as a writer, as a curiosity seeker and as a human being. It also marks the fist time I've connected with a cause - I'm donating a dollar from every book I sell directly (at events and through the website www.secrettampabay.com). 

Creating Tampa Bay Scavenger has pushed and broadened my skills, challenged me in new ways, and unexpectedly shown me a new way forward by reaching further back into my past. I hope that it will prove every bit as challenging and compelling for everyone who chooses to explore its contents.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Obscuratorium

About the Obscuratorium

The Obscuratorium is essentially a window Wunderkammer; a mini-museum display that The Paperback Exchange Bookstore has been kind enough to allow me to curate and display at their store. It also represents a new step in my own journey from seeker of curiosities to writer of the weird and wondrous, to creator of a small oddity of my very own. It is the confluence of a few different streams, or themes, for me, which include: recapturing and sharing wonder, the seemingly bottomless rabbit hole of strangeness that is the place I live (Tampa, Florida), and something I participate in every year called GISH (aka the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt).

The idea of capturing and sharing wonder has become one of the central themes in my own story - following the death of my close friend Steve (which I've written about elsewhere in this blog), I set about trying to reconnect with that unique sense of exploring the unknown that we shared as kids. Along the way I discovered a number of resources to aid me in my quest, especially Atlas Obscura, which I began not only using (perhaps somewhat obsessively), but also contributing to. This, in turn, put me on the path to writing #SecretTampaBay (Reedy Press, 2020) and more recently #TampaBayScavenger (Reedy Press, 2021). As I researched and visited the various places to include in my writing, I began to accumulate a fairly sizeable collection of strange trinkets and curios, which were piling up in my home office. Some of these objects, specifically Olga the haunted doll, were objects that my wife would rather we not have in the house, so I began thinking about a better place for them. I was familiar with various window galleries, like Portland's Windows of Wonders and the Windows for Peace in Vienna, so I approached Joaner Hempsworth about utilizing the windows of The Paperback Exchange for such a purpose. Joaner was enthusiastic about the idea and I suggested the name "The Obscuratorium" as an homage to the site that helped kickstart my passion for exploration. Many of the objects displayed are, not coincidentally, from other sites in both Florida and found on Atlas Obscura.

The idea might have stalled if not for GISH, which is the unique creation of actor/author Misha Collins (of Supernatural fame for his role as the angel Castiel). Each year he creates a list of items that teams must create or accomplish and document over the course of a week, with emphasis on strangeness, absurdity and compassion. During the August 2021 hunt, one of the items was as follows:

Item #118: A lot of countries are in lockdown due to COVID, leaving people thirsting for roadside attractions. Fill the void: Invent an amazing roadside attraction and create it in your neighborhood. Bonus points if you get it listed on Atlas Obscura. If you can’t leave your house due to COVID or other issues, you can create this in your home, but don’t list your location on Atlas Obscura. - inspired by Monica D.

This was precisely the extra push I needed to make The Obscuratorium a reality. while initially it started on the shelf of one of the bookcases, it has made its way now to the front window where hopefully it will help make wonder more accessible and perhaps inspire others to seek it out as I have.

Contents (Left to Right, on Top of the Cabinets)

  1. Tiki Salt Shaker
  2. Tinker Bell
  3. Can of Florida Sunshine
  4. Weeki Wachee Mermaids
  5. Coral Castle Postcard
  6. Edward Scissorhands 
  7. Faygo Rock & Rye Bottle
  8. Hong Kong Willie Postcard

Contents (Left to Right, Inside the Cabinets)

  1. Whimzeyland Postcard
  2. Rick & Morty Tiki Glasses and Lei
  3. Carved Wooden Pirate #1
  4. Blenheim Hot Ginger Soda Bottle
  5. Dinosaur World Wrist Band
  6. Olga the Haunted Doll
  7. Coral Castle Paper Pop-Up
  8. Carved Wooden Pirate #2
  9. Vimto Can
  10. Absinth Spoon
  11. 2016 GISHWHES Bumper Sticker
  12. Castiel Plush Doll
  13. Sock Monkey Popsocket 
  14. Captain Memo Pirate Cruise Souvenir Goblet 

#Obscuratorium #AtlasObscura #GISH #SecretTampaBay
#TampaBayScavenger #ReadMoreSleepLess

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Different by Design

Having lived in Chicago as long as I did, there's just no way not to have developed a keen appreciation for architecture. Consequently I found so many interesting and unusual buildings around Tampa that I wanted to include them all, but there just wasn't enough room. Also, while each of the locations on the list below was more than enough to fill an individual paragraph, turning any one of them into a full chapter would have been a bit of a stretch. So here there are for you, in all their previously unpublished glory.

Different by Design

Are there other noteworthy buildings around Tampa Bay?

It turns out that manmade castles, modern ruins and churches as chicken perches represent but a fraction of Tampa’s weird and wonderful buildings. Here are a few more:

Bungalow Terrace. Hidden behind Hyde Park’s hip boutiques and gastropubs, is a quaint street with 19 historic homes (one of which belonged to novelist Alec Waugh) developed by Alfred Swann and Eugene Holtsinger starting in 1913. These single level houses were modeled after California’s bungalows, due to their craftsmanship, adaptability and minimal cost and maintenance requirements.

Rivergate Tower. To locals, that round tower in the Tampa skyline is known as the Beer Can Building. What makes it unique? Built in 1988 by architect Harry Wolf, if makes use of the Fibonacci sequence (where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers), such that window panes and floor tiles get progressively larger up the building. And now you can go apologize to your middle school math teacher for what you said about never using their lessons in the real world.

Amalie Arena. Everyone knows Amalie Arena is where you go to watch the Tampa Bay Lighting play. What far fewer people know is that it’s also the only place in Tampa where you can actually summon lighting - from the massive Tesla coils suspended over the ice. If you take a tour of the arena, you might just get to press the button and make lightning happen, thus fulfilling your secret, unspoken fantasy of being a modern day Norse deity (you know it’s true). Unpronounceable mythical hammer not included.

Former Publix Grocery Stores. Most folks don’t go out of their way to drop by the local tax collector’s office. But then, most tax collector’s offices aren’t inside of astoundingly art deco buildings with mosaics featuring pirates, like the one in Lakeland.

What about the cone-shaped shacks in various strip malls throughout the area? Those would be Twistee Treat ice cream restaurants and your salvation when temperatures climb above 90 degrees.

Strange Structures
What: More unusual buildings
Where: Multiple locations
Cost: Free
Pro Tip: If you build it they will come.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Space Travel, Scavenger Hunting and Video Gaming

It seems like an odd combination at first glance - like three puzzle pieces from entirely separate sets. But all three have been on my mind of late, and in turning them over endlessly, I've come to realize that they may be far more connected that I had expected.

The first has been on the minds of many lately, as Branson, Bezos and others with the fortunes to spend on such endeavors blast off and leave behind the blue planet we all call home. There have been a lot of mixed feelings about this, some suggesting that the cosmos should not be the exclusive playground of the uber-wealthy, while others applaud their efforts to inch mankind towards the next leg of our collective manifest destiny. I'm pretty sure we're allowed to feel both of those ways at the same time - I do, anyway.

The second one has been considerably less on the front pages of newspapers, yet far more present in my thinking. Over the last several months, I've managed to turn what began as a marketing endeavor into an entire book of its own, "Tampa Bay Scavenger," which is now entering the very last review cycle. It has been significantly more complicated than my first book, "Secret Tampa Bay," but I expect that it will also be more rewarding. It has already given me a new perspective on the place I live, letting me see the Tampa Bay area as a puzzle, gameboard and setting for some RPG campaign. It has reshaped my thinking and I am increasingly excited to provide it to the public.

Lastly, I've been thinking about video games. A bit of that is a natural connection to the scavenger hunt thanks to books like "Ready Player One," which has forever fused those two ideas together. But I also think back to the games that blew my mind, drained days at a time from my life, and opened up new worlds to explore and experience. Wizardry, Metroid, Grand Theft Auto III, Everquest, and many others as well.

All of these things share something in that they are all part of a very particular category of activities or events. I believe that they are all hallmarks and indicators that we are rapidly closing in on the very tail end of terrestrial exploration. 

It's not like this hasn't been coming for some time. Decades, at the very least. Sure, there may still be a few patches of unexplored earth left, and the bottom of the sea remains largely a murky and mysterious world. But the idea of a frontier, a tree line or mountain range or river beyond which lies the unknown, that's something that seems to exist primarily in memory. You could drive from just about any point on just about any continent to any other point by simply entering your current location and destination into the app of your choice. 

I've talked about this a little bit before, through the lens of nostalgia, but I don't think I've shared here my thoughts on what it means for the present and the future. 

Video games - they give us an accessible means of exploring strange and wondrous places, from post apocalyptical landscapes to ancient civilizations, to alternate universes, all which exist to be played. VR and AR further blur the lines between the physical world as it is and the many worlds that we program, design and romp through. Sure, it may be fueled by escapism, but maybe it's something we're escaping to rather than from. Maybe not entirely such a bad thing. Maybe even a way to reconnect with something essential that we're losing or have already lost.

Scavenger hunts, urban exploration, historical tours, abandoned places - I can no longer entirely separate these as they flow together. Without the frontier, without discovery in the traditional sense, we seem to be discovering rediscovery as a pastime. In my own case that's certainly true, and my fascination with ghost towns, forgotten monuments and such seems very much to be part of a larger zeitgeist. Retracing our own historical footprints and coming, sometimes unexpectedly, upon the beauty of what has decayed or what has sprung forth anew from our own recent modern ruins.

Which brings us to space. Perhaps not the final frontier that Gene Roddenberry fans are prone to call it, but certainly one facet or aspect of that next frontier. It becomes ever more imaginable to us all - some scenario that renders earth uninhabitable, but hopefully it will be our burning curiosity rather than our burning cities that ultimately take us from our home planet. Yes, it's most often been the wealth that go first to plant their flags, from the conquistadores funded to by their king to the moguls funded by their business ventures. But it opens a pathway, it shows what is possible and what will almost unquestionably eventually be accessible to the masses. Ocean travel, railroad travel, automobiles, air travel - all were once dreams, then luxuries for enthusiasts, until they become such a common part of our daily lives that we forget entirely the marvels they were in times past.

Can you see it now? The thin translucent filament that binds together these seemingly separate things? The picture that emerges from those three puzzle pieces turns out to be an illustration of that "productive struggle" T.S. Eliot described in "Little Gidding," which few to my knowledge have ever summed up better:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."