Monday, December 31, 2018

Rabbit Rabbit

Or sometimes "Rabbit, rabbit rabbit" or "white rabbit" or just "rabbits;" the variations of the superstition are myriad, although its origin has been lost to us. If its the first phrase spoken on the first day of a new month supposedly it brings good luck. I don't know if it being the first words on the first day of a new month of a new year theoretically amplifies that good fortune, but maybe it can tilt the emotional scales in favor of sweet over bitter. Yesterday, December 31st, 2018 my friend Steve would have been 43. Tomorrow, January 2nd would have been my maternal grandmother's birthday. And the 7th would be my maternal grandfather's birthday. All now of blessed memory, or OBM, as they say.

But a new year means a renewal. Fresh calendar, fresh fiscal year for many businesses, fresh start - even if somewhat illusory. And yet, not surprisingly, I'm looking backwards as well as forwards, occupying a temporal limbo between the world that once was and the world that is yet to be.

This year Jen and I stayed in, which was quite pleasant. She worked all day, and Tinker Bell (our shih tzu) doesn't do all that great with fireworks. So we had a nice, quiet night. Watched some TV. Jen was asleep before midnight. Contrast that with last year, when we packed into Duval Street in Key West to witness the drag queen Sushi descend in her ruby slipper to welcome in the new year. That was really something to see.

Over the years I've had a full range of New Years experiences - in Times Square New York, in Philadelphia, in Michigan, Chicago, Seattle - sometimes alone and sometimes with friends and loved ones. My thoughts and feelings about all of these various and diverse experiences shift over time, but the New Years memory that has come most vividly to the forefront as my favorite was the one that I was initially the least excited about.

It's the New Years I spent with my grandparents on my mom's side. Marty and Selma.

I think I was maybe 12 years old - just at the point of being self consciously aware that spending New Years with your grandparents was uncool. I let go of my reluctance, not really having any other options, and resigned myself to an evening of wishing I was elsewhere. I recall bits and pieces rather than the evening in its entirety. I know we played monopoly (monotony, as my mother called it), as we did as part of most of our visits. I also recall that at some point, after an hour or two once all the properties had been acquired and the gave transitioned to making alliances and negotiations, my sister slipped away to tie a bandanna around the lower half of her face, arm herself with a pair of pop cap guns and push through the swinging doors into the 1950's styled kitchen to announce that she was robbing the monopoly bank. This had also become part of our tradition and signaled that it was time to transition to a new activity. I can still hear my grandfather's deep, whole-body laugh, the epicenter of which was somewhere in his belly.

I think it was at that point that we went upstairs to the den that I always think of as the circus room, with its slightly unsettling cubist clown paintings, burgundy carpet and red and white stripped lampshade. We probably watched Johnny Carson and at some point my grandmother brought up a bowl of perfectly roasted chestnuts, made all the more memorable for bucking the trend of her countless kitchen fiascoes (which regularly set of smoke alarms and on at least one occasion required that we all take cover from projectile hard boiled eggs). Just around the stroke of midnight I think I dozed off on the couch with tiny diodes and circuitry in my hands, trying to reconfigure a disassembled old radio that would remain forever mangled.

The following morning we watched the Mummers and the floats parade by on TV, after which I went with my grandfather to synagogue, where we somehow ended up with dozens of balloons which had been left over from a new years celebration the night before. Once we returned home I proceeded to tie them all together and wrap them around the legs of tables and chairs on the lower floor of the house, creating a web-like maze through which my sister and I crawled the rest of the morning.

Somehow, over the course of the stay I'd gone from wishing to be anywhere else to wanting to be nowhere else on earth, and for all the unusual and interesting new years experiences I've had since, not one can hold a candle to that new years eve I spent with my sister, the monopoly bank bandit, and my grandparents.

Jen and I and my grandmother at brunch in Jenkintown.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Florida Adventure List: Volume I

Given the fun that Jen and I had creating and exploring our Chicago Bucket List, we decided to create a new one upon our arrival in Florida. Even though we initially called it our Tampa Adventure List, it actually took us all over the state, from Key West up to Saint Augustine and plenty of places in between, which has led me to refer to it more broadly now as the first volume of our Florida Adventure List. It was ambitious, but after just over two years, we're down to the last handful of items and have already begun a second volume. Here's how Volume I looked when we started it:

Here's a list of the items we've completed:

  • Item #1: The Henry B. Plant Museum - What was once the Tampa Bay Hotel is today part of the University of Tampa and a museum which shows the city's transformation.
  • Item #2: Gravity Research Foundation Monument - one of a dozen such markers at college campuses throughout the eastern U.S. highlighting Roger Babson's battle against gravity.
  • Item #3: Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens
  • Item #4: Epcot - did you know that's actually an acronym for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow? In terms of iconic Florida images, next to dolphins and palm trees, the golf ball shaped "Spaceship Earth" is probably second only to...
  • Item #5: The Magic Kingdom. Or, as I sometimes refer to it, "Shrine of the Mouse God." I'm not complaining though, I've happily paid and prayed at that alter many times since becoming a Florida resident, and I'm sure I will do so a great many times more.
  • Item #6: Universal Orlando. We were there just time for their "Halloween Horror Nights," which are impressive enough to warrant the lines.
  • Item #7: Airstream Ranch. Essentially RV installation artwork. It has since been removed, but I understand that it may be replaced with an Airstream museum.
  • Item #8: Dysfunctional Grace Art Co. Taxidermy, surgical antiquities and occult collectibles. Warning, the stuffed kitten on display might make you cry. I'm not saying that happened to me. I'm just saying that, theoretically, if it did, it would be understandable.
  • Item #9: Hong Kong Willie. The beach version of an outsider and recycled art park.
  • Item #10: Hindu Temple of Florida. One of Florida's many remarkable architectural sites and, conveniently, the one that happens to be closest to where Jen and I live.
  • Item #11: Parque Amigos de Jose Marti. One of Ybor City's lesser known oddities as I'm pretty sure this is the only spot in the United States where you stand on Cuban soil.
  • Item #12: Spook Hill. A gravity hill located in Lake Wales.
  • Item #13: Bok Tower Gardens. Home to the most stunningly beautiful carillon tower I've ever seen.
  • Item #14: Whimzeyland. A home made into a mosaic and outsider artwork.
  • Item #15: Clearwater Beach.
  • Item #16: Big Bend Power Plant Manatee Viewing Center. On the day we went we must have seen as many as 50 sea cows enjoying the warm water discharged by the power plant.
  • Item #17: Gibsonton. A town circus and sideshow performers (go watch the old X-files episode "Humbug" for more detail).
  • Item #18: The International Independent Showman's Museum. The place where we discovered that Jen suffers from a rather acute case of coulrophobia, and consequently her absolute least favorite thing on this or any of our lists. I thought it was pretty neat though.
  • Item #19: Hand Rolled Cigar. While Ybor City would have been the obvious place for this, I actually had one at Cuban Paradise in Madeira Beach.
  • Item #20: Tampa Bay Lightning Game.
  • Item #21: Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe. Great food somehow tastes even better while sitting across from a whole wall of Elvis, Howard Finster artworks and a two-headed alligator.
  • Item #22: Weeki Wachee. Nothing says Florida quite like the live mermaid shows.
  • Item #23: SS American Victory Mariner's Museum. One of only three still operable Victory class ships in the US.
  • Item #24: The Dali Museum. We've been here now a few times, but the Frida Kahlo exhibit has been our favorite.
  • Item #25: Cleanse Apothecary. Jen loves apothecaries and frankly, after the International Independent Showman's Museum, she earned it.
  • Item #26: Gasparilla Festival. It's pretty much a pirate version of Mardi Gras complete with floats, beads and plenty of rum. For our first experience we had the good fortune of getting an invite to the pirate breakfast at the yacht club before they boarded their ship to "invade" Tampa.
  • Item #27: Columbia Restaurant. Florida's oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, according to their website. It has become our favorite special occasion dining spot.
  • Item #28: Tampa Bay History Center.
  • Item #29: Jack Kerouac House. This brought me back to my late teen Beat Generation fixation.
  • Item #30: St. Augustine. The oldest continually-occupied city in the United States is so wonderfully weird in all the best ways. There's so much to check out here that we created a St.Augustine Adventure List.
  • Item #31: Church by the Sea. Also known as the Chicken Church. You can see my Atlas Obscura entry for more information.
  • Item #32: The World's Largest Shuffleboard Club.
  • Item #33: The Ringling Museum. Actually, there are multiple museums housed here, each of which is worth a visit.

  • Item #34: St. Armands Circle. In recognition of Jen's fond childhood memories of Sarasota.
  • Item #35: Plant City Strawberry Festival.
  • Item #36: Old Tampa Book Company
  • Item #37: Lowry Park Zoo.
  • Item #38: Oaklawn Cemetery. Tampa's oldest public cemetery is home to veterans for 14 different wars, pioneer priests, pirates, yellow fever victims, Tampa's first Mayor, and much else.
  • Item #39: The Sponge Docks.
  • Item #40: Fantasy of Flight. The world's largest private aircraft collection.
  • Item #41: Shell Factory and Nature Park.
  • Item #42: Venice Beach.
  • Item #43: Harry P. Leu Gardens.
  • Item #44: Monument of States.
  • Item #45: Big Cat Rescue.
  • Item #46: Fort De Soto.
  • Item #47: Skunk Ape Research Center
  • Item #48: Ochopee Post Office. The smallest post office in the US.
  • Item #49: Key West. Like St. Augustine, there was so much to see and do that this item also got it's own smaller adventure list.
  • Item #50: Key Lime Pie. The Keys seemed the ideal place for this item - we had a slice at Blue Heaven and were not disappointed.
  • Item #51: Ed Leedskalnin's Coral Castle.
  • Item #52: Toss for the Cross.
  • Item #53: Museum of Science and Industry. This one was a bit of a let down - I think the Museum of  Science  and Industry in Chicago has set my expectations perhaps unfairly high.
  • Item #54: Tampa Bay Ballet. Just as my former life in Chicago led me to disappointment with Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, Jen's reaction to this item was "the Joffrey it is not."
  • Item #55: De Soto National Memorial. To be clear this is different than Fort De Soto.
  • Item #56: The Sea Hagg. You can see my write up on it here.
  • Item #57: Sea World.
  • Item #58: Phoenix Glass Studio.
  • Item #59: Canoe the Hillsborough River. Technically we were in a kayak, but I think it fulfills the spirit of this item.
  • Item #60: Angel's Diner. The oldest diner in the state of Florida.
  • Item #61: Caladesi Island.
  • Item #62: Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
  • Item #63: Cassadaga.
  • Item #64: Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise. Cheesy, but fun.
  • Item #65: Tupperware World Headquarters Museum.
We've still got six items left on the list, but I think we'll be able to knock them out in 2019:

  • Item #66: Wandering Eye Art Gallery. Even though it's closed, from time to time they do have shows.
  • Item #67: Daytona Drive-In Church.
  • Item #68: Bern's. Tampa's most famous steak house.
  • Item #69: Drive-In Movie Theatre
  • Item #70: OJ Tour.
  • Item #71: Shuttle Launch. Or rocket - I think shuttle implies a manned craft. This is the one that I'm most looking forward to.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Passages Leading Deeper Within

A few half-forgotten lines from a novel can be both a means of transporting us as well as the destination itself. 

That's how it feels sometimes - that the more I immerse myself in the strangeness of where I live and travel now, the closer I get to something I left behind, buried. Like a sudden epiphany that the secret coded message I've been searching for was written in my own genetic sequence all along. And that is the path down which I wish us to travel here.

I mentioned in an earlier post that looking up old adages and sayings had been leading me deeper into the uncharted parts of my own dream gallery / mind palace - to that place where the unlabeled things have been kept since long before I went through the mental effort of visualizing a structure in which to house them. I'm rediscovering passages from books and snippets of stories that once spoke to me - and I'm finding that while some have lost their luster, others now impact me even more powerfully than they did when first I encountered them. Truly, it seems, one cannot step twice into the same river.

One passage in particular, from the book Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon, which I must have read when I was fourteen or so, apparently resonated so strongly with me at the time that all these years later, in some ways, I've been inadvertently recreating it.

To be clear, I'm not talking about any conscious or malicious act of plagiarism. I'm in no way intentionally rewriting the work of another in order to claim credit for it. It's more like following in the footsteps of someone much more skilled and experienced - the literary equivalent of discovering the remains of Chester Copperpot as a sign that you're on the right path. And whereas McCammon's story was a fictional novel with a fixed destination, this blog is not. But he and I are quite clearly trying to describe the same phenomenon, with similar language - about the ways we lose and (attempt to) reclaim those faint and fleeting traces of childhood wonder. 

Here it is, in his own words:

“You know, I do believe in magic. I was born and raised in a magic time, in a magic town, among magicians. Oh, most everybody else didn’t realize we lived in that web of magic, connected by silver filaments of chance and circumstance. But I knew it all along. When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

After you go so far away from it, though, you can’t really get it back. You can have seconds of it. Just seconds of knowing and remembering. When people get weepy at movies, it’s because in that dark theater the golden pool of magic is touched, just briefly. Then they come out into the hard sun of logic and reason again and it dries up, and they’re left feeling a little heartsad and not knowing why. When a song stirs a memory, when motes of dust turning in a shaft of light takes your attention from the world, when you listen to a train passing on a track at night in the distance and wonder where it might be going, you step beyond who you are and where you are. For the briefest of instants, you have stepped into the magic realm.

That’s what I believe.

The truth of life is that every year we get farther away from the essence that is born within us. We get shouldered with burdens, some of them good, some of them not so good. Things happen to us. Loved ones die. People get in wrecks and get crippled. People lose their way, for one reason or another. It’s not hard to do, in this world of crazy mazes. Life itself does its best to take that memory of magic away from us. You don’t know it’s happening until one day you feel you’ve lost something but you’re not sure what it is. It’s like smiling at a pretty girl and she calls you “sir.” It just happens.

These memories of who I was and where I lived are important to me. They make up a large part of who I’m going to be when my journey winds down. I need the memory of magic if I am ever going to conjure magic again. I need to know and remember, and I want to tell you.”

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Portals Forever Sealed

"There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain"

Next to recalling absent friends, I can think of no activity more nostalgic than revisiting those places from your younger days which have vanished - like surveying craters where once stood the capitol city of self. Finding padlocks on the doors that once led through the portal to another world, some place that shaped you - well, it can break your heart. But I don't want to be maudlin about it. Rather I want to conjure those places back into being, just very briefly, so that you can experience them here (as you can no longer do so anywhere else). And in so doing, maybe you can get a better sense of what it is that I'm seeking to recapture as I scout out every wunderkammer and roadside attraction I can find. So here they are for you, just four of those points of interest that defined my most deeply personal Terra Incognita Americanus.

City Gardens - Trenton, NJ. I think it's probably safe to say that no one else on earth mourns the loss of what it would be far too flattering to call a dive. I can still feel and hear the sound of my sneakers sticking to floor and the olfactory assault of old beer and stale cigarette smoke as I entered. It was dingy and grimy - cutting yourself there on the busted metal paper towell dispenser in the bathroom would almost certainly require a battery of shots for tetanus and god only knows what else. But then the lights went out, a band took the stage, and suddenly none of that mattered - you were transported to a universe light-years away. It was there as a teenager that I saw my very first show - a little punk rock band called Mojo Nixon and the Toad Lickers. And it was the place where I got hooked on live music, which was one of the precious few things that made my high school years bearable. Over the years I saw more bands perform there than I could count, including the Ramones, Bad Religion, Rollins Band, Bad Brains, Ween and the like. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was a bouncer there. Jon Stewart was a bartender there before becoming a comedian. Danzig played their very first live show there. Sure, it may have been overshadowed by venues like CBGB's in New York, but it carved out it's own tiny place in punk rock history and earned a considerably larger spot in my own young life.

River East Art Center - Chicago, IL. When I moved back to Chicago somewhere around 2003 or 2004, I moved to a studio apartment in Streeterville. I came to know the neighborhood, not only for its unique story (which we'll get to another time), but also for the collection of astounding young artists that had studios down the street from me. The space itself was designed to impress - a glass stairway, an indoor waterfall, high ceilings with exposed wood and duct-work - it was hard not to feel creative or inspired there. It was more than just the place, it was the contents - home to such a brilliant collection of talent there: Terry Dixon, Rebecca Moy, Rory Coyne, Predrag Djordjevic to name just a few. In the same way that City Gardens was my introduction to live music, River East Art Center opened to me the world of visual art studios and galleries, which were so much more intimate than the museums I'd visited. From there I started to explore other artist studios and collectives, from the Fine Arts Building to the Cornelia Arts Building to a great many others. But River East Art Center always had a special magic for me - it was the first. And when I launched my own art leasing venture, some of the artists I had encountered there were among the very first I approached.

The Tin Angel - Philadelphia, PA. Funny how you can live somewhere for such a long time without ever really getting to know it. That's how I feel about the city of Philadelphia. I grew up in the suburbs there, but it wasn't until I moved back there in my late 20's that I began to explore it. My friend T helped open that door, introducing me in many ways for the first time to a place I thought I knew. Among the memories I treasure from this period, which was a tough time for me, was finding the Tin Angel. A small, urban acoustic cafe up a steep flight of stairs from Serrano Restaurant at 20 S. 2nd Street in the Old City neighborhood, with murals painted on both walls, dim, flickering lights reflecting faintly off the tin ceiling (violet, as I recall - the color I most associate with twilight and magic) and amazing musicians. My first time there was to watch Jeffrey Gains play on the small stage, transfixed by the sound and depth and broken beauty of his voice and guitar. Truly, it was like stumbling into some alternate reality. I came back a number of times to see various bands and solo performers, and it never failed to deliver. The way I imagine that the devout feel after attending a service or a sermon, that's probably the nearest thing I can compare it to. At that time, at that place, when I so desperately needed it, I had found a slice of creative salvation.

Iggy's - Chicago, IL. If there's an afterlife in which restless souls are bound to the one spot that they most loved in life, any who would wish to seek me out would be well advised to begin at 700 N. Milwaukee Avenue. I loved that place. I loved everything about it. It was my dark, urban swank Gen X version of Cheers (or Jeers, maybe). It was one of the first places in Chicago where I became a regular. If I close my eyes I can still picture the redheaded bar tender, Sherry, mixing a martini and talking to a patron above the murmur of conversion and the music (6 Underground by Sneaker Pimps, or maybe something by the Replacements, I'm thinking) about that year's motorcycle show, which the owner, Dion, hosted. And I can taste each item on the menu - while my friend Jake who introduced me to the venue was always a fan of their lemon butter bow-tie pasta, I always preferred the spicy chicken ravioli. I can visualize the edgy artwork on the brick walls, the curtains of chain links, and the small outdoor patio area where they projected cult films during the summer. I can feel the sweet bite of bourbon on my lips and tongue - Basil Hayden, on the rocks. When I moved back to Philadelphia, Iggy's also moved to a new location, in Bucktown. I never visited this second site, but I heard that it lacked the same feel, and so it closed. When I moved back to Chicago, it reopened for a third and final time, in a smaller space. It had the same menu, the same drinks, but still lacked that feel of the original. It did, however, have just enough magic left in it for one grand finale - it's where Jen and I had our first date, and it was at that location, years later, where I planted a knee on the cracked sidewalk and proposed to her. 

There are places that I came to before these and others I've come to since, but when I think of those impossibly, imperfectly magical places I've found along the way, these are the first ones I think of. Each of them, in its own way, is like the town of Spectre in the story Big Fish; inaccessible now they take on mythic qualities when viewed through the kaleidoscopic lenses of subjective and selective memory. The first time I came to these places, I was, perhaps, too early. To find them again today, certainly, it is too late.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Buckner Mansion

(This piece was submitted to Atlas Obscura and is currently pending publication. You can see it here.)

This New Orleans mansion is hauntingly beautiful… in more ways than one.

Built in 1856 by cotton magnate Henry Sullivan Buckner, this Lower Garden District mansion was intended to be bigger and grander than the most opulent manor at the time, which was Stanton Hall in Natchez, MS - the home to Buckner’s former business partner and arch-rival. Buckner commissioned architect Lewis E. Reynolds, who delivered a magnificent example of southern antebellum architecture that has been called “a landmark among landmarks” with 48 monumental Ionic and Corinthian fluted cypress columns, numerous verandas and a unique, ornate cast-iron fence, not to mention three separate ballrooms.

Buckner and his family lived in the 20,000+ sq. ft. home until 1923. Following the Buckner family, the prestigious Soule Business School moved in and occupied the property for the next 60 years before closing its doors in 1983.

Today the mansion is a private residence available as a vacation rental (if you’re willing to shell out roughly $4,700 a night). Keep in mind though, you might be sharing the property with Miss Josephine, who is seen from time to time on the stairs or sweeping the halls, often accompanied by the strong scent of lemon. Don’t be alarmed though or try to remove her – apparently she’s been there haunting the home since her death after the Civil War.

More recently, the mansion had a supernatural rebirth of sorts as Miss Robicheaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies – the setting for American Horror Story: Coven, where young witches mastered their arts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Apple of Eternal Golden Desire

Only that which is attainable ever gets old.

My wife started a new job this week, in a totally new industry for her. I’m proud of her for taking the risk and for achieving the escape velocity required to leave the gravitational pull of the retail industry. She was comfortable in that she had mastered the day-to-day requirements, but ultimately unfulfilled - overqualified and underappreciated in her role. Watching her make this shift has brought me to reflect on my own career – specifically, how profoundly thankful and lucky I am to have found my “forever job.”

I’ve been self-employed now for over a decade. It sounds strange to say that – more than ten years of being my own boss, setting my own schedule and priorities, and working mostly from a home office where I can wear fuzzy bunny slippers all day long. It works for me in ways that working for others never did largely because it allows for constant change and evolution. The phrase “I work for myself,” which is how I typically answer the question, “what do you do for a living,” is really a pretty broad catch-all, and in terms of what I’ve actually done on a day-to-day basis for the last ten years it has changed radically.  Because it turns out that my “forever job” isn't actually any one single, specific job at all, but rather a "forever search" for whatever I choose to do and whatever comes next.

Initially, when I left corporate America, I launched a fine art leasing business in Chicago, and after a few years I was able to get it to profitability, but just barely and not by a broad enough margin that I could really live a decent life. So, when one of my old colleagues asked if I would contract myself out to the large accounting firm they worked at as a proposal writer, I jumped at the opportunity. And when another old colleague asked if I could help write resumes for her clients, I said yes to that too. Six years later, those two things make up roughly all of my income.

They’ve been the right combination of revenue streams and the ideal fit for me. They play to my strength as a writer and a story teller; work that I’m generally pretty passionate about doing. But over the past few years, another, deeper passion has reemerged from where it was hiding out in my childhood’s backyard jungle kingdom. It’s what I’ve been documenting in this blog – searching out and exploring those architectural oddities, those roadside attractions and wonders (both natural and unnatural) that dot our world. Now I find myself seeking out and incorporating ways to monetize that passion as a third stream of revenue. Maybe as a tour guide, a travel writer, an amateur photographer, and maybe as a professional blogger (I’ll let you be the judge of that last one).

Is it something I could see doing forever? Even after I’d seen every taxidermied monkey/fish combo passed off as a Fiji Mermaid, after I’d passed through the gates of every DIY castle in the country, wandered through every junkyard turned outsider artist compound, after I‘d walked every secret street and garden, been on every ghost tour, examined every surgical museum, stood in front of every offbeat memorial, monument and marker, after all of that would I still crave more?

Yes, I’m convinced that I would – enough so that I’ll give it a go. Past as precedent, it may lead me to something else – old stone rubbing perhaps (an Etsy-esque craft phenomenon waiting to happen if ever there was one), possibly starting a soap museum with Jen, or maybe, just as likely, something I haven’t even remotely considered yet.

The search itself is and has, after all, always been my ideal destination. And after many years of trying (and failing) to crack the code from a cubicle identical to all the others in a downtown commercial high-rise identical to all the others, I finally figured out how to monetize my interests and creative endeavors.

It’s changing again now – my job description. You’ve been watching it happen here in real time, post by post. Steve’s death sprung the lock; leaving Chicago knocked down the door.

Nowadays I’m more of an informal anthropologist with a sub-specialization in the supernatural. I’m a Ballardian recorder of the next millennium’s archaeological finds and explorer of modern urban ruins. I’m a self conscious mosaic of highly curated, customized experiences. I’m a DM IRL. I chase dinosaurs and cryptids.

If anybody asks though, just tell them I work for myself.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Molly the Mollusk

(This piece was edited and published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The colossal squid's 27-foot-long corpse lies preserved within a Sarasota aquarium.

It's no secret that mysterious, tentacled creatures lurk in the ocean's depths. Molly the Mollusk, a colossal squid, gives people a rare chance to view one of these elusive underwater animals.

Molly was accidentally caught off the coast of New Zealand on March 15, 1999, by a fishing trawler. The 27-foot-long cephalopod was donated to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium that same year. Since returning from the traveling exhibit “Sea Monsters” in 2015, the “Exploration Gallery” (formerly the Shark Attack Theater) now houses Molly’s preserved remains. 

Due to the rarity of encounters with colossal squid, scientists are still working to fill in our knowledge about them. One thing that is known, however, is that these creatures possess the largest eye in the animal kingdom. One specimen’s eyes measured up to roughly 11 inches across—that’s larger than your typical dinner plate!

While Molly may be one of the more celebrated residents at Mote, there are plenty of other fascinating things to see there, including live manatees, sharks, jellyfish, anemones, otters, and rays. As of July 2018, there is also an art exhibit featuring sculptures constructed from sea plastic, a creative means of highlighting the threat that such human-made debris poses to our oceans.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Everything in Florida will Kill You

Welcome to the American Outback, swamp edition.

Having just completed my second year in Tampa, I am reminded every day of how ill equipped we as human beings are to live in certain areas and climates. Actually, pretty much all of them, if we're being frank, but Southern Florida's "Nature Coast" in particular presents some unique challenges. To most of the natural inhabitants, us humans must resemble giant, slow-moving Capri Sun juice bags - you know, the kind that your folks packed with your elementary school lunches - and most of the creatures down here are well equipped with fangs, claws or some manner of built in straw with with to puncture said juice bag. Put another way, pretty much every woodland creature you encounter down here, even the cute fluffy looking ones, will not hesitate to devour, envenom or maul you. And don't think that the list of things that may prematurely terminate you end with the fauna - the weather, the heat and even the earth under your feet can be become treacherous without warning.

So I've divided my list into the common dangers (the ones we're all familiar with), the lesser known threats, and lastly, the really rare special cases. The list is by no means comprehensive, so feel free to add or discuss in the comments section any that I've missed.

The Usual Suspects

  • Reptiles - specifically gators and snakes, each of which has been known on occasion to consume the other. Gators, crocodiles, caiman - all apex predators that have remained essentially unchanged since prehistoric times. A more recent arrival to the area is the Burmese Python, which can grow to terrifying lengths. Monitor lizards and even Iguanas can also be fairly vicious.
  • Sharks and Rays - Bull sharks in particular have been know to be aggressive towards humans (which is not to say that you should go taunting nurse sharks or really any type of shark for that matter). Rays are also fairly common here - at least enough so that on a recent trip to Caladesi Island, it was recommended that we perform the "stingray shuffle" if we chose to wade more than a foot deep into the water.
  • Insects - Ticks, wasps, biting flies, spiders (Black Widows and Brown Recluse Spiders being the most venomous) and mosquitoes (which carry Dengue, Zika and historically, Yellow Fever for starters) are common nuisances, but the newest and most unpleasant for me has been fire ants. Having always lived "up north" (suburban Philadelphia, Chicago, Ann Arbor and Seattle), ants were never more than an annoyance, but I can now attest that the ants here in Florida are something else entirely. While watching the Gasparilla Children's Parade pass through Hyde Park along Bayshore Boulevard, I noticed a burning and stinging coming from under my sandals. When I inspected my feet I discovered numerous ants biting them repeatedly. I quickly shook them off and thought the ordeal was done... but by later that evening each bite had turned into a maddeningly painful, itching blisters. "You didn't pop those blisters, did you," a friend asked me later on. "No, no, of course not," I responded, while very casually pulling up my socks so as to conceal a score of pockmark scars on my ankles.
  • Weather - Thankfully Jen and I were unscathed by Irma - we stayed with one of her coworkers in  New Port Richey, as we live in a Flood Zone A (the lowest elevation / first areas to be evacuated). The Keys were not so lucky and having seen some of the devastation first hand, I will not hesitate to leave town in the future. Of course, while hurricanes are generally confined to one season, lightning is not and Florida ranks first in the nation for lightning-related deaths each year. In fact, the name Tampa itself is allegedly from the Native American "sticks of fire," which some suggest is a reference to lightning (although another equally plausible origin is that the area was considered a good place to gather kindling for fire)
  • Other Human Beings - Perhaps it's not all that surprising that in a state shaped a bit like the handle of an AR15, we've seen more that our fair share of mass shootings (including Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County). But guns are hardly the sole concern - with more than 40,000 automobile-related deaths in 2016, Florida now ranks among the most dangerous states to drive in. The Sunshine State also has it's share of serial killers, the most infamous of whom is probably Aileen Wurnos.
The Unusual Suspects
  • Armadillos - Yes, I said Armadillos - those scaled rodents you've most often probably seen lying by the side of the road after an unfortunate encounter with an automobile. How, you may be wondering, can these harmless "roadkill waiting to happen" pose a mortal threat to Floridians? They make the list here because they are the only species other than humans that can carry and on rare occasion transmit mycrobacteriun leprae (better known as leprosy).
  • Brain Eating Amoebas - Naegleria fowleri is the culprit, found in warm freshwater such as lakes and ponds in central Florida.  While infections are exceedingly rare (138 cases), they are almost always deadly if not treated immediately (at last count I believe there have been a total of just three survivors). For more information, be sure to check out A Quick Guide to Brain-Eating Amoeba. Fun beach reading.
  • Sea Lice - Something new I've just been hearing about over the past several months, and the fact that these are actually stinging jellyfish larvae rather than actual lice doesn't really make it all that much better. Purple flags went up along Florida beaches along the pan handle this past summer indicating dangerous marine life, including these tiny invaders. While they are not typically life threatening, they were awful enough to warrant a spot on my list.
  • Sinkholes - Indeed, even the earth itself here will devour you if given the opportunity. I think an AP article summed it up best: "Sinkholes are as much a part of the Florida landscape as palm trees and alligators. Florida has more of them than any state in the nation. Earlier [in 2013], a man near Tampa died when a sinkhole opened up underneath his bedroom." You can read the full article here: Sinkholes: Why So Frequent in Florida?
The Really Weird Ones

  • Skunk Apes - Did you know that there's a swamp version of the Sasquatch? It's not all that surprising that Florida would have a cryptid or two lurking about, given that in addition to be being one of America's favorite places to vacation, the state also serves, conveniently (for those vacationers), as the nation's unofficial capital for releasing unusual and dangerous animals (that pet alligator your grandparents tell you they had growing up? Once it outgrew the bathtub it quite likely took up residence here in Florida). What makes the Skunk Ape distinctive, as you may have guessed from it's name, is the appalling odor it's said to emit. This malodorous monster is also said to become violent when confronted by those few who had the displeasure of an encounter. Even thought its existence is somewhat suspect, there have been enough alleged encounters over the years to warrant consideration and a small research center / roadside attraction near the Everglades.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion - The events that took place at the home of Mary Hardy Reeser in St. Petersburg on July 2, 1951 left the world with one burning question... is spontaneous human combustion real? To this day, as far as I'm aware, the actual cause of her demise remains unsolved. Theories to explain the completely incinerated body in the middle of an otherwise unscathed living room have included everything from ball lightning to aliens and government conspiracies. 

Please note, I share all of this not to discourage anyone from exploring the unique Florida wilderness, but rather as a gentle reminder that when you go off the path, the creatures you encounter are not happy, family-friendly Disney World animatronics and if the ground gives way beneath you, no one is going to come and stop the ride. So have a care, pack some strong insect repellent and maybe some antivenom too.