Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I Want to Believe

I realize that milestones like new year’s, birthdays, really all celebrations of our experience of time are on some level arbitrary. But still I find value in them as a point, individually and collectively, to look back and ahead. To appreciate the completion of a unit, of a chapter, an arc. And this year has left us all with a good bit more to reflect upon in both directions of the timeline. But this penultimate day of each year, for me, has added significance, as my friend Steven would have been forty five years old today. He did not suffer through 2020 with us, though I often thought of what he would have said or thought of it; nor is he able to turn the page on it with us. Here and not here – like so many others who did not get to see the first hint of daybreak after what felt, at times, like an endless, lightless, new moon midnight of a year. So it’s up to us to bring them along with us, all those we’ve lost during and prior to the pandemic, and they are great in number indeed. On Steve’s birthday I cannot give him a gift, but I can honor his memory by making my memories of him into a gift to you and to all who read this.

If you’ve been reading along over the past few years, you know that I credit my friend Steven with being critical to having discovered the path I find myself on now. Bearing that in mind, I’m entering this year with a deeper and greater commitment than ever before to experiencing and exploring the world around me. To delving into the many rabbit holes I find along the way towards uncovering hidden history, strange stories, and that which shapes or shift my perspective. To borrow a notion from Josh Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein,” I want to experience time as densely as possible for however much of it I have. And turning it not only into a passion but a vocation at the same time. Seems like a perfectly reasonable goal to me.

Before I can start the new year though with a clean slate, I need to make good on a promise to you. I’ve been laying the groundwork for some time, hinting at one specific experience I shared with Steve in my childhood that stands out for having unlocked a door that I’ve been peaking through ever since. It’s time at last to complete what has been one of the major arcs thus far in this ever-evolving story we’ve been sharing. Time to reveal that mystery at the heart for me of all unexplained and unknowable. That time I maybe witnessed magic. Real magic.

I should note that it also seems appropriate that Jen and I are currently watching the X-Files series in full. For years, since the series first aired, in fact, I’ve had standing on my desk a pair of Mulder and Scully action figures to which I have added more recently, a small stand replica of the “I Want to Believe” poster from Mulder’s basement office. I do want to believe, even if that means preserving some mysteries and leaving unanswered at least one important personal question.

The story I’ve been working my way towards telling you took place one summer about thirty years ago. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen at the time, if I remember correctly. We were at Blue Bell day camp that summer and both of us being rather athletically challenged, rather than being out on the baseball field or basketball courts, we more often selected activities like woodshop, ceramics or, as was the case on this day, computers. On the second floor of an old barn, the camp had set up several commodore 64 computers. We eagerly scampered up a rickety ladder, under cobwebs that had grown thick with the same dust that spun endlessly through the shafts of light from windows that appeared to have not been cleaned in years. If ever. Our reward for making it to the top was to to take a seat in front of one of the now archaic monitors and learn the basics of programming. If/then and Goto line X type commands. Long before the internet brought to us all HTML programming. Before even more than 64-bit graphics, this is back when computer games like Zork and Amnesia were entirely text based and the top of the line graphics at the time consisted of static images and 3D mazes of Wizardry or clunky Atari 2600 games.

On this particular day it was Steve and I and one, possibly two, other campers, and the instructor whose name I’ve long forgotten. I remember him being lanky with glasses and longish brown hair – maybe twenty years old. After maybe twenty or thirty minutes, one of the other two campers sitting a few terminals down from Steve and I made a series of audible groans and put his head down on the keyboard. The counselor came and sat down next to him.

“Everything ok?” he asked.

“Migraine” the camper said. He appeared to be slightly younger than Steve and I.

“I don’t have anything for headaches,” the counselor said. “But I can try something else.”

The camper gave his consent with a nod. The counselor put the palm of one hand just barely touching the camper’s forehead and his other hand behind the camper’s head. “I want you to visualize streams of color flowing from one of my hands into the other, right through your head. Picture blues, and greens. Picture waves of cobalt blue, of deep sea blue green, the sky blue of mid evening,” and so forth, describing in detail a variety of different blues and greens. Tranquil, calming colors delivered in a voice to match. After just a few minutes the camper widened his eyes in amazement.

“It’s gone.” He was clearly surprised. “Wait, how did you do that?”

“It’s something I’ve been studying and working on,” he explained, looking into each of our faces as we were all now curious, “called Kabalistic magic.”

Seeing that we were all now fully hooked, he continued. “It has to do with several spheres of different colors, each representing different properties.”

Without discussing it among ourselves we had all slid our chairs over and were gathered around him, fascinated.

“Here,” he said. “I’ll show you something else.”

He began rubbing his hands together as if he was rolling something in between his palms After a few moments he asked one of us to give him our hand. The migraine sufferer volunteered first. The magician moved his fingers in patters just centimeters above and below the camper’s outstretched hand.

“Weird” the camper said. “Feels like you’re touching my hand.” But we all observed that no contact had been made. The magician asked the kid to turn his head away and without looking, tell everyone what pattern the magician was making. First circles, then a series of squiggly lines, triangles, circles again. He went six for six.

Each of us tried it and to our surprise were easily able to discern the shapes being drawn on our hands. The magician explained that it had to do with electrical fields.

Maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t, but we were convinced at the time. Retrospectively, there are any number of scientific rather than magical explanations. The migraine trick was essentially just a guided meditation. And the patterns the magician drew on our hands without touching them could have simply been brushing against the fine hair follicles on the back of our hands. Of course, that wouldn’t explain why we felt it below on our palms as well, but perhaps that was just an imagined response.

The third and final demonstration was harder to fake.

“Every once in a while,” the magician confided, “I can create a thin beam of light between my fingers.”

We waited and watched. Again he rolled his hands together as if shaping putty. After a couple minutes of this, he balled his hands into fists and raised each of his index fingers. He moved his hands closer and further apart, trying to get the distance just right to produce illumination. And then…



And then what, you’re probably thinking?

There are, of course, only two possible outcomes. Either after straining to see some flicker we saw nothing at all, and the magician shrugged, saying that it doesn’t always work. Or as we all peered into the space between his fingers our faces began to glow from the bright filament-thin beam that connected his fingertips for a moment.

But I can’t tell you which one it was. Partly because I just can’t really trust the memory any further than I’ve taken it, and partly because, even if I could recall it with perfect clarity, I don’t think I’d reveal it. To do so would take away from you and from me something perhaps vastly more important than any objective truth could provide. As curious as I am about what I really saw or didn’t see, I’ve come to believe that not having an answer might just be the best possible answer. Like the dialog in an episode of the X-files, I can hear the dispute in my head between the rational Scully and the emotional Mulder. That rational voice says that nothing really happened - we were kids who saw what we wanted to see; the only magic we witnessed was that of the power of suggestion. But the voice of the believer asks, if it was such a clear-cut case of imagination run wild, why then is it still the subject of endless mental replay and blog posts some thirty years later?

Steve and I discussed it afterwards in hushed tones from time to time, neither one of us entirely sure what we actually saw. We talked about it less frequently over the years and gradually it just slipped away. It would have remained there in that void of lost childhood memories, had I not gone digging for it all these years later. And now, without the intersubjective confirmation of my friend who was there to witness it with me, it becomes even harder to discern. I suppose I could try to track down that computer counselor, or the kid with the migraine, but I know I won’t. 

Because I've come to believe that some mysteries deserve to be left unsolved.  

Monday, November 23, 2020

Five More Quotes

Previously, I shared seven quotes that came to the surface as I sifted through my memories and personal experiences. I have since continued to explore and recall phrases and sayings that somewhere or another became lodged in my mind and, for one reason or another, impacted me. I've decided to present there here in reverse chronological order, from newest to oldest in terms of when I first remember encountering them.

"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."
This is a more recent discovery, from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. It is only the first couple lines of the full stanza, which is, for me, deeply connected to my current literary endeavors, as truly all of my writing and exploration seems to be leading me to finally know for the first time all of the places I've been before. Even though it's only been within the past few years that I recall ever stumbling across this, it resonates with me and seems like it has been, somehow, a part of my consciousness for much longer. Like a tune you hum to yourself without realizing it's something you first heard decades ago and barely registered at the time, but has remained with you all the same.

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity."
As with the T.S. Eliot Quote, it seems that this phrase has been rattling around in my head for much longer than it really has. The first time I'm sure I became aware of it was when I left my job in the corporate world for good, to launch my art rental business, Chicago Art Leasing. At the time, I remember a fellow entrepreneur sharing the phrase with me, as it applied to both of our endeavors at the time. Without realizing it, we had been building up the skill set to solve our own specific problems with a niche offering. Ultimately I left Chicago and let the business slip into stasis, but the phrase could apply equally to my more recent experience writing "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure." It was something that I had been doing, visiting and writing about strange, unusual and unique places, before I realized that it was the making of a potential books. It's also possible that my father, who was an entrepreneur and pioneer in the clinical research industry, shared this quote with me when I was a child or teenager. It certainly sounds like the type of thing he would have imparted to me, but I can't be sure.

“In darkness dwells the people which knows its annals not."
This one clearly is from my Sophomore year as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It is one of two quotes cared into the front of the William L. Clements Library, which I don't think I ever once entered, ironically. I did, however, have to memorize this and other quotes around the campus during my semester pledging Sigma Phi. As a seeker of knowledge, even back then, it was a reminder of the illumination and insight provided by libraries, archives and other places I've spent a good bit of time in since.

“Tradition fades but the written record remains ever fresh.”
This is the other inscription outside of the Clements Library and one that I've pondered from time to time. Traditions do fade, and change both in practice and meaning, but does the written record remain ever fresh? Or does it too fade into obscurity over time and lose its meaning?

"No matter where you go, there you are."
This one takes me back to my early teen and even pre-teen years. It was just a line in the movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, which I watched at least a dozen times with my friend Steven. I think I spent an entire summer making that my response to just about everything. And while it was intended to be just a silly bit of dialog in a weird movie, I have found it to be surprising profound. When I moved to Seattle after college, which was just about as far as I could get from my point of origin, perhaps it was some part of myself I was looking to escape from. But I found then, as I have other times since, that you take you with you, wherever you go. Thankfully, being my own baggage seems today not so much like the burden it once did - I'm no longer running from myself and have, I think, made peace with my many flaws. But I also carry with me now not only myself, but those I've lost along the way - both metaphorically and literally. It was for this reason that I chose to use a variation of the quote in the dedication for my book.

I am sure that there are other phrases waiting to be uncovered as I continue the autoarchaeological dig that this blog has become for me. Perhaps there's some personal Rosetta Stone yet waiting to be found, that will translate and unify all such phrases as part of one single text. Maybe, once I've deciphered the cuneiform of my own experience, I'll find that I had the words out of sequence and old phrases will reveal some hidden meaning. A new tradition of refreshing the written record, perhaps.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Atlanta Adventure List

 The last time I had been to Atlanta was when I was writing business proposals for a family of consulting firms that included Proudfoot Consulting, more than a decade ago. When I visited the firm there, all I really saw was the inside of a conference room, a no frills hotel room and a strip club. Suffice it to say, this trip was of a very different nature. From the urban farm bed and breakfast that Jen found for us to the Midtown Music Festival that I procured tickets for, to the museums, art and offbeat sites, Atlanta vastly outperformed our expectations. It may not have ranked quite as high as Savannah, but still we loved it and we left more than enough on the table for future trips. 

  • Item #1: Some Were Quite Blind - we stopped on the way to inspect an unusual set of sculptures placed appropriately outside of the University of Florida's Animal Sciences Building.
  • Item #2: University of Florida Bat Houses: While we were there, we also paid a visit to the home of some 30,000 winged rodents.
  • Item #3: The Social Goat - Upon reaching our destination we checked into an urban farm B&B that was adorable, affordable and super comfortable.
  • Item #4: Adalanta Desert - One of many plaques placed throughout the country (of Kymaerica) detailing important sites and events in an alternate reality.
  • Item #5: Sparkles the Diva - Since Tinker Bell the Shih Tzu was traveling with us, it only seemed right to introduce her to another Instagram-famous canine.
  • Item #6: Ponce Market - Very much like Chelsea Market in New York, which comes as no surprise since it was developed by the same group.
  • Item #7: The Belt Line - As above, the Atlanta version of New York's High Line.
  • Item #8: Grant Park
  • Item #9: Tiny Doors Atlanta - Jen has a thing for faerie houses and gardens. Consequently we sought out some 20+ tiny doors planted throughout the city.
  • Item #10: Trader Vic's - I have a think for Tiki Bars, and Trader Vic's is one of the last of the originals. The food was great and we had to sample the drink they claim to have invented: the Mai Tai
  • Item #11: The Gravity Research Monument - On Emory's campus. It's one of a dozen or so along the East Coast, planted by Roger Babson, who truly loathed gravity. Long story for another time.
  • Item #12: Junkman's Daughter - All your vintage shopping dreams (or nightmares) come true. Actually a lot like Love Saves the Day in New Hope or Retro on Roscoe in Chicago.
  • Item #13: Vortex Bar - Entered through the mouth of a weird giant skull. (*Not on my list)
  • Item #14: The Martin Luther King National Historic Site: In a word, powerful.
  • Item #15: 54 Columns - A sculpture installation that locals seem to either love or hate.
  • Item #16: Oakland Cemetery - home to a number of memorable tombstones and final resting place of author Margaret Mitchell among others.
  • Item #17: Soaps & Antiques - While Jen shopped for soaps, I found my way down into a sprawling underground cavern of antiques and treasures. Unexpected and better than imagined.
  • Item #18: Music Midtown - We attended both nights and caught performances by Seven Seconds to Mars, Portugal the Man, Foster the People, Billie Eilish, Fallout Boy, Sylvan Esso, Imagine Dragons and others. Probably the best two-day line up Jen and I have attended together.
  • Item #19: Doll's Head Trail - Sort of like taking a hike through the set of a Blair Witch film. Equal parts fascinating and disturbing. 
  • Item #20: Grant Park Farmer's Market (*Not on my list)
  • Item #21: The sideways grave of Sideways the Dog. 
  • Item #22: Noguchi Playscapes - Geometric and vaguely brutalist artwork, made fun for kids.
  • Item #23: Krog Street Tunnel - Where Atlanta's street art lives.
  • Item #24: The Crowley Mausoleum - In the middle of a big box retail store parking lot.
  • Item #25: Cator Woolford Gardens - A little known garden just minutes from downtown Atlanta. We didn't venture too deep into it, as we were being eaten alive by insects, but it was well worth the visit.
  • Item #26: Margaret Mitchell House - Gone With the Wind is one of Jen's favorites of southern literature. The book has become somewhat more problematic of late, but it remains a defining and important work, even if the lost paradise it portrays was only ever paradise to some.
  • Item #27: Autoeater - As the name implies, a marbleized sculpture eating a car. (*Not on my list)
  • Item #28: Coca-Cola World - Just like Disney. Without the rides. And a carbonated soft-drink instead of an animated mouse.
  • Item #29: Westview Cemetery - Largest in the Southeast and full of fascinating history.
  • Item #30: Barbie Beach - On the way home we had to stop off in Senoia to see a few things.
  • Item #31: Senoia Main Street - This tiny town is a mecca for television and movie magic. It is perhaps most recognizable as Woodbury and a few other towns in The Walking Dead.
  • Item #32: The Titan I Missile - Another brief stop on the way home.
  • Item #33: Giant Peanut Monument - Our last stop on the return trip.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Losing the Thread

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain" - Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) in Bladerunner

It's a problem with trying to capture one's personal history that it continues to happen, sometimes far faster than the pen can keep pace with. It reminds me of that unsettling movie effect where a hallway seems to elongate before you. Our world keeps changing; my personal world along with it (and sometimes against it). I started out wanting to tell the story of two awkward kids who became friends and spent their days creating their own world together rather than trying to fit into the one that didn't seem all that interested in having them. I wanted to tell the story of my friend Steven, and I feel that thread slipping through my fingers.

Those moments are getting lost in time. Riding together to Blue Bell Day Camp in the back of a packed car, listening as "That's All" by Genesis or "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes came on the radio while we laughed at our driver's dirty jokes. Sitting on log benches and listening to Burt the science counselor tell spooky stories and somehow transcended his nerdiness to become "cool" for just as long as his tales lasted. Watching Blade Runner, The Thing, Eddie and the Cruisers, and Buckaroo Banzai again and again and again.

I can feel those things slipping by and past me, like photos being plucked form an album by the wind from the deck of a boat and coming to land for a moment on the surface of the water before drifting down into the depths.

Procuring matching key chain switchblades (the blades being all of an inch long) from the back of a voodoo shop together on South Street after browsing through the assortment of punk rock tee shirts at Zipperheads and grabbing a cheese steak from Inky's. Playing computer and first generation Nintendo games until our eyes were dried out and bloodshot. Reading Tolkein riddles and comic books. 

There's more. I'm almost there, but I need to keep hold of the loose thread, before it unravels entirely, taking that part of me along with it. I know I can't quite reach that point in my past anymore than an asymptote can ever connect with the line it leans infinitely towards, but I can keep getting closer to it. That thread, that story of who I was, is also the story of how I got to be who I am now. As it is for all of us. 

Stick with me, and I'll pull it all together soon, I promise. A picture is even now emerging from the scattered puzzle pieces, and I'll get us to that mystery at the heart of things, before it's all washed away.

Like tears in rain.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Star Power

I debated including this chapter in the book but ultimately decided against it for two reasons: 1) Scientology is always very actively recruiting down here so I was reluctant to send folks into its headquarters, and 2) I didn't want the church itself to take any offense (even though I've tried to keep my own opinions out of the writing). That said, I present it here for you.

Star Power

What’s that huge building in the middle of Clearwater with the unusual bronze cross on top?

Inevitably, any discussion about the nature and composition of Clearwater must touch upon its long, complicated and often contentious relationship with the Church of Scientology. The Flag Building (sometimes referred to as the Super Powers Building) represents the spiritual headquarters of the church, the largest building in the city and ground zero in the ongoing power struggle between the two.

Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard incorporated the first church of Scientology in Camden New Jersey in the 1950's, with the mission of reawakening human beings to their forgotten immortal natures as “thetan.” The organization quickly spread to other locations, and as early as the 1970’s began acquiring land in Clearwater.

Construction on the Flag Building began in 1998 and was completed fifteen years later. The building’s primary purpose is to deliver a training course called the Super Power Rundown, designed to enable Scientologists to fully utilize all 57 of their sense (what they refer to as “perceptics”).

The 127,000 square foot building (which includes a 15 story tower) has an assessed valued of $80M. It features 889 rooms as well as theaters for training, a bookstore, library and separate museums honoring the church’s elite Sea Org and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. A bridge connects it to the Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel. 

When the building opened its doors on November 17th, 2013, it did so in a ceremony attended by thousands of members including some high profile celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

Whatever your opinion is on the legitimacy of Scientology as a religion, it seems to have become a permanent feature of Clearwater, reminding the local sun worshipers that the star at the center of our own solar system is just one such celestial body available for their devotion. 

What: The Flag Building

Where: 215 South Fort Harrison Avenue.

Cost: Free to view from outside, 10% of your income if you decide to become a regular

Pro Tip: Scientology in Clearwater is extremely active in recruitment, so unless you’re in the market for a new set of religious beliefs, you might want to view the building from the outside.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Stillman's Dog

 I've gotten into the habit each year around this time of trying to conjure up an appropriate story for Halloween. This particular one was written a year or two back. While the connection between felines and witchcraft has a long history, Tinker Bell thought it was a little insulting that canines (excepting, of course, wolves) have been largely excluded from tales of the supernatural. At which point it dawned on me that I'd never really read a story specifically about a Hell Hound. So, with the help and inspiration of my own miniature hell hound, who is this moment ferociously licking my toes under the desk, I give you Stillman's Dog. Enjoy and have a happy and safe Halloween.

Stillman’s Dog

When I’ve got time to wait here, sitting on the old log carved up with more initials, prayers, promises and foul language than could fill a volume, I think back to my grandpa. If I had the inclination I bet could find his initials somewhere on this log. Or maybe his first wife’s name, which I only ever heard him speak aloud but once.

Growing up my sisters and I thought he was a bit funny, quirky rather, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I added up all those pieces to see a very different picture. Like the bandage he always wore around the palm of his right hand. Over the summers when we would visit from out east, my sisters would spend more time with their grandmother, baking and doing whatever else it is that girls do when visiting grandmothers. Grandpa Stillman would take me fishing, or tell me stories about the Native Americans that lived in these parts centuries before. He claimed it was one of their old trails that led him to the very goldmine which would make our family a fortune, and later make him the first Mayor of Stillman, Montana.

I remember one time, I must have been about seven, and my sisters and I had just been to Disney World, so we brought all of our treasures and trinkets with us when we came to visit. I had one of those leashes for an invisible dog, and I must have walked the thing over every inch of every acre of the land around the estate. Grandpa pulled me aside one afternoon and confided to me that he had an invisible dog too. I can still taste the pipe tobacco from his mouth like a translucent wrapper around each word he spoke.

“Dogs can be a great friend to you or a vicious and terrifying beast, but all of em are loyal as hell, and I do mean that literally. But no matter what. You must always, always feed your dog. No. Matter. What.” That last part he highlighted with a swish of his long, bony and liver-spot speckled finger.

I’d never seen him with a dog, or with any animal for that matter, so I thought he was just being strange. I filed that information away in my head along some of the other peculiar things he did, like filling a watering can each night with earth from the large glass jars he kept in the shed, and pouring out a fine line under each windowsill and doorway. Always it was gone by the time I woke up, well after sunrise, but I saw him come creep into my room at night and pour out that dirt. I pretended to be asleep, but if, as I pretty well suspect, he knew I was awake, it didn’t bother him a lick. One time I could have sworn he looked back at me over his shoulder and gave me a funny little grin that parted his mustache like a white curtain and made his dark eyes twinkle under his bushy white brows.

Still got another twenty minutes, so sayeth the old silver pocket watch he left for me. Kronos, he called it. Doesn’t need any winding, any maintenance at all he said. Had some special jeweler in New York make it for him, and just to be extra sure he would keep his weekly appointment, he had it inscribed with a phrase in his inimitable script. “You must always feed your dog.”

Always on Thursday nights, around ten at night, while my sisters and I were supposed to be sleeping, I would see from my window as light from the house spilled out onto the back porch and path, and then vanished as the door shut. And grandpa would walk out a few steps, flip open his silver pocket watch, and then stride off into the darkness, moving quietly but with purpose. He was always back in the morning as if nothing had happened. The only difference was on Friday mornings, he always had a fresh bandage around his right hand. I asked him a dozen times where he went and each time he would respond with something vague – that he had been to a place that was betwixt and between, or that he had to go feed his dog, or sure up his investments for the future.

It was the summer I was eleven that I finally mustered the courage to follow him. While he’d never strictly forbidden me or my sisters from doing so, the look that came across his face when he asked if we could go with him always made us think twice about asking again. It wasn’t that he was angry about it, which would have probably been less odd. It was an expression we only ever saw on those few occasions when we asked. I can’t speak for my sisters, but for me, it was like suddenly a mask had slid off of his face and beneath was someone I’d never seen before.

I know now, of course, that it was fear.

Ten minutes left, so it’s time to prepare for my weekly rendezvous. Give me just a moment, while I unwrap the bandage around my right hand and remove the wickedly curved blade from the sheath hanging from my belt. Moon’s out tonight and I catch a near perfect reflection of it on the cool metal, pocked with little tick marks that a professor once told me was a long dead language called cuneiform. I could tell he was impressed because he’d whispered the words like he was nervous that the blade might hear him talking about it.

But I want to finish up before my friend arrives. Where was I… Eleven. It was the summer I was eleven that I decided to sneak out after my grandpa and see what he was up to. It was the last night that my sisters and I were staying there before returning home to our folks to start the school year. I gave him a good ten minute head start on me and wore all black, with bootblack smeared all over my face. Thought I was all smart and stealthy like a ninja. I trailed him up about three quarters of a mile to the intersection where, for reasons I have never understood, Road Street becomes Street Road (although both are no more than glorified dirt paths). I ducked into the woods and the shadows the few times grandpa Stillman stopped and made as if to turn around. But he didn’t.

So I hid there. And I waited. And I watched. Grandpa Stillman, he just sat there on this same log I’m sitting on now, staring out into the dark. It felt like I waited there for an eternity with every manner of insect buzzing in my ears and biting me, and my legs starting to cramp up from being in an awkward crouch, but just as I was about to leave, everything got quiet. The crickets and birds and who all knows what else all went dead silent. Grandpa noticed it too – he stood up, dusted off his pants and went out to the center of the intersection. With his hands out in an “I mean you no harm” sort of position.

I heard a sound like the rumble of a low engine and what sounded like two sets of footfalls, one right behind the other, crunching on the dirt and gravel road. But no one was there. I peered closer, and watched Grandpa unwind the bandage from his hand, and then raise the blade, the one I hold now, up over his head. The crunching sound got closer, right up next to me, and I smelled something foul, but I stayed put. Then the crunching stopped – I could feel every nerve in my body screaming, the hair on my neck stood up and I watched as two puffs of steam hit me square in the face from the nostrils of an animal that wasn’t there. I was looking right at, right through it, and I knew it was there. I could feel its menace. The smell of its breath, like the very worst kind of rot, made me gag, but still I remained frozen. And then the foot falls resumed.

“Well, let’s get on with it then,” Grandpa said as he drew the blade across his palm, reopening the gash that his bandages concealed. He held out his hand and it seemed to disappear into the creature’s invisible maw, accompanied by a sickening slurping sound.

This went on for some minutes, grandpa going white as a sheet, until finally the sounds died out and he withdrew his hand. He wrapped back up his hand and things would have been fine, except that a twig snapped under me and I shifted my weight, rattling a branch. Grandpa turned towards me and so did the beast, which let out a terrifying growl.

“Stay, boy. Let it go.” Grandpa commanded.

It turned it’s eyes on me, two hot coals, glowing red in the center, emanating heat, and darkening towards the edges. Like looking into two twin pits to the burning core of the earth.

Another minute passed and it slunk off in the other direction, it’s invisible paws crunching the dirt and gravel, and Grandpa turned and made his way home, walking right past my hiding place. I sat there for a good long while, until the critters all started back up with their night time noises. And then I waited a bit longer for my pants to dry. It was well after midnight when I got back to find the door unlocked. I beat it up to my bed and hid under the covers, shaking the whole rest of the night.

When I came down to breakfast the next morning, there was Grandpa, all smiles as he wolfed down his pancake and sausage links. He looked over at me and smiled, “you look like you seen a ghost, boy.”

I shrugged it off and told him I’d had a bad dream.

“Did you now?” he inquired. “Why, I used to have one myself. I’d wake up thinkin I’d been face to face with some terrible beast that wanted my blood.”

“What, what did it look like?” I stammered.

“Funny thing, that” he said. “It didn’t look like anything at all. Completely invisible to the human eye.” He winked at me, and if I didn’t before, at that moment I knew he knew that I’d been out there watching.

I didn’t come back the next summer – joined a friend at an overnight camp. And the summer after that I played possum, prolonging my flu for months. Grandpa never traveled far, so I didn’t have to face up to him. But the summer I was fourteen, my parents were dead set on sending me. And it was fine – Grandpa and I didn’t talk about the beast. We took back up our fishing and hiking and I didn’t dare follow him out to the crossroads on Thursday nights. At the end of that Summer though, he took me for a long hike to a part of the property I’d never been to, where alongside a stream was a stone bench and a statue of a young woman. Over the years, the elements had worn down and chipped her long hair and dark pools under her eyes made it look like she was forever crying. 

“Know why I’ve taken you here?” he asked me.

I shook my head no, even though I did.

“This is where I laid to rest my first wife, Lizbeth.”

And there in the shadow of the monument to his lost love, he told it to me straight, that what I’d seen him do that one night was real and that one day, hopefully not for a long time yet, but one day I’d have to do as he did. That it was a deal he made that we needed to keep and so long as we fed the dog once a week our family would prosper.

“And if I don’t?” I asked.

He just pointed to the statue, his eyes shining and wet, and he shook his head. “Once we thought as you do, that maybe we could outrun it or escape it. But that thing, I suspect, is a lot older and a lot smarter than any of us. It’s bound to us by our own blood now, and there’s no getting away from that. When I didn’t show up that once, I could feel it watching me every night, just waiting to get at me. And when my darling stepped out for a minute, just one minute, after sunset, she never came back. Snatched right off the porch. Took me more the better part of a week to gather up enough of her to bury.” He didn’t have to say anything else. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

On the way back to the house he told me to go and enjoy my life. Go to college somewhere nice. Travel the world, as far and wide as I could, for one day I’d be bound to this land as he was.

And I did. I worked at all manner of jobs and lived in more places than I can almost recall. I got a degree in business, but also studied plenty of literature and history, always looking to understand the terms and nature of the bargain my grandpa had struck, looking for some way to escape what I knew was inescapable. My research into the occult just left me with more questions than answers. Churchill’s black dog, for instance. That one always intrigued me. Maybe he was talking about something more literal than depression. I wonder about that, I wonder what you’d have to offer up to win a world war.

I still came to see Grandpa for the summers. My sisters were older – two were in college and one was already married, so it was just me the summer I turned eighteen. That summer took me back with him to feed the dog again. He showed me how to sharpen the blade till its edge is so keen you don’t even feel it slice your hand. He taught me to tell when the beast was done feeding, and to keep your hand steady before it for just a moment afterward so that its fiery hot breath would cauterize the wound.

You hear that? Nothing, right? All of a sudden, all the buzzing and humming and rustling in the woods has ceased, which means it will be here in just a few moments. I can just about hear it now.

That’s fine, my story’s mostly come to an end. There isn’t much more to tell – my Grandpa passed, ten years ago this month, and left me the house, the business, the blade and the beast. And the past ten years have seen my family and our business prosper. The same land that yielded veins of pure gold for my grandpa offered up to me a pool of rich, dark oil. So much good luck as to be nearly impossible. And we’ve expanded our operations, preparing for a public offering some time next year if the market’s right for it.

Of course, I run things mostly from right here these days. Skype, zoom, twitter, email, they bring the world to me. I drive the two hours to Bozeman once or twice a week, but mostly I prefer to stay close by. Call it risk management if you like.

For my part I just try to stay focused on making smart deals. 

And paying off the old ones.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Signed by the Author

It's such a small, trifling thing - that reflective circular gold sticker on the front of the book you got signed. But to bibliophiles, collectors and aspiring writers, it means something much more. It means that your copy has been marked (in a good way), and set apart from all the other copies ever printed in that it contains a message written specifically for you. Words of gratitude, a reference to some snippet of conversation that took place between you and the writer, a message of encouragement, perhaps. It means that this particular book is every bit as unique to you as your own fingerprints. 

It's the reason that drives many of us stand in lines at ComiCons for hours on end to have an actor or icon like Stan Lee, lock eyes with us and affix their signature to our personal item. It documents our encounter with them, it's proof of an experience, an interaction, we had with someone we admire.

Having had the good fortune and privilege of knowing more than a few other published authors, you might think that when I receive a copy of their newest work with a personal message or a note in the acknowledgements, my giddiness would diminish over time. But it never does. It hasn't yet, anyhow, and seeing as I'm now smack in the middle of middle age, I'm not expecting it to change much in the second half of my journey.

I was already becoming an Atlas Obscura superfan, but this made it inevitable. 

Now I find myself on the other side of the table, and I get to be the one placing that magical seal on the cover of a signed book for someone else. I get to come up with some potentially meaningful or clever personalized message. As I do so, I think about that stack of autographed books on my own shelf, and it reminds me to take care with my words as the message I scribble in my marginally legible handwriting may very well mean more to the reader than any carefully planned, edited and properly typeset line in the book. Maybe I'm writing for a kindred spirit looking to uncover the secret face of their own hometown. Maybe it's a future creator, for whom just a little bit of support can be enough to change their trajectory towards the pursuit of their own visions.

Look, I'm not trying to overstate my own importance or impact. I'm just the latest guppy in a vast and unfathomable ocean. Every day before me and every day that comes after there have been and will continue to be others, trying to provide readers with the unique fulfillment that comes from gifting them with the right words at the right time. Peeling off those stickers and placing them on the glossy covers of their own books. 

A small selection of books written and signed by authors I've known or met.

I know, I know, it's maybe the silliest, tiniest little thing that comes with being a published author. But as long as waiting in line or at the mailbox to receive a book with that little sticker on the cover matters to others, putting it there will matter to me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Gardens, Ghosts and Gator Guardians

This is another chapter from Secret Tampa Bay that didn't make it into the final draft. It was right on the far southern edge of what I could legitimately consider the Tampa Bay Area. But it's well worth visiting for the amazing gardens, the native american burial mounds, and, for me at least, its unexpected connection to Chicago.

Gardens, Ghosts and Gator Guardians

Where in Florida can you enjoy a cup of tea among ancient earthworks and formal gardens?

There is truly an abundance to discover at the thirty-acre nature complex and museum situated at the southern end of Sarasota. Its history stretches back nearly six thousand years in the form of the Hill Cottage Midden, which is exceptionally well preserved and possibly one of the oldest in Florida. There are two more burial mounds created between 3,200 – 1,000 years ago. Atop each of these burial mounds, gator skeletons were discovered. Presumably they were placed there as guardians, but whether their function was to protect the dead from the living, or the living from the dead, remains a subject of speculation.

The prehistoric inhabitants were long gone by 1867, when John Greene Webb and his family settled on what he named Spanish Point. They set up a home; cultivated citrus, sugar cane, and vegetables; and built a packing house along with a ten-ton schooner called Vision. They invited friends and family to visit, thus establishing the area’s first tourist resort. In the early 1900's the family began selling off some of the land, which by this time also included a small pioneer cemetery and Mary’s Chapel.

One of those new landowners was none other than wealthy Chicago hotel heiress Bertha Palmer. In 1910 she purchased thousands of acres in Sarasota, including the Webb homestead, as part of her estate, Osprey Point. She preserved and connected the pioneer buildings with lavish formal gardens. The classical columns sprouting from the bougainvillea and the aqueduct, which winds through the tropical foliage, remain there today.

While the site is popular for private events and weddings, it also hosts a variety of other interesting activities, including a regular Tea with Bertha series, a moonlight ghost tour, a Victorian funeral reenactment, and the annual Fairy and Gnome House Festival.

In 1976 Historic Spanish Point became the first site in Sarasota County listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Deep Roots
What: Historic Spanish Point
Where: 337 N. Tamiami Tr., Osprey
Cost: Adults, $15; seniors, $12; children ages 5–12, $7; children ages 4 and under, free
Pro Tip: If you enjoy ghost tours and want a change of pace from the typical urban settings, give this one a try.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Tupperware Confidence Center

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

A museum preserving one company's history of preserving food.

In 1946, grocery stores began stocking the patented “burping” plasticware that would come to revolutionize the world of leftovers. A polyethylene brainchild of Earl Tupper, the Tupperware Seal of Freshness has also become a seal of American ingenuity—and at the Tupperware Confidence Center, a statue of an actual seal.

“Tuppy” the Tupperware seal is just one of the many wonders of the museum housed at the company’s headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida. Keen observers will note that the stone personification is, in fact, a sea lion and not a seal, but reality has never stood in the way of a good marketing campaign.

Under Tuppy’s watchful gaze, visitors can unlid the vast history of the durable container brand by perusing plastic porringers, vintage dining sets, an early molding machine, and even the company’s breakthrough product, the Wonderbowl. Alongside vintage machinery and products, there’s also a wide array of colorful, touchscreen displays, some of which demonstrate how lightweight, airtight storage has shaped dining, leftovers, and beyond.

Visitors might wonder why the space is called is called a “confidence center.” This is tied to the company’s “chain of confidence” campaign of empowering women, which is also celebrated in the museum. The entrance features a tribute to Brownie Wise, the woman behind the “Tupperware Party,” an event by and for women focused on selling the product. She eventually became Tupperware’s vice president of marketing, and the first woman to be featured on the cover of Businessweek. While Wise was essential to Tupperware’s success, she often clashed with Earl Tupper, and he forced her out of the company in 1958. Still, she left an indelible mark and inspired generations of businesswomen.

If, by the end of your journey through the museum, you’d like to find some functional containers of your own, swing by the Tupperware Gallery, connected to the museum. And if you’re feeling brave, the museum allegedly harbors a Tupperware casket, but you’ll have to request to see it, as they tend to keep a tight lid on it.

The museum is free and open to the public, Monday to Friday, from 10 am to 4 pm. They close at noon on Fridays during the summer, but the statue of Tuppy is behind the headquarters building and can be viewed anytime.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: The Scales of Justice

I wanted so badly to include this chapter in my book, Secret Tampa Bay, but it's more than two hours from downtown Tampa, which puts it well outside of the range I set. It's a great story though - one of my favorites of the many I've uncovered in my travels thus far. I will likely submit it to some of my favorite offbeat travel sites, but for now, you can find it here.

The Scales of Justice

Who was “Old Joe” and how did he lead the FBI to Ma Barker’s hideout?

Around the lake town of Ocklawaha in the 1930s, Old Joe had acquired a reputation for being vicious and fearless. The locals steered clear of him, but apparently no one told the family that rented a nearby two-story vacation home around January of 1935. That family was actually the notorious Barker–Karpis gang, which needed a place to lay low after their criminal activities in the Midwest had put them at the top of the most-wanted list. Arizona “Ma” Barker and her son Fred happened to run afoul of Old Joe and, not to be outdone in the meanness category, Fred shot at Old Joe with his Tommy gun. Old Joe was wounded but survived the encounter—and he’d have his revenge soon enough.

When Arthur Barker was arrested in Chicago that same month, the FBI discovered a letter describing the place that Ma and Fred had rented along with a map that wasn’t specific enough to give away their exact location … until they read the part detailing Fred’s encounter with Old Joe. That was just the sort of detail that the feds needed to narrow down their search.

On January 16 agents surrounded the lake house and demanded that the gang surrender. Fred replied with gunfire, and what ensued was the longest gunfight in FBI history, lasting over four hours. Curious neighbors are alleged to have set up lawn chairs and picnic blankets to watch.

Following the shootout, both Fred and Ma were found dead inside the bullet-riddled second-floor bedroom. The shootout also strengthened FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s resolve to legitimize and empower the nascent FBI.

The story doesn’t end there though. There’s still one final twist that makes this story bizarrely and uniquely Floridian: Old Joe, if you haven’t already guessed it, was a fifteen-foot-long alligator.

Just a few minutes from the house where Ma and Fred Barker made their last stand is the eponymous Gator Joe’s Beach Bar and Grill, which proudly displays one of Old Joe’s massive reptilian feet.

The Barker Gang’s Last Stand
What: Ma Barker House Museum
Where: 13279 SE 115th Ave., Ocklawaha
Cost: There is a $7 fee per vehicle to enter the Carney Island Conservation & Recreation Area.
Pro Tip: Tours of the house are available, but due to the popularity of the site, you’ll want to book it in advance at

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Metaphysics of Storytelling, Part 2

“We become what we behold.” – William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion

The nearer I get to the publication of “Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure,” the less certain, in some ways, I am of exactly what it is that I’ve created. Before I delve deeper into what I mean by that, I first need to explain the sort of storyteller I’ve become. As a professional writer, I have focused on telling a certain type of niche story over the past decade – specifically those stories which effect change in the world. This falls into two primary categories: business proposals and resumes.

Regarding the former, I craft and assemble cohesive and (ideally) compelling stories from data, from bios, from case studies, and weave a tale of why the particular firm I’m writing for is best suited to conduct the type of work being sought. In my experience this has ranged from performing Phase I – IV clinical research studies to uncovering and increasing operational efficiency to conducting audits and tax compliance and financial advisory work. The desired outcome of these stories is that whatever company I’m writing on behalf of is selected for the next competitive round, typically a presentation or “bid defense” if you like. From this round usually a winner is selected. The story I craft is unlikely to close the deal on its own, but it is an essential step in reaching that eventual goal.  

Regarding the latter, in developing a resume for a client, I am similarly taking their experience and shaping it towards where they wish to be next, in terms of their career. As with the proposals I create, the resume usually represents just the first of several hoops or gates that an applicant or job seeker must pass through. Typically the next step is an interview, or series of interviews, in which the final determination of suitability will be made. I like to think that this makes me something of a “populist spin doctor,” accessible to all and using the same language I’ve learned in the corporate world to the benefit of single parents, veterans, recent graduates and others.

In both of these examples though, my stories become a step toward making tangible change. They escape the confines of their word documents or PowerPoint slide decks and drive decision-making among corporate executives and hiring managers. And they influence the fate of companies and individuals seeking to obtain new work.

With the book, I’ve now added a third type of non-traditional storytelling style to my bag of tricks. Strange, unusual and offbeat travel. But having over the last few years gathered a book’s worth of such content, I’m finding that what I’ve created has more layers to it than I first suspected. At the highest and most simple, obvious level, it’s a collection of detailed descriptions of odd, wondrous, memorable and sometimes hidden places that I’ve sought out so as to give residents and visitors to the area something to experience beyond the standard, manufactured vacation memories of the big theme parks and beaches (which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with that type of travel or experience, only that some may find themselves seeking something more substantive and less predictable).

Peeling back the metaphorical onion skin reveals another level though. One that is much more personal. Even though I was careful to use the “business style of writing” in which everything is presented in third person, there’s no escaping that the collection of vignettes I’ve assembled is very much autobiographical. These are the places that I have sought out and visited and researched. These are the ones I chose to include over a great many others. And the underlying reason as to why I have chosen some in favor of others, is also deeply subjective. Namely, I searched for and wrote about and selected those places that seemed most infused with the sort of awe and childhood magic that I shared with my dear departed friend to whom the work is dedicated.

And now I find myself wondering if there isn’t, perhaps, a deeper layer still. Just as the other forms of storytelling have a tangible impact (however great or minuscule) on the world, is it possible that my work in chasing, documenting, capturing and preserving the otherworldly and magical in a lingual display case also alters, if not the world itself than at least our perception of it? Consider this – let’s say there is a certain manhole cover in the road that you pass as you go on a walk each day. Now, a manhole cover for most of us isn’t interesting in the least, just a circular disk of metal that, quite sensibly, prevents one from plummeting into the darkness and injuring themselves. But suppose I revealed to you that the manhole cover you scarcely notice as you walk past or over it, has a unique and amazing history. Maybe it was made of metal melted down from one of the cannons aboard a ship belonging to none other than Edward Teach. Suddenly that rather boring disk of metal is infused with meaning and history – connecting you directly to one of the most infamous pirate captains of all time. And when you pass by, you now take notice. Even though nothing about the physical object has changed in any discernible way, what you now see when you look at it has been forever altered by this new information you have become privy to… by a story.

If that is the case, than is this book I’ve been working to bring forth really just a collection of travel suggestions for curiosity seekers, or can it be viewed as something else entirely? There’s a term for stories or phrases that change the world around us (or our relationship to it). We call these invocations, incantations, spells. And so, a compendium of such arcane and esoteric tidbits, can that really be called merely a quirky local travel guide?

Or would it be just as accurate to call it a grimoire?

Friday, July 17, 2020

Exploring the Future: South by Southwaste

South by Southwaste

“Raiders again,” Amoz said as he put down the long-range monocular and quickly slid back down his dual-layered prosthetic eyelids to shield from the wind and sand that had joined forces to become a storm of stinging nettles. “Fifth one today – probably a big storm coming soon.”

Jeth nodded from his seat inside the mobile bunker. He’d been with Amoz’s team in the Southern part of the Great Southwaste for the better part of a week as they excavated the Peachtree Oasis sites number 5, 6 and 8. Desert storms and occasional raids by local nomadic tribesmen had slowed the team’s progress, but they were getting closer, layer by layer, to uncovering something that would be big news. An earlier team at a nearby site had recently uncovered skeletal remains of extinct animals including giraffes and elephants, none of which had ever been known to be indigenous to the region, so experts were speculating that these creatures had been imported from elsewhere.

“Could you make out which tribe?” Jeth asked as he scratched at what he hoped was just a badly sunburned patch on his elbow.

“Yallkumbak, maybe,” Amoz said. “Hard to tell them apart under the radiation suits. As long as they keep their distance from the supplies I can’t say that I really care.”

Two days ago they had uncovered some encrypted materials from a band of Neo Mormons or recolonists who had discovered only too late that what the heavens were showering them with was something far more malign than manna.

The news came in towards the end of the sixth afternoon as they all gathered around the most promising excavation site. A rusted metal sign was being hoisted from the depths – below almost 80 feet of sand. The wind and elements had faded most of the paint but the impression of some of the letters were still clear. 

“ATL N A   Z O”

“Welcome,” Amoz said as a triumphant smile spread across his face, “to the lost city of Atlanta.”

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Joe Ley Antiques

I think a lot about places and wonders lost to us - it happens all the more often now with the pandemic shuttering countless small businesses. Joe Ley Antiques in Louisville closed down prior to COVID-19, I'm just glad that Jen and I had a change to see it before it vanished. The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.

A curiosity-seeker's paradise set inside a three-story historic school house.

Are you in the market for a used carousel horse? Do you get excited by unusual signage, steamer trunks and vintage toys? Were you raised on flea markets and curio shops? Do you like clowns? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve probably come to the right place.

Joe Ley antiques have been a fixture in Louisville for over 50 years. After the collapse of the original location, it moved in the mid-1980s to its present location inside of a 2 acre, three-story 1890’s schoolhouse, making it the second largest individually-owned antique shop in the country.

From dining and glassware to 1950’s stoves, old doors and Prohibition-era whiskey labels to sculptures, Kentucky Derby memorabilia, musical instruments, furniture, and artwork; a list of what you can’t find here would actually be far shorter.

While Joe Ley Antiques happily serves the casual customer, it has also been the site of and supplied antiques for numerous music videos and photo shoots (including one for the Rolling Stones). And for the owner’s uncanny ability to procure the rare and unusual, Joe Ley Antiques has accrued an impressive list of awards, including Best of Louisville, Leo Reader’s Choice Award, Chicago Magazine Place to Travel Award and others.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Interdependence Day

"Troubled Times," was the title of my friend Steve's blog (as with so much else, he was far ahead of me in his adoption of the vehicle for communication), and while that may certainly have been apt while he was alive and writing it, in the years since his passing the phrase has only become more accurate, more poignant. Looking back on his writing, it means something different today than it did when the digital ink was fresh; nearly prophetic, perhaps. If he were here now, I would tell him so, before our discussion turned, as it always did, to matters at hand.

And so, on this July 4th, the day that we traditionally celebrate our nation's independence, I find myself thinking not of what sets us apart, but rather what binds us together, more tightly now than at any other time in living memory. The pandemic has been a catalyst, accelerant and backdrop for rethinking so much about our country, from our healthcare system to voting to the systemic racism and black bodies upon which our nation was established. We are at the beginning of what may be a long, contentious and overdue examination of all such matters, and as we reconsider what and whom we celebrate, from confederate monuments (which will be the topic of a future post) to holidays like Columbus Day, the 4th of July cannot be exempt from our inquiry. I would argue, in fact, that it should be central to such thinking.

Independence has historically been one of those characteristics that Americans value alongside freedom (for some), equality (for some) and the pursuit of happiness (for some). But COVID-19 has revealed, in the most devastating manner, that such a quality can be just as easily made an Achilles's heel. It has shown us, and continues to demonstrate daily, that the very notion that a country, or its individuals, can operate independent of one another is an antiquated illusion. A deadly illusion. The world we occupy in 2020 is one in which, to paraphrase, a bat flaps its wings in a wet market in China and people on the other side of the planet begin gasping for air. 

We are connected globally now in ways that would have been inconceivable to America's founders. Global economics mean that our own financial well being depends on the markets in Asia, Africa and Europe. News of emerging diseases and scientific discoveries travels as fast as a tweet, accompanied now always by its dark twin shadows of mis and disinformation. But it's not only the bonds between continents and countries and corporations that have become more inextricable, it applies equally to our connections at the individual level. Never have our actions more directly and profoundly impacted one another. Simple things that at other times we would have come together on and done without question for each other's health and safety (staying in, social distancing, wearing masks), have themselves become the flash-points in a cold civil war that has been smoldering now for decades. And it has ignited under the worst possible conditions. Every day now I see my state of Florida setting the most heartbreaking and grim records in terms of new cases, which will no doubt be followed by hospitalizations and deaths. Over 130,000 Americans are now dead, (more than any other country on earth) from something that could have been, and perhaps still could be, contained. For that to happen, for us to truly get a handle on the outbreaks here in the US, it will require coordination and sacrifice of some personal luxuries over and above our willingness to sacrifice the health and lives of others for our selfish comfort. It will require nothing short of us overcoming a collective addiction to the most self-serving interpretation of independence. Frankly, I'm not confident that we can do it, seeing as how we seem to have embraced cultural warfare and all that divides us over anything that unites us. We have consumed and are now being consumed by a very different type of independence than the sort that you could argue once made us great. And we all now watch as that singular quality that once elevated our country in the eyes of others around the world has made us a pariah - as Europe and the rest of the world begins to open their doors once again to travel, we in America find ourselves left conspicuously off the list of approved visitors. 

I don't know how to fix this, because I don't know how to get to the root cause, or even if there is just one root cause for that matter. Is it the drive to disregard and disbelieve empirical data in favor of anything that supports our opinions and convictions? Can we even agree on what constitutes facts? How can the overwhelming majority in the middle be held captive to the fringe on both ends of the spectrum? Put another way, how can so many be enslaved to so few? Isn't that the foundation upon which we declared our independence in another era, the idea that nowhere under heaven does the smaller body control or determine the destiny of the larger? And isn't that also intertwined with the questions that the Black Lives Matter movement requires us to ask when we read the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right..." and understand that such "rights" at the time applied exclusively to white men of European decent?

All of this I am considering today on July 4th. Shortly my wife will wake up from her nap and I'll begin cooking turkey burgers for us. I'll get my dog's thunder shirt ready for the inevitable explosions from the parking lot next to our apartment. And things might almost seem "normal," or like they did just last year. But when I go to the store, I will wear a mask to protect you and your loved ones from something I may not even realize I have, and I will hope that you care enough to do the same for me. I will observe social distancing, I will celebrate from home, with my immediate family even though I would much rather be among a crowd on the beach, and I will rely on you to exercise the same degree of caution and compassion. I will do all of these things because I love you, because I care about your safety, and I will say a silent prayer that the independence we celebrate collectively today is of the sort that unites us in pursuit of one common purpose, rather that the sort that gets us all buried together in one mass grave.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Onward and Inward

When I was young I was a bit of a loner. I generally felt like I was on the edge of the crowd, of any crowd, and the more I tried to fight my way into it, the more I ended up on the periphery. Even though I found others who felt the same, like Steve (and Jason, and Ben and Jake and many others) I came to believe that I was an introvert by nature. It wasn’t until much later, in my twenties, when I took a job in sales and moved to Chicago that I started to better understand the deep craving and need I had to connect with others. I honed that need into an asset. And it led me to realize that the whole time, I’d just been an introspective extrovert, by which I mean I like to talk to other people about myself.

I’m half kidding there.

But only half. The other part of it, well, it might hit closer to home. Couldn’t one argue, after all, that introspective extroversion is precisely what I’m practicing here? Open source diary keeping? A protracted public therapy session as art? Giving away front row seat tickets to a cage match between a writer and his demons?

That would probably be true if it were my story alone, but it isn’t. It’s also the story of the people and places I’ve interacted with along the way, especially those that are, for any number of reasons, unable to tell it for themselves.

I gather and recount their stories, and in doing so, bit by bit, I’m filling in those empty chairs around the table and illuminating the darkness once again. With funny stories. War stories. Love stories. Ghost stories. Entry after entry, until I’ve turned my memory inside out, for all to see. Until my own story becomes the sum of all the characters and curiosities and wonders I’ve chased down or crossed paths with.

I’m wandering this world, collecting myself in experiences like picking up pieces of some massive jigsaw puzzle. Once assembled, will it reveal itself to be a distorted fun house mirror? A postcard from a time and place that I can’t return to? Or will it form the frame of a doorway to something new and as of yet unimaginable?

The only way for us to know is to keep writing, to keep reading, keep searching, alone and together. We’ll get there when we get there and not a moment sooner.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Epicurious

Most people are familiar with the Cuban Sandwich, but as it turns out, that is just one of many unique dishes you can find in central Florida. I opted not to include this chapter in my upcoming book, Secret Tampa Bay, primarily for two reasons: it didn't really focus exclusively on Tampa Bay, and, unlike other chapters, it seemed like I was trying to combine too many separate things rather than focusing on just one. Having a limited number of pages and chapters required me to be selective in what I included - I'm still proud of the work I did on the chapter, even if it didn't make the final cut as part of the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Are there any other uniquely local dishes or secret recipes?

The Cuban Sandwich tends to hog the headlines as far as local cuisine goes, but it is far from the only thing that Tampa Bay has to offer for more adventurous eaters. Here’s a short list of other options guaranteed to sate your curiosity (if not your hunger):

Scachatta: What happens when a Sicilian-born version of tomato pie is adopted and raised by a Cuban family? The answer is magic. Like the tomato pie you may have had elsewhere, it is served as room temperature square slices. So what makes it Tampa-specific? Ground beef in the sauce, egg yolks in the bread and a unique blend of spices that give it an extra kick. You can find it at La Segunda, Moreno Bakery, Housewife Bakery and Alessi Bakery.

Swamp Cabbage: The name may sound less than appetizing to the uninitiated, but plenty of locals swear by it. Technically it’s hearts of Sabal Palmetto (aka Cabbage Palm) and has a taste described as being somewhat similar to artichokes. Finding it might require a trip to either the Cypress Inn in Cross City or to the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle.  

Sour Orange Pie: Long before Key Lime became Florida’s citrus pie of choice, the Spaniards are credited with having brought sour oranges from Seville, the juice of which were blended into a creamy custard. The absence of condensed milk in the filling further differentiates this tart pie from its more recent relatives. It awaits your discovery at the Yearling Restaurant in Hawthorne.

Island Hotel Heart of Palm Salad: This Gibb’s family recipe features hearts of palm, fruit, candied ginger and green ice cream (usually either pistachio or lime). There are now several variations, but if you want the original, you’re heading to Cedar Key.

If you would rather do your own cooking, you can find a wide variety of exotic meats at the Heights Meat Market, including gator, frog, wild boar, python and kangaroo.

More than a Mouthful
What: Little-known local delicacies
Where: Multiple locations
Cost: Variable
Pro Tip: “Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” – Anthony Bourdain