Tuesday, August 31, 2021

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Six months?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Obscuratorium

About the Obscuratorium

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Contents (Left to Right, Inside the Cabinets)

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

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

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Different by Design

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

Different by Design

Are there other noteworthy buildings around Tampa Bay?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Monday, July 26, 2021

Space Travel, Scavenger Hunting and Video Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

St. Petersburg Post Office

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

A creative deviation in this post office's design was once a source of controversy.


Florida's love affair with Mediterranean Revival-style architecture is evident in buildings throughout the state. Several can be found in St. Petersburg and include buildings such as the Vinoy Hotel, The Princess Martha Hotel, St. Mary’s Church, and Comfort Station One. This style also extends to a post office located at the corner of 1st Ave North and 4th Street North.

The post office has been a functional landmark in continuous operation since 1916. In 1975, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A plaque affixed to the post office states: “The Nation’s First Open Air Post Office CorneStone. Laid on October 12, 1916. Completed and Dedicated on September 27, 1917.”


But, according to at least one article in the local Green Bench Monthly, there’s more to the story.

According to the article, in 1907, St. Petersburg Post Master Roy S. Hanna recommended that the facade be left off the post office. It was his belief that this would improve accessibility, and allow residents to get their mail day or night.

The federal postal authorities, however, had a different opinion and refused to pay rent based on the design. Eventually, they relented and resumed rent payments only after a postmasters’ convention held a few months later in St. Petersburg. During the event, government officials approved the design as an appropriate adaptation for the needs of the city.


Eventually outgrowing its original open-air location, the post office briefly moved to the first floor of city hall while Congress approved funds for the full-service post office. For more than a century, it has continued to serve the city with a distinctly Floridian style, complete with several Renaissance elements.

Near the rear of the building is a small postal museum, which includes an old leather mailbag, postcards, and a postal money order purchased by none other than John C. Williams, the founder of St. Petersburg.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Signs of Life

It seems an all too common preface for my blogs here, "It's been a while since the last post," but that makes it no less true. Nor does it reflect any lack of progress on any number of creative, professional and personal fronts. But as well you know by now, I post when I can and when I feel the need to. And lately that need has been overwhelming.

Doors are opening once more all over the country, even if they never really closed all that much here in Florida. Jen and I got vaccinated back in April and took our first real trip since the pandemic began (I'll have more to say about it in another post). I've been writing business proposals again after being "put on the bench" for almost a year. I'm still writing resumes too. I'm still getting "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure" on more bookstore shelves. And I am very nearly finished with my second book, "TB Scavenger." The volume and intensity on all fronts has been rapidly mounting. 

I've lost over 20 pounds now since January - more than halfway towards my goal, which would put me at the same weight I had in college. Every five pounds the resistance I get from my own body seems to increase - progress comes more slowly or plateaus completely and seems to take more energy to maintain and keep moving forward.

It's that gravitational pull of what's comfortable. What's known. In some ways, the same invisible force that I've felt before launching a business venture. It's hard to achieve escape velocity, but I've done it before and I'm doing it again now. 

But it's different this time around. Slower going. TB Scavenger is proving more complex to write than I could have imagined. 360 riddles related to various points throughout the greater Tampa Bay area. Yet even as I try to get pictures of each one, every week they change - an old building is knocked down, a storefront with over 100 years of history hangs a "closed" sign in the window for the last time, and so on and so forth. So I've got to keep writing faster than the world is changing. And the world is changing faster, it seems, than ever before.

This week marked six years now since the death of my friend Steve, which essentially launched me off on this new path. Maybe his last and most powerful gift to me. And he's still with me as the path branches further and further off from what was known to me before. The metaphorical highway became a local road, then a dirt path, and now seems to be heading in dense jungle.

So that's where I've been lately, hacking a new path into the unknown. Learning, as I do so, the very same lessons the Spaniards learned when they first explored the very  same land I am reexploring now; and the reason they sent scribes along with the conquistadors to record their deeds and discoveries:

It's hard to take notes while marching through the uncharted wilderness wielding a machete. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Carry Out My Wayward Son

 If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, then you know that I like to try new things - not only exploring places I've never been but also applying my creativity in ways that I haven't before. Prior to the pandemic, one of the last concerts my wife and I saw was Weird Al Yankovic, who I've been listening to since I was a kid. Being a punster, his clever mock lyrics always appealed to me. So, with plenty of time for writing in 2020, I decided to try my hand at some spoof lyrics. The result is below - I hope it gives you at least a chuckle. If you decide to perform it, please let me know and share the results if you like.

Carry Out My Wayward Son

Carry out my wayward son,
Wash your hands when you are done,
Lay your gloves and mask to rest,
Don't go out no more.

The store I go to used to have toilet paper
Shelves are bare except for brussels sprouts and capers
I found a single roll of Charmin, but it wasn’t two ply.
My bank account was flush with stimulus money
I went online for a box of Oats and Honey
My Amazon and Etsy orders, they will ship next day

Carry out my wayward son,
Wash your hands when you are done,
Lay your gloves and mask to rest,
Don't go out no more.

Like my neighbors I’m a hermit and a miser,
Got a year supply of hand sanitizer
I do my best to social distance, but I find it hard
Dr. Fauci says we need to heed the warning
I walk my dog eleven times every morning
I think her paws are getting tired, but she won’t sit and stay

Carry out my wayward son,
Wash your hands when you are done,
Lay your gloves and mask to rest,
Don't come in the store.

Carry out
Six feet back, that’s an order
Carry-out
Don’t be some kind of hoarder
If I get bored of watching Tiger King, well
There’s always Animal Crossing…

Carry out my wayward son,
Wash your hands when you are done,
Lay your gloves and mask to rest,
Don't go out no more.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Niche Markets

This is another chapter that didn't make it into the final version of the book. I would have very much liked to include it, but for one thing it's hard to condense all of the unique and unusual markets in the Tampa Bay Area into just one chapter and still do them all justice. Secondly, once COVID-19 hit, many of these markets suspended their activities. Some have returned now while others have not. I'm sharing it with you here though, so that as we emerge eventually from the global pandemic, you will one day be able to enjoy them.


Niche Markets

 

Where and when can you find the freshest ethnic foods and local crafts?

 

From craft fairs and makers markets to fresh local produce and food trucks, whatever you’re craving you can probably find at one of the many markets throughout Tampa Bay. Some occur weekly like the St. Pete Sunday Farmers Market and the Ybor City Saturday Market. Others like the Fresh Market at Hyde Park and the North Tampa Market are held monthly. But among the ever-growing list of indie and farmers markets, some stand out as being truly unique and exceptional.

In lieu of having its own Little Italy, St. Petersburg has Mazzaro’s Italian Market. Occupying a full city block, it a labyrinth of European specialty shops under one roof where you’ll find a butcher, bakery, cafĂ© an impressive selection of wines and cheeses. What started as a mom and pop coffee roasting business has continually expanded over more than 20 years to include indoor and outdoor dining, catering and most recently a separate building for kitchen and home goods.

If it’s Thai food you’re hankering for, visit the local Buddhist temple, Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida (better known as Wat Tampa) on Sunday mornings. Starting around 8:30 AM, booths begin filling up with a variety of offerings including chicken satay, phat that, curry dishes, Som Dow, Guiteow, egg rolls, Thai tea and more. With a full plate in hand, you can make your way to the picnic tables along the river to meditate on the connection between culinary ecstasy and spiritual enlightenment.

More recently Coppertail Brewery began hosting its own night market on the second Friday of each month from 6 to 10 pm. Weather and temperatures permitting, the market is held outside behind the brewery and features a wide variety of local artists, artisans and boutiques with clothing, jewelry, vintage and repurposed goods.

There are dozens of regular, local farmers markets and craft fairs. If you want to see what’s happening when and where, saturdaymoringmarket.com/bay-area-markets is a good place to start.


Shop Local

What: Numerous specialty markets

Where: All throughout Tampa Bay

Cost: Free to browse, vendor pricing varies

Pro Tip: Visit Mazzaro’s on a weekday if you can to avoid the crowd. Similarly, at Wat Tampa demand for both food and parking spaces often exceeds supply – it’s best to arrive no later than 11 am. 


 

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Music Tree

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

A hurricane-stricken oak tree has been reborn as a beautiful chainsaw artwork.

Not to be confused with the nearby Singing Oak tree in New Orleans’ City Park, the “Music Tree” does not make any music but rather pays tribute to it. This dead oak at the south end of Bayou St. John has been reborn as beautiful chainsaw artwork. 


The tree survived the water and wind of Hurricane Katrina only to be struck and killed by a bolt of lightning in 2012 during Hurricane Isaac. At the behest of the organizers of New Orleans’ annual Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, master chainsaw artist Marlin Miller set about transforming the tree after its unfortunate fate. 

Miller carved snakes, a fleur de lis, a phoenix-like eagle, guitars, a piano keyboard, and a pelican into the trunk of the tree. The gnarled branches became birds in flight. He drew from the area’s history for inspiration, specifically when the bayou served as the entryway for the French founding fathers of the city some 300 years ago—a passage likely witnessed by the old oak tree.

Know Before You Go
The tree is easily visible most of the year. It stands alone by the intersection of Orleans Avenue and Bayou St. John. For one weekend each year, however, the shores are packed with visitors to the city's music festival.