I found this out today, when a friend from middle school posted his obituary. The first thing I thought of? War songs. And then I thought, man, I wish I had sought him out and told him how much he’d set my life on this particular course.
You see, without Mr. Byers, I wouldn’t have a book. At least, I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote. I wouldn’t be interested in history. And I sure as shit wouldn’t give a rat’s red ass about the WPA, which kind of figured prominently in the book.
In eighth grade I didn’t know who I was yet. I didn’t know what I cared about, aside from Duran Duran and cute boys. I loved to write, but mostly poems that, honestly, weren’t exactly Pablo Neruda. And then I ended up in Mr. Byers’ history class, which was decidedly so much more than names and dates.
“Late is wrong,” he said the first day “and wrong will be punished.” Not a grand statement, of course, but if you’ve ever met a 12 year old, you know the importance of simple things. Even as he said it, though, he smiled. And you couldn’t be in his class and not smile, too.
We quickly moved from that to other things. History — a subject often relegated to phys ed teachers — often gets left behind the more practical (some would say) subjects of language arts and math. Mr. Byers would not allow this to happen; he forced us to care. With every new epoch of history, he had songs and posters. We’d walk into his class one day, and it would be covered, say, in election memorabilia from Herbert Hoover’s presidency, or war posters. When he taught us the Great Depression, he played us this song — of course, it wasn’t the Annie version. That’s how he drove home the horrors of the Depression, with this song. And then he moved us into FDR and why his New Deal was so balls-out awesome. He took an alphabet soup of agencies — FERA, WPA, CCC —and led us through them, explaining how these agencies pieced a battered economy back together and forever changed the landscape of America.
Years later, I rediscovered the WPA when I found the Guide to the Southernmost State, I remembered those long-ago classes. And while the narrative in Backroads doesn’t explicitly talk much of the WPA, the original book was a WPA project and my writing was informed by what I learned long ago in Mr. Byers’ class.
Only as an adult did I realize not everyone loved the WPA; not everyone loved President Roosevelt and his New Deal. This came as a shock to me; how could someone not love the man who saved America by using Americans? Clearly, these people had never taken Mr. Byers’ history class. I wonder, too, if I’d had a teacher less enthusiastic about the WPA, what my attitude upon discovering the writing the WPA would have been. Would I have pursued it? I want to think I would have, but honestly, when I realized the book was part of the WPA, my mind raced back to that classroom, those lessons, that man. Without his teaching, I do not know that I would have written the same book, if my writing style would have been informed the way it was.
I never told him. I never told him that, but not for him, there would be no book, not the book I wrote. Oh, yes, there certainly would have been a Backroads of Paradise, but it wouldn’t have been the same. No connection to the Great Depression so great that when I took an oral history of a woman who lived through it — just this afternoon — I asked her how she felt about FDR, and she told me she thought he was great and went on to talk about how awful Hoover was. At that instant, I remembered Mr. Byers and his “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” song. I didn’t know he had died this afternoon, but all these years later, he was the reason I asked, he’s the reason I felt a spurt of excitement when she elaborated on why Hoover sucked and she liked FDR.
A few months after Mr. Byers covered the Great Depression, a few friends of mine and I organized the Lip Sync show at JFK. And then we got to the intermission, and nothing was planned. Dave Byers to the rescue: He stood in front of the crowd and, as was his custom, did what he knew: He led them in a political song, one that came slightly after my hero, FDR, led our great country into WWII. And every voice in that gymnasium — even the ones who hadn’t taken his class yet — every voice lifted to join him in a rousing chorus of song. Everyone loved this man and the way he taught history.
And so, tonight, with the world a little less rounded, a little less aware of itself and its history, I hear it again. Bear with me, as I play it again, in his honor, and I say, one last time…
I’ve spent most of this month feeling bad about the election results, but today as I sat around eating chicken tacos and drinking my traditional Diet Coke and rum (yeah, it’s more of a This Is Us tradition than a traditional tradition, but it makes me happy), I realized things, in my house, aren’t so bad. I started looking through photos and, using them, I made a little list. Turns out, my list isn’t all that little.
And Dee, who’s been my friend for 34 years. If there’s a way a friendship can be tested, we’ve been through it, and we’ve come out the other side. So many of my memories aren’t memories without her, and I’m all the better for it.
And for the girls who sat at the lunch table together in the age of Michael Jackson, Ratt and Duran Duran. We’re scattered all over the country and our children clearly can’t take a decent photo of us, but if I ever had to bury a body, these ladies would all help me find the best price on lime and a shovel.
And for Luci’s jackass children, who do things like this when they’re supposed to be taking good photos of middle aged ladies.
Seriously, though, I love these girls. And also, I really, really can’t take a selfie.
I never understood the old friends/new friends/gold/silver thing, but if I couldn’t have my lunch table buddies with me, I’d throw these two in in a heartbeat. No, not the mime/clown. The two hot ladies. One’s Greek and one’s old Florida; that corpse will never be found. They also lift me up, support me, check in on me when they somehow know I need it… I’m fortunate they’re in my life.
And, of course, these two. I’m thankful we live in a country where they no longer need to hide their love. They got married this year, and while, at one time, I wasn’t a fan of marriage, knowing their lives are forever linked makes me happier than you can possibly imagine.
One of the reasons forever doesn’t scare me anymore is this guy. How could it when he loves my dog so much? There’s more, but it’s private. Just know he’s the best thing that ever happened to me and I’ll never be the same after falling in love with him.
And this little creature. She goes to work with me every day, curls up next to me every night and I can’t remember a time when she didn’t exist.
Not only did I write a book, I found a publisher and this year it hit bookstore shelves. These women have done everything in their power to make it a success (as did the woman taking the picture, who, obviously, isn’t pictured).
Seriously, I have a book. I’ve wanted this since I was nine years old. Do you have any idea how great it felt to hold my copy of it for the very first time?
And, of course, these people. They’re only part of the team at Creative Loafing who make me laugh and make me think and, above all, make me smile.
So, yeah, I’m concerned about the future. I’m freaked the hell out by the president-elect and his more hateful supporters. But right now, I’m focusing on gratitude, and, in that case, my cup runneth over.
Today’s Pet peeve: People bitching about “The Media” like we’re all some sort of foreign entity. These are the same jokers who bitch about “The Government” without realizing we’re (for now) all government as part of a participative democracy.
Coming from a household where both of us have worked in, at different times, broadcast and print journalism:
Memo to those of you thinking The Media is an entity “playing” you. The Media is not a singular unit. From the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS, ABC, NBC to local venues like the Tampa Bay Times, Chicago Reader, Sun-Sentinel, City Paper, Creative Loafing and on to hyperlocal papers like The Gabber… if you think any two of these members of the Fourth Estate can agree on anything as simple as what toppings to get on a pizza, much less a grand agenda to control the masses, you’re crazier than Tea Party member who walks into a NOW meeting. Even within news organizations, we don’t agree. Ever. OK, rarely. Sometimes we get it right on the pizza.
Why? Because news organizations consist of *people*. There is no journalistic bat cave, guys, only a professional and ethical sense of responsibilities to the publics we serve. We don’t all get together in a bat cave and plan how to manipulate non-media folks. I mean, the Tampa Bay Times had to sell their building earlier this year; who do you think’s funding a bat cave, anyway? Even if we could afford a bat cave, we’re not sharing information on any level. I know of no quality journalist would would share information or plans with another media outlet.
So, now that almost every legitimate news source of record has chosen to endorse Hillary Clinton, what does that mean? Because, trust me, they didn’t get together and talk about it. There’s no giant typewriter-and-scotch bat signal for journalists that goes up in the sky, letting us all know what we’re supposed to tell people.
So why do all the respected media outlets all endorse Clinton?
Honestly, I don’t know what any of them are thinking. I know what CL’s editorial staff wants and believes, because I’m part of it and sit in the meetings. That’s where my knowledge ends. But I do think it has something to do with this:
There’s a reason journalists have special protections and there’s a reason when a media outlet endorses, it has done so. I guarantee you, if it is a respected news outlet following FCC rules about what makes it a news outlet, it’s not doing so to play people or manipulate, it’s doing so because it’s editorial team has had to ferret through more news, interviews and documents than the average person would be able stand and, weighing all the evidence, they endorse out of a sense of professional and ethical duty to America. Endorsing is not something any outlet takes lightly. Endorsing is not at the whim of preserving the status quo for anyone on an editorial staff. Endorsing is not used for corporate gain.
I realize some of you don’t believe me, but that’s not how journalism — real journalism — works. Journalists have special privileges, yes, and with those privileges come responsibilities most people don’t want. It’s not a cake walk. It’s a constant state of admitting your bias and working to overcome it, of trying to decide what to leave in a news story and what isn’t germane to that particular story. A good journalist questions their motives and decisions; a great journalist always questions them. Yes, most outlets endorsed Hillary. Independently of one another, I’d wager.
Please don’t vote because of a single media endorsement.
Vote because of all of them.
If you want to impress an indie bookseller, don’t discuss your Amazon ranking: What I learned at SIBA
I’m spending the next few days at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show, at the request of my publisher, who wants to sell my book as badly as I do. This means I’m spending a lot of time with indie booksellers and I’m learning a lot about what it’s like to be an indie bookseller.
The struggle, as the kids say, is real. Here’s what I learned tonight on a trolley ride from Tybee Island back to my hotel in Savannah, all from indie booksellers:
Don’t tell an indie bookseller how great your book’s doing on Amazon. Think about it: this is like telling Steakhouse A how much you eat at Steakhouse B.
Don’t act as though they have to sell your book. They don’t. Even if you’re J.K. Rowling, no bookstore needs your book. Books are like trains: If you miss one, there’s another one coming in behind you.
Do patronize the store. Customers who are authors get priority over customers who aren’t.
If you do get an author event, don’t advertise it with a link to buy the book on Amazon. Or anywhere else other than the store. What good does it do the bookseller if 100 people show up to hear you read and they’ve all bought the book on Amazon? What, you think they appreciate you taking that extra wine off their hands?
I found the entire conversation enlightening; I never would have thought of some of these things, but it became clear quickly that they matter greatly to the indies. And, since they’ll be the ones selling my books, I’m happy to oblige. Also, as an author, I’m quite on the outside looking in on these booksellers who, even on the first night, are clearly a close-knit group strung across the south. They help each other, they rely on each other and they seem to genuinely care about everyone succeeding.
You don’t see that with Amazon. I’m fairly certain they don’t care about helping out Barnes & Noble.
Oh, also? I’m hoping Inkwood will agree to sell my book, but until then, you can buy it directly from the press. No Amazon required plus you get $5 off; click here and use code AU916 at checkout.
This morning we’re in St. Simon’s, because I’m writing about the War of Jenkin’s Ear for my monthly “Road Trip” in Creative Loafing Tampa and apparently there’s a world outside Florida (who knew?) and, well, something to do with protecting Florida from the Brits. Or protecting the rest of the country from Florida. I’m a little foggy on the details and also, I’ve recently switched to decaf. I’ll have it all worked out by the time the article runs.
I do love the South. Florida, as many Floridians know, is not the South. Oh, it’s south — with a lower case “s” — but not South, as in Deep South. There’s a story there, but it’s not for here, at least not right now. Point is, the South does things different than Florida. Every time we come up here I notice something new. I’ve started compiling a list; feel free to add your own.
- Coon hounds. Or any hounds, really. While we tend to have every sort of dog down in Florida — with an emphasis, oddly, on boxy-headed dogs and dachshunds, go figure — the preferred dog of the South has “hound” in its name. Now, I know what you’re going to say, dachshund is a hound and yes, you’re correct, but people in Florida own dachshunds for their affable cuteness, while up here, it’s because they hunt rabbits or other small prey. This is the one place we can go where Banyan gets more attention than Calypso.
- Dog beaches. The coastal south — at least, the parts I’ve seen, meaning the Golden Isles of Georgia and Hilton Head — allow dogs on the beach. The rules vary (for example, in St. Simon’s, you can’t let your dog on the beach between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day) but result remains the same: people with dogs come here. Also, despite what I’ve heard as an argument against this in Florida, no, the dogs aren’t littered with poop bags and dog waste.
- Harris Teeter. I’m supposed to be a Publix fan; I grew up in Florida and I worked at Publix twice, once in high school and again in college (true story: Florida teenagers by law must work at a Publix). Doesn’t matter. Harris Teeter beats them, hands-down for customer service, value and Starbucks inside the store.
- Low country. I’ve yet to figure out the difference between most of Florida and the low country, but I suspect it’s marketing. Low country sounds better than swamp. It is, also, what it sounds like: the low part of the country. But it’s more than geography; it’s food and a state of mind.
The food was my focus this morning; I had to decide between a low country omelet (andouille, shrimp, potatoes, corn and cheddar, with a side of potatoes) and low country eggs (the same, sans corn and cheddar).
I went with the omelet. The only reason to go with the eggs was to avoid the cheese, and really, when you’re in the South, health food isn’t really a thing. I mean, it is. I could have gotten an egg white frittata, but really, why bother?
It’s not like I’m in Florida anymore.
You kinda had to be aware of the first Denis Leary song in the mid-nineties to appreciate the beauty of what happened on CBS the other night.
And Denis Leary released “I’m an asshole” and it was funny because life was sufficiently good enough (for those of us not fighting a war in the Gulf) that we had time to get annoyed by the little things he mentions. It’s a song, he tells us, about the American Dream. In reality, it’s a song about how the American Dream has made us assholes.
He just didn’t realize it the first time, and neither did we.
Maybe this should be over on my Great Florida Road Trip site, but this isn’t really a post about the book. Well, OK, it kind of is.
My publisher sent me the press kit for Backroads of Paradise and it’s finally hitting me that this book will happen. I mean, yes, I’ve had a contract for a long time but it feels as though it has taken forever.
I have an ISBN number, a press kit, a book launch party, and several book things lined up for the coming months.
This started when I was in fifth grade and decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Fifth grade, happened in 1982. It’s 2016. It’s taken 34 years, a couple of writing jobs along the way, and a book contract, but I finally feel like a “real” writer.
And now a word from our “shameless plug” department: You can help me feel like a successful writer by buying my book here.
When Craig Pittman told me my publisher had asked him to read my book, Backroads of Paradise, I vacillated between thrilled and nervous (this is actually a common state for me). Thrilled because, Craig Pittman, whoo-hoo! — and nervous because, well, Craig Pittman. In Florida circles, he’s kind of a big deal.
He liked it, and said so.
Then I had the chance to review his book, Oh, Florida! Turns out we both like each other’s writing.
Here’s my review on Goodreads, which, of course, links to the full story at Creative Loafing Tampa.
I reviewed this for Creative Loafing, and I also know Craig, so know that. However, I was prepared to shred this book if I didn’t like it. I did. A lot. Rather than paste in my whole article about why, here’s the link to what I’ve already said. Big deal to me is how Pittman doesn’t treat Florida as though we have only idiots.
Part of me wants to play this cool and be all, “Yeah, it’s cool, you can pre-order my book” and the rest of me — the real me — has an almost-insurmountable compulsion to run around the house screaming “My book! MY BOOK!”
So severely conflicted on this am I that it took me 19 full days to write this post, which has to be some sort of record for something, even if it’s a record for how batshit crazy things get inside my head.
Forget all that. The post has arrived, as has the book. It feels as though I’ve lived a lifetime since I first had the idea, which I suppose happens to many writers, unless, of course, you happen to be James Patterson, because that man is a machine. And if you are James Patterson, hi. Buy my book, OK?
Technically, the book has not arrived: You can pre-order it now on Amazon (or from the University Press of Florida) and they’ll ship it to you on October 4, the actual release date. Also, if you want it as an ebook, you have to wait — I mean, not much longer, but apparently the something about metadata or other things I don’t understand and don’t you dare pretend you do, either. The takeaway? You will have the chance to buy the ebook and no, I don’t know when but soon.
When UPF offered me a book contract, my editor told me in no uncertain terms to never promise people a publication date (well, until the Press itself released one) so I would make jokes when people asked me. My favorite one?
“Well, I’m not certain but I’m hoping sometime before we elect a new president.”
I made it with a whole month to spare.
So she’s talking about some retirement account she has and I make the mistake of encouraging her to take a teeny, tiny portion of their life savings and treat themselves. This is not an unreasonable request; my parents are not extravagant people. They’ve worked their asses off to make sure I had everything I needed and what I wanted, and they didn’t really do things for themselves (Mom, I know you’re reading this and no, the new refrigerator does not count as “treating yourself” because not getting ptomaine is not exactly a luxury). I would like to see them enjoy themselves. I would like to see them travel or buy 600-thread-count sheets or get a new iPhone or something just to reward themselves. My mom’s a polyester-blend kind of lady and she hates technology, so I suggest they perhaps take a trip.
If you know my mom you know where this is going. Now, I wasn’t crazy enough to suggest Sheldon and Tony Soprano take round-the-world balloon ride or anything (pick your battles), but I did suggest Puerto Rico. They honeymooned there and she used to tell me how pretty it was.
“You could take $3,000,” I say to my mom. “That would get you some really good Xanax, and-”
“What, as opposed to bad Xanax?” (she’s a smart ass, have I mentioned?)
“Fine. You could get a lot of Xanax for the flight and have plenty left over for a nice trip to Puerto Rico. You could go back to the hotel where you spent your honeymoon.”
“No. The hotel is gone.”
“You know, I don’t want to get crazy here, but I hear they have other hotels in Puerto Rico now. It’s kind of a travel destination.”
“Your father and I like having the money there. It’s nice knowing it’s all there.”
“I promise I will take care of you if you run out of money.”
“The hell you will. I’m not living with you.”
Other people have this sort of parent/child dynamic, right? This is totally normal, right?