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.
If anyone out there reading this ever dated me, I’d suggest you get down on your knees and thank the deity of your choosing things didn’t shake out between us. I am, indeed, the worst girlfriend ever.
I love the Florida Keys and have a tradition of going there every year. El Cap, too, loves the Keys and from day one has enthusiastically joined me on my annual pilgrimage. This year I wanted to see the coral spawn, which happens on the reefs during the August full moon. As I no longer receive a regular paycheck, I had the (I thought) brilliant idea to go camping at Bahia Honda State Park.
Friday morning, we packed the RoadTrek with meals, reading material, cameras, and swimsuits. Friday evening, we arrived at the park, which – thanks to not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Tropical Storm Erika, remained relatively empty. Friday night, we used a touch of bug repellant and had no real issues when we took Calypso and Banyan for a walk to the beach by the marina. We swam, frolicked, gazed at a summer moon from the transparent water… basically, it was paradise.
And then we woke up Saturday morning. El Cap stepped outside to walk Banyan, and when I opened the camper door to go outside, he looked frantic.
“Get back inside!”
The look on his face was sheer alarm, so I did. My first thought – because this is where my mind goes first – was that he’d found a dead body behind our camper. My second thought – because this is also where my mind goes – was how shitty it was of him to hog a dead body all to himself. My third thought was that he loved me enough that he would never not let me share in the moment of finding a dead body. This last thought gave me enough peace that I stayed put until he returned inside.
“Mosquitoes!” he said, opening the camper door and ushering Banyan inside – along with a small colony of the Florida state insect.
“I’m sure once the sun’s up they’ll dissipate,” I tell him, and walk outside and cover myself in DEET. We take a bike ride, hang out in the camper, but the one thing El Cap is noticing (and I am not) is the way the mosquitoes don’t seem to abate. We are both covered in chemicals, but the chemicals only seem to work for me. (I should note that even when I don’t wear eau de DEET, I get bit less than most people.)
Saturday night, I want to repeat Friday night and suggest such. El Cap, at this point thoroughly not amused by the mosquitoes that he swears continue to plague him, dons his rain gear (yes, rain pants and jacket, and yes, it’s the Keys in August, so you can imagine how pleasant that was for him) and we walk down to the beach. Except, unlike the night before, the walk is punctuated by El Cap’s staccato swatting and slapping and puffing as he bats at what I am starting to suspect are imaginary mosquitoes. He is dressed like the Gorton’s Fisherman and I am wearing a sheer sundress. I think all of four mosquitoes approach me, which leads me to believe these mosquitoes have somehow heard of me, or El Cap may be overreacting. I grow steadily more irritated at what I’m perceiving to be some made-up trauma, and I tell him in short, clipped words that once we get in the water, the mosquitoes will abate.
They do not. He removes the Gorton Fisherman gear and runs, screaming, into the water. This is a man, I’d like to remind you, who has been bitten by a rattlesnake. The mosquitoes, he said, chased him in the water and stayed there. He keeps dunking under the water to relieve their apparent biting, but he tells me, “I can only hold my breath for so long.”
We shower and return back to then camper, with El Cap’s self-flagellation growing increasingly more frenzied. The mosquitoes still show almost no interest in me. All I keep thinking on the way back to the camper is “He needs help, because he’s imagining things. Therapy can help him. He’s so stubborn. He’ll never admit the mosquitoes aren’t real.”
We get back to the camper. He removes his rain gear.
He has so many mosquito bites on him that his back, chest, scalp, fingers, toes, and legs look like the most severe case of the chicken pox you have ever seen. His face has so many bites on them it just looks like red, puffy skin with two nose holes, a slit for a mouth, and squinty eyes.
At this moment, I realize I am an asshole. I also realize we have anti-itch spray but not antihistamine. Why would we? I haven’t reacted to bites in years. I had no idea I lived with the human mosquito magnet.
“I know you didn’t believe me,” he says quietly, “but they really were biting me.” At least, I think that’s what he said. The puffy bites around his lips made it difficult for me to understand him.
Sunday morning, at El Cap’s gentle suggestion, I check Hotels.com to see if there are any reasonable hotels around. That’s where I discover the Islander, which is not only the first place I ever stayed in the Florida Keys but also a hotel I love dearly but rarely visit, has ridiculously low rates. It seems the same tropical storm that ruined my chances of a moonlit snorkel to watch coral reefs have sex also drove people away from the Keys, which may be why I snag us two nights at about half what I would expect to pay.
The Islander is atypical Keys lodging in that it has a hot tub, two pools, beach, restaurant, bar, screened patios, and – this is crucial – no mosquitoes. OK, so really, it’s the beach and the no mosquitoes thing that makes them stand out for us.
El Cap had a dream about mosquitoes chasing him last night.
This morning, though, the welts have started to fade, although the memory, I’m sure, will live forever.
I am not lucky, so don’t you dare say I am.
I had this thought last month while driving home from an almost-all-expenses-paid trip to the Florida Keys. TV5, from Quebec, had me down to talk about the nature of Florida tourist attractions. They paid for my room and my expenses there and back. I paid for my food, except a local historical society director bought my dinner.
For those of you playing the home game, this two-day trip is, in essence, my dream. So while driving home along the Tamiami trail, drunk on saltwater and high on sunshine, I had the passing thought, “I am a lucky son of a bitch.”
My next thought followed immediately, and it was supremely angered by the first thought: No, I’m not.
To be clear: I don’t have bad luck. I’m not unlucky, not by any means. But me being down in the Keys, or having a book deal, or being able to write for a living, has nothing whatsoever to do with luck.
Let’s be clear: I love my life. Every damn day I wake up, delirious with pleasure that I don’t sell insurance or work for a government agency (any more). But I didn’t stumble upon it; I gave up a lot. And I worked hard.
Which was not always the easiest choice. For those of you who think freelancers sit on their ass all day, cherry-picking the best assignments… um, no. It would be a much easier life if I went back to a nine-to-five job.
I’m not built that way. And that’s OK. I love my life, but not because it’s easy.
I’ve earned a master’s degree, and despite what some people say (“Oh, you have a master’s degree in Florida? What was your thesis, eating key lime pie?”) I worked hard to get it. I spent a lot of money and went without going out after work (because I had to read five hundred pages a week, on average), didn’t go on “regular” vacations because every trip was a field trip (yes, I loved them. That doesn’t make them less work), and had to find something new to say about Florida for my thesis (no, it couldn’t be on Florida Man).
As for the book? After having one publisher ignore me completely – and I mean completely, I didn’t even get the courtesy of a form rejection letter – I prepared a proposal package that was more research and writing than most people do to get a bachelor’s degree. And after THAT, after I had a contract, I had to rewrite, then edit, then deal with advance reviews and decide which parts of those were worthwhile and which weren’t, and edit again. And meanwhile – let’s not forget – I still had to work, because only about three people have ever made a living being an author with a conventional publishing company. One is Stephen King, one is the chick who wrote those fake bondage “shades of whatever” books, and one is a guy in Tacoma pretending to be James Patterson. That’s it. So on top of the idea I may never get more than a couple thousand dollars from this book which, by the way, has been my dream since I was nine, I still had to freelance, which means I still had to find work that would pay me.
And I did. But not because I have been lucky. I have worked when other people played, I have written about things that made me want to set fire to my eyeballs (incest, rape, murder, you know, your garden variety injustice), I have gone without the trips to wherever most people my age without children get to go.
To be clear, I don’t regret a moment of it, only that it took me so long to give up a conventional life to pursue this one. I am happier than I ever imagined. I do what I love, and it’s OK that I will never be wealthy or have a company-supplied pension. I am living my dream.
I write about Florida, and sometimes people pay me to come talk to them about Florida. I write about Florida, and, more and more, people pay me to write about Florida. This year, I’m also working on a series of fiction books about – here’s a shock – Florida. El Cap has offered this year to me as a gift to me, and I accepted.
This is my life, and I am blessed beyond measure. Blessed, happy, deserving, dedicated, determined… use almost any word you wish.
Any word but lucky, that is. Luck isn’t a factor. It never has been.
As of Friday, the United States Coast Guard officially ended the search for 14-year-old fishermen Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, the two boys whose capsized boat was found far north of where the boys were last seen. I cannot imagine the immensity of the pain ripping through their families and their community in Tequesta, not just today, but for years to come.
I’ve followed this story closely. El Cap and I have a life geared around Florida, boats, and the water. Everyone seems to have disdain for the parents and what they did wrong in regards to the boys in the boat. I’ve read and heard a lifetime’s worth of disdain and scorn about those parents. Perhaps you are one of those people who feels the parents may be partly to blame, that allowing two 14-year-old boys alone a boat was begging for this type of tragedy.
Please, Internet, hold your judgment. I know we’re Florida and the popular dog to kick right now, but odds are, you have no clue what you’re talking about. El Cap works for a tow boat company; I’ve worked for several different boat companies. Couple that with the time we spend on our own boat or kayaks, and rest assured, we’ve both seen more than our share of stupid boating tricks. I can tell you that I’ve seen teenagers on boats and I’ve seen adults on boats, and every stupid human trick I’ve seen on a boat involved grown-ass men.
Did Perry and Austin have good parents? I have no idea; I don’t know them. I do know this: Allowing two boys with local waterway knowledge and experience to take a boat they’d run many times into the Loxahatchee River and along the ICW doesn’t make their parents bad parents.
See, people in boats on rivers and in the ICW is what we’re about down here. People move here to offer their kids the kind of life Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos had from an early age. Unless you live in south Florida and know the water as they did, I’d bet money these boys would put you to shame in the water. Did they misbehave and venture out of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway)? Perhaps. Clearly, they left the ICW but why or under what circumstances remain unknown. No one knows what happened. But even if they did leave intentionally, it was misbehavior on par with a teenager from Oklahoma sneaking out after curfew to have some beers with a friend.
To those of you who don’t understand this, sending teenage boys like these two out in a boat on a Florida river or the ICW is absolutely no different than kids in Montana being able to go sledding or snowmobiling, or kids in Ohio being able to ride their bikes around town. Florida – south Florida especially – is a glorious tangle of rivers, lakes, bayous, and bays, a patchwork of dredged land held together with salty sinew. We have more water than land down there. To those boys, the water wasn’t a scary place. It wasn’t a dangerous place. It was as familiar to them as their own street. They knew the local waters; likely, they could read a chart better than most of you.
If they did intentionally leave the ICW – if they hadn’t lost steerage or had an incident that brought them there inadvertently – they were simply being teenagers, pushing the limit, testing boundaries. I’ve talked to a grown man who used to head over to the Loop Road, close to Miami off US 41, until his dad found out and put a stop to it, lest the young kid be killed. Odds are, every one of you reading this did something foolish, too, as a teenager. Drinking and driving? Jumping off the roof of your house? Showing your ass in your new car? Riding your bike in between traffic? Every one of those things could have killed you. Boys will be boys. Teenagers will be teenagers. Just because Florida boys play in boats and not on land doesn’t make their parents any worse than yours, or any worse than you are.
If you are a parent, I guarantee your kid will do something stupid that maybe could kill them one day, too. And I hope it ends better for you than it looks like it will for these two families. If it doesn’t, I hope you are shown compassion many of you are not showing these families today.
So how about you hold that judgment, eh, Internet?
“Asking a writer about his work is like asking a cancer patient the status of his disease.”
– Jay McInerney
I’m kind of a snob. Not about clothes, or about money, but about weird things, like intelligence or whether you use bottled tomato gravy (that’s usually labeled “sauce”). And, until the past year or so, self-publishing.
When I worked at Barnes & Noble – which was not actually all that long ago – we didn’t carry self-published books. Period. Why? Because they were something called POD, which stood for “print on demand”, which meant we couldn’t return unsold copies. If a customer came in and wanted a self-published book, we’d only order as many copies as they would purchase in advance.
Back then, if you had read – or tried to read – a self-published book, you quickly realized many – MANY – of the self-published books suffered from arrogance. Arrogance that the writer didn’t need beta readers, or an editor, or (I swear) to re-read what they wrote before shipping it off. Self-published books, it seemed, were just crap: A shortcut for shitty writers to get “published”.
That was 2007. Today, the game has changed. My feelings about the self publishing industry have changed, in part because I wrote a travel narrative and have a publishing contract with (what I would have called) a “real” publisher a few years ago. Sound weird? Stay with me.
As excited as I am (which is over the moon excited), the realities of it are not quite what you might think. Publishing a book through conventional methods takes time. A LOT of time. As in, I submitted my manuscript proposal in July of 2013 and we’re still a good year away from something people can hold in their hands (or read on the iPads).
I don’t fault the process. I’m thrilled to have the editor I do, I’m fortunate to have others in my industry (Florida) read the book and offer pre-publication insight, and I am wholly and completely overwhelmed with gratitude that in a day when publishing houses grow more and more restrictive in who and what they published, one of them has chosen my words as something worth their investment.
Because make no mistake about it: I (or, rather, my book) is a commodity to my publisher. They’re gambling (much like the stock market or blackjack), and the gamble is that if they invest money in editing, publishing, and marketing my words, they’ll get back more money than they put in to the effort. Because I worked as a freelance writer for many years, I’m OK with this and I’m happy to make whatever concessions they ask to make sure they get a good return on their investment (because that means I get more money, too).
Nevertheless, I am about halfway through the rough drafts of three serial romance mystery books that I intend to self-publish. Why? Several reason. One, the book at my publisher is pretty unique, whereas romance/mystery is not exactly a barren playing field. I’m a realist; I have a better chance of getting that book in front of more eyeballs on Amazon than I do shopping it to agents and publishers and then – if I’m lucky enough to get a contract – competing for shelf space in bookstores. A Florida travel narrative will absolutely benefit from a conventional publishing house that specializes in Florida; romance novels about a mythical Florida town where murders sometimes happen? I believe they’re likely to do just as well – if not better – on Amazon.
It helps, too, that the rules of self-publishing have changed. Writers who want to make a career off their self-published (let’s call today’s process indie publishing to separate it from the horrors of 10 years ago) work use beta readers, hire editors, pay for cover designs, and generally treat their work like as much of an investment as conventional publishing houses do. That’s not to say the crap doesn’t still get published; it does, but thanks to Amazon’s review system, things like that get revealed as such in short order, and the good stuff stands a chance of getting noticed.
My friend and colleague Jon Kile is proof; he wrote and indie-published The Grandfather Clock, and he’s working on the sequel this summer. Next month book is fodder for a new book club that focuses only on Florida writers. It’s called “Critical Drinking” and it’s sponsored by Wordier Than Thou, a literary group that’s not nearly as “Literature with a capital ‘L'” as it sounds.
I’ll let Jon tell you more about that in his blog post. If you live in Pinellas or the Tampa Bay Area, please consider joining us for the book club. Until then, read this “amusing in way that makes me sad because it’s true” blog post about things you should never, ever ask writers.
Show of hands: Who among us hasn’t laughed at tourists getting their food stolen by the seagulls? I know I’m guilty of laughing. To be fair, gulls often “steal” food only after the tourists who had been feeding them decide to stop feeding them because they selfishly want to eat, too. That’s not how seagulls work, y’all. Nevertheless, feeding seagulls is some sort of weird fascination for people visiting our St. Pete Beach for the first time. I don’t get it; don’t you people have pigeons and ducks and crows at home? Seagulls are just like these birds, only they crap a lot more and get far more aggressive. Pixar had it right in Finding Nemo: Rats with wings.
I have such disdain for the tourist/seagull dynamic that when my friend Andrea and I went to get ice cream at Paradise Sweets in Pass-A-Grille this afternoon, I snorted derisively (in my head, of course, because I am, above all, a lady) at the cartoon depicting a seagull stealing a lady’s ice cream cone and warning customers to be careful with their cones. What kind of idiot do you have to be, I wondered (again, in my head) to lose your ice cream cone to a seagull?
Karma, man. She’s a harsh bitch.
So Paradise Sweets serves Working Cow ice cream, which is this awesome local ice cream. Andrea turned me on to a new flavor combination: A half-scoop of pistachio and a half-scoop of salted caramel. In repayment, I offered to show her the secret sidewalk, so we started north along the beach, eating our cones and engrossed in our conversation.
When you live in Florida and spend any time at the beach at all, the sounds of gulls becomes white noise, much as I imagine the sounds of traffic must be in New York City. Which is why I totally didn’t realize a mean pack of predatory seagulls (but I repeat myself) were air-stalking me until one of the bastards swooped down and grabbed my entire cone as I was lifting it to my mouth.
Andrea, for her part, laughed at me, then got busy protecting her cone. She walked stooped over, trying desperately to stave off the gulls, who had tasted
blood salted caramel ice cream and wanted more. As you can see from the picture, this was not what anyone would call an “optimal ice cream experience” for Andrea.
Of course, in the end, the gulls won. I should point out that Andrea is a master naturalist, a park ranger, and a member of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. When the gulls finally bested her, she looked at them and yelled, “I WORK TO SAVE YOU!”
The gulls, for their part, remained unimpressed. Well, unimpressed with Andrea. They seemed pretty happy with the ice cream, though. I wouldn’t be shocked to read their review of Paradise Sweets on Yelp later.
The best part, however, came a few hundred feet later when a couple of women who, judging by their being in bikinis in 60-degree weather, were tourists, essentially accused us of feeding the gulls (who were still following us, despite Andrea’s cries of, “We don’t HAVE any more food! Go AWAY!” which is exactly what John Audubon said the first time sea gulls ate his ice cream. True story.)
Anyway, the moral of this story is, eat your ice cream inside. Or carry a BB gun when you walk with it on Pass-a-Grille Beach. (This post, I should not, is neither Andrea nor Audubon Society approved.) Either way, I leave you with this super-cute picture I took of Andrea right after the gulls outwitted her:
I love Gulfport, but I also love living near downtown St. Pete. I wouldn’t want to live near downtown at all, but I do love that I can be there in less than 10 minutes (finding parking may take slightly longer.) The waterfront – which is public access, every bit – is, as the mayor said recently, a jewel. When I was in college, St. Petersburg’s downtown was a place one did not go alone, or, really, at all. Things have changed, and I am thrilled.
One of the things I do – and I really enjoy – is speak to people about my work re-tracing the tours from the WPS Guide to the Southernmost State. I’ve lectured and taught at OLLI at Eckerd College for just over a year now, and I love it. There’s something incredibly rewarding about having a group of students who attend your lecture – and pay to do so – when they don’t get college credit for doing so. They just attend because they love learning and find the subject interesting.
This year, OLLI expanded its reach to include satellite campuses at the Westminster retirement communities, and last night the downtown St. Petersburg Westminster crowd (Westminster Palms), instead of heading to the Vinoy Verandah for drinks or walking a few blocks to get dinner, chose to hear me speak about eating your way across the Florida panhandle. I was incredibly flattered, so as a thank you, I made the class sour orange margaritas. Now, the sour oranges didn’t technically come from the panhandle, but they did come from Florida and who hasn’t sat through a class where the lecturer droned on and on in a monotone and you couldn’t wait to leave? Think of my lectures as your reward for those times. You’re welcome.
Read more about it here. If you follow the links you can even find my recipe for sour orange margaritas.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but perhaps not for all the reasons you might think. While the rest of the world dreams of tropical vacations as they shovel snow, Floridians know a winter Florida seascape has staggering beauty unparalleled by (although breathtaking in its own right) northern snow-covered vale.
One of the finest venues for watching our winter skies slowly turn from a bright white-and-blue watercolor into a streaked pink and orange and purple symphony is Fort DeSoto, the county park at the southwestern edge of Pinellas county.
WHO:Pinellas County runs Fort DeSoto, with a spot of help from the Friends of Fort DeSoto.
Visit the park anytime between sunrise and sunset, although the sky grows gradually more beautiful as sunset gets closer. From about 3:30 p.m. on is optimal sky viewing time in the winter months. Remember, too, most of the park closes shortly after sundown, so you’ll want to park by one of the two fishing piers if you plan to stay much past sunset.
WHAT: Sunsets in winter seem to take longer. Although technically a sunset takes roughly seven minutes, winter twilight lasts longer than summer twilight. But don’t go for the sunset alone: the seaside has a beauty unparalleled in winter. December 21 marks the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and since ancient times cultures have celebrated the signs of rebirth that come with longer days following the Solstice. To find signs of new life, head for the trails along the East Beach or Arrowhead Picnic Area. The beach daisies popping up, the new shoots of growth on the trees, the blossoms you do not see in summertime beachscapes – these are all signs of a new growth cycle.
WHERE: Anywhere you have a clear view of the water makes for excellent sunset viewing of course, but Fort DeSoto remains the crown jewel of Pinellas beaches. People flock to the north beach and the fort itself for sunset, but the overlooked East Beach showcases a brilliant display of twilight colors this time of year. The Arrowhead Picnic Area makes for a great place to explore the winter foliage, although its water views face east. Finally, the Paw Playground, fishing piers, and surrounding beaches remain open after rangers close the gates to the east and north beaches.
WHY: Christmas coincides with winter solstice because celebrations already existed and it was easier to convert pagans if they could switch one holiday for another. Those pagan celebrations happened for a reason, and if you step outside and look around, you will understand on a primitive level why, even before we grasped the formal concepts of cell division and germination, we celebrate new beginnings in the world around us this time of year.
Question: Five dollars for Fort DeSoto; parking fees vary elsewhere along Pinellas beaches.