Lessons of 2022

Some of y’all realize I’ve gotten through the last couple of months by self-soothing with TikTok (and thanks, Dee, for the suggestion to take a bath and download the app until I felt calm. I don’t think you expected it to take two months, but here we are…)

I’m not going to go into why the last quarter of 2022 made me wonder a) if karma was coming back to repay me for all my sins or if I’d had a psychotic break and none of this was real, or b) why I couldn’t seem to sidestep drama. I hate drama.

More than once over the past three months, I’ve said that if every day starting Sept. 30 through, well, now, was a TV show, it would have been canceled because no one would believe one person’s life could have that much deus ex machina.

So I’m not going to relive any of it, except, as a way to remember it, I’m going to share my… Lessons from 2022:
  • You can get COVID twice. In a month.
  • COVID brain is a thing.
  • After COVID Rebound, you can then get strep. Immediately.
  • When you get it, the Telehealth doctor will tell you “that’s a result of taking the Paxlovid. You’re just going to feel that way for about four months.” (She was wrong. It was strep, and it was almost worse than the Rebound.)
  • Just because you’re not in the path of the hurricane doesn’t mean it still won’t screw you.
  • On that note, a round trip to Valdosta can be fun with the right person, and there are good people in the world, including the entire print deck crew at South Georgia Printing, who put in serious overtime to make sure we had a paper in Ian’s wake. (We paid dearly, but I’m pretty sure they probably only broke even.)
  • At the end of all this, do not, under any circumstances, say, “Well, the month’s almost over… how much worse can it get?” because 20 minutes later you’ll get a phone call that your dad’s in emergency surgery. It will not get better from here; at least, not for a few months.
  • The Devil’s great lie is not convincing the world he didn’t exist (he does, and I may or may not have been married to his spawn for a few years) but that opioids are not that bad “if you really need them.” I watched doctor after doctor prescribe them for my dad, who, after maybe a few days, didn’t need them. These drugs kept him from participating in rehab and sent him to Hospice where, despite the nurses’ best efforts, he managed to come out of the drug fog enough to say he didn’t want the drugs and would, instead, prefer to do rehab. Fuck opioids and everyone who has a hand in making or prescribing them; they almost killed my father. He’s alive now, no thanks to any of you.
  • The only way to make God or the Universe laugh is to make plans, like, “I’m going to remove all single-use plastics from my life in 2022!” or “We’re going to camp in a remote location over the new year.” Friends, I just threw out a lot of plastic I thought wouldn’t be in my house a year ago, and yes, I did it from my house, where street-side fireworks rage and my wimpiest dog trembles (Calypso, as ever, snoozes and waits for treats).
  • There are no friends like the ones you make before you get your first period. These are the women who will be there for you no matter what. I could kill someone and there are a few women who would not question why I did it; their only questions would be, “Shouldn’t we rent the car under an alias?” and “Which part of the Everglades should we drive to for the body drop?” Hold onto these women, people. What you have with them goes so far beyond “squad” there isn’t even a word. Had I chosen to kill the Hospice nurse who sat my mom down and told her my dad was dying (he wasn’t), these are the women who would have driven me to Turner River, made sure I had chains, lime, and concrete – and a tarp in the rental car trunk – and helped make sure I never served a day in prison.
  • There’s nothing like having a true partner at your side. Things got so much worse for El Cap – and, out of respect for his wish for privacy, I won’t mention what he’s gone through at the same time as all this. We joked that we needed to stop answering the phone, because it was never good news. When I asked him, mostly seriously, what I’d done to deserve the past few months, he held me and said, “well, it’s just our turn.” He was not wrong.
  • There’s always the other side. I’m not sure what 2023 will bring, but I know it will be the other side. Here’s hoping it’s slightly less… like 2022. I leave you with a TikTok I’ve watched more than you may imagine.
@erin.monroe_ #expectationvreality #newyear #fyp ♬ original sound – Erin Monroe

Paxlovid: Playing the Odds With COVID-19 Rebound

Let’s recap my medical history here, just for, you know, fun.
1999: To treat my ITP, my hematologist wants to use a cure that would avoid a splenectomy. They need to make sure I’m Rh positive, because if I’m Rh negative, it won’t work. “Don’t worry,” she tells me. Neither parent is RH negative, which means I have a less than 7% chance of being RH negative. I test RH negative and have to have the splenectomy rather than the noninvasive treatment.
2016: My doctor sends me to a hematologist because my iron levels are dreadfully low and aren’t improving with medicine. He tells me my iron levels “are the lowest I’ve ever seen” (and he’s a hematologist oncologist!) and sends me to a gastroenterologist to deal with what we assume are bleeding ulcers. He tells me I probably have celiac. I tell him it’s a bullshit disease (literally, that’s what I said). He insists on a scope and a blood test. 1% of people around the world have celiac. I have celiac.

2020: I sign up for a clinical trial for a drug to treat celiac that would allow me to eat gluten. They run bloodwork, which I’m assured is routine. The day before I’m supposed to head down to South Florida to get the first infusion, the doctor calls me and says I don’t qualify because I have an incredibly rare celiac mutation. 5% of celiacs have an antigen called HLA-DQ8. That’s 5% of 1% of the population. I’m a writer, so my math skills are shaky, but in a world of eight billion people, I’m one of four million with this particular antigen. That’s about the size of Oklahoma.


2022: My doctor tells me I have a low thyroid, which explains a lot, and puts me on medicine. It doesn’t work. He runs tests and tells me my iodine is “the lowest he’s ever seen” and the human body needs iodine to make T3 and T4, so get on som iodine. Apparently this is an unusual problem. I roll with it, because hell, I’m getting used to being the medical anomaly.

Three pills scattered
Rebound is rare, the doctor said. I should have known right then and there it would happen to me.
Intellec7, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Also 2022: I get COVID-19 and, because of my Rh- blood, I have no spleen, so the doctor prescribes Paxlovid. She tells me there’s an incredibly small chance I’ll relapse but, she assures me, it’s only 1% of the people who take Paxlovid. (It’s actually 3.53% for rebounding within seven days, and I was right at the edge of that window.) I woke up Saturday with a scratchy throat, but tested negative Saturday night and again Monday morning. I called the doctor, who said, “Well, you don’t have fever, and you do have sinus issues, so it’s probably a sinus infection. Test one more time inside the five day window of feeling bad, just to be sure, but it’s highly unlikely you have COVID again.”  
On the last day of the window where I could have relapsed, I tested positive. For COVID-19. Again. That’s twice in one month that I’ve had COVID-19. I’m twice vaxxed and twice boosted and apparently two is my lucky number.
I don’t know why I’m even shocked. 
I’m gonna go buy some scratchers now. I mean, it’s a 1 in 300 million chance. I figure I’m due.

Worried About Ian? Behold: Real-Life Hurricane Prep Tips For Floridians

Will Tropical Storm Ian make landfall along the Gulf Coast of Florida? My unpopular take: It’s too soon to tell. After years of following storms, not out of fear but a pathological fascination, here’s what I would do if I were in the storm’s path. Which, as it turns out, I am – although if history is any marker, I won’t be for long. Yes, I know Jim Cantore is coming to Clearwater, 40 minutes north of my home. That means nothing to me. By the time you read this, in fact, Pinellas could likely be out of the cone.

While I’m watching people panic-buy flats of bottled water and wine (seriously, Aldi was clean out of Winking Owl by noon yesterday, because, well, we like to mix panic with a little tropical storm partying, apparently), there are smarter ways to prep. Here’s what I would tell anyone readying for their first Florida hurricane.

A hurricane chart of Florida, showing wind speed probabilities for Ian
This, too, shall pass… either over us or next to us. Don’t panic.
National Hurricane Center
  1. Should You Stay or Should You Go? Decide NOW if you plan to evacuate. Deciding to evacuate 12 hours before landfall is a suicide mission. (We’re not evacuating, but we’re 38 feet above sea level and almost every window in our block home is a hurricane window.) Evacuating, I should note, is not always the best option.
  2. Gimme Shelter. Please don’t go to a shelter unless you’re told to evacuate and have no other options. Shelters aren’t fun, and they’ll be at capacity soon enough. There are plenty of elderly folks who can’t ride out the storm at home and don’t have the means to go too far. If you’re not in an evacuation zone, don’t go. Government errs on the side of caution, so they’ll tell you if you need to go.
  3. You Ran… You Ran So Far Away. If you are told to evacuate and choose not to, though, remember, 911 is not an option for you. Be prepared to be your own island – possibly literally – until the storm passes. That’s not always a bad thing.
  4. How Much is That Doggie in the Window? If you do plan to evacuate and have pets, remember that pet-friendly shelters often require you pre-register for a spot – you cannot simply show up with your pets. If you do bring your pets to a shelter that allows them, remember, they’ll have to stay in a crate the whole time. Another option if you can afford it: Red Roof allows pets at no extra charge; you have to tell them you have pets, but that’s it. Other hotels allow pets, too (we’re big fans of Home2Suites, although they do charge a pet fee), so that may be far more comfortable than a shelter.
  5. Song of the South Evacuating south can makes sense. Florida’s a big state. A hurricane can be well past the Florida Keys before it hits, say, Port St. Joe. Everybody and their sister will be clogging the roads north – if Fort Myers has power after the storm passes, head there. Or Fort Lauderdale. Or anywhere south that has power after the storm. (This might be cheaper, too.)
  6. You Spin Me Round If you’re staying: Wash your clothes now. Seriously. You don’t want to get stuck without power and clean underwear. There won’t be any a/c. Think on that.
  7. Red Solo Cup Please stop buying bottled water. Freeze jugs you have. Buy bleach tablets now (you can get them on Amazon if your store doesn’t have any) to disinfect water after the fact. If you feel as though you must buy bottled water, spring for a few 5-gallon jugs and buy a bottled water pump.
  8. Octopus’ Garden Go through your yard NOW and throw out unneeded items (just make sure you’ll have trash pick-up before landfall.)
  9. Our (Clean) House Clean your house. Waiting for a hurricane, someone one said, is like being stalked by a frightened turtle. Work off your energy by getting things put away.
  10. Kill Your Television And this is the most important: For the love of god, please turn off your TV. If you want the most reliable forecast, go to the National Hurricane Center (hurricanes.gov, and @NHC_Atlantic on Twitter) because they’re the only source not making money off the hurricane – they truly want to minimize loss of life. Everyone – my own newspaper included – makes money off eyeballs. Over at @gabbernews, we’re only posting prep and local advice, no forecasting, and we’re telling people to check with the National Hurricane Center for that.

As one of my favorite book covers advises, don’t panic. This too shall pass.

A Gen X History of Phones

The first phone I remember was in Port Chester, and I still know the number: 914-939-7520. It was in a wooden box and it looked like a phone in a very fancy coffin, and honestly, I think it was prophesying… something… about what would change in telecommunications over the next five decades.

When we moved to Florida, we had a wall mount phone and a party line, which we shared with an elderly German couple, the Mews, who lived down the street and never seemed to use their phone at all. We had the best phone number, which I’m certain a few friends remember but I won’t share here because it’s still my dad’s cell number.

Eventually, my parents bought an extra-long cord so I could have a little more freedom of movement on my oh-so-important calls to… I don’t know who I called at age 11, but someone. Lots of someones, actually. I made a lot of hesitating, embarrassing phone calls to boys who had no interest in me but at all from that kitchen phone. My dad remodeled the kitchen a few years back and there’s a refrigerator where the phone used to be.

My first phone of my own was a trimline phone in my room. It was mint green. It had buttons instead of a dial and I thought that was perfection. The biggest problem was that the buttons made noise when I dialed and that made it hard to spend as much time on the phone as I wanted to spend, because my parents were all, “you need to study because algebra matters” and while I’m still not sure it does, I see the larger point now.

As a teenager, I also had one shaped like a piano and the keys were the buttons that made a played a somewhat corresponding note when I dialed. If I wanted to make a call without my parents knowing, I had to take the batteries out of the phone so the keys wouldn’t make noise. This was an oddity: Batteries in a phone. Yes, gather ’round, little ones, because in my day, most phones didn’t require power. You plugged the phone into the phone jack (like an outlet but linked to wires that went to every building in America) and the phone just magically worked. No charging. No power insecurities. No “you now need to replace every charger in your house because you bought a phone that’s one-half millimeter smaller.” We didn’t even know what chargers were. You may as well have talked to us about Google or iPods. Simpler times.

This piano phone was the phone I was on when I realized my parents had ponied up for call waiting, because I heard the beep while I was on the phone with one of my friends. It’s also the phone I spent a lot of time on with my friend Neil, who now lives in Korea and I communicate with solely via Facebook, largely because I spent so much time on the phone instead of studying that I struggle to calculate time zone math. I also talked to my friend Russ a lot. Russ and I now communicate on occasion via text, but mostly by tagging his wife on Facebook and she relays the message.

Sometime during my high school years, we bought a phone with an answering machine. This, young ones, was the precursor to voice mail, but it was physical – a teeny, tiny cassette tape that fit inside the base of the phone (Because phones used to come in two parts) and – this is the best part, and I miss it – you could listen to people leaving messages as they left them, so if you decided you wanted to talk to them, you could pick up mid-message. This, of course, led to a lot of messages that started with, “Hey, are you there? Are you screening? Pick up. Pick up! No? OK, well, call me.” (And then, of course, if it wasn’t close family or friends, the person would have to leave a number because – get this – we had to dial phone numbers. One number at a time. We didn’t have to dial all 10 numbers, though, unless we were calling long distance, which we only did on Sundays unless someone had died, because we paid by the minute to talk long distance. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how it worked.)

And then I had a cordless phone, with buttons, with the answering machine built in, without tape. It was digital! No one really knew what “digital” meant but it was snazzy and we wanted it. We also had no idea where the messages were kept, but we suspected the phones had a sort of sympathetic magic thing happening: The phone kept the messages safe for us until we were ready to retrieve them, much like pagans would bring tree boughs inside during the winter to keep the tree’s spirit alive until warmer weather arrived.

In the mid-90s, I bought a phone for my car that I paid by the minute to use. I could talk for 30 minutes a month before I paid something like 60¢ a minute if I went over, and whether you talked for one second or 60 seconds, that was a minute (except for one phone company, Aerial, that became part of T-Mobile and that is one of the reasons I love this company today, even though paying by the minute to talk is so 1999) and yes, I did have an $800 phone bill one month, although for a brief while, if you called someone who used the same cellular service as you did, you could talk as long as you wanted, for free, with no minute restrictions. This, of course, is back when we actually used phones to verbally convey information.

Next, I owned a Tele-Go, a phone that functioned like a cordless phone in your own home, then cellular when you moved too far away from the base station. Felt like an early adapter with that one, I did. If this sounds quaint to all y’all who grew up with a cell phone, well, just remember my friend Linda’s older brother had a cordless phone once that wouldn’t get static-y until he hit the end of the block and his family was quite excited.

For a good long stretch, I stayed loyal to the Nokia 3390 gold brick. Bought replacements on eBay when Nokia stopped making them (yes, children, the early cell phones were not sturdy and if you dropped it or threw it or dipped it water, there were no cell phone repair places to go, or bags of rice for drying out your phone.) I switched only when I bought my first iPhone, which was a marvel: My iPod, my phone, and text messages… all in one place? What kind of dark magic was this? Voicemail you could listen to – wait for it – out of order? Yes, kids, 20 years ago, before the wonder that is Visual Voicemail, you had to listen to your messages in the order you received them and make a decision, right then in there, whether you wanted to save or delete the message. It was a lot of pressure, and I credit this for a lot of bad decisions many of us made in the early aughts.

A phone in a wooden box
This was the first phone I remember. Yes, it did look like it was in a coffin.

And now, many, many iPhones and many, many dollars later, here we are. From my simple beginnings with that phone-in-a-coffi) to me trying to decide if I want to buy Apple Care that costs more than every phone my family owned from 1972-1998 *put together*, plus the very real struggle of trying to decide if I want the phone with two camera lenses or three, or whether I’ll need that extra four hours of battery time, and then – and then – when the USPS leaves the most expensive five-inch package I’ll get all year in plain view on my front patio, and I get an email that my new phone has arrived and I rush home to get it before someone swipes it because the delivery driver couldn’t be bothered to stuff it under the door mat because thieves never look *there*, and I rip open the package, the first thing I will do is swear because it has the wrong USB connector for literally every single power block we have in the house. The next thing I will do is try and figure out how the hell to work the phone without a home button, which wasn’t even a thing a few years ago and honestly, Douglas Adams was right when he suggested maybe we never should have come down out of the trees.

The rarest type of celiac

Update on the KAN-101 drug trial and why it’s no fun to be unusual sometimes.

I don’t qualify for the KAN-101 celiac drug trial. Since traveling to Miami to undergo the screening, I waited for confirmation of my Sept. 8 infusion appointment, 21 days after which I would, in theory, be able to eat gluten (bread!) with no ill effects for an as-of-yet-undetermined mount of time. When I saw the doctor’s cell number on my list of missed calls, I got excited. Very. Excited.

Dr. Saltzman’s voicemail, however, gave me pause: “I need to talk to you about your bloodwork.” No one wants that call from a doctor. I called him back and he gave me the not-great news: While otherwise healthy, I have the wrong celiac antigen in my blood and do not qualify for the trial. Which also means if and when this drug gets approval, it probably won’t work for me. The conversation went something like this:

Doctor: No one is more disappointed about this than I am.

Me: Oh, I highly doubt that.

Then I hung up the phone and cried. The Gabber office is about as big as a closet, so my staff had already figured it out. And yes, I know people have far worse health problems than “can’t eat bread,” but that does little to help my particular disappointment.

The wrong antigen — HLA-DQ8 — is uncommon in people with celiac. Really uncommon. My friend, colleague, and scientist-by-training Jen Ring explained it all to me in gentle, no scientist terms. The long and short of it is this: Five percent of celiacs have HLA-DQ8. As only one percent of the population has actual celiac, that means I have something that impacts five percent of one percent of the population, or: one-half person per thousand has the same genetic makeup of celiac and antigens.

This should have shocked me. Years ago, I learned I didn’t have the same RH factor as either of my parents. Rare, but not impossible. This, incidentally, prevented me from getting a specific treatment for an immune disorder (doctors now believe my undiagnosed celiac may have triggered that disorder) so instead of getting drug therapy, doctors removed my spleen.

And *why* did my celiac go undiagnosed? Because, friends, I have silent celiac, which — you guessed it — doesn’t happen that often. I didn’t have traditional symptoms.

The moral of this story? I really should look into PowerBall as a career strategy.

The Ghost Cat

I’m a creature of habit. I wake up early most days, feed the cats and dogs while I wait for the water to boil, and then sit down on the couch, sip tea, and mediate. I love the quiet of the pre-dawn hours; when, for whatever reason, I sleep past sunrise, I never feel as relaxed as I do on the days when I wake before the sun.

This morning, as I sipped my tea and got ready to meditate, I saw the shadow of a cat on the living room floor. I looked around, but saw no cat. The shadow was large, then small, and seemed to move across the floor independent of anything I could see in the room. My natural reaction was “we have a ghost cat” because of course it was. The idea of a ghost cat unsettled me more than a little; an indifferent ghost cat, I could handle, but I read “Pet Sematary” and knew how this would go down.

Anyway, my heart’s going full speed, and the last thing I’m about to do is get up an investigate and I didn’t need to because I knew – just KNEW, mind you – we had a ghost cat. The shadow of the cat kept twisting on the floor and I’m edging close to hysteria (why the idea of human ghosts don’t bother me this much, I don’t know) and then I see a flash of something.

Cat sitting on chair in dimly lit room

In the chair, tucked just out of site under our bar, was Hobie Cat. I’d lit one of the those Christmas candles that make the house smell like pine and cinnamon, and it cast a shadow over her onto the floor. I couldn’t see her, of course, just her shadow.

Some may say she had no clue what she was doing, but those of you who know cats – specifically, Hobie Cat – know better.

Needless to say, I really needed that 15 minutes of Zen after that.

I’m buying the Gabber!

Happy May, Florida fans! 

How’s your Florida pandemic going? I’m spending a good amount of time in my garden (current crops-in-progress include beans, datil peppers, Everglades tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, loofa, and strawberries) and wondering why the weather’s so mild. 

Oh, and I’m buying a newspaper. 

Some of you may have read that I’m under contract to buy the Gabber Newspaper. The Gabber is a longstanding Gulfport tradition, published every Thursday.

That’s big news, and while both the Tampa Bay Times and Creative Loafinghave covered it, I’d like to tell you about how I made this decision and what it means for my life as a writer and speaker. So let’s go back to March, when the Gabber announced that, because of COVID-19-related advertising losses, they had no choice but to cease publication. This bothered me more than I expected; I worked for the Gabber Newspaper from 2003-2015, and I couldn’t quite picture Gulfport and the surrounding communities — South Pasadena, the beaches, and St. Petersburg — without the Gabber. 

wrote a piece for the Tampa Bay Times about the Gabber closing, and soon began receiving emails from people, asking what they could do. Among the emails were a few from people who knew the Reicharts, so I forwarded those along. Those exchanges led to a discussion of whether or not they’d sell the paper, and, after much discussion in our home, with my CPA, and with the current owners, my husband and I decided yes, buying the Gabber made sense.

Until the sale closes, I’ve assumed responsibility for the day-to-day running of the paper, and I’ve brought back the former editor, one of the former reporters, and hired a designer recently laid off from another newspaper. We’re publishing online daily, but on a limited basis until advertising picks up again. 

Everyone on the new team believes in Gulfport and the Gabber as much as I do. Over the next few months we’ll hire a salesperson and counter help, hopefully move into a new space, and resume publishing the print version of the weekly paper. 

But back to the Florida aspects of my life. What happens with my next book? My fiction? My lectures at Eckerd and elsewhere?

That’s all staying put. Writing and talking about Florida is as much a part of me as breathing, and I would be quite sad if that ended. No doubt, as the paper weathers the pandemic and I adjust to owning it, it’s going to take a good chunk of my time, but that’s OK, because I’ve found I need non-writing work to write well.

Some writers, like Stephen King, can sit down at the start of a business day and write. I have tried to do that, but it doesn’t work for me. I sit there and nitpick at words or — worse — don’t type anything at all. 

What does work for me is engaging the less-creative part of my brain early in the day. Only then, after the sun’s gone down and my left brain is wiped out, can I focus on writing. This is how I’ve become a spreadsheet junkie. I love to make spreadsheets and work out formulas during the day. Perhaps my regimented left brain needs to get a workout before the right brain side of me activates? 

Regardless of why that system works for me, it does. As long as I don’t have to write during the day, I can write at night, and that’s when my writing is at its strongest, too. I’m still working through the editing process on the next book, and when that isn’t occupying my time, I’m working on my fiction. (Beta readers, please reach out if you don’t receive chapters six and seven by Tuesday night!)

I’m looking forward to this new chapter of my life just as much as I’m anticipating seeing you all at a book signing or Florida lecture soon. 

One last thing — some people have asked if they can help. If  you feel so moved to support the Gabber as we move forward, there are three ways you can do so:

1. Buy prepaid advertising gift cards that people can redeem at the 2016 advertising rates. Businesses are buying these, but so are people who want to help their favorite restaurant/salon/shop — they’re giving them to local businesses. When they do that, they help two businesses: the Gabber, and whoever receives the gift card. Buy prepaid advertising gift cards of any amount here.

2. Donate to keep the paper running again now. People who simply want to donate to the paper now can do so at our Indiegogo fundraiser. None of this money goes towards the purchase of the paper; rather, it goes instead to pay the paper’s current expenses, including payroll. If the sale somehow falls through, it will go to the current owners to pay their bills. 

3. Make a low- or no-interest loan. While we’re using some of our own money to buy the paper, we’re also financing part of the sale. We’ve benefitted from a few private loans, with interest rates between 0-5% and a one-year grace period. Please email me if you want to help in this way, because I’d rather pay any of you interest than a bank. 

Stay safe, and we’ll see each other soon-

Walking in a time of Coronavirus

Every day I walk. Before coronavirus — and that’s how I think of everything now, before and after coronavirus — these walks happened sandwiched between work, a way to escape the dozens of daily tasks pulling at me. My FitBit compels me to walk 15,000 steps a day, bumped up from 12,000 right before it all went to hell earlier this month. The steps don’t matter as much as the mileage: I shoot for between four and six miles every day, and, with little exception, I get those steps in Gulfport.

If I take the most direct route, it’s a mile from my house to O’Maddy’s, which is across the street from Boca Ciega Bay. I rarely take the direct route because — as the savvy mathematician will note — that would only give me two miles, half of my minimum. Before COVID-19, I’d walk through downtown, but it’d be a challenge to get the steps in because I’d stop at the Beach Bazaar to say hello, or at Stella’s for a shrimp omelet, or Sumitra for coffee. Yes, I was moving, but the shrimp and feta omelet with a side of grits erased any  good the extra steps did. Also, El Cap wondered why it took me four hours to walk three miles. 

So I started walking elsewhere. Now, Gulfport’s not a large city; geographically, it takes up two-and-half square miles between St. Petersburg and the unincorporated area of Pinellas County. If this leads you to believe, as my friend Amanda said, that I’d run out of new places to walk, think again. 

Gulfport has alleys. Lots and lots of alleys. They’re not always the prettiest, and they’re rife with that fine Myakka soil, which is to say I have to wear actual shoes (not my Columbia flip flops) if I want to walk the alleys. That’s fine; on the days where I feel the most anxious, I’ll walk seven or eight miles, and I only did that once in those flip flops before my knees reminded me that age may be a state of mind, but not for them.

Even when I’m not anxiously pacing the city for eight miles, there’s plenty to discover on these walks. Yesterday I found a cul-de-sac I had no idea existed. Last week I found a stash of dock pilings, free for the taking. Since January, I’ve found about six bucks in spare change, including a five dollar bill. I’ve listened to about four or five audiobooks, although I can’t bring myself to cue up The Handmaid’s Tale right now.

I love this town, I really do.

I’d forgotten, I think, how much fun it can be to roam through Gulfport with no real purpose. I’m finding Gulfport Easter Eggs everywhere — an alley fence decorated with old signs, a mural hiding in plain sight, little fairies perched in tree branches. Every street, every alley, every walk is a game of hide and seek, and I never know what I’ll find. Skeleton wearing headphones and Spock ears? Check. A fence with a Dr. Seuss quote? Check. A bejeweled mailbox? Check. I see so many of these I started posting them on the Gulfport Chamber’s Instagram page with the hashtag #GulfportScavengerHunt. Nothing soothes my soul more, it seems, than seeing Gulfport doing what Gulfport does, and these little surprises on my walks epitomize what I love so much about this city. 

Those pilings? When I mentioned them to my neighbor, she casually asked me where they were. I assumed she wanted some (we both have an affinity for nautical decor.) Not even 15 minutes later, she came to our door and told El Cap she had a present for us; she and her wife took the kids and their big-ass pickup truck to get three for us (look for a new mailbox soon!) That five dollar bill? I didn’t feel right keeping it, so I went to A Friend Who Bakes. El Cap has a scone problem and Brittney is his enabler; I figured I found the money in Gulfport, so I should spend it in Gulfport. 

These walks, in more ways than one, are a balm for my soul. Walking Beach Boulevard these days is panic-inducing; Gulfport’s downtown looks like it used to look when I moved here 17 years ago: Plenty of parking, a few — but not many — people on the streets, and businesses devoid of customers. Those who aren’t open all display a variation on a sign we all know well, about COVID-19-related closures. I can’t stop in Stella’s for an omelet on a whim (although I can get one to go.) I can’t walk along our beach. I can’t stop and see Deacon at GulfPerk, order a chai, and pretend I’m not going to order a gluten-free donut. All the things I can’t do as I walk downtown trigger a fight or flight response in my brain and, honestly, the shortness of breath that comes with panic attacks is not what I need right now. 

Here’s the thing, though: Walking through the rest of Gulfport makes those walks downtown less panic-inducing. Everything is horrible, but at least we know everything is temporary. 

Everything, I hope, except Gulfport. I would miss the walks.

I Love Luci (still)

“One is silver and the other is gold” always sounded like a passive aggressive thing to say about either your new friends or your old ones. I was never sure which, but since I’m a white gold kinda person, it really doesn’t matter.

Either way: In the summer of 1983 — that’d be 36 years ago — my fifth grade teacher felt bad for me because I was such a geek and had so few friends (mostly Dee. In fact, pretty much ONLY her) that she decided she’d introduce me to a fellow schoolteacher’s daughter.

My mom probably figured a schoolteacher have a polite, smart daughter, much like the one she was trying her damndest to raise as well (any failings are on my part, not hers.)

When I walked into Luci’s bedroom for the first time, I met her pet rat and I thought that was the coolest thing ever (I was only allowed a parakeet) and also I met one of my oldest, dearest friends.

While Luci’s ma did indeed raise a polite, smart woman, Luci has also proved well-matched for me in many other ways. We’ve seen each other through some, ahem, adventures, like the Dunkin Donuts Debacle of 1991, the Really Spicy Chinese Food At That Really Sketchy Place, the Illegal Hairpin of 1991, the Great Divorce of 2002, Cathy’s First Incredibly Painful Tattoo, The Great Divorce of (we think) 2012, The Weird Al Cover Story… the list goes on and on.

And, of course, one of Lu’s brilliant daughters is our live-in cat sitter while we’re on the Great Southeast Adventure. Sitting and talking with her is like talking to a slightly more sophisticated version of twenty-something Luci (no offense, sweet cheeks, but your daughter is all dry clean only and you and me, we’re cotton kinda gals) Only slightly, though, because she’s already offered to help me get rid of a body.

TL; DR: Happy birthday to one of oldest and best friends. You’re white gold to me and I love you!

Meet the Plant City duck who survived a hurricane and has more than 5,000 Facebook fans

Irma Duck survived the hurricane. She isn’t a superhero. She’s simply… a local duck. But people love her.

Irma’s the best duck, and trust me, I know ducks.

I was part of a duck rescue four years ago, whereby I got to know George, a duckling who almost died when the chicks at Animal House pecked him until he bled. My friend — who shall remain nameless, because we live in Gulfport, where it’s illegal to own ducks — brought him home and raised him with her chickens. Big mistake. Huge. Not bringing him home — yay, rescue — but raising him with the hens. See, George imprinted on her chickens and, when he started to have certain, ahem, urges, he identified as a rooster, not a drake. This was, to put it mildly, awkward for everyone involved, most of all the hens (true story: ducks have ballistic penises, and that’s really something you can’t un-see. God knows I can’t…).

And then, at our neighborhood pond, we had Big Red (RIP). Big Red was a Muscovy duck who was sort of the mob boss of the pond, terrorizing all the other ducks. When he died, we were all sad, but truth be told, every other duck in the pond breathed a little easier.

So Irma is, by comparison, the very best duck. Plus, she has a pretty nifty story — and a larger Facebook fanbase than Localtopia, St. Petersburg’s annual beloved celebration of local everything. So, you know, she’s kind of a big deal.

She really is all she’s quacked up to be.

Joy Trent has a small home in Plant City, close to her job at the Hard Rock and also near her horses. The house, between two retention ponds, has its fair share of feathered and waddling wildlife, and Trent’s house is sort of on the wildlife highway between the ponds (think of it this way: If you’re flying from Tampa to Rome, you’re probs gonna have a stopover in Atlanta. Trent’s house is Atlanta, only better). One duck in particular stood out for her: a Muscovy.

Muscovy ducks don’t get the respect of a mallard, or a wood duck, or even a Pekin duck. They’re black and white with red, turkey-like business around their necks. But they’re also super cute.

“If you know Muscovy ducks then you know they are just big lawn puppies, but this one female, Irma, had the coolest personality. She would always stop to chat while she was passing through, or just sit in the shade on our porch or under the cars and hang out with us while we were doing yard work,” Trent says. “My boyfriend used to call her mama duck (even though she was not a mama, yet) and if we had some popcorn when we got back from the movies and he called mama duck she would waddle right over for a treat. She felt so comfortable in our yard she laid a nest of 13 eggs at the base of this huge live oak tree in our front yard.” 

And then hurricane season came. And Mama Duck became Irma Duck.

“Every day we saw mama duck sitting on her nest and finally said, ‘What are you going to do, Irma Duck? This hurricane is coming!'” Trent says. She debated collecting the eggs and trying to catch Irma so she could keep her safe in the house throughout Hurricane Irma, even asking her co-workers at the Seminole Hard Rock & Casino Tampa for advice — after all, she’d never had a duck BFF before and had no idea what to do — and ultimately decided to let nature take its course. 

Trent and her boyfriend spent most of the night awake, watching Mama-now-Irma Duck through their bathroom window. She never, Trent says, left her nest.

Irma Duck Plant City Tampa Hurricane Irma
Right after Hurricane Irma passed over Plant City, Mama Duck — soon to be renamed Irma Duck — had wind-battered feathers, but throughout the storm, she never left her nest. Photo by Joy Trent.

“We finally fell asleep and when we got up in the morning branches and Spanish moss was piled on Irma. We uncovered her, she was a little windblown, but still sitting tight on that nest,” Trent says. “What a brave girl she was.”

When Trent went back to work, her co-workers wanted to know if the duck — they’d started calling her “Irma” — had weathered the storm. She put Irma’s picture on Facebook, and also an explanation of the photo for her northern friends who don’t quite get how we do down here.

“I thought, ‘that will be the end of it’,” she says, “Well, the next thing you know this post has 500,000 views, I got 1,000 friend requests and 500 private messages. Radio stations and newspapers found out my cell number, and everyone wanted to know about Irma,” Trent says.

That’s when a Seminole Hard Rock & Casino Tampa co-worker encouraged her to create a Facebook page for Irma. 

“She helped me set up Irma’s page and I followed up with some posts, [to] satisfy everyone’s curiosity and then be done with it. Well, here I am, a year and a half later and Irma has over 6,000 followers from all over the world. Every time I try to ease out of this I get messages from really sweet, nice, positive people wanting to know how Irma is doing,” Trent says. 

So, it’s not all happy news: None of the original 13 eggs hatched — but it’s also possible they may not have been fertilized, either (chickens and ducks lay eggs whether or not they’ll grow into chickens, thus answering the age-old question yes, the eggs came first). It’s also possible, according to one of Trent’s newfound duck friends, that the dropping barometric pressure could have adversely impacted the eggs.

A few months later, Irma Duck laid 13 more eggs by Trent’s front porch, only to have those disappear one night. Trent’s security cameras show a fox making 13 trips to the nest and running away with 13 eggs.

“It even shows it running away as I came home from work at 4 a.m., and then coming back for the remaining eggs after I entered the house,” Trent says.

Irma Duck Plant City Tampa Bay Hurricane Irma
Irma’s first three ducklings, which Trent has named Faith, Oliver and Grace. The Plant City duck family has grown, but these three still stick pretty close to their mama. Photo by Joy Trent.

Irma Duck remained determined to become a mother, though, and a few months after that, she laid 15 eggs on Trent’s porch. When eight of those eggs disappeared, Trent and her boyfriend got serious.

“On advice from Muscovy people, I had my boyfriend pee around the nest every day,” she says, “and at night we kept a radio playing on talk news all night to scare any other predators away.”

Three of the eggs hatched and, more recently, she laid 13 eggs and 13 hatched, although some of the ducklings disappeared. Five ducklings, now almost as big as Irma Duck, hang out with their three older brothers and sisters, and they also stick pretty close to Irma Duck. All nine of them waddle up to Trent when they see her, knowing she’ll have a snack for them (corn and feed, not bread, which can actually inhibit duck wing growth, and now we feel bad for every duck we ever fed as a kid.)

Irma Duck Plant City Tampa Bay baby ducks
Irma’s second successful clutch resulted in five ducklings — and, while they’re almost full-grown, they stick pretty close to their mama. Photo by Joy Trent.

She and her boyfriend travel, and she’ll post pictures of their travels, but mostly people are there for Irma Duck. 

Trent has made friends with some of Irma’s fans, realizing they share many things.

“We have so much in common: horses, travel, and a love for ducks and all animals, [they’re] just really cool people,” she says. “[It] restores your faith in humanity because a lot of times I just hate people.” Work, she says, can be tough sometimes — unfortunately, not everyone who comes to a casino is in the best place, just like not everyone who goes anywhere is in the best place and, well, we can all understand how that can get to a person, right? But Irma’s fans help her feel better about the world.

“Hearing about animal abuse just kills my spirit,” she says, “but Irma’s fans are just such nice, positive people just looking to read some wholesome news about a duck.”

This post originally appeared at Creative Loafing.