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-

That’s just Thursday: The Capital Gazette massacre

Yesterday’s shooting, as they all do, left me numb and horrified.

This week, I’ve been working with a group of teachers from across Florida. I left Twitter and the atrocities of the Capital Gazette shooting and went to lead them in a walking tour. While everyone assembled, we started to talk about the shooting and I realized: For journalists, this is the first such attack on American soil. But for teachers? That’s just Thursday.

That’s. Just. Thursday.

This is madness. Not because it was a newspaper, not because one of the victims was the brother of a Florida icon, and not because *this* shooting hits too close to home. But because it has to stop.

No one should be accustomed to shootings and murder.

No one. Not journalists. Not teachers. Not students.

But we are. Welcome to this brave new world. This is our America. This is what America looks like.

This can’t continue, we say… but it will. We’re not doing a thing to stop it. No one, from President Trump on down the line to your local city council, is doing a damn thing. Fortunately, the NRA has sprung into action. They have people running scared that we (read: liberals) are going to take your (read: good Americans) guns.

I’m not exactly certain what the NRA’s doing to make sure people who own guns can keep them, but if it’s “arming white men who have no business owning a firearm and may shoot up a newsroom/store it in a manner that their kid can get it and kill a bunch of their classmates” well, well done, guys. I mean, OK, so you’re kind of stepping on your point, but you’re doing it thoroughly. One must applaud that level of dedication.

I can say this, though: The NRA is right. Barring some sort of sensible gun reform — background checks, psych analysis, making it illegal to own high-powered assault rifles, allowing your doctor to ask, when you tell him you’re having violent thoughts, if you own a weapon (thanks to Governor Rick Scott, in Florida, that’s illegal) — I can tell you what solution I’m comfortable with.

No. Guns. Not unless you’re law enforcement or active duty military.

Yeah, I hear you yelling about needing to protect yourself. Tell the NRA to donate its money to local LEO so they can do it. You don’t need a gun. Not a single damn one of you used your guns to stop the shooting at Pinellas Park High School, Columbine, in Texas, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at the Capital Gazette… or at any of the other shootings that happen more regularly than I go to the gym.

You know who stops mass shootings? Not good guys with a guns.

Nope.

Law enforcement officers.

It’s almost like the people who undergo the most training and evaluation before being allowed to carry weapons are the ones best suited to protect Americans.

Weird.

But go ahead. Sleep with that gun under your pillow and do nothing the next time there’s an active shooter. It’s not your fault you’re doing nothing. After all, there are so many shootings, and you can’t possible be there with your gun to save the high school students/battered woman/journalist/random concert goers. But the next time it happens, sure, go ahead and send some more money to the NRA so liberals like me don’t take your gun.

After all, America’s a dangerous place. Gun violence is no longer an anomaly.

It’s just Thursday.

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On the nonexistence of a journalistic bat cave

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.

 

Hold Your Judgment, America: Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos (Hard Candy, Redux)

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?

Duckopalypse: The Lit Crawl

Ducks
Ducks. Because Gulfport, that’s why.

Last night I read at a Lit Crawl in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District Association. With so many of the writers hailing from local media like the Tampa Bay Times and Creative Loafing, there was no small amount of Florida-related stories. For longtime followers of this blog, this may not be new information, as I drew heavily from both my blog and my reporting at the Gabber Newspaper. Here’s what I read, and yes, it is about ducks. #BecauseGulfport, right?

 

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of perhaps the best headline I ever had the privilege of writing.

The Gabber Newspaper, for those of you who don’t exist within the realm of the small-town nirvana that is Gulfport, is the weekly paper that serves the roughly 12,527 people who live in town. That paper was my home for almost 13 years, and even though I don’t write for them anymore, I still live in Gulfport. I love my town; nevertheless, Gulfportians – and that’s what they call themselves, Gulfportians – Gulfportians seem to have this “live every day like it’s a full moon” mentality.

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you with “Weird Florida” stories. I’m not going to tell you how weird or wacky or oddball we are in the Sunshine State. I’m going to tell you about news stories I had the, uh, opportunity to cover in Gulfport. And we aren’t so much weird as we are – well, we’re a small town. I believe these sorts of things happen in larger towns, too, but there’s more room to ignore them. Here, we all just sort of bump into each other over and over again, and so it seems like we have more unusual things than, say, Baltimore.

Because the Gabber is a small paper, I had the wonderful task (and ethical dilemma) of covering news and penning an opinion column called Hard Candy. What Gulfportians now call either “Duckopalypse” or “WaterFowlGate” started with a Hard Candy column I wrote called “The Duck Snatcher”. In it, I wrote about the Pekin ducks and a cute duckling that had taken up residence at the pond by my house. The ducks had disappeared and locals were murmuring that someone had stolen them.

Cute, right? I mean, the alleged duck snatching aside, ducklings make for a warm and fuzzy topic.

That’s what I thought, until I found myself writing a headline Hefty Bill For Duck Theft not soon after.

Seriously. Bigger papers – papers with budgets for things like more than one editor and newsrooms with doors and things like that – bigger papers make the copy editors write the headlines. I wrote my own headlines, and I’ll be honest with you, it was fun. Sometimes I’d come up with them on my own; other times, I’d post a one-sentence synopsis of the story on Facebook and let my Facebook friends decide. I wish I could claim this one as mine, but it was someone on Facebook who suggested it.

So, OK, I had written the column and thought to myself, well, that’s a damn shame about the ducks but we’ll never know what happened. But then my phone rang and it was our chief of police, Rob Vincent.

“Hey, uh, I just want to let you know, we caught a duck-napper last night” he says.

I remember this so clearly: It was a Friday afternoon and I was looking forward to the end of the workday. I was standing in the kitchen and I just stopped and said, “Are you fucking with me?”

He was not fucking with me. One of the other cops told me later, “I read your Hard Candy and thought, ‘these people are high.’ And then Parks” – that’s another officer – “catches somebody stealing ducks the next night.”

So I write the Hefty Bill for Duck Theft story and the Chief Vincent contacts me again, but not because they’ve caught more duck-nappers but because he wants to let me know technically, it wasn’t duck theft because – and I quote – “that would imply the ducks belong to somebody.”

I realize that sounds all “born free” and very drum circle-esque for a police officer, but remember that in Gulfport, we’re now into week three of Duckapolypse and the duck nappers – excuse me, at this point they’re alleged duck nappers – are threatening to sue, and everyone’s a little uptight.

Oh, yeah, didn’t I mention that? 13 years with that local paper and the only time I ever wrote anything that made someone get a lawyer and threaten to sue was the Hefty Bill for Duck Theft article. They ultimately dropped the case, but for a while there I was pretty sure I was going to have to testify in court about ducks. And duck thefts.

WaterfowlGate – and trust me, this is one of many stories I loved writing – only got weirder from there. One time and one time only in my career have I promised to protect the identity of a source from the police. A source who feared legal prosecution because he – or she – previously harbored ducks and knows the locations of other ducks currently in what I can only call “protective custody.”

See, in Gulfport, it’s illegal to keep ducks in captivity, and this person was part of an underground duck network.

Ah, but first? The headline: Gulfport’s Duck Underground Fears Prosecution

Here’s my lede:

“Apparently in response to recent press about duck activity at Gulfport’s Tomlinson Park, local duck sympathizers, fearing legal repercussions, have returned a raft of Pekin ducks to the pond.”

That’s what you call a group of ducks, by the way – a raft.

This duck sympathizer was one of three “safe houses” – you know what? I’m just going to quote the article:

“This duck sympathizer is one of at least three home who provide assistance, nourishment and shelter to orphaned, injured or malnourished Pekin ducks.

“The duck sympathizer tells The Gabber that the unorganized underground network of duck rescuers takes in orphaned ducks … This unofficial group of duck guardians keeps the ducks safe and well fed until such time as the ducks can survive on their own at the pond.”

“One duck rescuer says that the two ducks that disappeared the first week of June are still missing from the raft, and the Gabber could not match photos of the missing ducks with any current ducks in Tomlinson Park. The fate of these two ducks remains unknown. The Gabber’s duck source says they do not believe the people accused of duck snatching (who could not be reached for comment) have a history of duck rescuing. 

“The rescuers have released the majority of the ducks back into the pond, the duck sympathizer says, because in light of recent coverage in The Gabber, they feared the city would charge them with illegally keeping ducks.

“Whereas Gulfport changed its laws a few years ago to allow for chicken ownership, it does not allow for duck husbandry.”

In about 15 years, there’s going to be a young lady in therapy because her mom had to release the ducks because of me.

That was, I thought, pretty much the end of WaterFowlGate, but some time later, I was in the Horse & Jockey, which is actually not a Gulfport bar – and I’m talking to a friend, and I make an offhanded joke about Gulfport’s sewers being on the brink of collapse but as long as there weren’t ducks trapped in them, no one cared. Half-joking, she responds that Gulfportians don’t notice city issues that aren’t duck-related.

I start to laugh, but mid-chortle, a woman I’d never met before approached our table and interrupted with, “You’re talking about ducks. You must be with The Gabber.”

We spent the next seven minutes discussing duck-related issues. I finally asked her about the sewers and how she felt about their current state of disrepair, and she developed a pressing need to be elsewhere.

It’s not all bad, though. I love my town, even if I don’t write for the small-town paper anymore. A local restaurant put duck breast on the specials menu in my honor, and when a goat was kidnapped – you see what I did there – a year later, there was no question who was covering the story.

That headline, by the way, was So This Goat Walks Into a Bar, but that’s another story for another lit crawl.

Vox Populi? Paging a Mister Vox Populi? (Hard Candy, Redux)

Yesterday a group called Gulfport Neighbors conducted a cleanup for a Gulfportian who couldn’t do for themselves. If you live in Gulfport, you likely know of the Gulfport Neighbors and the big-hearted woman behind the group who is adept at persuading the city and locals alike into helping make repairs and clean yards for elderly or physically disadvantaged residents. I do not know of a project this group has turned down, and I know they always need volunteers of all walks.
Yesterday, they coordinated two cleanups – one at a private home and one on Gulfport’s beach. Gulfport’s ward one council member, Dan Liedtke, browbeat his beach volleyball buddies into cleaning the beach (Note to those of you who don’t live in Florida: Yes, our politicians play beach volleyball. Also, our mayor’s our bartender and he has a band. Is that not how you do it up north?) and our ward three councilwoman, Yolanda Roman, rolled up her elegant sleeves and plunged her manicured hands into some tree limbs over on the other project.
I commend anyone who volunteers at these projects, elected or not. I also hear quite a bit of grumbling about why our other elected officials don’t help at these cleanups or, at the very least, why they don’t help in other ways.
To those people, please ponder this: We don’t elect people to do cleanups or glad-hand. We elect them to get shit done. So I’m not upset by the fact ALONE that only two council people helped yesterday. I wouldn’t be bothered if NONE of them helped at the actual events.
I am, however, deeply disturbed that none of the council seems inclined to do a damn thing to stop a cycle of “Don’t worry about it; Gulfport Neighbors will do it” when there’s someone in need of help.
 
Clearly, we need better social services in Gulfport, and, as far as cities go, we already have one of the better systems. It is not a system without flaws, without staffing issues, or without looming budget issues, but still, one of the better ones.
 
So where are our elected officials – the vox populi, if you will? Where are the people who should be paying enough attention to say, hey, why does Gulfport Neighbors have to do so many cleanups? Why are so many elderly people finding themselves alone in our great community? Do we need to find a better mechanism so things don’t reach critical mass for our older residents?
 
Because I realize two of our elected officials, Dan Liedtke and Christine Brown, likely aren’t liberal-minded enough, perhaps, to feel it is government’s job to step in with social services, I’d like to point out to them and others like them that these people do pay property taxes, they paid federal taxes (of which we get money for various things) and they pay utility taxes. So, in essence, they’re paying for services. We subsidize child care, we offer a library, we build parks  – we have lots of social and cultural services funded by city government, but not as many, perhaps, as we need for people with physical limitations that prevent them from caring for their property properly. What do these people get for their tax dollar?
I want to think like a Libertarian, I do, but try as I might, I cannot get behind the mindset that government should only provide the basic public safety services and even if I were, we (we being Gulfport) already offer social services, so let’s do it right. The Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center has some services; perhaps we need to revisit what we should offer there. Do we need to think about possible solutions for homeowners in trouble with repairs and lawn maintenance? Should the city perhaps make it a condition of all contractors that they offer elderly residents the same rate the city gets, perhaps? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. I know council doesn’t, either, but so far, I haven’t even seen them ask any questions or do anything beyond thank the Neighbors for their work. 
It’s time Gulfport city council starts asking for answers. Gulfport Neighbors is a triage group; they are not meant to be a cure. Gulfport city council, please take note. You’re our voice. If you can’t show up, fine.
But it would be nice to hear you speak up.

Why’d It Have to be Ducks? (Hard Candy Redux)

Last year, I joked that I was the official poultry reporter for the Gabber Newspaper. When the paper and I parted ways last month, I felt a twinge that my livestock days were over. But then the Universe grabbed me by the ear, twisted, and said, “Not so fast, girlie.”

This is not my duck. Honest. But I have a stake in its future.

So here’s what happened: I want chickens. Oh, I don’t want to own them. While I find poultry in general just delicious, the chicken component of that category disgusts me. They’re mean and they don’t taste that good, unless they’re fried in buttermilk. Their eggs, however, taste delicious. I love eggs in all forms: deviled, fried, hard-boiled, poached, scrambled, egg salad… You get the idea.

Now, as much as I don’t like chickens, I hate the idea of factory farming eggs or chickens, so when I buy eggs, I buy free-range eggs, which costs about $4 a dozen. For someone who loves eggs, that can get expensive, so I thought, hey, if I could get eggs from some of my chicken-rearing neighbors, I could save some money. The easiest way to make this happen was to buy two chickens myself and bribe my neighbor Leigh to raise them for me. I’ll buy her chicken food as she needs it, and in return, I get the eggs.

Why is her purse peeping?
Why is her purse peeping?

So last week I went with Leigh to get the chicks, because really, that’s the least I can do for my chicken surrogate, right? Before I leave my house to pick up Leigh, her husband Mike – who was in the midst of removing a load-bearing wall from our kitchen area – begged me, “Please don’t let her bring home a duck” and I thought what the hell? because ducks are illegal as pets in Gulfport and Leigh has always seemed sane. Well, sane for Gulfport. It’s a sliding scale. Also, we were getting chickens. I assume Mike is confused, and I assure him I can keep his sweet little wife from buying a duck. I tell him he has nothing to fear and encourage him to resume focusing all his energy in making absolutely certain my roof won’t collapse when we remove the wall separating the kitchen and living room.

When will I learn?

Leigh and I walk into Animal House, and she shows me the chicks and explains which ones give which colored eggs. She’s kind of an egg color expert. And then she shows me this duckling, and I feel a vague sense of alarm. I imagine it’s how men feel when the woman they love walks into a room and asks, “Notice anything different?”

The lone duckling, I note, seems to be fairly listless, and also the object of much pecking. His feet are bloody. He’s missing down from his neck, where instead I see itty-bitty, duckling-sized scabs. He tries to stand move away from the chicks, who think he tastes just delicious, thank you, but every time he stands, the chicks see the blood on his feet and go crazy pecking. I remembers one of the reasons I don’t like factory-farmed chickens is the practice of clipping their beaks, and all of a sudden I also remember why they clip the beaks. My throat gets thick, memories of this book wash over me, and I tell Leigh I’m going to look at the adoptable puppies, because I am about 45 seconds from having to explain to El Cap why I bought a duck, and right now we’re in the middle of remodeling a kitchen and I honestly don’t think he can handle livestock, too.

When I stroll back over, Leigh is passionately arguing with the 15-year-old clerk about the state of the duckling’s health. He tells her the duckling is “just fine” and that it’s “normal” for it to be bloody and pecked at by chickens. Meanwhile, Leigh is texting a coworker who grew up on a farm, asking him to please save the duckling, and he texts her back “I have chickens. Chickens and ducks don’t get along.” Leigh reads this message, shows me, looks at the duckling trying to hide his open, bloody wounds from about 20 pecking chicks, and I sigh. I feel the steel jaws of the trap close.

“Who do we know who can take this duckling, because I can’t, Leigh. I have two hound dogs and two cats,” I tell her, thinking to myself: And El Cap. Calypso will kill the duck, El Cap will kill me, and the cats will feast on my remains.

And so a plan is born. Leigh is going to get the duck and find a home for it. I buy my chickens, Leigh buys the duck, and we head back to her house. And then I head home, poultry-free, where Mike pauses from shoring up my roof to give me a long, hard look.

“Do I own a duck?” he asks me, quietly and (I think) a little too calmly. I am suddenly aware of the preponderance of power tools – including a pneumatic nail gun – easily within Mike’s reach.

“It’s temporary,” I say, backing away slowly.

“The bird was temporary,” he says, and mutters a few other things I choose to interpret as love for his bride.

What Leigh didn’t tell me until later was that the scrawny, indifferent young store clerk also told her that if the chicks didn’t kill the duck by the next morning they’d likely have to do it themselves. And then she promised me she would never go to Animal House again, and I decided I wouldn’t, either, because really, the small animals they sell really shouldn’t be sold, not as pets. The best thing I can do is not give them my business, and the best thing Leigh can do for her marriage is stop going places where there are mistreated animals she feels compelled to “rescue.”

Leigh and Mike are keeping the duck, even though it’s illegal, because Mike (for all his big bad talk about not wanting it) named it, and everyone knows once you name something, you have to keep it. Which is why I never suggest baby names to my friends. And, apparently, no one’s going to arrest Leigh for the illegal duck, because that is kind of a dick thing to do, and if no one’s arresting the people who own the illegal pig (true story) or the goats (also a true story), who’s sending a duck rescuer to jail?

So, you know, everyone wins, except George, because that’s not a great name for a duck. I wanted to call him Lowell, but apparently I don’t get a vote. Which is fine. And, hey, I’ll have fresh eggs from Yasmin and Foghorn P. in just a few months.

Yasmin and Foghorn
Meet Yasmin and Foghorn. That’s not blur; that’s all fuzz, people.

Hard Candy, Redux – Screw the Sea Turtles

So, plastic bags. They’re winning, people. You know what I mean: The plastic bags you have stuffed under a sink or in one of those cute bag holder things someone gave you or knitted you or made from an old bedsheet or whatever. Those bags are winning the war under your sink, in your pantry, or wherever you store them, and, if your house is anything like mine, they’re going to take over that space right around the time we light the fireworks for Gulfport’s Fourth of July party. And that’s for those of us who own and attempt to use reusable cloth bags. For the rest of you, world domination should come about six weeks before that.

OK, so that’s a joke, but seriously, those fucking bags cause more problems than they’re worth. When you live so close to water, they tend to find their way into every available body of water. It’s not for lack of education: We all know the hazards plastic bags pose to our local waters. Turtles mistake them for jellyfish and eat them, and then they die, because the bags block their digestive tract (seems jellyfish get digested lots easier than bags) or their esophagus or they choke. Plus, plastic – all plastic, even the recycled stuff, especially the recycled stuff – requires petrochemicals for manufacturing (or remanufacturing), so we’re getting that in the water, which is a lovely bonus, really. Plastic: The Gift That Keeps on Giving.

A few years back, when Sam Henderson, Gulfport’s current mayor and former Ward Four councilman, suggested the city look at a plastic bag ban, I thought he was the best thing since government cheese. But then nothing happened, and I never knew why. At first, I thought some big, bad, corporate plastic bag lobby had spent a gazillion dollars to shut down the mere thought of such a ban, but then I remembered that we were Gulfport and not Manhattan, and that the idea of anyone spending money to silence anything here would be laughable, so I figured I was just being paranoid.

You’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.

See, I was half right. No one paid off the council to not ban bags, but in 2008 the Florida legislature passed a ban on bag bans, because, well, Florida. Now, only the state can regulate bags, not cities or counties. But now one brave fool in our legislature wants to undo it, sort of. David Richardson (D-Miami-Dade) filed a bill that would give small Florida towns (towns with under 10,000 people, which is 298 of the Florida’s 410 cities) the right to regulate plastic bag use.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? I mean, yes, El Cap has a great point: Any city within x miles of the water should have that right. That’s not happening because it would be every city in Florida and apparently we’re kind of dicks about turtles in the Sunshine State, which is weird because we act like we love turtles. Apparently that love extends only to “lights out for sea turtles” and not “no bags for choking turtles or making them slowly starve to death or blocking their esophagus.”

Wait, you say, why are you being so harsh? A ban on the ban on the ban means we love turtles, and there’s a bill in the legislature right now to ban the ban on the ban. Because, I say, in California, the plastic bag lobby has spent almost $40 per signature on a petition to overturn the existing ban on plastic bags. So if this ban on ban on bans (seriously, my head hurts) goes through the process, corporate America will launch into what it does best – screwing the environment, promising to call the next day, and then leaving it nothing but a scorching case of herpes. Because, well, America.

However, hope – even in my calloused soul – springs eternal, and if you want to get involved to help further what I shall forever more call the Tri-Ban (it’s just easier), the Surfrider foundation has a way for you to do that. Because you can bet the plastics industry is ready to fight the fight at the other end.

Mayor Henderson had the right idea. In 2008, our legislature did not. So far, the turtles are losing. The good news? Corporate America has a great bottom line. Because millions of shareholders can’t be wrong.

Read my (somewhat) newsier take on the Tri-Ban.

Hard Candy, Redux: Tear Down That Wall

When we (El Cap and I) decided to move back to the ‘port, I knew what I was getting myself into. Our little town may appear a waterfront ideal, but by the time we cautiously decided to look at two houses (one on Beach Boulevard and the other – the one we now call home – in the much-maligned “Ward Four”), I had covered Gulfport and its myriad of issues (and if you don’t live here, trust me, for a 2.5 square mile town, we have issues. The smaller the stakes, the bigger the drama and all that) for almost a decade. One of the biggest problems new Gulfportians have with Gulfport is that they visit for a weekend, fall in love with Beach Boulevard, buy a house largely on impulse, and then realize that our downtown is not representative of the town.

Oh, don’t misunderstand, Gulfport has plenty going for it – we live here, after all, and I’m glad I do – but despite our devil-may-care, anything-goes, “we’re a drinking town with a fishing problem”, hippie-meets-good-ol’-boy-vibe, the town is not perfect. Our non-brick streets look like a teenager’s pre-Acutane face, our sewers tend to fail (to be fair, the city’s started to repair and replace those), we undervalue our waterfront, and the northeast corner of the city (that’s Ward Four again) gets systemically neglected, the old guard is having trouble with a newer, younger generation wanting to take the city in a new direction, and the houses often need more than a little work.

Ah, yes. The houses. That’s the chief complaint I hear: People working on their houses are absolutely furious with our planning (we call it “Community Development”) department. For the first 20 months, we were lucky: Our home needed mostly cosmetic work. We moved in and painted and cleaned and re-landscaped and did all the things new homeowners do. After a year and a half, though, we decided the time had come to make our kitchen functional.

Kitchen, Pre-Renovation
Look beyond the shiny fridge to the grape wallpaper and “custom” cabinetry.

Here’s our old kitchen, Well, half of it. Don’t be fooled by that shiny new refrigerator. We bought that pre-renovation when we couldn’t stand the old one any longer. That dishwasher? A portable. Which is about as much fun as when I had to unfold my couch to go to sleep every night, or when my dad and I were renovating my bathroom and I had to go to the Walgreens to pee.

So, we met with a kitchen designer. Two, actually: One we hated and one we loved. We also looked at IKEA kitchens but Tom Pitzen of Olde World Cabinetry (and the artist who designed Gulfport’s Historic Waterfront Sign, among other public art) created a kitchen design that would cost about the same amount.

Now, about that designer we hated: Among many things I disliked about them, they told us the renovation would cost about $60,000. Of course, they added, they needed to have their general contractor go up in the attic and make sure that wall behind the refrigerator wasn’t a load-bearing wall. We had no intention of spending $60,000 on a kitchen but as we believed the wall to be load-bearing, we thought it was a swell idea to confirm that before we started swinging sledgehammers.

Long story short: The uber-expensive designer’s contractor said it wasn’t, we didn’t hire them, and about five minutes before El Cap and my dad started ripping down that wall, El Cap went up in the attic one more time and said, “You know, I really think this wall is load-bearing.” We called out another contractor who said hell, no we couldn’t take down that wall without the roof coming down with it, and we embarked on the arduous process of finding an architect who would draw up plans to put in a beam to bear the load and getting an engineer’s stamp on the plans, and also of the installation of the beam and the ultimate removal of the wall.

Old Kitchen
That oven was the best $76 could buy, I’m certain. Also, seriously, grapes on the wallpaper.

Now, if you’ve ever done any work on your home, or owned rental properties, you fall squarely into one of two schools: The “get the permits” school and the “permits are for suckers” school. When we started the project, it became clear that my dad fell in the latter school whilst I fell in the former. While I understand my dad’s point of view, I disagree with it. Bear in mind, when we started, I still worked for the local paper, and a good portion of the “have I got a story for you” calls and emails I received were people with a “scandal” about Gulfport Community Development.

For almost 12 years I looked into a goodly number of these alleged scandals and found, without fail, the frustration on the part of the person crying foul stemmed either from them lying to the planning department, not pulling a permit and then getting caught, or attempting to get the planning department to approve plans that involved structural changes but lacked the approval of someone (an engineer) qualified to make sure those same changes didn’t make the house collapse. I am typically a “forgiveness, not permission” type of person, but not with city government. I also figured after over a decade of calling the planning department with public information requests and chasing down every complaint someone gave me, the inspectors would be damn delighted to learn I had attempted to bypass the rules.

So, of course, by the time we realized we had to, as former President Reagan said, “tear down that wall,” we had already pulled our permits and assured the city’s planning department we weren’t making structural changes. I figured it would be open season on us. So El Cap took our stamped plans into Community Development, copped to the error, and they basically said, well, gee, the plans look good and you haven’t done the work yet, so cool.

That was it. No problems. No trouble. We’ve had, as I said just yesterday, a damn delightful experience with Gulfport’s Community Development. We’ve passed our first plumbing and electrical inspections and the inspector has also offered some helpful tips, like Norm from This Old House, but with a city ID.

They’re actually just good guys. Seriously. I mean, I imagine if we’d tried to cheat they wouldn’t be as understanding, and I think that’s quite common, but by and large? They’ve been one of the easiest things we’ve done thus far.

So the moral of the story is this: All of those folks who beleaguered me for 12 years about how awful our Community Development people treated you? Every last one of you I found had tried to outsmart or cheat the city in some way, and now that I’m in your place, I feel vindicated.

Also, dusty. There’s drywall dust everywhere. But that’s another post for another day.

 

 

Hard Candy, Redux – Race and “That Word”

{Oh, hey? The title? I may not have a column anymore – at least not one that pays in anything other than “shells and beads and good feelings” – but I still have opinions. So I’m going to call entries like these “Hard Candy, Redux” or something like that, as kind of a fair warning to everyone. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming…}

Don’t believe what white people tell you. Not when we tell you we want to have an “honest” conversation about race. We totally don’t. Oh, we say we do, and I think we really believe it when we say it, but when we get right down to the business of the “honest” part, yeah, not so much. It doesn’t feel good, you know? And after centuries of suppressing black people and then deciding we’d try and fix things in a few short decades, why should we have to deal with the ickiness of those white Americans who are having a hard time adjusting? Let’s just all forget about how we raised people for hundreds of years and string them up in the town square when they have a hard time letting go of outdated mores. That seems enlightened, I think.

Since Creative Loafing published my article about how ideas about race continue to evolve in Gulfport last week, I’ve been lurking on social media as people discussed it. As everyone knows, social media showcases the best of humanity, so you may now understand the prior paragraph a little better. Now, I’d prefer you click on the link and read the article, but if you don’t, here’s the least you need to know: Gulfport used to be a sundown town, according to some of the old guard. It isn’t any longer (because, well, civil rights) but some people who live here still retain some of the old thinking. Some people want the city to be more welcoming to black people. That’s the thrust of the piece.

So, when my Creative Loafing editor and I started chatting about how we’d address Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Gulfport’s first-time-ever participation in the MLK Day of Service, we talked about the odd dichotomy that exists in my small town. You see, Gulfport is uber-accepting of the LGBT community and has been well before accepting the LGBT community was a thing. It’s weird, you know? You can walk down the street and see a transgender person, then walk another two feet and see a crusty old boat captain, and these two worlds do not typically collide. Right-wing conservatives meet Rue Paul and no one seems to notice. So, uh, weird in a good way, but weird.

Except for black people. I’ve heard more people than I care to admit use the n-word, not in anger but in conversation. I hate “that word.” Always have. I don’t make my decisions about what I think or how to treat people based on the color of their skin, but I’ve come to realize  not everyone who finds “that word” acceptable bases those things on skin color, either. I think I failed to make that clear in the article, because while the commentary on the CL site has been pretty tame, the comments on the Gabber’s Facebook group, Gulfport Ideas and Opinions, went off the rails (I won’t link to the group, but you can find it if you really need to see it) Someone posted about the article and much flogging and berating ensued.

The thrust of the anger centers around Louis Worthington, a 71-year-old man who lived through the sundown town bullshit and is married to our vice mayor. He used “that word,” and Creative Loafing printed it. According to many people, that makes him a racist. But let’s look at what Louis actually said:

“There’s black people and then there’s n——.” (Creative Loafing printed the word; I will not.)

He goes on to explain what, in his mind, is a class distinction. I see the point he’s trying to make but I cannot agree with it, although my opinion isn’t what counts. Many people make that distinction but don’t make decisions based on skin color.

I know Louis and his family – not all of it, because the Worthingtons are to Gulfport as the Kennedys are to Hyannis Port and you can never know them all – and I see no evidence of racism in Louis’ behavior. Ever. His use of “that word”? Degrading, yes. Ignorant? Perhaps, but I’d argue he knows why he’s using it, even if he doesn’t understand that it offends a class of people to whom he doesn’t believe he refers. Bear in mind, as I point out in the article, his teenage daughter is dating a black teenager who lives in the projects. This young man is being raised by a single mother. His dad is, um, not in the picture. This young man is, if you take both the teenager and Louis at face value, not the sort of man you would think Louis wants his daughter dating. But Louis respects the young man because he didn’t see skin color and decide the man was “that word.” He admits he struggles with the idea of his daughter dating a black person, but he makes it clear: When he thinks of “that word” he does not think of this young man, who has enlisted in the Marines and is trying desperately to break the cycle he sees around him. Also, I see how Louis feels about the white boy his daughter dated last, and I’m hard-pressed to think Louis would be thrilled with his baby girl dating anyone, ever.

But people are crucifying Louis and his wife and totally missing the point of the article: Even this man, this 71-year-old man who was raised in a time and town when and where segregation thrived and racism sat down to dinner with you, can evolve on ideas of race. But some people refuse to see that, and while I understand the shock value of seeing “that word” in print, let’s look past the words and look in Louis’ heart and actions, because his actions don’t speak of hatred. I can point to many elected and appointed officials whose actions drip with racism, but they would never dream of using “that word.” And so I ask you, which is worse? Please don’t blindly bash someone and try to suppress them for speaking honestly. Look, I wish people wouldn’t use “that word.” But they do. Telling them they’re jerks and that they should shut up doesn’t change anything but what you hear.

Louis Worthington doesn’t like people who feel they can steal because the person from whom they’re stealing has more than they do. When those people happen to be black, he uses “that word” to describe them. Is it racially based? Of course. But notice that in his mind, the behavior is first and race is second. To him, yes, I know. But still, I think that’s worth exploring. Of course, we won’t, because we’re all too upset that he dared utter “that word”, which is, pardon me, fucking ridiculous.

So, we want to have an honest conversation about race? Let’s take Louis and, say, the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association (a predominantly black neighborhood across the 49th Street corridor, and I single him out because he’s a black leader in the local community, and I think, capable of adding insight I think will help foster growth) and let’s allow them to have a conversation. Will it be uncomfortable? Hell, yes, but that isn’t a reason not to have the discussion; actually, it’s a pretty good argument in favor of it.

Instead of berating people who think like Louis does – and believe me, there are a LOT of folks out there who feel that way – why not attempt to understand what they mean and why they feel that way? Why not talk with them instead of about them? Look, the problem in places like Gulfport isn’t that a few people are horribly racist; it’s that many more people have muddy ideas about race and we’re only telling them to sit down, shut up, and change how they feel.

That actually doesn’t help, and it doesn’t signal an enlightened populace. Suppressing something doesn’t make it go away; it just makes us feel better, but the feeling won’t last because it isn’t real.

I’d rather be real.