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26 June 2010

Old Florida Charm...


There is just something about Key West. I've visited so many times, and every time I turn my car into the town's small side streets to pull into the bed and breakfast, I get reminded that I have come to the right place, and I feel like the town is all for me. For some reason, I feel connected to it?  I don't know what it is, but that tiny island just feels like it fits in my life.

Located ninety miles from Cuba, everything about the town streets, the humid air, the tranquil nostalgia that floats from street to alley, from eclectic Key West home to its lush green foliage, seeps into my very soul's essence and leaves its permanent mark on me.  I will always remember how to get here.


The first time I visited was when it was my father's first time entering the world famous Ernest Hemingway Look Alike Contest held at Sloppy Joe's bar -- and it was such a crazy and hilarious idea at the time that we all had to travel to Key West to watch this happen.  The amazing thing is that Key West itself isn't about the beaches, but rather Key West is about the personality.  I didn't realize that the very first visit to Key West would result in me falling in love with this tiny island "nation."  And a "nation" it actually is.  Back in 1982, a border patrol blockade was set up on Route 1, and it cut off the Keys' residents from the mainland.  The Florida Keys protested, and at noon on April 23, 1982, the mayor announced that the Keys had seceded from the Union, thus establishing the Conch Republic.  (And yes, 1982, not 1882.  No typo there!)  After exactly 1 minute of rebellion, the former Mayor, now Prime-Minister, surrendered to the Navy base.  See what I mean?  There's something so incredibly fun and relaxed about this place -- all for the sport of humor and indignation!  So I made a decision this week that for the next four weeks, to get me into the Key West/South Florida spirit, every page I turn of every book I read, will be dedicated to only those set in Florida, with a little bit of Key West thrown in -- all the books reminiscent of that "Old" Florida that creaks of humid days and sweltering nights, trees dripping with Spanish moss, and alligators lazily sunning themselves on the banks of the Everglades...

(Ernest Hemingway is the first picture, obviously, my Dad is next.  Not bad, huh?)

I used to think of Florida as only representative of palm trees and beaches and especially the extremes in ages -- retirees or young South Beach nightclubbing fans.  No in-between at all. Maybe a shark or two.  Needless to say, when I moved to Jacksonville, in North Florida, I had no idea how much I would end up loving Florida and the Old Florida charm.  And I especially didn't realize how daggone big this state was.  To get to Key West, and to save some time and money, I take a Southwest flight from Jacksonville to Ft. Lauderdale, and then I rent a car to drive the four remaining hours to Key West.  To fly directly into Key West is way outta my pay grade.

But I love that drive, those four hours of getting closer and closer to my heaven.  I don't drive through the Everglades, but I do skim just a tad of it on the East side, but I don't get to really see anything.  This summer's trip down, I may make an exception in my trip, and it's all thanks to Carl Hiaasen's storytelling.  I wanted to pick up something light and fun and of course, set in Florida, and I was surprised that Skinny Dip ended up being a combination of an intellectual discussion and debate on the loss and corruption of the Everglades, with a comical mystery thrown in.  Chaz Perrone, silly, lazy, egotistical, and barely a biologist (always correcting those that don't call him "Doctor"), has decided to kill his wife, Joey, by flipping her over the deck of the Sun Duchess cruise ship on their 2nd anniversary.  He's got it all planned out, and he knows that not one person who knows him would ever think that he had the backbone to pull off a murder, especially that of his wife.  It even surprises him that he's able to carry it out.  What he doesn't expect is that she'll survive the fall and be picked up by a retired cop, and that she would subsequently plan to slowly freak him the hell out.

There's no doubt of anyone's true internal character with Hiaasen's storytelling -- you get a clear sense of the personality for all of them.  For good ole Chaz sloshing around in the Everglades performing his duties as a bad scientist, and a biologist at that, Hiassen writes:
...Chaz's sole instrument of defense was a boron-shafted two-iron, which in his hands was far more efficient at scaring off aquatic reptiles than striking a golf ball.  Chaz swung the club haphazardly and yowled like a hemorrhoidal bobcat as he hacked a soggy trail through the saw grass.  Nature recoiled as he threshed the water, launching clumps of algae and splintered twigs and shredded lily pads.  In the cumbersome waders Chaz clomped and teetered like the Frankenstein monster, but the desired effect was achieved:  every living vertebrate within a hundred yards of the dike fled the scene. (pg.77)

I loved this!  I got an immediate understanding of Chaz's hypocritical nature.  It made me laugh out loud, and I watched in my mind's eye as Chaz pitifully made a mess out of his life, never once realizing that he truly was simply cold-blooded, but he was too much of a wuss and too stupid to be anything more than a failed murderer.  The author, Hiaasen, was born and raised and currently lives in Florida, and he takes pride in the beauty of the state that extends much further than just Las Olas in Ft. Lauderdale or South Beach in Miami.  We usually think about the Everglades as just a big swampy mosquito-laden area, but do we really understand what a national treasure it truly is?  Hiaasen makes it clear, and he doesn't leave anything out that is essentially hurting his state.  Corruption does breed in the 'Glades, too, and Hiaasen doesn't forget about the corporate hoo-hahs that help make a mess out of it all.  The degradation of the area wasn't believed until the late '90s, and finally, finally, grants were funded to ensure that pesticides and other chemicals didn't directly drain into the Everglades, which had been rapidly destroying the natural habitat.  I loved every moment of each page.  And I will pick up another Hiaasen book, without a doubt.


I'm excited to visit the Keys again this summer -- and I will always continue to visit during the off season, when rates are low and the Ernest Hemingway Look Alike contest is kicking in at Sloppy Joe's Bar, and the summer heat is at its most intense.  I will certainly not be religiously straightening my hair, and will instead allow it to get increasingly curly with each humid and tropical day, and I'll be able to forget about any frivolous "needs."  I might also just divert my trip into the Everglades before stopping into Key West, and take a quick tour, just to see and witness the crazy and beautiful lush wildlife that exists right here in America.  I'm pretty proud to now call myself a Floridian.

(Republished with updated links...)

19 June 2010


Drop an egg white into water, and see the future.  Rub a sprinkling of herbs into a flame and will the cow produce milk for your family?  Put a brick at the edge of your property that marks the boundary, and carve a specific figure on it, and no one will even think to cross that invisible line.  They just KNOW, they can sense that they shouldn't go past it.


I learned a little bit about the Salem Witch Trials as a kid in school, but I am pretty sure the very first book that I ever read about it was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare.  And in this book, in 1687, Kit Tyler, a young girl moving into Connecticut, becomes friends with an old woman who goes on trial for being a witch.  You'll find this book in the kid's section.  Talk about introducing you at a young age to how "crazy" the New Americas were and the reaction to anything that seemed otherworldly.  Of course, that's me in the 21st century, snobbishly looking back and shaking my head in utter sadness and disbelief on the widespread panic that ensued.  After all, dropping an egg white into water to see the future sounds nuts now, but in the 1600s, what really did they have to compare that with to know it wasn't possible?  (Or is it?)


I love the idea of anything "witchy" to read about.  Yes, I profess to also love vampires and werewolves as well.  But of course, there is something about the Salem Witch Trials that strikes a chord in me, and it's simply due to the fact that it really, really did happen.  What made you a witch?  Did you have a dog or a cat around (a familiar)?    Did you have a birthmark?  Were you popular or not in the town?  Did you have a good harvest, but your neighbor didn't?  Were you gazing in thought at something one day, but could it have come across as you staring at someone and bewitching them?  A group of girls begins to point fingers and proclaim random townspeople to be  witches and that they were forced to write their name in the Devil's Book.  Men, women, and children were exposed to the gossip, and at that time, gossip killed.  A town divided and torn by panic and fear, culminated in the hangings of innocent people.  One man, Giles Corey who was 80 years old, was even slowly executed by one stone being laid on another, ultimately crushing and suffocating the man.  It is said that his last words were, "more weight," a request to hasten his death.


These events happened, people horrifically and unnecessarily died.  Today, the gorgeous town of Salem, Massachusetts hauls in quite a bit of dough each year in tourism.  Is it exploiting the terrible reality that 19 people were hanged during an hysterical moment in that town's history?  When you read all of the books, and then you walk around the town, a part of me did feel bad that 400 years later, modern day Americans were profiting from this.  But, at the same time, the town provides you an amazing glimpse truly into what life was like at that time.  In the 1600s, would you really have the strength to go against the group of young girls who were pointing fingers at everyone and state that they were making things up?  Wouldn't that have put you in a position to be judged and potentially hanged as well?  I'd like to think that I would be noble and stand up against them, but at that time period, how frightening would it have been, and would I have had the strength?  Would you?


What I loved about The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, is that the author is the descendant of Martha Carrier, the central character in this novel.  She tells Martha's story, the dialogue written in a complete Puritan-esque manner, from the point of accusation through the trial, and subsequent execution.  It is a heartbreaking story to maneuver through as it takes the real people from that time and their real events, and the author thoroughly establishes the very true aspects of life in that time and how people dealt with a family member in prison -- did you know that they had to pay the jailer for keeping someone in prison?  Chained to a wall, provided a bucket to share with a dozen other prisoners to use for a toilet, and no window to provide sunlight or air to pass through...  When I visited Salem a couple of years ago, it's a wonder anyone made it out of the jails to even get to their execution.  Kathleen Kent's novel is education and sadness, and it's like taking a history walk through Salem but immersed into the life of Martha and her family.  The book even delves into what life was like after the trials, how the flame of the panic was put out, by Cotton Mather's father, Increase Mather, who went against his own son to end the hysteria, & put a stop to using "spectral evidence."


And I just turned the last page on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe.  Set in 1991, and flashing back to the 1600s, Katherine Howe's main character, Connie, has been accepted into the PhD program at Harvard University, as an expert in American Colonialism.  Her earthy and New Age mother, now living in New Mexico, asks her to care for the old family house near Salem and throughout that summer, Connie comes across key family history that links her to the Salem Witch Trials.  Compared to The Heretic's Daughter, it's a lighter read, but still shocking.  And how did a family deal with the stigma of having a family member executed?  What legal steps could you take to repair the family name in the history books in the 1700s after the hysteria?


So on this Saturday, surrounded by my own familiars (my dog and cat), I wonder why I love stories on all things otherworldly?  Is it just because I have an imagination that I love to feed?  Or is it more of a sociological fascination?  Is it because of the reality that even today, society can still be so blindly led by one popular idea and get swept up, caught up in that moment, that thing, whatever it may be, that has to be believed?  On a smaller scale, there are things I'm sure that you've experienced in your life that fall under "peer pressure."  And in a bigger sense, have you ever been swayed solely by public opinion, and haven't really thought of whether it's true or not?  Which side of the fence would you have been on 400 years ago in Puritan New England?  With all of that, I wonder if it's fair to look back on the Salem Witch Trials and think that the town's responses to witches were really "crazy?"  I'm sure all of us can find stories in the news that are similar in "public opinion," or "unfounded widespread panic," right?  For myself, I'm going to think good thoughts and believe that I would have been strong enough to fight the hysteria at that time...I hope I'm not being naive...

16 June 2010

Paperbackswap.com anyone?


A quick note before my next review because I wanted to keep you in the loop!  I am so excited on my arrival in the mail yesterday for Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, and I received it FOR FREE!  Yes, that's right -- Paperbackswap.com is a site to go to for all your needs book-related.  Recommended to me a few years ago by a friend who also participates, and noticed that I spend way too much money every month on books.  I won't do the ten second commercial for you, I'll just say that you should jump on the site and see how simple it is to swap books online with other people, and nope -- there is no membership fee!  Enjoy!


**Click here to visit their site!**

13 June 2010

Don't Be Like Bob.


Do you know what makes you a good co-passenger on a flight? Do you consciously implement standard good manners and courtesy? Or are you just rude and clueless? How do you really know...

My picture, my picture. Do not take.
Last week, I took a flight to Minneapolis for work and as always, except for a little rain on one day, the trip to Minneapolis was gorgeous -- in the spring/early summer. Any other time, you have to dig deep down into your soul to see what makes you a strong person and use that to trudge through a winter visit, even if it is for one day. I lived in St. Cloud many years ago, which is about an hour and half northwest of Minneapolis, and three winters there secured my immediate travel plans to move somewhere South when I was told that the winters that I'd just experienced were the mildest winters ever. The mildest. Like 5 below is mild? Yep, that was my time to move.

So a trip to Minneapolis in spring/early summer is really the only way to go. And that's what I enjoyed last week. I would say the trip back to Florida was...interesting. Suffice it to say that I encountered an odd mix of Twilight zone passengers, and I'm going to highlight one in particular, and then move on to the list of "How to Not be a Clueless Airline Passenger."

I'll call him Bob. Bob sat next to me on my Southwest connection flight back to Florida, and Bob was clueless. Bob was one of those passengers that it was clearly obvious he was not actually talking to anyone on his cell, he was just pretending. Pretending so that as other passengers filed onto the plane, he was using that quiet moment when we were boarding to do a free commercial of the website and company he was selling. I won't give Bob the airtime to announce the website address. I visited the site, and *yawn* it's a waste of time. Won't bother you with that here.

Anyway, Bob proceeded to finally answer "sure" after I asked him three times if anyone was sitting in the seat next to him. So, since it wasn't clear if that meant yes someone was sitting there, or yes, feel free to sit, I sat, and he then decided cluelessly that the armrest we "shared" was really his, and no amount of me gently, subtly, and then outright pointedly moving his arm would get him to understand that just because he scored the armrest first does not mean he can then keep his arm hanging over it, and encroaching into my seat and my bubble. This isn't a recliner, Bob, and this isn't home. Somehow, I was able to sneak this picture of Bob, and I think you get the idea of my two hour flight.


So here goes my list I've managed to check off in my head on my many flights over the years:
  • If you score the armrest first, well lah-dee-dah for you. Can you please keep your arm on your side of the armrest? Don't be like Bob.
  • Just because a person sitting in the aisle seat is small and you have the inner seat, don't just assume you can slide past that person and put your nasty butt inches from their face. Politely let the person know the seat next to them is yours. More than likely, the person on the aisle will stand up and you can easily get to your seat without any infringed and unwanted intimate moments.
  • Don't argue with the flight attendants. You just look like a loser.
  • When getting off the plane, and you are walking up the jetway to get into the terminal, don't be like Bob, and forget that there is a line of passengers behind you that more than likely have to pee, make their connection, or are just claustrophobic, and they don't want to dilly dally behind you because you're walking slowly, talking on your phone, and basically just taking your sweet time to get into the gate. Move to the side and let us pass.
  • Please don't be the guy who got drunk the night before and somehow crawled onto the plane. Your secondhand drunken air coming out of your mouth makes fellow passengers sick.  Skipped right from drunk to hungover and that's just not cool, or fair.
  • Men: Don't check out the hot chick so your girlfriend or wife sees it. Lame. (Women: Don't start an argument with your boyfriend or husband. Lamer.)
  • Your little teeny tiny purse or shopping bag does NOT go in the overhead compartment area. You more than likely just screwed over the guy who needs to hustle to make his next connection, but had to check his bag because your shopping bag was more important.
  • Perfumes and colognes that are overpowering (you know who you are) are just annoying. Don't be like Bob.
  • Don't roll your eyes if a kid is bawling their eyes out. Get over it, it's life.  The kid is a KID for cryin' out loud and they probably don't know how to pop their ears and that crap hurts. It's hot, crowded, their ears are hurting, and more than likely you'd probably cry your eyes out too if it was socially acceptable.
  • And please. If you're on Southwest and a parent and a kid get on and they can't find two seats together, can you and your gooey love of your life take two hours to sit in different seats so that the mom or dad can sit with their kid? Seriously. Give up your seats.
But whatever you do, the only way to run away from these total ridiculous moments on flights? Just nab a good book and read away. You'll need it when Bob is pushing into your seat with his gross arm and burping up orange juice. Trust me.

05 June 2010

Afterwards, Everything is Understood


I'm thinking about a very good friend of mine who lost her wonderful father this weekend.  This post is dedicated to him, and to all those who leave too early, including my mother.


I fell asleep on the floor in my mother's sewing room the night before her memorial.  Sometime during the night, as I crafted the words to speak at her service, I must have rested my head on the pillow I had placed on the floor, vaguely hearing the rumblings of family and neighbors preparing for the next day.  When I woke up early the next morning, I couldn't see, and I pushed myself up, slow panic creeping over me as I ran my fingers over the carpet, searching for my glasses.  Somehow, they must have fallen off, and I didn't want to stand and then step on them.  Frustrated, unable to locate my glasses, I sat up, squinting my eyes and turning my head, hoping that I'd be able to visualize an outline of them reflecting from the morning sunlight.  Nothing.


My mother passed away at 7:43 in the morning on Mother's Day, 2004.  The drive back to Baltimore that day seemed unreal, passing by street vendor after street vendor selling red roses for the day.  Sun was bright.  Car was stifling.  Sleep was behind my eyes after driving 6 hours with my sister to get to my mother and be with her one last time.


A quick question crept through my subconscious that morning of the memorial, how will I read my eulogy without my glasses?  I put my hands flat on either side of me, determined to push myself up and find them, when my left hand slid slightly beneath the stuffed chair, and my fingers brushed over something metallic.  I drew my hand back, then slowly ran my hands, feeling the familiarity and the relief of my glasses.  Neatly folded, placed underneath the stuffed chair, out of reach of my clumsy feet clomping all over the room, which I tend to do when I just wake up.  I probably put them there, sometime in the middle of my sleep-induced tears and crumpling of paper.  I must have.  I must have slipped them off, folded them up properly and made sure to stick them the furthest place under the chair that I possibly could.  I must have.  My mother certainly couldn't have helped guide me to put them away, just as she always had as I was growing up...


So shortly after my mother passed away, though, I was doubting, then believing everything.  During her time in the hospital, after she succumbed from one infection to another following a successful heart transplant, I began to wonder if maybe I was beginning to get a little loopy, or if I was starting to really and actually...believe the things I secretly always thought were usually a part of..fiction.  I wondered if it was the hospital drugs that made my mother somehow sense a little girl by her bed who caressed her hand and tell her she would be okay.  And was it a sleepy morning dream when an old man told my mother things weren't ready just yet?  Both times, It was only me in the room, in the uncomfortable hospital chair by her bed.  Maybe, was it possible, that she was...in between?  I didn't dare acknowledge it, didn't dare speak it, even though it crept up my back and tingled at the back of my neck.  My sister was much more accepting of this, but I was simply afraid.  In between our world, and the next.  I was mad, too, feeling injustice at how young she was, at only sixty short years.  What I do know now, and remember with a sharp intensity, was what everything felt like at that time and for that first year after she passed, which seemed to prick my inner compass when I least expected it, to remind me more assuredly to believe that there was something...afterwards.


It could just be coincidence that different radio stations began to play one specific song that was reminding me of my mother.  Weird, though, since the song was more than a few years old, and no longer really popular.  Maybe it's coincidence that I started to notice things more because I was so sensitive, or to sound kooky, could I be so sensitive now and in tune to an afterlife because someone I loved had just left?


The book, Final Gifts, helped me after she left.  Written by two hospice nurses, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, who began to see a trend in their patients who were getting closer and closer to leaving this life to go the next, they found a startling consistency.  Patients oftentimes began to experience and see things that no one else in the room would see, and they believed that they would ultimately make the choice of when they would move on.  Doctors would write it off to the multitude and variety of drugs coursing through the patient's body, but these two women with 20 yeas of experience, felt that they were bearing witness to something different.  Through them, I began to understand how my mother expressed her comfort and her hope in those beautiful moments when she was walking between two worlds.  My faith in this reassured me and helped me to understand all of the undoubtedly weird, unnerving, and most definitely fun, moments when I knew that my mother was with me, and I knew that she was communicating with me.  I felt comforted by this and each page reminded me that no matter how terrible the moment is when your loved one leaves, they unquestionably pass to a different world, where pain isn't felt, and they have left behind their heavy and sick bodies to move into a world that is full with peace.


Remember everything around you when your loved one passes.  Do everything you can to remember the dreams that you have, write them down to help you always remember.  This is their way to communicate, to tell you that they are good, all is well.  When my mother's best friend, Sonia, was in a hospice three years later, my sister and I sat by her bed, the room suddenly became unnaturally quiet.  Throughout the quiet of the still room, the small radio by the bed somehow seemed to be getting just a little bit louder, unseen fingers gently turning the knob.  My mother's song began to play in that room at that exact time.  I don't believe at all in coincidence. She was there, in that room, readying her best friend for the journey to the next world.
I have only slipped away into the next room, I am I and you are you.  Whatever we were to each other, that we still are.  Call me by my old familiar name.  Speak to me in the easy way which you always used.  Play, smile, think of me. All is well. ~Henry Scott Holland
Dedicated to all who have passed and to all who remain to remember the journey.
Please visit www.graceprotzman.com or www.digitalgraces.com for artistic images.

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