Today I was lucky enough to cross paths with the inimitable Phyllis Dunning. As my English teacher at R.J. Reynolds High School, Mrs. Dunning singlehandedly imparted to my teenaged brain a deep appreciation of all things literary and poetic, a condition that continues to shape my work and personal pursuits and quite frankly my entire outlook. Not an exaggeration. So wonderful to see you, Mrs. Dunning, and to have the opportunity to thank you for a lifetime of inspiration!
The train rumbles through the industrial zones, backyards and desolate straightaways of middle Florida. First it's all warehouses, boxy and boring and sad. Then it's iffy neighborhoods and swampy forests dripping with Spanish moss and flickering with strange shadows.
The guy seated next to me is fully reclined and wearing slippers. We talk about where we're from, where we're headed. "Why you going to Lakeland, you have family there?" he asks me. Nope, just riding down for the day. "All good," he says, bleary-eyed and telling me he's been on this train, the Amtrak Silver Star, since before 3 a.m. when he boarded in Orangeburg, S.C.
We arrive in Lakeland around lunchtime, he goes his way, I go mine. Later, my return train is running almost two hours behind, but what the heck, I'm taking a vacation day and I just don't care. Eventually I'm rolling again, homeward bound, baby. A slightly peeved-sounding conductor makes an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder, please no paper towels in the toilets. If you put paper towels in the toilet, there will be no toilet. And then you will have to hold it in till your destination."
I'm feeling a little cramped in my assigned seat in coach so mosey back to the business-class car, just for a look see, and remarkably there are available seats everywhere! No one's going to mind if I plop into one of these big, comfy spots with this nice window all to myself. Ahhhhh.
Not so fast, here comes a serious-faced Amtrak attendant. "Excuse me sir, what's your destination?" Orlando, I answer. "Only 20 minutes away," he says, and moves on.
We Floridians are a little unnerved by this storm. Actually a lot unnerved.
"It's all starting to sink in now," I just heard a co-worker say. "Earlier I was like, we've been through this before, but now I'm worried."
Another colleague put a festive spin on it: "Just hope and pray and drink till it's over."
If you obsessively watch the forecast and ponder the possibilities of what this hurricane could do, even inland in Orlando, it's hard not to freak.
"Come on, man, this isn't the zombie apocalypse," reasoned another guy down the hall.
True. I guess. I don't really know what a zombie apocalypse is.
My son just wants this to end well, like we all do.
"We're going to be OK, right?"
Yep. That's the plan.
The buzzer sounds. Game time. The boys are pumped and the parents are fidgeting in the stands. But the coach is running late. "Dad, the ref says you can fill in for him till he gets here." And so begins the highlight of my Friday night.
"You're not going to love all the cursing." This is a warning from my teenage son. I've agreed to spend part of our road trip to Fort Myers familiarizing myself with his music. Rap, that is. My car speakers are begging for mercy. "Sorry the bass is going crazy," says the boy. We plow through an hour of his tunes and switch to mine. Now The Who are blaring, all power chords and frenetic drums and top-of-the-lungs screaming. "It's fine," he concedes, with zero conviction. He perks up when a Cure song starts, but not much. We return to his playlist, me sneaking the volume down. I tolerate it. He goes into the zone. "If I had to choose between one million dollars or music, I would choose music, definitely." We're worlds apart but oh so much alike.
ABOVE: A sliver of my boy's playlist. I have no clue what any of this is.
BELOW: Some of my tunes. Why can't he see the brilliance here?
The smooth tension of the wheels screaming down the pavement. The fleeting moments of acceleration and fluidity. The contours of the surface rippling through your body. Ever since I was old enough to stand on a skateboard, this has been one of my go-to pursuits of happiness. It's true, I'm a tad old for this now. But just look at this road directly in front of my house, the perfect slope for #longboarding. How lucky am I?
Scaring the neighbors with the evil-as-hell Astoria fuzz pedal from Stomp Under Foot.
Anybody out there like oysters? I've never been a huge oyster guy but I know a good one when I taste one. And I just indulged in a dozen of these bad boys, maybe the best I've ever had, at a local dive called Lee & Ricks Oyster Bar. Lightly steamed, super fluffy, just the right amount of briny flavor, and shucked right in front of me by a foul-mouthed young lady adorned with evil-looking tattoos.
"You're going to f...ing love these," my spunky server promised, "and when you're done, just throw the shells down here behind the bar."
How have I avoided this place until now? It's only three miles from my house, the house I've lived in for almost 18 years. I've known about it, heard good reviews, passed by the tacky exterior a thousand times. Today I simply did what had to be done.
Opened in 1950, in the same spot and in the same building it's in right now, Lee & Ricks is an institution in Orlando. Walking into this place is like walking back in time ... way back. Only with the freshest damn oysters in central Florida. "We probably go through about 300 bushels a week," explains another woman standing behind the bar. I learned that it takes four big buckets full of oysters to make one bushel, and that they get their famed oysters from the Apalachicola region of Florida's panhandle.
"Come back soon, OK?" said my f-bomb-dropping new friend as I stood up to leave. Oh, hell yeah, you know it.
If you pause, breathe deeply and drop everything that weighs you down, it's easy to be swept away in the spirit of the Florida Keys. The scenery is heavenly, medicinal really. Time no longer ticks and tocks, it oozes. The morning starts still and eerily quiet, then a wind picks up and you notice a faint hum of tires on the Overseas Highway. The day takes gentle shape and the moments evaporate into memory. The night gets so pitch black the sky crowds with stars you never knew existed, big, bold spotlights elbowing each other for position. A nice spring break getaway, and a whole lot more.
So many wonderful things happened in 2016. And so much crappy stuff, too.
"You just gotta roll with the punches," my wise mom instructs me routinely, and she's right.
I've never been much good at rolling with it but I try. I really do. If you ask my wife, she'll tell you I suck at it. She's right. The women in my life are always right.
All of this is just to say ... let's keep our chins up in 2017. I feel pretty sure all won't be flawless in the new year, but there's usually more than enough of the miraculous to balance everything out. Make the most of each day we're given, because each one is indeed a gift.
“What day is it?" asked Winnie the Pooh.
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh.
The past several months have been a blur ... really.
It was February when I first went to the ophthalmologist complaining of hazy vision in my right eye. He diagnosed inflammation inside the eye and a small area of scar tissue on the retina. Using steroid drops made it better for a few weeks but it slowly deteriorated and by mid-summer, I was back at his office, frustrated and a little alarmed.
We did additional treatment and then, in a troublesome twist of fate, I suffered a detached retina in late August and underwent emergency surgery to repair it. By October the retina had stabilized but the scar tissue was creating significant distortion in my vision and becoming more and more difficult to bear.
On Election Day, as everyone else set their sights on the contentious presidential race, I crossed my fingers and went in for another surgery, this time to remove the scar tissue. So far, recovery is going well. Today, less than two weeks after that procedure, the vision in my right eye is improving little by little.
This is obviously not the kind of thing I'd want to manage alone. And thankfully I haven't had to. My employer and co-workers have been super supportive and I can't thank them enough. The Disney company is every bit as magical as our fans say we are (and then some). Of course, my wife Kjerstin is the star of this story. I knew I lucked out when I married her, and seeing her jump into action to take care of me just confirmed my belief that I have the most wonderful spouse on the planet. I'm very blessed.
We all hit rough patches. They come in many different varieties and severities. And sometimes they really throw us off the rails. But if we pay close enough attention, maybe we can realize that even these unexpected tests of personal fortitude bring some new level of understanding, resilience and hopefulness.
My vision isn't exactly crystal clear but what I see has never looked so amazing.
Apparently some player on the Miami Dolphins just did something terribly wrong. "You suck, Jordan," barked the peeved dude right behind me.
The game was off to a dawdling start. Plenty of running and helmet crashing, but few completions and a fair amount of generalized blundering. The first quarter was over without any points on the board.
Enter the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders. "Mom, dad is looking at the cheerleaders," my daughter finds it important to divulge. But aren't we all? Come on!
Meanwhile, in the time it took me to drain a single $8 can of Bud Light, the two super fans in front of me, in well-worn Dolphins jerseys and caps, had worked their way through at least four Heinekens apiece. One of them kept turning around to high-five me. That's cool. The best part was when he and his buddy held up their beers for a selfie. Not a selfie of themselves with their beers. A selfie of their beers. Just their beers.
"Next time put some freakin' arc on the ball," pipes up the guy behind me when a pass doesn't measure up to his standards.
I must say this game, a pre-season Dolphins vs. Falcons matchup at the Citrus Bowl, was big fun and certainly a unique opportunity for my family, given that NFL action is rare in Orlando. Everyone was in the sporting mood until ... just seconds into the third quarter ... wait for it ... "I want to go home," my little girl pleads softly, leaning her head against my shoulder. "I'm tired, and I'm tired of all this."
Some of you may have gathered that my son, Jackson, 13, has a thing for basketball. He's not bad at it, either. He also loves making videos. Pretty good at that, too. In this clip, shot on his iPhone, he combines his two passions to arrive at a very cool result. "This video is wonderful," I told him. "I guess," he said. "I guess it's all right."
All day long the sun burns and the heat builds until it becomes almost unbearable to even walk outside. The AC pumps and pumps but can no longer beat back the big bully pushing against our walls. The grass, dried-up and defeated, cries for somebody to do something, please.
Then this ...
Clouds gather and darken and lose their temper. Utter stillness gives way to sudden gusts thrashing through the trees. There are flashes and booms. Drops drip and then splatter and then finally ... finally ... the whole scorched mess is drenched.
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