Summer Reading for the Stay-Inside Set

I don't know about anyone else out there, but I'm on pace to shatter my previous record for total books consumed in a year by the end of 2020. In an ordinary year, I might actually knock back forty-five or fifty traditional book-length works (50,000+ words on the short end, with most checking in around 80,000 words) before Christmas, with another twenty or twenty-five cookbooks mixed in for good measure. I love reading cookbooks, but that's a post for another day.

I've reached the end of my patience with Kindle Unlimited, so I have been borrowing books via the Jacksonville Public Library and purchasing odds and ends at Costco to round out my home library (If It Bleeds is good!).

As good fortune would have it, however, I encountered a pair of worthy stories in the last week that are both skillfully written and downright creepy. 

Matt and Harrison Query recently sold their tale My Wife & I Bought a Ranch to Netflix. It's a six-part tale unfolding on Reddit, and the piece has an enviable, slowly mounting tension beneath its intriguing plot. While it reads a bit like a stream-of-consciousness nightmare in places, that style is also part of its charm. The central characters (I enjoyed Dan's gritty, no-nonsense approach to discussing such absurd shenanigans) are multidimensional and believable. I enjoyed it quite a bit and read it on a stormy afternoon, which enhanced the experience a bit.

Josh Malerman is one of my favorite new authors. I was riveted by Bird Box long before it became a film sensation, and I think his serial novel Carpenter's Farm might be even better than that earlier effort. Characterization, setting, and the author's keen approach to phrasing have made this my favorite novel I've read thus far in 2020. I won't get into the text for fear of spoiling a great story, but I loved the sense of alienation and the uncanny that the author explores here. 

What's scarier, after all, then losing track of ourselves? Of our personal identity?

I hope you are well where you are. As I write this, I haven't been teaching at FSCJ on campus with any regularity in 2020. I won't be, either. We are going fully online again in the fall. While in some ways it feels like a wasted year, in others it has been revelatory. I hope for some calm and positivity in the months to come, and I look forward to brighter days ahead...


Blogging from the Edge of the Apocalypse...

Stephen King's The Stand: a chapter by chapter breakdown
Captain Trips, from Stephen King's The Stand

As I write this, my wife is driving though Lot J down at TIAA Bank Stadium (home of the Jacksonville Jaguars) for a drive-through COVID-19 test. We live in strange times, to be sure, and I'm thankful that she has been isolating in a separate part of the house and following CDC guidelines for testing after her symptoms began to emerge. We are praying that it's merely a chest cold, but it's important to take every precaution we can to stay healthy in these uncertain times.

There have been so many great books about pandemics for those that have been bitten by the macabre voyeurism bug. Stephen King's The Stand is an epic tome, of course, and Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron is once again surging in popularity. Justin Cronin's novels are probably selling like hotcakes, and I'm sure Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is getting a lot of attention as well. Joe R. Lansdale and Robert McCammon (Swan Song) write these types of stories with such style and humanity that they will inspire you to scratch out your own tales on the subject. I've always enjoyed (and often taught) Stephen King's "Night Surf." It's one of his first published short stories, and it perfectly illustrates the frustration and futility that many of us have experienced in the last month as life around the globe has changed so drastically.

Our kids are doing fine. Children are so unbelievably adaptable. We can learn a lot just by watching them navigate huge life changes in these strange times...

Jeanne and I are doing okay as well as we adjust to new work protocols and practices. As I mentioned to my students at FSCJ last week in a video--this, too, shall pass...

I miss my office. I miss running the trails at the Arboretum and the Timucuan Preserve. I miss sports. I miss trivial, banal complaints about morning traffic. I miss not getting the side-eye if I have the temerity to cough in public.

But these are surreal, interesting times and I know we'll come out of them wiser and more prepared as a result of all of this discomfort. I hope you and yours are safe and healthy.

Oh, and for my own take on the subject of the pandemic, you can read Remnants: A Record of Our Survival for free here, or pick up a Kindle copy for a song here...

Take care...


Book Review: The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

Image result for grunwald the swampI just finished Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. The book left me filled with conflicting emotions. I feel pride for my adopted state of Florida and the people that have worked so hard to make it such a fine place to live, and for our species for recognizing what a remarkable natural resource that The Everglades are. As Grunwald notes in his epilogue, there is "only on Everglades, and we have just about destroyed it. It is our ability to recognize this, and to make amends, that sets us apart from other species" (369). 

It's a fine point, and one can't help but thank folks like Ernest Coe, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Nathaniel Reed, Paul Tudor Jones, Lawton Chiles, countless leaders of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes, and an untold list of other journalists, politicians, environmentalists, and citizens that dedicated their lives to the restoration of the River of Grass.

But I also feel disgust that the twentieth-century ethic of "slash, cut, dredge, and pave" has left the Glades a shadow of its once-majestic self. I spent some time looking at some of the most recent CERP findings (data set 2012-2017) and, while restoration has yielded some positive benefits, sprawl is still encroaching on the western Everglades and remains a threat to environmentally sensitive areas such as Big Cypress. 

South Florida is essentially built out. Grunwald notes this in his meticulously written book, which was published fifteen years ago, and that statement is even more true now. The limits for horizontal growth in South Florida have been met, and there will need to be drastic changes in how communities continue to plan and develop as we move forward in the new millennium. 

I loved this book, and I purchased a copy for my father--a hydrologist that spent more than forty years with the United State Forest Service watching commerce and conservation clash in communities throughout Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. Grunwald is both a lyrical science writer with an active prose style and a careful technical writer that is able to connect the dots between a vast amount of disparate research items. He covers the topic of the Everglades evenly and fairly, acknowledging the various usurpations and thefts of the American government toward the native people of the region with sympathy and pathos. Like many other chapters in American history, the attempted settlement of the Everglades isn't all butterflies and rainbows, and it's clear that various interests with both positive and nefarious intentions collaborated to severely damage America's Everglades. 

And yet, the text concludes on a slightly optimistic note by pointing toward a twenty-first-century dynamic of restoration and conservation that will allow the River of Grass to return to some semblance of its former glory. I hope I live to see that day, although the projections for restoring water flow to only 70% of its original capacity are still not scheduled to be met for another twenty years into the future. 

I hope to visit the Everglades in the coming months, even if only for a short time, and I wanted to post a quick review saying kudos to Michael Grunwald on writing an important book, and kudos to the various agencies now working to restore these great wetlands to their former glory.

As Marjory Stoneman Douglas said, There are no other Everglades in the world.


Odds and Ends and the Start of a New Term...

We enjoyed a productive summer around these parts, for the most part. My daughter attended day camp at Neptune Beach Elementary and had a fun time at junior lifeguard camp (a common rite of passage out at the beaches) later in the season. The kids learned aspects of CPR and other life-saving techniques, and they swam in the ocean and came home happy and tired each day. She is off and running for fifth grade and will be playing soccer on Saturdays at UNF this fall.

My son is doing well with his letters, numbers, and shapes. He enjoyed water days at his daycare center, and he loves Italian shaved ice. Luke is learning how to hold his own with the big kids on the street in neighborhood basketball games, and he loves watching Goosebumps with his big sister.

I'm excited to begin a new term at Florida State College at Jacksonville today. I have new curriculum in a pair of classes, and my course on the philosophy of horror is almost full. I can't wait to explore those texts with our students! We are reading Bradbury and King extensively, with articles by Oates, Barker, Barron, and Dickstein. 

I have spent fourteen years jogging various nature trails in Jacksonville. In all of that time, I've never seen an alligator on the trail unless it was within sight of a major body of water. 

In the last three weeks, however, I've had two such encounters!

Three weeks ago, I jogged out to the birding platform at the Round Marsh. I stretched and had a little quiet time for meditation before heading back up the trail. I was a half mile into my run when I glance up the path and see a large creature lumbering toward me. It was about a quarter of a mile away, so I wasn't sure about what it might be.

Sure enough, it was an eight-foot alligator. That sucker was covered in lime-green duckweed. It was up doing the gator walk, but it stopped and hunkered down when it saw me. 

There was no way that I was getting around it, so I had to backtrack and take an alternative route. It was exhilarating, to be sure, but I couldn't help but feel a bit nervous on the return journey.

For those familiar with the area, I encountered the gator just west of the Willie Browne Cabin.

Last Wednesday, I stopped at the Jacksonville Arboretum for a run and I encountered a little three footer at the entrance to the Live Oak Trail. It cracked its mouth open at me and stared me down. I took two steps backward and it kept on trucking--right into the heart of the woods! 

I've walked a lot of Florida trails. I've even been off trail at the GTM Preserve (with the aid of rangers), but I've never seen an alligator in the middle of the woods. Frankly, it's a scary thought. It makes sense they would be there, of course, but it's not a common occurrence. I was shocked when I met the big one, but then seeing that little guy last week was really odd. 

Oh, well...back at it today. 

My wife is doing well at Fletcher, and I enjoyed a productive summer at the word processor and in the classroom with students at FSCJ. I think we completed some quality work, and I am excited for the fall term here at the College. Our new president, Dr. John Avendano, strikes me as an intelligent, inspirational leader. I was very impressed with his candor and attitude last week at Convocation.

I don't often jog with a camera (or a phone, for that matter), but I might have to start bringing one in order to document my encounters with Florida fauna. This is an amazing place to live and in which to spend time outdoors, and I am thankful for the chance to get out and enjoy it...


Taking Stock at Forty-Two

You've probably heard this one before. I first encountered it years ago, while playing golf with a gentleman a decade or two my senior. I'm paraphrasing, but he told me something a bit like this:
If you're young and not a Democrat, then you have no heart. If your older and not a Republican, then you have no common sense.
I bring this up only because I had a birthday a few weeks back. I'm no sage, to be sure, but I thought I'd test my mileage with that saying above and maybe offer up a few insights on the view from here:

  • People are inherently decent. If you treat others with respect, you stand a much better chance of getting respect in return.
  • Honor your time and use it. Time may be a human construct, but it keeps us on track. An important personal mantra, by the way, when it comes to time management: Do it now.
  • Memorialize your life. Buy souvenirs. Take (and print) photographs. Collect things (within reason). They all add up to a record that you'll be thankful for later in life.
  • Be considerate. Let someone else into the flow of traffic once a day when you're out on the roads. It makes everyone feel better and shows a shared humanity.
  • Read. Write. Run. I can think of nothing better than that trio if you want to stay engaged with the world, your community, and with yourself. I read widely. I write every day. I run often. These things keep me interested in life, connected to my creative side, and healthy in my mind, heart, and lungs.
  • Count your blessings. At the end of the day, it's human nature to fall into that trap of coveting what others might have. In reality, though, things could always be worse. I'm more thankful now for the good things in my life than I was a decade ago, and it's simply a matter of perspective.
  • See the forest for the trees. How can you be your best self? If you trudge from tree to tree, your head down, you'll never look up and recognize the beautiful forest that is your own life. I try to take stock of things periodically, and I want to be my best self in my forties, my fifties, my sixties, and so on...
  • Celebrate! When good things happen or when you accomplish something that you've been working for, celebrate it (and memorialize it!) with others.
  • Be mindful. Whether it's prayer, meditation, yoga, or simple solitude, find moments to be alone with your thoughts. Knowing yourself and being comfortable with yourself is (and always has been) a salve for modern malaise...
  • Embrace your passions. If you love something, honor it (Go Ducks!)...
  • Help when you can. I try not to say 'no' when friends call for help if I can pitch in. As a great football mind once said, the best ability is availability (yeah, yeah...I guess I can help you move.).
  • Be thankful. I have many blessings for which to be thankful, and I am fortunate every day for them.
This is a small list, of course, but these are just a few of the maxims that I try to consider in my daily lived experience. 

Friday Throwback Music