Saturday, December 25, 2010

It really is a 'Wonderful Life'

Among the holiday traditions at the Simmons compound is sitting down with some hot cocoa to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Though it’s also true my kids actually gather to watch my eyes mysteriously water at various times throughout the movie.)

The tale of George Bailey, a good hearted man who sacrifices his dreams to make life richer for others, is a true American classic. If Jimmy Stewart had never made another movie, his name would be cemented in film history for the humanity and desperation he brought to this role.

George does the right thing, even when it means foregoing his own desires, and his seeming reward for this is to find himself facing prison, financial disaster and humiliation for his family because of another man’s evil deed. Mr. Potter tells George he’s worth more dead than alive, and in that moment of hopelessness, George believes the lie. He thinks his family and friends would be better off without him, and that his insurance policy is all there is of value about him.

He wishes he had never been born.

George is blessed to see the world as it would have been without him in it. He learns how even his slightest remarks and actions made a difference in someone’s life, and they in turn enriched his world. The lesson being, a man of integrity and truth often interacts with others without even having to think about it, and may never understand the impact he can have on others — or how that impact reverberates back into his own life.

Now, don’t get me wrong, but I think there are plenty of Mr. Potters whose absence would make (or would have made, in their day) a better place of this old world. And not just those that are or ought to be behind bars; there are multitudes behind desks or countertops, or behind the wheel of a car or a wall of lawyers or a legion of goons — who we’d never miss if they disappeared.

But that’s not what this movie is about: We never even see if Mr. Potter gets his just desserts (although a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit of the movie’s “alternate ending” shows the townspeople taking vengeance on Potter.)

This season, the movie resonates for different reasons. This has been a year of struggle, heartache and loss for many of us, and we may wonder what good it does to keep up the fight. What you may not see in that darkest hour is how many lives you actually touch, or have touched in your time — or those you will affect as you continue. The payoff may not be what you expect. In fact, it probably won’t be.

But don’t give up. It really is a wonderful life.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Even better than the real thing

(This was my 'Catch a Rave' column for Dec. 15, 1996.)

The man was trapped:  a miserable creature facing one of the most difficult actions of his miserable existence.

The boy, age 8, was unwavering. He had his suspicions, of course. He was old enough to have accumulated his share of cynicsm, but somewhere deep in his little heart a glimmer of hope held forth that he wouldn't get the answer he expected.

The hope was not to be:

"It's true," the old man said at last. "He's not real."

The glimmer died, but somehow the boy understood something even more important:  All those years that Santa had brought the best-ever presents and his folks had disappointed him by giving him clothes -- it had been them all along who filled both his needs and his holiday fantasies. He could accept that.


That's not the way it happened, though that's the way it should have been. Instead, it happened because someone in the neighborhood broke into the home of the boy's grandmother and stole the Christmas toys his parents had hidden in Grandma's utility room.

The theft was not discovered until late on Christmas Eve, and 20-some years ago in rural northwest Florida, there was no 24-hour discount store where the distraught parents could rush to replace puloined presents.

Instead, the parents got up very early on Christmas morning and made breakfast and waited for the kids to awaken. And when the children rushed down the hallway to see the mostly empty living room where they had expected to find scatterings of Christmas delights, the parents picked them up and held them and told them what had happened and promised to take them shopping to pick out their very own presents.

The kids didn't cry -- not even the boy's 5-year-old little sister. Somehow, knowing that their parents had been the source of their past Christmas joys helped them to see beyond the morning's disappointments.

That -- and the possibilities raised by the thought of shopping with parents riddled by guilt.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, lala!


Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ho, ho, ho ... and feeling the lowest of the low

(The following was my 'Catch a Rave' column for Dec. 21, 1997.)

I am the lowest of the low, the blind albino worm that crawls in the silt under the slime at the bottom of the deepest, darkest cave. And yet, in doing the thing that made me feel this low, I know I was doing the right thing.

My 9-year-old son (who asked to remain anonymous when he learned I would be sharing this story with the rest of the planet) had been asking questions about THE TRUTH for weeks, off and on.

Questions like, "Do you really believe in him?" and, "Does he really live at the North Pole?" and, "Maybe it's not really Santa who brings the toys, maybe it's God."

And so I asked him if he knew THE TRUTH. Yes, he said.

He said YES.

I asked him how it made him feel. Okay, he said.

He said OKAY.

Lulled into a false sense of relief that he had only been pumping me to see how long I would hold out, I tried to talk to him about how he felt. figuring that somebody at school had already dashed his holiday beliefs, I told him how I had found out THE TRUTH.

Terror dawned in his eyes. Blank, abject, world-shattering denial.

To say that he cried would be like saying that Hurricane Opal had been an autumn shower. He bawled, he snorted. He shook and gusted. He said, "I can't believe you're telling me this!"

And the terror came alive in me as well, as I realize that he did not, in fact, know THE TRUTH until I had told him.

I had shattered his faith. I had betrayed his trust. In one fell swoop, I had killed Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy like some kind of virus deadly only to fables and archetypes.

I am guilty. GUILTY, I tell you.

But after a minute or so of allowing me to console him -- and after my wife tried to convince him that this was all just a really bad joke on Daddy's part -- he suddenly realized that this TRUTH stuff might not be so bad.

After all, his little sister still doesn't know THE TRUTH, so he's still assured of getting gifts from the Big Red S -- and if he gets, in his words, "really crappy toys" from Santa this year, he'll,know who to blame.

Who says THE TRUTH will set you free?  

Sunday, December 19, 2010

'Salvage Santa' does what needs to be done

The last thing I wanted to write about this week was anything more about the shooting at the Bay District School Board meeting on Tuesday. I wanted to write about Christmas.

But then district security chief Mike Jones, aka “Salvage Santa,” stopped by the office Friday to see one of his fans, Byron Smith. Byron’s mom works in the district office Mike protected from a gunman Tuesday, and she had told Mike that Byron was worried about him. Mike often joins Byron’s Kiwanis Club chapter for luncheons. They’re buds.

Mike had planned to spend the day with his family, but this was one side trip that needed to be done, he said. That’s Mike, as long as I’ve known him: Sees a need and does what he can.

Seeing them hug in the lobby was, for me, a moment about connections and family, and caring about your fellow human being — all of which describe the Salvage Santa program, which Mike said was upmost in his mind as the past days have unfolded.

We’ve all lived through the horror of the shooting in some way by now, seeing it replayed over and over again on video clips, presented in photos, analyzed in articles and talked about on TV and radio shows. For me, an added weird element is that I attended literally hundreds of meetings in that room, sitting in the media area and watching the podium from the same point of view those videos captured. It’s too easy to put myself in that place.

Indeed, most of us have cycled through the stages of grief over this. Here, it started with disbelief when a meeting in my boss’ office was interrupted with the words, “There’s a gunman in the School Board meeting and shots have been fired.” You know the rest of the story, in which district officials narrowly escaped death and Mike took down the gunman, who then shot himself.

But the story isn’t over yet, as it has affected Mike’s life outside his work. Monday, he’ll oversee a massive toy giveaway to children who are clients of Early Education and Care — the 27th year since he saw a need and did what had to be done.

When I spoke with Mike Friday morning, he looked tired. He said he’d had little sleep, and who could blame him — he’s still being asked to relive those hellish minutes and the final deadly seconds of the confrontation over and over again.

But he also has had to worry about Salvage Santa, which was hurting for support this year. Until Thursday evening, that is, when he went to shop for toys and donors who had seen him in action this week pressed cash and checks into his hands, more than tripling the money with which he had started the evening.

And then Friday, School Board member Ginger Littleton’s famous purse went up for sale on eBay with proceeds to go to Salvage Santa, and Schwinn called to promise him 500 bikes and helmets, and others called to talk about making large donations.

In this season of thanksgiving and hope, that’s about as good an outcome as anyone could ever imagine, and all because Mike did what needed to be done.

(This was my Undercurrents column for Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Writing to a different beat

(This was my 'School Daze' column for Dec. 17, 1997, back when I was the education reporter.)

Got a chance, this week past, to march to a different drum -- that is, I changed ``beats'' and chased crime stories for five days. School was out, after all, and our regular police reporter, Monica Scandlen, was out-of-country for the Christmas holidays.

I actually /volunteered/ for the duty. (It seemed like a good idea at the time. Go figure.)

And the week had its brighter moments. The cops, clerks and courthouse folks all were friendly and helpful. But overall, working the police beat — while vicariously exciting — wasn't nearly as positive an experience as covering education stories.

(Those among you who wish to do so may now say, ``Duh.'')

I listened to the police radio scanner late into the night -- lots of domestic violence calls, disturbances, drunk drivers, robberies large and small.

I visited the stations each day to peruse arrest reports, checked in at the courthouse to rifle first appearance papers, and reported to the county jail to examine the log book and inmate files. I bugged the investigators and information officers, and I ran out to accident scenes.

Yes, I got the opportunity to write about the theft of a giant fiberglass Santa Claus head and the stripper who found her work clothes stolen — you don't get stories like those very often.

But I also had to write about armed robberies, the sexual abuse of a child and the arrest of three high-schoolers for making and detonating a pipe bomb.

Beyond that, there were the numerous police incident reports we don't print, but which we are obligated to read in order to determine their status. Reports of boyfriends beating girlfriends with pool cues; of unemployed women writing bad checks to pay for groceries; of teen-age shoplifters and burglars and drug abusers and vandals.

(It's enough to make you believe the bad things you read in the papers.)

But those readers who think the media is full of too much ``negative'' reporting should know that the sad truth is it's actually worse out there than you may think. Much — indeed /most/ — of the crime news goes unreported, simply because we don't have the personnel or paper to cover all of it.

Of course, on the flipside of that: much of the news about local education — both good and bad — goes unreported for the same reason.

But let me tell you, on any given day I'd rather visit a school and interview bright teen-agers about their science projects, artwork or hopes for a happy future.

I'd rather see the gleam in a little girl's eye when new books are donated to her school or when someone recognizes her hard work.

Call me an optimist, but I'd even prefer to deal with School Board members and superintendents and district staff and teachers and other people in our school system — who, in most cases, are busily working to make tomorrow's citizens a little smarter and more successful — than to deal with those people in the criminal justice system who are busy cleaning up yesterday's failures.

Having said all that, let's get back to work.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas wisdom: Can't buy happiness

(This was a 'Bay Book' column for Dec. 22, 2000)

There once was a day when visions of sugarplums danced in children's heads at the thought of Christmas. But that was another world, another time.

Today, their vision is ruled by Tommy Hilfiger brand clothes and Razor brand scooters, by PlayStations and Pokemon and Poo-Chi, oh my — so much "newfangled stuff," as one woman at the Bay County Council on Aging Senior Center put it this week, that parents trip over the items cast aside after a few minutes' diversion.

It wasn't always like that.

"For Christmas when we were kids, we might get an orange, an apple and a peppermint stick - and we loved it," said Betty Moore, 74, of Panama City. "Our children get so much that they don't appreciate things."

Moore said girls growing up now couldn't live like she had to — bathing in a creek, using an outhouse, cooking on a wood stove.

"We lived. We didn't have anything but the simple things," said Anna Boyarski, 83, of Panama City. "Today, the kids don't really enjoy what they have. They have toys scattered from one end of the house to another, but they don't enjoy it."

Boyarski suspected that such conspicuous consumption leaves people even less satisfied by life than those who grew up without.

"Are people more happy these days than we were with the little we had? I don't think so," Boyarski said. "Everybody wants to have the best. Nobody is really satisfied. In those days, they were thankful for whatever they had. Families stayed together and today they're scattered."

Hal Coggin, 81, of Panama City, said dissatisfaction would follow today's adults and children into their senior years.

"I think we, as seniors, enjoy life more than a young person will when they get to our age because they don't know what to do or how to appreciate stuff," he said.

"You can't buy friendship, and you can't buy happiness."


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Other side of parade exhilarating

(This was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 15, 2002)

We ran out of trinkets too soon, which may have made some kids on the sidelines feel slighted but probably saved those of us "walking" beside the News Herald truck from falling dead of heart failure.

From the southern tip of Harrison Avenue to the intersection with Seventh Street, we had run back and forth between a garland-bedecked pickup and the crowded sidewalks, handing out newspapers and candy and goodie bags.

The truck managed to stay a half-block ahead of us, making us jog to catch up. Until, that is, the supplies ran out and all we had left to share was our spirit. We walked and waved and danced and shouted greetings. We shook hands and exchanged hugs with those who called out to us. We sang along to Joy to the World.

It was pretty cool.

Dec. 7 marked my first time seeing the annual Panama City Christmas Parade from the inside-out, so to speak. Many a chilly Saturday evening in the Christmas season, I've enjoyed watching from the sidelines - reining in my children as they scrambled for candy, or videotaping or photographing the proceedings.

It was always fun to see people that I knew as they passed in the parade, silly grins pasted on their faces. I'd shout their names and sometimes they would even hear me through the noise of the crowd. We'd share a wave and smile, a moment of connection.

I never realized how much fun they were having.

Maybe not the band members, as they concentrated on their music and stayed in step. Of all those on parade, the musicians, baton twirlers and flag wavers probably have the hardest jobs. They can't afford distraction at the wrong moment or a tuba player might swallow an errant baton.

But the rest of them - driving their tricked-out cars, sitting on floats and waving, or just walking along and handing out candy (no throwing allowed) - the rest of them were just having fun.

They were soaking in the glimmer in little kids' eyes when a mint was dropped in tiny gloved hands. They were basking in a cheer from a halfdozen kids shouting "Merry Christmas!" back at them. They were enjoying the waves and the wishes, or surprise hugs from a cousin or an old friend they don't see often enough.

It wasn't the chill in the air that froze a silly grin on my face (or even the antics of the Pink Flamingo chapter of the Sweet Potato Queens on the float that trailed us).

It must have been some of that aforementioned "Joy to the World."


Book Signings and PIZZA!

My friend Michael Lister (whose new novel, The Body and Blood, I wrote about here, and reviewed here) has arranged a special Christmas party/pizza party/book signing/author gathering for this Saturday, and you're invited. Come out, have some pizza, meet some writers for a book signing, "and pick up great gifts for all the smart people on your list!" (Or so he said in a Facebook post.)

WHERE AND WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 18, 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. at Pizzeria Napoli in Springfield at the corner of Hwy 22 and U.S. Business 98.

Above: That's Michael and another artist/author friend, Dean Minton, at right in a photo from last year's Books Alive. Come out and meet us Saturday. The fiction is spicy and delicious, and the pizza will be good too.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bethel Village opens doors for the lost

(This was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 7, 2008)

Not too long ago, Tia Tate said, she felt like she was coming apart at the seams.
“I was, you know, totally discombobulated,” she said. “Working, (I) had a semi-normal life, functional but dysfunctional, you know. Drugs, alcohol, just a lot of things going on that could have been a lot better. I knew God, but got away from Him in the midst of all of that madness.”

Tate, 39, is a resident of the Bethel Village women’s shelter operated by the Panama City Rescue Mission. She learned about the shelter through CARE (Chemical Addictions Recovery Effort), which also has a women’s program.

Now in its fifth year, Bethel is designed to serve single women and single mothers with small children. It helps them get their lives back together, said Rescue Mission director Rev. Billy Fox. (For more information, call 914-0533 or visit

Life at Bethel, with its Christianbased long-term residential recovery program, has helped Tate make sense of her life, she said.

“Bethel Village has really been a refuge for me,” she said. “I decided I wanted to change my life, a complete turnaround, not just get sober, but grounded with a foundation in a relationship with God. I knew in order to stay sober, I was going to need that foundation in my life.”

Tate spoke to me Wednesday morning amid the tinsel and lights and cheery holiday music of a crowded reception for the Festival of Trees, the annual fundraiser for Bethel Village at the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida.

Women wearing Christmas colors circulated through the galleries, admiring the decorated trees, gingerbread houses and wreaths donated by area clubs, businesses and individuals. They placed bids in a silent auction and sampled refreshments.

Tate was serving punch when we met. She wore a Santa cap and a ready smile.

She beamed as she talked about her children and how proud she is of their accomplishments. And she spoke without reservation about the obstacles she had faced and how doors had been opened for her since she came to Bethel. She has been writing music, she said, and the right people have heard it, and she’ll be recording it after she finishes the recovery program.

“God — it’s just another door He’s boomed down for me,” she said.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

At Christmas the best things in life are free

(This was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 13, 2009)

It’s a tight year, and the number of families or circle of friends is small that hasn’t had a discussion about limiting Christmas spending or foregoing gifts altogether.
Fortunately, the best things in life are free, and there are lots of ways to give something meaningful without spending a fortune. Here are just a few suggestions:

Copy some old photos. You can put them in a scrapbook, or an album, or a shoebox — when you’re dealing in memories, the packaging isn’t that important. You can also create an online album and e-mail a link to those who would enjoy having these photos; be sure the images can be copied and saved at a good resolution, in case someone wants to print them.

Volunteer time and effort. Rake someone’s yard. Clean out their gutters. Fix a leaking faucet.

Share family recipes. One of the best parts of our Thanksgiving feast this year was enjoying the distinctive flavor of my grandma’s chocolate pie. She’s been gone for more than a year now, and it was wonderful to find that a cousin, Eric, had managed to get her “secret” recipe by cooking with her in the year before her death.

It brought her close in our memories — and the process of making the pies made us realize how hard she had worked all those years to give us those tasty memories.

Give away some of your favorite books or movies. This sounds crazy coming from me (I’m something of a hoarder when it comes to books, especially.) But unless you’re going to pass it on to your heirs, or you plan to read it or watch it again, why not share the joy with a friend or loved one? Give it with a card or note that explains why it’s important to you, and why the recipient is important to you, too.

Host a get-together. Opening your home to friends and family can be a chore to prepare, but it is also a blessing. Give the gift of sanctuary. Have everyone bring a favorite dish (and maybe a wrapped book or other personal treasure for a blind exchange).

Take a “Help Portrait” (as seen at help-portrait. com). It’s simple: Find someone in need; take their portrait; print out the portrait; give it to them. This is about giving pictures, not taking them. Rope some folks into participating along with you, or do this as your gift to them. (Official Help Portrait Day was Saturday, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing one later.)

The important thing is to share the joy, right? Isn’t that the reason for the season?


Monday, December 13, 2010

Parade puts the redneck back in Christmas

(This was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 20, 2009)

Antlers were everywhere: mounted on floats, on the grills of trucks pulling trailers, on ropes slung around the necks of children, on the headgear of passing dogs and donkeys – even on the target deer strung from a pole and “gutted” at the front of a boat being used as a parade float. It had a red nose, this deer, and red streamers spilled from its belly.
It wasn’t something you would have seen at the Panama City Jaycees Christmas Parade, which we had missed this year for the first time in a decade or more. Little on display at the annual Chumuckla Redneck Christmas Parade was (as you can see in photos on my blog at

Thousands showed up at the country crossroads that marks a main artery through the unincorporated farming community a short drive north of Pace in Santa Rosa County. They gathered along County 197 last Sunday, and the rain held off long enough for the hour-long procession and then some.

Slow moving tractors, mud-covered pickups, stock cars, horses, buggies, 18-wheelers, four-wheelers and more eased through the puddles. On display were Confederate flags, comically misspelled signs, granny panties with the words “naughty” or “nice” written on them, garlands of beer cans and trees decorated with beer cans. One float had a tent marked “redneck resort,” a couple more featured girls in tree stands, and a couple of others led with bearded Santas in camo sitting on old toilets instead of “thrones.”

Costumes included wigs, caps of every condition, boots, fake “hillbilly” teeth, and camouflage — lots and lots of camo. Men carried spit cups. Some played musical instruments made of bed pans.

The riders threw Mardi Gras beads, Twinkies, packs of crackers, Slim Jims, Skoal cans, chicken feed, pecans wrapped in foil, novelty toys and other things — including actual candy. One float passed with a barbecue grill smoking, and a woman launched chicken hot off the grill into the crowd.

The parade was the climax of a weekend festival that included fishing games, a mullet toss and “cow patty bingo.” Everyone had a great time, laughing at themselves and the cultural stereotypes — and no doubt thumbing their noses at anyone who just isn’t in on the joke.

As a famous redneck once said, “I don’t care who ya are, that’s funny right there.”


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Joy Playground dedicated

SPRINGFIELD — After the prayers of thanksgiving were offered and the blue ribbon surrounding the playground equipment was cut, the church courtyard filled with the sounds of happy children playing — swinging, climbing, sliding, laughing and shouting.

Springfield United Methodist Church, 701 School Ave., dedicated last Sunday a newly renovated playground area to the memory of former parishioner Marisa Joy Williams.

“She enjoyed being a kid, and so I’m hoping all of these children that came to the playground will get that joy and be able to spread it around,” said Marisa’s mother, Donna Williams, after she and husband Charles Williams cut the ribbon.

A 2006 graduate of Bay High School and 2007 alumnus of Gulf Coast Community College, Marisa died on Feb. 23, 2008 in a single car accident on Interstate 75. She was 18.

Marisa’s family attends Springfield Methodist, which raised about $15,000 and built the playground to create a space that honors her namesake joie de vivre. Many volunteers and church members committed time and money to the effort.

“When we did lose Marisa, Charles’ family wanted to do something to memorialize Marisa and wonderful heart that she had and the wonderful love that she had,” said Kevin Oakes, from the church. “And we took that on board as a church, and we considered and we prayed, and we said, ‘What would be appropriate for that?’”

The playground is the latest in a series of memorial expressions of love for Marisa that are having a positive impact on the community. Earlier this year, an endowed scholarship was established at GCCC by family and friends who began making art via “Project Joy Boots” and holding auctions and sales in the months following Marisa’s death. The scholarship will go toward the fees of technical theater students each term.

Meanwhile, in a covered space beside the play area, the church will install a brass plaque with Marisa’s photo engraved on it. The marker reads: “Joy Playground — This playground is dedicated to the loving memory of Marisa Joy Williams. May those who play here be blessed with the same joy that filled her heart.”


This was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 12.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Weekend Update: Savings, new Anthology info, and Music!

Quick one to catch up on some things:

You can get free shipping on my short story collection 'The Best of Days'  through Dec. 19 with coupon code HOLIDAY305. OR you can discover a new way to save on you order every day this month by going here, where there are different coupon codes every day. (Today's special -- Dec. 11 -- is 10 percent off your purchase.)

My story, "Til the End of the Road" is the penultimate tale in the new horror anthology "Dark Things V" from Pill Hill Press, edited by Jessy Marie Roberts. "Embrace your dark side with this eclectic collection of horror stories. Missing children, closet monsters, ghoul men and strange keys; alien abductions, body collectors and demonic possession. Frightening fits of rage and terror are soaked into every page."

Tomorrow: My Undercurrents column takes you to last Sunday's dedication of Joy Playground, complete with video.

Meanwhile, I hope you've been enjoying revisiting Christmas Past on the blog this month. I have a few more yet to come. But first, let's share a Christmas song like you've never heard it before:

‘Nutcracker’ has proved irresistible

One of my earliest Christmas memories is watching a television program with my mother — a musical presentation of The Nutcracker, which is rendered in my recollection in glorious fuzzy black-andwhite, though we may have had a color TV at the time.

(I’m sure I recall watching Star Trek during that same era in color.)

The particular images that linger from that night’s show are of the young heroine being forcibly separated from her heroic prince by the evil mice; the prince leaping and swinging his wide scimitar to scatter the wicked rodents; and, yes, the scores of beautiful, synchronized dancing women.

Who could say no to sugarplum fairies?

Apparently, there were some who could. Critics hated The Nutcracker ballet when it debuted in 1892. Its creator, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, (already renowned for his Swan Lake in 1877) wrote friends that "the periodicals" were "carving up" his new creation like a Christmas duck.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the ballet’s first reviews (Dec. 8, 1892), as quoted on the Web site "The Nutcracker cannot in any event be called a ballet … the production of such ‘spectacles’ is an insult. ... God grant that similar failed experiments do not happen often."

Thank goodness that newspaper writers aren’t the sole arbiters of good taste and cultural refinement, and that clearer-headed audiences continued to support the ballet.

The St. Petersburg Classic Russian Nutcracker will be presented Dec 18, 2010 (Sat) 7:30 PM at the Panama City Marina Civic Center, presented by Willis Ballet and featuring The Saint-Petersburg Classic Ballet Theatre of Marina Medvetskaya.

Then, Moscow Ballet's "GREAT RUSSIAN NUTCRACKER" will be Dec 29, 2010 (Wed) 7:30 PM at the Marina Civic Center, with director Vladimir Troschenko and principal dancers Cristina & Alexi Terentieva. This "spectacle" will feature several vignettes with local children who have practiced for their roles at area dance academies. Tour officials say that, over the course of their various tours, they have given more than 45,000 children a chance to perform with a professional production.

That’s a lot of sugarplum fairies — and full-color Christmas memories.


(The preceding was originally written in advance of a Nutcracker performance in 2004 and was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 4 of that year. It has been edited to include updated performance information.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Suffer not the little children

Bailey went to see Santa Claus on Tuesday night.

The 4-year-old girl had been excited all day, even though she had just seen Santa at her church preschool only the week before. It’s not like you can get too much Santa Claus this time of year, though.

She had posed for a photo with him that day, too — she had sat on one of his knees and her best friend, Haley, had perched on his other knee. (They had suspected at first that he might not be the real Santa, but when their teacher pulled on his beard he said "Ouch," so they knew he was real!)

Tuesday, Bailey’s mother dressed her up for her visit to the mall in Pensacola, south of where they lived. She would sit on his knee again, tell him what she wanted for Christmas, and have her picture taken once more.

That morning, she played with Haley at preschool — just the two of them, so much to the exclusion of other children that Haley’s mother noticed and actually wondered if they would always be such fast friends.

And then Bailey went off to see Santa Claus. Her dad met them there and stayed behind to do some Christmas shopping when Bailey and her mother headed home.

Wednesday morning, Haley’s mother took Haley to preschool only to find that the preschool was closed. The teachers spoke to the parents, and the children were sent home. The parents were not sure what to say.

It seems that, at about the same time Bailey was whispering her secret wishes to a right jolly old elf on Tuesday evening, a man was having another drink at a watering hole north of Pensacola. He’d been drinking since noon.

At about the time Bailey and her mom left the mall on their way north and home, the man left the bar, headed south. He drove southward in the northbound lanes of a divided highway. He did not have his headlights turned on. It was nighttime.

Bailey died when the man’s car struck her mother’s car.

So on Wednesday morning, Bailey’s mother was conscious and in fair condition in a Pensacola hospital. So was her 1-year-old sister, Abigail, who was also in the car.

And Haley’s mother was trying to figure out how to tell a 4-yearold that her best friend was dead and what that meant — how to keep Santa Claus out of it — how to get through the morning without just holding her daughter and crying and not ever leaving the house again.

Because it wasn’t just Santa Claus that Bailey went to see on Tuesday, and it was Bailey they never would see again.


(The preceding was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 19, 2004.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Christmas angels get water wings

(The following was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 17, 2006.)

Pardon me for being blunt, but part of the little boy’s brain was missing.
I mean, I can only surmise that condition because of the shape of his skull — concave on the right, like a grassy hillside where the earth below has been eroded and the surface collapses into the new shape.

He was happy, and he told me so, in words as well as the grin that spread across his face. Floating in the swimming pool at Gulf Coast Community College, the child splashed and kicked with the help of a man who supported him in the water.

And he was surrounded by other disabled children, who squealed and giggled with the adults who helped them enjoy the college pool. They tossed balls and brightly colored noodles and splashed water in each other’s faces.

I looked and saw. I listened and heard. I felt it in the center of my chest.

This was a happy place and time, where kids felt released from the limitations with which they’d been born or into which circumstance had rendered them. For an hour last Wednesday, they were free.

The children had entered the natatorium confined to wheelchairs or walking with the aid of teachers, parents and volunteers. They soon were liberated from the bonds of gravity, buoyed by the warm water and the full attention of their helpers. Lifeguards stood by just in case.

The noise of laughter, shouts of joy and splashing built to a roar. I asked people to step outside for interviews because of the cacophony. Outside the building, a grown man tried not to cry when he talked about the importance of this day. I understood what he was saying, even when words failed.

For 15 years, the college has hosted an annual Christmas swimming party for disabled students from Springfield Elementary School. I hadn’t been here in a while, as my duties changed over the years, and I was glad to have returned.

I first covered the event in 1995, its fourth year. GCCC President Bob McSpadden had to sit out the fun that year because of surgery on his arm. This year, as McSpadden faces his upcoming retirement, it was a leg problem that kept him out of the pool. Most Christmases, you could find him in the middle of it.

“This is when Christmas really starts for us,” McSpadden said that first time I visited. “This is what sets the mood.”

For about 20 children — and as many adults — Wednesday’s party set a mood of comfort and joy.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

I imagine you may say I’m a dreamer

I can only imagine why he mattered to me.

I was too young for the Beatles — not yet born when they first visited America and not yet 6 years old when they broke up. Too young for Working Class Hero or Give Peace a Chance to mean anything when they were new.

But even as a kid, Imagine was a song that captured me.

I recall waking up that morning of Dec. 9, 1980, to the clock radio playing that song, one of my favorites, and wondering why that particular song was on the radio. I was pleased; you seldom heard it on the radio, and it was weird to hear it playing, especially since Lennon had recently released a new single.

But then the announcer came on, very quietly, and said John Lennon had died last night, Dec. 8, shot in front of his New York City home, and the suspect was in custody. He repeated that officials were saying Lennon had been pronounced dead at the hospital of gunshot wounds. Details were still sketchy at that early hour.

If a 16-year-old cried, you could forgive him that.

Maddening, though, was that the other kids at school that day thought it only a passing curiosity, this news of a celebrity’s murder. So what? He was in that band back in the ’60s, right? Just another famous dead guy. It wasn’t the first time I knew they weren’t like me.

Maybe it was all those darn 8-tracks.

When I was 12, I earned money by cutting lawns in the neighborhood, and used the money to purchase (on time) an 8-track player at the Flomaton, Ala., Western Auto. My uncle Joe gave me all of his 8-tracks when he upgraded to cassettes, and several of those were Beatles albums. That meant that most of my collection was comprised of the Beatles. So I listened, and learned and sang along.

Revolution No. 9, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Yellow Submarine, Julia, Blackbird.

Happiness is a Warm Gun.

Lennon was no saint, according to various accounts. He was as unlikable in many ways as any human being can be, particularly one with an artistic streak.

But that’s for folks who knew him to work out — the rest of us only have his music.

From this same era, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati echoes in my memory because of how it used the lyrics of Imagine to expose how a would-be censor used religious fundamentalism for personal power. The song doesn’t ask for a world with no heaven or hell, you see. It just asks you to try to imagine a world like that.

Imagine living life in peace. Above us only sky.

In a world where Mick Jagger continues to strut on stage and Paul McCartney still rocks, Elton John tours and David Bowie reinvents himself, you have to wonder what Lennon would be doing now, 25 years later.


Imagine a world where peaceful folk aren’t murdered for no reason at all.

It’s easy if you try.

(This was my Undercurrents column five years ago, Dec. 4, 2005, on the Sunday before the 25th anniversary of Lennon's death. I repost it tonight on the 30th anniversary.)

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

(The following was my Undercurrents column for December 2, 2007.)

Music is a marvelous timetravel device. In a few notes, it can transport you to a specific place and era, resurrect all the minute sensory data you thought you’d forgotten and evoke the emotions related to those old memories. Christmas music seems especially effective for conjuring specific moments in life. These are the songs and the singers that take me back:

Gene Autry singing “Rudolph,” “Up on the Housetop,” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Suddenly, I’m 4 or 5, and we live in a little wooden house in Century. Santa brings me

Matt Mason astronaut toys, Hot Wheels and a cowboy dress-up set. There’s a gas heater in the living room and “Lassie” on the TV.

Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’m at Grandma Massey’s house, 5 or 6 years old. I get a Batman play set, and I’m on the carpet with Uncle Joe, who’s playing the role of the villains attacking the Batcave. There’s a scent of evergreen and cakes. Later, I see the TV reports about Santa being tracked by NORAD.

The Ray Conniff Singers. A staple of holiday music throughout my life, hearing them makes me think of baking and decorating sugar cookies with my mom and sister. We’re not yet teens. Mom has a sugar-frosting recipe like no one else.

Just about any of the Carpenters’ Christmas songs. Hear them again and I’m newly married, and we live in a two-room cottage in Gainesville. It’s a cold winter. We use the stove to warm the place each morning because we have no heat. No money either, so we spend the weeks prior to Christmas window shopping for each other and listening to the few cassette tapes we have, including “Christmas Portrait.”

The Partridge Family singing “My Christmas Card to You.” I’m 6 or 7, and I think Joe gave me this record. I join the Partridge Family fan club, using a card that came with the album. I like zipper-front shirts and think Bobby Sherman is cooler than David Cassidy. I have a Bobby Sherman lunch box, which will be replaced by a UFO lunchbox next year.

These days, I play this on CD. It irritates my daughter, or at least she claims it does. But I’ve also caught her singing, “To you and all your family, your neighbors and your friends …,” and I wonder what she will recall when she hears certain songs in Christmastimes to come.


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Last minute gift-buying ideas abound

(The following was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 23, 2007.)

So I turned to blog readers this week for some help. A typical husband, I was beginning to get nervous about the approaching holiday deadline, considering the fact I hadn’t yet bought anything for my long-suffering spouse. I expected to be frantic in the aisles of Bay County’s retail stores before the weekend arrived.

(Universities actually have done studies of this phenomenon. I looked it up on the Internet, so it must be true. They found that women are just as likely to be in checkout lanes on Dec. 24 as men are. However, women are more likely to be buying that little something extra to make their giftgiving that much more special, while men are just getting starting and have no idea where to begin.)

And whose fault was it other than mine? My wife’s, of course. I blame her. It’s for her that I’m shopping, after all, and it’s difficult for a man to go into a store without a target in sight.

I mean, I can put you together a list of stuff to purchase for me in various price ranges at a moment’s notice. I’m shallow and materialistic like that.

But all the wife ever says when I ask her what she’d like for Christmas is mushy stuff. Relationship stuff. Huggy-kissy-snuggly stuff. Stuff you can’t really stuff in a stocking, you know, or take back to the store for a refund later when you change your mind.

So I asked, “What is it with women? What do women want?”

Robbyn responded that I should buy her an event: a theater or symphony performance, art, a class, a dinner cruise with dancing. “… The sweet thought, coupled with spending time with you (and knowing you wanted to spend time with her) will score you big points!”

Tina suggested having a star named after her at, or using our personal inside jokes as a starting point for a special present. “Yes, women are difficult to buy for. We don’t just want stuff. Women want a summation of your feelings in a box with a bow.”

Lou said to get show tickets or stuff her stocking “with little things you know your wife likes — perfume, candy, fluffy socks, lingerie, jewelry, etc.”

And Bob suggested something by Bob Dylan. (I suspect Bob is less successful with women than I am.)

Finally, my dentist suggested I visit Victoria’s Secret. He also said the first thing to do once inside the store is find a clerk to assist me. Otherwise, I’m liable to get some funny looks if I just browse around. (Dentists are especially reliable regarding Christmas advice; remember, Hermey the misfit elf became a dentist.)

I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Spirit of Christmas lives on

(The following was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 14, 2008.)

For 43 years, give or take, my Christmas Eve was spent with — and in the home of — my maternal grandmother, Mazie Massey. My personal definition of the holiday was molded from those experiences and captured in innumerable photos around her Christmas tree.

Christmas Day was for my other grandmother, and in later years we visited my in-laws on that day, too. But Christmas Eve was Grandma Massey’s time.

There were fireworks launched in the field behind the house. Fondue was arranged by Aunt Wendy. Trays of veggies, plates of cookies, bowls of fudge, platters of pie, slices of cake. Homemade fruitcake if you liked that. Pictures of the piles of presents around the tree, as her children, grandchildren, cousins, friends and neighbors came over for the evening. (And in the later years, add spouses and great-grandkids to the roster.)

She had a gift for making children happy, for making each one of them feel like they were special. Every child who came into her house on a Christmas Eve could tell you how she doted on them, held them in her arms and made them feel loved.

The tree was most often covered in red lights, with angels and dolls and little birds throughout. She began collecting “Gone with the Wind” ornaments in recent years, and we bought her a new one just last Christmas.

She insisted on getting a photo of the tree each year. It made her happy to see the mad stack of gifts and the littlest children with their eyes full of wonder and anticipation.

In my childhood and young adult years, Grandma’s house was only a couple of miles away from wherever I was living. For the last 15 years, it’s been a little more of a trip, but we always made it. The first Christmas Eve I lived in Panama City, my car broke down on the way to Grandma’s house, and my Uncle Joe drove all the way to DeFuniak Springs to meet me where the tow truck had left me and take me home to Century.

There were only a few times we didn’t go to Grandma’s for the eve. Once in my childhood, we stayed with my paternal grandmother, and just a couple of years ago, as Grandma’s house was being renovated after it was damaged by Hurricane Dennis, Christmas Eve was at my mother’s house.

We even spent Christmas Eve at Grandma’s house one year when she was off visiting my cousins in Hawaii. A freak cold snap froze the pipes in an old house we lived in, so we carted the presents to her house, and we stayed the night there. I recall putting together toys for my toddling little boy with the help of my sister and brother-in-law.

No one lives in Grandma’s house these days. She left us before the spring came, after a long and difficult illness. Her little Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler ornaments hang on our family tree this year.

We’ll take pictures, and we’ll think of her.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Embellishing the Memories of Christmas

There used to be four of them, I think — little white plastic reindeer attached by the tiniest red ribbon to a white plastic sleigh. Grandma Simmons would place the arrangement in a windowsill or on the big turntable/black-and-white television (back in the day when TVs were concealed inside wooden furniture) as part of her Christmas decorations.

She had an aluminum Christmas tree, as well, and a spotlight with a rotating four-color lens shining on it, but that's another story.

One of the reindeer survives, sort of. I don't know what might have happened to the rest of the set, but this one racing courser has been in my possession since childhood. It's yellowed from age and has the dried residue of ancient invisible tape around its midsection. An antler is broken, as is part of its snout.

It's seen better days.

I glued its two halves back together in the last week of November and perched it in a place of honor upon a green limb close to the top of my family's Christmas tree. It sits among crystal ornaments and Hallmark collectibles, but this one little reindeer - it's more than "mere embellishment," as Webster's might define the word.

It's my favorite.

Not that there's anything spectacular about it. You'd miss it among the lights and tinsel. But it wouldn't be Christmas without it, if you know what I mean.

If you're an adult, Christmas is often about memories. If you're a parent, it's often about making memories for the kids around you. A couple of future memories could be right under your nose — simple things, the tiniest elements that, recalled, will make Christmas special for someone in years to come.


(The preceding was most of my Undercurrents column for Dec.8, 2002; the list of local holiday events at the bottom was deleted.)

Friday, December 03, 2010

Christmas Zen: The Lesson of the Bulbs

Pull one out, and put a new one in.

Still no flicker.

That's not it, so replace the old one and move on to the next one.

Pull it out, and put a new one in. Still no glow.

How many is that? Fa-la-la-fifty?

If you've ever re-used a strand of last year's Christmas lights, then you know what I'm doing here. Actually, if you re-use Christmas lights, you may have someone reading this to you right now because you're still doing what I'm doing here.

Take a deep, calming breath. Replace the old one, move to the next one. Pull it out, put a new one in. Still no shine.

Ah, those wonderful Christmas traditions. Playing holiday music while trimming the tree, making sugar cookies, sending cards to far-away family, sharing hot cocoa with the kids, watching It's a Wonderful Life and crying like a baby, wrapping presents and never cutting the paper quite large enough to cover everything.

...Finding the one festive bulb on a million-bulb strand that's burned out.

Deck those halls! Ring those bells! Nog those eggs!

Talk about holiday stress. There stands the noble (though artificial) fir tree, naked. The children are holding their favorite ornaments and tapping their feet — and if you take too long, they're sure to start tapping each other's feet and throwing ornaments around the room.

It's a test, see. You're testing the lights, and the lights are testing you. It's a karmic metaphor, telling you things like "Hurry up and wait," or "Patience has its rewards." It's the Spirit of Christmas Past reminding you, "Quitters never win. Winners never quit."

Pull one out, and put a new one in. Still no sparkle.

"Never give up," the lights are saying. "Good things come to those who re-use their lights."

It's Christmas Zen, man. Give your energy to the strand, and the strand will give energy to you.

Replace the old one and move on to the next one. Pull it out, and put a new one in. Still no twinkle.

Note to myself for next Christmas: Buy a new strand.


(The preceding was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 23, 2001. It is part of my column collection, "Dazed and Raving in the Undercurrents.")

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Someday Soon, We All Will Be Together

(The following was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 3, 2006)

We’re in the thick of it now. The Halloween costumes and decorations are packed away, the Thanksgiving leftovers have been consumed, and we’re starting the final stretch toward the greatest holiday on earth. Here are some random thoughts as we celebrate the season.

I’m a sucker for the sappy Christmas songs — just not that one about the Christmas shoes. That’s the Nicholas Sparks book of Christmas songs, guaranteed to make me change the station.

Two of the radio pre-sets in my truck are now on local stations that play nothing but Christmas songs. Also, it’s pretty much the only month of the year those stations play in my truck, but whatever. I appreciate them right now.

It’s a joke around my house that one of my Christmas traditions is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” while one of the kids’ traditions is watching me cry while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Let’s not dig too deeply into that, however, and just accept it as the way things are.

On the other hand, my post-bypass emotional state being what it is, this could be a record-setting year for the old waterworks — not that we’d want to change that, would we? Isn’t that the lesson of the movie?

We generally decorate our Christmas tree on Thanksgiving weekend, but we got an extra week’s jump on it this year, as we were planning to visit relatives during the long holiday. Over the years, we’ve collected lots of Hallmark ornaments, prompting one young visitor to laugh last week at our “toy-covered” tree.

It’s true: Star Trek, Barbie, superhero, Peanuts, fairies and other fanciful figurines fill the branches, nestled among the colorful lights. Some of them light up or make noises or wish you a Merry Christmas. It’s a fun tree.

By contrast, I suppose my mother’s Christmas tree is much more “grownup,” as it’s covered with crystal and glass, and illuminated by white bulbs. We helped Mom decorate it on Thanksgiving. It rotates on a stand, which can be disconcerting after too many eggnogs, but at least none of the ornaments talk to you.

Finally, another favorite moment of mine early in the season is hearing my daughter squeal with disgust at the first few notes of the “Partridge Family Christmas Card” album. (“To you and all your family, your neighbors and your friends, may all your days be happy with joy that never ends. May peace and love surround you at Christmas time and all the whole year through.”)


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Midnight on the Firing Line

There was a frightening undercurrent in the crowd that gathered around the red cardboard display boxes in the back aisle of Lynn Haven's Walmart Super Center just before midnight on Thursday. It was minutes before Black Friday, and the tension was high.

The only thing I can compare it to is a school of piranha circling chum.

The display boxes held DVDs and Blu-Rays behind a thin plastic wrap. A woman in a blue best said she would cut the plastic and remove it at midnight, at which time the always-growing crowd could then take their picks of the videos. I looked around, and it was clear the crowd had other ideas.

People literally circled the line of red displays, noting the titles they desired. They glanced at the others in the crowd, weighing their chances in a fight.

This is what Christmas is all about, I thought: Togetherness.

One of the women in blue vests walked up and down the row, telling people to clear the main aisle. Crowds backed up on each other in side aisles. A few tightened their shoe laces.

About 11:58 p.m., we heard shouts and mob noise coming from the other end of the electronics department, where someone had opened a box of video games. Then a woman in a blue vest popped a box cutter and started to touch the plastic wrap on the displays — and that was all it took.

The crowd rushed into the aisle, shoving hands through the plastic wrap to snatch videos. People reached around each other like TSA agents at a pat down, groping blindly for hidden treasures they couldn't even name. Everywhere were exclamations of "Excuse me!" "Sorry!" "My bad!" "Pardon!" "Excuse me again!" as people reeled through and against one another to seek out season sets or special editions or heavily marked down titles.

Ah, the gentle sounds of the season!

Arms loaded, I sought the shopping cart I had parked on a side aisle, but it was gone. Instead, I found my daughter having escaped alive from the other end of the electronics department with some things she wanted for Christmas in a cart. I dumped my loot in there and guarded the cart while she dove into the crowd I had just left behind.

No injuries were reported.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Giving thanks for the simple things in life

Thanksgiving Day is coming up later this week, as you might have heard, and it’s a tradition at our house to share some of the things we’re thankful for each year. Some years are better than others, of course, and some lists are more extensive.

Beyond the obvious (such as continued decent health and a healthy family), here are a few things I am thankful for:

- Not being a turkey this week. (Go ahead, insert your jokes here.)

- A wife and kids who balance the challenges of keeping me grounded while encouraging my flights of fancy.

- Twitter and Facebook friends, without whose virtual validation I would wander around and talk to myself about random things even more so than I do now. (By the way, #FF for @ing me this week: @ShellieT, @karenzach, @RealRiverJordan, @ BradMilner, @SBradyCalhoun, @lou1492, @bradmeltzer, @wdglover, @JaysonKretzer, @mikecaz.)

- Real-world friends with a sense of humor and imagination, who don’t seem bothered by my non sequiturs or Chinese curses.

>>(See the rest of the list here.)<<

The Best of Deals:
Get special pricing on 'The Best of Days' through Dec. 15 — use the coupon code STOCKING305 at checkout.


Follow Tony on Twitter @ midnightonars

Monday, November 15, 2010

Connecting across time and space

(The following was my Sunday 'Undercurrents' column for The News Herald.)
Surrounded and bolstered by kindred spirits on Thursday night, Wewahitchka-based author Michael Lister talked about the sacred calling of the storyteller. He used the word “shaman” to convey the mystical connection between the teller and the listener.

Like an alchemical equation seeking balance, the work birthed in the act of creating art can’t reach maturity until the work is interpreted. Otherwise creation is the silence in the forest when a tree falls and no one is there to hear it.

It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

Michael’s words, as usual, started me thinking. In particular, I recalled a few events of the past week where the things people said (or wrote) and the things I heard (or read) connected with memory to create new meaning. You never know what people will say, or how the things they say will stick with you and bubble to the surface of your thoughts.

A couple of examples:

I visited the set of “A Doll’s House” on the Amelia Center Theater stage at Gulf Coast Community College this week. Decorated for Christmas, the lights and baubles stood in stark contrast to the dull walls and furnishings in shades of brown. It looked like a scene out of “A Christmas Story.”

The play is set in 1950s Chicago, and the short sequence I viewed made me think about those folks on our Squall Line who want their country back — one of whom even went so far this week to type on his or her computer that “The 1950s was a better time.”

On stage, the husband teased his wife with $10 bills that she greedily snatched from him, one by one, and promised to spend wisely. He called her pet names and spoke in soothing tones, making sure she understood her place and function in his world.

I was reminded of an early Saturday morning recently, when an older man joked about spending his entire “allowance” on yard sales. He circled among some tables stacked with colorful trinkets and clothing, asking silly questions and flirting with the ladies at the sale. Suddenly, he grew quiet.

“I was married three times,” this total stranger said to me, his breath misting in the morning cold. “I left the first one, the second one left me, and the third died. She was the only one who ever said she loved me. She was the only one I ever loved.”

He cleared a lump in his throat and pointed at a coffee maker designed for one person. “Is that real or a toy?” he said, and I told him I believed that it was real. He bought it and drove away alone.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Body and the Blood

My friend Michael Lister had a book launch party this evening at the lovely home of John Robert and Kaye Middlemas. I stopped by to support him and see some friends I don't get to see often enough, and it produced wonderful and heart-touching moments.

Michael was gracious and shared the spotlight by thanking me for my support for the arts and for his efforts over the years, and many people came up to thank me for the story and column I wrote about Barbara Clemons' passing recently.

But this was Michael's night, and well deserved. He was introduced by John Robert and by Bettina Mead, and he spoke about his calling as an artist and author, and he read from his new novel (the review for which you can find here.) Congrats, my friend, and keep up the good work.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

VIDEO: A Doll's House

Check it out: I spent part of Tuesday evening with the cast and crew of Gulf Coast Community College's new stage production, "A Doll's House." Here is a behind-the-scenes video I shot:

I plan to attend the Saturday night show. Maybe I'll see you there?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

SCORE! (Story accepted for anthology)

Just got a contract in the e-mail. A story has been accepted for a horror anthology to be published early 2011. Details to follow when I can say more. (No, this is not the Big Time. It'll only pay for a couple of Coram's burger specials. But it's still a Good Thing and Makes Me Happy.)

Monday, November 08, 2010

To plot and to plod: Writers, zombies share an obsession

(The following was my Sunday column for The News Herald. See photos and video here.)

PANAMA CITY — I was down among my people last weekend: the evil and the good, the destroyers and the creators, the dead walkers and the live writers. The zombies had assured the public that they would not bite; the authors made no such promises.

The morning of Oct. 29, the Bay County Public Library launched its inaugural Local Books Alive with presentations from several full-time authors who make this area their home. The meeting room was packed; I counted 63 folks during the time I was able to attend.

By that afternoon, the inaugural Panama City Zombie Walk participants were packed together in a similar fashion but dripping with considerably more corn syrup and food coloring than the writers had been. I’d estimate more than a hundred walkers shambled from the Marina Civic Center northward on Harrison Avenue as the sun sank low.

“They say it’s dead downtown,” said an event organizer speaking into a bullhorn. “Today it is.”

There were bride and groom zombies, punk and redneck zombies, trumpet player and food service zombies, pregnant zombies and little kid zombies, nurse zombies and superhero zombies. All walks of walkers were represented, and the street was lined with the uninfected shooting photos and video with their cameras and phones. Many of the undead lingered around the McDonald’s downtown, sipping sodas and munching fries.

However, the pale shamblers dragging themselves into the library early the next morning had more on their minds than brains as the second day of Local Books Alive began. Novelists, poets, historians, military buffs, children’s writers and more shared their work with readers and networked with one another.

Throughout the room, authors shared stories, sold books, and talked with browsers. Michael Goldcraft explored the challenges of horror fiction; poet Sharla Shultz caught up with old friend Martha Spiva, who is in turn helping her husband Ernest prepare his memoir, “Growing up on Grace.”

T. Marie Smith launched her literary career that morning, selling the very first copy of her very first book; meanwhile Ken Tucker continued his success story — a memoir about his time as a B-17 tailgunner in World War II is going into its third printing. Both are new writers late in life; across the aisle was “Princess” Yterie Milliona DeValt, 8, who was there to market her self-titled activity book.

Any way you look at it:


Thursday, November 04, 2010

REVIEW: Michael Lister's 'The Body and the Blood'

WEWAHITCHKA — After exploring other characters and locales in his recent titles, “Thunder Beach” and the critically acclaimed “Double Exposure,” author Michael Lister returns to his original mystery series about prison chaplain John Jordan in his latest novel, “The Body and the Blood.”

Jordan is an ex-cop and a recovering alcoholic who is working to reconcile with his estranged wife. He’s flawed, but trying to fix his problems. He’s a man of faith who struggles to reconcile grace and justice while working with the worst offenders the state can gather into one place — fictional Pottersville Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison situated in the piney woods of rural Northwest Florida.

Lister lives in Wewahitchka, where many residents work at nearby Gulf Correctional Institution, a model for PCI and its environs. In the early 1990s, Lister was the youngest chaplain within the state Department of Corrections, and for almost a decade, he served as a contract, staff or senior chaplain at three prison facilities in the Panhandle.

Lister further identifies himself with the small towns, deep woods and river swamps of North Florida. It is one reason he is proud to be considered a “regional writer,” a topic he covered in an inspirational address at last weekend’s Local Books Alive event at the Bay County Public Library.

This unique combination of spiritual calling and life experiences led to Lister’s first novel, “Power in the Blood” (1997), which introduced Jordan, his sealed-off world and sense of personal isolation. Jordan seeks to save the lives, if not necessarily the souls, of some of the state’s hardest hearts. And Lister realistically takes us with Jordan through the gates and looping razor wire into the claustrophobic and dangerous depths of a massive prison.

As the new story unfolds, inmate Justin Menge is found dead; he was a key witness against an accused rapist. The suspect list fills fast, but the mystery is great: The dead man’s cell was locked, and the body is found across the room from the pool of blood, lying on unstained sheets.

It’s a compelling locked-room whodunit, with personal issues connecting Jordan emotionally to the crime. There also is an exploration of identity that takes many forms as the various characters move through the storyline, not the least of which is Jordan’s own struggle with who he is and who he wants to be.

Jordan is tough but not mean; he has a strong moral compass, but often fails to live up to his own standards. He knows the dangers of his chosen path, but braves them for the sake of the humanity he wants to believe is still inside even those who have fallen the farthest — because, if they can be saved, then maybe he can too.
This review appeared in today's Entertainer insert in The News Herald and online here.

Full disclosure: Michael is a friend of mine, and his imprint published my novel, 'Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century.' He has been an inspiration to me and many, many writers in this region. You may want to take that into account when digesting this review, or you could take my word for it: If you enjoy mysteries and crime novels, and you appreciate tales of believers struggling in a harsh world, you'll like this book.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Photo Blog: Images from the Local Books Alive

Saturday was spent in the company of my peers at the Local Books Alive! event held at the Bay County Public Library. Here's the story in photos:

Cate ("Kathy") Nobel arranges her books in the early a.m. Behind her to the left is Ed Offley, a former News Herald colleague who now writes about military history.

Dean "Deano" Minton displays his debut novel, "Universal Essence."

Jack Saunders catches up on his reading.

Ken Tucker poses with me. Ken is a local who served as a B-17 bomber tailgunner in WWII and wrote his memoir of the war with the help of his daughter, Wanda, who took this photo. I interviewed him for the paper several years ago.

Marlene Womack, who writes a local history column for the News Herald, has several books of local history in print.

I took Marie Smith's photo right after she sold and signed her first book. She was ecstatic. I remember how that felt when it happened to me.
Michael Brim (Goldcraft) talks to browsers. The woman in green had just bought my collection of short stories, which she chose after hearing me describe the final tale as "Jack Kerouac versus the Zombies." She had a poem in the Postcards from Pottersville (volume 1).

Author Sharla Shults and old friend Martha Spiva catch up with each other. Sharla has just published a collection of poetry; Martha is helping her husband, Ernest (former Rutherford High School principal) publish his memoir, "Growing up on Grace," for which I'm writing a blurb.

Nathan brought me a copy of the latest "Meow" 'zine (Samhain Edition), which has a poem by him and flash fiction by me on facing pages. It also contains an ad for his band's new CD.
The lovely Bettina Mead, spokeswoman for the library and organizer of Local Books Alive!, poses with Ken Tucker's other daughter, Barbara.

Be sure to keep an eye open for the February 2011 main event for Books Alive!, which will feature author Carl Haissen.


Monday, November 01, 2010

Photo/Video Blog: At the Zombie Walk

I braved the chance that something terrible would happen and went downtown to record the inaugural Zombie Walk in Panama City on Friday. Here's the video:

It was a fun time. My kids got into the effort, as seen in this picture of the three of us taken by News Herald photographer Andrew Wardlow:

Andrew also caught me in the process of being "attacked" during the video shoot:

For more on the event, check out this report and this photo gallery. I'll add some more photos I shot later in an edit.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Best 'witches' to the birthday ghoul

She arrived squalling in the dark and early hours of a Halloween morning, an absolute treat after a frightening and tricky delivery, our own tiny gremlin. Later that day, a boy dressed as the Flash gave her a kiss — through his face mask — before zooming off to trick-or-treat.
She has worn many costumes in the 19 (all too short) years since then: baby pumpkin, fairy-tale princess, pink Power Ranger, witch, Indian princess, police officer, Dorothy Gale, gangster moll and many more. She’s even been known to create a costume and make up out of boredom (see left).

She won a prize in a sci-fi convention costume contest one year for the Star Trek outfit we dressed her in — mostly because she was an awfully cute 4-year-old at the time. The grownups in their expensive “uniforms” were not amused.

Over the years, we developed a tradition of taking the birthday ghoul out to eat before going trick-or-treating; the whole family would wear costumes to whatever restaurant she chose. That came to an end the year I wore a Star Trek costume and everyone in the joint came by the table to make jokes. She absolutely refused to let me wear a Mr. Fantastic outfit a couple of years back, but that may have had more to do with the way my gut stretched the fabric.

I suppose there’s only so much humiliation a young woman will endure from her father.

For the last few years, she has wandered the neighborhoods of the Hammocks in Lynn Haven with her friends and has hauled home loads of candy — so we’re a little disappointed that she has finally decided she’s “too old” for trick-or-treating.

Looks like we’ll have to hit the after-Halloween sales on All Souls Day.

All this is to say that, no matter what outward outfit she wears or how many Halloweens she has seen, she’ll always be our little monster under the surface.

Happy Halloween!

This is my Sunday 'Undercurrents' column for The News Herald.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talk with Authors, Walk with Zombies


  • Books Alive opens with author presentations Friday (I won't be there; I have to be at work). I will be at the all-day event Saturday (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). >>Details here<<

  • Zombie Walk is in downtown Panama City Friday evening, starting at 4:30 p.m. at the Marina Civic Center. I will be there (I'll be off work by then). >>Details here<<

Have fun out there. Be safe. The Zombies have assured the public they will not bite; the authors make no such promises.