Tuesday, December 31, 2013

'Dragon Rising' is coming tomorrow!

My latest novel is "Dragon Rising," Book One of The Shadow War. It will release on Kindle and in print via CreateSpace on New Year's Day (if all goes according to plan). Expect links and whatnot as soon as it is live and ready to order.

Here is the unfinished artwork/cover design from artist and graphic wiz Jayson Kretzer:

You'll get to see the finished version tomorrow, and I'll also be writing about the story behind the story for tomorrow's launch, so don't miss out.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Another year of fire and ice

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Every year, it’s the same thing: Columnists and commentators, fashionistas and critics, all spend the last days of December looking back at the year that was and trying to prognosticate about the year that’s yet to be.

That is, trying to make sense of events they didn’t understand and extrapolating from that place of ignorance about a future that they can’t imagine.

And by “they” I mean “me,” of course.

On a recent Sunday, I was walking in my neighborhood and thinking about a new year’s approach as the sun set and the temperature dropped. I considered the possibility that I might freeze to death before rounding the next corner, when I saw the sky erupt in red-orange flame. It was a gorgeous sunset, one that made me stop short and hug myself against the cold wind so I could soak it in.

A moment later, I remembered I could photograph it with my cell phone and carry it with me wherever I went, a sunset frozen in time. In the act of freezing that moment, I recalled Robert Frost’s poem about the ways the world might end. “Fire and Ice.”

The end of the world has been a long time coming, at least according to the seers, prophets and prognosticators that get the most press. In the old days, we had to worry about angry gods fighting their last war here, or wiping the planet clean so they could start over with a more agreeable population of worshipers.

These days, we’re able to do the job ourselves, either from pollution, climate change, nuclear war or engineered viruses. And now that our orbiting telescopes can spot massive asteroids zooming through the celestial neighborhood, we have a whole new set of fears to ponder.

I like to think that we’ve begun taking steps to ensure that this civilization of ours, and the species that created it, will continue. We’ve sent probes beyond the edge of our solar system, and the radio (and later, television) signals created here are now floating a century’s worth of light-years away.

Drops in a bucket, yes, but enough drops will get you a bucket full.

Along that line of thought: One of the films I’m looking forward to in 2014 is “Interstellar,” from director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. Set in modern times, it follows the discovery of a wormhole in space that allows astronauts to travel interstellar distances. As usual with Nolan’s projects, little is being said about it this early on, but the teaser trailer evokes the last century of advancement, from Chuck Yeager to Neil Armstrong — to the retirement of the Space Shuttle program signaling an end to manned space flight.

Having pressed into that unknown frontier, we draw back into our caves to see what the gods might throw at us from on high.

And that reminds me of a statement by one of my favorite writers, Warren Ellis, in an essay for Wired magazine. He wrote that the “single simplest reason why human space flight is necessary is this, stated as plainly as possible: keeping all your breeding pairs in one place is a (stupid) way to run a species.”

On the slightest of provocations, my mind goes a-roving. I see a sky alight with sun-fire on a cold evening and imagine a future in which we never stepped back from the frontier, in which the future is an unending quest to know and to be more.

Some say the world will end in fire. Looking to a new year dawning, I prefer to believe it won’t end at all.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Unraveling a warm Christmas mystery

Tony and Lisa, circa 1971
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I have no earthly idea where the cowboy outfits came from, except that Santa Claus must have had his reasons. Maybe it was a phase. Maybe it was a grandmother’s idea.

Whatever the origin, it’s now a personal Christmas mystery.

Back when I could still count my age and have fingers left in reserve, my family of four lived in a small woodframe house off U.S. 29 in Century, Florida. At least a couple of Christmases, part of the wonderment discovered under the Christmas tree included a full cowboy costume in the style of Gene Autry and his generation of singing cowpokes.

Now, please understand, Gene Autry’s movies were a bit before even my time. But my favorite Christmas music was an album of songs featuring Gene on the cover in all of his Hollywood-cowboy glory, standing tall as a miniature sleigh and tiny reindeer flew about his kneecaps.

Maybe that explains the costuming. Hat, boots, a shirt that would make a country music star swoon. One year, there was a fringe vest included, but I think by then I was in my Bobby Sherman phase.

My sister, as seen in a photo from about 1971 that she recently posted on Facebook, got a corresponding cowgirl outfit. We were a matched set — and pretty pleased to be so, if the picture is as accurate an indication as I believe.

I remember wearing the costume around to visit the relatives on Christmas Day. I recall wearing it to ride my bike, that trusty mount of my imagination, up and down the narrow road (not the highway!) beside the house.

What I don’t recall is actually asking Santa for the outfit. My father claims ignorance of the origins also, guessing that it’s possible “one of your grandmothers thought you’d be ‘cute’ in them — maybe Grandma Simmons.”

He’s probably right about that.

Now, Dad was a big fan of the singing cowboys in his childhood. He told me in some Facebook messages recently that he considered himself Gene Autry most of the time, and he had his third grade school portrait taken in a Roy Rogers shirt.

And Grandma Simmons often saw her youngest son (my dad) when she looked at me; she even had a habit of naming off her two boys before getting to my name, and her awareness of the mistake made any time she called after me sound like an angry exclamation at the end of the dusty trail (“Ed-Jerry-Tony!”). What I’m getting at is, I can totally understand her wanting to dress my sister and me like Dad’s cowboy heroes.

Grandma also had little gas heaters in the corners of each room back then, and in our house there was a gas heater in the living room that we would back up to on cold mornings. Christmas recollections thus come complete with sense memories of cold feet and clothing that got too hot on the back side for comfort.  

(Because of the way the heaters tried to warm the old house, Dad recalls “ceilings so high you were warm when you stood up but cold when you sat down.”)

I look at photos now of my children on Christmas mornings when they were little, and I wonder what mysteries the pictures will hold for them in the future. I hope they’re as warm as mine.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Friday the 13th Will Be Your Lucky Day

PANAMA CITY — Friday the 13th loomed in my thoughts this week for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I needed to have a column written for that day’s edition of PanamaCity.com.

I’m not superstitious, and the number 13 doesn’t frighten me — neither do deadlines — but both have given me cause to reflect this week (not that I need much motivation there; it’s sort of second nature by now).

So luck in all its forms was on my brain Monday when I took a turn down into St. Andrews. The morning fog had lifted, and the glowing gray-white sky had turned a gentle pastel blue. Men stood with fishing poles on the marina as the sun warmed the earth and the sea.

A haze remained over the bay, but fluffy cumulous clouds were building to the northeast, far beyond the tops of oak trees with their dangling moss beards and sleeves of resurrection ferns. I stopped in at Chez Amavida for a coffee and to see what Crystal had drawn on the brown paper roll behind the counter: Alice’s Mad Hatter was offering a Sumatra blend rather than tea.

All the best people are mad, or so Alice told the hatter. Good to know I’m in the best of company.

A beautiful day, I thought as I heard Bob Dylan singing, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and my mind tried to connect that song, about a man leaving a woman, to the concept of luck. Don’t question it, I thought. Don’t think twice. It’s a beautiful day, and you’re only passing through; it needn’t be more meaningful than that.

There are times when the obstacles life throws at us recall, for me, a song from the old “Hee Haw” TV show I remember watching many a Saturday evening at my Grandma Simmons’ home: “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all; gloom, despair and agony on me…”

The night before this, I carefully extracted the parts of an old foil Christmas tree from the original cardboard box; each metallic limb was inside a paper tube, and each fit into tiny angled holes along the wooden trunk of the tree. I constructed the thing atop my desk and hung ornaments on it that my children had made in preschool, along with a few Happy Meal toys they had picked up along the years.

I pointed a light with a rotating colored disc at the tree, and listened to the soft scraping of the disc’s edge against the inside of the light cover, wondering when it would finally refuse to turn. It’s an old thing, this tree and its light. It belonged to Grandma Simmons and passed to me after her death. I felt lucky to get it, and feel lucky now that the light still runs.

Other things happened over the weekend to which I could point and proclaim my gloom, despair and agony. My luck runs true, but it tends more toward a slow progression; rather than two steps back for every one forward, I just take one small stumbling half-step back these days. Still, that would be enough to make most people curse their luck.

And then there are the moments of clarity, when the sun is bright and the sky is clear, when strangers smile and good music plays on the radio. There are moments of purity, as colored lights swirl and twinkle on a tiny metal tree, or breezes make hanging moss sway under oak limbs.

We must take the bad luck, if such a thing exists, with the good. We just have to choose which one deserves more of our attention — because, one way or another, this is a lucky day.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Feeding hungry children at Christmastime

Moving pallet of food into pantry.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I was touring The Ark recently, talking to director Bobbie Brigman and her husband Ric about activities and programs for seniors and winter visitors, when I met a young man named Jason.

He was volunteering in a food bank housed beside the worship sanctuary on the Ark’s campus; Jason’s family was staying in emergency housing on the campus until they could get back on their feet, and he was stocking the Food4Kidz pantry with items delivered that morning.

At another point during our interview, Ric’s phone rang and a hesitant female voice on the line asked if this was the place where she could get food for her family. His answer was, “Yes.”

“People are treated with respect and dignity here,” said Ric, a member of the Ark’s board, worship leader at the on-site church, and director of Food4Kidz, the pantry program housed at the Ark. “They call, make appointments to pick up food. There’s never a line here. Some of them I’ll see once, some I see every couple of months.”

The general policy is to feed a family once a month, but exceptions have been made in extreme circumstances, he said. For more information, call 249-KIDZ (5439), or visit Food4Kidz.org or Facebook.com/Food4Kidz online.

Food4Kidz is a local non-profit associated with the Feeding America program, receives supplies from the Bay Area Food Bank, and has been supported in its efforts by a grant from the St. Joe Community Foundation that purchased a van for the organization via Bill Cramer Chevrolet. Each month, Food4Kidz moves four or five tons of food — frozen, dry goods, canned items, pastries and more — and they feed hundreds of families.

“Some families are still trying to get on their feet after being decimated by the BP oil spill,” Ric said. “The family business is gone, their life savings is gone.”

The demand for help has doubled since last year, Bobbie said, and Ric added that the causes for that are difficult to pin down: Unemployment because of the end of tourist season jobs, general longterm under-employment, grandparents raising grandkids, or just because awareness of the program has grown.

On the two days prior to my visit, the pantry had served 11 families per day. In the worship center, I read notes left by parents and children who had picked up food there.

“Yesterday I had to decide between antibiotics that cost $80 or groceries,” wrote Paula, the mother of a 10-year-old son with health problems. “Of course I chose my son’s antibiotics. I wasn’t sure what I would do for food. I guess the lesson is to have faith.”

Ric stood at my shoulder, reading the note as I did. “That’s when we feel like we’re doing what we’re called to do,” he said.