Thursday, February 27, 2014

What unbridled imagination feels like

PENSACOLA — Like Odysseus or Marco Polo, I have traveled to a (not so) faraway country, witnessed strange and amazing sights, and returned alive to tell you.

What’s odd about travel is that you often find yourself waiting when you arrive at your destination. And as I stood in line last Saturday morning to pick up tickets at Pensacon (the city’s first major science fiction/comics/horror convention) I saw one of my earliest childhood memories stroll past.

The Adam West-era Batman, Batgirl and Robin — as cosplayed by Mobile, Ala.-based cancer surgeon William Roy, nurse Amber Cain and her son Alex — paused for photos in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and I knew I was among my tribe.

There comes a moment when you recognize your people, or at least see yourself reflected in the forms of strangers. Some will get under your skin, infuriate you or embarrass you. Many you wouldn’t recognize on the street.

But they’re yours. And whether you believe it or not, you are one of them.

>>See more photos from Pensacon here<<

Thousands of us swamped the hotel and convention center rooms and floors to celebrate our heroes — actors and creators known for their work in various media, such as Billy Dee Williams and Peter Mayhew of “Star Wars”; Dirk Benedict and Richard Hatch of “Battlestar Galactica”; authors Joe Lansdale and Timothy Zahn; comic book artists Mike Grell and Neal Adams; and literally dozens more.

Many (though not me) wore the most amazing costumes you ever saw.

Later in the day, seated in a packed room at the Pensacola Bay Center and listening to a man in leather armor discussing the steampunk genre, I noticed that Black Widow and the Winter Soldier were seated in front of me. (You are forgiven if the preceding sentence makes little sense to you.)

After the session ended, I asked to take their photo. I asked if they were locals — actually almost said “from Panama City?” — and they replied that they were, indeed, from Panama City. She is Christina Gilbert, a hairdresser, and he is Chris Stock, an instructor with Dragon Dojo. Stock took a moment to describe how he had assembled his costume, complete with its segmented “metallic” arm. This was his second convention, and her first.

But they weren’t the only folks from the PC area to make the journey. A few others were with me, but later I also chanced upon Brian Parsley, a friend and former News Herald coworker who now makes his living as a costume designer. He was strolling the vendor floor as Green Arrow beside friends dressed as a couple of DC Comics heroines. He got his quiver signed by Grell, whose run as the writer and artist on DC’s “Green Arrow” series is legendary among readers.

Another local friend, Katie, made the trip with her mom. I missed them in the crowd, even though we all made it to the standing-room-only session on “Firefly,” a short-lived sci fi series. On Facebook, she described the event as a place “where fan-girling, steampunk, comics, TV shows, seeing great cosplayers, meeting celebrities, turning mom into a Browncoat, and Snoopy dances happen! It was great.”

Again, I don’t expect everyone to understand what she said. It’s like a foreign language; you probably get the gist of it, and if you venture into that realm, you’d be surprised how inclusive it is.

But here we are now, returned to the “real world,” in the costumes of jobs that conceal our true secret identities. But wherever we may walk tomorrow, our imaginations took us elsewhere for a weekend — and we recognized kindred in their myriad forms and fancies.


(This is my Undercurrents column for and The News Herald this week.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The sky remains the same as ever

PANAMA CITY BEACH — I heard a haunting melody this week, a particularly atmospheric clip by the Japanese band MONO: “The Sky Remains the Same as Ever.” It fit the mood I was in, which was at least in part precipitated by the sky, itself.

Maybe I pay too much attention to the sky. When I walk our dogs at night, for instance, I watch the stars and the moon — which hasn’t yet caused me to fall down, though it has resulted in some epic stumbles.

But I also tend to associate certain skies with specific moments in my life.

Last Saturday, as I watched over some chicken breasts sizzling on our back porch grill, I sat back in a deck chair to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. The temperature was in the 70s, the sun was high and warm, the breeze in our shared courtyard just a gentle, cool suggestion.

The sky was a rich blue, cloudless, without a sense of depth. It made the tops of the houses and trees look like cardboard cutouts against a lighted diorama backdrop.

And the combination of details took me back in time.

First it brought me, as it so often does, to a morning almost exactly six years ago, standing in a front yard in Lynn Haven, making phone calls to friends to tell them the worst news one can share. The sky, the sun, the breeze were just like that. Such a lovely sky for so terrible a day.

Then I was back even further, to summer 1985 — more than a lifetime ago, if measured by the earlier memory — sitting on a green space in Gainesville, feeling sun on my face, scribbling notes in a journal, looking up at the endless blue dome overhead.

It was hotter that day, and my mood was restless, but the sky was exactly the same. The world below stood out in stark relief, and with it a sense that none of this was real.

When I got up from my chair to flip the chicken, I wondered about the passing of time and our innate ability to relive moments at the slightest provocation: a scent, a sound, the texture of a blanket, the flavor of a pie, a song playing in the background of a television commercial.

In our hearts and minds, all time is one. The past is always there, one step removed, and sometimes it feels more real than where and when we are now.

As I write this on Wednesday morning, a fog has lifted and formless gray clouds have obscured the blue above. Spanish moss sways in oak limbs still bare of leaves. The sun persists. It punches through the haze, turning the moss dark against the brighter firmament.

What will this day be remembered for, I wonder, and what will this sky recall in years to come?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

River Readings Photo Blog

Carrie Fioramanti talks about Mandalas and Meditation.

Heather Clements demonstrates hoop dancing.

Me sitting with a group of conference-goers who took me out to lunch.

The group without me. Thanks, guys!

The participants worked on a mandala throughout the day.

Panel on Mindfulness: Michael Lister, Lynn Wallace, Carrie Fioramanti, David Lloyd.

Aaron Bearden talks about being great. My notebook and mandala in the foreground.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Still waters run deep

PANAMA CITY — The river has long been used as a metaphor for life and love. We talk about its depth, its currents, its headwaters and tributaries, the sources and measures by which we understand it.

We imagine a full life as the river overflowing its banks, or an empty one as the merest trickle traversing a cracked bed of sediment. We gaze ahead over rapids and obstacles, anticipating the river’s ultimate fate, flowing into and becoming one with the vast and unknowable ocean.

Writers and artists in the midst of a productive cycle say things like “the work is flowing,” as if some fount of creativity has sprung forth to guide their efforts.

And that’s where River Readings comes in.

I’ve been invited to participate in the quarterly River Readings conference at Gulf Coast State College on Saturday. Founded by local author Michael Lister, the event is a day of presentations, panels and workshops on creativity, spirituality, health, wholeness, purpose, goals, dreams, love, life, compassion, parenting, environmentalism, growth and relationships.

“I’m always inspired by what is shared at River Readings,” Michael said. “It’s so helpful to hear how others are thriving in their creative and artistic endeavors, as well as in their relationships and businesses.”

The concept behind River Readings is “Checking Life’s Depth and Flow.” The event brings together writers, artists, counselors, thinkers, theologians, teachers, musicians and spiritual leaders in thoughtful discussion and insightful interactions.

“This year’s theme will be mindfulness and meditation,” said Carrie Fioramonti, an adjunct professor at GCSC, promoting the event on Facebook. “I usually present yoga and visualization techniques, but this year I want to share a new interest: mandala meditation. I have made many meaningful and lasting friendships at this conference.”

The event will take place in the Language and Literature building at Gulf Coast State College, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free (though a donation is requested to help offset costs) and all sessions are open to the public.

Michael said his intent is to provide visitors with inspiring, informative and enlightening in-depth discussions on how to have more productive, successful, and ultimately, happy lives.

(For more information, contact Michael at or visit

Paul McAuliff, a local musician and a previous River Readings presenter, called the event “one of the finest celebrations of the arts in Bay County. Check it out and nourish your soul.”


Below is the schedule for the River Readings sessions:
9:15 a.m.: Living Your Quiddity: Michael Lister
9:55 a.m.: Mandala Meditation: Carrie Fioramonti
10:15 a.m.: Feeding the Brain New Data: Tony Simmons
11:15 a.m.: The Process of Becoming Great: Aaron Bearden
12:00 p.m.: Lunch
1:15 p.m.: Mandala Meditation: Carrie Fioramonti
1:30 p.m.: Hoop Dance Demo and Talk: Heather Clements
2:00 p.m.: Patience, Fear, and Uncertainty: Tony Buoni
2:45 p.m.: Mindfulness: Dave Lloyd, Lou Columbus, Lynn Wallace, Michael Lister, Carrie Fioramonti
3:30 p.m.: Integrity, Creativity, and the Daily Grind: Aaron Bearden, Tony Simmons, Tony Buoni, Lynn Wallace, Michael Lister, Dave Lloyd, Heather Clement

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Author Roorbach draws map to writing success

Roorbach at Mosley High
PANAMA CITY — Bill Roorbach has a thing for geography — specifically, for maps. They play a role in his storytelling, both as an essayist and fiction author, and he uses them to help guide students through the early steps of writing a memoir.

He also turns to them pretty easily when he’s in unfamiliar territory, as he was last weekend — fearlessly using his GPS to locate schools, parks and restaurants.

Bill visited Panama City and the beaches as one of the featured authors at BooksAlive 2014, the annual festival of reading and writing put on by the Bay County Public Library Foundation at FSU-PC. In addition to leading two sessions at BooksAlive last Saturday, he visited the writing class I teach as part of Gulf Coast State College’s Education Encore and he spoke with two groups of students at Mosley High School on Friday.

(Not yet knowing about his love of maps, I sent Bill a map of GCSC’s campus to help him locate the building where my class meets.)

The take-away is a lot of free advice from a gifted novelist, past winner of the O’Henry Prize and the Flannery O’Conner Prize, as well as a retired university professor — which is also just one example of the great gifts BooksAlive brings to this area.

Bill talked about ways to capture “the quality of memory,” ways of using images and dialogue that contain “the truth of the moment” you’re attempting to evoke in your writing. Think of tastes and textures, sounds and scents; use all of your senses when you’re recalling a place and time, not just the visual elements.

One way to do this is to draw a map of the place you’re writing about. It doesn’t have to be to scale or even legible, so long as it helps you to navigate your memories. Draw the neighborhood where you grew up. Now, where did you play, and with whom, and what were they like? Where did the weird person live, and what made them seem strange? What smells came from the house next door? What sounds?

(Bill explores this method in depth in his book, “Writing Life Stories,” which is employed in writing programs all over the planet.)

“How do you go from an anecdote to a full story, to the exploration of what it is to be alive?” he asked.

Bill equated the process of building of narrative to that of building a rock wall: You go down to the creek and gather large, round stones, cart them up to your property, and dump them out. You make several trips to the creek, gathering all the stones you can, and then you begin to place them one on top of another. You find the big picture (the wall) by building up the salient details (the rocks), he said.

Some rocks (or bits of memory) won’t fit your wall, no matter how interesting they look. That’s OK. Set that rock aside for another time (and another story), but keep building until you have a sturdy wall.


(This was my Undercurrents column for and The News Herald this week.)

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

BooksAlive 2014 Photo Post (Part the Second)

Barbara Winter draws a map of her childhood neighborhood in Bill and Kristen's memoir session.

Pat Conroy gives the keynote address at the luncheon.

Bill Roorbach and Patti Callahan Henry talking during a break in the action.

Cassandra King signing for fans.

Chuck Barrett poses with a fan.

Kristen Keckler reads during the memoir session.

Pat Conroy signs after his speech.

These ladies from the Gulf Coast Woman's Club supplied breakfast snacks and beverages in the hospitality room.
BooksAlive 2014 kept me busy Saturday; I moderated two sessions with Bill Roorbach, including an extended 2-hour session on memoir that he presented with Kristen Keckler, and a 1-hour session dedicated to his novel "Life Among Giants."

Pat Conroy had the audience laughing throughout his speech during the luncheon, and I also got to enjoy a conversation with David Angier while everyone else was in line for food.

I have a column coming tomorrow (in print on Friday) that looks at Bill's presentations, so you have to come back for that. Meanwhile, Bill liked my column in last week's edition enough to offer to reprint it on his blog soon. I gave him instead a sort of hybrid that combined that column with info from the blog it grew out of; I'll link to it when it's live.

Many things were different about this year's event, and I plan to examine the pros and cons of that in a later blog. Hope you like the pictures.