Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beach a top favorite among locals
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Honestly, it was a view of the beach that convinced me to move here nearly 21 years ago. It was a hot, sunny day in May, the sand was blinding, and the sea was that crystalline green it gets on calm afternoons.

As the kids grew, we made regular excursions to St. Andrews State Park, exploring the nature trails, admiring the lakes, camping, biking, snorkeling, fishing. The annual pass was a must.

Now, walking the shoreline and jumping into the waves remain favorite activities. It’s no surprise that so many of the people I talked to and emailed about their lives in this area mentioned some combination of the park and the beaches among their most cherished places.

For instance: From the age of 6, Angela Hood’s parents took the family camping at St. Andrews St. Park every year. She was always excited to go — biking, walking nature trails, fishing, kayaking, and of course going to the beach, she said.

“We would leave the park just once to go get a delicious treat from Dippin’ Dots,” she said. “Now that I am married, I will enjoy camping out there with my husband and friends. When we decide to have kids of our own, camping at St. Andrews will be one tradition I will be sure to carry on.”

Angela now works in Events and Social Media for the Panama City Downtown Improvement Board.

“What I like most about living on the Gulf Coast is the easy access to both the beach life and the country life,” she said. “There are some days that I long to be lying on the beach soaking up the sun and swimming in the salt water. Then, there are some days that I crave to be out in the country, swimming in the cold water of Bear Creek followed by sitting around a bonfire at night.”
Life on the northern Gulf Coast has allowed just that. She can have the beach life on Saturday, she said, and the country life on Sunday.

“I also look forward to canoeing down Econfina Creek” this summer, she said. “It’s a great way to spend a relaxing day with family and friends enjoying the beauty of nature. If you get too hot, no worries because the creek is always super cold. I like going to all the different springs that the public can’t necessarily get to by foot or car.”

Canoe trips always turn into an adventure if there has been a recent storm, she said, as fallen trees invariably cross the creek. Some people can always navigate them fairly easily, but there is always that one person in the group that gets hung up or flips the boat.

“That’s when it becomes entertaining,” she said, adding, “as long as they are okay.”

From experience, though, beware the spiders in the overhanging limbs and bluffs. They are most definitely not among my favorite things.

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

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Checking off the must-do vacation adventures

Shell Island by Christy Woodrow
PANAMA CITY BEACH — What’s on your bucket list?

I ask, as the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau is celebrating (and promoting) tourism with a new campaign called “Real. Fun. Beach. Bucket List.”

The effort kicked off recently with a party at the recently expanded Harpoon Harry’s featuring five “family and adventure” bloggers, as well as the launch of a new interactive website that helps visitors explore Panama City Beach from end to end, throughout the year.

The site encourages visitors to click on photos to add items to their vacation bucket lists and qualify for prizes by posting photos of their visit. The prizes include CVB-branded towels, T-shirts, stickers, Frisbees and more.

Some of the suggested experiences on the list include: snorkel, boogie board, get a picture with a pirate, hook and cook your dinner, master body surfing, play miniature golf, watch a breathtaking sunset, build the ultimate sand castle, run a race, watch dolphins, gather seashells, scuba dive, and write a love note in the sand.

Reading the complete list, I can safely say I’ve already checked off nearly all of those items. That’s what it means to live in paradise, I suppose. Our same-old same-old is someone else’s dream vacation. Our day at the beach is someone else blowing their whole savings account.

The visiting bloggers included Jessica Bowers of “Suitcases and Sippy Cups,” Keryn Means of “Walking On Travels,” Kristin Luna of “Camels and Chocolate,” Christy Woodrow of “Ordinary Traveler,” and photojournalist Spencer Spellman of “TheTraveling Philosopher.” They spent a few days in Panama City Beach exploring and filling out their own bucket lists, and sharing their experiences with their multitude of fans.

The group has been “posting some great shots and video, and because of the number of followers that they have, they’re reaching a huge audience,” said David Demarest of the CVB. “A sunset photo one of the bloggers posted early in the trip quickly reached over 200,000 views, and that’s just one of the five bloggers sharing their experience.”

The term “bucket list” has always bugged me because it’s about trying to get some things done before you kick the bucket. I prefer Spellman’s use of the term “life list” on his blog, as that’s what it’s really about — getting the most out of this life.

When I remember to look at it from the outsider’s perspective, I realize again how lucky I am to live here, and I hope you feel the same.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Boss debuts new thriller, ‘One Bullet’

Cover Art
PANAMA CITY — The only criminal other criminals trust with their money is the bagman, and bagman Joe Barrow never lost a delivery until a mysterious killer left him for dead and escaped with the cash.

Now Joe and his girlfriend, Carly, must find the money before the Cartel, the cops, or his own Syndicate finds them. Carly owns his heart, and Joe will do anything to protect her. He should run, but he’s determined to expose whoever betrayed him and deliver the cash.

One bullet at a time.

That’s the situation in “One Bullet,” the new crime thriller from Panama City author Mark Boss. Set in Panama City, Rosemary Beach and other locations across the Emerald Coast, “One Bullet” tracks its characters from one extreme situation to another in a driving narrative full of violence and dark humor.

In many cases, Mark said, it’s only when people face that kind of situation that you see them for who they really are. That’s why he delighted in throwing obstacles, injuries and betrayals at Joe Barrow as “One Bullet” progressed.

“Early detective characters were cowboys in a city. There’s always a girl — there’s not a plot without a girl — there’s always a bad guy, a McGuffin (or plot device), a bag of cash or a case of jewels,” he said. “It’s a collision of people that are doomed in the same way characters in Greek and Norse myths are doomed, falling forward into the plot. They can’t help themselves.”

Mark’s previous books include the thrillers “Hired Guns” and “The Cultist,” and the urban fantasies “Dead Girl” and “Dead Girl 2: Fader Boy.” He’s a member of the Panama City Writers Association and The Cheshires writing group. His website is, and he blogs at >>This is his Amazon profile<<

Mark began writing pulp-style thrillers for a website called “Beat to a Pulp,” and an early version of “One Bullet” was produced for this site. However, he credits PCWA member Wayne Garrett with questioning a portion of the story that got him thinking of it in deeper terms.

“He got the hamster wheel turning,” Mark said, which led to research into things like money laundering and hacking. As is usual for novelists, most of the research is never seen in the book but serves to inform the writer’s approach.

Mark makes his living as an editor-for-hire, freelancing for novelists, tech companies, non-fiction authors, academics and more. His short fiction has been published in “Between There” Volume 2, “Meow,” “50-to-1,” “Blazing Adventures,” “The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature,” and the Emerald Coast Review.

“Editing pays the bills, and writing keeps me off of rooftops and out of sanitariums,” he said. “Anybody going into writing for the money is crazy or at least misinformed.”

Mark’s family came to Panama City in 1969, when he was a wee tyke. He considers himself a native. His first written works were comic books he illustrated in spiral notebooks, though he started reading epic novels like “The Hobbit” at an early age.

“Comics were friendly. They were short in pages, but epic in storytelling,” he said on his biographical note. “The point is that when I wrote/drew the last page, I had told a story.”

He soon began emulating Edgar Rice Burroughs and other authors he admired. He wrote his first (self-described “horrible”) novel during college in the mid-1980s, under the influence of Douglas Adams.

“When I was young, I went through a phase of reading Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler,” he said. “The people in those books were so real to me — people who made terrible mistakes, but that’s real. The things that drove them were relatable to me.”

Post-modern storytelling, full of anti-heroes or a collection of debased characters, is not something that appeals to Mark, who said he needs someone in a story that he can pull for.

“They may be knuckleheads or killers, but at least they’re attempting to do the right thing,” he said. “The heart of every great story is good versus evil, the moral conflict. A story mines that, or it’s just a newscast.”

Mark said he’s fascinated by characters who make all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons, like those who throw caution to the wind for the sake of love: “That trumps everything. Love trumps reason, danger, all of it.”


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

Thursday, May 08, 2014

‘Stringing a Yarn’ takes many turns

Lou preps a microphone during shooting.
PANAMA CITY — So we made a short film about writing — and we made it in a local art gallery and studio.
In the movie, an old fellow hovers on the outskirts of a class where an artist teaches children to weave on makeshift looms. He is inspired by their activity to write a story called “The Weaver.”
And then — facing the choice that all artists must make — he puts his work on display for the public to view, interpret, critique or disparage. “The Weaver” goes on the wall as if it somehow fit among the embroidery, rugs, needlepoint and other woven arts and crafts on exhibit.
Is it art? That’s the question. The answer is less obvious, perhaps.
The film, “Stringing a Yarn,” was directed, photographed and edited by Lou Columbus, a resident of St. Andrews. It was shot at Floriopolis, the new art hub in the historic district, with the cooperation of artist-in-residence Heather Parker and her young students.
To complete the scenes we had in mind, Lou and I also conscripted artist and natural improviser Deborah Kivett, who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, and whose critiques of the work had us in stitches.
Now the film, like the short story, is out in the world. It’s a thing that is no longer strictly “ours,” but that the viewing public can take and make of it what they will.
Weaving is a natural metaphor for the craft of writing, of pulling together the disparate threads of story to create a meaningful whole. It works as well for film-making, as the director envisions the writer’s scenes and the editor connects pieces shot out of order to form a narrative, often tying everything together with the perfect melody.
It’s not the first time I’ve been inspired by the art of the weaver. I once wrote a piece about a woman who saw in the patterns of her crochet all the quantum secrets of the universe, all the ways we’re connected and how simple it is to become entangled, frayed, knotted or cut off.
Life is a series of interconnected stories, and art is steeped in story (and vice versa). Later this month, Floriopolis will host some examples of storytelling arts you might enjoy:
* A “1940s Noir Night” will be 6-8 p.m. on May 24 to celebrate the release of local author Michael Lister’s latest mystery novel, “The Big Hello.” The book represents the conclusion of his “Soldier” Riley trilogy set in 1940s Panama City. Details:
* Bay Storytellers will hold a Panama City Story Slam at 7 p.m. May 30. Participants must tell — not read — a 5-minute story. No poetry or songs are allowed, and the key word “bay” must be included in the tale. Cash prizes will be awarded. Details: Call Pat at 814-2616, or visit online.
Meanwhile, “The Weaver” remains on display at Floriopolis, part of the “Spinning a Yarn” exhibit. Visit the shop at 1125 Beck Ave., and decide for yourself if it should be there.
(This is my Undercurrents column this week for and The News Herald.)

The Weaver

By Tony Simmons

The ancient weaver works her loom in darkness, though the morning sun warms her face. A girl, not her daughter, sits beside her, invisible but for the scent and sense of her presence, a mass with little gravity and no voice. The child feeds the crone’s dry fingertips the threads from spools arrayed on a wooden rack like rainbow pools as the weaver requests them.

”Give me the blue of the sky on a summer’s morning,” says the weaver. ”The sun not yet at zenith, as it is now. No clouds or haze. The blue of an infant day.”

Taking the thread from the girl, the weaver feels its texture, recognizes its touch upon calluses that time has smoothed from the youthful swirls once etched in her skin like the weaving of a fleshy fabric. She nods, feeds it into her loom. Flexes her back, moves with the machine, building visions she glimpses only in her darkness, visions only the unseen child can confirm.

”Give me the emerald of the shallows,” the woman says. ”Waveless. A reflecting pool fashioned from crystal, revealing the sugar carpet where stone crabs scuttle. The emerald of a swimmer’s salty perspective.”

Once more, the girl delivers the thread into the old weaver’s grasp, and she in turn provides its thin materials to her contraption, working the narrow hairs into wide swaths of texture and hue until drops of sweat run off her nose and the day’s light softens upon her head.

”Give me the white of ghosts, of a virgin’s wedding dress, a saint’s halo,” she says. ”White of sugar, white of salt, white of quartz or bone bleached by the sun of a billion years.”

The weaver takes the thread she receives into her fingertips, and she pauses. The texture is incorrect. She sniffs the material, gathers a clump of it rolled like webbing in her palm and strokes it against her sunken cheek. She drops it in the empty, black space between herself and the girl, feels the cool of evening descend as the sun disappears, Apollo abandons his orbit.

”Girl, this is not the white thread I wanted,” she says. ”This is not my thread at all. What are you trying to do? What game is this?”

The darkness is quiet, though she senses the child still sitting beside her, like a breath in the night. The weaver waits as the air turns cool on her face, her fingers go cold, and the ache in her bones becomes a steady moan only she can hear.

”Try again, child,” she says. ”Find me the thread though your sight be rendered black as mine.”

Something moves then. A sound of air and soft contact, of wood scraping. The old weaver knows the noise like she knows the cry of her own muscles – thread in the loom, the sweep of the arm, the action of the machine.

And she moves aside, her day done, someone else picking up the thread of her life and working it into images she cannot even imagine.

(This is the story I wrote for use in our short film, "Stringing a Yarn." It was designed for use with a typewriter font that only had working end quotes, and no apostrophe.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Video: 'Stringing a Yarn'

So I had a silly idea a few weeks ago and told my friend Lou about it. We turned it into a short video:

It's our tribute to writers and artists everywhere. But mostly to writers.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Author releases 'sweet' guide to life

Cassandra King
Photo by Tamara Reynolds
ROSEMARY BEACH — Cassandra King returns to her “old stomping grounds” this weekend, and the public is invited to join her for coffee and conversations.

The author of “Moonrise,” “The Sunday Wife,” “The Same Sweet Girls” and other novels will visit The Hidden Lantern Bookstore in Rosemary Beach from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday to sign copies of her latest release, a gift book called “The Same Sweet Girls Guide to Life: Advice from a Failed Southern Belle.”

Rick Bragg’s introduction to the book explains the difference between being an ordinary Southern man and being a gentleman, which he uses to illuminate how being a failed Southern belle is what makes a real Southern lady. The book contains black-and-white illustrations throughout and is designed as a keepsake or inspirational gift book. Among the bits of wisdom King shares: Know the value of time.

 “Be a spendthrift with everything but time,” she writes. “Listen to me instead of your financial manager: It’s okay to spend money, to save it, to give it away, to worry over it. It’s just money. The only enemy in life is time. It helps to be reminded that fate always bats last, and always bats a thousand.”

As a bonus, King’s afterword focuses on the value of becoming a lifelong reader: “Books let us know we’re not alone in this world…. Some might say that we lose ourselves in a good book. In truth, we find ourselves.”

This book came about in a different way than King’s novels generally evolve, she said during a phone conversation Tuesday. It’s based on a commencement speech she gave at the University of Montevallo (her alma mater), and contains anecdotes to illustrate “hard life lessons,” she said. It’s also a tribute to a group of women who became friends while attending Montevallo.

“We call ourselves ‘The Same Sweet Girls,’” she said. “It came from a remark we heard in a speech one time by a beauty queen who had travelled all over but said she was still the same sweet girl she’d always been.”

King fictionalized the group in her New York Times bestselling novel, “The Same Sweet Girls” (2005). A portion of the money raised by publication of this new book will go to the University of Montevallo’s Same Sweet Girls Scholarship Fund.

King said she and her friends were empowered that day to rebel against the superficiality of “sweetness” and frame life in a different way — an authentic and generous way. The group “wanted everyone to know we hadn’t got the big head” despite their accomplishments, she joked. The term then became used ironically, or sometimes as a warning.

“We actually take it totally tongue-in-cheek,” King said. “We might say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to be sweet, but you aren’t really.’ … It’s a way of having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously. We’re very aware that most people are more concerned about how we appear to others rather than how we really are.”

Each year, the group gathers and catches up, and they crown a queen from among their number — whoever has been “the sweetest” that year. As this year’s gathering coincides with King’s visit to Rosemary Beach, she said, “I’m going to have to be really, really sweet on that leg of the trip.”