Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Keep watching the skies!

PANAMA CITY BEACH — A tropical front moved across the beaches early in the week, and I had the fortune of taking our dogs for a late night gallivant just as the clouds broke.

Stars like diamonds stood out against a deep black sky behind billowing cobalt thunderheads. I watched the creeping pinpoint light of a satellite or high-flying jet cutting a slow arc among them, and felt filled with childlike wonder.

I vowed in that moment not to fall prey to the ever insistent specter of self-reflection and recriminations that I felt building up as my lifeline rolled closer to marking its fifth decade. That long on the planet makes it easier for a brain like mine to look back and ponder all of the things I regret, all of the things I didn’t do and never will, all the people I miss.

Instead, I promised to do the more difficult thing, to spend these next days peering ahead, focusing on all the alternative timelines yet to be created, the infinite possibilities, events and accomplishments that still could happen, stories yet to be told, the people still with me and those I have yet to know.

To stare past the cloudline and into the deep unknown, where stars sparkle and uncharted worlds spin, and even my bad eyes can view with the power of hope and imagination.

On the morning I sat down to write this, I learned that Ernest Spiva, a man I considered a friend — though in truth, we barely knew each other — had passed away. He was 77, which meant he was 27 when I was born and nearly 55 when our paths first converged.

Before he retired, he liked to call me up on any given day and open with, “This is your conscience speaking.”

I had the opportunity recently to read the stories of Ernest’s youth in an unpublished manuscript he called “Growing Up on Grace.” And while he enjoyed looking back and telling funny tales, he never failed to encourage those around him to think about their futures. I think that’s the takeaway he’s left me with, at least in this moment.

I joke about having outlived my own “sell by” date, knowing I should have paid for the extended warranty when I had that cardio bypass, or looking in the mirror and seeing only bad hair days in my future. I toast to absent friends and loved ones. I tweet to anyone who will listen to “tell those punk kids to get off my lawn.” But all of that’s a front, and especially hollow when exposed before the vault of heaven.

When I was a kid, I watched a black-and-white sci-fi/monster film called “The Thing From Another World.” Produced by Howard Hawks, it starred James Arness as the “intellectual carrot” (i.e., alien plant monster) terrorizing soldiers and scientists at a remote arctic station.

The film ends with a reporter broadcasting the story of their harrowing adventure and exhorting other reporters: “Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies — everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”

It’s good advice, even if you don’t expect to catch an invasion of walking plant creatures. Maybe you’ll spot a satellite or a shooting star. Maybe you’ll see something even grander.

Keep watching the skies. Keep looking up, not back. The past will take care of itself. The future needs your attention.


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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Writers' Jargon (6): The Guest Edition

Writers have their own language. A shorthand, if you will. Outsiders (non-writers) think they know what most of these words and phrases mean. But they don't. Here, in a continuing series of posts, I will divulge the SECRET MEANINGS OF WRITERS' JARGON.

Since this expose' began, some of my writerly friends have suggested some secret meanings from their own private stash, and here they are:

Hero's Journey: the delusion that as a writer, you're following some mythic path that will make you a more complete person. (Thanks to Mark Boss)

Purple Prose: the words you use to describe an idiotic book critic and their questionable ancestry. (Also from Mark Boss)

Beta Reader: a friend who hasn't opened a novel since high school that you rope into reading your un-edited, 300,000-word rip off of James Joyce. (Mark Boss)

Writer's vocation:  lifelong; unpaid; computer keyboard skills required. (Thanks to Marty Sirmons) be continued ...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Pyramid delivers arts, crafts, magical performance

LYNN HAVEN — A special event marking the 20th anniversary of a special program will offer guests the chance to purchase art and see a main stage performance of “The Magic Carpet Ride” on Saturday.

This is the second year The Pyramid Players will perform at the Kaleidoscope Theatre, 207 E. 24th St. in  Lynn Haven. Doors open at 5 p.m. with an exhibit of art, archival prints, crafts and jewelry created by the members of Pyramid Panama City, a non-profit organization serving more than 100 adults with disabilities.

The play begins at 6 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are suggested. Some of the artwork and other items will be available for purchase.

Pyramid Panama City opened in June 1994, along with four sister programs located throughout the state. It serves adults with a wide range of abilities, needs and interests, and is best known for its innovative visual and performing arts programs. Statewide, Pyramid currently serves more than 700 people.

The Pyramid Players are all adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities whose true talents shine through on stage.

“It has been a privilege to see our students grow through the arts and other training,” said Marilyn Yon, co-founder of Pyramid, in a recent news release. “All they need is someone to believe in them and give them the tools and opportunities.”

“The Magic Carpet Ride” is described as a family-friendly magic show and play in one that will carry viewers on a worldwide adventure to meet favorite magicians, including Harry Houdini. The performance showcases the acting skills of the Players with the added attraction of magic. Add some singing, a little dancing and the promised hilarity of the Pyramid Clown Troupe, and you have the makings of an evening that will entertain the inner child in anyone.

Additionally, the show will provide the audience with a glimpse into the talents of a group of people whose ability to contribute to their communities too often goes unrecognized.

“Pyramid’s students face many challenges in their lives.” Panama City Director Cindy Coleman said. “Performing gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.”

According to information provided by Pyramid Panama City’s performing arts coordinator (and Kaleidoscope Theatre regular) Rachel Eiland-Hall, cast members learn that their hard work and dedication permit them to excel, not only on stage, but also in their personal lives. The demands of performing allow The Players to stretch their talents and improve everyday skills.

They develop clearer, more expressive singing and speaking voices, and improve coordination, balance and rhythm. They also learn responsibility to each other through commitment to months of demanding rehearsals.

“They put in a lot of time and hard work rehearsing for the show, which allows them to learn their lines and dances, but they are also learning to work as a team toward a common goal,” Coleman said. “I never cease to be amazed at what they are able to accomplish.”

And that’s the magic secret to success, isn’t it? It only looks easy because you put in so much hard work before the curtain opened.


(This was my Undercurrents column for July 18 in The News Herald and at

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writers' Jargon (5)

Writers have their own language. A shorthand, if you will. Outsiders (non-writers) think they know what most of these words and phrases mean. But they don't. Here, in a continuing series of posts, I will divulge the SECRET MEANINGS OF WRITERS' JARGON.

Orphan: (noun) What your kids feel like because you’re always writing or reading or editing. (Similar to, but not to be confused with, “widow.”)

Inciting Incident: (noun) Traumatizing event, usually occurring in childhood, that caused the emotional/neurological damage sufficient to make you think you could be a writer.

Pen Name: (Proper noun) What you call your favorite pen. I call mine “Lovely,” but then I was probably dropped on my head as a kid. (Not to be confused with “pseudonym.”)

... to be continued ...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writers Jargon (4)

Writers have their own language. A shorthand, if you will. Outsiders (non-writers) think they know what most of these words and phrases mean. But they don't. Here, in a continuing series of posts, I will divulge the SECRET MEANINGS OF WRITERS' JARGON.

Interlude: (noun) The portion of the story that gets inserted between doses of ’ludes. Tends to give the other portions some clarity, explore backstory (see "backstory").

Plot: (noun) Where characters are buried when they die.

Backstory: (noun) The stuff only the writer knows about the situation and characters, often inserted into the narrative because he can’t figure out where the story should meander next. (See “Interlude.”) be continued...

Friday, July 11, 2014

Writers Jargon (3)

Writers have their own language. A shorthand, if you will. Outsiders (non-writers) think they know what most of these words and phrases mean. But they don't. Here, in a continuing series of posts, I will divulge the SECRET MEANINGS OF WRITERS' JARGON.

Vanity Press: (noun) The coffee press you use to make your own special blend, and yet no one takes your coffee seriously.

Prologue: (noun) The log a person should be beaten with when he decides to write for a living. (Not to be confused with “prelude.”)

Prelude: (noun) The portion of the story you write before the ’ludes kick in. (Not to be confused with “prologue.”)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

‘Tyr’ pressure rises under the lights, behind the curtain

Zinszer and Powiliatis (Photo by Me)
PANAMA CITY — It’s been a while since I stood on the stage at the Martin Theatre. On Wednesday evening, as I watched women painting backdrops and arranging lights, their voices mingling among the curtains, I tried to recall which show was in preparation back then.

And really, it didn’t matter which one. There’s an energy in those lights and among the flowing curtains that permeates all activity. A sense of pressure rising. Even Mike Stone, slouching on a stool and studying lines, seemed ready to break into action at any moment.

Mike’s wife, Pam Sutton, is directing “Pericles, Prince of Tyr,” a lesser-known play from William Shakespeare, which will be presented for one weekend (July 17-20) at the Martin. She has set the action in the 1930s and transplanted it from the Mediterranean to various cities in the U.S., including Miami and New Orleans. Segments of the play originally presented as narration will be projected in the form of scratchy news reels.

“We wanted it to be set far enough distant that it’s not now, but is something that the audience can relate to,” Pam said. “The play itself is supposed to be an antique fable.”

Pam invited me by to see the sets in progress and meet some of the actors, like Allen Walker, who is portraying Pericles. This isn’t the first starring role for Allen, 32, a Latin teacher at Arnold High School in Panama City Beach. In recent years, for instance, he’s become associated with the name “Soldier Riley,” playing the hero of local author Michael Lister’s novels in performances at Gulf Coast State College.

“He starts off very cocky, sure of himself,” Allen said of Pericles, “but he’s brought low several times. The scenes are very short, which limits the time to portray him before the next disaster happens.”

Allen joked that Pericles gets shipwrecked so often that you would think people would stop letting him on their boats.

Anthony Powiliatis, 20, a GCSC student, is the self-proclaimed “po-liatist” person you’ll ever meet. This is his 24th show, including productions at the Martin, Kaleidoscope Theatre, GCSC, Bay High, Jinks Middle, and the late Sherlock’s Mystery Dinner Theatre. He said the antics behind the curtain are his favorite thing about doing theatre.

“It’s a war backstage,” he said. “We pantomime killing each other, or all the drama stereotypes we do.”

One of his foils is Elizabeth Zinszer, 19, a technical theater major at GCSC, who plays Pericles’ daughter. We shared a laugh when we realized that, about eight years ago, she played the child of Macduff, Thane of Fife, in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — when my son was playing Macduff under the direction of Stone and Sutton’s daughter, Liz. Even my son’s “daughter” is grown up now.

“I’ve never read one of Shakespeare’s plays that is like this, a mix of tragedy and comedy — it’s all over the place,” Elizabeth said. “It’s kind of like a puzzle, almost.”
Daniel LaMere, a 16-year-old virtuoso, has chosen era-appropriate music and will be playing it live throughout the show.

“This has taught me to do preparation really fast,” Daniel said, explaining he had three weeks to ready the score. “It’s testing my abilities to learn. I freaked out at first, but I learned I can do this.”

As you will live, resolve it you.

Where: The Martin Theatre, 409 Harrison Ave., Panama City
When: 7:30 p.m. July 17, 18 and 19; 2 p.m. July 20
Tickets: $10 adults, $5 students and senior adults
Details: 763-8080

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

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Writers Jargon (2)

Writers have their own language. A shorthand, if you will. Outsiders (non-writers) think they know what most of these words and phrases mean. But they don't. Here, in a continuing series of posts, I will divulge the SECRET MEANINGS OF WRITERS' JARGON.

Imprint: (noun) The mark left on your forehead after you slam your face into your desk in frustration.

Submission: (verb) Admitting you can’t perfect your manuscript, and sending it to publishers so they can confirm its imperfections.

Climax: (noun) The sensation you feel when you successfully complete a story.

Epilogue: The log a writer uses to beat a dead horse.

Friday, July 04, 2014

...The more they stay the same

PANAMA CITY BEACH — As of the end of June, I have now been at this job (or at least, employed in various jobs at this newsroom) for 21 years. The same week, my first child turned 26. This is the only job he remembers me ever having.

I thought about that a bit, picturing the me of 21 years ago rolling into town. I had more hair, fewer wrinkles, less debt, and lived in a state of blissful ignorance about the longevity of my heart, much less the trajectory of this thing that (in retrospect) I have to call a “career.”

But that train of thought, once it left the station, started me looking back at how things have changed around here in the past couple of decades. (That’s right: Now that I’m an old man, you may have to endure the occasional “back in my day” trips down the rabbit hole.)

In 1993, we still used a walkie-talkie style radio to keep in touch with reporters in the field. Production included wax paste-up of columns before pages were photographed for conversion to negatives that were used to — You know what? Never mind.

Photographers used film, and the photo lab always smelled of chemicals. Graphic artists used colored acetate sheets to create color effects, requiring multiple negative sheets — er, never mind.

And yet, most photos and art were printed in black-and-white. When I started posting our old photos to the website some years ago, like the one of Sir Loin, people complained that I was turning color photos to black-and-white to make them seem more “vintage.” Nope. That’s how they were originally printed.

Local schools had newspapers. Students came to this office to do physical layout work.
I carried a beeper, and when it went off, I had to locate a pay phone or public phone to check in. Only rich people had car phones or those “cell phones” with the big battery backpacks.

In 1994, I covered a Gulf Coast (then-Community) College meeting in which Professor Joe Howell described the highlights of the so-called “Internet” database system and the advantages access would give to faculty and students in the future.

“In less than a minute, he had at his fingertips computer files in Iowa, Sweden and Asia — including professional journals, research information, job listings, electronic mailboxes and computer bulletin boards,” the report said. “There was even a file on ‘UFO and Alien Information’ — although he quickly skipped past it.”

There was no indication that morning of how such a simple file transfer system would evolve and change the world — much less the news business. By 1995, there was a debate over whether we needed Internet access in the newsroom; that year, I signed up for my personal email and was among the first reporters to list an email at the bottom of his stories.

In 2006, I became the newsroom’s first Online Editor. In 2011, when I moved over to, a fellow named Brady Calhoun became the online editor; he first showed up in this newsroom in 1995 as a student intern from Rutherford High School that I was assigned to supervise.

He had more hair, fewer wrinkles, and lived in a state of blissful ignorance about the trajectory of his newspaper career.

The more things change… You know the rest.

(This is my Undercurrents column for The News Herald and for July 4.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Writers Jargon

Writers have their own language. A shorthand, if you will. Outsiders (non-writers) think they know what most of these words and phrases mean. But they don't.

Here, for the first time, I will divulge the SECRET MEANINGS OF WRITERS' JARGON. This is, as you might imagine, the first in an ongoing series of posts -- that is, if some writers' conspiracy group (aka "book club") doesn't get to me first.

Character Arc: (geometry) Curve defined by how high and distant you toss your laptop when you realize you're writing the story from the wrong character's point of view.

Dialogue: (noun) The log I beat my characters with until they start talking.

Foreshadowing: (verb) The act of going back to an earlier point in your manuscript to drop in a clue about something you just realized while writing the last chapter.