American For Sale

Emilio after his naturalization was final. PC: Andrew Payne

As my time teaching and living with teenagers draws closer to an end, I am finding it hard to keep my excitement contained. Teenagers are exhausting in their very own unique way, anyone who knows them would attest to this. So I remind myself constantly that soon this stage in my life will be over and I will be free of these highly-charged, 100-mph, full-bore years forever and be on to something less…less…everything.

The explosive imagination of a young person….

Recently, however, I was reminded of something incredible, something that I’d forgotten all about from a few years back, something that I will actually miss quite a lot: the explosive imagination of a young person who has been deeply inspired by something greater than themselves. You’ve not seen nor felt the powerful force of nature I call teen inspiration until you’ve watched a young person latch onto something they think will make the world better. It’s a tsunami of creativity, unleashed. When an idealistic young person with a goal is turned loose, it’s best just to get out of their way. And that is something about the kids that I will miss dearly.

It costs thousands of dollars to become an American citizen

Into my classroom walked a young man last week, one who graduated high school a few years ago. Once a student in my American Government class, he is now finishing up college and walking a path toward adulthood, a good boy back then and a good man, now. Back when I had him in class, it was during a discussion on natural-born citizenship that he made his first impression on me. Emilio was not an American, but he wanted to be. When this was pointed out for the class, I asked him (already knowing the answer) why he didn’t “just do it.” His response wasn’t what the other kids expected. He told them, No, he wasn’t prohibited by his home country from becoming an American, and he didn’t have any carryover allegiance to that country either, having been raised most of his life in America, and he certainly wasn’t incapable of passing the tests and meeting the qualifications. His English was perfect and he had every bit as much knowledge as any elected lawmaker about how America’s government system works. “It’s the money,” he said, “It costs thousands of dollars to become an American citizen.” Who knew?

Jake and Andrew, 2015. PC: Shelley Holzworth

The next row over sat a young man named Andrew, of the class-clown sort, but also a Naval Academy applicant, and behind him sat his best buddy Jake, another rambunctious and mischievous kid who had plans to attend Auburn University as an ROTC cadet. They were exuberant teens for sure, both a little silly and boisterous at times, being teenagers and all. Hearing Emilio’s story, Andrew spun in his chair in the most uncharacteristically serious way and the rest of us watched their plan hatch in real-time. See, Andrew and Jake were members of our school’s Student Government Association. Members of the SGA were required to propose and chair community service projects that most often resulted in small-scale canned food drives or used clothing collection projects, things that had been done hundreds of times. I watched the two boys get fired up in an all-new way over Emilio. I felt the electricity charging the air as their idea took shape. We all saw it happen right in front of us, the whole class. The boys returned to their SGA class that afternoon with a mission to make the world just a little better, in this one small way. They proposed the project, passed it, and set to work immediately.

They sold American flag decals for $1 apiece. My classroom was ground zero for distribution and the one hundred or so I was responsible for sold out in less than a week. The boys also carried decals around with them and peddled them out in public, in the school lunchroom, the parking lot and on social media. They sold almost a thousand of them, all told.

One thousand $1 American flag decals. It all went to Emilio, to pay for him to become an American citizen.

This is the classroom where it all happened. Jake and Andrew are pictured along with all of the other Senior SGA kids. PC: Tina Lovett Photography, 2015

When Emilio came to see me last week, I was reminded of that incredible day. It’s impossible not to bring up the naturalization thing, it’s the bond that will always exist between us. He shared with me that his parents and his brother also became American citizens, right along with him. The whole family gave up their old lives to become one of us and I got to see it take shape from its beginning. That’s the kind of moment that a teacher like me lives for, the kind I need to focus on more often, instead of all the other teenager stuff. When Emilio came to my classroom last week to give me a hug and to say hello, he asked me if I still had any decals leftover, his was worn out and he wanted a new one. I reminded him that I had zero…all mine sold out in less than a week, remember? He smiled and shrugged. Not a bad problem to have.

Andrew was appointed to the Naval Academy later that same year and is currently participating in an exchange program with West Point. Jake attended Auburn University on an ROTC scholarship and is about to finish up his Mechanical Engineering degree at the University of West Florida. As for Emilio, he is attending the University of Central Florida and intends to become a Physician’s Assistant. He has become a great American, better in many ways than some natural-born Americans I know. He is not obnoxiously political at all, and he never was. As a member of a society now obsessed with tearing down our country on television and social media, and tearing down each other, too, instead I see in Emilio a thankful, upstanding citizen who focuses on the good in us. He is grateful and humble, exactly the kind of American this country needs. And in my opinion, the same could be said for all three of these fine, patriotic young men.

This piece will publish on September 17th, which is Constitution Day in the United States. In honor of the framing of the greatest plan of government ever written in the history of the world, I would like to say to these three young people: May God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America. Thank you for keeping the American Dream alive.

Andrew at the USNA, 2016

Jake and a friend at Chewacla State Park, 2016.

Emilio in Iceland, his home country. 2017

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House Hospice

Hurricane Irma, September 2017. PC: ABC News

My house is a rental. I haven’t lived here very long, just a little over four months, and there are zero sentimentalities about this place in my catalogue of dearest memories ever. On more than one occasion, in fact, as I got to know my condo on the beach a little better, it has occurred to me that this place has seen its share of terrifying storms. The scars are everywhere. There’s a little lean to the floor in the hallway upstairs, and the whole place literally moans when the wind is blowing. Long story short, if The Big One Named Irma were to decide she was coming to Pensacola, I would pack up a few Rubbermaid bins of pictures, put my renter’s insurance policy in my car, and drive away happy and content with my kid and my dog, never looking back. This place has days that are numbered, and I’m okay with that.

Some houses are just houses. Homes are a different story.

Storm shutters on the back patio, A perfect day in South Florida

I have a friend who lives in Cutler Bay, though, a gorgeous little town just south of Miami, and she is entertaining a very different conversation about her home and the ten-volume catalogue of memories she’s made there over the last decade. Two days ago when Irma’s landfall in south Florida became imminent, she was forced to start looking around at everything she owns in the entire world and accept that she might actually lose it all.

She’s got an amazing attitude about it. Our conversations this past week have been lighthearted and hysterical. I laughed out loud as I imagined her turning in circles in her kitchen, not knowing where to even begin. A hurricane’s single gift to the world is advance warning, so the folks in Dade County have a had a few days to get ready. Still, even with some notice, how do you decide what to take with you when you sort of need to move, but you only have the resources to grab what is absolutely essential? Who wouldn’t make those same circles? It’s totally exasperating and overwhelming to contemplate.

Rex and Jena Snow in front of their home in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, another one of life’s curveballs they will weather together.

First, she propped a stack of framed family pictures by the front door. Pre-digital portraiture whose negatives are not saved on anyone’s laptop anywhere.

Then, the essential paperwork was filed into travel folders and stashed for future use. Insurance documents, bank statements and investment accounts, important account numbers and personal contact info, the names of all the people she will need to call when the ugly ‘other side’ of this storm’s story starts to be told.

Next, she tucked away a few pieces of nostalgia in an inconspicuous grocery bag. Her daughter’s graduation diploma went in there, some baby books, baby clothes and a few private and personal mementos, but that’s as sentimental as she gets. I can’t imagine she would leave without her dogs’ beds and her favorite coffee mug. That’s what I would grab. She wanted to take her wedding dress, but knows she can’t. Things like that just aren’t sensible and she’s nothing if not sensible. She will leave most of her own clothes behind, almost all of everything in her closet, and suddenly she will become a person who owns only one or two pairs of shoes and just a few outfits. Forget hairdryers and straightening irons. Forget about belts and jewelry, handbags and cosmetics, and all the expensive hair products that live under her sink. None of that goes. It’s too much to manage in a hurry.

It’s a little like picking between your favorite children.

Defiant Shrimp Boil

I sure hope she grabs her favorite wine glass on her way out the door, a glass she has filled up hundreds of times after hundreds of long days at work over the years, a glass whose twin I’ve used myself many times, a glass whose wine I’ve shared, laughing and crying and hurting and healing on her back patio through so many beautiful and difficult stages of our lives. If only that patio could tell stories…and now I think about the possibility that I, that she, will never get to do that again. I hope she takes her favorite pillow, it might be the only reason she gets a good night’s rest over the next few months. I’m sure she grabbed her husband’s guns and his favorite bottle of whisky, he will certainly need it after tomorrow.

Beyond those items, she will bid a likely farewell to her old life, her soft comfortable couch and the blankets that smell like her family. She has already woken, possibly for the last time, from the bed she’s slept in for the last twenty years. She’s made her last pot of coffee in a kitchen that often felt like a home to me and a kitchen where she’s cooked her last Thanksgiving dinner for quite awhile. Her house and everything in it will be swallowed up by the ocean tomorrow, and she has stoically and bravely accepted this with certainty.

Right now, she’s having a shrimp boil all by herself. Any self-respecting Floridian who lives on the water has fresh seafood in their fridge, and we don’t ever waste fresh fish and shrimp if we can help it. She sent me a selfie of her cooking, there was a big smile on her face…it’s her way. She will rebuild it all, she says, and her things are still just things. Plus, she adds, she’s been through worse. Indeed. She’s said over and over the most important things to her are that her husband comes home from his job in law enforcement in time to comfort her when it gets scary tonight, and that her daughter is tucked safely away at Mississippi State.

She has been ordered (by me) to text every few hours to let me know she is okay. When she pulls her front door closed behind her this afternoon and flees inland to higher ground, it will most likely be the sad start of a great many weeks and months of her and her family feeling homeless, ungrounded and displaced. In these last hours she spends in her home alone, she shared with me that she feels like she is providing Hospice care for her house. I responded with understanding and said, “Yes. Make it as comfortable as possible. Play some soft music and remember the good times you’ve had together.”

She mopped her floor and made her bed this afternoon, in one last act of defiance. It’s her way of saying, “You can’t break me, Irma. I’ll be back.”

***

Author’s Note: Saturday, September September 9, 2017, 9:00 am. With the new and ever-shifting path of this still-dangerous hurricane, my very stubborn friend is now staying in her home to ride out the storm. I have registered my passionate NO vote but in the event that she gets to enjoy this ride on her countertops with a vibrating dog in each arm (as I suspect she will), I would appreciate your continued prayers for her and her husband and their home. If I could get down there, I would strangle her myself. Meanwhile, WEST is my new least-favorite four-letter word.

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Murphy’s Leash Law

Happy dog

A lady in a bathing suit and a coverup trudged through the hot sand and brought him two huge plates of food. The first one had a mountain of steamed shrimp, fried snapper, mac-n-cheese, hushpuppies and cheese biscuits. A little bit after that she brought over a literal stack of grilled hotdogs, backyard burgers with all the fixins and potato salad. “Here you go, Shuga. I hope you hungry. You sure are a sweet boy.”

A little while before that, another woman had already walked over to him with her hands on her hips. “Sir!” she said. “YOUNG MAN! Can you please tell me what the animal regulations are on this beach?”

“There aren’t supposed to be any animals on the beach, ma’am.”

“Well! That’s precisely what I thought!” And then she asked that nice young lifeguard to march right over and tell those other people to remove their dog from the beach immediately.

He did. Sort of.

***

Last week, I was walking my own dog on a leash, and trust me when I tell you that he was not meant for a leash. He wasn’t raised on one, he doesn’t know how to act. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. When I walked him when he was little, I let him run in fields and he chased tennis balls, both being things you cannot do if your dog is on a leash. Now he’s seven years old and it’s too late to change him, and I’ve found myself living in a neighborhood, on a beach, populated with people who are not dog people. I don’t like people who are not dog people.

***

Scout had been inside all day long, like he is every day while we are at work. That’s ten hours. Normally, in the evenings I take him way down the beach to play, far beyond where the people are, and I let him run. He runs and jumps in the surf, he loves to chase the birds, he rides the waves, and I get to sit in the sand and enjoy it without having to chase down a wayward tennis ball over and over and over. No, he doesn’t poop on the beach and if he did, I would pick it up like I would want others to. Still, I am breaking the law by taking him there. I am always aware of this.

See? Not hurting anyone.

So since he’d been inside all day long, he needed to get out for a bit. It was getting too late in the evening to drive all the way down the beach so against my better judgement, on the leash he went. He pulled me all the way to the mailbox while my feet dug in and my legs braced and locked up with every step. We checked the mail with tremendous awkwardness and just as I closed and locked the tiny metal door, a breezy gust of beach wind took all my junk mail and circled it high above my head and right on down the road. As I chased newspaper up the street, my dog started to put it together that we were headed towards the beach and he kicked his horsepower into high gear as my tennis elbow screeched in pain. Once we hit the grassy spots, naturally Scout decided he needed to poop. I let him finish and used those thirty seconds of stillness to crumple all of my mail into a tight wad and crush it into my chest with my one free hand. Then I retrieved one piece of newspaper and picked up the poop with it, and crushed it into my chest as well, as I held on to my dog (who should’ve been on the Iditarod as he mush-mushed his way towards the beach).

If you’ve ever owned a labrador, you know the kind of walk I speak of.

I dropped all my mail-papers into the trash can right on the beach just so I could free up my good, working hand, the one that didn’t have a brace on it. I definitely smelled the dog poop  I’d been carrying and I may or may not have lost my power bill or a water bill that day, I can’t be sure. I scanned the beach and there was no one out there so I decided to go for it. I walked Scout down to the water and let him off his leash for two glorious minutes so I could allow the feeling to return to my injured, throbbing arm. It was practically dark outside.

Murphy’s Law says that if something can go wrong, it will. It did. Four people walked over to the beach at that moment and stood on the boardwalk with their hands on their hips, working themselves up into a frenzy over my dog being on the beach.

Not one to hide from my mistakes, I walked right up to them so I could apologize and leave in shame.

She yelled at me. Yelled! Like I was a child. She screamed loud enough for everyone to hear, to make her point clearly. “You are breaking the law!” I knew this. It’s a dumb law, but still, I broke it.

Then the gentleman asked me sarcastically if I would walk through a dog park barefooted. I wasn’t following his line of questioning at first but pieced it together that he thinks I must think the beach is a place I would allow my dog to take a crap. AS IF. I had the stench of dog shit still on my clothes at that exact moment to prove that point. Then the very mad woman did that thing people do when they want to put someone (me) in their place with out giving that person (me) a chance to explain. She told me she took my picture and knew I was a teacher, and that I should be ashamed of myself. She yelled and walked away, yelled and walked away a little further, and so on, until she was all the way home. Then she marched on inside her expensive condo and probably justified her temper tantrum to herself all evening. Clearly, she’s not a dog person. I get it.

I did apologize. Or at least I tried. I didn’t defend myself or my right to be there. She didn’t hear a word I said.

Sadly, the world is full of people like that. I am not one of them. I can’t think of anything in the world that would make me that mad, mad enough to dress down a complete stranger who was simply minding their own business and trying to be good to their animal. People like that take it upon themselves to make sure everyone else in the world is behaving themselves. Maybe you are like that, maybe it makes you mad that I had Scout on the beach. If you are, I suppose I should apologize to you, too. Sure sounds like a lot of work to me, to worry about other people like that all the time.

***

The lady with the steamed shrimp had a dog on the beach, too. A little puppy, no more than twelve weeks old. On a leash. Playing in the surf, not chasing birds, sort of riding waves, still breaking the law. Not hurting a single person in the whole world. Fortunately, that lifeguard is a dog person, too. I raised him that way. That’s why he got all that good food.

“I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs. But I do trust the dog when he doesn’t like someone.”

The Turtle People

PC: Frank Abbott Photography www.frankabbott.com

I ascended to the top of the boardwalk on my way down to the beach in front of my house, sometime around the beginning of this past summer. It would’ve been the middle of June, if I recall, and I noticed that a strange partition had been erected out in the middle of the beach, right in the sand. From a distance, it looked like it was marked off with crime scene tape, which is what got my attention. Read more

Best Worst Weekend Ever

PC: Instagram @patrice_dior

In 2010, our high school baseball team went to the State play-offs. I didn’t care much one way or the other about the baseball but I was quite fond of South Florida so I volunteered to escort two 17-year old girls (members of our school’s media journalism program) to the game so they could film the excitement for our Student Body.

Two young girls from a really, really small country town, Lindsey and Bekah, plus myself… one mature, supposedly well-traveled adult. Reservations were made, plans were finalized. Piece of cake, right?

Next stop: Miami Read more

American Trilogy: Race, Sheetcaking and the Media

PC: Instagram @goldenpoppyprints

I opened a hurtful email at work yesterday from a man I don’t even know. He went to some trouble to find me after he saw an image of my high school government class visiting with a local Congressman, a man who, in his opinion, didn’t have the proper responses to the race rioting up north. He reached out to me to tell me how important it is for me to teach Race (he used a capital R) properly, as if I didn’t know that already. Read more

The One Hundred Dollar Migraine

PC: Instagram @iammariovee

The bill for us to dine tonight in one of the best restaurants in town was well over $100. It was an evening supposed to be spent in a quaint corner booth in the darker back rooms of a steakhouse, one of those places that always has an hour or more wait to get in. We had important adult things to discuss, some exciting news to share, and a few of us hadn’t seen each other in awhile. You can imagine my frustration when the baby at the table next to us fought his mother like an angry little tasmanian devil and screamed his bloody head off as he tried to claw his way out of his baby carrier. Read more

Navy Wife Shoots Photos of 30 year Navy Veteran Who Has a New Book Coming Out

Photo by Heather Johnson Photography @hnj_photos

Where Do We Get Such Men? is the name of the jaw-dropping new book I was blessed to co-author with my heroic stepfather, Capt. Allen Brady. Read more

PRIDE

PC: Instagram @hotstuffhoulihands Visit FUSION Salon, on Pensacola Beach!

P is for Profit. I had a great many conversations with many new friends this past weekend about how much money PRIDE brings to Pensacola Beach.

What is PRIDE, you ask? It’s Gay Pride.

There’s a whole movement dedicated to celebrating this vibrant and controversial way of life. I drove for Uber for three days this past Memorial Day Weekend as this decades-long festival descended down onto the beach I call home and I also changed my mind about a great many misconceptions this event perpetuates amongst the locals.

I know you’re wondering just how much, so I’ll tell you: I made about two hundred dollars doing little more than transporting PRIDE-ers between Portofino and Flounders over and over and over. Anyone who worked on the beach over those three days made some impressive bank. As I discussed this fact with my many, many Uber passengers, I admitted to them that just a few years ago when every business on this island was suffering from the BP oil spill, I would’ve bet my life that we would have been begging for their PRIDE dollars back then. It’s tough on this beach when no one’s coming over that bridge to visit. Read more

The Day Kappa Kappa Killed My Youth

PC: Instagram @theoriginalfratboy

I knocked on the door and waited. Knocked again. Waited.

Nothing.

Damn kids.

I walked into their house in my bare feet and my pajamas, hair wild, no bra, middle-of-the-night-breath. I suppose it was as scary as I’ve been seen in public ever in my life. I stood in the kitchen and waited for someone to notice me but they were dancing pretty hard and it was super dark anyway. Aside from the strobe lights that blinked, synchronized to the low thumps of the rap music that bounced the pictures up and down on the adjoining wall between their living room and mine, I could hardly see a thing without my glasses on.

Then they saw me. Their faces lit up in recognition then dropped in the panic of realizing why I must be standing in their living room at 2:30 in the morning.

It went downhill from there. Read more

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