eating, fibromyalgia, Florida, food, health, migraine, places, vegan

Leafy Greens Cafe in St. Petersburg, Florida

leafy greens

One of my biggest worries about switching to a vegan diet was that I would have no meal options at restaurants. I enjoy going out to eat, and although I’m trying to make more of my own food at home, I don’t want to feel like that is my only option.

I quickly began researching local vegan restaurants and restaurants with vegan options in order to ease this worry, and was delighted to come across an app called Happy Cow.  It is excellent, and I’ve used it frequently over the past few months. It was well worth the amount I paid for it ($3.99?). They have a website, too, but I like the app because at any time I can open it and it will immediately show me restaurants with vegan options in my immediate vicinity. It also has Yelp-like features where users can upload photos and leave reviews (although so far I’ve forgotten to do this).

leafy greensA week or so after getting vegan brunch at New Leaf Elementals in Tampa, I drove out to St. Petersburg and ate dinner at the Leafy Greens Cafe. It is a raw vegan cafe I had been to once or twice before. It is on the pricier side and a bit of a trek from where I live, so I won’t be going there often, but I do it enjoy and am glad it exists. Their meals feel super healthy, and I left feeling pretty great.

I ordered carrot ginger juice, which was delicious, soup, and a bean burger that came in lettuce instead of on bread. I liked all of it and felt too full to order dessert by the end.

Leafy Greens

One thing I like about Leafy Greens Cafe is the owner’s story. I haven’t met her, but the restaurant’s website says that she has Lupus and turned to a raw vegan diet as a result, which healed her. All of the food Leafy Greens serves is non-GMO, too. Health is one of the major reasons I decided to adopt a vegan diet–I grapple with fibromyalgia, migraine, IBS-D, anxiety, and other varied symptoms that often accompany fibromyalgia. I’ve found that many people who don’t find health answers from traditional medicine turn to dietary changes, and I like supporting a business owner who has had similar struggles to my own.

From the Leafy Greens website: “After my amazing experience, I decided that I had an obligation to introduce as many people as possible to the delicious vegan food we love and, in doing so, help humanity find a way to heal itself from the life threatening diseases that effect our well being in today’s world.”

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education, learning, mfa, money, teaching, writing

MFA Halfway Update

I am officially halfway done with my MFA creative writing program. It’s been a wild ride! I’m giving an update because I’ve blogged about MFA programs so much before (whether or not to get an MFA, how much it cost to apply, what’s up with MFA creative writing rankings, where to apply, update after first semester). I’m not sure where to start, however. Most people who want to read about MFAs are those considering pursuing one, and I have no clue whether or not pursuing an MFA is a good thing for any specific person. It’s such an individualized decision, I can’t say “do it” or “don’t do it.” I can, however, ruminate on the positives and negatives of my experience.

Positives

I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and I’ll be credentialed to teach college when I graduate. This is the biggest difference between doing what I’m doing within an MFA program and doing something similar with writing on my own. I am teaching and I love it. Before coming to USF, I didn’t really know if I had an interest in pursuing an academic career. I am still not 100% set on it, but I’m open to it and think it’d be fun, challenging, and a good fit for me.

I’ve found an amazing community. This will probably be the biggest benefit of the MFA program. Before coming here, I was attending a weekly workshop and I had friends and family who would read and critique my writing so I wasn’t community-less, but my network was nothing like what I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated by and interested in writing as I am. My hope is that we stay in touch and act as readers for each other for years after graduation.

Just being in this environment is enriching and encouraging–the people I’m surrounded by regularly introduce me to new things and challenge me as a writer. My professors have given me lit mag and author recommendations based on my writing style and I finally feel like I’m finding my niche in the writing world, largely because of their help. Also, there’s no way I would’ve started weirderary and First Draft if I hadn’t met TJ and Colleen.

I’ve learned a lot. I had almost no formal creative writing instruction prior to this aside from an entry-level undergrad class I took over a decade ago so I wasn’t sure what to expect from an MFA program. I’ve learned so much about writing craft and technique, and about pedagogy and teaching practice. I’ve also learned very practical things, such as how to create a good CV and what to put in a teaching philosophy statement.

I got to move to Florida. I grew up in Illinois and adore it (particularly Chicagoland), but for most of my adult life I secretly felt shitty about myself because I knew that I’d wanted to move away and had never done it. Finally, at age thirty-two, I followed my desire/faced my fears and moved to Denver. I think that played a big role in me gaining the confidence to apply to MFA programs all over the country. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Florida forever, but I like it a lot and regularly feel grateful to be here.

I trust that I am “all in” as a writer. I know getting an MFA is not necessary and I admire workaday writers who are able to view writing as their true love and passion even though it is not related to their day job. For me, however, having an unrelated (or, I guess, only somewhat related) day job led to me feeling all sorts of insecurities about myself as a writer. I worried that even if I wrote on a daily basis, writing would remain nothing more than a hobby in my life if I didn’t pursue it as my primary career. Quitting my job, moving across the country, and focusing on an MFA program full-time proved to me that I am “all in,” and it gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I no longer question my commitment to writing or worry that it’ll get sidelined in my life or become something I never pursued as fully as I wanted to.

Negatives

My writing practice has suffered. My novel progress has stalled. I had a completed draft (actually a third or fourth draft) of a novel manuscript before coming here. The single most difficult part of being in an MFA program is knowing that I probably would’ve had that manuscript all polished up and sent to agents by now if I hadn’t come here. At times, I’ve resented class assignments, knowing my time spent doing homework could’ve been spent revising my novel. I’ve had to remind myself that I am becoming a better writer during my time here and, although my novel is taking longer to complete, it should be of a higher quality when I’m actually finished with it.

I realize that this difficulty is partially due to how I work–it’s not that I never have a spare minute to write; it’s that I prefer longer blocks of time. When I worked 9-5, I could work on my novel for 3-4 hours on weeknights, and upwards of 10 hours on weekend days if I wanted.  Now, if I have only one hour free, I tend to use it on other things because it doesn’t feel like a long enough stretch of time to be able to dig into my novel and do substantial revising. I’m trying to work on this, though, and get used to revising in 30- and 60-minute bursts.

It’s really hard to be this busy. Moving forward, my workload should be a little lighter, but the last two semesters felt overwhelming. There was never a day where I didn’t have a long to do list (and never a day where I actually completed the list). I essentially spent two semesters feeling behind, stressed, and unprepared. I consistently completed work at the last minute and almost always felt as if there was too little time. I forced myself to continue to maintain a social life and do fun things alone such as watch movies. I realize this time could’ve been spent on school and maybe that would’ve helped me be less overwhelmed, but I refuse to live a life that has absolutely no leisure time.

I’m going to write a separate blog post about health in the near future, but I deal with fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues. One of my fears was that coming to grad school would trigger an illness flare-up. It did! I spent months running ragged, feeling awful, and on the brink of burnout and health disaster, which again is unique to me and I’m sure colors my view of the “negatives” of being in an MFA program.

It’s really hard to be this poor. I was/am also barely making it financially. This is difficult when being so strapped for time. I know I can do more outside work to help my financial situation, but that takes away from my writing and school work and adds to my busy-ness and stress. It also hurts my self-esteem and has caused me to question my decision to come here a few times. Many of my friends are in the getting-married-and-having-babies stage of life. I can’t afford to buy them nice gifts and that feels awful. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I couldn’t afford the flight, and was also unable to visit a close friend who suffered an injury because I couldn’t afford the flight. I knew going into an MFA program would involve financial sacrifice, but I guess I didn’t know the feeling of sacrifice would be so pronounced. It’s been a big challenge to focus on the positives when these types of things run through my mind on a daily basis.

I should note that this is also somewhat unique to my situation. I’ve never been great at managing money, and I entered into this MFA program even though I had a fair amount of debt and no savings. Because I already have a graduate degree, I am unable to take out student loans. I am not willing to make certain sacrifices I made last time I was in grad school, such as living with multiple roommates and going without a car. If I could do it over, I would’ve prepared savings in advance and paid much more attention to the financial side of programs when selecting which schools to apply to.

Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m doing this too late in life. I’m thirty-four years old. I already had a completed novel manuscript before coming here. I have a lot of “real world” work experience. While I’m not the oldest person in my program, I am often the oldest one who hangs out socially and most of my friends here are five to ten years younger than I am. Although I don’t place a lot of importance on age, I sometimes feel a little too old to be a poor grad student. I have to actively fight off that voice in society/my head that says I should be making more money by this age and that I should be heading up my own projects, not taking classes, at this age. The experience has been humbling and forced me to check my ego and cast aside society’s conventions about what someone “should” be doing in their 30s.

I’ve really had to embrace the “better late than never” adage. Sure, I wish that when I was twenty-five years old, worried I was in the wrong grad program, researching MFA creative writing programs online, that I had had the confidence and motivation to move past idle internet searches. I wish I had reached out to people in MFA programs and learned more and made the switch then, ten years ago, when I first wanted to do it. I wish that I had left Illinois then, when I wanted to do it. But I didn’t. That’s just not how my life happened. I guess it’s taken me longer than some to find my career path, to become aware of my desires and goals, and to muster up the courage to go for it. Instead of focusing on regret over not having done this sooner, I’m learning to focus on feeling grateful that I’m doing it now.

Conclusion

My biggest takeaway from reflecting on my MFA experience is that when you’re really living and you’re pursuing the things you want to pursue, life is going to be huge and hard and amazing no matter what. I think getting an MFA is like doing any other big, major life thing. Beforehand, it sounds great and you know you want it, but once you’re there, it’s hard and takes a lot of work and isn’t always fun, just like any challenging job, or marriage or parenthood, I’m sure. Still, I’m glad I’m doing it.

My biggest goals for the second half of my MFA are to enjoy it and feel grateful for it every day. In the first half of my MFA, I allowed my stress to take over more times than I’d like to admit and I often found myself wishing for time to pass, aka for the semester to end. I don’t want to live or think that way. Time is so limited; I never want to wish for it to pass more quickly. That’s insanity. That’s avoiding the present moment and literally wishing to be closer to death. My other major goal is to finish revising my novel, to stop wishing for the expanses of time I had when I worked 9-5, and to learn to jump in and take advantage of the small pockets that pop up at different times on different days.

I know some other MFA students and some MFA hopefuls follow my blog–if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I will answer them.

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death, fear, Florida, health, personal growth, places, writing

When Tony Pierce tells you to blog, you do it.

florida foliageIf you don’t know who Tony Pierce is, click this link, look around, and come back. I’ll wait.

The other day Tony, or as I like to call him, “The Blogfather,” pointed out that entering an MFA program has slowed down my blogging. Where do I start?

Tony, you remember my old blog posts from 10 years ago? Five years ago? You were there, you read them. You know I used to (figuratively) cut myself open, reveal everything. It was cathartic. It was terrifying. It probably helped some readers, and it definitely helped me. Writing as therapy.

It was also the reason I deleted my old blogs–I didn’t want to be indefinitely raw and exposed like that. I didn’t like finding out friends, family, and acquaintances read about the most personal parts of my life and gossipped. I didn’t like suspecting that guys who were super into me then suddenly not might’ve changed their minds after realizing how much I put online.

To me, personal blogging has always been similar to when a close friend pulls you aside and says, “C’mon, it’s me. Tell me what’s really going on.” When I open up a draft post on my personal blog, I want to let it all out. So yeah Tony, school has kept me busy, but it hasn’t slowed down my blogging. The reason I haven’t blogged is because I know what I’d want to tell you if I started writing.

mushrooms

I’d want to tell you that, while I don’t regret moving from Illinois to Florida or entering an MFA program, it has been very difficult. First, one of my parents needed treatment for a brain tumor and I felt awful being away during that. So awful. Then my grandfather got sick. I missed my opportunity to see him before he died because I was here, in Florida, writing and studying. I don’t know that it was worth it. Right now, my other parent is dealing with a rare and dangerous blood and spine infection. It is improving, but again it’s hard for me to be across the country, unable to help.

Sometimes being in Florida to study and practice writing feels really dumb and selfish of me, and if I were going to give it to you straight, I’d end up telling you that.

I’d also want to tell you that eight people I know in Illinois (not including my grandfather) have died of various causes since I left and that it weighs on me. The deaths are unconnected, but it feels so strange–why so many, in such a short amount of time? Is that just part of getting older–each month someone else you knew dies? These are eight people I wasn’t terribly close with–old friends I lost touch with after moving, acquaintances I used to see around at shows, former classmates, close friends’ family members I’d met a few times.

bougainvilleaI’d want to tell you I feel sad about these deaths and think of them often. I’d want to tell you I also feel guilty about feeling sad, as if I didn’t know the deceased well enough to deserve to grieve. I’d want to tell you I feel shitty for blogging about them right now, that I don’t want to make other people’s tragedies about me.

I’d want to tell you that I’m dealing with health issues. That the symptoms feel like a moving target. That I’m doing my best to stay calm and optimistic while I try to yet again figure out what the fuck my body is doing. I’d want to tell you that I’m suffering and afraid. I’d want to tell you that I feel very alone in my pain and fear.

I’d want to tell you that I found out I can’t take out any more student loans because I already have a masters degree–it turns out the federal government will only help pay for the first one. I’d want to tell you that this means I have no clue how I’m going to get through the next two years. Despite being thirty-four years old, I do not have significant savings. I’d want to explain that a “funded” graduate program isn’t really, not unless you can live off of about $1,000/month. My expenses exceed that and I do not yet know what is going to make up the difference.

palm trees

I’d want to tell you that I’m becoming disillusioned with academia. That while I’m grateful for all I’m learning, I’m realizing the system is deeply unfair. I’d want to tell you about the day I saw a flyer at Aldi and realized that grocery store assistant managers make more money than many full-time college instructors.

I’d want to tell you that promoting beer pays me twice as much as teaching undergraduate writing courses pays me. I’d want to point out that college sports coaches are the highest paid public officials in many states. I’d want to write potentially melodramatic things such as, “What is wrong with America?”

I’d want to assure you that, despite all of my woes and worries, life isn’t all bad. I’d want to show you photos of Florida foliage and tell you even a short walk resets my mood, leaves me marvelling at nature.

I’d want to tell you that I love instagram, and even though that sounds cheesy or basic or whatever, it has become a bright part of my day. I’d want to tell you that I’ve decided to, for real this time, buy a nice DSLR camera whenever I can afford it. That even though I can’t afford it now, my iphone is a substitute and I enjoy taking photos and thinking about photos I will take in the future.

I’d want to tell you that I go to the gym every day now and it’s become a surprising source of strength and calm for me. I’d want to admit that for the first thirty minutes or so after walking in the door I feel anxious, want to leave, and think some variation of “I don’t belong here and everyone can tell.”

pink puff ball flower

I’d want to tell you that I notice those thoughts and feelings, keep exercising anyway, and feel amazing by the time I’m done. I’d want to try and make that into some sort of metaphor for life. I’d want to express hope that if I just keep on moving through difficult times and do not waver in my commitments that I will ultimately be rewarded with feelings of security and peace.

I’d want to tell you that I’ve made two really great friends down here, and that we’ve started a lit mag and a live lit event. I’d want to tell you that I have crazy, incredible daydreams in which I can eschew an academic career by growing one or both of these two things into a business.

I’d want to tell you that I’m still working on my novel, and that it’s horrible, but that’s okay. I’m plugging away and still telling myself I’ll finish it this summer. I’d want to tell you that I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed of it. I’d want to tell you that writing it might be the most challenging and exciting thing I’ve done in my life.

I’d want to tell you that I have over fifteen finished pieces of shorter writing and that I am submitting like crazy. I’d want to tell you that even though I’ve only received rejections so far, I don’t plan on stopping. After years of not believing in my writing ability, I finally have faith in myself.

brussels griffon

I’d want to tell you that my dog is awesome and that I’m not embarrassed to say he’s my best friend.

I’d want to tell you that music is a beautiful panacea. I might try to get you to listen to Surf, if you haven’t already. I’d want to remind you that the right Apocalypse Hoboken song can help when dealing with unpleasant emotions.

I’d want to talk about TV and say I get it now, I’m sorry I was an “I-don’t-watch-TV” type of snob a few years ago. That Bojack Horseman and Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is The New Black make my life feel richer.

I’d want to tell you that while things don’t always feel okay, I know that they will be, or that they already are, even when they aren’t. I’d want you to know that I’d know I was mostly writing that for myself.

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Florida, friendship, places, race, relationships, writing

Merry Alone Christmas from Florida.

downtown tampa

Joe texts from Illinois asking if people actually decorate palm trees for the holidays. He must’ve received my Christmas card, which has a drawing of lights- and ornament-decorated palms on its front. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to disappoint him either, so I respond saying that people probably really want to decorate palms, but the leaves are just too high off the ground.

After hitting send, I think about it some more. Is the feature that makes palm trees beautiful the same thing that makes them poor Christmas trees? Their leaves are long and hang down. Decorations would probably slide right off.

I leave my apartment on foot and walk down the sidewalk, noticing for the first time that there is a small lemon tree and a small orange tree next door in a patch of grass outside of the property owner’s fence. I don’t pick any right now because they look a little brown and I’m not hungry anyway, but I make a mental note to keep an eye on the trees and pick from them with abandon in the future.

After I turn onto a busy street and walk a few blocks, a car slows down and whips into the adjacent bank parking lot. The driver’s side window rolls down and a man inside motions for me to walk over. I say, Nope, and pick up my pace, which irritates me, because I was just about to take off my sweatshirt on account of the walking has made me hot. Now I have to walk farther, in discomfort, because I know if I take my sweatshirt off right now this idiotic man will view it as the beginning of his own personal strip show.

After walking two blocks, I look back–the man’s car is out of view. I take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist. It’s my favorite and most comfortable sweatshirt. It says THE GREAT GATSBY on it. I like wearing it because it boosts my spirits. First, it’s a light blue that I find pleasant. Second, the inside is so soft I periodically become aware of it touching my arms and that feels nice. Third, if my mood sours while I’m wearing this sweatshirt, I can look down at it and switch my focus to how I, regular aspiring Fitzgerald, am writing a novel with a narrator who is not also the protagonist.

Anyway. As soon as I take the sweatshirt off, a cool breeze highlights the places I have been sweating–my lower back, my armpits, and between my boobs. I see the shady bus stop two blocks away and know that once I sit on the bench for a minute or so I will become cold and want to put the sweatshirt back on even though just now it had become almost unbearable.

Being human is frustratingly high-maintenance.

I’m taking the bus not because I need it to get somewhere, but because I want to write a story that takes place in Tampa. I hope a bus ride on Christmas will inspire me. I’ve taken transit for legitimate reasons (cost, convenience, necessity) in other cities hundreds or maybe even thousands of times, but today I am solely a voyeur. In my four months as a Floridian, I’ve gathered almost no sense of place; most of my time here has been sheltered, split between my apartment and campus.

I feel a little sleazy knowing my primary purpose behind riding the bus is watching the other riders, people who most likely have no other transportation option. I push off the idea that I’m a creep embarking on some sort of at-home poverty tourism outing and continue with my plan of, well, planned spontaneity.  Excitement fills me as I think about what I’m about to do: get on the bus, take it wherever, and see what happens. The world is open.

As I sit on the bus stop bench, a minivan stops at the traffic light in front of me. The driver of the minivan vigorously brushes his teeth. The passenger–who I presume to be his wife–looks out the window with no identifiable expression on her face. Behind her sits a child, repeatedly kicking the back of her seat. I wonder where her husband is going to spit out the toothpaste and feel as if I’m witnessing a brief glimpse into the terror-filled prison a domestic partnership with the wrong person can become.

tampa bus happy holidays

The bus arrives. I pay my $2 and sit down in the first available seat. There’s only one other person on the bus. The bus doesn’t stop nearly as often as the buses in Chicago or even Denver stop, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same.

There isn’t anything unique or interesting on the bus to observe, so I focus on what’s outside: Gentlemen’s club, TERMINEX, graveyard–I laugh, as this small stretch seems like a perfect representation of Florida in one fell swoop. I’ve heard rumors that Tampa is the “strip club capital of America.” I’ve also heard there are cockroaches everywhere because of the climate, although I haven’t seen one in my apartment yet (cross fingers, knock on wood, etc.). The graveyard seems fitting because, well, let’s be real: much of the rest of the country views Florida as a good place to come die.

The bus collects more people as we go. At one stop, the driver gets off and switches with another driver. This new driver seems angry. At the same stop, a man in a wheelchair waits to get on the bus. He’s wearing a Santa hat and holding a poinsettia in his lap. The bus driver huffs and puffs as he puts up seats to make room for the wheelchair. At the last second, the chair guy says, Nevermind, I want to go home instead, and wheels away. I wonder if he decided to go home because he felt like he was burdening the driver. I wonder who he was going to give the poinsettia to, and if he’ll be able to give the gift on another day instead. I wonder if anyone is at his home, or if he’s going to sit there alone, in a Santa hat.

A couple of stops later, another guy in a wheelchair is waiting to get on the bus. This one gets all the way on and doesn’t seem to notice the driver’s huffs as he straps the wheels down with multiple red, seatbelt-like straps. This guy is wearing a shirt that says “RIP” and has a photo of someone’s face on it. He’s black. I’ve only ever seen black people wear those types of shirts; I wonder why white people don’t generally get them made. I like them. I make a note to tell my friends that having everyone wear an “RIP Jessica Thompson” shirt with my face on it after I die will be my last wish.

A few stops later, the man in the wheelchair says he’d like to get off the bus. When the driver stands, he tells a passenger standing in the aisle to move. This begins an argument that continues for several minutes after the man in the wheelchair is off and we are moving again. It goes something like this:

Passenger: You didn’t need to tell me to move, because I already would have moved.

Driver: But you didn’t, so I had to tell you.

Passenger: Once you moved the wheelchair, I would’ve moved. 

Driver: I was going to move the wheelchair in five seconds, therefore I had to tell you.

Passenger: You’re just one of those people who likes bossing people around.

Driver: No, I’m just trying to look out for the guy in the chair, okay?

Passenger: Oh, I know more about the needs of people with disabilities than you will EVER know!

Driver: Maybe you do. Not the point. The point is you needed to move. Merry Christmas, sir.

Passenger: Merry Christmas!

Then their Merry Christmas!es continue, at first sarcastically, then angrily, until they say it at least four times each. The driver blasts a Spanish language radio station for about thirty seconds, then the bus returns to silence. The passenger looks at me with a “Can you believe this?” expression, as if I’m going to provide some sort of support. I respond by looking around and giving him a “Who, me?” facial expression.

I realize the angry passenger and I are the only two white people on the bus. Is that why he’s assuming I’ll take his side? I look down at my notebook, trying to avoid his persistent gaze. I hear the guy two seats behind me mutter something about rude people taking the bus today and needing to sit down (the white passenger is still standing). I wonder if I should mutter something similar to make it explicit that I don’t feel any camaraderie with this man. I decide I’m overthinking it and stay silent.

Only one other remarkable thing occurs on the ride: A family with several children gets on the bus. I continue to look out of my window. About a block after we pull away from the curb, I catch a flash of a woman in a parking lot who has lifted her shirt up to expose her stomach and bra and is shaking her body in an exaggeratedly sexual way. There are two men nearby. One is walking briskly away from her. The other is walking away from her, but more slowly, and he keeps looking back.

I whip my head around to see if anyone behind me caught a glimpse of this weird scene. I see a child of about ten whip his head around in the same way. I blurt out, Did you see that? He nods rapidly and widens his eyes. His mom asks him, in Spanish, what I said to him. He doesn’t respond. She asks again. I can’t understand his response because it’s also in Spanish and said very quickly, but I see him mime lifting his shirt and dancing. She looks at me, as if to question whether or not he’s telling the truth. I nod my head.

Once the bus reaches downtown Tampa, I depart, figuring that area will be the most walkable and most likely to have something interesting going on. I walk aimlessly. A drugged out-looking guy approaches me and I instantly slip into city mode, saying, Nope, and shaking my head before he can verbalize his request. He looks surprised.

I feel kind of bad, considering it is Christmas and all. I think about how I’m planning to teach a community creative writing workshop in a few months, perhaps at a homeless shelter or with recovering addicts. I wonder what I’ll say if he shows up to one of my workshops and calls me out for being a hypocrite who is nice in class, but rude on the street. After mentally debating various explanations, I settle on the shortest: Different context.

I keep walking. I figure I’ll find a dingy open restaurant or bar, hole up there and write for a couple of hours, then hop on a bus back home. As I look for a spot, a scene plays out in my mind.

FADE IN.

INT. BAR – DAY

JESSICA, a young and attractive writer, sits down on a wobbly barstool in an empty bar and studies the pathetic strand of half-burnt out Christmas lights stabbed into the wood paneled wall with thumbtacks.

JESSICA

Barkeep, I’ll take a whiskey, neat.

A forty-something BARTENDER turns from a radio playing SILENT NIGHT to display his ruggedly sharp jawline and head full of shiny, silver hair.

BARTENDER

Sure thing, miss. Single or double?

JESSICA

 Sir, it’s Christmas. I’m alone and I didn’t drive here. Better make it a double. No, two doubles.

BARTENDER

Brand?

JESSICA

Well.

BARTENDER

On Christmas?

JESSICA

You gonna pay the difference?

BARTENDER

Hell, miss. I’m working for a reason.

JESSICA

That’s what I thought. So again, well.

JESSICA opens a green, leatherbound notebook and writes furiously. BARTENDER walks off and comes back with four double whiskies, neat.

BARTENDER

Lady, I have a heart. I can’t serve you well on Christmas. A woman of your caliber shouldn’t be drinking that stuff anyway. Here’s our top shelf, no extra charge. Hell, no charge at all. Happy Holiday.

JESSICA

Wow, thanks. And four of them? I guess you could tell I needed these. So generous.

BARTENDER

Not so fast, kid–two of them are for me. As you say, it’s Christmas, I’m alone, and, well, unlike you I am driving, but that’ll have to stay between the two of us.

BARTENDER and JESSICA laugh and clink their shot glasses together before throwing back both double whiskeys. JINGLE BELL ROCK plays from the radio.

BARTENDER

You know, I’ve always liked this song. You feel like dancing?

JESSICA

Sure, but don’t get too attached. You won’t see me after tonight.

BARTENDER

No problem, miss. One night is all I need.

BARTENDER walks around the bar and grabs JESSICA’s hand. She stands and they dance and laugh.

FADE OUT.

But, all the bars and restaurants I pass are closed. I decide to head toward the water, but have to consult a map every few blocks. The grid is on a diagonal and I can’t just take one street the whole way from my current location. I feel like a tool not knowing my way around downtown and am thankful no one is around to see me.

I notice “Marion Street Transit Parkway” is designated as a bus-only street on the map. I immediately think of 16th Street Mall–a touristy but fun, shop-lined bus and pedestrian walkway in Denver. When I first reach Transit Parkway, the bricked street fuels my excitement. I turn down it and walk a few blocks before realizing it is the go-to sleeping place for homeless people. After a man begins following me, I pick up the pace and take a different route.

A few blocks later, I see a hot-looking guy walking the opposite direction and cross the street earlier than planned in order to walk past him. He looks about twenty-five and has shoulder-length brown hair. That and his faded skinny jeans make me feel surprised that he isn’t carrying a guitar. He walks with a limp that’s more cowboy swagger than gansta lean. As I walk toward him, a scene pops into my mind.

FADE IN.

INT. SUBURBAN HOME – NIGHT.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.

ROCKER GUY

How did we meet? It’s the craziest thing–we were both alone on Christmas, walking around Tampa on account of us both having silly romantic notions about such a thing, and we literally bumped into each other on the street.

JESSICA

Very literally. I had bruises! He never looks where he’s going.

ROCKER GUY

I was composing a song in my head. And I’m glad! We fell in love on the spot.

JESSICA

Speak for yourself!

ROCKER GUY

Well, one of us fell in love on the spot, but within a year I convinced her. And here we are, married, three years later. It’s a dream come true.

JESSICA

It’s all been a dream. I never even thought I wanted kids, and now look at me!

JESSICA stands and points to her protruding belly. Several NEIGHBORS reach out and touch it.

JESSICA

I guess once my book sales skyrocketed and I realized I would never, ever have to hold a full-time job again, ever, for the rest of my whole entire life, the thought of raising a child became more appealing.

ROCKER GUY

And if her book sales ever fall, God forbid, my music sales will be more than enough to sustain our family. I know it’s gauche to talk about money at a party, but you won’t believe this–we brought in the same exact amount last year. Like, to the dollar. Our accountant was shocked. He thought we were playing a prank on him!

FADE OUT.

Right before the rocker guy and I pass each other, he turns his head to look at me directly, exposing the side of his face I hadn’t yet seen. His right eye is swollen, black, and only partially open. Before I have time to fully register the black eye, a waft of booze smell hits my nose. Before I have time to fully register that, he asks if I will give him some money.

A sexually attractive homeless person is so far outside any sort of mental schema I hold that I stand there for a few seconds staring before saying, Oh, no, sorry, I, uh…no. Nope. Sorry. He puts his head down and walks on.

I keep standing, trying to think of any possible way he’s not homeless. Maybe he just got in a fight with his idiot brother at the family Christmas gathering and needs cash to take a cab home. But no, the booze smell was too strong and jumbled to have come from a single day of drinking. I look back at him. What I initially viewed as rocker hair suddenly appears to be neglected hair that is extremely stringy and greasy. I remember Lindsay on Arrested Development pursuing a homeless man and laugh. I came dangerously close to doing the same.

That the possibility of a homeless person being attractive or dateable is a joke sticks with me uncomfortably as I walk. I again think about my community creative writing workshop plans. Although I don’t yet know what “community” I’ll be working with, I don’t want to go into it with any trace of hypocrisy or condescension. I wonder if my assumption that all homeless people are undateable indicates good sense or dehumanizing prejudice. I revise my daydream.

FADE IN.

INT. SUBURBAN HOME – NIGHT.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.

ROCKER GUY

It’s a crazy story. You sure you want to tell it, honey?

JESSICA

Of course, it’s amazing. We met on Christmas. I was alone and walking around downtown Tampa, just being a silly writer looking for inspiration, I guess, and he was–believe it or not–homeless and looking for a handout.

NEIGHBORS murmur among themselves loudly.

ROCKER GUY

I’m really lucky she took a chance on me. Ninety-nine percent of women wouldn’t do that. No way.

JESSICA

It was stupid, I know, but he was so handsome.

JESSICA and ROCKER GUY squeeze hands and look into each others’ eyes.

JESSICA

He was so dedicated to playing guitar that he had just sort of forgot about rent. That is, until he was evicted the week before Christmas.

ROCKER GUY

I played on the street for money and slept in the park, hoping to save up enough to record a demo.

JESSICA

Then, on Christmas Day, someone jumped him and stole his money and guitar.

ROCKER GUY

I was walking around downtown because I felt like if I sat still I would kill myself. I wanted to jump into the Bay. My guitar was all I had left.

JESSICA

Honey, don’t say that!

ROCKER GUY

It’s true. But don’t worry, I’d never do that now. Now that I have you, and a baby on the way, I feel so rich.

ROCKER GUY rubs JESSICA’s large belly.

JESSICA

You are rich. That’s the ironic part. I hit on a homeless man, and now I’m married to a multi-millionaire!

NEIGHBORS laugh.

NEIGHBOR ONE

Do you ever get competitive with each other? With you both being so successful in your respective creative careers?

JESSICA

Actually, believe it or not, last year we brought in the same exact amount of money. To the penny.

ROCKER GUY

Except I think she probably spent a little more of it.

ROCKER GUY winks at NEIGHBORS.

JESSICA

Only because he’s counting our mortgage as one of my personal luxury expenses. Excuse me for thinking room and board is a necessity!

JESSICA playfully pushes ROCKER GUY. They and NEIGHBORS laugh.

FADE OUT.

Accidentally, I arrive at Tampa theatre. The nature of the block changes quickly. No more homeless people, many middle-class. The people in line look like my parents and my aunts and uncles. I ask what movie they’re waiting for (The Imitation Game). I contemplate joining them, but feel it would be a cop-out. I’m rambling about downtown Tampa alone for real world adventure, not to sit in a controlled environment and stare at a screen. I continue on.

After I cross a street, a passing car slows and the window rolls down. I avoid looking, assuming it’s a catcaller. A female voice yells, I love your shirt! I’m startled and look up. She yells it again and this time gives me two thumbs up. I smile and nod and yell back, Thanks! The man sitting in her car’s passenger seat looks embarrassed. I want to yell, Hey, she’s cool! She should be embarrassed of you!, but I of course don’t.

After the complimenting woman drives away, I try to think of some other response I could’ve given that would’ve led to us becoming friends. Maybe, Let’s be friends! Or, Hey, you seem cool! Perhaps, Pull over! And once she pulled over, Wanna hang out sometime? I like to read and write. I feel sad that all of those things would probably be regarded as weird. I try to envision a society in which cool women regularly talk to me on the street in an attempt to gain my friendship, rather than annoying dudes wanting either sex or money. It looks like a utopia.

Suddenly I’m in Waterfront Park and it is bumping. People are eating picnics on the lawn, playing soccer and football, skateboarding, chasing their kids around. I walk around exploring and come upon a small dome-shaped area with seats painted all white. There are two men in there, both writing. They both perk up when I walk in. They’re both relatively attractive. They are sitting on opposite sides of the mini-arena, and I do not get the sense that they are together. If it were only one guy, I would sit down and begin writing myself, and perhaps we’d start a conversation. With both, it’s just too much. I continue on.

There’s a tent with a crowd around its entrance, so I walk toward it. Ice skating rink. After checking my pride, I get in line behind a bunch of preteens. Ten minutes later, I pay $10 to enter and rent skates, put the skates on while warily leaving my shoes on the floor (pushed up against some kid’s shoes so as to trick any potential thieves into thinking they are mom shoes that shouldn’t be stolen), and hit the ice.

Once I’m about halfway around the rink, I feel like my ankles are going to break. After a full lap, I am tempted to get off the ice, but force myself to skate around once more. By the end of that lap, I feel like shit emotionally. Am I so old that I can’t even ice skate? Is it true that I can barely do two laps in the smallest rink I’ve ever seen? Have I entirely let myself go? Am I decrepid and useless? Have I lost touch with all youth and vigor?

Of course, I am momentarily forgetting that I did yoga just this morning, walked a few miles yesterday, and played tennis for nearly three hours the day before that. The mind isn’t logical during flashes of despair. I trot off the ice and sit on a bench, ready to leave about fifteen minutes into the ninety I’d paid for. I begin untying one skate, prepared to go home defeated, but long-forgotten knowledge buried deep in a recess of my mind bubbles up: Wobbly ankles mean the skates aren’t tight enough.

I unlace and relace my skates; this time as tight as I possibly can. The laces make my hands smell really bad. I get back out there and it is much easier. For some reason, skating alone to pop star renditions of traditional Christmas songs amidst families, couples, and preteens makes me feel emotional. Not sad, but as if the moment is meaningful. When a small girl falls, I help her up and have to stop myself from saying something ridiculous like, This is what life is all about!

ice skating rinkThe powers that be kick us off and a mini zamboni comes onto the ice. It’s essentially a golf cart dragging a combination sprinkler/scraper. When it finishes, they let a teenage girl onto the ice alone for a few minutes. She is an aspiring figure skater, and she’s good. She does jumps and spins and people clap. I try to take a photo, but my camera isn’t fast enough. Although I am 33 years old, do not aspire to figure skate, and have never aspired to figure skate in my entire life, I feel a brief but powerful flash of envy.

I guess I just wish I could do something cool.

The more laps I skate, the more I try to spot someone else who might be in my position: totally alone. All of the alone-looking women I try to feel a sense of kindredness with turn out to be with a man or child (or both) whom she cannot keep up with on the ice (and who has not bothered waiting for her).

I see a couple in their 60s skating and holding hands. Tears spring to my eyes. They are whispering to each other, smiling, and holding each other up on the ice. Their love is beautiful. I want that kind of love.

A few laps later, I see the woman skating alone. I instantly think of the last time I went ice skating, about five years ago. My boyfriend at the time acted like he wanted to go, but once there it became clear he was doing it begrudgingly. My feelings were hurt when I realized he was humoring me rather than having fun. He wanted to go home not long after we arrived.

When I skate past the woman wobbling all alone on the ice I want to whisper, Don’t let him bring you down.

After a few more laps, I see the 60s-something husband back out on the ice, holding his wife’s hand, whispering into her ear, helping her on the curves because he is the steadier skater. I realize he was probably sitting out because he’s kind of old and his back hurt or something, not because he’s ungrateful or disengaged. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Either way, he’s not a jerk; I was simply projecting my memories onto their totally unrelated relationship. I feel happy for them again, but have had enough skating.

decorated palms

I exit the skating rink to find lit up, decorated palm trees. I take a photo and text it to Joe. That looks fake, he replies. I took the photo myself, I text back. Oh, he responds.

tampa muralBecause the sun is dangerously low in the sky, I head toward the bus stop. I avoid Transit Parkway. Once on the bus, I notice I am filled with good cheer and pleased with how I spent my Christmas Day. I scroll through my texts and message some variation of Merry Christmas to some people I care about who haven’t yet texted it to me.

Once home, I turn on Workaholics. My brother introduced me to the show two years ago and I’ve been rewatching it after recently getting Amazon Prime. Workaholics is a comedy about three, mid-twenty-something dudes who are roommates and coworkers and it’s my favorite show right now.

The other night, my favorite Workaholics character, Anders, made an appearance in my dream. It wasn’t a sex dream, or anything crazy. He wasn’t even a celebrity or tv character in it. He was just a friend like all of the other dream people, and the dream itself was so boring and routine that I don’t remember the details.

Today, I didn’t come up with any strong ideas for fiction placed in Tampa. But I think as long as I keep going downtown, as long as I check out the other neighborhoods, as long as I walk the streets and ride the buses and take the Amtrak and finally get my ass to St. Petersburg and eventually Miami and wherever else, Florida will quietly seep into my writing the way Anders seeped into my dream. It won’t be forced. There won’t be any fanfare. Florida will be just be there unquestioned, as expected and regular and unremarkable as everything else.

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Florida, places

I live in Florida now.

florida lizard

My apartment complex is a gated community, which is weird to me. There is one way in and one way out, and they both have gates. In Illinois, gated communities indicate wealth. Here, that is not always the case; I picked this complex because of the cheap rent.

On my first night here, the lizard shadow pictured above greeted me when I turned out the light to go to bed. After a careful inspection, I confirmed the lizard was on the outside of the glass.

The other day I saw a lizard inside, but it was cuter. Younger, I think. Also a bright/light green color. If my online research is correct, it was a Green Anole and the dozens that I see scatter across the sidewalk when I walk my dog are Brown Anoles. The lizards are fun. They make walking around feel like a dream or movie or video game, or one of those interactive art installations at a museum that responds to your movement.

There’s so much I could say about Florida. I’m not sure where to start. Okay, I LOVE IT.

jessica

The humidity doesn’t bother me. I worried it might after reading that many Migraineurs have trouble with the humidity and constant AC-to-non-AC switching. When I first moved to Denver last year, the altitude got to me. It made it difficult to breathe and triggered headaches. That subsided, but it took a bit of time to acclimate. Not in Florida. Acclimating here was as quick and painless as sliding into a pool of warm water. My body definitely prefers high humidity over high altitude.

My skin is dewy and when I put on lotion it’s mostly for fun. It’d be only a slight exaggeration to say drinking water is unnecessary and simply done out of habit. It rains every day here right now. Sometimes two or three times. Not just a tiny bit, either–a downpour.

In other states, rain felt like a distinctly Other type of thing. Rain was something unwanted that came from a place far up in the sky, separate from humanity. Here, it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s friendly rain. You can trust it. It’s body temperature so while getting doused could be inconvenient, it’s not terribly unpleasant. Since the rain doesn’t really cool down the temperature, you don’t stay wet for long.  It feels pretty obvious that the rain was accumulating in the air the whole time and then the air reached a breaking point and needed to hit the reset button by wringing itself out for ten or twenty minutes so we could continue walking around in gas instead of liquid. It feels like a quick little favor from nature.

Before moving here, I puzzled over why so many people’s reactions to the news that I was moving to Florida were, “I hate Florida.” Now that I’m here, I don’t care. Hate it, dummies. Hate it and stay away with your negative talk. I can get home at 7 pm, tuck a Hibiscus flower behind my ear, and read a book in the sun after taking a dip in the pool. Oh, the arrogance you have if you think I care about you hating anything remotely related to that!

I very well might not stay in Florida forever, but being here for two weeks is enough to convince me that, moving forward, any semi-permanent home of mine must be relatively near water: a gulf or sea, an ocean, a lake, at the very least a river. I hope to check out dozens of Florida beaches over the next three years. I’ve only gone to Clearwater beach so far. Here are two photos:

clearwater beach

clearwater beach fl

I had more to say. I have more. More observations. Some funny stories about things that’ve gone wrong. But I’m tired and I fear this is getting long. I began work this week and there are approximately one million thoughts and anxieties swirling around in my mind. Let’s consider this post to be continued…

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