Postcards from Swamplandia

I recently had a request — actually from someone I don’t share chromosomes and/or a last name with! — to please write more.

So while I’m working on actual content, I thought I’d oblige my loyal twos and threes of readers by answering a few “frequently asked Florida questions.”

Q. “So, Jacksonville, huh? How you liking that?”

This is mostly from people upon finding out that I’ve relocated from New Orleans. The answer is, “A lot more than I thought I would.”

Look, let’s be clear: no place is like New Orleans except New Orleans. I still visit every chance I get, which is not nearly as often as I’d prefer. For the first year after I moved here, I was suffering from homesickness and FOMO all the time. But I think if you make a choice to live somewhere, then you have basically two options: 1. Walk around constantly butthurt that the place you’re living in isn’t exactly like the place you came from; or, 2. Within the limits of common sense, make your new location into someplace you want to be.

When I moved here I really didn’t know anything about Jacksonville, so I thought I was going to the middle of nowhere. Despite still not really being “on the map” when compared to Miami or Orlando, we do have over a million people in Duval County. We even have a NFL team… I mean, it’s not a GOOD team, but we’ve got one.

Living here is nice because winters are mild, and the gulf stream keeps many of the bigger hurricanes away. Unlike some other locations in Florida, our beaches are still an accessible place to live for people who aren’t millionaires. We have a thriving buyer’s market for younger homeowners, and our own community festivals and parades. We also have an international airport and two interstate highways, so it’s fairly easy to get away when you want to.

Plus, we have a minor league baseball team that was recently renamed from the Jacksonville Suns to the Jumbo Shrimp — I don’t care who you are, this logo is hilarious.

Yes, Jax has things that need improving, but I’ve most assuredly lived in less desirable locations.

And no state income tax, so that’s pretty cool.

Q. “Does Jacksonville really have a wonderful TGI Friday’s?”

A. So, it seems that “We have three of them, but I haven’t been to a TGIF in years” isn’t the answer that people are looking for here.

I really wish I had some kind of epic story to tell you but I’m 99% sure that you will find the same greasy burgers and watered-down drinks you get at every other TGIF location.


Q. “Florida isn’t really the South, though.”

A. I guess this isn’t so much a question as a statement people like to make because they think it’s some kind of “gotcha!” moment? I’m not entirely sure what they seek to achieve by it… Is it like, “You think you’re from the South but really you’re from Florida!”… Gasp, oh no! Now I have to return my Bitter Southerner membership card?

Look, okay — as far as I’m concerned, anyone above I-10 is a yankee.

(Just kidding, everyone knows yankees live above I-20.)

[Seriously, kidding; don’t send me your hate comments.]

So let me learn y’all a thing about Florida. It’s the only state in the country where the further south you go, the more ‘North’ you get. What I mean by that: in Florida there exists a line of delineation not shown on any maps. Going by the results of an unscientific survey with a sample size of my friends, the divide occurs somewhere around interstate 4.

Everything located above Orlando is more or less an annex of Georgia/Alabama. The culture is undeniably Southern. Go to Panama City or Pensacola during spring break and try to tell me it’s not the South. (They don’t call it the “redneck riviera” for nothing. Although I think Myrtle Beach, SC, is competing for the title.)

The Florida that exists below I-4 is another world entirely, with a completely different cultural landscape, one that has been shaped by immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America, as well as from above the Mason-Dixon. (I mean, you can trash talk Florida all you want, but nobody retires and moves to New Jersey or Ohio. They all come here. Just sayin’.)

In my humble opinion, cities like Miami and Key West are great because they are so different. (Key West is barely in the United States. I think they’d secede if they could.) You can take a vacation to someplace new and different without ever leaving your state! Florida is awesome like that.

But it’s also definitely the South. At least half the time. This explains why we are a swing state in every election. It really just depends on which half of Florida turns out to vote in larger numbers. But if any state has a split personality, it’s Florida. Speaking of which…

Q. “Hey, did you hear about [insert crazy news headline from Florida Man this week]?” or “Why are people in Florida so crazy?”

A. Yes, whatever it is, we’ve heard about it. You just have to laugh about it and own it. We don’t hide our crazy, we put a margarita in its hand and let it walk down the beach. Florida Man is the best/worst superhero.

A2. I don’t know for sure, but I have a hypothesis: Drugs + heat = crazy.

I realize I’m approaching this topic with some levity, but we seriously do have a drug problem — there’s that whole opiate crisis among low-income/rural Americans right now, and our government still refuses to treat addiction as a mental illness instead of a criminal act due to a for-profit prison system that thrives partly on keeping drug users locked up. When addiction is “treated” it’s with 12 step programs instead of medicine, and illegal drugs are often easier to get and cheaper than health insurance, so it’s really not a surprise that a lot of people are walking around tweaked out of their minds.

Compounded onto that is Florida’s soul crushing heat, which lasts for about 50 of 52 weeks of the year and can make even the most well-adjusted of us (not yours truly, but, I know a couple of well-adjusted people, so I just assume) act a little bit insane sometimes.

End result, every once in a while… you get people going off the deep end, doing bath salts and eating someone’s face.

(It’s not the heat, really; it’s the humidity. Makes the faces oh so tender and delicious.)

Nah, but really… the reason these things make the news is because they are so rare and bizarre. It’s not like face eating is a daily occurrence in the bread aisle at Publix. Pretty sure you’re more likely to get your face torn off by a frat bro named Chad, after his team loses the Florida-Georgia game.

Q. “Do alligators really come to people’s doors like that?!”

A. lol, no. The only ‘gators near my house are UF graduates. But even literal alligators would still be better than Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Switching Gears & Changing Lanes

I recently came across saved copies of some blog posts I’d written in 2009, when I was mired in a deep quagmire of personal disasters. Life, as they say, had handed me lemons. In fact, a whole grove of lemon trees.

In March of that year, I had been downsized during the worst point of the recession, and despite my best efforts, remained unemployed with no job prospects; I’d also recently ended a romantic relationship, and was living out of my car while sleeping on a friend’s couch.

I drank, a lot. As I floated through the boundless expanse of my quarter-life crisis, I didn’t really have much else to do except turn up a bottle of Jack Daniels and spew my half-coherent opinions into the aether.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously contemplating uprooting from midtown Atlanta, moving to rural Alabama or somewhere similar, living in the trashiest trailer park I could find, making friends with all the residents, and writing a book about it. I imagined it being part investigative report, part dark comedy, part feel-good narrative about the rural South. Some of my friends told me to go for it.

The stuff I ended up writing certainly wouldn’t win any awards, nor earn me a publishing deal, and plenty of swears were occasionally used in place of punctuation — but it was actually pretty funny.

Usually when I find something I wrote a million years ago, I always end up reading it with a little bit of cringe. (For a real “WHAT was I thinking?!” moment, or fifty of ’em, try reading the journal you kept in college.) I don’t know how published authors do what they do… get to the point where they feel their work is ready to be permanently stamped onto sheets of dead trees? I’m always seeing how I could have worded something better or turned a phrase more eloquently, or… just… not been so much of an oblivious navel-gazer, I guess.

So when I say I thought my writing was funny, I’m not tooting my own horn — I think I’m my own worst critic. As I revisited my old memories, I was sitting there in total bewilderment, like, “Where did THAT person go? What happened?”

What happened? Well, I finally got a job and had to quit drinking so much. (But, I’d moved to New Orleans by that point, so in reality I didn’t have to quit drinking all THAT much. Now I live in Jacksonville, where “because it’s Tuesday” isn’t an excuse to close the office and day drink on the neutral ground. My brain misses that, but my liver, wallet, and waistline are like, “You’re good, stay in Florida.”)

Eventually I really wanted to start writing again, and thought I would try to do so in a relatively sober fashion. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (which probably means we’re related somehow or have been friends for a long time), you can probably tell I’ve clearly been trying to “find my voice” again.  When I rebooted my blog, I told myself: no more late night booze-fueled rants! I’m gonna write about serious stuff, and people will take me seriously.

Yeah, well… that, as it turns out, is boring AF. That’s clearly evident as I read over what I’ve posted in the last 2 years.

I’ve always wanted to make people laugh. I like when I do make them laugh, and frankly it surprises me every time they’re not laughing at me. But sometimes that’s okay too. I try not to take myself too seriously either.

Attempting to take myself seriously meant that instead of writing the way I actually talk, in my authentic voice, I’ve been writing the way I think a “serious” blog would sound. Sure, it winds up mostly scrubbed clean of all the words that would make your granny try to wash your mouth out with soap… but it’s about as interesting as a kitchen appliance manual.

I don’t want my blog to read like I’m narrating a PBS documentary instead of talking about my own life. I don’t want to come off as pretentious or disingenuous. Keeping up an internet ‘persona’ is high maintenance and frankly too exhausting, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

I’m going to start trying to write more naturally, and hopefully that will put me in more of a mood to do it.

Yule at Universal Studios

Devon and I are Universal Studios season pass holders, so when we were brainstorming a relatively inexpensive way to spend the long christmas weekend without being stuck at home, we decided to pay Orlando a long-overdue visit.

As season pass holders, we were able to get some extremely discounted hotel rates that came out to about $99 a night for a standard room. We chose Sapphire Falls, one of the newer resorts. The atmosphere was a warm, Caribbean theme with lots of rich wood textures and tropical colors.

Our season passes have holiday blackout dates on early park admission, but fortunately all Universal Studios resort hotels provide early admission to guests, and complementary transportation to the parks. You’ve got your choice of water taxi, shuttle bus, or a walking path. You’ll also find some fairly standard hotel amenities like a fitness center and swimming pool (with a water slide!), gift shop, children’s play area, and private cabanas available to rent. We didn’t use any of it, lol.

There wasn’t a whole lot of time spent at Sapphire Falls, so I didn’t get a chance to sample all the food options the hotel had to offer. On christmas day, the main dining room does a special brunch, but it required making reservations and looked like a ‘prix fixe’ kinda deal. I don’t usually mess with fixed menus, so we went to Citywalk instead.

At the end of each day, we’d stop for a drink (or two, or six) at Strong Water Tavern before going to bed. Our bartender was really fun and we had a great time just chatting with him while drinking our way down the menu.

I’m a sucker for drinks with fruit & flowers in them.

Our plan of attack for christmas eve was to start at Islands of Adventure with early admission to hopefully avoid the crowds in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Then we would just do as many attractions as we could cram in before our feet got tired. The weather was perfect for walking around. When we returned to the parks on christmas day, the number of guests had tripled — almost as bad as midsummer crowds.

This is my third time visiting the Wizarding Worlds, and I anticipated larger than average swarms of people because of the holiday weekend. We got into Universal Studios at 7 am, made a beeline for Diagon Alley, and were waiting in line for the Escape from Gringotts ride by 7:15. This is probably my favorite of the Harry Potter themed attractions.

Afterward, we hopped on the Hogwarts Express, then got in line for The Forbidden Journey ride — which was the longest “wait” we experienced, maybe all of 5 minutes. Even when the queue is longer, it’s actually not horrible, especially in the summer when it’s nice to spend some time in a dark, air-conditioned area. There are also bits of entertainment scattered throughout, such as one room where the Hogwarts portraits talk to each other, and another where you’re eavesdropping on Harry & company.

For the other attractions, we were able to walk right up. It was refreshing to be able to really explore and look around without being pushed and shoved in a crowd of sweaty muggles. People started really flooding into Hogsmeade after the parks officially opened at 9:00, but by that time we were ready to move on to something else. I think we rode everything in less than an hour. This is NOT a typical experience.

I didn’t “grow up” with Harry Potter since I was already halfway through high school when the first novel came to the States, but I love the stories just the same, and I’m really impressed with the attention to detail in these sections of the parks. Everything looks ancient and weathered, and some buildings (like Gringotts) appear to defy the laws of physics.

As a graphic designer, I find the hand-painted looking signs and overall application of typography really compelling and just fun to look at… everything right down to the packaging on the candies in Honeyduke’s and trinkets inside Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. The park designers really managed to capture the slightly off-kilter whimsy of J.K. Rowling’s magical world.

This time around I finally had a chance to go inside Ollivander’s, but was disappointed that the wands are not actually made from wood?! You’re literally paying $40 for a stick of plastic. Hard pass.

As I’d suspected, most people were there for Harry Potter, so everywhere else was absolutely deserted! Not a single wait took more than 5 minutes. It was absolutely glorious.

Similar to the Harry Potter series, Jurassic Park is another much-beloved movie/book from my teen years.

Myself & my brother, circa 1995 — If this photo was a person, it’s now old enough to buy a beer.

The main attraction in the Jurassic Park area is a water ride, so with the weather being on the chilly side (below 80F is chilly for Florida), we skipped it this time.

Many of the rides from my childhood like Jaws and Back to the Future are now gone, having long since been replaced by Men in Black, The Simpsons, and Diagon Alley. (The ET ride is currently still there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes away soon.)

My favorite ride in the main Universal Studios park is probably Rip Ride Rockit, since I still prefer actual roller coasters over 4D screen-based rides. Revenge of The Mummy is another I enjoy; it’s an indoor coaster with practical “stage effects” (creatures, glowing hieroglyphs, fire, etc.) built in. What I would really like to see happen with this park is a full reboot of the classic monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.) since they already have The Mummy going on. My other wish is for another Harry Potter expansion, perhaps to reinvigorate the “New York” area with an attraction involving the Ilvermorny school and North American wizarding world.

This is my first visit to the parks since going vegan, and the choices were better than I expected them to be.

First, the disappointments: Poor dining options are where the Wizarding World stops being so magical for me. I couldn’t find a single meal I wanted to eat. Also, I’m still not sure what the deal is with butterbeer… nobody at the park is allowed to divulge the ingredients, but the internet seems pretty sure that it contains whey. All the other drinks appear to be vegan, as far as I can tell, but… seriously, who goes to the Wizarding World to drink a pumpkin juice? :| Yuck.

On the other hand, both candy stores (Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade and Sugarplum’s in Diagon Alley) sell a few vegan treats, including these villain-themed lollipops, quite appropriate for us sassy Slytherins.

Outside of the Wizarding Worlds, in the “New York” section of Universal Studios, there is a full-service Ben & Jerry’s counter where you can find their amazing almond milk ice cream! They only had the PB & Cookies flavor in stock at the time, but that was enough to make me happy after not being able to join Devon in drinking a butterbeer.

I think the best dining options are the restaurants in Citywalk. Our server at Antojitos took special care to ensure that my veggie fajitas were made vegan. Of course, guacamole is a must because it’s always vegan!

At a New York deli inspired restaurant called Sandwich Box, I ordered the veggie melt (minus cheese or pesto) and it was fantastic. Plus, it’s physically impossible to go wrong with tater tots. That’s just science.

If you’re looking to imbibe a few adult beverages, don’t forget about a vegan’s best friend: tequila! I first had a blood orange margarita at Antojitos and then a “mood ring” margarita at Margaritaville. It’s purple, y’all. Also, lime juice helps fight scurvy, and it’s got antioxidants. Practically a health food!

(Confession: I actually like Jimmy Buffett’s music. Just look at this giant blender and try to tell me it doesn’t make you wanna sing a sea shanty-inspired song about getting drunk during a hurricane.)

On christmas day, we slept in and ventured out late, deciding to grab an early lunch before hitting the parks. I didn’t think a place called The Cowfish would have anything I remotely wanted to eat, but I was pleasantly surprised by their take on a basic vegetable roll, and I loved the “Treehugger” maki roll: shiitake mushrooms, fried portobellos, red peppers, cucumbers, red onions, and basil, with a wasabi yuzu dipping sauce. Sushi on christmas? Why the heck not?!

This trip was such a relaxing, low-stress way to enjoy a long weekend — Devon and I don’t celebrate christmas, but I gotta admit, I would not be upset if this became our go-to holiday tradition.