It has been a while since I posted some critter photos from Bayshore Boulevard. Here some recent animal encounters, starting with a dolphin sighting.
It was early in the morning when I saw this squirrel, so he was more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than I was.
Most birds fly away when you approach them, but this Royal Tern friend didn’t seem to mind me or my camera. In fact, doesn’t it look like he’s trying to stare me down? He’s not even bothering to notice the crepuscular rays in the background.
Who knows what type of animal I’ll see next on Bayshore. A Lion? A Tiger? A Bear? Oh my!
My heart sank. The world had just become colder. It had lost one of its warmest people.
From one perspective, Britt and I had known Ruth for nearly 20 years. She was one of the first people we met when we joined Schaarai Zedek. I don’t remember that first encounter, but I’m pretty sure it went like this: Ruth saw two newcomers at shul one night, came over, and said hello. We had a brief but wonderful conversation, and then we parted ways.
From another perspective, Britt and I have known Ruth for about half a day. That’s because if you add up all the time we had actually interacted with her — talking before and after services, noshing on black and white cookies at onegs, sitting together at events, it wasn’t a lot. If I’m wrong about it being half a day, it’s because I’m overestimating, not underestimating.
Short but Meaningful Moments
The number of minutes we spent with Ruth doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of each one of those minutes.
When she saw us, she always came over. It certainly wasn’t because she had nobody else to talk to — she was well-known and well-liked at Schaarai Zedek, and people loved socializing with her. But when she spoke to Britt and me, her focus was always on us. No matter where the conversation went — and it went everywhere, from idle chatter about the weather to passionate discussions about the environment and civil rights — she was genuinely interested and insightful.
I learned long ago that it’s easy to fake politeness but not kindness.
I don’t know if there’s a word for people you feel connected to, even though they only play an infinitesimal role in your life. Perhaps we should name them Ruths.
A Fuller Picture
I’ve been thinking a bit about how well you can actually know a person based on short interactions, as wonderful and open as those interactions are. Britt and I had a few pieces of knowledge about Ruth, and from them, we extrapolated an image of who she was. But it’s difficult to derive a trend from a few data points.
At Ruth’s memorial service this afternoon, Britt and I discovered that our impression of Ruth was right on the mark. She was warm and welcoming to everyone. She offered help freely, never seeking reward or recognition. She cared deeply about family, sustainability, and voting rights — topics that frequently arose when we were with her.
We learned about her extensive volunteer experience, especially with Tampa General Hospital. We also learned that she was the same way with others that she was with us: thoughtful and attentive.
Rabbi Simon said Ruth didn’t want a memorial service at first, as she didn’t seek to be the center of attention. She relented not long before she died with two provisos: She wanted Cantor Cannizzaro to sing, and the service had to be short. Both of her wishes were granted.
“That Should’t Be the Case”
Before the service started, Britt told Ruth’s daughter that her mother always made us feel special and welcome. I spoke with one of Ruth’s friends.
“How long did you know her?” I asked.
“All my life,” she said.”
“We only know her from Shaarai Zedek,” I said. “We honestly didn’t know much about her until we read the obituary.”
“I think it’s funny how little we know about people until they die,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the case.”
I looked again and saw what he was pointing at. It wasn’t an urn. It was a jar of dirt with a label on it. I recognized it instantly.
“Remember when we went to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery? They had a bunch of jars because they were collecting soil from every lynching site,” I said. “I’m sure that’s one of them.”
“Oh yeah,” Britt said. “I remember that.”
We moved closer. The label said:
Lewis Jackson Hillsborough County, Florida December 4, 1903
I asked the barista at the Portico Cafe if the jar was indeed part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Soil Collection Project. She said yes, and added that a historical marker had just been put up at the actual site.
(The Soil Collection Project and Community Historical Market Project are two parts of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project. The Legacy Museum is just a few miles away from another EJI project, the iconic and moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice.2)
Seeing that soil filled me with sorrow, as it was a tangible reminder of our history of bigotry and violence. One hundred and twenty years later, our society is still cursed with those plagues, and a lot of the progress that has been made is being eroded.
But that jar also made me hopeful. It shows that people — well, not all people — don’t want to hide from the shame of the past. That leads to dialogue, and dialogue can lead to change.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.
Errol Morris, filmmaker
These jars might make people uncomfortable, but discomfort is the only way we’ll evolve on these issues.
There’s pain in that soil, but without soil, nothing can grow.
___ 1 The Portico Cafe is a coffee shop founded by a local Methodist church. It helps recovering addicts, people who were in jail, and others get second chances by giving them meaningful jobs. The revenue goes toward local homelessness initiatives.
2 This monument is powerful, disturbing, and essential. It records the individual victims of lynching while conveying the enormity of the violence.
This is an extended version of something I posted on Facebook a few days ago.
As an ACLU of Florida volunteer, one of my favorite things to do is to get out in the community, explain our mission, and advocate for change. I got to do that twice recently.
Last weekend, I participated in a talkback session at “When the Righteous Triumph” at Stageworks Theatre. A few days ago, I spoke to the Tampa City Council about an initiative to make our Citizens Review Board more independent (which passed).
At Stageworks, someone listed everything going wrong in Florida and asked how she could help. I could tell she felt overwhelmed. I shared my personal view on this:
First, try not to focus on the entirety of the situation. Pick one organization or cause that resonates with you, and participate as much as you have time for — even if it’s just a few phone calls a month or showing up for a meeting.
Second, understand that no one will solve all these problems by themselves — if you think that way, you will be frustrated and burn out quickly. Think of yourself as part of a team, and do something that aligns with your strengths and makes you feel satisfied. Even a small effort makes a big difference.
And, third, wear pants when you’re going to be on stage. I was woefully underdressed on Sunday.
Where Passion Meets Usefulness
The conversation at Stageworks got me thinking: Why do I bother volunteering? It’s a good question — especially today in Florida, where progress is slow and setbacks are frequent. If Sisyphus were here, he’d say, “fuck this, I’m going back to my rock.”
I think it’s because I get to do good things by doing things I’m good at.
Here’s how to parse that sentence:
I get to do good things: I get to help make our country more equal and just by protecting and advancing civil rights. I’m deeply committed to this cause — not just because I’m a gay man, but because I’m a human being.
By doing things I’m good at: I can apply the experience and unique set of skills I’ve developed over the past [age redacted] years.
Put those two together, and you have a compelling reason to volunteer. Buddhist monk Jay Shetty would call this Dharma.
Everyone has a psychophysical nature which determines where they flourish and thrive. Dharma is using this natural inclination, the things you’re good at, your thrive mode, to serve others.
Jay Shetty, “Think Like a Monk”
The Indigo Girls put it this way:
If I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring.
Indigo Girls, “Hammer and a Nail”
In my volunteer life, I’ve gravitated toward opportunities that play to my strengths. I’m not a lawyer or policy expert, but I certainly know how to solve problems, collaborate, develop strategies, explain things clearly, and create compelling narratives. One of the things I do best is craft messages that resonate with people, make emotional connections, and inspire action. That’s why I sat on the stage after the play and spoke to the city council.
By applying my skills, I’ve played a small but meaningful role in improving police accountability, restoring voting rights, reforming the criminal justice system, protecting free speech, and more. These have all been group efforts, and it feels good to know that I’ve contributed some knowledge and expertise that others might not possess.
Living at a Higher State
Another thing I have discovered is that volunteering improves my mental well-being. That seems counterintuitive, considering that it can be hard work, setbacks are frequent, and knowing that others suffer takes an emotional toll.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says serving others can create a state of flow — a state of mind in which people are engaged, involved, and perform their best.
Unfortunately, many people who move in the public arena do not act at very high levels of complexity. Politicians tend to seek power, philanthropists fame, and would-be saints often seek to prove how righteous they are. These goals are not so hard to achieve, provided one invests enough energy in them. The greater challenge is not only to benefit oneself, but to help others in the process. It is more difficult, but much more fulfilling, for the politician to actually improve social conditions, for the philanthropist to help out the destitute, and for the saint to provide a viable model of life to others.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Performance.” Emphasis mine.
Again, Shetty would connect this to the concept of Dharma:
When your natural talents and passions (your varna) connect with what the universe needs (seva) and become your purpose, you are living in your dharma. When you spend your time and energy living in your dharma, you have the satisfaction of using your best abilities and doing something that matters to the world. Living in your dharma is a certain route to fulfillment.
Jay Shetty, “Think Like a Monk.” Again, emphasis mine.
This Dharma stuff sounds great. Perhaps I should become a Buddhist. But for now, I’m satisfied just being a volunteer.
It’s easy to become a volunteer, but it takes some effort to volunteer in a way that makes you feel valued and impactful. Here are some tips:
Find a cause you’re really passionate about: Relevance will make your work more personal and meaningful.
Shop around: There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of organizations dedicated to your cause. You don’t just have to go with the biggest and most famous ones.
Consider the culture: If you don’t click with an organization, find another one. You don’t want to feel isolated, unmotivated, or disengaged.
The most important thing you can volunteer is your time: Money buys stuff. People create value and make an impact.
Make it a learning experience: When I joined the ACLU, I was able to use and improve professional skills that I couldn’t at work — especially leadership skills. Doing so helped me advance my career.
Don’t overcommit, and feel free to say no: If you don’t set boundaries, you might find yourself in over your head. You can also say that you’re not ready for something yet. I turned up some volunteer leadership positions until I felt ready to take them on.
Take care of yourself: If you’re emotionally or mentally exhausted, you have burnout. Take a step back until you’re ready to give your all again, and do not feel guilty about it. This is the most important piece of advice I can give you.
They say you should never meet your heroes. Not only have I met one of mine, but I’m honored to be her friend.
It wasn’t enough for Tiffany Hilton to conquer her demons. As she battled addiction, she saw firsthand the gaps in our criminal justice system. Recovery gave her a second chance at life, and she decided others needed second chances too.
Tiffany went to law school, determined to gain the skills and knowledge to help others. While a student, she took on pro bono work to defend a transgender woman of color who was — I’m not sure this is the exact legal term — had the crap beaten out of her in prison because of staff neglect. Through mediation, she was able to settle the case.
Tiffany graduated from Stetson and now works as a public defender. Her work is profiled in “Chasing Justice,” a documentary that premiered last weekend at the Gasparilla International Film Festival.1 The photo at the top of this post is of her and me on the red carpet.
Tiffany says her goal is to run for office one day. I hope she does, and I’ll be first in line to vote for her. No matter where the future takes her, I know she’ll succeed and make life better and more just for everyone else.
____ 1 At the end of the documentary, Tiffany quotes a line from House of Cards: “If you don’t like the way the table is set, turn over the table.” I had never heard that before. It’s such a Tiffany thing to say.
Today is Gasparilla, Tampa’s annual pirate-themed Mardi Gras-ish parade. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of drunken, rowdy people are crammed onto Bayshore Boulevard for beer, beads, and the occasional flash of boobs.
I enjoyed Gasparilla when I was younger. Today, I avoid it like the plague. The Complimentary Spouse and I celebrate Gasparilla by staying home with Lucy and Linus, who get agitated by all the noise and bark non-stop all day.
One year, I was the title sponsor of Gasparilla! Actually, the sponsor was the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel, but WFLA’s Gayle Guyardo said my last name on the air instead of “Seminole.” I saw the whole thing in real time on teevee and recorded a video:
I was just as confused as you by Guyardo’s slip-up. For many years, we worked for the same company: I was a newspaper reporter at the Tampa Tribune, which was owned by the same media group as WFLA. I used to do morning business reports and occasional packages for WFLA, so she certainly knew who I was.
However, I left the paper in 2008, and this happened in 2018. That means Guyardo accidentally blurted out my name even though we had had no contact whatsoever for 10 years. I guess I’m so charismatic that people never forget me.
Guyardo seemed a little bit tipsy on the air, so that my have played a factor in her slip. Quite a few people commented on her apparent inebriation, and I think she later said she was on cold medicine.
Groucho Marx famously said that “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
Well, much of my reading this year was done next to dogs. In particular, these dogs:
I completed 21 books in 2022. The five I’d recommend most highly are:
“An Immense World” by Ed Yong: This was an easy-to-understand look at how animals sense the world, which is shockingly different than how humans do. This book introduced me to the idea of Umwelt, which is essentially how each organism experiences everything around them. “Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know,” he writes. “This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.”
“To Paradise” by Tanya Yanagihara: Not quite sci-fi, not quite alternative fiction, this lengthy book reimagines flawed characters from the past and future through a queer lens. The names remain the same, but the situations and personalities don’t.
“People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present” by Dara Horn: This is one of the most compelling books on anti-semitism I have ever read. “I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews,” she writes. “I was very wrong.”
“The Kaiju Preservation Society” by John Scalzi: Monsters and monsters and monsters, oh my!
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: I wish books like this, a beautiful account of young gay love, existed when I was younger.
The other books were:
“Weapons of Mass Delusion” by Robert Draper
“Fairy Tale” by Stephen King
“A Prayer for the Crown-Shy” by Becky Chambers
“Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
“Death’s End” by Cixin Liu
“Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss
“Vows of Empire” by Emily Skrutskie
“Don’t Panic” by Neil Gaiman
“The Dark Forest” by Cixin Liu
“Liarmouth” by John Waters
“The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldblatt
“Jews Don’t Count” by Daniel Baddiel
“What If? 2” by Randall Monroe
“Playing With Myself” by Randy Rainbow
“Refuse to Choose!” by Barbara Sher
“All About Me!” by Mel Brooks
I’m currently about two-thirds through “Gay Like Me” by Richie Jackson. Here’s what’s already sitting on my nightstand for 2023:
“Less is Lost” by Andrew Sean Greer
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I tripped in London and ended up in the emergency room. I’ve been telling people that I fell when I was attacked by a pack of feral corgis outside Buckingham Palace, but the truth is I tripped on the South Bank near Jubilee Gardens.
You know those protectors they lay down so you don’t trip over loose cables? I tripped over one of those. As Alanis Morrisette might say:
At first, my knee hurt, but a few hours later, I couldn’t ignore the stabbing pain in my right hand and the dull pain in my chest. That required an immediate cab ride from the hotel to St. Thomas’ Hospital, which was actually less than a five-minute walk from where I tripped.
My first experience with Britain’s National Health Service since the 1980s was slow but otherwise superb. The line to be admitted to A&E (i.e., the emergency room) was long but moved quickly, and I was triaged within 10 minutes. Then the Complimentary Spouse and I waited for about an hour, but the delay was entirely our fault — we sat in the wrong waiting area and didn’t hear my name being called. When we found where we were supposed to be, the intake process happened right away, and then we waited about another hour and a half for my hand and chest to be X-rayed. They did four images of my hand and one of my chest.
After the X-rays, I returned to the waiting area. Britt and I were there for about another two hours, and then we were called back to speak with a physician associate. Her name was Becky Harris. She was very caring and provided an excellent explanation of what was going on. First, she reassured me that my ribs weren’t broken and I hadn’t punctured a lung. Then, she looked over the X-rays with me and said it wasn’t clear if I had fractured an area just below my thumb. The bone didn’t look exactly right, but she couldn’t determine if it had always been that way. The only way to tell, she said, was to wait about a week and see what happened after the bone had a chance to knit.
During the consultation with the PA Harris, I never felt rushed. She gave me a wrist brace and prescribed ibuprofen. I asked her if getting Pizza Express for dinner would also help. She chuckled and said it couldn’t hurt.
She also taught me a new term: anatomical snuff box. I’ve tried to work this into everyday conversation, but it hasn’t happened yet.
On the way out, PA Harris printed out detailed documentation for my doctor in the United States and recommended getting X-rays as soon as I got home.
Of course, the NHS is free for British citizens. I asked PA Harris if I needed to pay anything as I wasn’t British. She looked at me, a bit quizzically, and said no.1 I left the hospital without ever opening my wallet. We then headed to the nearest Pizza Express, where Britt had to cut my pizza for me.
I was very impressed with my NHS experience. While Britt and I were there for a few hours, it’s important to point out that St. Thomas’ is the main hospital at the very center of a city of 9 million people! Of course it’s busy as hell! And my situation was hardly life-threatening — the person in front of me in line clearly needed care immediately. Considering all these factors, I’m not upset that the hospital visit took a few hours. I’m sure the wait would have been equally long at a comparable hospital in the United States.
To the NHS, I say:
___ 1 The cost to treat a broken or sprained wrist in the United States is $500.