Humorist author Dave Barry has a whole book about the idiosyncrasies and characters in the U.S. state of Florida. It’s the place where “people seem to take their pants off for no good reason,” he notes. “And it has flying insects the size of LeBron James.” I can attest first-hand.
Most of my family comes from Florida, including my parents, late grandparents on both sides, generations of cousins and nowadays, my sister and her husband, Mel and Sean, who did the reverse commute from the Midwest. Mel and I always used to tease my parents about moving from the sunny state to snowy Michigan, where we were both born, as most people do the opposite as “snowbirds.” In my parents’ case, they were cuckoo birds. (Actually, my dad’s opportunity to be news director of the Lansing CBS station inspired them to fly away.) But they often returned to their roots as visitors.
In recent years, my family has spent green Christmases and sunny new year days at Mel and Sean’s place in Sarasota on the west coast. As pretty as Michigan’s snow is during this season (when viewed from indoors next to a roaring fire), white sand is a fantastic alternative. And instead of maple trees and deer, there are mangroves and dolphins.
Near Mel and Sean’s place is a network of mangroves with carved out archways for skillfully navigating kayaks. It is not the place to learn how to kayak for the first time. But my brother-in-law has never met an unsurmountable challenge so he did a few years ago … at risk of civil war.
“Ouch! I just got stabbed by a tree branch,” Sean said to Mel as their kayak collided into a mangrove archway. “Watch where you’re going!”
“I am! There are crab spiders everywhere!” exclaimed my arachnophobic sister, who was steering.
A series of “ow,” expletives and sounds of crashing branches followed as my cousin, Dane, and I practically fell out of our kayak laughing. Thankfully, Mel and Sean got out of the mangroves unscathed and still married.
The opposite types of expletives occurred one Christmas day with Dane, his son Preston and me in my Santa hat while paddle boarding. We were calmly cruising in a canal when suddenly two gray arches appeared next to us. Breathful sounds of dolphins turned into our own breathlessness. The graceful creatures flanked us on both sides in a magical moment.
“Awe-soooooooooooome!” exclaimed my normally mellow cousin Dane.
“That was awesome!” added Preston in his chill Southern accent.
Whether it was my hat or just darn good luck, this force of nature was awe-inspiring. Florida has a way of bringing out the unexpected in life.
Where else in the world could a coal-fired power station become a manatee sanctuary, a residential area become a Big Cat Habitat and “mermaids” make a living? Even Salvador Dalí gave up the charms of Spain to paint here. (St. Petersburg is home to a museum with one of the world’s best collections of his works.)
A primary selling point of Florida is that it is literally swimming in water. It has the longest coastline in the contiguous United States, with 825 miles of beaches. In fact, Floridians are never more than 60 miles from salt water. Their state is the only one that borders both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and the St. Johns River uniquely flows from south to north. Florida residents hold more than 900 world fishing records, more than any country.
Florida is also known for its use of airspace. Cape Canaveral is the U.S. launchpad for manned space flight. On Jan. 1, 1914, the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service operated between St. Petersburg and Tampa. More planes have likely flown to this state than most countries ever since.
Finally, Florida is known for its landscapes, including 1,200+ golf courses – more than any other U.S. state – endless gardens, flowers and fruit trees. It’s a virtual fruit bomb, producing more than 70 percent of the nation’s oranges. Best of all, its wildlife humbles humanity. Florida’s Gulf has the most beautiful sunsets in the world and the whole state is awash with colors from nature.
I was gratefully reminded of this during the first COVID-19 lockdown last year (wow, am I glad to write last year), when a five-day visit with Mel and Sean turned into seven weeks. The sun’s daily kiss and spontaneous sightings of land and sea creatures brought immeasurable joy to a stressful time. The simplest things like my “nephew” Iggy the dog harassing wildlife, doing neighborhood “sweeps” (runs) with Mel and Sean, and sipping a Manhattan with my dad at sunset were augmented to a new level of appreciation.
Cheers to Florida, family, wildlife, nature and serendipity. Let us always embrace the colorful, magical, awesome moments of life, especially upon exit of a very challenging year. Happy 2021 to one and all!