Veal brains and the used bookstore of my dreams in Jacksonville

Our family had a most interesting day today. This was completely unintentional, as I had planned to spend the day painting our kitchen and breakfast nook.

We woke up and hurried to get ready for our local library’s book sale. I had heard wonderful things about all of the books they have available each year, so I attempted to get our family there as early as possible (before all of the good stuff was gone). We did find a lot of good books, but there was hardly anything left on history (my favorite subject). So I was a little disappointed.

After that, we met Elise’s karate class at the pier for the kids to practice on the beach. Her sensei is teaching karate on the beach twice a month now – in addition to the normal twice a week at the recreation center – to get the kids ready for upcoming tournaments. Several of the more advanced kids in the class will be competing (not Elise). She has no idea that having your karate class on the beach is not a “normal” childhood.

Karate on the beach.

We very much enjoyed lounging along the boardwalk watching Elise and her friends practice their katas. We could not ask for better weather, and it felt like the entire town had decided to go to the beach. While we were there, Rodney convinced me to give up on projects around the house and spend the day playing in Jacksonville. And so we did.

We decided to spend the day on a tour of used bookstores around Jacksonville. Good grief, I had no idea that Jacksonville had so many incredible used bookstores. And when I say incredible, I mean INCREDIBLE. This is a very well-educated population, and it shows. I can’t believe we have lived in Florida for a couple years now and not been used bookstore-hopping in Jax before.

The first one we went to was Black Sheep Books, which is an excellent store with extensive history sections. I was unhappy to discover that the place is likely going to close down in June, as the owner wants to spend more time traveling and doing other things after running a bookstore for two decades. Then we went to a big-box used bookstore near Top Golf (I forget its name), which was also impressive.

But nothing could prepare me for the Chamblin Bookmine on Roosevelt Boulevard. This is hands-down the most amazing bookstore that I have ever set foot in. I know you probably think nothing could top places like the Tattered Cover in Denver or Book People in Austin. But they are not even close to the literary wonder that is the Chamblin Bookmine.

Ron Chamblin owns two bookstores in Jacksonville, the 33,000-square foot Bookmine on Roosevelt Boulevard and another 10,000-square foot bookstore downtown. Between the two locations, he has amassed OVER THREE MILLION BOOKS. I am not kidding with that figure. If you are a bibliophile, this store absolutely must be on your bucket list.

One aisle in the Bookmine.
Multiply this by about 200 and you have a sense of the scale of the store.

The Bookmine is aptly named, as it is a cavernous building with a maze of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that keep taking you deeper and deeper, not unlike the tunnels and seams in mines. I did not realize that they offer maps of the store at the entrance, otherwise I would have taken one. You need one. When we made it close to the rear of one section, I ended up getting separated from Rodney and Elise and started to have a legitimate panic attack. I was going to message them, but I couldn’t even figure out how to describe my location. We eventually reunited, but it was intense.

Apart from the sheer number of books in the store, what sets this store apart from others is the quality of the selection. The store has a better selection (by orders of magnitude) than any college bookstore I have ever visited. It is an emotional experience seeing every title you have ever dreamed of getting on a subject, regardless of how obscure or academic it might be. And most of the books are inexpensive, clean copies too. I will never step foot in a Barnes and Noble again – there is seriously no point.

Books, books everywhere.

In researching how this magnificent place came to exist, I found this 2016 article about the owner in the Jacksonville paper:

Forty years ago this month, during the bicentennial summer, Ron Chamblin bought 15 boxes of smoke damaged books and opened a used book store on Herschel Street…

Before he started a book store, Chamblin, who is 74, was unhappy with the course of his life. He’d had an unhappy childhood living with an alcoholic father. He hated high school. He spent four years in the military and hated that. He then went to work writing technical manuals and selling motorcycles. He didn’t like that either. He didn’t want to work for someone else.

So he negotiated to buy the Crawford Bookmine, which Cy Crawford ran out of his Lakeshore home. A fire at Crawford’s house damaged his collection. But Chamblin still paid $7,500 for the Bookmine name and the 15 boxes of books, the most important step in what he called Project Liberation…

For most of his 40-year career, Chamblin worked seven a days a week, though he recently started taking Sundays off. He says he’s taken only three weeks of vacation during that time. He’s owned homes, including his current home on Fleming Island. But for nine years he lived in a room in the back of the Roosevelt story.

After he opened Chamblin’s Uptown in 2008, he spent several years living in a room there.

Probably the most important step Chamblin made in building his used book empire was his acquisition of the old Consumers Warehouse building at 4551 Roosevelt Blvd. He renovated the building and opened with 15,000 square feet of retail space 25 years ago, in 1991.

“I thought we’d never fill the son-of-a-gun,” Chamblin told the Times-Union in 2002.

The building was filled within three years.

Chamblin subsequently bought a plant nursery next door and expanded his retail space by 9,000 square feet. Now, he said he plans another expansion at Roosevelt, an additional 12,000 square feet. Walking through the maze-like corridors of Chamblin Bookmine, with packed book shelves towering over aisles narrow enough to induce claustrophobia, the need for ever more space becomes clear.

One of the things that has made Chamblin a success is his practice of extending credit. People who sell books to him can take their profits in cash. But they get a better deal if they take the payout in store credit. Chamblin said he currently owes about $350,000 in store credit. That keeps his customers coming back.

Some aisles defied categories.

In the middle of our book-hunting, we stopped at the Beirut Restaurant on Baymeadows Road, which is a very cool place to eat. We were out on an enclosed patio. While I do not get into hookah, it was pleasant to smell it. Between that and the Lebanese music they had cranked, it felt like we had been transported to the Middle East.

We had some mezze samplers, which were delicious. But the highlight of the meal for me is that I offered Elise $20 to eat veal brains and she actually did it. She wasn’t at all grossed out by them once they came, and ate most of a platter of them. We have the most adventurous seven-year-old I know. (She also happily put away a dish of liver.)

While eating the veal brains, she joked that she was eating “cow memories.” Hahaha.

At the restaurant, I learned about Arak, a Levantine liqueur. It tastes like licorice and runs about 100 proof. It’s made from grapes and aniseed, and seems very similar to absinthe. The name comes from the Arabic word for “perspiration.” (Here’s a fun piece on how Arak is made.) I also tried some wine from the West Bank, which I can only assume is an acquired taste.

We will definitely be going back to this restaurant, but there are many Middle Eastern restaurants in the vicinity. (Incidentally, Jacksonville has the country’s 10th largest Arab-American community. Arabs have been relocating to Jacksonville for well over a century, with the first Arab immigrant settling in the area in 1890.)

After the restaurant, we went to the Beirut Grocery, which is a couple doors down from the restaurant. We make it a habit to visit international grocery stores wherever we go. Partly that is for the joy of filling our pantry with ingredients from all over the world, but it is a great way to discover new things in general. In our own town, we shop at the Latino, Portuguese, and Asian grocery stores on a regular basis. (They also usually have some of the best cuts of meat.)

Elise loved the Beirut Grocery seemingly more than all other grocery stores because they not only carried Turkish Delight (the real stuff) but HAD AN ENTIRE WALL OF DELIGHTS in all kinds of flavors. I could not resist a bag of fig delights myself (y’all know how much I love figs). They also had dried mandarin orange segments and dried kiwis in bags.

Turkish Delight – so good, it’s sinful.

I also bought some rooibos and cinnamon tea and some soaps. I had no idea that olive oil is used in making soaps.

Another thing I learned at the Lebanese grocery store is that truffles grow in the desert. I saw some tins of truffles (terfeziaceae) from North Africa. They are expensive, but not as expensive as the ones that grow in the forests of Europe. I was tempted to buy one just to see what they taste like.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I love Jacksonville, there is so much to do there.

Orare est laborare, laborare est orare

An 8th-century copy of the Rule of St Benedict.

When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, he didn’t know what to do with himself.

He came from an upper-middle class family, and his parents likely would have pushed him into college had he not been drafted. He tried attending classes under the GI Bill, but the transition from stomping through the jungle – clothes soaked from the humidity, eyes constantly watching for booby traps and some of the most venomous snakes in the world, bracing for enemy fire at any moment – to listening to a professor, not much older than himself, drone on and on about how to write an essay was impossible. I’m sure he did not want to listen to anyone who spent the war on campus talk about Vietnam either. “Please, hippie, explain how the world works to me.”

He worked for his favorite relative – his uncle, a contractor – for a while. He developed many practical skills and apparently learned a lot about how to get along with people and run a business. Then he discovered an occupation that he truly loved: drilling municipal water wells.

I think part of the appeal of the water infrastructure industry was the danger. Not unlike working on an oil rig – in fact, oil and water rigs share some equipment – water wells run deep into the Earth. You have to be both strong and fearless to work on them, much like surviving in a war zone. People did die occasionally by falling into the pit, which happened one terrible day to one of my father’s friends.

But I think the greatest appeal the job had was that it was hard work being done entirely outside. The activity and the sunshine had a restorative effect on a man who had been all but destroyed by the experience of war.

He worked his way up through the company, through various acquisitions, into management. In addition to the physical labor out under the hot California sun, my father loved the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as an intellectual project. When I eventually went into public finance, many people would ask me how I knew so much about civil engineering. This was our dinner table conversation when I was a child. I could diagram a desalination plant when I was seven. We were geeks, but a special kind of geek – the sort who wanted to be out in the world and learn how things fit together.

My father would eventually give this gig up when he grew older and returned to working as a contractor, as his uncle had taught him originally.

I bring this all up, because it has become somewhat fascinating to me how people talk and think about hard labor and the perceived value of blue collar workers in our society.

I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend working out in my gardens, which is fairly typical for me. And I usually talk to everyone who passes by while I am doing it.

Yesterday afternoon, I was kneeling on the ground planting dozens of deep purple petunias and French marigolds in a flowerbed. An Amazon truck pulled up, and the delivery man walked up the path toward our front door with a pile of packages. I waved at him and he asked me how I was doing.

“It’s a beautiful day to be outside,” I said, and I meant it. I was enjoying watching butterflies dancing around my garden in early January. It was marvelous. And I loved the contrast of yellow and purple I was putting together.

“You know you could pay someone to do that for you,” he shouted, and then climbed back into his van.

Why would I want to pay someone to plant flowers? Actually getting down on your hands and knees and digging in the dirt is sort of the point of gardening as a hobby. So is feeling the warm sun on your skin. People who don’t physically tend to their gardens are not gardeners. They are just people who happen to own gardens. Their relationship to their garden is not any different than their relationship to their television or their grandfather clock. It’s a possession, not a pastime.

(Somehow this reminds me of a most painful biography of the socialite Bunny Mellon I read years ago. She tried to make herself famous as a “gardener,” but she had legions of staff to maintain her gardens. Her idea of gardening was waltzing around in her Givenchy gowns and clipping a rose here and there. Even that lady’s own children loathed her. Her biographer made a point of discussing how she left only some stupid ceramic cabbage to her estranged son in her will, which he smashed on the rocks along the shore as an act of catharsis. That woman was miserable to her very core. And she kept a picture of disgraced politician John Edwards on her nightstand, which was totally creepy, but I digress.)

Then today, I spent a couple hours working on Fern Dell. If you recall, we cleared out a massive tangle of vines (massive by the standards of a Florida transplant) to build a primeval-looking garden that we’ve nicknamed Fern Dell. It was no small feat to clear all that vegetation out and free up the trees to live their best lives (and as I mentioned before, I had help). But it has also been a feat to prepare the soil and plant the ferns and whatnot because there are so many established roots. And we hauled in a lot of stone to build a path through the new garden.

My old neighbor came walking down the trail behind our house and saw me working out there. “How did you get all that planted? Was it difficult cutting through all that?”

I explained that I had to use a mattock in places, and it eventually got the job done.

“What is a mattock?”

“It’s a tool, sort of like a pick-ax, but with a different shape.”

She was dumbfounded that I would get out in the backyard and swing an ax for the sake of building a garden. She was looking at me like I was some sort of alien with strange customs like drinking milk through my finger.

Only an hour before that conversation, we were loading the stones for the path into the back of my SUV at Lowe’s. The gentleman we have to mow and edge our lawn (we do hire someone for that, my plants are a part-time job in themselves) happened to be walking through the parking lot back to his truck and saw us. He ran over to our car and started helping load the heavy stones in. He didn’t even ask if we wanted help. He just started doing it.

We are really good friends with him and I took the occasion to invite his daughter to our daughter’s birthday party. But it made me think how he’s probably treated as some sort of untouchable in our town because of what he does for a living. I mean, even the Amazon delivery guy looks down on yard work, and it’s not like he’s jetting off to Davos to talk about trends in macroeconomics to corporate elites anytime soon.

I started this post off with the Rule of St. Benedict, who insisted that “to pray is to work and to work is to pray.” To be autonomous, to exert great effort, were for St. Benedict cornerstones of a contemplative life. You don’t just work because you have to. You work because there’s ultimately some form of wisdom in it.

I can certainly say this was true for my father coming back from Vietnam. For him, he had glimpsed some life-altering truth in the jungle and it was the suburban rat race that required not thinking too hard about anything. I mean, that’s the essence of a mid-life crisis, isn’t it? You look around at all the crap you’ve bought and the meaninglessness of the “work” you performed to obtain it all, and you ask yourself “For what?” People who engage in hard physical labor tend not to have that sort of restless energy. There’s also something about physically creating things that makes you not question your dignity or purpose.

St Benedict’s ideal used to be omnipresent in American society, but here it was described as the “Protestant work ethic.” There’s no Protestant work ethic anymore. In modern western societies, labor is not regarded as a contemplative or essential character-building activity. It’s the occupation of people who didn’t have the upbringing or financial resources to jump through the necessary hoops to have a “better” life. No one chooses to do it. They do it because they have no better options.

I listen to “liberal” politicians nowadays who used to invest a lot of time sucking up to blue collar workers speaking with open contempt about hard work. Hillary ran an entire campaign on such elitism – to be blue collar meant you had bad values. Biden recently advised coal miners to “learn to code.” Of course, “learn to code” has become a euphemism for this specific sort of disdain. If you have to work hard to get by in this world, it’s your fault. Nevermind the fact that this phrase is being used by aging politicians who probably unplug their computer every time they have a problem. “Learn to code,” they say, as if it were something they could do themselves.

Is this supposed to be progress? Can you imagine the people who settled New England listening to the people who live in New England now? They’d be like, “WTF, you sound like the vapid, self-absorbed, antisocial aristocrats we came over here to get away from.” (I’m sure many of them do think these things, right before they move to Florida.)

But what’s funny is how little material wealth people have to have in order to start talking like a spoiled heiress. You see this even in children who do not come from wealthy families but are accustomed to getting everything they want. How do you reverse this sort of behavior once it sets in? Do people have to be humbled by some great economic disaster? It’s a profoundly strange phenomenon to me.

Why Republican governors are choosing to keep their refugee resettlement programs

Elise on the playground with a refugee girl from the Congo.
These little ladies were inseparable.

Tucker Carlson – whose views I increasingly cannot stand – had a segment last night trying to “explain” why it was that most Republican governors have decided to continue and even expand refugee resettlement in their states. Of course, he didn’t know the answer, but he was perfectly fine leaving his audience with an outright lie.

Carlson found it counter-intuitive that Republican governors would choose to continue accepting refugees after President Trump signed an executive order last September that refugees could only be resettled in a jurisdiction if both state and local officials were on board. After all, some current and former Republican governors, including 2024 hopeful Nikki Haley, had lobbied aggressively for this measure. This was their opportunity finally to be free of the social and financial burdens refugees pose to local governments, and they rejected it.

Carlson concluded that Republican governors eventually decided to accept refugee resettlement programs for the financial assistance that accompanied them. Their motive was money, pure and simple, he suggested. As if getting $20,000 in aggregate to help deal with the costs of these programs were some serious consideration. Anyone who has worked in state government can tell you that’s not even a rounding error in the budget of a small agency, let alone something that would drive major policy decisions. It was a ludicrous and offensive claim, and honestly, I have no idea why conservatives continue to put up with Carlson’s bullshit anymore.

The reality of the refugee debate is that resettlement groups in the US primarily receive assistance from churches and religious groups. I know this because I have a lot of personal experience with these programs. My daughter and I volunteered with an ESL program for refugees coming over from the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the Catholic Church for a while. It was one of the most enlightening and fulfilling things I have ever done, and I highly recommend contributing to these causes.

The media loves to portray the refugee issue as a left-versus-right fight, and it’s not. It’s pretty much entirely a right-versus-right issue, with people who like and support Trump generally agreeing to disagree with him on this particular issue.

I guarantee you that very few of those lefty keyboard warriors on Twitter talking about Trump’s “Muslim ban” (most refugees coming into the US are not from Muslim countries – the US is nothing like Europe) have never lifted a finger to help refugees in their lives. It’s the gun-toting, Jesus-loving, Republican voters who are contributing their time and personal wealth to help with resettlement programs and they perceive these to be serious, life-altering causes.

Last year, 2,600 evangelicals participated in a drive to pressure Republican governors into continuing to accept refugees. These folks had established organizations devoted to helping refugees come over to the United States, and had worked aggressively through the bureaucratic maze across years to reunite families. They were not happy at all with the idea that their efforts would be destroyed:

The evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical organizations seeking comprehensive immigration reform, led an effort this past week to send joint letters to 15 state governors.

The letters call for the officials to permit the continued resettlement of refugees through the U.S. refugee admissions program in accordance with Trump’s Sept. 26 executive order giving states and localities the ability to block refugee resettlement. 

So far, 17 of the nation’s 50 governors have indicated that they will continue to allow refugee resettlement in the U.S., according to World Relief.  

One of the letters, which was signed by 294 evangelicals in the state, was sent to Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey before he gave consent last Friday to refugee resettlement in Arizona’s borders. 

Another letter, signed by 136 evangelicals in North Carolina, was sent to Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper, who gave his consent for resettlement in the Tar Heel State to the U.S. State Department on Tuesday. 

Other letters were sent to governors in California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. 

The letter warned state leaders that disruptions to the resettling process in their states could impact the “reunification of many families who have been waiting years to be reunited.”

The letters stress that if states block resettlement in their borders, families looking to be reunited will likely exercise their right to move to those states once they are resettled in the U.S. 

But in doing so, the letters stated, refugees will be forced to “move away from vital employment assistance, language acquisition and cultural adjustment resources offered by their resettlement organization.”

“Refugees can best integrate into the U.S. and quickly become financially self-sufficient when supported both by their family and by a local resettlement office,” the form letters state.

“As our state’s governor, we urge you to keep the option open for local communities within [the state] to continue to receive newly arrived refugees. As always, we are committed to praying for you as you lead our state.”

The letters received a combined total of 2,669 signatories, including 659 on the letter to Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, 340 on the letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and 231 on the letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. 

“After being forced to leave their countries to escape war, persecution or natural disaster and being legally allowed entry to the U.S., the last thing refugees should have to experience is being denied access to communities in which they wish to dwell,” World Relief President Scott Arbeiter said in a statement. “Halting the resettlement of refugees to states will disrupt families and could lead to the end of vital ministries by local churches.”

The Congolese refugees we worked with were all very good and very kind people. Their lives had been displaced by violent conflicts over natural resources that are primarily used by people in rich western countries. (Those smartphones we love so much are ruining a lot of lives.)

They had taken enormous personal risks to come here with their children. Most of those children had not known any life beyond a refugee camp, though one family I met had been previously settled in Russia before coming to the United States. Their kids spoke a few African languages, French, some Russian, and were learning English through our program and public schools. It used to kill me when I’d hear adults talking down to them like they were stupid.

In many cases, the fathers had remained behind so their wives and children could have the opportunity at a new life. This is a horrible fact of refugee life in the United States. In many cases, these refugees are getting resettled in public housing projects, where they see gangs and drugs and often do not have a father figure to anchor them. But stuff like this gets completely lost in the idiotic propaganda wars coming out of Washington. That makes the roles of Christian groups even more important. (It’s also important to the lives of the US-born kids in the same projects.)

The amount of help these churches provide refugees is incredible. They offer English classes. They help them get their kids registered for school and work as liaisons with government agencies and social workers. They provide transportation to doctor’s appointments and to the grocery store. Heck, they even teach the refugees how to shop at a big-box grocery store, which is a phenomenon they have never seen. They provide them with food because benefits do not go very far. They help them obtain clothes for all of their kids, winter coats, and toys at holidays. And beyond all that, they are just there for them through whatever comes up. Volunteers went to refugee weddings and baptisms.

With all of the political division in this country, a lot of “aggressively online” people live in a world of caricatures. This is also true for people who only get their news from one news source. It’s not unique to the left, either. The fact that Tucker Carlson does not understand who is helping refugees in this country means he probably interacts with more liberals in the DC area than conservatives personally. He likes them, in theory, but he’s not visiting their churches.

You don’t have to be some open borders, “we are a nation of immigrants, so let everyone in” nut to support refugees. You can believe that the country should do a better job of vetting refugees and still believe refugees are worth helping. You can believe that locals should have a voice in accepting refugees and simultaneously hope they choose to help. There is room in this country for a continuum of beliefs on any subject, but especially on immigration.

Looking back on the past decade

There’s an old saying “the days are long, but the years are short.” I feel like that neatly summarizes our lives now.

Having a child is a constant reminder of how quickly time passes without your really noticing it. Clothes you just purchased no longer fit. Pajamas no longer come with feet. The kid it seems you just taught to count is memorizing their times tables and doing division. You remember working on the alphabet and now you are covering Latin conjugations.

It’s a big year for me personally too. When the decade began, I was turning 30. Now I am about turn 40. That’s difficult to believe. If you have any ideas for what my mid-life crisis should involve, let me know.

The decade of surviving medical catastrophes and giving birth

The past decade began with us finally deciding to have a baby. That delightful plan was put on hold when my father suddenly and unexpectedly had an aneurysm that ruptured his aorta. This is an extraordinary medical event. Only 10% of the people who experience it even make it to the hospital. Even fewer survive the surgery to repair the blood vessel. And even fewer recover from the surgery to live anything even approaching a normal life.

My father, who survived a tour of duty as the door gunner on a helicopter gunship in Vietnam and battles like Hamburger Hill, seemed undefeated. But he was in a coma for several weeks. Our family endured weeks of doctors trying to convince us to pull the plug on him. The doctors got to the point where they were softly mocking what we perceived as signs of awareness. This was a hard introduction to how cruel health care in the US is. And then one day he miraculously “woke up,” despite all their “science” suggesting that was impossible. We were finally free of having to listen to the doctors’ bullshit statistics on vegetative states, but it was a long recovery.

We did have a baby, with a difficult birth story, which I covered in my earlier post, Having a preemie will make you rethink the abortion “debate.” I am so thankful that my father survived his aneurysm and was able to meet this precious gift of a human being.

When it seemed like everything had gone back to normal, my brother and my father were involved in a horrific hit-and-run accident on an icy Denver night. A massive truck slammed into the side of my brother’s car, which thankfully was a Volvo built to withstand the worst crashes. The other driver involved fled the scene and was never found. My brother walked away from the wreck with bruises and broken molar. My father, however, was on the side that took the full force of the hit and had to be cut from the car with the Jaws of Life. Another month in the ICU for the man who had already spent entirely too much time there. But he survived.

It has been a long decade!

Moving to Florida

We went through three houses in two states in the past decade. We bought a house on a large piece of property out in the middle of thoroughbred horse farms in Lexington, Kentucky. I hated the house itself – which had been built in the 1940s and showed it – but absolutely loved the land. The land was divided between bluegrass fields and dense woods, bisected with a large creek on which the first bourbon distilleries in the state has been constructed. (We were walking distance to Woodford Reserve.) In addition to the creek, we also had a freshwater spring on the property and a large, black barn that had originally been used for drying out tobacco leaves. We devoted a quarter acre to a fantastic vegetable garden with all sorts of heirloom varieties. This is where I learned I had a green thumb.

I do miss being around all of the elite Kentucky thoroughbreds (though plenty of them make it to Florida!) and spending Sunday afternoons watching polo matches at the Kentucky Horse Park with a bottle of champagne and picnic lunch.

For a while, we maintained the country house and a colossal house in the city of Lexington. This house was the house we had always dreamed of having and finally found. It had nearly 6,000 square feet, a professional kitchen with two large islands and pantries, a home gym with mirrored walls, a sports bar for entertaining friends during basketball games and horse races, a giant saltwater swimming pool, a terraced rose garden, and formal garden that was wonderful in the mornings. We had a few rooms in that house that we had no idea what to even do with. It was … extravagant.

We learned a lot from buying that house, not the least of which is that no one needs that kind of space. We all always wanted to be together in the same rooms. For the most part, the house became a place where we stored possessions we didn’t use in rooms we never spent time in. It was quite the lesson in materialism. You are happier without all the crap you think you want.

At some point, we realized we really could live in any place we wanted. We homeschool our daughter and our work only depends on an Internet connection. So we sold both houses and moved to the Florida coast. We bought a house that is half the size of the monster we owned earlier, which meant getting rid of a lot of furniture and miscellaneous other stuff. And we are much happier for making this transition. Rather than maintaining a large house, we spend most of our time outside, hiking through swamps and wetlands, working in the garden, playing at the beach, or riding our bikes to new towns. It’s a better life.

Homeschooling

We have had a lot of professional accomplishments in the past decade. I was an economist, a bond analyst, and eventually was appointed to run a state agency by a governor. We started a very profitable business.

But my biggest accomplishments of the past decade have all involved home education. I taught our daughter to read. I taught her do math. I have helped her through countless science experiments and history projects. Seeing how she reasons through problems and communicates with the vocabulary of an adult, these things feel like little miracles.

And beyond all of this, we have raised a child that is an autodidact and genuinely loves to learn new things. Teaching our daughter is the single most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life.

Pets

We lost our beloved 200-lb English Mastiff, the Duke of Glenn’s Creek (Duke), nearly two years ago, literally on the day we closed on our Florida house. The vet told us that he was the oldest English Mastiff he had ever seen at 11-and-a-half years old. In many ways, Duke was my first baby. It was a devastating experience. He had a grand life, however. In his final years, we were cooking a pot roast for him every day. And he got to spend time at the beach.

We also lost my in-laws’ dog, Toby. He was a great dog, who loved the water (as a lab should). Here are the old men together.

We adopted Sherlock Holmes, our rough coat Jack Russell Terrier. He’s like a new baby too, though the most intelligent puppy I have ever met.

And we adopted a bearded dragon, Finn McCool. He also seems like a highly intelligent creature, though perhaps Florida is simply making me appreciate reptiles more.

Hobbies

I built a 7-ft tall telescope. I’ve learned about tropical gardening and planted thousands of new plants. I’ve certainly read over a thousand books. I learned how to make pasta from scratch. I had a years-long obsession with tagines. I replaced running with cycling and hiking.

Elise has spent years now riding hunter-jumper and is quite good at it. And she started karate.

We’ve played about a zillion board games and have had many elaborate Dungeons and Dragons quests as a family. (This is perhaps the single best way to introduce a child to logic and strategy, FYI).

We’ve had our challenges, but these are good years!

Black-eyed peas for New Year's Day

It is tradition in the South to eat black-eyed peas (or Hoppin’ John) on New Year’s Day for good luck. This ranks right up there with painting porch ceilings haint blue to ward off evil spirits in terms of superstitions down here.

I cook them every year and force them on everyone else. I have long since learned that the only good bowl of black-eyed peas is stewed with bacon or salt pork. If you eat them by themselves – well, as Elise puts it – they kind of taste like dirt. I like to eat them with chow chow relish to kick things up a bit, which you can make at home or buy at Southern grocery store chains.

Anyhow, I thought I would share the recipe I am going to try this year from the website Immaculate Bites, which has African/Caribbean recipes. Like Southern rice varieties and sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas came to the South from Africa. I love African cooking, so discovering this website has been a real treat.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (453grams) black eyed peas
  • 4 -5 thick bacon slices , chopped
  • 1 cup smoked sausage or turkey , diced
  • 1 large onion , diced
  • 1 stalk celery , diced
  • 2-3 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 Jalapenos , minced (optional) replace with cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme , minced
  • bay leaf
  • 1-2 teaspoons creole seasoning
  • 7-8 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups or more Collard greens , sub with kale
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Rinse dry black-eyed pea beans and pick through and discard any foreign object. (I did not have to do this because I used the package beans,). Add beans to a large pot covering with 3-4 inches of cold water. Cover and let sit for about 2-3 hours.
  2. In a large, heavy sauté pan, saute chopped bacon until brown and crispy about 4-5 minutes, then add sausage saute for about 2-3 more minutes. Remove bacon and sausage mixture, set aside.
  3. Throw in the onions, celery, garlic, jalapenos, thyme and bay leaf  and saute for about 3-5 minutes, until onions are wilted and aromatic. 
  4. Then pour in the chicken broth or water.
  5. Drain the soaked beans, rinse, and place the beans in the pot. Season with creole seasoning and salt to taste. Mix and bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.
  7. Throw in the collard greens, and bacon and sausage into the pot, continue cooking for another 10 minutes or more, stirring occasionally, or until beans are tender and slightly thickened to your desire.
  8. Add more stock or water if the mixture becomes dry and thick, the texture of the beans should be thick, somewhat creamy but not watery.
  9. Remove the bay leaves.
  10. Taste and adjust for seasonings with pepper, creole seasoning and salt if needed. Serve over cooked rice and garnish with green onion.

Holiday fun and a year of gardening aggressively

Rodney’s parents came down to Florida for Christmas, which was delightful, and stayed long enough to watch some bowl games. We were all very happy to see Clemson win, and are looking forward to the Baylor – Georgia game on New Year’s. (Sic ’em, Bears!)

I know Elise loved spending days on nature walks and feeding the turtles in one of our neighborhood ponds with her Mimi. She went fishing with her Papa, and caught a couple bluegill.

She has also decided Papa is the best babysitter. We left them alone while we ran some errands, and came back to discover Papa let Elise ride her boogie board down the stairs.

“You were supposed to be watching her!” Rodney said.

“I was watching her,” Papa replied coolly. “I looked like a lot of fun.”

And we sent Mimi back to Georgia with a lot of plants, including a cool air plant that sits in a swing.

Which brings me to gardening. I gave up on trying to remove the last bit of vines and fallen trees from what will become our fern dell (see our trip to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park for reference). I had to call in professional help, our most extraordinary gardener, Mr. Perez. Mr. Perez knows everything about Florida trees, and was able to help us clear the rest of the debris, including ridding our 40-foot oak trees of all of the vines that have been tormenting them for many years.

Mr. Perez also brought his daughter along to play with Elise all day. Watching her run around catching lizards and building forts with Elise reminded me of when I would tag along with my contractor father to job sites on the days I was out of school. Except I was older and would park myself on a pile of lumber with a volume of Immanuel Kant. (Catching lizards is indisputably a better use of one’s time than reading Kant.)

The only problem with all of this is that the fern dell now has a lot of sunshine that it did not have before we disrupted its canopy. This means only part of the area can be ferns. We decided to turn the area into a massive tropical garden instead.

And thus the planting begins. Here are all the plants we picked up for the new garden:

  • 2 Celia Hibiscus
  • 6 Mamay Croton
  • 6 large, white Birds of Paradise
  • 6 Hope Philodendrons
  • 3 Persian Shields
  • 5 Macho Ferns
  • 6 Kimberly Queen Ferns
  • 5 Foxtail Ferns
  • 2 Silver Buttonwood Trees
  • 3 Petra Crotons
  • 2 Ficus Trees
  • 3 Begonias
  • 42 Impatiens
  • 20 Elephant Ears

I am hoping to add some plumeria once Jungle Jack’s nursery in California is back to shipping them (presumably after the “cold” months in other states are over).

Croton gets its name from the Greek word for “tick,” as its seeds resemble ticks. It is a brilliant plant, with many bright colors, and is ubiquitous in the Caribbean and Florida. We bought two kinds of crotons, the mamay, whose leaves are long and twist in colorful strips that look like dreadlocks, and the petra, with broad leaves. Crotons are houseplants elsewhere in the world, but here they can grow to be several feet tall.

I already had one white bird of paradise, which was slightly mangled during our recent tornado-producing storm, but seems to be recovering nicely. When we cleared out the vines, our property lost some of its privacy, as there is a hiking trail that runs along that side of the property to the Intracoastal Waterway. I was vacillating between planting a large orange tree in that spot or planting a patch of birds of paradise. Unlike their orange counterparts, these white birds of paradise are massive and can easily grow 30 feet tall.

Philodendron is another plant with a Greek name, meaning “loving tree.” It’s such a strange category of plant, taking many forms, which include both aerial and subterranean roots (not unlike orchids). Folks have been cultivating them since at least the 17th century. I saw a house while we were walking the esplanade along the ICW that had large drifts of philodendron plants and decided to attempt to replicate that. They give a space a very jungle-like feel.

These are Persian shields. I thought they might provide a nice contrast to the avenue of ferns. These plants are actually native to Myanmar. The purple really starts to show if you plant them in the shade; too much light and the color will fade. I’m kind of curious how they got the name, so if anyone knows, please do tell me.

I am going to attempt to plant hibiscus in an area away from the house and pray that the deer do not notice that it exists. In my experience, there are three plants deer cannot resist – fragrant roses (which they will chew to the ground, thorns and all), phlox, and hibiscus. I planted two salmon-colored hibiscus near our entryway, but I had to pull them out because I dumped fish fertilizer on them and they quadrupled in size within a few months, blocking off our front door. There was much weeping involved, much like there will be if the deer find the new garden.

This is silver buttonwood. This is a plant you want to pet. I’m not kidding. It has soft, felt-like leaves, much like lamb’s ears. You can’t stop touching them.

Another typical houseplant that you can plant outdoors here are rubber trees or ficus trees. I am planning on surrounding it with a bed of bright red impatiens.

Totally unrelated to any of this, I found my dream garden hose. Now, I know this is a silly thing to carry on about, but if you love gardening, water hoses are kind of important. My biggest pet peeve in the world are hoses that squish the plants around them or get tangled up. We just had a couple move in next to us from New Jersey, and they had one of these installed. Once I saw it, I had to have it. It comes from Frontgate. You mount it on a pillar and the hose container rotates in a half circle around it. As the hose is elevated, it does not squish your plants! Genius! It also comes with a nozzle with a minimalist look that does all kinds of things (not pictured here).

A bearded dragon and karate

Here’s Elise with her new bearded dragon. We went to Bass Pro Shop last night, where she found a vest with lots of pockets for our hikes and nature walks. She also found a kit with a head lamp, binoculars, a magnifying glass, compass, whistle, and thermometer where everything fit in the vest.

We were watching Dora and the Lost City of Gold last night – an adorable movie, I highly recommend it for children. The movie is not animated, but it does have a lot of jokes that play off the animated series for kids who grew up watching it. Dora’s parents put her in a high school in Los Angeles while they go on a quest, so most of the jokes are about a kid who has been homeschooled by two professors out in the jungle going to a traditional school. It’s hysterically funny, especially if you are a homeschooler.

Elise started karate late in the summer and tested for her yellow belt this past week. It was cute watching her count in Japanese and perform her kata. She has very kind senseis who moved to Florida from Peru. I’m honestly a little shocked sometimes at how much of a melting pot Florida is. I grew up in Los Angeles and always considered it a very diverse place. But here, she’s playing with kids on the playground that moved her from Haiti and are speaking a combination of English and French, then going into a class taught by folks from Peru. One of her classmates is Russian. We have huge Cuban, Portuguese, Italian, and Thai populations here too. For a small beach town, she’s really getting the best of the entire globe. I love Florida so much.