A Pinch of Politics

America’s tightening presidential race

As a University of Tennessee football fan in the 2000s, “prevent defense” became feared terminology in my house. We ripped John Chavis (then the defensive coordinator at UT) for his Mustang package (which was just another way of saying dime defense, where an extra defensive back is added on the field).

Chavis was a fine defensive coordinator for three stops in the SEC — Tennessee, LSU and, to a much lesser extent, Texas A&M — before his career petered out at Arkansas, but for Vols fans in the early 2000s, the Mustang package become synonymous with soft coverage and prevent defense.

There was more than anecdotal evidence to back up fans’ fear of Tennessee’s penchant for jumping into a prevent defense a little bit too soon, but none of the losses hurt worse than Georgia in 2001. Travis Stephens had ripped off a big touchdown run after a short-yardage pass from quarterback Casey Clausen late in the fourth quarter, and the Vols appeared to have snatched victory from Mark Richt’s Bulldogs. But Georgia marched swiftly back down the field against Tennessee’s soft coverage, scoring with just seconds remaining in what became known as The Hobnail Boot game (courtesy of the late Larry Munson, the UGA broadcaster who gleefully yelled that Georgia had stomped on Tennessee’s face with a hobnail boot).

Although there are plenty of times when it makes plenty of sense to use a prevent defense in football, there’s another phrase that can be used when teams ease up on the aggression too soon: playing not to lose.

Right now, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is playing not to lose. And one can’t help wondering if President Donald Trump is about to perform his own hobnail boot trick.

Credit for the prevent defense analogy goes to Michael McKenna, who wrote for The Washington Times today that Biden is losing momentum by playing prevent defense.

He’s right. If you follow the poll averages at Real Clear Politics — and I do, religiously — you’ve noticed that the race between Biden and Trump is narrowing. Once up by more than 8 percentage points, Biden is now up by just 6.4 points in the RCP poll average.

That’s still a modest lead, but it can no longer be called a comfortable lead. And, perhaps shockingly, given everything that has happened in recent months, Trump is trailing Biden by less at this moment than he trailed Hillary Clinton at this same moment in 2016 (Clinton was up 7.3 points at this point).

There’s more. In an average of polls from the top battleground states, Biden’s lead has dipped to just 5 points. Again, it’s still a modest lead. But it’s now only 0.7 points ahead of where Clinton was at this point in 2016 — and we know how that turned out.

To be sure, Trump’s path to victory remains narrow and winding. Biden should be a considerable favorite, and he is (58.9-39 are the latest betting odds). But there’s another old football analogy, too: If you let an underdog hang around until the fourth quarter, anything can happen.

We aren’t in the fourth quarter yet, but we’re late in the third, and Donald Trump is still very much hanging around, easily within striking distance.

Here’s why this is important: A growing number of Democrats are calling for Biden to avoid debating Trump in the run-up to the November election. I have long predicted that there would be no debates this year, and as long as Biden was comfortably ahead of Trump in the polls, that strategy made perfect sense. Why give Trump an advantage to exploit what might be your biggest weakness? It would be akin to sending a safety blitz when you’re up a couple of touchdowns late in the game. You risk giving up a big play that can let your opponent back in it.

As the polls tighten, though, not debating Trump becomes an unfeasible strategy, even as calls for it are gaining momentum.

In January, Tennessee battled back from down 22-9 late in the fourth quarter of the TaxSlayer Bowl against Indiana in Jacksonville. The Vols scored, recovered an onside kick, and scored again to take a 23-22 lead. With less than a minute and no time outs remaining, the Hoosiers needed to move the length of the field to at least get into field goal range if they were going to have a chance to win the game. With Tennessee in its prevent defense (to avoid a big strike where a receiver slips past the coverage), Indiana needed just two big plays to move to the Vols’ side of the 50-yard-line with still plenty of time remaining. At that point, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt had two options: switch to a more aggressive defense, or let Indiana continue chipping away at the field and win the game. Prevent defense was no longer a viable option. Pruitt, a defensive specialist, switched his defense, sent pressure, and forced Indiana into four consecutive incomplete passes. Game over.

Joe Biden is in a position where — unless Trump fumbles or throws an interception — he’s probably going to have to come out of his prevent defense. Which means we’re probably going to have presidential debates in the weeks ahead. (For the record, Biden has agreed to a three-appearance debate schedule, while Trump is the one holding out. But Trump won’t continue to hold out; to do so would be the closest thing to campaign suicide at this point.)

A necessity for the debates is certainly not a bad thing. No matter what your politics are, we can surely agree that America needs to hear from its presidential candidates. There was a time, long ago, when we voted for presidential candidates without hearing their message. In the era of mass communications, it’s unfathomable that we would head to the polls to vote without each candidate being put to the test and facing scrutiny under a bright spotlight. We have a reasonable idea of what Biden’s platform is, but so far he hasn’t faced much scrutiny. Furthermore, he hasn’t handled the little scrutiny he has been under very well (remember this and this?), and he’s refused to subject himself to an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, which would provide a healthy dose of scrutiny. (Despite being a Fox News reporter, Wallace is the toughest and perhaps the fairest journalist in TV news today, and he absolutely ripped up Trump a few weeks ago.)

A debate between Biden and Trump will absolutely be entertaining. It’s likely to make voters of all persuasions cringe a few times, because there will certainly be some off-the-rails moments for either candidate. But at the end of the day, Trump’s preference for speaking without a filter and Biden’s penchant for gaffes is what will make the debates must-watch TV.

In the meantime, for all that talk about how the election was going to be a blow-out … well, that’s just not going to happen. And it probably never was, if we’re being realistic; America’s political ideologies are chiseled in stone. Sure, there are a few Never-Trumpers who traditionally vote Republican but will not pull the lever for Trump unless it’s a cold day in hell — just as there are a few Rust Belt Democrats who traditionally vote blue who supported Trump in 2016 and likely will again in 2020. But, for the most part, America’s elections are decided by a relatively small number of moderate and independent voters.

If we’re talking odds, there’s still a better chance for a Biden blowout win than for a Trump blowout win, certainly. If everything fell the right way, Biden could wind up with more than 350 electoral votes — maybe even closer to 400 if tight polls in Texas and Georgia are to be believed. But, barring an October surprise of monumental proportions, that’s not likely to happen. And given everything we know about Trump at this point, all of the punches that his opponents have landed, and the coronavirus and economic setbacks we’ve endured in 2020, an October surprise seems incredibly unlikely.

In other words: We have a real race, after all.

A Pinch of Politics

Tennessee forgot Reagan’s 11th commandment

In 2018, Tennessee voters seemed to reject gutter politics. In 2020, unfortunately, it seems that we took a big step back by embracing that same style of politics.

By “gutter politics,” I mean vicious attack ads, mud-slinging, falsehoods, etc.

In 2018, Tennessee’s Republican primary for governor was a full-on assault of one another by frontrunners Randy Boyd and Diane Black. And a little-known political newcomer from Middle Tennessee, Bill Lee, took advantage by flying under the radar while Boyd and Black were emptying their war chests to attack each other. Late in the race, when it became obvious that Lee was a serious contender, Boyd and Black turned their attacks on him. But he stayed true to his message, promoted his platform, and won a shocking upset. Now he’s the governor of Tennessee.

I remember saying at the time that Tennessee’s voters had sent a message that they were tired of the attack ads. One of Diane Black’s supporters within the Republican establishment privately told me after the election that he disagreed with her campaign’s decision to go the attack route, felt like she had gotten some bad advice, and believed that had cost her the election.

But here we are, two years later, and it feels an awful lot like we’ve embraced the same gutter politics that we appeared to reject in 2018. Bill Hagerty won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, with 51% of the vote. Dr. Manny Sethi received just 39%.

Hagerty — who is now almost a shoo-in to win the general election in November — may well prove to be a fine Senator. But he ran the most deceitful primary campaign that I can remember in a Republican race. Attacks are one thing — and Sethi certainly can’t lay any claim to having ran a clean race; he did his fair share of attacking — but attacks that are based on falsehoods have no place in an election, particularly in a primary, which is by its very nature a war between “friendly” rivals.

Sethi, a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the son of Indian immigrants, was very much a long-shot candidate. Hagerty, a former member of Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, had all the name recognition — not to mention the endorsement of President Donald Trump and the support of a Republican establishment willing to throw all its weight behind him.

Yet, with six weeks remaining before the election, it felt very much like Sethi had the momentum. Polls began to show a tight race, within the margin of error, which is an essential tie. He had a groundswell of endorsements from prominent conservative outsiders like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. I tweeted that it felt like deja vu — a looming repeat of that 2018 upset by Bill Lee.

And then the attacks started.

To be fair, it might not have been the deceitful attacks by the Hagerty camp so much as the weight of the Trump support that sank Sethi. Tennessee loves Trump, and voters were bombarded by daily robocalls from the president, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, and other prominent Republicans.

To underscore the point, Trump received more than 80% of the vote in my home county in 2016; he won here by the second-largest margin of any county in Tennessee. And on Thursday, Hagerty received more than 60% of the vote here, well above what he captured across the state as a whole. That was in spite of not visiting the county and tying up almost no resources here.

It was disappointing — and a bit surreal, to be honest — to watch the Republican establishment work so hard to nominate Hagerty. That support would’ve been understandable in the general election, and it would’ve been understandable if Hagerty were an incumbent who was facing a primary challenger. But neither of those things were true. The primary race was a battle between two non-incumbents, both of whom boasted equally conservative credentials. Yet, there was the entire establishment — including several of the Republicans in Congress and the state legislature who represent my district — lobbying hard for Hagerty as he lobbed deceitful attack ads and engaged in a nasty campaign meant to destroy a fellow Republican.

It is as though Republicans forgot President Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Though shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” To be fair, that phrase wasn’t coined by Reagan, though it was Reagan who made it prominent. It was actually born with California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson. And, to be fair, Reagan espoused that sentiment through the first five nominating contests of the 1976 primary campaign — and lost them all to Gerald Ford. He would later abandon that strategy and begin “speaking ill” of his fellow Republican, which helped him pick up a much-needed win and swing the momentum … but it was too little, too late, and Ford won the nomination (and went on to lose to President Jimmy Carter).

But Reagan’s sentiment wasn’t wrong, even if he didn’t always follow through with it. (As long as we’re being fair, his attacks on Ford in the 1976 primary campaign and on George H.W. Bush in the 1980 primary campaign were mild compared to the modern attacks we’re seeing in Republican primaries. And throughout his political career, Reagan used attack ads when he had to but he was better suited as a jovial, optimistic candidate.)

What was especially weird to watch during the Hagerty-Sethi battle was the wholeheartedness with which President Trump entered the fray. On one hand, Hagerty was Trump’s pick for ambassador, so he undoubtedly felt a degree of loyalty there. On the other hand, there was Trump, eagerly joining forces with “the establishment” that was hellbent on seeing its hand-picked replacement for Lamar Alexander win — the same establishment that Trump vowed to take on once he got to the White House. (Remember “drain the swamp”?)

As I watched the primary play out between Hagerty and Sethi, I was reminded — not for the first time — of how much Tennesseans will miss Lamar Alexander. Yes, he’s often criticized by conservatives for not being conservative enough and for sometimes parting with the president on matters of policy. But besides being a decent leader, he’s a fine human being and a statesman. The latter seem to be two things we’re losing in modern politics.

Republicans have been their own worst enemy in recent years. Members of the party who don’t tow a certain line are castigated as being too liberal, and they’re thrown to the wolves. We saw it with Jeff Flake in Arizona, and with Bob Corker in Tennessee. Both were highly effective U.S. Senators who were essentially forced from office for not being conservative enough.

But at what cost? Tennesseans replaced Corker with Marsha Blackburn, but can they name one thing Blackburn has been able to accomplish to advance the interests of Tennesseans? She’s a conservative firebrand, sure, but effective government is about more than towing ideological lines. Blackburn may be a pro at generating sound bytes that are the equivalent of throwing red meat to the conservative base, and at generating media coverage, but can she reach across the aisle to work with Democrats?

Think about the great Republican leaders of the past era: men like Reagan, Howard Baker, and Fred Thompson. Could any of them survive in the current environment? Or would they be branded as “RINOs,” and join men like Flake and Alexander under the wheels of the bus? Reagan is hailed as a hero of modern conservatism — and indeed he is — but it’s also easy to forget that, aside from Reaganomics and his hawkish approach to foreign policy, Reagan was quite moderate. He supported gun control and other legislation that would have him labeled a liberal in today’s environment.

Because this shift towards extremism isn’t only occurring on the right, but also on the left, we need to stop and examine where it’s leading us as a country. The 1990s may well go down as the last decade of true American exceptionalism. The economy was booming and the country’s interests were being advanced. Why? Because a Democratic president (Bill Clinton), who was quite liberal for his time, and a Republican congress, who had leaders (Newt Gingrich) quite conservative for their time, worked together to accomplish what needed to be accomplished.

Can you imagine the two sides working together in that same spirit in this day and age? I blame the Republicans’ impeachment proceedings against Clinton in 1999 for beginning the fracas that has led us to where we’re at today. It was a dumb political stunt, not in the least because Clinton was term-limited and nearing the end of his presidency. After that, American politics became a tit-for-tat, with each side trying to out-extreme the other, up and until the Democrats launched similarly short-sighted impeachment proceedings against Trump.

The only thing that will reign in this extremism is by placing people in Congress who are even-keeled, who realize that we’re all Americans, first and foremost, and that the primary focus should be on what unites us instead of what divides us. That’s where people like Lamar Alexander come into play. Tennessee is going to miss him, and this primary battle ended yesterday is proof enough of that.

Human Nature, Uncategorized

The power of testimony

This is powerful stuff. Jordan Jeffers is my son’s high school basketball coach and he has a pretty incredible story to tell. A star athlete who attended college on an athletic scholarship, he found himself addicted to drugs, kicked out of school, and trying to take his own life. This past year, he led the Highlanders’ basketball team to their best-ever start and a Top 5 state ranking.

His story inspired a song by award-winning contemporary Christian artist Matthew West, Hello My Name Is, which went to No. 1 on the U.S. Christian music charts.

Edit: The video won’t embed properly, so here’s a link to the video on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matthewwest/videos/888610491664499/

Outdoors

Places I’ve left behind

The very first outdoors column I published in our weekly newspaper. I had published some pieces in various regional outdoors publications, but this was my break into the newspaper industry — the launch of a weekly column that would eventually lead to me taking on a role as a sports writer and, later, a full-time journalist position.

Looking back on it now, it all seems so distant and far away.

Yet I know that just over the next hill lies this remembered place that I am writing about, separated from me only by the inability to go back.

It is a place where the fields are filled with wildflowers and clover, disturbed only by the deer that feed there — and the bobwhites, cottontails and woodchucks that make their home there—as if humans never set foot on the place.

The evergreen groves beyond the field provide a dark, damp place full of shadows and mystical imaginations that only the human mind can conjure. Beyond that, the terrain opens into rolling hills of hardwoods, which eventually end abruptly at a cliff’s edge. It is here that you will find whitetail deer, wild turkey, ruffled grouse, wild boar, graytail and fox squirrels, redheaded woodpeckers, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, red-tail hawks, an occasional bald eagle and even a bear or two.

I only wonder how many more creatures call this their home, unbeknownst to man. Many claim to have seen or heard cougars here. Others swear that they have heard the cry of a gray wolf on a late summer night. The old man in the cabin up by Walker’s Grove even says that he saw a Sasquatch take down a fawn in the back pasture one morning … but common sense refuses to let me believe that.

My mind takes me back to sitting on the cliff’s edge, tossing rocks over the side and watching as they fall out of sight. It is here, perched high above the river that roars below, that you can watch the eagle soar across the canyon and listen to its piercing cry. If you look close enough, you can almost see a smallmouth bass surface in the deep, dark pool of water hundreds of feet below.

At night, you can sit here on the same rock and watch the moon rise across the sky as a coyote howls somewhere across the divide. You can continue watching as the moon descends out of sight, like the time that we have spent here. Soon, all we have left are memories, kept alive by our love for the outdoors and fueled by our longing to go back.

I think of the oak tree on the hill, the tree from which I deer-hunted last fall. The oak tree sits on the same hill all the year round. He sees the dogwoods bloom in the spring, the bright stars on a clear summer night, the golden leaves of autumn dropping into the clear pool in the creek, just below the roaring rapids. He watches as the stream’s flow becomes more and more sluggish, finally succumbing to winter’s freeze. He then watches as the snow blankets the forest floor against the dead silence of winter.

Spring mornings bring the turkey’s thunderous gobble and the sound of a beaver slapping the water with his tail somewhere upstream. An otter slides down the muddy bank and into the water across the way.

Something is missing … the sound of an elk’s bugle cutting through the morning still, perhaps. Other than that, this might very well be heaven on earth.

Although I’m sure time has colored the way it really was, it seems there was not a care to be had; just me and the outdoors, a man absorbed by nature. That is life and I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

What happened to this place? It’s still there. Just over the next hill. A little free time and I’ll be back there again, just as I was last week.

But looking back on it now, it all seems so distant and far away.

Cross-posted at Medium.com

Destinations

The ins and outs of St. George Island

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island's east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.
The lighthouse at St. George Island dates back to 1833. It can be visited today, and there’s a museum adjacent to it.

A few years ago, I wrote an in-depth guide on St. George Island. It was the most popular article ever posted on this blog. Each year, when I post vacation photos on Facebook, people ask for info on St. George Island. That was the inspiration for this rewrite.

Looking for a reclusive vacation, away from the crowds and the hustle-and-bustle of resort towns? Florida has some coastal vacation spots that are well off the beaten path, but they usually don’t include pristine beaches. Then there is St. George Island.

A 28-mile barrier island located off the coast of historic Apalachicola, St. George Island is one-of-a-kind: an inhabited, yet largely unspoiled island. It’s not the Caribbean, and Jimmy Buffet never sang about it, but it still has a lot of the stereotypical island feel to it — where time slows down (island time) and everything is a little more laid back.

When someone asks me about St. George Island, I always start by telling them what SGI isn’t. There is no Walmart or McDonald’s anywhere close; no miniature golf*, no water parks, no movie theaters, no ritzy shopping developments.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay, as seen from St. George Island.

All of that is, of course, the allure of St. George Island. But it’s not for everyone. If you’re a 20-something (or an any-something) who loves the night life, you’re probably not going to like SGI. If your family likes to always be on the go, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If you have to have a Walmart or a Target or a Five Guys burger joint or a shopping mall close at hand, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If your idea of a beach vacation is more about great food than natural surroundings, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. I can’t imagine being one of those people and stumbling onto SGI expecting a Destin-style vacation. I would be sorely disappointed.

But if you like to go to the beach simply to relax, to get away from the people and traffic, SGI may be exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re a middle-aged or older couple, SGI is perfect. If you have young kids, SGI may or may not be a suitable vacation destination. It’s definitely family-friendly, and lots of families vacation on the island with their kids; families with small children probably make up a majority of the island’s visitors at any given time during the summer tourism season. We’ve been vacationing at SGI since my kids were eight years old, and they’ve always loved it … but, then, they’ve never been accustomed to vacations that include laser tag, mini golf, parasailing, water parks, go karts, and etc.

A large sign welcomes visitors to St. George Island as they come off the 4-mile bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Eastpoint.

I searched out St. George Island when I got tired of the crowds of people at Panama City Beach. I love PCB … and I like Destin and the other beaches of the Florida panhandle and the Alabama coast. But I don’t like the crowds of people that accompany them. A few years ago, I got caught up in a traffic jam during my first night in PCB and angrily swore that I was going somewhere else the next year. The next year, we vacationed on the bay side of St. George Island. A year after that, I stupidly decided to go back to PCB. On Day 1, I was reminded why SGI was worlds better. And I’ve never been back.

So now that we’ve talked about what St. George Island isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.

SGI has low-density zoning and strict building codes, which preserves the low-key, laid-back feel. There are no high-rise hotels or condominium complexes, no chain restaurants or high-profile retail shops. (There isn’t even an Alvin’s Island, if you can believe it!) As a result, the entire island feels like a village instead of a resort town.

St. George Island’s most famous resident is country music star Billy Dean, who resides with his wife in a humble home in the center of the island.

There are “drawbacks,” of course. Without them, SGI would lose its allure. One of the drawbacks is that most of the lodging options are vacation rentals. Some of them are independently owned and managed and available through rental services like VRBO, AirBNB and a regional service, Emerald Coast By Owner. Others are owned or managed by rental companies like Collins Vacation Rentals and Fickling & Co. There are only two exceptions: a small motel on the beach — which is dated and frills-free, to say the least — and a small inn that is located off the beach.

Vacation rentals tend to be pricey. The best approach is to join forces with friends or family and split the cost, especially since many of the homes are larger and luxurious. There are some smaller cottages that are suitable for single family units and will fit more modest budgets, but they’re often located away from the beach.

Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
A new, large home is being built on the beach at St. George Island.

There is no entertainment to speak of on the beach. Instead of parasailing and jet ski rentals, you’ll find bicycle, paddleboard and kayak rentals. There are a handful of the typical beach souvenir shops (we prefer Island Dog, a family-owned and -operated shop that is tucked away off the main street). There is a miniature golf course just across the SGI bridge on the mainland at Eastport, but none on the island. There are no theaters, no water parks, no go-kart tracks.

There are two small grocery stores on the island: a Piggly Wiggly Express and a newer, independently-owned grocery. Both are convenient, but have little in the way of selection. Most people prefer to make the 20-minute drive to the mainland and into Apalachicola to purchase groceries.

The first sight you see upon arriving on the island is a Piggly Wiggly Express. Your first impression of St. George Island may be that it appears run-down and dated. But it’s part of the charm and the allure. Time moves slower and things are laid-back here.

As for restaurants, there are a few — but they’re limited. There’s only one beach-front, open-air-dining restaurant, the Blue Parrot. It’s good, but it’s also hit-or-miss. Otherwise, the quality, prices and atmosphere are about what you’d expect from a typical beach-front restaurant just up the road at PCB. Other popular restaurants on the island include Harry A’s Bar & Grill, Paddy’s Raw Bar and Doc Myers Island Pub & Raw Bar. The latter is probably the closest to a typical beach-town nightlife establishment that you’ll find on SGI. You’ll find live music and crowds of people playing corn hole and enjoying their favorite beverages at Doc Myers on any given night.

Other restaurants on the island include the Beach Pit, which is a BBQ joint, and BJ’s, a pizza and sub place. There’s also a Subway sandwich shop (the only chain restaurant you’ll find on SGI or in either of the neighboring towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint), an ice cream shop and a donut shop.

To be completely blunt and perfectly honest, I can’t highly recommend any of them. The food is okay at several of them, but none of them will knock your socks off. Our trips to SGI usually include at least a couple of trips to the Blue Parrot, mainly because we like the beachfront, open-air dining style, and a trip or two to Aunt Edy’s (the ice cream shop). They serve Blue Bell, which is a plus. BJ’s is incredibly over-priced for the quality of the pies, but they have an appetizer — crab bites — that will be as good as any crab cakes you can find anywhere on the island or the neighboring mainland.

Restaurants on the mainland include Lynn’s Quality Oysters — a bayfront combination fresh seafood market and seafood restaurant. It looks shabby, but then the best ones usually do, it seems. In any event, it comes well-rated and highly-recommended. There’s the Pesky Pelican Grille (which is okay but not great), the Red Pirate (which always seems to be packed), the Family Coastal Restaurant (bayfront) and Eastpoint Beer Company (a bar/pub) in Eastpoint. Across the bay in Apalachicola, there is Hole in the Wall (a tiny establishment that has a pub feel with decent food), the Owl Cafe (upscale dining), The Station Raw Bar (a popular place with food that is good but not great) and the Up the Creek Raw Bar (bayfront). It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.

Inside the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch.

The best option? Visit one of the two fresh seafood trucks that set up on the island almost daily, and fix it to your liking. You’ll find Doug’s truck on one side of the lighthouse and Dail’s truck on the other. Their prices are fair and their fish is excellent. If the trucks aren’t there, head across the bridge to the mainland and you’ll find several seafood markets. The nearest option is Lynn’s Oysters. A cheaper option, if you want to drive a bit further into downtown Apalachicola, is the 13 Mile SeaFood Market. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch, then head inside and pick out what you want to take home with you.

St. George Island is a 28-mile barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico. It is separated from the mainland by a 4-mile bridge that crosses the Apalachicola Bay. The island is no wider than a mile, and is usually narrower than that. It was originally settled by the Muscogee, and later the Creek Indians after disease killed off the Muscogee, beginning in the 10th century, before European settlers arrived and eventually took control of the island. Until 1965, the resort town that was developing on the island was accessible only by ferry. Two bridges were constructed that year, connected by a tiny island in the middle of the bay, to reach the island. In 2002, the much larger and current bridge was built after the original buildings were deemed unsafe.

The rising sun shines through the palms and the pines on St. George Island. Forested areas are rare overall, and the island is by no means picturesque with its sea oats and scrub growth. But the sunrises and sunsets are magical.

SGI has a colorful history. It was used as a practice range for Air Force bombers during World War II and a cut was later made between the island and nearby Little St. George to provide access to the Gulf of Mexico from the bayside. Today, that cut is used by fishing fleets from Apalachicola. A lighthouse was constructed on the island in 1833, and was later destroyed by hurricane. It was rebuilt and, except for during the Civil War, when it was decommissioned, it served the island until the 1960s, when it was decommissioned. It was later damaged by two more hurricanes and collapsed, before being rebuilt in the middle of the island several years ago.

St. George Island is not fully inhabited; fewer than 10 miles of the island are inhabited. The eastern end of the island is St. George Island State Park, which includes pristine beaches, protected dunes and a campground. The west end of the island is a large, gated community called The Plantation. Although it is an upscale, gated community, rental homes are available inside. This is the widest part of the island, and also the most forested. Trees become sparser on the east end and central parts of the island, where only palm trees, sea oats and scrub grows along the gulf side of the island and slab pine and other trees grow on the bay side of the island.

The beach at St. George Island at sunset.

When choosing where to stay on SGI, there are generally a few options:

• Gulf-side: The east-end beaches are generally a bit less congested than the west-end beaches. The Plantation is the least congested of all and does include some beach-front homes, but they’re very pricey. Across-the-street beaches still provide beach views for cheaper prices. In the center of the island, there are a number of town houses along the beach. There’s also a large town house community on the beach along the east end, just before the entrance to the state park.

• Bay-side: Staying on the bay provides its own advantages. It’s further from the beach, and you lose the sea breeze (which means it’s going to feel hotter, and be “buggier” — the mosquitoes are merciless). But you are sometimes still close enough to walk to the beach. If not, you can drive to the nearest public beach access (or rent a golf cart of a bicycle). Most bay-front homes have private fishing piers, and many are a bit more secluded than beach-front homes. You’ll encounter more wildlife on the bay side, including pelicans (rarely seen on the beach except for in the surf), lizards, frogs, snakes and scorpions (I’ve learned my lesson the hard way — don’t leave your shoes on the porch if you’re staying on the bay side of the island).

A crab plays in the surf at St. George Island. Crabs are plentiful, both on the bay side and the gulf side. Set a trap and catch some for yourself.

SGI is widely known as a loggerhead turtle nesting area. Locals are strict about beachfront outside lights being left off at night and belongings being removed from the beach in the evenings. It’s also requested that holes not be left on the beach.

You’ll see dolphins on the gulf side just about any day during the summer months, and they’re commonly seen within a hundred yards of the beach. It’s also not uncommon to see them in the bay.

SGI is a dog-friendly beach.

A pelican eats a shrimp from a dock on the bay off St. George Island.

The “worst” part of St. George Island is getting there. It isn’t an easy drive from anywhere. It is an hour-long drive through the aptly-named Tate’s Hell State Forest to reach the coast at Eastpoint. But Apalachicola is quaint and worthy of exploration. PCB is about a two-hour drive along the coast to the west; Alligator Point is an hour drive along the coast to the east. Tallahassee is the nearest major city, about 90 minutes away. The nearest Walmart is about that far away. The nearest McDonald’s is a 30-minute drive.

Because there are no high-rises, the beaches at St. George Island are never crowded. They were a bit more crowded in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has more people seeking vacationing opportunities on the island to avoid the Covid-19 hotspots elsewhere in Florida (there had only been two cases of Covid-19 in all of Franklin County as of June 21, 2020). When the beaches do start to fill up, head to the east end of the island and pay the small fee to enter the state park. The island’s most beautiful beaches are inside the state park, and you’re guaranteed to find a section of beach where you won’t have any neighbors within shouting distance — literally — if you want to walk far enough.

Fishing from a dock on the bay side of St. George Island. Fishing is excellent at SGI, both in the surf and in the Apalachicola Bay. On the bay side, fish with shrimp (live are best, but good luck finding them) or live minnows.

The best thing about SGI besides the beaches and the lack of people is the fishing. The Apalachicola Bay is a rich estuary. The Apalachicola River — formed when the Flint River and Chattahoochee merge — dumps into the sea at Apalachicola, creating a bay that is teeming with life. More than 300 species of birds, 186 species of fish and 57 species of mammals call the Apalachicola Bay home. Sadly, the town of Apalachicola is in decline as the seafood industry diminishes. The Apalachicola Bay once produced 90% of Florida’s oysters, but climate change is causing the oyster populations to diminish rapidly.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island’s east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.

The bottom line: The sands at St. George Island aren’t as white as they are at Destin and Panama City Beach, the Florida panhandle’s most famous beaches. And the water at SGI isn’t nearly as clear. But there isn’t a single stoplight on the island; a pair of 3-way stops in the center of the island are the closest you come to it. Most of the streets are not paved and are dirt roads — the main exceptions are Gulf Beach Drive, the main street through the island; Bay Shore Drive, which parallels the bay; and Gorrie Drive, which parallels the gulf. Residents and visitors alike toil about on golf carts, which are permitted on all streets except Bay Shore Drive. If you stay close enough to the center of the island, you can walk to any destination and will not even need your vehicle for a week. And unlike most beach resort towns, the neighborhoods smell of dinner cooking as the sun sets, which underscores the family-friendly and laid-back nature of the island. Things truly do move at a slower pace on St. George Island. And while the island is slowly becoming more commercialized and congested — I’ve noticed a difference just in the past five years — it’s because more and more people are discovering just how magical a place it is.

Shells litter the beach at St. George Island. The sand isn’t as white here and the water isn’t as clear as it is at other panhandle beaches like Panama City Beach and Destin. But if you like shelling, you’ll love SGI. Some exceptional shells can be found along the island.
The beach is nearly deserted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Saturdays are turn day for most vacationers, but the beach is seldom crowded at SGI — and if it is, you can head to the state park, where there are even fewer people.
A 4-way stop on St. George Island, and all the streets are dirt roads. Most of the streets on the island aren’t paved.
A 4-mile bridge separates St. George Island from Eastpoint.
A paved biking and hiking trail runs the length of the length of St. George Island from The Plantation to the state park.
The sun sets behind a vacation rental overlooking the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
A Saharan dust cloud shrouds the sky over the Apalachicola Bay during the Summer of 2020.
A pelican awaits its meal at St. George Island.
A view of the lighthouse at St. George Island, which dates back to 1833.
The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
Historic downtown Apalachicola.
You can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch at the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola.
City hall is in an old warehouse in historic downtown Apalachicola.
Sadly, the seafood industry in Apalachicola is in decline. The Apalachicola Bay provides 90% of Florida’s oysters, but the oysters are being reduced by climate change.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The grass flats in the Apalachicola Bay just off the coast at Apalachicola.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.
Human Nature

Here’s why TMZ isn’t to blame for Kobe Bryant news

At 2:24 p.m. EST on Sunday, TMZ broke the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant was among those killed in a California helicopter crash. The news spread instantly, of course, as the world mourned the former Lakers star, who remained very active in the L.A. basketball community. Nearly everyone — from NBA teams that were playing Sunday afternoon to the President of the United States — paused to reflect on the life and legend of Bryant.

At a news conference later that day, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva took TMZ to task for breaking the news of Bryant’s death so quickly:

“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one … perished and you learn about it from TMZ. That is just wholly inappropriate.”

Villaneuva’s comments were in response to a question from a reporter about why he refused to confirm the identities of the 9 people who were aboard the helicopter when it crashed.

I created a miniature firestorm on Twitter when I tweeted Monday afternoon that the LAC sheriff was wrong for blasting TMZ for the timing of its report. Some of those who were upset at what I tweeted thought I was disrespecting Bryant. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote earlier in the day on Monday, those criticizing people from being affected and saddened by Bryant’s death were in the wrong. For millions of Americans, particularly Generation X basketball fans, Bryant was very much a part of their lives for a lot of years. Bryant was a player I loved to hate when he was still active, because I was a Spurs fan and the Lakers were a major nemesis for the Spurs in the Shaq-Kobe years. But I respected him for his lethality, and especially for the way he stepped up to become a true role model for young athletes who looked up to him, especially after his retirement.

Many of those who responded were among those who’ve felt wronged by me for various reasons over the years — some over news stories our newspaper has covered, some because we stopped covering middle school championships, some because of an egregious error our paper made in reporting the death of a local prominent citizen last year, and some for different reasons entirely.

Someone said, “If you can’t take the heat, don’t make the tweet.” I happen to agree with that statement. I’m a big boy and I can stand on my own two feet. I don’t need some sort of public affirmation for my opinion. My closest friends love to call me a pot-stirrer and sometimes I admit that I do my fair share to earn that title. I knew when I posted that tweet that it would be an unpopular opinion — but at the same time, it’s hard to explain your opinion in 280 characters and I think some people probably misinterpreted what I meant. I’m okay with people disagreeing with me — even disagreeing harshly. I’m okay with people saying that’s the dumbest take they have read all day. But I won’t deny that some of the responses hurt — big time — because of what was said and where they were coming from: people I have respected, student-athletes past and present whose accomplishments and accolades I’ve worked to try to cover … responses that weren’t just disagreements but personal in nature. I’m a newspaper guy, and especially in a small town where everyone knows everybody, that creates a certain amount of disdain, because news stories have to be written about sensitive subjects without personal emotions attached. But that doesn’t mean that my skin is as thick as it probably should be, even after nearly 20 years in the industry.

I suppose the most telling part of the day was when my 13-year-old son posted a tweet last night that said: “People are TOXIC.” I suspected I knew what he was referring to, but I asked him about it. He said, “I just felt bad for you today. I read all of that stuff on Twitter and I couldn’t believe what some people were saying and I couldn’t believe who some of those people were who were saying it.” My son loved Kobe Bryant. He was hit hard by the news on Sunday. But, even at 13, he got it. You can disagree without devolving the debate into a sludge of nastiness … even in this era where we’re so quick to lash out at anyone whose opinion differs from our own.

Not everybody disagreed by making it personal, of course. One Scott High student asked, “as a journalist, a husband, and a father, how can you think this is okay?” That’s a perfectly legitimate and reasonable question. And lots of others disagreed similarly. So, for those people, this post is my response — since it obviously won’t fit into a tweet or even a thread of tweets.

So, with that said, you don’t have to agree with me that TMZ was in the right. But here’s why I’m going to argue that they were:

Bryant’s helicopter crashed at about 12:45 p.m. EST Sunday afternoon. TMZ’s report was published at 2:24 p.m. EST, nearly two hours later. That isn’t exactly the speed of light in the news industry. The identities of celebrities and even non-celebrities who are killed in tragic accidents are reported more quickly than that on a regular basis.

The immediate question is how did TMZ obtain its information? How does it always obtain its information? When it comes to the deaths of celebrities, TMZ is almost always first … and incredibly accurate. That means the outlet has well-placed sources … and it almost certainly means that it also has well-paid sources. Sources who are embedded within emergency services in L.A. and New York. Sources who are embedded within the coroners’ offices in those cities.

If someone wanted to question TMZ’s ethics for paying sources, that’s fair game. As a journalistic practice, that’s considered a big no-no in most newsrooms. However, that’s not the issue that was raised by the LAC sheriff. He was addressing the speed at which TMZ reported that Bryant was aboard the helicopter.

So there’s a lot to delve into here, but let’s be clear about one thing on the front end: there is an etiquette to breaking news about fatalities. You do want to give authorities appropriate time to release the identities. No one wants to learn of a loved one’s death by just clicking on a news link by happenstance. That’s a gut-punch that’s far worse than the dreaded knock on the door by a law enforcement officer who is trained to break the news gently and provide support if needed. Reporting the news has to be balanced with human dignity and a respect for people.

On a local level, we often learn the identities of accident victims within minutes — certainly in less than an hour — of an accident’s occurrence. But we don’t report that right away, to give authorities the appropriate time to notify the victims’ next of kin. Our rule is no accident scene photos on social media, if it’s a fatality, until such a time, as well. There’s no rule of thumb on exactly how long to wait, so, for us, it’s simple: almost all fatalities that we will report are traffic accidents that are being investigated by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Therefore, when an accident occurs, our first step is to contact the THP’s public information officer and submit a request for the preliminary report. THP is very reliable and easy to work with, and will release a preliminary report fairly quickly — but only after next-of-kin has been notified. And we respect that process. If THP dragged its feet and didn’t release information until days later, the process wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it is a process that does work.

Back to L.A., keep in mind that the sheriff’s comments were made hours after the crash occurred, and were in response to a question about why he wasn’t confirming the identities. As of late Monday, the identities of the crash victims still hadn’t been “officially” confirmed the coroner’s office in L.A.

If you read the reaction to the sheriff’s comments, a lot of people assumed that the sheriff was saying that Bryant’s wife and the rest of his family learned of his death from the TMZ report. But if you re-read the sheriff’s comments, he doesn’t actually say that, and appears to be speaking hypothetically about why he wasn’t confirming the identities at that point, several hours later. Keep in mind that LAC authorities and TMZ have tangoed many times in the past when it comes to the deaths of celebrities — such as Whitney Houston’s death, which TMZ was also the first to report. No doubt, the sheriff is frustrated with TMZ. But that time and that place was not the appropriate setting to go after TMZ. The sheriff could’ve made the same point he was making without calling out TMZ. That’s the broadest reason why the sheriff was wrong.

So was TMZ wrong to report Bryant’s death so quickly? I think the answer is no. It goes back to the original timeline: Nearly an hour and 45 minutes had passed between when the helicopter went down and when TMZ’s report was published. In the meantime, the LAC sheriff’s office had been actively breaking news about the crash on Twitter. At 1:14 p.m. EST — about a half-hour after the crash occurred — the sheriff’s office tweeted that there was a downed aircraft. At 1:34 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office tweeted that the downed aircraft was a helicopter, that the flames had been extinguished, and included photos from the scene. At 2:25 p.m. EST, which was almost simultaneous with TMZ’s report at 2:24 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office confirmed that there were five fatalities and no survivors.

It is almost unthinkable that within that timeframe, authorities hadn’t had time to notify Bryant’s family. If it’s published that the family had, in fact, not been notified and that they learned of Bryant’s passing from TMZ’s report, I will eat my words. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, TMZ founder Harvey Levin said in a Tuesday radio interview that the site had spoken to Kobe Bryant’s reps before publishing its report and confirmed that his wife, Vanessa, had been notified. Could that be a baseless claim? Certainly. But imagine the egg on TMZ’s face if Bryant’s reps stepped forward to contradict Levin’s comments, saying they hadn’t been contacted. So it seems pretty likely that TMZ did, in fact, confirm with Bryant’s reps that Vanessa had been notified of her husband’s death.

Here’s why TMZ, which is owned by the same parent company that owns CNN, wasn’t wrong: just about every media outlet in the world piggy-backed off the original report. Many of the more prominent outlets used their own sources to verify the TMZ report, but those reports were flying very quickly, within minutes (in some cases, within seconds) of the initial report by TMZ. That includes ESPN and many others. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, a highly-respected NBA reporter, was one of the last major journalistic sources to confirm Bryant’s death, and his report came at 2:51 p.m. EST, about 27 minutes after TMZ’s initial report.

If the argument is that authorities theoretically hadn’t had time to notify the families, how much time would’ve been appropriate? Would the two hours and six minutes (the timing of Adrian Wojo’s tweet) have been more appropriate than the hour and 39 minutes that elapsed between the crash and TMZ’s report? That really isn’t a very significant difference.

Some have suggested that TMZ should’ve waited until authorities confirmed the identities. But that process would’ve taken hours, if not days. And there’s no way you can keep a lid on information for that long. If the official news sources, who rely on their readers’ trust, had sat by and waited on the authorities to release the names, bloggers and twitter accounts all over the world would’ve inevitably released that information.

The point is that if TMZ hadn’t published its information when it did, other outlets would’ve quickly followed — and it would’ve been within minutes, not hours.

So if TMZ is going to be condemned, the sheriff should’ve probably condemned the news media in general. Sure, all those other outlets may have been just confirming what TMZ originally reported … but by publishing information from a TMZ report quickly, they’re really no different from TMZ, which published information from a confidential source quickly.

If the sheriff has an ax to grind, it’s with whomever provided that information to TMZ. Clearly, there are leaks somewhere within — if not the sheriff’s own department, then somewhere else within LAC emergency services. (According to Levin, the initial tip came from a law enforcement officer, meaning it was very possibly someone from the sheriff’s department.) It’s very likely that the person providing that information did so with the promise of a paycheck from TMZ — but, as I said above, TMZ’s ethics of paying sources weren’t what the sheriff was questioning at the press conference.

Meanwhile, TMZ’s report — however quickly it may have been published — was accurate. There were plenty of other news outlets, considered more reputable than TMZ, that got it badly wrong — horrifically wrong. And they somehow managed to escape the crosshairs of criticism.

Consider this: Which is worse? TMZ reporting nearly two hours after the crash that Kobe Bryant was on board? Or ABC News reporting on the air that all four of Kobe Bryant’s children were on the helicopter?

And this: A Washington Post reporter tweeted a flashback to the Kobe Bryant rape case by linking a nearly four-year-old story from The Daily Beast. Keep in mind that Bryant was not charged criminally in connection with those allegations. Is it really relevant to dredge up that old story on the day that the world is mourning his death? What purpose does that serve other than an attempt to taint his legacy? (The Washington Post ultimately suspended the reporter, Felicia Sonmez, for the tweet and related tweets, all of which have since been deleted.)

As the misinformation continued to spread, ABC News walked back its reporter’s earlier comment that all four of Kobe Bryant’s daughters were on board the helicopter, but made another mistake in the process by reporting that none of his daughters were on board. The first source to correct that report by confirming that one daughter, Gigi, had perished on the flight was, ironically enough, TMZ.

But because the LAC sheriff, for whatever reason, chose to take issue with the timing of TMZ’s report, it is TMZ alone that is bearing the brunt of the blame. Look, I still think it’s a sleazy news organization. I still won’t follow or read it. But to hang TMZ in effigy for its work in reporting Bryant’s death just simply isn’t right. At the very least, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Basketball, Human Nature

Celebrity deaths grip us as a society, and there’s nothing wrong with that

Obviously the big news on Sunday was the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who were among those killed in a helicopter crash in California.

Naturally, social media lit up with reactions as people from all walks of life remembered and mourned the death of the former Lakers star.

And, naturally, there were plenty of folks who decried the attention that Bryant’s death was receiving. One story in particular that began making the rounds on Facebook was the account of an American military helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan in 2005, killing all 20 of the special ops service members who were aboard.

I’m going to be honest: it’s a little irritating when folks try to use deaths to score points for an argument that really shouldn’t be an argument in the first place. And something that happened nearly 15 years ago has exactly zero bearing on Sunday’s tragedy.

I understand their sentiment; I really do. A large number of people who were fighting for our freedoms and way of life died, and no one cared. A guy who makes a lot of money to play the game of basketball died, and everyone cares. It hardly seems fair. It hardly is fair, if we’re being honest. And, yet, at the same time, it’s perfectly understandable. (And it should be pointed out that the 2005 helicopter crash gripped the nation because of the number of victims; perhaps not on the same level as Kobe Bryant’s death, but moreso than an incident in which simply one or two servicemen or women are killed.)

There is a reason that the deaths of celebrities grip us, whether they’re sports stars or movie icons or legendary singers. These people are very much a part of our lives. Whether it’s the sports they play, the movies they appear in or the songs they sing, they come into our homes night after night after night, day after day, for years, whether it’s through the television, the radio, our phone, etc. We feel like we know them, even though we’ve never met them. And, in a certain sense, we do. We often know more about them — their spouses’ names, their kids’ names, their political preferences, their likes and dislikes — than we know about many of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis.

For those of us who are a part of Generation X and are basketball fans, Kobe Bryant was one of a select few players who defined the game. I don’t watch NBA games anymore, but there was a time when I was very much attuned to the league. I was a San Antonio Spurs fan, so Kobe Bryant was a player who it was very natural to love to hate. During the era when I kept up with every game, every state line, every transaction during an NBA season, the ‘90s and ‘00s, the Spurs and the Lakers were the undisputed powers of the Western Conference. So I couldn’t stand Kobe Bryant. I couldn’t stand him because he was lethal…and because he was so confident. He was the best player of his day, and he knew it…and he made you accept it. It didn’t matter if the Lakers were playing the Spurs or the Sun or someone else entirely…I was paying attention to see if they got beat.

Contrast that with soldiers who die in a war zone. They’re just names we don’t know. Certainly, as we learn the stories behind who they were, and their sacrifice, it drives home the tragedy of their death and that becomes real to us. But we don’t need anyone to tell those stories when it’s an icon of popular culture who dies, because they’re actually a part of our lives. 

That doesn’t mean the celebrities’ lives are any more meaningful than the service members’ lives. But, by the same token, the service members’ lives are no more meaningful than the celebrities’ lives. I think most would agree that fighting for our nation’s armed forces is a profession that’s more noble and honorable than being paid to entertain the masses, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and we’re all on equal footing. So it’s perfectly natural to feel impacted by the shocking news of a celebrity’s death.

And there’s no shame in that. My son said yesterday that Kobe Bryant’s death had impacted him more than any other celebrity death. I didn’t sit him down for a talk about how he should feel ashamed because he placed more value on some basketball player than on a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. What he felt was perfectly natural. He is a huge basketball fan; spends a lot of time every day watching basketball videos. He is too young to remember Kobe Bryant when Kobe was in his prime, but he’s seen all the highlight videos and is well aware of who Kobe Bryant was as both a basketball player and as a father and human being after basketball.

There’s another part of the story that causes it to grip us even tighter, of course, and that’s the death of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who was on board. Like her father, Gigi was a very talented basketball player — one who was probably set to elevate the game of women’s basketball. That’s a bold statement, perhaps, but she was positioned to become the face of the WNBA in a few years ago. And while Pat Summitt blazed a trail for women in basketball and other pioneers followed as both players and coaches to make that trail easier to follow, the women’s game still isn’t on equal footing with the men’s game. Not even close. Gigi seemed poised to help the women’s game help take that next step if she continued to realize her full potential as she grew up.

It’s okay to be stunned, even saddened, by events like Sunday’s. Kobe Bryant may not have known life as most of us know it — living paycheck to paycheck, deciding whether to go on vacation or replace a failing HVAC unit in our home, struggling with a 9-to-5 job that bores us — but 41 is still much too young to die … he had overcome his transgressions and imperfections as a young adult to become a shining example of a role model for youth who look up to professional athletes … and nobody, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, should be doomed to a fiery death with their 13-year-old child as their failed aircraft plummets to earth. 

Maybe our society does place too much adulation on sports stars and celebrities. Maybe we do tend to tune out the things that are really important a little too much. But there are millions of Americans who will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kobe Bryant had died, just as there are still millions who remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Elvis died. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Animals

Yes, your cat would like to eat you

How many times has a cat-lover heard from one of their cat-hating friends that their cats would eat them if given half a chance? A hundred thousand times? A million? Well, it turns out that there is new research to back it up. From the Washington Post:

The station is surrounded by a 10-foot-high, wire-topped fence that extends two feet underground to keep out large animals and most burrowing ones. But it is not impervious: Connor said prairie dogs frequently pop up but pay no attention to the bodies, while cats, skunks and snakes slip in through gaps in and under a front gate.

Remote cameras at the facility, which is far from houses but close to a landfill where feral cats live, had previously captured cats wandering among the grasses inside the gates. But during a routine scan of images, student Sara Garcia gasped at the sight of one feline that turned up in late 2017 and at another a few months later. These cats — one black, one striped — weren’t wandering. They were eating.

The “research,” such as it were, comes from a body farm at Colorado Mesa University. And, it turns out, cats have select tastes when it comes to humans:

And although the cats had a buffet of more than 40 bodies from which to choose, each one returned to the corpse it had selected again and again — one almost nightly for 35 nights straight.

Am I the only one who can’t read this without the Purina Meowmix commercial jingle running through my head? (“Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow…”)

This finding actually isn’t too surprising. You would be hard-pressed to find a coroner or an EMT who doesn’t have a story to tell about someone whose corpse was gnawed on by their cats. But those are usually cases involving someone who had been dead for several days before anyone realized it — usually little old ladies who live alone with their cats. The cats are confined to a home with their owner’s dead body … and when they stop being fed, well, natural instincts proceed. As one reader noted in the WaPo comment section: “I am somewhat socially isolated, and lived alone until the day I rescued my cat, who was lost or abandoned in the middle of a bitterly cold January. He is now my pet, and a very sweet and gentle and slightly timid kitty…. and I have no doubt he’d eat me if I keeled over, because his bags of cat food sit on top of my fridge, where he can’t get to, and he can’t work the can opener, even if he could get to his canned food in the cabinet.”

But this story is different. This story didn’t involve cats who were confined to an area where there was no food options except to scavenge a human body, but feral cats who ignored their predatory instincts to scavenge human flesh … and they climbed a 10-ft. fence to do so.

As a kid, I often heard that cats — the same felines that rub against your pant leg and purr madly — would eat you (alive, no less) if they were big enough to out-muscle you. But I’ve also heard all my life that granddaddy long legs possess enough venom to kill a healthy human if they only had a mouth big enough to properly bite, and I’m 99 percent sure that’s preposterous.

But there was an old cartoon once — it would be considered offensive in modern society — that showed two cats looking at an old woman. And one cat said to the other, “We could eat her now … or we could let her feed us for the next 15 years.”

It kinda takes on new meaning.

Weather

Tracking our incredible snow drought…and whether it’ll soon end

It isn’t that snowflakes haven’t flown across the northern Cumberland Plateau this winter, and there have been winters when that was the case.

But what makes Winter 2019-2020 incredible isn’t the lack of snow this winter, but how it’s a continuing theme of recent winters. Simply put, we’re in a snow drought.

So far in 2019-2020, there has been zero snow recorded in Oneida by the National Weather Service. Now, keep in mind that snowfall can be spotty when it’s light, and this is measuring snow only at one location (the Oneida Water Treatment Plant at the intersection of Industrial Lane and West 3rd Avenue, to be specific). There was a light snow in November and two more in December — totaling as much as 2-3 inches in some locations. So the NWS’s numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all … but when it comes to the official record, they’re all that matter.

So, officially, we’ve had no snow in Oneida this year. And, officially, we had only a trace of snow in Oneida last year. We also had no snow in Winter 2016-2017, and only 2 inches of snow in Winter 2017-2018. To find the last winter it really snowed in Oneida, you have to go back to Winter 2015-2016, when we had 10 inches of snow in January. The winter before that, we almost went without measurable snowfall, until a drastic pattern change in mid February that resulted in 7 inches of snow the second half of that month.

What gives? There is more precipitation falling in the Cumberlands now than ever before. The 4 wettest years on record have occurred in the last 6 years, an astounding statistic. Yet only 2 of those 6 years have featured average or above-average snowfall. One key reason why is that we’ve been warmer while we’ve been wetter. But while there’s no denying that our winters today are milder than they once were, the differences aren’t extreme. January 2017 was the third-warmest on record in Oneida, February 2018 was the warmest on record, while February 2017 was the third-warmest on record and February 2019 was the fourth-warmest on record, and December 2015 was the warmest on record. Still, there has been ample cold air…but it has presented in different ways, and mother nature hasn’t threaded the needle for winter weather in this region very often the past several years.

Unfortunately for the snow-lovers, if you’re looking for that to change this winter, you may be disappointed. I posted a few days ago about a coming pattern change, and how it was going to be colder — but also that there were no signs yet of it being snowier. And, so far, that’s still the case.

The extreme warmth that we saw in the first half of January is certainly gone. If the month ended right now, it would be the warmest January on record in Oneida. But the second half is going to be much colder than the first half. But still not that cold. And, with the arrival of colder air, the active storm pattern is also slowing down.

A rare (for this winter) outbreak of arctic air is still headed our way for the first of next week. After we warm up Saturday (so it can rain!), much colder air is going to settle in by the end of the weekend. We will be stuck in the mid 30s on Sunday. On Monday, we likely won’t get out of the 20s, after a low in the teens. And it now looks like we will hit single digits on Tuesday morning before we finally rise (slightly) above freezing Tuesday afternoon.

That’s a pretty impressive cold shot. But it’s still just a transient cold shot. The warm-up will begin quickly, and we’ll be well into the 40s by Wednesday and maybe back into the 50s as soon as Thursday.

After that, the next storm system will impact our area around one week from now: January 24-25. This one could end as a little snow, as cold air comes crashing in on the back side of the departing system, but the level of cold air isn’t nearly as impressive as the cold blast we’re going to see in a couple of days, and the amount of snow we receive — if any — probably won’t be anything to write home about.

From there, it had once appeared that another round of cold air would settle across our region on the last couple of days of January, but that is now looking unlikely, as it looks like average to slightly above-average temperatures will be in store as January ends and February begins. So, for now, there’s only one very slight chance of snow showing up in the next two weeks, and no real threat of a significant winter storm.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the threat of going through winter without a pattern change that would lead to wintry weather of any sort. We’ve certainly seen a pattern change, but we’re still not hardly where we need to be if you’re wanting to see sustained cold and snow chances. The major teleconnections (the NAO, the AO and the PNA, which I won’t go into further detail on in this post because we’ve talked about them before) look like they’ll continue to trend slightly more favorable for winter weather in the eastern U.S., though they’re still leaving a lot to be desired. With the MJO continuing to show signs of progression as well, I wouldn’t totally write off February. The pattern needs to evolve some more, but if it does, it could be that this will be a repeat of 2015. Remember, that winter featured no snow, either … until the middle of February. But once Ol’ Man Winter showed up, he did so with a vengeance. We had an ice storm in western Scott County, more than a half-foot of snow spread out across several events, and record cold temperatures for the month of February. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, just that it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Even so, we’re now moving quickly out of the heart of winter. The days are getting longer, the sun angle is getting higher in the sky, and the average temperatures are on their way up. We can, and have, recorded serious snowfalls after the calendar has flipped to February and even March. But, from a climatological perspective, the chances of appreciable snowfall begin to decrease dramatically as we move through the month of February.

So, right now, we can say with near certainty that it probably isn’t going to snow (not a lot) in the next 2 weeks. By that time, we’ll be in early February. And if we get there and we can still say with certainty that it’s not going to snow in the 2 weeks after that, it’s going to be getting awfully close to time to stick a fork in this winter, and chalk it up alongside other recent winters as our snow drought continues. In the meantime, we wait and see if the pattern continues to evolve into one that is more favorable for winter weather as we head towards February.