There is a transition between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that is special. The old year has all but passed, and everyone around the world looks forward to the promise that the coming year brings. I hope this special week gives you a chance to relax while renewing your spirit. It’s time to wrap up loose ends while laying out your plans for the New Year.
This is Christmas Island in the United States Virgin Islands. If you look closely, you’ll see the pine trees decorated with Christmas balls.
It’s my kind of island, a place where you can have Christmas every day of the year while basking in the warm tropical sun. Santa Claus should be so lucky.
Once in a while, you see a pirate ship laying at anchor. Nobody pays it any mind perhaps because residents and guests there are pirates at heart.
It’s surprising this isn’t the only Christmas Island in the world. There’s also a Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, 220 miles south of Java.
It’s called Christmas Island because it was named by Captain William Mynors on Christmas Day 1643. It’s a territory of Australia, though I don’t think any country should have a monopoly on any island honoring Christmas.
Moreover, I think everyone should have their own Christmas Island where they can be free of the worries and turmoil that seems to be everywhere in the world today.
Albert Einstein once said, “How I wish somewhere there existed an island for those who are wise and of good will.” That’s my wish for you.
In this coming year I hope you find your own island to retreat to when life presses down on you. Maybe it’s as close as your own backyard or a quiet corner of your home.
Wherever you voyage this holiday season, I wish you the merriest of Christmases and smooth sailing into the New Year.
Mermaids have appeared in the oral and written traditions of cultures for thousands of years. According to a Syrian myth, 3,000 years old, the beautiful goddess, Atargatis, dove into the sea to become a fish. Smitten with her beauty, the gods intervened and let only the bottom half of her body transform itself.
A thousand years later, Pliny the Elder, a well-educated Roman philosopher and naturalist, not only believed in the existence of mermaids but described them in what was the prototype of the modern encyclopedia.
And though most people are familiar with mermaids, I bet many aren’t familiar with their close relatives, water sprites or naiads. The difference is that mermaids are physical beings like humans whereas naiads are less physical and more spirit. Most will not harm you unless disturbed. I know a lot of women today who are like that.
People who dismiss mermaids as a fairy tale are making a big mistake. Throughout history, quite a few intelligent people have sworn to sighting mermaids. Christopher Columbus in his journal noted that he and his men spotted three mermaids in the Caribbean just off Haiti though he was not impressed with them. In fact, he thought they were downright ugly.
I can’t help but wonder what the mermaids thought of him. The native peoples whom he brutalized weren’t particularly impressed with him either. Then there’s the explorer Henry Hudson who, with his men, spotted a mermaid and described her in detail in his log.
“She had the tail of a porpoise and was speckled like a mackerel…” When she turned over, his men discovered “From the navel up, her back and breasts were like a woman’s, her body as big as one of us; her skin very white with long black hair…”
If someone as sober and serious as the great explorer Henry Hudson is so certain of what he saw, it becomes difficult to reject the notion that these lovely aquatic creatures exist.
A few mermaids have the reputation of being downright dangerous. Some have been accused of dragging unsuspecting sailors off their ships and drowning them. Homer tells how Odysseus, on his journey home from war, encountered sirens. These seductive, mermaidlike creatures sang so beautifully that sailors, unable to resist steering their ship towards them, ended up dying on the rocky shore.
Odysseus was clever though. He had his men tie him to the mainmast of the ship with orders not to pay attention to him when they sailed past the sirens. Next, he had his men put wax in their ears. When they passed the sirens, only Odysseus was able to hear their seductive songs and howled for his men to steer towards them. More people should be as wise as Odysseus. I think the world would be in much better shape.
Another story recounts a young man taken by a mermaid below the sea where he fathered a family with her. I bet she was a lot prettier than the mermaids Columbus spotted. In fact, for him to father many children, she must have been a knockout.
In Medieval times, mermaids, with their voluptuous breasts exposed, appeared as figureheads at the end of church pews to remind friars to be ever vigilant to the temptations of the flesh. I don’t know about those monks, but if I were in that pew, I would have been meditating on all the fun we would have after a day at the beach.
But who knows? Maybe those carvings increased the religious fervor of the monks. I, for one, would be showing up at chapel early, knowing I had one of God’s beautiful creatures to meditate on. At the very least, I’d be praying that she’d come alive.
Some people are surprised to learn that when mermaids come ashore, they can grow legs, though it becomes extremely painful for them to walk. Hans Christen Anderson was following tradition when he had his mermaid walking with great pain in The Little Mermaid.
Throughout history, there have been accounts of mermaids who were captured by men. Eventually, they escaped, but not without great consternation and pain. And I think that’s a shame. No creature should be taken from the sea and be treated as a pet or an oddity. Not mermaids, not dolphins, and certainly not whales That’s why the folks at SeaWorld and those who visit them should be filled with shame. How would you like it if dolphins captured you and made you do stupid tricks for the amusement of their friends when all you want is to be free and with your family?
I’ve always been fascinated with mermaids, and I guess that’s why I’ve been married to one for forty-five years. And before you think I’ve been drinking too much of Blackbeard’s rum, let me point out my wife has all the traits of a mermaid. She’s beautiful, mysterious, seductive, charming, and enchanting. Her long, red hair, streaming in the wind or the sea, always confirms my suspicions.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, you should know that mermaids also have the power to grant someone their wishes. I can’t tell you how many wishes my mermaid has granted me over the years. And I’m not revealing what they were either.
The skeptics, no doubt, think I’ve gone off the deep end. But if you want to live with a mermaid, you have to go into the deep where they live. Besides you know what they say. If it looks like a mermaid, sings like a mermaid, and swims like a mermaid, it must be a mermaid.
Christmas and Hanukah will soon be upon us, and I want to wish all the mariners and mermaids out on the sea and those who journey no farther than their living room chair, a wonderful holiday season.
I invite you to let me know if you suspect you’re a mermaid or know a mermaid personally.
It’s amazing how many different kinds of postage stamps you can buy at the post office this time of year. There’s the Madonna and Child, Saint Nick, and a lamb proclaiming, “All is calm and bright.” Of course, there’s also one celebrating Hanukkah, another Kwanzaa, plus quite a few more. And that’s on top of some pretty amazing stamps commemorating people and events from America’s past.
One of my favorites is a black and white stamp of John Kennedy. It captures a very handsome man displaying an air of leadership and dignity, something lacking in the presidency these days. I remember when he first became president. I was only 14, but even a callow youth like me sensed the feeling of hope that pervaded the country. Anything seemed possible then, so much so that Kennedy promised the United States would put a man on the moon in a decade. He beat his own timeline.
Coming from any other politician, the prediction would have been preposterous dribble, like a slimy politician promising to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the country. But when a man like John Kennedy shared the vision of a New Frontier, most Americans believed that it was not only possible but probable.
I don’t think we should put the picture of politicians on postage stamps today. It seems most are obnoxious and deceitful, many millionaires who buy their position with the family inheritance or with obscene amounts of money from lobbyists. And that’s a disgrace. Who wants to mail a letter with a politician’s picture on it who robs from the poor to give to the rich?
It’s not that people don’t expect you to bend the rules when you ’re president, but they do expect you to play fairly and not be mean-spirited or vengeful. Which brings me back to postage stamps and an interesting character from America’s past. Blackbeard.
I can’t help but think he would have made a great president, looking great on a postage stamp. He was clever, manipulative, strong, focused, and a great motivator. If you served with him, you might not always agree with his methods or his goals, but life couldn’t have been fairer on his ship. He wouldn’t have had to tweet for you to know what he was thinking or to exert his authority.
As I mull over this whole postage stamp thing, I can’t help but think what one would look like with Blackbeard’s picture on it. He’s usually portrayed with a black, straggly beard and a full head of hair. His eyes didn’t twinkle like Santa Claus’. Rather they were dark and piercing, quick to root out malingerers.
I don’t know if Donald Trump’s likeness will ever appear on a postage stamp. One reason is just practicality. How can you get a picture of someone with all that hair into such a small space? The other reason is more ethical. Is it really a good idea to extol someone who thinks it okay to grab a woman by her genitals without even asking? I’d like to see Donald Trump do that around Blackbeard.
Another figure that deserves a place on a postage stamp is Captain William Kidd. Kidd’s gotten a pretty bad rap over the years, but many historians are revising their view of Kidd as a ruthless, blood-thirsty murderer. The fact is, when Kidd set sail from New York, he did so with the explicit approval of some very influential politicians. His fortunes turned bad when his crew grew mutinous after failing to capture any ships on a list pre-approved by the King and politicians.
Kidd struggled to control his crew, all the while attempting to satisfy the demands of his well-connected investors. If Kidd had a flaw, it was that he was naïve and trusting. After returning to the Caribbean, he discovered he was a wanted man, yet opted to willingly return to New York, certain he would find support from those who hired him.
Politicians, realizing they were about to be embarrassed, disassociated themselves from Kidd, and even went so far as to hide two tickets that would have exonerated him. Upon his arrival in New York, he was jailed and shipped to England to be tried for murder and piracy. Forbidden to present an adequate defense, he was found guilty and condemned to hang. Kidd’s picture on a postage stamp? He earned it after dealing with cutthroats at home and at sea.
And not to slight the ladies, I think Ann Bonny is another pirate who deserves to be on a postage stamp. At an age when women on ships were taboo, Ann broke the glass ceiling or at least the crow’s nest on the mainmast. It took a lot of courage for a woman to pass herself off as a man, rubbing elbows and God knows what else with a ship filled with lusty sailors. Just going to the bathroom took a lot finesse and cleverness so as not to expose her identity as well as other things.
Eventually, Bonny’s sex was discovered, but she earned the crew’s approval when she showed she could fight as well as any man. Surprisingly, Ann and her cohort Mary Read proved more valorous than the men who cowered below deck when the ship was under attack. When captured, she was tried and sentenced to death. The only reason the sentence wasn’t carried out was because she was pregnant.
I could suggest other pirates whose faces deserve to be on postage stamps, but I’d be happy with just these three. Like the typical politician today, they were resourceful, clever, and master manipulators. Unlike today’s politicians with their aristocratic attitudes, pirates had a strong sense of fair play and democracy. On a pirate ship, no one was privileged. Not the rich; not the well-connected; and certainly not the blood-sucking lobbyists.
The motto of pirates could be summed up in a familiar phrase: “All for one. One for all.” If Blackbeard and his ilk were alive today, they might even adopt the motto of the Carnival Cruise Line: “Fun for all, All for Fun.” Though they would probably insist on changing it to: “Rum for all. All for Rum.” Rather than argue with them, I figure why not join them.
It’s almost 4:30, and I have to close this piece. My wife needs a book of stamps at the post office. I don’t know what kind she wants, but if I had my way, I know which ones I’d buy.
It may surprise you to know that World Octopus Day is October 8. In fact, you may be even more surprised that anyone would take the time to celebrate such an inglorious creature, but the octopus, despite its silly appearance, plays a vital role in the health of this planet.
For example, did you know that the octopus is an important part of the diet of sea birds, whales, and sharks. Not to mention hundreds of other species of fish that find this charming creature absolutely delicious. You can put humans on that list as well. Over 300,000 tons of octopus are eaten around the world every year. Among Mediterranean and Asian peoples, octopus is an important part of the diet.
Let me tell you a little about this multi-faceted creature. It’s part of the classification of cephalopods. That’s a fancy word that scientists use to describe sea creatures whose arms are attached directly to its head. You should thank God every night that you’re not a cephalopod. You’d look pretty funny if you had your arms and legs attached to your head. And think of the money your saving on deodorant by not having to deal with eight armpits.
Some of the different kinds of cephalopods include octopus, squid, and the cuttlefish. Though it can get confusing, octopus should not be confused with squid. Octopus can range from quite small up to three feet and beyond. Squid are generally much larger with tentacles capable of wrapping clear around some whales. In bygone years, when sailors whispered tales of sea monsters, the squid was often the real subject.
A squid has ten arms and legs while an octopus has only eight. Just remember that October and octopus both come from the Latin word octo which means eight. In the old Roman calendar, October was actually the eighth month of the year, not the tenth.
Both squid and octopus are capable of ejecting a dark ink when threatened. How cool is that? The confusion it creates allows it enough time to escape. As a writer, I’d like to have some of that ink. Do you have any idea how much money I’d save by not having to buy all those ink cartridges at Office Depot?
I bet there are a lot of people out there who have eaten octopus and don’t even know it. That’s because chefs got the idea of giving it a fancy name like Seafood Delight cooked in a special wine sauce. Cooking with wine definitely improves the taste of octopus especially if you have a few glasses before adding some to the sauce pan.
My favorite dish at the China Buffet where I sometimes dine used to serve octopus. I don’t know why they stopped, but I do know they were delicious. I’d hate to think I was the reason they removed it from the menu.
No longer than an inch or two, they were mostly head with tiny arms. Like any good Buddhist would do, I always prayed that those on my plate would have a better life next time. I also prayed that God would send more. I don’t think he was listening very hard to the second half of my prayer. Maybe he was out trying to save some lost sole in the ocean.
Many octopus have the unique ability to change their body. Many can camouflage themselves by changing their color. However, there’s one species that can actually change the shape of their bodies. This is the mimic octopus, and it can assume just about any shape it wants. Some can turn themselves into shrimp, while others turn themselves into sea snakes, crabs, and even jelly fish.
I kind of wish I could do that. I think it would be quite useful especially when getting into a movie theatre or a restaurant that gives children half price. I could save a lot of money, and I bet you would too. Besides the practical aspect of changing my appearance, I think of all the fun I could have by turning into a dog and whizzing on my neighbor’s lawn as payback for all the years I put up with her feeding feral cats.
I don’t mean to seem irreverent, but I bet President Trump would make a great octopus. He could hold a comb in each of his six arms and rake through that coiffure of his while tweeting with two phones at the same time.
Of course, not all octopus are good. There’s one in the warm waters of the South Pacific called the blue ringed octopus. This guy is one of the deadliest creatures in the sea with enough venom to kill a couple dozen men. Its bite can kill within minutes. Fortunately, it likes to be left alone and will only attack if threatened.
Now that I scared the hell out of you, let me leave you with a couple of amusing riddles.
Why did the nervous octopus pace the ocean floor?
His wife was having a baby and he needed something to octopi his mind.
How did the liquor store owner describe the octopus who held him up?
He told police that he was well-armed.
I’d like to share a lot more about the octopus here, but space is limited. However, you can read a lot more about them and other creatures of the sea in my book Uncommon Mariners. Just look for the chapter Mother Ocean and her Children when the book comes out.
When World Octopus Day rolls around, arm yourself with a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, and a six-pack of beer in the other six and chill out. And just be glad you’re not on the menu at the Grand China Buffet.
Earlier this month, I returned safely from my son’s honeymoon cruise to Bermuda and the Devil’s Triangle, but it felt a little strange for more reasons than one.
First of all, I never embarked on a cruise ship before without visiting the Caribbean. Because my soul is so attracted to those islands, I suspect my ancestors are from there, but I wouldn’t dream of taking one of those DNA tests to find out.
I always believed it’s more important to focus on where you’re heading in life and less on where your ancestors have been. Do you really want to head back to the Stone Age or the Middle Ages?
Bermuda is a very nice place. Mark Twain once said of all the places he traveled to on earth, it was his favorite destination. And he visited hundreds of locales on world tours so he would know. As I said, Bermuda is nice, but for Twain to be so impressed, I think he must have visited a different part from where I landed.
The Carnival ship, Sunshine, took us to King’s Wharf. Once we disembarked, we were greeted by two tugs. Faithful and Powerful. I have to confess, as a photographer, I’m a sucker for boats and ships. If it floats, I want to photograph it. That includes everything from the lowly tugs docked in King’s Wharf harbor to the United States Coast Guard’s training vessel, Eagle, which I was once privileged to photograph when docked in Key West.
I was so enamored by the two tugs tied up not far from our haughty ship that I got lost in the moment capturing them on film. Well, it’s not really a film camera. I just don’t want to be negative.
Fortunately, my two grandchildren, James and Brian, who are closer to men than children, came to fetch me, and we followed the road to the beach where everyone else on ship was already scrambling like lemmings.
Let me tell you about this road from the cruise ship to the sea. They have these green feet painted on the sidewalks, and even if you never look up, you can still arrive at the beach if you follow them. You’ll have more difficulty seeing the ocean once you arrive because the view is mostly blocked by beach chairs and umbrellas.
It wasn’t till I was back on ship that I realized even a drunken sailor could find his way to the beach and back though I suspect these green feet were more for tourists who were already half in the bag when they disembarked.
What little I saw of Bermuda was quite charming. Before the main beach, there’s this not-so-small side beach that butts up against the wall of an old fort. Scattered around the beach, but mostly along the wall, are miniature sailboats with sails painstakingly painted in incredible detail. Most depict nautical and tropical scenes, but one even portrays the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. I was thrilled at the discovery, but I doubt few of the hordes that descended on the beach even noticed them.
One thing did surprise me about our port of call. Just beyond the reef was a treasure trove of sea glass. My son and daughter, before reboarding, had taken their share of booty and donated a generous portion to my wife. She decorates her shell wreaths with them and sells them in galleries and art shows. Anyone lucky enough to own one of her wreaths is a lucky person indeed.
There was another strange thing I found out on the cruise. None of the dining rooms on the Sunshine open out onto a deck where sunshine abounds. All you can see is a fuzzy view of the ship’s wake through large glass panels. I felt part of a surrealistic Dali painting, looking out at the ocean much like a goldfish staring from his bowl.
Maybe it’s a growing trend in cruise ships, but I find it disturbing to spend a ship load of money and not be able to feel the sun and breeze on my face while savoring my omelet and morning coffee with my mermaid.
The other thing I found intriguing was at the aft of the ship on deck nine. There a swimming pool occupies the center of the deck and is shouldered by a couple of bars. The puzzling thing is that high above the pool is a huge movie screen. During the day, you can watch a videotape of all kinds of tropical fish, some darting and others swimming lazily. Funny thing though. I never saw any sharks.
I still have yet to find someone who can explain to me why a sane person would spend thousands of dollars to go on a cruise then sit in front of a TV screen you can watch at home for free.
It doesn’t get any better at night when they play pablum-puking movies, trying to appeal to the masses. Again, I wonder why an intelligent person would spend two hours absorbed in a movie screen when the most spectacular view on the face of the planet is on either side of the ship.
One thing I immensely enjoyed about the vessel were the two or three areas where I could enjoy a cigar while soaking in a view of the ocean. To be sure, I did take advantage of that. I was certain as I savored my Kristoff Maduro that I saw a ship flying the Jolly Roger not far off the starboard bow. And that was after only one margarita.
Before you go on a cruise, I recommend you do three things. Get in touch with my wife, the mermaid. She can find you deals that even travel agents don’t know about. In fact, she could save you so much, you’d fear Blackbeard would return from the dead to get his grubby hands on some of that money you save.
Two, check out the ship you’re thinking of calling home for several days. If you can’t eat outside, reconsider. There’s something about the ocean breeze on your body that makes your food taste twice as good.
Finally, forget about the big screen TV on the back of the ship and go to the upper deck where you can feel the sun on your face and the sea breeze in your hair. And remember to bring your own cigar if you want to blow smoke rings at passing pirate ships because you’re not getting mine.
Last week they celebrated the birthday of Ernest Hemingway in Key West, and the response I got was overwhelming for a peek inside the raucous days leading up to the celebration. As a bona fide conch who has visited Key West so often that the clerks at Fausto’s know me by my first name, I’d like to share some of the tomfoolery with you.
A couple weeks before the big bash begins, Hemingway look-alikes begin to show up in restaurants and bars all over town. As the event draws closer, they become more numerous, appearing on the streets often two and three at a time. Soon, like Santa Claus at Christmas, they are everywhere.
And just when you thought you saw one who is a dead-ringer for Ernest, another appears looking even more stunningly like him.
By the time Hemingway Days begins, Ernest is everywhere, his full white beard, round face, and sparkling eyes staring back at you from across the bar, his lips pursed tightly against the mouth of a tall glass filled with dark amber.
The epicenter for the main activities is Duval Street, particularly Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where for three nights, competitors take the stage and make speeches Hemingway would probably cringe at.
It’s good, boisterous fun as family, friends, and total strangers wildly applaud. Sometimes Hemingway look-alikes pepper their speeches with a song or ditty that would raise a chuckle from the real Ernest. Each night, the best are culled from the group. These semi-finalists then compete on Saturday night after the running of the bulls. The winner, of course, becomes the new Ernest Hemingway look-alike who reigns for the following year.
Of course, there are other serious-minded contests because, lest we forget, Hemingway was the consummate competitor. For example, in writing, he eventually took on his mentor, Gertrude Stein who helped him develop his sparse writing style when he lived in Paris. As you know, Stein was famous for her poetic line, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” When they finally parted ways, Hemingway paraphrased her saying, “A bitch is a bitch is a bitch.”
Ernest’s competitive nature naturally extended to fishing and hunting. A number of photographs show him standing on a Key West dock with gigantic marlins he hauled in on the boat of his friend, Sloppy Joe Russell. Sloppy Joe opened up a bar off Greene Street shortly after Prohibition ended. Hemingway inevitably ended up there after a good day’s work at his home just a few blocks away on Whitehead Street.
And what would Hemingway Days be without a three-day fishing tournament where the game is marlin. tuna, wahoo, and more; prizes of $50,000 go to the winners. If you believe the competitors in the bars, they hooked fish far bigger than the winners did. Understandably, the size of the fish grows in proportion to the number of beers the bearer of the tale has.
Because Ernest is one of the most famous writers that ever walked the planet, readings and literary presentations are held throughout the week. There is even a writing contest judged by his granddaughter, Lorian Hemingway. Entrants must submit their pieces months ahead of time in order for them to be judged in a timely fashion.
My favorite part of the whole celebration occurs on Saturday morning outside Sloppy Joe’s. Spectators and Hemingways. dressed in the traditional matador garb of white shirt and pants, and a red bandana, casually mull around the corner of Duval and Green St. It’s an opportunity to mingle with the look-alikes and have your picture taken perched on top one of the bulls huddled in the middle of a roped-off corral.
Some people, usually the ones who have imbibed a little too much, claim the bulls have been drugged so as not to be too dangerous when they run at one pm. That’s not true at all.
Let me give you a little lesson on the anatomy of these bulls. Their muscular bodies, supported by wooden frames, are crowned with eyes that look like they’ve spent too much time under the tropical sun. A rope tail hangs from their backside and under their staunch legs are wheels so that when the Hemingway look-alikes push them around the block during the running of the bulls, they won’t become annoyed.
Let me see how I can put this next description delicately for the ladies. To make the bulls particularly realistic, they have hanging under them equipment that helps bulls do what bulls do so well with their girlfriends. If you were in Pamplona, Spain where Hemingway attended the running of the bulls and the bullfights afterwards, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake Key West bulls for the real thing.
After a morning of slipping on and off these dangerous creatures to get their picture taken, the crowd, like the bulls, is pretty much exploding with excitement. At one pm the bulls are released from their pen with Hemingway winners from past years bravely mounted on top. The frenzy is on, and the crowd mixes with the snorting bulls as look-alikes push them around the block of Sloppy Joe’s.
I can testify to just how dangerous this event is. With a cigar in one hand and a margarita in the other, I found it hard not to spill my drink as I doubled over with laughter rounding the first corner of the block. Within ten or fifteen minutes, it’s all over, and the exhausted bulls return to their corral, while the crowd breaks for Sloppy Joe’s, dying of thirst.
I still remember the year when, after the race, a huge birthday cake lay on a table outside the bar. There was enough to feed everyone in Key West. Twice. We all sang happy birthday to Ernest, then one of the winners of the look-alike contest from the previous year cut the cake. Borrowing an old wedding tradition, he fed the first slice to another Ernest.
I don’t think I need to tell you what happened next. Do you know what a mess white icing and yellow cake make when smeared all over a full white beard?
You can travel to Africa like Hemingway did, or go fishing out in the Gulf Stream, but it’s going to be hard to have as much fun as you will in Key West at the Hemingway Days.
Maybe I’ll see you there next year. For a small donation, that profits local charities, you can even get a red beret like the Hemingway look-alikes wear. You’ll have fun and lots to drink, but you have to bring your own cigar.
And try not to knock the drink out of my hand going around that first corner of Sloppy Joe’s. It’s a long block under a hot tropical sun, and no one wants to take the chance of dying of thirst among a herd of excited bulls.