Over the weekend, I read the tragic story of a nine-year-old girl from Michigan who died from a brain disease. Her mother had succumbed to the same disease just two years before. The photo accompanying the story was of the girl, smiling a gap-toothed smile that could melt even the hardest heart. It was a smile that only a child could have. That she had a fatal disease in no way diminished the magic in that smile.
What made the story national news was that the death of a child wasn’t tragedy enough — both the girl and her mother had been the victims of a cyber-bully, in the form of a 30-something neighbor who saw the need for a feud between the families. The neighbor modified a photo of the young girl, placing her face over a skull and crossbones. She also pasted the mother’s face into the skeletal arms of the grim reaper. She posted both of the images on her Facebook page.
Even in a world that appears to be growing accustomed to insanity, that sort of thing set off a firestorm of response. People sent letters and money to the girl and her mother, a toy store in Ann Arbor arranged for the young girl to have a shopping spree. The neighbors, however, kept pushing, modifying their pickup truck into a makeshift hearse with a coffin where the bed would be. She later told a local television station that the “hearse” was just a Halloween display, with no explanation as to why they felt the need to drive it back and forth in front of the young girl’s home. When asked why she made and posted the photos, her response was, “Personal satisfaction,” spoken in a flat and emotionless voice.
Eventually, the neighbor found herself in court and a restraining order was issued against her. The restraining order was of such a distance, that she had to move from her house and must stay away until September of this year. A few months ago, a newspaper ran an interview with the woman stating a half-hearted apology and that she and her husband hoped to sell their house and move.
My first thought, after recovering from revulsion about the whole sordid tale was, “How much do you want to bet they’ll move to Florida?”
Florida is a stunningly beautiful place and, certainly in winter at least, has weather that is the envy of most of the nation, so it is no surprise that lots of people want to move here. In the years I’ve lived here, the population has increased by roughly three million people and, thus, there should also be no surprise that more than a few of those people are nuts. But it seems like it’s more than just a few. What is it about Florida that seems to attract insane people?
When I was in my 20s and still held the belief that the corporate ladder would lead to some wonderful promised land, Florida was the last place I thought I’d ever live. My impression of it was mosquito-filled swamp filled with angry old people.
And then one day I was asked to make a presentation in one of my company’s facilities in south Georgia. In those days, big companies tended to be more human and generous and I was told that after the presentation, I could pick anywhere I wanted to go to spend a weekend on the company’s tab. To maximize my time off, I chose Florida due to proximity, and a few hours after my presentation, I landed at the airport in Ft. Myers.
I spent the weekend on Sanibel Island. It was February. You can probably guess how motivated I was about returning to Minneapolis. Eight months later, I was on a highway, following a truck carrying my sailboat to the Sunshine State. I then discovered that not all of Florida is Sanibel Island. But that didn’t deter me — I came to love living here, despite the insanity that occasionally seems omnipresent.
The signs advertising 24-hour security in rest areas were the first indication, perhaps, that there were big differences between Florida and Minnesota, but the marina I chose in Ft. Myers Beach was the real kicker. It was filled with some incredibly cool and colorful people and most of them were downright bonkers. One guy had a taste for hallucinogenic drugs and was known to lie down in the middle of the one traffic-choked road through Ft. Myers Beach to watch cars come screaming towards him. Another man didn’t have a boat but instead lived in a rundown RV in the marina parking lot. He had a penchant for keeping his underwear in his oven. More than one person, in fits of anger, mentioned blowing up the marina. Why would anyone want to blow up a marina?
But for my soon-to-be wife and I, there was something idyllic about it all. Snow was falling in the place we had left, and we were being warmed by tropical breezes through the palm trees just off one of the world’s most beautiful coasts. It was magical and the cast of characters made us feel as though we had stepped into a Carl Hiaasen novel.
I’m not the only one to have noticed that there are a lot of lunatics in Florida, of course. The Associated Press has an annual compilation of the weirdest of the weird Florida stories — no other state is bestowed such an honor. This year, another news network piled on with a few of their own stories, asking how the AP could restrict it to an annual event when there are enough weird things going on here in a single day to fill any number of compilations.
Seriously, what is it about Florida? Is it a magnet for insane people or does it just make people go insane? Maybe it’s all the natives blaming the Yankees and the Yankees blaming the natives? I don’t know, but I do know that even in the eye of the maelstrom of insanity, including both the Tampa and Miami airports, I’ve had older women call me “darlin’” and thus I knew the real Florida was still here, despite the gunshots and the sounds of cars crashing in the staged-for-insurance-fraud accidents I could hear in the background. I knew that because those women showed me the kindness and gentility that is the real Florida. They are Florida, not the annual weird news compilations.
I have no idea if that woman and her husband plan to move to here, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they did. It is a beautiful day in January and I’m sitting outside typing these words under a perfect blue sky — even mean and insane people can see the value of that. I’ve now spent more than half of my adult life in this state and I love it here, despite the fact that sometimes it makes me a little crazy. Wait, did I say that out loud? Uh oh.