America, we are all Florida Man
Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 11:12AM
steve

I’ve been meaning to write a Florida Man piece for some time, and while I have a longer piece I am still noodling with, a piece published last week by Bob Norman in the Columbia Journalism Review spurred me on.  You should go read it now.   

Seriously, it is far better than this.  Again, the link is here: https://www.cjr.org/business_of_news/florida-man-news.php.

I tend to joke about being a Florida Man, but I wear the label as a signal of my own state pride.  I love the place I call home, for all its many warts and shortcomings.  For many, Florida has become a symbol of a dream – for Americans living north of us, that dream is often to live or retire here, in the paradise we call home.  For those who come here from the Caribbean or Latin America, Florida in many ways is the New York of the late 19th and early 20th century – the point of entry to begin their own American Dream.    

This is such an interesting place, in part, because we aren’t really a place in the same sense as most states. Name a state, and for most, a brand comes to mind.   Not so much with Florida.  We are geographic distinction, 21 million people bound together by a boundary, sharing very little when it comes to common experience, or culture.  

It is why Florida is often considered to be 5 or 6 different states – not just because the state is big both geographically, and in terms of raw population, but those population centers themselves tend to somewhat different. The state isn’t so much a microcosm of America, as it is a state that reflects the places where people come from, and in the sum, we are just a collection of all those experiences.   

After the 2018 election recounts, I said to the New York Times: “When people make fun of Florida, I kind of push back.  It’s an interesting, bizarre, quirky, whatever-you-want-to-call-it place, but so is America. And we just reflect that in a more magnified way.”   This is why, when my friends from outside the state use the term Florida Man as a pejorative, I remind them, stealing the words of Christine O’Donnell, that Florida is not a witch, we are nothing that it seems, America, we are in fact, you. 

So back to that thing about state identity, for good or bad, Florida Man is one of those things people think about when they think about Florida, these often ridiculous moments that seemingly only happen here (truth is, they happen everywhere, but Florida’s broad public records laws tend to make them easier to find).   

Many of these stories can be chalked up to a few things, one of which is just the sheer numbers game of a state of 21 million people – for example, put enough people in a pot, and you will find someone who thinks it is a good idea to have 7 pet raccoons, or to use his pet gator to reveal the gender of his tenth kid.  Also, much of the state is still rural, and in some cases, truly wilderness, so there were always be ‘interesting’ interactions between wildlife, gators, bears, snakes, etc., and people – and sometimes, those interactions impact the narrative the other way.  For example, the Florida Everglades is overrun with pythons thanks to some Florida Men who, for some reason, thought owning a python as a pet would be fun, well, until that python grew to 10 feet or more.   Other stories are often just the combination of heat and alcohol. 

But as Bob Norman points out, there is another, exploitive nature to the Florida Man stories, one that, whether intentionally, or inadvertently, pokes fun at the homeless, mental illness, and substance abuse. 

I went through the Leadership Florida program six years ago, and one of the most impactful seminars, was one in Miami with Judge Steven Leifman.  The Judge told a story after story of instances early in his career where he realized that many of the petty crimes coming to him where a symptom of the community’s failure to adequately deal with mental illness, and he pointed out that not only was Florida woefully under funding mental health care, but that we also tended have an above average size of population that was dealing with mental illness. 

In fairness, on the last point, the data is a bit mixed.  According to Mental Health America, when you just look at data that ranks the prevalence of mental illness, Florida tends to be one of the healthier states, but when you look at rankings of states when it comes to access to mental health treatment, Florida ranks 44th.  In addition, Florida ranks third in the nation, and 13th per capita, in the number of homeless, and Florida does have a higher than the national average per capita incidence of death from drug overdose.   That being said, when you add all those factors up, Florida has a lot of people dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse issues – and if even just a small percentage of those people end up in courtrooms like Judge Leifman’s, we are talking about a lot of actual people.  

Again, this isn’t unique to Florida, these problems exist everywhere – and in some cases, even more acutely than they do here.

For example, I went to college in a small town in Tennessee Appalachia.  The county where I went to school had, according to the most recent data, opioids prescribed at a rate of 102 prescriptions per 100 people.  In the next county over, the number jumps to 141, placing it as one of the worst counties in the nation for abuse.  If I took you to places in these counties, these numbers wouldn’t surprise you.  Here in Florida, fortunately these rates are falling – statewide, from a rate of 75 to 60 prescriptions per 100 people over the last few years, but this is still a place where prosperity has been uneven, and real problems still exist in every community.  For families who are dealing with these issues, or like mine, who have dealt with these issues, the challenges are still real.  Again America, Florida is not a witch, we are just like you.

So, what should we do about Florida Man?  For one, I think part of living here is embracing the zany, and outright weird.  As an old ad campaign about Florida once said, “it’s different here.”

Back in Leadership Florida, one of my classmates told the story of a teacher in a Florida school who was injured when a bird flying out of the everglades dropped a fish, a fish that landed on said teacher.  There will be alligators who walk through neighborhoods, as well as people who wrestle them.  There’s gonna be some guy who builds a fallout shelter for his pet opossum, and a bear that takes a nap on some lady’s porch.    But its more than that.  Living here is embracing the diversity of the place, respecting its history, and welcoming others who come through its doors.    Our state has been, and will long continue to be, a frontier. 

We are 21 million people, coming from literally all corners of the globe, and all the color of life that comes with that. I think we can celebrate those things without at the same time, being exploitive of those who are honestly struggling with life, as any of us could find ourselves.  When those people make news, well, we all need to be more thoughtful in how we talk about those stories – me included.  And we need to not ever be content being ranked as one of the worst in the nation for access to mental health treatments. 

So please go read Bob’s piece.  It is more worthy of your time than mine.  And if you live here, be proud of it -- but remember, next time you make fun of Florida Man, remember, he or she came from somewhere – and that somewhere, is typically us, America.

Article originally appeared on Steve Schale -- Veteran Florida Man Politico (http://steveschale.com/).
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