Breathing Slowly

One of the drawbacks to hosting the National Arts and Crafts Conference in February is that any dreams I have of escaping the bitter bite of winter have to wait until March. The months of December and January are needed for the Conference Catalog, along with the hundreds of little details, from display cases and name badges to easel signs and staff schedules, that make or break any large event.

But this past week Leigh Ann and I did slip down to the Florida Keys for a few days of real sunshine, fresh grouper, and sand between our toes. For an English major growing up in Illinois and teaching American literature in Iowa, any mention of the Florida Keys always conjures up images of a tanned and smiling Ernest Hemingway, posing on a dock in Key West with a group of his deep sea fishing buddies.

Hemingway was always on the move — Paris, New York, Key West, Kenya, Cuba, Idaho — either chasing demons or being chased by them. But Key West was one of his favorite stops, and he stayed there long enough to now have streets, avenues, parks, bars, cafes, and new sub-divisions named after him. And his house in Key West is still home to the famed six-toed cats which have since roamed the tree-shaded property.

In the back yard, a hundred feet or so from the house, there still stands the large garage and its second floor apartment which served as Hemingway’s office. The spacious one-room studio is ringed with windows, and has been decorated and furnished to look just as it did when Hemingway sat at a small desk in the center of the room, hunched over his black Royal typewriter, pecking out the words to his next short story or magazine column for Esquire magazine.

On this trip we stayed on Key Largo, at the opposite end of the 120-mile string of islands from Key West. In addition to the movie by the same name, Key Largo is noted for its close proximity to some of the country’s finest waters for snorkeling and scuba diving, which is what prompted us to book rooms there rather than down at Hemingway’s Key West.

While Leigh Ann and I considered the steady breezes on the beach ideal for keeping away any annoying insects, the dive captain announced they were making for what he called “choppy water.” Undeterred, we climbed aboard Captain Bob’s seaworthy vessel and headed out into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, bound for a series of shallow reefs littered with the hulls of century-old ships whose captains had strayed too close to the treacherous coral ridges.

It turned out to be a forty-minute ride that would surpass anything you could experience at Disneyworld, complete with drenching sprays, strong winds, and four-foot drops that jarred every bone in your body. By the time we reached our jump zone, my breakfast was threatening to make an unpleasant exit. Suspecting the same might be happening to the other dozen or so divers aboard Captain Bob’s ship, the dive crew scurried to get our steel tanks strapped onto our backs, our flippers wrestled on, and our masks tightened before putting a hand on our back as we each stood, one at a time, on the bow of the ship, still bucking and heaving beneath the four-foot swells, and shouted “Now!” as they unceremoniously pushed us into the gulf.

While the others marveled over the array of colorful sea creatures darting amid the coral reefs, slowly breathing in and out of their oxygen tanks filled with enough air for a thirty-minute dive, I struggled to convince my breakfast to remain in my stomach. As you might imagine, vomiting underwater with a vital, life-prolonging rubber mouthpiece clamped firmly between your teeth can present problems.

Obviously, I did survive and enjoyed our time exploring a world we so seldom get to see in person, but I must confess that on our next trip back, I think I’ll send Leigh Ann off with Captain Bob, while I find a little outdoor café called Hemingway’s — and drink a toast to the fabled author.

Until next Monday,

Breath slowly to conserve your air.


Top: Ernest Hemingway courtesy of

Middle: His cats in his office courtesy of

Lower: Picture courtesy of