Archive for September, 2008

Gatsby arrives on the wrong side of paradise
September 29, 2008

LANTANA, FL— Call it sour grapes, call it schadenfreude, but for some time I have found honest reason to celebrate what once was a regret: that I was never in the right place at the right time with enough money to buy a home on the beach.

When I first moved down here 12 years ago I lived in a pleasant apartment with jalousie windows down a disreputable street from a beach in northern Broward. People who gathered around the ping-pong table sized pool in front of the apartment complex across the street drank beer through the day, occassionally shouted at each other, sometimes fought seriously enough to bring the police, and once, one of them brandished a gun prompting someone outside to tell everyone to stay in their houses, and prompting me to flatten myself on the floor. Still I could sink my toes in the sand within 60 seconds of leaving my front door, and I felt pretty clever for attaining that for only $525 a month.

Like Gatsby looking at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, though, I knew I should do better, and that I would never feel I had reached my potential for either accomplishment or happiness until I could watch the waves from my own window.

I had a dull job in a cold office where the boss smelled of dirty laundry and was rude to her underlings and every day I drove home along a strip of ocean front mansions and yachts parked at Intracoastal docks. The  distance between the people who enjoyed — or at least owned — these things and the indentured drudgery of my life was too vast for me to even wish to bridge. In fact righteousness, rather than sour grapes seemed my cause — the homes were hideous — at least what I could see of them behind the gates and hedges, the yachts guzzled fuel, and homes with broken windows, people with no homes at all were close enough to stand as reproach to such excess.

But a little cottage by the sea, an apartment with a view of the sun sliding out from under the ocean each morning, these seemed just reward for a little work and well-placed values. Three hurricane warnings that summer with only a sketchy notion of where I would take myself, my ancient cat or my worldly possessions were not enough to tarnish this dream.

I got better jobs, one after another, only to see the price of property go up in exponential proportion to my raises. That was no matter, like Gatsby, I thought tomorrow I would run faster, stretch out my arms further, and one fine day . . .

Over time though, my morning walks on the beach became uncertain endeavors — some days the sand was there, some days only the ocean, crashing against the cement seawalls developers had put up to prove they were more worthy of the spot than nature itself. Every season evidence washed into the living rooms of tenants on the lower floors that the developers were wrong. And I heard that they, as well as those on the upper floors payed steep assessments (the price of a vacation, a car) to patch the damage.

In the other direction the seawalls protected mansions, but there too, in chipped concrete and rust that dripped down the pastel-painted giant step-shaped facades were signs these homeowners too would lose in this show down.

Lately, the people in Palm Beach have said they have no choice but to spend millions on what even supporters admit is an environmentally unfriendly means of protecting their property by dumping non-beach-worthy sand in front of it.

The people in South Palm Beach are even more strident, because there is less they can do — but they insist something be done to protect their condominiums from the ocean. In a few years — and their only objection is that is too far away — their wish will come true when the county builds a big pile of rocks nearshore, that will then become part of their view.

In the course of gathering that knowledge over the last eight years, I lost interest in living on a barrier island. The people staring the ocean down in increasing trepidation though, have not. They have begun to say, with the indignation and disdain that people who have not totally thought out their positions often show, that their property is more important than the habitat of turtles and marine life that would feed off the silt smothered reefs. I don’t know enough about the relative values of people, marine life or turtles to know if they are right. But I do know that the beach can never be ours to own, no matter how long we beat on, boats against the current.

Why do I find Sarah Palin as repellant/riveting as I do?
September 28, 2008

I have to ask because while I am noticing I am far from alone in that, I am noticing that some people only find her repellant — which at least I understand —  and some don’t find her repellant at all — which frightens me to the point that, were I to dwell on it, the ensuing anxieties that bubble just below whatever veneer of normalcy I manage, would keep me from leaving the house.

First, I am grateful/enabled by those who, like me, are horrified enough by the recent interviews — Gibson and Couric — as to not be able to leave them alone. I feel their pain, salute their courage in watching these interviews all the way through (as one parody noted, this investment of time undoubtedly cost us all valuable brain cells) and in the case of these artists who I stumbled across somehow left enough to wring out a laugh:

and, oddly, my favorite, possibly  because of the “shitburgers” narrative augmenting the deer-in-the-headlights-stare (for which nobody can out-palin Palin):

I like these because their incorporation of class-conscious contempt almost matches Palin’s in her take on the class war.

Which brings me back to the most trivial remark she has made on record yet (as opposed to the horror of smug insistence that she is so pro-life that she would apply her belief that rape victims should bear their attackers’ offspring to her own daughter — and likely has — as well as her insistence that all the comprehension and critical thinking required of a world leader can be had from one’s view on a clear day of “a foreign country”). The most trivial remark is also her most chilling for the level of ignorant intolerance of all people not her, when she is asked why she lacked the curiousity to ever visit another nation (I will leave you with this as I think it answers my question; in the following clip she expresses her anger, bias and disdain not only for those who worked second jobs TO travel, but volunteers, and even the missionaries who might otherwise find sympathy with some of her other sentiments. In other words she is smug, angry and not someone to turn your back on. And we might as well laugh now, as someday doing so may be an arrestable offense):

A chance to take off the muzzle
September 25, 2008

Here in South Florida we know how hard it is to sort priorities when disaster is looming. When a hurricane spins toward us, we stock and board our homes, gas our cars and then we go to work. But you can’t be everywhere at the same time.

So certainly we, if anyone, can sympathize with Sen. John McCain as he belatedly turns his attention to the economic catastrophe his party’s prediliction for getting “big government” off the backs of big business has wrought.

And if he wants to suspend his campaign for a few days while he proves he could have done more to keep the financial ruin that looms before us from happening in the first place, good for him.

But the apparent conflict this poses to him between (belated) call of duty to his senatorial responsibilities to defend our interests, and his scheduled debate need not necessitate falling short in either regard.

This is the perfect opportunity to show his careful, thoughtful, well-researched pick of running mate (and our future president, the actuarial tables indicate) Sarah Palin is ready, right now to take his place when needed.

And our chance to see a pit bull with lipstick in action.

Cinderblocks and swampland
September 22, 2008

If you have ever watched an ibis stalk gingerly through a strip-mall parking lot or seen a racoon run fugitive-like into the hedges surrounding a prison-blue painted condominium palace with a name like the “The Lodges at Willoughby Chase,” or “Fellagio Villas,” and wondered how it got to be like this in Florida, you must read The Swamp by Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald (Why did a Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel or Palm Beach Post writer never think to do it first?)

Actually, you must anyway. It is beautifully written, back-breakingly researched, perfectly put together, and answers the question, how did the wild splendor of the South Florida of little more than a century ago become the cement wonderland of today?

And early on, one answer becomes clear: The first Americans to venture this far, who came to conquer the humans already here, didn’t think much of the rest of the life forms they found either. As their passion for complaining would put any British expat here to shame, this makes the read as enjoyable as it is informative.

“It is in fact a most hideous region to live in, a perfect paradise for Indians, alligators, serpents, frogs and every other kind of loathsome reptile,” an Army surgeon wrote. And as he fell ill with fever, he cried, “That I could only have escaped from this detested soil!”

The book, which compares the war on Seminoles here to the U.S. war in Viet Nam, also captures the glory that once was here, in the words of one conquerer who described “The profound and wild solitude of the place, the solemn silence that pervades it . .. ” but who added that the “abiding” impression he carried away was of the place’s “utter worthlessness to civilized man.”

It was the quest to make the splendor that was here “worth” something, that led what we have here, to make a long story short, but the long story makes better reading.

The 10th Department
September 16, 2008

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — I went to Haiti this last weekend, just for two days. I could have gone to Key West, but it would have taken twice as long to drive there, and the Conch Republic lost its edge back in the 90s.

Somehow, probably with the help of tourists, old Cayo Hueso managed in the process to keep the smell of sewage in the streets. It only takes two hours to get to Haiti, and you can get smells there too, and it definitely still has an edge. In addition, it has a more hearty independence in it very core, more courage in the people you see carrying their wares atop their heads, pulling impossibly heavy carts, caring for their country against considerable odds, than you will find in Margaritaville if you walk the entire length of Duval Street.

That is because, as my uncle put it tonight, if anyplace has been f’cked over by the United States, that would be Haiti. The only time this first country in this hemisphere to overthrow slaveholders is left to its own devices is when circumstances present an overwhelming and unpopular challenge.

So while Matt Damon and Wyclef Jean rightly draw attention to the now flooded hell that one hurricane after another made of Gonaive and other northwestern coastal towns, life continues as usual in Port Au Prince, largely unaffected by the storms except for the flood of American politicians and reporters who took comfortable refuge at the Montana Hotel.

LIfe as usual includes, for the more than 3800 prisoners — most not convicted but awaiting trial — at the National Penitentiary a tortured existence. The prison is crowded to more than four times its capacity, forcing prisoners to share window ledges not big enough for one to stretch out on for their beds, stand because for many there is no room to sit, and get deathly ill with conditions and sickness that are treatable. I saw a man with blistering swollen feet on which he could barely  limp; “This is what happens to athletes’ foot if it goes untreated long enough,” the doctor who had come on his own time and own money to tend to these patients told me. Young men with shingles turned out to be sick with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. A few more had drug-resistant tuberculosis — curable, but almost always deadly here. A patient the doctor had come to treat had died instead that weekend.

I saw the tuberculosis sanitarium where ward of ward of people lay dying — some being treated, some insufficiently treated, some not treated at all. In the prison ward hollow-eyed skeletons lay dying handcuffed to their bedframes.

Haiti has nine departments — the equivalent of states.

The 10th department is the million or so who have fled conditions that remain the result of political interference by the United States and other countries, and who send money home.

They are, in a world made smaller daily by technology and travel as well as disease, not just our neighbors but ourselves.

It is closer and more exotic than Key West, more informative than Epcot Center, and it is worth the trip, to see what is on the other side of the flimsy fence we have built around ourselves.

City Displace
September 6, 2008

WEST PALM BEACH — I was sitting at CityPlace, talking to a friend of mine, a little breeze off of Hannah, the sun behind the clouds, the few people around us talking quietly, the church bell going off now and then and it was a good place to be.

Then my friend was telling me how she used to live “right over there,” and she was pointing toward Pottery Barn, and I remembered that this used to be a real neighborhood, rather than a fake one, rather than a “cityplace.”

I remembered when I first started driving through the area back in 1998, and how barren it was, not realizing a neighborhood had just been levelled to make room for a shopping center. I remembered the hoopla when it opened, then the subsequent scrutiny of crimes there, the the curfew.

Still it all seemed bright and new, and convenient. We went on talking, though, about the things that hadn’t changed in all these years; the ravages of the crack epidemic, the blight, the uninsured, the failed schooling. For all the traffic and sewer studies that came with growth, no drug treatment center beds, no added services for mental health, no billboards advertising the public health hazards, like HIV that are only getting bigger.

And even as a cloud moved enough to let us feel the heat of the sun for a moment, the beige walls, fountains, store fronts, window boxes seemed more like a stage set than ever.

What news?
September 4, 2008

THE CENTER OF WORLD CHAOS, FL — At least that’s what it felt like eight years ago, when Palm Beach County, from its retirement communities, to its immigrant citizens, to its Gen-Xers, to its newest generation voters drilled, already, in their last school year on standardized tests, accidentally chose the wrong president of the United States by punching the wrong hole on a piece of cardboard, not punching it hard enough, or neglecting to put on their glasses.

That responsibility, one would think, would rest heavily on all of our shoulders, but perhaps none more so than purveyors of news, who would realize that, perhaps, they had failed to convey vital information  about the ballot, the issues, the stakes.

One hates to pick on them in the wake of their recent losses — here in South Florida three major newspapers have freed more than 300 journalists in the last two years to pursue other dreams that playing a critical role in democracy. But the day after a bit of breaking news that abstinence-only-supporting, family-values-boosting Republican Governor of Alaska and, oh, yes, Vice presidential pick of  the oldest presidential candidate in history — Sarah Palin has a 17-year-old daughter who just proved that abstinence-only education as a replacement for sex education, and family values as a replacement for ethical thinking, don’t work.

She did it by getting pregnant, by accident, by this guy:

Everyone screws up, and everyone worries about their children screwing up, and often, by the nature of chance, and of cracks that things can slip through, those fears are realized. But if your daughter was now in a position of pledging her life, before her god, to that guy, or for that matter this guy:

or the guy who summed up his philosophy thus:

“… I live to play hockey. I like to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing, shoot some shit and just fuckin’ chillin’ I guess … Ya fuck with me I’ll kick [your] ass.” adding, “I don’t want kids.” . . .

For the love of God, wouldn’t you maybe rethink, a little bit, how you had educated that daughter? And wouldn’t you think the abstinence-only thing had blown up in your face?

You would be irresponsible not to.

But the day after the important news that Palin had been confronted with important evidence challenging the policies she espouses but continues to push as a worthy agenda for the American people, you could not find that news on the websites of the two newspapers whose readership is Palm Beach County voters.

They were consumed, perhaps with the latest election day fallout, surrounding missing ballots crucial to a judgeship runoff.

God help us.  Apparently no one else is paying attention.

The rich get richer, the poor get migraines
September 3, 2008

LAKE WORTH — Actually this story begins in Mexico where I got a migraine and then an over-the-counter cure that took it away.

I am no stranger to headaches; I have been a stranger to cures, so this was an important development for me. I would have bought out the pharmacies of Mexico, but it was expensive there.

I went to see the doctor today and he, pleased to meet a problem he could solve without leaving his chair, tapped something into his PDA or whatever it is that has substituted for his prescription pad since I last saw him, strolled to the printer while walking me to the door, and handed me a slip of paper to take to the pharmacy.

I waited 20 minutes and then the pharmacist presented me with a bag and a request for $192.00. Thanks to my “insurance,” she said, I got $47 off the full price. 

I am an optimist, so assumed for a moment that I had been given a lifetime supply, and that my life was somehow projected by the doctor, insurance company or pharmacy to be a long one. So I was still smiling when I asked how many I was getting, visions of migraine parties dancing in my head.

Nine, the pharmacist said, with a straight face.

You do the math.

Elvis sings duet with Impersonator!
September 1, 2008

LAKE WORTH — Photographers, reporters and retirees from The National Enquirer, The National Examiner, The Weekly World News, and others were on the spot to record the historic encounter of the King of Rock and Roll and his local replacement, which happened to take place during a reunion of tabloid staffers here Sunday.

The impersonator and the original, who now sports a leisure suit and relies on a walker, took their startling confrontation in stride, sharing a stage at one point before an audience that included the Pregant Man, who although appearing ready to pop, sipped beer on the sidelines.

The increasingly marginalized “main-stream press” showed as well, tipped off, it seemed by tabloid brethren in the increaingly small world of South Florida journalism, but left before the unprecedented performance by the two side-burned singers.

The emergence of the elder Elvis in Florida was particularly significant as it comes before an election in which every vote is expected to count, if not be counted.