Archive for November, 2008

Jellyfish basher
November 29, 2008

PALM BEACH, FL — I think that we had just passed The Breakers, my friend and I, walking down the beach, discussing the state of the media, how the tragedy of amendment two came about, our careers, her wardrobe and my hair, when we came across a beached jelly fish with a rock on top of it.

“How did it get under a rock?” we wondered, and strolled on, I think at that point debating the wisdom of my going to another friend’s haircutter.

A lot of jellyfish had gotten beached that day, as the tide was going out, and still more bobbed along in the shallow water, making me glad I had come just to walk.


Between semi-treated sewage, sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, near-shore rocks and pieces of cruise ship garbage, I don’t swim in the ocean much anymore. One time I found a hypodermic syringe on the beach and considered not walking on the beach anymore — in fact joined a gym and walked on a treadmill instead for a while, but decided watching Fox news and listening to a sexagenarian weightlifter emit labor-like grunts was worse than stepping on a hypodermic needle of unknown origin.

Then one time recently, you will recall, I impaled my foot on a spike sticking out of the sand, as I strolled a length of essentially private beach further south in this town.

So I learned to look at where I’m putting my feet more when I walk, and was enjoying the benefit of that lesson now, as I stepped around jellyfish instead of on them, which I can’t imagine how that would feel, or how long it would take to forget how it felt.

I do know now, however, what it sounds like when a heavy rock drops on a beached jellyfish — a nasty combination of “chunk” and “splat” — because the middle-aged man in knee-length swimming trunks, a tropical print shirt and a straw hat, caused exactly that to happen about 20 feet or so ahead of us. I don’t know if he did it by throwing the rock down hard, or just standing over the jellyfish and dropping it, because I was watching where I was putting my feet.

But I do know when we looked over at where the sound had happened, he was standing there looking down, perhaps proudly or at least victoriously, at the jellyfish under the rock in front of him.

We must have made a sound too, because he looked over and explained, “to keep it from going back in the water.” Then he moved on, but stopped to look back at us, or the conquered jellyfish, or both, standing still at the water’s edge, looking over his shoulder, as if something bothered him.

We tried, but couldn’t go on — to risk an encounter with him, perhaps a further explanation, perhaps a rock (to make sure we didn’t go into the water either), certainly more rock-bashed jellyfish — so we turned back, and after a few minutes of recovery returned to discussing the state of the media, how the tragedy of amendment two came about, my hair, and other things I don’t understand.


A Grand Jury
November 22, 2008


WEST PALM BEACH, FL — I spent the morning with a nurse, a self-described snowbird, a self-described court psychologist (for the 15th circuit, she explained, without explaining what a court psychologist does), a butterfly breeder, an accountant, and 54 other people who I don’t know what they do. There were 60 of us in all. I am unemployed, and was not the only one in my category.

I spent the morning with people dressed up, like this was a big day, dressed down, like there are no big days, and dressed in business attire, from suits to uniforms, like they were hoping to get back to what they do every day.

I never see these people all together unless I am doing my civic duty.

Last time was just two and a half weeks ago, when I served as a poll worker, and this time was Federal Court grand jury call.

I am grateful for both. They were opportunities for me, and also a reminder that as awful as the things that my country has done have been lately, my country still has the potential, sometimes realized, for greatness.

There were 60 of us and although we got off to a slow start, most of us got there early. One, it looked like, in pajamas. Another a good hour late, and with an attitude clearly a long time standing (she was in her 40s, at least), announcing, “I’m late for school,” with a pretend abashed grin.

The woman who realised we each were supposed to have a “Juror” badge, and so brought one to me too and dropped it in my lap, she turned out to have a religious conviction against serving on a jury, and we ended up leaving together at noon.

I knew I was out of there as soon as I found out the obligation would be 18 months long as I will be in Zambia for the year by the end of January, Yes, it was fun, when we were asked if anyone had a reason to not serve, after I heard all the other reasons, to say, “I’m a free-lance writer and I have accepted a fellowship and I will be in Africa all of next year.”

I thought the guy right after me who said he was a butterfly breeder and has to pack and ship butterflies on Thursdays (grand jury meeting day for the next year and a half), topped me, but I got out and he didn’t.

If I were going to be here, though, I would have liked to stay. It would have been fun. It would have bee a godsend back in the day, when I was working for an incompetent nut who ran a dysfunctional office, and could have used a day off from that once a week for a year and a half.

And I would have liked to spend more time with the randomly selected people of whom I don’t see nearly enough.


Yorkville 1963
November 21, 2008


NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Mrs. Demeter brought her knitting when she came to babysit, and her angora-wrapped needles clicked softly against each other as she recounted narrow escapes from Nazi soldiers.

She was from Hungary, seemed not quite old, had a plump wrinkled face and wore her grey hair in a bun. She had a pleasant, rich accent and her stories, a quarter century old by then, always ended on an upbeat note.

“We laughed and we laughed,” she often said, chuckling, as she told us how she and her sisters hid from German soldiers who were searching car-to-car on a train.

As cheerful as she seemed, and as comforting as her bravado, her stories were depressing, and my big sister, eight years old, found the retelling obsessive.

Made nervous by the incongruity of the terror that train- searching Nazis must have occassioned with the hilarity that Mrs. Demeter now described and hobbled by a very limited grasp of recent history, I half agreed with my sister.

Then one day when I was six we woke from our naps to find our mother gone, and Mrs. Demeter unexpectedly there instead, her knitting needles mutedly clicking in the living room.

Our mother had to go to court to get our father because he had been arrested for fighting with the Nazis, Mrs. Demeter explained.

The Nazis had come to speak and other people had come to stop them, and then the police had come and arrested my father, she elaborated, to our exasperation. I think we both wondered why our mother continued to leave us in the care of someone so clearly delusional.

My father was Jewish, and while almost the entirety of what I knew about the Nazi era then was that Germans had persecuted Jews, I also knew that had ended before I was born and had never happened in New York. We even lived in a German neighborhood, and one of my father’s favorite stops was the Berlin Bar where he bought us hot dogs and grape drinks while he drank tall glasses of beer and chatted with the barman. Mrs. Demeter’s story was all the more unlikely because my father was a civilized man who waxed his moustache and wore three-piece suits to his job selling advertising space at a men’s magazine. He didn’t take risks.

But what Mrs. Demeter had told us was true.

A Nazi rally had been planned and permitted and protesters came with tomatoes to throw at the speakers. My father came that day with a can of tomatoes, he told us later, without explaining his choice.

When one of the Nazis began shouting that about “Jewish domination” my father, one of a dozen or so protesters to storm the stage, grabbed the speaker by the lapel with one hand and shouted back: “I’m a Jew.”

My father was holding the tomato can in his other hand, aimed at the Nazi’s face, my father told us later, when the would-be fuhrer follower crumpled to the ground in a faint, and a policeman’s heavy hand fell on my father’s shoulder.

My father didn’t tell us that he kicked the policeman, but I read that later in one of the several newspaper accounts that he saved. My father was one of nine protesters arrested that day.

Sympathy for the protesters ran high.

A judge sent them all home but raised bail for the Neo-Nazi organizer of the rally to $10,000, remarking, after he did, according to a New York Times account: “Now we will get back to the more decent type of criminal.”

It mostly worked out well for our family.

My father said later he never had to serve jury duty again, because his arrest experience would be seen as having tainted his view of justice.

The officer who arrested my father was among the sympathetic and they became friends, with the result that my father eventually received a NYPD Retired Detective badge, which he carried pinned in his wallet for the rest of his life. The officer also later helped my mother get a job at the Police Academy.

But through my childhood, I had recurring nightmares of having to hide from Nazis storming through Yorkville.

Those aftermaths of my father’s arrest long outlasted Mrs. Demeter in our lives.

Young women who were nursing students at New York Hospital started babysitting for us instead.

Then one day a nursing student must not have been available because Mrs. Demeter returned. Sometime that night one of us divulged that we had had other babysitters in the interim. We did not see Mrs. Demeter again.

And what I learned about meeting horror with laughter became a distant memory.


Not a care in the world
November 15, 2008

MONEY DON’T CARE WHO OWNS IT, FL — I went to a meeting today in Very Wealthy Town — one of the wealthiest in the United States — and noticed one of the sad consequences of having more money than one knows what to do with.

botox-foreheadAnd that was that the women didn’t look as smart as the men.

That was because with equal numbers of men and women sitting before the audience, only the men looked like they had ever creased their brows with thought.


This, in turn made the women look clueless.

Or as if they had had toxic botulism injected in the skin surrounding the headquarters of their central nervous system.

images-1Which is another reason to stop bailing out people whose money exceeds their common sense.

No Beach There
November 13, 2008


WHERE THE WAVES MEET THE SEAWALLS, FL — Gertrude Stein’s dismissal of Oakland, Calif. as a place where “there is no there there,” is remembered and quoted not because it so perfectly describes one place, but because it can be applied now to so many towns, counties, regions succumbed to strip mall, chain franchise and subdivision sprawl.

Such a place is South Florida, a poster place for the affliction of having no “there,” but also proof that  “there”  isn’t everything, as people have demonstrated by coming down in great numbers to enjoy the other attributes of being in the there-less here — weather, water and beach.

dunedeckToo much of the first two has taken a toll on the latter, and now, in November, the month cool breezes and snowbirds return, there is no beach there. Instead, from Lake Worth to Manalapan this morning there are slabs of broken pavement, rusted seawalls and the ocean, slapping furiously against this post-apocalyptic landscape, dragging more sand away as it ricochets back from these obstacles.

It is not hard to figure what the future holds for the homes behind these crumbling barricades, and how little mercy nature will show those who took its property.


If I were them, I would admit my mistake, take a loss, get out and start over. These homes were a poor investment as they are taking the very thing that distinguishes this there from any other.  Across the bridge, in the meantime rows of empty new condos await owners.

Down and Out in Palm Beach County
November 12, 2008


WEST PALM BEACH, FL — Recently about 100 or so people I worked with were “excessed,” in one day.

Being “excessed,” — and no, that’s not what our former employers called it, but with the door thrown open to 100 with only an urging not to let it hit us on the way out, what else would you call it — is different from being fired or laid off, marginally, in terms of surficial pride. It also is different from just up and quitting one day, as none of us can claim full credit for the idea of leaving at the end of one day, and forgoing health insurance, pension, a life plan, and something that passed for purpose each day, never coming back.

Being excessed as we were certainly spared each of us from further imagining the humiliation of being escorted to the parking lot by security (and I feel certain that each one of us did imagine that, as it was pretty well drawn out for us), let alone the eventuality. But being excessed is, as a recent phrase-du-temps put it, what it is. And that is being told, with a modest bribe to leave quietly, that the company you work for doesn’t need what you do anymore, doesn’t want it, would pay to be without it. Which in turn might lead one to wonder if it was ever worth anything.

It also makes one wonder if there still is time to do things that are needed, wanted, important, and even if not, if life could be more rewarding and more fun that it was when we thought we were doing something important.

Which is the other reason why most of us left quietly, and then why many of us, when invited to lunch as a group by people we did business with, accepted — free lunch, being wanted, etc.

I say so because that is why I accepted the invitation, but had the good luck to be wanted elsewhere, and offered free dinner, which is even more tempting.

Those who showed took turns standing up to say what they are doing now, which wasn’t much, according to a friend of mine who went. My friend found the experience depressing. I wonder if that was only because it was public.

Not doing much is something people spend a lot of money to come to Palm Beach County to do. I have found it beats the daylights out of hyperventilating because the line was busy, the computer crashed, my boss, who has no life, said something sneeringly — to me! — or all the other things I used to do when I thought what I did was a necessary part of things.

Maybe it was. It isn’t anymore. Many of my former colleagues just finished stints of hard work for the Obama campaign. And now that that’s over, maybe there is something else necessary to be done. But until there is, I take pride in my colleagues who chose, however fearfully to stop pretending that getting to work at 9 each day gave us substance.

While some of us, and more, as the economy continues to succumb to eight years of torture, will suffer bad, hard, painful losses, being down and out in Palm Beach County is, in itself, not the end of things.

And for those of us who fell jumped or were pushed, it can’t help but be a beginning.

No, We Haven’t
November 8, 2008


THE CENTER OF WORLD CHAOS, FL — Since the fall of 2000, when the mailman and I discovered our common sympathies, we have taken every opportunity when our paths crossed to complain about the folly, evil, ineptitude, greed and nastiness of those running our country, and those allowing that to happen. As this included all nationally elected officials and their appointees and supporters as well as most voters and the rest of us who neglected to launch an effective revolt when the Supreme Court appointed our president in 2000, we had a lot to complain about.

The other day when we met, we bumped fists, in the proud tradition, he pointed out of our first-lady elect, Michelle Obama. We then lapsed into the giddiness that has gripped virtually everyone I’ve spoken to since Tuesday night, pausing only to affirm, that it really happened, it’s all true, we’re not imagining or dreaming this, that most of America really did elect the best candidate for the job of president, not swayed by prejudice or politics or by distrust, distaste or disrespect for one another.

We needed to pause and persuade ourselves again that this was real, because for most of our lifetimes now — for those who saw the promises of the sixties become the compromises of the 70s, the exploitations of the 80s, who saw renewed hope in the 90s, only to have our government stolen at the turn of the new century, we have been unable to make sense of reality.

Now, I thought, as I brought the mail into the house, still laughing at something the mailman said about one of Sarah Palin’s kids, we aren’t malcontents anymore.

In reality though, as the disbelieving joy of the last week becomes part of the fabric of life, that doesn’t seem like a good thing.

On the same day America proved its enlightenment and acceptance of diversity by electing Barack Obama president, three states passed laws banning same sex marriage and institutionalizing intolerance. The laws served no articulable purpose, except to foster division, and yet outcry against them was muted in the uproar of the greater cause of getting a new president who is not dangerous to us all. Both — fighting to get Obama elected and fighting amendment 2 here in Florida were worthy causes, and the first was a priority. But as long as we need to make choices of that nature, sacrificing human rights for victory, those choices will add up, like straws of hay, until one day one straw will tip the balance and our ability to look out for our greater good will be lost again.


Democracy ain’t for sissies
November 5, 2008


A CHURCH MEETING ROOM, LANTANA, FL —We met before dawn, a dozen or so people who under no other circumstances would have been likely to spend an hour together, and certainly not the 14 hours we had pledged.

Having signed up to work the polls election day, and take an inadequate three-and-a-half-hour class to learn what we’d need to know was all we had in common. We represented every decade from 20s to 80s among us, a span of livlihoods, geographical origin, beliefs, and, someone pointed out casually in the midst of the day, political orientation.

That last, pivotal to how each of us would see the events of the day, was the one subject we couldn’t discuss, as we settled into familiarity with each other’s ways through the day. It was a good thing, as dispute would have made a long day excruciating.

It was a marathon-like trial as it was, beginning before 6 a.m. with voters already gathering outside as we turned a roughly 20-by-20 foot room off the church kitchen into a polling place with the contents of two metal cabinets on wheels.

Then at 7 a.m. we put it to use. Problems in our design, or lack of, showed immediately, as voters lining up for ballots crowded the space where voters fed ballots into machines, as “privacy sleeves” to shield the ballots ran short, as the elevator broke and voters started wandering in and out of a back door, and as we worked like restaurant help during the early-bird rush, “in the weeds” as ones I used to work with called it.

It was a view of the sausage factory of democracy in the glimpse it gave us of what we knew from history was none to pristine a process to begin with, but from the inside is even sloppier, with a massive and confusing ballot to tally one of the most significant elections in history. We got through those first few hours grateful to each other for how well it had worked, though.

The work slowed then to a time-stretching drip of voters. One, a cheerful young mother who with her hair in pigtails that stuck out below an engineers cap looked like a teenager, but who was 36 pointed out the halfway point would be 1 p.m., when we would have but 7 hours to go.

We noted a pattern — first time voters, mostly white, in their 30s, 40s, older, asking if they had to complete the whole ballot. “All I want to vote for is president.” Trying to figure out their motivation scared me. All day, would-be first time voters were turned away — they had registered too late, not at all, come to thhe wrong place. That scared me too.

More than that it stirred a panic in me, born in part of too little sleep, too long inside this place with too little to do in the yawning middle of this double day. The horrible thought seemed more like knowledge of a fact as I grew certain that a lynch mob of racists were racing to the polls to show their numbers there. And that was in part because of the tenor of the campaign we had all watched, but also because of what sufficient numbers of Americans considered tolerable enough to willingly vote to bring it on themselves in 2004. And while it would only be worse than what happened before, because it happened before, the specter of a future “President Palin” made my vision of the post-apocalyptic world we would emerge from this polling place into if ignorance, meaness and fear gained victory through democracy, with a McCain win.

I don’t know how the others felt — the church-going 21-year-old girl working next to me feeding ballots to the inspectors, the middle-aged woman, who with the L-M list of names seemed the busiest, the woman with a Southern drawl who actually did know all the rules because she had paid attention in class all remarked on these patterns, without conclusion.

Alone in the kitchen a woman in her 60s, one of the veteran poll workers said she had never seen it before — all these first time voters, all only wanting to vote for president. I wondered aloud what it could mean, and she said only that “nobody” ever discusses politics there.

The church-going girl got into a conversation with the responsible boy her age, who said obliquely he had figured out that as complicated as the issues in this election were, he had figured out that it came down to “the one issue” and “whether they are for or against.” There were allusions too, to having to guard against voter fraud, “because of ACORN,” and in turn, the octegenarian man who was a veteran poll worker and I got into a conversation about the uncounted and miscast votes on the butterfly ballot in 2000, but that was as political as any of it got.

At times I was chilled by thought that some of these hardworking and cooperative people had ignored, missed, or been too biased to understand that the very message of the Obama campaign was of how much we could solve together.  But without conversation to confirm my wonderings on which of my coworkers that thought applied to, and new voters streaming in at the end of the day, I spent most of the time enjoying the relative seamlessness of work well-shared.

As I said, that was a good thing, and at the end of the day when we worked together to count ballots and fold the polling place back into its metal cabinets, it seemed  any talk of politics would have created only another false division.