Archive for December, 2010

Who’s watching the South Florida Water Management District?
December 28, 2010

LANTANA, FL — I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on  the South Florida Water Management District because, quite honestly I don’t know enough about it to pick on it. Until a few years ago, and for about ten years preceding, the local paper used to cover it in painful minutiae, which, admittedly I didn’t appreciate sufficiently back then. Then the local paper re-organized, cut half its staff, and as far as I could tell, pretty much left its doings go uncovered. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, let its doings stay covered — because that’s what happens when the press isn’t paying attention. This situation really underscores on a number of levels that you don’t know what you got until you lose it. The District, after all, is in charge to a great extent, of what happens to the Everglades, and what happens to the Everglades has a lot to do, sooner or later, with what life is like in South Florida. So it’s too bad we know less about what is happening there because the local paper doesn’t feel it has the resources to keep us saturated with information on its doings anymore.

This would be enough reason for trepidation, but then today, a still-working journalist, who, evidently out of concern for journalist colleagues who have lost their jobs, posted to a facebook group the “Good Job Opportunity” of media relations employee for the district. While this might seem a good opportunity for a journalist who doesn’t know how she is going to put shoes on the baby, or send the kid to college, a world without watchdogs doesn’t make a very good place for journalists or their children to live.

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Don’t ask these guys why they wanted to be on the wrong side of history; they won’t tell
December 20, 2010

When the hyprocrisy of accepting the ultimate sacrifice from gay military personnel, while refusing to accept them otherwise on the most basic level became untenable for 65 senators last week, 31 senators decided they were more comfortable accepting hypocrisy.

While this means the result of the vote, overall, was progress, and while acknowledging that progress is good news, in this case, multiple tours of duty forced from soldiers in two wars during the last decade made this news unsurprising.

And while the news that 31 senators were willing to take a stance on the wrong side of history also is unsurprising, it is harder to explain.

That doesn’t include Sen. McCain, who made that choice, but also has made other choices in the past few years that indicate an explanation — he will do anything to please intolerant ignorant people who are unlikely to do anything for him in return. In other words, he has slipped his clutch.

Then there is David Vitter, who paid prostitutes to have sex with him, and had a diaper fetish. You can understand why he would sincerely believe that people shouldn’t be asked anything about their sex lives, or expected to tell.

Lindsay Graham, in turn, is already surprising in his own right because he has attained the label of “moderate” after helping lead the charge to impeach President Clinton (and to delve into his intimate life, whether the president wanted to tell or not), and because he has been willing to come out and deny being gay in response to further-to-the-right-fellow-demagogues who raised the question that he was. His vote only confirms his comfort with hypocrisy.

Then there are the C Street roommates, Sens. Coburn, DeMint, Brownback and Grassley who pay below market rent to live in a house based on Godly principals but who accepted and kept secret their roommate Sen. Ensign’s affair with his aide’s wife. Maybe they honestly believe in being circumspect.

Sen. Ensign himself voted to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Maybe he learned that honesty is the best policy.

Elizabeth Edwards was Only Human
December 8, 2010

“When my father died, he became a saint,” a neighbor told my mother last week. “According to my mother anyway. I said ‘who the hell are you talking about?’ That’s not the guy I knew . . .”

She was cautioning my mother, who had just lost her best friend, against obliterating the memory of the departed by postmortem make-over.

Post-mortem make-over seems so universal and alluring a phenomenon I am surprised it has not spurred a reality show.

Because that is where the fallacious thinking and the indignity done to all involved belong, when one makes of the dead what they were not. And some day that could be you.

I would much rather be remembered as I am than be so forgotten in death as to be lionized.

And yet that is what has happened to Elizabeth Edwards, as if she hadn’t been through enough ignominy already. Not to mention misery.

She had a good life, and then, like a Greek tragedy, the good life turned on her brutally, showing, like an optical allusion the outline of all that seemed bright a ghastly picture of hubris. I am sorry for her. I am sorry for all of us that life doesn’t deliver the gifts and hopes we choose to believe are ours forever.

I don’t think she was any worse than the rest of us, but I also don’t believe she was any better. She campaigned by her husband’s side for the Democratic party’s nomination for President of the United States at a time when the stakes for our country and for the world could not have been higher. She did this although she knew, as we all then knew before the election season was over, that her husband had broken his vows of marriage to her during the campaign, after she, his life partner, the mother of their children had been stricken with a deadly illness. He didn’t, fortunately, but no thanks to anyone who kept that secret, prevail. If he had, it is safe to say that this country, and many of the world’s troubles would rest on the shoulders of President McCain and Vice President Palin.

Who else would have kept that secret? Perhaps any of us. Perhaps not. Keeping that secret, for whatever sad and possibly self-serving reasons was human. But it does not exalt her. It taints a life that may otherwise have been in every way worthy and deserves to be remembered as it was,  no better, because then it truly vanishes.

Why are girls ending their sentences with question marks?
December 5, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, MASS — Even when they’re saying their own names?

“What’s your name?” a professor asked a student last week. The student had asked a number of intelligent questions in that oddly sing song voice reminiscent of what used to be called Valley Girls, but that seems to know no geographic boundaries now.

“Lisa?” she said, perhaps indicating that if it wasn’t good enough she could change it.

I hear more it often here, where infinite variety and high standards otherwise abound, than I can recall hearing it anywhere else, although maybe it’s on the rise everywhere.

I don’t know. It seems to go along with the flat hoarse voice, that seems to be the trend now as well, and that seems to say, “don’t mind me — I can hardly speak.”

In my mother’s day, which also was Marilyn Monroe’s and Jacqueline Kennedy’s day (which if you think about it wasn’t their day, their month, or even their decade) this message was delivered in a childish whisper. Listen to it. You could mistake them for children — as people did my mother — over the phone. But at least it was passive-agressive. It said: “come closer if you want to hear me.” Which is why it was mistaken for sexy. In fact it said, if you deny me a voice, you will have to try harder to communicate with me.

Then, evidently, came backlash in a big way. The decade that followed the decades that victimized Jackie and Marilyn and pitted them, seemingly, against each other, took away some of the supposed benefits (they were what? getting to stay home with children all day, clean, or supervise, the cleaning of the house, in sysyphian cycle, again, and again —  again?) they had accrued, and bestowed the rights to at least ask for equal pay (the jury is, literally, still out on that — after seven years of my salary, savings and 401K being robbed by what turned out to be blatant workplace discrimination, I suddenly got a nearly $10,000 a year raise after another female worker threatened suit), participate in sports, have abortions (if you want to face a screaming crowd of lunatics on the way in, and the eternal judgement of everyone), and the right to go to Harvard  . . .

And here we are? Talking like hostages? If you don’t like me I’ll change?

I couldn’t figure it out, so I looked it up. I found scholarly studies in communications journals. They didn’t have the answers but they had part of the question — people who end their sentences with question marks are assumed to have lower status than people who don’t. The habit takes away their credibility and subtracts from their credentials, however hard earned those credentials may be.

So the answer, by now, may be in ourselves, as well as our stars, leaving anyone who does it to ask: why do you end your sentences in question marks?

 

Jimmy
December 3, 2010

LANTANA, FL — Jimmy Bryce’s mobile home is painted bright sky blue with a deeper blue trim. It is surrounded by flowering plants and trees and a collection of paraphernalia: a bright blue painted stone lion, smaller animal statues and figures that have changed over the years, a wood carved lobster atop his mailbox, a weathered styrofoam buoy, a diverse collection of rocks and shells from the island at the end of the block, cement paver stones salvaged from a neighboring lot, and a mismatched set of solar ground lanterns left behind by other neighbors. His collections reflect those things most important to him: his Maine roots, his work as a gardener, animals big and small, and the street where he spent some of the best and hardest years of his life.

View Street is home to about 50 manufactured houses, of varying ages and models — from trailers that settled here more than 40 years ago, when the street was a “tin can tourist resort,” to modern pastel colored cottage-like homes that have arrived in the last 10 years. It is a street that has had to remain tolerant of diversity of styles that run from the sterile to the eccentric. Jimmy’s yard is crowded, even cluttered, but, if viewed with an open mind, aesthetically pleasing, imaginatively stirring and alive in a way that is startling now.

Jimmy died last week, apparently the night before Thanksgiving, apparently in his sleep. Neighbors broke in to his house to find him the day after Thanksgiving when he didn’t show up to claim the turkey leg one had saved for him. He was one of the younger residents of a street where older residents are dying with numbing regularity. But the unclaimed turkey leg was an ominous sign. He loved the rituals that marked the seasons, and took comfort in the gestures of consideration that proved he had friends who cared about him.

He had too many other opportunities to feel unnecessary, unwanted, unloved, inconvenient and, maybe hardest of all of those, misunderstood. He was born about 60 years ago, almost completely deaf, and with a brain malformation called Chiari Syndrome that causes hydrocephaly with problems that worsen over time. He learned to read lips and adapted well to the limitations of his hearing. He worked with horses, had pets, drove a car, and had his own home. But the ramifications of the Chiari multiplied over the years, taking away all but the last of those.

Dizziness by then had made work, driving and caring for a pet impossible for many years. Ringing in his ears tortured him. Loud noises — the only kind of noises he heard — made his head hurt and made thinking impossible. He got disability benefits, and, when visiting an uncle known as “the Sheriff of View Street,” discovered there was a place he could still enjoy life. He bought his own trailer and moved to View Street a little more than 10 years ago. He did work around the park for residents, helping with their gardens and tending to the common grounds. He spoke about his education, his travels, his work as a lifeguard. He had one older lady friend, and then another, my mother. He made her life complete, giving her the most loving relationship she had ever known.

But he also grew harder to understand, and at times the struggle to make sense in the face of condescension and derision infuriated him. He dwelled on slights that were both deliberate and incidental: the neighbor who startled him repeatedly by blowing his horn when driving up behind him; the neighbor who borrowed $5,000, promising to pay it back and to take him to doctor appointments as interest — and then did neither; the neighbors who complained of lapses in his work and his erratic ways, the neighbors who didn’t bother to try to understand him responded carelessly; the neighbors who, unlikely to pick fights with those they considered more equal, scapegoated him . . . and the list grew, as one bad turn begat another.

Running into him became trying, for those he had real grievances with, for those who didn’t want to be involved, and for those who remained sympathetic but struggled to respond to the litany of repeated and increasingly incoherent complaints. Even his small talk was challenging, as he strove to make sense from the words in his head.

Sometimes his head seemed to clear and he was happy again — with the island at the end of the street, keeping track of the stray cats and wildlife around his home, eating a lobster dinner, sitting on the sand with my mother watching the water and the sky. He was much better, people said, that last week — emerging from his house after a long period of sullen solitude.

Then suddenly he was gone, leaving an echoing silence, a void in the lives of those who helped him and who he helped, and his yard, which now serves as a portrait of a man who made the best he could of what he had.