Wednesday, December 17, 2008

We Are What We Eat

MSNBC ran its program on Jonestown again the other night.

(For the few who might not have been born yet when the events at Jonestown took place thirty years ago or who are otherwise uninformed, an American religious leader, Jim Jones, led over nine hundred of his followers to the jungles of Guyana, South America, to set up an experimental agricultural colony. He went completely mad, and induced almost all of his followers to take their own lives, and the lives of their children, mostly by drinking Flavor-Aid laced with poisonous cyanide.)

Someone commented, “What planet were they ON?” Answer: a very small and compact planet, the Jonestown settlement. And the mind-control aspects of cults are well known, as is the fact that for every charismatic, manipulative leader there seem to be dozens, if not hundreds, of unquestioning, sheeplike followers.
But there’s another aspect to the Jonestown situation that the documentary touched upon only briefly. The original plan was to create a self-sustaining agricultural settlement, but coastal Guyana’s poor tropical soil doesn’t lend itself to traditional agriculture. The people had been living on a diet of rice and little else for months, while working and living in tropical heat. Their bodies were depleted of minerals and salts. Most of them must have been suffering from borderline malnutrition, notably the lack of certain vitamins necessary for mental acuity. They became passive and more likely to accept anything they were told. So it was easy for Jones to talk them into mass suicide.

Some years ago in Haiti I witnessed a similar scenario, although in this case the preacher himself was the victim. Earlier in the day it had rained. The boss was checking on some equipment in one of the sheds on the site, and slipped on the rain-soaked wooden stairs. He somersaulted down the steps and came down hard on his back, breaking a scapula. I drove him to the Hopital General in downtown Port-au-Prince in the hope of getting an x-ray of the shoulder and some sort of medical treatment.

Although the hospital itself seemed like something out of the pages of Dante’s Inferno, they did have some x-ray equipment, and the staff did their best to accommodate us. The process took the better part of two hours. During this time a young, earnest blond-haired American showed up at the hospital. He seemed extremely upset. He said he was a missionary from a Pentecostal denomination, one that I wasn’t really familiar with.He said that he was living in a small country town on the southern peninsula, and that he had been there for about eight months. He felt for sure that Satan was up to his old tricks in the village where he was working. Just the day before, for example, a woman caught her four year old daughter stealing, and to imbue her with a sense of Christian morality, she immersed the girl’s hand in a pot of boiling water. By morning it appeared that this may not have been such a good idea, however, and the missionary, the mother, the little girl, and some townspeople began an arduous day-long trip, fraught with mechanical breakdowns and misadventure, into the capital in search of medical help. “I can’t help but think that Satan followed us here tonight!” said the young man, his eyes searching the trees in the darkened street beyond the hospital. It was apparent that the guy had been having a rough day. A long trip in a series of Haitian tap-taps is a wearing experience, even for a young person. Still, his whole body seemed to be twitching unusually.

“So, you’ve been out there in the village this whole time?” I asked. He said that he had. “And what kind of food do you eat?” I asked.
“I eat what the people eat,” he said. “I didn’t come here to lord it over them and have my own special food. What’s good enough for them is good enough for me.” It was then I noticed that he had sores on either side of his mouth. I remembered from somewhere in my past (an eighth-grade science class, perhaps?) that this was a symptom of some kind of deficiency disease, like pellagra or beri-beri. (It’s actually caused by a lack of vitamin B-12 in the diet.)
“Dude, I’m not a doctor,” I began, “but I think it’s really a good idea to take vitamin pills while you’re here. I mean, I do, and I feel much better.”

I was about to tell him about the sores at the sides of his mouth, and how it was caused by his diet, when one of our Haitian engineers rushed into the hospital. He’d heard about the accident via the jungle telegraph, and had come looking for us. He’d already made arrangements for the boss to be examined at a private hospital in Petionville, where one of his cousins was a doctor.

I went to wish the missionary good luck. He was still looking out at the trees into the darkened street outside. “Look! Was that a bat?” he said. I never ran into the guy again. I hope he remembered to buy a bottle of vitamins before he went back to the village.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey Island

The Rhesus Monkey (macaca mulata) is native to Asia, its natural range encompassing northern India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, southern China, and some neighboring areas. They have close-cropped hair on their heads, which accentuates the expressive, humanoid appearance of their faces. They are an adaptable species, acclimated to many habitats, including some in close proximity to humans. This is most common in India, where they are associated with Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. A few troops of introduced rhesus monkeys reportedly now live wild, not only in Florida but also in South Carolina!Monkeys used for research come from private labs which raise them for that purpose. This was the source of the moneys that escaped to form the South Carolina colony. In the early seventies colonies were set up on two offshore islands in the Florida Keys.
We’d heard stories about these islands. When we acquired a used canoe a number of years ago, it seemed downright tempting to paddle out quietly for a closer look. It was a long and strenuous paddle, especially before we figured out how to use the tides and winds to our advantage. (Time your arrival with the low tide; that way you’ll take advantage of the outgoing tide on the way out, and the incoming tide on the way back in. Stay in the shelter of islands as much as possible in an adverse wind; use a following wind to your advantage.)
Once we got out there, we were treated to an exotic sight, an alien species adapted to our local ecosystem. The monkeys seemed to form troops of ten to twenty individuals. They expressed curiosity about us, but interestingly would not look any of us directly in the eye. When it became apparent that we were staring back at them, they would quickly avert their glance.
Another odd thing was that each troop seemed to have a slightly different appearance. The face color on some groups was more reddish. Others seems to have a more yellowish cast. Although we’d been told that they didn’t swim in salt water, we saw a group of twenty or more leap out of the trees from one side of a narrow creek, swim a few strokes, and disappear into the trees on the other side.By the late 90's tree-huggers were convinced that the monkeys were denuding the islands of vegetation and polluting the water. It’s certainly true that one of the islands had had a good deal of its mangroves stripped of leaves. We never saw any major evidence of pollution in the water. In any event the monkeys were gradually evacuated, someone said to similar islands in the Bahamas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Life in the Keys Back When

This picture of the two vessels at the dock in Miami always fired up my imagination, picturing an idyllic, probably non-existent, vision of a simple, romantic island life of time gone by.

As my old friend Charlie Hordt used to say, “The good old days? Forget it! What was good about ‘em? Everything was harder then.” The early islanders lived without refrigeration, telephones, radio and TV, screens on their windows, penicillin, automobiles, or power tools.

Maybe so, but we still cling to an idealized vision of times gone by, whether it’s to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Wild West of TV and cinema, or to the Leave It to Beaver years of post-WW II America. Some would call it “escapism.”

A digression: Looking at that picture more closely now, I see that the American flag and Union Jack have 48 stars, making it post-1912, when New Mexico and Arizona were added to the union. 1912 was also the year when the Overseas Railroad was completed.

Ironically the advent of the Overseas Railroad meant the beginning of the end of island schooners like the two boats in the picture. Produce and seafood from the Keys could now be shipped by train to Key West, and more importantly to Miami and points north via refrigerated railroad cars.

For sailing buffs: We don’t know where the Crosland was built. But we do know that the family had a commercial fishery in Marathon for many years. The Crosland itself appears to be considerably larger than the Island Home. The article linked here ( indicated that the Island Home was close to 60 feet on the waterline, and weighed over 40 tons. We can also assume that by this time both boats probably had auxilliary motors. Neither of these boat’s owners were without means, and the addition of a motor greatly improved the craft’s manuverability and ultimately its survivability.
This is a photo of the christening of the Detroit, the first gasoline-powered vessed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a trip it made in 1912. (So it's most likely both of the Keys vessels in the photo were equipped with gasoline engines by this time.)

And after all, what’s wrong with being an escapist? You’ll certainly never have to worry about office politics. There’ll be no need to dress down for “casual Fridays.” And you won’t have to worry about what a tranch is.

What was life like on the Keys before the railroad? Most of the settlers came by boat from the Bahamas. Miami was just a small settlement on the river. Some of the Keys had shallow wells, where settlers could take advantage of the fresh water lens that floated atop the heavier salt water below. Additional amounts of fresh water were obtained seasonally from cistern that held rainwater.

On most of the Keys the land could be cleared to reveal a rich topsoil overlying a sandy layer. On rockier areas natural sinkholes filled with years buildup of composted organic matter were also used to plant melons and fruit trees.

Did the settlers lead a “South Pacific” tropical island life? Or was life for them "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Well, neither extreme, it would seem, but there was no doubt they were tough. They lived without electricity, window screens, running water, air conditioning and fans, and most of the conveniences that we take for granted. Early census records list the professions of the settlers as farmers or “seamen.” All of the families must have had boats or some sort, most likely Bahamian type sloops. Some settlers were also listed as “charcoal makers.” Charcoal was needed for cooking, both locally and in Key West.

With the arrival of the railroad most settlers on offshore islands moved to the main islands where they could take advantage of the convenience of the trains.

Oddly, some time after the civil war, a relatively large settlement on Vaca Key, which is now the city of Marathon, disappeared without explanation. Whether by disease, depredation, or simply discovering a better place to call home, the families who were recorded as living there simply disappeared. (I always thought this story would make a good plot for a book or movie.)

A few people in the twentieth century emulated the lifestyle of the earlier settlers. Russell and Charlotte Niedhawk were two of them. When I lived in the Upper Keys in the 70's, many people knew them and spoke highly of them. Their interesting life is described in a post from Conch Scooter’s blog.

Others, many of whom would just as soon stay anonymous, have made homes for a time on the offshore islands.This idyllic setting was the home of an affable retired fire chief on one of the offshore islands. We met him while visiting on a camping excursion in 1995. The building was basically in ruins when I took this picture about ten years later. He left it sometime in the 1990's, before the island was raked by Hurricane Georges in 1998, and further damaged by Wilma in 2005. The last we heard the property had been bought by a fishing guide, who just visits it from time to time.

"The good old days? Forget it!" Yeah, but it's nice to think back to a quieter time, to a quieter place, if only in the shadows of our minds.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Leon Learns About Thanksgiving

Here’s a picture of muh old pal Leon catching his first barracuda on a camping trip in 1995, just before the following events took place. He was at the beginning of an extended American sojourn when I met him, possibly the ritual Czech equivalent of a German’s Wanderjahre. Our first meeting coincided with my realization that I would never have to lift another heavy sheet of plywood again, if I were smart enough to hire someone else to do it for me. I employed Leon as casual labor for most of the following year.

When Thanksgiving came around I did my best to explain to him the nature of that beloved American holiday. I left out the political niceties of the Mayflower Compact, but touched on the story of the Pilgrims’ first year in America, how they had lost half their shipmates the first winter, but finally had harvested their first crop, and how they took time to thank God for their deliverance, and invited their native American neighbors to a meal which we still commemorate to this day.

And of course I invited him to spend the day with us, to enjoy a good meal, maybe watch some football, and to see what our custom was all about. His attitude surprised the heck out of me. He would have no part of it!

"In the first place, that means that I must to go one day with no pay, and this sucks. In the second place this sounds like some kind of religious fanaticism, and if that’s what you want, fine, just leave me out of it. I have been warned about this. If I cannot work, then I will go fishing."

He came to work the next day and quietly went about his duties. After a while he told the following story.

Yesterday I mad because no work. So I go fishing all morning. Then I go to get lunch. I see this guy Ricco who sell food from stand with umbrella by street. I go him and get sandwich and drink. I say, “ How much?” and he say me, “Nothing.”

I say, “Nothing? What for, this?” And he say me, one time on this day he have no food. He living on street in Miami. Someone feed him there. And he say, next time, when I can, I will give food away on this day. So every year he do same thing. So no pay.

“That’s pretty interesting,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Leon. “So now I know, what you mean.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Now THOSE Were the Days

Here's a photograph of an old photograph discovered recently. Years ago I borrowed it in order to make an oil painting of it. I made the painting and gave it to the photo's owner, but kept the photo intending to make another one, something I never got around to.

The photo shows two Keys fishing vessels, the John B Crosland and the Island Home, at the docks of the Miami Fish Company, presumably on the Miami River in Miami. The Crosland, a gaff-rigged sloop, appears to be about 60 ft. on the waterline. She's flying the American flag, a JBC flag, a union jack, and what looks like a Mexican flag.

The photo's owner had no information on the photo, other than that it was taken on the Miami River. The painting had been left at Crosland Fisheries in Marathon, Florida, after the property was sold. The original fishhouse was torn down, and the site is scheduled for a condominium development.

Update: Here's an interesting bit of history concerning the Island Home.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Looking for a New Church

The thirtieth anniversary of the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana will be this November 18th. MSNBC has been showing a documentary on that event (it's scheduled to be shown again this weekend, November 15th and 16th). 913 people gave up their lives, more or less voluntarily, on that day.
How did so many people get caught up in that madness? The documentary reminded me of this tale from a then 17-year-old, and how his family dodged a bullet, so to speak. (His mom was a "shoestring relative" through marriage. Something of a hippie, she had moved her family to rural Ukiah, California in the late 1970's. Her son told this story on a camping trip around 1982.)

We were living in Ukiah, and my mom decided one day that it would be a good idea if we started going to church. "Everybody should belong to a church," she said. There was a new one near us she'd heard about. A lot of people were going to it. It was a different kind of church. It was called "The Peoples' Temple." I don't remember much about the service. Music and talking, I suppose. There were a lot of people there, and they seemed friendly. But what got us was these guard towers all around, with guys with guns in them. I mean, what was the point of that? It sort of creeped us out, and we never went back, not to that church.

A lot of people got caught up in a lot of crazy things back then, and we suppose they still do today. That family has had their ups and downs, but Jonestown was one bullet they were able to dodge.

Moral: If your church sports a guard-house, you'd better keep lookin'....

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Back in April, when we were voting in Florida's non-binding presidential primary, I ran into an old acquaintance, who always had a unique opinion on current affairs. (E.g., "Obama can't make it. Don't waste your vote.") (He looks a little like the drawing at left, just add captain's hat, goatee, and twin tobacco stains. Yet he's considered a guru by some, and has an impressive local following.) Some of his recent jags have been: Cambodia, the next place to invest (and live,) and Nicaragua, the unrecognized real estate investment of the century. ("You can buy a hacienda for a few pesos down.")

I asked him what his current predictions were. "Well, after doing considerable research on the world financial situation, I have decided that the best and safest place to put my money is Iceland, yes that's right, Iceland. I'll soon be investing everything in Icelandic Kroners."
We haven't seen him to confirm whether he bought the kroners or not. If he did, we suspect he's laying low. Iceland's over-leveraged economy crashed in a major way this fall. Financial analysts are referring to it as "the canary in the coal mine." How Iceland gets out of its fiscal jam will be an indication of whether it's going to be possible for the rest of the world to get out of theirs.
The accompanying pictures are part of an Icelandic ad campaign in response to British PM Gordon Brown's use of anti-terror legislation to freeze assets of Icelandic banks in Britain.

No, none of these people pictured look like terrorists to us. They do look like poor suckers who got caught up in a messy situation like everyone else in the world.
And now the proverbial canary has kicked the bucket. In a coal mine you sound an alarm, put on an emergency breathing apparatus if you have one, and head for the nearest elevator.

In the real world you make arrangements to protect whatever assets you have, and make preparations to deal with whatever may come. In Iceland that may include preparing yourself to eat fish in the dark.

Monday, November 10, 2008

L'Ado Francais

It's said that America has a love-hate relationship with France. Sure, they helped us win our Revolution, and we bailed them out in two World Wars.

A couple of years ago some friends entertained their 15 year old French nephew at their home in Key Largo for the summer. The idea was that the lad should learn English. He seemed to acquit himself well with the locals, and spent many an hour shooting baskets with new friends at a nearby court.

We thought it was only right that he should be treated to a canoe and kayak tour in the Lower Keys one day.After all, the Keys are a unique environment, and there is a lot more to the place than a basketball court and a few video games. He can have that at home. So we set out on one of the mangrove creeks. His uncle had been an exchange student in France years ago, and was able to explain the names of the birds, fish, and other marine life we saw on our excursion. Ever trying to be the obliging host, I attempted an occasional pleasantry based on my one formal year of study of the French language (bolsterd by a passing knowledge of Haitian Creole, and a recent trip to Canada). After all, the boy had come here to learn something about our country, and hopefully to pick up a few words in English.

When we got back to the launch site, his uncle went off to find a restroom. The kid (who hadn't yet uttered a word of English) turned to me and says, "Yo, flip me the keys to your truck. I'll turn it around for ya."

It was one of those cases where you're not really sure if you heard what you think you heard. "Excusez-moi?" I said.

"Your keys, man. Let me have the keys, and I'll bring the truck around."

"Why, you little son-of-a-gun! You mean to tell me you've been able to speak English the whole time? And you let me struggle trying to explain things to you in French?!"

He answered in his own language, with a smart-alec grin. This time I got the gist of it. "Well, you need all the practice you can get, man!"

Memo to my monolingual countrymen: You were right. They can speak it. They just don't want to!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Captain Tony: A Living Legend Passes On

Click Here for some more recent news.

News item: Anthony "Captain Tony" Tarracino, "Mayor Emeritus" of the city of Key West, charter boat captain, saloon owner and visionary character who brought world attention to Key West, died Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008, at the age of 92.

About two years ago I walked into an Office Depot store and was surprised to see Captain Tony standing at a copy machine, busily making copies of something. I asked him what he was up to.

“Just printing some pictures of my 90th birthday party last week. I’m glad I saw you. Here, take one.”

Like any successful politician, Tony acted like he knew you even if he didn’t. (I had met him many times, going back to the 70's, but then so had thousands and thousands of other people.) Tony had something more than the knack of remembering faces, though. He had the gift, when he talked to you, of making you think that you were the only other person in the world that mattered.

For all his fabled exploits--gun-runner, bar owner, fishing guide--with his rare ability he would have been a success at anything he tried. He could have sold refrigerators to Eskimos, if he’d wanted, and make them glad he did it. If we could somehow bottle that knack of his, and spread it around, the world would definitely be a better place (and a lot more fun.)

Much has been said and more will be said about Captain Tony. Tony himself would probably admit a lot of it is just “b.s.” The simple fact is, he was a really nice man, and he had a great time. We should all do so well, before moving on to that Great Dog Track in the sky.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Mysterious Maya

Back in the Eighties when we lived for a while in Belize, rumors abounded of a brisk illegal trade in Mayan artifacts. The locals were tight-lipped about it for the most part, but one did hear stories of certain government honchos (long since departed) who, among others, were a conduit for this profitable business.

On one of our rare weekend excursions to the hinterland we ran into a couple of guys who worked for our company emerging from an even more remote area. They raced past us in a battered, mud-splattered Land Rover. In the back they had shovels and digging tools.

I'd been an afficionado of Mayan archaeology since discovering a copy of American explorer John Lloyd Stephen's Incidents of Travel in Yucatan while visiting friends in Mexico a few years before. I knew that grave-robbing and trading in artifacts were destroying any chance of learning the history of the vanished Mayan civilization. Sooner or later science would find a way to decipher the hieroglyphic writing on their ancient monuments. (And indeed, in the ensuing period, intelligent and incredibly patient archaeologists, after a lifetime of work, have cracked the Mayan code.) But the archaeological value of a hieroglyphic carving or a piece of art is much greater when it is discovered in situ, rather than by itself in a private collection far removed from its original place of origin.

Our chance meeting with the local guys led to a few discreet inquiries later in the week, and human nature being what it is, one night not long thereafter they showed up at the house to show off their loot. They actually came a couple of times. The first time I remember that they had things that looked like they might have been authentic, including pieces of green stone they claimed were jade. They were covered in mud, as if they had been recently dug up.

The second time they came they brought statuettes that they also said were jade, but they weren't green--they were a lighter, softer stone, and looked suspiciously like the kind of things that you can buy today at any schlock shop along the "Mayan Riviera." These, too, were covered in mud, but also had small fibers on them, as if they'd been buried in someone's yard, and grass roots had grown around them. Yes, there were also rumors that a few clever people, including some enterprising archaeology students, had taken up the practice of manufacturing and selling some convincing but completely fake artifacts. All in the interest of financing their own legitimate studies, of course.

But one piece they showed us did catch my eye, the granite disc shown above. It was only with considerable persuasion that they consented to allow us to photograph it. It was about ten inches across. The reverse side was concave, like a shallow dish. There were no signs of modern tool-marks on the piece, and it was difficult for me to imagine any modern-day person taking the time to create something out of such hard stone, just to pass it off as a legitimate artifact. I mean, with the skill and work involved, wouldn't there be a way to use those skills and effort to earn an honest living?

Later I had a print made from the original photo, which was a slide. I sent the print to National Geographic, explaining how I'd come by it, and how I thought it might have historical significance. After all, it does seem to show two priest-kings having some kind of palaver, and the glyphs up the center look like they might be an important date in Mayan history. Maybe I'd done my small part in saving this valuable piece of the Mayan puzzle.

A few months later they sent the photo back, along with a snide letter saying: "It's obviously a fake. Even the glyphs are wrong (you idiot), they're backward."

OK, so the photoshop must have turned the slide around by mistake. You'd think that the people at National Geographic would have considered that possibility. Then, again, maybe granite discs like this are commonplace souvenir items. But I've never seen one like it. So I still wonder....

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Choosing A President, Then and Now

Throwing out some junk today, I found this old 2" x 3" print of Nixon campaigning at the capitol in Albany in the fall of 1968. (He's in there somewhere, along with Nelson Rockefeller and a few other bigwigs of the time.) Nixon was running against unabashed liberal Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was a compromise candidate, chosen in a tumultuous convention in Chicago that summer, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. 1968 was a tough year for Americans.

Since Nixon's defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election, the public consensus had been "Nixon can't win." He'd given a bitter exit speech, telling the press "you won't have Nixon to kick around any more." He sat out the 1964 Goldwater debacle, but campaigned actively for Republican candidates around the country in the 1966 congressional elections, and accurately predicted the gains the Republicans would make that year, re-establishing the "new Nixon" as a viable candidate.

He cleverly exploited the voters' yearning for a return to "normalcy" amid the sea of changes in the Sixties. He'd been Eisenhower's vice-president. Ike had ended the Korean conflict. Nixon claimed to have "a secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. He used a slogan he claimed he saw on a poster held up "by a little girl" at one of his rallies: "Bring Us Together." Historians will continue to ponder the root causes of what came to pass during his six years in office, but at the end of his presidency the nation was more divided than at any time since the War Between the States.

Are there any parallels between that election of forty years ago and the election that will take place in a couple of days? It's said that the "Imperial Presidency" ended with Nixon's disgrace. We no longer write the word president with a capital 'P,' as we once did. But the power of the presidency and the power of the federal government continue to grow, so that the daily lives of all Americans are affected by what happens in Washington (as we've seen in the continuing "bail out" legislation).

McCain and Palin are calling for massive cuts in federal spending, and playing to the "Middle America" that Nixon exploited so well. They've convinced a great many voters that Obama is a "socialist." They favor winning a war that has already gone on longer than World War II, but which has neither clear objectives nor a successful exit strategy, in spite of the lessons learned in Vietnam.

Obama, on the other hand, has based his campaign on the notion of "change." He's been purposely vague about his plans to bring peace and to restore prosperity, especially in light of the arrival of our day of economic reckoning. Few politicians refer to themselves as "liberal" any more, although the liberal paradigm has actually been the warp and woof of our national domestic policy since Roosevelt. In this race Obama is clearly the liberal.

So what are the parallels? We'll leave that b.s. up to the talking heads. Suffice it to say, whoever wins, let's hope he doesn't go wacko on us like Nixon did.

And one other observation: politicians are like diapers; it's a good idea to change them often, and for the same reason.

Peace, out.

A Set of Cojones

Back in May I mentioned that a friend, Bill Estes, was running for County Commission and posted a link to his campaign website (see links, upper right). I told him that I really admired his courage, because when you run for public office (as one insider told me, as if it were a revelation) "they'll say terrible things about you." And Bill was taking on one of Monroe County's powerful "Gang of Three."

Bill had moved to Key West after retiring from Ma Bell and opened a small dive business. He soon became involved in Key West's longest zoning battle, when he bought a condo unit in Key West's Truman Annex Shipyard Condominiums, a development which had been promoted originally as "affordable residential" housing, but which soon morphed into resort condominium units rented hotel-style to tourists. Bill is a big, easy-going sort of guy, so it wasn't a surprise that before too many years had passed, he became chairman of the local Democratic Party.
Bill (and the small handful of full-time residents of Shipyard) lost that battle, although he had plenty to say about it, and moved to a more traditional neighborhood, but didn't sell the condo right away, so with the decline in real estate prices, basically had to hang onto it for a while.

Now, a few days before the election, the local paper prints a story that candidate Estes hasn't been paying his condominium "maintenance fees" ($550 a month: so much for "affordable"), and that the condo association had placed a lien on his property. (Gasp!) Bill explained that he's in the middle of a "short sale," and that everything will be settled up if and when they close on the property.

Conclusion: It does take guts to run for public office. And "they" will drag up anything they can, including fiction if necessary, and you can be sure, "they" had the computers whirring, trying to dig something up. In this case, if that's the best "they" can come up with, Bill's a pretty good candidate.

Postscript: Both candidates remaining in this race, Bill Estes and Kim Wigington are fine candidates. Kim's been "beaten up" as well, and has certainly paid her dues. Both candidates are a testimonial to our country and its Constitution: "regular" people still have a chance to be heard and to be elected.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Eve of All Hallows

As long as I can remember (and that's a long time, Bubba!) our Key West neighbors have hung these stylized "ghosts" from an overhanging Bouganvillea bush in front of their house, so you'd have to duck on your way over to the local 7-11. It's one of the little things that make Old Town a charming place, in spite of the changes of the last few years.

This picture was taken right after Hurricane Wilma in late October 2005, a situation which accounts for the absence of leaves on the foliage. It's a mute testimony to the spirit of the Conchs. This part of town, where the houses date back to the latter part of the 1800's, was the one part that didn't flood.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Overheard at the Pump

Bunch o' the boys, and one gal with a conspiracy theory were pulled up at a gas station down Fayetteville (NC) way this week. Up until recently North Carolina had the highest gas prices in the nation. Something to do with Hurricane Ike, someone said. Both Barack Obama and John McCain were in town that week. One o' the boys said that the gas prices coming down had something to do with the fact that Obama was up in the polls. The gal said she figured the same thing: somebody was fixing the prices according to the political polls.

All this got us to thinkin'--could there be some connection? It does look like there's some connection between gas prices and which way a state is leaning in the upcoming elections. Just take a look at that red streak coming down from North Dakota, right down to Texas and across the once solid South. The red streak ties in nicely with the greens and yellows on the gas price map, showing that were gas is cheap they're voting Republican. (An aside: we always wondered how the Republicans got the red color, and the Democrats got blue. Someone said one of the TV networks started this, and it stuck. One o' the boys said it should have been the other way around, because as everyone knows, Obama's little better than a Socialist, and Socialists, Bolsheviks, and Communists have always favored the color red.)

The places where gas prices are the highest, like the West coast and the liberal Northeast, are leaning toward the Democrats. Now, an exception is the western states. Arizona and Utah have expensive gas, but Arizona is McCain's home state, and in Utah, as everyone knows, Mormons, like Baptists, almost always vote Republican as a matter of faith. Wisconsin and Minnesota are also an exception, but they've always gotten snookered by the liberal-progressive line, ever since that guy LaFollette stirred up all that trouble way back when. And West Virginia, they're in the red column even though they're on the expensive side gas-wise, but those hillbillies are hard to figure. They have kept a Rockefeller in the Senate all these years, after all.
So what's it all mean? When gas prices are low, people vote to keep the status quo? That makes sense.
Or could there be a committee down in Houston or over in Dubai manipulating gas prices according to the presidential preference polls? That's what that gal thought, but it sounds like a lot of work, especially since they seem to have Congress under control anyway. And both candidates are members of Congress.

It's said that in times of uncertainty, people come up with all kinds of theories to explain events they don't quite understand. And these are interesting times.
I think it's safe to day, whichever way it goes, most of us will be glad when it's over.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings....

We took another informal, admittedly unscientific poll recently, of friends, acquaintances, and their offspring. The sampling included a great range of thirty-somethings who live in all parts of the country and a few college students as well as their parents. A few of the parents are "East Coast Liberals," but most of them are conservative business and professional people, and not a few are Southern Christian fundamentalists.

Here's the surprise: No one under the age of forty is planning on voting for McCain. With one exception all of them are going to vote (or have already voted where early voting is available) for Obama.

The one exception, a young man from the Mid-South, is going to for for McCain-Palin, because "She's hot." (Sorry, folks, it's true....his vote counts just as much as yours does.) Of course this is far from a scientific statistical sampling, and much can still happen in the next week, but the momentum does seem to be on the Obama side.

What does all this mean for the Republicans? There's some evidence that the Republican--Fundamentalist marriage is on the rocks and may soon be as dead as the Reverend Falwell. And there's talk of Palin's "going rogue," and positioning herself for a leadership role in the aftermath of this year's projected loss.

Another possibility: Our poll also showed a number of disillusioned conservatives planning to vote Libertarian this year, to protest the Republican's failure to scale back the size of government despite all their rhetoric. Perhaps, as in the past, the emergence of a credible third force will lead the "out party," in this case the Republicans, to incorporate that party's agenda into its own. If that happens, and if the boys back East don't find a way to blame their loss this year on her, look to Palin to play a major role.

The Weather Witches Hit a Home Run

We told ya so,
We told ya so!

The Weather Bureau has access to all kinds of data, from satellite photos to ocean temperatures to computer models. But in recent years their long-range predictions of hurricane activity have been wrong as often as they have been right. Years ago farmers, fishermen, and just plain people who spent much of their time outdoors would develop an intuition about the weather, which often worked its way into local folklore.

Earlier this year we tried an experiment to see how the predictions of the "weather witches" would hold up, compared to the forecast of the experts.

We took a non-scientific poll of old timers, both male and female. There are some that will say the number of hurricanes is related to the relative abundance of land crabs. Others will say it has to do with the migration of land turtles across the road (from Ocean to Gulf, mind you), or the temperature of near-shore waters. And there are others who just seem to have an inchoate sense of knowing.

So here is this year's prediction: there will be two strong storms, both of which will probably miss us. Conditions will be reminiscent of 1979, when Hurricanes David and Frederic threatened the Keys, but passed us by.
Now that the 2008 hurricane season is (we hope) basically over, let's see how they did. Yes, two strong storms did threaten the Florida Keys this year, Gustav in August and Ike in September, and they both missed us. (Now, what happened with Ike in Cuba and Texas is a different story.) Hurricane Fay did pass right over Key West, but it was a dud. Last week's freak rainstorm did more damage than any of this year's hurricanes.

So what's the conclusion? Well, obviously sometimes the experts are wrong, and Aunt Gabby is right. "The Ark was built by amateurs," she would say. "The Titanic was built by experts." Now if we could just apply the same principles to the stock market, or the real estate market, for example....stay tuned.

PS: The original prediction, made in June 2008, is here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

Sometimes things creep up on you. Here it is Halloween already, at least in Key West.

Our neighbors in Key West just sent us a potpourri of pictures taken in front of their house a couple of hours ago (Friday, October 24, 2008).
(Hey kids! Here's Grandpa and Grandma on the right!)

Two days ago Key West was bailing out after a record 7+ inch rainfall. It looks as if the drenching didn't damper the spirits of the annual Fantasy Fest revelers.

Key West's annual "Fantasy Fest" developed from an informal custom of adults donning costumes for Halloween. In the Seventies the city hosted the first formal parade, which developed into an annual week-long festivity of parties, fund-raising events, and outrageous antics, temporarily tripling or quadrupling the island's population of 30,000 or so.

The celebration has only been postponed one time, after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. For locals the event marks the end of the summer doldrums, and a barometer to indicate how successful the coming tourist season will be.

Friday night's parade is only a sampler of what the official parade on Saturday night will be like. (Can you imagine all this going on right outside your front door?)

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Conch Train

A recent post in the Bahama Village Blog (see link at right, List of Interesting Blogs) sent me on a trip down memory lane. In 1971 a big issue in the local Key West paper was the battle between local pol Jerry Hernandez and the originator of Key West's "Conch Train," Henry (or was it Bill?) Kroll.

Bill Kroll, according to my former neighbor Joan Shavinsky, who lived most of her life on Southard Street in Key West, was a handy guy who welded a locomotive-like apparatus to the front of a jeep and attached a few cars behind it, inventing the popular Key West sight-seeing tour. In true Key West form he was granted an exclusive franchise for this type of public transportation.

Before too many years passed, Jerry Hernandez decided to start a rival train, using faux trolley cars. With agressive lobbying (and maybe even the passing around of a little "green stuff," another local tradition), he suceeded in persuading his friends on the city commission that his company, called "Buggy Bus Tours," was a different kind of tour, being a "get-on, get-off" operation, as opposed to the Conch Train, which was an "all-around-the-island-in-one-shot" tour. In the end Hernandez got his rival franchise.

Now both operations are owned by Historic Tours of America, and they have successfully duplicated the Key West Conch Train paradigm in many cities around the country.

Nowadays the drivers follow a set tour and deliver a scripted narrative, (see the entry in the Bahama Village Blog), so much so that if you happen to live along their route, after a while you have that part of the narrative memorized. It must have been around 1993, we noticed a fellow with a clipboard writing something near our house on Frances Street. Since a fellow with a clipboard usually means trouble in a place like Key West, we asked him what he was up to.
"So, are you going to dig up the street again?" we asked.
"Oh, no," he replied. "I'm working on a new script for the Conch Train."

The script for that part of the tour involved talking about a couple of epitaths on tombstones in the nearby cemetery. On the hypochondriac's: "I told you I was sick." And on the philander's, presumably placed there by his widow: "At least I know where you're sleeping tonight." (Forced chuckles.) After that they would point out the Haitian Art Gallery on the corner, then the historic "gingerbread scrollwork" on the houses on Southard Street, including Joan Shavinksy's house, where she and her husband had whimsically replaced what original scrollwork may have been there with little plywood gingerbread men along the top of their porch. She and her husband actually sold them to tourists for a while, as a gag, until she got tired of it.

The last I noticed, they were still using that same script. Back in the day, however, the operation was a lot looser. Our friend Larry spent a few months driving the Conch Train one year, and took considerable poetic license with the script. One of his favorite variations was used whenever he would see a shorter, bearded middle-aged guy on the street ahead. "Ladies and gentlemen, here's a special treat for us today--right up here on the left--now I MUST ask you, for he's asked us NOT to point him out, is one of Key West's more prominent residents, that's right, playwrite Tennessee Williams! But please don't let him know you recognize him."

With the clicks of a dozen cameras, some poor befuddled guy from Oshkosh would be immortalized in celluloid forever.

Larry finally got fired, after getting the Conch Train stuck between two buildings while on an unauthorized side tour through the Navy base. He had to call his boss for a back-up train to rescue the stranded passengers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Update on the Voyage of the Manatee Sol Part 1: Ventura to Cabo San Lucas

With the disruption of relocating twice since summer, I’ve found that the Muse hasn’t visited as often as before, but I have unearthed a piece of crumpled arcana which is worth sharing.

A couple of years ago our friend Steve, a young aspiring botanist, (who we’ve met in the piece “King Neptune Slaps Steve Upside the Head,” August 2008) sailed with his father down the Pacific coast of Mexico (part of Dad’s “mid-life crisis,” one suspects), and sent back two separate notes detailing his adventures–encounters with pods of whales, venturing ashore at remote fishing villages, and fighting the unusually powerful storms that made sailing along the Baja coast so formidable that year.

The climax of that voyage was a heroic crossing of the Sea of Cortez during a gale, when Steve, like a young Ulysses, single-handed the Manatee Sol for twenty-four hours, as his dad lay disabled in the bilges, a victim of a combination of mal de mere and South-of-the-Border cuisine.

With any luck the crumpled scrap detailing Part II may also soon be discovered. In the meantime I hope Steve will forgive me for reworking his missive slightly, touching up spelling and grammar, correcting a few nautical terms, and eliminating most of his thoroughly obnoxious Spanishisms.

Well, we have now completed the first thousand miles of our journey, and I am writing this from beautiful, tranquil Bahia de Magdalena, about 150 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, at the end of Baja California. We are anchored off of Puerto Magdalena, a small fishing village, whose population is either 295 or 300 (I've seen both on signs). Looking out a porthole, I see a glassy calm bay, its surface interrupted only by an occasional pelican or sea gull. Toward the north is an endless series of uninhabited sand dunes, a perfect place to search for shells or for some discrete sun-worshiping. Just to the west of the dunes are the first mangroves I have seen since leaving Florida, predominately white mangroves with a few blacks scattered in. Many of the coastal plants that border them are the same as we have in Florida, a couple of common coastal grasses, some saltworts, Batis maritima, and sea purslane. The only major differences are the scattered chollo cactus and a prolific aster with Flaveria-looking flowers.
The mountains start just past the dunes, rising up with their desert scrub to form the thin barrier between us and the Pacific. The indigenous spiny Magdalena mouse and black-footed jackrabbit descend on occasion into the dunes, as evidenced by their tracks, visible between the clumps of vegetation. The bay almost looks like an ocean itself. One enters through a narrow mile-wide entrance with thousands upon thousands of sea birds, and then the bay spreads open like an inland sea.
It was first visited by the Spanish in the 1500's, and the small town we are anchored near was founded about 1709 by a Catholic missionary intent on establishing a refuge for fishermen off the coast of Baja.
Whale bones and skulls, boiling tanks, and other relics of the whaling industry still litter the coast. We saw a pair of whale ribs set up in front of the only restaurant in that little town that each measured at least fifteen feet.
The voyage has been grueling so far, no doubt about it. We’ve had few days where the wind didn’t get up to thirty knots. There have been several days with constant twenty to thirty-five knot winds all day. At times we had those conditions for days on end. If sailing during the day has been tough, the nights at sea were correspondingly tougher with the rocking of the boat in the darkness, all of which made reaching safe harbor at last that much more a welcome event. One particularly interesting stop was Bahia de San Quentin. The night before we arrived, we went through a series of squalls, blowing rain and cold sea spray in our faces as we bounced in the twenty five-knot winds. After a truly exhausting night, when we reached the harbor, both of us slept for almost twenty hours.
The next day, we noticed several whales passing by us on their way up into a sheltered lagoon. We were surprised, since the water there was so shallow. Later, when we tried to go into town for food in the dinghy, we were even more amazed. The lagoon was crowded with gray whales; we didn't realize it until we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a pod. One surfaced off our port side, only about thirty feet away. Its back was eight or nine feet wide, about as wide as our dinghy was long. Their breath thickened the air all around us, and we steered out of them as quickly as possible.
Their company continued for almost our whole trip, sometimes surfacing through flocks of a type of drifting sea bird, a beautiful tern-like bird we were never able to identify. Sea lions along the coast barked encouragement. As we looked back, the whales’ breath was like a fog above the water. Although we never did reach the restaurant (possibly just as well), the trip was worth it just for this remarkable encounter with nature.

The lagoon has five extinct volcanoes that rise to the north of it, remnants of ancient peaks, which now resemble well-worn hills. It had been unseasonably cold and the inland mountains were wreathed in snow that day. I'm glad to say it has finally warmed up a bit.
The next day, when we left, the sailing was better, at least at first. A couple of hours into the sail, I saw a whale breaching over toward the shore. What an incredible sight, a huge mammal rising up out of the blue and foam to suspend itself momentarily above its aquatic world, almost as if it was saluting the sun. I've heard that they do it to rid themselves of parasites or as an aid somehow to their navigation. But I think they do it just for fun, just because they can.
The feeling of seeing them is such a pure joy. It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise.
Being conscious of the occasional damage they do, unwittingly I suppose, to the unlucky sailboat, I steered offshore to try to stay out their way.
That may have been stupid, but it seemed to make sense at the time. As I headed out, I realized that there were hundreds of them around us, making their way back north. They had the most disconcerting habit of appearing right under the side of the boat or in front of the boat, and I saw at least one pass right below us. Never could get any pictures of them though-- they would just disappear by the time I got my camera out.
As I finish writing this, we have finally arrived in Cabo San Lucas, and we’re enjoying being on land. It's a stark contrast from the rest of the Baja California, which is sparsely inhabited and mostly a windswept desert with Sonoran cactus standing guard over the coast. Down here is the land of yachts and fancy people from California getting their tan on. It'll be nice to get down to the mainland where things are a little more authentic. People everywhere have an interesting story to tell though, especially when you bother to listen, although the Spanish helps, I must admit.

Bueno, amigos, espero que todo esta bien con todos ustedes, y que mi mensaje lIegue a encontrar todos feliz y con bueno salud. iHablaremos pronto!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Treasure Chest

Here's a true story related to me an authentic Keys character. I've tried to retain some of the original language of the account. The names have been changed "to protect the guilty."

Bunch of the boys was out in the Bay pulling traps. A crab trap cost about $20 at that time. Crab season was about over, and it was time to get your traps in, if you was going to do it. It was one of them clear days when you could see the bottom and everything on it. Generally the Bay was churned up, cloudy, not like the water on the Ocean side, which was cleaner and clear, even though the waves was higher on that side generally. The bay had more silt in it, and this is why it was usually stirred up. Also a lot of algae which the fishermen called gumbo. There was a lot of gumbo in the summer. But this was spring, and it was one of the first days that the bay was calm and clear. In close to shore schools of mullet stirred it up, but offshore where we was, the water was deeper and there wasn’t any mullet there. They was closer in, in the shallow creeks and flats in close to the Keys or the islands in the back country.

When it was that clear, sometimes you could see things you couldn’t see most of the year. For instance, large coral heads. A lot of people only thought you would see them things on the reef on the other side, but it’s a fact the bay is littered with them, here and there, where you’d never expect to see them. And they was always full of lobster, fish and other things. Sometimes you’d see the outline of a sunk boat. Sometimes it would be a boat that you knew, or used to know, like the one Cecil Davis lost out there after it burned years ago. (After his boat sunk, they throwed a party for him, a benefit-like, to help him get back on his feet, so to speak. The funny thing was, the son-of-a-bitch ended up with more money than he ever had, and he’d been a commercial fisherman his whole life!) We knew where it was, near Oxbow bank, and sometimes when we was pulling crab traps out near there we’d see it, but sometimes not. Some said it moved around, but I’m not sure about this.

So one day we was out there and it was clear and we saw the outline of another, really big boat. We wasn’t sure what it was, only that it was big, and not one we had seen ever before. We anchored up next to it, and put on masks and swam down to have a look, to see if there was anything still on it that we could take off. Sometimes there would be portholes or bronze fittings that people would pay good money for. But this boat was old, and there wasn’t too much left of it. After a while B comes up and says he sees some kind of a shape on it, square, and he wants to have a better look. He takes a metal bar and goes down and digs around it, like, and says it’s some kind of metal box. Things is lighter underwater. You can lift a cement block, for example, like it’s light like a piece of wood, not like a piece of cement which would be heavy up on the surface. But this box was so heavy that he couldn’t move it, and he was a big boy.

Eventually we got a line around the bottom of it. We have to dig around the bottom to do this. It took a couple of lines around it to get it hooked up, and then we all pulled like all get-out to haul the thing to the surface, but we couldn’t get the thing up into the boat. It was too heavy.

We had to kind of drag it through the water, alongside the boat. B called in to BW, his wife on the CB radio. He was kind of vague about what he was saying because anybody could have been listening, just said he was bringing in something heavy and that they should call C to see if he had something to rig up to get the thing out onto the land and to get it open. That’s all they had to hear. Couple of them bimbos had CB’s in their trailers at that time. They was always listening to what their old men was up to, and gossiping on them things the rest of the time.

So by the time we got in, there was a whole welcoming committee. In the meantime they had been speculating on what we had there, and had decided of course that it had to be some kind treasure.

Writers of crime stories often describe their subjects as being afficionados of treasure hunting magazines, the type that used to adorn the magazine racks of drugstores back in the Fifties. I was surprised to find that some of these are still published in this day and age. I suppose the underlying psychology has not changed, an appeal to the adventure seeking urban wage slave who never actually gets a chance to dive for the elusive flash of gold or any other romanticized activity. The idea of sunken treasure is a major archetype in the public psyche.

Today the same urge might be satisfied with the purchase of a power ball lottery ticket or a trip to the nearest Indian casino, with the lure of instant riches, if not adventure, and a small chance of actually coming away with something.

So they was talking, the way women do, about what they would do with the treasure when they got their hands on it.
“CV has always wanted a Monte Carlo,” one of them said. “That’s one of the first things we’re gonna get.”
“My old man’s gonna take me to Miami,” said another one. “We’re gonna go to the best hotel on the beach, and rent the penthouse suite. We’ll have one of them champagne bottle with the flowers on it.” No mention of who was going to take care of her snot-nosed kids, and no talk of buying anything sensible, or of setting any money aside for anything productive, like basic necessities or school things, or maybe even get her teeth fixed.

(One of the premises of Keynesian economic science is that when you put money into the hands of the poorer classes, they will immediately spend it.)

They keep up their dreaming-out-loud. Then they start arguing about how what was the right way to share up the goods. So-and-so should get more because he saw it first.
“Shut yer whore’s mouth!” says B. "Right now everybody here is gonna get one piece of this. C is gonna get a share because he has the lift to get this thing up on the dock, and he’s got the tools to get the damn thing open."
They sent the bitches over to one side, out of the way where they could keep waggin’ their tongues without getting in the way. C got out his hammer and cold chisel, and started work on the chest. It took almost an hour, but finally he was able to pry the top off.
“What the hell IS this shit?”
Inside was a rusted mess of crystallized metal. They tore off a chunk. The women started to argue again.
“Let’s take it up to C’s trailer. He has a microscope.”

He not only had a microscope but also that basic tool of every treasure hunter, a Geiger counter. “Yeah, of course. You don’t have one?” he would say.

It turned out that the entire contents of the mystery box was a rusted-together shipment of metal sewing needles.
Someone kicked the box back into the water, and it most likely sits on the bottom of that canal today.
As for the treasure ship itself, this was back in the days before G.P.S. No one really knew exactly where it was or what is was. Somebody said it might of been a Confederate paddle-wheeler, sunk trying to run the Union blockade way back when. Whatever she was, she is still out there today.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Should This Be Happening? You Tell Me....

OK, so we were out of the country and out of touch for most of the recent financial "That Was the Week That Was," when the pundits were actually comparing the present economic situation to the events of October 1929, the sell-off that began the Great Depression.
When we got back we had a half dozen calls on our answering machine. One was from an area code I recognized as Ft. Lauderdale (954). It was a guy from a mortgage company asking for someone named Diane. It clearly appeared to be a case of the wrong number.
But something happened that reminded me of the Glenn Close character in the 1987 movie Fatal Attraction. (She appears to be killed, but comes back to attack again and again.)
So this morning the phone rings again, and, yes, it's the mortgage guy from Ft. Lauderdale, still looking for someone named Diane. I explained politely that he must have the wrong number; there's no Diane here.
"Oh, that's too bad," says the voice. "She must've made a mistake on the application form she filled out on the internet." OK, I'm thinking. That sounds plausible, but after last week's events, it seems sort of odd that they are still handing out mortgage money via the internet.
"So, how IS the mortgage business these days?" I ask.
"Hey, it's just great!" comes back the voice. "Now, do you rent or own?"
His segue came so quickly, I was taken aback a little. Now I'm starting to think that maybe there was no "Diane."
"Uh, actually we're renting right now." I said. "And if we do buy any property, we're thinking about buying something cheap enough that we won't need a mortgage." (That's providing, I think to myself, that the banks don't collapse between now and then, and we can get our money out.)
"Oh, that's great," he says. "Most people aren't in that fortunate a position."
I'm thinking I have already said too much.
"But you ought to consider getting a mortgage anyway," he goes on. "The mortgage situation has actually never been better! We're offering a fixed rate at 5%."
I'm remembering that at one time Ft. Lauderdale was the "funny money" capital of the world, even before the "Miami Vice" years of the Eighties.
"And what's better, the mortgages are now backed by the full Faith and Credit of the United States Government."
"Yeah," I replied, "you mean the taxpayer." And every other schnook who depends on the relative stability and worth of the dollar, which has lost almost a quarter of its value since 2000, even before the crazy events of last week.

So I ask, what's with this? They're still hawking mortgages like they're used cars--everyone can afford one? And now I find that the whole fiasco is so complicated and complex that it's unlikely either presidential candidate can explain it. I find that if you don't know how a tranche works (or what one is), you don't have a hope of understanding what's going on.

So what's Joe Sixpack to do? Sign up for more debt? And is there anyone at the top who dares explain all this? Or is the house of cards so fragile that an accurate explanation would be enough to bring the whole thing down? Stay tuned...and plant a garden.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hurricane Alley

Jimmy Buffet's Store
Originally uploaded by Mangrove Mike
Seems that in the run-up to Ike, an e-mail purporting to be inside information out of a county office in the Keys made the rounds, predicting that the Keys would be swept by a Category 4 storm. (This was reported via an editorial in the Key West paper today. ) Of course the dilemma has always been: Cry Havoc vs. Poco-Poco. The body politic will now have to decide on a format that will help people make reasonable judgements when a storm approaches.

And then there's the insurance fallout. Wait until we see what the Texas-sized recovery bill will be after Ike. It seems like "assumption of risk" would be a good doctrine to apply to development in Hurricane Alleys, rather than calling on the rest of the country to ante-up for repairs when the inevitable happens.

We ourselves are dodging hurricanes and going to Florida and then to the Bahamas for a week or so.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Eyes Have It

This is not an article about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It’s about her glasses.
(For some background on Sarah Palin when she was running for governor of Alaska, including the source of the accompanying pictures, click on this link.)

I took only one “easy” course in college, “drawing and painting.” They actually gave me three academic credits for it! I didn’t feel guilty about taking something I considered easy, or even fun, because most of my other courses were science courses, and I spent most afternoons doing what they called “lab work,” while the ec and poly sci majors got their assignments out of the way so they could drink all night.

One of our first assignments was to draw a self portrait. I suppose the idea was to show us just how hard it was, or to make some kind of a statement on one’s abilities of self-perception, or perhaps just to see if we had any talent at drawing. I can’t remember what mine looked like, only to be thankful that I crumpled it up and tossed it into a trash can where it undoubtedly belonged.

What I do remember, and what stuck in my mind over the years about this exercise, is the instructor’s outrage at how the women’s self portraits turned out. “The guys’ drawings are about what I expected,” he said in his rasping, New England-accented voice. “They’re vacuous. They stink.” (With the possible exception, of course, of a couple done by those who turned out to be his “favorites.”)

“But I’m totally concerned with the ladies’ self-perception here. There’s something distinctly annoying about all of them,” he whined in his irritating-to-this-day manner. “Can’t you see what they’ve done?” he said, using the third person. This fellow was a great one for handing out insults under the pretext of personal eccentricity. “They’ve all made themselves look like Jackie Kennedy!”

I took a look around, and sure enough, in one way or another, all of them did look like Jackie Kennedy. (Later that year she would marry Aristotle Onassis, thereby becoming Jackie O.)
This was at a small, selective, coeducational New England liberal arts college in the late Sixties. Now, I have to confess to a degree of misogynistic tendencies stemming from the time I spent there, but I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that most of these “babes” looked like stereotypical androgynous librarians and sounded like Diane Rehm of National Public Radio on a very bad day.

So I was amazed that what the instructor pointed out was true. These ladies, with some of the highest College Board scores in the country, most of whom went on to graduate school AND had the requisite 2.3 chidren, had the same tastes and perceptions as their less-favored counterparts who were lucky if they went to vocational school somewhere. Do we have a similar situation in this country today?

“Listen to this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who tell their lords, "Bring, and let us drink.” Amos 4:1

I recently made a rare visit to a big-city mall, and was surprised to see merchandise marketed to ladies, bearing the faces of Hannah Montana and Paris Hilton. So I guess it’s true, as Mencken noted, “Nobody ever lost any money by underestimating the taste of the American public.”

And having learned all this, I wasn’t surprised to see the following article:

It seems that Sarah Palin has catapulted Kazuo Kawasaki's designer eyeglass frames into the spotlight in a huge way, and it looks like the beginning of a celebrity eyewear trend. Palin wore the custom fitted frames during her speech at the Republican National Convention, and consumers are now clamoring to get a pair of the exact frames.

According to an article in USA Today, the VP of Italee (the US distributor of the eyeglass frames) said that her company is getting calls from dealers who want to stock the exact shape and style that Sarah Palin was wearing. The manufacturer is stepping up to produce enough of new lightweight, titanium, rimless rectangular frames to meet the growing demand.

The designer eyeglass frame Palin was wearing starts at a suggested $375.00, without the lenses. Getting the exact frame and shape right away might be hard because Palin's frame was customized to fit her. She chose from about 300 frames (ed. note: Vanity, thy name is woman?) before picking the 704 series Kawasaki frame in the 34 gray color, but the strong rectangular shape was custom-cut just for her.

So as the popularity polls swing toward the Republican side, we have to ask ourselves if this a result of the electorate’s finally focusing on the real issues. Or could it be disaffected Hilary voters coming over to John McCain’s brilliant choice of a woman for a running mate? Or could it be that, simply, they think her glasses are cool?