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.