Wednesday, April 1, 2020

April Fool


I feel the need to reminisce a little. It was about 1986 in Santa Cruz California where I lived and worked at the local public radio station. I was a news reader and reporter full of beans and out to change the world. I was no longer a student, I was newly divorced and the holder of a Green Card, alone and lonely and found companionship and a paycheck at the funky radio station a short walk from my home tied up in the marina below the hill.
I had the idea to do a news story on April First and to get it done I asked the Program Director to join in the fun. Johnny Simmons was never averse to stretching the boundaries of eccentricity and he gladly joined me in the recording studio to prepare the interview. Johnny used to put out baseball cards for his hillbilly radio show. In the example below he's playing the cop on a traffic stop.
It turned out I had discovered a university professor in Indiana who had come across an extraordinary prehistoric fact. There was in fact evidence of a mass migration from Siberia to the Central California Coast previously unknown to historians. It must have been a great story as a newspaper reporter called in right after the news ended asking for contact information for the professor. Michael always gets the most interesting interviews she told the station receptionist no doubt in an effort to butter up the little radio station.  When I heard the receptionist and the program director laughing I had no idea what to do with myself. Covered in embarrassment by the success of my joke I had to come clean making me regret playing April fool jokes for the next eleven months at least.
It seems these days that every day is April Fool Day, though the joke is decidedly on us. Every day brings new rumors and silly speculation. Somebody called me at work yesterday asking if the keys were open to tourism. No seriously, not only did he not call the chamber of commerce he called the police department and was surprised when I told him no. How long for he asked? When I told him no one knew he asked the question again. No one knows I said and he rang off with a tone of disbelief in his voice. True story even though it sounds like a joke.
In between a few regular calls for help I got another caller on my shift who called to ask me how to get in touch with the Highway Patrol. Seriously there are functioning adults who don't know how to operate a search engine so they call the police of all people to get commonly attainable information. Key West is a kind place actually and I will do what I can for you, which is another reason I like working here.  This one told me he was done in Key West and driving home to Utah and he wanted to talk to the Florida Highway Patrol about road conditions. That's easy, I didn't even need Google for that one as I've seen the signs all over the state. Dial Star FHP I said.  I tried that he said and I got put on hold endlessly he said. Okay I said hold on for me. I picked up my cell phone and dialed *347 and got a live operator. Key West Police I said, just checking as a caller told me the number doesn't work. It works she said laughing. I turned back to my caller still happily deluded he was capable of driving across country without a valet to assist him to put on his pants, and patiently explained to him the concept of adding star to the numbers he dialed on his cell phone. I think he got it because he didn't call back.
The status of check points into the Keys on US1 and on Card Sound Road are always changing. The Governor recalled the Highway Patrol (they of *FHP fame) to set up checkpoints on the freeways into Florida and our Sheriff complained of a staff shortage so they are getting trained civilians and others to support the deputies at the roadblocks, checking papers on incomers. Then the State Department of Transportation said to take the checkpoints down... that led to a revolt in the Conch Republic led by the same Sheriff who refused and was granted permission to keep them in place. I've heard it said there are half a dozen ventilators at Lower Keys Medical Center, and our public health director who has inspired no confidence so far has promised widespread testing soon, but the fear is these islands would be overwhelmed by outsiders. As if to prove my point the public health director has since retracted his statement and says he'd like to have mass testing but there are no kits to do it.

 It is a bit of an irony I agree that 38 years after the feds closed the road into the Keys in an effort to prevent smuggling and create an immigration check point the Keys are now insisting on a. checkpoint to try to keep the virus out. It most likely is too late and judging by some few of the calls I have taken there is plenty of not quite getting it yet, but else can we do? For myself I prefer education to legislation so let's hope this works. Checkpoints? Must be an April Fool! And yet they aren't as apparently they really are checking incomers. Lesson learned from Hurricane Irma when checkpoints could have saved many islanders from a lot of fear of big city looters. The Sheriff has a long memory and he is now the leader and point man to try to keep us isolated, fortunately for us.
So the joke goes on, no sit down dining, no theater of the eatery, just  take out and delivery  lining up like coronavirus refugees exchanging plastic for food, a break from home cooking, standing in line using my electric bike as a social distancing barricade, avoiding exchanging anything more than distant glances as we wait for our hand outs. I suppose we should be grateful for the wealthy second home owners who have the time to stand in line and the inclination to spend their retirement dollars keeping eateries like Square grouper open against the odds. Ordering out is an act of social responsibility now.
Walking past a theater billboard is a painful reminder of a past life. The biggest joke of all then, is the grumbling we used to participate in about too many tourists, too much crowding, slow traffic, no parking and so forth. We got our wish no doubt about it. Now its time to start grumbling about how long this Eden continues.
Too long probably, but we humans never see the joke until it's too late, if we see the joke at all.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sunrise From A Former Life

I drove Rusty to West Summerland Key and took these pictures Sunday morning because I haven't been there for a while and I miss the views out across the water from the highest point around. The machinery deployed to repair Hurricane Irma damage has largely left, though the work appears to need a few touches to be completed. I don't know if the project will be finished now or later and if the virus lockdown is to blame or if it isn't. Like all of you I just take each day as it comes, things change all the time, barricades pop up and this or that public spot is closed. I expect nothing and I hope for even less. One day at a time...we Americans aren't used to one day at a time are we?
I find myself grateful every day for things like electricity and running water, and despite all the rumor mongering and fears of violence at least around here, life goes on pretty much as always. Except there are fewer people and cars and activity of course. The after effects of a hurricane are much worse, oddly enough, and I never want to be without running water and electricity and Internet and all that crap. Then we can't forget how Hurricane Irma left us with the highway torn up and closed in two places cutting us off from the mainland.  Aside from the possibility of death or severe viral illness this staying in place is a piece of cake by comparison!  It would fine be if you could lift the cloud of worry for the future.
For me the epidemic has exposed far more clearly than I had previously accepted, how difficult it is to be able to look only inwardly. To my European family puzzled by American insistence on small oddities in daily life I have to explain to them that if they got in their car and drove to Moscow they would barely be as far as San Francisco from New York. Then I have to remind them the entire road trip would be and all the way in the same country speaking the same language and using the same currency. It blows their minds. So, I add, why should Americans learn to use metric measurements? Or write the date the same way as the rest of the world? Or learn a foreign language? You may think Europeans travel more and speak more languages than Americans but that's only because you meet the ones that do. I know many people in Europe who have never traveled outside their counties,  Britons who have as little idea about France say, as the average US resident. There is though one mighty big difference between the rest of the world and us.
The US sets the tone for the rest of the world. If a Belgian citizen believes the world is flat who cares? If there are more people in the US than the entire population of Belgium (say) who think vaccinations are a conspiracy this starts to create a movement, a valuable financial proposition to people determined to take advantage of this one issue. Americans don't just elect a president, they elect the leader to the world, like it or not. President Trump and Presidents Orban, or Balsonaro may be cut from the same cloth but who cares if Hungary or Brazil is going down the social shitter? When Americans vote they speak unwittingly to the world. It is enormously powerful to be American whether you like it or not. 
The trouble for us now is that the coronavirus isn't anti-American, it isn't a Chinese communist plot or a plan by the democrat party to win the presidential election. It's a disease that for the time being hurts the weakest and most vulnerable in the world. the elderly and the sick mostly. It is a disease that requires us to care about each other, to make a sacrifice for our neighbors, to try to cut back our hopes and expectations to help others live. It is a moral test and we don't seem to be attaining a passing grade just yet.
To really understand the leadership the United States gave the world in the 1940s you have to go back and understand what a terrible state the world was in during the 1930s. Ordinary people were so fed up with poverty and hopelessness they welcomed dictators, strong leaders with open arms. If a few Jews or Gypsies had to be sacrificed for the greater good, well so be it. In the run up to war the United States did next to nothing, turned inwards, struggling to enact the New Deal, struggling to fight the New Deal, political posturing that nowadays we tend to ignore if we even know about  the history of it. Caring for the elderly with Social Security and Medicare was a massive political fight and saving lives beset by unemployment was a fight only the wheelchair bound president could undertake and win and be called a class traitor by his enemies. Europeans burning down synagogues only became of moment when the US was forced into war. And when that happened the United States to the gratitude of people everywhere got the job done and then some, and set the tone of freedom and decency for the next fifty years.
Something has gone wrong. I hope when we look back after this mess we shall see what we did wrong and our leaders will be able to correct the shortcomings. All I hear now is bitching and moaning from the top, leaders arguing over supplies, companies failing to support workers and fatuous billionaires who fear paying their taxes telling the rest of us to suck it up. Not exactly the material of which the Greatest Generation was made.
In the end I think what will save us is the ridiculous and powerful determination of our neighbors not to be told what to do by the government. Its that paradox of the anti government faction who can see for themselves what needs to be done, the notion that where the people lead the leaders will follow. It shouldn't work but usually in the end, somehow it does. Perhaps it will work in this crisis too.
Finally Americans understand the need for social distancing. Most of us do get it, and so we do it. We understand that buying vast quantities of toilet paper makes no sense and the panic buying will abate. The need to keep on keeping on will overcome the fear of the virus, the need to make money will push us to expect more from those in charge. Someone who understands science has to figure out an exit strategy for us.
Typically human behavior returns to the norm after the impact of a moment of crisis has passed and to judge from history it will be no different after coronavirus. But we can still hope that some aspects of what we learn now and in the coming weeks will hold over as we come to expect more from our leaders, political moral and economic. 
To see pictures of churches filled with people in close contact, to listen to public voices uttering silly conspiracies, to watch our neighbors shrugging off their responsibilities to the weakest among us, hopefully will become socially unacceptable. Perhaps we can go back to arguing political points of view without assuming the other side is unpatriotic or an agent of aliens or some other de-humanizing thing.
Perhaps we can get some good, reset our social clock from the coronavirus problems and learn to work together. I'd like to think this is our Pearl Harbor moment, not a Covid-19 Tet Offensive. I may be hoping for too much. Still it's early days, we have lots of deaths to count, lots more lockdowns, more fear and loneliness to cope with, more good byes and more daily irritations to overcome. I'm just like you: fed up with it all and wanting to go back to planning normal life. I'm still waiting for my retirement van to be finished by the conversion factory! Had the virus come a couple of years down the road and it may yet again, you won't see me for dust...But I'd rather live a normal life, I have no desire for a zombie apocalypse as I lack all the skills to manage my own life from scratch. Keep on keeping on and every chance you get try to take the deviation toward decency in daily life and put your outrage and cynicism on the back burner for a while. It might become the new normal.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lobster Pots

I took these photos a while ago in Marathon and set them aside in the midst of other preoccupations. Now I've found them I want to post them because they remind me of happier times.
I'm not a fisherman but next time you hear someone says there is no industry in the Keys think of these beautiful symmetrical pots waiting for lobster season to roll around. These are the industry that doesn't require tourists.


Lobster pots remind me of the agricultural communities I grew up in. The work is hard, by all accounts as I've never done it. It's all weather dependent and market dependent just like farmers' crops are, and the results can offer workers lots of money or none.

I never found farming to my liking and I doubt fishing commercially would do me any better. I don't even find the time to try angling for fun. I got sick and tired of tractors and fields and and monotony and repetition and the inability to ever get away...
Yet how can you imagine a world without farmers or fishermen? 
To have ever thought I would end up not only working for the police but enjoying it would have rendered me speechless twenty years ago. But I have spent more time sitting in an office than I could ever imagine doing this kind of work, no matter the rewards:
The oceans are warming, populations are increasing and the demand for fish keeps going up apparently.
And yet it still comes back to the crews, almost all are men, in boats, almost all are fiberglass or steel, going out day and night and engaging in a hunt as old as humanity for food from the sea. 
I'm glad I get to harvest mine at the supermarket, but I don't forget where it came from.

Coronavirus Blues

Hard Rock Cafe on Duval Street looking...blue. We read of the massive number of casualties in Italy, a country locked down tight with 60 million people.  9,000 dead there is the equivalent of 45,000 dead in the US in proportion to total populations. Is that close enough to the annual toll of regular 'flu (over a period of months) to make coronavirus serious for the non believers? With Highway 1 and Card Sound Road closed to non residents the plague has given me an unsettled feeling of isolation.
Had the road closures taken place three weeks ago I might feel more sanguine about these late measures to tamp down coronavirus in the Keys but with twelve known cases and hardly any testing it seems exponential math will prove soon enough whether or not it is all too little too late. I have been back at work for two twelve hour day shifts, my wife the teacher is working from home so we are lucky to have jobs and income and not be like so many who are reduced to instant penury by this world wide mess.
If you were to look at my official job description as a call taker and 911 operator and police dispatcher what I am supposed to do is, at its simplest, take calls for help and send help, be it fire police or rescue. Sometimes we call the SPCA or wild animal rescue, or parking control or a utility company or some other form of help, a tow truck perhaps.  What I am not equipped to do is provide information., It is a widespread belief wrongly held that 911 is an information clearing center and when people ask about events or special occasions I usually have no more information than Google does.
So it is that we have a city information line and a county emergency information line to disseminate facts. But these are hard scary times and I find myself pondering the ordinary run of the mill calls, of which we receive very few at the moment, in a  new light. Going to jail is always the worst imaginable outcome of course when police intervene but to go to jail in these weird times is doubly bad. Equally going to the hospital for some relatively minor problem may become difficult or impossible. Fall off your bike? Break an arm? In the world of coronavirus these things suddenly pose existential risks. I read blogs by motorcycle riders and I wonder what they are thinking. probably that they are invincible but to get road rash nowadays could give you a case of the worst 'flu you've ever had, and yet no one seems to think out loud about these extensions of daily life risks.
I show up to work with a bleach bottle sprayer and a gym towel and I spray obsessively. Our bosses are taking this seriously enough that you will see disinfection going on around the police station all day. Officers are trying to work by phone to limit contact but some calls you can't avoid touching strangers. Because I am a dispatcher I am locked down in a room with two others and every time we send an officer on a call or an ambulance to help a sick person I fall back on my gratitude for my job. To be working in a  hospital these days must be an unimaginable stress, never mind the hospitals already overwhelmed by the virus. I work behind locked doors and none but dispatchers are allowed in. We drop paperwork off outside our doors and pick up as much as we can online. There is a casual brutality and indifference created by this virus that I find disheartening more than I expected. We have to treat each other like pariahs and I am sick of it already.
I go home and take a shower and wash my hands (which are chapped like parchment) and stuff my uniform in my own laundry hamper. I wash my clothes and my immune impaired wife washes hers. This is a life without purpose if you have to be surrounded by people and pretend you are alone. Being alone I don't mind at all but crossing the boundaries between actual alone time and socially distancing yourself from actual people makes me wonder how long we can stay sane. I follow the imperturbable Rusty and hope  he can keep reminding me not to lose my mind. So far so good but the tighter the lock down the worse it will get. 
Somehow day to day living continues unperturbed when you look at the utilities including the Internet and food deliveries with a few glaring exceptions. Much of the world would be delighted with the food selection we enjoy in the Keys even with a  few empty shelves. Yet over daily life, a decent meal, streaming TV, ordering books to read, calling 911 and getting a live operator, there hangs the cloud of uncertainty. I would still like a shot at my superpower, to be able to skip forward six months and see what is going to happen.
And so a few pictures.




Old Bahia Honda Bridge, morning:

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Apocalypse Weekend

Start the week with Coronavirus! Happy Day! I took these pictures Saturday morning on my usual Rusty walk around Old Town. In an effort to reduce crowds and the possibility of gathering and spreading the virus more spaces are now closed. Including Simonton Beach. A couple of days earlier Rusty rolled in the sand and I took a picture across the water...Now it's all closed off.
I fear the next apparently inevitable step in the process which is a total lockdown, stay at home order. My buddy Giovanni in Italy, a cardiologist in Terni, sent me an e-mail describing his life at home and he is not a fan of sitting still and enjoying inner contemplation. His private practice has dried up to almost nothing, and aside from making less money he has nothing to do all day...and that freaks him out. Of an evening after a day of listening to hearts at the public hospital and an afternoon of doing it in his private office next to his home he likes to take a walk around downtown, looking in the shop windows, admiring passersby and chatting aimlessly with friends.  All we can do now he writes is take a walk around the block. The despair in his tone is palpable after three weeks of lockdown.
In terms of my daily life my routines have hardly changed this despite my wife's self imposed quarantine for the last couple of weeks. Of course I am fed up taking a bleach spray to work, I've largely given up dodging people at the market and we are relaying on our supplies at home of which we have plenty, and socializing is done by electron. As long as Rusty and I can keep walking, as long as my camera doesn't break, I'm fine thanks. Not hard to be in this perfect summery climate, daily swims in the canal and miles of empty mangrove trails all to myself! I don't go to bars but I share these sentiments:
So far, somehow, Florida isn't in the headlines for rate of infection. In the headlines I see Detroit New Orleans growing in numbers alongside Washington California and the New York area. At the same time Florida's Republican governor has come under all sorts of fire. I don't really feel like he deserves it, even though mine seems to be the minority view. He has been attacked for not shutting down beaches soon enough which is a fair criticism but it was early days for most Americans who hardly seem to have noticed what's going on ahead in the development of this pandemic. With the beaches shut down at last Governor DeSantis was stuck with a flow of New Yorkers understandably fleeing the epicenter of sickness and coming back to their winter homes in Florida. And the bystanders laid into him for that. This is the second time I've seen this group of cyclists riding around the city ignoring social distancing guidelines.
It's this kind of thoughtlessness that pushes governments into draconian measures to protect us from ourselves.  In Britain where the Prime Minister has come down with the disease social distancing was going so broadly ignored by everybody that have had to institute an official lock down. When I walk Rusty I touch nothing, I avoid people and I avoid anything that could put me close to anyone. My sunset walks are alone on trails I've been walking for decades and to have this time with my dog and my camera taken away would really start to piss me off.
Bit of a first world problem when faced with drowning from the worst 'flu epidemic seen in the past century. I just feel that some restraint and thoughtfulness will help us get through this without having ti worry too much about government intervention. If you understand the need for social distancing and how it works you don't need to be nagged to do as you are told by the cops. People have been gathering in groups to watch the sunset through this crisis. They closed Mallory Square to prevent people from bunching. So what did they do? They bunched on the White Street Pier and Higgs Beach. Guess what?
Like so many of us I wonder how we are going to ever get out of this situation. They call it an "exit plan," which no one has a clue about. As usual I watch our friends in Europe who  are deeper into this than us. In Italy one town at the center of the epidemic tried to ease restrictions and the damned virus sprang up again. In Hong Kong they called back government office workers from working at home and as soon as they did the virus came back. I do not envy our leaders struggling to deal with this new problem. I understand the President facing re-election wants to get back to normal but I don't see Easter as a target date. More like the height of infection maybe. I caught a poor quality photo of this guy speeding back to Stock Island with his loot. Paper towels! Yay!
I see people Up North hunkering down in heavy coats and woolen beanies social distancing between snowdrifts and my issue is what time do I want to take a dip in the canal to refresh myself. I talk to people abandoned by their wealthy bosses to fend for themselves and I have a job with the most supportive organization in Key West. Small businesses are struggling to keep their people working, facing the possibility of falling between the cracks and not getting any support from the Feds. So I figured what the hell. I am going to post a few unrelated pictures of things I saw on Duval, colors shapes and unconsidered trifles I had time and peace and quiet t look for on our walk yesterday morning. Nothing to do with the virus directly.














I hope the pictures make up for my coronavirus grumblings.