Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Making Sausage

The Florida State Legislature is a part time organization which pays $30,000 a year to the elected representatives and per diems that max out at $6,000 extra dollars for lawmakers who show up to the annual part time sessions at the beginning of each year. Low paid part time work ensures only wealthy people will run for office in the Sunshine State, a situation that is leading a major South Florida news paper to despair.
Florida used to be a Democrat stronghold like the rest of the former Confederacy after the Republican Party led abolition in the Civil War. It was a centrist party in a calmer era when Governors who knew and cared about Florida grew up in the state they came to lead. Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles were my heroes from that era who steered a course that appealed to the steady center in a  state that has seen vast amounts of immigration from people seeking sunshine and not local politics.
Since 1996 the revolution initiated by President Nixon who shredded the social contract that held Democrats together, Florida has been an all Republican state gerrymandered to keep the GOP in power despite a majority Democrat electorate. I had high hopes for Governor DeSantis, a native Floridian who started out with similar political positions to those Democrats in the political center 60 years ago. Then he got ambition and switched his allegiance to a national political agenda on the radical right, which puts him in the odd position of pushing sensible environmental legislation supporting Florida's delicate ecosystems, while charging ahead with an exclusionary political agenda to support his run for President in 2024.
Florida is a pivotal state in national elections but seems oddly incapable of bringing home the bacon. Those good old fashioned pork barrels of yesteryear seem to have passed Florida by, and as someone who used to wonder critically about the give and take of politics in my firebrand youth, I wonder how incompetent are our politicians become.  Reliable, dependable support used to be worth some infrastructure dollars or education grants or something, but modern Florida is run by blowhards who never learned to negotiate. Oh well!
Back to the Sun Sentinel linked above. Granted it's the newspaper of record in the blue dot that is southeast Florida but still, their list of ten outstanding accomplishments for the state legislature this year does not speak well to Florida's state legislative process.

Where to begin? Let’s start at the beginning with House Bill 1, the No. 1 priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. More than any legislator, the governor bears the most responsibility for this shameful body of legislative work. His fingerprints are everywhere.

‘Anti-riot’: A trifecta of stupidity: a racially motivated attack on citizens’ First Amendment rights, a national embarrassment and a disaster waiting to happen. Under the pretense of public safety, this law provides legal immunity to crazies who drive SUVs into crowds of protesters. Signed into law by DeSantis before a conspicuously all-white crowd, this monstrosity is a device to advance his presidential hopes. Floridians will suffer just so DeSantis can spout right-wing “law and order” talking points on Fox News.

Big Tech: Rubber-stamping another DeSantis priority, Republicans imposed new regulations on social media platforms with fines of up to $250,000 a day for de-platforming or censoring politicians (SB 7072). We condemn censorship, but Republican politicians are the last ones who qualify as protectors of speech (see HB 1, above). This is a distraction from the real problems Floridians face, a sop to Donald Trump and his followers, could protect hate speech and is probably unconstitutional. Lawmakers added a carve-out for any social media channel whose owner also has a theme park, which shows their real priority is deep-pocketed donors like Disney, not Fox News viewers.

Elections: Republicans won big in Florida in 2020, but they’re jittery about how many Democrats voted by mail. So they insisted on a partisan crackdown on mail ballots and the use of drop boxes that Democrats favored in 2020. The GOP shunned voter advocates and local election supervisors and silenced opponents at hearings in Tallahassee. These unnecessary restrictions will be attacked in court and should be. The state association of election supervisors said Friday the bill (SB 90) will make it harder for people to vote.

Guns: Even an NRA neutered by its own misdeeds can’t make lawmakers show any gun sanity. They legalized guns in churches that share property with schools (HB 259) and expanded a decades-old preemption of local gun regulations (SB 1884) by adding unwritten gun policies, such as verbal instructions to local police officers.

Preemptions: You name it, power-hungry politicians in Tallahassee want to control it at the expense of cities and counties, from guns (SB 1844) to energy policy (HB 919) to seaports (SB 1194) to home-based businesses (HB 403). The latter guts local oversight and makes it easier for the guy next door to open an auto body repair shop or massage parlor. It’s total overkill, a glaring contradiction to the small-government idea that government closest to the people governs best. If you want to fight City Hall, head for Tallahassee.

Transgender kids: For sheer cruelty, this one beats them all. Republicans revived a bill thought dead and used their raw power to ram through a ban on transgender female athletes competing in girls’ and women’s high-school and college sports (SB 1028), sticking it in a charter school bill. This heartless ostracizing of a marginalized community took place despite protests from Democrats, such as Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, who made a deeply moving speech about his trans granddaughter. “We don’t need this!” Torres shouted. “But obviously some don’t care.” No, they don’t.

Unemployment: Despite billions of dollars from the Biden administration, stingy lawmakers refused to raise Florida’s jobless benefits. They will remain $275 a week for a maximum of 12 weeks, among the lowest of any state (HB 1463). And the long-overdue collection of sales taxes on sales by out-of-state online retailers (SB 50) won’t help working people. The $1 billion a year will replenish the fund that pays jobless benefits, making it a Republican giveaway to businesses who normally support the fund through unemployment premium taxes.

Republicans tried to fool the public into thinking they were doing something by raising the age to smoke and vape from 18 to 21 (SB 1080). But that’s already in federal law. What the bill really does is wipe out stronger local regulations to curtail marketing and sale of tobacco and vaping products (more preemption). To no one’s surprise, makers of e-cigarettes are reliable donors to political campaigns. (more kowtowing to moneyed interests).Vaccines: 
Pandering to the anti-vaxxer crowd, lawmakers banned so-called vaccine passports, making a misguided DeSantis executive order permanent (SB 2006) and trampling on counties where the COVID-19 virus has been harder to control — especially South Florida. The result means that businesses, schools and governments cannot force people to prove they’ve been vaccinated.

From left, Florida Democratic Reps. Buzz Ritchie, Steve Geller and Fred Lippman watched their majority disappear for good on Election Night 1996.
From left, Florida Democratic Reps. Buzz Ritchie, Steve Geller and Fred Lippman watched their majority disappear for good on Election Night 1996. (Associated Press)

Vouchers: The privatization of public education continues. Lawmakers expanded school vouchers so more parents can send their children to private schools at public expense. A bill (HB 7045) consolidates two popular scholarship programs for special needs students with a third program for low- and middle-income families and expands eligibility to incomes of nearly $100,000 for a family of four. At the same time, lawmakers cut a $600 book stipend for some Bright Futures scholarship recipients.

This year marks the 25th year of Republican control of both houses of the Legislature. The GOP secured a majority in the Senate in 1994 and the House in 1996. This is no way to mark that milestone. The Florida Legislature is broken, and the only fix is at the ballot box, starting next year.

There is no real reason to expect Democrats will win, especially as the party is doing a sterling job of alienating Latino voters so more of the same can be expected in the next session next January. Until then the Cabinet governs with the Governor and only the Secretary of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs is a Democrat. Imbalance is the rule in Florida.
For me the good news is Florida is fiscally sound and has among the best funded pension plans in the country. They don't pay a ton of money but the money is there for the pay out, which seems a better outcome than a huge pension with no funds to back it in the style of California and Illinois. I feel slightly guilty that poor Floridians bear the bulk of the cuts in the budget but I have long been a  believer that term limits come at the ballot box so voting seems more crucial than ever for those seeking change.
I'd like to change the minds of people who park at trail heads in the turning space instead of parking 50 feet back on the side of the road. I will surely fail:
I suppose it's obvious that I rather like this funky strange state of mind, the place that the rest of the country makes fun of, or despises by turns. Things can always be improved and silly lawmaking can be overturned but as we wait for a change in the will of the voters we have that other side of the state to enjoy, and the weird stories and the bizarre eccentricities to keep us amused as sea levels rise and all this lovely weirdness faces the very real possibility of one day being submerged, much to the relief of strait laced people everywhere, them and those who hate mosquitoes and fear alligators.

Lane Pittman from Jacksonville Beach went viral when this picture of himself preceded a hurricane of national interest. He sent the money he made to hurricane relief. That's the other side of the Florida Man stories, the good stuff no one tells you. This is still the state where the interesting stories come to be turned into legends.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


I wonder how much I will miss mangroves and palms, sweat and humidity in the not too distant future?
I know I'll miss the no maintenance swimming pool behind the house. We swim in the canal during the months of daylight saving time, when there is daylight after I get home from work, on days without lightning or rain which makes the water cold.
We used to go boating from our old home on Ramrod Key as we lived on a busy canal and the bay had islands and shallows where we could anchor and even picnic when the mood took us. Cudjoe Bay is a broad shallow basin with nowhere to park and picnic so we swim in the canal, easily and often.
I haven't yet grasped the nuances of submersible photography as must be evident, but I know there will be days when the water is clear and the sky is bright, so I live in hope.
Simply having a submersible camera seems revolutionary enough for me. Were I inclined I could drop it, walk on it, put it in the freezer or boil it and they say it would be fine. So I photograph my foot with it instead.
I got to thinking that if my travels work out I should be seeing much rain, a fair bit of wind, some deserts and sandy beaches and therefore I should get prepared. I got an unobtrusive black colored Olympus TG6 which the reviews said takes the best pictures among underwater cameras. It also fits in my pocket and has a complicated menu that does lots of things but gives me brain ache trying to remember them all.  It will take pictures fifty feet underwater.
I quite like the pictures, I find, especially considering I was bobbing around like an unsupported cork pushing wet hair out of my eyes.
The great thing about the Olympus is that you can twiddle knobs and dials with wet hands, unlike a waterproof smartphone. The entire camera is self contained with even the zoom is inside the housing. It is no bigger than a smartphone though thicker perhaps, and fits into a pocket. At $450 its a lot cheaper than a phone though it's got GPS if you need to navigate. It can't make phone calls, thankfully.
I fiddle with it obsessively trying to learn the nuances as I am told it rains quite a bit in Alaska.
On the whole I am an 80/80/80 type of human.  I like 80 degree air temperature, 80 degree water temperature and eight percent humidity. Don't think that will be on offer in those places where the tough Olympus will shine.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Cruising Blues

One of the benefits of growing old is that you come to realize, some seniors figure it sooner, others figure it later, that what they told you when you were young really is true. Life is a shared experience and we all go through similar growing pains and often reach similar conclusions. Its true what they used to tell us that good health s worth more than anything. You really do gain wisdom and lose the need to reform the planet in exchange for some elderly ironic detachment. I'm speaking for myself you understand. However looking back over history one can't help but feel that life might have been easier and more prosperous had the fire brands of history cooled their jets a little bit. Napoleon without the lust to conquer, Puritans not getting it onto their heads that God hated fun and those Spaniards and their insatiable need for gold...Ambition has a lot to answer for.

The city of Key West got overwhelming support for three referenda to limit cruise ships, their sizes and numbers of passengers. Personally I find my life is unaffected in large measure by the appearance of cruise ships however after a year of no sailings it does seem water clarity has improved in the Keys, and some particularly dense people seem to want to believe the two facts are not related. A century ago Upton Sinclair put it succinctly: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

There was a move to overthrow the city position by state law in one of those ironic moves from the Republican dominated  Florida state legislature whose passion to overturn local control seemed to fly in the face of whatever is left of a party political platform. In the end it looked as though lawmakers were going to leave the issue well alone and Key West's regulations might stand. Then a Key West billionaire hotel developer, who owns one of the cruise ship docks, stepped in and paid a cool million dollars to get the referenda overruled and the state legislature obeyed the call of the money and voted Key West back into the mainstream. Blatant and thus slightly weird. Upton Sinclair had a point.

I suppose once upon a time outrage would have followed this sort of news of the weird but from the high ground afforded by old age I know we live in the age of robber barons and blatant vote buying is the order of the day. Wealthy people got first dibs on the virus vaccine, does that come as a surprise? 

The cruise ship referendum was a funny old bird, politically speaking as it clamped down on low end tourism, in line with the mayor's manifesto to attract high end cultural tourists to Key West. She won the last election decisively but I'm not sure the consequences of electing an anti-populist mayor were clearly understood. Despite all the lamentation about the shortage of affordable housing the city seems helpless in the face of a workforce drifting to easier economies.

There are plenty of jobs in Key West but rentals are not available if you don't have $2,000 a month and six thousand to move in, to housing that may not be at all attractive. The pandemic has had its predictable effects on worker morale and stability. 

Of fifteen budgeted positions in dispatch only seven are filled. Officers trained to help out are shouldering more of the burden as we work short staffed. And the drive is on to hire and train new people with a  ferocity and determination I have never seen before. City employees are under staffed, we are constantly training police officers who live further and further  away from the city. I used to be an eccentric living at Mile Marker 28, nowadays I am completely normal (in that respect).

These problems are universal, and in a  time of massive wealth accumulation I keep hearing about cute bohemian retreats under siege. The entire county of Cornwall in Britain is becoming a second home hell for local residents who as usual can no longer afford to live in one of the most desirable vacation areas in the country. No coincidence it is also relatively remote but opened up to long distance part time residents by means of modern technology.

The good bits about living in the Lower keys are exemplified by the side benefits of a wealthy community, the support for the arts, cultural activities and functional social systems. Key West offers all the well known entertainments as well as plays and art exhibits and so forth. The city also has an astonishing array of services for the destitute, humans, mammals, reptiles and birds. It's just too bloody difficult to make a modest living and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Cruise ships will be back, possibly this summer, the waters will grow murky and entry level jobs will need to be filled in the stores currently empty that sell ship visitors plastic souvenirs of one more port call.

Many years ago when we came to terms with this odd half life in the tropical United States we used to laugh that life in Key West offers First World prices with Third World service and none of the charm. Our cheerful mockery of the bizarreness of southernmost life has come back to haunt us a bit. 

Driving eight hours to get my van fixed is how I live. I know lots of people who refuse to drive to Miami never mind Tampa on the grounds it's "too far." A far as I can tell there is no choice. Key West as a permanent residence is getting tougher.

And the beauty remains. The lack of serious crime, the sparks of non conformity, the weather, the friendships forged in the crucible of difficult living, the sense of shared sacrifice, the fiercely guarded memories of times past. If there's only one stressed clerk in the store, or no tradesmen who answer your call for help, that is your badge of honor, your shared difficulty, banal and yet frustrating.

Lots of Keys residents come here to escape hard lives elsewhere, and exchange emotional repression for economic depression, which can takes years to build up resentment and exhaustion.

I was born a nomad, always ready to wander and curious to see new things. That I came here 20 years ago and never left is a testament to the amazing power of Key West to attract and hold anyone. In some strange way Key West repels those not suited to life in this town. Others it embraces and opens doors as if by magic. How we got lucky I don't know but here I am.

I am very fond of the novels of Graham Greene and his portrayals of Europeans out of place and striving to fit into cultures in foreign lands. I used to have this imaginary Greeneland (as his critics describe his imaginary locales and states of mind) of my own. I pictured myself an elderly gringo living in an isolated Andean town in the manner of a place under an ice cap or a volcano. I would live among the townspeople accompanied by my dog and my walking stick sitting on the benches in the plaza watching the world go by and occasionally startling lost visitors by giving directions in fluent English before relapsing into the back ground noise.

You could have done that once in Key West and some did, but now it would take a lot of self control among the "see something, say something" crowd who call the police on anything untoward. I would not be a literary figure here, I would be a nuisance. Oh well.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Tampa Trip

I finished work Wednesday night, got in the van and changed out of my uniform and drove past my home  (and Rusty) and took the long lonely road to the mainland. It was a lovely evening but I made sure to keep the engine revs below 2,000 as we cruised at 60 miles per hour. Channel Five bridge:
I got gas at the end of the highway just before the 18 mile stretch putting 22.5 gallons into a 24 gallon tank with a range showing 375 miles on the Promaster's dashboard. My plan was to drive non stop to the rest area at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Tampa Bay. My estimated time of arrival was around 1:30 in the morning. Alligator Alley (I-75) Naples:
After my motorcycle accident when I was three months in the hospital I had to make check up trips to the surgeon's office in Miami. One thing that did freak me out two years ago was how a three hour trip to Miami exhausted me. We went from the University of Miami hospital to a hotel and I went from wheel chair to bed and passed out. I wondered if I would ever get my stamina back? South Rest Area, Sunshine Skyway, 1:30 am. Dinner Stop.
I guess by now it's safe to say I did. Eight hours driving after a twelve hour work day and I was still wide awake and able to heat up a Lean Cuisine in the microwave without falling face first into the plate of tortilla fish.  I opened the small slider windows in the back which allowed a lovely cool breeze to blow, and stretched out in bed in the North Rest Area at the bridge. It's a banal highway rest area but noted in reviews for its scenic properties. I certainly observed the beauty in the morning reflected in the windows of the minivan   parked next to me:
I was alone in the van, no need to walk a dog or step aside for my wife so I made tea, ate the egg salad and sausage breakfast Layne had prepared for me. Then I washed my dishes and myself, the sink water drains to a tank  in order that we may leave no trace of our passing. I took a second cup of tea and sat outside watching a rather shapely dog walker herd her three animals across the grass. I missed Rusty but I enjoyed being contemplative and not active. Sunshine Skyway North Rest Area 8:00am Thursday:
My destination was Jerry Ulm, the self proclaimed Number One Ram Dealer in the United States on North Dale Mabry, Tampa, Florida. My van was squeaking after our Miami trip last weekend and I wanted the noise diagnosed, not on Facebook by shade tree critics but by an expert. I got what I asked for. I called to book a service on Monday and they took me in Thursday morning promptly. Manny took the van and directed me to the waiting area, a coffee shop with socially distanced seating. 
There was a time in my callow youth when a new engine noise, the sound of a jet engine spooling up when revving above 2,000 rpm would have made me cover my ears and press on. However decades of experience and an allergy to roadside break downs convinced me this needed seeing to. The Ram dealer in Key West "doesn't do Promasters" I was told and what might at first seem like a set back actually turned into a giant blessing. Things happen for a reason....actually they don't but you do need to have the capacity to see lemonade when handed a lemon. A small part of the vast air conditioned work area at the Ulm dealership:
While I sat and read a history of Central Asia (a future destination I hope) Manny and the mechanic pored over the engine which was actually displaying what I had hoped was a delusion.  They heard the noise too, making it very real, and thought it was an idler pulley but as they lacked the exact right replacement they sent for one across town. I had a Cobb salad for lunch at the cafĂ© and very good it was too:
I found these pictures to explain to home base what was wrong, a suspected broken idler which keeps tension on the belt that operates the generator and starter motor broadly speaking. Manny made it clear that it was not supposed to seize after 17,500 miles and this was a warranty job, possibly completed by dinner time. Whew!
Well, it turned out I wasn't so lucky. The good news after they installed a replacement was that the noise went away for a couple of seconds but because Jerry Ulm hires conscientious people they double checked and the noise came back! This was not a warranty repair and I was looking at about $1200 to fix things. The second alternator installed to give extra battery charge to the RV battery bank (600 amp hours of Lithium) in the back of the van was dying noisily. I asked them to order the part from Nations in Cape Girardeau Missouri. The All American family business declined to overnight the replacement alternator and could not promise it would arrive by Tuesday...I wish the problem had been the idler but my Ram Promaster is solid and intact.
I was prepared to take a hotel room for the night so it was with some sadness I arranged a rental car at the Enterprise desk inside the dealership (!) and took my few belongings out of my retirement home. I felt truly weird shutting down the power and opening the fridge door before walking away from GANNET 2. See you in a  week I hope:
They gave me a Chrysler minivan to keep for a week. The rental car market has been ravaged by the pandemic I was told and Enterprise can't do one way rentals anymore as they don't have enough vehicles in their fleets to send them away. I called around and the best quote I got for a one day one way rental to Key West was $375. The van for a week at $450 seemed like a deal! I hope to drive back next week and pick up GANNET2 all ready to go again. That's the plan. The return trip Alligator Alley 3:00pm Thursday:
My wife is having shoulder surgery in Tampa and we have to be in town for her pre-op meeting with the medical staff and the Florida Orthopedic Center not far from the Ulm dealership. All this trouble with the van set her nerves jangling as we planned to take her home comfortably in bed after the operation. Van Life as basic life support ambulance...Four Lane Highway 27 and Krome Avenue to Homestead avoiding the Miami Freeway mess:
In the end I got home around 9:30 Thursday evening in time to give some reassurance that all would be well and to reassure Rusty that I hadn't abandoned him forever. The Eighteen Mile Stretch, Sunset Thrsday:
The next task will be to get the van back running properly and I have every confidence Jerry Ulm will get it done. The technician did not seem at all put out by the camper conversion and I was much reassured. I'm glad to know there is a strong dealer I can count on as we gear up for departure.  I want to think I can rely on them for pre-departure checks and after the party checks on the van when we get back to Florida after Alaska. This small problem has been very useful and instructive. Overseas Highway in the gloaming:
I hope Nations will honor their pledge to build the best and strongest alternators by recognizing that 17,500 miles of service deserves warranty protection. We shall see but my wife the former lawyer isn't convinced and is planning her small claims strategy. That might keep her busy in retirement as she recovers from the surgery. I will be working overtime for a few months more to pay for this small setback... A mobile retirement might require quite a few mechanical repairs I'm thinking so this is just good practice to be patient and deal with what needs to be dealt with. May the power of Social Security and the Key West retirement system never grow less. A journey with monthly income will be a novelty for both of us. I hope not all of it gets spent like this!