Monday, February 8, 2021

Five Years With Rusty

My wife first remarked on the gray hairs Rusty has started growing around his mouth. I'm not sure if it is merely a matter of finding what you are seeking or if our observations are accurate but Rusty seems to have entered a more meditative phase of his life. He gallops less and sniffs more. I photographed him at the motorcycle shop where my last Vespa is waiting for a new ignition coil prior to going up for sale. Jiri the owner was looking the parts up and I was taking a lesson from Rusty in waiting patiently. Jiri was amazed as usual by his calm patient ability to wait and not wander.  
Jiri's dog died recently, middle aged and with a failing heart and Joey's death had the usual devastating effect on Jiri, an effect people who don't like dogs don't understand. Jiri told me about a dream he had a week after Joey died where the dog came to him and reassured him all was well. I told Jiri my main hope as I lay dying in the road was to pass up between the clouds I could see overhead where I wanted to meet all my dogs from lives past. Fortunately or not the paramedics intervened before I got there. The encounter was postponed not cancelled.
Jiri is reluctant to find a replacement to fill the space Joey's departure has left in his life. He brings up all sorts of nonsense about working all the time, flying to Michigan to see his daughter, the state of living and working in a motorcycle shop as though a dog were burdened with our sensibilities of class and status. Rusty likes nothing better than to sit in the dirt outside his shop and watch the world go by, and indeed on this visit I could hardly tear him away from his shady spot in front of the shop. I'm working on Jiri and I expect one more unwanted dog will find a home sooner or later, preferably sooner as 2.4 million unwanted dogs are killed every year. This is one of the lucky strays who came into our lives in February 2016: 

The two questions I find myself fielding are what is his breed and what is his age and both answers are in reality fuzzy, so I lie. I used to imagine we got him when he was two but I think he suffered longer locked up in a back yard (an aversion he has to this day).  He certainly spent a year living in the Redlands of Homestead, observed by his eventual rescuers, refusing to be rescued until the pack he ran with was killed off by the nursery workers and farmers in the area (he fears fireworks and gunshots still). I dunno, maybe he's eight? Half way to dead? All things being equal, which they rarely are.
As to his breed it is a question whose purpose I never quite understand but it seems critically important to every passer by.  I call him a Miami street dog to end the questioning as most people have no idea where Homestead is nor why farmers hate the strays dumped there so pathologically that they poison and shoot them. His actual breed i found out quite by accident one day when strolling down Catherine Street. A man approached walking Rusty toward me, and it was only when I was roundly ignored by the dog I realized she was identical. I asked him the dreaded question and he said she was a "Carolina Dog," which meant nothing to me so I looked it up. Because indeed Google (Bitter Southerner link)  answers all questions. Click the link to read the definitive description of the American Dingo. Passers by who find my categorization of his breed as a simple street dog to avoid lengthy discussions, usually override me and categorize him as part Labrador (all dogs are "part Labrador" according to categorizers) and part Chow (because he has black spots on his tongue). I only know this because I have had this conversation a few times. I stand there and nod my head wisely.  I told a vet employee once that I was told he was a Carolina Dog and she snorted and said that was  fancy name for a mutt. Cool I thought, except that he has all the characteristics of that mysterious breed except the pointy ears. 
As it is he is the smartest dog I've ever known and I can see how living with people not tuned in to his particular needs  would make him crazy. He and I have a deal where he does as I ask but I don't ask unless I have to. I have found that when he hears gunshots or fireworks or backfires he runs to me not away and I cherish his trust. Thunder has become less of a problem though it still makes him anxious yet he no longer dives for the darkest corner of the darkest room in the house. He shivers and sits closer to me which is an improvement.
I'm not sure how much he will enjoy life on the road as he does like his routines but we are already creating new routines for him as we take short trips and his concern about the weird noises the van makes has abated already. He won't sleep in the back by himself when we are under way but an afternoon spent in the van while my wife teaches noisily by zoom upstairs is an experience he has learned to enjoy.
Oh and what is a Carolina Dog? The only wild dog found in the US, still living wild in the marshes on the South Carolina border with Georgia. Pure Carolina Dogs are a form of dingo, not bred by humans and only identified by characteristics peculiar to their breed and thus not properly recognized as a separate breed by the authorities of such things. I read the Bitter Southerner article linked above and now when people ask what breed is he I refer them to that which they probably ignore. Rusty is as Rusty does and I trail along behind him. I hope for several more years to come.
From the Bitter Southerner article:

About a year after I got Penny, I googled ‘American dingo.’ I can’t remember what exactly drove me to search for it, but I remember what I found. Picture after picture of dogs who all, in some way or another, looked like Penny. Some looked like clones. These dogs had all kinds of names: Carolina Dog, American Dingo, Dixie Dingo, porch dog, and — there it was — “yaller dog.” Dad was right.

I was sucked into a hole, reading descriptions and looking at photos of people’s dogs. I was shocked that behaviors and traits I thought were unique to Penny appeared in most Carolina Dogs. The hooked tail and the almond eyes were present in all of them. The behaviors are what convinced me, though. I always bragged that I never potty-trained Penny. She just learned not to go to the bathroom inside within the first two weeks I had her. Ditto for all Carolina Dogs. She would dig small holes in my parents’ front yard to stick her snout in. Ditto again. She was more loyal than any other dog I’d ever been around. Carolina Dogs have an extreme pack mentality.

The more I read the more amazed I became. Carolina Dogs are hypothesized by their discoverer to be the only American dog breed with no European ancestry. All of their forbearers are said to have come across the Bering land bridge with the first humans to inhabit North America. They’re dogs that look and act the way they do because of the natural selection they endured over thousands of years in the South.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Plants And Flowers

I rounded up some pictures of leaves and trees and still life for a Sunday morning for you.
Florida Keys
From time to time on my mangrove walks with Rusty I see a color that stands out in the sea of green.
It's just another mangrove leaf, one that is filled with with filtered salt from the water and is ready to drop:

The red mangroves don't really follow seasons. They sacrifice leaves year round, absorbing sea water and sending the salt to the leaves which turn yellow and die individually as they overload. 
Nature adapts and mangroves have adapted to live with salt tainted water, what you call "brackish." 
Brackish water isn't necessarily brown or dirty looking. The word just means tainted with sea water.
Red mangroves have red roots, characteristic of the plant. They spread like alien life forms.
Buttonwoods live further from the waterline and act like "proper" trees growing out of dirt. I love their green bushiness against a classic blue winter sky:
I used to hate dealing with seagrapes in my yard always dumping massive stiff dead dinner plates on the ground, huge brown disks that defied raking and had to be loaded into trash cans one armful at a time. Hard labor is the seagrape. But when its not your plant you get to enjoy the veins and the shades of red purple green and brown, and if the birds have left you any you can sometimes eat a grape or two, small and purple and filled with a huge stone inside.
Mahogany trees, these (and Jamaica dogwoods) are my favorites, lots of shade, arching branches and hurricane survivors usually.

I snag flowers from time to time to test my macro patience with the camera. And because they are pretty.

Gumbo limbo silhouette. You can grow a tree by cutting off a twig and sticking it in soil. They are perfect for black thumbed people like me. Plus they have intense twirling trunks that wrist and arch like a tree in pain. These are trees I like to lie under and look up at the sky through their twisted branches and bright green leaves. They call them tourist trees because their bark is red and peeling ut they are so much more.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Familiar Ground For Rusty

In the early days of this blog I used to get roundly berated by people who thought I should be a botanist and thus able to name plants at random. I am not by nature a collector, especially as I feel more like a nomad if I have any nature at all and nomads don't collect stuff. Besides all that I find myself unable to retain names and genera and species and all that stuff, be it of butterflies or of botanicals. So when I do manage to retain something vaguely useful I am impelled to share it. Behold the Traveler palm:
I like traveler palms because they are spread like symmetrical fans and I like symmetry. They also have a bit of a story behind them which may or may not be true but which I find charming nevertheless. They are called traveler palms because they save travelers who encounter them in arid places the social distinction of dying of thirst, a rare fate in the United States but not unknown. I have read further on these palms and found an account written by someone who wanted to test the theory. They said the liquid inside was rather black and foul but someone desperate enough might be able to drink it. You have been warned. I'd like to think they got their name from providing shade to hard pressed travelers but in the end they generally just look good. Better than the rather raggedy example I managed to find. I love them all and you will too when you see them rising above Old Town Key West.
I was busy photographing Telegraph Lane romantically lit at 4:30 in the morning when Rusty made a find of which he was very proud. I never see him eating street food yet here we have photographic evidence that he is eating a found tortilla. I have no idea why and were you to slip him a piece of bread under the table  during dinner he would ignore it. I guess road grime makes it irresistible. He put in me in mind of Cheyenne the vacuum cleaner of rescued Labradors who swept up anything remotely edible like a furry Zamboni. Rusty has a remote relationship with food, enough is plenty and the rest he ignores. I get the feeling he's just happy he doesn't have to chase and kill his own supper these days.  I hunt roast chickens in the supermarket and my wife portions them into his kibbles.
I had an artistic impulse so I hope I can be forgiven. These are the little blue lights leading up to Teaser's strip club at 218 Duval. In focus they are rather boring, and dare I suggest out of focus they aren't much better but  you have no idea what it costs me psychically to take an out of focus picture. Here it is. Pure Art.
I went to Teaser's once to not be a spoil sport when I was trying to be a manly man on a night out but it was not an experience I would recommend. The place was black with flashing lights and reeked of desperation, women to make money and men not to feel lonely. I have come to the conclusion I am wired differently for some reason. Buying human flesh is not my bag and if she doesn't like me because I'm weird I'm not able to notice that she does like me only because I have dead presidents in my hands. Remind me to tell you about the night out I had with naked women, fried chicken and the interrupted lap dance. I need to learn to improve my ability to make small talk if I want to hang out with manly men.
I like my solitude, my camera, my dog, the night drive down Highway One and the cool winter nights in the silent streets of Old Town. Rusty makes Duval Street his own hunting ground at these lonely hours, always wanting t repeat his rounds on the same streets, checking places he knows and likes. My dog is smart but he is a bit of a homeboy. If it weren't for me he would probably not travel at all.  Next week we go to renew his three year rabies shot, a piece of paper we store with our passports. I hope next year we will have it ready if needed on our way north to Alaska, I also hope he will be delighted to be there with us. Meantime home slice gets his Duval walks.

Friday, February 5, 2021

How I Arrived In Key West

I never really decided to live in Key West, I just sort of backed into it. Life in coastal California was quite pleasant though I never adjusted to the cold foggy summers and wet depressing winters. weather that Californians boast about for suppression of insects and limited amounts of snow and ice, but that left me wishing for tropical heat.  Two years sailing through Central America with my ever patient wife and dogs left us with one conclusion: hot sweaty weather is much better for her rheumatoid arthritis than Santa Cruz's cold foggy summers. That was the main impetus to settle in Key West a town I knew from my murky past when I sailed around Florida and the Bahamas. When we arrived in Key West from San Francisco a friend gave us an engine block to anchor our boat while we settled in and looked for work. Key West was funky back then) and we went looking for work riding the dinghy to town from our improvised, no rent mooring.
Florida Keys
My wife got hired by the state as  a Juvenile Probation Officer riding a round Key West on her scooter checking on her probationers. She was warned parts of key West were dangerous but after defending criminals on California's death row, juvenile probation posed no threat to the former lawyer. Frequently when we rode together on my motorcycle youngsters on the sidewalk would shout out: "Hey Mz Goldman!" with a big smile on their faces and greet her at the supermarket check out to prove they were working gainfully and out of trouble. We had landed in simple small town life with the promise of a state pension, something my wife was never able to sign on to in California. Her pension is smaller than California's would have been, but Florida's pension plan is fully funded, unlike CALPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System) in the Golden state...Twenty years later its the little things that matter, like getting an actual payoff...
I got a job captaining boats which filled my pockets with tips but was a precarious living at best. My wife still wanted a pension for our old age, a notion that hadn't quite penetrated my feeble brain as desirable. She nagged enough that I got serious when we decided to buy a house, not knowing mortgages were free with a smile and a handshake at that peculiar time. I figured working for the police would convince a seller of my bona fides. That and a large down payment got us off the boat which we sold and into a house. There we were settled, pensioned and serious people a continent away from our old life.
I think it's safe to say we suffered from a  few misapprehensions as we settled into a new and different life. I never imagined I would actually remain a municipal employee long enough to actually cash in my pension but my wife was always smarter than me in these matters and here I am. The other misapprehension was that we would meet travelers from around the Caribbean in Key West. We thought Key West was the stopping off point for people from down south, as it had been for us, and instead Key West is actually of course the final stop south for people from Up North. It was an adjustment in our thinking we had to learn to deal with.
What we came to learn in a hurry is that most people who end up in Key West come from lives unsatisfied Up North and it's obvious if you think about it for a second. The adventure started in a  snowdrift and ends at the Southernmost Point, the end of the road, the catchment area for refugees from daily dreary lives Up North. O expected to find a city filled with people cruising around down south who were in Key West to rest, mnake money and prepare to take off again. I was wrong.
I have never felt hugely adventurous for living in Key West, though I have often felt very, very lucky to have stable work here. I am much less attracted to the vacation aspect of Keys living and much more appreciative of the possibility of living a stable life, earning that necessary pension and not being bound to cope with heavy traffic, ice, and the more formal work environment that tends to prevail in other places.  My wife tells the story of when she and a colleague when to a probation conference  years ago when such things were paid for by the state and the two of them showed up in the hotel meeting room filled with Juvenile Probation Officers from across the state. "You two must be from Key West" the moderator said immediately. They were the only two participants in brightly colored clothes in a  sea of black and office gray. 
The other night we went together to walk Rusty close to dusk on a  back street near where we live. We were on our way from running chores in Key West and we pulled off to let Rusty have a run and sniff as a reward for too long spent on the back seat outside the UPS store and Walgreens and the scooter shop. But lo and behold there was a snowbird with a prancing poodle type creature  in our space... no fault of his of course, much applause for bothering to walk his dog at all even if he was wearing a  sportscoat of some sort which looked horribly formal. We left and found another socially distanced spot. That's life in the Keys, from the first snows until Easter all public spaces will be filled, all silent moments will be shattered, all places and events worth seeing will be fully booked. You just have to get used to people being "on island" as they say, as though they were Greta Garbo visiting with a retinue.
Let's face it: we could have left. Easy to say but much less harder to do as the pension plan fills out, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, strangers become friends, and cold damp winter weather fades from memory. With our sailboat sold we settled into our routines as you do. Sometimes we are tempted to moan about the daily irritations but a visit to Miami will set you straight when you live in the Keys. I get annoyed by the slow pace of winter traffic, tourists who forget they are clogging the only road to work or to get home from work, lollygagging at the scenery and dawdling under the speed limit. I guess I am not alone as I have seen a marked increase in Highway Patrol activity this winter so I guess we need to commute a little closer to the legal limit. 
There is a weird attitude toward people who choose to live in Florida, part contempt and part envy I think. The envy is obvious as for six months of the year the living is not bad at all and the other six though hellishly tropical are not impossible to survive. The contempt arises from Florida's reputation as home to grifters drifters con artists and crooks on the lam. We all get tarred with the same brush and I think that sense of lawlessness on the periphery of respectability drives some people south, a little bit of adventure choosing to live on the edge. When people look at me with disdain: "Oh, you're from Florida" making the Sunshine State sound like a toilet leak I look back and say how much I like living in a state filled with eccentrics, the place that's home to Florida Man and all the shady characters that inspire Carl Hiaasen. If that puts you off living here you could try Nebraska. I've heard it's not an expensive place to live, but there again you don't hear much about that state do you? Am I being a snot bag? Should I apologize to corn huskers everywhere? Nah, I'm from Florida home of the crass, the ill mannered and the weird.
There is a knee jerk response that comes out of people who live in the Keys when asked where they live. "I live in the Florida Keys," they will say. Oh, you live in Florida then? Well, yes and no. And sometimes one has to face the fact that in a  country inadequately schooled in history and geography there are actual living people, Americans, who have no idea where or what the Keys may be. Can you imagine that? Me  neither. 
In the Keys time served helps to give you credibility. The longer you have lived here the more you can claim...whatever it is longevity in the Keys allows you to claim.  It's the notion of a freshwater Conch brought to life. A Conch (pronounced Konk, for heaven's sake) is someone born in Key West, by the strictest definition. A freshwater Conch is supposedly a long term resident of Key West. Except freshwater conchs exist only in the minds of people who feel the need to categorize everything. I spent some time volunteering around some wannabe Conchs many years ago and they liked to prove their own longevity by quoting five digit phone numbers. In the early days of ten digit calling Key West had  similar prefixes: 292 through 296, thus you could identify a number by eliminating the "29" and giving out only the last  five. This practice continued long past the arrival of cell phones and more varied numbers so if an old timer wanted to put you in your place they'd say "Her phone is 43292" or similar. That would leave the poor newbie to wait for the rest of the number...which would never come unless they begged to be told 294-3292. 
When I lived in Santa Cruz, a desirable tourist town on the beach locals never mixed with tourists. The visitors would drive down the main drag, Ocean Street and spend their weekend at Beach Hill overlooking the boardwalk and the cold Pacific Ocean and then drive back to the grime of the Big City  in long dreary lines over the mountains to San Jose. Local discounts? Nope. Secret local hang outs? Nope. The two worlds were so far apart they hardly ever met. If I wanted to go outside my zone of normal living I would sneak down to the Arcade at the waterfront and push quarters into the Pacman to mingle among the tourists. When I landed in Key West I found the two worlds were so inextricably entwined in such a small piece of land the desire to prove oneself a local outweighed every other social consideration. I was a bit taken aback. So nowadays I violate convention and take pride in wearing my camera and walk around looking lost like I'm a tourist and I get to listen to people explain to me carefully all the myths and fables they think represent reality in their new home town.
If life at home has grown dreary I highly recommend making the move down south to Key West. Even though all I was looking for was a pension, and I found it, life here has remade me and given me a new outlook and rewarded me with a life I never could have had in California. It takes forgoing ambition, making do, being patient (and I'm not very good at that even now) and a willingness to be happy with less. If the travel bug bites, Key West is a good stepping off place to go much further south, much deeper into the unknown and find true adventures off the beaten path. But that for me will be another story.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Van's Night Out

Last week the moon was waxing full and I was home alone Friday. Obviously I should take the van and go see what I could see. Obviously I wasn't really alone as Rusty wanted to come too. Layne was in Miami Friday night so I was in charge of the outing. Obviously we weren't going to eat well but the views should compensate.
Since Hurricane Irma swept this area in 2017 the state has brought in a bunch of money and rebuilt the support for Highway One with some rip rap also thrown behind the seawall. Accidentally they built a dirt roadway which has allowed vehicles to crawl around the edge of seafront, at least for now. 

The camera smoothes out the gravel surface which is very bouncy in a five ton van on a road surface with rocks, potholes and as rough a surface as you like. But at walking speed the lumbering van will get there, a private spot right under the roadway and right above the water. 

It makes me laugh to see myself posting a photo of waterfront location worthy of Instagram posing. The fact is there aren't many waterfront spots in these islands thanks in large part to the marshy nature of land which reaches the very edge of the water most places. Mangroves aren't really fit to be walked along or certainly driven over so the Keys are really suitable for edge of the water parking. Funny that isn't it?
Fishing is why people hang out on bridges and in parking lots and unfortunately it feels as though there aren't enough trash cans in the keys (and there are a great many!) to contain the garbage. Parking my van means parking my home which comes equipped with tanks and bags to store liquid and solid waste and I like to leave no sign we were there, wherever it is. I failed this time as I kicked over Rusty's left over kibbles in the dark and scattered them in the gravel. Ant heaven it turned out and a nest of them got busy removing the unexpected bounty.  It was heavenly for Rusty too, as the moon was up and the landscape was illuminated all night. After a week at work I fell asleep at 7:30 and work up completely refreshed at 3:30 (!). I sat in the doorway and Rusty sat outside watching and listening. It was perfect, even though the phone image is a little bit crusty!
When I woke for the last time in the morning Rusty was ready so off we went, familiar walks in an unusual format. I live here! I'm van camping here! Confusing. Rusty knew what needed to be done:
My idea is to make van travel fun and so far he seems to be getting used to the idea of sleeping in a box, even though he gets really excited every time we get home. I like having my life right there, a box filled with water and electricity and all the bits and pieces for comfortable living. Webb the spartan sailor thinks the van is a bit crowded inside with stuff. He has a point but three of us reside in the box and we all have needs (one is a woman, nuff sed).
It was a good morning with nothing much to do except pull out the electric toothbrush, boil a kettle and put Weetabix in a bowl. Just like I was at home. Well, we were at home so I pulled out the morning papers and swiveled the driver's seat while Rusty sat outside digesting his breakfast.
I wasn't going to get away without another walk, that I knew, but first I had some reading to catch up on. Leaving the bed made up was easy and comfortable as a day couch. With the doors open a pleasant cool breeze blew through and pretty soon Rusty was curled up in his bed on my bed next to me. I have been reading the biography of James Beard, the original food guy. I was curious where the current food fads came from and Julia Child wasn't alone in her efforts to create cooking awareness. James Beard it turns out was a complicated character, driven by being gay in a very straight world and fearful of being uncovered. He was run over by his own gay scandal as a young man at university and that trauma played a central role in his unhappiness and inner turmoil. The US was not gay friendly in the 1950s. However what I do find interesting is how he inserted himself into the food culture and found his way by being determined to have a voice after failing at opera performance and stage acting. It was a slow start to the book plodding through his formative childhood but the story is picking up the pace as we pass World War Two and beard starts to get recognition. I enjoyed my Kindle to the sonorous rasp of a dog snoring.
When the hound from hell woke up he made it clear he was more important than James Beard so off we went. I confess I left the phone in the van and set off with bag, leash, camera and nothing else.
There were a few cell phones about taking pictures, and some fishing poles with humans attached but we managed to weave our private way to the top of the hill and looked down on the water and Bahia Honda State Park in the background, where the campers are packed tight and reservations far in advance are required:
I mentioned I left my phone in the van so I had nothing to write with when I met these bandits. I was beetling to the trash cans to discreetly dump Rusty's latest dog egg when my Carolina Dog was hailed by name. Oops. I had nowhere to write down names but indeed I did recall meeting on Duval well before the pandemic when faces were uncovered. I wasn't wearing a mask but we stayed well apart and I congratulated them on moving to the Keys from upstate New York. 
Rusty needed to keep moving, of course, and I was aware that my wife was heading home about now and probably expected me to answer the machine that must never be left behind. So we walked back to the box  in good order and got on the road to home twenty whole minutes away.
I could have stayed all day. I really like hanging out in and around the van even though I have a perfectly good house to enjoy. Odd that.
70 square feet of bliss. Is that possible?