Sunday, December 23, 2007

Weekend in Key West

Friday morning, we were up before dawn for our drive to Key West. Richard drove his van with artwork to sell. Alice (Danielle) and I took my car. We had collaborated to create cd's for the trip so we had an interesting audio background while we watched the scenery and talked. Alice has been away at college since August, so we had no shortage of conversation topics.

As the sun was coming up, we were driving the Overseas Highway, which hops, skips and jumps the islands that make up the Florida Keys, until it reaches the End of the Road, Key West.

We made the trip with only a couple of short stops, to take pictures and buy sandals. We arrived at the Casa Marina Hotel before noon. Now, "The Casa" is arguably the finest hotel on the island. It was built in 1926 by Henry Flagler, and has been completely renovated in the past year. The property includes the most extensive private beach in Key West, two swimming pools, and all the amenities you would expect from a luxury resort. In short, it is not at all the type of place I would expect to find the Bertocci family. It is only because I happen to work for the company that owns this hotel, and they have an unbelievably low employee rate, that we can afford to stay in Key West at all. At regular prices, we can't even afford to stay at the youth hostel.

When we lived in Key West we used to make fun of the tourists who we saw looking out of the windows of the hotel--we thought they were stupid because they were in their rooms instead of out in the town, seeing the sights, soaking up the ambience. But now I have more sympathy for them. It is very seductive, the room, the balcony, the private beach, and so on. It's easy to let the time slip by and miss out on the chance to tour around the island.

We called a friend and went to lunch and then spent some time at the beach. By late afternoon we were ready to head to the Sunset Celebration. The week before Christmas is not an especially busy time for the Mallory Square artists and performers, and in fact many of the regulars were not working. We saw our old friend Jimmy Brogdon. He designs and makes glass jewelry that he sells at Mallory Square and at some shows around the country. This is something he began just a few years ago. His main career was as a professional photographer. He was the photographer at our wedding, and for several decades he took all the school pictures for the students at public schools in Key West.

Alice ran into some pirates at Sunset, and they invited her to be their date at the annual Cultural Preservation Society Christmas party later in the evening. We had already made plans to attend the party--in fact, I went to it last year, too. It's a great way to socialize with the sunset folks when they are not working and are all in the same place at the same time. We had a great time and came home at a reasonable hour.

Here's a romantic shot...

...and it's still pretty after the sun goes down, too.

Saturday, it was more of the same--visiting, sunning, touring around on our rental bikes. Saturday night the whole family had dinner at the New York Pizza Cafe--outside in the courtyard, with the parrots and the roosters. After dinner, Alice decided to see what the nightlife was like, so she set out at about 9:00 and wasn't heard from again until 3:30 a.m. Because she is not 21 yet, she had to use her diplomatic skills to gain admittance to the clubs downtown--working within strict constraints that preclude her from lying or using a fake ID. She was pretty successful. At the 801 Bar, she found her way to one of the owners of the bar, told him her story ("I'm 20, I don't drink, I just want to dance and see the show") and he escorted her to the upstairs room where the drag show was happening, introduced her to the bartender and waitresses: "She can't drink, don't sell her any alcohol." Alice also made friends with some of the performers and one of them drew a big martini glass on her upper arm with the circle and line through it:

After the drag show, she talked he way into a techno dance scene at Aqua and then...well, let's just say, she had a very good time, didn't do anything she couldn't tell her mom about, and got back safe. The 'rents, meanwhile, stayed in the room and watched The Wizard of Oz on television. We cried when Mrs. Gulch took Toto.

Sunday morning we got a late start, had brunch at Camille's, and drove back home with only two pit stops. Richard worked Saturday and Sunday mornings at Big Pine Flea Market and arrived home about an hour after we did.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hope for the Future

Today was a good day for feeling hopeful about the younger generation.

This morning, Fred Grimm had a story about how students rallied to help farm workers protest Burger King policies. (For some reason it's not uploaded to the Herald website, so I have reproduced it below.)

Then on NPR's Sunday morning show "Speaking of Faith," evangelical social activist Jim Wallis was talking about how he is well-received by students when he visits college campuses. He recently got a standing ovation at Wheaton College, where he was banned from appearing back in the Vietnam war era. He takes the long view, pointing out that Wheaton was founded by Jonathan Blanchard, a politically active abolitionist pastor. In that light, the swing to the political right that has characterized the American evangelical movement in recent years could be seen just as a temporary aberration, and Wallis is working to get it back on the right track. He said that he tells his young audiences about Jesus's "mission statement"--His first presentation in Nazareth, when He said, "I have come to preach good news to the poor," and Wallis says whatever gospel you are preaching, if it isn't good news for the poor, then you aren't in line with the Jesus of the Bible. Wallis is putting out an "email altar call"--which is to say, a call for a commitment, and he wants people to commit not just to a personal vision of salvation, but to a struggle for social justice. He is getting support from young people, if not from their parents.

The older I get, the more important it becomes to believe that young people have redeeming qualities. I appreciate the evidence I read and heard today.

Here is the article about student activists in Miami:

Good cause gives activism a new life
by Fred Grimm

(p. 1B Miami Herald 12/2/07)

The cacophonous throng of protesting farm workers weren't, most of them, farm workers.

Their faces betrayed them. Five miles into their march, they looked sweaty,sun burnt, affected by a long walk on a warm day through city streets. Clearly,these weren't folks who could spend 10 hours a day in Florida's tomato fields.

"Down with the king! Down with the king!" they chanted. They beat drums. They wore cardboard crowns. They held signs disparaging Burger King and marchedon the corporate headquarters to demand another penny-a-pound pay for Florida's tomato pickers.

But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that marched through Miami-Dade Friday was, in fact, a coalition of a different kind.

The unsympathetic comments a number of readers attached to The Miami Herald's online version of the march story Friday demanded federal immigration cops scoop up the congregation and send them back en masse to whence they came.

The xenophobes would have been disappointed.

Thirteen kids had driven across the Everglades from Edison College in Naples. Fifteen down from Central Florida University in Orlando. Six more kids from Belen Jesuit Prep School in Sweetwater. Sarah Piper, 17, was among 13 students from Lely High School in Naples who defied their principal "and a few of our parents," skipped school and absconded to Miami. "We thought it was worth it," she said.

Four students drove down from Eckerd College St. Petersburg. Students from Florida International University and the University of Miami arrived by the busload. Youngsters from the United Church of Christ in Winter Park and Coral Gables Congregational Church joined up.

They were an unexpected sight for someone who had assumed that the term "student activist" had become an anachronism 30 years ago.

I had given up on the notion of student idealism after covering an anti-Iraq War rally at Florida Atlantic University in 2003. It was a gathering of gray heads. Hardly a student in sight.

But on a day when I expected so many farm workers of uncertain national origins, American students were out in force, full of determined talk about justice for immigrant workers at a time when immigrant workers have been reduced to political fodder.

I asked Edward Kring and Fabio Fina, both 23, both from Edison College: Weren't they supposed to be holed up in their dorm rooms embellishing their Facebook sites, playing online poker, blogging on the lyrics of Arctic Monkeys? Instead they marched nine miles. In person. Not an avatar in sight.

"We're supposed to be Generation Q, for quiet," said Fina. but he talked about a student activist revival "like in the 1960s."

So many idealistic fast-food consumers marching on Burger King must have looked a good deal more disconcerting to corporate execs than a bunch of hapless, Spanish-speaking, quite deportable farm workers.

Hundreds of energetic students had come to Miami-Dade in search of a righteous cause. And Burger King, determined to save a penny a pound, had given them just that.

The marchers headed down Northwest 20th Street, past a forbidding stretch of concertina-trimmed buildings and the custom motorcycle shop where Fabian Balbia was engrossed in a tangle of chrome pipes and gears.

"I didn't think much about this stuff until all those kids came by," Balbia said. "When I saw them, I knew it had to be a good cause."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Miami Book Fair III

The sightseeing component of the event...

I was looking forward to this weekend for a long time. I welcomed the opportunity to extend it to three days. ML arrived Thursday night which meant that we had all day Friday to relax and poke around close to home, before heading to Miami on Saturday and Sunday.

We planned a leisurely day and didn't try to leave the house early.

Mr. Bertocci has been working on some paintings for the Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort and he wanted me to photograph them so we started there. The paintings are whimsical, colorful atmosphere creators for the pool area--parrots, manatees, monkeys and a Florida panther.

We walked over to the beach from there, passing Primanti Brothers' restaurant--ML was happy to see this familiar landmark that reminded her of her hometown--not Seattle, where she lives now, but Pittsburgh, where she grew up.

We walked along the shore for a while and then headed to Las Olas Riverfront.

No boat ride for ML and me--we are landlubbers. We strolled the riverside, then visited the library, including the art gallery on the 6th floor, and had fish sandwiches for lunch at the Ugly Tuna Cafe. Inside the cafe, a mural depicts anthropomorphic fish catching, cooking and eating people in a convivial fish restaurant. I was glad we chose to eat outside.

We went across the street, past the Performing Arts Center to the Museum of Science to meditate on the giant gravity clock. It's fun and somewhat mesmerizing to watch the balls travel along their tracks, stacking up at intersections until they reach a critical mass, then dumping to the next section.


We had some sightseeing opportunities after the book fair, too.

We walked through downtown Miami, which is mostly closed up on Sunday afternoon. Miami's historic business section is really struggling, in marked contrast to Bayside, the thriving shopping/dining/entertainment complex on the other side of Biscayne Boulevard.

"This store isn't empty. It's filled with OPPORTUNITY!"
Nice try, marketing geniuses.

After our walking tour we drove across the causeway to Miami Beach and embarked on a quest for the illusive South Beach Parking Space. Found one(!) and strolled over to the beach, dodging tourists and supermodels and eavesdropping on the beautiful people as they tried to hook up with each other.

South Beach is pretty cool, very art deco and cute--the public restroom on the beach is designed to look like a ship.

After dinner at a sidewalk cafe across from the beach, and one last look at the waves, we headed back to the hotel.

Here's the sunrise view from the hotel window, eleventh floor.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Miami Book Fair II

After a day of politely listening to authors, pundits, commentators, and literary mavens, a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of book fair attendees feel the urge to gather for some heartfelt rock 'n' roll, and so they show up at the Student Life Pavilion to listen to the Rock Bottom Remainders.

Stephen King, who joins the band whenever his schedule permits, characterizes the RBR's sound as "hard listening music." They do have a good time, and it is contagious. The playlist ranges from 60s and 70s classics to novelty tunes like "The Tupperware Blues" and perennial book fair favorite, "I'm in Love With a Proofreading Woman." Kathi Goldmark, the band's founder, also has a great song; I think they call it "The Slut Song" and the essential lyrics are "I wonder if he'd care / if he knew I had underwear / older than him" -- of course Dave mentions that it really should be "older than he."

The band's roster is extremely fluid. This year's book fair edition included--in addition to Dave Barry and Kathi Goldmark--Scott Turow, Greg Iles, Roy Blount, Jr. , Ridley Pearson, Tananarive Due, and assorted vocalists such as Dave's son's girlfriend. (I'm sorry but I didn't get her name. ) Dave's brother, Sam ("the one who got all the musical talent in the Barry family") delighted the audience with a gospel number, "Nobody's Fault But Mine."

The most incredible addition to the band was real life musician Monte Montgomery, from Austin, Texas. Guitar Player magazine named him one of the fifty best guitar players of all time. This guy does not belong on the stage with the group whose recording contract is literally(!) with "Don't Quit Your Day Job Records, Inc." I'll tell you what it was like. If you make lemonade from powdered mix, it doesn't taste anything like fresh-squeezed lemonade. But if you mix the powdered lemonade with water and then squeeze one fresh lemon into it, you might be very surprised at how much it tastes like the real thing. Monte was the band's fresh lemon and his talent and professionalism turned a fun evening into a fun musical evening.

I was there with my new digital camera, not a fancy piece of equipment by any means. The photos I took didn't come out well. I borrowed this one from Dave's blog:

That's Brother Sam to Dave's right and Kathi Goldmark leading the clapping.

I more or less accidentally took some video of the opening act, a supremely talented juggler named John Nations, or as he says in Miami, "Juan Países." I don't know how to edit the video, and that is obvious. But you can get an idea of how good he is. Check it out.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Miami Book Fair 2007

The 24th annual Miami Book Fair concluded yesterday. I'm still recovering. The fun of the book fair was greatly enhanced by the companionship of my blogfriend, the Imaginary Friend Known As Mostlylurking. She came in from Seattle, and that was very special. She'll be referred to as ML hereafter in this account.

Compared to last year's book fair, the weekend was more political, more educational, and less star-studded. All the events we attended were good, but all the high points somehow came back to Dave Barry.

Looking back on the weekend, trying to sort everything out, I got quite nostalgic about the role Dave Barry has played in my life since I came to south Florida in 1980. In Key West in the 80s, it was a regular ritual for my husband and me to take the Sunday paper to the beach, and for me to read Dave's column out loud to him. The couple who laughs together, as they say, might just still be married 26 years later.

The year our daughter was born, Dave's son Rob started kindergarten. The column he wrote on that occasion was not just funny, but could move a new parent from laughter to tears in the space of 15 seconds. I don't have a copy of it but I remember it very well.

When our baby was about six weeks old, we took her to the 4th annual Miami Book Fair. We walked the aisles of books and browsed the children's section, dreaming of the books we would read to our daughter as she grew older. We attended one author event: Dave Barry. The only specific thing I remember was he was making jokes about Robert Bork, who had been nominated for the Supreme Court. Dave was funny. I laughed, the audience laughed, it went on and on. The next day, our baby laughed for the very first time. I don't think it was a coincidence.

After all these years, all the humor, the Tropic Hunts and the book fairs, Dave seems like a member of our family or an old friend. Seeing his presentation this weekend was a priority. He did not disappoint.

He was presenting the book he wrote with Ridley Pearson, a prequel to Peter Pan--a children's book. But he knew who was there and why. "Are there any actual children in the room?" he asked, peering around the auditorium. There were--about four of them. So he obliged the rest of us with some classic humor. "I'm sixty!" he announced, and then dropped to the floor for a pushup demonstration. I couldn't see if they were real pushups, or one-handed or what. But it got a laugh. Then he talked about how when you get older you lose your nouns, which makes it difficult to speak coherently. The names of things and especially people, you know, you can think of the verbs and adjectives and even prepositions, but the nouns are elusive. He got his biggest laugh from the South Florida audience talking about hurricanes. He experienced Hurricane Andrew personally. He said after Andrew, the screen enclosure that had been at the back of his house was "orbiting the earth"--and he said, "you need screens in Florida, to keep the mosquitoes from stealing your patio furniture."

After the presentation, we lined up in the booksigning area. When we reached the head of the line, I said, "I bought the pre-autographed version of your book, so would you sign my book bag?"

Dave caught on right away, and there was a hint of envy in his voice when he said, "I didn't know Joel had..." (his voice trailed away, but the noun that was escaping him in his confusion was "merchandise.") [Reading his mind: I didn't know Joel had merchandise, hey what is up with this?] I told him, "Oh, he doesn't. These are Bootleg Boodle Bookbags™." He liked it.

Here we all are, kb, Ridley, Dave and ml:

Check back late tomorrow night: our next installment will be about the Rock Bottom Remainders, with VIDEO of the warmup act (really bad video of a very talented opening act.)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Book I'm In

Here's a cute cartoon from

I guess I'm carrying a lot of books around inside my head--although I don't remember all the details. But that's the reverse of what this is about; it's not about the books in me, it's about the book I'm in: Callahan's Key, by Spider Robinson.

If he hadn't mentioned me in the book, I would not have read it, but it's a fun book and I respect the obvious fact that Robinson loves Key West as much as I do. I don't think he really succeeds in capturing its ambience but I'm on record as believing that the essence of Key West cannot be captured in prose. Poetry might come closer, but the island is such a multi-sensory experience that in the end, you really have to experience it first hand.

Before I get to the point, I will just mention that Robinson is a fan of the John D. MacDonald Travis McGee novels, which are set in Florida. In Callahan's Key the main character and his entourage visit the Fort Lauderdale marina where the fictional McGee keeps his boat:

It was there. The place we'd all spent countless happy hours in, and had never laid eyes on before.

Not a lot to see, really. A parking space for a boat, like hundreds of others here. An empty one, at that: no vessel was moored there now. But there was something to see. Someone had placed a ceremonial brass plaque there on the dock, just in front of one of the shoulder-high wooden pilings...We stood around like pilgrims and read it silently together.


FEBRUARY 21, 1987

For the second time that day, I found myself grinning and leaking tears at the same time. (P.144)
So we know Spider is sentimental. And so is our fellow-blogger, yellojkt, who blogged about the McGee landmark last year.
But this isn't a story about Fort Lauderdale; it's about Key West, and it's about how I'm in a book. When Callahan's group arrives at the End of the Road, they are amazed and delighted by what they find in Cayo Hueso. He describes some local characters, and the nightly Sunset Celebration. Then Will Soto, a real person who becomes a character in the book, describes briefly the history of Sunset and how it changed from a free-form happening into a slightly more organized (but still sufficiently chaotic) nightly event. That's where I come in. I was the person who wrote the Articles of Incorporation for the Key West Cultural Preservation Society, the non-profit corporation that took responsibility for the nightly festival in the mid-80's. So, Will mentions me along with my husband--we're on page 177.
[After sunset] we stayed long enough to introduce ourselves to Will Soto, and found the conversation illuminating.

"In the late Seventies, early Eighties," he told us, "vendors and buskers were setting up here illegally, and the tourists loved us, and the merchants loved us too, but the city had eyes to put a cruise-ship dock here, so they started hassling us. Recognizing the levity of the situation, we got organized about five years ago. Karen and Richard Tocci and Featherman Louie and Marylyn the Cookie Lady and Love22 and Sister and me and a bunch of others formed the Key West Cultural Preservation Society in '84, and managed to cool the clem. We got a great show of support from the nearby merchants, and that helped a lot. We finally cut a deal with the city, where the Society leases this dock for four hours every night, and then turns around and rents space to the various artisans and performers. We clean up after ourselves, we keep out the drunks and dealers and dips, everybody's happy."

I shook my head. "Jesus. A town that makes a fair deal with its buskers, and then keeps it. I'm gonna like it here."

Will grinned like a pirate. "Don't get too starry-eyed, Jake. They got idiots here like everywhere else. No place is perfect." Then he blinked. "No, I take that back: this place is perfect." He sighed faintly. "But no place can stay perfect.
[Please note: "cool the clem" was, when last I checked, a googlenope, meaning that (1) this is the first it has appeared anywhere on the internet and (2) probably I'm not the only one who has no idea what it means, other than just guessing from the context here. It's SpiderSlang, I guess. ]

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Beatles in the 21st Century

Yesterday afternoon, I was painting the second bedroom, listening to Middlemarch courtesy of, when my husband decided we needed to go to a movie. I got to a stopping place, cleaned up and we went to the nearby cinema to see Across the Universe.


A simple love story, set to the music of the Beatles, against the background of the sixties. I kept trying to compare it to other films--Grease, Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Hair. But every time it reminded me of something, it immediately took off in another direction. I finally stopped with the comparisons and just sat back and enjoyed a very fresh, very original, work of cinematic art.

Lots of fun Beatles allusions and 33 original interpretations of songs written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. My feeling coming out of the movie was that, although the Beatles wrote amazing songs and their performances of those songs were definitive, two of the Beatles have died. It's a new century, and their performances are history. But the songs have passed into popular culture; they are like folk songs now. This movie seems to be claiming the songs for America, despite the spirit of Paul McCartney which permeates the film in the character of Jude (Jim Sturgess). The gospel choir belting out "Let it Be," the Janis Joplin wannabe singing "Why Don't We Do it in the Road" and then joining the Jimi Hendrix-like character to perform "Don't Let Me Down"--this is cultural imperialism at its best. Poor Jude even tries to return to the dreary coal-smudged life that was his in Liverpool, but he has been bewitched by the rich blonde girl with the perfect New World teeth, and he is going to have to accept his birthright after all, even if he has spent his life "trying to hate" his American father.

Across the Universe is close to being the perfect Hollywood movie. The production is flawless, and there are enough happy endings to go around for everybody.

Remember: "All you need is love!"

P.S. Julie Taymor has the most impressive resume I've ever seen for a director.

P.P.S. By 9:00 p.m., I had finished painting the bedroom, and today it is all reassembled. Mission accomplished. Next weekend: the living room!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

H. John Deutschendorf, Jr. AKA John Denver

Ten years ago this week, John Denver died in a plane crash. Coincidentally, I've been thinking about him and his music recently. It was an internet thing. I was thinking about Steve Martin and that reminded me of David Steinberg. When I googled David Steinberg, believe it or not, I ended up on YouTube watching Three Dog Night. And Three Dog Night led, somehow, to John Denver. Then I realized that the anniversary of his death was coming up so I thought it might be nice to spend some time watching and listening to him. So I did.

When I was in high school, I was one miserable, depressed little honor student. I had never heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I did suffer from it, among other things. Mostly I just hated my school, was terminally alienated and perpetually bummed out.

When "Sunshine on My Shoulders" hit the top-40, it grabbed my attention in a big way. That song was an anthem for me, like a hymn to the happiness that was there, just out of reach. I started buying all Denver's albums and listening to them compulsively. It was an era when I was going to Colorado every summer with my family, and towards the end of high school I took up backpacking and did some high country hikes. It seemed to me that Denver's songs really captured the feeling of the Rocky Mountains, the way that "City of New Orleans" sounds like a train, or Jackson Browne's road songs sound like a bus.

I am aware, of course, that John Denver is not considered "cool." As Rolling Stone magazine put it, the critics were never won over. Still I do like his music, and I can't find it in myself to complain that there is no irony in the lyrics, no dark side.

Denver had a nice voice, in addition to being a decent songwriter. He appeared with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas for a season. Tonight when I was listening to some song samples, I remembered a song Denver did not write but it was on his live album "An Evening With...": "Today" by Randy Sparks. That is a classic song that John's voice is very well suited for.

Here's a YouTube video of "Today" and "The Eagle and the Hawk" from a 1973 concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. The video quality isn't great but the setting is just perfect.

I picked this photo to illustrate because it shows John in a bookstore. That's not me with him, it's some other fan. I did meet him once, but that's another story.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


The Miami Herald Tropic Magazine did a lot to promote literary culture in south Florida. Its editorial staff actively attempted to discover new talent, and provided an outlet for fresh voices that might otherwise have gone unheard. In 1985 then-editor Gene Weingarten put out a call for guest editorials, and received a submission from one Terrence Michael Shine. He was not a professional writer. He was, as Weingarten described him, "a guy who worked in a drugstore." According to Shine himself, he had little formal education and had read fewer than a dozen books in his life. Nevertheless, his writing was remarkable. Weingarten published that first essay and then a few other short pieces. Then he commissioned Shine to write about "Why I Work at the Drugstore", and that story really broke through. It has remained one of the most-remembered stories ever published in Tropic, and it won awards for Shine and the Herald.

Eventually Shine stopped fighting his destiny and quit his job at the drugstore. He wrote an account of that momentous decision, as well, which was also published in Tropic. The magazine didn't put him on staff, but he wrote occasional feature stories for them. When he wrote a feature based on his experiences delivering pizzas, Tom Shroder, who had taken over as editor by that time, attempted to describe what was special about Shine's writing. "...whatever Shine is writing about," Shroder writes, "the subject is always intimacy -- that personal space where we live, hidden behind all the faces we present to the world. We pretend that what is important in our lives are the great issues of war and peace and politics, the intensely fought battles of the work place, the courtroom and the market. But Shine has the gift of seeing through all the suits, all the armor of status and convention, to the naked human truth that underlies it all."

Tropic magazine is no more. Shroder and Weingarten left for the Washington Post long ago, along with a lot of other talented Miami Herald writers. Terry Shine remains in south Florida. For many years he has been on the staff of a local weekly paper, the City Link. He writes features for them and also a column called "Timeline," which gives a minute-by-minute account of life as seen through his eyes and filtered through his brain. It's always interesting, often hilarious. Shine has recently begun a blog called ShineTime, where you can read the unedited version of "Timeline" every week.

Also recommended, Fathers Aren't Supposed to Die, an account of how Shine's family came together when his father was dying. This book made me laugh out loud and made me cry in public. It's devoid of any excess sentimentality and full of humanity and insight.

So who is this guy? He does a good job of staying private at the same time as he is writing about his innermost thoughts. All I know is, he's a very talented writer, and I'm not going to pass up any opportunity to read his work.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ramadan celebrations

Tonight we went to the Coral Springs masjid with our Bosnian friends--a family of seven, with children ranging from age 2 to 12. It was enjoyable and educational. I got all dressed for the occasion: long sleeves, long, loose fitting jumper, and a traditional hijab. I don't really like the way I look in hijab, but in the past when I wore a headscarf I had trouble keeping it from slipping out of place, and especially if I am joining in the prayers I'm already self-conscious enough without worrying about that.

We arrived at our friends' house at 7:00, chatted a bit and then went with two vans to the mosque. Everyone was breaking fast with a light snack of chick peas and figs and water before the sunset prayers. We separated by gender when we arrived, which meant the oldest child, a boy, went with the two men, leaving us two women with the four girls, age 2 - 11. All the women and girls went upstairs for prayers and then came back down for dinner. I don't know what the men did; they were behind a curtain.

The food was good: chicken curry and rice, some vegetables, and a kind of fruit pudding for dessert. Conversation was enlightening. Our friends are very strict Muslims and are always glad to share their beliefs and practices and the rationale behind them. They feel alienated in American culture but think their way of life is better. I'm sure they are right, as far as they are concerned. But I was ready to ditch the head covering as soon as we were in the car coming home.

Earlier in the day I had felt out of sorts and really not in the mood to attend someone else's worship service. But in the actual event, it was very nice to spend time with our friends and see their beautiful children. It was also fun to surprise a couple of other Muslims whom I know from my interfaith group--they were impressed by the hijab and got a good laugh because they have never seen me wear it before.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rambling on About Classic Literature and Modern Life

I've been working my way through Middlemarch for the last three weeks. I love the way George Eliot writes and this book is considered to be her masterpiece. I personally have a preference for Silas Marner, as being a focused, perfection of a short novel, as opposed to the sprawling, cover-the-waterfront type of novel that Middlemarch is. Still, there's a lot to be said for a big novel that you can kind of climb inside and inhabit, and I have to admire Eliot's ability to create a world between the covers of a book.

This is the kind of book I used to read all the time, but in the past five years or so I have drifted away from books that require so many hours of reading. I blame the internet for this, and I'm not especially happy about it.

I'm sure that reading Eliot lowers my blood pressure and creates new connections in my brain; in short, it makes me a better person. The sentences and paragraphs are individual works of art, not just for choice of words, but for their stunning combination of entertainment value and moral content.

Look at this:

"...other points in Mr. Farebrother...were exceptionally fine, and made his character resemble those southern landscapes which seem divided between natural grandeur and social slovenliness. Very few men would have been as filial and chivalrous as he was to the mother, aunt, and sister, whose dependence on him had in many ways shaped his life rather uneasily for himself; few men who feel the pressure of small needs are so nobly resolute not to dress up their inevitably self-interested desires in a pretext of better motives. In these matters he was conscious that his life would bear the closest scrutiny; and perhaps the consciousness encouraged a little defiance towards the critical strictness of persons whose celestial intimacies seemed not to improve their domestic manners, and whose lofty aims were not needed to account for their actions." (p.177)

That's not a passage to "skim"--sentences like that demand that I slow down and read them, and then they reward me with a special kind of happiness. I miss the days when I had the time to read long, complicated novels, but I can't say I would trade the fast pace and endless possibilities of the internet for the quiet enjoyment, the totally private enjoyment I have always associated with reading books.

I'm afraid that as rare as Eliot's readers were twenty years ago, there must be even fewer people reading her now. Of course I mean for her to represent a whole class of authors, that would include Dickens and Hugo and even Thomas Hardy and Henry James--people who wrote for readers who had lots of time to read. I'm afraid that our minds, collectively, will become less able to contain complex concepts, less willing to grapple with issues that take more than a few minutes to describe. That will not bode well for us. Issues are more complex than ever, not less.

I refuse to put the pleasures of reading books behind me.

I will find time to finish Middlemarch.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Haves vs. Have-Nots

I was on my way to the downtown library, just geting off I-95 on Broward Boulevard. A woman was standing on the side of the road, holding a sign. I couldn't read the sign, but I know what it said, something like, I'm homeless, need food, or please help--that is a popular corner for that sort of thing, although I have never seen more than one person at a time there. I often see people selling the Homeless Voice newspaper at that location. The woman was middle-aged, and pretty healthy-looking, but had the unmistakable appearance of someone who has spent a lot of time outside. In Florida, in the summer, you get a special kind of burned and sweated-out look; I know it well. She didn't look like any kind of a hopeless case, though, and I wanted to help her. I didn't have any change, all I had was three twenty-dollar bills. There wasn't much time to think about it because the light was about to change, so I called her over and gave her one of the twenties. Well, you know what the Bible says, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." And I learned the truth of that because ever since I gave her that money, I've been thinking about that woman.

Why do we have beggars in America, the richest country in the world? I don't know it for a fact, but I have a feeling that there are no beggars in Switzerland, or in New Zealand. Other wealthy countries have unemployment and drug addiction and mental illness but manage to take care of their most vulnerable citizens much better than we do in the United States. I think what bothers me the most is not that the homeless people exist but that the more fortunate among us seem to hate and resent them, to blame them for their misfortunes. At church, where I would expect people to remember what Jesus said about "the least of these my brethren" instead I find a lot of people who are adamant in their righteousness vis-a-vis the less fortunate. "If you give them money," these people say, "they will only use it to buy drugs or alcohol, so you're not helping them. Besides," they always continue, "some of those homeless people have more money than we do--they don't work but they make hundreds of dollars every day." I'm not making this up. I've heard it over and over. As I type it now I can't believe people can actually say it with a straight face. But they have convinced themselves and it is convenient to believe it because it keeps them from having to confront their conscience on the subject of haves and have-nots.

One more thing cemented that Saturday library trip in my memory. When the light turned green and I drove on to Broward Boulevard, I immediately came up behind an SUV. The owner apparently had a message for the world and had bought a license plate frame to broadcast it. "Prosperity," it said on the back of the vehicle, "is my birthright."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Gardening Philosophy

I've been working on the garden this weekend--preparing the bed for planting in a few weeks. This whole process of preparation has been putting me in touch with my ancestors. As my fingers grub in the sandy dirt for the roots, and sift out the rocks, and haul out the boulders, as I shovel the compost into the wheelbarrow and transport it to the garden plot, my whole body responds: this feels like what it was made to do. This is what my people do. We dig out the rocks and the stumps. (We use the big rocks to make walls between the fields.) We haul in compost and manure, and then rake it smooth, create the rows and hills and plant the seeds. Then comes the hoeing and the weeding, the daily attention. And then, our crops fail. Locusts, drought, tornados, hurricanes, bad seed, blight. That just seems like the logical next event.

When I first read Garrison Keillor*, I was struck by how much those Minnesotans he describes were like My People. I looked for common roots, but there's no Scandinavian ancestry in my family. Then I realized that what we had in common was the farming culture. If you're a farmer, you're probably not going to be an optimist. You may be a true pessimist, but it will be a pessimism that can turn inside out and become happiness, because when you always expect the worst, you are often pleasantly surprised, and you never experience disappointment. You may be a fatalist, but fatalism is the purest path to happiness, because if you are prepared to accept whatever comes, you have lost the attachment that Buddha teaches is the source of all unhappiness.

Farmers show how a person can be happy without necessarily being cheerful.

Another view of this is that if the world is bleak, your best chance at happiness is to create it inside your own mind. And that is valid because even if the world is wonderful and your life is great, that's where your happiness is anyway, inside your mind. T.M. Shine illustrates this concept extremely well in this week's Timeline. (Warning: Shine uses gratuitous vulgar language to appeal to the demographics of the weekly paper he writes for--I think he has an f-word quota, to make up for the fact that he is over 35.)


*Garrison Keillor has a new book coming out this fall; I recommend it sight unseen and will probably review it here sometime in October. Here is a passage that illustrates pretty well the philosophy I attribute to him:
"Being Lutheran, Mother believed that self-pity is a deadly sin and so is nostalgia, and she had no time for either. She had sat at the bedside of her beloved sister, Dotty, dying of scarlet fever in the summer of 1934; she held Dotty's hand as the sky turned dark from their father's fields blowing away in the drought, she cleaned Dotty, wiped her, told her stories, changed the sheets, and out of that nightmare summer she emerged stronger, confident that life would be wondrous, or at least bearable."--Lake Wobegon Boy, p. 2

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Part I: Successful Launch - Part II: Letters

Part I

Today is my daughter's twentieth birthday, and it seems to me that this is about the point where the anniversary of her birth becomes as much about me as it is about her. We're both adults now, so we're just equal participants in the world; I'm no longer responsible for orchestrating her experiences.

I'm sure that this is true because she is now established in her own apartment, a thousand miles away, and I can't even get her on the phone to wish her a happy birthday, so she must be independent and able to take care of herself. [Note to daughter, who will be one of the few people reading this: "Hi, Sweetie! Happy Birthday!"]

Twenty years ago, that was one hot, pregnant summer, in Hallandale, Florida. I was working at the post office, riding my bike about two miles each way. I usually went in pretty early, 6 a.m. or so, which meant I would be getting home in the hottest part of the day. Thank goodness for the small manmade lake behind our house: I would come home, throw on my bathing suit, jump in, and swim to the end and back--thereby getting my exercise and cooling off at the same time. Towards the end of the pregnancy, I could definitely sense that the baby was enjoying the swims. And after she was born, she did turn out to be a water-loving kid.

I quit work two weeks before my official due date, and then the baby was two weeks late so I had a whole month to sit around and eat nectarines--that's what I remember, and we went to the beach a lot, too. All that sitting around and eating probably had something to do with our dainty little girl coming into the world at 9 pounds 2 ounces.

Labor was long and hard -- 40 hours -- and then they kept us in the hospital for longer than normal because of some nonsense about blood sugar levels. I enjoyed the opportunity to rest, though, and the food was good. Every morning they would bring around the sheet to order the day's meals and you could check portion size--small, medium or large. I requested large portions on everything, three meals a day, and I still went home weighing 45 pounds less than I did when I went in. That's what I call a good week. Also, I spent a lot of time reading: I read Lady Chatterley's Lover, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Almost a whole week of leisure. And then, on duty 24/7 for the next two years. That was fun, too, though.

* * * *

Part II

This article about paper had me meditating about the value and meaning of handwritten letters.
My letter-writing history goes way back. I have letters that came back to me when my grandmother died, thank you letters I wrote to her from age 5 onward. In elementary school my friends and I wrote notes to each other constantly. I still have a whole pile of notes from my friend June, at my parents' house. They are an interesting window into a time long ago.

My mom recently sent me all the letters I wrote to her during my first year away at college. Hillary Clinton's college letters illustrate her journey from Republican to Democrat. Mine clearly document that I subscribed to The Militant newspaper on my very first trip to Harvard Square, and joined the Young Socialist Alliance soon after. They also record my voting record, however: straight ticket Democrat.

Here's an excerpt from a first semester letter home, looking back at a glimpse of the future:
October 30, 1976

Last night I ate dinner with Kurt Hackenburg--he's one of our R.A.'s -- maybe you remember that his letters to the freshmen were typed and Xeroxed--anyway, he had something to do at the computer center and he talked me into going there to see it. They have a deal where you can "talk" to other people who are using the system. There was a kid using a teletype terminal at his house. Kurt has "talked" to him before--he's 12 years old and is the son of one of the psychology profs here. Anyway, this may not be too clear, but we had a 3-way conversation going through the computer. It was very interesting. The way it works is that you type the message and it appears on the other 2 screens. Kurt is trying to talk me into taking a computer course. Maybe I will, but not next semester. I really want to take math, and kind of need to take biology and physics, and all these courses just don't fit into a double-major schedule. I might end up dropping the French major, but I don't know. I'll discuss it with my advisor next semester.
Aside from their historical value, I think handwritten letters are very important, now more than ever. All kinds of information comes through in a letter that you can't convey in email. The choice of paper and pen, the handwriting, the format, the pheromones--there's even DNA being transferred, and there's a heck of a lot of information in that. You might think that message doesn't get through, but who knows? As time goes on and letters become more rare, they will become more valuable. I predict I'll be writing letters until the end of my life.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

South Florida Boodlefest*

*Boodlefest, from "boodle," an Achenblog term, see definitions here.

Yesterday was a fun vacation day with two of my (formerly) imaginary friends, people I would not have known if not for the comments section of Achenblog, which we call the "boodle." Since it's an on-line forum, most people don't use their real names. Since this is also a public blog, I will just use our boodle names; the out of town visitors were "mo" and "mo's mom," they live in the DC area. The rest of the party consisted of my daughter, "Artist Alice" and myself, "kbertocci."

Mo is famous for wearing only black. Her mom doesn't thoroughly approve of the blackness, and she dressed all in white to balance it. Alice likes to dress creatively; her outfit was kind of pirate wench/biker/goth. Me, I generally dress to blend, so I wore beige pants and in deference to the prevailing gothic theme, a black t-shirt. The clothing is all terribly significant.

We met at Las Olas Riverfront, in downtown Fort Lauderdale, arriving simultaneously despite having started at points 40 miles apart and in opposite directions from there. The weather was sunny and hot. Alice headed directly for the frozen lemonade stand while the rest of us took refuge in whatever shade we could find and later in an air-conditioned gift shop.

We took an hour-long narrated water taxi ride to Beach Place. The scenery along the river is pretty much limited to mansions and yachts, although we did see some iguanas and a few birds. We dined on "authentic cajun cuisine" at Lulu's Bait Shack, passing up the alligator appetizers in favor of crawfish etouffée and shrimp and lobster--a good meal that we finished just after the live music started, so the timing was excellent. We got to talk all through lunch and then hear two songs and then it was time to go.

We walked along the world-famous Fort Lauderdale beach, which was teeming with scantily clad people. We crossed the street for a closer view of the waves, but it seemed that even fully clothed we were man-magnets (it's a good thing we weren't wearing our bikinis) and so we had to leave after a short visit.

Escaping our admirers on the beach, we checked out some more souvenir stores (embalmed baby shark, anyone? Or maybe you'd rather pay $3 for a tablespoon of sand enclosed in a plastic keychain?) found a pirate store that mo and Alice were thrilled to explore, and then headed back to the boat.

The water taxi delivered us back to our starting point in time for mo and mom to head off for the rental car return. It was a great day--just like being on vacation for me, except without having to take off my shoes and put my belongings through an x-ray machine. Thank you very much, mo and mo's mom, for sharing your Florida vacation!
*And fellow-boodlers, don't worry, we only said nice things about you, in case your collective ears were burning yesterday.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Random things that made me laugh this week

Rhymes With Orange by 8-4-07

Mike Peters 8-4-07

The Best and the Wittiest by Jimmy Margulies 8-4-07

Onion Headlines:



Monday, May 21, 2007

Going North to "The Real Florida"

To celebrate 25 years of legal matrimony, we took a week's vacation in our home state. Living in south Florida and loving the Keys so much, we usually go south if we have a couple of days off, or we fly off to visit relatives. We had wanted to see St. Augustine for a long time so that was our primary destination. We took our trusty tent (design approved by Sir Edmund Hillary; $49.00 on sale at Sears 8 years ago). This is a scene from along the way; we stopped for gas and I walked around the back of the gas station and took this photo.

First campsite was in the Ocala National Forest--

Then we moved on to Anastasia Island, which is just across the bridge from St. Augustine. There's a great campground there with trees, in walking distance from this beautiful beach. Not a condominium in sight!

We spent two days walking around St. Augustine--it is a very charming place. I was surprised to learn that it is smaller than Key West. The people are very friendly and the shops and attractions are low-key.

We saw lots of beautiful homes, many with great porches, shady and peaceful.

From St. Augustine we went to Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park, just south of Gainesville. Here I finally got to spend some time hiking, while Richard drove up north to Ichetucknee Springs to do a river-raft trip.
We had planned to stay overnight at Sebastian Inlet State Park on the way home but the park was full so we stayed at the Vero Beach Inn Resort Hotel. A lovely end to a great vacation.