Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Month That Was - February 2009

The Month That Was - February 2009: Heavy on Florida this month. I went down to the keys for few leisurely days because this winter has been atrocious (pics on SmugMug). A full recounting is below, along with two Florida travel rewinds from years back. I have been light on travel of late and that will probably continue for the first half of the year. I hope to make up for it after half-time.

Apart from that, the big accomplishment of the month is getting Apple Pie available for Kindle. It's not a difficult task if you have passable technical skills, it is tedious however. But Business As Usual is coming along more quickly -- if I could get a break from weekend work spill over and doing my father's taxes and other writing I don't want to lose momentum on, I could knock it off fairly quickly.

Both will be priced at $4.84 which Amazon will subsequently discount a few pennies. You pay more than that for a Starbucks. Really, if you have a Kindle, there's no reason not to download. (If you don't have a Kindle, well, the price of the books will be trivial compared to the $359 purchase price so again, no excuse not to purchase.) And, just as I was posting this, I see there is now a free Kindle app for Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch. So you pod people have no excuse either.

As promised, I'm giving you a break from Detroit bashing this month. But oh how I want to let loose. We'll see how long I can hold my horses.

Up the Amazon
Sour on Apple
Book Look: The Man Who Was Thursday
Book Look: Honest Signals
Book Look: Some Buried Caesar
Flick Check: Bringing Out the Dead
Flick Check: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Keys to My Heart
Travel Rewind: Babylon on the Make
Travel Rewind: The Gold-Plated Swamp

Up the Amazon

Up the Amazon: Speaking of Amazon, I am very close to buy some stock in it. I buy virtually everything from them, and not just books. It's my go to service for music downloads. I picked up a new el cheapo Timex Ironman watch because I wanted something with a lap timer and while there were a lot of places I could have bought from, of the cheapest prices Amazon was the only one that didn't strike me as potentially fly-by-night -- that's typical. I have in the past purchased everything from wi-fi routers to fruit baskets to bathing suits to USB hubs to a road bike. My standard purchasing habits now consist of finding something I want in a brick and motor store to make sure it has tactile validity, then ordering it on Amazon. I even track things I'm interested in by keeping a wish list going and watching for price drops. They have done an amazing job of consolidating retailers on their web site -- going forward in the world on online retail, there will be Amazon, and a few niche retailers (Zappos, NewEgg), and that's all. When retail push comes to shove, Amazon will likely be the last one standing.

(Begging: if you read about something here that you would like to buy, please click through the link on the left panel. I get a tiny, tiny little commission if you do.)

Sour on Apple

Sour on Apple: In contrast, I'm really down on Apple. iTunes has driven me crazy more often than I can count. It constantly shows songs from the same album as being in separate albums of the same name. The interface is atrocious. Last time I tried to buy something from the iTunes music store I couldn't figure out whether it was DRM'd or not so I just bought from Amazon where nothing is DRM'd. My experience with my iBook was less that positive. My little 2 gig iPod has been fine, and in fact, has taken a fair amount of abuse, but it was hell trying to find an armband for it since it's a long lost model, I see no particular advantage to the wheel interface, and there's no FM so I can't listen to the football games at the gym during workouts -- nothing terrible, nothing special either. I have Safari on the PC and use it occasionally to test page rendering, but I can't have it auto-update without being constantly asked whether I want other Apple software which I don't care about. Plus, all that pretty gear they market is ludicrously expensive. I think the second age of Apple -- which was built on the newness of the iPod (under constant pressure now -- I like Zunes, but the new Sony Walkmans are slick as hell) and iTunes (bettered by Amazon) and the luxo-geek appeal of their gear (one word: recession) -- is over.

Book Look: The Man Who Was Thursday

Book Look: The Man Who Was Thursday: Let me start by recommending, where you can download public domain audiobooks. Yes, that's right -- free audiobooks. Virtually all the works available are old, because they need to be out of copyright -- 1930-ish is about as contemporary as they get. But that's OK, it's good for you to realize that the world you live in is nothing all that new. The readings are all done by kindhearted volunteers, but the ones I've heard are all very polished. They are in .mp3 format so you can listen on you Zune music player, awesome eh?

From Librivox I downloaded The Man Who Was Thursday an oddly spiritual classic from 1908 by G.K. Chesterson. It starts out as if it were going to be a standard mystery -- a Scotland Yard operative makes contact with an anarchist (the terrorist sect of the day) and insinuates himself in what appears to be some sort of high level Anarchist organization.

Things then start to get peculiar. A long, and at times quite comic, pursuit of the leader of the anarchists reveals enemies to actually be friends. The final chase of the anarchist leader takes the story into the realm of the surreal, eventually revealing the anarchist leader to also be the leader of his pursuers, with the apparent intent to have him symbolize God. Allegory upon allegory.

Written in vivid Edwardian prose, with a heavy dose of alliteration, The Man Who Was Thursday ends up resembling something like an Arthurian adventure, wherein a group of stalwarts pursue what seems to be a concrete result and end up with a spiritual elevation. A strange, thoughtful, imaginative story and a rewarding read.

Or a rewarding listen in my case.

Book Look: Honest Signals

Book Look: Honest Signals: I don't read much non-fiction, but this one was fascinating, if a little dry.

This is a scholarly, yet accessible, book about the genesis and continuance of social signaling -- speech inflections, eye contact, body language in general -- and how it can be used to predict all sorts of things from bluffing at the poker table to anticipating success and failure in a business setting. These signals are unconscious, and as such they are referred to as "honest" in that you can't even fool yourself into not betraying the truth. (At least, it is extremely difficult to do so.) Honest Signals is concerned primarily with how much this unconscious behavior affects our social interactions and how much can be predicted from it.

The folks behind Honest Signals developed a device called a sociometer that is worn like a badge and provides telemetric information about signaling behavior. Using this they were able to find strong and predictable correlations between the signals and human behavior in many sorts of social situations. In fact, they track this signaling back through primates and other species of animals to reveal how it can inform some very complex behaviors. If there is a shortcoming to the book, it's that they don't go into detail about what the signals actually are and how to spot them. I'm glad to know there is a way to spot bluffers at the poker table or determine the roles being played in a group setting, but tell me what it is!!

This topic is part of what is turning out to be the game changing scientific story of our lifetime: discovering how much of what we do and think and feel is biologically based, and thus, the result of evolutionary pressures. This is a huge change from when I was younger and we took as gospel the notion that a human being pretty much started as a blank slate and developed traits as a result of cultural influence and Freudian psychology and heroic free will. Just the other day I was having a conversation with some friends who mentioned that their experience raising children had caused them to see behavioral development as vastly more nature than nurture. The times they are a changin'.

If you have an abiding interest in this subject, Honest Signals is a probably worth the read. But don't expect to come out of it with much practical knowledge. If your interest is more casual, you can get what you need from a google search on the topic for an overview

Book Look: Some Buried Caesar

Book Look: Some Buried Caesar: First, a word about mystery series. I have read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. I believe I have read all of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. I was working my way through John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, but at some point it got too violent. Same for McDonald's and McGee's spiritual successors, Randy Wayne White and Doc Ford. Likewise, I have covered most of the Fleming James Bond books. So I am no stranger to getting attached to well written thriller series (because man does not live by Nabokov alone). Now, perhaps inevitably, the new obsession shall be Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. I feel a mutli-year project coming on.

Some Buried Caesar is the story of a set of generally feckless and wealthy upstate New Yorkers getting themselves all worked up over cattle to the point of murder. Of course, that is less important than the portrayal of Nero Wolfe and, even moreso, his personal assistant, strong right arm, and wise-cracking narrator, Archie Goodwin.

Nero Wolfe made his first appearance in 1934 and soldiered on through 30-plus novels and nearly 40 shorter works until author Rex Stout's death 1975 (with a couple of posthumous releases a decade later). Wolfe is old school: genius-but-eccentric detective, practical and admiring assistant, and a big dramatic summation in the end. Holmes/Watson, Poirot/Hastings, and Wolfe/Goodwin use the same framework. But Wolfe is not a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder. His work is definitely not its own reward. He will keep his nose out of anything including murder, unless he has a paying client -- and he can be quite clever and manipulative in acquiring one. And Archie Goodwin has more personality than any other detective-foil, often being the true face of the manuscript. This pair is a delight.

I have no intention of reading all the novels. I picked Some Buried Caesar from a website recommendation, and next up will be The Golden Spiders, but I will NOT allow myself to read more than 10 of these. I just don't have enough time left on earth to get obsessed. I don't believe it is necessary to read them in order. I asked Metafilter for which ones to read (results) and I'll likely follow their advice in some form. I'm sure I'll be commenting more on Wolfe, Goodwin, and Stout as time goes on.

Flick Check: Bringing Out the Dead

Flick Check: Bringing Out the Dead: A disappointment. Scorcese directed from a Paul Schrader script so we shoulda had a contender, but it falls flat. This is the story of an EMT in Manhattan who is slowly going crazy from all the chaos and death that surrounds him. It fails on numerous levels and in fact might be the worst movie Scorcese has made. Among the problems are:

• Manhattan is portrayed as if it were still the unmitigated disaster that it was back in the Taxi Driver days. Rings untrue.
• The characters are simply not realistic, they may have been intended to be surreal but that doesn't jibe with the gritty, realistic tone.
• The lead character is haunted by the memory of a homeless girl he could not save and he feels responsible for her death. Lamest clich‚ ever.
• The biggest problem is the lack of dramatization. In Taxi Driver we knew DeNiro was sliding into madness because we saw it. In Bringing Out the Dead we know Nic Cage is going crazy because he tells us.

I first heard of Bringing Out the Dead a year or so ago, even though it came out in 1999. I wondered how a Scorcese film could have gotten out without my notice. It turns out it was no harm done. Marty brought out a dead one this time.

Flick Check: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Flick Check: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay: Why is it there are some puerile, raunchy gagfests that I can't stand (Something About Mary) and some I think are tremendous (Superbad)? Whatever it is Harold and Kumar Escape... is one of the good ones. It's truly silly to try to do a review of such a film; anybody can guess what it's about. It picks up where the first one left off with H & K on their way to Amsterdam where they intend to smoke more weed than anyone in the history of the known universe. Thanks to Kumar's uncompromising irresponsibility they end up arrested and tossed in Guantanamo, from which they escape and journey through the Deep South to get to Texas where they believe they will find help. Along the way they have various asinine encounters with assorted cliched rubes and authority figures, including George W. Bush.

Aside: I had reached the point where GWB parodies really got under my skin. It was like being forced to watch an endless litany of Michael Bay movies: the same thing over and over, as if it were some sort of obligation. Otherwise respectable artistic works all seemed to have a perfunctory snark angle about GWB. They ceased to be funny or witty or sharp, but people kept doing it because they felt they were doing the world a social service. Well, to paraphrase Woody Allen, if you want to do the world a service, write funnier jokes. Anyway, the one in this movie was kinda cute and fun.

None of that explains why I liked it, though, so let's see: John Cho and Kal Penn (H & K) are fine comic actors; the pacing was just shy of frenetic; H & K were never made to be stupid losers, just swamped by events; parodies and cartoonish villains were not drawn in anger or hostility, just for comic purpose; there was actually a nice human subplot with Kumar reconnecting with a lost love (excellent work by Kal Penn) -- that's about it, nothing extraordinary. Nothing to explain why I would like this and not other raunchfests. Maybe the writing by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (same team as H & K Go to White Castle) is just exceptionally skilled. Who knows? But I was glad to hear they are churning out a third screenplay. Cool.

Keys to My Heart

Keys to My Heart: (As usual, pics are up on SmugMug. Lots of alligators and birds in this set.)

One of the single most troublesome qualities I have is the inability to fall asleep when I need to. Before any important event and nearly all unfamiliar situations, I find that I tend to lie awake until about an hour before the alarm goes off. In some instances where the lack of sleep itself is the issue, I can lie awake at night wondering why it is I lie awake at night.

I'm choosing my words carefully because I don't think is it apprehension that causes it. If I am apprehensive, I certainly will lie awake, but it doesn't have to be anything I'm apprehensive about. To wit, I had a 6:30 AM flight down to Ft. Lauderdale. If there is anything I would not be apprehensive about it would be flying. It's not a new experience. I know the drill. I was all packed and ready. I needed only to rise at 4, get dressed, grab my bags, and leave.

Yet here I was looking at the clock at 3AM, knowing that I have essentially pulled an unwanted all-nighter.

So the day's travel -- park and fly at DTW (with an early morning slice of quiche), plane change in Charlotte (with a Jamba Juice), renting the car and driving from Ft. Lauderdale to Key Largo (way to many toll booths), a bite of road food (somewhere), get checked in to the Ramada -- was all done with swollen eyes and blurry vision. The best effort I could muster was to get down to the pool and sit out for a while in the late afternoon then scarf down some conch cerviche and a beer and go to sleep. So much for day 1.

I slept wonderfully that first night, got up late, hopped in the white Dodge Avenger rental and made for the river of grass, where I stopped at the Shark Valley station of Everglades National Park. I almost turned back; there was an enormous wait to get in the park due to their parking lot being full. A strange experience -- I have never encountered a wait like that at a National Park before, and I've been to a few. Scuttlebutt is that with everyone scrimping and saving, the parks are looked at as a good budget destination. They are. Fortunately I was able to park along the highway just outside the park and walk in.

To the casual tourist, the point of the Everglades is alligators, and that's what you get at Shark Valley. Hundreds of them. Roaming free. Lying about without a hint of fear or notice that homo sapiens is walking among them. You get so acclimated to them that you don't think twice about walking within a few feet a 13-footer laying on the paved roadway. The only reaction you will get is a stare from a dead-eye for a few seconds, then you are ignored once again.

The main loop though Shark Valley is a fifteen mile paved road. It is a popular biking route, and you can rent bikes right there (although I didn't notice this until I was leaving). You could walk it too I suppose, but there is a fine tram service the runs the loop and is narrated by some excellent guides. At one point the tram stops and the guide walks out into the swamp, inviting others to come. Of the maybe forty people on the tram, three actually followed. I was one. Thank God for gore-tex day hikers. I would have expected to sink knee deep in muck, but he water itself is crystal clear only about ankle deep. Beneath that is a very thin layer of settled muck. And beneath that is some very precarious limestone -- uneven and slightly slippery, it's all about balance if you want to avoid a youtube moment, but it is very solid footing.

The 'glades are not exceptionally picturesque. There are no gnarled, moss-covered trees casting eerie shadows, like you get in the Georgia and Carolina swamps. In fact, I wouldn't suggest this place for a Hollywood swamp. It is, as the phrase goes, a river of grass with pockets of sediments formed into little islands, just barely high enough to support impenetrably dense shrubbery and bits of fauna. Apart from that it's pretty much all sawgrass and shallow open sections punctuated with gator holes.

And fish -- tons of fish. And big birds and turtles to feed on them. The place is just teeming with life -- so many alligators I have to wonder if they aren't feeding on each other. It's also a birders paradise; half the folks on my tram were binocular-wielding bird spotters. There are enormous cranes of all shapes and sizes and colors. You see the mother gator protecting her little babies, and the birds feeding their young. It the kind of stuff you figure they must spend days to get on film for the wildlife shows. And none of this is Disney. The gators don't show any interest in the people but when you walk within a few feet of a 12-foot gator you should be very aware of what end of the food chain you occupy. I'm pleasantly surprised that such an activity is allowed in our world of airbags and bicycle helmets.

At the midway point on the trail is an observation tower from which you get a 360 degree view for miles around. Shark Valley is a great all-round experience. Here's how I would do it in the future. Rent a bike and ride behind the tram, since it stops wherever they spot something interesting. Bring a picnic lunch and hang out by the observation tower at lunch time. That'd be about perfect. I continue to be amazed at the National Park System and all the opportunities it provides.

Day 3 began with a trip about 2/3rds down the Keys for Bahia Honda State Park. Rumored to have one of the few nice beaches in the Keys (the Keys are very short on good beaches). It actually has a fairly narrow beach that is currently covered with some sort of ugly brown nettles a foot-and-a-half thick washed up on the shore. It's not dangerous or icky, just ugly. The water is clear but the undergrowth comes in about 25 feet off shore. It's fair for splashing around and maybe a bit snorkeling, but that's it.

Which is not to say the park isn't worth a visit. For all its beachy shortcomings it's a very pleasant place. You can rent a kayak and paddle the entire circumference of the key (although high winds prevented that the day of my visit). There are birds wandering the grounds and a tangled brushy area that contains about a half dozen big-ass iguanas trolling around, climbing the trees and such. The whole park is framed by the old Bahia Honda Bridge, which is now a walkway to a scenic outlook from which, if the water is clear, you can supposedly see sharks (I didn't).

But I did lie in the sun and read and swim and be all summery with myself for a couple of hours. Very much needed after weeks in the evil northern winter. Then, since I was 2/3rds of the way there, I decided to make the short drive all the way to Key West.

The thing is, there is no short drive to Key West. No matter how close you think you are, you are at least an hour away. Although it is quite lovely in many places, crawling along Route 1 into Key West is one of most frustrating drives you can take. The speed limit drops to 35 and even if it didn't, it's one lane -- no passing; you will always get stuck behind the slowest common denominator. You read the mile markers as they fall at a snail's pace, and your goal always seems just out of reach.

I finally made it into Key West with enough spare time to snag a burger and a beer on Duval St. before a walk down to Mallory Square for the sunset. Key West remains Key West, good natured revelers left and right, street performers hamming it up for the touristas, all the gaff-rigged schooners loaded down passengers for sunset, their square rigs silhouetted against the blinding sun. About perfect: a just reward for making the deadly tedious drive across the Keys.

On my last day I was once again going to try for a kayak tour but, once again, the wind wound up too high and no one would rent to me. Florida let me walk among gargantuan primordial predators but would let me take a kayak out in the wind. Go figure. So I did something I almost never do on my trips: nothing. I spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in the sun just reading. I didn't give in to the temptations to do a snorkel trip or drive up to Biscayne Bay. I even took a brief nap. I got slightly sunburnt and I certainly made up for any lost sleep. I also healed up a bit -- it's amazing how many minor aches and pains ease up after three days of pretty much complete inactivity.

The only effort I made was to drive off to the legendary Alabama Jack's for a seafood platter. Alabama Jack's is situated just beyond a tool booth on the Card Sound Rd. so in essence you pay a buck to get through the toll booth, stop almost immediately for dinner, then pay another buck to get back. Hmmm. Not only that Alabama Jack's seafood, like just about all the seafood outside the hoity-toity restaurants, is battered or breaded and fried. I'm not a big fan of that, but 'Bama Jack did it about as good as can be expected. The conch fritters were top notch and tasty. 'Bama Jacks is situated right on the water; open air (they close shortly after dark when the 'skeeters get active); filled with fishing ephemera; you sit on plastic white chairs that they probably got for 1.99 each at the local swap meet -- that kind of place, yet the crowd was not rednecky at all; lots of oldsters and locals. Recommended.

And that was that. Back in my hotel room the TV showed record cold and snow waiting for me up north. Can I have one more day? Just one more day please...

Travel Rewind: Babylon on the Make (2003):

Travel Rewind: Babylon on the Make (2003): (The first of two trip reposts from long ago, in honor of my most recent trip to the Sunshine State.)

Sometimes it can seem like everybody in the State of Florida is on the make. Two of the three hotels I stayed at had valet as their only parking option. All of them added a "resort fee" or something similar, on the order of $10-$15 dollars a day, which is supposed to cover all sorts of miscellaneous expenses. But then you find out that there are various little things it doesn't cover -- health club access here, a lounge chair on the beach there, the very generous gratuity added to your bill -- and you begin to wonder if you're being scammed.

You're not, really. Nobody's trying to hide anything from you for the most part. They're all pretty straightforward about what charges cover what services. But the whole business of nickel-and-diming you endlessly just naturally raises your scam shield.

The incessant hand in your pocket at the hotels I can accept. Like I said, they are honest about it and you have a sense of what you are paying for. Since they all do it, it's really no different financially from raising the room rates and including everything. Hotel management probably feels it gives them some flexibility when it comes to dealing with complaints and serves as a way to make people acknowledge all the services that are available to them. My counter argument is that it can give you feeling that you have been bled. But psychology aside -- it's six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Where I can't accept this is from auto rental companies. Auto rental companies nickel-and-dime you just like anyone else in the travel industry, but they push and spin all their add-ons like a telemarketer on a deadline. A typical exchange when picking up your car:

Rental Guy: For only $10/day I can get you an upgrade to a nicer vehicle -- with four doors.
Me: Doesn't the one I reserved have four doors?
RG: Let's see. Oh, yes it does. But they're smaller.
Me: Do you think I look fat?
RG (confused): Um, no.
Me: Nevermind. No thank you.
RG: OK, here we go. I've got you down for added insurance to cover you in case of mishap.
Me: I don't need it. I have that through my Amex card.
RG: Well, it's only $8 and with this we won't even call your company. If there's any damage you can just walk away.
Me: $8 total or $8 per day?
RG: That would be per day.
Me: No, thank you.
RG (shaking his head like I should know better): Then I'll need you to initial that you've refused it. Would you like to pay for your gas now?"
Me: No, thank you.
RG: If you pay for a tank now, the price is only $1.75 per gallon. If we have to fill it when you return the car it's a lot more expensive -- three dollars per gallon more.
Me: Or, I can just fill the tank at the Citgo station across the street before I return it. That's probably the cheapest of all, don't you think?
RG (shaking his head again): Then I'll need you to initial here also.

I really have serious issues with industries that thrive on squeezing people who don't know any better or are caught off-guard when confronted with mealy-mouthed half-truths. This includes the idiots who leave me voice mails about how they happened to be in the neighborhood installing satellite dishes and they are sure sorry that I missed the opportunity to get in on their deal. This claim would hold more water if I didn't get that same voice mail every other day. It also includes timeshare hucksters who provide those scratch-and-win tickets for a special value on some property. Of course, your chance of winning is approximately 100%.

I know of what I speak. Many years ago I worked briefly -- very briefly -- as a car salesman (the champions of mealy-mouthed half-truths). If you find yourself in an industry like this, I strongly advise you to get out of it. It will scar your soul.

But anyway, I was in Florida for a while. Let me tell you about it.

The plan was three nights at the famous South Beach, followed by a drive down the Keys for two nights in Key West, followed by a drive in the reverse direction back up to Palm Beach for two nights before heading home.

Miami Beach is rightly famous for its Art Deco style architecture, and some of it is striking. It's a real blast from the swanky past and very much responsible for the unique South Beach-pastel couture vibe.

Although I didn't stay there, when I am one of the rich and famous, my first hotel choice would be The Delano. I'm not much for favoring a hotel because of its decor or style. The now famous boutique hotels really don't do anything for me. I want service. I want convenience. I want amenities. I want easy access. I have no desire to stand in the lobby and admire the fashionable furniture. And yet I was amazed by The Delano. Huge white flowing curtains and tapestries are everywhere in the lobby -- and when I say huge I'm mean something on the order of three stories high. They are used both as d‚cor and as separators. The use of clean white sheeting is a brilliant touch for a hotel (where clean white sheeting is symbolic of all sorts of positive sensations). The furniture is all cushy, living-room style furniture, again mostly white and very inviting. As you walk through you notice the front desk -- a very simple little table. Move further on and you see a sushi bar tucked away in one corner. Yet further, an off in an alcove is a fine looking bar. Further still begins the restaurant; it is located half indoors and half outdoors. The soft separation between the areas gives you the sense that it's all one big space yet you always know where.

Outside, after you pass through the outdoor tables of the restaurant, there is a garden with the usual trappings and a fairly comfy hammock. Then comes the pool -- they're big on infinity pools down there. Beyond that is the poolside bar surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs and a bunch of what might be called daybeds, but are really oversized ottomans. Between the pool bar area and the beach is a tall wooden fence with a gate that is closed after sunset.

It's beautiful enough to make me just want to be there. And that from Mr. I-only-want-practical-and-functional. It's definitely where I would stay, if I could afford it, but even off-season discounts are out of my reach.

There are three major points of interest for the tourist in South Beach (apart from Art Deco watching). The primary destination is the beach, which is very nice, if well-trodden; the water warm, clear and shallow. It is the Atlantic Ocean as I remember it from age 11.

Next, there is what is known as the Lincoln Road shopping mall, which is really a street that has been closed over for several blocks and is lined with a mishmash of crappy souvenir stores, high-toned boutiques, and restaurants with outdoor seating. About half way through there was a big screen that was running fashion shows -- models cat-walking up and down the runway for your entertainment while you have alfresco dinner. South Beach is about two things and high fashion is one of them (although everybody still dresses in shorts and t-shirts).

The third point of interest is Ocean Drive a few blocks of roadway famed for its restaurants and clubs, most of the open air variety. There is an extended area just across the street, where nets are set up for impromptu beach volleyball. There is what must be the world's largest and most complex sandcastle. Just beyond that is the beach. I'm told that during high season the place is loaded with colorful people -- a guide I read said it was the place to people-watch and it's where E! Wild on South Beach would set up their cameras. But obviously not in September; it was pretty dead. A walk down the street mid-afternoon elicited offers of a drink on the house from the proprietors, just in the hopes I'd stay for more. But I can see where the Ocean Drive might get a little crazy on busy nights. There is an energetic vibe about the place. Surprisingly, I spotted only one bar that was obviously trashy. It was called Mangos, and out front they had a huckster with a couple of friendly parrots on his shoulder, working the passers-by. And some girls in bikinis doing nothing but standing there. Naturally, I went in for a drink, just to cool off a bit.

The next three paragraphs include a critical discussion of women's breasts. If that bothers you, please skip ahead.

The other thing that South Beach is about, besides fashion, is women's breasts (the two are symbiotic in many ways). Sunbathing topless is de rigueur -- which makes the place feel rather Caribbean or French or something. Beyond that, and not to put too fine a point on it, I have never seen so many fake boobs in my life. And it's not subtle work; it's cartoonish, like the fevered dreams of adolescent boys. Tiny, wispy little girls that look like they just inflated their personal floatation devices. Fifty year old women who, considering the sagging and drooping elsewhere, appear to be mechanically suspended by their gravity defying breasts. Even the mannequins in the shop windows are top heavy.

In the aforementioned Mangos, all the waitresses are pretty and wear bikini tops -- the overwhelming majority has had "work done." Mangos is an equal opportunity employer; the waiters are also clearly hired based on how much they look like male models, but thankfully, they are fully clothed. Periodically, they play a bit of salsa and one waiter and one waitress would hop up and the bar and dance to it. (This only served to put me in mind of the old Lone Star Steakhouses back when the wait staff would periodically start line-dancing amongst the tables. Annoying, really, when they should have been bringing your food.) Then, of course, the parrot guy is wandering around, trying, and failing, to be glib and clever while having his parrots climb on to your shoulder for a snapshot that he will happily sell you (another Floridian on the make). In that kind of scene I would have expected the audience to be wild revelers and drunken schoolboys. Nope, the crowd was indistinguishable from your average Bennigan's or Max 'n' Erma's patrons. Imagine, all that money to have "work done" and you still end up surviving on 11% tips from the common, suburban rubes and tourists.

Now let me say quite unselfconsciously that I have no problem with cosmetic surgery. If I could go under the knife and come out looking like Sean Connery circa 1963 I would not hesitate. I'm also fine with breast enhancement, as long as it comes out looking good. Women who have a more, let's say, voluptuous body type can carry it off. Women who have small and subtle touch-ups can come out looking pretty good. But the South Beachers take it too far. They are no longer doing it just to look and feel good about themselves. They are doing it to draw attention to themselves from the world at large. They buy themselves hugely exaggerated breasts for the purpose of being able to say "Made ya look!" But since they all seem to go to the same extreme, it ceases to be attention-worthy. It's a viscous cycle that only ends up benefiting MTV and their newly pubescent audience.

And that all I have to say about women's breasts.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about South Beach. People were friendly everywhere I went. Despite my little breast tirade and the selective camera work on E!, the majority of people are dead normal looking. The beach is sweet. There are good restaurants and bars. And yet, I never actually settled in anywhere -- never got comfortable. It seemed like it could have a real Caribbean coolness to it, but there's really too much of a sense of effort, and perhaps pretentiousness, to make it a laid-back tropical locale. Maybe it would have been more fun in-season. It's a good spot for a couple of days of sun and fun, definitely worth the visit. But after three nights I was ready to leave and did so, not feeling like I missed out on anything.

One thing about driving around in Florida: you will get caught behind someone going a good 20 mph below the speed limit. This may seem like reasonable caution on the part of a senior citizen who understands the need for extra reaction time, but it has nothing to do with that. They are not intentionally driving 20 mph below the speed limit. They are intentionally driving 30 mph, regardless of the speed limit. This only becomes worthy of an aneurism when the speed limit is 50 and your mind tries vainly to fathom the reasoning behind this behavior and draws the erroneous conclusion that they are just being cautious. The fact is they just drive 30 because they don't care about the rest of the world. They pull out into traffic without looking. They cruise through stop signs with nary a glance. They stop dead in the middle of the road when they get confused. Their right to do these things has been vigorously defended in court by the AARP. So they get in the car and depress the accelerator to a point where the engine noise doesn't intrude upon that Perry Como CD they bought for $2.99 at Target; it just happens to be about 30 mph.

When you are driving US 1 to Key West, you will get caught behind one of these people. It doesn't matter how clever you are or how well you plan things out. You can't pass them or dodge them and flipping them off is completely futile. No matter what you do, it will happen. This is, so far, the only practical application I have found for yoga breathing.

US 1 to Key West is generally thought to be one of the most beautiful drives you can take. And it is, for a portion of it. As you cross Seven Mile Bridge, the view is as impressive as it is in all the post cards and magazines. But it's really only in the western part of the keys where you can see the ocean and/or gulf from the road. For the first half of the journey you are ambling down a road that looks no different than any other road in touristland -- lined with various crap shops hawking three t-shirts for $15.95 and greasy looking restaurants that will sell you the "captain's platter" for $6.95 before 4 pm. Not that I'm against crap shops and greasy restaurants, but it's not what you are expecting from a visual of the Keys. This is where you really don't want to get caught behind the guy with his pants hiked up around his armpits and the full-coverage, cataract sunglasses. (Do note that once you are off U.S. 1 things get a bit better.)

I checked into the Wyndham Casa Marina which is a longish, but quite pleasant walk to the far end of Duval Street, the point of action on Key West.

Duval Street starts roughly at the Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S. It's not really the southernmost point in the continental U.S., since there is quite obviously land going a bit further south. Furthermore, it's not even on the continental U.S., it's on an island just off the continental U.S. -- specifically Key West. (You need not fear for the future of pedantry as long as I'm around.) From there, it's a straight shot for what must be nearly a mile of nothing but open air bars, boutiques, crap shops, along with a girlie bar and a "bathhouse" just for good measure. Let's just say Duval Street is not the place to bring impressionable youngsters. Even if you could steer them clear of the dens of ill-repute, so to speak, the crap shops keep inanely obscene t-shirts in the windows, and the bars feature live entertainment of the foul-mouthed variety.

Still, Key West is not without its charm. Away from Duval Street there are some lovely shoreline areas. The residential streets seem fairly quiet and quaint. Even Duval Street ends in a spot called Mallory Square where crowds gather to watch the sunset and be entertained by street performers and local artisans.

I arrived in Key West in the late afternoon and had the entire day following to check things out. I had high hopes, I spent the late afternoon hanging out in the resort by the pool and wandered out for a quick bite of dinner at none other than the genuine Key West version of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (not particularly impressive, even the margarita). The next day I had planned to do the full tour of Duval Street, hit the crap shops to buy some crap for the folks back in Michigan, and see if I could get out on the water somehow. Ominously, I noticed a preponderance of Harley-Davidsons but I just figured it was typical of the keys.

The next day, Bike Week was upon me in full force. Bike Week is when bikers, I would guess 99.99% Harley riders, gather to ride up and down the street, show off their bikes, and hang out in the bars. It sounds like a recipe for violence and terror from a '50s exploitation flick, but it's not. The bikers actually seem to be more mild than wild. The majority appear to be solidly into middle age -- presumably because you have to be at least upper middle-class to afford a Harley, never mind have one modified into a wicked looking chopper. Although many are big on leather and scruffy facial hair, a good third of them looked like they had just spent the morning mowing the lawn in their Bermuda shorts. All in all, a pretty decent crowd, with a couple of unfortunate traits.

One thing they all have in common, besides motorcycles, is that they are uniformly fat. I mean f-a-t. I worried that Key West would crumble and sink under their collective bulk. Seriously guys, eat a salad now and then, the shocks on your bike will last longer.

Another thing they all have in common is the odd fetish for making as much noise as possible. I think I can understand the attraction of motorcycling -- flying down road, the open air, the hint of danger and rebellion. But where does the noise come into it? Many of these folks just seem to revel in sitting curbside, revving their engines -- engines that have actually been modified to be noisier than a standard Harley which is ear-splitting enough. Good grief. Guys, get it through your heads, you're not the Hell's Angels. You're middle-class, middle-aged, middle-heavy posers. You look as silly pulling that bad-boy act as I would trying to pick up college girls on spring break in Ft. Lauderdale. Almost, anyway.

Despite the biker intrusion I did finish my circle tour of Duval Street, including crap shop purchases. The most notable stop was Sloppy Joe's, famous for being a Hemingway hangout half a century ago. Actually, it's moved to a new location since then. And the old location is now a new bar, Captain Tony's, whose claim to fame is that it is in the location of Sloppy Joe's back when it was a Hemingway hang out. Such is the vague nature of commercial myth-making. In any event, I can confirm that the sloppy joes at Sloppy Joe's (the original name at the new location, not the new name at the original location) are most excellent -- very effective use of dill.

My excursion out on the water was fine. I had hoped to get on a boat to the Dry Tortugas and get some snorkeling in, but it was too long a trip and too expensive, so I settled for a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. It was a fine way to kill a couple of hours. Nothing too amazing about the reef -- it would have been better through a snorkel mask -- but it was a pleasant trip and a good overview of some of the interesting history of the island while I worked on my tan.

After the boat trip I decided to make my way back to the Wyndham where I could relax by the pool away from Harley-Davidson's high decibel flatulence. While I was gone the Wyndham had been invaded by some convention of personnel recruiters and there was nary a chair to sit in by the pool. I went in for a dip, but it became clear after a while that poolside was a barren land wherein my butt could find no purchase. So I headed back down Duval Street to Mallory Square (I should have rented a scooter as soon as I arrived) to enjoy the sunset, snag a bite to eat from one of the local vendors, check out the locals, chill while looking out over the water, and grab a piece of genuine key lime pie. Nice. I get the sense that this must have been what Key West was like "before it was spoiled by evil commercialism," or at least without the bikers and conventioneers.

I have mixed feelings about Key West. Despite the annoyances, Key West still has a certain charm to it. It still has the feel of a special place in spite of the cheap fa‡ade. No doubt there are nooks and crannies of real interest if you had the time to find them, but as the saying goes, timing is everything. After a day and a half, I left Key West for the mainland, passing even more bikers arriving from the opposite direction. Again, I didn't feel like I was missing anything.

The next, and last, stop was Palm Beach. In stark contrast to the high fashion Babylon of South Beach and the squalorous tourist Babylon of Key West, Palm Beach is old school, old money Florida. If you're of a certain age, you've seen all the old pictures of Florida with the shiny shops along a street lined with evenly spaced palm trees and genteel folks walking around is stylish casualwear. That's Palm Beach. At least the "beach" part is, go a couple of streets inland and it's indistinguishable from any suburb in the country.

I intentionally scheduled Palm Beach for last because I figured after the chaos of the week I would want some peace and quiet. And that's what you get in Palm Beach. To a fault. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, going on. One of the central attractions of Palm Beach is Worth Street, claimed to be the country's original upscale shopping attraction. I really had no interest in shopping at Gucci or Tiffanys, but I thought I'd see what was going on and maybe grab a drink and some dinner only to find the place was empty. On a Saturday night, no less. There were probably a total of three humans in sight and no pub or casual spot to quench my thirst. So I drove around along A1A in the waning light of the evening, admiring the mansions and the views of the sea until the weather turned dicey and I headed back to the hotel.

At this point you are probably expecting to read that I had mixed feelings about Palm Beach. As I look back over this essay in its entirety, it reads a bit too much like a bad trip. It wasn't at all; it was a good trip. I saw and did things that I don't do at home. I broke whatever routines I was stuck in. I got a really wicked tan. But it is true that I hadn't experienced that vacation moment. There should be a point in every vacation of significance that makes you feel as though you are doing or experiencing something special. It can be a new activity or a moment of relaxation or a revelation of some sort, but there should always be something that is meaningful.

Back at the Hilton, with one day left before flying back and I still hadn't had that vacation moment. It had started to rain in earnest and I had overheard the expectation of more rain for the following day, which was to be my last full day in Florida. I resigned myself to spending the next day in search of a place to settle in and watch the football games, maybe get some writing done, and call it a trip.

Sure enough, in that way Florida has of jading you into submission then dazzling you into delight, I dragged myself down for breakfast the next morning to a perfectly sunny day and 5 foot waves curling just off shore -- boogie boarding nirvana. I must have spent three hours riding the waves to shore until I didn't have the strength to pull myself up on the board, only pausing to walk the ten yards to the bar for a quick drink. At one point, the water around me got all dark. Thinking it was a shadow, I looked up expecting to see the sun hidden behind a cloud, but the sky was clear and the sun was high. As I scanned the water I realized I was in the midst of an enormous school of fish (I'm guessing herring, but I wouldn't know). It was as if I could have just reached into the water and grabbed and armful of them. Remarkable.

And that was it. I was on vacation. Of course, I had to leave the next day, but you just need the one moment to make it work.

Back in Michigan it was time to crank up the thermostat and break out the fall jackets. But it's good to know that if you can blaze a trail through everyone on the make, there are still vacations to be had in Florida.

Travel Rewind: The Gold-Plated Swamp (2002)

Travel Rewind: The Gold-Plated Swamp (2002): (The second of two trip reposts from long ago, in honor of my most recent trip to the Sunshine State.)

What kind of idiot goes to Florida in the middle of August?

Look, the day I left Michigan it had been in the 90s for most of the past three weeks, so exactly what sort of heat was I avoiding by staying up north? Besides, I had some long neglected family down there, I was about to collide with my company's use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy, and I really needed some distance from my life to get myself back into the groove of fiction writing. Combine this with off-season rates and it all made sense. I wanted to see Sanibel Island and points south, so I arranged to fly into Ft. Myers, drive north to Sarasota for a couple of days for the family visit, then back down to Ft. Myers for a week of gulf-coastal exploration.

After a blessedly uneventful flight on Delta, I picked up my rental car from Alamo with an equally blessed eventlessness. For the heck of it, I rented a Jeep Wrangler.

A Jeep Wrangler is an intentionally crude vehicle. Road and wind noise are deafening. The engine howls in pain at the mere thought of acceleration. The ride will induce you to pass blood in your urine. Parts just fall off -- quality control is vintage 1970s American Motors. The tires whine at the slightest turn of the wheel. And it sucks gas faster than Michael Moore sucks chocolate shakes, primarily because it is somewhat less aerodynamic than a block of cement. All this is part of the genuine military, off-road, old-fashioned, no sissified luxuries, Jeep mystique (except for the CD player, A/C, automatic transmission, cruise control, and so forth).

But: the top peels off, the doors pop off, the windows zip off -- and in that condition there is no better way to tool around southwest Florida.

The first stop was Sarasota, a city I've visited many times over the years and it's become a pleasant surprise. It used to be a bunch of strip malls and fairly nasty restaurants and a lot of old folks driving around at 30 miles an hour no matter the speed limit. Now it's gone fully upscale. There are any number of fine restaurants, high-tone shopping malls that pride themselves serving the nouveau riche, and the place is crawling with latest model German sedans, and I don't mean Volkswagens (all going 30 miles an hour).

I stayed at the Holiday Inn on Lido beach, a lovely stretch of sand on one of the keys just off the mainland. I was only staying for a day or two, so I didn't much care about where I stayed and the description sounded decent, plus I got a good rate. Remembering the Holiday Inns along the highways from family road trips when I was a mere lad, I honestly didn't expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. The Lido Beach Holiday Inn sits directly across a lightly traveled shoreline road from the Gulf of Mexico. About a ten minute walk will get you to St. Armand's Circle, a terrific little shopping/dining location situated around a large circular turnaround in the road. No Holiday Inn is a Hyatt or a Ritz, but this one had a lot going for it -- a lounge in the lobby, a nice restaurant on the top floor where you could sit and watch the sunset, a decent pool, and, like I said, a prime location. Given the great off-season rates I can see it being a great place for a family on a budget to spend a week. I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.

One of my all time favorite Sarasota activities is the Ringling Museum of Art, founded by John Ringling of Ringling Bros. Circus fame. Lest you think that's the equivalent of the Krusty the Clown Opera House, understand that John Ringling was a great patron of the arts and the Ringling Museum is probably the premier fine arts institution of the South. Yes, there is a Circus museum on the grounds, but it's much deemphasized. The art museum is loaded down with great works. You are hit with a series of towering Rubens upon entrance -- the collection is heavy on Old Masters. In the center is a beautiful courtyard filled with classical statues. It's really quite picturesque.

Another gem is Ca d'Zan, the Ringling family mansion. Probably the best way to describe it is that you could just picture Jay Gatsby wandering around on the terrace amidst scores of revelers. Everything about the house is ornate in the extreme. The guided tour gives you the impression that that partying never stopped and no expense was spared. I had been through the house years before when it was in an advanced state of disrepair, but after a long and expensive restoration, it's a site to behold.

All this is situated among verdant pathways with enormous banyan trees at every turn. It's a wonderful spot for a museum junkie like me to spend a day.

Following a 2-hour freeway ride in the Jeep (not a pleasant experience), I was back in Ft. Myers and checking in to the Sanibel Harbor Resort, which would be my base of operations for explorations south.

I cannot recommend Sanibel Harbor Resort. Have you ever seen Singing in the Rain? The premise is that there is this famously beautiful actress who made her fame in silent pics, but along come the talkies and everyone discovers her voice is cringe-inducing. That's what Sanibel Harbor Resort is like. It is unbelievably beautiful -- the grounds, the views -- and filled with friendly employees, but scratching that pristine surface is like nails on a chalkboard.

Among other things, they provided a wired in-room internet connection but the only Ethernet cord they provided was about two feet long and the jack was beneath around the back of a night stand so effectively I had to sit on the floor and use the bed as my desk. They left the sliding door to the balcony open one day and I came back to a room full of mosquitoes. They left the door to my room wedged open for several hours such that anybody could have walked in and stolen my $3000 laptop. And to finish up, they completely ignored my pleas for redress to management. NEVER STAY AT SANIBEL HARBOUR RESORT. [update: I am bitter about it to this day - dam]

Just across a short toll bridge sits Sanibel Island. About half of Sanibel Island -- the side of the island facing the mainland -- is protected wildlife habitat. On the rest of the island development is strictly controlled and there are obviously extensive regulations controlling commercial ventures. There is effectively one long two lane road that runs the length of the island. It is along here that most for the commercial activity goes on. Shops boutiques, restaurants abound, but are for the most part set back from road, with small, tastefully done signs and cute names like The Hungry Heron and the Lazy Flamingo. My personal favorite was the sushi at the open air Key Lime Caf‚.

The beaches are the same broad, white sand, clear green water beaches you get throughout the southwest gulf coast. They are especially prized for shell collecting (not a big hobby of mine), and one of the largest shell stores in the world, Sanibel Seashell Industries is located on the island. Beach parking can be expensive by the hour, or you can go the route of buying a permit. Either way there is no guarantee of space availability.

One thing about Sanibel: they do not make it all that easy just to drop in for a visit. Traffic is horrendous in-season (they say), and parking is tough and expensive. And it's three bucks and a bit of a wait in line just to get on to the island from the mainland. This is undoubtedly done intentionally to make sure anyone visiting does so out of desire and not whim, making a visit to Sanibel a planned event and something to be done with a certain sincerity. Probably this helps them maintain the island and keep the riff raff away. It works. Despite the development and numerous resorts, some of significant size, it retains a little, hidden away, tropical island feel that accounts for its charm and popularity.

Telling facts about Sanibel Island: 1) There is a $500 fine for littering. 2) There is a $500 fine for feeding an alligator (it's a bit worrisome that such an activity needs to be actively discouraged). 3) There is only an $80 fine for not yielding to a pedestrian at a crosswalk. It's all about priorities.

I can't think of a better place to spend a day bopping from beach to bar to beach in a Jeep Wrangler with the top dropped than Sanibel Island.

Ft. Myers Beach, immediately south of Ft. Myers proper, would have to be considered the area's party focus. A resident described it to me as a "former Spring Break destination" and I could see that. (Like everything else, spring break has gone upscale from gulf beaches to exotic Caribbean and Mexican destinations.) Whereas the rest of southwest gulf coast pushes hard to focus on the upscale Ft. Myers Beach is all about fun. It's definitely a younger crowd. The beaches, though still broad and white sand, are swarming with active folks; Frisbees, beach balls, and various objects are being tossed about; Boston Whaler-esque boats are flitting back and forth; and there appears to be an unbroken line of beach bars about half a mile long -- something I saw nowhere else along the coast. There's even a beachside Hooter's. You won't see that on Sanibel. Ever.

Accommodations at Ft. Meyers Beach are of the mostly of the motel variety -- right on, or across the street, from the beach. There don't appear to be any big resorts (but the motels probably treat you better than Sanibel Harbor Resort anyway -- sorry, bitter moment). As you move further south, there are a number of larger buildings labeled as "beach clubs," with severe-looking parking attendants to prevent beach crashers. "Beach club," as it turns out, is a euphemism for time-share condos. Cute.

I can see where Ft. Myers Beach would be an ideal destination for a family road trip. Check-in to an inexpensive motel. The kids play in the water while Mom gets all nice and tan while reading the latest Grisham, and Dad sneaks away for an afternoon Bud Light or two at the Hooter's beach bar. Work in a day trip to a shell store, a couple rounds of miniature golf, a parasail ride, a fishing expedition, and lots of snapshots with a disposable camera and you got yourself a family vacation to make Chevy Chase green with envy.

The furthest point south I reached was Marco Island. It barely rates a mention. In marked contrast to Sanibel, Marco Island appears to have been leveled of anything resembling nature then re-populated with megalithic condominium high rises. It has one publicly accessible beach, Tigertail Beach, that was mis-located on my map and if it wasn't for my laser surgery flawless vision I never would have seen the microscopic roadside sign to point me in the right direction. The rest of the beaches -- none of which you can see from the road since they are blocked out by the high rises, are for residents only. By the time I got to Tigertail Beach it was late afternoon so I passed on the three dollar entrance fee and decided to drive around the island to see the sights. There are none. Just huge buildings and a bunch of strip malls. Basically, Marco Island is your standard land-locked suburb dropped on to an island off the gulf coast.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Head back north again from Marco Island and your next stop is the heavenly city of Naples. Where to begin? I liked Naples so much I went twice.

Central to Naples are the 3rd Street South shopping district and the 5th Avenue South shopping district, both filled with boutiques on a par with Rodeo Drive, and many, many fine restaurants with sidewalk cafes or open air bars. Naples is one of the wealthiest cities extant. I grabbed a sidewalk lunch and wandered about a bit to get my bearings, then walked down to the beach.

I know it seems like beach after beach has the same monotonously perfect description: broad white sand, and clear green water. The beach at Naples was like that, only more so. I still can't describe why it was the best one of the trip. I don't know what it was. Maybe the water was just that much clearer. Maybe the sand was just that much whiter. Maybe it was the sight of folks strolling along the long pier, as opposed to the unbroken shoreline everywhere else. I just don't know how I knew, but I knew this was a special spot. I didn't have my bathing suit so I had to be content with a barefoot walk along the edge of the waves and promise to myself to return.

Back in town, I stopped for a quick drink at the excellent Yabba Island Grill. A friendly, open-all-the-French-doors restaurant designed to exude a strong Caribbean vibe, and accordingly, they specialize in rum. Now, lots of places have great wine lists. Lots of places have great beer lists. Lots of places have great lists of Single Malts. There are even plenty of places with excellent lists of Bourbons. But this is the first place I've come across that has a huge Rum list. This is not mix-with-Coke or blend-in-your-daiquiri rum. This is sipping rum -- meant to drink straight. So that's what I did, I tried one called Anniversaro from Venezuela; it has a delicious, complex flavor that made me vow to spend more time with quality rum in the future. Yo-ho-ho.

On my second visit I took a short time-out to visit the Naples Zoo. It's not a big zoo, really, but it was a nice diversion. There is a large central pond filled with alligators and turtles where they hold feedings every few hours. This amounts to someone dangling whole fryers from a rope, demonstrating how high the gators can leap out of the water to get it. It worked a couple of times, but the gators are so fat and happy they get bored. So to fill out the show, questions along the lines of "Does anybody know how long alligators live?" are shouted out to the crowd. Without exception, the children in the audience knew the answers to every question. They may not know who won the war of 1812, but they've got the world according to Animal Planet down pat.

Funny thing about southwest Florida: for all the development and commerciality along the coast, there are reminders everywhere that it is just a civilized face covering a palm and cypress swamp. You are, after all, on the edge of the Everglades. Anyone who has visited Florida can attest to the ubiquitous presence of those ever-so-cute little lizards. I was lazing by the pool one day when I noticed an injured fly on the ground struggling to escape the ants chaotically swarming about, looking to make a meal of it. Suddenly, one of those lizards darts out from under a bush and snags the fly with one bite, leaving the ants looking like they had been mugged. It was sort of like a scene from a National Geographic nature special in miniature.

Alligators loom large everywhere you go, from the signs prohibiting feeding on Sanibel, to the staged gator feeding at the zoo, where you are informed that the gators don't hesitate to take birds
and any other fauna that happens near their pond, to the fact that the highway that cuts across the Everglades to Miami is called Alligator Alley. South of Naples there are long stretches of road, what we would call 'country road' in the Midwest, with the cypressy, swampy, grass crawling almost up to the edge. A broken down Jeep, a man on foot, a snap of a tail, a lot of sharp teeth, and yours truly would have become just another tourist causality statistic. That is, if the gator left enough uneaten to be identified.

Back to Naples beach, this time with the appropriate gear. In the residential area just outside the Naples shopping districts there are a string of east-west streets which dead-end on small parking areas adjacent to the beach. I pulled the jeep into one spaces only to find myself without any change for the meter. No way was I going to waste precious beach time trying to find change for a buck so I just double parked.

I spread my towel, slathered on SPF 30 and lay in the sun. I realized I had been rushing around trying to be a thorough traveler ever since I arrived in Florida. I became aware of a tightness in my jaw and a worried furrow in my brow. I tried to read, but I couldn't keep my concentration. I tried to sleep but only drifted fitfully. I rose and went for a brief walk up the beach.

A largish family were chattering in some vaguely Eastern European dialect while their kids darted in an out of the water (imagine the Florida gulf coast versus, say, Belarus). A woman had her lounge chair placed at the very edge of the surf so she could tan while dipping her toes in the water. Two teenage girls walked by, complaining about boys. An infant boy cried out in terror when the surf got hold of his sand pail, until his father retrieved it. Some people sat serenely under umbrellas. Others, already too tan, lay drenched in oil, angled to maximize exposure. Out in the water, gulls dive bombed for unsuspecting fish -- completely submerging before arising with their prey not ten yards from swimming humans; more Darwinian nature amidst civilized luxury.

I waded out until the dead-calm water was up to my chin. Schools of minnow-like fish stayed in close proximity, hoping my presence would deter the gulls. I floated on my back allowing the buoyant salt-water to support me. The sky was bare and blue. And I found something I had been looking for. For a little while, I stopped.

Stopped wondering if the double-parked Jeep would get a ticket.

Stopped fretting over lousy hotels.

Stopped wringing my hands about what awaited me when I returned to work.

Stopped agonizing over my stalled writing career.

Stopped mentally preparing for the trip home.

Stopped plotting how I would do things differently if I could.

When I finally did pull myself off the beach and drag myself back home, I was able to see all the small events of the previous two weeks as part of the whole of a fine coastal tour, laced with all the enjoyment and frustration that are why we travel.

Even to Florida in the middle of August.