Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Month That Was - August 2010

The Month That Was - August 2010: I am monstrously late, but it was an especially chaotic month, mainly centering around the death of my father. There was no shock or surprise involved; it was a long time coming and everyone was well prepared, which was an inestimable blessing. Still there were arrangements to be made and feelings to confront, most reducing to anxiety over the horrible fate we all share: mortality.

So that, and the associated trip to FL, dominated the month and pushed most everything in my life back a week or two. Work on Misspent Youth continues at the accustomed glacial pace. And the house shopping has resumed. I haven't yet found that one property that just makes jump up and declare myself born again, but there is no need for me to hurry in this market.

I hope next month to do multiple TV and movie reviews, which means I will be reviewing works that are already in the past for you, such as the latest season of Mad Men which will be over by then, and Inglorious Basterds which may be on network TV by then. I just couldn't get to them in a timely fashion. Nothing unusual there, eh?

And now summer slowly passes away, but unlike us mortals, it will return.

[Travel] Swamped in Florida
[Books] Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison
[Books] The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum
[Cars] A Small Victory for Reason
[Good Links] Link Dump

[Travel] Swamped in Florida

Swamped in Florida: [[Photos on Smugmug.]] Here we go again. On only a few days notice I scheduled my flights down to Florida for my father's funeral. It was to be held in Sarasota, but it looks like Delta rarely if ever has scheduled flights directly into Sarasota anymore, so it was either change planes or fly direct to one of the nearby majors, Tampa or Ft. Myers. I chose Ft. Myers just because it's a smaller, more pleasant airport.

Then I got word that on the following weekend my beloved Miss Anna was schedule to move into her college dorm. That's huge, as far as I'm concerned. Her Mom, Miss Kate, has had some recent back problems, so I was only too happy to extend my trip a few days and meet up with them across the state in North Miami and make myself useful by lifting heavy things.

Of course that meant changing my flight reservation. This gave Delta a prime opportunity to pimp slap one their most loyal customers, namely me, with a draconian fee and they made the most of it. We all expect to pay a fees for such things, which shows just how beaten down we are. There is approximately zero cost to Delta if I change my return flight to Detroit from Ft. Myers to Ft. Lauderdale, but I happily accept that I will be reaching for my wallet. I suppose Delta could argue that they may have lost a seat sale because I had a reserved one and now it would go empty but the fact that they overbook every flight just in case such situations arise kind of belays that argument. Ah well.

But this time they out-absurded themselves. I identified a flight back from Ft. Lauderdale, but it turned out that it was cheaper for me to buy a one way ticket than it was for me to transfer my existing reservation to the same flight. I was being offered the exact same flight for my choice of $200 or $225. So I reserved the one-way and just never even checked in to return flight from Ft. Myers. I suppose some poor guy who was risking getting bumped in Ft. Myers benefitted from this. Victory for me, if you can call eating the fare for a flight I didn't take a victory. Actually if I prevented someone from getting bumped everybody benefitted - the bumped guy and Delta who did not have to pay the bumped guy for his trouble. I'll pass on future such victories. Ah well.

Scott McCartney at WSJ makes a salient point about airline pricing practices and how the inconsistent and completely irrational pricing. It makes customers feel as though they have been evaluated and slapped arbitrarily with the highest price they airlines think they can get. Before the service has even started, they have set up an adversarial relationship with their customers. Ah well.

By "Ah well" I mean there is nothing to be done about it except hand over your cash and bitch about it on-line.

This being Florida in the middle of August, it was rather warm. Pretty much 90/90 every day. That would be temperature and humidity percent both in the 90s. You get weather reports where they say the "real feel" is 112.

I can't count the number of times I've visited Sarasota in my life, but it remains a lovely place. It has grown of course, and gone upscale over the years, but the driving US-41 along the coast with the bay on one side and the glistening buildings on the other can give just about anyone dreams of relocating. Back inland it's mostly just another middle class suburb, as is expected, but the beauty of the waterfront and out in the keys can't be denied. This trip, for the first time ever, we followed the coast road out to the end of the keys to Anna Maria island, a quaint and picturesque little community of rental homes and fishing boats and beach bars. Were I looking for peace and quiet it would be a perfect getaway. I would commute everywhere by bike (or maybe golf cart), hang out on the beach, eat the local fresh catches, rent a Hobie if the breeze was stiff, just completely chill out. There is a tiny shopping area called Bridge Street, about a block long, which terminates in a restaurant called Rotten Ralph's where you can look out over the bay, get that fresh catch, and the beer is always free tomorrow. And if you can take the heat, population is pretty sparse in the summer. Nice.

Next up was the funeral. I suppose the best possible path for anyone is to live long and die quickly. My father did the next best thing. He suffered a series of strokes, but instead of hampering his physical abilities, they just gradually destroyed his cognition and sentience. Over the course of a few years he simply became less and less aware of the world around him, similar to Alzheimer's in that sense, and drifted into a sort of permanent waking dream. No pain. No anguish. None of the indignity or degradation of having your body fail as you watch helplessly. The end came when he developed a rupture in his colon and was unable to recover from the operation close it -- not surprising considering he had only one functioning heart vessel, and that was held open with a stent. I have heard terrible stories about probate and funeral arrangements -- complications, disputes, snafus -- there was none of this. Given the prep time everything from inheritance to grave plot was decided, planned, provided for, and ready to go. The ceremony was simple, graceful, and unexpectedly comforting -- provided by the U.S. Navy (he had served in WW2 on a minesweeper in the South Pacific). May we all be so lucky at the end of our lives.

A couple more days with family, but again, there was no turmoil or terrible anxiety, so with the couple of in between days before meeting Miss Anna, I was off on another brief tour of South Florida.

First stop Sanibel Island. Sanibel (and its smaller sister to the immediate north, Captiva) are essentially island swamps of the coast of Ft. Myers. If you thought it was hot and sticky in Sarasota, Sanibel kicks it up a notch. Honestly, I am a long time veteran of Florida in the heart of summer, not to mention the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts in July and August, but the couple of days I spent on Sanibel were the most uncomfortably hot I have ever survived. The temp was in the mid-90s, but the humidity was so thick it felt like walking through a steam room. And, being a big swamp, humans are beneath mosquitoes in the food chain. And no-see-ums. And spiders -- big ones.

The fee for access to this splendor is a bridge toll of $6. There is no day fee or weekly pass. It's a bridge toll. Want to leave the island for anything? Six more simoleans to get back on. Sounds like a virtual paradise, doesn't it?

In fact, it is. Sanibel is filled with vacation homes, bed and breakfasts, and medium sized resorts, but you wouldn't know it as you drive through. Oh it's clear where the shops and the resorts and so forth are, but they all seem to be terribly well integrated into the surroundings. There are no huge tracks of new development, at least no immediately obvious ones. Everything seems to be surrounded by old growth, as if individual spaces were carved out of the swamp.

I stayed at the Sanibel Inn -- the top rated property for Sanibel on TripAdvisor. Like most highly rated TripAdvisor properties, it has solid quality and good value, especially good for families. It's right on a south-southwesterly facing beach. There's a fine little pool, including a 9-ft deep end that I dove in several times in brazen defiance of the No Diving signs. There's a beach bar which, unlike many properties during the off-season, is actually manned and operated at the advertised hours. An activities hut is on-site for beach gear and, remarkably, free loaner bicycles. They're beat up bicycles, but they function and biking is a great way to get around on the island.

The beach is a shellers dream, as are most beaches on the island. Sanibel is renowned for sea shells. You know that tide line you get on beaches -- sometimes it's gravel, sometimes it's seaweed? On Sanibel it's sea shells. I plunged my hands into it and came up with two thick handfuls of shells. But more importantly you can easily walk fifty yards out and the warm green water will not be over your shoulder. The gulf is not crystal clear, but it is buoyant and clean (no sign of oil, in case you were wondering). I say this every Florida trip, but I could just go out and float around in the water and be as content as a swaddled baby. I spent the remainder of my first day biking around the island to get my bearings, plus an hour or so of swimming and reading and generally being a no-account wastrel.

The next morning I was up an off on a swamp walk. About two-thirds of Sanibel is given over to a protected wildlife preserve, specifically the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It is, as you have surmised, a big old tract (6400 acres) of mangrove swamp. I had my camera with me, but for all their weird demonic beauty, primeval swamps are simply not readily susceptible to casual photography. I have often tried to get a shot of a certain compelling tangle of trees or some angle to show the Swamp-Thing feel of the landscape and have failed every time. There are skills involved in it that I just don't have.

Swamps are teeming with life. There are gators, but I saw none. There are otters, but I saw none. There are manatees in the deeper areas, but I saw none. There are turtles, I saw none. There are birds -- those I saw, but I think they may have been outnumbered by the birders. I saw skittish fiddler crabs and feeding cranes. The most striking thing I saw were the golden silk orb-weaver spiders. That Wikipedia link suggests that these spiders grow to a leg span of 2.5 inches. Bollocks. One had strung its elaborate web across a narrow path and I was literally inches from it before I stopped myself from walking right into it. The spider sitting at the middle could not have been less than 4 inches across. But the creature that truly owns the swamp is Culiseta longiareolata, the miserable blood-sucking mosquito.

I admit to my own idiocy. I have read stories of African adventurers who kept to long pants and sleeves just to deter bugs, but it didn't register. But it was unimaginably hot, OK? And never has such humidity existed. Still I should have known better than to hike four miles through a South Florida swamp in the middle of August in nothing but sandals and shorts. Besides, did they have to be such greedy little pigs. And stealthy too; I had no idea I was getting so thoroughly chowed upon. I did know that night. I had forty or fifty bites, easily.

After my swamp walk I spent the afternoon trolling around Sanibel and Captiva, taking photos of anything interesting -- the lighthouse beach area, the cute signage, the sunset, etc. -- and generally fantasizing about owning a vacation home there. Plus, more no-account wastrel time. Sleep, when it came, was sparse and fitful, thanks to the barbaric vampire bugs from earlier.

Still, I was up and out the next day, headed for Miami. But first, a stop for lunch at Marco Island. Marco is about as far south as you can go on the gulf before you have to turn east and drive across the Everglades. Like Sanibel, it is a sizable barrier island of the gulf coast. Unlike Sanibel it appears to be completely developed, stem to stern. Many of the houses are quite lovely and some are built around canals with boats docked just outside their doors. There's money here, that's for sure. There is little "character" to any of this, but it all looks clean and fresh and frankly, after my encounter with the wilds of Sanibel, I wasn't disappointed to be surrounded by cement in which mosquitoes could not breed and doorways across which no giant spider webs would be strung.

One find on Marco: Davide Italian Cafe‚ and Deli. Genuine rustic Italian style food (with minor nods to American eaters) in a little storefront shop wedged into a strip mall. Great pepper and onion sandwich. If my vacation home was on Marco this place would be my go to for takeout. And I wouldn't mind a vacation home on Marco, although it would work best if a boat capable of covering the roughly hundred miles to Key West in relative comfort was available.

That's it for the gulf side, now we barrel across Alligator Alley to Hollywood, roughly equidistant from Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, and home of the Westin Diplomat, which would serve as headquarters for Anna's dorm move in.

The Westin Diplomat is a strikingly beautiful hotel. The interior design sparkles with fountainy glitter. There are plenty of seating in the dramatic lobby, with a little lounge area tucked off to the side. An enormous pool complex lives in back, right on the beach. It is pricey, though. It's one of those places where you stop in said lobby bar for a nightcap and walk off to bed $30 lighter. And, of course, wi-fi is only free in the lobby. I could go on a rant about how the cheaper hotels supply wi-fi for free while the "luxury" properties feel the need to gouge you, but I'll spare you.

Anna is starting her freshmen year at Barry University, a college I become more impressed with each visit. Last time I accompanied them down to orientation and while I was generally positive I did express some (mildly snarky) reservations right here on this site (a couple of months back if you're checking). To my surprise I received, completely unsolicited, a nicely worded email from a university official trying to put my concerns to rest. The fact that they monitor the web for new references to Barry University spoke volumes in and of itself. Having seen a bit more of the operation and people I feel pretty good about Anna's education there, and I remain cheered by the explicit Catholic identity of the place, which is an educational plus.

My only concern now is the neighborhood. They are quite blunt when it comes to warnings not to leave the fenced-in campus at night without security. And judging by the bars on the windows of the local houses, that sounds like good advice. But what can you do? 1950 is gone and it's never coming back. At least she should be safe on campus.

These last couple of days were filled with numerous trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target for dorm room outfitting, along with the associated decorating and shelf construction. Essential activities designed to kick start Anna into adulthood. I found myself hoping it would not be the last in long line of little travels I've had with Miss Anna but who knows, she's moved on. Her concerns are her school, her boyfriend, her own tastes and desires. Her life is her's. She is tentatively making her own way, with her own achievements and failures, her own sorrows and joys, covering herself with experiences that she'll wear like armor against mortality to the last.

For now, it gives me another excuse to visit Florida. Maybe even when it's not so hot.

[Books] Book Look: Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison

Book Look: Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison: Judging from the blurbs attached to the book jacket, everybody with a recognizable name in the literary world thought Why Did I Ever was a great big handful of chocolate covered awesome. As for me, I just liked it. It's clever and creative and hits the right notes at the right time. Not that I don't have my gripes.

The plot is firmly planted in the post-Oprah universe: Single mom, multiple-divorcee, in therapy, a handful of dysfunctional friends and coworkers, an inability to commit, a daughter addicted to methadone, a homosexual son who has recently suffered a horrific sexual assault. Just like everyone on your block, eh? The lead character, the single mom, is a thoroughly annoying creature nicknamed "Money" -- a self-satisfied smart-ass, who is given to voicing the sort of cryptic quips that make shallow people think she is colorful and that signal that she has hidden depth which you and others just don't have the insight to understand. Meanwhile, her inner monologue indicates she mostly dwells on how much trouble and aggravation everyone else is causing her. God, how I hate such women. If Robison had a real-life model for this character, I'd lay decent odds that I've dated her.

Now, apart from making me sneer disdainfully through half of it, the book is quite good. It is laced throughout with sharp humor. And Money does manage to make a journey from subtle contempt and detached negativity to something approximating gratitude.

Most interesting is the style. Most of the reviews I read of it referred to as minimalist, which is off the mark, or as a diary which is closer but misses the key point. It is in fact web writing in long form. It is presented as what is essentially a series of hundreds of blog posts. In tone, it's the sort of thing you would read on the old school personal blogs folks used to keep (and some still do) (but not me). It has intriguing possibilities and Robison works it well -- indirect thoughts with a spontaneous unfiltered feel to them. Each entry is from one to several paragraphs of events and thoughts that may or may not have relevance outside the ongoing stream. The difference here of course is that they are woven into a coherent narrative. As I said, it's very clever and I suspect it's a good way to avoid any sort of indulgence in delicacy or wordiness (which is all too common in novels), yet it still allows for a striking poetic turn of phrase now and then.

Should you read Why Did I Ever? Yeah. Despite touching on my personal annoyances, it is lively, interesting and entertaining. I'm not going to go as far as calling it chocolate covered awesome, though. Just a good read. Worth your time.

[Books] Book Look: The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum

Book Look: The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum:. Was there ever a time and place when folks understood less about human nature than the 1920s and 30s in the U.S.? It seems like the concept that people respond to incentives was completely foreign to them. The depression was made Great by people with no clue about public reaction to basic economic incentives. And before that there was prohibition -- an idiotic idea made worse by the fact that, in an effort to discourage folks from distilling their own hooch from pilfered industrial alcohol, it was order by the government that all industrial alcohol be poisoned. Yeah, that'll teach them. (Of course, when you consider drug laws, zero tolerance in schools, and government bailouts, we may give them a run for their money in misunderstanding human nature.)

That's just one of the interesting facts I picked up from reading The Poisoner's Handbook, which is a somewhat uncomfortable combination of history, biography, true crime, and science. Using prohibition as a jumping off point, Blum tracks the birth and legal validation of the science of forensic medicine. This involves profiles of its founding father Charles Norris (yes, Chuck Norris, I know...) who expended a herculean effort to fight the corrupt New York City establishment which, for the sake of political favoritism and control, had installed a health official who would famously show up drunk in court. Also, profiled extensively is Alexander Gettler, Norris' chief toxicologist and legendary for his dogged devotion to thoroughness and the scientific method.

We are also treated to some true crime in the form of famous poisoning cases, some for fun, some for money, some for "love". Another interesting truth: Poisonous substances were readily available back then and the only way a number of these murders were solved was through flaky or betrayed associates or because the murderers were just plain stupid. (This may still be true today; most cases are solved via snitches or obvious evidence, aren't they?)

Even with documented proof, legalities got in the way of obvious convictions. (We can relate.)

Scandalous cases, especially if committed for lurid purposes, were tabloid sensations. (Oh yeah, we can relate.)

Some poisons were considered elixirs of health. Radium, for example, was thought to provide energy and was used as a depilatory before people's bones started disintegrating. (You gotta admit this is better today. A lot of the homes I've been looking at have radon detectors. And you won't get intentionally dosed with the stuff except as a last resort against cancer. Most new product scares we have turn out to be the sky falling, and arguably, products are held back from market longer than they should be.)

And it was lucky Chuck Charles Norris was independently wealthy because he often financed a big chunk of the forensic laboratories expenses out of his own pocket, since New York City went through periodic spells of near bankruptcy. (Has happened since and will no doubt come again.)

So here's the main lesson learned: Some things never change.

What about the book, as such? Verdict: So-so. It misses by darting around too much (history/chemistry/biography/true crime) and compromises badly on the discussion of scientific techniques: too shallow to be intellectually interesting, yet really has no place as part of a casual narrative. Blum may have been better served to have just flat left them out. In all cases it would have been better to pick a single angle (history, chemistry, etc....) and pursue it more deeply. A side result of this veneer view is a tendency to paint conflicts in a nice conventional-wisdom black and white, then move along to something else.

That said, should you read The Poisoner's Handbook? Probably yes. It does achieve validity in numerous genres and so will work for whichever one you happen to have a jones for. That suggests shrewd marketing as far as selecting the content -- I mean that in a positive way. If it sounds like something you'd like, it almost certainly is. I also suspect Blum (who is clearly passionate about forensic medicine) could construct a more deep and fascinating look at some specific aspect of this book. I hope a publisher let's her write it.

[Cars] A Small Victory for Reason

A Small Victory for Reason: Here in Ann Arbor, speed limits were raised at three notorious speed traps. You read that right: Raised. These spots have been well known to locals for decades and probably great revenue generators. But recently, after years of efforts, the National Motorists Association successfully argued that raising the speed limit would not make these roads less safe, but would be a sane and rational response to the situation. Bear in mind, this probably means less revenue for the city in speeding tickets. And no doubt someone at some point hysterically argued that raising the limit would result in the deaths of innocent children in flaming car crashes. Yet it was done. It is now two years since and nothing bad has happened.
One thing did change. As was expected, the vast majority of safe, sane, competent drivers who go along with the normal flow of traffic are no longer arbitrarily defined as criminals, and no longer subject to big ticket fines and even bigger insurance surcharges.
The National Motorists Association should win a Nobel prize for this achievement. I thought I would never in my life see a point where a plea to rationality overcame both emotional and financial pressure in politics. And in Ann Arbor no less. Astounding.

[Good Links] Link Dump

Link Dump: I haven't done a link dump in ages, so here's some good reading to distract you from work....

I hate politics, but P.J. O'Rourke is just too good and funny not to read. On a recent trip to Afghanistan, he brilliantly gets to a core issue in all of journalism (and one of the reasons I hate the news media), which is that nobody knows what the real truth is and whatever "angle" is taken on the story reflects the reporter's biases more than any external reality. But I guess you can't write endless stories about how you don't know anything.

Under the heading of things I never thought I'd see, in Brooklyn cops and citizens team up to catch a bike thief. A stolen bike came up for sale on Craigslist and the owner noticed. Cops actually set up a sting with the victim to catch the perp. Awesome. I'm frankly amazed that she didn't just get a "come on in and fill out a form" response. Good on the Brooklyn PD.

Like many people when given a public forum, Roger Ebert tends to spew some embarrassing socio-political commentary. Diarrhea of the mouth, as Rocky Balboa would say. But never ever doubt his ability to write a beautifully crafted and insightful movie review like his recent revisitation of Lost in Translation.

A Shatnerian epic. Gave me the giggles.

And if you still don't want to get back to work, I offer a collection of The Best Magazine Articles Ever. I highly recommend Gay Talese on Sinatra. The one of phone phreaking, Secrets of the Little Blue Box, is great for the retro geek in you. Great stuff.