Uncommon Grace

This lovely snowy egret, white feathers ablaze in the bright sunshine, walks the beach with a stately, deliberate grace and a commanding gaze — its attention all the while directed at the surf, and detecting fish that might be caught unawares.

It’s a beautiful bird. The fact that it’s a ruthless hunter, too, just makes it all the more interesting.

The Most Dangerous Place To Walk

Where is the most dangerous place in the United States for pedestrians?  Speaking as a dedicated walker, I would say it’s anywhere that drivers aren’t paying careful attention — and, say, fail to look both ways before taking a right turn on red.  Many close calls are caused by simple driver distraction or failure to follow the basic rules of the road.

Car withh pedestriansThat’s a truism, but is there a geographic area where car-pedestrian accidents are most commonplace?  New York City, perhaps?  Or one of the car-culture cities in California?  Or maybe a party place like New Orleans, where the mix of impaired drivers and impaired walkers could produce collisions?

It’s none of those guesses:  instead, according to one recent study, the most dangerous place to walk is the Orlando region of central Florida.  The study found that, between 2008 and 2017, nearly 50,000 people walking the streets of the United States — 49,340 to be precise — were killed by collisions with vehicles.  Of that number, 5,433 pedestrians died in Florida accidents, and 656 died in the Orlando-Sanford-Kissimmee metropolitan area.  In fact, the study found that the six most deadly metropolitan areas for walkers in the U.S. are all in Florida.

The article doesn’t offer explanations about why Florida is a death trap for pedestrians, but some contributing factors seem obvious.  First, it’s got a lot of older drivers who probably are not operating at peak mental or physical condition.  Seniors who get behind the wheel when they are experiencing declining eyesight, failing hearing, and slowing reflexes obviously pose a greater risk of accidents.  And Florida’s tourist destination status means that many of its drivers on any given day are likely to be visitors who are unfamiliar with traffic patterns or pedestrian walkways.  And some of them might be distracted by, say, overexcited kids who are ready for the Magic Kingdom and are raising a ruckus in the back seat.

There’s a lesson lurking in all of this:  if you want to walk in Florida, do it on a beach.  The streets are just too dangerous.

Florida In July

What could be more inviting than a trip to Florida in July? The sun is powerful enough to strip paint, and the humidity exceeds any measuring device known to science. Even the boats seem too hot to do anything. But the “early bird” specials continue to be offered, in case you’re wondering.

Florida in July also tests the capability of the human body to adjust to abrupt and extreme changes in temperature. You go from frying pan heat outside to blood-congealing cold when you enter any hotel air-conditioning zone. For the glasses wearer, that means one thing: lenses so hopelessly fogged that you’re effectively rendered blind and left stumbling in your search for the reception desk.

What’s good about Florida in July? Well, it’s not crowded.

Federal Bureau Of Incompetence

In the wake of the latest awful school shooting, in which 17 students and teachers were killed in Florida and another 15 people were injured, there has been a lot of talk about guns and gun control.  That debate is entirely warranted, but I hope that there is also room for broad discussion about the performance of law enforcement agencies — from the FBI on down.

Last month, the FBI received a specific, credible warning about the accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz.  A person close to Cruz contacted the FBI’s Public Access Line on January 5 and described Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill others, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts.  The FBI acknowledged that it received the tip — but did nothing, in violation of its own internal rules.  In a statement, the Bureau said:  “Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life. The information then should have been forwarded to the FBI Miami Field Office, where appropriate investigative steps would have been taken.”

Nikolas-Cruz-919429And it certainly appears that, if somebody from the FBI had actually looked into the tip, they would have found a lot of very disturbing information about Cruz, from troubles in school and a recommendation that a “threat assessment” be performed on Cruz, to a self-mutilation post and other troubling activities on social media and a comment on a blog about being a “professional school shooter,” to multiple calls about Cruz and his erratic behavior to the local sheriff’s office.  It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that, if somebody had just followed up on the tip, the massacre might have been avoided.

A statement from Christopher Wray, the Director of the FBI, about the FBI’s failure to act said:  “We are still investigating the facts. I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public.” He also said:  “It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly.”  But in this instance, Americans were vigilant and did report on concerns arising from disturbing behavior — and the FBI totally dropped the ball.

According to its website, about 35,000 people work for the FBI.  The Agency’s annual budget is more than $8 billion.  In short, the FBI has a lot of resources.  Given the number of mass shootings we’ve seen in this country, in schools and otherwise, it’s unfathomable that a credible tip to the FBI about a potential mass killer would be ignored.  If the FBI doesn’t follow up on such tips, what in the world is it doing?  And while it’s nice to know that FBI Director Wray is going to investigate the Bureau’s failure to investigate the tip about Nikolas Cruz, we might want to make sure that the FBI’s conduct is investigated by people who won’t drop the ball this time.

That Overcrowded Feeling

There are some airports that always seem to be incredibly overcrowded.  The Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood airport is one of them.  Is it because it’s the end of “the season”?  Is it because the airport just hasn’t kept pace with the growth of the surrounding community?  Is it because airport planners think it’s hilarious to cram people into concourses like sardines in a tin can?

Who knows?  But it’s not a pleasant way to start, or end, a trip to the Sunshine State.

Meanwhile, Back At The Shuffleboard Court . . . .

You have to wonder whether it ever bothers the people of Florida that everyone else in the country views it as an enclave for octogenarians.  No surprise there — Florida has the largest percentage of senior in the country, with almost one in five residents above the age of 65 and one county where more than half the residents fall into that category.

wvc_seniorgames_0920123Stories like this one, about a “shuffleboard rage” incident in St. Petersburg, aren’t going to help Florida’s retiree rep.  It reports that an 81-year-old guy was charged with battery after getting into a fight with another man during a shuffleboard tournament at a seniors center.  The feisty octogenarian reportedly punched the victim in the face and hit him with his shuffleboard cue, scratching the victim’s face.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t report certain crucially important details, like what provoked the incident, and whether the two men were wearing colorful plaid Bermuda shorts hitched up to nipple height and support hose at the time of the altercation.

What would it be like to live in the Sunshine State, home to millions of slow-walking, bad-driving, loudly attired seniors wearing bulky hearing aids?  I think it would be strange and depressing to live in a place where there are so many older people relative to the rest of the country.  Now we learn that the state might be somewhat dangerous for the many shuffleboard fans among us, too.

Honoring A Promise To Mom

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Mom and Dad bought a condo on Hutchinson Island in Stuart, Florida in the late ’80s.  It became a special place for them.  When Dad retired a few months after they bought the condo, they began to spend more and more time in this enclave of seagrass, windswept beaches, and crashing surf.  I think Dad would gladly have moved down here full-time, but Mom wanted to keep a place in Columbus to spend time with kids and grandkids.  So they compromised, as successful married couples do, and split the years equally between their condo at Suntide and a condo in Columbus.

They spent many happy years here, and made many friends.  The kids and grandkids enjoyed the condo, too.  It was a great place to take little children, with a sunny pool and a beach and sandcastle building and boogie board riding and shell-gathering only a few steps away.  Kish, Richard, Russell and I came down here regularly, and so did my siblings and their kids.  We all have strong memories of this place.

Dad died in 1997.  He wanted his remains to stay here, and we honored that request.  The kids got older, the visits to the condo became less frequent, and Mom wanted to spend more time in Columbus with her kids and Columbus friends.  Eventually we sold the condo at Suntide, but Mom always said that after her death she wanted her remains to be brought here to be with Dad, always and forever.  We promised we would do so.  And this weekend all of the kids and grandkids are here to honor that promise and think once more of Mom and Dad and their little piece of paradise.

Mom and Dad and the condo are gone, but the sand and surf and sun — and memories — remain.  I got up early this morning to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic, and it was as beautiful as I remembered.  Mom would have liked it.

Goat-Blood Government

There are some among us who might contend that a little goat-blood guzzling might be good training for a politician.

After all, if you’re going to be sacrificing your principles on a regular basis, why not sacrifice a barnyard animal while you’re at it, and suck down the lip-smacking, iron-flavored richness of its still warm hemoglobin as you thoughtfully consider the many rewards of your chosen profession?  It kind of makes you wonder whether some of the other significant political figures of our time haven’t taken a nip or two of billy goat blood from time to time after they’ve come off the Senate floor or just finished a contentious committee hearing.

In Florida, a Senate candidate named Augustus Sol Invictus (that’s not his birth name, which he legally changed a few years ago to those rolling Latin words that mean “majestic unconquered sun”) has admitted to quaffing some goat hemoglobin.  Two years ago, Old Sol apparently walked from central Florida to the Mojave Desert — any geography buff will tell you that’s quite a jaunt — and spent a week fasting and praying, and then when he returned home alive he gave thanks by sacrificing a goat to the pagan “god of the wilderness” and then drank its blood.  And really, who among us, upon returning from a week-long visit to California, hasn’t been tempted to do the same?

Sol is a criminal lawyer — do you think he runs ads that say “Better Call Sol”? — who’s running as a Libertarian.  He thinks the government is “waging war on citizens” and citizens therefore have “the right to self-defense on government,” and he sees “a cataclysm coming.”  He admits to being investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, and other law enforcement personnel, but seems to take some pride in that fact and says he’s flattered that they think he’s a “threat to the stability of the system.”

I’m not sure about a threat to the system, but he’s proven that he’s a threat to goats.

St. Augustine

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On Christmas Day we traveled to St. Augustine, the oldest continuously populated city in North America — or something like that. It was founded in the pre-Pilgrim 1500s by the Spaniards, and it’s well worth a visit.

Our first stop was the Castillo de San Marcos, the fort the Spaniards built to protect their settlement. Although the interior was closed — even the National Park Service takes Christmas Day off — our tour of the grounds showed that the fortress is in remarkably good shape given its age and history. Richard’s Google check indicated that since being founded by the Spanish Empire, the CdSM has flown the flag of England, the U.S., and the Confederacy, and also been used to house prisoners.

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We then walked along the harbor road to the old town section of St. Augustine, which features some of the beachfront kitsch you expect in any Florida town, but also some very interesting buildings dating from the Spanish era as well as some fine architectural flourishes added during the Gilded Age. Among the highlights were two facing hotels built by the indefatigable Henry Flagler, a railroad and oil magnate who played a key role in Florida’s development. The one shown above has now become city hall.

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But it is the structure across the street that is the real jaw-dropper. Formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel — where travelers presumably could search for the Fountain of Youth in the Florida sunshine — it is a beautiful and sprawling bit of Spanish-influenced architecture that includes lots of remarkable features, like the fierce carved lion head at the gates, shown below.

I don’t know much about how and where Flagler made his money, but I will say this: he used part of it to create a fascinating object of great beauty. It’s fitting that this structure has now become the main building of Flagler College.

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Parental Due Diligence

Jacksonville, Florida is the largest city in America in terms of land area encompassed within the city limits.  It covers more than 840 square miles, and within its borders is the largest urban park system in the country, with 80,000 acres of parkland.

Initially known as Cowford — because it was the spot where cattle crossed the St. John River — Jacksonville is now the most populous city in Florida, with more than 840,000 residents, and is the 14th largest city in the U.S.  It is also the youngest city in Florida (no surprise there!) with a median age in the mid-30s.

Jacksonville was the birthplace of one of the greatest American rock bands ever — Lynyrd Skynyrd — and also hosts the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival, the second-largest jazz festival in the nation.  It has a big-league sports team in the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

Why the sudden interest in Jacksonville?  Just a little parental due diligence.  We learned a few days ago that Richard has gotten a job at The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s newspaper, and will be moving down to The River City to start his professional reporting career in earnest in the next few weeks.

Jacksonville sounds like a pretty interesting place to cover and we’ll look forward to learning even more about it through Richard’s reporting.  Congratulations, Richard!

Winterfell In Columbus

IMG_5983The vernal equinox occurred on March 20, which means the Sun has passed the celestial equator, periods of daylight are now longer than periods of darkness, and spring has officially arrived. Who cares about that, though, when you can look out the window of your study and see — as the photo above shows — snow pelting down and a few inches accumulating on a lawn that should be pushing up green shoots of new grass instead?

I feel like I should be one of the Starks of Winterfell, wrapped snugly in smelly furs, intoning grimly that “winter is coming” and warning of the perils of the White Walkers. This year in Columbus, winter has come . . . and stayed, and stayed, and stayed. It’s the Winter Without End. All we’re missing are a few direwolves and an 800-foot-high wall in the backyard.

Recently one of my friends mentioned that he had a picture on his cell phone of his kids playing in the snow that fell in October. Winter started about then, and it’s still here!

If I had the money, I’d buy every empty condo property in south Florida I could find. After this brutal midwestern winter, I think we’re going to see a fresh exodus of snowbirds who’ve had it up to here with snow and cold and ice and will pay through their frostbitten noses for a chance to feel the sun’s warmth.

Reading The Special Election Tea Leaves

Political reporters love special elections for congressional seats. Because the elections are one-off affairs held at odd times, they command far more attention than normal congressional races do. And the question always is: is there a lesson to be learned from the results that tells us how the national political winds are blowing?

Yesterday one of those special elections was held in Florida’s 13th House district. Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly were vying to replace a longtime Republican incumbent who died of cancer in October. Both sides poured money into the race, with Sink and her allies slightly outspending the Republican side.

The Republicans tried to make the race a referendum on Obamacare. Jolly favors outright repeal; Sink says the law should be “fixed” without saying much about how, precisely, to do that. Her position is the one that Democrats are being urged to voice in November, on the theory that voters are pragmatic and would rather see repair than repeal.

Jolly won by a 2% margin. Does that tell us that Obamacare will be political poison for Democrats nationally in November, or does it just mean that, on this occasion in one district in Florida, voters narrowly opted for one candidate over another? Already Democrats are noting that Sink got a larger percentage of the vote than had Democratic challengers to the longtime Republican incumbent — which seems like pretty meaningless spin to me.

I’m not inclined to read too much into the results, because I think many voters vote on the basis of candidates rather than issues. I also think, however, that Democrats need to sharpen their message and give voters some details on what, precisely, they propose to do with this law that has affected so many people. There are a lot of credibility issues swirling around Obamacare, and in that atmosphere vague promises of future fixes aren’t going to have much resonance with voters.

UJ In The Keys

IMG_2696UJ is down in Key West, where the sun is warm and the rum drinks are cold.

C’mon, UJ! I haven’t been on a spring break trip to Florida in years. How about a report from the sunny south?

What’s that warm sand feel like? What about the hot sunshine on your skin, and the feel of a cold, beaded glass of Captain Morgan’s and Coke in your hand? And those bright rays on your sunglasses, and a languid scent of cocoa butter suntan lotion on the skin, and the gentle breezes of the Caribbean ruffling the canopy of the beach umbrella?

I’m working this week, but that doesn’t mean I can’t live vicariously through some Webner House posts.

Sinkhole Psyche Out

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about!

America is a land of stressed-out worriers.  We lose sleep over the latest epidemics and health scares, over diseases like SARS and bird flu, and over chemicals in our food and horsemeat in our tacos.  We fret about gun-toting nuts charging into schools or gunning down innocent theatergoers and about rogue police officers on random killing sprees.  We agonize about the prevalence of sexual predators and other sickos who might kidnap or molest our children.  We brood about the bad economy, and whether we can keep our jobs, and whether the college graduates in our families will be able to even get a job in the first place.

Now, we have to worry about sinkholes, too.  Will we be like poor Jeff Bush, sitting innocently in his bedroom near Tampa, Florida, when suddenly and without apparent warning a massive sinkhole opens beneath him, swallowing him whole and leaving not a trace behind?  What can we trust, if not the seemingly solid ground beneath our feet?  But even that may simply be shifting sands.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about!  I guess we’ll just need to live our lives without being consumed by the countless risks and dangers that could strike us down at any moment.  Eat, drink, and be merry — for tomorrow we may sink.