Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Luddite Lost in Live Chat Land

The following is an exact transcript (with typos and their commercials) of an actual live chat session I had with Earthlink tonight.

Welcome to Earthlink LiveChat. Your chat session will begin shortly.
Not at home and you want to read your email? With EarthLink Web Mail you can check your email from any computer with an internet connection!
Please wait for a site operator to respond. While you are waiting, please feel free to begin typing your issue in the box below. Try to be as descriptive as possible. Once an operator responds, click SEND to transmit what you have typed.

'Stanley C' says: Thank you for contacting EarthLink LiveChat, how may I help you today?
The Voice: Ever since I installed Earthlink Total Protection if I leave my computer for a period of time when I tap the keyboard to bring it up out of power save Earthlink has disconnected my cable connection and I need to restart my computer in order to get it back. I don't want to have to restart my computer multiple times a day. I ran the cable connection several weeks with no problems prior to loading the Earthlink software so I am sure the firewall is the problem. How do I reset it not to do this?
Stanley C: Hello Voice, I will be glad to assist you in resolving the issue.
The Voice: Go to it Stanley
Stanley C: It seems that the powermanagement is enabled on your computer.
Stanley C: If powermanagement is enabled, the system will disconnected.
Stanley C: I will help you disable powermanagement.
Stanley C:
Stanley C: Please make use of the link to disable powermanagement.
Stanley C: Please go through the link and let me know if you have nay doubts.

The Voice: Bad answer Stanley. Did you read my message? I was having absolutely no problems with uising power management and my cable connection until I got Earthlink Total F'ing Control. I would rather dump your stinking software. And while we're at it, how do I take the overbearing earthlink home page off as my default? I have changed it to something else as Use Current Page, but I want it out of the default setting. I am this close () to dumping Earthlink all together. I still have no resolution to an email problem I was told the engineers were working on three or four weeks ago!!!!!!!!!!
Stanley C: I see that you have 3 issues.
Stanley C: First, I will help you setup the page as the default page.
Stanley C: Then we shall move forward to troubleshoot other issues.

The Voice: Stanley, dearest, Upon which continent are you located? I am guessing it is not North America. I do not want earthlink as my default home page. When I installed your software it placed earthlink as my home page, which I did NOT want. I want to take it out of the default.
Stanley C: I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused.
The Voice: I shall also apologize to you. It is not your fault that these issues have been stacking up like cord wood and you are at the tail end of my frustrations.
Stanley C: When you open Internet Explorer, you get EarthLink page as default. You want me to help you remove it as default. Am I right?
The Voice: You are correct.
Stanley C: Thank you for your understanding. Please be patient with me. I will help you resolve all the issues today. If I am unable to help you, I will let you know.
Stanley C: Open Internet Explorer.
Stanley C: Click Tools --> Click Internet options.
Stanley C: Click on General tab.
Stanley C: In the Homepage region, you will see in the field that reads Address. Please delete the contents in the field.
Stanley C: Click the button that reads Use Blank.

The Voice: On mine it reads which is what i am using currently. If I click on Use default it reads as you suggested.
Stanley C: Do you want to use google?
The Voice: For the nonce, yes. What I want to know is how to I erase earthlink as the default?
Stanley C: In the field, you need to have an email address other than
Stanley C: I suggest you to click Use Blank button and then type

The Voice: Ok, I can do that. If I try to erase earthlink from the default, it just restores itself when I click Use Default. Your solution is the same kind of workaround that I have been doing. Obviously, the earthlink software insinuated itself deeply into the bowels of my computer. This makes me paranoid. this makes me want to have nothing to do with the earthlink software and be very tempted to uninstall it altogether. Are you telling me that you don't know how to change it from the default position either?
Stanley C: I will help you.
Stanley C: Click Tools.
Stanley C: Click Internet Options.
Stanley C: Click on the Programs tab.
Stanley C: Click on the button that reads Reset Websettings.
Stanley C: Click Apply --> Click Ok.

The Voice: Worked like a charm. Thanks Stanley. Now, on to the loss of connection?
Stanley C: Now close and reopen Internet Explorer.
Stanley C: Thank you.
Stanley C: Please let me know the second issue.

The Voice: Ever since I installed Earthlink Total Protection if I leave my computer for a period of time when I tap the keyboard to bring it up out of power save Earthlink has disconnected my cable connection and I need to restart my computer in order to get it back. I don't want to have to restart my computer multiple times a day. I ran the cable connection several weeks with no problems prior to loading the Earthlink software so I am sure the firewall is the problem. How do I reset it not to do this?
The Voice: Stanley, still with me?
Stanley C: Yes.
Stanley C: It seems that the powermanagement is enabled.
Stanley C: If you leave the system idle, it disconnects..

The Voice: It never never never disconnected no matter how long I left it until I got earthlink total protection on the machine. It is a cable modem it is supposed to be on all the time.
Stanley C: I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused.
Stanley C: We need to create a new cable location and connect with it.

The Voice: OK, I'll bite. Why?
Stanley C: As it disconnects due to PPPOE, we need to create a new location for cable connection.
The Voice: PPPOE? What is that?
Stanley C: I will provide the link to create a new cable location.
Stanley C: Sorry, I meant to say DHCP.
Stanley C: Click Start --> Click Run --> Let me know the items related to EarthLink listed there.

The Voice: While I am deeply appreciative of al you have done to help me, this has taken very much longer than I anticipated. (Not your fault). I will need to undertake this project later.
Stanley C: I will provide the link. Please wait.
Stanley C: You can create it on your own.

The Voice: OK
Stanley C: Let me know the version of TotalAccess you are using.
The Voice: It says 2005 on the disk. If that is not what you need to know tell me where to find it
Stanley C: Yes, you are using TotalAccess2005.
The Voice: You are not waiting on me are you?
Stanley C: Yes, I am typing the instrcutions for you.
The Voice: OK sorry I will be patient.
Stanley C: In order to resolve the issue, you just need to create a new Location in your TotalAccess. To do so, follow the instructions given below:
Stanley C:
Stanley C: 1. Double-click the EarthLink icon on your desktop.
Stanley C: 2. Click on Settings.
Stanley C: 3. Go to Connections tab.
Stanley C: 4. Click on New button.
Stanley C: 5. Select Other, type a name (like EarthLink DSL) and click Next.
Stanley C: 6. Select Home/Office Network.
Stanley C: 7. Click Next.
Stanley C: 8. Click Finish.
Stanley C: 9. Now, connect using this Location.
Stanley C:
Stanley C: Note: In case you are unable to find the Connections tab as in #3, you can look for Locations tab.

Stanley C: Please follow the instructions and the issue will be resolved.
Stanley C: To print this chat, right click in this window and choose Print.#PFR#/BOS/Pc/PrintChat
Stanley C: Shall I mail the instrcutions to you>

The Voice: Thank you Stanley. I will follow the instructions. Could you email them without difficulty to yourself?
Stanley C: I will mail them. Please wait.
Stanley C: I will mail them to The Voice

The Voice: Fine. I suppose I would be asking too much to ask why this will fix the problem and what the problem is?
Stanley C: As you are bale to use Internet without any problems without TotalAccess, that is the reason I suggested you to create a cable location.
The Voice: OK thank you Stanley. Are we finished here?
Stanley C: Please follow the instructions and the issue will be resolved.
Stanley C: Yes, I am mailing the instructions.

The Voice: Thank you again. I apologize for my ill temper.
Stanley C: Thank you very much for being patient with me.
Stanley C: It was pleasant assisting a friendly and understanding customer like you.
Stanley C: You are most welcome. Your satisfaction is what we strive for.
Stanley C: Is there anything else I can help you with?

The Voice: Au contraire, ma cher Stanley. It is you who are patient with me although I noted you did not answer my question about your continental location. No doubt against earthlink corporate policy. Have a nice evening. The Voice
Stanley C: Do you want to know where I am located?
The Voice: Yes.
Stanley C: I am located in India, but our headquarters are in Atlanta.
Stanley C: I have sent the instructions to you, Please make use of them.
Stanley C: Is there anything else I can help you with?

The Voice: I will. Thank you. I am sure it is long past evening so have a nice whatever time of day it is there. Goodbye The Voice
Stanley C: Thank you for contacting EarthLink LiveChat.
Stanley C: Take Care.
Stanley C: Bye.
Stanley C: Please press and hold Ctrl and click the Close button.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Tell Someone You Love Them Right Now

Tonight, the rudeness of death interrupted my world again, as it seems to have so often lately. I learned that Orlando Sentinel business columnist, Susan Strother Clarke, died suddenly and completely unexpectedly today at the age of 47. I did not know Ms. Clarke, except through her words, which I enjoyed. She was a columnist I chose to read regularly even though the business section is not the first part of the paper I turn to. It wasn’t really a matter of whether I agreed or disagreed with her. What I liked about her work was her clarity of thought, her thoughtfulness, and her lively way of presenting those thoughts to her readers.

One of the reasons I am so very sensitized to death these days is that I lost my own sister, also a Susan, in March of 2005. She died at the age of 49, also way too young. But, in the case of my sister Sue, our family had a blessing, a benefit, that the Clarke family did not have. My sister was diagnosed with a rare condition that has no cure and results in death from heart failure. For her, it was hard. She was a very active person, and her disease made her life very restrictive. The expensive and complex devices and medications that kept her alive had awful side effects. I am certain she did not let us know how bad it really was. I know, though, that she valued having the time to adjust, to make plans, to mend fences, to do all the things we don’t, as a rule, plan for or think about in our day-to-day lives. She learned of it in 2001 and had enough time to do many of the things that were important to her. She bought a house that she loved and made it into a home. She developed a lovely relationship with her only grandchild. All of us who loved her got to spend a lot of time with her. Once they told her that it would soon, I made immediate plans to go home. As it turned out, she died a week before I was to leave. I regret that a little, but so much less because we had all the memories we had stored up, the talks we had had, the laughs and the meals. Before she died, she and I got to say everything that was important, everything we needed and wanted to.

The pressures of modern life, the rush, rush, rush that technology enables and feeds too often distract us from what is really vitally important. There is not one Type A workaholic who has ever gotten to the end of life and said, “Oh, my gosh, if only I could have spent more hours at the office.”

Sunday before last, Mitch Albom had an article about his new book in Parade Magazine. It trumpeted on the cover, “What if you had one more day with someone you’d lost?” I knew I wanted to read that article, but before I even opened the magazine to see what it said, I decided to think about that question for myself. I thought about having one more day with Sue. At first, I imagined us taking a trip together, but it really didn’t feel right. I knew that if I could have one more day with her, I would want to do exactly the things we had done so many times, eat a meal she had cooked (she loved to cook for others), look at some new plant in her garden, sit down and play a game (we both loved games), tell each other our latest spider anecdotes (we were both frightful arachnophobes), and, most of all, laugh. That was also the conclusion of the article. Most people would like to have back those ordinary times with their loved ones that they did not remark as particularly special at the time. I found it comforting, then, that during those years we knew our time was measured, we did just those things. We did take a trip once. But the most special times were those everyday, homey things we had always enjoyed together.

I was walking on a trail through the woods in a nearby park a few evenings ago. The house band of insects was just tuning up to prepare to play during the sun’s exit stage west. Suddenly, I heard the soft greeting of one of the resident pair of owls, “hoo, hoo.” He (or she, I’m afraid I cannot tell them apart having only encountered them in the deep gloaming), began this courteous practice after he swooped down quite suddenly and totally silently, as is their way, for a flyby to check me out on the evening when we first met. His wingspan was enormous, much wider than the body silhouette would suggest. Seeing my startlement and being the refined creature he is, ever since, when I come near his perch of the moment, he politely advises me that he is in the neighborhood. I greet him properly and we pass in the evening. So much more civilized than the man we encountered walking his gorgeous German shepherd and completely oblivious to the breeze, the lovely quiet woods, the pine needle duff sprinkled over the pure white sand that passes for soil in Florida, the singing insects and the owl, because he was walking, head bent, talking on his cell phone. He was still talking on his cell some 20 minutes later as I was driving out of the park and he missed all of that evening’s beauties. His loss.

Ms. Clarke’s death is a wake-up call to us. We need to not sleepwalk through the everyday moments of our lives while thinking about something else or talking to someone on the cell or checking our email on the blackberry. Those things will never have any long-term meaning. We need not to rush out the door with a quick peck or no goodbye kiss at all thinking that we will have time later to tell our mate or our child or our friend how very much we love them, how truly special they are, each and every one.

My family, close but not demonstrative before, is changed now. Not one of us ends a call or a letter or an email without saying that we love each other.

My hope for Susan Strother Carke’s family is that they can, when the enormity of their loss eases a little, know that the special shining treasure of the everyday, the football games, the meals, the laughter, that they had with her were what mattered—to her and to them—even though they did not get a chance to say goodbye.

Tell everyone you know and love and value that you do. Tell someone who has touched your life what they have meant to you now before the chance is taken away.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

All Stirred Up and Nowhere to Go

Orlando Sentinel newspaper columnist Mike Thomas has a habit of regularly bustin’ out in something not often seen in public discourse these days, common sense. He displayed that trait in abundance recently when he wrote a column taking area and state leaders to task for failing to step up and open their arms to the Nemours Foundation and its offer to build and provide ongoing funding for a top-notch pediatric hospital in Orlando.

In a second column a few days ago, Thomas discussed the topic again and referred to the large volume of response he has had from readers who agree with him. And therein is the rub. Mr. Thomas has used his column as the bully pulpit to focus public attention on the potential loss of a great community asset because of infighting by existing medical institutions and chicken-hearted fence-sitting by public officials (big surprise there, right?), but to what end?

Many of the letters from aroused readers said things like “I want to help.” “Just tell me what to do.” So, bravo, Mr. Thomas, now what? Modern journalistic practice, even for columnists, bears a more than passing resemblance to that political fence-sitting. Having started the stone rolling down the hill, now what will you do?

It is your column that provided the spark, who will blow on it to expand the fire? How will the ready-to-go readers find one another? You are the only one who has their contact information. How can they organize? Who will lead them? What will they do? Or was the whole thing just more hot air?

So, if you really believe that Orlando is missing the boat here and someone should step up to the plate, we’re waiting. You brought it up, after all.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sign Me Up

I’m puzzling over an aspect of human nature I don’t understand. What causes people, I include myself, to care about something strongly enough to get involved, to actually spend time and effort on it?

This is on my mind because right now I am struggling to put together a large event for a non-profit off-leash dog park I am involved in with only a handful of people helping at all and many of them in very limited ways. What’s puzzling to me is that every time I am at the dog park, I have at least one conversation with someone who talks about how great the park is, how much they value being able to go there with their dog, and, yet, most of the time, these people are not even members of the support group, much less volunteers.

Please don’t misunderstand my position. I am not feeling any judgment about why these people feel the way they do and act the way they do. This example is only what got me to thinking about the issues.

My reasons for being involved with the group seem to me to be a fair bit about self-interest. First of all, my very high-energy dog requires a lot of exercise. When he was a puppy, I surely would have gone insane had it not been for the off-leash dog park that opened not far from our house. We took him three times a day until he was about a year and half. Then, we were able to taper him down to two times a day. He is six now and one 45-minute run suffices if I supplement it with a half hour on-leash walk at night, but he is always eager to go back to the dog park on the days we do take a second trip.

So, working to maintain and promote off-leash dog parks has been a great personal benefit to me. Further, during a period when we moved three times in five years for my husband’s career, becoming involved in the off-leash dog parks in the new areas helped us make friends. Dog people make great friends.

Then I think about all the other things I believe in, many of them passionately, with some of them, I even believe I should become involved. Bringing about political change in this country since I hate the way it is going right now, domestic and/or sexual violence against women and children, the hospice movement, bringing new kinds of education into our schools, the list goes on quite a ways. Many of these things would seem on the face of them to be more important than the cause I am involved in. I think about these issues, and sometimes I even think about becoming involved in them, but that is as far as the impulse goes.

Perhaps it is because, to me, dogs represent pure innocence and love, and yet are regarded mostly as chattel in our world. Their senses and what they know and value, so much better than ours in some ways, are so alien that they are totally discounted by much of human society. And, against us human beings, like so much of the world, they are defenseless.

Perhaps some of the other issues I care about seem too global, too overwhelming, too much like dashing myself against a rock. Perhaps these other issues are so painful I must keep my distance in order to stay whole. This one little local issue, off-leash dog parks, is one where I know my efforts can make a visible difference, and where I can bear it most of the time.

So, for other people, what groups, what causes, what efforts they make in the community, shaped as they are by that person’s experiences, needs, etc., can be completely different from my own or anyone else’s. I guess I am OK with that. There seem to be enough causes to go around.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Marketing’s Abiding Target

Major scariness happened today. In the mail, I received a postcard promoting the theatrical release of an upcoming film, Love’s Abiding Joy, directed by Michael Landon, Jr. and based on a book series by Janette Oke. Sounds innocuous, right? What’s the big deal, you say? Just round file it and forget it.

Well, to me, the big deal is why Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC would assume I had a bit of interest in such a film and how they would have obtained my name and address? Interestingly enough, there is only one possible answer.

You see, I have never visited or registered on a web site of theirs or their subsidiaries or the director or the author. I have never read or purchased any of the books the film is based on. But the name of the film, the director and the author of the books did ring a bell with me.

A few months ago, I saw a couple of episodes of rerun TV shows in quick succession in which a B actor named Dale Midkiff, whom I had seen off and on through the years, appeared. I sort of got interested in Dale as I occasionally do with various B or character actors, as I once had, for example, with Kevin Spacey after seeing him in The Negotiator. This summer, when there was absolutely nothing on TV that I hadn’t seen or cared to see, I spent any TV watching time idly surfing through the online guide. I came across a movie on the Hallmark Channel and saw Dale Midkiff’s name in the credits along with Katherine Heigl and Corbin Bernsen, both of whom I like, and I decided to watch it. That film, whose name I can no longer recall, (but which I can almost guarantee had Love’s Something Something) in the title was, the credits said, based on a book by Jeanette Oke. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, being sort of like Little House on the Prairie finds Jesus and becomes a Harlequin romance, but I watched it anyway. Being on my Dale kick, I watched again, a few nights later, when Dale starred in a sequel. By the time the third movie in the series appeared, the level of actors had descended substantially along with the quality of the scripts. There was no sign of Corbin or Katherine, and Dale himself made only a cameo.

So, imagine my surprise when this post card touting the theatrical release of a fourth movie in the series, appeared in my mailbox today. There is only one explanation. Bright House, my cable service provider, is not only recording in a database what I am watching on television (via the Trojan horse they installed in my living room that they call “an interactive digital cable box” in their sales pitches), THEY ARE SELLING THE DATA TO THIRD PARTIES ABOUT WHAT I WATCH ON TV—not anonymously, but WITH MY PERSONAL INFORMATION INCLUDING NAME AND MAILING ADDRESS AND GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE—ATTACHED. I am confident that absolutely nothing I ever signed authorized them to do either of these things.

Why do I find this so scary? Beyond the fact that if I wanted Corporate America to know what I watched on television I would tell them myself? Hey, this is Bush World, where the Administration claims that it has the right to access and datamine and sift and combine any and all records of any and all Americans to find terrorism and terrorists without any legal oversight of any kind. If Ken Starr can look at Monica Lewinsky’s book purchases, what makes me think that Dick Cheney and the vile and insidious John Poindexter won’t check out what I watch on TV?

We Americans are all asleep at the switch or resigned to the no longer slow and no longer subtle erosion of any right to privacy we ever claimed to have. I got a wake up call today. I urge you to look around you for your own.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Where Ya Headed, Lady?

I’ve had some interesting experiences in taxicabs. A witty and puckish friend of mine from LA asked me today after reading last night’s post, “By the way, what is rain?” It sent my mind back to an incident I experienced on a business trip to the Bay area some years ago. I had flown in to Oakland, rented a car and driven to Walnut Creek. When I arrived back at the Oakland airport several hours earlier than planned, there were no seats available on earlier flights, and I was going to have to hang out in the airport for some hours. There was, however, a flight with seats available leaving from SFO. I had already turned in my car so I grabbed a cab, told the driver I was in a hurry to make a plane, and we headed down the Freeway to the airport.

All of sudden, it began to rain, hard. The cab driver turned on the windshield wipers, but all they did was make a ghastly scraping noise and smear dirty mud all over the windshield, making visibility even less that it had been.

“When is the last time you changed those wiper blades,” I asked?

“It does not rain here,” my cab driver replied, clearly inaccurately.

“Should you pull over? I asked. I am not so eager to make the plane that I am willing to risk my life.”

“No problem,” he said, and rolling down the driver’s side window, half standing up in the driver’s seat and hanging out as far as possible, he proceeded to periodically swipe ineffectually at the mess with a filthy rag he got from somewhere in the bowels of the cab, all while not slackening his 75 mph pace a whit.

Since further protests did not move him, I gave it up, sat back, closed my eyes, and left it up to the fates as to whether I would reach my destination alive.

Another time, I was going to a business meeting in Cambridge and was in a cab with my boss. We got stuck in the infamous Big Dig traffic. My boss, as was his custom, was spending the entire journey on his cell phone, a process that seemed to prove to him, and I believe also was supposed to affirm to me (See the post of the 18th and the reference to me and propinquity to large egos.) his own incredible importance. When he finally looked at the time (I had been attempting to point out we were going to be late and should call), he whipped a large bill out of his pocket and asked the cab drive to fix the problem. The driver pulled out of the line of cars and weaving dangerously in and out of holes and heavy equipment and narrowly avoiding scraping cars and the bridge raced ahead until he came to a bottleneck where we were pinned between the legitimate line of cars and the wall of the bridge (my side, of course). Using tactics seen only in a demolition derby, he cut into the line to the righteous outrage of a lot of Boston drivers. We were almost clear of the mess, when the cab was stopped by that truth-based cliché, a Boston Irish cop. He threatened the driver with a ticket, because several motorists had reported that he cut in line. The driver denied it all. The cop turned to my boss, the author of the whole affair, and said, “Sir, did you see what happened here? Did this driver cut in line, which is a criminal offense?” My boss, long on ego, but rather less so on ethics, replied that he was so sorry that he couldn’t help. He had been involved in a complex conference call and was not concentrating at all on what was happening around him. I answered, quite honestly except for an omission as to why I was in this condition, that I had had my eyes closed because I was feeling somewhat sick.

Cab drivers, as a breed, have to have chutzpah to do what they do every day, but in that department, probably there is no equal to the New York City cabbie. One morning I arrived at Penn Station on a train from Philadelphia, grabbed a cab out front and headed uptown to my first meeting. The cab smelled like smoke, but I assumed a smoker had just gotten out of it. As we proceeded, block by block, a little haze seemed to appear in the air. Suddenly, flames erupted from the ashtray in the door. I pounded on the glass partition.

“Sir, sir, the cab is on fire. You need to pull over.”

He glanced casually over his shoulder at the rising flames and said, “It’s not so big. You can put it out,” and turned back around and kept driving.

I wasn’t sure what I was madder about. His calm assumption that I would be happy to put out a stinky fire in his cab ashtray or that he wouldn’t pull over when I asked him to. I tossed him some money and jumped out at the next light, but it was too late. My hair stunk and my clothes stunk so badly that I had to go buy a new dress and get my hair washed before I could complete my round of meetings.

A New York cabdriver once drove off with my briefcase and plane ticket home (never recovered) because he was angry that I only wanted to go downtown and not to the airport. A Philadelphia cabbie asked my boyfriend, who had walked me down to the street to see me off and told him to take me to the airport, if he knew the way to get there. I almost got out right then, but he called the dispatcher to get directions, and I made it safely. Don’t they at least show them the way to the airport during training? In the days before cell phones, a girlfriend and I were taken for a ride by a cabdriver who would not let us out or take us where we were going until he ran up a large fare. I was so grateful we were together, and that we made it out OK with only the loss of the money.

But these scary or angry or dangerous cabdrivers are not the worst of the breed by far. That distinction goes to the “This is my big chance. I have a captive audience cabdriver.” Thirty minutes of “I gotta a great idea for a biziness, you should invest,” or “You’re and (sic) editor? Let me tell you about this great book I’m thinkin’ a’ writin’. Maybe you could help me get it published.” Horrors. It’s almost enough to make me give them up forever until the next time I need one.

Happy traveling.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Rain in Spain Is Plainly Not the Same

From whence The Voice came, rain is a very different animal than it is in Florida. How can something so universal in the human experience be so completely different in different places?

I was used to a constant light rain that could go on for days, that seemed almost as if you were enveloped in a cloud that had come to rest on the Earth for a while. Everything around, trees, roofs, all dripped endlessly and softly, while plants nodded their heads gently under the burden of the moisture.

In Central Florida, rain, like so many things here, has attitude. It pelts from the sky almost daily in the height of summer in impenetrable sheets, as if someone had suddenly opened the heavenly sluice gates, pounding the ground relentlessly and falling at a speed the land cannot possibly absorb, quickly forming streams, then rivers.

Outside my corner house, a body of water appears mysteriously, like Brigadoon, only when there is a heavy rain. I call it by the hyphenated names of the two cross streets with the appellation Lake in front. You laugh. It has currents that are visible, wavelets during the storms in which the rain is joined by lashing wind, and tides that lap the yards and driveways when foolhardy cars brave its depths. In a storm that occurred a couple of weeks ago, said by a friend of mine who has lived here in Orlando virtually his entire life to be a 50-year rainfall, the Lake got so big a rather large knobby branch that was bobbing along just peeking out on its surface made it appear for all the world as if my Lake had its own alligator, just like the permanent lakes dotted almost everywhere around the city.

It’s really not surprising that such violent rainfall, which I characterize as 1940s jungle movie rain, occurs here so frequently. Meteorologically speaking, Central Florida is a war zone in summer. Situated almost evenly between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and only about an hour by car from each, Orlando is the place where the relatively cool onshore sea breeze from the East and onshore Gulf flow from the West meet and tangle with the hot interior air rising from the land to clash like titans above us, producing an average annual rainfall of 50.1 inches a year. That coffee place, also known as the Rainy City, experiences a paltry 38 inches a year.

Of course, these monumental clashes of cool and warm air produce more than rain. I have always loved thunderstorms. The sound and fury of nature is a free show. Florida’s bubble as lightning capital of the world may have been burst when satellites and NASA scientists proved that actually that title belonged to Rwanda, but it is still the lightning capital of the US and even of the Western Hemisphere. On average, more than ten people die from lightning strikes in Florida each year.

Really, I only thought I had experienced a thunderstorm prior to coming here. Lightning blasts from the sky hundreds of times an hour. Thunder shakes the house. Appliances are unplugged from the wall, and one is advised to stay off the telephone. The primitive thrill of being safe under shelter with all of that going on outside dances along the nerves just shy of the edge of fear. If we are lucky, the torrential rain and lightning are the only things that occur. Sometimes, it is hail or even tornadoes. It gave me a real “Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” feeling when I first arrived.

Some things about the rain are universal, though. Assuming conditions are not too apocalyptic, I still love to tuck up in bed with a book and listen to it drumming on the roof. One of its huge benefits in Florida is to briefly and blessedly drop the temperature. When I venture outside afterwards (usually with my dog, who maintains steadfastly that if forced to go out there and pee during a rain, he will melt) the world is washed clean and seems fresh and bright again with strange, enticing scents and the new-penny shine of water everywhere.

It is both renewal and benediction.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

I just learned that a man I once worked with died a few weeks ago. It had been many years since I had seen him or spoken to him, but I am diminished nonetheless by his loss. Why does it seem there is so much loss of late in my life? I suppose this is one more unasked-for consequence of the aging process.

Many would and did describe John as a difficult man, and other adjectives in a similar vein, but often quite a bit saltier. He was terse, and he could be rude. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and if he thought you foolish, he let you know in no uncertain terms. I liked him a lot though. He had a keen intellect and a sharp wit.

What makes someone like someone is a topic I have been thinking about, a kind of offshoot of last night’s post. There seems to be a lot of alchemy or, at least, chemistry in it all.

Why else would there be people that you hit it off with immediately (knowing little or nothing in depth about them), while there are others you are sure you will most heartily dislike (and your feeling is usually right) when they have done nothing to you? Others may make almost no impression at first or we are indifferent to them, but gradually they grow on us until we count them among our most trusted allies.

I have found, as I stumble through life, that I usually cannot separate some traits of people for admiration, while finding other traits despicable and shrugging my shoulders. (This is where this post intersects with last night’s on the nature of genius). No, somehow, my internal rating system, mostly without my conscious direction, puts them in the “I like and admire this person” pile or the “Not my cup of tea” pile.

On the whole, I like people so there are only a few characteristics that really rule someone out for me. In co-workers, I have found that no matter how attractive or amusing someone is, I can’t respect them if I don’t respect their work and their contributions to our mutual endeavor. Overtly or regularly hurting people deliberately is something I find intolerable. Great ego raises an imp in me determined to burst the bubble of self-importance as often as possible (a trait of mine I consider not very admirable).

On the plus side, being smart will get you points, and wit and a sense of humor will cover a multitude of sins. And ever since David in junior high, a young man who, as my mother would say, was “homely as a mud fence,” and who had a D average (he was flunking everything academic, but had As in Choir, Band and Jazz Band), a gorgeous tenor will get you just about everywhere. (C’mon people, it was 7th grade—not that kind of everywhere.)

John, the man who died, could be very cutting, but it was always done with wit. I don’t think he was deliberately hurtful to people, he just didn’t hide his contempt for weak argument or stupidity. He smoked so many cigarettes, his clothes and breath stank and his fingers were nicotine-stained. Now, this needs to be understood in the context of the times when a lot more people smoked and everyone smoked in the office—no place was smoke-free. Non-smokers who protested second-hand smoke were regarded as “nuts,” essentially. I, who have never smoked, (Not by dint of virtue—I just never liked it.) was so inured to smoke, I dated smokers, ate lunch with them (what non-smoking section?), rode in cars in which people smoked, all with no problem. But, John, well, even smokers noticed. His attire always seemed dapper to me. He was fond of tweedy sports coats, and he wore a Ulysses S Grant beard, when being hirsute was not that common in the echelons of upper management (Corporate America of the 80s). He rose to a senior editorial position in a major national publishing company with only a high school education, but more than held his own, even among the j-school boys. In his middle life, he had sustained some serious injuries that resulted in his having to cope with chronic pain in an era when doctors were still pretty puritanical on the topic of pain relief. Through it all, he still retained his sense of humor, and he always had a kind word for me or a sincere inquiry about how I was, even when we were just passing in the hallway.

Like all of us human beings, he was complex and unique. Johnny, you are too soon gone, but not forgotten. I am so glad you were a part of my life.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Nature of Genius

I watched a documentary the other evening about someone whose work I have long admired and whom I view as a genius, Frank Lloyd Wright. I had read and seen much about Wright’s work and a little about his life, but this PBS documentary, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo, gave substantive weight to his personal life and demons. On the heels of watching an old 1970s-era interview with Woody Allen on the Dick Cavett Show, it got me to thinking about the nature of genius.

Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs embody beauty, perception, clean lines, restfulness, a kind of light and music, was a man who took what he wanted personally without much reference for the feelings of others. He abandoned a wife and family for a sexual liaison and, later when his wife would not divorce him, co-habitation with the widow of a former client. This was an act so scandalous in his time that it cost him enormously for decades in terms of his career. Later, after her death, he took up with a woman 30 years his junior. More significant to me, personally, was the lopsided nature of his patronage relationship with Buffalo industrialist Darwin Martin. Through the years, Martin and Wright corresponded. Martin did not abandon Wright after the scandal, instead lending him money repeatedly and continuing to give him commissions. Though their financial positions reversed after the stock market crash of ’29 destroyed Martin’s fortune, Martin died still owed $70,000 by Wright, which was never repaid even though Martin’s daughter was forced to close the doors to the Martin family compound that Wright had designed and just walk away, a fact about which Wright seems to have had little or no compunction.

Woody Allen, arguably a cinematic genius, certainly a talented and unique voice in film, is another man whose art for me is stained by his personal failures. Then, there are Henry Ford and Wagner, men whose anti-Semitic views are totally unacceptable to me. Luckily for me, I am OK not admiring Ford, since his theatre of genius is one that I can largely ignore in my daily living even as I benefit from it. As for Wagner, while sections of his works stir me, overall, I find them so heavy-handed that I am quite comfortable striking him from my listening pantheon.

The word genius comes from the Romans. It has morphed quite a bit from the original concept to that which we know today. To the Romans, each man, woman, city, and home had its own genius (or, if a woman, juno), a guardian spirit attached to them from birth to death who gave them their gifts. The Romans sacrificed to these spirits on their birthdays.

I wonder if gifts of genius do require sacrifices? Perhaps they cannot coexist comfortably with everyday sensibilities. But after watching that documentary, I had very little doubt as to which was the better man. Darwin Martin, whose childhood had made him value family above all things, who cherished his wife, who was generous to others, and forbearing with his friends, won hands down over Wright. But it is the nature of human beings that it is Wright whose name has lived on and whose work cannot help but inspire.

My husband asked me today when we were discussing this topic if we require our geniuses to be more than average in all aspects. I felt instantly and definitively that that wasn’t it for me. It’s not that I expect geniuses to be more than the rest of us, but that, for me, the gifts of their genius, beautiful and alluring as they are, do not excuse them from standards in other areas. When they don’t meet the standards of basic human decency, their genius is tarnished.

In the end, I love Wright’s work so much that I can’t stop myself from admiring it, but when I see it from now on, I will also remember that without Darwin Martin, Wright would not have been able to go on, to get work, to have a roof over his head. Wright’s work is therefore, in my mind anyway, a monument to the work and love and faithfulness of another man too.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Good Day

Today, I watched a 3-month-old black Shar-Pei puppy lift its paw and paw at the edge of a lake, a body of water it was clearly seeing for the first time. Then I bent down and touched her beautiful wrinkled hide and bristly fur. She wasn’t soft.

Today, I experienced the delight of a bite of excellent key lime pie, exquisite in its dance of tart with sweet on my tongue.

Today, I sat under an enormous pine tree and watched the light that filtered through its feathery needles.

Today, I drank a perfectly delicious bottle of very cold water when I was thirsty.

Today, I sank into a dream while napping.

Today, I stroked a lizard. I stepped out my front door and there he was, clearly delineated in the outside light, a tiny orange-brown lizard stretched out nose-to-tail perfectly straight on one of the top branches of the potted Norfolk pine on my front steps. I put out my finger, mostly expecting he would dash off as lizards do, but perhaps he was surprised or perhaps he thought himself invisible. In any case, he stayed perfectly still, as I so very lightly and gently stroked my finger down the length of him. He still didn’t move until I held out the flat of my hand in an invitation to climb aboard, and then he leapt quickly and competently out of sight.

Today, I stroked a lizard. It was a good day.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Heroes and Liars

Before moving on to another topic, I want to say that during the same week I wrote yesterday’s post asking for, crying out for, really, people to stand up to the current tide, one man already had.

On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann spoke for nearly nine minutes on the outrages committed by our government in the names of all of us Americans since 9/11, and of the Administration’s and the President’s continuing use of 9/11 as a goad and a justification for the war they sought long before the towers fell. The facts are in. Even the Bush Administration does not dispute them any longer:

• Neither Saddam Hussein, nor his regime, nor the Iraqi people had ANYTHING to do with the September 11 attacks or with Al Qaeda. It just kills them to admit it, but admit it they do. President Bush himself reaffirmed the truth of it in his remarks to the nation on 9/11/2006.

• The danger on which the Bush Administration sold the Iraq War to the American people, to many of its allies around the world, and to the UN, that Saddam Hussein and Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, WAS NOT TRUE.

But these facts, now acknowledged by all sides, do not deter the President from plowing right ahead with his program of misinformation. It is as if he and Cheney and Rice et al think that the rest of us are so much dumber than they are that all they have to do is keep juxtaposing the invasion of Iraq right next to 9/11 whenever they speak of it and WE WON’T NOTICE. We will continue to believe the lie. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I am the Great and Powerful Oz.”

It is one thing to say you had false intelligence at the time, but when you are now acknowledging publicly that that intelligence was wrong, that there was no involvement in 9/11 by Iraq, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, yet you continue to link the two by proximity in speeches and in writing, then you are, in fact, perpetuating a lie, a deliberate falsehood.

Shame on you, President Bush. You are using 9/11. Your ugly actions cannot tarnish our memories of those innocent people who were lost; you don’t have that power. But surely, by the reckoning of any religion or moral code, to attempt to do so by perpetuating these lies is a sin.

Stand tall, Keith. You did yourself, your network, and your country proud. I thank you. I join you in calling for change. No more lies. No more, President Bush. No more wars. No more violations of the Geneva Convention and U.S. laws. No More.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Don’t It Always Seem as Though You Don’t Know What You’ve Lost Till It’s Gone?

Tonight I am thinking about loss. Ann Richards, a remarkable woman, even more so to think that she bloomed like a yellow rose in the onion patch of male-dominated Texas politics died yesterday. I consider her loss a personal one for me, and an even greater one for the people of this country, particularly the women.

I loved so many things about her. She was so unabashedly herself, almost never apologizing and never explaining. She was all woman, elegant always, but one of my favorite things she said, speaking about her decision to go into politics, was “I did not want my tombstone to read ‘She kept a really clean house.’” Not to worry, Ann. We are much more likely to remember your accomplishments, your honesty, your candor, your wit. A complete mistress of the pithy remark, she once said of George H.W. Bush, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

This blog entry now definitely wanders into “strange bedfellows” territory. I am about to invoke the name of Woody Allen. Even for me, the queen of the tangential thought process, this one may seem out there.

Tonight, on the series of reruns of selected episodes of the old Dick Cavett show, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) ran an early 70s Cavett interview with Woody Allen. Cavett, in his current-day introduction to the show, spoke of his long-time and ongoing friendship with Allen. He said that he had spoken with Allen recently and that he had commented on the passage of time, saying something like they were once the hip young guys watching old people in the park, and now, look who was watching whom. Things had changed. Cavett said that Allen responded, “Is anything getting better?”

Now, I certainly have no doubts that a lot has gotten better. Scientific and medical advances, race relations, rising consciousness about the environment, fashion sense, you name it, even Woody Allen’s hairstyle, awful as it is now, was worse then. But as the interview progressed, I was fascinated to see what is not better. Something has been lost, and it slipped away quietly, one unheralded little bit at a time, its current absence only visible by traveling back in time and seeing a talk show from some 35 years ago.

Cavett and Allen spoke freely of things that I cannot ever imagine being discussed by Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel. Cavett asked, for example, at what age Allen had begun to have erotic thoughts. When Allen said, with accompanying jokes, “In the crib,” Cavett responded seriously by saying he too had had sexual thoughts as a child very early, probably by two. My God, if someone said anything of the kind in this day and age, they would be publicly pilloried at least and perhaps even locked up. Allen and Cavett went on to have frank and, by today’s standards, politically incorrect discourse about what “type” of women Allen preferred and his views on blind dates. They moved, then, from sex to something even less likely to be spoken of in current society and more taboo than sex, death. And all of this discussion was leavened with humor. They talked of great films; they talked of the process of making films vs. other creative processes like writing or music; they talked about great books and reading.

I felt like I was back at the kind of party I used to have and to attend in the 70s on the East Coast, events where one could wander dropping in and out of one fascinating and substantive discussion to the next. Watching that interview was like intellectual water on the parched landscape of my mind. It was freeing and heavenly. The Dick Cavett Show, to be set in context, was not some stuffy, intellectual, esoteric offering on a public access channel (they didn’t have those much back then). He was the Oprah of his time, a hot show that people discussed around the water cooler and that got high ratings.

Seeing that show while thinking about Ann Richards makes me fearful that with her death we are losing a kind of politician and a kind of woman no longer seen in public life. Ann Richards would never have felt pressure, as Theresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton did, to produce a cookie recipe for reporters to make themselves appear more acceptably domestic. She would have laughed, the appropriate response, at anyone who even suggested it.

She did not whine, she never played any kind of victim card, she did not ever get defensive about her choices as a woman or her desire to do more than keep house or act as a spouse and support. She spoke and acted as if there was a level playing field, or as if she pretended it was level, with a wink, while spotting the poor guys a few points.

I will miss you, Ann. Our people, our country, our world, and our political arena need more, not less, wisdom, humor and common sense. And your passing, combined with that glimpse into the past provided by the Cavett show, have made me aware that I am also missing a lot more.

I am missing public discourse in which there is a genuine exploration of and exchange of ideas, where the tent is wide enough to accommodate a broad spectrum of thought and opinion without dissolving into polarized name calling and labeling. I am missing the presence of strong women in public life whose strength is not called aggression or worse. I am missing, suddenly and fiercely, the assumption of a right to privacy in law and in the media. I am missing walking, talking and buying things as I did in the 70s without fear that my government or law enforcement would be able to or interested in sifting through the minutiae of my life or in detecting “patterns” in it. All of us have lost much and we need to review this slow slide that we are on. This is another moment in which someone or many of us must stand up and say “Have you no decency, sir?” and take back those things our land was built on as our right and our privilege.

Thank you, Ann, for everything and for the kick upside my head. Rest well.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

In the Still of the Night

Today’s Coinage: Slog-Blog, noun The state of being in which you feel compelled to post to your blog, but have no idea what to write.

One of the reasons I began this blog was to hone my writing skills by having to write each day. Today, I am tired and inspiration is scarce. I might have packed it in if I had not gone to the blog of Coach Danny (with an idea to send him a thank-you comment) and read his very apt recent post about motivation, determination and purpose. It was his talk at an FWA writers group meeting some months ago that inspired me onto the path of blogging. Thanks for another great spotting job today, Coach Danny.

So, onward. I have had several nights in a row with not enough sleep. Last night was interrupted by a rare (praise for the pest control professionals), but almost unavoidable fact of Florida life, the middle-of-the-night cucaracha shuffle.

I hate the things. I am not terrified of them like I am spiders, (a deep irrational fear of their archetypal shape even), but who, after all, likes the idea of any really large insect in the house? Then, there are all of the negative associations with cockroaches: of uncleanliness, of disease, of filth.

The best cockroach is the absent cockroach.

The second-best cockroach is the really, most sincerely dead cockroach (to paraphrase the Munchkins).

The worst cockroach is the living, high-speed semi-healthy version that somehow got into your house and has not yet been felled by the insecticide tens of thousands of generations of its ancestors died to make this one almost immune to.

And the very, very worst is when the type described above runs between your feet while you are in the dark bathroom barefoot, (discommoded, as it were) and unable to run.

My shrieks would have awakened people for blocks except for the fact that in summer in Orlando houses are all sealed up. You go, central air! They did succeed in waking the spousal unit who staggered, practically blind without his glasses, into the fray. With him guarding my flank, I leapt from my, ahem, throne and raced out the door.

Safely tucked back in bed, I heard the sounds of the epic battle from behind closed door (the better to keep the vermin from leaving for less hostile territory). Smash! (Pause) Smash! (Pause, slight crinkling sound) Smash! Then silence.

“Is it dead?”

“Yes, it’s dead.”

“You didn’t stomp on it in your bare feet, did you? Don’t get into bed with me if you stomped on it with your bare foot, even if you washed it.”

“Euww. No, I didn’t stomp on it with my foot. That’s disgusting!”

Me, suspiciously, “Well what did you use to make that thumping sound then? There aren’t any big books in the bathroom.”

“I used the Listerine bottle.”

“Oh, my God, I can never rinse with that again.”

Score: 15, Husband; Love, Bug. (Please, no Herbie jokes.)

Now, that the adrenaline spike was over, I became aware of pain in my arm, specifically my shoulder, A LOT OF PAIN, AGONIZING PAIN.

“Why does my arm hurt?”

My leg was hurting too, but that familiar throbbing I understood. When the Palmetto Bug (a cockroach by any other name) began his dastardly dash between my legs on an attempted escape run back to whence he came after I had disturbed his nocturnal ramblings, I, of course, lifted my feet off the floor while simultaneously screaming and spasming every muscle in my body. The hamstring and ligaments I tore last summer in my left leg still protest when any sort of insult like this occurs, so the leg pain did not surprise me.

But I couldn’t figure out the arm thing. Two Aleves and twenty minutes later the pain had dulled enough that I began to believe that sleep might be possible once more and to actually care enough to allow me to think about how it happened. It wasn’t like I had attempted to arm-wrestle the vile bug.

A re-creation of events by my faithful spousal sleuth and vermin slayer gave answer to the mystery. The best way to explain it to you visually is to say imagine Vitruvian Man (or, in this case, woman) centered as it were in a seated posture. That is to say, when I threw my legs up and out, I also threw out my arms and my right shoulder struck the corner of the vanity, and I didn’t even realize it or feel it at the time.

Score: 15 All.

Welcome, once again, to Florida. There are more creatures in this swamp than just the gators and the politicians, Horatio.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

From the Shrine It Off Corner

Long ago in TV Land there was, briefly in the firmament, a summer replacement series. I wish I could tell you precisely what it was called, but the middle-aged brain cannot recall. My brother thought perhaps it was a Second City TV production. Anyway, it was a sketch comedy show. One recurring sketch that had at least me and two of my siblings glued to the tube every week in complete ROFLOL hysterics involved a family living in a mobile home (with all of those attendant jokes). Each week, one or another family member would do a double take, peer closely at wall, or floor, or ceiling, and then shout excitedly, “Pa, come quick! I see the face of Jesus clear as anythin’ on the wall right here by the door!” To which the other would reply, “Shrine it off, Ma, shrine it off!” and out would come the stanchions and velvet ropes, literally or figuratively, and a paying attraction would be born. This routine was repeated with minor variations every single show so that “Shrine it off!” became our catchphrase for some time.

Alas, the show and the catchphrase had faded into the fond, slightly amusing memory heap until our move to Florida, shiny stud on the Bible Belt that it is. Almost immediately, the parade of stories began to appear, and they have continued with some regularity. The first was the lady who had preserved a slightly burnt toasted cheese sandwich for years (How, one idly wonders, thinking of many refrigerator science experiments over the years?) only to auction the holy relic on E-Bay for five figures to an Internet casino where, as far as I know, it still resides today.

More recently, there was the alligator whose markings spelled God on one side, according to its owner. Admittedly, it was a Wisconsin alligator, but seeing as how we are the Gator Nation here, and a Florida alligator expert was called upon in the article to stipulate (as he did) that the markings appeared to be natural and not caused by paint or by scarring the poor beastie’s hide, I believe it qualifies as an honorary Florida story. That one brought to mind for me the old joke about the dyslexic agnostic who wasn’t sure there really was a Dog. My beloved pup bears a perfect white paw print on his side. Could it be that I have on my very own pooch (Note: the next phrase should be read as if delivered with indrawn breath and hushed tones of wonder): “The Mark of Dog?”

Now, lately, the sacred figures of Christianity seem to be less and less discriminating about where, and more importantly in what, they appear. First, the discard drippings from the dark chocolate vat at a California chocolate factory set up over the weekend in what employees say is the Virgin Mary’s figure. Then, a Mr. John Milanos of St. Louis, Missouri, was about to empty the grease tray from his George Foreman Grill after enjoying his burger when he spotted the image of the Virgin Mary in the congealed grease. He has preserved the sacred grease in his frig and contacted the George Foreman Grill manufacturers. As of the date the story appeared in the media, the company, strangely, had not responded.

Check out the links I have set up in the sidebar and judge the images for yourself. Personally, I couldn’t tell whether it was a chocolate copy of the The Maltese Falcon statue from the Bogart film of the same name or the Virgin Mary. And don’t you HATE it when your chocolate gets that white stuff on it? To my theologically untrained eye, the grease Virgin appears rather more Rubensesque than I remember her from Sunday school days. Perhaps it was the medium; hamburgers are supposed to be fattening. Let me know what you think. As these stories continue to come up, I will update our Shrine It Off corner periodically.

I believe there is only one thing left for me to say: “Shrine it off, shrine it off!”

Monday, September 11, 2006

This Time I Really Mean It

This time I am committed to keeping my resolution, and making sure my husband keeps his. I will not even honk the horn at another driver, and I will never make faces, yell anything or make certain gestures including the avian salute. Life’s too short, and too full of other dangers, to bring another one on myself for a moment of anger or a temporary sense of satisfaction.

Orlando became one of the murder capitals of the U.S. this year. A local police official said that if we didn’t have such a top-notch regional trauma center, it would have been even worse, because the total number of shootings is way up too. Then, to add insult to injury, the August issue of Men’s Health magazine named Orlando the Angriest City in America, based on the amount of high blood pressure, traffic congestion, workplace violence, speeding tickets and aggravated assaults.

Unless you live in Orlando (or in Oz), you probably can’t comprehend the shock, the dismay, the (dare I say it?) outrage these two events caused. First of all, our prideful city motto is the “City Beautiful.” That had already taken a hit with the 2004 parade of ’canes, led by Charley. Once again, unless you live here, you probably had no idea how badly hit this city was by Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne. If negative news of the impact on Orlando crept out to the world, what would happen to the already-staggered tourism industry? So, a gentle veil was drawn over Orlando. Public officials, news organizations, the tourism industry, and, of course, the 3,000 pound gorillas around here, the theme parks and their King Kong, Disney, all joined hands and did the minimize, minimize, minimize dance.

We were scheduled to move here in October 2004. When Hurricane Charley hit in late August, I combed every source I could find for information on what had happened to Orlando. Everything I saw and read (and there wasn’t that much of it) said that Orlando was fine, damage was minimal. I was sort of puzzled since the path showed the storm passing right over Orlando at the last minute, but, hey, it was all new to me. Imagine my shock when I arrived on a house hunting expedition in mid-September. Huge twisted piles of trees and limbs were everywhere. Some streets weren’t navigable. There were no commercial signs anywhere—just empty frames or downed posts on every restaurant, gas station, store and hotel. Large buildings had damage to awnings, siding, and roofs. It was a blue tarp jungle in the neighborhoods. There was evidence of flooding everywhere. The house we finally rented had its lawn scoured half off from the raging torrents. There was not a leaf on a tree anywhere. People told us stories of having no power for days.

So, how does one reconcile a battered but unbowed City Beautiful with the Angriest City in America and with near daily stories of shootings and other killings: of tourists, of innocent moms in upscale neighborhoods, of people “just like us?” Long-time Orlandians and the rare natives blame it on the huge population influx, nearly half a million people during the 90s and the same projected for the stretch from 2000 to 2013. Newcomers blame it on the oddness of Florida, a sort of land’s end effect in which every weirdo and serial killer seems to end up here. Public officials, remembering the terrible tourist slump in South Florida when people with rental cars were being targeted by thieves and killers, rushed to put anti-crime measures into place and downplay any danger to tourists. Residents, on the other hand, are scared.

On Sunday afternoon, we were returning from an outing and stopped to get gas in Winter Park, a lovely little, tony town that fiercely maintains its separate identity, even as Orlando has flowed almost completely around it like an amoeba. We pulled out of the gas station into the left turn lane. The light was green and there was a green arrow, but the large, red truck with the big tires in front of us continued to just sit at the green light. My husband tapped the horn. No response, the truck did not move. Fearing we would miss the light, my husband—with my urging, I freely admit—gave a second, healthy blast on the horn. The truck turned, and we turned, and as we were turning, the driver of the truck’s hand emerged from the truck window in the universal symbol of disdain. My usually mild-mannered husband returned the gesture.

I began saying heatedly, “Why did you do that? I thought we agreed we weren’t going to do that these days when people could have guns in their cars?” (I felt a mild twinge of guilt as I said this for we both knew that I had also done it since we had said that we wouldn’t.) We fell silent quickly, though, because the huge red truck was driving an ominous 20 miles an hour in front of us down the 35-mile-per-hour major arterial. “Stay back,” I said anxiously, even though he already was staying well back. With some trepidation, we decided to move into the left lane. As we accelerated, the truck whipped lightning fast into the left lane in front of us and slowed back down. My husband signaled and moved back into the right lane. The truck sped back into the lane in front of us, and then slowed back down.

We were in one of the main shopping districts in broad daylight with dozens of cars around, but we were terrified. My husband slowed further to let a little more distance open between us and the truck as we discussed what to do. There was no one immediately behind us so at the next small intersection after the truck had passed through, my husband screeched a right turn at the last second without signaling. He sped up and we started to weave through the streets. I kept a lookout for the truck, and we both desperately hoped all the streets would go through. Like Topsy, Winter Park has “just growed,” and that has resulted in some odd little dead-end warrens of streets. Thank goodness, the truck continued on its way, its testosterone-laden young male occupants no doubt laughing at scaring us.

We pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store we had planned to stop at, and we were both shaking. I saw a red truck parked under a tree at the furthest part of the lot from the store door and felt a new spike of adrenaline. “There he is,” I shouted. “That’s not the same truck,” my husband said slightly contemptuously. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” And just like that, it was over.

Until, that is, I saw tonight’s news. A young man was driving on the Interstate at our very own neighborhood exit early Saturday morning. A white van or SUV pulled right in front of him, cutting him off. He honked his horn. The passenger of the other vehicle leaned out the window and threw his soft drink, container and all, onto the young man’s windshield. He swerved in reaction, lost control of his car, and hit the guardrail while the white vehicle sped off. Sitting there, shaken, he saw blood on his arm and dazedly thought he must have hit it on the door during the impact. It was only when he got to the hospital that he and the medical personnel realized he had been shot. The bullet grazed the back of his arm and lodged just under the skin on the inside of his arm above the elbow. Later, when he saw the bullet hole in his car door, he realized that the bullet had missed his heart by inches. He almost died because he honked his car horn—justifiably.

That could have been us. Our incident occurred only a few hours later and a couple of miles away. Yes, it’s angry here, and a lot of people are armed in this place, which has a climate of gun-friendly laws.

So, I don’t plan to use my horn again, and I am sure that, this time, the resolution to display no anger on the road, no matter what the provocation, will stick. I have been scared straight.

Stay calm and stay safe out there, everyone.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Of Luddites, Ephemerals and the Fifth Anniversary of 9/11

With apologies in advance to the author whose name I have long since forgotten and whose title I have not retained. If anyone recognizes the science fiction work I refer to from my description in the paragraph that follows, please let me know in a comment or email so I can give credit where it is due.

In any case, I read a science fiction story years ago whose concept has always stayed with me. The story involved a race of people from another world whose lifespan was measured in the thousands of years. (That was the order of magnitude, anyway; I can’t remember the precise number of thousands either.) The story is about one of these people and his fascination with and relationships with human beings from Earth. He faces contempt and is a source of amusement to his fellows in the story, because, as a rule, they have nothing to do with “ephemerals,” as they called earthlings and other short-lived species. In the course of those beings’ lifespans, the four to five score of the human existence was but the blink of an eye. When viewed over the course of their own incredibly long lives, human issues were insignificant or were misunderstood, because, from their viewpoint, human beings had no perspective.

I often think of that story when I am in the presence of ancient trees. Near downtown Orlando there is a small park (imaginatively named Big Tree Park), built solely around a magnificent live oak whose seed sprouted and began to grow in the year 1500, some thirteen years before Juan Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida. When I speak to the Big Tree admiringly, I always refer to myself as an ephemeral, and when I think of how time flows for that tree and its brethren, I realize that the scale of time is completely different for them than it is for me—for us, as human beings.

What little perspective we are capable of is being rapidly eroded by technology. The news of the battles of Lexington and Concord in the American Revolution did not reach the capitals of the Southern colonies until weeks after they had occurred. By WWII, radio made Pearl Harbor the name on every American’s lips the next day. During 9/11, victims of the attacks were able to say goodbyes and share what was happening with their loved ones by cell phone. Now, only five years later, as Garry Trudeau has been so ably skewering in a series of strips this past week, today’s technology connecting soldiers deployed on active duty in Iraq with their loved ones virtually instantly creates crazy-making situations: May: “Where have you been, Ray? You had me worried sick! . . .You said you’d be back by 0600”. Ray: “May, at 0600, I was in the middle of a firefight.” May: “Would it have killed you to text message me?” Ray (with his head in his hand): “That was my thinking, yes.”

I have always been a selective and somewhat reluctant adopter of technology, a stance somewhat at odds with how I made my living for many years. For me, personal technology tools often have in common the effect, whether intended or not, of separating us from our experience of life in the present moment. What I have come to see lately is that this technology robs us of other things as well, one of the most important of these, in my view, is the luxury of perspective. Perspective lent by both physical and temporal distance, both of which have shrunk in our world almost to nonexistence.

Not sure how one could possibly put this genie back in the bottle. But I do think an awareness of this change, a discussion in the public arena of these unintended sociological ramifications of technology can have a lot of value. And that is what I am thinking about tonight on the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

It feels like such a different event from the perspective granted by five years, like such a different world from the pre-9/11 one. I remember well the frantic thoughts and fears of the immediate hours and days and weeks and months that followed in late 2001 and into 2002. My own life changed dramatically, partly due to other concurrent events, but partly too as a result of the 9/11 attack. Those changes ripple down through the years even to today, manifesting themselves in many big and little ways in my life.

I saw and, more importantly, heard a jetliner fly by earlier this evening. I was struck by the fact that it did not cause the same rush of adrenaline and anxiety that happened whenever I heard a plane pass over for years after 9/11.

Perspective grants us wisdom. The distance of time from events helps us assimilate the events in our bodies, our hearts and our minds in a way we are not biologically made to do during the instant. When I think that our technology is eroding our ability to act only after we have gained some perspective, I fear for us ephemerals.

May the spirits of all those who were lost in or damaged by the events of 9/11 and the turbulent and tragic events consequential to it be at peace and may we, as individuals and as a people, find our way as time grants us some perspective on those events.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Musings on the Media

Well, we’re just through the primaries and it’s all election news all the time, so politics Florida-style are on top in my mind. The Orlando Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell postulated in his September 7 column that the huge discrepancy between Katherine Harris’ poll numbers and the large number of votes she actually received was due to “cocktail party shame,” in which voters who would not admit to supporting her in public felt free to vote for her in the privacy of the booth.

I think there might well be another reason. I think that it was quite possibly an anti-media backlash and, as such, a sign of the public’s growing and ongoing distrust of the media. Man, I practically shudder as I write this. Me on the side of Spiro Agnew and the media bashers? But let’s face it, these are different times and a different media than ole Spiro once bashed. These are the days of Fox News being accepted, unblinkingly, by many as a source of unbiased news.

Back to Katherine. First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that I think the media either unfairly targeted Ms. Harris or distorted what she said or did. Her primary campaign had the kind of horrifying fascination that a nature documentary on spiders holds for me as a confirmed arachnophobe. One just couldn’t look away. My personal conclusion, after all of the discourse, was that Katherine Harris had, at best, only a nodding acquaintance with the truth and, at worst, only a nodding acquaintance with reality. In either case, it makes her a somewhat scary choice for a continuing career as an elected official.

The more than 49% of Republican voters who cast a ballot for Harris clearly thought otherwise. Now how could that be? Either they did not read all those same scary stories I did or, and this is what I conclude, THEY DID NOT BELIEVE THEM. That is a serious message for the state’s media to hear. Because we are not talking about voters ignoring heavily partisan, shrill negative campaign ads. We are talking about voters ignoring and rejecting fact-based news stories reporting things that Katherine Harris said and did.

Is this totally surprising in a world in which we are bombarded by bizarre speculation on whether Suri Cruise exists if no paparazzi have taken her photo? (A 21st century version of the old existential question about the tree falling in the forest, perhaps?) When what Paris Hilton, the woman famous for absolutely nothing, does is “news?” When the line between news and entertainment, between fact and speculation, has become so blurry that the average person could not be blamed for tossing the whole mess into the codswallop file and forgetting about it except as a meaningless time killer?

I think her Nancyness Grace tripped less than charmingly over that line this week. Nancy, who has already demonstrated a strain of chutzpah that, if bottled, could well make our fighting men stronger, was already on my mind after I caught part of her act on Monday.

While mercilessly flogging the Boulder, Colorado DA over the arrest of that sad specimen of humanity, John Mark Karr (And aren’t we all positive that if wind of Karr’s alleged emails had hit the media and he was NOT arrested immediately, Nancy and her ilk would have been flogging just as hard the other direction?), Nancy had no problem filling her show night after night with endless speculation and attacks on various hapless people she brought on to “discuss” it ad nauseum, while a parade of background JonBenet still photos played. But, alas, the gravy train petered out when Karr was released and allowed to sink back into the mire of anonymity the rest of us inhabit. What’s a crime junkie to do?

Aside to O.J.: Forget the murders, sad and horrible as they were, your biggest crime was foisting an exponential new level of true crime media on our culture.

So, what IS a crime junkie to do? Why, just what her Nancyness did. Run an entire one-hour retrospective of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case! And here’s where we get to the chutzpah part. As she was wrapping up the show, Nancy Grace, queen of the intrusive, insensitive, unnuanced, speculation-on-little-or-no-fact-based-true crime journalism asked a guest, in total seriousness, if he thought the media had caused problems in the Ramsey murder investigation. Huh? Self-reflection is probably not high on her To Do list.

But wait, that is not even the line crossing to which I refer. Back to the news in Florida. What I want to know is: Does Nancy Grace have any problem facing herself in the mirror after she browbeat—through relentless interrogation (we know how Nancy likes to show us her old prosecutor chops)—Melinda Duckett, a young woman of 21 who was a community college student holding down two jobs, who had just gone through a difficult, hostile divorce, and whose two-year-old son had been missing since August 27th? Can Nancy be comfortable with what she did during her Thursday taping in the face of that young woman’s suicide the very next day? (Probably, since she aired the footage on her show the same night Melinda died.) If, by some miracle, that little boy is found safe, will Nancy Grace feel good about the prospect of him living the rest of his life without his mother? And if, as I suspect, his mother had nothing whatsoever to do with his disappearance, will Nancy wonder aloud if the media had a part in the problems of the investigation? Nancy, were no lessons learned from the Ramsey case? I ask you, and I ask your colleagues in Florida. Poor Melinda Duckett, like Richard Jewell before her, may have had her life destroyed by an event she was caught up in through no fault of her own. I don’t know that yet.

But I do believe that there is enough evidence for one conclusion. Evidence from the Richard Jewell case, from the Ramsey case, from the Wen Ho Lee case, etc., makes it clear that hysterical media speculation without waiting for the investigative and judicial processes to unfold not only does not benefit the public good, it harms individuals and, more critical for us as a society, it harms the very credibility of the media. So, when the same Chicken Littles that told us Richard Jewell was a bomber, that told us the Ramseys must have murdered their child, that crafted language to make Melinda Duckett’s every action sound suspicious (My personal favorite: The neighbors say they did not see Trenton playing outside very often. Hello? He was two, it’s Florida in the summer, it’s been in the 90s for months—no one lets their babies play outside in it!), when those same media sources say that Katherine Harris is guilty of this or said that, who can blame the Floridians who voted for her for not believing them?