Pandemic cruising … again

Is it crazy to cruise during a pandemic? Maybe, but for me our planned December cruise now officially booked is not our first pandemic cruise. There was also our theme cruise in March 2020. We were on a ship that was literally one of the last ones let back into the United States before cruising just stopped.

Thankfully, there were no cases of covid-19 on our ship during that cruise, although we later learned there was one unrelated death of a passenger. The ship berthed next to us was not so lucky.

These were early days during the pandemic. The virus was not particularly widespread at the time, even in Florida, although Florida was worse than most states, as it is now. Also, it was harder to catch as there was no delta variant. This was before masking became a thing. No one had masks or thought to wear one. We did have an epidemiologist on board, who gave us a little lecture. We took his advice and hung out away from the gates and between concourses while we waited six hours or so for our flight from Fort Lauderdale. We did bring lots of Clorox wipes. A month or two later we’d realize it was kind of pointless. It made our surfaces more sanitary, but it wasn’t understood then that covid-19 was principally an airborne disease.

So naturally we’re planning another cruise, again on Holland America, and again out of Fort Lauderdale. Just as the last cruise was risky, this one will be too. But to my way of thinking, it’s going to be less risky. Because Florida governor Ron DeSantis be damned, you have to be vaccinated to go on this cruise. You have to present a vaccination certificates and a negative covid-19 test no more than three days old.

On the ship, in the more closely confined spaces like elevators, you will have to mask up, and we’ll likely be masked up anyhow when not in our room or outside on the Lido deck or in a deck chair on the promenade. It’s likely we’ll be masked during our excursions too, assuming the countries will let us in.

The tide has turned with this new cruise, however. We weren’t let in to Grand Turk just on the fear one of us might have covid-19. This time our biggest risk probably comes from being around residents of the islands we’ll be visiting. Much of the rest of the world doesn’t have the opportunity to get vaccinated like we have in the United States. Some of the islands we will be visiting, like Barbados, likely will have most of its population unvaccinated. It’s unlikely they will acquire the disease from any of us. It’s hardly risk free to cruise in this pandemic age. But the risk does seem more manageable than on our last cruise.

Still, Fort Lauderdale is in Florida, and the state is arguably at the epicenter of the latest wave here in the United States. It didn’t have to be, but they have a sociopath for a governor. It would be nice if we could grab a similar cruise from a non-Florida port, but it’s not an option. The only real option is to keep holing down like we’ve been doing for eighteen months or so.

But even staying at home is not completely safe. It’s still risky (probably riskier than ever) to go shopping, even with a mask on. My wife volunteers, and one of her work places is the local emergency room. She is gloved, double-masked and even wears goggles but as there are usually at least a couple of covid patients in the waiting room, she’s already at elevated risk. She’s willing to accept the risk, and by inference so am I as I sleep next to her. Due to covid-19, she keeps expecting the hospital to end her volunteering. It happened before, but at least now they know what they are dealing with and how to keep reasonably safe.

The anti-vaxxers seem to either be unconcerned about their risk or place their faith in quack cures. A lot of them are now dead as a result. There’s a difference though between foolish risks and manageable risks. If I come down with covid-19, while I could die, it’s exceedingly unlikely because I’m vaccinated. I’m likely to avoid the hospital too. It’s likely I’ll be able to get a booster shot before our December cruise too.

We’ll be required to wear masks on the plane, but since we’re flying to Florida, extra precautions are warranted. I hope to find some N95 masks before then, or it I can’t, double mask and wear them on the plane and while in Florida. The cruise company is likely to know who we were near while on the ship should someone contract covid-19. And we took out cruise insurance to cut our losses if we can’t go.

I accept the risk of cruising in the covid-19 age because cruise companies aren’t reckless like Governor DeSantis and we can take reasonable precautions, but also because I don’t want to wholly give up travel because of the pandemic. Travel helps makes life feel worth living.

I’m tired of being housebound. We’ll use our brains and trust to science to keep these risks low and manageable, while realizing we can’t make them go away entirely. With covid-19 no longer a mystery, avoiding it is possible if you are careful. Most of us can live life and be reasonably safe, just so long as you do it mindfully and keep a clear head and follow the recommended protocols.

Or so I’m hoping. We’ll see how it goes.

Scaring us stupid

My wife volunteers at both a local survival center and at a local hospital emergency room. In the first job she packages and hands out food to those who don’t have enough of it. In the second she offers comfort to those in the emergency room or in various bays, as well as makes a lot of beds in the ER after a patient leaves.

When she comes home I often tell her she is doing God’s work. This is true. God can’t be bothered to do it himself. He’s got bigger fish to fry. Manna is not going to come down from heaven to feed the hungry. God won’t magically protect you from covid-19 either. If any of this is to happen, it will take people doing good stuff. God is either absent, dead, never existed, or only works through people like my wife.

Ending covid-19 won’t happen through prayer, and reducing greenhouse gases won’t get solved by putting positive thoughts out there. We won’t cure our political dysfunction by doing more of the same. Doing nothing will only move us more quickly toward a dystopian future that is well underway.

The more you try to ignore the reality, the more is smacks you aside your head. That’s true of Southern states in particular right now as the covid-19 delta variant runs rampant across it. It’s happening in other states too, like here in Massachusetts, it’s just not as bad because more of us are vaccinated. When a local outbreak does occur, such as at Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, the cases tend to be mild and no one actually dies.

That’s our best case covid-19 future for a while. Hopefully vaccination rates will continue to creep up and most people won’t have a cow if they have to mask up again for a while. With luck enough will get vaccinated, not to bring about herd immunity (that now seems a pipe dream, given chronic obstinance to vaccination by many) but to keep a nastier and more lethal covid-19 variants from emerging.

The peculiar nature of these pandemics is they tend to evolve into something worse over time. That was certainly the case with the Spanish flu a hundred years ago, when the second wave was much more widespread and lethal. The delta variant is very scary since it is much more transmissible than previous variants, equivalent to the transmissibility of the chicken pox. It’s quite possible that the next variant will be even more transmissible and potentially resistant to current vaccines.

In short, the next variant may kill a lot more of us, including people like me who are fully vaccinated with one of the best vaccines available. What we can do is get vaccinated if we are not, wear masks when health experts recommend it, work from home if that’s an option and, oh, stop doing stupid stuff like allowing Florida children to go back to public schools maskless while the state is suffering the largest number of new cases per day in the country.

But if you are looking to bring about the end of days, as apparently many evangelical Christians are hoping to do, keep doing what you are doing. Just don’t expect you’ll be around to witness The Rapture. Covid-19 is but a harbinger. There are a full suite of other problems to address including climate change, overpopulation, deforestation and mass migrations that will only get worse if we sit on our hands. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and to fix or at least mitigate things can only be done by human actions.

There are times when I think maybe a little dystopia could be good for us. Appealing to reason or patriotism doesn’t seem to be working with a lot of people. Many people have lost the ability to see or care about anything beyond their immediate circle of family and friends. They think guns and lots of bullets will see them through any tough times, when it will actually take plenty of food, medicine and other people with skills they lack. They assume government is evil when government is the solution. There would be a lot more of us dead right now, perhaps even me, if government-funded vaccine efforts did not start shortly after covid-19 infected people.

If they are going to inadvertently self-select themselves for extermination, I often feel they should keep on doing stupid stuff. It will leave a lot of widows and orphans and innocent victims, but maybe survivors be cared for by others with more common sense than they are exhibiting. Because it’s clear they aren’t getting it now. The rest of us want to live.

Modern life should be scaring us straight. Instead it’s scaring us stupid.

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

Cruising for a difference

Is there really that much to distinguish cruise lines? This cruise is our fifth, and each has been on a different cruise line. In general, one won’t complain about the food on any cruise line. That certainly is not the case here on Holland America’s ship the Noordam, wending its way in a leisurely fashion toward the southern Caribbean. The staterooms on Holland America don’t look much different than staterooms on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian. They all have a promenade where those who prefer to move can stroll around the ship’s periphery, smell the salt air and get a little cardiovascular exercise. I noticed the picture gallery and theaters were in the very same spots on this cruise line as they were in the last two. Differences between cruise lines tend to be more of style than anything else. Carnival, unsurprisingly, has a reputation for partying, young adults and families with small children. Royal Caribbean is more buttoned down.

Holland America is definitely not a party ship. It is mostly a well-moneyed old people’s ship. There are a few middle aged people on the ship, by which I mean thirty or forty something, but just a few. By that criteria I no longer qualify. Still, I skew younger than the average age of a passenger on the Noordam. Sixty or seventy something is more par for the course. Expect passengers with canes, walkers and motorized carts. Holland America and the Noordam in particular is just more relaxed and quiet in general than other cruise lines we’ve experiences. There are fewer long waits at the elevators. There are fewer passengers elbowing you in the hallways. The staff doesn’t try quite so hard to ply you with booze (extra of course) or to petition you to buy overpriced art. Moreover, checking in was a breeze. We were expecting a ninety-minute process and long lines. Passengers tend to show up en masse as soon as the cruise line opens its doors. Two hours before sailing, at least for us, there was no line. It took ten minutes tops to get from our drop off point at the front of the Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal until we were walking onto the ship. Why do people show up early when for most other events people show up either on time or fashionably late? I believe it’s not the ports of call that attract most people to cruises. It’s the buffet and the promise of as much food as you can eat that really has them signing up, so the sooner you can start the mass gluttony, the better. And generally if you want to find someone that’s where they are. In the case of the Noordam, it’s Deck 9, the Lido (“Lee-doh”) deck with its mostly always-open buffet. And mostly business is hopping on Deck 9, which is also convenient to pools, hot tubs and lots of lounge chairs.

Beach at Hollywood Florida
Beach at Hollywood Florida


This time our cruise was out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It came with a bonus: the ability to finally see my sister Teri’s house in nearby Hollywood. She has been there for sixteen years with her husband, her dog and her boat. We avoid Florida except, apparently, as a place to catch a cruise ship. So we arrived a day early to see her and get a sense of Hollywood, Florida where she lives and the Fort Lauderdale area. My general impression was favorable. Florida has a lot of ugly beach communities, but Hollywood is not one of them. It has a long and impressive “broadwalk”, sort of like a boardwalk except it is not elevated, wider and not wooden. It has a charm to it, and tries hard to be the Florida you see in postcards, if you can ignore the condos, hotels and seaside businesses next to the ocean and broadwalk. Nearby Dania Beach to its north is also nice. We stopped at a pier for a quick lunch at a restaurant at the pier and marveled at the cool weather in the 60s and the dry and breezy winds. What soon became more interesting was a school of shark that appeared just off the pier. Everyone outside on the pier eating lunch quickly turned their attention away from their food to the sharks stalking a large school of fish nearby instead. The fish appeared to escape, but probably lost out when they went out of our range.

The Fort Lauderdale cruise terminals proved hard to get to, particularly since roads are under construction, which meant weird detours were needed. The cruise terminals are frankly in an ugly part of town, as freighters also load up there, which meant plenty of freight containers for scenery. The view was much more impressive once onboard the Noordam, particularly from the Lido deck. Fort Lauderdale looks great from that high up. It is a major city in its own right, certainly not as big as Miami to its immediate south but catching up quickly and with an impressive skyline.

Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship
Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship

So we quickly settled into our room on the main deck, enjoyed their four-star dining room, then went on our first of what will be many walks around its promenade. Miami was just a twinkling of light in the distant west. It seemed that nothing could interfere with this wonderful eleven day adventure. Then the lights went out.

Dead stop. Just an emergency light winked on near our cabin door. After about a minute the emergency power kicked in and the lights came on but there was nothing but silence from the engines. After a few more minutes the captain came on to announce us the obvious. There had been an electrical malfunction. Happily it didn’t last too long and was over in about ninety minutes. Eventually one engine came back online, then the next. Our arrival in the Bahamas this morning was not delayed, but no one will say or admit to a reason for the incident.

Cruise lines prove that they are major players when they buy their own private island in the Bahamas. Holland America bought theirs, and it’s called Half Moon Cay. It comes with the usual accommodations for cruise ship passengers: bands playing calypso music and singing Jimmy Buffet songs, white sandy beaches, gift shops and a huge outdoor barbecue where you can gorge yourself sick. That’s what most passengers were doing. Frankly, it made me ill to look at all that greasy food, so I opted for a short walk to the other side of the island instead. A fake shipwreck along the shoreline was actually a bar and allowed another opportunity to get plastered. Despite the sandy beaches and temperatures in the 70s, few were in the water. Empty beach chairs were in abundance. The water was an amazing shade of blue and closer to shore, colored aquamarine.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Next stop: Grand Turk Island.

Greeted by the lovebugs in Ormond Beach

If home is where your heart is, then my heart is in Endwell, New York instead of Ormond Beach, Florida. I spent nearly ten years in Endwell and they were during my prime developmental years: ages six through 15. No wonder I feel bonded to the area and its climate. In contrast, I spent only three years in Ormond Beach, at least if you are counting continuously. I spent nearly seven years in Florida altogether, but about as many of them were spent going to the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando. By mid 1978, degree in hand, I was out of Florida and glad to put the state in my rear view mirror.

Ormond Beach, Florida
Ormond Beach, Florida

Florida and Ormond Beach never quite felt like home. My friends were seven hundred miles away and there were few prospects at my public school in Daytona Beach that looked friend-worthy, as they struck me as a class to be vacant and intellectually incurious. Florida’s climate was completely different, as was its terrain. For months I felt the need to wear sunglasses; Florida was just so darn bright all the time. In general things felt sticky, hot and harsh in Florida. For most of the year going outside meant being smothered in a hot and wet blanket of air that only blessed air conditioning could relieve. Giant armored rats (okay, armadillos) lived in the woods and were occasionally pancaked on the highways. In New York State I rarely saw a cockroach. In Florida even the nicest houses had them and they were huge, black and hiding pretty much everywhere. I had a visceral loathing for them. They showed up in the least expected and grosses places, like inside my shoes. Even the grass felt unnatural. Bermuda grass, if you were brave enough to walk on it, felt like walking on razor blades. Yes there were palm trees and beaches but there were also flying roaches, snakes, alligators, fire ants and love bugs.

So perhaps it was fitting that as my rental car pulled into Ormond Beach, after a lapse of twenty-six years between visits, that I would be greeted by lovebugs. Plecia nearctica is their official title and these insects only join together for a few weeks at a time, at most. They must really love their mates, so much so that when they join they fly together glued at their butts. This and their black bodies make them easy to distinguish. They hang in the air and are generally harmless, but they become a huge nuisance to drivers. They smash into windshields, die messily and clog radiator vents. Getting their carcasses off the windshield is a challenge too. Ordinary windshield washer fluid and wiper blades won’t do it. Coca-Cola works, but that got expensive. Anyhow, September must be their mating season because they were out in force when I exited my rental car in Ormond Beach to visit the local Catholic church where we prayed for a few years.

Visiting Endwell, as I did last month, was an easy decision. I could easily spend a week getting reacquainted with my hometown. For Ormond Beach, a few hours were plenty. I never stayed in the city long enough to feel rooted to it. Curiously, I had stayed long enough to find my way around easily. I didn’t need a map and always knew just where to turn. Unlike Endwell and its surrounding towns and villages long in decline, the same was not true in Ormond Beach.

The good news: Ormond Beach was looking up: much prettier than it was in the 1970s, and starting to look kind of quaint. The City of Ormond Beach agrees. South Ridgewood Avenue, which I knew well from innumerable bike trips to school and work across the Halifax River on the peninsula, now has signs calling the neighborhood historic. That’s pushing it for an area where the houses were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, but even forty years earlier when I first arrived there, tourism was its cash crop. In the intervening years the city simply has gotten better at presenting a good image. The strategy has largely worked, although the U.S. 1 corridor on South Yonge Street still looks a bit stressed, as does my old neighborhood and the house we lived in.

Where had the blacks had gone? There used to be a clear color line nearby between Ridgewood Avenue and South Washington Street. Perhaps the neighborhood got too pricey for most blacks. Lots of places in Ormond Beach now looked upscale. The old Bowman’s Care nursing home down the street where a couple of my sisters worked is still there, but is now a spiffy managed care facility with a new name and likely corporate overlords. The nearby recreation center is new to me too, and looks like a mini water park.

Hard to believe I lived here (Capri Drive in Ormond Beach)
Hard to believe I lived here (Capri Drive in Ormond Beach)

I had no desire to hang out on its beach, or the more famous Daytona Beach to its south, although I did drive on it, which is still possible in 2012. Even if I had wanted to, the weather was not cooperative. Oversaturated clouds periodically spat rain at me. I ended up taking pictures of our old house on Capri Drive from inside my car. By the time I made it across the peninsula to Seabreeze Senior High School I just had the oppressive humidity to deal with. My alma mater also looked spiffier and modernized. The signs told me to register at the visitors’ desk, but as it was after school hours when I arrived and the campus was empty, I felt empowered to tour the campus without official permission. No one stopped me and I walked the vacant hallways alone.

Daytona Beach, Florida
Daytona Beach, Florida

In the 1970s most of the school had no air conditioning. The school was amply named because you generally stayed cool from the sea breeze, if it deigned to come into your classroom. Back then half the students dozed at their desks, the women wore halter tops (no bras) so thin the outline of their nipples were clearly visible, and students actually brought surf boards to school, the beach being a short walk across Route A1A. Now there is a chain link fence with no easy way to get to the beach or the nearby McDonalds. Nor is there a whiff of marijuana in the outdoor hallways and I am sure the lockers are now inspected regularly for contraband. The 1970s was a much more laid back decade, at least in Daytona Beach.

The tall condos and hotels along the beach have not lost any of their impressive heights, but nearby Belair Plaza where I used to work is stressed. The location of the Winn Dixie supermarket in the plaza where I had my first job is now vacant, although a Publix supermarket has moved in on the south side of the Plaza. The bookstore now contains a Walgreens. The other Winn Dixie where I worked closer to home is gone as well and contains a furniture outlet. I spoke briefly with a lady who runs a consignment shop there. I remembered that part of the supermarket as the stocking area. I remember unloading trucks in the evenings to the sound of blaring rock and roll on the radio. According to the woman sweeping debris near the back of the store, homeless men can often be found behind her store in the morning. That at least is new.

In general, the retail in Ormond Beach is a notch or two higher than when I lived there. Starbucks saw no reason to skip Ormond Beach, in spite of its heat and humidity. I dined, if you can call it that, at a Moes Southwest Grill with all the conveniences of home, including a WiFi for my iPad. The most surprising find in Ormond Beach was the Cheaters Gentleman’s Club that I passed on my way out of town back to St. Augustine. I guess its location makes short work for local private detectives.

I said in my last post that if I had to retire to Florida, I could retire to St. Augustine. Ormond Beach simply does not have its allure. Being forty miles from the city made it easy to visit. There was a reason I had avoided it for more than a quarter of a century: it was nothing special to me. In 2012 it is still nothing that special, just looking nicer.

St. Augustine

Judging by St. Augustine, Florida’s East Coast is getting all gussied up. In my memory, St. Augustine has always been a pretty city, but since it has been more than thirty years since I last visited this city (about halfway between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach) my memories of it were dim. Anyhow, whatever it was when I first saw it in 1972, it does not match the tourist-friendly, picture-postcard reality I find in 2012. It is both beautiful and charming.

St. Augustine has a right to call itself historic in a way that no other city in North America can. While a newbie of a city by European standards, St. Augustine can viably claim to be the oldest city in North America. It was officially established in 1565, which is forty-two years before the English got around to attempting to settle North America at Jamestown (1607 for the fort, 1619 for the city) and 55 years before the first Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. It was the Spaniards who founded St. Augustine. It looked like a good place to place a stake in North America, as it was reasonably defensible due to peninsulas and fresh water could be found nearby. It attracted attention from competing powers, which led to the establishment of many forts that predator nations quickly destroyed. Once Spain decided they weren’t going to budge, they finally constructed the fort that endures today: the Castillo de San Marcos, a huge fort made of over 100,000 blocks of limestone. Should navies want to invade today, it would still be reasonably impregnable. If you had to find shelter in a hurricane, it would be an obvious place to weather one.

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida
Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida

Various nations laid claim to the city over time: Spain, then Great Britain, then Spain again and finally the United States got title to it in the 1830s. If the United States is destined to go the direction of other great powers, then it won’t be the last occupier of St. Augustine either. Whichever nation ends up with it in the future, it is likely that Castillo de San Marcos will still be standing looking relatively unchanged. Meanwhile, the fort remains St. Augustine’s premier attraction, competently administered by the National Park Service, with regular cannon firings to delight the tourists during certain times of the year, as well as a fantastic view of the junction of the Matanzas and North Rivers, with hints of the enormous Atlantic between the peninsulas.

I didn’t have to go far to see the fort because it’s where business has taken me this week. Our meetings were not actually in the fort, but in its administration building. This is good because unlike the fort, it is air conditioned. Given the oppressive humidity and frequent storms in St. Augustine, it’s a wonder that the Spanish did not settle in more temperate terrains. The Spanish influence is not wholly gone. Some of the architecture from their occupation still exists, and much that went up around the city is built in a Spanish style. And you can find still Spanish restaurants here too. We found one with excellent food on Tuesday night on St. Georges Street, a lovely pedestrian-only street that slices through the historical downtown St. Augustine. St. Georges Street is a lovely tourist destination and full of boutiques.

St. Georges Street, St. Augustine
St. Georges Street, St. Augustine

In September the tourists have mostly gone, which is how we claimed a government rate at the famous Casa Monica hotel here. This famous and historic four-star hotel is lovely, comfortable and tries to keep it faithful to its historic style, right down to the high skylight windows in the bedrooms, such as I have in my room. If you want privacy, roll down the blinds. You can’t go a block without running into wonderful restaurants (in fact, the hotel itself has a four-star restaurant), but curiously most of them are not open for breakfast. Those that are tend to open around 8 a.m., which is too late for those of us needing to be ready for all day meetings starting at 8 a.m.  That leaves pricey room service or dining at the Starbucks in the lobby. The closest thing to health food there is their breakfast sandwich, which has plenty of protein (eggs) but is otherwise largely tasteless.

But who can complain with the view here in the downtown area? Flagler College is anchored here, and the private university looks more like a hotel than a college campus, which it likely was. Unsurprisingly, it attracts well moneyed students, mostly white. Their beautiful coeds make me wish I were thirty years younger. Well-manicured lawns full of Bermuda grass, lots of historic houses and brick streets, tall and established palm trees helps you forget the oppressive humidity. The humidity is so high that thunderstorms are frequent. The remnants leave large puddles on the streets pedestrians have to walk around. The city is obviously going for a classy clientele, at least here in the downtown area. The major roads include bike lanes. Many roads are under reconstruction. As a result driving around downtown is confusing, with its narrow streets recalling a pre-automobile era. Yet, while it has a cosmopolitan look, you don’t have to drive too far to be in Florida Cracker territory. Even so, there are plenty of well-moneyed people here. The city has the appearance of being progressive, but the area is dominated by Republicans and conservatives. Romney should not have to worry about winning St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is the sort of Florida I hoped we would move to when my family arrived in Florida in late 1972. Instead we ended up near Daytona Beach, at least then a much grungier, pedestrian and low-brow place. In Daytona Beach in 1972 there was the beach, the bars, the liquor stores, the famous speedway, a Greyhound track, a Jai-Alai center, a lot of suboptimal retail, and little else. But here in St. Augustine, at least in 2012, all is much newer, spiffier and classier. The last state I want to retire to is in Florida, but if forced to retire in this state then St. Augustine would do quite well.

Just how Daytona Beach and my old home city of Ormond Beach just south of the city is doing in 2012, twenty six years since I last visited and where I spent about six years of my life will be the subject of my next post.

Tasting Tallahassee

I lived in Florida for five and a half years. Part of it was spent finishing high school in Daytona Beach; the other half was spent rushing through a four-year degree at what was then called Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida) in Orlando. Being a northeastern boy, spending the latter half of my teen and early adult years in Florida was a big change. Overall, Florida did not agree with me. After graduation, I migrated back north to the Washington D.C. area where I have been happily but expensively abiding ever since.

Florida was too weird for my tastes: too hot, too humid, too old, too flat and too much weird nature including giant armor-plated rats (armadillos), pervasive monster-sized cockroaches and conjugating bugs. During mating season, “love bugs” would smear your windshields and gunk up your radiator grills. It was also too conservative: Baptist churches overwhelmed the religious landscape. Anita Bryant got tired of selling orange juice while I was there and found it convenient to attack gays and liberals instead. While Orlando seemed a much more happening place than Daytona Beach, not enough of the right stuff (like jobs) was happening there to make me hang around.

The Florida panhandle remained unexplored territory until business took me to Tallahassee last week. I wondered, would it be more of the Florida I remembered or much different culturally and climatologically?

Four nights in Tallahassee in October are not long enough to say for sure. One thing surprised me: Tallahassee has hills. Granted, they would hardly qualify as hills in most other states but they are enough to be noticeable. Perhaps that is why Florida put its capitol building on a Tallahassee hill. From there you can look down on the state, such as it is.

Yet what of the rest of Tallahassee? The trip from the very laid back Tallahassee airport to my hotel was not encouraging. It tells you something when you routinely pass by business establishments with iron bars in front of their windows and doors. Happily, the neighborhoods improved as we moved toward the center of the city. Our hotel just east of the capitol on Apalachee Parkway seemed situated in a more prosperous and growing area of the city. It came complete with an Applebees and a mall.

The Washington area is hardly known for its low humidity. Nonetheless, the humidity in Tallahassee, which hit us from the moment we disembarked our plane, was pervasive. During our five days and four nights, it never abated. The Courtyard Inn where we stayed was reasonably upscale. Even so, the effects of living in a humid climate were impossible to mask. The cold air coming from my air conditioner unit was cold enough, but it also smelled of mildew.

I have returned to Central Florida a number of times since I left in 1978. In many ways, particularly around the Orlando area, it has grown cosmopolitan. The same does not feel true of Tallahassee. It may host two large universities. It may have nicer areas on its northeastern side. Many roads may even come with bike trails, a nice touch I also saw in my last business trip to Madison, Wisconsin. At its heart, Tallahassee feels good ol’ boy redneck, with a dash of Cajun thrown in. There are Starbucks in Tallahassee, but proportionately far fewer than in most cities. A search on Google Maps shows only eight Starbucks in the entire city. This was a source of consternation to our group, for whom quality coffee was critical. The Carmel flavored water represented as coffee at the Courtyard Inn didn’t quite do the trick.

There was a dearth of other expected institutions in certain parts of the city. I take these for granted elsewhere. Where I live you cannot walk two blocks without tripping over an ATM or a bank branch. In certain parts of this city, ATMs and banks were simply unavailable. You could drive for miles on the major roads and find neither. Maybe in these neighborhoods people like from paycheck to paycheck. Maybe they use neighborhood cash checking businesses instead. However, I found the lack of banks in many areas of the city disturbing.

Also disturbing were the number of obese citizens in Tallahassee. Maybe obesity is part of the good ol’ boy culture. Thank goodness for the students, who generally have fewer weight problems. They provide some balance to a city that is disproportionately not just overweight, but obese. Perhaps the obesity is one consequence of farm subsidies, which have made grains and processed foods so plentiful and cheap, while pushing up the cost of quality vegetables and fruits. A doctor specializing in diabetes should consider moving to Tallahassee. He would have no lack of clients, particularly among the African American community. I imagine Glucophage manufacturers would want to set up special distribution outlets in Tallahassee to handle the demand.

Wherever I go on my employer’s dime, I try to take in some of regional cuisine. As you would expect being near the Gulf coast, there is plenty of seafood, as well as Cajun cooking in Tally. I have not yet been to New Orleans, but I suspect the Cajun cooking we sampled is not quite as good as what you can find there. Naturally, being in the South, finding grits and black-eyed peas on the menu was a given. Barbeque joints are also popular. The hardest kind of food to find in Tallahassee is the quality healthy kind. There are no Whole Foods in Tallahassee. I am not sure a Whole Foods store would be commercially viable there. The obesity epidemic in the city is no doubt fed by the many, many greasy fast food joints available in the city.

One upside to living in Tallahassee is that it is a cheap place to live. 1960’s era housing, particularly the run down three-bedroom ranch type house with a carport can be had for a song. While you may not get the variety of foods found elsewhere, at least food is cheap. A retiree looking to pinch some pennies could pinch many pennies living in Tallahassee.

Overall, my northeastern biases are probably showing. If you prefer relatively slow traditional Southern living with some of the advantages of living in a city, Tallahassee should meet your needs rather well. While in Madison, Wisconsin at the end of September, I was impressed enough by the city to mention it to my wife as a possible retirement community. I think we can rule out Tallahassee as a place to spend our golden years. Nonetheless, I was glad to becoming acquainted with Tallahassee, although my acquaintance is likely to remain fleeting.

Porn is Mainstream

When I feel a desire to look at porn there is no better place than the privacy of my personal computer. Thanks to the Internet, Usenet and high speed cable modems porn is available at no real cost (aside from internet access) for those who want it.

But I assumed that porn was still dirty. I assumed there was still some stigma attached to it. The dearth of strip clubs and adult “bookstores” (as they used to quaintly be called) here in Northern Virginia suggested to me that porn was still socially unacceptable. Even the men’s magazines at the local Barnes & Noble are wrapped in plastic.

I know there are a couple places in my county where hardcore pornography can be procured. I stumbled on one a few miles from my house some months back that I never knew existed. Who knew that MVC Video wasn’t a competitor to Blockbuster? I know of a hole in the wall in Fairfax City and have heard rumors of such an establishment in Springfield. Needless to say of course nothing on the shelves at the local Blockbusters ever gets beyond an R rating. We have no strip clubs in Fairfax County and I’m sure zoning wouldn’t permit it. But we do have one and only one Hooters down in Fairfax City. This is as ribald as Fairfax County gets.

So I figured most who needed a porn fix were getting it safely and discreetly online. No need to suffer the glare of the morally sanctimonious clerk anymore. Basically I assumed we were still ashamed of it. If we had a Penthouse or a Hustler we were hiding it under the mattress.

But my recent excursion to Florida suggested that I was entirely wrong. At least in Florida, porn is mainstream.

Not that Orlando (where I stayed) was overwhelmed with strip clubs and adult video stores. It tries to project a family image. I knew strip clubs could still probably be found on South Orange Blossom Trail somewhere, unless things had changed in the thirty years since I lived in Orlando. (I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida.) Most likely prostitution is still available somewhere on the trail too.

I can’t claim to have spent vast amounts of time in adult bookstores. But what I remember from the few I visited in DC before they were driven off 14th Street was they were dank places that smelled like a men’s room that had never been cleaned. And if you were expecting a woman to be a patron, you had best wait for a blue moon. It seemed to be a place for older men in trench coats to frequent. But the common denominator, aside from the bad hygiene, was that they felt sinful. That was part of their allure. You hoped that no one you knew happened to be in the neighborhood when you dodged into the store. But you enjoyed the thrill that maybe just maybe you might be caught. Or maybe just maybe you might find your minister perusing the BDSM magazines.

Fast forward to Orlando in 2004. I am there on business and looking for T-shirts to bring home to the wife and daughter. And nearby is this adult “emporium” establishment, awash in nice inviting bright lights. I hardly recognized the place because it looked so entirely ordinary. From the outside it might have been a drug store. Well it wasn’t much out of my way so I popped into the store, figuring here in Orlando at least the older men didn’t need trench coats.

It turned out I was the closest thing to an older man in the place. Behind the counter were two happy young ladies (presumably over 18) smiling and welcoming me into the store like they were Wal-Mart greeters or something. I figured this had to be the wrong place because, well, there was a woman behind the counter and it was so darn bright in there. And also it was clean. And it didn’t smell. And there was Muzak on the speaker system. And just behind the counter were rows and rows of adult videos, DVDs, books, marital aids and other assorted adult novelties.

So I’m walking up and down the aisles. It’s an extensive place: a veritable superstore of adult merchandise. There’s the anal sex aisle, there’s the oral sex aisle, there is a portion of an aisle devoted to gangbangs, the compulsory lesbian area, an extensive gay sex area, and specialty areas devoted to those into (I swear I am not making this up) grandmothers, midgets and pre-op transgender folk.

And not only are there women behind the counter, there are women walking the aisles, sometimes with a boyfriend or two in tow, sometimes together. Well knock me over with a soda straw! Women come into these places on their own initiative! The very idea! To be fair the women seemed less interested in the selection of DVDs and videos and more interested in the vibrator and lube section of the store.

I expected people to maybe be wearing dark glasses but everyone is so casual and chatty it’s like no big deal. There is even a teen wandering around who couldn’t have been 18 … who let him into the store?

And everything was wrapped or encased in plastic (for security, presumably). The DVDs and videos are adorned with lurid XXX pictures leaving no detail to the imagination. There were shiny wet human orifices opened for your viewing, often inserted with all sorts of things, some human, some artificial. If you are squeamish about body fluids it’s not a great place to visit. But clearly the patrons were nonplussed. Maybe they were shocked the first time they came in. But now they seemed inured. They seemed almost bored. It made me wonder why they were there.

In fact I quickly found out, much to my surprise, that I was bored by the place. Surely I thought there must be something in this vast superstore that would appeal to my prurient interest. But I couldn’t find a thing. Oddly it all seemed the same. It was like Sam Walton was running a porno superstore.

I am upset. Someone changed the rules. Everything was all hanging out but it was boring. It didn’t feel sinful. If I were still a Catholic I wouldn’t have even bothered bringing it up in confession. Where can a teenager go these days to feel guilty about something? Porn was a great but safe way to feel guilty, naughty and rebellious. Over the last 20 years the material seems to be a lot more lurid than I remembered it. Everything is now designed to be more shocking. But in the process porn has become so over the top that nothing is shocking.

Sometime over the last twenty years or so (when I obviously wasn’t looking) pornography became mainstream. I am sure there are plenty of places in the United States where it can’t be purchased locally. But in the home of Anita Bryant this particular culture war seems to have been won by the progressives. Pornography is not going to go back in the closet. It’s been mainstreamed. Somewhere doubtless there is a company specializing in the stuff on the Fortune 500. It’s been mass marketed and mass merchandised. Stores have been redesigned to be inviting to women. I have to assume women too must have secretly lusted for this stuff but felt too intimidated (until recently) to actually go into one of these stores. Those days are gone.

But I am also sad and nostalgic. Without the allure of shame and sin, can pornography survive? Will we reach the point of such saturation that women have to return to petticoats for a few generations so we can appreciate it again?

Back from Orlando

Back from a MySQL User Conference in Orlando, Florida. It was a good conference and perhaps a lead for a future topic on how open source software is going to either kill or fundamentally change Microsoft at some point.

While I was there I took a couple hours to see my sister Lee Ann (along with her husband Rick) at a Steak and Ale Restaurant off International Drive in Orlando.


International Drive is the ritzy area of town and full of tourists sick of Disney World. Lots of places to spend money and the competition must be rough, because apparently in order to entice tourists to part with their money, they have to deliberately construct upside down buildings.