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Florida, my home

I’m a hair more moody these days, looking at life through my azure tinted glasses, but there’s a good reason. It’s nothing serious, just your garden variety, mid-medication change depression. I just thought I’d say this post is an example of effect, not cause.

Last week we said goodbye to my in-laws. They’re doing something I haven’t done since the leukemia diagnosis, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.

They’re taking a vacation.

The kind where you go someplace.

What’s worse, they’re going to New England – my first home, making stops in New Hampshire and Maine. Then they’re going to Canada, specifically Montreal.

I wanna go.

Most people would be satisfied with a self-pity party, but I’m the type to throw myself a parade. Poor me, I can’t go on vacation while the nation grapples with crippling unemployment.

Before we said goodbye we all went out to dinner to celebrate Beth’s birthday early (since they’ll be gone for the real thing). Due to a series of events I won’t bore you with, I ended up meeting everyone there… and driving myself home. It was on this drive, thinking about the vacation I wasn’t taking, that I took a few back roads I hadn’t seen in a while. I passed the hill I rode my skateboard down as a kid, on a dare. I passed a relatively new subdivision of homes. I saw a flat wasteland of tasteless, identical snout-houses, and a conspicuous lack of shade. Instead, not so many years ago I saw dense woods, often with a friend around, tempting our childhood eyes and imaginations, but thwarted by chain link, dark shadows, and countless warnings: “NO TRESPASSING!”

Well, it kept us sufficiently warned most of the time.

I turned left at a traffic light and looked in my rear-view mirror. The four-lane divided highway that used to stop at the traffic light, now wound it’s way down the hill, where more woods had succumbed to asphalt. Although I’m used to this sight (I see it twice every day), it still brings more pain. These woods were ours – all of the adventure and imagination, and none of the chain link. It was a jungle of hardwood canopy, dense hanging moss, saw palmettos, hard fought trails, and dug-in, hidden nooks to hide if on the run. There was always some reason to be on the run, those ruthless palmettos sawing at our shins with every misstep. It was a seemingly endless expanse of adventure on demand.

In the moment, this moment of negligent musing behind the wheel, this same intersection contained my parents’ neighborhood – another walled in subdivision, protected from the unknown evil of the wandering outsider’s eye. When we first moved in, the lots sold but no one built. Oddly, our upper-middle class house and a few others like it spent my childhood surrounded by well protected, abandoned sand. It was all that was left of another clearcut orange grove, ground up to feed the beast we call sprawl. Over the years this sand grew wild watermelons. For a while it grew into a small test track for my (off-road) motorcycle. It was lots of room to line up imaginary, long, game winning field goals off a kicking tee, over a swing set in my back yard. I only broke a few of the cement tiles on our roof.

Down the street, on the other side of the neighborhood, we had another natural playground – a mix of pine, gentle undergrowth, and relatively hard packed sand. It was more open, the ground more accommodating to bikes, allowing deeper expeditions further from parents’ eyes. We were on our own, or so it felt, and it was exhilarating. Then as startled kids we watched the fences go up, the trees come down, and a giant hole appear. Now it’s the county’s largest manmade, drainage detention asset, tastefully decorated with chain link.

The moment passed. In a blink, my mind shifted from the present to my childhood an back again. It was all gone. It’s been gone for a long time.

I drove down one hill, up another and I was home.

Or was I?

They say you can’t go home again, but what if you never really left?

What if home left you?

Bad taste and butchery

I get a little uncomfortable when people start talking about “trimming” trees. My reasons break down like this: any jackass with insurance and a chainsaw can get a licence to trim trees in Florida, and Floridians in general don’t seem to like trees. That’s what I gather from the results anyway.

I’m not against all forms or reasons for tree trimming. There are times when a tree needs to be trimmed for saftey’s sake, or for the tree’s health. But that’s not what’s happening here.

I work(ed) in a large office complex on the water (Tampa Bay) with a lot of trees. The shaded, peaceful walkways felt more like a park than a place of business. Between the waterfront and the quiet atmosphere, I thought the setting was darn near perfect.

That was before someone decided things needed to be “opened up.”

Now my office feels like it ought to be a crime scene. There are dozens of formerly magestic oaks giving little or no shade, resembling palm trees more than the full hardwoods they once were. Now they look like pieces of modern art. Tall trunks stripped of all their limbs with any reach, with narrow, broccoli spear tops dot my view. Shaded court yards are now reduced to air traps – solar collectors for Florida’s already hot sun. Now we can go out and cook… or more likely, the once vibrant centers of congregation and conversation will be abandoned.

People around me are oooing, and ahhhing over the new, open feeling. I feel like I’m the only one who sees the incredibly poor taste, or recognizes the crime taking place above our eyes.

They say its spring

Friday was the first day of spring – or so the calendar says. In sunny Florida it’s been spring for the last month. I’m not normally big on spring: the sign of high humidity and mid-90s around the corner. But this year I feel a bit different about it.

I don’t mean the weather has been different. It’s more of a mood thing. Nothing but doom and gloom is in the news. The economy is tanking, the planet is cooking, Cheryl is slowly recovering, and even our normally sunny Gov is starting to look a little worried (although, probably not about Cheryl). He’s asked state departments to freeze spending, and the legislature is asking them to submit proposals for reducing their budgets by up to twenty percent.

As a state employee who’s seen budgets fall steadily throughout his career, twenty sounds like an absurdly high number. Thing is, I don’t have a better idea. Not a politically realistic one anyway. We really need a do-over on Florida’s tax system. But with Republicans firmly in control of government (and to be fair, less money floating around over all to tax)… that’ll be the day ‘ole Rush shaves (what’s left of) his head and starts handing out flowers at the airport.

Folks losing their jobs in the private sector won’t have much sympathy for us, and I won’t blame them. I’m thankful for every paycheck I get these days. If it gets reduced, or my department gets smaller still, I’ll still be thankful. However, I worry what will happen when some of the folks losing their jobs need our services. Social safety nets are a lot less effective when they get big holes just as they’re needed most. It’s bad enough we’ve made them so loose to begin with.

Like every other year, bushes and trees are making up for the rest of the year with a rush of color and fragrance. Citrus blossoms are blooming in the back yard. The bushes lining the driveway at my office like a short fence have turned several varieties of red for the season.

I’m quite taken by it all. Who woulda thunk it? Maybe you woulda, but I wouldn’ta.

With all the gloom around, a little color has been refreshing.

I have an alternative hypothesis though, just in case there’s more to this change in perception than whimsical appretiation of superficial good in the world. Maybe my mind reached the point where it won’t bend anymore.

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Lazy Sunday

image992864667.jpgIt’s nice to get away from televisions, Gameboys, and computers at least once a week and hang out at the park. This week we went over to Hammock Park. It’s a big piece of land north of downtown, filled with lots of trees and trails.

It’s not fancy, but that’s the point.

Right here.

In session

I almost hate to say anything before it’s over, but the truth is this won’t be over for a long time, regardless of when our legislature is in session.

I’m being cryptic again. Sorry.

The Florida Legislature is in a special session to deal with the 2 billion hole that appeared in the state buget last quarter. There’s been a similar hole in each of the last several quarters, so it’s getting to be old hat by now. Still, folks are a little more worried this time. It may be a little worse than thought, with holiday sales dropping off a cliff, and revenue so dependent on sales taxes.

So far the hurt only goes as far as the positions we’ve been holding vacant – my department is smart that way. Like many of you we’re increasingly accustomed to the “more with less” chant, happy to still be employed.

Governor sun tan has been cranking out the optimism as if his life depended on it. And maybe his political life does.

We also heard what we already knew – caseloads are way up, almost certainly due to our plumeting economy. There’s a lot more people out there needing help, and the calvary ain’t walking through that door.

Nothing new here. It’s time to get creative.

A little worried

Our governor seems like he’s working really hard to be our best friend this week. Today he announced he was closing all state offices on 12/26 and 1/2, giving us all two consectutive four day weekends. This doubles the number of holiday hours we normally get (next week).

They say you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I never quite got that by the way – do horses have a reputation for being opportunistic man eaters? I know this though, I’d be wary of those extra portions if you’re a turkey.

Gobble, gobble.

America beware!

Florida could be on the verge of forcing another Bush down your throat. Any hope I have that Florida is really a moderate state is dampened by the smarter Bush brother’s popularity here. Jeb! was just about as conservative as they come during his two terms as governor.

His apparent mantra of “I’ve never seen a government agency or program I liked” may play well with the voters, but it’s a f…ing disastrous way to run one. Countless appointments to led departments/agencies from the business community promoting “get tough” policies ran their departments into the ground. (Just ask my wife.) Privatization efforts tended to be boondoggles, contracts sometimes revoked and services “re-socialized.” Some of the largest tax cuts in state history were passed under his watch… in a state that already had one of the lowest tax burdens in the country. Unlike the federal government though, the “wean the beast” strategy of tax policy works in most states, due to constitutional rules forbidding deficit spending. Who tends to suffer when spending is cut? The people who can least afford more suffering. Conservatives like to think of welfare queens living high on the cash hog of government, but the reality is cash grant amounts for poverty stricken single parents haven’t risen in fifteen years (or more). A single mother with one child and no assets or sources of income is entitled to $241 per month – the same as when I started my career in public service in 1994. Per student spending on education (by most honest accounts) plummeted during most of his term. State universities were essentially told to go fend for themselves (while the tuition they could charge was capped by statute).

I shit you not, in one of his big speeches as governor he stood in front of the capital and said (I’m paraphrasing – I’m too lazy to look up the exact quote) “I look forward to the day when these buildings stand empty.” Nice sentiment when you think about departments devoted to law enforcement, but does anyone (besides a right-wingnut) think there will be a day in our lifetimes when there’s no need for any government – of any size or shape?

Come on, really? Have you been taking your meds?

And there’s even more reason for me to call my doctor and ask for anti-depressants: I’ve heard state Democrats talk about fielding a strong candidate to oppose him, but I never hear a name. Republicans OWN the state Senate, House, and elected cabinet posts. Why is this important? I always thought politics was like baseball, and many good teams only succeed if they have a good farm system. Legislatures and cabinet posts often serve as that political farm system – and there’s a severe shortage of rising Democrats. Republicans have super-majorities in both houses, so Democrats aren’t needed. They play minor roles in passing legislation (at best) – and thus, they’re irrelevant. Unless there’s some superstar, Democratic mayor out there (of a big city) that I’m not aware of… or a high profile business man (who’s a Democrat with an ounce of political smarts), that U.S. Senate seat has Jeb’s name on it, and I’ll bet he knows it.


Having a life

I’ve always believed in public schools, even if some conservatives in Florida don’t. I’ve been skeptical of our system of school grading, high stakes testing, and quasi-privatization – ushered in by Bush the Smarter. Now picture me this week: considering the idea of pulling my daughter out of public school. It’s eating me up inside.

So how did I come to this place, just six weeks into my daughter’s first year of middle school? I like to think I’m a little level headed when I need to be. I don’t think I’m prone to rash decisions, lurching from one reaction to another. I know six weeks doesn’t sound like a fair shake, not when so much changes from elementary to middle school. The gist of it is: I think they’ve gone way overboard on homework.

Beth isn’t new to homework. She’s in gifted classes, which sometimes involved quite a bit of homework even in elementary school. We all figured this year would mean more with the leap to middle school, and the special (advanced) program she was starting. The odd thing is, her gifted classes aren’t the ones with the most homework. It’s the regular classes that are loading it up. And Beth isn’t the only one. Other parents tell us stories about their kids (not in the gifted classes) staying up as late as they do, dropping out of all their extracurricular activities, because homework in middle school is all-consuming.

I can’t shake the feeling there’s something very wrong with this picture. Part of me wonders if it’s the funding scheme ‘ole Jeb set up, pitting school against school in a war of FCAT scores. I wonder if there’s a pressure on schools to work students as hard as possible, to gain an advantage over other schools, without regard for wether it’s in the long term interests of the students. I understand homework is important. It’s a fact of life. Most of us have to work, many of us hard at times. In some ways having a lot to do now could be good preparation for later. But does she really need to learn how to cram in an all-nighter at eleven (years old)… in sixth grade? Am I wrong to think my daughter should still have time to be a kid every now and again? At this rate she’ll get her first ulcer before I do. It seems wrong on so many levels I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop typing tonight. Fuck it, I’m not sleeping anyway.

I want to believe the proponents of our current system had the kids’ well-being in mind when they put it together. But you want to know something? I see a system that provides more and more proof the “free market” isn’t a panacea. Not when good students become a means to an end; or for that matter, anything other than THE end.

You want to hear the real kicker? The sales pitch for private middle schools around here always seems to start with: “we make sure our students have no more than x hours of homework every night.

Hurricane day

The track is leaning back to the east, so if it holds we’ll probably be spared most of Fay’s oomph. Older sister is right in the thick of things again though (this will be their first storm since Katrina – not that this will/could be anything approaching that). Just in case there’s a Charlie like shift in track, public schools, the courts, and most local and state offices are closed tomorrow in Pinellas County.

I just got done rounding up and stowing the loose stuff outside. I’m thinking we’ll skip boarding up the windows this time. I’m usually a bit of a worrier, but even I’m feeling a little complacent this time around.

There seems to be a pattern here


Would you believe me if I told you the two day forecast track doesn’t bother me either? Personally, this forecast seems like the worst one yet, and not just because it’s 48 hours out. As most residents of the gulf coast will tell you (many of us are amateur meteorologists), the northeast quadrant of the storm is typically the worst.

In any case, we’re now officially under a hurricane watch.

You’d think we’d have this down by now, but state emergency managers seem to have been a disorganized mess this weekend. First, they announced this morning that schools would be closed in the bay area tomorrow and Tuesday. Then they announced later this morning there was a mistake, and school officials were still meeting – presumably to make a decision. Then they announced schools would open as planned. Hillsborough and Pasco County schools open tomorrow, but Pinellas schools aren’t scheduled to open until Tuesday.

I’ve gotta tell you, that sounds awfully optimistic.

Image from the National Hurricane Center.