A Scouting Trip to the Sunshine State

Sunset at Humphris Park, Venice, Florida

We’re finally narrowing it down…our final destination, that is (short of the graveyard).

Lynn and I just returned from a whirlwind visit to Florida, U.S.A., and we think we know where we want to retire.  Florida actually is not at the top of our list.  Neither of us is enamored with the goofy politics, and I can do without quite so many OWFs (Old White Fuckers) from Ohio and Michigan…people like me, in other words.

But Florida has sunshine, ocean, zero state income tax, and is far more affordable than Hawaii.  And since we both suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and are inveterate beachcombers—and I’ll have the opportunity to kayak, snorkel, and kitesurf—this state may be in our future, assuming housing costs don’t continue to skyrocket.

Here’s a quick synopsis of our trip:

St. Petersburg/Clearwater: if I had to choose one major city in Florida, this would be it.  It gets high marks for retiree living.  Lotsa water and sun, recreational opportunities, good medical facilities, and urban action.  We stayed two nights in a condo on a narrow peninsula called Pass-A-Grille, easy walking distance to the beach.

Wild parakeets at Pass-A-Grille

My favorite moment was kayaking offshore.  I paddled past the tip of the peninsula, and came close to petting two dolphins that were surfacing in perfect synchronicity.  But whenever I paddled to where they’d submerged, Flipper and friend popped up somewhere else.  It was like playing Whack-a-Mole.

My idyll in the sea was rudely interrupted when I spied flashing colored lights on the beach.  “Oh God, what did she do now,” I muttered while finishing off my illegal Budweiser.  Sure enough, she’d called the rescue squad after losing sight of my kayak.

People, I love my wife, but this is exactly why I disappear for months at a time in the mountains.

Complimentary kayaks. I borrowed the green one.

Sarasota: a smaller urban area, and we talked with a realtor, but unfortunately weren’t able to visit any neighborhoods.  The big attractions are Siesta Key and Largo Key, the former consistently ranked as the top public beach in the nation.  Good school system, too, which always enhances a place.  Lynn doesn’t like larger cities like Tampa Bay/St. Pete (she’s a country gal), but she’s open to Sarasota.  Might need to take another look.

Venice: this was our favorite spot.  It has a cool historic “downtown” area (mainly a collection of trendy shops, cafes, and restaurants, with a modest park separating traffic lanes); lots of waterways (which is why it’s called Venice); free but well-maintained public beaches; and an abundance of condos, villas, and houses for the many OWFs. 

Another perk is the Legacy Trail, a running/biking route which begins at a historic railroad depot in town and combines with the Venetian Waterway Park Trail to course northward 20 miles to Sarasota.  I jumped on it one evening from our efficiency rental in Nokomis.  Having to pass through several back streets to reach the trail, it wasn’t five minutes before I realized I was no longer in Kansas.  The houses and people changed, and I suddenly heard the booming sound of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.”  The Land of OWFs had become the Land of a Thousand Dances.

“I haven’t heard that one in years!” I yelled over to two elderly black men drinking beer at a picnic table in their gravel drive.  They raised their beers to salute the bold OWF who’d infiltrated their turf.  I seriously came close to aborting my run and joining them.

Venice Harbor, Venice

But recalling the kayak incident at Pass-A-Grille, I continued on, only to encounter a large metal fence separating their neighborhood from the Legacy Trail.  It took me a while to find a gap in the fence, then suddenly I was back in the Land of OWFs.

It’s a good thing that metal fence is there to maintain the purity of the trail, not to mention the OWFs.

Estero/Fort Myers: Estero is probably our second favorite spot.  We reunited with good friends David and Melissa, who moved into a very cool condo complex after retirement in 2015.  They took us to Brio’s Restaurant the first night, then the original Tommy Bahamas in Naples the second, where I followed Melissa’s lead and indulged in the delicious crab bisque and breaded snapper.

In between restaurants they offered prescient advice during our visit to the planned community of Babcock Ranch, established by a visionary ex-football player named Syd Kitson (same age and birthplace as me) and which will be the first totally solar-powered town in America.  We liked the home prices and sustainability concept, but Babcock was too isolated.  It was also too new (lots of construction noise), and a hospital was only in the planning stage.

On our last day we glimpsed the beaches and downtown of Fort Myers, along with Sanibel island, where residents have successfully managed to protect the ecology by restricting development.  Perhaps the snowbirds were flocking heavily that day, but traffic everywhere was crowded and tight.  However, we’re definitely keeping Estero in mind.  (Just to warn you, David and Melissa!)

The original Tommy Bahamas, Naples

Naples: one of the most popular places in Florida for both snowbirds and year-rounders, but we’ve heard it’s somewhat overpriced and snooty.  But you can’t believe everything you hear, so it’s still on our radar.  And if we move to Naples, I can jam with my friend Jesus, who lives here (click here).

Everglades: not a retirement destination, but we passed through on our way to Key West, which is also not a retirement destination (but is exotic enough that it will be a separate longitudes post).  While in the Big Cypress National Preserve, we pulled into a wildlife viewing area where we saw native birds and alligators.  Lynn was on the other side of the bridge observing a floating gator while I snapped a photo of sun-worshipper Wally Gator.  (Anyone remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoon?)

Female anhinga, Big Cypress National Preserve

We also passed a number of fenced-off villages that had houses with thatched roofs, identified by road signs with the modest words “Indian Village.”  I first thought these were Seminole areas, but they’re actually Miccosukee, a tribe that emerged from the Seminole in the mid-20th century.  The Seminole/Miccosukee are supposedly the only Indians who never signed a peace treaty with the U.S.  This is significant, because most other Indian treaties were broken by the U.S.

Vero Beach: while we concentrated on Florida’s Gulf Coast, we wanted to at least take a peek at the opposite side, and we chose Vero Beach, which is almost the same latitude as Venice.  My parents honeymooned here in February 1957.  Lynn and I stayed at the throwback Sea Spray Inn near South Beach, which was built about the same time my folks had me on their minds.

We both loved South Beach, a very expansive beach with free parking that has a strong surf (good for kitesurfing).  I liked downtown Vero Beach (Lynn didn’t).  It supposedly has a good arts scene.  And Vero Beach is a great place to see gentle, herbivorous Florida manatees (sea cows), recently downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” status. But neither of us was impressed with the neighborhoods the realtor took us to.  Too many pickup trucks parked in grass.  I used to own a Chevy S-10, but these days I have an aversion to pickups.  And when parked in the front yard?  Forget it.

American alligator, Big Cypress National Preserve

Then it was back to wet and gray southwestern Ohio.  Other than the politics, absence of seasonal transitions, and prevalence of OWFs, about the only negative we foresee with a move to Florida is distance from our three granddaughters.

But when they visit (hint to our daughter), they’ll have a great destination vacation…although Avi got really upset when I told her that, if there’s one more “kayaking incident,” I’ll be feeding Gigi to Wally Gator.

Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.