A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

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.

A Christmas Visit with Pope Francis

Yesterday I was slothfully bumming around the boob tube and I landed on one of those late-night comedy shows.  One of the show segments dealt with recent newsworthy comments made by Pope Francis about adultery.

It seems one of the Pope’s employees, Archbishop Blah-Blah, was fired because he supposedly had sex with, or groped, or massaged or caressed, or grazed the shoulders of, or maybe leered at a female.  (The media is still unclear about the extent of his so-called “sin,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

Even if he did have sex, his behavior wasn’t technically adultery, since Archbishop Blah-Blah isn’t married.  But the Pope’s people have to remain celibate and also conduct themselves like gentlemen, so he did, at the very least, violate his employment contract.

Today we have a preponderance of “fake news,” as well as factual news that certain people claim is fake.  After cranking up my search engine, though, I landed on enough fairly credible sources carrying this story that I concluded Pope Francis actually did make the comments in question.

I decided to fly to the Vatican to speak with the pontiff himself.  Although I’m not Catholic, nor even a technical “Christian”, I have a grudging respect for a few spiritual leaders, despite disagreeing with them on technicalities.  I wanted to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.  Did he really say these things?  And if so, could he please elaborate on them?

So here’s my interview with the Supreme Pontiff:

longitudes:  Merry Christmas, Pope!

Pope Francis:  And Happy Holidays to you, my son.

longitudes:  Uh…yes.  Pope, I know you’re a busy man, what with Christmas and your governing chores, so I’ll try not to take up too much time.  But I have some questions about some things you recently said that might be construed as being controversial.

Pope Francis:  Fire away, my son!

longitudes:  My first question concerns your response after Archbishop Blah-Blah was fired for, uh, doing “something” with a woman.  You said—and I quote—“Sins of the flesh are not the most serious.”  What did you mean?

Pope Francis:  I meant just that.  On the scale of sinfulness—the other sins being gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride—lust isn’t that big of a deal.  I mean, we all lust, even Jimmy Carter.  (Different denomination, but he’s still a brother-in-arms.) It’s not exactly like murder, or something.  It’s more like jaywalking.

longitudes:  Okay.  But some people might view this “jaywalking” as condoning cheating on one’s spouse. After all, many of them have taken a vow of faithfulness, and some have even done it in church.

Pope Francis:  Well, lust is still bad.  But it’s more like a misdemeanor than a crime.

longitudes:  Gotcha.  But lust could be defined as anything from having sexual thoughts about someone, to jumping in the sack with your neighbor’s wife or husband.  Where do you draw the line?  Are lustful thoughts and extramarital sex both misdemeanors?

Pope Francis:  Yes, but one is a more serious misdemeanor than the other.

longitudes:  And if indeed there is extramarital sex, is hitting a home run a greater sin than merely reaching third base?

Pope Francis:  I don’t understand the analogy, my son.

longitudes:  Sorry sir.  What I meant was, is intercourse a greater sin than heavy pet—um, than touching the genitals?

Pope Francis:  I think we’re splitting hairs here.  But let me cut to the quick.  Lustful thoughts will require a brief anteroom meeting with God.  Extramarital sex, however—which includes the home run as well as reaching fourth base—requires temporary purgatory, and maybe a few flame lickings on the backside.

longitudes:  And how do you know this?

Pope Francis:  My son, I think you would have to be Catholic to understand.  Are you Catholic?

longitudes:  No, I’m not much for organized religions.  I’d list the reasons, but I don’t want to offend you or others.

Pope Francis:  I admire your humility, my son.  We could use a few more like you in the Christian faith.

longitudes:  Thank you, sir, but I’m not as humble as it might appear.  (And sorry for the false modesty.) Another question I have concerns your comment that Archbishop Blah-Blah was merely “condemned by gossip” and “could no longer govern.” 

Pope Francis:  Right.  Blah-Blah is not a crook.  The press was out to get him.  Then there’s the gossip factor.  But now that I kicked him out, they won’t have him or the church to kick around anymore.

longitudes:  This sounds familiar.  But anyway, you accepted his resignation, quote, “not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy,” unquote.  What did you mean?  It sounds like you are defending him while at the same time capitulating to those critics who want him removed.  Similar to certain American politicians.

Pope Francis:  I have 1.3 billion Catholics in my flock.  Not to mention 5,000 worldwide real estate holdings.  This is not just a government, it’s also big business.  Oh, yes, it’s also a big-time religious denomination!

longitudes:  I see your point.  One last question, your supreme pontificator. Despite their significance, I noticed your statements weren’t carried by either the National Catholic Reporter nor the Vatican News. Might there be a quid pro quo going on here?

Pope Francis: My son, I’m impressed! You spoke Latin! Unfortunately I can’t comment on this. I’m unfamiliar with the first-named publication, and my subscription to Vat News ran out last March.

longitudes: I see, Holy See. Anyway, I’d like to thank you for meeting with me this most joyous time of year.

Pope Francis:  My pleasure, my son.  Have a wonderful holiday season, and don’t drink too much egg nog.  Remember, gluttony is also a deadly sin.  Actually, it’s not exactly “deadly.”  And probably not a sin, either.  Definitely a misdemeanor, though. Two flame licks and a closed-door meeting.

    

DISCLAIMER: This is not a real interview.  I did not actually meet with the Pope.  Anyway, I can’t afford the airfare, and he never visits my neck of the woods.

Cruising With Peter Tosh, Jesus, and Syd Barrett

I did it again. I succumbed to another Caribbean cruise.

Cruises fascinate and frustrate me.  I love them and hate them. The complete and utter hedonism of these things is alternately seductive and disturbing. 

On a cruise ship, you don’t have to do anything. Just dress and undress.  The cooking and cleaning are taken care of. The staff pampers you. The food is delicious. The entertainment options are diverse. Relaxing at the pool, casino, bar, lounge, and library is at your fingertips. Depending on mood, you can cruise in warm sunshine or near Alaskan glacial ice.

But for all the positives there are negatives. The entertainment (music, comedy acts, games, trivia contests, Las Vegas-styled shows) is homogenized and cheesy and caters to the lowest common denominator (LCD) of tourist.  Our daughter Holly said it best: “Cruises are like a bad song you can’t get out of your head.  You just have to accept it and try to hum along.”

Tiki-tacky tourist trap that played awful music

And the physiognomy, fashion sense, and behavior of some of those LCD tourists can be a bit jarring, to put it politely. On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy scoping eccentrics, you’ll be in people-watcher heaven.

There’s also the incessant cheerfulness of the low-paid but extremely hardworking staff, most of whom hail from poor countries. It can be guilt-inducing to privileged Americans like me who are prone to cynicism.

And witnessing dirt poverty in certain ports of call, then trying to balance it against all the hedonism I alluded to earlier, can make a thoughtful person think long and hard about life’s inequities.

Even leaving out the guilt feelings, worst of all—for me, anyway–is awareness that cruise ships today are giant pollution factories, spewing massive amounts of carbon into the sky and treating the oceans as dumping grounds for their excess sludge.

Greenhouse Effect? What Greenhouse Effect?

I’ve written about the pros and cons of cruises elsewhere on longitudes (click here for starters), so I won’t belabor the negatives.  Suffice to say I’ve now done five cruises.  And once again I’ve sworn there won’t be any more.  The most recent was a few weeks ago.  Moping around the house after our beloved dog Sheba died, my wife, for whom a cruise is the ultimate vacation, suggested a Caribbean excursion as grief therapy.  On the heels of the worst days of COVID, they’re very inexpensive right now.  So in a moment of weakness, I sighed and acquiesced.

Surprisingly, this latest cruise to Cozumel, Honduras, and the eastern Mexican coast, on the Royal Caribbean ship Allure of the Seas, was slightly less guilt-inducing than I expected. It truly helped our mental state. Other than just a few moments of mistiness, we temporarily forgot about Sheba.

Looking down on Roatan, Honduras

The biggest surprise was the music. If you get one good band on a cruise, you’re doing well. This cruise had not one but three: the poolside reggae band Ignite which, every afternoon, honored my request to play Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” dedicating it each time to “PEE-ter” (no, not that Peter, this Peter). Last I checked, Ignite was still employed by Royal Caribbean.

Also the Latin lounge act Mirage, which subbed for Ignite at the pool one day and, during “Black Magic Woman,” boldly ripped into a six-minute guitar solo. (Of course, I and one other guy were the only ones who applauded afterwards.)

Four ‘n’ More: Valerio, Simone, Luigi, and Giovanni

And best of all, an Italian jazz quartet named Four ‘n’ More that played everything from Cole Porter to Antonio Carlos Jobim and were far too talented to be stuck on an American cruise ship. Despite only a few people in attendance, we caught their act every evening after finishing our Crème Brûlée.

(Question: why do cruise ship bands have such unimaginative names?)

Another surprise was the comedy show. I forget the name, but the Allure act was a male-female tandem who specialized in adult comedy. Now, my view is that most adult-oriented humor is either hit or miss. When it’s good, it’s very good. Think George Carlin or Richard Pryor. But most contemporary comedians fall way short of Carlin and Pryor, and when adult humor is bad, it can be a real turnoff.

However, this cruise apparently wasn’t afraid to deviate from the Branson, Missouri formula and to actually challenge its audience with sex-related jokes. Were they good? I don’t know. The act came on after our bedtime.

Formal night. The privileged American relaxes and anticipates Crème Brûlée and Italian jazz.

All cruises offer “shore excursions,” like snorkeling, sunbathing opportunities, jeep or bus tours, and bicycle trips that, for an extra fee, enable one to “experience the local culture.” Translated, this means “helping a few industrious brown-skinned locals try to earn a living wage through servicing the wealthy and overweight Caucasian tourists.”

Lynn and I skipped these. Not because we didn’t want to help the locals who lined the street trying to sell something, but because, as our Venezuelan-born, ukulele-strumming friend Jesus (pronounced Hay-SOOS) said with a smile, “They want to hook me! Jesus is not the fish, I am the fisher man!” So although we didn’t get hooked, we did buy some gifts for our granddaughters from those few locals licensed to operate a stall near the dock.

Lynn and our pal Jesus conversing while returning to ship. A true eccentric, Jesus carried his blue ukulele and harmonica everywhere, even into the dining room.

Back at the pool by noon, we were usually able to find unoccupied outdoor recliners close to Ignite.

I always bring a good book on vacation. For a Caribbean cruise, you want something light and cheery. This is why I brought a biography of Syd Barrett, the tragic leader of Pink Floyd who lost his mind and ended up living alone in his mother’s Cambridge basement for three decades before dying of pancreatic cancer.

I kept hoping some ancient English acidhead would see my book, start raving about Syd, and we could then strike up a lifetime friendship. But it was not to be. There were many “ancients” on board—the number of military veteran ball caps was astounding—but only a few English accents, and I don’t think many ex-acidheads go on cruises. I know that poor Syd never did.

***

Our adventure in paradise lasted six nights. As I said above, after losing our dog it was just what the doctor ordered. It also coincided with our 35th anniversary and my formal retirement from the nine-to-five. (And unlike some of those characters trying to hook me on the streets of Puerto Wherever, I feel lucky I can retire.) So Allure of the Seas did allure us, and did serve a purpose.

However, while Lynn plans many more cruises with her friends (the “Cruise Chicks,” I call them), my cruising days are over. For good. I swear. Just knowing that those fumes belched out of those stacks, even while the ship was in port, while all were at play, turned my stomach. I think it was Jesus who said, “They know not what they do.”

No, not that Jesus. The other one.

The ingredients for a great vacation, even on a cruise ship: beer, book, body lotion, and willful forgetfulness

The First Thanksgiving (Re-Post)

(Note: I first published this back in 2012 not long after I began longitudes. Since I’m now feeling lethargic after too many piña coladas while visiting the Caribbean, and therefore don’t feel like writing, and it’s Thanksgiving once again, I’m re-posting this golden oldie with a few light dustings. I hope you enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.)

This Thursday, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday: Thanksgiving.  (Certain other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving at different times.) It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, breaded stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and assorted other culinary delights.  Some Americans indulge in televised football games.  And American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: peace-loving religious dissenters from England who landed at “Plymouth Rock” in 1620 and who ate turkey with friendly, benevolent Indians.

Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s mainly about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order).  But there are not surprisingly a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks, in 1621.

Unless it’s Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, longitudes strives for truth. So below is my feeble attempt to demolish a few long-held myths.  My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; a smattering of well-sourced Wikipedia info; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England, known as Mourt’s Relation.  His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving. (Plymouth Governor William Bradford reflected on the colony many years later in Of Plymouth Plantation}:

  • Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for twelve years before arriving in the New World on the Mayflower.
  • The Mayflower first landed on the sandy northern tip of what is now Cape Cod in November 1620.  The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
  • There is no mention of a “Plymouth Rock” in Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation.
  • The original feast took place over three days, probably during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
  • Over ninety Wampanoag Indians and about fifty English attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit, Winslow, and Bradford. (Most depictions of the feast show roughly a dozen colonists and half that many Indians.)
  • Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course.  It was more likely ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on venison shared by the natives.
  • There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal thanks.  He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.”  The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
  • The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s.  And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.”  The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
  • Modern Thanksgiving as a holiday for all American states wasn’t established until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress changed this to the fourth Thursday of the month.
  • The Plymouth colonists, although they established the first English colony in what is now known as New England, were not the first English to permanently settle in the New World.  That would be the Jamestown, Virginia settlers of 1607, who were driven here by mercantilism rather than religion.
  • The Christians of Plymouth Colony were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans. Rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.
  • Violence between English and Indian had occurred even before the feast. On August 14, 1621 military leader Myles Standish preemptively attacked the village (Nemasket) of a rival sachem of Massasoit’s. His brashness was a harbinger of King Philip’s War of 1675-1678, a conflict between English colonists and their Indian allies and Chief Massasoit’s son, Metacom. It remains the bloodiest per-capita conflict on American soil.

And speaking of violence, it’s important to note that the colonists did not watch American football on television during that first Thanksgiving.  If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.

Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

Sheba

October 18, 2021

It’s been a sad few days here in the longitudes household.  Our beloved dog, Sheba, trotted over the Rainbow Bridge on November 1.

I’ve done obituaries here in the past, for both animal and human loved ones.  Sharing their photos and stories helps me deal with grief…and I’m really grieving now…so I appreciate your indulgence.

Sheba was 16 years old.  She was with us for 12 years and 7 months.  We always identified her as a “Border Collie mix,” but Lynn did a canine DNA test a few years ago which surprisingly revealed German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, Chow Chow, and unknown herding breed!  But other than herder, I’m not convinced of this finding, as her photos might show. 

Sheba’s first photo, probably the day we got her. She was very malnourished. We still have her pink bandana.

We found her at the Franklin County (Ohio) Dog Shelter in March 2009 as Lynn and I approached “empty nest” status.  They have a “Mingle with Our Mutts” event every other Sunday from 12-2, a veritable flea market of dogs from shelters in central Ohio.  We arrived at 12 p.m. sharp, and it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds before we spied Sheba amongst maybe a hundred canines.  She was up for adoption along with another dog through Saving Pets One at a Time (S.P.O.T.), a humane society recently formed in nearby Morgan County. 

With her fluffy ears, curlicue tail, and striking coat of white fur, Sheba (her original name) stood out immediately.  She also had a distinctive dark, moist scar running from her left eye that looked like dripping mascara. S.P.O.T. told us she’d been scratched by a “weed.”

November 2009. Starlet Sheba, with our daughter Holly

Her personality was sweet as sugar, too.   Unlike our previous dog, Brownie, Sheba appeared sociable with strangers as well as other dogs.  At the pound, Lynn and I took turns guarding her—so she wouldn’t get swooped away—while each of us checked out the other “wares.”  But from the moment I met her I was convinced she was the dog for us.

I’ll never understand how her original owners could have given Sheba up.  For us, she was a fur angel, the proverbial plum pulled from the pie.

November 2010. Sheba loved laying on the couch.

Sheba’s favorite activities were joining me on runs and walks, chasing squirrels in the backyard, and playing fetch and tug-of-war.  Her favorite human foods were Lynn’s homemade pizza (crust) and my Sunday morning “au jus”—sausage drippings mixed with dry dog food.  Whenever we had company, she always inserted herself in the middle of the action.  She also followed me around the yard when I did yardwork, and often from room to room.  And at night she slept on a pad on the floor, next to me, shifting position throughout the night.

October 2011, front yard of new house

Sheba loved people and strolled right up to both neighbors and strangers alike, ears pinned back and tail wagging.  She also enjoyed meeting other dogs, although she sometimes displayed a mild “alpha female” tendency with certain females.  She rarely barked, and when she did it was muffled.  Her barking moments occurred when flying out the back door toward her neighbor dogs, or whenever I encouraged her with mock growls (or, after she jumped on the bed with us weekend mornings, when I teased her with “How-deee PARD-A-NER!”).

Sheba’s only faults—if they can be called that—were a morbid fear of loud noises; thunderstorms and the Fourth of July had her trembling and crawling under furniture. And she was an expert fur shedder.  In fact, we’ll be vacuuming clumps of white hair for the next several months!

May 2012, while visiting “Gram”

Walks and runs were her favorite times, even more so than eating.  If she heard the words “run,” “walk,” or “walk-ey,” she became glued to me, often inserting her head under my legs while I tried to tie my running shows at the foot of the stairs.  Walks could be difficult for Lynn, because Sheba was strong and had never been trained to heel, and she loved to sniff more than any dog we’ve ever known.  As time progressed and her stamina and rear legs began to fail, the runs were eliminated.  Then the walks became shorter and shorter.

February 2014, with cats Chloe and Alex in my music/computer room

I could go on and on about this beautiful animal.  Everyone adored her.  She gave us a ton of love, and we did our best to do the same, although we could never equal what she gave to us. She was not just a pet, she was a living and breathing symbol of home, warmth, comfort, family, and unqualified love.  All the things that make living worthwhile.

Sheba, you will be in our hearts forever.

January 2017
January 2019. Caught in the act, in my muddy garden!
October 19, 2021. Sheba on her “pad” in my music/computer room. She followed me in whenever I was on the computer or was reading. She also had two pads in our bedroom.
Last photo. Together at the fire pit, October 23, 2021

Where Are All the Tropical Fish Stores?

I recently joined my wife in retirement (accompanied by a giant pent-up sigh of relief). Yesterday, as we felt our aging bones calcify by the minute, we discussed possible light employment options for household pin money.  She suggested part-time work for herself at a local arts and crafts shop.

“Great idea!” I said.  “I’ve thought about a used bookstore.  Or maybe a tropical fish store.”

Then I thought, “Wait a second…do those even exist anymore?”

I can’t recall seeing a store that specializes in tropical fish since, oh, “Afternoon Delight” was a hit song.  What in tarnation happened to them?

When I was a teenager I had a 10-gallon tropical fish tank in my bedroom.  It had an overhead hood light, a thick layer of pink and blue pebbles, artificial coral, assorted plastic plants, and a couple small ceramic structures, such as a sunken galleon or treasure chest.  I had the usual assortment of small, freshwater tropical fish, like black mollies, neon tetras, zebra danios, redtail sharks, guppies, angel fish, a coolie loach to scavenge for debris, and my pride and joy: a beautiful ruby-red male Siamese fighting fish (also known as a “betta”).

At one time I tried mating my fighter with a creamy pinkish female betta that I’d named “Rosy.”  My man got about halfway through blowing bubbles for the bubble nest—to hold the eggs that he would eventually squeeze out of her—then abruptly stopped.  I never figured out why.  I’m guessing he either found Rosy less sexy than I did, or maybe he was a latent homosexual.

I used to relish lying in bed at night near the glow of the tank, sleepily gazing at my fish as they swished through the water, the soft burbling sound of the water filter lulling me to sleep.

As much as I loved doling out affection to my fishies, I also enjoyed purchasing them.  Once, I found a store that had rare glass catfish, a translucent fish whose bones are visible.  One of the great mysteries of my youth was returning from vacation and finding that all of my glass cats had disappeared.  I’m assuming the other fish consumed them, slender bones and all, out of hunger, but spontaneous combustion is also a possibility.

My first job, not counting newspaper delivery (click here), was a summer job as afternoon clerk in a local tropical fish store.  I & J Tropical Fish was in a rundown building just north of Mansfield, Ohio on Ashland Road.  It was the perfect job for a lazy 17-year-old, because only a few customers ever visited.  And it was always the same people.

My main duties consisted of shaking flaky fish food into the tanks, occasionally cleaning them (a real chore), and guarding the cash register.  To alleviate the boredom, I smoked cigarettes that I stole from the pack that the morning clerk—a pregnant, married woman—stored under the register.  Since I was at the experimental age and it was only a few cigarettes here and there, I thankfully never developed a habit.

Being your typical confused and horny teenage boy, I also got my jollies in other ways.  Once when things were especially slow, I slipped into the dirty storage room in back and sat on the yellowed toilet with a Penthouse Magazine for reading material.  (I’m pretty sure it was the August 1976 issue.)  Right when I was approaching the climax of the story I was reading, I heard the entry door jingle.

“Hello?  Is anyone here?” I heard a woman inquire.

It took me several minutes to wrap up my business, make myself presentable, and scurry out front.  I’ll never know if she detected my cotton mouth or the beads of sweat on my forehead.  She probably did.

The owner of the store was a guy named Bob.  He was a family man, a bony guy with black hair, about 35 years old.  I think the “I” and the “J” were his kids’ initials.  I remember that he always had a concerned look.  Just before he hired me he gave me a pop quiz.

“What is another name for a Siamese fighting fish?” (Betta.)

“What happens if you put two male Siamese fighters together?” (They fight…duh.) 

Although I was usually alone, once in a while Bob drove into the gravel lot in his plush, customized, stereo-equipped van to check on me.  The first time he did this, about a week after I was hired, I actually had a customer.  Bob stood behind me while I handed the man his change.  With Bob over my right shoulder, silently observing the transaction, I was as nervous as he looked concerned. 

“Here you go,” the man said, as he surprised me by returning a five dollar bill. “You gave me too much change.”

After the man left, Bob waited about 30 seconds, allowing my head to fill with warm blood.  Then he spoke in a low, deliberate voice.  “You need to be very careful when you give customers their change.”  Uh, thanks, Bob. 

One time about a month after I started, my dad dropped in after work.  He was happy that I actually had employment, since it helped cover the repair expenses for the station wagon I’d recently wrecked.  Bob just happened to be there. 

“How’s the boy doing?” Dad asked Bob with unconcealed pride.

Bob stammered.  “Well, uh…he’s uh…he’s getting better and better!”

I’ve thought about why there are no tropical fish stores anymore.  Of course, it’s the same reason why there are no hamburger joints like Burger Chef, and why small farms are disappearing.  We live in a world of giant, generic conglomerates, and the “little guy” just can’t compete.  Maybe it started with McDonalds.  Later it was Wal-Mart.  Tyson.  Barnes and Noble.  Target.  Jiffy Lube.  PetSmart.  Petco.  Pet Supplies Plus.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot—Joni Mitchell

I’ve often wondered, too, when exactly did I & J Tropical Fish go out of business?  I think the lot is occupied by a dive bar now.  The dilapidated building looked like it might have fronted a methamphetamine lab, and I do know that abuse of crystal meth later exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Maybe the building caved in, or the health inspectors discovered the yellow toilet in back.  Or maybe Bob cashed in his meager chips and hauled his wife and kids and their purple super-van to Florida.

I didn’t care for Bob all that much.  Let’s just say, I can’t imagine him and me laughing over beers at Rocky’s Pub.  But he did after all give me my first real job.  So for that I say, “Thanks, Bob.” 

The Doobie Brothers: Born With it in Their Souls

Been wanting to write about this band for a while.  They recently began their 50th anniversary tour—postponed a year due to COVID—so it’s a good time to finally put pen to paper.

During the Doobies’ heyday when I was in high school and college, I liked them, but not enormously so.  Their music rang from AM and FM dials so often, and they appeared so frequently on TV shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, there was no need for me to spend money on their records.  I was also a rock music snob (even more so than today).  Oversaturation and commercial success had the little snob creature inside my ears forewarning me, “Nooo, Pete!  This band is too commercial!  Not dark enough.  Not hip enough for you.”

My rock music palette then was headed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Velvet Underground, and so on.  Heavy shit, man.

But time and tide have plastered a thin layer of duct tape over the snob creature’s mouth.  Like with Petticoat Junction, I take scant heed of relevancy, image, the charts, my peers’ judgment, or the opinions of critics like Robert Christgau.  As my WordPress compatriot Cincinnati Babyhead would say, their music takes me.  It grabs me.  And that’s what matters.  Remember the days when melody, harmony, musicianship, lyrics, and good vibes meant something?

Like the band Genesis, there are two eras in the Doobie Brothers’ history.  The first era was dominated by guitarist Tom Johnston, and the second by keyboardist Michael McDonald.  The cement that held both of them together was finger-style guitarist Patrick Simmons, the only member who’s been with the band its entire ride.  All three of these blokes are top-notch singers, songwriters, and musicians.  Now, really.  How many groups can boast that?

The Johnston period was characterized by pumping “chunka-chunka” guitar-based songs, whereas McDonald brought a smoother, blue-eyed soul sound to the group.  Both eras have their adherents.  While I prefer the Johnston era, there are a lot of McDonald-era songs I love as well.

The Doobies formed in San Jose, California in 1970.  Influenced by Haight-Ashbury legends Moby Grape, they started out as a foursome: Johnston, Simmons, drummer John Hartman, and bassist Dave Shogren.  Their big audience at the start were local bikers, and they took their name from a comment by a friend: “You guys smoke so much dope, you should call yourselves The Doobie Brothers.”  Laughter all around the hazy living room.  But the name stuck. 

Their self-titled debut album (1971) had some decent songs, especially “Nobody,” but the engineering and production were muffed, and the LP is all but forgotten today.  Shogren then quit, and the other three brought in two guys: bassist Tiran Porter and second drummer Michael Hossack.  This five-piece was taken under the wing of fledgling Warner Bros. producer Ted Templeman, who’d been with the minor West Coast group Harpers Bizarre.

Producer Ted Templeman

Toulouse Street (1972) was a major improvement over the debut, propelled by “Listen to the Music,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” and one of my personal fave Doobies tunes, Simmons’ spooky “Toulouse Street.”  The band burned through the record charts and never looked back.

The next three Doobies albums continued the hit parade and seemed to get better and better: The Captain And Me (1973), What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits (1974), and arguably their artistic high point, Stampede (1975).  By the time of Stampede, drummer Hossack had been replaced by Keith Knudsen.  Also joining was ex-Steely Dan flash guitarist Jeff Baxter.

Around this time co-leader Johnston was getting burned out, and was suffering from a severe stomach ulcer.  Baxter recommended keyboardist Michael McDonald, whom he knew from the Dan, as a possible reinforcement.  Simmons heard McDonald sing.  His jaw dropped.  He then practically begged a wary Templeman to give him an audition. When Templeman finally heard McDonald sing an abbreviated version of “Takin’ it to The Streets,” his jaw dropped.  Both guys realized they had a chance to nab a Ray Charles-styled vocalist.  The fact he could also write hit songs was an accidental bonus.

McDonald and Simmons steered the band through the final four Doobies albums: Takin’ It To The Streets (1976), Livin’ On The Fault Line (1977), Minute By Minute (1978), and One Step Closer (1980).  While Tom Johnston had been the lynchpin of the Doobies sound early on, and written and sung most of their biggest songs, by the time of Fault Line he was pretty much in the shadows.  He officially left in ‘77.  The band then hit a commercial zenith with the thrice-platinum album Minute By Minute. But it was becoming slicker with each record, straying ever-closer to homogenous L.A. territory and further from its earthier Northern California roots.

Simmons realized how far the Doobies had drifted.  One night in ‘81 he called McDonald to say he was leaving the group that he’d begun with Johnston, that the music just wasn’t the same.  McDonald, being the decent man that he is, completely empathized with Simmons.  After only one rehearsal without Simmons, he and the others decided to retire the band.

But you can’t keep a good band down.  The Doobies did a Vietnam vets charity concert in 1987, which stimulated more get-togethers, and they haven’t stopped touring since 1993.  They’ve released six more albums since One Step Closer, including this year’s Liberté.  The core of the band today is Johnston, Simmons, and multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined in 1979 (see header photo).

The Doobies in 1977. L to R: Knudsen, Hartman, Johnston, Baxter, Simmons, McDonald, Porter

I had the good fortune of seeing the Doobies live in 1978, right when Minute By Minute was climbing the charts.  It was at my alma mater, Ohio University (no, not The Ohio State University).  They actually performed in my dormitory.  Seriously.  Our rooms were on the perimeter of a large circular assembly center that housed the basketball and graduation arena.  Although I didn’t have a ticket, a small group of us gathered in a darkened stairwell and broke through a locked door, then quickly blended with the crowd.  (I don’t advocate breaking and entering as a hobby.  But, shit.  With the fact that my digs were hosting the band?  And the money my parents and I were spending?)

Anyway, my two big memories were Simmons and Baxter sitting side-by-side on the edge of the stage, rocking and trading guitar licks; and the song “It Keeps You Runnin’” (from the Takin’ It album), with its hypnotic chorus…which altered my consciousness even more than it was already altered.  I was a Doobies convert that night.

By the way, the 50th Anniversary Tour will include not only Simmons and Johnston, but also McDonald and Little Feat ivory wizard Bill Payne.  Here’s the leadoff track from Stampede, the Simmons (music) and Johnston (lyrics) collaboration “Sweet Maxine,” which exemplifies the sound of early Doobies.  If this don’t get you either bopping or air-guitaring…well, you just weren’t born with it in your soul.

COVID-19 in Cartoon America

Watching “CBS Sunday Morning” this morning drove home a startling statistic: the United States ranks number 48 in the world for percentage of citizens who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I knew things were bad here.  A story on that same program revealed that the social media platform Facebook is, once again, under fire.  This time it’s for permitting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19—such as that the vaccine contains a microchip allowing the government to monitor us—that is leading directly to people’s deaths.

Researchers analyzing Facebook misinformation, not surprisingly, had their Facebook accounts shut down.  And Facebook, not surprisingly, declined a “Sunday Morning” request for an interview.

I’m far from being an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, and I have a lot of issues with Facebook, despite being a moderate user.  But one thing Zuckerberg said hit me in the gut.  He implied maybe the problem isn’t so much Facebook, but America, since other countries are less inclined to get suckered by false information on social media platforms.  Ignoring his garbled English, he said “I think that there’s that’s something unique in our ecosystem here.”

My position is that, like other deadly pursuits such as tobacco use, hard drug experimentation, and irresponsible sex, if adults exercise their freedom of choice by choosing ideologically-driven rumors, conspiracy theories, and cartoon science, we shouldn’t bemoan any consequences befalling them.  The problem is, their “viral” stupidity have consequences for the rest of us.  And maybe there is something unique here in America that contributes to our embrace of lies and the lying liars that tell them.

What might this unique condition be?

I’ve always believed that education, not military or economic might, is the key to a population’s well-being.  However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, while the U.S. scores high in upper secondary education (i.e. high school) graduation rates, it is below average in student reading, math, and science skills.  Per the OECD’s latest (2015) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 40 OECD-member nations. Just behind Latvia.

In other words, we’re spitting out high school graduates like assembly line widgets, but many of these widgets are flawed and mucking up the entire machine.

Certainly there are other factors in our embrace of polluted information: an inordinate (or perhaps warranted) distrust of government compared to other countries; a gaping ideological divide that drives the most fanatical ideologues toward irresponsible leaders and media outlets; deep-rooted cultural fears and prejudices.

But doesn’t education overcome much of the above?  Maybe not.

Just yesterday I learned that the father of one of our daughter’s friends tested positive for the coronavirus and is now resting not so comfortably in a hospital bed.  Of course, he’s unvaccinated.  Evidently he has, or perhaps had, a strong ideological opposition to vaccines (and evidently doesn’t care about spreading the virus to others).  His daughter, at one time livid with him for being so stubborn and selfish, is now wringing her hands with worry.  I don’t know his educational background, but his daughter attended one of the best and most expensive private schools in the city, so I’m assuming this guy has a college degree, or at minimum a high-school diploma.

And I have an old schoolmate who graduated with honors from high school, attended an Ivy League university, and who works in health care, yet who consistently lampoons the president’s Chief Medical Advisor and his attempts to educate Americans with scientific data on the coronavirus.

So maybe education isn’t a match for dogmatic ideology.  Or maybe American schools these days are less about knowledge and more about job training and income earning potential.  I don’t know. Does anyone?

Speaking of cartoons, where’s Mighty Mouse when you need him?