The Weekend I Flew to Florida

Posted May 26, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I haven’t been to St. Petersburg in a dozen years. I flew in while it was still light and I saw Tampa Bay through the jet plane window with it’s endless threads of bays and inlets.  Once I was on the ground I felt the humidity and smelled the teeming green life. It was about 80 degrees at 8 o’clock at night. Perfect.

If I looked out the window of my hotel room when it was light there was a thin strip of blue in the distance between the trees and the sky. That was Tampa Bay.

I was there for a conference at the Poynter Institute, just like 12 years before. I walked the mile from the hotel to the institute, and I decided that downtown St. Pete has a long ways to go before it is a place you want to be.

A park in the center of the downtown was full of drunks and down-and-outs. There’s a street called Beach Drive where the tourists go. There were new condos under construction on 4th Street. Promising, you could say.

See that blue strip above the trees? It's Tampa Bay.

See that blue strip above the trees? It’s Tampa Bay.

Some of us see Florida as being not a part of the South. We think it’s full of Cuban expatriates and transplanted New Yorkers. It’s the diverse collection of scoundrels you would find in a book by Carl Hiaasen.

But going there gives you a different feeling. It feels like the South. The races are held in a frosty separation. Tastes and attitudes look like they haven’t changed much in 40 years, and obesity is a major problem. People are friendly too. It’s not all bad, but it’s not what you think.

One night I got together with a handful of other conventioneers and we went to see the Tampa Bay Rays play the Baltimore Orioles. It was in a domed stadium! I didn’t think I’d ever see major league baseball in another domed stadium after leaving Minneapolis, home of the erstwhile Metrodome where the Twins used to play.

I have wondered why I thought the Metrodome was such a terrible place to watch baseball. Was it the odd angles and sight lines of a multi-use stadium? Was it the plastic turf? Going to the Rays’ stadium brought it home to me. It wasn’t a park.

You go to a park to watch baseball. Not a stadium or an arena. A ballpark is a grassy outdoor oasis in the city. There is nothing wrong with the dimensions of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. But it is covered with a roof and it doesn’t have real grass. You can’t see the stars at night. You can’t hear the ambient noises of the city… the car horns, the cry of a gull or the sound of planes landing at the airport. You can’t see the skyline of the city or the bridge over the bay when you sit in the upper deck.

My partners in going to the ballgame disappeared into the stadium recesses to have dinner and beer and a huge plate of nachos while I stayed to watch the game. They watched on the bar’s TV monitor to see if I’d catch a home run that went into the left-field stands. It was too far away to try.

I’m told the Rays play under a dome because rain delays would be a nightmare of scheduling and lost revenue if they played in the open. It rains a lot in Tampa Bay and when it rains it comes down hard. Too bad. And that reminds me of something.

When I was there, a story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times about a new report on global warming. It was tied to yet another report on the progress of climate change. In Florida, with its many low-lying shores, trees are falling over dead as saltwater creeps up the coast and invades freshwater marshes. But the Governor doesn’t believe in climate change.

You may think a state that is run by idiots might as well as fall into the ocean. Florida is a strange appendage to the continental U.S. Are we better off without it? Twelve years from now I’ll probably go back, so I’ll give it some thought in the meantime.

The City

Posted May 7, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I lived in Minneapolis when I visited the office of a guy who taught urban planning at the University of Minnesota. I can’t remember his name or even why I was there. But he and I were looking at a map of Minneapolis and St. Paul and surroundings. It was a huge jumble of city. There were two downtowns, surrounded by old neighborhoods that had exploded into suburbs that were pushing in all directions into the prairies and the forests.

Where do you put the castle walls in a burg like this?

In the old days the burgers and the bauers lived in different places and they were members of different classes. Now the American city has blown away the walls of the town with suburbs, backyards and the desire to devour all that space.

The city stretches over a broad place that’s built to the scale of car travel. Farms used to be outside the fortress walls but now they are inside, and they take the form of backyards and abandoned lots. What am I talking about?

We need to make this city into something worthwhile, so we need to change our economics. If capitalism is telling us what’s the best use, and if it’s driving us to ruin the land and create hectic lives with huge commutes that imagine endless supplies of energy then we’ve got to change the equation. Does the government have to control the use of land to create better cities? Maybe not. Maybe you just have to make sure it’s not subsidizing the wrong things.

When did time become money? I remember a Garrison Keillor joke about Norwegian bachelor farmers who were told they should buy modern combines because they would harvest their fields faster. But (here comes the punch line) what’s the point in that?  It just means you have to wait longer at night before you go to bed.

Our economy runs on people buying stuff to keep them entertained when they have free time. They have free time because of labor-saving devices that they also have to buy to buoy the economy. So we don’t use our own labor. We hire Mexicans to mow the lawn and clean the house. We don’t do stuff. As a result, we get fat (unless we have the gym membership) and use more and more electricity and transportation fuel. Gyms with treadmills take our money, and all it means is that life gives you no exercise and you have to wait longer before you go to bed at night.

Mission Valley used to have dairy farms. They’re gone now and shopping centers stand in their place. It’s like the poster my father-in-law has up on his wall that shows a seamless artistic progression over four frames from a village to a hellish suburban scape. It isn’t called Mission Valley but it might as well be. In San Diego, it really happened.

What if those farms were still there? People would talk about incompatible uses, figuring the city dwellers would complain about the smell of cow shit. Duncan McFetridge would say that, and he’d think cows should be in the country and people in the city, and everything is fine if we all just stay in our places. Keep the city out of the country and the country out of the city. I think he’s got it wrong.

“A City of Villages” was the name of an urban plan somebody came up with in the San Diego planning department. What happened to it? I loved that! I don’t want to live in Manhattan. I want to live in one of a bunch of villages that are assembled in just about the same place. When you want to go to the next village you take the streetcar. That may take a while, but all that means is you don’t have quite as much time to park your ass on the sofa that evening.

I was in Cairo once, visiting Randa. She was a beautiful Palestinian girl who was my girlfriend in grad school. We didn’t get married but we stayed friends, and a year or two after she went back home, she found me a Cairo hotel to stay in. I had to leave the window open, since it was July, and I got eaten by mosquitoes until I got one of those plastic electric fry pans that cook some kind of chemical wafer and the fumes keep the bugs away. What are those things called?

Anyway, I would wake at sunrise when I heard the call to prayer and the roosters crowing. A huge city and they kept roosters! Isn’t that an incompatible use?

I’ve got chickens in the back yard in San Diego and we bought three more, a little while ago, but one of them turned out to be a rooster. He was a beautiful black-and-white bird with a brilliant red crest and a high tail to match his proud head. He started crowing in the morning and I didn’t think it was too loud. My wife insisted we get rid of him to preserve relations with the neighbors but I wish he was still there. Our chicken coop would be gender diverse and the rooster would have had a good old time with all those hens to choose from. One next door neighbor, Robert, grew up on a ranch in New Mexico and he was sorry to see the rooster go. The sun comes up. The rooster crows. Seems natural.

It would be the ultimate in the local food movement. Got your farm in the backyard. Got your small-town downtown. Got your village housing. But you’re still in a city, and you still got your big-screen TV, microwave, washer & drier, home computer with Wi-Fi connection, cuisinart, coffee maker and all that shit that splices and dices and really, really works. Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa. I mean it’s the American new urban utopia. And you just take the streetcar to get to the next town. When you get home, go to bed.

Same Place. Different World.

Posted April 27, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

San Diego County is a tall place. It starts at precisely sea level then rises to 6,000 feet if you drive about an hour and a half into the county’s eastern pine forests. But I learned this week the higher elevations aren’t all pine trees. There are oaks.


Climbing on the wood spider at Palomar Mt. State Park.

California oaks with rough bark, a broad reach and little acorns that littered the ground nearly everywhere in the vicinity of our campsite. Their leaves are the size of half your thumb.

When you drive east you leave the city and its endless din of traffic. I sat on a stump the next morning on Palomar Mountain and I heard our mumbling fire, birdsong and the occasional gusts of wind in the trees. Composer John Cage believed there is no music, only sound. Don’t know about that, but he also said there is no silence. And that’s true.

When the city’s noise pollution goes away you hear the wind and the birds, sometimes the screams of predators or prey. Even in the dead of night you hear the noise of your own breathing. The stars are so bright it’s strange they don’t make a sound.

I will never get used to living in a coastal desert, and maybe that’s why the mountains are refreshing. When San Diego gets two inches of rain in the winter Mt. Palomar gets nine inches, unless it’s cold enough to snow. The green of the tree canopy and the grass of the meadows (still green in April) make it look alive.

The birds in the mountains are ones I never see by the coast. One was blue with a brown throat and became brilliant blue when I approached and it spread its wings to flee. I’ll have to look that bird up. The mule deer look stoic when they gaze at you, in still life, with their erect broad ears. They are ready to sprint and high jump.

My kids play on a fallen tree they call the wood spider. Stripped of bark by the elements, it is a white skeleton in the deep colors of the forest. Another huge fallen tree is up the path, propped for years by a live tree then it rotted and split in half, the upper half lying on the ground below.

I look up at the lower half that is now propped but prone and it looks like a human freak with many arms rotating out of its naked body.

Nature lovers want to enjoy virgin land but there is no such thing. Palomar Mountain State Park has potable water and flush toilets. We’ll come back in June and try to get campsites 26 & 27. See you then.


Rabies Scare

Posted April 14, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

It was a bug-eyed Chihuahua tied to a post outside of the Vons supermarket in Normal Heights. I thought it looked funny and I pointed it out to my 9-year-old girl who then held out her hand for the dog to sniff. The dog yapped and snapped at her, causing her to shriek. It wasn’t more than a nick, but the bite broke her skin and I immediately thought about rabies.

In my circle of acquaintances I had never known of anyone who contracted rabies or had to be treated for it. I can’t even recall seeing a news story about anyone who had died of rabies. For all I knew it was non-existent in the domestic dog population of San Diego. But I did know that if rabies takes hold inside you and you start showing symptoms, you will die.

Any chance, however slim, that my daughter had contracted a deadly disease was something I couldn’t tolerate. The coming few days came with a series of events that left me at peace with what I did but still wondering what I was up against.

I waited outside the store and confronted the dog owner when he came out. I got his phone number and his name. He claimed his dog was current on all his shots but said he couldn’t remember the name of his veterinarian.

I called him the first time and left a message. He didn’t call back. I called him again and said if he didn’t get back to me with the vet’s name I would call county animal control. Didn’t call back. The third time I told him I had called animal control, gave them his name and number and said if I saw his goddamn dog tied up outside of Vons again I’d throw it in my car and take it to the pound.

Leaving a fear-biting dog unattended outside a store is stupid, especially if you can’t prove your dog got its shots. But was I wrong to get worked up about rabies?

The night of the dog bite I was busy googling. The CDC says that wild animals accounted for 92 percent of the known rabies cases in the U.S. in 2010. Raccoons are the most common carrier of rabies nationwide. In San Diego, bats are the most likely animals to test positive. Last year there were six bats in San Diego County found to test positive for rabies. No cats. No dogs. I would later learn from animal control that there hasn’t been a known case of a rabid dog in San Diego County in 40 years.

My wife made an appointment for my daughter to see her pediatrician the day after the dog bite and I took her to the clinic. We had been waiting in the examining room for half an hour when the doc came in. She is a jovial Vietnamese lady, and upon learning my daughter had been bitten by a dog she said in sympathetic tones that the girl should be given an antibiotic.

“OK,” I said, “but I’m not that concerned about the cut being infected. I’m more concerned about her getting rabies.”

Dr. Dow seemed nonplussed. Rabies? You’re afraid she has rabies? Yeah. It’s a deadly disease you know.

Our spoken and unspoken dialogue made it clear to me that it wouldn’t have even occurred to her to treat my daughter for rabies after she was bitten by a Chihuahua. She said the last time she had treated a patient for rabies was when she saw a kid that was bitten by a raccoon.

Due to my concerns she did agree to administer rabies treatment, which turned out to be a shot in the arm and not in the stomach, which is what I’d feared. It’ll take five shots in total. I simply couldn’t see the downside of taking precautions.

I think there is a reason why the state requires you to give your dog rabies shots. I said as much to a co-worker whose wife is a veterinarian, and he gave me a puzzled look when I also told him I assumed all people who treat animals for a living are vaccinated against rabies. He said he wasn’t sure and it had never occurred to him to wonder whether his wife had been vaccinated.

Only about two people a year get rabies in the U.S. and my kid sure ain’t gonna be one of them.






Freakin’ Brain Injury

Posted April 9, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I suffered a traumatic brain injury seven years ago when I was hit by a car. It stopped a lot of traffic and made the news, so a lot of people in San Diego know about it.

Dante FBI

That’s why I was asked to host one of those walks to raise money to provide shelter and services for people with brain injuries.

So, about a week ago, I was the MC for the TBI walk. I also got a free FBI hat.

A guy came up with the hat idea after he had his TBI, and he had a table at the walk. FBI stands for Freakin’ Brain Injury. Get it?

I gave them a plug over the PA system and got a hat, and I didn’t feel too corrupted. I think they were selling for 20 bucks otherwise.



When Underclass is the Norm

Posted April 4, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I grew up in a place where people didn’t hire others to mow their lawns or cook their food or take care of their kids. Having servants was the history of the Guilded Age or the English aristocracy. Maybe some Americans had servants but only the oddball rich like the Howells on Gilligan’s Island.

But trends in the economy are making me less comfortable that America transcends class in any way. Just look at the latest job projections (below) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the top ten hiring professions, only nursing pays a decent wage. The others are a collection of low-paying service jobs that you don’t aspire to but settle for. We’re turning into a nation of wealthy people and an underclass that sees to their daily needs.

The other thing that strikes me about the list is that none of the jobs seem to require a college education. Does it make sense any more to save for your kids’ college tuition payments? College may have once guaranteed entrance into the middle class, but now college grads are competing for a dwindling number of decent paying jobs because the rest of those jobs have been outsourced. We’ve been thrown into a global economy with people who have the same training and education and are happy to make half as much.

Yesterday I took my kids to have dinner at Burger Lounge, one of those burger joints that pretend to be high-end: Grass-fed beef, choice of micro-brews, you know what I mean. And I watched the young people who were waiting tables and running the cash registers. They were good-looking kids and they seemed high-spirited. But for them… was this it? Not just a stepping-stone job to something better, but one in a series of jobs that will pay the same and require no more in the way of skills? And if the latter is the case, who’s fault is it?

Our stories of the past make heroes out of people named Roosevelt who busted trusts and turned America into a place where the rich weren’t all that rich. Lyndon Johnson talked about eliminating poverty even though the good book said the poor would always be with us.

But America has changed and we need to a write a new story. Life is a gift and material wealth isn’t everything. But it’s something, and what do we do when it’s something that looks out of reach for my kids and grandkids.




Jazz & Race & Growin’ Up White

Posted March 23, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

Great Day

Jazz stars posed for a photo called  ‘A Great Day in Harlem.’ It hangs in my bedroom.

I grew up in a place so white that Italians were people of color. Today it’s hard for me to imagine anywhere in this country quite like it. When my brother first saw a black person, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he asked her why her skin looked like that. In Grinnell, Iowa there was one black family, one Jewish family and one Mexican family in a town of 8,000.

What I knew about black people came from TV, the news media and from records.

Thing about my brother and me… we grew up in a musical family. When other kids our age listened to pop singles on the radio, we got into jazz. And we couldn’t help noticing that the greatest jazz players — nearly all of them — were black men.

I loved (still do) the excitement of jazz. The swinging rhythms and the amazing invention. Those black jazz musicians seemed like gods to me.  I was learning to play instruments and I knew how hard they were to master. Jazz artists could play with such speed and virtuosity, and not just that. They were making it up as they went along!! Somehow each note was spontaneously combusted. How did they do it?

The astounding musical improv of the jazz musicians was something I could barely even imagine. Yet I was forced to try to imagine what kind of people lived in African America, a place that I simply never saw. I knew about the history of slavery and racial bigotry and the poverty that black folks suffered over the years. But just as I wondered at the artistry of the jazz men I was puzzled by the stories of violent crime in urban black communities, the black power movement and the fights between the black and white when they started busing school kids in Boston.

What was going on? If the jazz musicians were gods were black criminals devils? The distance between them and me and the images filtered through the media made it hard to believe they could be mere human beings. Today I live in a place were black people are part of the landscape but not a part of my personal life. The barriers are lower and less visible but we have not overcome them.

My brother and I played jazz music when we were in our teens. I played drums and he played upright bass. In fact, Jim still plays bass in jazz combos where he lives in Illinois. He’s gone much further than me, being able to understand the musical invention I found so miraculous.

Years of time and miles of distance have caused my brother and me to grow apart, but we still have the common language of jazz. He sends me CD’s in the mail, like the recording I just got of sax players Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis playing live at Minton’s, wherever that is. I hadn’t heard Eddie Davis play in decades but I immediately recognized the voice of his horn. It’s quick and graceful but starts to shout when he wants to heighten the drama.

I listen to that CD on my car stereo and it takes me back to the days when I played jazz records until I wore out the grooves, hearing the amazing sounds of the black men who played it.


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