Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
Let me give you a good illustration of the difference between me and Brian McMillan, by which I mean the difference between my take-no-prisoner, cut-throat pretensions and competitive fanaticism, as opposed to Brian’s innate decency and nobility, his ability to get the job done as the editor of the Palm Coast Observer without turning every story into an F-3 tornado of catastrophes and outrage.
So here I was Wednesday morning on Amtrak’s Silver Bullet train, which was really more bb pellet than bullet considering the crawl and delays of the past 18 hours. We’d been on it since the night before, on the way to a trio of appointments with cutters and radiation gurus in New York to see how we might proceed with that little cancer of mine. My wife Cheryl found out through Facebook that some sort of emergency was happening on Belle Terre Parkway. But that’s all she could gather from the cryptic post.
Naturally I couldn’t resist. I had to get the story. We were about an hour from diving under the Hudson river and into Manhattan, where I’d lose all signal for a while, so I started calling and emailing every relevant source I knew, and luckily managed to get pictures and a narrative of the terrible events directly from the FHP investigator at the scene. I’ve always found first responders to be as heroic in what they do at such scenes as with the professionalism and courtesy they keep extending me, despite the fact that reporters at accident scenes are like Ebola virus spills in an operating room.
I get the story up about five minutes before we hit the tunnel, and of course the first thing I do after that is dial up the Palm Coast Observer to see if I beat them to it so I could high-five myself from 1,000 miles away.
And what do I see?
A column by Brian McMillan entitled “Brother from another website,” encouraging me to “keep fighting.” Here I was pretending to be the Associated Press racing UPI as if I was covering JFK’s assassination, and here was Brian, with his Raymond Carver style and Albert Schweitzer compassion, telling readers about my coming struggles, lavishing more kind words on what I do and who I am than I’ve ever seen in print or deserved. He was showing himself once again to be the moral conscience that’s always kept the Observer the more felicitous work of a literary journalist than the marketing-driven vehicle it might otherwise be without him.
Brian of course is a poet and a writer first, as opposed to the hack typist I am on my best days. What he was showing in that column is no different than what he does generously every week, searching out any glow to celebrate (as he did Cheryl and the Flagler Youth Orchestra a year ago). Where some of us plunder for news, he tills for stories. As I read his column I was mortified and not prepared right at that moment to go from reptilian reporter to a weepy character in a Nora Ephron play. But that’s what Brian managed to do to me, from his thousand miles away.
In fairness to our shared profession I was also grateful to see at the end of Brian’s column that he noted how we’d seen each other at the recent fire on Seminole Woods but hadn’t had time to do more than wave hello, as we both were in reporter mode, rushing to beat each other. So you see, it’s in the blood. Mine just happens to be more diseased than his.
So diseased that while I was hoping to take a break from my WNZF commentary this morning (where this piece first aired), I couldn’t let Brian have the last word, especially since I’d yet to respond to his very moving gesture, or even respond to countless others who have, in comments at FlaglerLive, in emails and in many other ways, rallied around me so much more than I had a right to expect. I particularly appreciated my most ardent critics’ immediate support and prayers (yes, even their prayers)–and their truly gratifying wishes that I get cured so they can always have me to scream at–proving that in the United States we know when and how to let our shared humanity give politics a rest. This is the meaning of community. There’s nothing abstract or cliche about it, though there is something uniquely American about it.
So Brian, thank you. I would never wish to respond in kind because God forbid you’d have any illness that would make such a response necessary. We can’t have both FlaglerLive and the Observer on the disabled list (not that either would be, given our staffs of hundreds). But it’s great to know that at heart Flagler County’s media, the media that matter anyway–I especially include our friends at WNZF–reflect the caring and concerns of this community with a voice we can all agree on, no matter our differences. Thank you Brian for being one hell of a voice in that mix.
Last week WNZF’s Dave Ayres invited three of us—Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, Palm Coast Observer Executive Editor Brian McMillan, and me—to talk about the year’s top 10 stories on Free For All Friday. David had initially wanted to hear my 10 predictions for the coming year. But that would have risked making a tradition of what started as a lark and quickly became an embarrassment. Last year’s predictions made it on the air but not in print (I was right about the end of affirmative action and congressional cowardice on any new gun control, wrong on the Syrian president’s downfall and Bunnell—our little Damascus—maintaining the status quo). This year’s predictions will be outsourced to the comment section, if any hackers in Bangalore are interested.
Ranking the year’s top stories is itself a tradition as old as yellow journalism. It’s no more useful—and probably less so—than any generic Cosmo list: 42 tips for the best sex ever seems to me a more practical way to warm up to New Year’s than a rehash of 10 stale news stories, though given Palm Coast’s demographics more than two tips may be asking for coronary trouble on a day of the year when half ER staffs are drunk out of their gourds and the other half are no-shows. Stale news stories and a bottle of fake champagne may be the safer bet.
Brian’s list and mine were pretty close, if not in rankings at least in substance, with the Observer’s usual tilt to brighter stories: If the Observer is more Frank Capra than Mother Jones—an angel gets its wings with every turn of the page–FlaglerLive is usually more conversant with the Russian-novel plots lurking beneath Flagler’s Thomas Kinkade façades. Few angels’ wings are as authentic as they appear.
Netts brought no list. He was there as the Dan Dierdorf of the hour—for color. He surprised us with his answer to a late-breaking question: his days as an elected official will be over come 2016. No county commission run for him. No other office. Like Dierdorf, he’s retiring for good, which is a shame because regardless of his occasionally wayward politics and allegiance to an older, mustier version of Palm Coast than we need, he remains that rarity among local politicians in whom reason, intelligence and culture manage to coexist without pretentions and despite the effects of a job naturally hostile to all three. His departure will be among the more cheerless and consequential stories of that year.
But first, the one we’re burying today.
The stories are presented in order but not because one is necessarily more important than the other. People like their lists numbered. Feel free to object, rearrange, add, delete or, more honorably—you really ought to have much better to do today—ignore.
1. The Plane Crash On Utica Path. In a year of plane crashes and weird plane mishaps in Flagler County (five in all), the Jan. 5 crash of a BE35 plane into a house at 22 Utica Path was not only the worst, but also the worst “accident” of the year by any mode of transportation in the county, killing three people aboard the plane: Pilot Michael Anders, a Spanish teacher who was celebrating his 58th birthday that day, Duane Shaw, 59, and Charisse Peoples, 42. They were flying from Fort Pierce to Kentucky when the plane developed engine trouble and fell, literally fell, barely a mile short of the runway at Flagler County Airport, into the back of Suzanne Crockett’s house. She was home. She dove out of a window and was spared. Local media went wild over Crockett’s story, much of it haloed in unquestioned praise and thanks to god. Had the three victims had a voice in the matter, they may not have agreed as enthusiastically. In April an experimental plane crashed in Lake Disston with two people aboard. They swam ashore safely. The next month a Phoenix East Aviation plane’s engine trouble forced it to land on Palm Coast Parkway. No injuries. An Embry-Riddle training plane lost a door above Palm Coast in early October. The door, which would have killed anything in its path, crashed in the cul de sac of a C-Section home near 16 College Court. Three months later, the same plane crash-landed at the Flagler County Airport because of faulty landing gear. The plane was finally grounded.
2. The Palm Coast Tornado. On Dec. 14 an EF1 tornado touched down erratically along a 1.5 mile of Palm Coast’s B, C and F Sections, demolishing seven homes and damaging almost 200, most of them lightly. Somehow, no one was killed. No one was injured. Not even a pet was reported missing. The response was immediate and impressive, especially in the immediate aftermath of the twister, when neighbor aided neighbor and Palm Coast’s firefighters went to work, taking inventory of the damage, house by house, in the darkness of that Saturday night, battling downed power lines and trees, but also battling gawkers. They got on Fire Chief Mike Beadle’s nerves enough that he asked for the area to be restricted. In subsequent days and perhaps inevitably there was a little something exploitative about the way Palm Coast turned the event into clarions of self-congratulations. The city did an excellent job, but it wasn’t faced with the sort of challenge that should have put that certainty in question. If we cannot take for granted a local government handling an emergency of that minor scale (so minor that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, did not feel compelled to react and had to correct Palm Coast’s presumptions on that count), we’re in trouble. Let’s hope it’s not recorded in city annals as Palm Coast’s Masada.
3. Murder at the Mobil Mart. On Feb. 21, Roman Rosado, a 32-year-old mother of six who was battling her ex-husband over custody and child support matters, was gunned down execution style as she worked the late shift at the Mobil Mart on State Road 100, just east of I-95. A man walked in, turned, lifted a handgun, fired several times, and walked out. A tip and assiduous investigating led Flagler County Sheriff’s detectives to arrest a drifter with a bank account called Joseph Bova in Boca Raton in mid-September. Bova was caught on surveillance video entering the store a few hours before the shooting. His clothes matched those seen worn by the assailant. His gun matched the one used in the shooting. Bova allegedly never denied that the gun was his, and that it had never left his possession. He did not confess. There is still no motive for the killing. And Bova himself is not necessarily helping his own case. His first court appearance was a puzzle. His trial, should there be one, will be no less. He is now represented by Ray Warren, a public defender. Rosado’s six children have been scattered in several different homes. The murder was a shock for its apparent randomness and cold brutality. It was one of five murders somehow connected to Flagler, which won’t look good on Jim Manfre’s balance sheet, though the spike was entirely coincidental, if not geographic, and not all of it will be on Flagler’s statistical crime sheet (St. Johns will count two of them): a few days after he became sheriff, Jim Manfre found himself in the marsh behind 16 Covington Lane home, where the decomposed body of a man was found. He’d been stabbed. He’d died in late December 2012, but the murder is recorded on 2013’s ledgers. The man was later identified as Dennie Keith Cayton, 61, who had lived at the Covington Lane home. The case is unsolved. In May, the human remains found on Flagler County’s side of Flagler Estates was identified as the murdered body of Barbara Parchem, a 67-year-old resident of St. Johns County who was apparently beaten to death. Sty. Johns County is investigating that murder. Weeks later, another body was found in Flagler Estates, on the St. Johns County side, that of Edward Mullener. It was in the trunk of a burning car, burned almost beyond recognition. In late July, a St. Johns County grand jury indicted two Palm Coast residents, Adam Boyles, 24, and Charles Danny Massey, 38, both of 6 Holly Road in Palm Coast, for Mullener’s murder: he’d been tortured and beaten on June 13 as the result of an alleged love triangle gone awry. He was found dead on June 14. The two men will be tried in St. Johns County. The same month, the evening of June 1, the bludgeoned body of Leonard Lynn, 76, was found at 26 Ryken Lane in Palm Coast. He’d been dead several days. His roommate, Erick Niemi, was subsequently arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He confessed to beating Lynn during an argument about house rules.
4. Paul Miller Is Sentenced to Life in Prison. The week-long Paul Miller trial in May for his murder of Dana Mulhall during an argument over Miller’s dogs in Flagler Beach in 2012 was Flagler County’s version of a Stand Your Ground trial, though the Stand Your Ground defense was never explicitly invoked. Miller, a self-described hillbilly from Tennessee, had enough of his neighbor Dana Mulhall complaining about Miller’s yappy dogs, so he carefully planned to shoot him, and did—five times, as Mulhall stood, then ran away, then fell, then crawled as Miller kept shooting, all on Mulhall’s side of the fence that divided the two men’s properties, a fence Mulhall never crossed, a fence Mulhall never came close to crossing, according to the prosecution and the evidence at the scene. But he’d crossed Miller’s honor, or whatever it was Miller thought had been crossed, and that warranted, in a spiteful mind the jury saw for itself when Miller testified in his defense—dooming his chances more than helping them—the murder of a man at most guilty of being flush with the excitement of a few drinks. Jury deliberations were brief. Miller, 66, will not see another day’s freedom. He is in a prison in South Florida, an unnecessary cruelty perpetrated by Florida’s indifferent prison system: Miller could have been sent to a prison closer to his family, but the Department of “Corrections” will never be accused of having a heart.
5. Janet Valentine’s Stroke and Succession: It was not the way Superintendent Janet Valentine wanted to end a distinguished career as an educator, most of it in Flagler County, the last three and a half years of it as superintendent. Just before Thanksgiving, Valentine suffered a stroke. She was incapacitated. She is recovering. But she won’t return to work. She had just put in place the mechanics of a succession. The district seemed to have in Jacob Oliva, the assistant superintendent Valentine had appointed soon after she had to take time off to nurse her daughter back to health after a terrible accident, an ideal replacement. But a few voices in the community—black voices, specifically—made noise and argued against a quick coronation. They made good points but offered lousy remedies. The school board obliged by appointing a search committee. But the committee was then promptly emasculated with the introduction of a “facilitator” who was nothing of the sort: Jerry Copeland is a brilliant strategist, a negotiator made of oak and a hard-ass when he needs to be, which makes him the perfect collective-bargaining negotiator for the board. That’s been his capacity for years, and for handsome pay ($24,600 in just five months since July). But a “facilitator” he is not. He is an enforcer: he is hired to get a specified result. And the specified result the district is looking for is its original succession plan: Jacob Oliva as superintendent. Copland’s presence on the committee—as an example of his gall, he called himself a volunteer—steered the discussion, the job description and the committee’s work in pre-determined directions, turning the committee’s actual volunteers into manipulated extras. The board could have saved everyone a lot of trouble, time and dignity by having the courage to enact the succession plan Valentine had in place, and appointing Oliva to a position most board members want him to fill, and which he has every reason to fill. But we have a way to go yet with that comedy.
6. Upheavals in Flagler Beach. Where to start with this one? It’s saying a lot when Flagler Beach can supplant Bunnell for political ribaldry, but for a time this year, it did. There was the business over drinking on the job that cost the fire chief and three firefighters their jobs after a $22,000 mercenary investigation that formalized decisions already taken. There was, in the sort of ironies fiction writers could never get away with, the appointment of Bobby Pace, a convicted drunk driver, as the chief’s interim replacement, then his removal when Pace was brought up on charges of obstruction of justice (and destruction of evidence, though that one didn’t stick), then—after another minor fiasco involving another interim—his reappointment when the charge was conveniently reduced to a deferred prosecution agreement (in other words, the State Attorney’s way of saying don’t do it again and we’ll forget it), and finally, his permanent appointment as the new fire chief—make that fire Captain, as City Manager Bruce Campbell prefers it—at the head of the most insecure but PR-savvy fire department in the county. The city commission briefly flirted with talk of consolidation with the county’s fire department, but in Flagler Beach pride of turf is thicker than logic, so the idea died. That was just one half of Campbell’s remaking of city government in his image. He also pushed out long-time Police Chief Dan Cody and appointed in his place Matt Doughney, the former Daytona Beach cop, whose only scratch in a distinguished career is hitting a deer while job-hunting years ago, in Polk County, in a department-issued vehicle. He can’t be blamed: weird things always happen in Polk County, where even deer are weirded out by the local sheriff.
7. Flagler County Goes Bonkers For Clunkers. Donald Trump wrote The Art of the Deal. Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey wrote its Flagler-language translation. Art does not appear in the title. In two big deals for ruins not worth the price paid for either, Coffey got the county commission to shell out $1.23 million for the old, 60,000 square-foot Memorial Hospital that local attorney Michael Chiumento had bought a decade ago as an investment (with partners who’d change along the way) but couldn’t unload. He found a lifeline in Coffey and a confederacy of gullibility on the commission. He and his partners walked away with their own version of a tax-funded bail-out. The originally sunshine-challenged negotiations were designed to give the sheriff’s headquarters new digs, though the sheriff was just as willing to move into the old county courthouse annex, and the final bill of the hospital’s resurrection will likely show that building the sheriff a new place on land already owned by the county would have been cheaper, more sensible and less greasy. That was one deal. The second was to the benefit of developer Mori Hosseini, who’d been wanting to unload the Plantation Bay Utility for years. He’d neglected it. It was in pieces. State regulators were on his back. He needed a bail-out. He got one from the reliable commission, which paired up with Bunnell (not because the county respects Bunnell; it doesn’t. But because Bunnell could, as a city, get cheaper loans than could the county) to fork over close to $6 million for a utility worth not much more than the sludge it is designed to process. A third deal was the unloading of a clunker: the county “gave” Bunnell the old courthouse, a building it couldn’t wait to unload because it’s been a money pit. Bunnell mistook the passing of the rotten potato for a gift, sight unseen. It may regret it, as the city will never be able to afford either fully repairing the building or maintaining it.
8. Palm Coast Gets Its City Hall. Not to be outdone yet again by the county’s debauchery at taxpayers’ expense, Palm Coast finally approved its own Little Taj Mahal—starting with a $6.9 million building in Town Center that will not include public meeting spaces or a community center, and that will use almost $6 million in general fund dollars (owed the general fund by the Town Center redevelopment district, which the city controls). It’s the same scheme, slightly scaled down, that City Manager Jim Landon has been pressuring the council to approve for three years, with its central premise a snub of voters, who would undoubtedly have rejected it had they been asked in a referendum. But Palm Coast’s spiritual sister-city isn’t Pyongyang for nothing. This time the manager had help from the Palm Coast Observer and the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, whose president—Rebecca deLorenzo—is wife to council member Jason deLorenzo, whose religion, as political director of the local homebuilders association, requires him to bow before any new construction plans anywhere. It was an effective, rapid one-two-three punch that got a unanimous vote from the council, including that of Bill McGuire, who uncharacteristically went French and chose surrender rather than continue what until then had been a Churchillian stand against a new Hotel de Ville.
9. Rise of the Three Horsemen and the End of the Martinez Era in Bunnell. Bill Baxley’s election to the Bunnell City Commission in March, and Daisy Henry’s defeat, shifted power away from Mayor Catherine Robinson and toward long-time dissenter Elbert Tucker and his more recent sometime-ally, John Rogers. The three horsemen immediately went to work remaking Bunnell in their image, not always elegantly, and at times with embarrassing sloppiness, with Manager Armando Martinez paying the price along the way. He was eventually fired (his contract wasn’t renewed) and the city administration self-purged as they quit one after the other: City Manager Sid Nowell, City Clerk Dan Davis, Finance Director Cynthia Bertha, Police Chief Jeff Hoffman, and City Attorney Lonnie Groot, who lasted only a few months before sniping over his bills, which mistook Bunnell for Palm Coast, got the better of him. In September the three horsemen hired Larry Williams as their new manager. He took his time putting his name-plate by his office door. All along the city was celebrating its centennial, capping the year with a beautiful Christmas bash that seemed to mask in fake snow the continuing conflict between the commission’s Pharisees and Sadducees. There’s another election in March, with John Rogers’s and Jenny Crain-Brady’s seats up. As Downton Abbey goes, so goes Bunnell.
10. The School Board Loses a Referendum. On June 7, a referendum asking voters to increase their property taxes modestly so the school district could make up some lost revenue from the state failed, with 57 percent of voters opposed. It was a surprise, and it wasn’t. A surprise, because voters have consistently supported the district’s supplementary taxes, and did so as recently as last summer. But it was also partly because they had so recently approved a sales surtax that they exhibited some tax fatigue this time around. It didn’t help that voters felt burdened by sharply rising utility costs in Palm Coast. Nor did it help that the school board’s strategy this time around lacked unity and projected a confused, unconvincing message overly focused on adding cops in elementary schools and too-little focused on explaining how state funding was declining. But the district also faced a mountain of lies and misinformation spread by the local tea party. Various attempts to correct the record fell short. As it turned out, the feared reduction of $1.8 million because of reduced enrollment didn’t materialize: enrollment has been stagnant, but it hasn’t fallen so much as to deny the district the $1.8 million.
Surely innumerable other stories could have made the list. The departures of Florida Hospital Flagler CEO David Otatti and Flagler Tourism Director Georgia Turner were significant losses for the county: in his brief tenure here Ottati turned the hospital into the county’s largest private employer. Turner developed the county’s niche sports events and got the local arts organizations to play together as never before. Jim Manfre’s unsettled sheriff’s office, where purges have followed purges, has been too much in the news for the wrong reasons. The relative success of the county’s economic development department has been encouraging, but the sharp decline in the county’s workforce—1,000 people in one year—is worrisome, as it is mainly the reason for the declining unemployment rate, rather than the addition of net new jobs.
On a somewhat personal note, it’s no small thing that FlaglerLive broke readership records several times this year and ended the year with its best-ever month, averaging 14,000 readers a day and logging 130,000 unique visitors for the month, placing us above several similar web-only news services in larger cities and with much wealthier financial backing, including the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the St. Louis Beacon, Oakland Local, the Voice of San Diego and the Rapidian in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has twice the population of Flagler. I’m basing my figures on the Knight Foundation’s recent study of non-profit news websites, which listed readership numbers for those sites. Compared to all those sites though, FlaglerLive’s local financial contributions from readers are much too low: that’s where you can help.
That wraps it up for this year. Just as surely as many other stories could have made the list above, innumerable other stories have been missed altogether. Nothing we can do about it now: 2013 is over, not a moment too soon. With your help, we can only hope to do better next year, on all counts. Happy New Year.
I don’t often enough speak of my fondness for the United States because it’s so easy to take this country for granted. It’s one of those things Americans do best, and an unfortunate symptom of successful assimilation in immigrants of long date. But once a year, on December 16, I light a candle to my adopted country. It’s as religious as I get the entire year, though it has nothing to do with advent or a Hanukkah abridgment. Just as Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas a couple of weeks late, my Thanksgiving falls about three weeks later than the one officially proclaimed by Macy’s and FDR. It’s the anniversary of my naturalization.
That grayish morning 27 years ago I was one among a few hundred Technicolor-skinned and Babel-tongued immigrants who jammed into an enormous hall at the Federal court for the Eastern District of New York on Cadman Plaza, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and recited the oath of citizenship. As any immigrant will tell you, it’s one of the most important days of our lives, a sort of second birthday that can sometimes have more significance than the first. We don’t choose to be born. We choose to become American, a primal choice in a land where choice is bounty and burden.
We did it all together like at one of those mass Sun Myung Moon weddings, but with a lot more certainty that this kind of marriage would last even though it was 1986, well into the era of borrowed certainties inaugurated by Ronald Reagan. America can be harsh, it can be punishing, cruel and indifferent, and it can be disturbingly violent, still a surprise for some of us who came here to escape the violence of our own native land. Most of us learn all this first-hand during our Green Card years, that probation period when the country makes us wait at least five years before we can take the oath.
But like the best of spouses, it is also forgiving, generous, surprising, and amazingly indulgent. In illness and in health, America will stand by you. It’ll bill you ruinously for the privilege, if you get sick especially. But in a land with the world’s second-highest divorce rate (after Russia, where marriage is a job like any other: you move on when you can), immigrants would have to rack up a hell of a rap sheet to be deported. Not that, false assumptions aside, the nation has to worry about immigrants: they (we) are far more law-abiding than native-born models. We also work more obsessively and contribute proportionately more to the economy than the native born, and vote in higher proportions, though that last distinction, given the majorities of political retrogrades and degenerates we’ve been enduring, isn’t to our credit.
Let’s not brag: the native born might complain about us taking that particular talent away from them. Today’s occasion is more about gratefulness. And so: the candle. It’s the same candle I’ve lit for the past 27 years, the first time taking place I think in New Jersey, of all altered states. It was a gift from Carl Joslyn, a high school friend from Jersey I now meet at Epcot once a year so we can talk about the American children we’ve fathered and the things they in turn are taking for granted. More than we ever did of course because ours was the last of the great generations and theirs is the worst since the one that brought on the Flood: illusory belief in a golden age is also an unalienable right of American citizenship, though not so much one unique to this country.
The candle is old now, the red and blue stripes on its octagonal sides fading (these colors do run). The wick takes a long time to exhume from its bed of wax, and to fire up: like its owner, it’s so much past its prime that it needs caffeinated fuel to get going. Once it does, the flame is modest, the self-assurance replaced by flickers, the greenhouse-gas emissions more Hard-Times-Dickens than Kyoto. But it still lights up, and I suspect it’ll continue to should my son keep up the tradition long after I’ve been made catnip for a crematorium’s fuller flames.
Its modesty is a useful corrective to undue bluster. I’d love the flame however it burns. I love the candle just as much the 364 other days of the year when it sits unlit on top of a shelf, a reminder that it doesn’t need a daily proclamation to validate what it stands for. It is enough to know it’s there.
We made the mistake of watching the Macy’s Day Parade from (since we couldn’t be in) Manhattan this morning, which none of us in my house had attempted since becoming old enough to know better. I’m sure the parade itself was irresistible: colossal balloons ambling down Sixth Avenue’s glass and steel canyons, floats the size of small Great Plains towns, clowns the size of childhood frights, marching bands performing in the only place in the world where marching bands actually sound good, even a few fractional Indians (from Upstate’s Oneida Indian Nation), whose claim on this day–as on this land–was once at least half theirs.
But that’s not what we were allowed to see. The mistake was CBS’s coverage, an intolerable format that reduced the actual parade to a footnote. Even by banking up time on the DVR to skip through epic commercial breaks, promos, teasers and catastrophic puns, what we saw the majority of the time were two imbecilic hosts: a pasty-faced white woman in red gloves and Alfred E. Neuman dentures and a generically dapper black guy who sounded more bleached than the pasty-faced woman. It was one of the few bits of magic that CBS managed to make those two look, sound and taste as identical as two Splenda-laced Pillsbury dough puffs, both of whose names I thankfully don’t know since I’m allergic to television news in any format.
The twins proceeded to hemorrhage over the screen with verbal Prozac at the expense of street-level scenes in one of the most remarkable displays of narcissism since Donald Trump began cluttering neighboring avenues with his phallic high-rises. We could tell that parade creations were passing by from real or imagined glimpses of color in the background, but the biggest balloons we kept seeing were the mugs of those twins, their lips flapping no less mechanically than if they’d been strung up by handlers below. When they weren’t talking over each other, the twins were interviewing one CBS TV actor after another, plugging their shows and indulging in the kind of third-rate talk-show chatter that makes sports radio sound like NPR. And when they weren’t all plugs and lithium, the twins cut to the Ed Sullivan Theater, sans Letterman, for equally discrepant performances by a properly jean-torn rock band or to a studio for culinary tips or to a Broadway stage for more corks up the publicity ass of one show or another. Janis Joplin must’ve barfed up Nixon-era heroin in her grave when her Bobby McGee was so shamelessly adulterated. Playing Janis Joplin sober and before noon is like reading St. Paul’s epistles at Lilith Fair. You just don’t do it.
And on it went while somewhere not far the rumor of a parade furled on.
The three miles of the parade route are glitter enough if we’d been allowed to see them: starting at 77th Street along Central Park West, five blocks north of the Dakota apartments (on whose sidewalk John Lennon was assassinated in 1980), then down 6th Avenue (in whose corporate towers “Imagine” is assassinated every day), all the way to 34th Street, within awing distance of the Empire State Building (the true king of Manhattan skyscrapers, now that the so-called Freedom Tower at Ground Zero has proved to be such runt of a replacement for the Twin Towers), hanging a left to Herald Square, in front of the old Macy’s. Manhattan holds more beauty and energy and meaningful history, so much of it current, in the space of a few blocks than all of Paris and Prague put together, if you care to see, if you let it speak to you. But those two drones on CBS wouldn’t allow it.
I was dreaming of a C-Span sort of parade coverage: three or four cameras, just the route, just the acts, no goddamn commentators, no commercial interruptions. Let New York be New York. By the third hour we figured out the next best thing. NBC had by far the better vantage point and the better approach. Matt Lauer’s pretentious scruff and Al Roker’s skeletal showiness aside, the hosts inflicted their mugs on us only at rare intervals and the cameras remained trained on the parade grounds’ final stop in front of Macy’s. The DVR came in handy, passing through the commercials and the odd Lauer whisker. There was little else to skip, if it’s the parade we wanted to watch. No shameless plugs, no idiotic cut-aways to plastic studios. The sun rose for the second time today.
By then too I was smelling aromas of sweet potato soup gurgling from downstairs, with hints of bacon, Cheryl’s prelude to our own Thanksgiving Day parade of good eats. Third sunrise, with more to come before dusk. For the first time in–what, ever?–we vetoed devouring a turkey for the occasion. We were in the habit of spending our Thanksgiving in Ormond Beach, at the home of good friends whose Jewish nebulas, mixed with my Arab ones, made for a perfect reenactment of the first Thanksgiving (if Woody Allen had directed it), or the pre-enactment of a Thanksgiving yet to come in that bedraggled Holy Land of ours, assuming our ancestral idiots–Arabs and Jews both—finally figure out that all the spilled blood from here to Masada and back isn’t worth a matza spread of cranberry jam.
But our friends left. They decided to reenact Mose’s years in the wilderness by mistaking Pennsylvania for a latter-day Promised Land. No Java Joint. No ocean. No Arab interludes. Just Tom Corbett. Since they’re still in their Sinai and we’re not yet over the sorrow of losing our own Promised Mom a few days ago–or the temporary loss of a daughter who self-abducted to a weird breed of Midwestern aliens for an indeterminate spell–we figured we’d skip incinerating a turkey and have Chinese and Beaujolais Nouveau instead. It’ll take us at least a couple of bottles to recover from this morning’s waterboarding at the hands of the CBS twins. Besides, we’re in the habit of reenacting Thanksgiving in one way or another on most of the remaining 364 days of the year.
After watching George Zimmerman’s murder trial in Sanford, Kathleen Parker—the former Orlando Sentinel writer and current Washington Post columnist—thinks it’s time to take the television cameras out of the courtroom again. Not print or other types of reporters like her. Just television cameras. “The excessive coverage and commentary we’ve watched in recent years may be good theater but bad for justice,” she writes, with virtually no evidence.
Cameras, she argues, change the way people behave in the courtroom—witnesses, prosecutors, the defense, even the jury, all of whom are susceptible to the way coverage permeates the media landscape and makes its way back to the courtroom one way or the other, influencing the outcome of the trial.
“There may be no way to quantitatively prove that cameras influence courtroom behavior and, possibly, a trial’s outcome. But anyone who has ever sat in front of a camera knows that it is so,” Parker writes. But there’s also no way to prove that the absence of cameras may also influence behavior, not necessarily for the better: a judge may feel less restrained to be imperious, errors or abuse of judicial conduct could be more rife, prejudice may be given freer rein. In other words, the distortions of cameras on justice are not nearly as dangerous as the distortions of masked justice. It cuts both ways. Trials are theater. They’re meant to be. Public trials are a fundamental feature of civil society.
That some trials may be more public than others doesn’t diminish the public’s right to know, which Parker nevertheless belittles: “If our concern were truly to better understand the machinations of the judicial system, as some have argued, we would record and broadcast all trial proceedings rather than only the ones that involve key elements of modern tabloid storytelling, namely sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — and race.”
There are two tangled red herrings here. The first is that “the public’s right to know” and concern to “better understand the machinations of the judicial system” are not the same. Whether people are watching the trial to better understand judicial machinations or not is irrelevant. They’re watching because they want to, for whatever reason, including judicial voyeurism: it’s not up to the court, or to alleged guardians of the court, to be gatekeepers of public proceedings. The aim is to be as open, transparent and accessible as possible. If three dozen people are allowed to attend the trial in person, by lottery, why not 3 million or 30 million by cable?
Parker’s second clause is more pointed, but not in the direction she’s aiming for. The question should be: why aren’t all trials, all court proceedings, publicly broadcast? They can be. Modern courtrooms are equipped with cameras and sound systems. Proceedings don’t have to be on CNN. They can all be webcast, through live feeds, cheaply and without intrusion. It’s likely a matter of time when they will be, but too distant a time when Parker Praetorians pretend to be protecting the justice system while seeking to hide it.
“We can debate the point until we’re all blue, but meanwhile, we can be fairly certain that the trial would not have attracted a single camera if not for the race element,” she writes. Again: so what? The race element happens to be a running fault line through American history and society. It is riveting, it is relevant. Viewers should not be condemned for being more interested in that than in the protests in Egypt, as Parker wryly condemns them. The Paul Miller murder trial—going back to his murder of Dana Mulhall in Flagler Beach last year—did not attract television cameras. The trial didn’t lack for tension as a result, or the great deal of theatricality that the prosecution put on for the jury. What difference cameras would have made seems irrelevant.
Parker is clearly annoyed at the incessant yammering of television talking heads trial day after trial day, and she has good reason to be. But the yammering of sports announcers can be just as infuriating. That’s no reason to stop coverage of sports events. Just don’t listen to the yammering. No one is forcing Parker to keep the volume up during recesses.
Her only supporting evidence for camera bans goes back to Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki’s ban of cameras during O.J. Simpson’s civil trial. That was in 1996, almost 20 years ago, when cameras were barely beginning to make their way into courtrooms, and when judges could still get away with penumbric pronouncements about creating a “neutral and detached environment,” a meaningless phrase that would not sustain the barest analysis: Platonic bubbles don’t exist, not even when judges try to control their courtrooms by excluding some media while including others. The distortions are all theirs more than the media’s. They’re presumptuous of their own power and contemptuous of public and evidence. Like Parker’s argument.
The cruelties of the self-loathing, self-pitying Clarence Thomas were on display again this week when he provided the deciding vote that had the Supreme Court managing to turn the right to remain silent against the accused, and using that silence as evidence of incrimination.
Thomas will never miss a chance to stick it to defendants. This is the justice who has no problem executing the mentally ill: he was among the three dissenters voting for such executions in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.
This is the justice who decided that prison guards at Louisiana’s Angola state prison—America’s version of the 19th century Congo under Belgian rule—kicking an inmate while he’s handcuffed and shackled, punching him in the mouth, eyes, chest and stomach while another guard held him in place, bruising his face, swelling his mouth and cracking his dental plate, all while a supervisor watched the beating and told the guards “not to have too much fun,” did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He was in a 7-2 minority on that one, joined only by Antonin Scalia, whose jurisprudence never travels far from Inquisition-vintage punishments. When the case was argued, even President George H.W. Bush and his deputy solicitor general at the time, John Roberts, now the chief justice, were on the inmate’s side. Not Thomas. Never Thomas. (Hudson v. McMillan, 1992.)
This is the justice who sounded virtually nostalgic when he joined a 7-2 majority that declared the three-drug lethal injection procedure typically used in executions neither cruel nor unusual. “The unanimous court,” he wrote, referring to an 1879 case, “had no difficulty concluding that death by firing squad did not” fall in the cruel and unusual category. So why should lethal injection? Never mind that the 1879 case involved Wallace Wilkerson, who bled for 27 minutes after the firing squad missed his heart, as witnesses and a doctor stood by in a Utah yard. Not cruel and unusual at all, at least not for fans of torture. (Baze v. Rees, 2008.)
This is the justice who had no problem providing the deciding vote—and the majority opinion, in a 5-4 case—in throwing out a $15 million award for civil rights violations in the false conviction of John Thompson, who spent 18 years on death row before his exoneration. The prosecution had intentionally failed to turn over evidence that would have exonerated him. Thomas excused the prosecution. Thompson lost his compensation (Conick v. Thompson, 2011).
So came Monday’s 5-4 vote in Salinas v. Texas.
Noah Feldman sums up Thomas’s devolution back to 1789: “Thomas’s opinion on what facts must be submitted to the jury derives from a series of opinions he has written over the past 15 years, all of which amount to a concerted historical attack on the way modern legislatures and judges handle criminal punishment. In the good old days, the English common law defined a limited set of felonies, and they all had the same punishment: death. Like the Islamic Shariah, the Jewish Halakha and many other early legal systems, the common law wasn’t so much bloodthirsty as designed to operate in an environment with little formal police enforcement. Capital punishment was counterbalanced by a low likelihood of detection — kind of like harsh sentences for insider trading.”
He concludes, along with some admiring words with Thomas’s fanatical adherence to his principles: “If criminal justice, or the rest of our constitutional system, were actually turned back 225 years or so, the results would be so unfamiliar as to seem bizarrely un-American. Originalism is valuable because it reminds us that there are certain core values that we as a people have preserved throughout our history — not because we should stop using zippers and go back to a world of buttons.”
The court has had its share of radioactive justices from Roger Taney to James McReynolds to the insufferable Felix Frankfurter. Thomas fits the tradition. He used to be the court’s most extremist justice. No longer. Samuel Alito now holds that title, though Alito uses it more cleverly, being less of a stickler for principle and more interested in positioning himself in ways that could influence the outcome of decisions. Imagine that. Thomas, looking more moderate than a colleague. Even ironies can be cruel and unusual.
This beheading takes a little scene-setting.
I was sitting outside a little while ago, enjoying this deliciously mild April afternoon with a an obscene amount of whiskey, an even more obscenely endowed cigar and a fat French novel on the endless depradations of journalism when, between the yonder sounds of an ice cream truck’s Joplin-inspired call to sprinkly cones and the nearer jabbering of degenerate mockingbirds I heard Cheryl’s voice from the upstairs bedroom window throw me a siren’s greeting. From where I was sitting I couldn’t see her, so I walked a few steps into the yard to better fill her in on my vices and talk strategy about the next few hours: we have plans a few hours from now to perhaps drop in on the Ribfest in Town Center, where we both have intentions of Christening Palm Coast’s version of boozing us citizens for the greater benefit of the city then hop over to the galleries to check out Hollingsworth’s novel art and the Art League’s spring show.
Then it happened: the death rattle. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it if we live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It’s that rapid-fire rattle of the air-conditioner’s compressor blades committing hari-kari with the sound of an invisible AK-47. It immediately sends chills down your spine at the coming hassles—the heat rising in the house, the night’s mottled skin, the hunt for an air-conditioning repairman who doesn’t relish the weekend call as an excuse to gouge, the wait, the goddamn bill. Cheryl disappeared from the widow. Spousal flirt over.
I walked over to the unit. We have two of them. It’s a two-level house. At least one of them was still humming, suggesting that all was not lost. I got nearer. Both of them were still humming. Both blades still spinning happily, unalarmed. No smoke. No strange smells, no more strange sounds. A few palm fronds surround the units. At first I thought one of them was caught in the blades and got its last rites. But they don’t hover that closely. That wasn’t it. I got nearer.
The arthritically crumpled hind leg of a miniature horror from the Jurassic was sticking out of the grille—a lizard, a frog, an iguana or who knows what. My ignorance, too, was showing its legs. The victim’s last sight and testament was attached to a body sinking inside the compressor’s sarcophagus, and disappearing in a frozen curve down the round side of the thing like a memory from a medieval dungeon. I know next to nothing about Floridian reptiles, so my next thought was itself testament not to the life just lost so much as to my ignorance, which assumed it was a lizard that, from the looks of it, had been cleanly decapitated, the death rattle having been nothing more (or nothing less, if you’re a relative of the poor creature) than the bony head of the bonehead making a tocsin of its murderer. From where I stood it looked like a clean beheading. No blood, not even time for the lizard to have a last slither. It was congealed in its last crawl on earth, mostly inside the compressor, that small bit of itself sticking out of the grille like a grave marker.
I can’t describe my relief and joy. There would be no air-conditioning emergency today. Only a requiem.
I announced the good-and-bad news to Cheryl, who had disappeared from the window faster than it takes to dial the local Palm Coast Heating & Air rep (they’ve been advertisers with us since the Cambrian era, might as well give them a plug). But it wasn’t over. There was still the matter of playing undertaker.
I grabbed a few dozen yards of paper towels in preparation for the retrieval operation. Then I remembered what any homicide investigator worth his FHP would do: I asked my son to bring me the camera. I took a few shots, for the record, for the memory, for the potential litigation. You never know with lizards, who have an entire profession named after them. Cheryl wanted to have a look, and say a few words. The Bible, however, stayed upstairs. This would be a secular sanitation job. Then I set to work.
And lo and behold, there is a god. Or at least a frog angel.
For it wasn’t a lizard at all. (See above, under ignorance). As I grabbed the deceased from its leg and pulled it back into the world of the unbladed, the body, which may have been shuddering more than I was, was no lizard but, as Cheryl was quicker to notice, a frog. And it was not decapitated. It was all there. Head, torso, arthritic limbs, eyes as wide open as a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie, though its snout bore a mark as clearly red as if it had just been consecrated with a bindi. Good thing the Bible was left upstairs: we were in Hindu-chakra territory.
The frog had merely had the experience of going mano-a-mano with Mike Tyson reincarnated as a set of blades. The sound we’d heard was nothing Howard Cosell hadn’t described in a thousand metaphors from Manilla to Kinshasa, and now, from beyond the grave, from Palm Coast. The sun was shining on this frog-prince, and shaming my earlier assumptions of a beheading, though they’re not without an absolving explanation my shrink and PTSD medicine would understand: this is April 13 after all, a date that lives in every Lebanese-born descendant of that infamous memory. It was 38 years ago today (on a radiant Sunday) that the Lebanese Civil War began its 15-year folly of sectarian bloodletting, much of it by way of memory-rattling and un-neighborly beheadings. Every year on this date I either choose to neutralize the memory by writing about it or, as I had chosen to do today, inducing myself into a mildly oblivious coma with enough drink and smoke to make an Islamist’s beard turn white. It had been working. Until the death rattle. Oh well.
I walked the stunned frog across the road, the frog’s eyes and mine locked in an embrace half grateful half resentful, and gently put the creature down by the woods of the empty lot. It would either be its almost-final resting place on the way to a fellow-creature’s feast, or its convalescent swale. Assuming, of course, that a Flagler County sheriff’s deputy with an itchy finger and a Glock didn’t drive by.
Last Updated: 9:39 p.m.
I’m inviting you to join me at an execution this evening, Florida’s fourth this year. Larry Eugene Mann, 59, is scheduled to be killed at 6 p.m. by lethal injection in the state’s death chamber at Starke prison, 75 miles northwest of Palm Coast. I’ve never been to an execution. And by going to one, I don’t mean that I’ll be a witness to it. I would refuse even if offered the dishonor, as reporters frequently are. I’ll be witnessing the vigils, the protests and the counter-protests outside the prison grounds, which take place every time there is an execution. It’s become part of the ritual of executions across the country, though neither executions nor protests (and supportive demonstrations, because those happen, too) get more than a few paragraphs’ coverage here and there, and virtually no more than a passing mention on the evening news, ahead of the weather.
After covering a recent workshop on the death penalty in Florida, I decided to join Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes, the Catholic church in Daytona Beach, and the bus-load of people he has taken to every single execution at Starke for years, to stand vigil. The bus made a stop at the Winn-Dixie shopping center near Woody’s Barbecue on State Road 100 at 3 p.m. this afternoon. I boarded it, along with Jackie Morelewicz, who organized the March workshop, and who usually stands vigil, in protest of executions, outside the Flagler County Courthouse, whenever needles ready to end a life in Starke. We’re not likely to be back in town until 9 or 10 p.m. I have no idea how the afternoon and evening will go. I will do my best to chronicle it here as it unfolds. the account will be written in reverse order: the fresher entries will appear at the top.
We were told to bring food or a snack and some drinks, because of the length of the trip. I brought a ham-and-cheese sandwich (American cheese, incidentally: the Swiss don’t execute) and a container of water. I mention these details because to me they’re no less absurd than talk of the walking dead man’s last meal: we’re going to an execution, but we’ll still get hungry and thirsty, which seems to me natural and obscene at the same time, as matter-of-factly obscene, actually, as the entirety of the rituals surrounding an execution, inside and outside the prison walls.
9:39 p.m. Time to call it a night. We’re approaching Palm Coast on I-95. We’ll be dropped off at the Winn-Dixie shopping center. We’ll reclaim our cars, drive home, have a beer, watch what degenerate TV may be worth watching with spouse and son–skipping the 11 o’clock news, as always–and eventually go to sleep like any other night. In some ways we might as well have gone to a minor league baseball game. We might as well have gone to the Lake County fair. Or to a beheading. There’s an inevitable blending of absurdities when horror and banality so easily mingle, or maybe collude–what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil in a somewhat different context that happens to apply just as well here: she argued that the Holocaust wasn’t the work of nut jobs, but of men who thought what they were doing was as normal as it was necessary. The very same principle that underlies our own machinery of death, and why Father Egitto so easily–and with so much conviction–calls it “evil.” Some people like to think they touch the face of god once in a while. We grazed the face of evil today, from quite a distance, but distances in that context are irrelevant.9:14 p.m.: On the way to Starke I had a conversation with Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach and the sort of priest who (are you listening Colleen Conklin?) makes me think twice about having revoked my one-time citizenship-in-fanatical-standing in the Catholic church. He reminds me of our own Beth Gardner (the pastor at Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church) for being more grounded in the here and now than seduced by the sort of gauzy Christian platitudes that are indistinguishable from Hallmark cards, but with saccarine halos all over them. No holier-than-thou bullshit from this Brooklyn-born, Gator-bred priest. (“I knew I wasn’t meant to be a monk,” he said at one point, explaining his spiritual evolution before the self-evident punch-line: “I’m from Brooklyn.”)
The barbarism of state-sponsored executions is his here and now. He’s been going to those vigils for seven years. It hasn’t always been in a bus as big as the one we’re riding now (at a rental cost of about $800 to a parish that is nowhere near rich: “We’re living paycheck to paycheck,” Egitto says.) But the groups have been sizable. That’s a lot of executions. Today’s was the 15th since the beginning of 2006.
“We do this because the state kills in our name,” Egitto says. “If we don’t do this then we’re complicit with evil. So we do this because we want to say to the governor, to the state, that you’re not killing in my name.” As Egitto saw it, he had two choices: he could leave Florida, or he could stay and protest. He stayed. He doesn’t call it capital punishment. He doesn’t even call it killing. “I consider it murder,” he says. And murder worse than most murders committed by the sort of people who end up on death row–more premeditated, more sober, less excusable by mental imbalance or psychosis or drugs or alcohol or misjudgment or youth or whatever else death row defendants throw at the justice system when they’re trying to get out of their sentence. When the state kills–when it murders–it is doing so with ultimate premeditation. “We are knowingly, premeditatively, planningly, willingly killing somebody,” Egitto says. And, he adds, we’re “teaching the culture that it’s all right to kill.”
A little after 9 p.m., Egitto took to the bus’ microphone and spoke of the afternoon and evening, and asked various members of the group to describe how they felt. One man spoke of anxiety ion the approach of 6 p.m., then relief after the ringing of the bell. A woman called Ellen said: “It was her first time, she didn’t know what to expect, she liked the prayer service and the ringing of the bell, and described the whole experience as “very sobering and touching, particularly the attorney.” She was referring to the inmate’s attorney, who came out to speak with the group after the execution. (See below.)
“On behalf of the people from Flagler County we want to thank you,” Jim Morelewicz said, representing the congregation from Flagler Beach. “It has been a very warm and gracious group. We are very thankful.”
I also spoke with Sean O’Dell, principal at Lourdes Academy. He’s been making the trips to Starke for seven years as well, at times with students. He described his first time, different from all other times since, because you “can’t really believe you’re really there as someone is being killed across the way.” This time, he said, he was surprised by the number of “proponents” of the death penalty, though they did not do what they had once done at a previous execution, when O’Dell had brought several students with him: the proponents cheered the moment the protesters rang the bell to signal the moment of death.
8:37 p.m.: As we ride the bus back to Flagler in the dark, we pass by a burst of lights in the myriads scintillating against the black sky like a flying-carpet casino. Someone in the bus yells out, “Hey, it’s the Lake County Fair!” There’s a faint cheer, maybe more sardonic than wistful. If not, it ought to be sardonic. None of us is quite in a fair mood. The bus–one of those gigantic things you see shuttling people to airports or around the Eiffel Tower–never slowed.8 p.m. Larry Eugene Mann was pronounced dead at 7:19 p.m. No explanation about the delay. Elisa Nelson’s family had witnesses to the execution. Mann had a choice of only two: his spiritual adviser and his attorney. He chose his attorney. He was not allowed to have family present as witnesses. Sometimes the family of the person being executed joins the protesters, to be in company of the closest thing to a supportive group they may have. In this case, there was no one, except Marie-Louise Samuels-Parker, who joined the church group shortly after Mann was pronounced dead, and after the passing of the hearse. “It was not botched,” Samuels-Parker said of the execution. And Mann had no final words. The attorney works frequently with men and women on death row (there are four women among the 406 Floridians on death row). She said she tells them of the people–like this very church group–who are working on their behalf to end the death penalty. It was a brief encounter between the attorney and the group, but also a sort of catharsis in reverse, a chance for a few people to hug the attorney and get at least a sense that the senselessness is not unanimous. 7:34 p.m.: The vans have come out, bearing the execution’s witnesses. Not yet clear if the hearse has followed. (It actually did, a white hearse, but it went in an opposite direction, toward the funeral; home.) The sun is setting immediately behind the prison. it’s what you’d call a spectacular sunset, if it weren’t for the guard tower in the way. What’s supposed to follow is a news conference, so called, though that too is part of the ironies of the day, a staged segment of the Department of Corrections’ ritual that works more to legitimize the killing that just took place than to explain it. There would be nothing to explain, at any rate. But the news conference also at times allows members of the murdered victim’s family to speak their hearts, much as they might in a sentencing hearing. This family has been waiting 32 years.
7 p.m.: There’s a white tent set up with a modest dais a couple of football fields’ length from the pro and con gatherings, where the witnesses to the execution are supposed to be taken, along with members of the victim’s (the murdered victim, not the murderer’s) family. But so far, no sign of life anywhere. We only hear the mooing of cows in the distance (there are innumerable cows lounging in packs along the fence that separates their pasture from the state prison’s grounds). Next to the white tent, just two television trucks. Sometimes there are many more, Mark Elliott, who heads Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was telling me moments ago, after remembering the time 32 years ago when the murder took place, not far from his neighborhood: he’s from Tampa. He comes to these executions every time. Has been making the three-hour trip for about 10 years or so.
“To have executions and not have anyone here,” Elliott says, “anyone bear witness, anyone protest, that’s what I would worry about the most.” But he’s not been having to worry about it. The crowds are growing, not diminishing, just as the movement to abolish the death penalty is gaining momentum, if not quite as much in Florida. “It’s our elected leaders who haven’t evolved as much as their constituents. But they will.”
6:05 p.m. After a long silence, the church group began ringing the loud, cylindrical bell, at 6 p.m., signaling the death of the inmate.
Several members of the church group rang the bell, yelling out “Not in my name” and “not in God’s name,” among other words. Then silence. Murmurs. Low chatter. The odd laughter–unrelated to any of this–from a small group of Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who have simply been assigned to these grounds and have no official interest one way or the other in the proceedings.
Then the wait: first for the van that carries out the witnesses the execution. Then for the hearse–or the coach, as they call it here–that brings out the body of the dead man.
I’m not going to say that any of this is surreal, because it’s not. There’s too much traffic–traffic of every kind: passing cars, people, voices, birds, bugs–to lend the scene anything surreal. This is common. It happens every few months here, every few days somewhere in the country. That’s what it’s been reduced to (not that it had ever been elevated into something else): a vague event a few people will pay attention to, a cause for small (very small) protests and counter-protests, for a few hours anyway, and then onto the next execution. The irony is how cheap death can be made to seem, in a system that costs the state $50 million a year.5:45 p.m. It’s a quiet scene: the opponents of capital punishments roped off in their own square of grass, the proponents squared off across the field, with a row of Florida Highway Patrol cruisers lined up between the two camps. The cruisers look superfluous. There are no intentions on either side to engage. The state prison is across the road some 300 yards away, to the west. The opponents held a brief prayer service, sang a few songs. The proponents were gathered in a circle of lawn and beach chairs, speaking with each other, wondering if there’d be any stay of execution. There wasn’t. The centerpiece of the proponents’ display is a long table covered with framed pictures of Elisa Nelson, the 10year-old girl murdered in 1980. And a vase filled with white flowers.
5:24 p.m. We arrive on the prison grounds. There’s a little excitement in the bus when the passengers eye another bus already here. Not of the same thinking: it’s a bus-full of proponents of the death penalty, bringing people from the Tampa Bay Area, where the victim of this latest murderer to be put to death was killed in 1980.
5 p.m.–We arrive in Starke, a town like any other, as unremarkable as its Kangaroo, where we stop for the first time since Palm Coast to give the two dozen people aboard the bus a chance to stretch out, buy a few snacks. I’m nagged by this memory, or odd connection: how the Poles and Germans who lived in the towns neighboring Nazi death camps would go about living their lives, watching the trains come in with their loads of human cargo, go back empty. There’s no serious comparison, except in the particular of one method: it was in Nazi death camps that lethal injection was first developed.
4 p.m.–There is virtually nothing redeeming about Larry Eugene Mann, the 59-year-old scheduled to be killed by the state of Florida, by lethal injection, at 6 this evening. Thirty-two and a half years ago–the morning of Nov. 4, 1980–Mann murdered 10-year-old Elisa Vera Nelson as she was biking to Palm Harbor Middle School, a bit late, with a note from her mother to her fifth-grade teacher to explained she’d been to the dentist that morning. She lived in a Tampa suburb.Mann, a convicted sex offender who’d raped a woman in Pascagoula, Miss., in 1973, intercepted her. He thought of raping her. That had been the reason he’d grabbed her. But he didn’t. He cut her throat. He fractured her skull with a cement-encased steel pipe that was found next to Elisa’s body. After the murder Mann went home and slashed both his wrists. The attempted suicide failed. He told police at his home that he had “done something stupid and needed help.” At the time, police presumed he was talking about the attempt on his life. It wasn’t. Four days after the suicide attempt, Mann asked his wife to get his glasses from his pick-up truck. There, his wife found the blood-soaked note Elisa’s mother had written to her teacher. Mann was arrested on Nov. 10.
He was sentenced to death three times, beginning in March 1981. The first sentence was vacated by the Florida Supreme Court, the second by a federal court. The third, in 1990, stuck. Mann’s attorney, Marie-Louise Samuels-Parker Friday sought a stay of execution from the Florida Supreme Court.
Elisa would have been 42 this year.
Imagine your child’s teacher assigning George Orwell’s 1984. The assignment is by way of an electronic book, so your child can read her copy on one of those iPads spreading through school districts like shades of gray. But there’s a catch. The teacher will know exactly how much time your child will spend with the book, whether the pages are turned, whether there’s any underlining, whether your child is actually engaging with the book. And the teacher will be able to give that study time an “engagement index” score that could be part of any assignment’s overall grade.
This isn’t an imaginary scheme from the future. It’s a technology already available on college textbooks, from a California start-up called CourseSmart, and it’s being used in nine colleges, with professors literally spying on their students’ study habits, and tallying up scores according to those habits. “It’s big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurly, dean of the school of business at Texas A&M, tells the Times in an article on that new form of e-spying today. But does the good intent override the disturbing implications of this latest intrusion in private lives?
On Sunday I wrote about the blurring of lines between home and the workplace, which enables companies to creepily assume that their employees’ speech and behavior even away from work is the employer’s to police. Individual privacy is eroding at East German speeds. Spying through e-books is another example.
Reading is one of the few truly private activities left us, depending entirely on the isolation created between book and reader, and the way the reader chooses to engage with that book: reading a page over five times, skipping five pages, underlining five lines, cursing at five others. It’s all between the reader and the book, an act that shares some of the intimacies of sex (and passion) down to its exhilarations and disappointments (a bad writer having a lot in common with a lousy lover). Reading a textbook may not rate in the same category. But it’s no less intimate. The act of reading a textbook still belongs exclusively to the reader. How you read a textbook is irrelevant. If you’re performing well in class, that’s all that should matter.
For those teachers spying on their students’ study habits, it isn’t: they’re intruding on those manners of study, and making judgments about them whatever the results. One student did very well on a test, but the teacher discovered that the book had barely been cracked. That was a problem. Why? Are teachers now going to start down-grading their students because the work they produce isn’t in line with the expectations of studying in a particular way? There are innumerable ways to read, to study, to meditate on a subject (or not). A teacher’s idea of studying has no place imposing itself on a student’s.
Worse: “Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them.” How could any data-gathering system be justified when the person being spied on is not privy to the data? The motive behind the new system explains plenty. It’s not about improving habits or good intentions. It’s about market share: “CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing,” the Times reports.
Publishers also want to use the information to craft new editions, thus further diluting the editorial integrity of a work at the expense of marketing or popular corruptions. Meanwhile teachers can further dilute their own responsibility to judge their course’s effectiveness on their own by relying on yet more stashes of outside “data,” further reducing the need to do teaching’s heavy lifting. When is the last time your child had to write a paper?
It’s policing by data—a data-driven fetish that substitutes short-cutting technology (and let’s be blunt about it: spying) for critical judgment, while hiding behind presumptions of efficiency. I wouldn’t entirely discount some advantages to the technology. Readers’ habits could better direct a teacher to hone a course’s effectiveness, make it more interesting, less easy. But good teachers can do that now, unaided. Spying on readers’ study habits is deceptive gimmickry that gives the illusion of empowering teachers (or students) while wrecking the creative isolation the reading experience depends on most to be effective.
E-readers are familiar with the spying already. They participate in it. An electronic book tracks the highlighted passages of its readers across the country, across the world, so that my electronic copy of Richard Ford’s Canada, for instance, came already polluted by the collective underlines of who knows how many readers. Not just underlines, but notes, comments, shares, too. Mine would be added to the bunch, if I let it. I don’t. At least Kindle gives you the option of turning off those intrusions, and preventing your own from going into the universe. There are few more distasteful perversions of the reading experience than to be bombarded by the impersonal underlines and reactions of a collective blurb (just as there are few more tasty pleasures in the reading experience than to share a book or a passage with someone). Just don’t butt in uninvited.
But schemes like CourseSmart are all about butting in. “There is also correlation, the students are learning, between perception and success,” the Times goes on, with perverse results: “Hillary Torres, a senior, is a good student with a low engagement index, probably because she is taking notes into a computer file not being tracked. This could be a problem; she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose local chapter is advised by Mr. Guardia [a Texas A&M teacher tracking 70 students]. “If he looks and sees, ‘Hillary is not really reading as much as I thought,’ does that give him a negative image of me?” she wondered. “His opinion really matters. Maybe I need to change my study habits.”
Catholics have a new pope, and it’s 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires–the first-ever South American pope, the first non-European pope (since Columbus, anyway, as Jim Flahrety corrected), and the first-ever pope to name himself Francis (Francis I), after St. Francis, patron saint of the poor. He is the 266th pope, and far from the first-ever to have been born closer to the 19th century than the 21st.
Finally, nevertheless, a pope we can (somewhat) believe in, though he has a very long road ahead to restore much of the church’s respectability in light of the pedophile scandal (Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, astoundingly, was among those casting votes for the new pope despite his scabrous role in protecting child-raping priests), in light of its still-enduring and discordant wealth, in light of its still-enduring and ridiculous discriminations against women, and in light of its lacking embrace of the Americas’ Catholics, north or south. All this to do in what may prove to be another abbreviated reign. The church appears incapable of getting over its fetish for doddering eminences who should be making room for leaders half their age.
This unsmiling pope has an oversize reputation for humility and popularity. He’s the sort of man who took mass transit to go to work (and held audiences with commuters on their way to work). He’s the sort of man who dispensed with the trappings of cardinals (big residences, ostentatious offices). He’s the sort of man who, after all, picks Francis for a name, the Francis of Assisi who felt more comfortable chattering with animals than human beings. The Francis of Assisi who, to the dismay of oil companies everywhere now that he’s breathing pontifical breadth (if not breath), is the patron saint of the environment. A few Greenpeace activist must right now be converting back to Catholicism. (Let’s see how long it’ll take Marco Rubio, patron saint of opportunists, to jump on the Bergoglio bandwagon and milk its Hispanic expediencies).
The announcement was still made in Latin, as it always has been, when it could more interestingly and daringly have been made in Spanish in recognition of the church’s majority language. Maybe it’s asking too much too soon. But nothing short of doing too much and quite soon can reverse the church’s decline (not just its priest shortage, but its credibility shortage). Catholicism is neither hip nor relevant, the John Paul-Benedict versions of Catholicism especially. Those versions were distinctly reactionary and hurtful to masses of people who, looking for guidance from their spiritual leaders, got idiotic lessons instead, most notably in Africa, where the John Paul-Benedict years have as much to account for over the Aids holocaust, which they did nothing to combat, as did Pius XII during the Shoah. And let’s not get into matters of contraception, homosexuality, transparency. The Vatican bank operates as if it was still 1226.
In Latin America meanwhile, the Church knows that its greatest challenge isn’t money or faith. It’s competition. Evangelicals have been piling up converts by the drove, not least because the Vatican has seemed as removed geographically as it’s been politically and spiritually. The Vatican’s inane rejection of liberation theology in the 1980s did it no favors. Rather, the rejection highlighted the desiccated institution it had become, more comfortable accommodating and exercising power, or apologizing for it, than tending to power’s victims.
Latin America has had its share. Argentina had its disproportionate share, and this pope will have to answer for some of his past, given his possibly too silent relationship with the junta of the 1970s that repressed, massacred and disappeared Argentines by the drove. The choice of Francis becomes more and more revealing, if not more potent. On the other hand, every time Brazil will boast about hosting the next World Cup, Argentina will say it has its own pope. (Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, the only time it hosted it, under the murderous gaze of junta members. It’s doubtful that the officiating was more democratic than the latest conclave in Rome.)
As for St. Francis (to whom we owe not only the talking fish, but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the first Christmas manger scene), Valerie Martin wrote a wonderful portrait for the Atlantic in August 2000. The full version is available here.