The art of noticing

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of–something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Do you suppose, that part of the constant delight of Heaven, will be the ability to be truly thankful for every thing, no matter how minuscule? Even in this life there are an enormous number of very pleasant things that happen to us throughout the day, that we accept as being nothing out of the common way, and thus do not regard: not realizing that the very fact of their being so ‘common’ is in itself a blessing of the very highest magnitude!

Meredith Allady, Letters to Julia

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

One of the most amusing things about our eight-year-old daughter is the extent to which she is a covert collector. She is the sort of kid that will make you regret not checking pockets before throwing dirty clothes into the washing machine. You never know what’s going to be in there, and sometimes it’s not inanimate.

As I wrote last year in Raising a Young Naturalist in the Deep South, our daughter spends substantially all of her free time outside. (I try to as well, but kids have more free time.) Even though we bought her a giant bearded dragon, she catches lizards and other reptiles on a daily basis. I have to remind her to turn them loose at night. On hikes, she is the first to spot armadillos from the slightest tickle of movement in the ferns or owls by the near-silent swoosh of their wings.

She commits entire volumes of nature guides to memory and can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about snakes in particular. She can tell you how fast a mamba can slither and that coral snakes and cobras are biologically related.

She’ll spend an hour sitting in the grass watching a golden orb spider build a web. Regular animal visitors have names, like Acorn, the squirrel, or Othello, the enormous black racer snake who lives in my garden. And no matter how much I scold her, she is always barefoot and usually muddy. Many days, I feel like I have given birth to Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing.

The real problem is that, for each of her adventures, she wants to bring home some sort of souvenir. Oftentimes, many souvenirs. Feathers, sea shells, pine cones, rocks, leaves from bizarre plants (to identify later in said nature guides), a spectacularly thick square of moss that just felt so delicious underfoot. One time she even brought home the complete skull of some poor animal, probably discarded from some bird of prey, which is now sitting on top of the piano. She also brought me a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest (named Maximilian).

I take walks to think through things. She takes walks to look around. She notices more out of the corner of her little eye than I see in an entire trip.

Collecting has been a habit from when she was very tiny. I almost think it is an innate trait in some people. I have it too, except for me it is books and art. As a preschooler, I bought her a beautiful pink music box that plays Für Elise (as that is her name, it was supposed to be a personal gift). I stuffed it with plastic children’s jewelry for her to dress up like a little lady. Yeah, that never happened. When I was cleaning her room later, I discovered she had chucked the jewelry and filled the music box up with the bright blue shells of robin’s eggs. That’s closer to her idea of treasure.

A lot of people complain about being forced to spend a great deal of time around little kids during this pandemic, but I genuinely love it. I have received so many messages from friends this week asking me how it is that I manage to homeschool full-time while getting anything else done, how it doesn’t drive me completely mad. I think I would have to say that the key to enjoying being around kids is to approach their antics with a sort of radical openness rather than scorn.

One of the best parts of parenthood is being able to see the world through the eyes of a child again. You start to notice things in your environment you stopped noticing a long time ago. Your native curiosity resurfaces. I have learned so much simply by pausing what I am doing and Googling whatever random question our daughter has about why something works the way it does. I realize that for many other parents the thousand inane questions children ask are annoying. But magic happens when you stop being arbitrarily perturbed and start trying to answer them. When you start treating curiosity as if it is something important and worthy of becoming a daily priority. That’s one of the big things you need to do to model being a lifelong learner for a child.

But it’s a posture that will enrich your own life too.

I have a habit of walking outside late at night to let the dog out and listen to the ocean. Sometimes this is an almost religious experience, like when the full Moon or a storm out at sea brings loud, violent waves to the shore and floods the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s like listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with an unrelenting cascade of percussion amplified by the cool night air.

My favorite thing these days is to look for the animals that have taken to sleeping on our front porch. There’s this bird who likes to tuck up into the corner of one of the pillars every night. She showed up one evening after a line of violent thunderstorms passed through the area, and now I guess our porch is her home. I put out a birdhouse that a previous avian tenant used to build a nest in last year (the nest is still in the birdhouse, in fact). Perhaps the new bird will find it comfortable.

There is also a pair of lizards that have taken to returning every night to sleep on this one rogue branch of the mandevilla I have climbing a trellis around the porch entrance. They’ve been showing up for over a month now. I had no idea that reptiles could be so loyal. The branch looks ridiculous sticking out from the rest of the plant, but I don’t want to slip it back into the trellis because then where would the lizards sleep? (They are kind of difficult to get a picture of at night.)

Much like how Saint John Henry Newman praised knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I think you need prolonged exposure to the ways of a child to value observation for observation’s sake. Adults are in such a hurry all the time, with their minds not present all the time. A kid will train you how to sit down and wait for something small but interesting to happen.

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

In Florida, border control was more important than shutting down the economy

Florida is a destination state. Because the state has beautiful weather year-round and reaches down into the international crossroads of the Caribbean, you have people here from all around the world all the time.

When I mentioned to someone recently that the coronavirus is unlikely to spread as aggressively in Florida because of the heat here, a friend replied “Well, I just don’t see that based on the numbers.” Actually, it is very much reflected in the data.

Looking at aggregate numbers (as the corporate media idiotically encourages people to do) doesn’t tell you much of anything about how the illness spreads and why.

In Florida, three things contribute to the spread of the coronavirus: (1) travel, (2) direct contact with people who have traveled, and (3) a large population of elderly who live in gross long-term care facilities in places like West Palm Beach and Orlando.

In fact, I would say state and local governments’ poor regulation of long-term care facilities – which spread an incredible amount of illness during normal days, because you have economic untouchables caring for acutely medically vulnerable people – is one of the biggest contributors to the death toll that no one seemingly cares about. Rather than shutting down a $21 trillion economy, the government could have made a large dent in the health care burden by socializing long-term care facilities and ensuring that caretakers adhere to best practices. But they chose a short-term response with immense cost over a long-term solution that would create a permanent public burden. That’s what happens when you elect policymakers with incredibly short time horizons.

But back to travel. Florida currently has 11,111 coronavirus cases. It’s too early to tell, but it already looks like this number is starting to level off. It certainly is not growing exponentially, or at anywhere near the pace of the projections the bad models governments have been using. That effect cannot be due to DeSantis’ shutdown, which has only been in effect for 48 hours. More likely, it is due to the decision to close of the state to travel from coronavirus hotspots, which really came too late for reasonable people. This means the shutdown, which will likely cost Florida a million jobs, is totally unnecessary.

Think about that for a second. We currently have 191 deaths and 1,386 hospitalizations. But unemployment is going to go into double-digits over that.

Of those 11,111 cases, 10,760 were residents of Florida. While the state does not have data on around 7,000 of the cases, 1,020 cases were directly related to travel and 667 cases were related to travel and contact with a confirmed case. There are more cases related to travel than any other identified source.

Just from seeing what has happened in our community, I am sure most of this derives from a sudden influx of people (mostly Boomers, not “Spring Breakers”) who flew to Florida from up north when coronavirus lockdowns went into effect there. Much like how the Italians locking down Lombardy caused an immediate diaspora of infected people to the rest of the country.

The second complicating factor is population density. Looking at the number of infections by zip code tells you the virus is hardly spreading evenly around the state. Most of the epidemic is centered on Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which are two of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the country, thanks to being physically sandwiched between the Everglades and the ocean. They are pretty much the only cities in Florida that are not characterized by urban sprawl.

You have many counties in Florida that still have zero cases or cases in the low single digits. The virus is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on their population at all, but DeSantis destroyed their local economies just the same. They don’t have overwhelmed hospitals – in fact, DeSantis’ health care policies risk putting their regional hospitals out of business, which might dramatically reduce residents’ access to health care in the long run – but they will have a generation of blight and massive job losses just the same.

Are they pissed with DeSantis? You bet. And they should be. He has downright ruined their lives over nothing because he can’t tell the difference between Miami and Ocala. That’s the worst abuse of power possible in this country.

DeSantis’ response is typical of the lack of attention to detail that has characterized the response to the coronavirus across the country, however. There has been a scramble to do anything rather than anything intelligent.

Here is a table of all of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country. You will notice that they are the coronavirus hotspots right now.

Even among the most densely populated areas, there are important sources of differentiation. Los Angeles, which has more single-family residential homes and more people who own a car, has not had the drastic experience of New York City and its (still densely populated and still mostly vertical) surrounding areas. New York’s dependence on high-rise living and its subway system are the reasons something like pneumonia can downright break the city. The people there like a lifestyle that is fundamentally not healthy or sustainable.

The more you encourage people to live on top of each other and share physical resources, the more you introduce fragility into the system. This isn’t just true for illness either. It’s true for terrorism. It’s true for environmental health. It’s true for any force that can knock out a bunch of people in one blow. And it’s totally unnecessary in an era of technology.

But you shouldn’t penalize people who choose not to live in urban areas for the problems of urban areas, which is what Trump’s coronavirus team and governors have done. Someone in a rural area should not arbitrarily lose their job because of Miami’s party culture and snowbirds.

This is also one of the problems of having such an intellectually dishonest media machine. As the coronavirus has overwhelmed specific zip codes where the nexus of population density and a large fraction of potentially vulnerable people occurs, the media became obsessed with the outliers and wishing harm on people who are culturally other to them. And thus they rabidly push bad policy ideas. They have bullied policymakers into objectively destructive behavior that has economic consequences that are getting increasingly difficult to wrap one’s head around.

Rage over unemployment might turn Florida blue

I do not think Trump and state and local policymakers fully understand what they have done to American households financially by extending this shutdown for at least a month. I certainly do not think they appreciate the very powerful rage Americans feel about it. Maybe after unemployment claims surge beyond 20 million cumulatively (possibly by next week) they will get a clue.

To say I am disappointed in GOP strategy lately doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Seeing things play out on the ground in Florida, I suspect Trump is taking a meaningful hit to his popularity, even in wildly conservative districts (like the one I live in). This shutdown is likely going to end in Trump losing his new home state of Florida in November, which mathematically means he’ll likely lose the entire election and be a one-term president.

It may very well bring an end to DeSantis’ political career too. He only won the state by something like 34,000 votes in the first place – and he was running against a relatively young Democratic Socialist who was being investigated for bribery and who was just found in a Miami hotel with a male escort and three bags of meth. DeSantis needed to build colossal goodwill as governor, and until March, I thought he had done exactly that. Maybe he can reverse that, but who knows?

As predicted, when DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order, employers rapidly started laying off employees. So many people have been laid off or furloughed in Florida that the system for filing unemployment claims has crashed and cannot be resurrected. Staffers have started accepting paper applications via snail mail because it is taking weeks to get someone on the phone.

Unemployment claims are a very big deal in Florida. Former Governor Rick Scott (now Senator Rick Scott) created an unemployment system that was quite deliberately designed to fail and punishes people who are suddenly out of work. He had no interest in establishing a website functionally capable of processing even a modest number of claims. When discouraged people gave up on filing claims, it artificially made his negative data seem small. It’s sort of like manipulating coronavirus testing to make infections seem less widespread. People only see what policymakers want them to see.

Florida also has one of the lowest levels of unemployment support in the nation, providing a maximum of $275 a week in assistance. I am a die-hard fiscal conservative, and I will still concede that is scandalous. Although DeSantis paired his order with a 45-day ban on evictions, it’s not difficult to see how the state’s most vulnerable populations are screwed, even with the enhanced assistance from the federal government. Florida is not an inexpensive place to live!

In February, Florida had 9 million people in the workforce and a 2.8% unemployment rate. Nearly 400,000 Floridians filed unemployment claims in the past two weeks – before DeSantis’ shutdown even went into effect – and there’s no way to quantify the number of people who have been attempting to file claims but failed because Scott trashed the system. Most of these claims are related to the closure of restaurants, bars, and resorts across the state. The next wave of unemployment will not be centered only on tourism.

A landslide of new claims is indeed coming, as everything but non-essential businesses have been ordered to close. Disney announced yesterday that it was furloughing all non-union staff. Many white-collar workers are starting to get laid off.

Even hospitals across the state have started furloughing doctors and staff. Yes – hospitals, during a health care crisis. Sarasota Memorial Hospital, which currently has a couple dozen people hospitalized for the coronavirus, cut staff after hospital revenues fell by $16 million. This revenue loss was mostly due to Governor DeSantis suspending all elective procedures. Surgeries fell by 50% at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and the number of inpatients fell by 30%.

From what I gather, that is the story of most hospitals across the country right now. They have no new procedures booked as they have all been ordered to standby and wait for some projected surge tied to the pandemic. People are posting pictures of mostly empty hospitals all over social media. If the surge in cases does not materialize at the levels projected, state and local governments have likely destabilized their health care systems financially going forward. These dire projections about coronavirus infections are definitely high-stakes policy matters.

When a workforce of 9 million decreases by 1 million jobs, which is quite plausible at this point, everyone is going to notice. And it’s probably not going to stop there. I think Trump and DeSantis are underestimating how long it is going to take to recover from the destruction of demand that entails.

From Politico:

“This is horrible for people. I don’t want to minimize that,” one DeSantis adviser told POLITICO. “But if we have to look past the crisis, it’s bad for the president and it’s bad for the governor.”

“Everyone we talk to in that office when we ask them what happened tells us, ‘the system was designed to fail,’” the adviser said. “That’s not a problem when unemployment is 2.8 percent, but it’s a problem now. And no system we have can handle 25,000 people a day.”

State auditors have routinely chronicled shortcomings with the CONNECT system, most recently in a report issued in March 2019, two months after DeSantis took office.

Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline did not directly address complaints about the CONNECT system. But he said Scott acted to ensure the state helped only those “who truly needed the assistance.”

“His goal was to make sure every Floridian who wanted a job could get one, and turned the program into a re-employment system so people could find employment,” Hartline said in an email. “As governor, he made investments to ensure the system worked and Florida’s unemployment insurance program is funded at record levels thanks to reforms under Governor Scott, meaning more Florida families can receive the help they need.”

Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who as a Republican governor led Florida through the last downturn, said the state’s current economic catastrophe could doom Trump in the state the president needs if he wants to win reelection.

“If unemployment continues to go up, and if so many people stay unemployed, it’s a nightmare for the president in this state,” Crist said. “I should know. When I was governor and I was running for the Senate in the Great Recession — and there was nothing great about it — it was a nightmare.”

An adviser to Marco Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign didn’t argue.

“We’ve got unemployed, pissed-off people. They can’t get benefits. And when they get them, it’s not going to be enough,” he said. “They’re there for the taking by the Democrats. We killed Charlie with the bad economy in 2010. Democrats are gonna repay the favor.”

From The Ledger – Florida jobless claims rise, as does anger among unemployed:

Unemployment claims in Florida continued surging Thursday — as did frustrations among the newly jobless who have struggled for weeks to file for financial relief amidst the coronavirus outbreak that has crippled the state’s economy and sidelined much of its workforce….

Among many of Florida’s unemployed, staying home is a given. Jay Mendez got laid off from his accounting firm three weeks ago and also lost his part-time restaurant gig. He wakes to an alarm every morning reminding him to call the unemployment office as he hopes this time to successfully file his claim — some days he’s had 100 unsuccessful attempts.

“There’s no getting through, and to this day I still haven’t gotten through,” he said. Now without work, he said, “I have nothing else to do.”

He could cover this month’s $1,450 rent for his one-bedroom apartment, but he said not much else.

“No one wants to use their savings for these things,” said Mendez 32….

Lisa Wright, a 56-year-old newly unemployed software development consultant from Fort Lauderdale, deferred car and mortgage payments and charged her health care premium on her credit card.

“I’m trying to conserve my cash, because I don’t know how long this is going to be,” she said.

She has been unable to file her unemployment claim, she said, because she’s been locked out of the state’s website and can’t get help.

“This should be so simple,” she said. Phone lines have mostly been busy. When she does get through, the call eventually disconnects before she gets help.

“No one can get the benefits if we can’t get through,” she said.

Eaglet update

While the human environment is growing progressively more insane, life is marching on as usual in the bald eagle nest in our neighborhood. The eaglets are getting their feathers and soon will be learning how to fly! They kind of look like grumpy vultures at the moment, but they will be majestic in no time.

Difficult to believe they only hatched in mid-February.

Alligator mating calls – nature's alarm clock

I’m sure mostly everyone these days feels like they’ve wandered into The Twilight Zone. But it’s business-as-usual in the animal world.

The noise from our personal plague of crickets is finally starting to die down, as we’ve recovered a lot of them and fed them to a most obliging Henry. I enjoyed the first real night of sleep I’ve had in weeks.

Well, at least I was enjoying it, until we were woken up at 5 o’clock in the morning by a pair of horny dinosaurs. Yep, it’s alligator mating season across the Deep South, and particularly in the hedge along the water by our house. I’m so glad I started a blog so I can look back and remember how truly bizarre these days were.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard alligator mating calls before, but they will simultaneously freak you out and amuse you. Alligators spend most of the year lurking about the swamps in stealthy silence. They can sit quietly at the bottom of a pond for hours at a time. But when they are feeling amorous, they are louder than a Latin American soap opera.

This man was almost governor of Florida

From the Miami Herald:

Andrew Gillum, who in 2018 came within 34,000 votes of becoming Florida’s governor, was discovered by police at a South Beach hotel early Friday morning in a room with bags of possible crystal meth and in the company of a man who appeared to have overdosed on drugs, according to a Miami Beach police report.

Police say they were called to the Mondrian South Beach early Friday morning and found paramedics treating Travis Dyson, a 30-year-old Miami man, for an apparent heart attack. They say two other men were in the room: Aldo Mejias and Gillum.

Police say Gillum, who was not arrested, was too intoxicated to answer questions. An offense incident report says that officers found three clear plastic baggies of suspected crystal meth on the bed and floor….

According to police, Mejias told officers that he gave his credit card information to Dyson to rent the room and planned to meet him Friday evening. When he went to the room after 11 p.m., Mejias said he found Dyson and Gillum “under the influence of an unknown substance.”

Mejias, 56, said Dyson opened the door to Room 1107 to let him in and then collapsed on the bed. He said Dyson was having trouble breathing, so he woke him up. Dyson then vomited and collapsed again, so Mejias said he performed chest compressions on Dyson and called paramedics.

Mejias told police he saw Gillum, 40, vomit in the bathroom.

Police say Dyson was taken to Mount Sinai Medical Center in stable condition. They returned to check on Gillum, who was allowed to return home “without incident.”

No arrests were made and none are expected, said Miami Beach Police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez. He said police impounded the drugs.

“We responded as a medical call,” he said. “Though there were narcotics in plain view, no one was in physical possession of those narcotics.”

Asked if police typically don’t make arrests when small amounts of drugs are found, the spokesman said it depends on the situation.

“Officers are not going to make an arrest every time they go into a house and drugs are found. Every situation is different,” he said.

Before the incident, Gillum spent the week lecturing Republicans about the coronavirus on social media and as a paid contributor on CNN. On the plus side, Gillum can now be known for something besides taking bribes.

Thank God for Ron DeSantis, who tolerated endless smears from the left during that election cycle, and is now the most popular governor in the United States. Hopefully, DeSantis will be president someday.

A day on the water, part two

Distracted by oysters. This is in one of the canals in our town – our second place to put in, after Princess Place Preserve. It is surprising how many oyster beds there are in the estuaries here. We learned the hard way not to get out in the shallows, as one place was mud waist-deep (mixed with oyster shells). I am not kidding. You could lose a little kid in there. But we managed and found a better spot to launch.

Florida graffiti.