Warming Up to the Sunshine State
It really is possible to change your attitudes, even in … Well, let's say late middle age. Case in point: Florida. Which is to say, me and Florida. (That should probably be "I and Florida." To borrow Dr Johnson's remark on free will, however: All reason is against it, all experience for it.)
I admit it, I've been a Floridaphobe. The first time I came here, in 1975, it was on a business trip to Miami. Miami was hot and muggy — in April. The mugg was all mixed up with traffic fumes in an acrid miasma you could have canned and sold to suicide-prevention teams as discouragement to anyone tempted to bail out via the auto exhaust/hosepipe technique. Our liaison for the business we were doing was fat, stupid, and wore double-knit — a fabric that had already, even at that date, been pushed out to the socio-sartorial fringe territories inhabited by timeshare salesmen and unsuccessful preachers. The business thing fell through — his fault, or his suit's.
Twelve years later I took my new wife to Disneyworld. She wanted to go and I wanted to please her. (She was a new wife.) The only thing I knew about Disneyworld was Space Mountain, which I thought might be neat. Space Mountain was out of service. We had a fender-bender in our rented car — my fault this time, from living too long in Manhattan and forgetting how to drive. We visited Epcot Center, for a full account of which at that era I refer you to P.J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell.
Fifteen years further on, I was tooling around the Gulf States and thought I'd like to see the Redneck Riviera, so I drove to Pensacola. Blessed time has erased any memory of the place except that of a dead, dried-out dragonfly the size of a crow in a neglected corner of one of my motel's bare concrete walkways.
So Florida wasn't my cup of tea, which didn't matter much as I can't afford to retire and don't care for alligators. Then I started getting paperwork for this year's National Review Caribbean cruise, which sails from Fort Lauderdale.
Now, I'd had a longstanding offer of hospitality from an e-friend in Orlando. This was a pure e-friendship: I had never met the guy. On a whim I e-mailed him, suggesting a brief visit pre-cruise. His house was our house, he e-assured us, so we flew down three days before cruise date to spend time in central Florida.
I should give up flying. I have ear trouble, and on this occasion was recovering from a cold. I called on our family doctor pre-flight. He recommended an over-the-counter decongestant. That's what doctors do nowadays, recommend stuff from the shelves at Walgreen's. I don't blame our doctor; he's a nice guy and very professional. It's the damned accursed lawyers, of course.
Here is how things go, or went, in a time and place not plagued by the filthy lawyers and their hired shills in Congress. Nearly forty years ago I was in precisely the same circumstances. I had to take a plane from Hong Kong to Bangkok, but was recovering from a cold. I went to a Chinese doctor in Yaumatei the day before my flight. He asked what time my plane left. I told him midday. "Drop in on your way to the airport," he said. I did. He gave me a shot that left my mucous membranes drier than the sands of the Kalahari and opened my eustacian tubes to a width you could have planted turnips in. I had the most comfortable flight of my life, no ear trouble at all. The shot — I made a point of asking — was atropine. I know nothing about atropine other than the blessing it conferred on me that day; but I feel certain that any family doctor in the U.S.A. of 2011 who gave his patient a shot of atropine without a notarized, triple-sealed personal waiver from the head of the FDA would be barred from medical practice for life.
The decongestant did nothing of course, so I arrived with a humming plugged-up ear to add to my low expectations. Things got better the first morning, though. Our host — may his tribe increase! — plucked huge ripe grapefruit from a tree in his yard and squeezed juice for us. Then, keen for us to know something of the locale, he drove us to the Morse Museum to see their Tiffany collection. I had only the sketchiest knowledge of Louis Comfort Tiffany and his work, which I associated very vaguely with pre-WW1 decadence — Klimt, Stravinsky, the Georgian poets. My eyes were opened: decadent or not, there is some beautiful stuff there, and by no means just lamps.
The next day we were driven across the state to the Salvador Dalí museum in St. Petersburg. Here I was on more familiar ground; I'd passed through an adolescent infatuation with Dalí, as imaginative kids of my generation did. St. Petersburg doesn't have his most famous pictures, but it was fun to renew the acquaintance, and to be reassured that my teenage impression of him as a craftsman of great skill was not misplaced. Mrs. Derbyshire ventured the opinion that the drooping timepieces, melting violins, and so on must have signified sexual impotence. I suppose that may be so, but the old showman certainly adored his wife — she seemed to be in almost every picture. Funny stuff, human nature.
Thence to the Chihuly collection at the Morean Arts Center down the road. Like Tiffany, Dale Chihuly works in glass, but this is the bumptious early 21st century, not the tired early 20th. Stars of the show were huge ten-foot hanging creations made of hundreds of glass snakes or spikes wired to a central support. "Chandeliers," they are listed as, but this is false advertising, as you could no way get inside one of those things to replace a light bulb. They are artfully lit from outside. If that's a chandelier, the Moon is a star. The Chihuly collection has a kind of kitschy vigor I like, or at any rate don't mind, but Tiffany it ain't.
Saturday morning our friend, the prefix now long gone, drove us down past Florida's Empty Quarter to Fort Lauderdale and the cruise ship. We parted from him in real warmth, expressing our gratitude as best we could, having tasted fresh-squeezed juice from fresh-plucked grapefruit, learned things about American art we didn't know before, and raised our opinion of Florida a couple of hundred points.
And now we are at sea. I'm no fan of the Caribbean, which seems to me, behind the thin tourist frontages, a bit of a slum. ("Bed-Stuy with donkeys," opines a New York acquaintance.) I do like cruising, though: the continuous eating and drinking, being fussed over by stewards, sitting on the cabin veranda watching the sea go by. The National Review readers are good company: an older red-state demographic mostly, with the correspondingly exquisite manners, wry humor, and easily-ignited indignation at the pit of cowardice and corruption our national government has become.
Things aren't perfect, mind. I still have ear trouble, and the ship's doctor is as helpless as ours back home — though she did, for her hundred-dollar fee, suggest a different brand of over-the-counter decongestant. The shipboard internet service sucks, and half the sites on my Google Reader roll bring up the message THIS WEBSENSE CATEGORY IS FILTERED: RACISM AND HATE. (Am I really that politically incorrect? And why only half? Why AmRen but not Stuff Black People Don't Like? What is Websense, and why doesn't it have any damn sense?)
Still, an e-friend has become a friend, Florida has become a place worth going to, November in the Caribbean is balmy, and, who knows? Perhaps on one of the lesser islands, out of U.S. jurisdiction, I can find a doctor who'll give me an atropine shot. Life is good: better, at least, in all probability, than the other thing.