Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas at the Beach

A generous friend of ours loaned us the use of their beachfront condominium in Ormond Beach for the week of Christmas. It was a nice getaway, even though the weather was kind of stormy the first couple of days. It was a little raw to be out on the beach, but the gale-force winds attracted kite-surfers, who zipped around in the roaring waves, catching big air and possibly pneumonia.


After the cold front passed through, the weather warmed up to the high 70’s and we took to the beach, which was nearly deserted in December.


Someone brought a dog down and I watched in amazement as she raced up and down the beach at breakneck speed, the embodiment of pure joy.


After a while I got bored, so I drove down to the nearest bait shop to buy some shrimp. Outside the bait shop, I saw this:


At first I thought it was a disabled person who wanted help to get across the busy A1A, but on closer inspection, I realized it was a dummy in the wheelchair. I asked the person in the bait shop why it was there, and she just shrugged and said, “We always put him out there.” Every time I drove by the bait shop, the dummy was there, and I’m still wondering why.

I fished for awhile, but my streak of bad luck as a fisherman remains unbroken.


Eventually I took a walk on the beach, disturbing the sandpipers.


Lots of these starfish were washed up from the heavy surf of the previous few days. They get tossed onto the sand at high tide and die.


I took the liberty of deputizing myself.


On Christmas day, we drove down to Ponce Inlet and poked around in the tidepools for awhile. I noticed something moving and found this little squiggle of sand being extruded by some unseen creature buried beneath it.


There’s a long breakwater at the entrance to Ponce Inlet, and it has a walkway constructed for fishermen. We walked out onto it and noticed that 90% of the people fishing were Chinese. Most stood on the walkway, but some climbed out onto the wet, treacherous rocks for a little solitude.


The weather started to turn ominous, so we headed back, watching dolphins slip through the water on their way into the lagoon for the night.


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Two Hour Discrepancy

My wife and I have a deal: she cooks and I clean. This seems fair on the surface, but I grumble about the arrangement all the time. The reason for my discontent is that my wife and I have vastly different kitchen habits. I clean as I go, leaving very little mess. My wife cleans nothing, because that’s the deal. So when she’s finished cooking, I’m confronted by a mess that would challenge the EPA.

This arrangement has kept me out of the food-preparation business for about 24 years. It’s not that I’m a bad cook, but I don’t have a large repertoire. In my entire life, I’ve never cooked a chicken or a turkey. Yesterday my culinary skills and my marriage were put to the test.

My wife had purchased an 18.65 pound fresh (unfrozen) Butterball turkey. Because it was a fresh turkey, it wouldn’t keep in the refrigerator as long as a frozen turkey, so we decided that it should be cooked on Thursday night. This is normally a night my wife works late, so she left me in charge of cooking the bird. We weren’t going to eat it that night, just cook it. We’d use it for a variety of dishes for the next week or so. She gave me some brief instructions for making the stuffing, and a few suggestions about basting, and then she left.

I opened the package and discovered a little pamphlet provided by the Butterball company, which gave clear instructions for roasting their product. According to this timetable, the stuffed bird should take a little over four and half hours to cook in a 325-degree oven.


I washed and stuffed the carcass, closed it up with metal skewers, oiled it up with olive oil, and put it in the oven at 2:45 pm. According to the timetable, it should be done by 7:15 – 7:30.

A couple of hours later, my wife called to check on me. Swollen with pride, I told her how smoothly things had gone, and that I expected to be eating turkey by 7:30.

“That’s impossible!” she declared. “A turkey that size will take much longer to cook!”

“No,” I assured her, “the roasting timetable that came with the turkey was quite clear about it. Only about four and a half hours.”

“Get out my Good Housekeeping cookbook,” She demanded, “And look it up.” My wife’s Good Housekeeping cookbook was printed in 1955. The tattered and yellow pages are full of antique recipes that nobody has cooked since the 60’s.


I was a bit offended, and asked her, “Who would know better about cooking this turkey? Good Housekeeping, or the company that produced the turkey?”

“Look it up!” She insisted, and hung up.

I took out the cookbook, and found this roasting timetable:


There’s a TWO HOUR discrepancy between the Butterball timetable and the Good Housekeeping timetable. How is this possible? Determined to solve the mystery, I stuck a meat thermometer in the leg joint and waited.

At 7:15, I took a look. The thermometer was hovering at 160 degrees, which was far too low. Exactly two hours later, at 9:15, the thermometer read 180 degrees, which was perfect.



The turkey looks golden brown, succulent and delicious, and I’m secure in the knowledge that it’s cooked thoroughly. I feel very badly for anyone who cooked a fresh Butterball turkey for Thanksgiving according to the roasting timetable provided with the bird, because they’ll probably have diarrhea until Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pink Handcuffs

As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, my friend Norberto is a judge who presides over family court. They deal primarily with child support cases. Norberto has invited me to observe this process, so today I took him up on it.

Family court is held in a hearing chamber, rather than a courtroom. There’s no jury, no witness box. A staff of four people presides over the proceedings: Norberto, Judy (the court clerk), John (a lawyer representing the Department of Revenue) and Jerome (a silent but very imposing and heavily-armed sheriff’s deputy).

Most of the time, the proceedings are a matter of public record, although there is no viewer gallery. Sometimes a case will cover paternity, which can involve privacy issues, so admitting the public is left up to the presiding magistrate. Norberto had me sit in a chair near Jerome's desk.

On Wednesday, the court handles contempt cases. Contempt citations are automatically generated when a parent who has been ordered by the court to pay child support falls behind on payments.

One by one, the cases were called. Sometimes both parents would appear, sometimes just the father (all of the offenders were men on this particular day). They were sworn in, and then the attorney from the Department of Revenue began questioning the deadbeat dad with quiet, ruthless efficiency. It was squirm-inducing.

“How much money do you have in your pocket right now?” He asked. “How much money could you obtain if you sold all of your possessions?” “How much money could you borrow from friends or family members?” Within 30 seconds, the offender was stammering and sweating bullets.

When the attorney was finished setting the guy up, Norberto delivered the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart punch. “You realize my only option is to put you in jail for 179 days, right?” he asked. “Or, you can come up with 500 dollars by Friday and another 500 dollars by the 16th and that will keep you out of jail. Fail to make those payments, and I will put out a warrant for your arrest.” Usually, that did the trick. However, sometimes Norberto lectured the offender, piling on several layers of guilt and shame.

On two occasions, men appeared who had worn out their welcome. Norberto explained the situation and then ordered the man to stand and put his hands behind his back. Jerome reached into a drawer and pulled out a pair of pink handcuffs that he clipped on the offender’s wrists and led him out to a holding cell, wearing a look of stunned surprise. I asked Jerome why the handcuffs were pink, and he told me they had spray-painted them to ensure that the court officers in charge of the holding cell returned them.

I’m convinced that there should be a viewer’s gallery in family court. High school freshmen should be required to spend half a day observing contempt cases, to give them a little perspective on the consequences of irresponsible parenthood.

At noon, Norberto gave me a tour of the courthouse, which is a large, modern building. He showed me their “Internet-enabled courtroom,” where pretrial proceedings in the Casey Anthony murder trial will be held, and where Lisa Nowak (the lovelorn astronaut) will be tried for attempted kidnapping. Here’s the holding cell where the accused must wait for their day in court:


Here are two views of the courtroom:



The jury box is equipped with flat-screen monitors, enabling evidence to be presented to the jury without passing around papers and photos:


It was all very high-tech and efficient-looking. Norberto has invited me to tour the county jail as well, which I expect to be low-tech and depressing. I may do it anyway, because I have time on my hands, and no outstanding warrants.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oh Horny Night

In an attempt to curb spending, I’ve been sitting at home a lot lately. Joblessness sits heavy on my shoulders, making me irritable and depressed. So my wife and friends have been finding ways to get me out of the house. I don’t care what the entertainment is; as long as it’s free, I’ll go.

My friend Norberto and his wife, Jodi have been a terrific help. Jodi invited me to a touring stage presentation of The Wizard of Oz recently. Artistically, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was fascinating to see how a show like this is staged in front of live audience. I kept trying to imagine how they packed up all the elaborate sets and fit them into the single tractor-trailer we saw parked outside.

Last night, they invited me to see a concert of Christmas music performed by a 30-piece English-style brass band in a large Lutheran church. The sanctuary was dominated by this huge sculpture of Jesus, caught in the act of stomping an innocent lamb to death:


The church had enormous video screens on either side of the altar. Wireless cameras were strategically placed around the hall, controlled by some hidden media guru in the choir loft. Unfortunately, the video display was delayed by about half a second, so you would hear the cymbals crash a moment before you actually saw them crash on the screen.

But the media guru was merciful, and switched to coverage of the University of Alabama versus University of Florida football game during the intermission. This elicited cheers from the men in the audience, many of whom had been dragged there against their will.


Every instrument in the band was a brass instrument except for the percussion section. Norberto and Jodi’s son Jonathan was one of the three percussionists. The percussion section consisted of a wide variety of instruments: a drum kit, cymbals, a xylophone, a marimba, kettledrums, bells, wood blocks, and one of those Latin scratchy gourd things.


The percussionists moved in a graceful dance from one instrument to the other during the show, often disappearing completely during a musical number that didn’t require percussion (I found out later they were in a back room watching the football game). In the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” only Jonathan remained on the stage, and his only duty was to ding a triangle one time. Hey, I could do that. I wonder how much that job pays?

After the show, we went out for a late supper, the sounds of flugelhorns and Christmas cheer dancing in my head. Norberto was driving his older son’s car for reasons that can only be explained by a clinical psychologist. Unbeknownst to Norberto, the car has an alarm system, and somehow Norberto triggered it. The lights flashed and the horn blared in the restaurant parking lot: BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Nobody knew how to turn it off, and Norberto quickly became frustrated and upset. After 10 minutes of everybody shouting instructions, the alarm was finally silenced. We went inside and had a nice meal, but afterwards, Norberto set off the alarm again. I drove home, the sounds of car horns and cursing dancing in my head.