Playing With House Money After Irma

Timing, we have been numbingly reminded, is everything. Our last-minute diversion from disaster has been well chronicled.

But in our specific case, timing also came in the form of a planned vacation that more than overlapped with Hurricane Irma’s skittishly frightening approach to the Tampa Bay area. It was eerie and anxious to watch from a distance, in this case the Pacific Northwest, about 3,000 miles away.

There’s perverse guilt in being distantly safe, and anxiety about your community and all you own–including memorabilia that you didn’t protect better. There’s also outrage about how the national broadcast media has turned nature’s might into disaster porn. From the apocalyptic-cones drumbeat to worst-case scenarios and tragic aftermaths.

“If it bleeds, it leads” morphs seamlessly into “If it scares, who cares?”

Well, my wife Laraine and I did, and we kept the oversized, hotel flat-screens off and checked in with neighbors and local Tampa-area media. And, frankly, at times such as this, we should regard Dennis Phillips, the WTSP Channel 28 (ABC) meteorologist, as a natural resource. He doesn’t hype; he goes out of his way to provide sane, nerve-calming, meteorological context. His Facebook posts should be required reading during hurricane season. “We got this one” will be his legacy–as well as Rule #7: “Stop freaking out … until I tell you to. We’re fine.”

But not even Phillips was spot on for this protean, once-in-a-century, super storm. He sounded almost apologetic before that last-minute shift back to the east that spared Tampa.

And it was up to Mayor Bob Buckhorn to wear out numerous hats. To those most in harm’s way: Be stern enough to order evacuation. It brought out that Mike Tysonesque quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Well, we’re about to get punched in the face.” To those who deserve a special circle in hell: Be intimidating enough to dissuade looters and price gougers. To everybody: hope without rationale for letting down a guard. “We are Tampa strong.”

At times like this, you can’t help envisioning the absolute worst: that long-overdue direct hit that wipes out Tampa and our daily lives as we’ve known them. Anything less than that, is a bonus. A lot less than that is, well, like playing with house money–and a new lease on an old life. One seen through a new lens of perspective. Family, friends, community, pets. That butterfly hovering around the ixora. The smell of jasmine and camellia. The manifestations of electricity. Reminders to selves to replenish the bird–and de facto squirrel–feeders. Seeing Hillsborough Bay with the right distribution of water. Taking nothing for granted, especially each other.

Our party for our neighbors is already scheduled. We’re all in this together. It’s been a collective sigh of relief. Debris has never seemed so immaterial. As Winston Churchill once noted: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

We are, indeed, #Tampa strong.

That Other Coast

A few takeaways from the aforementioned trip to the other side of the continent to visit Seattle, Vancouver, B.C. and Portland.

* All three cities have in common an odd juxtaposition: all the earmarks of hipness–from millennial workforces to meaningful mass transit to public art–contrasted with high-profile homeless communities. It was not unusual to see encampments in parks or under overpasses. Syringes came underfoot in unexpected venues.

* This bud’s for you. All three areas are more than familiar with the societal changes associated with marijuana. Pot tourism in the Northwest is faring well. Really well.

* Aromas are notable. Especially coffee, craft beer and weed. Not necessarily in that order.

* Seattle, Washington: Flying in, it’s apparent that the sports facilities for (Seahawks) football and (Mariners) baseball are urban hubs. The monorail–built, along with the Space Needle, for the 1962 World’s Fair–is still the quickest way to get from the Seattle Center to downtown. Bicyclists abound. In fact, Seattle was the first city to put its cops on bikes.

Current biggest news: What city will ultimately be chosen for the second headquarters of Seattle-based Amazon starting in 2019? Amazon says it expects to spend upward of $5 billion on a new corporate campus and house as many as 50,000 employees. Early favorites include: Denver, Austin, Chicago, Boston, New York and Toronto. No, Tampa didn’t make the speculative short list. A key requirement: accessible by mass transit.

* Vancouver, British Columbia: For a happening city, it had less downtown charm than expected. The biggest factor: a dense skyline of high-rise, residential flash cubes. Less than picture perfect at ground level. Granville Island, repurposed over the years from industrial to lifestyle, was a reminder of what Seddon Island has become. Will never understand the popularity of curling. Never.

* Portland, Oregon: Best signage of the trip: “Keep Portland Weird.” Imagine, the city’s Willamette River-crossing, $135-million Tillicum Bridge is only for light rail. Best pot ad: “Gluten-free marijuana.”  Speaking of, it’s a felony to bring your legalized marijuana purchases home with you. Your “budtender” will remind you, but only if you ask.

Yeah, we dodged that bullet too.

The Book Of Worse

In her new book, “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton underscores, and rightly so, the impact of James Comey’s last minute, campaign intervention. It was, indeed, outrageous and beyond the pale. But there is still this: For those who made Comey their game-changer, they still had to vote for the alternative. It wasn’t Mitt Romney or John Kasich or Jon Huntsman. It was still Donald Trump, arguably the most unqualified person to ever be elected president.

Clinton was an experienced, capable but frustratingly flawed candidate who ran a below-average campaign. James Comey’s interference was unconscionable. But this is still on the electorate. There weren’t enough “deplorable” haters and Trump channelers to have defeated Clinton. But too many saw a “lesser of two evils” Hobson’s choice and voted for Trump–or sat it out. Thanks, again.

Musings & More

* Ever notice the “I-love-children-but” look of anxious airline passengers as a couple with a small, crying child heads down the aisle? Have video handy.

* It still seems dated to see those double-truck, color ads for Rooms To Go that employ fetching babes in loud colors and flatter-me, spiked heels as come-hither bookends for furniture displays? These are sofas and chairs, not muscle cars and motorcycles.

* Nobody, but nobody, looks good with a nose ring.

* Among the more un-nuanced signs: “Gratuities accepted.”

* Among the best pizza ads: “90% of people prefer pizza over kale.”

Sports Shorts

* Shout outs are in order to USF and the Bucs for providing free Ray Jay admission last weekend to first responders and, in the case of the Bulls, also to high school teams and coaches. The Bucs also donated $1 million to the American Red Cross. That’s what community assets do in the time of need. They also help, frankly, with community spirit and hurricane diversion when they win. USF routed Illinois 47-23, and the Bucs beat up on the Chicago Bears 29-7.

* So, look at who’s off to a 3-0 start besides Charley Strong. Former Bulls coach Willie Taggart has his Oregon Ducks undefeated and ranked 24th in the country. USF is No. 21. The early Oregon success is being attributed to an improved defense. The defensive coordinator is Jim Leavitt. Yes, that Jim Leavitt.

* It’s been 25 years! Indeed, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have a 25th anniversary celebration next month at Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. And the locale couldn’t be more appropriate: This is literally where the franchise began playing–before moving to the “Thunder Dome,” now Tropicana Field.

* Speaking of the NHL, the league is talking expansion again–just a year after admitting the Las Vegas Golden Knights as the 31st team. The two favorites are Quebec, which had an NHL franchise until 1995, and Seattle, which would be a good fit in a Western Conference that only has 15 teams.

* One of the down sides to watching the NFL is that too often we are reminded that showboating is an integral part of the presentation. At times, it can seem as much show business as football. This was, in effect, confirmed by the NFL’s new ad campaign that promotes the entertainment value of the game. “Let the Show Begin” portrays football as the longest-running “entertainment show” on television. It’s also a way of diverting brand-bashing attention from head injuries and domestic abuse cases.


* “North Korea sees that in the 70 years that nuclear weapons have been in existence, no nuclear state has ever been invaded.”–Koh Yu Hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in South Korea.

* “There are three ways to resolve the North Korean problem. North Korea giving up their nuclear weapons voluntarily; resolving through quid-pro-quo negotiations; and taking military action. We all know the first and the last are not realistic options so negotiation is the only way. We must not forget that.”–Lee Soo Hyuk, former South Korean denuclearization negotiator.

* “The  president and Nebraska have a basic disagreement about trade. His administration holds 18th-century views of trade as a zero-sum game. I side with our farmers and ranchers who are feeding the world now.”–Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

* “(Trump) is not just a problem for the EU, but for the whole world.”–Martin Schultz, former president of the European Parliament and the Social Democratic primary opponent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

* “Philosophically, anyone who is in power should be questioned.”–“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels.

* “There has been no change in the United States’ position on the Paris agreement. As the president has made abundantly clear, the United States is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country.”–White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

* “Increased greenhouse gas emissions are fueling more extreme weather events. It’s just that simple.”–Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

* “Television is all about visual proof. You want to persuade people that what they’re seeing is real and matters to them. And if they can see me standing out there getting knocked around, it’ll convince them that they should not do the same thing.”–CBS correspondent Mark Strassman, on the rationale for on-the-scene reporters seemingly subjecting themselves to unnecessary harm during hurricane coverage.

* “I think Elizabeth (Warren) is laying the groundwork for a run. She won’t admit it, but it looks like that. Why would she be out in California if she wasn’t interested in running for president? I mean, she says she’s raising money for her re-election, but she won’t have any problems with that.”–Guy Saperstein, part owner of the Oakland Athletics and prominent member of the Democratic donor base.

*”We weren’t friends, so I assumed he wanted as much star power as he could get.”–Excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s book on why she and Bill Clinton were invited to Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding in Palm Beach.

* “I think we have a moral responsibility to help grow the economy.”–Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, on using his platform to wade into larger social issues.

* “Perfection is not attainable, but if you chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”–Vince Lombardi.

* “The job he’s done is incredible. I hope this man, right here, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate.”–Donald Trump, while in Fort Myers to observe disaster relief.

* “Democracy dies when there is no dialogue. I disagree with the president on a range of domestic and foreign policies, but I will also work with him in an effort to deliver results for Florida.”–U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando.

* “It is time for our elected leaders and voters to take an honest look at the flaws of the death penalty. I encourage our elected Florida state attorneys not to waste enormous resources in pursuit of uncertain punishment in these old cases and, instead, to seek the certainty of life in prison.”–Melba Pearson, former prosecutor and current deputy director of the ACLU of Florida.

* “Living in Florida is still far better than living in most states. With hurricanes you at least have advance warning, which is unlike disasters in most states.”–Charles Richardson, regional vice president of Coldwell Banker in Tampa.

* “We have seen no drop-off in excitement for Florida because of rising sea levels or these hurricanes.”–Lee Arnold, executive chairman of Colliers Florida.

* “Unless you lived through an event like Hurricane Andrew, you don’t understand how very fortunate we are. … It’s business as usual. We are in good shape to continue tourism here.”–Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

* “We just want our fair share. As they (Hillsborough County) develop this transportation plan, we would hope that our contribution would be represented within the plan in terms of new projects. To date, we haven’t seen any indication they’re inclined to do that.”–Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

* “The relationship between the county and the city has never been better. There are many issues that can potentially prevent a ballpark from being constructed in Tampa. I can assure you city-county relations is not one of them.”–Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

Trump’s An Issue In St. Pete

If I’m the Rick Kriseman campaign, I’m doubling down on linking Rick Baker with Donald Trump. And then hoping that the Baker campaign doesn’t wise up and change its strategy of ignoring Trump and doubling down on sewage.

And if I’m the Kriseman campaign, I’m also hoping that the loud, off-putting Baker on display on primary night stays away from anger-management classes until the November general election. If not, it would be virtually impossible to resist those “Baker Act Rick” signs and bumper stickers. Hell, that picture of Baker shrieking like some alt-right cheerleader might surface anyhow.

Normally, a blatantly partisan approach in a nonpartisan race would be blatantly inappropriate. You don’t bring national politics into play in a mayor’s race. It’s about local issues. Many in the media have pointed this out. The Tampa Bay Times, in fact, called it “cynical and flat wrong.”

The Times, as we increasingly notice, has been wrong before. And the times, as we’re also acutely aware, are anything but normal. Would that they were.

Trump is the game-changer. His long, pre-Oval Office track record speaks inelegantly for itself. He’s pathologically loathsome, a moral cretin, ethically challenged and a swaggering misogynist. We’ve also come to learn that he is largely unread, temperamentally unhinged and an existential threat, nationally and globally. What’s not to dislike?

Trump transcends all politics-as-usual tenets and precedents.

If a candidate can’t formally disassociate himself from this president–even if there’s an aberrant chunk of the electorate still channeling him–it says something about that candidate’s character. If you can’t disavow the outrageous, the unethical, the immoral and the pathological, you don’t deserve to be the mayor of St. Petersburg, a city that deserves so much better.

Rick Baker should show some character, some class and some smarts. Especially if Barack Obama gets more involved. This is still a Democratic city–one with infrastructure, inclusion, schools, Midtown and Tropicana Field scenarios to prioritize. That should be the focus of this election–once the core issue of character has been settled. If, indeed, it already hasn’t been.

“Presidential” Talk

President Donald Trump recently called on Congress to pass sweeping tax cuts. As only he can. He said so at a manufacturing company in Springfield, Mo. Details were in short supply. It wasn’t a rally crowd, so he had a script. But he’s still Trump. He eventually wanders, especially if he is detail-challenged, which is a given.

“I am fully committed to working with Congress to get this job done,” he underscored. But he couldn’t quit there. It’s not what he does. So he does what a pathological ad libber does. To wit: “And I don’t want to be disappointed by Congress, do you understand me? Do you understand? Understand? Congress. I think Congress is going to make a comeback. I hope so.”

Whatever. Mitch McConnell wasn’t moved to respond, in kind or otherwise. Maybe he’s still worrying about Elaine sharing a Trump Tower elevator with the president.

Imagine, being privy to the world’s ultimate bully pulpit and given to presenting yourself and your administration like this? Even if you were a xenophobic-racist-know-nothing, wouldn’t you (sort of) miss the eloquence and presidential demeanor of Barack Obama? I didn’t think so.

Foreign Affairs

* Were it not so frightening, it would merely be outlandish. Here was the U.S. and South Korea, upping the war-games ante by joining in live-fire, bombing exercises that simulated precision strikes against North Korea’s “core facilities.” North Korea called it a “rash act.” And here was North Korea firing off a midrange ballistic missile and conducting a nuclear test. President Donald Trump called it “very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”

More envelope pushing at the world’s nuclear trip-wire. Who backs down first? Call it “East-West Side Story.” What it would look like if the Sharks and Jets had nukes.

* The U.S. is seriously considering sanctions to pressure China and anybody else who trades with North Korea. We get that. Don’t preclude any option shy of outright war. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the continued need to search for ways to motivate the Chinese to help out more with its menacing, next-door neighbor. The next-door neighbor that is an existential threat, especially in its own neighborhood.

We know about the Chinese rationale: not wanting an officially failed state leeching millions of refugees across the border. The Chinese also don’t want to risk a unified Korea that would be a more formidable U.S. proxy. Having said that, c’mon Beijing. Do the pragmatic, expedient, common sensical and, yes, ultimately self-serving thing, by maxing out on your overwhelming economic leverage over North Korea. No winking and nodding this time, clamp down. It would also help your case against those U.S.-S.K. war games.

* We know the U.S. Navy is pursuing an inquiry into the Pacific-based 7th Fleet after two tragically-disturbing collisions and two other avoidable accidents. One likely reason for preventable incidents: an over-reliance on technology. It breeds complacency, which leads to night-time accidents in high-traffic–military and commercial–areas.

Bad Karma

A University of Tampa sociologist makes an insensitive Harvey tweet about “instant karma” and the red state of Texas. Ultimately he “resigned” after being fired. There are more questions than answers.

Can’t academic freedom accommodate the deplorably dumb? Doesn’t the first amendment make provisions for the strikingly stupid? And this wasn’t exactly yelling fire in a crowded theater or requesting a parade permit in Little Havana to honor the Castro brothers. And, frankly, can’t smart people, such as professors, master the art of think-before-send?

The UT incident is also unwelcome propaganda. It has been–and will continue to be–ammo for Republican politicians and right-wing media. In effect, “Remember that Florida professor’s disgusting take on the tragedy in Houston? Said it was karma for being a red state. He really did. That’s what a hypocritical, LIBERAL professor thought. And you know he’s not the only one.”

That’s what really hurts.