Monthly Archives: July 2014

Your Next Adventure: The Monastery of San Francisco, Lima, Peru

Tales from a crypt

Tales from a crypt

This is one of the most eminently explorable monasteries in the world.

It protects one of the largest and most important rare book collections. It boasts several masterworks from the studio of Francisco de Zurbaran. Diego de la Puente’s guinea-pig themed “Last Supper” headlines in the Baroque multimillion dollar dining hall–where the vow-of-poverty Franciscan friars once gathered to eat.

But almost all of its visitors are really there to see the half-millennia-old crypts a dozen feet below.

But they make you visit the monastery and convent first.

The Monastery of San Francisco, Lima, Peru

The Monastery of San Francisco, Lima, Peru

Exploration is supervised by one of the monastery’s many educated, enthusiastic, multilingual, and mandatory guides. The first forty-five minutes of the tour is an education in matters of Peruvian art, architecture, and seventeenth century friar culture.

The “Last Supper” depicts a tanned Jesus and his disciples eating local indigenous cuisine. This is because the missionaries wanted Christ to seem relatable to the Peruvian natives. When that didn’t work, the Church instigated an aggressive recruitment campaign–The Inquisition.

In the cloisters, artistic renderings recount Saint Francis of Assis’s ambitious trip to Egypt to propose a peaceful resolution to the Crusades–if the Sultan would only convert! Then there is a valiant but failed attempt to inspire care about Baroque wood-sculpting while misidentifying Saints decorating the Choir.

Library

Since I was not allowed to take a picture of the library, this picture is, um, borrowed from http://www.beautiful-libraries.com which borrowed it from http://www.flikr.com which was uploaded by someone also not allowed to take a picture of the library.

Upstairs, after passing under a Moorish-style Nicaraguan-cedar cupola, is a collection of more than 25,000 delicate tomes–including the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy. They must not be photographed, touched, or be subject to the wrong type of light, thereby preserving these unobserved treasures for future generations not to photograph, touch, or expose to the wrong type of light. (Actually, professors are allowed to examine the books under strict protocols and supervision. Permission should be requested far in advance.)

Then you come to a chilled and darkened arch.

(Well, you come to it after you double-back downstairs, cross a wondrous and verdant courtyard, and duck below some cloisters.)

The closest you'll get to the Temple of Doom.

The closest you’ll get to the Temple of Doom.

Cold cobblestone steps descend deep beneath the monastery to the labyrinthine and claustrophobic catacombs of Saint Francis. According to enthusiastic docents, the craniums, clavicles, femurs, tibias, and tarsals of 70,000 nobles, clergy, and victims of the 1656 great Lima earthquake decorate the walls, fissures, ossuaries, pits, and floors of what was Lima’s first cemetery.

Other sources assert a more humbling number of 25,000 very permanent inhabitants.

Whatever the number, it is a near-endless parade of quicktime-doused skeletal remains positioned in sundry geometric patterns.

Legend claims that somewhere in this dreary bony abyss, is a network of secret passages to the Cathedral located at the Plaza de Armas–which hosted the Tribunal of the Inquisition.

If you tip your guide a dollar he wont notice if you venture in alone.

Logistics

The Monastery is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5:45 PM and admission is about $2. It is located only two blocks from the Lima Plaza de Armas and Peru’s Presidential Palace. The excellent, enthusiastic, and museum-required guides are friendly and multilingual. Tipping is not required but you know what to do if you want the prohibited, yet obligatory, photograph of the catacombs.

Also, and this is very important, bring your own toilet paper. I choose not to offer any further guidance on why I make special mention of this.

The monastery’s official website can be found here.

For more information about motifs in seventeenth century Baroque woodcarving, visit here.

Recommendations for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit and Broward County Judicial Bench

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The article below was posted prior to the primary elections held on August 26, 2014. Only two of Broward’s judicial elections require a runoff on November 4, 2014. Those two judicial races are Group 16 of the 17th Judicial Circuit and Group 27 of the Broward County Judicial Bench.

For Group 16, I recommend Rhoda Sokoloff for the reasons stated originally (my comments remain available below) when I very narrowly decided to recommend one of her former opponents.

For Group 27, I continue to recommend  Ian J. Richards for the reasons stated originally which are also still available below.

First, there are no poor candidates in this election field.

There are no kooks, crooks, clearly-unqualifieds, or those suspected of corruption. (Though there is one incumbent in the news, and that is discussed below.) Each candidate evidences excellence, appears sincere, and has demonstrated varying levels of community commitment.

My recommendations lean toward candidates with a high volume of court experience, previous judicial experience (meaning incumbency), and whose public service has demonstrated a compassionate heart, attention to detail, and who evidence the capacity to transcend prejudice and heuristic through treating people and cases as unique and individual. I believe that these attributes optimally maximize the potential for consistent, albeit always imperfect, fairness.

When determining the varying levels of these qualities in each candidate I reviewed news reports, both traditional and social, solicited colleagues’ anecdotes, and, when available, I reviewed the candidate’s websites.

I did not consider the political affiliation of any candidate. 

Campaigning in Leon County during 2012 early voting

Campaigning in Leon County during 2012 early voting

I also chose not to review their success at fundraising and, unless all other factors were equal, I ignored consideration as to ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. If all other factors were equal, I sided with choices that empower representatives of historically disenfranchised communities–this is intended to further the public interest of having a judiciary as diverse as the society it judges.

These are my recommendations followed by a brief analysis of why I recommend them:

17th Circuit Judges

Group 8: Lynn Rosenthal*

Group 16: Andrea Ruth Gundersen

Group 17: Julie Shapiro Harris

Group 27: Steven Brian Feren*

Broward County Judges

Group 18: Ellen A. Feld*

Group 27: Ian J. Richards*

*Denotes that the recommended candidate is also the incumbent.

Analysis of 17th Circuit Judicial Candidates:

Group 8:

After a vigilant commenter pointed out a factual inaccuracy in my previous analysis of this race, I decided to reevaluate my opinion.

It was not a pleasant experience.

I had hoped to avoid reading countless exaggerations and hyperboles, at times rank with racism, but always publicly deadening to the sensibilities of our falters at ethical democracy. There were wildly misleading mailers to consider, a legally miscaptioned website with a candidate directly soliciting funds, unsubstantiated gossip questioning the military service of a candidate by people who don’t seem to have served, and sanctimonious quips posted anonymously–one actually under the moniker “Jesus Christ.”

I have distilled the blogs, newspaper reviews, websites, and the commentaries of my colleagues into this: I continue to recommend Lynn Rosenthal because I believe her 27 years as an Assistant United States Attorney evidences an extremely trenchant knowledge of the law. Although some who have practiced before her perceive a, presumably unconscious, preference for prosecutorial argumentation, she also solicits (or claims to solicit) lawyer criticism so she can do better. She volunteers with her synagogue, has an even temperament, and offers a consistently pleasant affect toward others. Her opponent’s eleven years of legal experience, even supplemented with four years military experience and a supernal record of community commitment, is, while excellent, simply not equal to a jurist with thirty-five years legal experience. Even one who made a public mistake recently.

For many this is going to be a difficult vote. Earlier this year, Judge Rosenthal crashed into a parked Sheriff’s cruiser in the courthouse parking lot. A breathalyzer detected zero alcohol and she declined the privilege of urine and blood tests. She noted that she took an Ambien the night before. At first, the connection between the two events seems untenable. (Particularly when there was Xanax found in the car.) But, according to her defense, her doctor botched the prescription and accidentally gave her double the recommended dose. A verifiable side effect of this–well, you’re kind of partly asleep but totally unable to realize it. In other words, its not like getting into a car when you know you shouldn’t because you feel buzzed.

It may not be a compelling defense, but it is plausible.

Ultimately, she pled no-contest to reckless driving, and was sentenced to three months of probation, restitution, and 25 hours of community service. This appears to be an isolated incident, with a plausible explanation, and it would probably be good public policy to make sure our judges know what it’s like to briefly be in a cell and forced to pick up trash in a fashionable orange jumpsuit. Perhaps this learning experience will make her more sympathetic to others’ explanations for their own, ahem, unusual behavior.

Frantz ‘Jahra’ McLawrence is a tremendously compassionate advocate who spent four years in the U.S. Navy. He is a graduate of FAMU and UF and volunteers his time as a youth mentor at Broward schools, Legal Aid and the Urban League. In addition to his practice of criminal defense (both private and public) he gives lectures and seminars to churches and schools. His diligent hard work truly makes the community a better place. When he unsuccessfully ran for judge last time, he was endorsed by the Sun Sentinel.

Attacks to his resume are, in my opinion, factually inaccurate.

You can visit his campaign website here.

But Judge Rosenthal has also been an outstanding public advocate–and she has been doing it much longer. Therefore I do not recommend Mr. McLawrence in this specific election–but I’d be happy to someday help him run for City Commission or the Florida Legislature. He is a valuable member of the Broward legal community.

I continue to recommend Judge Rosenthal.

You can visit her campaign website here.

Group 16: Andrea Ruth Gundersen

There are four candidates in this race, and two of them, Andrea Ruth Gundersen and Rhoda Sokoloff, seem to each display extraordinary community commitment. Ms. Gundersen helped organize the Broward Veterans’ Court, a model which I and many others currently advocate for in Leon County. (Others advocate for it throughout the country.) Ms. Sokoloff, meanwhile, is on the vanguard of law and mental health. Ms. Gundersen has countless endorsements and Ms. Sokoloff has an incredible back-story which might convince Gottfried Leibniz that we do not, in fact, live in the best of all possible worlds.

I did not take into account Ms. Sokoloff’s personal financial situation, as I think the inexcusably advanced cynical argument that it potentially makes her susceptible to bribery is both offensive and unsubstantiated. It is a not-so-subtle suggestion that the poor are unfit for office. Of the lawyers I know who should be judges, only a very few are also millionaires. Some of the most celebrated lawyers I know will never get out of debt.

Nevertheless, in this close decision, I recommend Ms. Gundersen. She offers a similar compassionate temperament and her reputation as a family lawyer is more consistent in its receipt of very high marks.

I will note some potential for bias here. Under the leadership of mental-health legal legend Dan Hendrickson, I was the Civil Law Coordinator for the 2013 North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down, and my attempts to get a specialty veterans’ docket established in Leon County were premised on some of Ms. Gundersen’s work in Broward County.  I have, however, never met her (I think).          

Group 17: Julie Shapiro Harris

Law is Julie Shapiro Harris’s second career. She began her professional life as an FSU-trained MSW and spent years as a social worker. It is therefore not surprising that she has dedicated herself to public service. For the past decade she has been a staff attorney for the Broward Clerk of the Court where she coordinates domestic violence petitions from people asking the Court for protection orders. She has a great eloquence of understanding about her: “You learn to respect everyone. Just as every person is an individual, every case is unique. They may seem similar, have similar factual backgrounds, but the individuals and cases are unique.”

Yes, that is the stuff from which great judges are made.

Her opponent is 36-years-old, a graduate of Cornell, and was top of her class at the University of Miami College of Law. Her family is well known and respected. After working as a prosecutor for several years she switched to private practice in 2011. According to news reports, she says that her experience with forty trials makes her more qualified.

I disagree.

I was unable to identify any tremendous public service or extracurricular activity outside of her, albeit highly praised, legal life. Ms. Harris’s wealth of world experience, in addition to a legal career which spans an additional 8 years beyond that of her opponent, as evidenced through her carefully deliberate diction, make her, in my opinion, the better candidate in this particular race.

Though clearly her opponent has a very promising political future.  

You can read more about the race here.

Group 27: Steven Brian Feren*

Judge Feren is a former Florida House Member and has spent ten years as the Mayor of Sunrise. He has practiced law with distinction since 1980. His first six-year-term has been without controversy, though he was once removed from a case because he improperly explained the range of criminal problems a juvenile defendant faced. (It seems that he was just trying to help a kid understand his situation.) He has an excellent reputation in the legal community, has received a slew of endorsements, and does not deserve to lose his job.

His challenger has been a prosecutor at the state and federal level and defended people both between and after. His campaign strategy has been a bit odd–citing the three DUI arrests of Broward judges this year, he says he will bring integrity back to the Broward Bench. However, Judge Feren was not one of the accused judges, and the opponent wrote the book “Feeling the Heat” where he explains that he himself was an abuser of alcohol–though he wasn’t an “alcoholic.” He does say some tremendously beautiful things about defending the indefensible–but I’m not sure how that meshes with him running around the country for years as a federal obscenity prosecutor.

You may buy his book here.

I recommend Judge Feren be reelected.

Analysis of Broward County Judicial Candidates:

Group 18: Ellen A. Feld*

Judge Feld has not merely been a good judge, she has been a transcendent one. When the foreclosure fairy comes she tries to create pathways where the resident stays in their home. A former Special Public Defender, she is respected by her colleagues. There is open speculation that she is being opposed by aggrieved supporters of the incumbent she unseated six years ago.

Her opponent is a former postal worker who has practiced before each of Florida’s twenty circuit courts and five district courts of appeal.

You can read his solicitation for contributions, which casually notes that it is directed to the supporters of her previous election’s opponent, here.

I recommend Judge Feld be reelected.

Group 27: Ian J. Richards*

I guess there can’t be a bailiff in every courtroom. In 2009, when a domestic abuser lunged to attack his ex-girlfriend in open court, Judge Richards leaped over his bench and physically protected her! He was first elected six years ago at the remarkably young age of thirty-three. He walked door to door for votes, largely avoiding endorsement processes and candidate forums (which would have probably called unwanted attention to his age), and was accused of running a “stealth” campaign–which he and pretty much everyone else would refer to as “grassroots.”

Of his two opponents, one has been practicing law since 2006 and the other cites his licensure to appear in federal court as a rather enigmatically relevant qualification over the incumbent.

If you love a fighter, I recommend Judge Richards be reelected. Though if he had a more cynical campaign manager, there would probably be the names of five other women on the ballot.

What are your recommendations?  Please share in the comment section below.

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A Brief Note about the Florida Democratic Party’s Primary for Attorney General:

If you are undecided in the Florida Democratic Party’s Primary for Attorney General, please consider voting for George Sheldon.

I don’t have a single negative comment about his opponent, but George’s experience is transcendent. His problem solving skills and ability to create consensus have been repeatedly demonstrated during his service in senior posts at the state and national level, working under both Republicans and Democrats. He has dedicated his entire public service career to advancing the cause of human rights (by breaking up human trafficking rings), protecting the defenseless (particularly abused children), and uplifting the oppressed (by reducing the error-rates in welfare and food stamp distribution).

He spent a career working for previous attorney generals, ultimately becoming chief deputy (for central Florida) to beloved Bob Butterworth. When the Department of Children and Families was in shambles–then Governor Charlie Crist tasked him with fixing it. He has also served as a senior official in the Obama administration. Prior to serving in the executive branch, George spent 8 years in the Florida House of Representatives.

You can learn more about this extraordinary human being here.

You can compare George’s record with his, also qualified, opponent’s here. 

Your Next Adventure: Cassadaga, Florida

Meet on the corner of Spiritualist and Mediumship.

Meet on the corner of Spiritualist and Mediumship.

I question the veracity of anyone’s aspiration to be a “world traveler” if they don’t want to come to Florida.

Sunshine State, music and lyrics by Grant Peeples

  •  Yes, you might get shot.
  • Governor Rick Scott might abduct you to his home planet of Obfuscation.
  • Jury verdicts are deliberated with cocaine and coin tosses.
  • A Black Bear might hide in the trunk of your car while an alligator lurks in the hotel pool.

But you’ll have stories to tell!

A sub-tropical peninsula, about half of Florida’s cities have names with the words “beach,” “bay,” “harbor,” “gulf,” or “shore” in them. In keeping with this nautical theme, most other cities incorporate “lake,” “creek,” or “springs.” In the Panhandle almost everything is either named in honor of the Native Americans or the bloodlust murderers who perpetrated their genocide–usually an explorer, a U.S. President, or a territorial Governor.

Florida hosts the party paradises of Miami (stick to the beaches and Coral Gables), Fort Lauderdale, (there’s no “fort.”) and Hollywood (not the real one). You can take your children to an alcohol-themed amusement park in Tampa, know that your infant will behave in Orlando (even she knows you’ll get away with it), or watch successions of high speed collisions in Daytona Beach. For something really out of this world, arrive in Cape Canaveral at show time and watch us blast something into Outer-freaking-space! Finally, you can retire with the Seinfelds in Boca Raton, or if you do not wish to live in the mouth of a mouse, West Palm Beach.

Now that I have that out of my system, this is not about any of those places.

The "haunted" Cassadaga hotel.  It's not just the best hotel in town, it's the only hotel in town.

The “haunted” Cassadaga hotel. It’s not just the best hotel in town, it’s the only hotel in town.

With all the crazy wondrous weirdness Florida destinations have to offer, Cassadaga (Seneca for “water beneath the rocks”) distinguishes itself as an entirely unique animal.

The woods fill with mist and fog at night.

The woods fill with mist and fog at night.

Founded in 1894 in the backwoods of central Florida by George Colby (on orders he received from a Native American spirit) Cassadaga is a community of self-professed psychics, mediums, spiritualists, gurus, and practicing witches. Set amid dense forests, a waterless lake, sink holes, and swamps, the small gothic town seems fresh from the imagination of M. Night Shyamalan. Cassadaga boasts a post office, a “Spiritualist Camp” which accredits psychics and healers (I suppose so the public doesn’t confuse them with the real kooks), a new-age bookstore/tour office, a temple with a Santa Fe motif, complete with a séance room, and one haunted hotel with a bar, restaurant, and, um-hum, “unaccredited” psychics. There is not actually a cemetery within the community, but there is a very rewarding one just ten minutes walk away, surrounded by dirt roads, and an overgrowth hiding scores of abandoned and dilapidated houses. The Sirens of Trespass tantalize with unsupervised access for the mischievous youthful miscreant.

Cassadaga Spiritual Temple

Cassadaga Spiritual Temple

I first heard about this place from my twelfth grade Literature teacher who completed her Masters’ thesis on the community. She described being abruptly confronted by a coven of witches performing an impromptu ritual, nearly sinking in quicksand while exploring near-leafless forests, and all manner of other spooky detail which fuel the imaginations of wanderlust adolescents.

I knew I had to go.

It was nearly eight years later before an expedition was organized. A reunion of college friends gathered for a horror-themed weekend in Orlando. Centered around Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights (also something you must do before you die), the weekend was infused with midnight slasher gore-film fests, vampire-themed debauchery at Goth clubs–and an overcast afternoon in Cassadaga. A few months later I returned with two friends for further exploration of the outskirts, to engage in midnight mischief in the woods, and so we could overnight in the “haunted” hotel.

The Nightmare on Elm Street houses of Cassadaga

The Nightmare on Elm Street houses of Cassadaga

An open mind ceases to be a virtue when it is so open your brain falls out.

After decades of reasonably serious research, science concludes that pretty much everything Cassadaga stands for is nonsense–and I agree. The dousing rod and Ojai board indicator move due to the “ideomotor effect.” The distorted words we sometimes divine out of static recordings are susceptible to priming and originate in our own pattern-seeking brains. It’s why we occasionally see the virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich.   If there is a range of 20 equally likely options, a psychic will get it right one in twenty times–if we want to believe that our lost lover is communicating with us, we will lovingly remember the hits and forgivingly forget the misses.

It is not that some are confined to using a smaller amount of their brain, it is that the brain is so powerful we can will-into-existence even that which manifestly does not. Armed with a full understanding of this principle, there is great fun to be had if you chose to briefly ignore it.

The tour of the temple includes a psychic healer offering complementary "karma massages" which involve you sitting in a chair for ten minutes, contemplating how much you're expected to tip, while he massages the air around your neck and back without actually touching you.

The tour of the temple includes a psychic healer offering complementary “karma massages” which involve you sitting in a chair for ten minutes, contemplating how much you’re expected to tip, while he massages the air around your neck and back without actually touching you.

My friends and I therefore came to Cassadaga with a positive attitude. We knew it was quackery, but we were determined to be willful fools–or at least entertained by the unapologetic neon garishness of it all. Cassadaga did not disappoint.

wholesome, almost too wholesome

wholesome, almost too wholesome

We enjoyed street crossings like “Spiritualist Street” and “Mediumship Way.” Each house had that wholesome architecture which invites a sinister connotation–almost as if it is “too wholesome.” We were seized with the fervent confidence that, if we lingered long enough, a clown or Jake Gyllenhaal’s favorite rabbit would make an appearance.

But eventually they expect you to buy something.

We booked a three o’clock “Encounter the Spirits” Tour for $10 at the bookstore/tourist office/college of clairvoyance. Expectations for the bookstore were high: we had all agreed to chip-in for a Necronomicon, preferably bound in the skin of an infant. But there was none of that–no witches’ brew cook books, compendium of verified voodoo curses, guides advocating material success through human and animal sacrifice, or even a pamphlet of spells to cast upon disrespectful online commenters.

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Perhaps we could be accused of being uneducated as to the ways of Wicca or spiritualism generally. Certainly our thoughts were insensitive. But I refuse to be rebuked as “ignorant” by hawkers of dreamcatchers, crystal skulls, and charlatanic books like “Hypnotizing Yourself to a Cancer-free Life,” “Real Survivors: True Tales of Life After Alien Abduction,” and “An Astrological Approach to Leadership & Decisionmaking.” There is, after all, only so much hypocrisy even an attorney representing politicians and political parties can tolerate.

This is the bit where I’m expected to temper my cynicism with some unsubstantiated silliness that new-ageism and spiritualism can be largely positive or at least harmless.

It is not always harmless.

When writing about Cassadaga, a community of self-described witches, psychics, and mediums, a creepy cemetery shot is obligatory.

When writing about Cassadaga, a community of self-described witches, psychics, and mediums, a creepy cemetery shot is obligatory.

Conjuring to parents that they will see their missing daughter alive again is not a benevolent offer of hope. It is one person telling another what they want to hear, accepting payment for it, and knowing that their prey will be too destroyed by grief to seek refund or retribution when the body is found near a lake a week later.

Explaining to a distraught daughter that her deceased doting mother wants her to quit her unfulfilling  job is not giving someone a push toward happiness, it is an arrogant, inexpert, uninformed, appeal to a misrepresented absent authority. It is screwing with someone’s life.   The narcissistic “it’s their decision” defense unapologetically eschews any responsibility from having been the supplier of the bad information trustingly relied upon to the detriment of their victim.

Its a wonderful place for an afternoon amble.

Its a wonderful place for an afternoon amble.

The worst: Those who encourage the rejection of science and medicine. Appending the word “medicine” to the word “alternative” is nothing but obscene nomenclature nonsense–like appending the word “science” to creation. The only valid “medicine” is that which has successfully survived the scrutiny of the scientific method and peer review. While science has verified occasional benefits from certain unconventional “cures,” only those so verified should be advertised as “medicine.” As long as a licensed medical professional agrees, adding extra powders or tea leaves or whatever is probably not hurtful, but beware of the nihilist who tells you to exclusively use ancient Chinese approaches to guard against heart disease. Psychic dolphins cannot help deliver your baby and stones and the laying on of hands will not cure cancer; if a patient is lucky, Chemo might keep it under control, albeit accompanied with painful suffering.

After lunch and the tour your inner-vandal might enjoy a trip to the outskirts where you will find a cemetery, a labyrinth of dirt roads, and sufficient abandoned and accessible properties that could have wildly changed the plot of "Breaking Bad."

After lunch and the tour your inner-vandal might enjoy a trip to the outskirts where you will find a cemetery, a labyrinth of dirt roads, and sufficient abandoned and accessible properties that could have wildly changed the plot of “Breaking Bad.”

Of course, the vast majority of adherents to spirituality or new-ageism or Wicca or whatever non-traditional belief system, are not predators who plunder the scarce financial and emotional resources of the vulnerable.

Most are people of the most delightful and outward-thinking kind. They tend to be curious and accepting of diversity in a confused world filled with prejudice and abject hatred. They tend to incite charitable car washes rather than violence. They tend to be highly educated, well-traveled, and tranquil to themselves and those who wish them harm. They recycle even when nobody is monitoring them. They knock on doors and show up for political events. They seem to think they can contribute positively to the world and, usually, they do. For most believers, it is a pleasant distraction from an often very unpleasant reality.

I therefore do not risk their ire by criticizing how they divine meaning into an existence that seems to have occurred without the human condition as a major concern.

And the essential oils do smell nice. They just don’t really cure your cold.

The “Encounter the Spirits” tour did not tackle such needlessly grand philosophical statements.

The inside of the temple, decorated for Christmas as the congregants believe that Jesus was an important educator.

The inside of the temple, decorated for Christmas as the congregants believe that Jesus was an important educator.

Our guide was very serene and sincere and we were politely unquestioning. We took pictures at the house window where a dead solider appears every Christmas. We listened gravely to deeply implausible stories. The policies of the camp were discussed. We were all encouraged to get in-touch with our own psychic abilities.

The tour of the temple includes a psychic healer offering complementary “karma massages” which involve you sitting in a chair for ten minutes, contemplating how much you’re expected to tip, while he massages the air around your neck and back without actually touching you.

the séance room

the séance room

Then there is the séance room. It is lit with two distant red bulbs and is decidedly minimalist with one small round table and a few 1970’s era office chairs. The guide explains that their technical term is “spiritualist mediumship development classes” (what a discouraging title for a horror movie) and that the table only jumps and levitates if it’s pitch black and nobody can see what their medium’s knees are up to (as you must hold hands or you will invite demons into the domain of the living by breaking the circle–obviously).

The tour ends at Spirit Lake–which is empty of water. Mysterious?

There is also a night “Orb” tour where you are encouraged to take rapid-fire pictures of darkness in the hopes that dust particles or distant lights can be distorted and confused into ghoulish entities.

Can you find the dust and lights, er, I mean orbs?

Can you find the dust and lights, er, I mean orbs?

Then comes the dangerous “do you have any questions?”

Never ask someone who pretends to communicate with the dead in exchange for money about why they became a medium.

The story never begins with “I experienced no violence as a child and was living a happy, productive, and fulfilling life.”

The adjacent area is filled with abandoned houses, apparently used as transitional dwellings for squatting addicts.

The adjacent area is filled with abandoned houses, apparently used as transitional dwellings for squatting addicts.

It’s more like listening to an origins story from someone ten years sober after getting drunk and driving over their toddler. The ones who knowingly rip you off, who don’t believe for one moment that they have special powers–those are the easier stories because they are just your ordinary lost common garden variety criminal. The ones who are so damaged that they need to believe that they are special solely through having magical powers–those are the true horror stories. Not the stuff of Hollywood pitch-sessions, but of parole board transcripts and mental-competency hearings. They are sadnesses written by Voltaire and their suspension of disbelief is all that saves their tortured souls from a totally broken and unlivable reality.

And for some its just because their career in hairdressing didn’t work out.

It appears to have been renamed a few times in subsequent years.

It appears to have been renamed a few times in subsequent years.

Don’t leave town without dining at the Hotel Cassadaga’s Lost in Time Cafe. First, the prices are dirt cheap. Second, its all comfort food. Third, its the only bar in town. (Though there is a very friendly pub ten minutes walk away, where after it closes, the bartender invites the last-call folks to his backyard and the party continues until the police arrive–blaring music and non-permitted bonfires are involved.) Fourth, the bathroom–in a very kitsch, pleasant way–is something out of a Rob Zombie movie.

You are never far from the sensation that you are unwanted there. The waitress is trying to warn you with something cryptic on a napkin but somehow you miss it. You know that a man wearing someone else’s face is going to get your buddy as he goes to the car for his wallet. It’s wonderful!

Only slightly distracting are the countless flyers and cards advertising personal psychic sessions, medium séances, and opportunities, starting at $65 for thirty minutes, to communicate with your dead pet. “Sigh.”

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After lunch and the tour your inner-vandal might enjoy a trip to the outskirts where you will find a cemetery, a labyrinth of dirt roads, and sufficient abandoned and accessible properties that could have wildly changed the plot of “Breaking Bad.”

We were the sole overnight guests at the Hotel Cassadaga.

The owner/manager simply left us alone in the place.

Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

Despite the laughingly ambitious signs warning us from the camp and forests at night, we disobliged.   We went from a bar where we were told ghost stories about the forest, to an after-party where we were told ghost stories about the forest, then to the actual forest where we got lost, eaten by mosquitoes the size of golf balls, were attacked by killer raccoons, and ultimately realized that we were alone in the woods with a local who had served a dime for attempted murder.

We went back to his place to stare at paintings that he promised would move if we looked at them intensely enough. When we started hearing unexplained noises and the front door kept unlocking itself, we realized that we were not drinking in moderation.

 

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

We returned to the hotel where we continued not drinking in moderation and genuinely experienced uneasily explained noises as we explored the near-abandoned hotel with rooms filled with stacked chairs and an inexplicably running while unattended washing machine. The hallway really is something out of “The Shinning.” The hotel is a legitimate creepfest. Doorways led to brick walls or into thin-air sans stairways or landings. It would suddenly get unexplainably cold. It was exactly what we willed it to be.

Ultimately we play-fought in a meditation garden and got yelled at by locals who were understandably unmoved by our happy good times.

The next morning we experienced the usual joys of a previous night’s excesses and headed to the Temple for the Sunday Morning service.

A mediumship service will not be confused for a morning at church, mosque, or synagogue. There is a humanist homely, a guest to talk about his self-published spiritualism book, and then a preacher reminiscent of an evangelical healer who gets on stage and shouts out names until someone shouts back “I had a friend’s cousin’s mother whose name was Samantha.” The medium show continues for about an hour. They’ll never randomly pick you for a detailed conversation.

In an odd state this is an odd town. If you come with a positive attitude you’ll have an experience that only a few places in the world offer.

Of course, if you want to be guaranteed a scare, Halloween Horror Nights is an hour’s drive away.

The whole gang at Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights!

The whole gang at Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights!

Logistics:

If you want to visit, Cassadaga is about an hour drive from downtown Orlando. It can only be accessed by car. The only hotel in town is the Cassadaga Hotel.

They are apparently currently hiring.

If you want to be an SCSCMA Medium, you can find information on accreditation here.

Sample coursework includes “Pyromancy Reading the Embers” (extra-curricular), “Classification of Phenomenon” (required), and “Personal Appearance” (my friends believe I would benefit from a course on this).

Your Next Adventure: Kanchanaburi, Thailand (Bridge on the River Kwai)

 

The smiling appears forced because it is--there is nothing to smile for here.

The smiling appears forced because it is–there is nothing to smile for here.

If you are ever fortunate enough to visit Thailand the “to do” list is long: Bangkok, Chumphon (for access to the Gulf of Thailand and Ko Samui with its epic “Full Moon” parties), Bangkok some more, Phuket (gateway to Phi Phi Island, famously portrayed in “The Beach”), lazy days and hard nights on Ko Tao, more partying in Bangkok and Phuket, Chiang Mai (for the obligatory hike), and then–a month or more gone by–back to Bangkok to either vaporize into the ether, or, if you absolutely must, fly home.

You should do all those things.

But if you are a history buff, a wannabe history buff, or want to create the plausible illusion of being a history buff–or if you are one of those splendid individuals that just thrives on being lost, obscure, and different–you must squeeze out an afternoon for Kanchanaburi.

KwaiSign

If you already know what Kanchanaburi is, or like the “Lisa You Smell Like Gasoline” song from the Simpsons, you will want to listen to this song as you read:

Colonel Bogey March

I came to Kanchanaburi during the 2008 Thai Revolution the same way I came to Tallahassee after the Global Economic Collapse–by bus.

(For my write up on the dual Thai revolutions, please visit my “Welcome to the Revolution.”) 

A more themed approach would have been to take the train, which presumably would have taken me directly to, if not actually over, the famed “Bridge on the River Kwai.” But Northbound routes were off limits at the time, owing to an animated public disagreement between Thais wearing red shirts and Thais wearing yellow shirts.

Like many places outside the main tourist hubs, the bus just sort of dropped me off in the middle of a forlorn flyblown dirt track that some ambitiously refer to as a “street.” I was on my own to figure out where I was and how to get to a place anyone would actually like to be. This typically involves a multi-mile trek so if you want to go, pack light.

Since I knew the bridge was five kilometers north of town, I just picked up my bag and walked north.

The city of Kanchanaburi itself looks like any other anonymous city you pass on a bus traveling across the realms of a very poor country. The people’s eyes dint strong and stoic, the shops and houses succumb ramshackle and dilapidated. The half-emptied bodega shelves offer cheap Thai whiskey, soap, and toilet paper.

Just one of hundreds of Buddhist temples

Just one of hundreds of Buddhist temples

As the last trace of cityscape crumbles into a vast greenery there are beautiful Technicolor Buddhist temples–in the hundreds–sweeping hodgepodge into the distance like the grandest clumsy graveyard in the world.   

But as soon as I escaped reality I reentered it. In this newer Kanchanaburi there was a sidewalk and signs directing me to Saeng Chuto Road. Its the main drag, populated with pizza places, little bars, internet cafes, and if you really search for them, the occasional Thai-themed Thai restaurant.

The whimsy of traveling to the backwaters of Thailand–to visit a bridge portrayed in a fiction movie shot in Sri Lanka I never saw based upon a book I never read by an author who never visited and thus wrote about a then-nonexistent bridge–abruptly sobers before the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Cemetary3

More than a hundred thousand people died building the Burma-Siam Death Railway.

Cemetary1The Japanese forced 60,000 British Commonwealth, American, and Dutch Prisoners of War, with 180,000 Asians impelled into labor by conscription or kidnapping, to build the 250 mile long Burma-Siam Railway under sickening conditions. A part of this railway was built along the River Kwai but never actually crossed it.  The prisoners did build two bridges over the Mae Khlung River, of which one survived.

What is a local chamber of commerce to do?

The Thais, arguably the most tourist accommodating people in the world, changed the name of the river so foreigners would have someplace to snap a picture. This does not make the bridge a fake mind you–thousands died building it.

Seven thousand of those prisoners of war are buried at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, DeathRailwayMuseummaintained to the highest military dignity by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Pacing from row to row there is no noise, not even a bird fluttering.

Further detailed evidence of man’s inhumanity to man is found at the adjacent death-railway museum.

For the unwary, the bridge is like any other. It is built with steel, and the only marker that it was infused with huge amounts of blood is the plaque placed there from its builders: Yokogawa Bridge Works, Tokyo, Japan.

BridgePlaque

Today the public is permitted to walk back and forth on the tracks and the very few trains that cross the bridge slow to a crawl when passing. Tourist kiosks, overpriced and opportunistic museums, ice cream vendors, and pizza parlors decorate where the thousands have fallen.

The bridge today

The bridge today

The bridge promenade, apparently brought to you by Pepsi.

The bridge promenade, apparently brought to you by Pepsi.

If this is all too much for the visitor, shots of whiskey can be purchased at several area street carts for less than ten cents.

Room with a view. Room 23 was $15.

Room with a view. Room 23 was $15.

If you visit and choose to spend the night–and you should–you will be spoiled for luxury accommodation at budget prices. I stayed at a hotel where the rooms were individual cottages floating on the River Kwai (or the Mae Khlung), festooned to a boardwalk intruding into the river by at least fifty feet. Enjoying one of the great idyllic hotel views from the rocking chair on my floating porch, I whiled away an agreeable afternoon drinking the local brew while reading about the Burma-Siam Railway. This floating paradise set me back $15.

Meals can be had everywhere for next to nothing, but the guidebooks recommend the hut-like local hostel (very good Thai and Western food). In another thatched roof pavilion of a restaurant, with no lighting except for jokingly small candles, I enjoyed a spicy (as in, “I want this meal to end with an ambulance,” spicy) shrimp and prawn curry.

Finally, there is an English used-bookstore in Kanchanaburi which is owned by an American who came for the day and just never left. If you don’t want a book, you can sit at its outside counter and buy a large Bintang. Ask anyone, anywhere, in any language, and they will point the way. Stop by and say “hi” for me.

I owe him money.

I was just gone a day and a night–a quick break from angry red and yellow city crowds.

One night is enough or you might get trapped by the absurd affordability and the affable attitudes of the comparatively rural natives–the sort of people who will change the name of their river because they can’t change the name of your movie.

The trains seemed to be running again, but I made the five kilometer hike and took the bus back anyway.

Logistics:

Take the train, obviously. There is an early morning and early afternoon train from Bangkok KwaiWallThonburi (Noi) station and a weekend tourist service from Bangkok’s Central Station which will include a 45 minute stop at the Kanchanaburi main station allowing for the brief sobering walk to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

If you do not want to take the train just take a taxi from Bangkok to Mor Chit (Northeast Bus Terminal) and one of the ticket kiosks will be able to help you as departures for the three hour, $7 trip, are frequent.

Hotels get very cheap here–like $5 cheap. Splurge $20 and stay on the river instead. Rationalize the extra $$$ after reviewing a list of the diseases local mosquitoes have on offer.

Bring cash. At the time I went, there were no ATMs and banking hours were aspirational.

 

$15

$15

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your next adventure: Ica, Peru

The Oasis village of Huacachina, one of the many splendid diversions of the Ica Region of Peru.

If you can only visit one area in Peru it should be–well, Cusco, obviously. Enjoy the antiquity museums, an amble among Incan ruins, some of the world’s finest food, and if there is time, buy the obligatory fedora and take the bus and train to Machu Picchu.

Your next travel destination, however, should be Ica.

Ica is one of the most wonderfully situated locales in the world. Ica offers wine, witches, sand dunes–which you buggy ride up and sandboard down–and an easy gateway to the Nazca Lines and the marine and evolution wonder-world of the Ballesta Islands. You can enjoy all of this comfortably for about $40 a day.

Peruvian wine tends to be very sweet. If you are not into wine you might enjoy the Pisco which every winery also boasts. Its the local firewater.

Peruvian wine tends to be very sweet.

The outskirts of Ica is wine country. There are dozens of verdant vineyards open free to the public. You can easily while away an afternoon sampling very sweet varietals, snapping idyllic pictures of a farmer’s children stomping grapes, wondering where their feet have been–wishing you had used the spit bucket.

WineryOutside GiantCorkScrew

That's a lot of grapes!

That’s a lot of grapes!

The fastest way to drink a  shot of pisco.

The fastest way to drink a shot of pisco.

Land of witches, goblins, and mescaline.

Land of witches, goblins, and mescaline.

Visit witches and goblins.

If you are interested in paranormal superstition, folklore, or enjoy the effervescence of being totally creeped out, visit the friendly witches of Cachiche and enjoy an amble through Witch Park. Have a fun suspension of disbelief as the locals explain the mythology surrounding an acre of sideways growing trees.

The ancestors of Cachiche originally fled Spain for Lima to avoid religious persecution. When Lima also persecuted them they hid in the backcountry of Ica and would kill soldiers who would search the forests where they worshiped and performed rituals. Quickly, stories of cannibalistic trees and goblins spread through the region and the superstitious authorities simply stopped looking for them. They did not publicly advertise their existence again until the 1980s when alternative medicine and practices became a national diversion for the Peruvian wealthy.

Though they are sincere in their shamanism-like beliefs, you should probably not indulge in their common use of San Pedro–a mescaline cactus which causes psychedelic experiences.

The trees that grow sideways via witch's curse.

The trees that grow sideways via witch’s curse.

The local restaurant seems to be cashing in on the neighborhood fokelore.

The local restaurant seems to be cashing in on the neighborhood fokelore.

If palm readers, tales of ghoulies, and possibly the only place better than Vegas to read a Hunter S. Thompson novel, prove insufficiently exciting, Huacachina is a five minute taxi ride away.

There you can do this:

Super Awesome Sandboarding

This is fun.

This is fun.

Huacachina, a desert oasis village surrounded by two-thousand foot sand dunes, is one of the most agreeable and adrenaline inducing places in the world!

For about $10, a Thyroid-chewing maniac, riddled with mescaline and a nervously confident belief in a better afterlife, will speed you up and down sand dunes at clunky and slippery 89 degree angles deep into the nothingness of desert. Once there, he will remove you and a modified surfboard from the buggy, hand you a candle, offer vital safety tips in an indigenous dialect impenetrable by even the most advanced foreign language comprehension, get back into his buggy, and drive away into the distant horizon.

An uncomfortable moment passes.

Luckily, you have gone on this adventure with a half dozen other visitors, and though none of you speak the same language, through a life or death game of charades, you gradually understand that you are to wax the modified surfboard with the candle, place it on the ground, and promptly attempt suicide by sandboarding down a thousand foot-sand dune.

After receiving emergency medical care, you are then to limp a half mile in knee-deep sand at which point you will come to a two-thousand foot cliff of sand. Prostrating yourself on your belly, you sandboard yourself down the cliff at approximately three times the speed of sound.  You make it to the bottom a solid two seconds before your screams arrive. You do this several more times.

After the final plunge you then walk up a mountain where, if he didn’t wreck and die on his way there, the buggy driver will be patiently waiting, eating a cactus, inhaling two cigarettes at once, and drinking a fifth energy drink.

It is the most unapologetically reckless fun possible.

On your return to the village, there is a quick stop where everyone takes pictures of each other with the entirety of Huacachina below. Then the sun sets.

Huacachina at sunset.

Huacachina at sunset.

Huacachina is where your hotel should be. Options range from $5 a night flophouses to $30 for downright luxury.

I stayed at Hotel Curasi for less than $20 and got a huge comfortable bed in a large and immaculately clean room with air conditioning (its a desert remember), a hot shower, and for bedtime, a satellite television with English channels. The hotel also comes with a restaurant, an ice-cream shop, a Tiki bar, and a refreshing swimming pool with shaded Chaise lounges. The honest family-management can get you any tour and even arrange your transportation back to Lima.

HuacachinaHotel

The view from my room was reminiscent of a National Geographic cover.

HuacachinaHotelView

It is why I travel.

Huacachina has two roads, two shops, one (broken) ATM, an internet cafe with three computers, a colonial public library with one handsome room, a handful of tourist kiosks, a bricked-up public restroom, and a population of about 120.  It has at least 20 hotels, restaurants, and bars.

That’s a ratio of six residents per bar. Since the most distant hotel from the most distant bar is a three minute walk around an oasis-lake promenade, getting lost is a chore. Since there are no cars, unless you plan on hotwiring a dune buggy, DUI is not a possibility. The most expensive cocktail is $3 and potent enough to appear in a Ron White standup. The relaxed locals don’t take advantage of inebriants and if a tourist rips you off, there is no where to run and the village custodian will bring you back your stuff.

If you can not relax here, you are allowed to give up.

If you can not relax here, you are allowed to give up.

It is, in essence, an Alcoholic fantasyland.

It is also the location of the only real nightlife in the region and the tour operators, for ludicrously small sums of money, will transport you to any of the region’s attractions. A witch and wine tour will set you back about $8. You can even use Huacachina as a base for a flight over the Nazca Lines ($100, includes the plane ticket). For $15, I instead opted for Paracas and the Ballesta Islands.

Not the Nazca Lines, but another ancient creation viewed on the way to the islands.

Not the Nazca Lines, but another ancient creation viewed on the way to the islands.

Its a hard 5AM wake up for a caravan drive through desert, vineyards, jungle, and ultimately, the sea. Paracas is home to a vast national park and bird sanctuary, and its pleasant tourist-shop laden port offers speedboat tours of one the great zoological oddities of the world–the Ballesta Islands.

Each part of the Ballesta Islands experience is fueled with high-octane awesomeness.

First, you are in speedboat zooming through choppy waters and getting soaked as powerful engines whir and wine to announce our arrival to the local habitats. Every few minutes flocks of thousands of pelicans darken the sky, drown out the audio-world with their squawks, and occasionally, poop all over you.

The vast strait isolating the Ballesta and its Galapagos-like genetic grab bag of evolution-confusion flora and fauna is a cornucopia of marine life brimming with exotic fish, sharks, whales, and dolphins. Even on a bad day you’ll probably luck upon a dolphin or an Orca abruptly greeting you by jumping from under the perfect aquamarine surf.

Thousands and thousands of seals and sea lions.

Thousands and thousands of seals and sea lions.

For a ton of outstanding reasons the Peruvian government does not allow tourists to step onto the islands and habitats, but even staying the required safe distance affords a view and orchestra performance of seals, sea lions, penguins, Peruvian Boobies, Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and Guanay Comorants.

seals3

While you may need to know what you are doing to find some of the particularly rare bird species, there are tens of thousands of seals and penguins bobbing around. In fact, the best way to find the rarer species is to try to find a square inch of land that is not being fought over by a seal or penguin.

seals2

Admittedly, there is an odor problem.

IcaWineFest1When I visited I was fortunate enough to arrive during the Ica Wine Festival. Although I was warned from going by locals who said that the Festival was rife with crime, I took special precautions, went anyway, and quickly observed that it was not true.  I was prepared for a sort of Endtimes-death maneuvers situation, what I found instead was families having fun on carnival rides, politicians making grand speeches, dozens of vendors offering free samples of pisco (the local hooch) and wine, and several pigs slowly crisping on spits.

Freshpork

fresh pork

fresh pork

It was what you find in an American county fair with one eminently agreeable difference. Instead of pigs, cows, and horses on display this fair brandished condors, pumas, parrots, and even a pair of near extinct Andean Titi monkeys.

condor puma tucan monkey

The straight from the spit pork was exactly as good as you would assume and the bottle of Pisco I bought at the fair ($10 for the best of the best) did not survive the night as it was shared with Hungarian revelers back at the hotel.

There is one place in Ica you should not go and that is Ica itself. There is one antiquity museum worth a look, but besides that it has nothing to offer visitors but the odd restaurant or dingy hotel. An Earthquake devastated Ica in 2007 and the city proper never recovered. It is said that it is the only city in Peru without a Cathedral adorned square. It is busy, it is crowded, you shouldn’t go there unless you have an excellent reason. When you catch a wine tour it will pause briefly amongst the hustle and bustle so you will be confident that you don’t want to go there alone.

Four days based in Huacachina is sufficient to allow for an aerial visit of the Nazca Lines, a speedboat trip to the Ballesta Islands, winery tours, spooky stories, sand dune racing, and many excellent meals and inebriations with at least one afternoon left for lounging by the pool, staring into the desert, and relishing your Indiana Jones moment.

Consider making a week out of it by adding three days in Lima, one of the great world capitals in its own right.

But, yes, visit Machu Picchu first.

My friend and I hiked to Machu Picchu via the arduous four-day Inca Trail. We both recommend you take the bus and train.

My friend and I hiked to Machu Picchu via the arduous four-day Inca Trail. We both recommend you take the bus and train.

Logistics:

Fly to Lima and take a taxi to the Cruz Del Sur bus station ($30, 1 1/2 hours). Ica is a comfortable four hour, $8, bus ride from Lima. By American standards its a luxury coach and you will be able to watch movies with English subtitles the whole journey. From the Ica bus station, take a taxi to Huacachina. It will cost $2. Finding a hotel takes seconds, but ask to see the room first and do compare as quality varies wildly. Don’t even consider booking ahead. Very cheap tour operators on the outer ring of the village will provide quality transportation and tours to wherever you want to go. Buggy rides can be arranged anywhere with anyone and leave at dawn and dusk. Most of your meals will also be in Huacachina and basically everywhere does it great. $4 gets you a steak bigger than your face, five pounds of garlic potatoes to ward off the vampires of Cachiche, rice, and a drink to recuperate from any near-death experiences. There is also the obligatory pub which offers pizzas and chicken-tender plates so generous in portion that the table might break beneath its weight.

 

North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down 2013

Under the coordination of North Florida's fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson, I was humbled and privileged to work with this dedicated group of individuals!

Under the coordination of North Florida’s fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson, I was humbled and privileged to work with this dedicated group of individuals!

Under the coordination of North Florida’s fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson (now-retired chief of the 2nd Circuit Public Defender’s Mental Health Unit), I was humbled and privileged to work with career military, retired veterans, civilian social workers, and many volunteer-attorneys and law students, as Civil Law Coordinator for the 2013 North Florida Homeless Veteran’s Stand Down.

(I was also scheduled to coordinate the 2014 Stand Down, but a death in my immediate family just prior to the event prevented me from any meaningful contribution; though I’m prepared to be on deck for 2015.)

An estimated 1,000 plus homeless veterans live in the forests of North Florida. For some, this is a choice, but for most it is because they either have nowhere else to go or because they are attempting to escape from what would be a resolvable problem if they had enhanced financial resource or access to mental health, legal or social services. Each year, the North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down, the Florida Veterans’ Foundation, and social service agencies organize a weekend event where veterans can commiserate with each other, get on-the-spot appointments with VA officials and social service providers, enjoy free meals provided by local businesses, be entertained by area musical groups, and meet with volunteer attorneys about civil and criminal disputes, often long unresolved.

Thanks to State Attorney Willie Meggs and Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell, and again to the non-stop advocacy of Dan Hendrickson, the Stand Down is also able to offer a unique “remote courthouse” where criminal charges and bench warrants can be resolved literally in an afternoon. Monetary fines, which obviously a homeless person cannot afford, can be converted to community service hours; and for those who express a need for it, mental health services can be ordered.

My role was to coordinate the civil legal services for the event, which mostly involved helping those who owed back-child support or who needed assistance applying for VA benefits or finding transitional housing. Overall, in 2013, more than a hundred outstanding cases were resolved because the veterans and community stakeholders were able to get together with service providers, representatives from law enforcement, and the more than a dozen lawyers and law students who volunteered their time to help out.

To learn more about the North Florida Veterans’ Stand Down, you can visit their website here: http://www.northfloridastanddown.org/

White House Florida Leadership Work Group

Outside of the Eisenhower Executive Building.

Outside of the Eisenhower Executive Building

 

In November of 2012 I was invited to the White House as part of a Florida Leadership Work Group. Our task was to discuss and organize grassroots opposition to the Sequester, the Fiscal Cliff, and the impending federal debt default. I will not bore you about the discussion, what we organized, or about ultimate success during a surreal moment of political-economic history. Instead, I thought I would share what it is like to be asked to the White House as a political advocate.

The Invitation is by email.

It is in a forwarded email actually–transitionally sent through someone more important than the ultimate recipient–which requests that an RSVP be made to a third-person, who is also more important. The ultimate invitation is signed by yet a fourth person of consequence, on behalf of his boss who is so consequential she doesn’t even send her own emails. It is she who will be the host and President’s representative at the meeting.

At the time, I was Leon County’s DEC chief, and my invitation was sent courtesy of the Vice Chair of the Florida Democratic Party. I was requested to respond to the ex-director of the President’s Florida Campaign (who was the organizer of the event) and the actual invitation was from the White House Office of Public Engagement. Our host would be Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President of the United States.

Yes, it was impersonal; yes, the date was unfeasible, (the meeting was scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving, which was only a few days away); yes, there was a dress code problem (I was visiting family in south Florida and my suits were in Tallahassee)–never-the-less, after rereading the email several times trying to discern whether it might be a prank or I might be misunderstanding something–I excitedly picked up the phone to friends and family: “I’ve been invited to the White House!”

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President of the United States

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President of the United States

“White House” really means the Eisenhower Executive Building.

“White House,” it turned out, unless you are an ambassador, cabinet member, or medal of honor recipient–means “Eisenhower Executive Building.” They do not tell you this in the invitation or the numerous follow-up emails and conference calls until you are in Washington. (Perhaps an invitation to “White House adjacent” would be less inspiring in getting guests to ditch their families during a holiday and travel last minute at great personal expense to discuss economics with policy wonks.)

Any suggestion, even if done with humor, that the Eisenhower Executive Building is not the White House, will be met with aggressive dissent by staffers who work at the Eisenhower Executive Building but apparently explain to friends and family that they work at the White House.

Indeed, the Presidential standard and crests are everywhere. Our huge meeting room, decorated with photos of more important people in more important meeting rooms, even came stocked with the obligatory dark blue curtain for press conferences and podium, each marked with the White House’s official crest. Our invitation, the agenda, the souvenir “thank you” note casually signed “Barack Obama,” every stick of stationary proudly reads: “The White House.” A high-school projector at the fore illuminates the opening slide with “Welcome to the White House.” A similar greeting awaited at the double-oak door in the form of a large sign accompanying a buoying voice from a government employee.

I found out the fun way what happens when you walk through those doors! You are very enthusiastically told  by the Secret Service that this is not the "exit" you wanted.

I found out the fun way what happens when you walk through those doors! You are very enthusiastically told by the Secret Service that this is not the “exit” you wanted.

The signage is necessary.

Like many of our most-protected buildings, the publicly-apparent security apparatus of the EEB is designed primarily to keep unauthorized people out. There are multiple outer-compound checkpoints guarded by very serious, but extremely polite, police and Secret Service. (I suppose politeness is a prerequisite since they know your experience with them is immediately followed by a meeting with a head of government.) But once you are in, you are in. You have a bright green “V” pass and, as long as you don’t do something objectively stupid like open a door marked “National Security Agency Only,” you pretty much have free reign over the place, and aside from subtle markings like “Presidential Council of Economic Advisors” or “Remote Nuclear Command” everything on every floor looks the same.

Getting lost, I had to ask someone who clearly had Jack Bauer’s job to show me to the bathroom. (He was super-nice about it; I swear everyone who works at the EEB must have been sent for customer service training at the Ritz Carlton.)

Before the White House asks for your advice; you are sent to their partisan think-tank to be told what your advice will be.

When you are invited to the White House as part of an issue-specific problem work group, before the “discussion,” you are first diverted for hours of seminars and lectures at their public policy think-tank. They tell you that you are there for lunch, but its really more like accepting the free Disney weekend invitation from a timeshare realtor. It’s not “mandatory,” but seeing as they physically walk you from their downtown building to the EEB Secret Service check-in station, attendance is “highly encouraged.”

The lunch itself was buffet–sandwiches, fruit, salad, fancy lemon water–the sort of nightmare scenario that keeps tea-partiers awake when Fox tells them that the First Lady is conspiring to take over the cafeterias of public schools. I think Michael Bloomberg catered.

The lectures and seminars were presented by some of the top intellectuals in taxation and economics, and since I have relevant post-graduate degrees in what they were explaining, I was very entertained as I watched political operatives try to argue and object to peer-reviewed empirical information. After silently laughing for two hours, in an effort to be productive, I began asking friendly leading questions so the experts were able to connect to the operatives in a language they could understand. I’m a little ashamed to admit that there were a few people in the room who apparently didn’t know such basic things as the difference between “debt” and a “deficit.” The reader might not know either, but the reader probably wasn’t asked to advise the Obama administration on economic matters during a national crisis.

With school over, we were escorted the half mile to the conspicuously guarded entrance to the White House-EEB Complex.

You are divided into geographically overlapping groups, told to disclose your political resources, and collectively come up with a plan.

I was a part of the north Florida group which consisted of two representatives from Jacksonville (an influential banker and the director of the Jacksonville Field Office, I think), the Chair of the Franklin County DEC (representing rural counties), and a God of north Florida fundraising (representing the 2nd Congressional District), and myself. For those who care about such things, of the three women and two men, two were African-American and three were Caucasian, with one representing the GLBTA Community.

To begin, there were warm-up, team-building, nonsense exercises reminiscent of mandatory corporate retreats–where there is a lovely park or golf course but you cannot go because you are too busy falling backward into a colleague you wouldn’t trust to refrain from stabbing you in the back let alone catch you.

Time passed. Once we came up with our plan, we presented it to the group at large for comments and suggestions. Then we listened to the other plans and made comments and suggestions. A part of the plan required the participation of elected officials who, theoretically–very theoretically–would listen to me as the Chair of (and chief fundraiser for) their county’s political executive committee.

This gave rise to the most fun series of phone calls I have ever made in my life.

Obviously the response I got from various leaders is of the deepest confidentiality, but I think its important to make one broad note:  The most accommodating, unhesitating, and helpful, leaders--by far--were those publicly perceived as being very conservative.  They made no demands, no nuance, and no complaints. They did their work quietly. They asked for no credit.

Obviously the response I got from various leaders is of the deepest confidentiality, but I think its important to make one broad note: The most accommodating, unhesitating, and helpful, leaders–by far–were those publicly perceived as being very conservative. They made no demands, no nuance, and no complaints. They did their work quietly. They asked for no credit.

“Hi, this is Richard. I’m calling from the White House.”

Generally, I don’t have difficultly getting a local or regional elected official to take my call. If they’re very busy they might call back in a few hours or text me that they’re in the middle of something.

But there is a unique urgency implied when you leave a message on their cell phone–or even more fun–with their assistant, that you:

  1. are calling from the White House;
  2. after an hours long meeting helmed by the President’s chief advisor; and
  3. the Leader of the whole freaking Free World, the most powerful person on Earth, a human being so exalted and important that hundreds of people are trained for the full-time employment of dying for him if necessary–he, the President of the United States, is tasking YOU with an assignment.

Public meetings were disrupted, private meetings were abruptly ended, at one point I had a majority of a local commission returning my call at the same time.

Influence and access has never been something I have cared much about, aside from how it effects my ability to advocate, but I have to admit, this was about the most fun you can have while wearing a suit. To add to the ambiance, as I made the calls, I was energetically pacing the outside halls.

It was all very “West Wing.” 

Follow-up Meetings and Status Sessions were done telephonically.

Obviously the response I got from various leaders is of the deepest confidentiality, but I think its important to make one broad note: The most accommodating, unhesitating, and helpful, leaders–by far–were those publicly perceived as being very conservative. They made no demands, no nuance, and no complaints. They did their work quietly. They were successful. They asked for no credit.

Perhaps it was because they were retired military, merely out of habit, unconditionally heeding the call to action from the Commander-in-chief.

2013 North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down

Under the coordination of North Florida's fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson, I was humbled and privileged to work with this dedicated group of individuals!

Under the coordination of North Florida’s fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson, I was humbled and privileged to work with this dedicated group of individuals as the Civil Law Coordinator!

Under the coordination of North Florida’s fiercest advocate for the mentally ill, Dan Hendrickson (now-retired chief of the 2nd Circuit Public Defender’s Mental Health Unit), I was humbled and privileged to work with career military, retired veterans, civilian social workers, and many volunteer-attorneys and law students, as Civil Law Coordinator for the 2013 North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down.

(I was also scheduled to coordinate the 2014 Stand Down, but a death in my immediate family just prior to the event prevented me from any meaningful contribution; though I’m prepared to be on deck for 2015.)

An estimated 1,000 plus homeless veterans live in the forests of North Florida. For some, this is a choice, but for most it is because they either have nowhere else to go or because they are attempting to escape from what would be a resolvable problem if they had enhanced financial resource or access to mental health, legal or social services. Each year, the North Florida Homeless Veterans’ Stand Down, the Florida Veterans’ Foundation, and social service agencies organize a weekend event where veterans can commiserate with each other, get on-the-spot appointments with VA officials and social service providers, enjoy free meals provided by local businesses, be entertained by area musical groups, and meet with volunteer attorneys about civil and criminal disputes, often long unresolved.

Thanks to State Attorney Willie Meggs and Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell, and again to the non-stop advocacy of Dan Hendrickson, the Stand Down is also able to offer a unique “remote courthouse” where criminal charges and bench warrants can be resolved literally in an afternoon. Monetary fines, which obviously a homeless person cannot afford, can be converted to community service hours; and for those who express a need for it, mental health services can be ordered.

My role was to coordinate the civil legal services for the event, which mostly involved helping those who owed back-child support or who needed assistance applying for VA benefits or finding transitional housing. Overall, in 2013, more than a hundred outstanding cases were resolved because the veterans and community stakeholders were able to get together with service providers, representatives from law enforcement, and the more than a dozen lawyers and law students who volunteered their time to help out.

To learn more about the North Florida Veterans’ Stand Down, you can visit their website here: http://www.northfloridastanddown.org/