Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Journalists vote, too: a great day for it in Florida

Above, I vote at the student center of Brevard Community College in Melbourne. I hope you can't see my choices. The photo is actually a screen shot from a video I took in the "booth." Below, I proudly wear my sticker. And this is the first time I have worn a tie since moving to Florida. I thought Election Day was an appropriate time to do it.

Today is a glorious day - for more than one reason.

First, it's the best weather day I have experienced in Florida. It feels like a warm spring day in Maine - not too hot, not too cold ... just right. About 70. Low humidity.

I got up early to vote in the primary. And, man, was I happy to do so. It gave me more time to enjoy this lovely Tuesday.

I first took a run to start things off right. But my run didn't start on the right foot: As I shut the house door behind me, I realized I didn't have my keys. I was locked out. I remembered, though, that I had left my window cracked open. So I jumped the wooden fence surrounding the house, took out the screen of my bedroom window and shimmied through it.

I grabbed my keys, my camera (after I realized the weather was so great), and I ran.

It was just like spring in Maine.

A controlled burn in the park, left, and the smell of smoke reminded me of the spring burning of blueberry fields in Maine.

A creek gurgled with pure water, instead of the usual muddy stuff - just like the spring snow runoff in Maine.

Flowers seemed to blossom anew, left, though I know they show their pretty faces year-round here.

Teenage girls walked down the sidewalk toward me, one with a Fudgesicle, the other with an ice cream cone - reminiscient of the first tastes of summer in Maine.

Cars drove by with windows rolled down: the Maine version of air conditioning.

Butterflies blew on the breeze.

A grasshopper jumped from the sidewalk, attempting to cross the road, but was met with the grill of a monstrous Ford Expedition. I almost think the bugs during Maine's spring are worse than Florida's year-round species.

There was even a dead fish on the sidewalk, left. Lakeside residents of Maine tend to see a lot of fish washing ashore during the springtime. It was a strangely soothing smell, though I wouldn't want to be "soothed" by it for too long. I snapped a photo, then continued running.

People were in a field flying a remote-control helicopter, below.

I got home. I showered. Then, I went to vote, left. "Precinct 180," I told the "sheriff" standing guard at the polls at the student center of the local community college. I was wearing my FLORIDA TODAY badge, thinking it would afford me preferential treatment as one voter from a local defense contractor, Harris Corp., experienced, according to reporter Rick Neale's blog. I wasn't as lucky, so I had to show my voter ID and driver's license. I grabbed my ballot, anguished over my votes, filled in the proper ovals, fed it through the black box and I was done.

It brought back memories of the PSATs and SATs in high school. The only thing new was the lack of privacy in which I voted. In Maine, I usually had a curtained booth to shield me from other voters - especially from the Democrats.

But everything has been so easy today. I wonder if the trend will persist at work.

On the way to work, I stopped at a 7-Eleven for a brew. As I handed over the cash for an iced tea (which should be a first-nice-day-of-the-year tradition everywhere), the cashier remarked, "Beautiful day out there, isn't it?"

That's an understatement.

Florida voters, including The Offlede, head to polls

This is the "presidential preference primary ballot" sent to me a few weeks ago by the Brevard County supervisor of elections. The choices for president: Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Alan Keyes, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo or Fred Thompson. I'm torn between Alan Keyes and Tom Tancredo.

I'm excited.

Today is Super Tuesday. No, it's Super Duper Tuesday. No, it's Giga Tuesday. No, it's The Tuesday of Destiny. No, it's Tsunami Tuesday (all on Wikipedia).

Actually, it's more like
Trivial Tuesday (my creation).

But officially, today is "presidential preference" Tuesday, the primary election for the state of Florida - at least, for Republicans.

Florida Democrats, having moved up its primary along with the Republicans, were disenfranchised: The national party promised to take away their voice at the Democratic National Convention as punishment for the move. So no matter whom Democrats vote for, it won't count.

Republicans, however, still have some say. Rudy Giuliani has "put all his eggs into the Florida basket" by focusing his primary efforts on Florida, hoping that victory here will translate into victory elsewhere on the real Super Tuesday next week. Democrats haven't campaigned here at all. I guess it's just a poor time to be a Florida Democrat.

But it's still a big day for all, especially if you own a home here. A ballot question will ask voters if they would like to approve a constitutional amendment for property tax breaks. There are many boring facets to it. But since I'm not a homeowner, I don't care all that much. Gov. Charlie Crist touts it as the Yellow Brick Road leading to the Emerald City of real estate markets. I suppose Florida could use that because real estate here, in a word, sucks. My roommate, who owns my rented room, has been trying to sell his house since I moved in. But no one has even looked at it.

But the real funny thing about the ballot question is that it's not really a question. It just gives the wording of the amendment and gives the voter a choice "yes" or "no." I smell another hanging chad issue coming on. (Click on the above ballot for a larger view.)

There's also a question about a tax cap on county money. But, if approved, it won't really do anything - only give lawmakers the go-ahead to pursue the next step. Sounds like politics at its best.

I haven't made up my mind on any of the GOP candidates for president. Nor have I decided yes or no on any of the questions.

It looks like a game-time decision.

I'll get up early to vote, then head to FLORIDA TODAY, where I will put in overtime on my usual day off to edit stories about this whole ordeal. The word is that we'll get free food. And I'll probably make a few blog posts from the newsroom. For me, it's exciting because I'm a resident of a state that actually holds sway in a national election. Maine, however, has a measly four electoral votes. Florida has 27.

Stay tuned.

Brevard County voting demographics, as I see them:
  • A bit more than 300,000 voters
  • Mostly white
  • Mostly old and retired
  • A good mix of Republicans and Democrats, truly at the crossroads of a more conservative North Florida and more liberal (and Northern) South Florida

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Out with the old tags and in with the new - booo

My now-retired pair of Maine "Vacationland" chickadee license plates, above, were replaced this week by a single Florida "MyFlorida.com" orange tag. I miss the old ones already.

I've been neglecting The Offlede recently for the sake of mundane errands and some book reading I've been putting off since I started this blog.

I'm reading Tulane University historian Douglas Brinkley's 600-something-page clunker titled "The Great Deluge" about Hurricane Katrina. I liked it at first, but by page 500, I realized I was being sucked into a void of rambling anecdotes and misdirected criticism. No matter what went wrong in the governmental response, it was President Bush's fault - as if he were a god in control of the weather.

(Dear Almighty Bush: Please make it colder here in Florida. Amen. ...)

"Deluge" does well to dispel the myth that New Orleans was a virtual Baghdad - bullets having to be swatted at like flies - but it's a rather dense conglomeration of liberal rantings. It drowns the reader. No doubt, the federal government was partially to blame. But more of the onus rests on Big Easy Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Katherine Blanco, both Democrats.

But whatever. I'm almost done the book. Like the good ones, all bad things must come to an end, too.

And a month after I first tried to get my Florida license plate, I finally did get the citrus-adorned piece of metal. I had problems transferring the title because my father's name was on it, too.

It's a shame really. I'll miss the Maine chickadee plate, the number on which I had firmly embedded into my brain. Ask me my new Florida tag ID and I couldn't even give you the first number. Or is it a letter? I can't remember.

The other disgrace is that Floridians (me included now, I guess) only get a single plate to screw into the rear of their vehicles. Is this a cost-cutting measure? Wouldn't more crimes be solved if witnesses who saw only the front bumper of the getaway vehicle were able to write down the plate number?

Maine is not cheap like Florida. In Vacationland, drivers get one plate for the front AND one for the back. But now here in the Sunshine State, the snout of my Chevy Prizm is naked, left, covered up only with a smearing of brown dirt and rotting insect corpses that have built up over the years in a place that no car wash brush would fit. Hmm. Another drawback of getting a new license plate: Now, I have to wash my car. Bummer. More mundane activities are in my future.

The idea for this post was triggered by a reader e-mail. Thanks, reader.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Former employer Newsday is gettin' clicky wit it

This is the
Newsday newsroom with the copy desk in the foreground, where I started writing headlines for the Newsday Web site about a month into my time there. The special headline-writing effort has paid off for Newsday: It was one of the most-visited newspaper sites last month, besting others such as The Wall Street Journal. The photo features one of Newsday's best, Al Ortez.

News comes with great pleasure but without much surprise that Newsday's Web site was one of the top five most visited for all newspapers. The New York Times, which did seem surprised, wrote a short story about it today:
Published: January 21, 2008
"Many people in the industry expressed surprise when, for the second consecutive month, Newsday.com ranked in the top five of the most visited newspaper Web sites, with 6.45 million unique visitors in December, an increase of 183 percent from the previous year, according to data from Nielsen Online."
When I arrived at Newsday, there was a great movement afoot to find new ways to get more clicks online. At first, Newsday copy editors only wrote print newspaper headlines. But about a month into my stint there - I think it was July - we started writing Web headlines, all in an attempt to get more clicks.

Such an effort also is under way here in Brevard County, Fla., at FLORIDA TODAY. But there are key differences that allow Newsday, obviously the much larger publication, to enjoy greater success so far.

The Times article mentions the use of technology to place stories high on search engine results. But one of the least sophisticated and least complicated methods to draw readers through engines such as Google has been rewriting headlines from the print version of Newsday to the Web version.

I attended training sessions about this when I arrived at Newsday and again when I started at FLORIDA TODAY. Everyone uses search today. Tailoring headlines through the use of keywords makes headlines more attractive to search engines. It's called SEO, or search engine optimization. A search engine-optimized headline usually contains place names, people names - basically, a few of the five W's (who, what, when, where and sometimes why).

I remember sitting in the conference room at Newsday, just across the hall from where all the newspaper's Pulitzers Prizes are displayed. The presenters put a quote onto the PowerPoint screen that said, "Don't write for Google. Write for readers, with Google in mind."

That's not entirely true because I see more headlines these days that are 100 percent for Google, not the reader: ones such as "New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady intercepted three times but wins game 21-12 against Philip Rivers and San Diego Charges." What used to be the lede sentence of a story is now the headline. But such a headline would draw many readers to its host Web site because almost every word for which the common searcher would look is included.

The Times story also mentions Facebook widgets and bookmarking for services such as Digg, MySpace and Google.

FLORIDA TODAY hasn't put these tools to use yet. As is the case at most newspaper Web sites, editors here have click fever, the undying need to get more clicks. Tools (or more accurately, efforts) such as rewriting headlines instead of shoveling them from the print newspaper to the Web, however, haven't been employed yet. Social bookmarking is a bit more complicated, though it is simple enough for me to use here on The Offlede.

With each story I pored over as a Newsday copy editor, I wrote a headline first for the newspaper, then another that was keyed toward the Web on the top of each story. This is one of the simplest and least expensive ways to become a more successful Web site through increased clickage. Here are my top five routes to click heaven:
  1. Write headlines with Google-flavored keywords: Someone searching for Britney Spears could as easily be directed toward a small newspaper as toward TMZ.com, as long as the headline is full of juicy words such as "Britney Spears." Yummy.
  2. Use social bookmarking such as Digg, Facebook and Del.icio.us: These sites are extension sites where content can be placed for free but will end up driving more users your way. The more tools on your plate, the more random bites you'll get.
  3. Put hyperlinks into stories: Driving traffic to external sites may get you noticed by users of those external sites. Plus, it's convenient for your readers. They add serious meat to content.
  4. Use YouTube and Viddler as video servers: This isn't always an option for a newspaper that wants some videos to remain exclusive and limited to its own Web site. But YouTube videos serve as an easy way to get noticed. Serious YouTubers spend hours browsing the site and will find your video and eventually check out your Web site. Cool vids are the priceless morsels these people crave.
  5. Use public blogging platforms such as Blogger, WordPress and even Twitter microblogs: News travels so fast on the blogosphere. Newspaper bloggers should open up their sites to the public, allowing the utmost interaction with readers through comments and complementary postings. The real blogosphere - populated by commoners, not traditional journalists using a new medium - is a largely untouched readership market with lots of potential. Interaction with other bloggers will get a newspaper blogger into the real blog environment. If you ignore them, you may alienate them. Then, they'll eat you up.
The future of newspapers is online. The gauge of the success in this movement comes, not through circulation figures, but through click tallies. And from more clicks on stories comes more clicks on advertisements and more money.

Newsday is a model that many could stand to learn from.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Lake Okeechobee is drying up much like the rest of South Florida already has ... in different ways


If God were to cut the state of Florida in half, the rest of the South probably would convert to Christianity.

The southern half of the state has been polluted by the influence of the North. Its extensive subdivisions, its Mickey Mouse ears, its palm trees make it an anomaly. And it's almost blasphemous.

The South is country music. It's home cookin'. It's hospitality. It's sweet tea.

But all that is South Florida is not the real South. Nothing belongs here. Everything has been shipped in.

So I decided to escape for a day - or an afternoon, actually. I took a trip into the heart of Florida, where little of this Northern poison has soaked in. A bit more than an hour south of Melbourne, Lake Okeechobee is a freshwater soup of alligators, needle fish and herons of all sorts. It's one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country.

I woke up early so I could have plenty of time to make a complete circle around the lake. But because no one can drive here in Florida - mostly because they're elderly retirees - my efforts were thwarted by a firey wreck on Interstate 95. My route was detoured and my trip delayed for more than an hour.

The detour took me through Fellsmere, a tiny community of mostly migrant workers. As a result, it's the Little Mexico City of Indian River County. The signs are written in Spanish - definitely not the South of the U.S. It's more like the south that is south of the U.S. border.

My theory that everything here is shipped in was further solidified when I saw a truck loaded with palm tree stalks.

But as soon as I exited the interstate, I saw something different: fields, growing fields. This is more like the South I expected.

First, there were orange groves, then fields of sugarcane, above, closer to the lake, then cornfields on the eastern side.

But while I view them as an integral part of the South, the fields are actually the problem in the Okeechobee area: They're sucking the lake dry.

Boat ramps where recreation crafts once launched lead to nothing more than mud puddles with algae covering the surface like congealed gravy the day after Thanksgiving, above.

The elaborate system of dikes to protect surrounding communities from floods seems pointless. It would take a glacial event for the walls of dirt to be topped with water. If only the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did such a job in New Orleans, where the opposite problem of too much water has plagued that city.

As I did in New Orleans, I wanted to investigate to see what Lake Okeechobee was like for myself. I present my findings here through a mash-up via Google Maps. I've embedded the map on this page, but your best bet would be to click here or "
view larger map" to see the thing through the Google viewer. This narrow page has its limitations.

View map in Google (recommended)

View Larger Map

Monday, January 14, 2008

Remembering the state of Maine with old column

Mount Katahdin, the pinnacle of the state of Maine

Now that I'm on the topic of Maine, I would like to show you a little column I wrote about three years ago. It was my accounting of what it means to be from Maine. Here it is:

Have you ever driven down the street of a small Maine town and seen an old beat-up Chevrolet patched with duct tape, driven by a flannel-clad man who gives you the one-fingered wave? And no, it's not the finger you're thinking about. If so, have you ever wondered, "Could I ever be him?"

Chances are, you haven't. But if you're from away and want to become a Mainer, you may think the natives will never accept you as one of them. Therefore, I will describe a Mainer's qualities, what a Mainer is and isn't, and how it is possible to become one.

Flatlanders may define a Mainer as a person from the state of Maine. Maine is the easternmost state in, yes, the United States. Despite what some Southern folk may think, Maine is not another country and is definitely not part of Canada, eh?
(Update: I wrote this with a great deal of exaggeration. But just last week, the lady at the tax collector's office, where I went to get my Florida license plate, asked where I was from in Maine. "Down East," I answered. "Oh. So are you from Canada?" she asked. She probed even further when I said "aboot" instead of "about.")

Maine is a land of four seasons: winter, black fly, mosquito and winter. The people say lobstah instead of lobster. This particular species of Mainer - a.k.a. hicks - are found in small towns ovah theah in good ole Washinton Counte, wheah the coons outnumbah the people - a town like my hometown, Princeton.

The people there haven't changed much over the past few ... centuries. Therefore, it's a great place to witness Mainers in their true form. Every day, they gossip at the general store and go church hopping instead of bar hopping. You won't find any fancy movie theaters or shopping malls. Their favorite entertainment is a high school basketball game.

True Mainers also never stop cheering for the Red Sox. That's what used to keep them alive - the hope that maybe, just maybe, next year will be the year. Since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, true Mainers have been dying off in record numbers. They truly are becoming a rare breed. Gov. John Baldacci might try to put them on the endangered species list before too long.

Mainers also prize their favorite soda, Moxie, because they're the only ones who can stomach it. Growing up in a traditional Maine household, there was a lore that said, "The only way to be a true Mainer is to drink Moxie and climb Mount Katahdin."

Better yet, you can drink Moxie and climb Mount Katahdin at the same time. I'm proud to say I've done that four times, one of them is to the left.

As you can see, a Mainer is many things, but there is only one thing he or she isn't. Because these Mainers are miles from big-city diversions, basically the only thing they have is the people who live there. But if you're a true Mainer, that's all you need. If you refuse to accept the people here for who they are, they will never accept you as one of them.

So do just as the man did in the beat up Chevy and wave at others on the roads of Maine. It doesn't matter whether you know them, whether they're from Maine. As long as you accept them for who they are, you'll become a true Mainer.

"Because that's the way life should be," and in Maine, that's the way life is.

The Maine inscription in the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pic of the Day:
The bald eagle is so much better than Brad Pitt

Despite how much I miss Washington, D.C., I equally miss Maine. I don't miss it for the excitement or for the famous people you meet there: It's a humble place filled with ordinary but exceptional people.

I miss it for the natural beauty, the clean water and the wildlife.

This photo of a bald eagle swooping down and grabbing a fish was taken last summer, just before I moved to Florida. Considering I took it with a wide-angle lens, I was quite close to the action. And it was the only shot I got because it happened so fast. You can see the fish in its claws and the splash from when the bird hit the water.

One morning, I woke up, and an eagle was squawking atop the pine tree at the end of the peninsula where I grew up in Princeton, Maine. Each year, an eagle couple nests in a large tree across Grand Falls Flowage, the large body that connects to the St. Croix River, which forms the southeastern border of Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. And the eagles frequent the pine tree on my parents' property, mainly because its a prime perch from which to spot surfacing fish, the next meal.

My father, who is a professional photographer, and I untied and unlocked the motorboat. We took with us a frozen fish, which is pretty much like an ice cube, so it floats. Fresh fish tend to sink. The frozen one would would be easy fast food for the eagle.

Fast, indeed.

We chucked the scaly ice cube into the water, and within 10 seconds, the bird swooped down, extended its talons and snapped the thing off the surface. The birds have such amazing eyesight and power. It was just an awesome experience, as much of Maine is.

There are many great birds in Florida, but I have never seen one as awesome as America's national bird, the bald eagle.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rudy Giuliani says goodbye to Florida Today before saying hello
Bomb scare at national security contractor scares away candidate

A bomb threat at one of Rudy Giuliani's scheduled stops Wednesday in Melbourne made him cancel a later appearance at FLORIDA TODAY. That made Wednesday a typical day in the information center (translation from Gannettish to English: newsroom) in Melbourne.

In the post below, I was worried that Rudy Giuliani would be a typical politician and show up late for his meeting at FLORIDA TODAY.

Well, Giuliani isn't a typical politician. He's an extraordinarily typical politician. (Is that even possible?)

Either way, I obviously underestimated him: He never arrived at all.

Apparently, someone had called in a bomb threat to Harris Corp., a large gov'ment contractor based here in Melbourne. Rudy was supposed to hold a "town hall" meeting with employees after doing his usual baby kissing and schmoozing with the voters on the tarmac at Melbourne International Airport.

The threat was made around 1:30 p.m., during the time that I was waiting - impatiently - for him to arrive. Once his plane did touch down, I guess the unsecret service was too cautious to let him go about his normal schedule. His two appointments in Brevard County - one at Harris and one at FLORIDA TODAY - were canceled. His stay was reduced to a warmed-over speech "announcing" tax cuts in the airport hangar.

Oh, sorry. I had to take a break from writing so I could yawn.

So much for returning to the glory days I spent in Washington, D.C., chatting up politicians. (American University students, by the way, covered the New Hampshire primary magnificently, so click here and here.)

But at least I got the chance to get pretty close to Rudy at the rally. And ... oops. Look! There's even a photo of Rudy and me on FloridaToday.com. Click here. I'm the one in the white T-shirt in the center of the photo. I have the camera in front of my face, of course.

I showed up at work Wednesday (whoa, now THAT is big news). The "information center," or newsroom, seemed normal. There was furniture in the hallway - as usual. The police scanner was buzzing like crazy - as usual. The reporters were typing away and trying to make deadline - as ...

Anyway, everyone seemed to be in bright spirits, which was good because I had gotten little sleep the night before. I needed perky people around me.

But soon, the managing editor walked into the newsroom. He was the needle that deflated the balloon.

"Giuliani bailed," he said.

Oh, the agony, I mumbled.

To document this ordeal the best I could in photographs, I shot the conference room, above, where Rudy likely would have faced stinging questions directly from FLORIDA TODAY editors and indirectly from readers (our Web site asked readers to submit queries for editors to pose). The lights were still on and consuming electricity after midnight when I took the photo. But there was no one there, and no one had been there for hours and hours - no Ruuuuudy.

Thursday's story about the ordeal in FLORIDA TODAY says the bomb threat was the first Rudy had to deal with in the past year of his campaign. But he hasn't been campaigning (officially) for a year, so it would seem that the Melbourne threat was the first such scare of his entire presidential run! Hey, at least something significant happened Wednesday in Melbourne.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Melbourne, Fla., says hello to 'Ruuuuudy' Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani, a hopeful presidential candidate, shakes the hand of a man who soooo butted in front of me. Not really. I couldn't let an old Florida retiree push me around.

Politicians are rarely on time.

As a reporter, I have been late to cover government meetings. But that was never a problem because the people holding the things hadn't arrived by the time I did.

So it wasn't a surprise that presidential too-hopeful Rudy Giuliani was more than an hour late to a public rally today at Melbourne International Airport.

When I arrived, a local campaign worker asked me for my e-mail address. I totally rejected him. Then the guy asked me to take his photo with his camera. "You look like you're good at this," he said, pointing at my Nikon D40.

This time, I obliged.

That got me onto his good side. He then said Rudy had just arrived and that security personnel were plotting his walking route around the airport and driving route throughout Brevard County. But I was skeptical. Isn't that stuff planned well ahead of time?

Seeking real answers, I talked to a Rudy fan who wasn't supposed to know anything. You see, she wasn't a politician, so she was a great source for reliable information. The woman said that she had heard his plane was delayed in Jacksonville. That sounded more accurate.

As everyone waited, above, people talked about the proper manner in which to address Giuliani.

"Can we call him Rudy?" one woman asked.

"Of course," another answered. "I think he would get mad if we called him Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer."

(I remember that when I was working at Newsday, which covers the former New York City mayor closely, Rudolph declared that his preferred name is indeed Rudy. Copy editors such as myself had to ensure "Rudolph" didn't slip into print.)

When Rudy finally arrived, the crowd was a bit tuckered out from waiting. Many of the fans were elderly. Some of them were veterans, such as the one above being interviewed by a FLORIDA TODAY photojournalist.

"You think this is hot?" one older man said. "No. Vietnam is hot. We would take off our helmets, and we could pour out the sweat."

Yeah. That sounds hot all right.

The fans shook off the sweat and mostly just yelled, "Ruuuuudy! Ruuuuudy! Ruuuuudy!" One of the youngest fans at the rally joined in, above.

As usual, there were plenty of dissenters on the scene - particularly, supporters of rogue GOP candidate Ron Paul, above.

It seems there are many Paul people here in Florida. Many of them, such as the one above, held signs decrying a "media bias," most likely a reference to Paul's poor play in the press. Hmm. "Media bias makes me do this"? Yeah, that's usually my excuse, too.

Some of the anti-Giuliani folks were angrily yelling questions toward Rudy as the candidate made his way along the edge of the crowd. It seemed as though most of the questions had something to do with war, crime or war crimes. They weren't about the tax cuts that Rudy is very fond of.

As he strolled the tarmac, Rudy signed campaign signs, above.

He shook hands, above.

He posed for photos, above.

Oh man. Taking photos of this guy was difficult. The bright Florida sunshine hitting his follicle-challenged head was so bad. The above photo makes him look like a presidential candidate straight out of the X-Files.

After a hot 15 minutes, Rudy went back toward his chartered jet and waved goodbye, above. Wait, where is he going? Maybe he's got a sweet limo back there?

Anyway, after this photo and at this writing, he is supposed to be off to his next stop in Brevard - Harris Corp., a large employer here in Melbourne where he is to participate in a "town hall" meeting with workers.

Then he should stop by FLORIDA TODAY. We'll see if he's on time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sunsets make Hillary Clinton cry
Rudy Giuliani moves on to Sunshine State, where crying is not allowed

Again, my poor low-light photography skills don't do the sunset justice. But this was the scene earlier today at Wickham Park - a collection of tall pine trees, man-made "lakes" (puddles of mud and algae) and palm trees in the center of Melbourne.

Driving by a pine-tree laced park near my home earlier today, the sunset caught my eye, and I almost started to cry. Then I thought of Hillary Clinton.

As usual, I'm trying to tie some small part of my life to something much bigger. And with the Clinton juxtaposition, that is indeed the case. But tomorrow, something big really will happen.

Video by ABC News via YouTube

If you haven't seen it yet, take a look at the video above. Clinton almost started bawling at the end of a lengthy question-and-answer session in New Hampshire. She alluded to the slippage that her campaign has suffered recently - with a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses and in the New Hampshire primary polls. She said something had to be done to fix it.

All this election action has made me jealous of my brother, Brian, who lives in lovely downtown Manchester, N.H., deep in the bowl of steamy political soup. I called him today, just to ask if he had voted. To my chagrin, he forgot to register in time for today's primary.

But that doesn't mean he wasn't informed.

"Huckabee? Who is he?" he said facetiously. "Giuliani? I don't know where he's going with this immigration thing." My brother, a lifelong Republican, was spitting out some awfully anti-GOP remarks.

He said that if he had registered on time, he would have done so as an independent. In New Hampshire, independents can vote for either a Republican or a Democrat (or an independent, but who does that?). I'll stop short of divulging the candidate who would have received his vote.

It would have been difficult for my brother not to be informed. He has been bombarded by demonstrators from all camps. "When I went to work, McCain supporters were everywhere," he said. "When I came home, Hillary people were everywhere."

Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was one of the politicians I got to see in Washington. In this Nov. 8, 2006, photo, he laments his party's losses in the midterm elections.

Such scenes were a part of daily life when I lived in Washington. My friend and I once bumped into Karl Rove, President Bush's former chief of staff, in an Ace Hardware store in the Tenleytown section of D.C. He was buying some screws. I wondered what he was going to use them for.

My native land of Maine also misses being the important political state as New Hampshire is today. After all, the saying always was, "As goes Maine, so goes the nation." Maine used to hold the first primary and was an early barometer for presidential campaigns.

But wait. I don't have to be jealous or reminiscent. I now live in Florida - a battleground state and a mix of conservatives, liberals and people of all races and backgrounds. Something important has to happen here. Right?

Well, tomorrow, something important will happen. Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani is scheduled to visit Melbourne for a rally at the airport around 1 p.m. Then, later in the day, he'll stop by - drum roll, please - FLORIDA TODAY, my prestigious place of work.

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani hopes his visit to Melbourne, Fla., will give him a boost over that fence and into the White House. And I'm sure he would rather not see many protesters, such as the one in this photo.

Sure, I still miss running into big-shot politicians every time I go to work or when I pick up hardware supplies. But tomorrow, Rudy will bring what he hopes will be his piece of Washington to the Sunshine State, where crying is not allowed. We'll see if Rudy can hold in his emotions after a defeat tonight in Blue Hampshire.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Stephen Colbert tastes good, if you add some Coke

Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream ice cream tastes expectedly bland, but once you add some apple pie, Chevrolet or good ol' Coca-Cola, the resulting AmeriCreation is delicious.

With the New Hampshire primary tomorrow, I decided to put one of the candidates to the test. Well, he's not exactly a candidate - anymore. He was a candidate for the Democratic nomination, but only in South Carolina. Of course, I'm talking about Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

I was in the local Wal-Mart market on my way home from work early this morning. In the ice cream case, I saw a pint of Ben & Jerry's AmeriCone Dream, a flavor created for Mr. Colbert and his imitation ultra-patriotism. I thought I would try it just to find out what liberalism tastes like.

AmeriCone is vanilla ice cream with fudge-covered waffle cone pieces and a caramel swirl. The carton says it's "sweeter than the Bill of Rights, colder than Valley Forge & with twice as much caramel as the Louisiana Purchase. This is the only ice cream with an official thumbs-up from America's greatest news corres-pundit."

But considering the Bill of Rights contains the First Amendment and that I'm a journalist, AmeriCone is about as sweet as a rump roast.

And I've been to Valley Forge twice: once in November, once in May. Even though it wasn't that chilly in Pennsylvania at those times, it still was colder than AmeriCone.

I've also been to Louisiana, and that's not caramel flowing through the Mississippi River: It's dirt (or gumbo). AmeriCone has about as much caramel as the Mississippi.

Liberalism tasted just as I thought: It sounded good (sweet, like Barack Obama, with a hard, waffle-cone edge, like Hillary Clinton), but when you actually try it (vote for it), it's incredibly disappointing (broken campaign promises). The claims listed on its label did not come to fruition.

And I'm not being too presumptuous in saying Colbert is liberal. Yes, he's a difficult character to crack. On Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," he puts on a patriotic and conservative face, and as an incredible actor, it's pretty convincing ... and funny. But even if he is patriotic, he's not conservative. That's the whole intrigue and hilarity about the man: He's a large scoop of irony.

Because of its name and the carton's comparison to the Bill of Rights, Valley Forge and Louisiana Purchase, AmeriCone Dream attempts to evoke patriotism, just as the character behind it does. I mean, I bought it at Wal-Mart. How more American can it get? But because it doesn't live up to its description, I thought I'd Americanize it a bit more.

So what is truly American? Apple pie. Chevrolet. And because I'm in the South, Coca-Cola. I'll skip the hot dogs because I'm not in Chicago (and they should be served with sauerkraut, not ice cream), and I'll forget about baseball because it's not in season.


Apple pie. I skipped the crust and went straight to the apples, slicing up a granny smith and smearing a piece with AmeriCone. It was excellent. The differing textures were perfect complements. And caramel and apple always are great pairs.


Chevrolet. For some reason, I thought AmeriCone would taste better if i ate it while staring at a Chevrolet. But in order to stare at a Chevrolet, I had to drive to a parking lot with one. By the time I got there, the AmeriCone was all mushy, above. But it turns out, the heat loosened up the flavors: The caramel, fudge and waffle bits really popped. It's better warm instead of "colder than Valley Forge."


Coca-Cola. But the Coke. Oh, the Coke. Two scoops into a glass with Coke poured in? An AmeriCone Dream Coca-Cola float!

By the end of it, I was singing, "God bless the USA ... and old-fashioned American ingenuity."

Note: The above is satire and does not represent actual political views.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A lucky new year? It's a (Southern) food thing

We took so long photographing the tablescape of this traditional Southern New Year's meal, or "Hoppin' John," that the greens got a bit cold. But the flavors were still hot and ripe for the eating.

As the next step in my mission to explore and play up the downplayed, I turn to another little-understood topic: good ol' Southern cookin'.

Co-worker Beth calls it a traditional New Year's Day meal, or "Hoppin' John," a name derived either from mythology or etymology. (Who knows?) The components supposedly are separate paths to luck, all seemingly related to riches.
  • The greens (canned spinach here instead of collard greens) bring wealth in the form of greenbacks, because the greens are green. That's a no-brainer.
  • The black-eyed peas (beans with black eyes and cooked with ham and chopped onions) represent wealth in harvest, according to Beth's mother. Other people say they're wealth in coins because they look like little coins, and they plump when you cook 'em.
  • The ham hocks (the shank end of a pig's leg) usher in good health for the new year. But Beth actually served substitute ham hocks: chopped pieces of cooked ham. Hog jowls also are acceptable.
  • And the biscuits (crumbly and made of buttermilk) are the path to even more wealth through gold coins. (Are Southerners obsessed with money?) I asked, "Where's the co'n bread?" Indeed, she said corn bread would have been appropriate (corn = golden = gold coins), but she just decided to go with the biscuits.
Beth did all the cooking. I bought the candles: 26 cents at Walgreens, mainly because of the 75-percent-off-Christmas-stuff sale.

She was all about the tablescape. What's the saying? ... You eat with your eyes first?

I don't know about that, but it did look pretty. My poor indoor photography skills didn't do it justice. But don't my candles, above, look brilliant? The glass is full of sparkling grape juice. (Non-alcoholic, of course.)

Beth set the table with the knife blade facing out. "Shouldn't the blade be facing in?" I asked. We weren't sure, so I looked it up in the etiquette section of her Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (you know, the red and white checkered one). This is a Southern meal, so it should be proper. And sure enough, I was right. I switched the blades so they were facing the plate (after the above picture).

OK, enough with the stuff you can't eat.
  • Greens. We took so long to shoot the table that the spinach was a bit cool. Everything else retained the heat. But don't get me wrong: The greens were awesome. I love healthy food made unhealthy. This wasn't totally the case with the spinach greens: They were cooked with ham, so there was some fat added. They weren't quite like Paula Deen's collards simmered in bacon fat and buttah, plenty of buttah. But they were great nonetheless.
  • Black-eyed peas. The beans also were cooked with ham and a bit of onion. Southern flare isn't something you can measure. That only comes as a secret ingredient from the person cooking the food. Beth learned after the meal that they should be served on rice. But they were great all by themselves.
  • Ham. I'm not sure if I've ever had ham hocks. I love ham, but the hock is an unfamiliar cut of meat, except for my occasional exposure to it on the very-canceled "Emeril Live" show and some assorted Food Network programs. They weren't really hocks, just cut-up pieces of ham. But they were great. Ham can get tough if overcooked, especially when it's heated in a pan. This wasn't the case. There was no unwanted crust. The meat, cooked with onions, was tender and moist. I usually like mustard with my ham. No need for it here.
  • Biscuits. The biscuits were crumbly, as Southern biscuits should be, I was informed. They were made from the Southern-style biscuit mix at Publix. They were just as good as the ones I had at Mother's Restaurant in New Orleans.

From foreground clockwise, the ham hocks, beans and greens sit on a piece of fine china, with the fork properly placed on the napkin and the knife blade facing inward. The biscuits are in the distance.

For dessert, we had pound cake, which Beth proudly and successfully made with milk instead of water. I think Betty Crocker helped. She's from Minnesota, but oh well.

Days after the meal was consumed and subsequently disposed of, Beth asked, "Has your luck kicked in yet ... or run out?" I haven't been extremely lucky this new year, though I haven't purchased any lottery tickets. I haven't been unlucky, either. I haven't been robbed.

So I guess the real test of this meal is yet to come. Let's hope the meal's lucky outcomes can hold a candle to its taste.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Pic of the Day:
Baby, it's cold outside ... in Florida

ell, I looked only briefly, and I couldn't find anything that properly illustrated the bitter cold that beset Central Florida early Thursday.

So we're stuck with this photo near my home in the Baymeadows subdivision of Melbourne. I was outside in the 50-degree weather on a jog past this pathetic little pond, which people call a "lake" here in Florida. The wind coming off the water was stiff and quite frigid.

If you look hard enough, you'll see a rainbow in the background. Light sprinkles bounced around on the breeze.

Earlier in the day, snow flurries were reported and recorded by CNN and Orlando's NBC affiliate in
Cape Canaveral, on the coast. I didn't see any snow a few miles inland in Melbourne.

Early Thursday morning, I even took a cup of cold water outside and poured it into a dip in the driveway, where it would settle and avoid running off. It was at the height of the supposedly low temperatures - almost freezing.

I went back out a bit later and checked the water. It was still exactly that - water. No ice had formed. The low in Melbourne was only 33 degrees.

I was disappointed. I'll have to settle for a cup of hot cocoa to remind me of home in New England. And considering a city nearby is called Cocoa, I could go to Cocoa and drink cocoa. Or I could go to Cocoa Beach and drink cocoa on the beach.

Well, that's the extent of the winter wonderland in Florida. For native Floridians, the weather outside is frightful. For me, it's quite amusing to witness such thin-bloodedness.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Assignment India in America:
'Indian parties are all about the food' - mostly

A man serves glasses of champagne and non-alcoholic sparkling cider at a New Year's Eve party of Indian community members in western Orlando. The drinks were courtesy of generous hosts at a beautiful home overlooking a lake.

Rajeev Sood, a physician from Orlando, and his nephew (and my friend), Jayshal, invited me to a party of Indian community members on New Year's Eve.

I thought I would stick out like a sore thumb at the get-together. It wasn't just because I was the only person who wasn't a part of that Indian community. It was more because I was wearing jeans and a casual shirt. Jayshal, Rajeev and Rajeev's wife,
Subira, wore nice shirts and pants.

But they assured me that I was fine, and we headed out to the party after taking a few photos. Rajeev found out that I knew a little about photography and enlisted me to take photos of his family. He gave me his camera to take photos throughout the party.

When we arrived at the host's home, a large lakeside house in western Orlando, Jayshal and I were still in the back of Rajeev's Mercedes sport utility vehicle when a man greeted us with a slight bow and with his hands together as if to pray. The man couldn't see through the tinted windows and mistakenly thought Jayshal and I were Rajeev's parents, so he gave us a traditional Indian greeting for elders. When he realized who we were, he and Rajeev laughed.

The host home was daunting. It was a perfect party palace: large bar, open kitchen, huge dance area, widescreen television. Outside, there was another bar beside a large pool. The screened-in area could hold a few hundred people comfortably and offered a magnificent view of the natural lake and a nearby temple owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The towering church steeple glowed in the night, and fireworks exploded around it.

I said something to Jayshal about the use of illegal fireworks in Florida. I had just edited a story about it the night before. He said there are no restrictions on them in India. Then he told me about how, in his foolish childhood, he had been playing with firecrackers with his brother when one exploded in his hand. His index finger and thumb were dangling by the skin. The two digits were sewed back on, and he still has the scars that circle them to prove it,

Jayshal pointed out the candles that were lining the pool,
below. He said they were traditional candles used in Indian religious ceremonies. They looked like regular teacup candles, but they didn't have wax. Instead, mustard oil fueled the flame.

Inside, speakers blasted Hindi music that I couldn't understand. The bass was pronounced, and the instrumental sound compared to American hip-hop. But somehow it seemed more meaningful, and I bet the lyrics weren't quite as explicit. Jayshal told me that it was Punjabi music, tunes named after his native state of Punjab.

There were a few other things I didn't understand. What was up with the men with headdresses and beards? They were Sikhs, who came mostly from Punjab, Jayshal said. It helps to have a friend who can answer every question to lessen your ignorance.

Wanting to know the true pulse of an Indian celebration, I asked Rajeev.

"Indian parties are all about the food," he answered.

So I checked out the buffet, a circular spread of every Indian dish imaginable,
above. Considering I had eaten my first Indian meal earlier in the day, it was bound to be an Indian-food overload when I saw the spread. Rajeev circled the table to show me which dishes were vegetarian, which were meat. It was about a 50-50 split.

I knew I had to try everything, so I scooped a bit out of each dish and plopped it onto my plate. The resulting meal was,
starting from foreground clockwise in above photo, chicken patty with spices, corn with chickpeas, potato patty with spices, pastry balls filled with something green and yummy, sandwiches with special mayonnaise and cucumber, chicken kebabs with onion, chicken meatloaf and chicken curry.

The tastes were amazing. The only extremely spicy food was the potato patty, which was pan-fried and mixed with herbs and spices. I'm not big on hot foods, but this was the best. Most dishes in the spread contained Indian foods, except for the Subway sandwiches that someone brought. They seemed out of place. The following photos show more closely the variety I indulged in.

.. sandwiches with mayo, cucumber .................. crackers with dip

.... 0ut-of-place Subway subs.................. chicken patties with spices

............. chicken curry ........................... potato patties with spices

........ corn with chickpeas ...................... pastry balls with green stuff

The headline of this post, "'Indian parties are all about the food' - mostly," certainly implies that there's something else. That quote from Rajeev isn't complete. He actually said, "Indian parties are all about the food ... and the dancing."

But for me, the party was about learning new things, meeting new people, and, yes,
eating new foods. I was treated with such grace.

When we were about to leave, Jayshal and I made one last trip to the dessert table, which consisted almost entirely of American sweets. It didn't seem that desserts were a huge part of Indian culture, thought that's probably not true. Jayshal grabbed one of the mini cheesecakes and attempted to put it into his mouth. But the rich treat slipped out of its paper holder and fell onto the hardwood floor. Just then, we turned around and saw the hostess.

Jayshal and I left the beautiful house laughing together and collectively hoping that the hostess didn't notice the cheesecake smeared on her floor.