Not that I'm affluent, not that I'm a part of the leisure class. Not at all. I am here in Florida working very hard, and it has not escaped my notice that in the past eight weeks I have had fewer social invitations from the local croquet elite - to lunch, dinner, cocktails, and white-tie-and-sneaker balls - than the number of toes on either of my left feet. I am in Florida, but I am not yet a Floridian.
The accidental tourist in South Florida
I'm not complaining. The novel pattern of my social life is fact rather pleasing. My work is totally absorbing, so I go at it happily by day and night, like any croquet monk. But I have discovered that numerous friends - some of them long lost - have gotten the Florida habit. So when they visit - and sometimes stay in my apartment - I take a day off and behave like the Florida tourist I can become at a moment's notice. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I went with a friend to see the manatees, who gather together near the comparatively warm discharge of power plants. At this rate, it will take a long time to see all the sights - which is as it should be for an accidental tourist like me.
The natural landform here in South Florida is perfectly, primordially, flat. Only when developers come to distinguish the firmament and create terrain is there the slightest elevation - from which one could look out over all the surrounding flatness. God-like, the developers come with their bulldozers and create slightly raised dry land, interspersed with ponds, ditches, canals, sump holes, or lakes - depending on the particular spin you want to impart to the Florida real estate in question.
Most of the elevations of any considerable dimension are on golf courses. Palm Beach County has 150 of them. I hardly ever visit golf courses, so my tourist-eye view of South Florida seeks out the only other alternatives to rise above the South Florida flatness: buildings and bridges. The only way to get high down here is on buildings and bridges.
Disneyland? Shangri la? Palm Beach?
One of my few dinner invitations was to a huge high-rise on the Intercoastal (across from Palm Beach) - something like the 30th floor, where you get the constant sea breezes from the Atlantic from the balcony and a spectacular view of that long and magical sand bar called Palm Beach, just across the water. From the 30th floor, you can see at an instant what this place is all about. Surely there could be no more richly diverse or rigidly stratified society than Palm Beach County, and from thirty floors high, that's not merely a sociological point of view; it's vividly palpable.
You have no idea how important it is, in Palm Beach, to be a WASP. You don't absolutely have to be a WASP to do well in the "Who's in, Who's out" game that is so important a part of Palm Beach life - but if you are, everything is so much easier. You will have quicker access as a WASP. To outsiders, the In/Out game sounds like a foolish waste of time for people who have nothing better to do with their lives. But when people take it seriously - and so many do - this game can become quite vicious and cruel. And it takes place within a broader social context of widespread racial and ethnic bigotry that is largely taken for granted.
What has happened here? Why are class divisions here as sharp as they were in the Deep South in the last Century? In most of American society today, if you're wealthy by any means, well groomed, and don't say "ain't" a lot, you can pass just about anywhere. Not here, not in the Palm Beaches. One writer likened the class divisions in South Florida to a crowded room full of strangers.
All the best people and buildings crowd along Palm Beach's Atlantic beaches or - and this is usually considered second best - to the mainland shore of the Intercoastal. You don't have to look far inland, to the west, to see how the whole fabric of South Florida is so dramatically stratified. The farther west you go, towards the Everglades, the cheaper land and buildings and condos and houses in walled communities become.
In Palm Beach, you have to put up half a million bucks to get little more than a shack. But 10 or 15 miles west, you can have a large and gracious home, perhaps on the golf links and protected from transient vehicular access by security guards at gatehouses manned 24 hours a day. This produces a "very nice" and rather dull living environment, where everything is predictable. And more's the pity, the farther west you live the farther you will have to go to find anything interesting to do or anywhere fun to visit. You'll have to head back towards the coast.
Incidentally, the National Croquet Center is very well located, quite near the coast, in contrast to Palm Beach Polo, the old USCA headquarters, way out west in Wellington.
I'm very fortunate in my living situation. I live in a centrally located "real" neighborhood that dates back 80 years, with lawns and dogs and well-grown old trees around single-family homes and small apartment buildings. My second-floor apartment on the Federal Highway is two blocks from the Intercoastal, comfortably inside the narrow coastal belt defined by the Dixie Highway as a currently "desirable" place to live. The parkway along the water, lined with grass and palm trees fronting the seawall, reminds me of my Marina home on San Francisco's north waterfront.
Even though real estate values in the area have doubled in the last two years, this is still not an expensive place to live - not by San Francisco standards. (Since I escaped the Piney Woods of Mississippi many decades ago, I have lived only in New York and San Francisco.) Even in the "high season" (January through April), Florida is cheap, by some standards, for people who live here.
I am beginning to understand the appeal of Florida. It was miserably cold and dreary in Mississippi during my Xmas visit - everything was drab, brown and gray. I could think of little besides getting back to the relative warmth of South Florida and the lush tropical garden that surrounds my apartment in the "historic El Cid" district.
The only certainty is the change of seasons
People tell me that the summers here are unbearable. "It's a burning, steaming hell," one seasonal migrator said. Could it be worse than Mississippi in July? I doubt it. Maybe I'll find out this summer. My future here is uncertain - it depends on the future of the National Croquet Center. I confess I'm more curious than fearful of the prospect of spending time here in the summer. I'm particularly interested in working with tennis pro Dave Bent and others in developing the Summer Teen Program at the Center. Also, I've learned that many corporations come to Florida in the summer seeking cheaper rates for hotels, travel, and - potentially - Croquet Lawn Parties at the National Center. I had assumed the summer would be "down time" for corporate groups. Not so, my consultants tell me; summer could be prime time for giving demo events and promoting site inspections for event planners, hotel sales managers, and the like - in addition to producing late afternoon corporate group events.
Only the wealthy, it turns out, are driven to escape Florida in the summer. Among croquet society, those who are merely "well off" actually have only one home - in Florida. Unlike the wealthy, who summer in the Hamptons, or Idaho, or Maine, or in the Carolina Smokies, or California or suburban New York or Connecticut (among the croquet folk I know best), the merely well off croquet people visit their families and travel around during the summer. They usually spend some time here in the summer - but they play relatively little croquet then. Perhaps an early morning game. Maybe a game at the cocktail hour - but there are risks involved near sundown, when the flying insects come out in droves in the summertime.
Nevertheless, now that I have re-invented myself, if only temporarily, as a bi-coastal person, I am curious to see what Florida is like in the summertime.
Are the sunsets as glorious in the summer as they are in this deepest winter? I'm told they are. Near my apartment is one of many bridges to Palm Beach. At the highest peak of this bridge over the Intercoastal waterway, you get some perspective above the flat surround, so you can see the whole horizon. On the rare occasions when I am home as early as sunset, I enjoy walking out onto the bridge, so I can take in the whole of that predictably extravagant and luridly pink Florida sunset over the Everglades. It will take a while to get tired of that view.
Now that the whole issue of hanging chads has been put to rest, weather is a big conversation item around here. There is more weather here than you might think. Even in Southern Florida, the mercury dips to freezing at times. That is MAJOR conversation right there. I find the thunderstorms here particularly entertaining. They happen even in winter and more frequently in summer, I am told. And instead of earthquakes, we have hurricanes in Florida. I have never been in one, so I have that to look forward to if I should venture here in the South Florida "off-season".
Someone asked me, "Aren't you afraid of the hurricanes?" How can you be afraid of a hurricane you see coming for days on end? Unlike a San Francisco earthquake, you always have a choice about where you'll be in a hurricane. Although hurricanes are vastly exciting, they lack the thrill of unpredictability.
While I am in Florida, I would like to see one of those sinkholes that appear overnight and begin to swallow up entire blocks. My understanding is that as the water table is continually lowered, there will occasionally be sinkholes when the dry limestone that used to be supported by water collapses, swallowing up people, cars, streets, houses. I'd really like to see that. But that happens in Central Florida, not here on the coast.
Grits and Baptists
This is a very Southern place to be. All the Deep South things are here, from Baptists to grits. I love grits; it's part of my upbringing. As a connoisseur of grits and biscuits, I can tell you that these staples of Deep South cuisine are superb at Grandma Sarah's Family Kitchen (the local equivalent of Stern Grove's Tennessee Grill).
My feelings about the cracker-style religious sects here are mixed. There's something comforting about driving through the still streets on Sunday morning past dozens and dozens of churches with their parking lots filled to the brim. Many of these churches are totally benign. I have observed that a significant proportion of the croquet folk down here attend church on Sunday - usually the more sophisticated non-denominational or Anglican variety.
Baptists are everywhere in West Palm Beach, and that is a bit unsettling to my cosmopolitan soul. I was content to leave behind the Southern Baptists in my Mississippi childhood, and I now find that there are Baptist churches on every other block in South Florida. It gives me some comfort to observe that most of them are offshoot sects, some quite bizarre. Baptists are well known for splitting doctrinal hairs. This is because they are all fundamentalists, who believe that the Bible is inerrantly "true." The problem is, of course, that the shape and tenor of this truth is always interpreted by the guy in charge - whether it's the president of the Southern Baptist Convention or the local preacher at the Primitive Baptist Church which takes a nick out of the 10-acre rectangle occupied by the National Croquet Center.
These particular Baptists seem very nice, incidentally, and certainly they are no threat in their numbers. Primitive Baptists wash each other's feet - a practice not widely in vogue currently in Western civilization.
Not far away are many other varieties of Baptists, including the Free Will Baptists. In my limited understanding, these Baptists walk a very fine theological line. On the one hand, one is saved absolutely and forever by professing one's faith in the redeeming blood of Christ. HOWEVER: if a born-again Baptist is really, really bad, he or she can, at times, stand in danger of hell's fire. I will never understand how the Free Will Baptists can simultaneously hold these contradictory positions.... because I am not going to their church to find the answer.
Birds, Flowers, Fish
Here's a local footnote on the continuous American debate on separation of church and state: The state of Florida, like all states, sells specialty license plates. One of them gaining rapidly in popularity carries the bold legend, CHOOSE LIFE. Predictably, this has made the American Civil Liberties Union and other champions of secularity see red. The ACLU says the message – a blatantly religious point of view on abortion rights - cannot be constitutionally promoted by a state government. The other side says, "Oh no, this is not political at all. “Choose life” could mean flowers or birds or fish, or anything. Not just babies." Of course, Mr. Jeb Bush's Republican-dominated executive branch declines to withdraw the controversial tag. So a suit is being brought that will inevitably wind up in the Florida Supreme Court - which, as we all now know, is dominated by Democratic (read "liberal") appointees from former state administrations.
Two guesses which county has sold more of the CHOOSE LIFE plates than any other. You're right: Palm Beach County.
What more dare I say about Florida? I can only give you the view from over here, where I stand now on the southeastern edge of the continent at the dawning of the New Millenium, and everything I see is new and fascinating. It's an intensely personal view, of course. As all post-Christian pagans know, there are no intrinsic values out there. In case you haven't guessed it by now: this editorial is about the value of change itself, for its own sake. Moving from one continent to another, from one coast to another, from one climate to another, from one season to another. Giving yourself an utterly new view of life, of possibility. That's a hell of a thing to do - especially if you've been settled in for decades, doing the same things, seeing the same things, talking to the same people, thinking the same thoughts.
I wonder: can a small sport, like an individual, change its direction, alter its character, shift its public identity intentionally? Can such a thing be planned and managed and executed?
I now understand the spiritual value of moving from coast to coast, from north to south - just as the wealthy croquet folk do. I confess I have made jokes about them the past, because it has seemed somehow pathetic to put oneself so slavishly at the effect of external circumstances, like the changes of season. But change - constant change, even change for its own sake - is enlivening. More than one guru has observed that no-change is death itself. Does the seasonal migration itself, with repetition, become merely habitual instead of soul-renewing? I sincerely hope not!
It's going to be one hell of a millennium.
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