Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Uneasy over electronic voting

Electronic voting was easy enough ... so why do I feel uneasy?
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

I voted Monday.
It took five minutes.
I walked into the South County Elections Office, and a couple of kindly poll workers took my name and address, checked my driver's license and handed me a plastic card.
I inserted the card into the machine, and a virtual ballot appeared on screen.
I made my choices, looked them over, then pushed the final button.
My votes were gone.
Recorded, I hoped.
Gee, I thought: That was easy.
But I felt uneasy.
There was no piece of paper to look over one last time before releasing it from my fingers into a ballot box.
There was nothing but blank screen.
Like every other voter in the new e-voting age, I have to trust that the tabulations will accurately reflect my choices.
And that no accidental bug or intentional saboteur erases my votes.
Or sticks them in the other guys' columns.
Yet sorry to say, the systems we're using don't merit our trust.
Sure, spokesmen for this big-bucks industry tell us there's nothing to worry about. But experience is showing otherwise.
In Maryland last month, machines froze, access cards choked, computerized voter lists crashed -- a combination of technical and human error.
Gov. Robert Erlich, a Republican, was so fed up, he now wants to scrap his state's $106 million system and return to paper ballots.
Maryland's equipment is from Diebold Election Systems, whose machines have been hacked in experiments at Princeton University and in the office of Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho.
Palm Beach County uses a system by Sequoia Voting Systems, which is currently under fire for alleged ties to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. The convoluted history here involves the California-based company's sale last year to a much smaller company called Smartmatic Corp. with headquarters in a tree-lined office park in Boca Raton. Smartmatic was founded by a young Spanish-Venezuelan engineer named Antonio Mugica and two colleagues. After getting what officials called a small business loan of $200,000 from a Venezuelan government financing agency, the young company supplied machines in Venezuela for a 2004 referendum on Chavez -- making so much money, they were able to buy 100-year-old Sequoia for $120 million in 2005.
At a conference-call press conference in Washington on Monday, Mugica saw nothing fishy in his firm's meteoric growth. "We have the best technology," he said.
Mugica and company spokesman denied the firm is owned or controlled by the leftist Chavez. They said they develop and sell voting machines; they don't run elections.
To prove they're on the up and up, they said, they had invited the federal investigation, by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, that made headlines over the weekend.
Smartmatic's business practices might prove to be as completely ordinary as its officials say.
It's in the nature of private companies to do things like contribute heavily to the Republican Party (Diebold) or set up international business arrangements with countries our government doesn't like (Smartmatic).
But when the private companies that do these ordinary things play a dominant role in our elections procedures without sufficient oversight, we are clearly playing with fire.
Fact is, as long as there have been elections in America, there has been mischief. The expression "stuff the ballot box" doesn't come from nowhere.
And yet, Florida has adopted inane rules that don't allow hand recounts when electronic voting is involved.
That don't allow us to look inside the machinery to check that everything is kosher.
That wise man, Ronald Reagan, said in regard to treaties with the Soviet Union, we must be able to "trust,but verify."
Right now, we can't verify that the votes which define our democracy are being counted correctly.
So how can we trust?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Donald and the flag

Some controversies can only happen in the town of Palm Beach ...

Date: Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

If you are Donald Trump, by gum, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want.

This is because you are the richest man on earth and you have the most luscious string of wives and ex's, the most successful casinos and the top-rated show on television.

Well, maybe you're not exactly the very richest person. And maybe someone else has a more profitable casino and a more popular show ... but let's not nitpick. These are the kind of piddling details that obsess the sort of losers who hear the words: "You're fired!"

If you are The Donald, you are not impeded by the little facts that hamper smaller men. You do not let yourself be bound by little laws.

The Town of Palm Beach does not understand the grandiosity of The Donald.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Congressman and a 'cute butt'

Congressman forfeited privacy when he crossed the line of decency
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

Three years ago, when confronted with "revolting and unforgiving" reports that he is gay, Mark Foley angrily held a news conference to say he deserved to keep his private life private.
"Elected officials, even those who run for the United States Senate, must have some level of privacy," the Republican congressman declared.
And most in the media complied.
Just as leaders in the House of Representatives apparently dealt with "overly friendly e-mails" with, at most, a word of warning.
Hey, no sense disturbing the man's privacy.
Now, of course, Foley's life has come unwrapped in about as spectacular a fashion as anyone can imagine.
Not for a secret life as a gay man, which never seemed to bother anybody in his district who knew about it. But for dozens of creepy e-mails and Internet text messages that show him lusting, in the most literal terms, after teenage boys.
In the space of a few days, he's gone from Mark Foley, R-Fort Pierce, shoo-in for a seventh term in Congress, to Mark Foley, ruined man.
The R after his name now stands for Recovery, that ever-expandable society for America's fallen celebrities.
He's gone into hiding -- er, retreat -- er, rehab -- and sent out a surrogate to confess all manner of ugly and awful secrets.
Can the bookings on Oprah and Dr. Phil be far behind?
How soon until we see the repentant autobiography and the bid for public forgiveness?
His attorney-spokesman David Roth tells us Foley takes full responsibility for his actions. But then enumerates all kinds of factors that Foley just has to get off his chest in the name of his recovery. Not that we should mistake any of these for extenuating circumstances, mind you.
Foley's claiming that he's an alcoholic. But since when does getting drunk make you lust over a young boy's rear end?
Or as Maf54, Foley's nom de keyboard, calls it: "cute butt bouncing in the air."
Foley wants us to know that he was molested as a teen by an anonymous clergyman. But since when does everyone who's molested in turn get to take an unhealthy interest in children?
"It's very rare, actually," said Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), from Chicago.
"The overwhelming majority of abuse victims hurt themselves, not others," added David Clohessy, SNAP national director, from St. Louis, "through self-destructive behavior, criminal behavior, isolation, addictions and so on."
Foley also wants us to know he is gay. But what a disservice that does to the great majority of gay people.
He's given new ammunition for those people who think that sexual predation and homosexuality are synonymous.
Roth promises us that, categorically, Foley never engaged in pedophile activity and never had a teenager in his apartment for sex.
Maybe that's true if you define pedophilia strictly as sex with someone under age 13. But this week's crop of Internet messages, reported by ABC News, make that assertion hard to believe.
One -- from 2003 while Foley took a break from a vote on authorizing money for the Iraq war -- indicate that instant message exchanges reached a sexual climax.
"Ok, i better go vote," writes Foley near the end of that exchange. "Did you know you would have that effect on me."
All these secrets. We're hearing about them after the harm is done.
If it's true that Foley was a closet alcoholic and a childhood victim of clergy sex abuse, wouldn't it have been better to be honest about it? Honest to himself? To us?
Keeping it buried sure didn't make things better.
All the while Foley was keeping his cherished zone of privacy, he was walking a tightrope, living the high profile life of a congressman while behaving in ways that could destroy him.
"The one response to child and sexual abuse that always fails is silence," says Clohessy, himself a childhood victim of a priest's sexual advances.
To quote the singer-philosopher Paul Simon, silence like a cancer grows.
"And cancer, if there's even to be a prayer of recovery, has to be exposed and rooted out. It's painful and risky, but doing nothing is far more painful and more risky," Clohessy said.
On Wednesday, former Foley aide Kirk Fordham, himself resigning in the Foley fallout, said he warned Speaker Dennis Hastert's office more than three years ago about Foley's troublesome behavior. Three years ago!
The Republican leadership that kept quiet reminds me of the Catholic hierarchy that has protected priests for years and years, preferring to keep things under wraps to protect the membership over forthrightly removing and punishing the wrongdoers to protect children.
I don't have any confidence that Democrats would do things differently if they were in charge.
It's all about keeping the lid on long enough to make our side look good and their side look bad.
This isn't just about a man preying on teenagers. This is a man using his position in Congress to view the page program as his own little buffet table.
This is about a man who advances his career by parading as a valiant protector of young people, while mocking the notions of decency he claims to defend.
As recently as July, Foley was scoring political points by backing tougher laws against sex offenders. "For too long our nation has tracked library books better than it has sex offenders," he said as the Senate moved a bill to close enforcement loopholes.
Now I can't help wondering: What was Maf54 writing that day?

Monday, October 2, 2006

Naked confessions

Naked confessions of Foley's priest are hard to swallow
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

Now, that's a relief: It was only saunas and massages in the nude, skinny-dipping and fondling.
Thank God it was nothing like sex.
The interview confessions of the Rev. Anthony Mercieca induce a kind of stunned amazement that any man of the cloth would so easily admit to behavior that's so patently wrong, while blithely acting as though everything was quite all right.
Mercieca is the Roman Catholic priest who says he cavorted with a young altar boy named Mark Foley when he was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth in 1967.
Foley grew up to be the six-time Republican congressman with the secret life that included a nasty habit of engaging teenage boys in Internet-message sex talk.
As the whole world knows, the 52-year-old from Fort Pierce abruptly resigned last month when some of his cringe-producing exchanges with congressional pages became public.
After disappearing into his undisclosed recovery bunker, Foley had a lawyer announce that the disgraced pol was (a) a secret alcoholic and (b) molested by a clergyman.
Thus hitting the Daily Double of excuse-making, Foley then wanted us to know that none of this was an excuse.
The stage was set for enterprising reporters to find Mercieca, who at 69 is retired and living on the small Maltese island of Gozo, a geography trivia answer in the Mediterranean Sea.
Mercieca has proved a most obliging subject.
"We were friends and trusted each other as brothers and loved each other as brothers," Mercieca told The Associated Press.
He said he and Foley would go into saunas naked, but "everybody does that."
Oh, sure. Lots of parents want to see their son or daughter dipping naked in the spa with their minister or rabbi.
In all his interviews, he denied having sexual intercourse with Foley, then all of 13.
"It's not something you call, I mean, rape or penetration or anything like that, you know," he told WPTV Ch.5. "It was just fondling."
Anybody else out there having trouble holding down their breakfast?
As mea culpas go, Mercieca's sounds as persuasive as Bill Clinton's protestations about the oral ministrations of Monica Lewinsky not counting as sex.
But according to David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, there's a big difference. Clinton undoubtedly lied to save his job. But "the priest's crimes are so egregious and so taboo, I think he's lying to protect his twisted psyche."
Clohessy, of St. Louis, is himself a childhood victim of a priest's abuse.
"If I had to guess," he said, "the priest's heart is filled with turmoil and guilt and confusion and shame. And the brain would be clear and neat and orderly and make these distinctions. And that's how he can talk so dispassionately about this."
Richard Sipes, a former monk and priest who wrote a classic work on the sexual and celibate practices of Catholic clergy, A Secret World, said Mercieca is very typical.
"Dioceses throughout the United States are now recording an average of 7 percent priest abusers of minors in their records," Sipes writes in a soon-to-be-published report.
The tawdry doings are rationalized as "tickling," "a massage," "friendship."
The result is a fascinating, perverse psychological hall of mirrors.
In Merceica, you have a priest who plays naked with boys and touches them in the wrong places, but sees nothing wrong in it.
In Foley, you have one of those boys growing up to be a denouncer of this very behavior -- going so far as to raise public alarms over a youth nudist camp that has run for years without complaint. Is he trying to protect a younger, wounded version of himself against another, predatory version of himself?
Because all the while Foley is blasting the exploitation of minors, he is secretly engaging in it.
It's only when he is caught that he suddenly comes forward to reveal being abused by the priest.
It's dizzying.
And sickening.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Politicans and priests acting badly

For a time in 2006, Palm Beach County was a bonanza for crazy behavior from public figures. In one particularly rich stretch, we had priests robbing the till and a congressman making weird sexual advances to teen boys. Hence...

Date: Sunday, October 1, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

Hey, isn't it supposed to be the politicians who get caught stealing money?

And the priests who get accused of misbehavior with boys?

Well, that's not how it goes in Palm Beach County.

In a dizzying couple of days last week, we were hit with back-to-back shockers:

Two priests from St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach stood accused of stealing millions of dollars from collection plates over four decades -- money that parishioners had taken out of their pockets and intended for widows and orphans and good works -- and spending it on condos, gambling trips, girlfriends and other pleasures not usually associated with the priestly life.

And while that was just sinking in, six-term U.S. Rep. Mark Foley abruptly announced his resignation, one day after the emergence of some creepy-sounding e-mails he had sent last year to a 16-year-old congressional page.

Until that moment, the Republican from Fort Pierce looked like a shoo-in for re-election.

And for 24 hours, his camp tried damage-control, accusing Democratic challenger Tim Mahoney of releasing the e-mails (which Mahoney denied) and saying there was nothing inappropriate about them. Which, in any other context but politics, would seem like contradictory statements.

But the teenager sure thought something was strange about receiving messages from a man in his 50s who wanted to know, "... what do you want for your birthday coming up ..." and "send me a pic of you as well ..."

The kid, unnamed in news reports, was so jarred that he wrote to an associate on Capitol Hill: "Maybe it is just me being paranoid, but seriously. This freaked me out."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Heroes and villains of the beach

Beach cleanup effort quickly swept away by litterers 
by Howard Goodman | Commentary

A broad sandy beach.
A sky of blue. A shimmering sea.
And a Hershey wrapper, three soda cans, four plastic water bottles, a shriveled balloon, a discarded sandal and too many bottle caps and plastic bags to count.
That's just some of the inventory I found in a 20-minute stroll on a gloriously near-empty Oceanfront Park beach, south of the Boynton Inlet, on Wednesday morning.
And this was only four days after the beach received a thorough cleaning.
On Saturday morning, 220 volunteers combed the sands east of Boynton Beach. It was about a 21/2-mile stretch.
In 21/2 hours, they picked up:
3,383 cigarettes and cigarette filters
1,187 caps and lids
466 food wrappers and containers
427 straws and stirrers
351 paper and plastic bags
315 cups, plates, forks, knives and spoons
209 plastic sheets and tarps
207 cigar tips
178 pieces of rope
151 pull tabs
145 plastic beverage bottles
And they found an additional 784 distinct pieces of garbage -- including 95 fishing lines, 57 toys, 31 bleach bottles, 11 light bulbs, nine six-pack holders, six car parts, two diapers and one tire.
All of which leads to one inescapable conclusion.
People are pigs.
Much of this stuff had accumulated in only a month. We know this because once a month a group called the Sand Sifters takes it upon itself to pick up the trash that fellow citizens have so thoughtfully left on the public beach.
Those monthly pickups attract 60 to 65 volunteers. Last Saturday's sweep was much bigger. It was for International Coastal Cleanup Day, an annual event sponsored by The Ocean Conservancy environmental group. Last year, 450,000 volunteers picked up 8.2 million pounds of debris from 18,000 miles of coast in 74 countries. All over the globe, people are pigs.
Gary Solomon, who runs a group of Web sites for food recipes, founded the Sand Sifters a year ago with a couple of neighbors in west Boynton.
"Horrific" is the word he uses to describe the magnitude of dreck.
"After the holidays especially, it's absolutely disgusting," adds Janell McCracken, one of his cohorts.
Take, for instance, those 3,383 cigarettes and cigarette filters. Very clearly, many smokers have mistaken the sand on the beach for the sand in an ashtray.
McCracken says the Sand Sifters try to fight this by passing out fold-up, portable ashtrays to smokers.
This effort is not overly successful. It often triggers the territorial defensiveness of the cigarette-loving public.
"Most of the time," she said, "people who are smokers are offended by us asking them to use the boxes instead of the sand."
The garbage isn't all left by beachgoers, Solomon says. Some of it washes ashore, probably tossed overboard by people in boats. Some of it sweeps out the Boynton Inlet from the Intracoastal Waterway.
The variety is impressive.
A couple of months ago, a Sand Sifter volunteer found an engine on the beach, McCracken said. Once, she found dead chickens with their heads cut off.
The beach contains condoms and Tampons. "And a lot of plastic and Styrofoam, stuff that doesn't break down," says Dave Wagner, another Sand Sifter stalwart.
It's terrific that a group of citizens has taken on the responsibility of making the beaches cleaner.
But it's appalling that this is a never-ending job. That so many of us have so little respect for other people or for the beach itself.
"People have no respect for planet Earth," McCracken has concluded after a year of conscientious cleanups.
Time and again, McCracken sees people walking within a foot of a trashcan and tossing their garbage on the ground.
"Like they're thinking, `It's just the beach,'" McCracken said.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fat-cat burger

Boca Raton loves to play up its image of wealth and luxury. Here was a chance to hold up a mirror.

Date: Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

Just in time for your Fourth of July barbecue: the $100 hamburger.

The Old Homestead Steak House in the Boca Raton Resort & Club put this baby on the menu to great fanfare last week.

Their 20-ounce softball-size burger is made from beef from three continents: corn-fed American prime; free-range cattle from the Argentine pampas, and Japanese Kobe from cattle that were fed soybeans and beer, bathed in sake and massaged by hand.

For the debut last Tuesday, "the coveted ingredients were flown in fresh," the restaurant's publicists said, "and delivered by armored car to a synchronized cavalcade of 10 uniformed chefs who ground, chopped and basted the beef" to be cooked up by a former executive chef for Donald Trump.

It was history in the making -- a milestone of hyperbole, if not gastronomy. Restaurant owners Greg and Marc Sherry called their creation "the Beluga caviar of sandwiches" and "the Romeo and Juliet of food."

I haven't tasted this two-handed ode to excess, which comes with a special chipotle sauce mixed with white truffles and champagne. Mere ketchup isn't allowed.

I asked, but my editor wouldn't expense it. "You can get a burger at The Green Owl for $4.95," he growled.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Hope for Alzheimer's

I met Patty Doherty, who impressed me right away with her passion over the sufferings of Alzheimers patients and their spouses and children. And then I found out that she was using that passion to raise money for a researcher who was trying to crack the mysteries of the disease. And the researcher was working in the next town over. Great story.


Date: May 7, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach section LOCAL: !B


Richard McNally was a pilot, a fun-loving man with an off-beat sense of humor who flew corporate jets for a living and who'd come home to a household as loud and chaotic as seven children could make it.

His life was rich when he retired to Palm Beach Gardens. But after a while, the old Richard McNally disappeared. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And over the course of 11 years, he developed great holes where his memory used to be.

For a while, the stories were almost funny: Dad would wander into a neighbor's house and help himself to crackers in the kitchen.

But then he couldn't drive. And he couldn't be alone.

One of his daughters, Patty Doherty, a graphic designer, moved down from Boston with her husband, a chef, to take charge of her father's care.

"We never wanted to put him in a nursing home," she says. "I had no idea what was in store for us. And still today there's very little help available. The disease never improves. It just deteriorates. And there's no treatment that's effective."

Patty and a younger sister thought they could provide their father's hands-on care if they split the duties.

But he had become incontinent. He couldn't brush his teeth. One minute he was the person they knew. The next, he was someone they didn't recognize.

"After a year," Patty says, "we were ready to kill ourselves."

The brothers and sisters, most of them living up North, pooled resources and hired 24-hour help. The first year, it was $10 an hour, more on vacations and holidays. Each following year, the hourly wage rose a dollar.

"It was like a little industry," she says, "managing the caregivers."

Insurance didn't cover it. Medicare didn't.

But the children had to bear the financial burden. Otherwise, their mother would never leave the house, never play bridge or go to church, never catch a breather.

When Doherty heard 21/2 years ago that The Scripps Research Institute was expanding into Florida -- the Palm Beach Gardens vicinity, no less -- she was elated.

She became an unabashed Scripps supporter from the start. She watched closely, and with alarm, the many times it looked like the county might blow it.

"These are the people who can cure Alzheimer's," she'd say. "And when you see what the disease can do, you don't want anything to stand in the way of that vision."

She got to know a Scripps scientist, Malcolm Leissring, who plays a mean metal rock guitar and who heads a lab that's seeking an Alzheimer's cure.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Touch-screen voting

I was one of the first reporters in the mainstream media to raise questions about the accuracy of touch-screen voting machines and I returned to the subject frequently. Here's a column about a hero who spoke out despite political heat:

Date: Sunday, March 26, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

TALLAHASSEE - It's simple. In close elections, we need to be able to recount the votes.

That's most obvious in Palm Beach County, where voters booted out the long-serving supervisor of elections, Theresa LePore, in 2004 -- partly because she didn't think the new touch-screen technology, brought in to replace those disastrous punch cards, needs paper backups.

Unfortunately, the paper trail has gone cold under LePore's successor. Instead of leading the charge for change, Arthur Anderson is taking it slow.

But Anderson's complacency isn't the only roadblock to a paper trail.

Here's a potentially bigger hurdle: Florida has rewritten its elections law to eliminate almost all manual recounts in touch-screen voting.

The reasoning is that the computerized touch-screens are incapable of error. After all, the machine won't let you overvote or undervote -- that is, vote for too many candidates or unintentionally leave blanks, the major problems in past election challenges.

Just one problem.

The machines can be wrong.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Not to the manners born

Bringing education to the table
by Howard Goodman | Commentary

When you pick up the knife -- with the right hand, of course -- you place your palm over the handle and your forefinger on the top of the blade. That finger on top allows you to press firmly in the event the knife is dull or the meat tough.
While you're chewing, you place your knife and fork on your plate in the so-called resting position. That is, you arrange the utensils in a cross, with the fork face down, the tines bridging the knife.
So much I never knew!
And to think I'd learn it by watching fifth-graders in one of the lowest-income elementary schools in Palm Beach County.
We're in Rebecca Hinson's class on the Art of Table Manners. The art teacher at South Grade Elementary in Lake Worth has put away the paints and pottery. She's dimmed the lights, piped in soft piano music and laid out a lace tablecloth.
One by one, over the past few days, her five fifth-grade classes have been coming in for high tea.
This, in a section of Lake Worth that no one would confuse with the town of Palm Beach.
In this neighborhood, people don't read French on the menus. They speak Spanish, Creole and Guatemalan languages at home.
Some 97 percent of the kids get federally funded free lunches -- the highest proportion of any school in the county's coastal areas, said Principal Michael Riley.
The teaching staff here doesn't think any of that is reason for them to think small.
"We want them to go to college," Hinson said, "and when they get there, we want them to fit in. We don't want them going to Duke, Harvard and Stanford not knowing the proper way to behave."
Table etiquette is not a subject that Hinson's students were exactly dying to learn.
Let's face it. For most kids, dinner manners mainly involve whether it's proper to grab the remote with greasy fingers.
"The boys especially are always saying to me, `I'm never going to use that,'" Hinson said.
She tells them they never know. When they're older, they might be invited to a wedding. Or expected to make a toast as a best man. Or taken to lunch on a job interview.
"They need to know these things," said Hinson.
She is no socialite herself. She grew up, she says, on the wrong side of the tracks in a small South Carolina town. A single mother, she works two jobs ("so I can afford to be a teacher").
As she sees it, learning the proper way to use a knife, fork and napkin isn't a frill. It's an essential life skill.
"In order to dig yourself out of poverty," she said, "you have to know what to do in special settings."
We've got a school system obsessed with teaching the three Rs. At South Grade, at least, students are also taught to mind their Ps and Qs.
"We must teach our youth to respect themselves and others," Riley said. Table manners are a way of doing that. But not the only one.
At South Grade, little kids will hold the door for you and say "Please" and "Thank you." That's no accident.
The school runs an array of character-building programs. Kids are encouraged to deplore bullies and celebrate random acts of kindness.
A little after 1 p.m., kids are filing into Hinson's room. They're gingerly taking seats at a long table set out with three-deck silver trays.
English muffins with ham and melted cheese on the bottom tray. Chocolate-covered cream puffs in the middle. Strawberries on top.
Very proper.
The 19 kids in Wednesday's session all had passed a test based on Tiffany's Table Manners for Teenagers by Walter Hoving, a former Tiffany & Co. chairman. But they look nervous, like they're afraid of breaking something.
Hinson gives instructions: Unfold the napkin and put it in your lap. Hold the serving spoon and fork in the palm of each hand and serve yourself two cream puffs and two strawberries. Cut the strawberry in pieces around the stem.
It's a lot to keep straight.
I soon spot Cordarius Joseph eating a strawberry with (horrors!) his fingers. Claudeson Azurin holding his fork with the (egad!) tines facing up.
Monique Horne, on the other hand, daintily finishes off her English muffin like a natural. She's a singer.
She says this stuff might come in handy "when I'm older, or if I become famous."
Before long, lots of kids are standing up and, following Hinson's example, giving toasts.
Kevin Bradlow, a glass of fruit punch aloft, toasts Hinson as his "best teacher."
"I'll miss her in the sixth grade," he says.
I know. There's something inherently silly about a course in table manners.
We've always made fun, in America, of hoity-toity types who jut their pinky fingers while drinking tea. Our movies are filled with stuck-up debutantes getting their comeuppance, snobs in top hats brought to earth by Joe Average.
But if you ask me, this course is a pretty good testament to the American ideal of social mobility.
Every one of these kids, this course is saying, can rise above their backgrounds. Go places. Be somebody.
Every one is capable of someday eating at the Ritz.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Rock'n'roll, fathers'n'sons

Taking son Ben to see the rock legends inspires reflections.
Stones bridge gap of generations
By Howard Goodman | Commentary 
Keith Richards picked up an acoustic guitar. Played that familiar Middle Eastern-like intro.
Then Charlie Watts beat his tom-tom: dumm dumm dumm dum-dum, dumm dumm dumm dum-dum.
My son Ben sprang out of his seat, his fist high.
It was Paint It Black, a song way up in the pantheon of his very favorites, and we were hearing it live, just the way it sounded decades back, hearing it from the guys who wrote it and put it on tape and therefore into radios and stereos and the deep-memory places of our brains.
And I felt an irrational wave of fatherly happiness and -- is this allowed when speaking about the Rolling Stones? -- satisfaction.
This was Sunday night two weeks ago, and we were at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, sitting toward the back of the arena in $200 seats to see the Rolling Stones. A father and teenage son on a splurge to see the living legends.
Legends I first saw 40 years ago.
Turn the time machine way back to 1966. Paint It Black was a radio hit. I was 17 and I thought rock 'n' roll not yet the universal musical idiom, was pretty dumb.
I looked down on Elvis Presley and Beatlemania. My tastes ran to folk and Broadway musicals.
The dirty, loud excitement of the Stones changed all that.
Now Ben, on the day before his 16th birthday, was seeing the group that turned me into a rock 'n' roll fan those many years ago. A fairly obsessed, record-collecting, concert-going, radio-listening, lyric-perusing, music-press-reading, mad-dancing fan.
Unlike me at his age, Ben is a serious rock music devotee. He's already collected memories of greats in concert: Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull. He loves old quirky bands like the Velvet Underground, and new gutbucket bands he counts as personal discoveries: the Black Keys, the Hentchmen, the 22-20s.
This makes me unreasonably proud.
It feels good when your kid likes the same music you do. And to see that he understands why it mattered to you so much.
You expect that your kids will be hip to what's current: video games, cell phones, the Internet, Family Guy.
Yet you really treasure it when they appreciate the old: Casablanca, West Side Story, All the President's Men. James Bond. The Chicago Cubs.
Fathers used to pass on survival skills to their sons: how to hunt or fish, or build a house. In our tamer modern world, a father is more likely to pass on sensibility and attitude and taste.
So when my friend Michael the Attorney said we should surprise our boys with Stones tickets, he spoke to my sense of parental responsibility.
"Once in their life, they have to see the Rolling Stones," he said.
Just as, at least once in your life, you have to see Mount Rushmore.
The Stones weren't monuments when I saw them 40 years ago, on their fifth U.S. tour. The gatekeepers of culture were pretty sure that what they did wasn't even music.
They sneered. They were kind of ugly. Mick Jagger seemed like a gangly grad student trying look sexy
and not totally succeeding, banging a tambourine and dancing and braying.
"I see a red door and I want it to turn black ..."
The music was raw and dark and insistent. And giving in to the band and the crowd in Chicago's vast Arie Crown Theater, from a $7 seat in the last row, was way more fun than anything I'd ever been part of. The '60s took their dark turn before I saw the Stones again, in 1969 in Madison Square Garden. I was a college radical and the Stones were the dangerous figures of Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil, sorcerers who captured the zeitgeist of an America whose ghetto streets were burning, whose gunships were dropping napalm in Southeast Asia, whose idealistic leaders were assassinated.
No band was ever more urgent.
When I saw them next, in 1981 in Detroit, rock wasn't counterculture any more. And I wasn't, either.
Their show was a extravaganza of art direction and set design and celebrity worship. It was great theater, a good time. But the Stones were no longer central.
I didn't expect them to tell us what the era was about. They weren't breaking boundaries. They couldn't threaten the establishment. Kings of the concert business, they were the establishment.
Twenty-five years have passed since then, when they already were fighting against being a nostalgia act.
I kept my expectations low for this 2006 show. I was just hoping the aging Stones wouldn't creak too much and embarrass us oldsters.
I shouldn't have worried. In Sunrise they performed with more power and energy and high spirits than ought to be human.
"It's insane," Ben said as the Stones took their bows and left the stage. "They're like, the ideal of rock 'n' roll."
And then we were part of the exiting crowd that was singing "Woo, woo!" -- the background part in Sympathy for the Devil -- as we slowly filed out of the arena, a happy mass numbering thousands, young and old, who didn't want the good time to end.

Sunday, March 5, 2006

You've got to be taught

For all the progress we make in America, hate crimes never seem to go away. Here's a column I wrote about one such incident in a quasi-rural area called Loxahatchee.

Date: Sunday, March 5, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

There's a swastika in red paint and a swastika in blue on Marva Moodie's garage and two more swastikas on her driveway.

There are two wobbly "KKK" marks. And a scrawled "WP" shorthand, probably, for "white power."

Defacing the home of a black woman and her two sons, their ugly message is unmistakable.

You can't say much for their craftmanship. They look like the hurried work of illiterates. Or kids. Maybe both.

It feels like the country out here, with big lots, piney trees all around, a road that's more dirt than blacktop.

People move out here to Loxahatchee for a little elbow room, a little privacy, the chance to express themselves with more freedom than is available in the city or burbs.

Some of Moodie's neighbors have horses in their back yards. One man, a few doors down, flies four NASCAR flags along his front fence.

Moodie's house looks all-American: big yard, basketball hoop, screened-in swimming pool in the back, bicycles and sneakers casually left outside the front door. Not bad for a Jamaican immigrant, a former U.S. Army sergeant who makes her living as a psychiatric nurse.

You wish the hate symbols smeared on Moodie's house early Thursday were an isolated thing, an aberration.

But only a couple miles away on Friday I saw a white Ford truck with a 4-by-5-foot Confederate flag snapping proudly overhead.

I listened to neighborhood teens tell me about "redneck" white kids who fling the n-word at dark-skinned people and tell Hispanics to "get back on the banana boat."

Gleb Barabanov, 14, who lives two houses away from Moodie, said, "The redneck people sometimes get on me because I'm from Ukraine."

This stuff is everyday reality, kids told me. But the kind of vandalism at Moodie's house is new.
It's drawn investigations from the Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office as a possible hate crime. A county anti-graffiti crew got rid of it on Saturday.

Detectives suspect teenagers. You know, our hope for tomorrow.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Pledge of Allegiance controversy

Defying pledge is a principle as American as they come
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

It seems ridiculous that the Palm Beach County School District should pay $32,500 to settle a lawsuit from a Boynton High teen who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
We're talking about a classroom dispute that never should have turned into a federal lawsuit. But it did, thanks largely to the overreaction of teacher Cynthia Alexandre when Cameron Frazier, 17, refused to rise and recite the pledge in her algebra class on Dec. 8. The situation was a first in her fourth-period class, since the pledge usually is said earlier in the day.
According to the lawsuit, Frazier told Alexandre he has sat out the pledge since sixth grade and didn't intend to change.
Some teachers take a relaxed attitude toward the pledge. The high-school student I live with tells me it's been months since the pledge ceremony has even been held in his classes.
But in this instance, the lawsuit states, Alexandre reacted to Frazier's refusal by saying: "Oh, you wanna bet? See your desk? Now look at mine. Big desk, little desk. You obviously don't know your place in this classroom."
Alexandre went on to call Frazier "ungrateful," "disrespectful" and "un-American," then summoned an assistant principal, another administrator and a school cop to take him to the office, the lawsuit says.
Alexandre assumed she had state law on her side. Since 1942, a Florida statute requires students to get a parent's written permission to be excused from the pledge. And even then, the student must stand at attention while it's recited.
But the state statute is contradicted by federal case law that says a student can't be forced to say the pledge or salute the flag.
This gave the ACLU some powerful ammunition when Frazier turned to the First Amendment advocates for help.
"We get several of these requests a year," said Jim Green, an ACLU attorney from West Palm Beach.
"Usually we send a letter and the school officials back down."
Not this time. The school district waited until a lawsuit was filed -- and then caved. Last week, the district's lawyers agreed the state statute was unconstitutional. They settled on the ACLU's terms and handed Alexandre a written reprimand. The $32,500 mainly is for legal costs and a "nominal" award for Frazier, Green said.
The suit continues against state education officials. The ACLU hopes to get the state statute overturned.
It's tempting to look at all this and say, "There go those liberals again, encouraging people to spit on this country's symbols."
No. What this case says is that no one should be forced to speak or think in lockstep.
That's an old principle, as American as they come. It was best articulated in 1943 in a U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the right of a Jehovah's Witness to defy a West Virginia law requiring students to salute the flag each day.
This was in the midst of World War II, when the United States was fighting for its survival against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan.
Still, the court voted 6-3 to say that freedom of expression includes the right to decline to salute the nation's most cherished symbol.
As Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority, wrote: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion."
Imagine that. Even in wartime, the authorities can't dictate what is or isn't cool to say or believe.
In other words, no teacher or principal ought to be ordering a student to say the pledge.
No Capitol cop should be hauling from the gallery someone with a T-shirt reading "2,245 dead -- How many more?" as happened to Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan, arrested before last week's State of the Union address.
And neither should cops eject the wearer of a shirt reading "Support the Troops -- Defending our Freedom," as was Beverly Young, the wife of U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, a Republican from St. Petersburg. 
Freedom always has a price. This time it's $32,500 in local taxpayers' money.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Homelessness amid plenty

Palm Beach County is synonymous with wealth. But county policies toward the homeless were pure see-no-evil. Here's one blast I took at the commissioners over the situation.

Date: Thursday, February 2, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

The place needs a coat of paint, probably a new ceiling.

A good dusting, at the very least.

Westgate Tabernacle Church looks as down on its luck as the poor and homeless it welcomes under its leaking roof.

Associate pastor Alan Clapsaddle looks beyond the appearances. "We're a community of love," he says.

He's a former deputy sheriff from Pennsylvania who wears a golden cross on his neck and speaks with practicality and tenderness about the people his church embraces -- people with schizophrenia, sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol addictions and with out-of-wedlock children.

"Whosoever will, let him come," is the operative injunction. It stems from Revelation. It isn't easy to translate into day-to-day life.