stat counter

Sunday, December 26, 2010


It should have come as no surprise when Herb Hiller left us for an island. Back in the 70's, when he wasn’t biking around Coconut Grove, he was off exploring some Caribbean wonderland.

I recall first seeing him thirty-five years ago, a tall thin man zipping here and there on a 10-speed. I soon found out he was usually ahead of the rest of us (we were in cars), and, ahead of his time. The New York native kept busy back then promoting island tourism. He was executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association and later founded the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Thirty years ago Herb started the Grand Avenue Farmer’s Market. Wanting to bring an “island feel” to his hometown he and several friends (Roland Wood, Dinizulu Tinnie, and Billy Rolle) founded the Grove’s Goombay Festival in 1977.

He has written a number of books on travel. Mr. Hiller also produced a beautiful family with his wife, artist Mary Lee Adler. Their two daughters are accomplished artists as well. Nancy designs furniture and Magda is a popular musician.

I had not seen Mr. Hiller in years when friends began telling me about his mysterious North Florida island. He had discovered it inside a huge lake, an hour southwest of Jacksonville.

Drayton Island is the kind of feature you see on a map but don’t think about too much. It is far from things us city folk consider important, untouched by I-75, I-95, and the Sunshine State Turnpike. There is no Publix nearby.

A while back I asked Sandy Pukel, “Do you ever see Herb?” and he answered, “Of course, I was on his island last week!” Calls were made, an invitation extended, and Francesca and I –with our pup Pi- were soon heading for our own island adventure.

Drayton Island is a mile long and a half-mile wide. It’s where the Saint Johns Ri
ver swells into a wide expanse ("Lake George") as it drifts north. It used to be accessible by a small car ferry until the feds shut it down (a threat to our homeland security. Go figure). Now, you can only reach it by private boat.

Herb greeted us at a nearby marina with his usual warm smile. Minutes later we were motoring in his skiff. Captain Hiller zoomed past cattails and the occasional gator towards his mid-lake estate. When I complimented his boating skills he mentioned he had spent the mid-50’s serving in the Coast Guard.

Mary Lee and Herb’s house, built in the 1850s, is older than the Civil War. Yes, there is a fine new addition but we could not stop marveling at the older part, its wide screened porch and the watery expanse beyond. Their twelve acres have just a few neighbors within hollerin’ distance. Our dog Pi was in heaven and so were we.
Islands can do that.

In the kitchen we traded stories while Herb showed us how to grind flour. Mixing it with starter he made a magnificent loaf of sourdough bread. After a long trek through the woods we pitched in to make a simple dinner.

Mary Lee’s modern sculptures were here and there but she was not. She was an hour south, in Deland. The Hillers have a smaller second home there to be near their daughter, Magda, and a charming granddaughter. “My wife thinks we should sell this place and move but I’m not ready” he told us then. Our host added, “The island insects can be pretty awful in the summer so Deland can be a good place to be”.


Slowing down, being in one place and intensely enjoying what it has to offer is what drives Mr. Hiller these days. He wants us to take to the trails, by bike, skateboard or foot. We have few in South Florida. A good example is our own Grove bike path that stretches from Fairchild Gardens to Key Biscayne.

For the past few years Herb has been a consultant for the East Coast Greenway Alliance.
Their goal is to help create a 3000 mile pathway from Maine to Key West. This year he was named “Florida Trail Advocate of the Year”. Getting us out of the house and out of our cars is not easy work", he told me, “It often feels like pushing boulders uphill”.

When I called him earlier this week he was in Deland. “I came for a visit months ago. On the morning of the third day it hit me, it’s time to move off the island. It is time to be closer to friends and family.”

The Adler-Hiller Island Homestead will be on the market soon. You too can live on an island, apart from the world but not that far from a jetport. Our conversation closed with Herb inviting all of us to take to the trails. He says there are over 100 of them in Florida easily found at
Ever the advocate he added, “I tell people to go outside, take a walk. You’ll feel better".

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


This year we got a free tree for Christmas.
Here's the simple process explained...

Look for a good stick.

When you see one tell your dog to "fetch".

Ask her to gnaw it down until it has the look of a small tree trunk.

Drill holes, nail a board on the end, then plug in branches scrounged from a neighborhood tree lot.
Keep doing this until,

it looks like a tree.

Now add a few decorations, show it to your friends,

and wish them a

"Merry Christmas"

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The holidays can be a busy time for teachers. Yesterday I was supposed to play Santa at a kindergarten party. At the last minute it was cancelled when it was discovered that some of the kids' parents didn't believe.

I was okay with that, yesterday we had music to play. For months our school's Didgeridoo Orchestra had been rehearsing for its premiere performance before a school-wide audience.
You may know the didgeridoo to be a primitive Australian wind instrument. When you blow it some hear the haunting sound of a ship passing through fog. Others hear flatulence.

We make ours from plastic plumbing pipe and decorate them the aborigines way.
Fifteen of my students, ages 9 through 11, performed magnificently. Some blew didj's while others beat on buckets, tamborines, and xylophones.
My kids played Christmas carols, more or less, to all whether they believed or not.
Santa would have been proud.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


A Coconut Grove house that sold for $450,000 three years ago is now on the market for $69,900. Located in the West Grove at 3780 Frow Avenue, it is more than a good deal, it is a prime example of what mortgage fraud can do to a house and what it has done to our country.

The house was built in ’92 with the best of intentions, a new CBS structure where an older house had stood. It looks nice enough, three bedrooms, two baths and central air. It went on the market four years ago for $225,000. This was when mortgage fraud was crumbling our country and regulators looked the other way.

Here’s how it worked in a case like this. You’re selling your house and someone incredulously “offers” you twice as much as your asking price. You accept the fishy proposition and the buyer applies for a loan. A bank, wanting all the business it can get, forks over the money, maybe $400,000 (90%) in a case like this. The buyer gives you your $225,000, keeps the other $175,000, then skips town. The bank sells the mortgage to an investment firm and never thinks about the house again.

The house sits abandoned. No mortgage payments are made and it goes into foreclosure. This particular house has sat empty for two years.
While the front windows are boarded (keeping squatters out), a peek in a side window reveal a nice enough abode, white on white. I’m quite familiar with it as I own the rental next door.

It took two years for 3780’s foreclosure proceeding to snake its way though court. The house recently went back on the market for $89,000. When it did not sell immediately the price was dropped to $69,900. This is 15% of the “sales price” three years ago and about 30% of its true value when prices were high.

Whoever buys the 3/2 on Frow will get a pretty good deal. Who knows, the house’s value could rise dramatically in the coming years (the agent's number is 305-992-5967).

Unfortunately the house represents a bad deal, a horrible deal, a huge punch in the gut of our nation’s economy. It’s a tiny grain in a truckload of sand that got dumped on our country. The mortgage fraud crisis has cost the U.S. billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Let’s hope we can dig our way out and avoid more of these “good deals” in the future.


We found this carambola ("star fruit") peeking down from the backyard greenery this morning.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Miami went ga-ga for art this week. The whole world seems to descend on South Florida when Art Basel rolls into town.
Francesca and I ventured into it twice. Here are some of the things we saw.

Yes, the plant above ("Art Basil") was my own contribution. Almost everyone wanted to be photographed with the Baby Hulk (Miami Walls permanent exhibit on NW 2d Ave.)


South Miami's farmers market sprouted on Sunset drive this weekend. On our brief visit dozens of people came by to purchase produce, plants, crafts, and -in our case-
an incredible chocolate-hazelnut croissant.
A moment ago I put on another pound thinking about it.
Francesca and I met the new mayor of South Miami, Phillip Stoddard. He is a busy man. As I was standing next to him people came up to discuss a lame duck, the deforestation of Haiti, and a homeless guy who had set a resident's truck on fire the night before.
Every community should have something like this. Farmers markets give people a chance to gather and know the folks who grow their food. The South Miami Farmer's Market will be open every Saturday from 9 am 'til 2. It is located at City Hall, 6130 Sunset Drive. Their website is

Thursday, December 2, 2010


(The Miami Herald ran a column assessing their coverage of issues relating to public education in Florida. My wife (Francesca) and I wrote the following letter in response. The Herald printed it on 12/6/10)

Dear Editor,
We are responding to Mr. Schumacher-Matos' column in Sunday's paper. It concluded that The Miami Herald has given balanced coverage of the proposed state law known as SB 6 and related public education issues.
We are public school teachers with 49 years of combined experience. We disagree with your conclusion that teachers and the problems they face are fairly represented by your newspaper.
The Herald assumes for instance, that Florida's public schools lack the tools get rid of "bad teachers". They do have the tools, they always have. If a principal is doing his job he or she can evaluate any teacher's performance and act accordingly. Standardized test results are not necessary to deal with ineffective teachers.
Considering another important area, do standardized tests scores reflect a teacher's talents? We think this is often not the case. Every school is different and it is our belief that these test scores are more reflective of the socio-economic levels of the students in each school. There are certainly many outstanding teachers working in schools who making poor scores on these tests. Should they be penalized by their students' test results?
Miami welcomes many new immigrants to its public schools everyday. Some schools never get these new arrivals. Both of us teach in public schools that get new students from other countries every week. These students usually do not speak English. Should teachers have their pay cut because of the poor test scores resulting from this?
Schools often form classes based on student abilities, honors classes and so forth. This grouping can start as early as kindergarten. What about these teachers? Should the "honors teacher" make more than the one teaching students with learning disabilities because her students make higher grades on standardized tests?
What of the student who is struggling with emotional issues due to a difficult home life. These problems can certainly affect school success. It can take a long time, sometimes years, to turn these problems around. Do the annual tests take this into account? We think not. The Standardized Test Machine wants all schools to produce the same "cookies" while each is often given different ingredients.
This letter could get very long if we described how uncomfortable we feel with the growth of standardized tests, teachers being asked to teach the some things, the same way, at the same times. It can feel very Orwellian.
And what of this new love for charter schools? Overall they do no better than non-charter schools on tests even though they have the advantage of hand-picking their students. Should their test scores be above average in the future, due to their choice of students, should their teachers be paid "above average" as well?
Of course, schools can get better and hopefully they are getting better. We do not think standardized tests are a fair or reasonable way to evaluate teachers and the schools that employ them. We think it is a glossed over simplification of complex issues. Your paper would have a more balanced view of public education if it reflected more on the realities of teaching in public schools in South Florida.

Glenn Terry and
Francesca Violich.
Coconut Grove, Florida