An anonymous way to die

Remember when we said goodbye to Granny?

Rose McDonald was killed by a hit and run driver on Waldo Road on Jan. 30. Gainesville police waited a month to release her identity.

That’s when we discovered that Rose and Granny were one and the same: An irrepressibly upbeat and eminently likable street person who was admired by scores of Gainesville residents.

It was a tribute to Granny’s popularity that her friends held not one but two memorial services for her at Bo Diddley Plaza.

I mention this because under a new Florida Highway Patrol policy – one sure to be adopted by other law enforcement agencies – Granny’s name would never have been released. And her friends would not have known what became of her.

As of April the FHP no longer identifies the people involved in its press releases about traffic fatalities. This due to agency interpretation of a state constitutional amendment, popularly called Marsy’s Law, intended to protect the privacy of crime victims.

No question that Granny was the victim of a crime. But the FHP’s blanket policy assumes that every person killed in any auto accident no matter the circumstances is, by default, a crime victim.

And it’s not just the dead who go unnamed. When a pregnant woman in Broward County was killed, the other motorist, charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, was also not named.

Does that mean drunk drivers are also crime victims?

In a way I can buy the logic that anyone killed in traffic is a crime victim. That’s because we as a society routinely design our roads and write our laws to facilitate, or at least encourage, fast, careless and distracted driving. That’s a major reason why upwards of 40,000 Americans die on our streets and highways every year.

Of course, if you accept that logic, then all of us are perpetrators of the crime of death by motor vehicle.

Not surprisingly, the FHP’s new policy isn’t without critics.

“When the government, particularly law enforcement, withholds information from us, it erodes public trust,” Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation, told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s government’s job to give us the information that we need to be informed and engaged in our communities.”

And the Florida Press Association says the patrol “seems to be reading Marsy’s Law way too broadly…if a person is injured in a wreck resulting from a driver’s negligence or a road condition, there is no crime and no crime victim that Marsy’s Law was intended to address.”

Which is not to say that identities will necessarily be locked away forever. News organizations have the option of buying accident reports, which do contain names…at $10 a pop. But the patrol has wide discretion in deciding when to release those reports.

More than 3,000 people per year die on Florida roads. So after a while you’re talking real money for newspapers that are already laying off staffers and reducing coverage.

It’s not hard to imagine that the patrol regards Marsy’s Law as a bureaucrat’s, um, vehicle of convenience. Just one more way to sidestep the public records law in a state that creates new exemptions every year.

As it is, death by traffic is already a uniquely anonymous way to go in autoAmerica. We slaughter so many people with our cars that each individual death typically rates only a few paragraphs in the briefs section.

In withholding names Florida only further consigns people like Granny to oblivion.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at

How to borrow life

A World War II pilot burned beyond recognition, two surgeons honing their skills while tending to wounded warriors, a young English scientist who resolves to cheat death after witnessing a gruesome plane crash…and the women who loved them.

A tender love story? A gripping war epic? A tale of risk, redemption and renewal?

Well, yes, yes and yes.

But above all, “Borrowing Life,” the latest offering from Gainesville’s most prolific author, Shelley Fraser Mickle, is an eminently readable and impeccably researched history of the quest to achieve the “holy grail” of surgical procedures – the successful transplant of an organ from one human being into another.

To tell that story she assembles a cast of fascinating characters:

Charles Wood, the pilot whose body was so disfigured by burns that he would endure years of suffering and dozens of surgeries to rebuild his face and hands. It was Wood’s uncanny, and inexplicable, ability to tolerate skin grafts not his own for long periods of time that would launch the quest.

Physicians Francis Moore and Joseph Murray whose experience treating Wood and other badly burned victims made them resolve, sometimes at the risk of their own careers, to overcome the medical and biological barriers, first to skin grafts and, finally, kidney replacements.

And Peter Medawar, England’s “boy professor” whose experiments on cows, chickens, mice and dogs led to the understanding that “the immune system had a memory,” and that figuring out how to “trick cellular memory” would be key to success.

But if Mickle has the eye of a trained observer she also possesses the heart of a romantic, which is why she weaves in lively accounts of the wives who helped keep these men grounded and, yes, sane. “Will you love me like Mariam loved Charles,” she poses.

At the outset of “Borrowing Life” the conventional wisdom asserted that transplantation could never happen because of the human body’s refusal to accept what is essentially a foreign object.

And indeed, from the end of World War II and on into the 1960s it would require years of experimentation, false starts and failures before scientists and surgeons finally figured out how to “bamboozle the body’s system of defense,” Mickle writes, thereby founding “a new field of science” that has made possible the routine transplantation of skin, kidneys, hearts, lungs and more.

The path to success wasn’t just blocked by biological barriers but also thorny legal and ethical conundrums: “What would it mean to injure a healthy body by borrowing an organ to give to another?” In a profession that vows to “do no harm,” is it ethical, even with the donor’s consent, to take a functioning organ out of one twin brother so as to implant it into the other?

And while the war wreaked untold devastation it also provided clues that helped unravel some of the mysteries of medicine. In Nazi-occupied Holland a young physician fashioned the first prototype dialysis machine – of necessity out of sausage casings and tomato cans. And the discovery that atomic bomb victims had weakened immunity systems led to experiments with radiation as a possible means of lowering the body’s natural resistance to transplants.

Ultimately, however, the answer was not to be found in splitting the atom, but rather in an immunosuppressive drug first developed to treat cancer patients. When a beagle mix named New Hampshire was able to tolerate a new kidney with the help of the right drug, Mickle writes, the “friendly yellow and white mutt inspired the transplant field worldwide.”

“Borrowing Life” arrives by way of wrapping up long unfinished business for Mickle and her husband, Parker, a retired University of Florida pediatric neurosurgeon.

In 1968, fresh out of Vanderbilt Medical School, Parker was recruited by Francis Moore to be a general surgery intern at Boston’s Brigham Hospital. He also helped care for some of Joseph Murray’s transplant patients. And recognizing that the newly arrived young couple would have trouble making ends meet, Dr. Murray once offered Shelly a secretary’s job…which Mickle declined because she was already pursuing a writer’s career.

In writing “Borrowing Life” all these years later, Mickle reflects, “I have finally become the secretary they all needed to step into our world.”

Borrowing Life” is an Imagine Book published by Charlesbridge and sells for $24.99. I wrote this review for the Gainesville Sun. It was published on May 31.

A ride on the wild side

Listen, if you want to practice your social distancing on two wheels you could do a lot worse than a nice Sunday morning cycle tour of the Ocala Horse Country just south of Micanopy. Even before the lockdown traffic on these beautiful rural roads, most of them lined with Spainish moss draped oaks, is light to practically nonexistent. The scenery is spectacular as you alternatively roll past small cracker shacks, multi-million dollar horse farms…and at one point a wildlife refuge populated by zebras and other exotic animals. This is a favorite 28-mile route in and out of Micanopy that takes you through Evanston, McIntosh and Flemington. It’s an east ride and that you can do in just about two hours and change.

Here’s a link to the Ride With GPS route.

Just give us 800 ft.

San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 14th Street are now off limits to most cars. This, according to, being indicative of a “wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors…”

It is worth nothing that some college towns have been way ahead of the curve in reclaiming their downtowns for people – not just to save lives but to promote economic vitality.

I’m thinking of Pearl Street, in Boulder, Col.; State Street, in Madison, Wis.; and Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

I’ve walked those streets and observed a downtown street life that is more diverse, prosperous and enjoyable than anything we have here. And while Gainesville’s is primarily a nighttime downtown, those streets generate considerable daytime activity.

Boulder and Charlottesville are pedestrian malls, while State Street – linking the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol – allows buses, taxis and select other vehicles.

Here in Gainesville we close portions of University Avenue for the Homecoming Parade, and the rare Open Streets event. But that’s about it when it comes to making life a little less convenient for motorists as a trade-off for an enhanced street life.

But, what if we started out small and liberated just three downtown blocks for people? Maybe even ease into it and begin with weekends only.

Gainesville and the University of Florida will soon collaborate on a new downtown master plan. If I were looking at ways to enhance downtown’s “street cred,” while making it a friendlier and more inviting place for dining, retail and relaxation, I’d consider turning SE 1st Street, from University Ave to The Hippodrome, into a “pedestrian zone,” following the Boulder and Charlottesville (people only) model or Madison’s (vehicles restricted) example.

That stretch of 2nd is about 800-feet long, and that’s a good thing. “Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long,” according to Build A Better Burb.

Creating a “people” corridor on First Street wouldn’t impede downtown traffic flow. It would sacrifice dozens of on-street parking slots. But with two parking garages and on-street parking remaining on the perimeters, that’s a small price to pay for a prosperous, people-centric downtown.

And there is a powerful case to be made for rethinking downtown parking.

Imagine the former parking spaces of SE 2nd sprouting outdoor cafes, street vendors, sculptures and fountains. Imagine travel lanes being given over to buskers, artists, flower sellers and street bands. Imagine an inviting place for folks to converge and collaborate, to see and be seen.

No question there would be resistance from business owners who fear the loss of nearby free parking. But the case can be made that restricting vehicles reaps greater rewards.

In a recent piece in, Brooks Rainwater, senior executive with the National League of Cities, cites Rotterdam’s decision to limit cars in its city center. “At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts,” he wrote. “But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones.”

All I’m saying is give people a chance, Gainesville. A chance to claim a space for their own without the hassle of having to dodge heavy moving objects. It might be the key to the downtown revival that has eluded us so far.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at

Art and the Anthropocene

Ange can’t sleep. 

She tosses and turns and worries.

About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered

during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water. 

And the rising sea.

“Poor Florida,” Ange frets.”   

“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia. 

“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”

Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.

Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”

By putting it in our heads.

Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause. 

Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.

 “We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”

Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.

Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.

And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise. 

Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.

Back home in Miami, Cortada this week launched his latest climate change awareness project: The Underwater Home Owners Association (HOA).

“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.

Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater. 

“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.

“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”

Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Rick DeSantis, in the conversation.

Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C. 

The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

It’s just so complex(ion)

What gives?

Why are the cops so tough on some people?
And so solicitous toward others?
Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe the police are afraid of these guys because they are armed to the teeth.
While these people are armed with nothing more than righteous indignation.
Maybe it’s because these people are rude.
And these people are courteous.
Perhaps it’s because these people are rabble.
While these people have friends in high places.
It could be because these people are complaining about police misconduct.
While these people just want death for politicians.
Or that these people wave the flag.
And these people don’t.
I dunno. It’s such a conundrum.
Really, it’s such a complex(ion) question.

Life in the ‘human rut’

Your thought for the day:

“They would fail. We would always fail. We weren’t built to do anything but fail. We had the wrong kind of motives and we couldn’t change them. We had a built-in short-sightedness and an inherent selfishness and a self-concern that made it impossible to step out of the little human rut we traveled.”

All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak