Clam Hoes And Shedders

When you spend times in a different part of the country, often you learn new things.

Consider, for example, the evil-looking items being sold by an antique store in town. With long, sharp tines and short handles, they don’t look at all like innocent gardening tools. To the contrary, they look like the sort of implements Freddie Krueger or Jason would happily use to send witless teenagers to their painful, impaled demise.

So, what are they, exactly? As the hand-lettered sign explains, they are clam hoes—ideal for digging deep into the soft muck in the mudflats when the tide goes out and raking clams to the surface.

“Shedders” are another story—literally. The local newspaper ran a front page article, with photo, announcing that “shedders are in!” That’s big news in Stonington, because many locals contend that “shedders”—lobsters that have just molted their old, hard shell and are growing a new, softer-for-the-time-being shell—have sweeter meat and are the best eating lobsters of all.

We’re going to a lobster boil tonight, and if I draw a shedder—which you can identify because the shell can be easily cracked by hand—I’ll see if I can taste the difference. I am learning about local tools and terms, but my lobster palate may remain uneducated.

A Downyard Project Update

This summer I haven’t had a chance to do as much work as I’d hoped on the downyard—which is too bad, because it really needs the help. We’ve had a lot of rainy weekends, and other weekends have been devoted to travel.

This weekend, however, Mother Nature cooperated with the puny plans of mortal men, and I was able to devote a full day and a half to working on the project before the rain started falling around noon today. Because the downyard attracts weeds like mangy dogs attract fleas, the concept is to limit the potentially weedy areas and introduce plants that can hold their own against the weeds in the Darwinian struggle for survival. I’ve tried to do that by exposing the many rocks as possible (because I’d rather see rocks than weeds), digging out the weedy areas, and mulching over the whole rock-infested area.

In the process, I’ve tried to spot the small fern plants that naturally grow in the yard, weed around them, and then mulch around them, in hopes that once they’re freed from surrounding weeds and get more water and sun they’ll grow into bigger fern plants that will keep the weeds at bay. Those little green plants at the far end of the mulched area are ferns. I like ferns, and they seem to grow well here and are capable of holding their own against the weeds.

The project featured a fair amount of shovel work, lots of weeding, bug bites galore, digging out and tossing or carrying all kinds of rocks, hoisting and dumping five large bags of mulch and six medium bags of mulch, and then using a rake to spread the mulch. I could have used another bag of mulch to really finish the job, but I’m happy with the results.

Guardians Of The ‘Land

The Cleveland baseball franchise has announced its new team name. After more than 100 years as the Indians, starting next year the team will be called the Cleveland Guardians. The franchise announced the name with a video narrated by Tom Hanks, which you can watch in the article linked above. It’s a pretty generic video for the most part, with lots of standard pictures of Cleveland and people who are proud about that storied city, and a pretty forgettable script, too. But there is one statement in the video that rings true: the most important thing about the team name is the “Cleveland” part. Those of us who have lifelong ties to The Best Location In The Nation and its baseball team are going to root for the city’s baseball team no matter what its nickname might be.

But what about the name “Guardians”? I would have preferred the Spiders, which was the name of a prior Cleveland baseball team, but “Guardians” has its own link to Cleveland and its past. The Guardians are the names for colossal, stolid figures carved into bridges over the Cuyahoga River and featured in a lot of photos you see around Cleveland, so at least the name has that going for it. And it’s a pretty safe, basic choice. Some people have already made fun of it–the Bus-Riding Conservative says Cleveland Guardians “sounds like a prophylactic brand”–but after years of controversy, picking an inoffensive name that isn’t likely to rankle anyone seems prudent.

As for the team’s new logo, below, it looks like something a high school kid would doodle on their notebook during a boring study hall. But there’s still time until next season starts, and perhaps inspiration can strike. I’d like to see those little wings on the bridge guardians helmets put on the sides of the Guardians’ batting helmets, and big close-up photos of the heads of those poker-faced bridge guardian statues put on the outfield fences and elsewhere around the home ballpark. Why not go all in?

So, now I’m a Guardians fan. Who knows? With the team-naming controversy behind us, maybe the franchise can actually start focusing on winning baseball games.

Barefootin’

What article of clothing has fallen into the most disuse over the last, weird 16-month period? Pants? Long pants? Socks?

A friend argues that it is the humble shoe. His theory is that virtually no one on Teams or Zoom or other video calls is wearing shoes. He’s probably right. Since the camera only shows people (at most) from the waist up, and you’re going to be working from home all day, why lace on your shoes? Even if you’ve got the most comfortable shoes in the world, they can’t be as comfortable as bare feet—so why wear them if nobody can see them?

I would have thought ties would fall into the most disuse—have you seen anyone wearing a tie on a video call?—and women probably would think pantyhose, but of course each of those clothing items tends to be gender-specific. Shoes, on the other hand, are universal and gender-neutral, so my friend is probably right.

Time to short the shoe stocks!

Our New Downtown Bench

When civic improvements come to Stonington, sometimes they are on the smaller side. So it is with this new bench, which has been placed below one of the granite outcroppings next to the Dry Dock shop, on the western side of downtown. The new bench is a sturdy one that features some quality craftsmanship and a seat that can handle posteriors of all shapes and sizes.

A new bench might be a small improvement, but it is by no means an insignificant one. In any town that welcomes tourists, having plenty of benches where visitors can have a seat and enjoy the sights is a “must.” And having a bench near some of the shops is smart placement that helps the local merchants. Couples that don’t have equally zealous interests in shopping can split up, and the shopper can take her time and do a thorough canvas of the stores, secure in the knowledge that the non-shopper has a comfortable place to sit, check their messages, and look out at the activity in the harbor. And if two couples are visiting town together, the bench is spacious enough to accommodate two non-shoppers who’d rather sit and talk.

The bench fills a decided need in the western part of town, which had been bench-deprived until now. Previously, all of the seating was at the eastern edge and center of downtown, to accommodate the groups of ice cream eaters and 44 North coffee drinkers, and the folks waiting on a table at the Harbor Cafe. Now the western side has a place where visitors can take a load off, too.

Million-Dollar Students

I guess I realized that the Supreme Court case upholding a lower court’s invalidation of certain NCAA rules, and the decision by the NCAA to changes its rules to allow student athletes to earn income from their name, image and likeness, would change the world of college sports forever. I just didn’t realize how fast it would happen,

The magnitude of the change was crystallized for me when Alabama’s head football coach, Nick Saban, announced recently that the team’s new quarterback, Bryce Young, is nearing a million dollars in payments on various NIL deals. Young is a sophomore who has never started a game—but he’s going to play quarterback for the defending national champions, and now he’s going to be rich. Young signed with an agency when the NCAA loosened its rules to allow athletes to receive NIL compensation so long as they comply with applicable state law, and Young happens to play in a state, Alabama, where the law allows him to receive such compensation. More than half of the states have enacted similar laws, and Ohio is one of them. (It’s amazing how quickly legislatures can act when something important like college football is involved, isn’t it?)

The ramifications of some college athletes making huge sums in endorsements are mind-boggling. Of course, only the big revenue sports, like football and basketball, are likely to be significantly affected. If you’re a college football coach, I think it has made your job a lot harder. Now you’re not only going to be recruiting the star athletes on the basis of your school’s tradition, and facilities, and educational quality, and ability to prepare the athlete for life and a potential professional career–you’re also going to be noting how well some of your current and former athletes have done in the money game. And as a coach you might well also be recruiting local car dealers, insurance agencies, and other boosters to reach out to the sports agencies representing your athletes to sign up for endorsements, so your stars have marketing deals that are competitive with other athletes on other teams at other schools.

Part of the motivation for Savvy Old Coach Nick to mention Bryce Young’s million-dollar deals is no doubt to communicate that other stud players who are choosing between Alabama and other schools should come to the Crimson Tide to maximize their NIL value and enjoy a lucrative college education. This kind of news is bound to have an impact on competitiveness, because not all schools can offer the alumni and booster and endorsement base that is found at Alabama, or Ohio State, or the other perennial college football powers.

And finally, what does having a million-dollar quarterback who hasn’t even started a game do for internal team dynamics? How are the offensive linemen who aren’t likely to rack up endorsement deals, but are getting battered on every play, going to feel about the money discrepancy? Will savvy quarterbacks make sure that their endorsement deals include the big guys who are blocking for them? Will players try to establish their individual brands in on-field play to attract more attention and increase their NIL value? And how will players feel about having limited roles that might not be as noticeable to the endorsers, but crucial to the team’s potential success?

I don’t envy the college coaches who are dealing with these issues, and I wonder if the college sports world is going to look a lot different in the future. Who knows? The 2020 COVID season, with its weirdness and uncertainty and cancellations, might end up being the last “normal” college football season.

In The Inland Mist

Recently I’ve started trying different routes on my morning walk, just to mix things up a bit. One new route takes me away from the shoreline and downtown Stonington and instead follows Route 15 up the hill to Cemetery Road, then across the interior of the island, and then back down the hill toward home on the Greenhead Peninsula. That inland, tree-lined route gives a decidedly different perspective on our little town.

On foggy mornings, like this morning, the mist rolls up the hillside and encases the countryside in a blurry, moist white blanket. It gives the landscape a kind of mystical look that makes for a very pleasant, and very quiet, walk. Earlier this week, on a similarly misty morning, I saw a large herd of deer that included a few youngsters that hadn’t lost their spots nosing around in this same spot. I surprised them as I walked past, and they looked up, startled, and then bolted gracefully into the tree line and vanished into the mist.

The Super-Rich In Space

This month we’ve seen a lot of seriously rich people leave the surface of the planet and journey to the edge of space. Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson took a flight launched by Virgin Galactic–Branson’s company–to a height 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, and yesterday Jeff Bezos, who is even richer than Richard, rode a rocket launched by his space company, Blue Origin, to an even higher destination, 62 miles up. And let’s not forget fellow billionaire Elon Musk, who hasn’t traveled above the stratosphere, yet, but whose SpaceX venture has launched far more rockets and capsules, traveled farther, and advanced space technology more than Bezos’ or Branson’s companies put together.

Bezos’ flight is interesting, and not just because one of the world’s very richest men wore a space uniform and took the risk of a potentially fatal mishap. The Blue Origin flight also was piloted by the oldest person yet to fly into space–82-year-old Wally Funk, who was part of a NASA Women in Space program back in the ’60s–as well as the youngest person, who also was first Blue Origin’s paying customer. The paying customer was 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, whose Dad, a wealthy businessman, bought a seat for him. Oliver filled in for an anonymous person who had paid $28 million for a seat on the flight, then backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.” (Really? Somebody paid $28 million to take a trip into space, and then let “scheduling conflicts” delay their departure? Those must have been some pretty serious “scheduling conflicts”!)

Blue Origin hopes to help fund future flights, in part, through space tourism sales. It has announced that it is now officially selling tickets to future flights, and that it has made $100 million in sales so far. It’s not clear how much such tickets might cost, but it’s obvious that there is a market for a ride into space among some segments of the megarich, and their kids and other family members. And while it wasn’t a particularly long ride yesterday–the CNN article linked in the first paragraph above described the trip as allowing the passengers to experience “about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping from their seats and floating about the cabin while taking in panoramic views” before coming back down to a landing–it’s obviously an experience you can’t find anywhere else right now.

We often bemoan the lifestyles and luxuries enjoyed by the super-rich, but in this case I’ll gladly tip my cap to Musk, and Bezos, and Branson, and Oliver Daemen’s Dad, and the anonymous person with the “scheduling conflicts.” If the hyper-wealthy are willing to help fund private ventures in space, and are doing it, in part, so they can enjoy a joy ride to the edge of outer space, I’m all for that. I’d rather see the affluent putting their money down to help pay for new technology that will help us, collectively, move forward into space than frittering it away outbidding each other for Picassos. And, if space tourism is going to become a real thing, obviously the first passengers are going to pay a lot–but by doing so, we can hope that they will help to usher in an era when spaceflights become routine, costs decrease, and tickets are reasonably affordable for the rest of us.

Foiled

The other day I was wrapping some food to put into the freezer. I noticed, as I have noticed before, that the aluminum foil that I was using for that purpose had one side that was decidedly more shiny than the other. But this time, that idle moment of recognition was followed by curiosity, and a question: when I wrap food, am I supposed to be distinguishing between the super shiny and less shiny sides and intentionally making sure that one side, or the other, is the inner side or outer side when the wrapping is done? In short, have I been doing things wrong for all these years by paying absolutely no attention to the sides of the foil and wrapping food randomly?

I checked the Reynolds Wrap box, which I’ve never read before, to see whether it has an instructions area. After all, manufacturers tend not to be shy in telling you the best way to use their products; in fact, you might say that product boxes are often pretty bossy about it. The Reynolds Wrap box says you can use the wrap to cover food and prevent “freezer burn,” use it to line pans before cooking, and cover bowls that are being put into the refrigerator to help keep the contents moist and avoid splatters. The box even offers tips about inventive uses of Reynolds Wrap, such as covering open ice cream with the foil to prevent formation of ice crystals, or shaping the foil into little cups to start seedlings or to hold nuts or candy. But there is nary a word about making sure to keep the shiny side against the food being wrapped.

Nevertheless, a debate rages on the internet. Some people feel strongly that the mirror-like side of the foil must always be on the interior next to the food, reasoning that the shiny side will reflect more of the radiant heat. You can read an exhaustive treatment of the subject here, which concludes that there really isn’t much difference in heat reflection. But the heat reflection analysis doesn’t make much sense to me in any case, in view of the fact that most uses of aluminum foil occur when you are putting something into the fridge or the freezer–in which case you wouldn’t care one whit about reflecting the radiant heat and in fact would want to take steps to cool or freeze the food being wrapped as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you were using the aluminum foil to shape into little cups to hold M&Ms for a kid’s birthday party, you’d want to have the shiny side up to make for a more festive and color-reflective presentation.

In short, my effort to inform and potentially correct my aluminum foil usage came to naught. I’m convinced there is no difference, other than in the M&M cup context, with manufacturer silence on the topic being the deciding factor. So when you’re wrapping food for the freezer, feel free to place either side against the food according to your fancy at the moment.

Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

In Corn Country

Lewisburg is in the middle of the farm belt of Pennsylvania. As soon as you leave the town, heading in any direction, you’re likely to run into a well-tended farm and an interesting old barn. And the crop of choice is corn, which rustles in the breeze and looks quite scenic as the backdrop for a white fence.

It looks like this year’s crop is coming in pretty well.

Over The Susquehanna

We’re in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a wedding. Lewisburg is the home to Bucknell and is located along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the longest river in the eastern United States and runs from a lake in New York through Pennsylvania and down to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a moist, misty morning, and my view of the river as shown above reminded me of the Hudson River school of landscape painting. As it passes Lewisburg, the Sus is very wide and calm. It was quite a drop from the bridge to the surface of the water, though so I steered toward the inside lane as I walked across.

Art Underfoot

A construction crew has been working on one of the access ramps to the underground garage under the Ohio Statehouse. I’m not sure exactly what they are doing, but it sure looks cool.

First they put down what looked exactly like yellow Legos, then they placed bright red wires over the yellow blocks. The combination was striking when I walked past yesterday morning, and produced what really looked like a modern art installation. It seems like a shame to cover it up with concrete.

The Good, The Bad, And The Muggy

I’m a born and bred Midwesterner, and the hardy survivor of dozens and dozens of Ohio summers. And yet, it didn’t take many COVID-caused summer days in Maine for me to forget just how that brutal combination of heat and moisture made the Midwestern air feel—until I came back to Columbus a few days ago and was smacked in the face by July.

In a Stonington summer, the temperature rarely exceeds 70 degrees, and if it touches 80 it’s a heat wave for the ages. It’s always cool at night, and a gentle, crisp breeze is usually blowing. It makes a walk on a summer morning a pleasant and invigorating experience.

But in the Midwest the steamy summer air descends on you as soon as you leave your air-conditioned space and clings to you like a living thing. It makes even a predawn walk a sweaty, sapping experience, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Even a severe thunderstorm won’t cool off the air for more than a few moments.

Some refined Midwesterners say things like “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” when complaining about this kind of broiling summer weather. I always thought the word “muggy” was more apt, though, because the weather is akin to a mugging, where combination of heat and moisture are like a physical assault and rob you of your cool and calm demeanor, leaving you damp and bedraggled.

Midwestern summers are the reason air conditioning was invented.

The Inflation Watch

The U.S. got some economic news yesterday that is designed to unsettle those of us with more than a few years under our belts. The Consumer Price Index rose 5.4 percent in June, year over year, which was higher than analyst expectations. It’s the highest year over year increase since 2008. And while economists expected some inflation—it’s hard to avoid when stimulus checks are being sent to millions and government spending has exploded—the magnitude of the increase shown by the June data was greater than the forecasts.

Inflation data can be broken down in many ways, because of course prices for all goods and services don’t rise at uniform rates. Some observers noted that the “core” inflation rate, which strips out more volatile food and energy costs, was 4.5 percent—the highest increase since November 1991. Others argue that the rates are being driven by increases in some sectors, like in the cost of used cars, that seem to be reflecting a short-term imbalance of supply and demand that will work itself out. And still others note that the energy sector, and the skyrocketing cost of fuel, will have a ripple effect that can be expected to drive further increases in other areas, like food and many consumer goods, where transportation costs are factored in to prices. Nobody quite knows what might be coming next month, or later this year.

If, like me, you lived through the ‘70s, news about growing inflation is like fingernails on a chalkboard. An inflationary cycle means your paychecks buy less, because pay increases never quite catch up to prices, and it means the money that you’ve carefully saved and invested is worth less—a result that punishes prudent and responsible behavior. Retirees and people on fixed incomes get crushed and find that their nest egg has become a lot smaller than they thought.

And we veterans of the ‘70s and early ‘80s also remember that the cure for inflation—high interest rates and tight monetary policy that consciously stifles economic growth and produces high unemployment rates—is no treat, either.

Economists will be watching to see if this price spike is transitory, or is the first sign that we are on the road to a bad long-term inflationary period. I’ll be watching, too, and hoping that our economy isn’t cycling back to the ‘70s mode.