A Football-Free Fall?

Will there be college football in the Midwest this autumn?  It’s become such a huge part of fall in the heartland that it’s almost unimaginable that the leaves could change and the air could chill without the clash of shoulder pads and helmets, tailgating, and the roar of crowds in huge stadiums.

ohio_stadium_2But it is 2020, and the coronavirus is still burning its way through America, and we’ve just got to accept that things may well be different this ugly, star-crossed year.

The Mid-American Conference, which traditionally provides early season opponents for Big Ten schools, has postponed its entire fall sports season, including football, and apparently hopes to play games in the spring of 2021.  The Mountain West Conference has followed suit.  And yesterday there were news reports that the presidents of the colleges in the Big Ten Conference, the grandaddy of Midwestern college football conferences, had voted to cancel football and other autumn sports — although reports are conflicting, and some news websites are saying an official vote and announcement will be forthcoming today.

Of course, this possibility sends a collective shudder through the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation.  We love our football, and every year we look forward to seeing the Men of the Scarlet and Gray head out onto the gridiron.  Every year seems filled with special promise, and this year — with many Ohio State players returning from a team that came within a whisper (and a few dubious referee calls) of playing in the national championship game — was no exception.

But even a huge fan like me realizes that this is not an easy decision.  Many of the coaches and players are urging the league to go forward with games.  They want to play, and they note that football is a dangerous game even during normal times.  But, obviously, there is a unique health risk during a pandemic where disease transmission is so easy, and playing football — with players repeatedly in direct physical contact with each other, touching the same ball, huddling together, and breathing heavily, inches apart from each other, on the line of scrimmage — seems like the riskiest sport of all.  The colleges need to decide for themselves whether games can be played with a proper margin of safety, or whether the risk of players suffering permanent harm for the sake of playing games is just too great.

We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we experience a football-free fall this year.  And I really couldn’t blame the colleges if that was their decision.

If so, it will give us another reason to remember 2020 with regret and disgust.

The Great Puffin Photo Challenge

Yesterday we took a “puffin tour” — a boat ride that took us several miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. Our destination was Seal Island, where we hoped to find puffins, and seals, and any other marine creatures or birds that might care to drop by. It was a beautiful day and a very enjoyable ride. We saw puffins galore, lots of seals, cormorants, sun fish, and even a few porpoises.  One person on the boat claimed to see a whale in the distance, too.

But puffins, really, were the reason for the excursion.  Puffins are cute little birds that look somewhat like a cross between a penguin and a parrot.  But here’s the thing about puffins: they’re pretty much impossible for the amateur nature photographer to capture. They float and bob on the ocean water, looking simply like indistinct black spots on the sun-dappled waves, as the photo above reflects. The water shots therefore don’t exactly make for striking pictures.  And when the puffins decide to fly, they take off very fast, beating their wings as rapidly as hummingbirds, and stay low to the water, skimming its surface. They’re notoriously shy, too, and scatter when a boat gets too close — so no close-ups. You might take hundreds of photos and be lucky to find one, like the one below, that gives even a reasonably decent look at a puffin in flight.

Seals, too, aren’t exactly easy to photograph. Yesterday they were in the water, looking at us, rather than lounging on the rocks and inviting a photo shoot. And seal heads popping out of the water to gander at a boat basically look like more black spots on the waves. 

Fortunately, the cormorants of Seal Island were willing to perch on the rocks and give us a chance to take a snapshot. They were far away, and they may not be as cute as those adorable puffins, but at least they stand still.

The puffin tour was fun and interesting, and the whole experience gave me a new appreciation for National Geographic photographers.

Our Lupine Seed Harvest

In Maine, we love our lupine flowers, which seem to grow everywhere — even by the side of the road, without any tending.  We have three beautiful lupines right in front of our house, and I’m interested in trying to grow lupines elsewhere on our property.  But if you want to harvest lupine seeds and grow lupines, you need to work at it.

Later in the summer, the lupine flowers are replaced by lupine seed pods, which look like hairy pea pods.  (This is not surprising, because lupines are a part of the bean family of plants.)  If you want to harvest the seeds, you need to wait until the seed pods dry out and you can hear the seeds rattling around in the pod.  Then you patiently open the pods one by one, free the seeds from the pod, drop the seeds into a storage container — in our case, a coffee cup — and then wait to plant the seeds until the end of the season.  If you plant them too early, they’ll be found and consumed by birds and the other hungry critters of Maine.  The lupine seeds then need to experience multiple weeks of cold weather before they germinate and new plants can grow.

Unfortunately, I waited too long to do the seed harvest from the plants in the front of the house.  By the time I checked them, most of the pods had already burst open and dropped their seeds — and lupine seeds are incredibly tiny and heavy, so I wasn’t going to be able to find and retrieve them from the ground.  However, I found some unopened pods, and we retrieved some additional pods from plants along the roadway.  With the help of Dr. Science and the GV Jogger, who pitched in with us and enjoyed the simple pleasures of pod opening and seed retrieval, we’ve now collected several hundred of the small black seeds, which I will try to plant this fall. 

According to the Mainers, you should try to position the lupine seeds in areas where there isn’t much competition from other plants.  In addition, lupines seem to prefer rocky soil — and we’ve got plenty of that.  I’ve got several locations in mind where I would love to see some lupine plants take root.  I’ll be hoping that some of the seeds avoid the foraging of our neighborhood birds and animals, so that next spring we’ve got a serious lupine bloom on our hands.

On The Way Back From Nebo

Last night we took a boat trip and headed due west to North Haven, an island community that is about a 45-minute boat ride from Stonington. On the way we enjoyed the sunshine and the salt air and the sailboats and the sighting of some seals lounging on a rocky outcropping in the water.

Our destination was the Nebo Lodge, an inn and restaurant on North Haven that is a favorite of ours. We had a fine meal at Nebo and brief walk around North Haven before we headed back to reboard the boat so we could make it back to Stonington before nightfall.

Our timing was impeccable, because the skies were clear, the sun hung low on the horizon, and the wispy clouds etched dazzling patterns high above as our boat steamed back east. We sat on the stern and watched the boats sail past, silhouetted by the sinking sun.

Dr. Science, the ultimate rationalist, observed the the sun was just the equivalent of countless hydrogen bombs exploding in an empty void. But the GV Jogger, Kish and I scoffed at his clinical analysis, knowing deep down that Old Sol was painting a brilliant canvas just for us, and we were going to enjoy every minute of the show — and take some pictures to remember it.

As we drew nearer to Burnt Cove, the sun dipped inexorably down and the horizon flared orange, leaving the waters a deep purple and the clouds fully backlit and glowing.

By the time we reached Burnt Cove harbor, the western horizon sill blazed with a warm but dimming celestial fire, while darkness was falling to the east. Our captain deftly steered between the docked boats as we took in the last scenes in the sun’s big show.

To the east, the clouds high above still caught the sun’s bright rays, and looked like wisps of pink cotton candy reflected in the waters of Burnt Cove. The blue sky looked vast and endless.

As we docked and disembarked, the sky was the color of cinnamon and salmon and every hue in between. Dr. Science may be right about the sun just being a colossal hydrogen bomb, but it really does put on a pretty good show.

Life On The Reach

Yesterday we paid a visit to the shores of the Eggemoggin Reach.  The Reach is a channel of water that runs between the mainland and Deer Isle and Little Deer Isle.  It’s a very popular spot for boaters — especially sailboats — because the waterway runs like a road between two attractive shorelines and includes sights like the Pumpkin Island lighthouse, shown in the picture above, and some beautiful old houses on the shores, like the ones shown in the photo below.  On a warm, sunny day with bright blue skies and wispy clouds that seem to stretch into eternity, even gruff old guys in rowboats enjoy their time on the Reach.

We ended our time on the Reach with a visit to Bridge End Park, the imaginatively named park at the foot of the Deer Isle-Sedgwick suspension bridge.  (Nobody spends too much time in these parts of Maine coming up with creative names for parks or roads, incidentally — they’d rather just give you factual information, and leave the rhetorical gestures to people with more time on their hands.)  At the park you can get some good ice cream, sit at a picnic table, and watch the sailboats on the Reach cruise gracefully by, framed by the sky and the bright green bridge.  Name of the park notwithstanding, it’s a pretty little area that could move a person to poetry.

The Lobster Pot

Last night we broke out our trusty lobster pot for the first time this year.  With guests in for a visit, we needed to properly welcome them to Maine with a traditional lobster dinner.

Pretty much every household in Maine has a lobster pot.  They get handed down from generation to generation, or passed along to new people who are moving into the area.  We got our pot using the latter method.  We bought it at an estate sale, which is about right:  Mainers typically won’t let go of a good lobster pot until the Grim Reaper gives them no say in the matter.

The lobster pot has one essential function:  to hold huge quantities of water, and lobsters, until the water can be brought to a boil and the lobsters properly cooked.  Our pot, which has the kind of size and industrial appearance you’d expect to see in a kitchen of an army base, serves its role admirably.  I have no idea how much water it holds, but it’s enough. 

An important part of the whole lobster preparation process is turning the stovetop burners to high and then patiently but expectantly waiting for those uncounted gallons of salty water to come to a boil so the cooking can really begin. 

You don’t watch the pot during that time period, of course.

A Sad Case Of “Apple Scab”

There’s a little crab apple tree in the side yard of our place in Stonington.  I feel sorry for it.  The tree seems to struggle and has never produced fruit or flowers during the time we’ve had the place.  It has remained small and spindly despite my best efforts to help it grow.  I’ve tried watering it liberally, and I’ve driven those tree fertilizer spikes into the area around the tree to try to give it nutrients.  Unfortunately, it remains stunted.  It may just be that the rocky soil isn’t good for a tree.

This year, a kind of white discoloration appeared on some of the leaves on the tree.  In trying to figure out what it was, I learned something kind of cool about the University of Maine.  The U of M Cooperative Extension offers the services of a plant disease diagnostic lab that will test any sample you send and let you know what the problem is.  You just clip off some leaves that show the problem, put them in a plastic bag, give them your name and address and email information, and send the sample off to Orono, Maine for analysis. 

We took advantage of the service to send in some clippings from the little tree for examination and testing.  Yesterday we received a report from one of the scientists working at the lab — about a week after we sent it off.  That’s pretty impressive, and much appreciated.

The news about our little tree was bad and good.  The bad news is that the tree now has to deal with a fungal condition called venturia inequalis, which is commonly known as “apple scab.”  It’s not exactly an attractive name, but then fungal conditions typically don’t get lyrical monikers.  According to the report, “apple scab” is common on apple trees that have not been bred for resistance to the fungus — so now we know that the little tree lacks good breeding, in addition to its other issues.  The good news is that the condition isn’t fatal, or even all that serious.  The diagnostics lab scientist does not recommend fungicide, and simply recommends raking and disposing of the leaves after they drop from the tree this fall.  And a University of Massachusetts website identified in the diagnostics report says we can hope that the tree will be better next spring.    

So we’ve learned something neat about how the University of Maine serves the surrounding community, and confirmed that our little tree’s bout with “apple scab” means it has another challenge to contend with.  And now we can only hope that the little tree, like everything else, will be better — much better — in 2021. 

Old Movies

Our cable TV set-up in Maine isn’t quite as . . . robust as our arrangement in Columbus.  We don’t have Roku, or Netflix, or a lot of the other on-demand options, and many of the channels offer only pay-per-view movies.  If you’re in the mood for TV watching rather than reading your current book, the choices are a bit limited.

Fortunately for us, one of the options is Turner Classic Movies on demand.  This summer, we’ve been catching up on some old movies, and it has been a real pleasure.

thin20man-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Our practice is to go to the TCM channel, scan through the menu of movies that are available for viewing, and pick whatever strikes our fancy.  We’ve gone on a mini-Spencer Tracy marathon, watching Captains CourageousAdam’s Rib, and Father of the Bride.  We’ve screened High Sierra and Spartacus and The Magnificent Seven and 2001 and a weird western called Three Godfathers about would-be bank robbers who help deliver the baby of a dying woman and then get the baby to safety.  And on Sunday night we watched The Thin Man, the classic William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle that was so popular with audiences that it produced five sequels.  And we’ve enjoyed them all.

Our prevailing reaction after our summer of vintage cinema has been:  they don’t make them like they used to.  Of course, TCM isn’t listing the Ed Wood catalog or the other dogs of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, so comparing the TCM offerings on any given night to what might be available on HBO On Demand isn’t really a fair comparison . . . but TCM regularly offers more movies that we’re interested in seeing.  You can’t help but notice some key differences.  No superhero movies.  No hyperviolent movies, or movies with lots of computer-generated scenes or explosions or extended car chases or lots of overt sex scenes.  Instead, the older films tend to feature simple stories and plots that are character-driven, letting the cast carry the load.

The Thin Man is a good example.  Although the story arc is about whether a reluctant detective can solve a series of murders, the plot is almost an after-thought:  the film is really about the obvious and enjoyable chemistry between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), their dog Asta, and their cocktail-drinking, high-living, formal dinner party hosting lifestyle and relaxed, bantering, funny, and obviously deeply loving relationship.  We don’t really care much about who committed the murders, because we’re fascinated by how many cocktails Nick can imbibe, Nora’s wardrobe, and their delightful repartee.

When human interactions can carry the story, there’s no need for explosions or robots or superheroics to keep the audience entertained.  Perhaps modern moviegoers just don’t have the patience or appetite for movies like The Thin Man anymore.  It’s too bad.  In years to come, though, I expect people will continue to enjoy movies from Hollywood’s golden era.  Will they still be watching Transformers remakes, too?

Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

It Could Always Be Worse

2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year, so far, and we’ve still got nearly five full months of it to go.  But your perspective informs your view, doesn’t it?  My grandmother, for example, frequently said:  “Nothing’s so bad that couldn’t be worse, from the day you were born ’til you ride in a hearse.”  Drawing upon her wise counsel, I’ve adopted a world view that says we shouldn’t complain too much, because things could always be worse than they are.

And even in 2020, there’s no doubt that things could be worse than they are.  Much, much worse, in fact.

e0b8a5e0b8b4e0b887e0b887-2-1-copy-696x392-1Consider the plight of Lopburi, a city of 750,000 people in central Thailand.  It’s now being overrun by thousands of famished, libidinous monkeys who rampage through the city, gorging themselves on fast food, having sex on the streets, and attacking whoever stands in their way.

Interestingly, Lopburi has always been associated with the monkeys, a species called macaques.  For years, the monkeys have hung around the Khmer temple and Khmer shrine in the city, and have been fed by the locals.  And in November, the people of Lopburi put on the “Monkey Festival” to celebrate their crab-eating primate pals.

But now the monkey population has exploded.  Gangs of angry monkeys, with no fear of humans, roam through the city, taking what they want and terrifying the locals, who have barricaded themselves in their homes.  The monkeys live on a diet of sugary fast food that makes them even more unpredictable; one official made the terrifying observation that “[t]he monkeys are never hungry, just like children who eat too much KFC.”  (Anyone who has experienced a kid on a post-fast food sugar rush knows just how frightening that comment actually is.)  The number of monkey babies seen in the city indicates that an even bigger monkey population bomb may be getting ready to explode.  Police estimate that thousands of monkeys have established a base in an abandoned cinema, where they attack any human that tries to enter.  The police apparently believe that trying to disperse or deal with the monkeys is “hopeless.”

So yes, 2020 could be a lot worse than it is.  Until we open our front doors and are confronted by hundreds of ravaging angry monkeys eating cheeseburgers and eager to take a bite out of your skull, we haven’t really hit rock bottom.

N.P.A.

We’re getting closer and closer to the 2020 election. You can feel it.  And as Election Day draws nearer, one of the local shopkeepers felt compelled to post the sign pictured above.

The political types among us don’t understand this N.P.A. — No Politics Allowed — attitude.  They could rail against President Trump, or make fun of “Sleepy Joe,” all day long — and all night long, too.  They can’t get enough of the Politics with a capital “P,” and they want to make sure that everyone knows exactly where they stand.  To them, nothing is more important.  The very future of the country is at stake!  They’re immersed in it, they’re fascinated by it, they follow every development avidly, and they just can’t help talking about it and hoping that someone will be persuaded by their passion.

But there’s a solid core of people out there who are in a different camp.  They’ve got their political views, no doubt, but they don’t feel compelled to share them.  They don’t want to get into arguments about the election.  They may not find it all that interesting to hear people berate one candidate or the other, all the time, either.  Heck, they’d rather talk about COVID-19 mask designs than politics.  And they might also recognize that it’s very unpleasant to witness people get into a bitter political dispute — particularly if the people who are jawing at each other are patrons who are supposed to be enjoying a pleasant shopping experience.

So come in!  Look around!  Shop to your heart’s content!  But please . . . keep those impassioned political opinions to yourself, will you?  Please?

A Profession In Search Of Itself (Cont.)

I’ve been thinking about the journalism world since writing my earlier piece on what the move away from “objectivity” means for the world of the newsroom.  I think there are some other forces at play that are making the world of daily newspapers very difficult right now — some unavoidable, some self-inflicted.

A Man Reads A NewspaperObviously, the main unavoidable problem is . . . speed.  People expect to get things faster and faster, and we’ve gotten so spoiled by instantaneous speed that we now groan at even a few seconds’ delay as our browser calls up a website.  The daily newspaper simply can’t compete with that — there are too many steps in the process.  By the time the newspaper lands on your doorstep, it will therefore likely be viewed as “old news” already.  It’s been all over the internet for hours — so who wants to sit down and read it again?  And how many people want to sit down and actually read something, as opposed to flipping through content on their cell phones as they head out for a jog or wait for an elevator?

Another unavoidable problem is cost. Newspapers of the past had large payrolls — from the reporters and columnists to the editors to the photographers to ad salesmen to the people who laid out the pages and the guys in the print shop running the presses.  How many labor-centric businesses are thriving these days?  And, as cost-cutting has occurred, newspapers cut into the muscle of daily journalism — the people who made newspapers different from and more reliable than bloggers, like experienced editors who would send stories back for additional fact-checking, or investigative reporters who might take weeks to produce a big, carefully constructed and rigorously tied down story.

But there are self-inflicted errors, too.  I think many newspapers have botched the inevitable move to digital delivery.  If you look at many news websites, they are a riotous mess from a presentation standpoint.  There’s no front page or above-the-fold organization that tells you what the lead story is.  Print newspapers may be old-fashioned, but there was a clear organization at work that was comforting, dependable, and helpful.  If you wanted to feel reasonably informed about what was going on in the world and your town, you read through the front page and the national, state, and local news sections, and then you could turn to the business section, or sports.  You knew that some intelligent person had made some thoughtful decisions about the relative importance of the stories.  Does anyone feel that way about most news websites on-line?  Hard news is mixed up with celebrity news and “sponsored content” that doesn’t look materially different from the “news.”  What do you need to read to truly feel informed?

And that brings me to a final point:  the trivialization of what is supposed to be news.  How many of the stories on a basic news website — say, msn.com — are what we think of as actual news reporting, and how much of what we see featured is content about celebrities being out with their boyfriends or clickbait articles about why a particular sports figure should be seen as a bad guy?  We’ve reached the point where somebody’s context-free cell phone video of a delivery driver who didn’t help an old guy who fell to the ground is featured as prominently — and perhaps more prominently — than an article about a foreign conflict.  And there are opinions, on stories large and small, everywhere you look.

In their quest to keep up with the times and be hip and edgy, newspapers have lost the sober, thoughtful perspective and reputation they once had, and have elevated the inconsequential.  It may appeal to some people, but it doesn’t appeal to people who remember newspapers as they once were.

Fern Fun

When we first started coming to Maine, I was amazed to find that it had fern-filled forests (try saying that three times fast).  I had always associated ferns with warm, wet climates a lot closer to the equator, but that was clearly wrong.  Ferns thrive throughout Maine and are found pretty much everywhere — including outcroppings of ferns at multiple locations in our down yard, one of which is shown in this photo.

Ferns are part of a plant group called Pteridophytes, which is one of the oldest plant groups in the world.  They first emerged about 300 million years ago, which is why you often see colossal ferns depicted in illustrations of dinosaurs.  Ferns thrived during the warm, wet age of the dinosaurs, but they are also suited to wetter places like Maine because moisture is essential to their reproductive process.  Having no flowers or pollen for helpful bees to spread, they depend on the exchange of spores to reproduce.  There are lots of different species of ferns in Maine, including several clearly different varieties. with different kinds of fronds, in our yard.  I think our largest plants, like the ones shown in the photo, are “ostrich ferns,” which emerge as little fiddleheads, but distinguishing between the species requires an expertise and attention to subtle differences that I just don’t have

I like the look of ferns and am happy to have them in our yard.  They grow in clumps that wave lazily in the breeze blowing in from the harbor, and present with lots of different shades of green depending on the angle of the sunlight.  They’re a lot more attractive than the weeds that would be growing there otherwise, and they are hardy plants that really don’t require much care after they have taken root.  I’m trying to help a little patch that has started up in one rocky, out of the way part of the yard, and basically I’m just going to water it and circle it with stones to protect it from the weedwhacker. 

I also like ferns because deer apparently don’t care for them.  The ever-hungry neighborhood deer might gnaw the tops off every flower that is ready to bloom, but they leave the ferns alone.  Ferns . . . those, I think I can safely grow.

The Watering Circuit

It’s been blistering hot up here.  Of course, “hot” is a relative term.  “Hot,” by Stonington standards, means any temperatures above 70 degrees, and “blistering” means the thermometer touches 80.  (Given their sensitivity to heat, I don’t know what the good people of Stonington would do if confronted by a true Midwestern or southern summer, where temperatures in the 90s and above are commonplace.  Probably, they would be grateful they live up here, nod and say ayuh, and then stolidly retreat to these rockbound shores.)

But I digress.  On the days that promise to be hot and dry, I try to give our plants a good watering.  Because of the configuration of our yard and flower beds, that means using different watering devices and following a circuit.

I begin with the beds by our front door, where I can use a hose.  We don’t have a spray nozzle, so I use the thumb-over-the-water-flow method to achieve a sprinkle, and give the beds a good dousing.  They are on the western side of the house and won’t get sun for a while, so the water will get a chance to really sink in and do some good before the day heats up.  The hose water gets very cold against my thumb and helps me to wake up, and I do the watering while I’m making coffee so I can get a hot cup of joe when the watering is done and the hose is rolled up.

The next stop on the watering circuit comes later, after I’ve taken a walk and given the ever-hungry neighborhood deer a reasonable opportunity to eat more of the down yard flowers.  Because the down yard is in deep shadow in the morning, it can wait.  There’s no hose, so I need to use a watering can that I fill to the brim in our basement sink.  I carry the can down the steps and hillside and water three areas:  next to the outside stairs, where I’ve tried to transplant a lupine and set up a little flower bed, the flowers I planted in the crack between our two big rocks and next to the creek, and finally the vegetables we got from Russell.  It usually takes three trips and helps me to get my daily stair climbing in.  I also inevitably fill my daily quotient of obscenities when I survey the damage the deer have done to the flowers in the crack between the rocks, where we’ll probably never get the black-eyed susan blossoms — they always get neatly clipped off by deer teeth just as they are ready to bloom.  As I trudge back up the hill, cursing inwardly and trying to figure out some new, actually effective way to discourage the rapacious deer, I’ve become mentally ready to face the work day.

The last step in the watering circuit comes in the early evening, where I use a different hose to water the beds in the side yard and a little tree that has always struggled.  The side yard is starting to get shade by then, and the hose water feels cool and crisp after a hot day.  Watering, with its mindless back and forth motions to try to fully cover the relevant territory, is a good way to wind down after work and let the brain wander a bit.  The side yard beds also are a bit more uplifting to water, because the yard is fenced and deer don’t bother it, so the flowers are actually blooming rather than being consumed.  At the end of the day, it’s nice to see some fruits from your labors.

That’s my hot day watering circuit.  The deer appreciate my efforts, I’m sure.

A Profession In Search Of Itself

It’s tough times for journalists these days.  The profession is being rocked by outside forces — declining subscriptions and ad revenues and publications that are shrinking or shutting down entirely — and also by disputes from within.

d277b4879e30a2275fe28a4be1dc0bfa-disco-costume-dapper-gentlemanThe trade publications and some high-profile departures from publications have depicted newsrooms as kinds of battlegrounds, where political and social issues have come to the forefront and reporters on the newsroom side and writers on the opinion pages are at each others’ throats about just how much opinion, and also what kind of opinion, should be published on the op-ed pages.  This happened recently at The Wall Street Journal, where I once worked as a summer intern.  And through it all, the standards defining what it means to be a journalist are changing.

The Brown Bear sent me this piece from The Economist (which I think requires a subscription) addressing shifting views about the role of “objectivity” in journalism, with many in the profession now seriously questioning whether striving for objectivity is necessary, desirable, or even achievable.  Instead, some are calling for newspapers to give voice to “moral clarity” and to “tell the truth” as best they can.  Of course, “the truth” is not always readily apparent, and if “the truth” is presumed, some of the basics of journalism as I learned it back at the Ohio State University School of Journalism in the ’70s, in the post-Watergate era — like appropriate sourcing, and careful fact-checking, and a healthy sense of reporter skepticism in dealing with sources and tips — can end up getting short shrift.  That’s when embarrassing errors can occur that further erode the battered credibility of the so-called Fourth Estate.

The Brown Bear asked for my reaction to the piece in The Economist, and here it is:  I think jettisoning notions of objectivity in news reporting is a terrible mistake.  I think most of the standards that were applied in the effort to present the facts objectively led to better, more accurate reporting.  If you consulted with multiple sources addressing different sides of a story, if you treated everything you were told by everyone with a flinty-eyed dollop of doubt, and if you did what you could to check the “facts” that you were given by people who might be pursuing an agenda, you were much more likely to produce a credible effort at getting at “the truth.”  That’s a lot different than simply accepting something as “the truth” because it fits with your preconception of what “the truth” should be.  Striving for objectivity was a method of disciplining your reporting.

I think one other thing, too.  Working to be objective is difficult and challenging, and following that approach means you aren’t going to be everyone’s friend.  Objective journalists have to have a certain distance from their sources if they want to achieve that skeptical, check-everything role.  It’s not easy to do that.  Writing opinions, in contrast, is a lot easier.  You don’t need to check your facts, and you can adopt a viewpoint that is shared by others — like your friends.  I sometimes wonder if that reality is part of the impetus for throwing objectivity overboard.