Yesterday I took a break from the never-ending battle against the onslaught of dandelions and built two walls in the down yard. One is intended to screen off an area where we’ll be composting yard waste, dead and dried weed carcasses, and other assorted debris, The other one, pictured above, will mark the edge of what will be a little flower bed in a narrow crevice between two huge granite outcroppings.
I used stones for the walls, because we’ve got a virtually inexhaustible supply of them, and thought about Robert Frost the whole time. I learned that trying to craft a stone wall can be a very enjoyable project. It’s messy and muddy, and you get to see what kind of crawly creatures cling to the undersides of big rocks, which adds to the overall experience. You get to lug stones around, too, so it’s pretty good exercise.
From an engineering standpoint, the key seems to be a create a level base for the wall, then find the right stones to fit into the right gaps, using the weight of the stones above to hold them all in place. After some trial and error and experimentation with different stones in different places, I ended up with two walls that seem to be sturdy and level — at least until the next big rainstorm. In the meantime, it was satisfying to actually do some manual labor with my hands, and see the immediate fruits of my effort. For white-collar workers, that’s not something that happens every day.
The view tonight from the deck of Acadia House Provisions. A spectacular view to go with a spectacular meal.
One of the great things about Stonington, Maine is that it’s far off the beaten path. So far, in fact, that it’s totally franchise-free. You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks here. In fact, you’d have to drive dozens of miles into the mainland before you hit your first franchise fast food restaurant or coffee shop.
Located at the tip of Deer Isle, out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, Stonington is just too small and too remote for the big franchise chains. That means if you’ve got to start your day with some kind of Starbucks brand caramel-topped pumpkin spice latte grande, this just isn’t the place for you. (It also means that you won’t find a discarded Starbucks coffee cup or a McDonald’s wrapper around town, either.)
That doesn’t mean that Stonington lacks for coffee or the other amenities of modern life. Instead, locally owned businesses have filled the niche that would otherwise be filled by the big chains. There’s a great coffee shop called 44 North where you can get your java fix, and there are really good restaurants, ranging from the classic home-cooked offerings offered at the Harbor Cafe (pictured above, where the haddock chowder is addictive and you have to save room for dessert) and Stonecutters Kitchen and the Fin and Fern to the more high-end fare found at Acadia House Provisions and Aragosta. The other businesses in town are locally owned, too — and some of them are employee-owned co-ops.
The local ownership adds a certain indefinable quality to the buying experience. There are signs around the island noting that buying from local businesses means local jobs, and that’s clearly the case. It actually makes you want to shop at the local options and support the local economy, in a way that just doesn’t apply to stopping at a national chain operation.
It’s all a pretty old school approach. There’s nothing wrong with the big companies and their franchises, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded of what America was like before large-scale national brands took hold and unique local businesses lined the sidewalks along Main Street.
I admit it — sometimes I buy products on name alone. It sounds shallow, but some names are just so evocative and intriguing that I’ve got to tip my cap to the company that came up with the moniker and buy their goods in acknowledgement.
So, when I ran across the Cushnoc Brewing Company Lawyer Up Coffee Porter at the beer cooler of the local grocer, I had to give it a shot. A porter that combines coffee and lawyers? That’s got to be a pretty darned strong brew!
In fact, now that I’ve bought the Lawyer Up, I’m a little intimidated to even try it. What’s the right time to sip a beer that sounds the heady notes of coffee and counselors? Probably not late at night, because this beer clearly packs a wallop and might keep you up, besides. Noon, when your system maybe best suited to withstanding a coffee and legal advice jolt? Cocktail hour, when your system might need the kind of kick that only a lawyer and a cup of coffee can bring?
One of the local shops in Stonington, The Dry Dock, always has a bookshelf in front of the store that offers free books. It’s impossible not to stop and take a gander at what’s available, and yesterday I noticed a book that brought back memories — a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
I’m not sure whether Reader’s Digest still comes up with “condensed books” — or, for that matter, whether Reader’s Digest itself is still published — but there was a time in the ’60s and early ’70s when our family subscribed to the magazine and got the condensed books, too. I remember Mom reading the condensed books and remarking that you wouldn’t even have known that the books were condensed. Of course, unless you had done a side-by-side comparison of the actual novel and the condensed book, you wouldn’t know what had hit the cutting room floor in the “condensation” process. Significant subplots, back stories, ancillary characters, scenes that helped to fully flesh out the contours and personalities of the main characters — they all could be lopped out by the Reader’s Digest editors who wanted to shrink novels and non-fiction works down to a manageable size for the busy person who just didn’t have the time to read a full-blown book.
I don’t recall ever reading one of the condensed books that were delivered to our house, although I occasionally wished that Reader‘s Digest had done condensed versions of some of the ponderous tomes we had to read in high school. (This was before I discovered Cliff’s Notes.) I always wondered, though, how the authors involved reacted to the finished, condensed product. I’m sure they liked the payment they received for allowing their work to be condensed, but how did they feel about the liberal editing that occurred as part of the process? Did the authors actually read the condensed versions to see how their work was affected? Did they think that the condensation cut the heart out of their books, or changed their focus, or did they feel deep down that the editing process had actually improved their work? Given the amount of time and effort writers put into a novel, it would be tough to come to the conclusion that the book you labored over was better without some of the subplots and character-building scenes.
A few days ago we went to buy groceries. In the coffee aisle I found a bag of ground coffee sold by a local company that was called the “Einstein Blend” and featured a drawing of Albert Einstein sipping a cup of coffee. The slogan under the drawing read: “An intelligent, medium roast blend of African and Costa Rican coffees.”
Albert Einstein, that unique, world-changing genius, probably the most famous scientist in history, on the cover of a coffee packet? What’s the world coming to?
The value, and price, of being famous is that your image has value. But at some point your image and likeness is no longer your own. When a notable person dies, the clock starts ticking, and ultimately the right to publicity expires and the famous person’s image and likeness slip into the public domain for anyone to use. That’s why it’s not unusual to see Abraham Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all, in TV ads for car insurance and other products of the modern world. In the case of the Discoverer of the Theory of Relativity, who died in 1955, a 2012 court ruling concluded that his post mortem publicity rights had expired. As a result, Albert Einstein’s grandfatherly likeness, with that familiar halo of hair and wise, kindly look in his eyes, is now fair game for advertisers.
At least coffee is a product that Einstein actually used (and enjoyed), unlike Abe Lincoln and car insurance. And by the way, I bought a pack of the Einstein Blend — how could I not? — and it’s pretty good coffee. Drinking it, I feel smarter already.
Yesterday our next door neighbor brought us a very Maine gift — four freshly caught lobsters– and last night we cooked lobsters at home for the first time. It’s not difficult.
First, find a big pot with a lid and fill it about halfway with water. We had bought a big pot at a yard sale that was perfect, so we were set on that front. Second, add some salt to the water. Third, toss in the lobsters and turn on the heat. (This isn’t easy to do — or at least, it wasn’t easy for me. But if you want freshly cooked lobster, you can’t be squeamish. That’s where having a pot with a lid is helpful.) When the water finally heats up to a boil, give the lobsters another 10 minutes and you’re ready to fish them out of the pot.
The lobsters came out bright red and succulent– just like you’d get from a local restaurant. They were delicious.
Now that we’re no longer lobster virgins, we’ll have to try steaming some clams next, so we can treat our guests to a “shore dinner.”
Among the art pieces in one of the rooms of Nellieville, at Nervous Nellie’s Jams & Jellies, are two doll heads on a table. I suppose you could admire the craftsmanship of the dolls’ creators, or consider the different artistic messages that might be conveyed by making doll heads part of the composition — but not me.
Doll heads give me the creeps, and I’m not sure exactly why. Is it the wide, staring, unblinking eyes? Is it the fact that they’ve been dismembered? Is it the placid, vacant, painted-on expression?
I’m not sure, exactly, but I know that the presence of doll heads interferes with my full appreciation of art.
When you’re killing time during a long layover in an airport, and a Hudson News is the only non-fast food place to visit, you tend to check out the magazine rack. So, what does the generic airport magazine rack tell you?
First, it tells you that magazines aren’t exactly thriving. The current magazine rack is pretty shrimpy by comparison to the full wall of magazines you found in the old days. Airport book options are shrinking, too.
Second, it suggests that modern Americans aren’t all that interested in serious reading. Once you go past The Economist, you’ve pretty much exhausted the serious reading category. Time and Newsweek have become the print equivalent of clickbait and don’t even try to present themselves as serious journalism. The rest of the shelves are devoted to the celebrity culture and the Royals — which is pretty much the same thing. How many interviews with, say, Taylor Swift is a person going to read?
And third, has any celebrity couple been the subject of a longer run in the romantic speculation/break-up/make-up category than Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? Didn’t they first hit the gossip rags more than 20 years ago? And yet here they are, the subject of rumor and speculation and disclosures by purported insiders. In the history of American popular culture, is there any other couple that has had greater tittle-tattle staying power than these two?
I’ve been on the road a lot recently, and I feel like it’s had an impact on my normal routines. I’ve moved back and forth between time zones, spent a lot of time on planes, gotten up at odd hours (even for me) and stayed up later than normal, and am no longer on the schedule that I’ve typically followed.
And I’m feeling all of that, too. My circadian rhythms are out of whack and off kilter. I feel like an old golf ball that has lost its crisp bounce and now is just landing on the fairway or in the rough with a pathetic, disappointing thud.
The hoary saying is that you are only as old as you feel. Of course, that saying suggests that there are times when you do feel older, and are reminded by mind and body that you’re not the spring chicken you used to be. The realization that your rebound process seems to be taking a lot longer now than it did in the past is one of those times. But right now I’m just too tired to care.
Is any punctuation mark more misused than the poor apostrophe? How often do you see a sign, like this one in downtown Columbus, where an apostrophe has been weirdly inserted for some mysterious reason, causing inevitable confusion? In this case, are multiple condos for lease, or is the sign supposed to communicate a contraction of “condo is for lease”? And don’t get me started on whether there’s a person named “Condo” involved in some fashion and there is supposed to be any possessive element to what is being conveyed.
It’s amazing how many commercial signs have apostrophe errors. If you are going to put up a big sign about something for sale, wouldn’t you also invest in a proofreader?
Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space. The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station. Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.
There are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it. For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.” For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on. The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.
As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return. Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew. Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!
Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space. Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food. If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.
I’ve enjoyed spending some time in Boise, Idaho, over the last few months. It reminds me of Columbus in some ways — it’s a growing town with a good foodie scene and a significant college vibe, thanks to Boise State University — but of course it’s different in come ways, too. One difference in the overall vibe is the foothills (in flat Columbus, we’d call them mountains) that are found very close to the downtown area.
We decided to hike up Camelback, which is only a few blocks from the core downtown area, up 8th Street through a very cool neighborhood. Once you reach the trail head, you can walk straight up to the Camelback overlook, or vie with the mountain bikers, horseback riders, joggers, and dogwalkers on one of the main trails that fan out into the area. We took one of the trails first, heading out into the sagebrush and arid scenery, then ended the excursion with the cool Camelback overlook and its nice view of downtown Boise and the Idaho Statehouse dome.
It’s amazing what a little elevation near downtown can do for you. Of course, I’m not sure that many downtown officeworkers hike up dusty Camelback on their lunch hours.
Sometimes I don’t know what American hotel chains are thinking. Consider this increasingly commonplace hotel scenario. You check in, get your keycard, lug your bags into the elevator and up to the room, use the key card to access the room, open the door, and . . . .
There are strange voices coming from inside the room. Murmuring, distinctly human voices, but at a volume where you can’t immediately make out what the heck they are saying. Then you go into your room and discover that the TV is on, set to a channel where people are talking, and you have to walk over and turn it off.
Why is this the latest trend? It’s inexplicable. You used to go into your hotel room and, in many cases, find that the TV has been set to a music channel. But now the music welcome has been junked, and it’s always a TV channel where people are talking. Sometimes it’s the channel that carries those long vignette ads for the hotel chain itself, and sometimes its the local NPR station. But it’s almost always human voices in the background these days.
Why is this so? I suppose somebody thought that the sound of human voices in the room would make the weary lone traveler feel a little less isolated on his or her trip. Or maybe they just figure they’ll hit you with a few seconds of free hotel advertising time during the time it takes for you to drop your bags, march over to the TV set, wrestle with the remote, and figure out how to turn the TV off.
This has become standard operating procedure in most hotels, so you’d think I’d be used to it — but I’m not. Instead, I inevitably think as I open the door — “Hey, have I gone to the wrong room?”