A big pumpkin-colored Moon hovers over Stonington harbor tonight, still reflecting the rays of the setting sun.
Monthly Archives: September 2020
One Last Lobster Roll
Our time in Stonington is rapidly drawing to a close. After more than four months of working remotely from the salty shores of the Penobscot Bay, we’ll soon be heading back to the Midwest.
When a very pleasant sojourn is ending, it’s important to lock in those memories about things that make a place special. That means large gulps of salty air on morning walks, and feeling foggy mist on your arms and face, and touching rough granite rocks, and hearing a few more locals talk with those unique Maine accents. And of course it means a lobster roll, too, because lobster is one of the flavors of Maine.
Fortunately, the Harbor Cafe in Stonington makes an exceptional lobster roll: a split-top bun, toasted and lightly buttered, loaded with fresh lobster in a light sauce. You get heaping amounts of lobster with every crunchy bite. We headed there for one last lobster roll yesterday, and got something to savor.
All In Gourd Time
Kish bought some gourds on her trip to the market the other day. They are now on our kitchen table, adding a flash of bright colors and an unmistakable “fall is here” message to the kitchen.
I’ve always liked gourds. Even as a kid, I preferred the gourds that looked creepy, with their curving, duck-like necks and warty bodies that wouldn’t stand upright. Mini-pumpkins have cornered the market on solid orange, but the gourds usually feature an arty and much more interesting mix of greens and yellows and oranges that are an important part of the autumn color palette. I like picking the gourds up and feeling their ridges and curves and pebbled exterior in my hands.
If there are gourds in the kitchen, can Halloween be far behind?
Ferns Go First
Up above, the leaves are just starting to change. But on the forest floor, the ferns are giving us a blazing preview of the upcoming fall foliage show. Their colors are so bright you can see the ferns deeper in the forest, like glowing campfires dotting the ground and lighting up the fallen trees and logs nearby.
The fall foliage season is a big deal around here, and this week will be the start of prime autumn color viewing. But the rule in the forest is inviolate: when it comes to changing their colors, ferns go first.
In Caterpillar Country
I ran across lots of critters in my work in the yard yesterday. Spiders and beetles were out in force, and I also encountered this striking white and black caterpillar crawling on an old birch tree stump.
My rule in the garden is to look — and photograph, where warranted — but don’t touch. I let the creatures go their own way unimpeded. In this instance, that turned out to be a wise policy, because according to the ever-useful University of Maine Cooperative Extension website this particular caterpillar is a Hickory Tussock caterpillar, and those white hairy tufts can cause a powerful and very itchy rash, especially for kids who can’t resist picking up things like caterpillars. The U of Maine also cautions people to be careful not to come in contact with them when raking leaves in the fall.
The Hickory Tussock caterpillar loves hardwood trees, like birch trees, and will be spinning its cocoon in the near future, using leaf debris and its own white hairs. The caterpillars then produce tiger moths, which are pretty common up here.
One of the many cool things about Stonington is the presence of handmade signs—like these two carefully carved signs identifying Ocean Drive.
Why are there two virtually identical road signs, right on top of each other? Beats me! It’s just part of the charm of the place.
Many of the signs around town are hand-lettered and often involve artwork for some added panache. Lobsters are popular accents for signs, for example. I think some of the business owners feel that hand-lettered signs are a personal touch that says more about their business than a commercially produced sign. And the signs around town aren’t limited to commercial establishments, either. Some houses have joined in the hand-lettering parade and put up their own signs. Sometimes the yard signs are political, sometimes they are more personal — like asking dog walkers to please not let their dogs off the leash.
I find the personal signs to be affirming. You wouldn’t make a sign unless you believed it will have an impact. In a town where people do a lot of walking, it’s nice to know that neighbors believe that passersby will read their signs and at least acknowledge — if not agree with — them.
The Morning View From Ocean Drive
Ocean Drive is a short stretch of road that splits off from Allen Street and then hugs the shoreline as it runs down to Greenhead Lobster. At that fork in the road there is a manhole cover — specifically, manhole cover #123, which we know because all Stonington manhole covers bear green, neatly spray-painted identification numbers. When the lobstermen who moor their boats in the western edge of the Stonington harbor drive to Greenhead to park their pickup trucks and take their skiffs out to their big boats in the morning, they hit old #123 as they veer onto Ocean Drive and make a distinctive “clink CLUNK” sound as the manhole cover rattles under the weight of the passing trucks. Most mornings, that clink CLUNK is the first sound I hear.
Ocean Drive is a bit of a misnomer, because the Atlantic Ocean is still several miles away, shielded from the harbor by many islands. But it’s not hard to imagine that, as the lobstermen turn left at the Ocean Drive split, give #123 a good rattle, smell the salt air, and catch the sunrise view shown above in the morning, it helps them get mentally ready for another hard day of lobstering.
Once, I was a big breakfast person. Mom was a charter member of the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” cult, and she insisted on our having a “healthy breakfast” before we headed off to school.
In those days, a “health breakfast” meant a big bowl of Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch, or Quake during the warmer months, and oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, or some other hot cereal — always with brown sugar, of course — and a glass of juice, and a glass of whole milk, and probably some toast with jelly, besides. Fortified and carboloaded with our “healthy breakfasts” and bundled up against the morning chill, the Webner kids went out to wait for the school bus and take on the world.
But over the years, my tastes and breakfast interests mutated. Some of it was due to speed; there just doesn’t seem like a lot of time in the morning to make a big breakfast. Some of it was due to weight; at some point, large mixing bowls of sugary cereal suddenly didn’t seem like such a wise move from a belt size standpoint. And some of it, frankly, was just a matter of taste. I got to the point where I didn’t like the feeling of gobbling down a bunch of food first thing in the morning. Restricting my intake to a cup of coffee and a small glass of orange juice left me feeling a bit lighter and less logy. And I also figured that if I limited myself to a small breakfast, that would leave plenty of room on the calorie counter for a nice lunch.
Is breakfast “the most important meal of the day,” as Mom’s creed dictated? Beats me! Given the ever-changing “science” of human dietary needs and food pyramids, I doubt if anyone really knows. These days, I pretty much just for go what makes me feel better. I suppose if I was going out and waiting for the school bus in the chill morning air, then taking a loud, rattling, 45-minute, seat belt-free ride with a bunch of other rambunctious kids headed off to school and charged up by their own intake of sugary cereals I might feel differently.
A Summer Like No Other
Today is, officially, the last full day of summer. Tomorrow morning at 9:30 or so the autumnal equinox arrives. In Stonington, it feels like the northern hemisphere has been moving speedily away from the sun for some time now. As I write this the temperature outside is a bracing 39 degrees, and you can definitely get a heady whiff of winter in the sharp breeze.
It’s been a unique summer in Stonington, as it has been across the country. The statue of the stonecutter downtown has been masked up for months, and so were most of the people around town. Here, like everywhere else, things that used to be strange and different have become second nature — like donning a mask before entering a building, working remotely with your office in a laptop, or automatically veering off to the other side of the street to keep that social distance from approaching pedestrians.
Some businesses opened, some didn’t, and some found new ways to operate while scrupulously obeying the coronavirus rules. The restaurants that opened seemed to start slow but gather momentum, and our guess is that grateful patrons will feel a long-term loyalty to the places that figured out a way to safely serve food to customers who just had to get out of their houses during a pandemic. The shops in town all stayed open through the season and seemed to do a reasonably good trade, and while the Opera House was closed in 2020 it decided to offer drive-in movies on a big screen set up at the old ballfield and experienced a string of sell-outs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the summer drive-ins become a permanent part of the Stonington arts calendar.
Of course, it wasn’t like a normal summer, and a lot of the things that we enjoyed in the past — like live musical performances at some of the venues around town, and the end of summer Labor Day party in our neighborhood — just didn’t happen this year, for totally understandable reasons. But with summer now ending, the key point seems to be that the town and its businesses made it through, and will still be here next year. That’s not true elsewhere, as thousands of American restaurants and shops and other small businesses closed their doors for good. We’re grateful that our favorite places dodged that bullet.
The summer of 2020 truly has been a summer like no other. We’re not sorry to see it ending, but it’s safe to say we won’t forget it.
My Interview With RBG
I was very saddened to read yesterday of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. She was one of those rare Supreme Court justices who was not only a towering legal figure, but also a titanic cultural figure as well.
As the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a role model and iconic figure for generations of women entering the legal profession and, more broadly, women breaking boundaries in formerly male-dominated professions of all kinds. Her jurisprudence shows that she was a tireless, and relentless, advocate for women’s rights, but also a brilliant and careful legal analyst and deft writer whose considerable brainpower was well applied to every case that came before the Supreme Court.
And in my view, at least, Justice Ginsburg was an important cultural figure in another way as well. She was great friends with former Justice Antonin Scalia, even though their views on the law and its purpose could not have been farther apart. They shared a love of opera, enjoyed socializing, and actually performed on stage in a 1994 Washington National Opera production. It says something about the character and temperament of both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia that they could put aside their political and legal disagreements and still enjoy each other’s company. It’s a quality that we could use a bit more of in these bitterly divided, hyperpartisan times.
I had the privilege of actually interviewing for a clerkship position with Judge Ginsburg in 1984, when she was serving as one of the leading, up-and-coming judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and I was beginning my third year of law school. I had sent resumes and letters to all of the court of appeals judges and was thrilled to get a callback interview with Judge Ginsburg. (I suspect that her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a Georgetown Law professor who had taught two tax classes I had taken, may have put in a good word for me.) Alas, when I arrived for the interview Judge Ginsburg told me, with characteristic gentle forthrightness, that she had just offered the position to another candidate, who had accepted, and she said that under the circumstances if I wanted to skip the interview she would understand and be fine with that.
I was disappointed at the news, but figured what the heck — how often am I going to get a chance to talk for a while with one of the world’s leading legal minds? — so I said if it was okay with her I’d like to stay and chat, anyway. We spent a very enjoyable hour talking about her husband and his great teaching style and a law review article I was working on about the intersession pocket veto, an issue that had arisen before the D.C. Circuit. Judge Ginsburg asked some incisive questions about the issues and had some interesting observations about them, and then flattered me by asking for a copy of my draft article, which I promptly sent. I may not have gotten a clerkship out of our brief encounter, but I did get a good story and some insights into an important historical figure from the experience.
When President Clinton appointed Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, I knew she would be an important Justice, and of course she was. Today I remember not only the leading jurist and influential role model, but also the funny, dynamic person I met more than 35 years ago. The world is a little poorer today with her passing.
The other day we were talking to one of the locals. Russell mentioned that on his recent hikes he’s seen more deer activity, and has had to be careful driving in the wooded areas of Deer Isle to avoid collisions with deer charging out of the underbrush. The local nodded sagely and said, simply: “rutting season.”
(Whenever somebody says anything involving a “season,” my mind automatically cycles to a classic Looney Tunes where Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny are ripping hunting posters off a telephone poll, arguing “Rabbit Season!” and “Duck Season!” with increasing vehemence, only to finally expose an “Elmer Season” poster. But, I digress.)
In this part of Maine, “rutting season” is serious business, and as much a time of year as winter, spring, or summer. It’s the period where hormones are surging in the whitetail deer population and the cervidae are feeling the overpowering urge to mate. During the height of “the rut,” Mainers will see antlered male deer “sparring” in fields and clearing, fighting for the right to court a choice female deer. And when the rutting season arrives in full force, you’ve really got to watch it in the woods or on the roads, to keep an eye out for crazed, wild-eyed deer crashing out of the trees, in the grip of raw biological forces that are totally beyond their control. Licensed hunters–especially bow hunters, apparently–think rutting season is the best season of the year.
Interestingly, nobody is quite sure when the rutting season truly begins, and some of the more scientific sorts divide the period into “pre-rut,” “rut,” and “post-rut” subperiods, characterized by different deer activity like males leaving scrapes on trees and then “seeking,” “chasing,” and “tending.” Apparently the onset of the rut is affected by the shorter days, and colder temperatures . . . and it has gotten a lot cooler up here lately. I’ve noticed increased deer activity even in our neighborhood, with a lot more signs of deer messing with the plants–and changes in eating patterns evidently are another sign of the onset of rutting season. If we’re not in the “pre-rut” phase, we’re getting close.
So, brace yourself! “Rutting season” may be near upon us. And now that we’re going to be dealing with it, I’ll never describe myself as “being in a rut” again.
Reviving Perry Mason
Kish and I have spent the last few evenings watching the first season of the new HBO series Perry Mason. The show is a reboot of the classic ’50s TV show that gave viewers the idea that dramatic courtroom confessions were an inevitable part of any criminal trial.
Putting a new spin on Perry Mason is a challenge, because the Perry Mason created by Raymond Burr in those black-and-white broadcast days was an iconic TV character–and the theme music of the show was one of the best theme songs of any TV show, ever. Clad in sober suits with creases so sharp they could cut your hand and sporting a shave so close it made his craggy face look almost blue, Burr’s Perry Mason was always totally in control, in the office or the courtroom, ready to reduce any adverse witness into a quivering, sniveling mass as Perry, assisted by the faithful Della Street and investigator Paul Drake, delivered another acquittal for his client against seemingly impossible odds. (And poor Hamilton Burger, the District Attorney who couldn’t win even an open-and-shut case, would add another devastating L in the loss column — yet somehow keep his job and be back, ready to lose again, next week.)
The new HBO show puts Perry in a different place and headed in different direction. When we first meet Perry, during the depths of the Great Depression in 1931, he’s not in control of anything, and he’s not a lawyer: he’s a private eye working for an old-line L.A. lawyer. His life is a wreck, he’s separated from his wife and his son, he drinks too much, he’s still wrestling with the demons caused by his horrifying experience in the trenches in World War I, and his personal ethics are lax, at best. Even more shocking for those of us familiar with the Raymond Burr character, he’s regularly unshaven. But with the help of the lawyer’s savvy associate, Della Street, Perry ends up where he must inevitably be: in the courtroom, representing a woman wrongly accused of killing her own child. Paul Drake plays a pivotal role in helping to see that justice is done, and along the way we get our first look at Hamilton Burger — who actually helps Perry pass the bar and advises him on trial tactics.
Matthew Rhys is a decidedly more rumpled, and more human, Perry Mason who is easy to root for, and Chris Chalk burns with inner intensity as Paul Drake, who has to make his own difficult moral choices and deal with everyday racism as an African-American police officer who gets treated like a second-class citizen. But the beating heart of the show is Juliet Rylance, who is terrific as the formidable Della Street, the brainy, hard-working character who puts Perry on the right path and doesn’t mind breaching a few ethical boundaries in doing so, either. And don’t miss John Lithgow, who is wonderful as E.B. Jonathan, the likeable but puffed-up old-school lawyer whose office brings Perry and Della together.
Normally I am not a fan of courtroom shows; as a lawyer, they are typically so unrealistic that I can’t get past the outlandish plots and absurd courtroom antics. But this show keeps that to a minimum, and the fact that the series is set in the early ’30s, when the practice of law was definitely different than it is now, helps in that regard. We liked the new Perry Mason quite a bit and were glad to hear that it was renewed for a second season. When Perry, Della and Paul return for their next big case — and may, perhaps, be matched up against poor Hamilton Burger — we’ll be watching.
On The Trail
This part of Maine is blessed with some fine hiking trails, and thanks to the Island Heritage Trust, Deer Isle has more than its share. A good hiking trail is a great place to rediscover the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods, and reengage with that inner child who has been buried under decades of life and countless layers of adult obligations. You can’t help but feel a bit like a kid again when you balance on some two-by-fours laid over the boggy areas or are tempted to skip a stone on the still waters of a pond.
It’s been a busy summer for us, and the occasional hikes have been an effective and much appreciated stress relief mechanism. As the summer draws to a close, we always regret that we didn’t take a few more, and vow that next summer we won’t make the same mistake.
Do human taste buds and flavor tolerances change as human beings age? Or are they just putting more salt — much, much more salt — into some foods these days?
I’m guessing it’s a little bit of both.
I’ve definitely changed my application of salt to food as the years have gone by. I used to reflexively salt things like cheeseburgers, steaks, eggs, and corn on the cob, but have long since stopped doing that. These days, I rarely put salt on anything. I’m a big fan of black pepper, and I like to apply seasonings like paprika and cayenne to give food an extra flavor kick. But salt has moved to the back of the seasoning cabinet.
But I think it’s also true that many restaurants simply are a lot more liberal with their salting. I’ve had to edit my list of restaurant foods because some orders are simply too salty to be enjoyed. I’ve long since stopped getting carryout Chinese, because most places have so much sodium in their General Tso’s chicken that you kind of wonder whether the General was some kind of pathetic salt addict. And McDonald’s fries are also at the verboten end of the salt spectrum. Lately some pizzas also seem to be edging toward the forbidden zone.
Sometimes it’s just too tempting to try that piece of pizza, but I always end up deeply regretting it. I find myself drinking glass after glass of water to make up for the salt intake, and I wake up at night feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked out of my body and you could use a straight razor to shave salt crystals off my tongue. And then I vow that another food item must go onto the roster of banned items.
This summer the GV Jogger generously got me a great t-shirt that says “Stay Salty.” It refers to my personality, not my taste buds.
Sports And Politics
Yesterday my ESPN app sent me an “alert” that Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback, had tweeted that he had decided to reverse course and stand for the National Anthem at the start of today’s game. (Or maybe it was the other way around; I really haven’t been paying close attention to Baker Mayfield’s apparently evolving stance on the National Anthem.)
Mostly, my reaction was that things sure have changed in the wide world of sports.since I was a kid. Of course, there wasn’t Twitter or social media of any kind in those days, but it’s hard to imagine any professional sports figure of my youth sending out any kind of politically oriented messages on the day before a Big Game. Their focus would be exclusively on getting their Game Face on for the contest — or, at least, they sure would want you to think that mental preparation was their sole preoccupation.
Of course, politics did mix with sports from time to time in those days. The John Carlos and Tommy Smith Black Power salutes during their medal award ceremony in the 1968 Olympics were a big deal, and if I recall correctly Redskins coach George Allen publicly endorsed President Nixon and let him call a play during a game. But for the most part sports was separate, and a chance to get away from politics and enter a world where your sports allegiances were far more important than your political inclinations and people from across the political spectrum could unite in celebration of the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship victory or commiserate about the ineptitude of the Cleveland Indians during the ’70s. Sports was a kind of safe space for cocktail party conversation or backyard cookout chatter.
Those days are long gone. Today’s athletes seem to be as immersed in politics as anybody else, and are very open about their views. I’m perfectly okay with that, and recognize that these days a figure like LeBron James or Baker Mayfield has to be thinking about his position on issues like standing or kneeling for the National Anthem, because other people are going to be paying attention to it, And athletes are as entitled as the next person to express their political views and use platforms like Twitter to do so. Of course, political speech adds a new dimension to the sports star-fan dynamic. Athletes who venture into the political world have to recognize that, just as they have the right to express their political views, fans do, too — maybe by booing, maybe by criticizing what they perceive as inconsistency or hypocrisy in the athletes’ positions, or maybe by just deciding that the world of sports is no longer as fun and innocent and apolitical as it used to be and not buying tickets to games or watching broadcasts or buying jerseys with their favorite player’s name,
The days when sports and politics were separate worlds probably will never come back. Politics has invaded everything, and sports is not immune. That’s the reality, but I do kind of miss the days when you could watch a ball game for a few hours without politics intruding into the triumphs and heartbreaks of the sports fantasy world.