The Great Unmasking (Cont.)

Yesterday I was on the road and in an airport for the first time in months. It was my first exposure to a mandatory mask environment after weeks of mask-free or at most temporary entry/exit masking on Deer Isle, where you see fewer and fewer people—residents or tourists—wearing their masks. I adjusted to a no-mask existence pretty easily and quickly, so being back in a mandatory mask environment was a bit jarring.

My travel day got messed up due to mechanical and weather issues, so I spent a lot of time in airport concourses, watching the world go by. And based on one day’s experience I’d say people are a lot laxer about masking now than they were at the height of the pandemic.

In part, I think this is due to the reopening of most businesses in the airport concourses, especially food businesses. Once you plant your behind in a chair in an airport restaurant or bar, you’re magically freed from the mask mandate. It’s kind of weird to think that food consumption creates a magical no-mask zone, but it’s a recognized loophole and people were taking advantage of it. I had dinner in a typical pub/restaurant place in Reagan National, and it was packed with people, crammed into seating areas that, like every airport dining option, was set up to leave you elbow-to-elbow with other patrons, and everyone had their masks off, chatting and laughing and inches away from unmasked strangers. No one seemed troubled by that. And yet, when you leave that magical mask-free zone, you’ve got to mask up again. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes me wonder if patrons are lingering longer, or consuming more, just to enjoy a few minutes more of unfettered breathing. I would guess it is boom times for all airport bars and eateries.

And speaking of consumption, travelers seemed to be taking advantage of the food consumption loophole to doff the mask and chow down in the gate areas, too. I saw one guy buying an armload of every kind of junk food you can imagine being sold by an airport concourse outlet—chips, soda, popcorn, jerky, cookies, and candy—and later saw him, mask off, noshing away on his calorie hoard. Others had bought take -out from fast food places and were taking their time and enjoying multiple gulps of maskless air as they ever-so-slowly ate their food. And one guy at National casually walked around, mask cinched up on his upper arm, carrying a cup of airport coffee, as if holding a beverage and taking a sip every few minutes excused him from mask requirements. He talked to a gate agent for a while without masking and she didn’t call him on it, either.

In this food loophole setting, the dire broadcasts over the loudspeakers about wearing only approved masks (no “gaiters”!) and being disciplined for not fully complying with mask mandates seem almost antique. Airports and airplanes will be the last bastion of masking, but I wonder how long it will be before they give it up. Yesterday’s food exception experience suggests the population is ready to bare their faces and accept the consequences.

Maskambiguity

To mask, or not to mask? That is the question.

We’re in the midst of the transitional period after the COVID pandemic, when you don’t know quite what you’re supposed to do in the masking department when you go into a commercial establishment. Some of the places on Deer Isle have signs that ask the unvaccinated to wear a mask, tell you that masks are optional for everyone else, but then include a kind of generic, bland exhortation about masks “keeping everyone safe.” It’s as if the signs are designed to maximize mushy maskambiguity, a word that I just made up.

Does the proprietor of an establishment with that kind of sign really want the vaccinated among us to wear a mask as a kind of social nicety, or are they just trying to just cover all the bases and not upset the pro-mask and anti-mask factions in our society? In view of a sign like that, if you wear a mask, are you indicating that you are unvaccinated? And then, often, you go into the place, and the employees may not be wearing masks but some of the patrons are, or the employees are masked but the most of the customers aren’t. And you might see a masked person in the midst of shopping glance around furtively, assess the masking quotient in the establishment at that point in time, see that most people aren’t wearing masks, and remove their mask and wonder why they ever put it on in the first place.

I’ll look forward to the day when the maskambiguity is gone, and no one is wearing masks or is expected to wear masks. Until then, I appreciate places that give you clear mask instructions. One place in downtown Stonington frankly states that everyone who enters the store right now must wear a mask, period. I don’t have a problem with that. If the proprietor feels more comfortable with masked customers for now, that’s their call. It may take a while for people to get used to the idea of unmasked people in an enclosed space again, and that’s okay. But at least they should be clear about what they want.

Pent-Up Demand

Our local newspaper, Island Ad-Vantages, reported in its most recent edition that it’s looking like it could be a very good year for the Stonington and Deer Isle tourist businesses. An article said that the “summer people”–that is, the visitors and part-time residents who drive the tourist part of the local economy–have come to Deer Isle earlier than ever before, and the hotels and motels are reporting full bookings. I got visual confirmation of that when I walked past Boyce’s Motel in downtown Stonington over the weekend and saw its “no vacancy” sign.

The owner of Boyce’s Motel is quoted in the article as attributing the surge in visitors and reservations to what he calls “revenge travel,” in which people who have been staying put at home make a special effort to get out and about. My sense, too, is that there is a pent-up demand that was created during the prolonged shutdown period, and people now just want to get away from the too-familiar surroundings where they waited out the COVID pandemic. And taking a trip to get a welcome change of scenery is a good way to make a personal statement, to yourself and to the world at large, that as far as you are concerned things are getting back to normal.

Whatever the cause, the increased tourist traffic is good news for the town and those businesses who suffered through a lean lockdown year in 2020. I’m hoping to see a lot of that “no vacancy” sign this year.

Memorial Day, 2021

This morning, to commemorate Memorial Day, I hiked up to the Stonington town cemetery to pay my respects and walk among the headstones of veterans and the small American flags and metal service medallions that had been placed at those gravestones by the groups that recognize how important it is to always acknowledge our veterans and their families.

The cemetery is located inland–given the literalist approach of Stonington street namers, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s found on Cemetery Road–and it is neatly kept, regularly mowed and maintained, and surrounded by towering trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a quiet, peaceful place. A misty, rain-shrouded morning, as this one was, was a good time to visit and reflect on the veterans who served and to say a silent “thank you” for the sacrifices they and their families have made on behalf of all of us.

Deer Isle, where Stonington is located, has a long tradition of military service. It was mentioned several times in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and the Stonington cemetery reflects that tradition of service. There were gravestones for Civil War veterans–the headstone in the foreground of the photograph above is of John M. Gookin, who served in Company B of the 7th Maine Infantry, a volunteer regiment that fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and most of the other major Civil War battles in the east theater, as part of the Army of the Potomac–and there are markers that indicate that some of those who are laid to rest in the burial ground served in just about every war since. The many small American flags and medallions that were visible in the mist demonstrate that Deer Isle has held up its end of the bargain involved in living in a free society. Sometimes, unfortunately, our soldiers and sailors and pilots must fight for our freedoms.

Thank you to those who serve, those who have served, and the families that have supported them in their service. America really can’t thank you enough.

The Beaver Pond

My destination on my jaunt down Indian Point Road this morning was the place the locals call the beaver pond. It probably has a different, official name, but nobody uses it. The beavers have exercised adverse possession—you can see their two ramshackle lodges that look like wood piles across the pond—and they have acquired de facto naming rights in the process.

The pond is a mile or so down the road, after it veers from the shoreline and meanders inland into some piney forest. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and your timing is right, you’ll see the beavers swimming in the pond, hauling wood to the lodge, or gnawing away at the wood at their lodge, and if you’re really lucky they might notice you and slap their flat tails on the surface of the water and then swim away in a huff. This morning, though, I didn’t see any of the critters. I expect they were keeping themselves warm in their lodges, probably enjoying a warming cup of coffee before getting to work.

A Purple Riot

If you like purple—and who doesn’t?—Stonington is a great place to visit right now. The lupines have bloomed earlier than their traditional Father’s Day arrival, and the vast majority of them are purple. Couple the lupines with the lilac bushes and their fragrant purple flowers, and you have a sweet-smelling purple festival in the works.

Why have the lupines arrived early? Some locals say it’s because we’ve gotten less rain than usual, some say it’s because it’s been sunnier than normal, and some say Mother Nature just decided to give us a post-COVID break and let us enjoy some pretty flowers earlier than she usually does.

The Trouble With Harry

The other day I called up Google on my phone to do a quick search. As always happens, clickbait articles popped up, including this one on Yahoo about Harry Windsor sharing some new photos of his son and reporting on some of his child’s first words.

You remember Harry, I’m sure. He’s the guy who moved to the United States from the U.K. because he desperately wanted to get away from the suffocating attention paid to him and his extended family and go his own way with his wife and child. But poor Harry seems confused. He doesn’t seem to get the notion that if you want to live a private life and make it on your own, you need to actually live a private life. That means not giving interviews with famous celebrities and participating in docuseries and sharing details about your life that are sure to attract more of the public attention that you claim to abhor.

Harry’s evident problem is that he seem to really like the attention, which he’s gotten his entire life. But it has to be the right kind of attention. Positive attention is just fine with Harry, but negative attention, or any criticism, makes him wonder why journalists and paparazzi and commentators can’t just leave him and his family alone.

Harry’s approach reminds me of our kitchen screen door during the summer months when I was a kid. We didn’t have air conditioning, so the only way to get air circulation in the house on a hot summer’s day was to open the inner door and let any precious breeze come through the outer screen door. But with five children in the family and a neighborhood that was chock full of rug rats, kids were constantly going in and out through the door, which had one of those spring devices that made it shut with a loud metallic clang. After putting up with a few dozen unsettling bangs, Mom would say, in exasperation: “In or out?”

And that notion applies equally to Harry. When it comes to celebrity status, you’re in or you’re out. If you want privacy, live privately. But if you crave some of that celebrity adulation, don’t come around whining when somebody makes a joke at your expense or raises questions about whether you are profiting from your family connections.

In deference to Harry’s tender sensibilities, I haven’t included a photo of him with this post, and because I’m writing this in America, where we don’t have titles–except for nicknames, like the Sultan of Swat or the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air–I’ll just call him Harry Windsor. And in further deference to Harry’s apparent wishes, I also promise that I will never write about him again.

On A Clear Day

I’m always astonished at how far you can see on the clear days in Stonington. On the last part of my morning walk I climb Pink Street, which winds ever upward, cross School Street by the old schoolhouse that is now a community center, and then jog over to the aptly named Highland Avenue. That street bends in the direction of the harbor and, after you pass a few homes, stacks of lobster traps, and piles of lobster buoys, you suddenly emerge into the open, far above the harbor and the houses on Main Street below, and are rewarded for your climb up Pink Street with the sweeping vista shown above.

Standing at that point and trying to take it all in, you feel like you can see for miles—and you can. Isle au haut, the island with the notch in it in the background, is about 6 miles away from this point. And all of the islands and boats in the foreground are so distinct you can see individual people moving on the boats and individual trees on the islands rustling in the breeze.

It’s as if you’ve never really seen something clearly before. On clear days like this one I always wear sunglasses because everything is so breathtakingly bright.

The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid

Writers whose prose can reliably make me laugh out loud—really, audibly laugh, and not just smile and think “LOL”—are rarer than hen’s teeth. David Sedaris is one. Bill Bryson is definitely another.

I picked up Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid from the Stonington Public Library and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s hysterical. Bryson, who is the “Thunderbolt Kid” of the title, recounts his life growing up in Iowa during the ‘50s, and no detail is too small to mine for laughs. His Mom’s failed cooking and absent-mindedness, his Dad’s cheapness, the throngs of kids in the neighborhood, his weird relatives, what he ate, what he watched on TV, and disturbing incidents from his youth—like the time his Mom made him wear his sister’s Capri pants to school—all are recalled in hilarious fashion.

And Bryson also artfully weaves in humorous, and interesting, information about the America of the ‘50s, with its passion for cars, television, major appliances, atomic bombs, new products good and bad, and producing more babies to feed that Baby Boom. It was a time when Americans routinely accepted risks without a second glance, doctors advertised cigarettes, every town had its own stores, restaurants, and ways of doing things, and many of the devices and practices that we now take for granted didn’t exist. It’s fascinating stuff about an innocent America that is gone forever and will resonate with people, like me, who really grew up in the ‘60s.

If you think about it, many of us had childhoods that featured failed meals, oddball relatives, strange TV shows, and other topics that could be recounted in a funny way—if we only had the talents of Bill Bryson. Until that happens, I recommend reading this book and enjoying some hearty laughter.

First The Post, Now The Times

Richard continues to rack up some impressive clips. Earlier this month he had a piece published in the Washington Post about the controversy swirling around the Alamo, and now he has co-written, with Edgar Sandoval, a piece in the New York Times about the impact of SpaceX and its rocket launch site on the tiny community of Boca Chica, Texas, and towns like Brownsville that are in the vicinity. You can find a link to the Times article, entitled “A Serene Shore Resort, Except for the SpaceX ‘Ball of Fire,'” here.

Getting articles in two of the country’s leading newspapers is a terrific accomplishment. Congratulations, Richard!

And the article by Edgar and Richard in the Times raises an interesting and really difficult question: what is the price of progress for a community like Boca Chica, and how do you balance economic development and jobs creation against the impact it may have on individuals?

What To Do With An Odd Hall?

The old saying is that all politics is local. That’s definitely true in Stonington, where residents recently had an in-person town meeting at the local baseball field, so as to allow appropriate social distancing. At the meeting, the attendees discussed and voted on a number of issues. One of them was what whether to proceed with the town purchasing the building shown above.

It’s the former meeting hall for the local chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows, located on the western edge of Stonington’s small downtown area. There aren’t many Odd Fellows left in Stonington, so the organization offered to sell the building to the town. Town officials were supportive of the idea and put it on the agenda for the town meeting, where residents voted to approve the purchase.

Why would residents vote to approve the acquisition of an old fraternal organization building? One of the arguments was to keep it out of the hands of a buyer who would turn it into a personal residence, thereby further hemming in the commercial area of town. And while the building may need a lot of work—a point made by opponents of the purchase—the property sits on precious waterfront and includes an old dock, both of which could give rise to commercial uses.

The cost of the building to taxpayers is initially estimated to be $525,000, which is a lot of money for a small town. Town officials are exploring the possibility of getting federal and state aid to help pay for the purchase and the necessary refurbishing work, and also are working on potential uses for the building.

It’s a tough issue. The Odd Fellows’ Hall could turn out to be a white elephant that puts a crimp in the city budget, but towns like Stonington need to preserve their commercial areas, too. It’s a risk, of course, but it’s reasonable to believe that some business somewhere will see the potential of a building that commands a great view of the harbor and will turn a derelict venue into a functioning contributor to life in downtown Stonington. The voters at the town meeting see an opportunity. Now we’ll keep an eye on that building to see if the opportunity is realized.

The Garden Club Plant Sale

Yesterday I went to the annual Deer Isle Garden Club plant sale. The event gave me a chance to combine two of my interests: gardening and supporting local organizations that help to bring our communities together. The proceeds of this particular sale benefited the garden club and its work to maintain Mariners Memorial Park here on the island.

Garden club plant sales are pretty cool, in my view. The garden club members grow the plants that are being sold themselves, and the plants are identified by carefully hand-lettered signs, often put on popsicle sticks or plastic picnic knives with a Sharpie. And the club members who are staffing the shows are all passionate about their gardening and happy to offer friendly advice about whether a particular plant is right for you. It’s a great experience for a beginner-level gardener like me.

The sale started at 10 a.m. yesterday, but when I got there at 10 o’clock sharp the sale was already overrun with eager gardeners looking for the perfect plant for that empty spot in their garden. I’d say the plant shoppers were like a host of locusts, except gardeners don’t like to use that “l” word. As I nosed around, getting some guidance from one of the club members, I chatted with other locals and we swapped stories about last year’s deer herd ravages. I ended up buying a big heliopsis plant that is supposed to produce abundant yellow flowers in August—that’s it, post-planting, in the photograph above—some spider plants to fill in the little stairstep beds in the down yard, and two day lilies, which seem to do very well in this climate zone.

Kudos to the Deer Isle Garden Club for a great plant sale and for the work they do at the park. And when next year’s show rolls around, I’m going to get there early.

A Maine View On Immigration

The Working Waterfront is a local publication that covers Maine’s coastline and islands. The June 2021 issue carried an interesting story about immigration and its importance to the future of Maine’s economy, which includes both Maine-specific industries, like seafood harvesting and processing, forestry, tourism, and farming, as well industries found everywhere, like elder care and health care.

The bottom line is that Maine is desperate for workers, and is looking to immigrants to fill the void. And when Mainers talk about “immigrants,” it’s not just people who come to Maine from other countries, they’ll gladly welcome people from other parts of the U.S. who might want to come here to work, too. The Working Waterfront article calls all of these people “New Mainers,” and estimates that the state will need at least 75,000 of them over the next ten years to keep Maine’s industries economically viable. That number will allow replacement of the 65,000 workers who will be hitting retirement age–according to the Census Bureau, Maine has the oldest population, per capita, in the U.S.— and adds in some additional workers to allow for growth.

The article reports that businesses have already begun to fill the worker void with New Mainers–primarily immigrants from overseas. One seafood processing firm reports that more than half of its 400 employees are New Mainers, with many of them hailing from the Congo, Angola, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while a lobster business includes employees from the Congo, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The businesses see these New Mainers as hard workers who are eager to succeed and enjoy their share of the American Dream, and the New Mainers see the Pine Tree State as a land of opportunity.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time, with a lot of attention focused on America’s southern border. But the immigration story is a complex one, and involves a lot more than a surge of desperate people wading across the Rio Grande and how we should deal with them. The reality is that America needs immigrants, and immigrants need America, and we need to figure out a way to allow people who want to work to get into our country, legally, and fill the employment voids in places like Maine. It’s pretty clear that New Mainers will be an important part of this state’s future.

Pickup Parley

Stonington is a town of big pickup trucks. I’d estimate that at least two-thirds of the vehicles on the streets are the gigantic Rams, Fords, and Chevys with the colossal engines and gleaming grillwork—because you never know when you might need to tow a boat down to the dock or lug around a flatbed trailer piled high with lobster traps.

The pickup drivers have an interesting way of meeting for a chat. Instead of exiting their rigs to talk face-to-face, they choose a remote spot with plenty of maneuvering room—not a difficult thing to find in Stonington—and have their trucks approach each other from opposite directions, like wary beasts. Then they settle in and stop at a position with the driver’s side windows inches apart from each other. At that point they leave their trucks running and settle in for a good chat, each driver talking from the comfort of their cab and each getting to be, literally, in the driver’s seat during their discussion.

The pick-up world is a different world, one in which the drivers really love their trucks, are proud of them, and don’t want to leave them unless they absolutely have to do so. The side-by-side pickup parley allows them to enjoy those trucks, and their power positions in the cabs, for a little bit longer. It’s just one more way the pickup world is different from the world inhabited by the rest of us.

A Comedy-Free Fall

NBC has announced its fall lineup, and for the first time in 50 years, there will be no situation comedies on its broadcast schedule. The network that brought use some of the greatest sitcoms in American TV history–Get Smart, Family Ties, Seinfeld, The Office, 30 Rock, my personal favorite, Cheers, and countless others–isn’t going to broadcast even one comedy when autumn rolls around.

NBC says its comedies recently haven’t performed well in the fall, so they are saving some of their sitcom shows until winter. Instead of comedies, NBC’s fall viewers will see lots of dramas and various permutations of Law and Order shows.

Why are comedies struggling on a network that used to be loaded with them? Maybe it’s that people don’t feel much like laughing these days, or maybe it’s just that it is very tough to write a comedy in the current environment. Much of the TV comedy we remember from days gone by involved plots and storylines that pushed the envelope, with humor that often was based on making fun of someone or some thing. Modern sensitivities would find many of the shows that we laughed at a decade or three ago very offensive. How many episodes of Seinfeld or The Office, for example, would provoke howls of outrage if they were aired today? Asking a sitcom writer to be consistently funny while steering clear of any possible controversy or humor that might hurt someone’s feelings is tough duty.

You have to wonder about the future of comedy, given current views, and whether NBC’s comedy-free fall is a precursor of the future. Maybe we should change that phrase to read “comedy freefall” instead.