Seagull Over Stonington

Kish and I took a brisk morning walk today. It is a fine, glorious day, with a bright blue sky and seagulls wheeling overhead.

Being a Midwestern landlubber, seagulls still intrigue me, with their downy white feathers and aerial acrobatics, but the locals pretty much loathe them. They tolerate seagulls because the tourists expect to see them — what’s a port town without seagulls? — but they know seagulls are trash-eaters that like nothing better than picking at a dumpster for spoiled food and then coating your lobster boat with rank seagull poop. The outward appearance of seagulls is a lot more attractive than the actual reality.

Seagulls are kind of like Hollywood that way.

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Night Sky

I’m not saying the Stonington is out in the boondocks, but it’s really not close to any big city.  The village itself hugs the coastline, and the views from most places look out over the bay, granite outcroppings, and apparently primeval forest.

So, that means there’s not a Target or Home Depot only a few minutes away, which I guess is an inconvenience of sorts.  But is also means that there isn’t a lot of light at night — which means you can get a new, different perspective on the night sky.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the nights when it is clear, I’ve been enjoying sitting outside, staring slack-jawed at the night sky of Stonington.  It’s different from the night sky of Columbus.  Where the night sky in Columbus is a kind of dark gray color, due to the many bright lights on the horizon from downtown buildings and surrounding houses, the color of the night sky in Stonington is deepest ebony — like a shroud of black velvet.  In Columbus, you see a few constellations, like Orion and the Big Dipper, but most of the stars simply aren’t visible due to the light pollution.  In Stonington, where there really isn’t any appreciable light pollution, the stars blaze with a brilliant white color, as if someone is standing with a flashlight behind that black velvet shroud, shining the light directly through pinpricks in the fabric.  Even dimmer stars stand out in sharp relief, and I’ve seen constellations that I haven’t seen since I was up in northern Canada years ago.  I have no idea how many individual stars are visible from our deck, but it’s got to be thousands, if not tens of thousands.  And the blackness feels empty, and limitless.

And the Stonington night sky gives you a fresh appreciation for how the Milky Way got its name, too.  The spread of stars along the band of the Milky Way does look like a river of spilled milk.  Even if you can’t make out individual stars or galaxies, the Milky Way is noticeably lighter than the surrounding, deep-black space.  Looking at the brilliance of the Milky Way, it’s easy to conceptualize our little planet as just one rock at the rim of a great galaxy.

When you gaze at the Stonington night sky, you quickly understand why our human ancestors going back to caveman days were fascinated by the night sky, and the stars.  I may need to get a telescope.

Speaking Mainish

America is a land of different accents. There’s the famous Southern drawl, of course, and the rapid-fire Brooklyn accent, and the quasi-Scandinavian inflections in the upper Midwest that were so effectively lampooned in the movie Fargo. There are so many regional accents in America, in fact, that the lower Midwest, where the Webner clan hails from, is reputed to be the most accent-free part of the country.

Lifelong Mainers have their own unique accent. In fact, calling it an accent really doesn’t do it sufficient justice — it’s like a slightly different language that should be called something like Mainish. When you’re first introduced to Mainespeak it takes some getting used to. It’s a combination of a slow, drawn-out, multi-syllabic cadence and different approaches to pronunciation that produce a way of speaking that feels ancient and deeply rooted. “There” gets turned into they-yuh. Nobody likes pronouncing the letter “r” at the end of words, either — it’s as if it is some junk letter that shouldn’t be part of the alphabet in the first place. So you can just call us the Webnahs. And there are undoubtedly other eddies and currents and backwaters in the river of Mainespeak that we haven’t even been exposed to yet — such as when a fellow I was talking to mentioned the lanch of a boat.

It’s curious and delightful being here among the Mainers and listening to them talk. You might say we’re getting an immersion course in Mainish.

Every Man A Groper (Or Worse)

Every day, it’s getting more embarrassing to be a guy.

Every day, it seems, some new revelation comes out about some guy doing something that is just flat out appalling and inexcusable — if not outright criminal.

623-03695485Every day, it seems, some prominent actor, director, or other entertainment figure, or some well-known liberal or conservative politician, or some high-powered business executive, is alleged or shown to have engaged in activities that could easily be characterized as gross sexual imposition, indecent behavior, sexual assault, or outright rape.  The steady drip, drip, drip of allegations makes you wonder whether there is any widely known male public figure who hasn’t grabbed what they shouldn’t have grabbed, or exposed what they shouldn’t have exposed, or tried to grope a young girl, or engaged in some forced sexual activity with someone who was unwilling.   And it’s to the point now where you wake up each day and ask:  Who’s next?  Who else is going to be shown to have done something that is totally, disgustingly inconsistent with their pure-as-the-driven-snow public reputation?

Once, in the past, there was a sense of chivalry and manners, a pride in self-control and behaving like a gentleman, and a Victorian attitude about treating all people with politeness and decency and respect.  I’d like to think that there are still men out there in positions of power who continue to adhere to those concepts.  But the news we’ve heard over the past several weeks, from the Harvey Weinstein disclosures to whoever is the subject of today’s revelations, really makes you wonder how many of those decent people are left.

Men need to start rethinking what it means to be a man, and how we can teach boys a code of conduct that allows them to be proud, upright members of society, rather than evil predators who ruin people’s lives with their depredations.  The problem here seems to run awfully deep.

Many Americas

Recently I was up in Detroit, gassing up the car at a service station at an exit just off one of the freeways, when I noticed this provocative sign on a tire business across the street.

Commerce doesn’t lie.  The business owner obviously thinks that theft of wheels from parked cars is a sufficiently widespread problem that advertising about the ability to help victims of the thefts will generate additional sales and revenue, and you have to assume that there’s a factual basis for that belief.  I thought:  “Really?  Wheels on cars parked on public streets are being stolen, and police haven’t caught the perpetrators of such brazen criminal activity?”  The sign, and the real message it was sending, made me uneasy.

The sign was just one more bit of tangible evidence that we don’t live in one America any more, if we ever really did.  Instead, there are lots of different Americas, dealing with lots of different issues.  Where I live, we thankfully don’t have to worry about coming out to our car and finding all of the wheels taken by wheel theft gangs.  In this particular neighborhood of Detroit, however, there is obviously a different reality.

This shouldn’t be a revelation, of course.  Read the news and you quickly understand, intellectually, that there are pockets of the country where the heroin epidemic is raging and leaving families devastated, where the local economy has been bottomed out and there are no jobs to be had, and where the relations between police and the local populace has been poisoned, and there are parts of America where people are concerned because housing values are too high, where companies are concerned because they just can’t hire enough high-tech workers, and where people are lining up to spend a thousand dollars on a new cell phone.  And don’t get me started about how different places like Hollywood, or Washington, D.C., seem to be from the rest of the country.

And yet, when you live in your own world, it’s easy to view everything from your own personal experience, and wonder why people could possibly have different perspectives on the issues of the day.  The next time I feel that kind of self-absorbed conceit, I’ll think about that unsettling sign in Detroit and try to remember that there are a lot of people in this country dealing with lots of issues and problems that I’m not even aware of — much less affected by.  America is a diverse place not only in terms of its population and demographics, but also in terms of personal experience.  We shouldn’t forget that.

 

The First American

I live in Franklin County, Ohio, where the large statue of Benjamin Franklin pictured below is found at the county courthouse, so it makes sense that at some point I would finally turn to reading a biography of the county’s namesake.  I chose The First American, a fine recent biography by H.W. Brands that is well worth reading if you are interested in learning more about the early history of America and one of its foremost founding fathers.

Franklin is a fascinating character for more reasons that you can reasonably count.  During his lifetime, he was easily the most famous American alive, known and lauded in both America and in Europe for his experiments with lightning and electricity, his invention of the Franklin stove and other devices, and his writings, both in Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere.  He was a hard-working capitalist, turning his printers’ shop into a thriving business and engaging in a number of other commercial ventures, yet he also had his eye on the common welfare and the greater good and played a key role in forming colleges, fire departments, lending libraries, and philosophical societies.  He was exceptionally well-traveled for that era, crossing the Atlantic multiple times, living in England and France, and exploring all parts of the American colonies.  Franklin saw a lot of the world during his 80-plus years, and he unquestionably left it a better place than he found it through his efforts.

Franklin’s life story, more than any other, also is the story of the early days of America.  He was born in Boston and began his writing career jousting with the Puritan fathers who dominated the life and politics of Massachusetts at that time.  He moved to Philadelphia, which quickly grew into the largest and most prosperous city in the colonies, where he became a successful printer and public figure, crossed swords with the Penn family, the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and conducted many of the experiments and created many of the inventions that made him famous.  He was a public spokesman for the colonies during the French and Indian War and made one of the first proposals for colonial unification under a single government, served as a de facto ambassador for the colonies in Great Britain during the years leading to the Revolutionary War where he was castigated in Parliament, became a proponent for independence and returned to America just in time to serve as a member of the Continental Congress and an editor of the Declaration of Independence, then traveled to France to engineer the pact that brought the French into the war on the American side, to broker loans and trade deals to help supply the war effort, and then, after the battle of Yorktown, to negotiate the treaty that ended the conflict.  He returned to America, again, in time to serve multiple terms as Pennsylvania’s president and play an important role in the Constitutional Convention and in encouraging popular support for the new Constitution before dying, in the early days of the new Republic, as a revered and celebrated figure.

Franklin was not a perfect human; he had warts and missteps and embarrassing moments and times of hubris and thoughtlessness.  Yet you can’t help but be struck by the enormity of his accomplishments.  Throughout his 80-plus years of life, Franklin wrote countless letters, engaged with countless historical figures, and left a trail of sayings, witticisms, practical concepts, and scientific ponderings that would do credit to a legion of people.  And he invented bifocals, for which I am particularly grateful since I’ve worn them since I was about 6.

When I read about Franklin, I wonder:  where are the Franklins among our current political class, and is there anyone in our government who even comes close to his record?

 

“Off Year”

This year it’s what they call an “off year” election in Ohio. That means we’re not voting for President, or Governor, or Senator, or Members of Congress, or any statewide offices.

I hate that phrase, because it suggests that certain elections are more important than others. I don’t think that’s the case. This year, for example, Columbus residents voted for City Council, the school board, other city offices, and some state court judges. If you believe, as I do, that politics is local, those are some pretty important positions, and I’m glad I had the chance to vote for my choices. And the “off year” elections often are the ones where supporters of this or that try to sneak ballot initiatives past listless voters. That’s not going to happen on my watch!

Some people say “off year” elections are too expensive, but I disagree with that, too. Expecting citizens to go to the polls at least once a year in November to exercise the most important right of all isn’t asking much, and it’s worth a few bucks. If people can’t get off their butts and vote, shame on them.