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.

On Bayview Street

My morning walk takes me on a short stretch of Bayview Street, which runs along the eastern part of Stonington’s harbor. There are some old wooden stairs, worn smooth by the feet of the countless lobstermen, that lead from street level down to the colossal boulders edging the waters. This morning I interrupted my walk to capture this dramatic scene, as rain clouds began to roll in from the west.

An Old Guy’s View Of New Technology

There is no doubt that — for some people, at least, including me — there has been an inverse relationship between age and receptivity to new technology.

Once, as a callow youth, I was dazzled by new technology.  Of course, the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo space programs made everyone interested in new advancements in computers and technology as a point of national pride, and that carried over into home life and school.  When our family signed up for a crude early version of premium cable TV called Qube, I wanted to know how it worked and what it offered.  And I was excited when Dad brought him one of the first Atari game systems, so UJ and I could play Pong in our family room.  I even took a computer course in high school and learned some of the basics of FORTRAN programming using punch cards, and thought it was fantastic that the computer did what my carefully arranged stack of punch cards commanded.

This happily open-minded approach to new technology continued through college and into law school.  In college, I learned how to use video display terminals (“VDTs”), one of the first forays into stand alone word processing units, and spent hours in front of a VDT, with its greenish glow.  I believe that is where I first learned the word “cursor.”  And my friends and I happily enjoyed every cool new video game that appeared in our favorite bars, whether it was Tron or Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man or Asteroids or Galaga.  And in law school I learned to use computer legal search engines, and even took on a job where I had to “back up” the hard disks on a computer system that crashed regularly.

angry-old-man-with-computerBut at some point, my receptivity to the new technology changed, and I can’t quite put my finger on when it happened, or exactly why.  Some of it might have been repeated experience with technology that overpromised and underdelivered, or that focused on bells and whistles — “look, you can program your own individualized message to appear as your screen saver!” — without meaningfully improving the basics, like word processing capabilities, that were the meat and potatoes uses of the system.  Some of it no doubt was brutal experience, where one false key stroke, or one ill-timed system crash, caused hours of work to maddeningly vanish and have to be recreated.  And with each glitch and crash, skepticism began to replace receptivity, and fear of disaster began to replace eager interest.

The pace of technological change didn’t help things, either.  With new computers, search engines, phone systems, cell phone systems, remote access fobs, security systems, constant annoying password changes, and other developments being introduced all the time, it seemed like things were never really set — at least, not for long — and there was always some overwhelming new training to take.  And that reality caused another reaction to enter into the mix:  “why can’t things just stay the same for a while?”

I had that kind of jaded reaction to new technology — but then the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, and everything changed again.  For many of us, technology saved our butts and allowed us to keep working remotely in a way that really wouldn’t have been possible even 5 years earlier — much less 20 or 30.  I’ve learned how to use a number of new programs and applications, and have been grateful for the opportunity.  And whenever I talk to one of our IT people these days, I thank them and acknowledge just how crucial this wonderful technology has been.

I wouldn’t say I’ve quite returned to the wide-eyed fascination I had as a kid, but this current experience has definitely moved the needle back by a lot of years.  The next time you hear me fulminating crotchety old man views about technological advancements, just remind me of COVID-19 and 2020, and I’ll shut up.

Lobsters’ Day Off

There are always outboard boats coming into and heading out of the main pier at Stonington harbor, but you can tell whether the lobster fleet is out in force by the number of boats tied up at the floating outboard dock. 

The lobster crews take the outboard boats out to their larger craft and anchor them in the harbor before they board the bigger boats to head out to sea for some serious lobstering.  If the floating dock is empty, that means the big boats are out and hauling up hundreds of lobster traps, hoping for a good catch.  If the dock is full, as it was this morning, that means the lobster crews are taking it easy and bracing themselves for tomorrow’s work day.

For the lobsters, Sunday tends to be a day of rest.

A New “Value Proposition”

As July nears its end, the 2020 Major League Baseball season has finally begun.  Teams are playing before empty ballparks to try to avoid further spreading the coronavirus.  Soon the NBA and the NHL will be playing, also with no fans in the arenas.  And if the NFL and college football start up, the teams will almost certainly be playing in front of thousands of empty seats.

471768148.jpgCOVID-19 has obviously affected our lives in more ways than we can count, but one of the interesting potential effects will be a changed perspective on the value of large, taxpayer-funded stadiums and arenas in towns with major league sports teams.  In the B.C. (“before coronavirus”) years, professional sports team owners argued that there was a significant “value proposition” in professional sports venues that made them worth the investment of tax dollars.  But the assumed presence of thousands of fans in the stands was a crucial element of the “value proposition” equation.

Fans were supposed to come in from out of town, fill up the hotel rooms, and pay the absurdly inflated hotel guest taxes into city and state coffers.  Fans were supposed to buy merchandise and food and beer — lots of beer — at the stadiums and arenas, paying sales taxes and creating jobs for hundreds of security guards and concession stand workers and parking lot attendants and fan entertainment teams, who would also pay taxes.  And, after the games were done, the happy fans were supposed to go out to restaurants in the city to celebrate their team’s victory, and the disappointed fans were supposed to drown their sorrows in a cold one — Keeping the city’s food and entertainment and hospitality sector healthy, and paying still more taxes.

Now games are being played with no fans, and who knows when fans will be permitted back to cheer on their teams.  None of those contemplated tax revenues are being paid.

COVID-19 might be a once-a-century pandemic, or it might be the harbinger of a new norm of social distancing and mask wearing and fewer fans in seats — if any are permitted at all.  The next time a professional sports team owner tries to convince a city to spring for a new, even more lavish venue, how receptive are city officials going to be to the “value proposition” message?

Making You Stop And Think

I’m not a fan of bumper stickers. These days, they tend to be trite, or obscene, or at least crass — and usually a combination of those qualities. Bumper stickers, like Twitter, really aren’t suited for thoughtful discourse about anything more important than memorializing your visit to Wall Drug.

But every once in a while you see a bumper sticker that makes you stop and think — like the nifty message conveyed by this bumper sticker I saw on my walk this morning.

Going Business Side Down

We are in the midst of a great, prolonged debate in this country.  There are strong feelings and strong arguments on both sides.  And, as with many issues, once people have staked out a position it is incredibly hard to convince them to change it.  

I’m speaking, of course, of the Great Dishwasher Silverware Loading Debate.

How do you load your silverware into the dishwasher?  Do you put everything — knives, forks, and spoons — into the dishwasher so that the business end of the utensil is down in the basket, and the handle is up?  Or do you do the reverse, and go handles down for everything?  Or do you split the baby — an uncomfortable phrase when you are talking about knives — and put the pointy end of the knives in the basket, but have the bowls of spoons and the tines of fork up and flapping in the breeze?

Believe it or not, the experts and dishwasher manufacturers disagree about the best way to approach this common household chore.  Some say forks and spoons should be placed business end up and out of the basket to maximize water pressure and cleaning power, and to prevent spoons from “nesting” together and stray food particles from being trapped between fork tines and the basket.  Others says the fork tines should go into the basket for safety, to avoid scraped and punctured hands and fingers.  And there does seem to be consensus among experts and manufacturers that knives should go in blade down to avoid shredding the hands that reach down to retrieve them.  

I’m somebody who places all utensils, even spoons, into the basket business side down.  I’ve always done it that way, for a reason that the experts don’t mention — at the point of removal, when the human hand interacts with the sparkling clean flatware, isn’t it better to have the grubby hands grabbing the handles, which after all are designed for the human hand to hold, rather than the working ends?  Why have hands grappling with the metal parts of the utensils that interact directly with the food?  And I’ve got a simple answer for the concerns about “nesting” and food trapping — mix up the utensils when you put them in the basket, and if a utensil comes out less than pristine, put it back into the basket for the next dishwasher run. 

Sometimes “experts” really don’t know what they are talking about. 

Brainstarters And Timewasters

I’d guess that most of us have at least one app on our phone that we tap when we want to get our brains working in the morning, or to give us something to do to fill those random ten-minute snippets of the day that happen while, for example, we are waiting for our spouses to get ready to go out.

230896There are some crucial requirements for these brainstarters and  timewasters.  First, they need to be sufficiently interesting to actually get your brain working and allow you to fill the time you’re looking to occupy.  If the app is so boring that you lose interest and would rather sit there drumming your finders on the arm of your chair, it has failed in its essential function.  Second, at the same time the app can’t be so riveting that you can’t promptly stop when your spouse comes downstairs and is ready to go and would be offended if you gave her the one-minute sign and kept tapping your phone.  It therefore needs to be a game, or puzzle, or challenge that you can readily put down and pick up again at your leisure,  And third, if the app is going to have staying power on your phone, it’s got to be set up so that you’re always facing a new challenge.

Me, I’m a Spider Solitaire guy.  I picked up the free version from the app store, because I just wasn’t willing to pay for a timewaster, so before I can play a game I have to sit through the snippet of an ad for a new game, a new car, or something else — but reacting to that helps to get the brain started, too.  I come from a card-playing family, so a card game appealed to me.  There are thousands of different variations of how the cards can be dealt, so there’s no real worry about repetition.  It’s easy to put down mid-game and pick up later, and trying to figure out different approaches to how to win a game when the cards are really working against you keeps my interest.  And some appropriately triumphal music plays when you win a game, so you feel a certain sense of accomplishment with each little victory.

Brainstarters and timewasters aren’t the most important things in the world, of course, but they serve a crucial role in deflecting utter boredom and minutes that seem to stretch on for hours.  We’ll appreciate them even more if we ever get to the point of waiting at the gate for an overdue plane flight again.

The 5 O’Clock Wake Up Call

There are a number of reasons why you would wake up at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in Stonington:

(1)  It was warmer than normal last night, so you slept with the windows wide open to get some of that cool seaside air;

(2)  At 5 a.m., the pick-up trucks carrying the sternmen are racing to the piers, and some of the early moving captains have their lobster boats revved up and moving out to the open water;

(3)  With the sun peeking over the eastern horizon, the birds decide it’s a good time to call out to each other to make sure that all of the other birds in the neighborhood made it through the night okay; and

(4)  When you get up to shut the windows and look outside, you see a sunrise that looks like a painting and you decide the better course would be to enjoy it for a while.  

Grillin’ And Chillin’ (II)

Tonight’s cookout featured split lobster tails — purchased from Greenhead Lobster Co-Op, just a few steps away — and grilled ears of corn.

Lobster tails are easy to cook on the grill — slather some butter and garlic and paprika on them and grill them about four minutes each side, flesh side and shell side — the corn is, too. We cooked it in the husk and it came out perfectly. It’s not a surprise to the grillmeisters out there that everything tastes better with some char on it. It’s definitely true, though.

H/T to the Red Sox Fan/Birthday Boy for the corn grilling concept.

Real Numbers

When we lived in our first suburban house in Columbus, on a street with about 30 other houses, our address was a four-digit number.  When we moved to another street in the same suburb that also had about 30 houses, our house number was an even higher number up in the thousands.

But the most ridiculous example of suburban address creation came when we moved to New Albany, where we lived on a stubby street that was a small cul-de-sac with only eight houses — and our house had the highest four-digit number of all.

Why do so many suburban houses have such absurdly high house numbers that bear no relation whatsoever to the length of the street, the number of houses, or any other discernible objective fact?  Did some property developer do a study at some point that found that houses with totally arbitrary four-digit numbers are somehow much more attractive to potential buyers and fetch higher prices?  Or are house numbers assigned by some crazed urban planner who has a weird fetish for meaningless four-digit numbers?

I’m happy to say that Stonington doesn’t go in for such nonsense.  The house numbers on streets start at 1, and on most streets don’t get higher than the low double digits.  And the house numbers seem to relate to an actual count of the number of property parcels that have been platted out on the street.  In short, the house numbers have some basis in objective fact, and the numbers do what numbers were originally created to do — keep count.

It’s refreshing, and actually kind of cool, to see real house numbers. 

The Comfort Of Cooking Shows

Since we’ve been up in Maine we’ve spent a number of evenings watching competitive cooking shows.  There are two reasons for this.  First, our cable provider offers a surprisingly limited number of options.  And second, there’s just something pleasing and comforting about competitive cooking shows that seem to fit well with the crazy period we are experiencing.

1407187942730We’ve watched and enjoyed Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped, Big Time Bake, and Beat Bobby Flay.  The shows all follow a kind of playbook.  The contestants are introduced, we learn where they are from, and we hear about their backstory and what they are going to do with the money if they win the competition, so “rooting interests” can be established.  Then we meet the judges and see what curious culinary curveballs are going to thrown at the contestants — who must try to whip up an entree that uses, say, pickle-juice popsicles or ingredients that they can balance in a pizza delivery box.  And, of course, the competition proceeds pursuant to a clock countdown, so there’s always the risk that a contestant will fail to get their food on the plate before time is called.

Why do we like these shows?  For one, the contestants inevitably end up impressing you with their know-how, poise, and creativity, whether they win or lose.  You can pick up some useful cooking tips and techniques along the way, too.  But mostly, for me, there’s a comfort in the fact that the shows and contestants are all good-natured, nobody takes the competition super-seriously, and the stakes just aren’t that high.  The contestants would all like to win the money, or the trip to some tropical location, sure, but they are going to do just fine, regardless.  And they are working on food, not life or death scenarios — and most of the dishes they produce look pretty darned good.

It would be interesting to know whether the ratings of cooking shows has increased during this crazy time.  And I also wonder:  when the world does return to normal — as it will one day — and we get back to a more robust cable system, will we still watch these shows, or will the need for the simple comfort they provide have vanished?