An English Teacher’s Lament

My seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Richards, was an interesting character. He has a great sense of humor, and was a bit of a ham in front of the class, but he was also passionate about using, and writing, proper English. The tendency of people to use apostrophes erroneously especially bugged him.

The apostrophe, Mr. Richards explained, has two uses: to indicate possession, or to show that a letter or number is missing. “You don’t use ‘apostrophe s’ to make a plural!” he exclaimed. “Why can’t people get it right?” Then he put his forehead down on the desk to illustrate his frustration. The kids in the class laughed, of course, but I’m sure they remembered that lesson, as I still do.

So I naturally thought of Mr. Richards when I saw this sign warning drivers about runners on the road for the Stonington 6K race. I suppose the sign maker could have been indicating that a single runner is ahead, but we all know it’s another example of an all-too-common apostrophe fail. I can see Mr. Richards’ forehead falling to the desk, and hear his plaintive “Why can’t they get it right?” even now.

Fireworks Over The Harbor

For a small town at the tip of an island in Downeast Maine, Stonington puts on a great Independence Day fireworks display. The fireworks are launched over the harbor, and the lobstermen rake their boats out on the water to get a close look at the show. You can see the boats in some of the photos below.

Happy Fourth of July!

Cereal Advances (III)

On this Independence Day, when we celebrate our liberty and freedom, let’s tip our cap to American cereal manufacturers, who clearly have taken the notion of liberty to heart. Here’s a new cereal I saw in the grocery store today that consists of a “crispy shell” filled with real chocolate. Not nuts, not fruit, not even honey — but actual chocolate.

And so cereal moves ever farther from its original conception as a kind of health food and moves closer to invading the candy aisle. When cereal includes actual chocolate, and not just cocoa, we’ve truly reached a new frontier.

The Glorious Fourth

In Stonington, the lampposts and businesses are bedecked in flags and bunting, and at private homes tiny American flags wave gently in the breeze from the harbor as the citizens celebrate our oldest, and most bedrock, American holiday. The local newspaper has done its part by reprinting, in full, the text of the Declaration of Independence, which is of course the reason for this celebration in the first place.

It is interesting that, in America, our first national holiday commemorates the simple publication of a declaration, not a victory in a bloody battle. In fact, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify the date of the Battle of Yorktown that caused Great Britain to finally acknowledge our independence, or the date of the peace treaty that formally recognized it. We celebrate the Fourth of July because that is when the united colonies bravely issued a document that spoke of concepts of equality, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the proper relationship between citizens and their government. Many people in mighty England laughed at the temerity of the sweeping declaration issued by this disparate group of states, but it is the Declaration, and not the scoffers, that has stood the test of time. They are long forgotten, while the Declaration is still remembered and celebrated, 245 years later.

Of course, the authors and signers of the Declaration weren’t perfect, and the colonies themselves did not meet the lofty ideals the Declaration articulated. There were slave holders among them who not only didn’t implement the concepts of equality and personal liberty reflected in the Declaration, they personally, and brutally, enforced the opposite. Women’s equal rights also were not recognized, and there were countless other instances of imperfection and benighted thinking. But, as Abraham Lincoln recognized, the Declaration of Independence is best seen as an aspirational document that established goals for what the new nation hoped to be. Lincoln repeatedly drew on the Declaration for inspiration, including in the Gettysburg Address. He knew that its concepts would help to rally the Union forward, end the scourge of slavery, and allow the nation to experience a “new birth of freedom.”

In the same way, we can always benefit by reading the words of the Declaration, understanding it’s aspirational message, and never losing sight of the importance of striving to reach the concepts of equality, liberty, and the true role of government and governed that it embodies.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

The Wright Brothers

Recently I finished David McCullough’s 2015 book The Wright Brothers — coincidentally completing it when I was 20,000 feet up in the air, flying from Austin to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and thereby owing a debt to Wilbur and Orville, the two brothers who solved the age-old puzzle of whether humans could fly.

As a native Ohioan, I’m ashamed to admit that while I knew that the Wright brothers were recognized as the inventors of the airplane, I actually knew very little about these two men from Dayton, or how they came to invent their “Flyer” that dazzled kings, prime ministers, Presidents, and ordinary people. McCullough’s book is a fascinating read that adroitly tells that story, focusing on the period when the brothers made their discoveries and inventions that changed the course of history. The book introduces us to these two brothers from an extraordinarily close-knit family who worked together for years, designed their own “safety bicycle,” which they called the “Van Cleve,” developed a successful bicycle business–and then became obsessed with solving the mystery of flight.

The context of their story is important, because the Wright brothers lived during an era when inventions were fundamentally transforming their world in countless ways–inventions like the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light, among many others. It was an era of great technological progress, when almost anything seemed possible. But human flight seemed to be the one step that could not be taken. In fact, some reputable publications flatly declared that human flight was impossible. The Wright brothers didn’t agree, and they put their noses to the grindstone and came up with the solution that now allows us to climb onto planes and cross hundreds of miles up in the air without giving it a second thought.

One theme of McCullough’s book is that the story of the Wright brothers is a story of the value of hard work, dedication, resolve, and focus. The brothers worked hard–six days a week, taking only Sunday off–and painstakingly addressed each problem presented and carefully overcame every obstacle. They talked for hours about the best way to design the wings, the rudder, and other parts of the plane, helping to spur their many innovations. They repeatedly put their lives on the line to test their invention. And each aspect of the Wright brothers’ Flyer–the wings and their design, the steering mechanism, the propellers, and the motor–had to be created and developed out of whole cloth. The Wright brothers’ story is the classic Horatio Alger tale in which the heroes achieve success through pluck, perseverance, and industriousness.

It was only a few short years between the Wright brothers’ first flight of their flyer, skimming above the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina–shown in the photograph above–and the development of a practical airplane that, as shown below, could soar above the harbor waves and circle the Statue of Liberty, astonishing the jaded citizenry of New York City. And once the Wright brothers solved the riddle, and not incidentally received patents for their inventions, everyone started building flying machines, and the modern air age began.

Wilbur Wright died young, succumbing to typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45, but Orville Wright lived until 1948–long enough to see the airplane he helped invent used in two world wars, drop the atomic bomb, become a practical method of everyday transportation, and be upgraded with the development of jet engines and supersonic flight.

It’s quite a story, really, and well worth the read.

The Newest Little Library

I’m a big fan of the “little libraries” that have sprung up in German Village, in Stonington, and in many other communities. Books—especially paperbacks—shouldn’t sit on shelves gathering dust; once they have been read they should be shared with others. The little libraries are a great way to do that, and they also help to keep a house decluttered. We’ve contributed books to the little libraries in German Village and up here as well.

This new little library popped up in our neighborhood within the last week. I appreciate the nautical theme and the craftsmanship, too.

Island Names

Stonington’s harbor is filled with islands. Some are little more than rocks jutting out of the water, others are larger and wooded, and the much larger Isle au Haut looms far out in the bay. But all of the islands, even the tiny ones, have names that you see on the maps of the harbor. You wonder: how did they get their names, and why?

There is a significant diversity in the names, which makes the question more interesting. Some of the islands–like McGlathery Island and Farrel Island–clearly were named for people. Others, like Bare Island, Two Bush Island, and Sand Island, evidently got their name from their physical features. Crotch Island, which is almost split in two by a cove, has an outcropping called Thurlow Knob, and probably has been the punch line for smutty jokes told by teenage boys in Stonington for decades, also falls into that category. Still others, like Buckle Island, Round Island, and Potato Island, likely received their monikers because of their shapes and resemblance to other objects.

But the names of other islands seem to come with a real back story that you’d like to know. Was Grog Island a place where sailors stopped to furtively hoist a tankard on their way back to the docks? Why do Green Island and Camp Island have such pleasant, bucolic names, when their immediate next door neighbor goes by the scary Devil Island? What terrible calamity of the past caused yet another island to be officially dubbed Wreck Island? And was there some kind of dispute that caused someone in a position of authority to officially declare that another chunk of rock in the harbor was No Man’s Island, or did the island namers just run out of naming ideas?

A Texas-Sized Hailstone

Hail is one of those meteorological phenomena that is on the weird edge of the spectrum of weather. A storm rolls through, you hear the rumble of thunder and the crash of lightning and the patter of rain drumming on the roof and windows–and then suddenly the patter becomes a sharp, loud rattle because the rain has turned into hail. You look out your door to see what’s going on and are shocked to find that your patio and yard are covered with pea-sized icy pellets, even though the temperature is far about freezing.

What causes hail? The National Geographic explains:

“Hailstones are formed by layers of water attaching and freezing in a large cloud. A frozen droplet begins to fall from a cloud during a storm, but is pushed back up into the cloud by a strong updraft of wind. When the hailstone is lifted, it hits liquid water droplets. Those droplets then freeze to the hailstone, adding another layer to it. The hailstone eventually falls to Earth when it becomes too heavy to remain in the cloud, or when the updraft stops or slows down.”

Even small hailstones can cause a lot of damage to cars and roofs, and really bad hailstorms can be deadly: the National Geographic piece linked above notes that 250 people were killed in a hailstorm in India in 1888. If you’ve been in a bad hailstorm, it’s not hard to see how that could happen. If you’re outside when baseball-sized chunks of solid ice start hurtling down from the skies and one of them has your name on it, there’s not much you can do about it.

All of this is to explain why I was interested when I saw this story this week about the hailstone, pictured above, that set the record for the largest recorded hailstone ever to fall in Texas. This whopper, which fell near Hondo, Texas on April 28, weighed in at a hefty 1.26 pounds and was at least the size of small football when it crashed through a tree on its way to the ground. Fortunately, it didn’t hit a house, car, animal, or person.

It just goes to show you that things are bigger in Texas. And it also shows you why, during the thunderstorm season on the Great Plains and Midwestern United States, you want to be sure not to be caught outside when a bad thunderstorm rolls through.

Relishing The Cool Of The Morning

Like much of the rest of the country, Maine generally, and Stonington specifically, is experiencing a heat wave, with temperatures in the 80s in the coastal areas and 90s inland. But unlike the rest of the country, Maine isn’t really equipped to deal with high heat. None of the houses in our area are equipped with central air conditioning, for example, because there is absolutely no need for it during a typical summer, when you expect highs in the 70s during the day and lows in the 50s at night.

That means Mainers deal with the heat using the techniques many of us remember from our pre-air conditioning childhood. A heat wave is a time for wide open windows and ceiling fans, and wishful hopes for a hint of a cool breeze to sweep through the room. It’s a time to stay outside a bit later as the sun goes down, until the mosquitoes drive you indoors. It’s also a time to savor the early morning moments of cooler air before the sun rises and the heat is cranked up again. And the views just before 5 a.m. aren’t bad, either.

Heat waves are a challenge up here, but eventually they end. In the meantime, the ice cream shop downtown is making a killing.

Being The Bat City

There is a bridge in Austin that is home to hundreds of thousands of bats, which roost in the rafters of the underpass. During certain times of year, at sunset, the bats emerge as a huge group, execute a kind of collective swirl maneuver, and fly off into the sunset, heading down the Colorado River. The bats then return to their home sometime before sunrise.

It is apparently quite a sight, and large crowds gather to watch the bats take off. (We haven’t witnessed it yet, but we’ll catch the Bat Emergence on a future trip to Austin.) For this reason, Austin is also known as the Bat City, and it has embraced that moniker and become . . . well, a bit batty about it. You see paintings of bats on walls, Bat City t-shirts, bat graffiti, and other bat-related items everywhere around the city. It’s fair to say that Batman would feel right at home in Austin.

My favorite bat-themed feature is these bat-shaped bicycle racks on a downtown street.

On The Trail At Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park

Yesterday morning we enjoyed a hike at Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park, an enormous, sprawling park on the outskirts of Austin. It had rained early in the morning and rain was forecast for the early afternoon, so our plan was to dodge the raindrops and do our hike when the air was cooled by the rain that had just passed through.

The Searight Park encompasses lots of different kinds of habitats. There are wooded areas, meadows, and even a shallow canyon that was carved out of the native limestone by a small creek. There are dozens of different trails, one of which follows the rim of the canyon and features some impressive drops, as shown above. No guardrails or fencing, of course!

The creek bed itself is a very pretty area. The creek has formed small pools that feature lots of small fish and some colorful algae. Richard and Julianne’s dog Pretty enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water, as did another dog. The limestone was still wet after the rain, and in some algae-covered areas it was slick and you really had to watch your step.

The park includes an area where the creek has been dammed, creating a deeper, wider stream. This area is popular with kayakers, although none were out on the water when we passed by.

Much of the park consists of large unmoved meadows that are designated wildflower areas, as shown below. In some areas the native grasses are nearly shoulder high, and give you a sense of what the prairies must have looked like long ago. There were still some wildflowers in bloom, but we apparently had just missed the prime time to visit, when the whole area was bursting with color.

Still, there were some flowers to appreciate. One variety I had never seen before, shown below, is the Castilleja plant, colloquially known as “Indian paintbrush” or “prairie fire.” The plant is native to the western part of the Western Hemisphere and is found from Alaska to all the way down to the Andes in South America. It’s a pretty and distinctive flower with bright petals that look like a paintbrush, which explains its nickname.

The Mary Moore Searight Park is a great park to have nearby, and our hike yesterday barely scratched the surface. We’ll be looking forward to heading to other parts of the park on a future visit.

Colorado River Cool-Off

It’s been in the 90s in Austin, and pretty humid, too. But it’s nice when there’s a river that’s handy. In Austin it’s the Colorado River —not the one that goes through the Grand Canyon—and people were taking full advantage today.

There were tons of kayaks, rafts, and floats on the water, and hardy teenage boys were jumping off a pedestrian bridge into the river. Not a bad option on a hot day!

Austin Athirst

It’s fair to say Austin has a healthy thirst for adult beverages. The downtown area features two significant drinking areas—Sixth Street and Rainey Street—where you can wet your whistle at countless bars, cocktail lounges, and saloons, many of which are blasting recorded music or featuring live music. But that doesn’t really give you a clear picture. Here are some vignettes that help to illustrate the point:

• When we checked in to our hotel, the Van Zandt, on Friday afternoon, the clerk asked if we would like a beer or a water. I’m pretty sure the beer was mentioned first.

• One of the bars on Sixth Street is evidently so popular that, as the sign above indicates, people are willing to install the “LineLeap” app and pay for the privilege of jumping to the front of the line—something I’ve heard of for amusement parks, but not bars. How do the other liquored-up people in the line like that?

• When I was taking the above photo at about 2 p.m. two guys who had gotten an early start came up to me and one, with breath that could stop a rhino, challenged me to “rock, paper, scissors, two out of three!” I politely declined.

• We walked down Rainey Street at a little after noon, where I took the picture of the sign below. The bars were already filling up, and it was clear that the cocktails would be lonely no longer.

• When we later returned to our hotel a little after 9 p.m., Rainey Street was packed with people. The music being pumped out by one nearby bar was so loud that the bass reverb was distinctly heard and vibrating the windows in our room on the 12th floor.

Saturday Morning In Scootertown

Austin is a big scooter town, even bigger than Columbus. On Friday night we saw hundreds of scooter riders, and people were zipping everywhere and completely ignoring the instruction on the base of the scooter that says you can’t ride it on the sidewalk. Pedestrians in downtown Austin on a Friday night need to maintain a state of constant vigilance to avoid collisions with newbie scooter riders.

Saturday morning is a different story. The Friday frivolity has ended, the scooters are no longer needed, and they’ve been casually abandoned everywhere, in willy-nilly fashion. Instead of worrying about collisions, the walker has to be careful not to trip over a scooter some thoughtless and likely inebriated person left right in the middle of the sidewalk. It makes it impossible to enjoy a Saturday morning walk without navigating around and between hundreds of discarded scooter carcasses. But at least the Saturday morning pedestrian has company: the scooter crews are out in force collecting their scooters and putting them back upright, in cool configurations, in position to be used by the Saturday scooter set.