11/12/15 10:00am
Supervisor Jim Dougherty in a Shelter Island Reporter file photo.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty in a Shelter Island Reporter file photo.

Codger was roused last week when just before the election our once and future supervisor railed lustily against the specter of outside Republican money threatening to turn the East End into a “financial slush pit” to buy politicians. Jim Dougherty knows how to crank up the amps. But Codger was also pleased when a friendly Republican gently advised Dougherty to turn it down lest he damage the fragile ecosystem of bipartisanship on Shelter Island. It sounded like pragmatic advice, a balance to Dougherty’s warning, which contained a valuable and ominous lesson for the future: All politics is local until it turns national.  (more…)

12/26/12 7:59am

I am living in my golden years of residential fireplaces and wood-burning.

The bookcase-flanked, brick fireplace in our house in the Center reliably heats up the living room and reaches around the corner to the thermostat to calm, at least for a while, the thirsty oil-burning boiler in the basement. The fireplace is a vintage Heatilator, a double-walled steel firebox with four lateral vents poking through the brick. The two lower vents draw in cool air, which is warmed in the space between the steel walls and exits into the room through the two upper vents. It works like a charm.

In our Upper East Side apartment in the city, we live in a building built in the late 1920’s (in New York lingo this means a “pre-war” building). It too has a brick fireplace, a relative rarity in the city. While the times we use it during the winter usually number in the mid-single digits, it is a game-changer when the temperatures fall into the teens. Except for the bathroom, we keep the old-fashioned radiators off in the living room and bedroom. The valves are hard to reach and there is no middle ground with these ancient iron soldiers: turn them on and your sinuses are fried in a couple of days; keep them off and it can get a little cool in February. As for wood, most of the grocery chains carry bundles of wood in plastic-wrapped carriers. It works out to be over a buck for each stick of wood, although you can drop twice that at the high-end markets that offer better packaged gourmet wood from upstate.

On the Island, given my age, I would say we have a lifetime supply of wood, mostly locust, that roundly despised but fine-burning species. We took out a bunch of them that threatened the house, and of course we are gifted with downed branches after every serious storm. I split much of it myself but have brought in outside help for the past couple of years. I swear that, every once in a while, as I reload the firewood ring by the front door, I recognize a gnarly, hard-to-split stick from years ago. How satisfying it is to throw those into the flames.

Golden years notwithstanding, I’ve lived with fireplaces since first grade. Here are some of them, in chronological order. Consider this bonus holiday coverage you didn’t see coming. You’re welcome.

Kirkwood, Missouri: My parents bought a new ranch house in suburban St. Louis and it had fireplaces in the living room and basement. The upstairs fireplace was rarely used because we didn’t hang out there; we hung out in the cozier den. The fireplace in the basement was used by my father, who had purchased a stubby charcoal grill designed to fit into a fireplace. Voila, winter barbecuing.

In the early 1960’s, they remodeled the screened-in porch into a family room, with a third fireplace. This became the nexus of family living. We watched James Garner in “Maverick” on TV tables on Sundays and listened attentively during the Cuban missile crisis. In winter, my mother, a Nebraska farm girl, would have a fire going when we came home from school.

First Philadelphia: My first multi-floor rental dwelling, a small townhouse owned by the Quakers, had a non-working fireplace. But someone should have told me before my first attempt at a fire. Thank goodness it was a modest, exploratory effort.

Belmont Shore, California: Our first domicile was a stucco beach house two blocks from the water. It was built as a summer place in the 1920’s and had no central heat. But it had a beautiful fieldstone fireplace. This being California, we burned eucalyptus (it was the cheapest), and it burned as though drenched in gasoline.

Alexandria, Virginia: The only chimney fire I’ve had, knock wood, so to speak, was in a rented townhouse here. I had no clue. Occupants of a passing car spotted the flames and detoured to find our front door and alert me. I consider this to have been an extraordinary act of civic responsibility. Not sure I would have done it. But I might have.

Second Philadelphia: For almost six years, I worked in Philly and Jane worked in Manhattan, thus ushering in what we call the “The Amtrak Era.” The Philadelphia townhouse was an interesting place. It had a dumb waiter, a tiny sauna and a bidet. It also had a cheesy metal fireplace I almost never used. On one particularly chilly night I opened the flue in anticipation of laying a fire. A terrified, very sooty bird burst from the chimney, nearly giving me a heart attack. I watched helplessly as the bird banged into walls and ceilings — sooty splotches marking every collision — as it made its way three stories up the stairway where its journey ended in a bedroom. I closed the door, got a towel, captured the creature and released it into the night air.

You tell me: If it figured out how to get into the chimney, why the heck didn’t it get out the same way? Why hide out at the bottom of the chimney when his escape route was at the top? Why maliciously choose to scare me half to death? It’s a mystery.

12/02/12 8:40am

With our friend Sheila visiting from England a few years back, Mary and I decided one summer evening to take her to dinner. We were living then just a block from the North Ferry dock in Greenport, and so walked onboard and stood outside for the crossing. As the ferry eased away, lights in town were just winking on behind us. The sun was almost set, lighting up the sky and catching the peaks of the soft harbor swells. Approaching the Island, the last of the light was lingering in the tops of trees on the bluffs.

We walked up a hill following a path bordered by flowering hedges so lush with summer they almost met overhead, and ate outside at a restaurant in the Heights. After dinner, coming down the hill to the ferry, the moon was rising over the harbor spread out before us, and Sheila, just a little breathlessly, said, “Can you imagine living here?”

Yes, we could.

We’d been here before. Mary had spent time vacationing on the Island long before we moved out east, and I’d worked at the Reporter for about a month exactly 10 years ago. Times Review was starting a new paper then, the North Shore Sun, and I was part of the team that gave birth to our now dear, departed baby. About a month before the Sun’s inaugural issue, I came over to fill in at the Reporter, which was suddenly short staffed. Here I met Peter Boody and Archer Brown and Joanne Sherman, people who are the living proof of welcoming hospitality.

I got hooked on the romance of ferry crossings – which has not faded and I hope never will — those short intermissions in our days, being carried from one shore to another. Those who don’t live or work here often just get a vague sense of something deeper in the  mundane chore of leaving and returning, but the ferries are bright markers of those simple events. I don’t know about you, but sometimes on those crossings it’s impossible not to be reflective of things more important than simply travelling from one map point to another.

The poet Anthony Cronin captures the idea in “Living On An Island.” “What happens here often seems unreal./But what happens over there does not really matter.”

Working here 10 years ago for that short period I got a sense of the community’s unity by covering a fire that destroyed a family’s home and practically all their possessions. It struck me that for most of the Islanders it wasn’t just a story in a newspaper, but a tragedy, and many were pitching in to help.

Cronin again: “People here seem slightly daft./ But people over there seem deficient in understanding.”

When the opportunity came to be editor of the Reporter, there was no question I’d take it. But there was also no question that we’d move here. It was because, as our friend Sheila had put it, we’d already imagined it. The response from everyone we know and has an idea about Shelter Island were happily unanimous and not a little envious. It seems they’ve also imagined living in a separate and beautiful place only reached by a trip across salt water.

I grew up in a small town. If that sounds Mellencamp-ish, it is. John grew up in Seymour, Indiana, a bit north and east from my hometown, Mt. Carmel, Illinois, a little river town on the Wabash. That’s where our similarities end. I have never called myself “Cougar.”

I don’t have illusions about small towns, not just by growing up in one, but having the perspective of being an adult living in a couple of Irish villages, and living in cities, including St. Louis, Chicago, New York and Dublin.

One of the first people I met here a few weeks ago asked if I had a thick skin. “You’re going to need it,” he said. Well, it’s not rhino-class, but it’s thick enough, I suppose, for someone who works for a newspaper and also someone who lives in a small town.

Only working for the paper for a couple of weeks, I had someone write privately that I should take a hike, and on our letters page an editorial of mine was called malicious, smug and  vindictive – and that was the nice part. I enjoyed the letter writer’s rhetorical skill, especially his suspicion that calling out my politics would bounce off pre-thickened skin, but attacking my prose style would cut deeply. (I welcome more exchanges, Mr. Olsen. Honest.)

I’ll make mistakes, rest assured. But they’ll be honest ones. And I know Island life won’t be all summer evenings of moonlight and flowering hedges.

But the warm welcome we’ve received has been genuine. I was overwhelmed with the help and consideration given to me on  the long day into night I spent with the veterans and their families on the Honor Flight to Washington. And Mary and I were buzzing about people joyously welcoming us at the library’s “Turkey Plunge” on Saturday.

It has all been a bit unreal, to steal Cronin’s line, arriving accompanied by Hurricane Sandy and witnessing Islanders’ responses to the emergency and their ongoing outreach to those hurt by the storm.

Which leads me to give the poet the last word: “On the night sea/and above the clouds/You realize that/Here or there/Though everything after all is finite/Nothing after all is final.”

11/18/12 2:00pm

I am often struck by how much I’ve learned about life from golf. And how much I’ve learned about golf from life.

Those of you who know me know I lost my loving daughter, Nancy, last week and she is still foremost in my mind. I’ve put enough positive spin on this heartbreak to get me through. All this week I found myself constantly repeating to people the unique way Nancy played all games and sports.

To her, playing games and sports was not all about winning. Listening to adults advising children these days, you would believe that it’s about winning and then learning from your losses so you can win the next time. Throughout my life as a professional golfer, I was always most proud when my staff would say they couldn’t tell whether I won or lost after playing golf. Beating another individual when it was supposed to be important never gave me a good feeling about myself.

This leads me back to Nancy and the unique way she played sports — I never saw her get mad. In golf, a sport she played well, and one of the most frustrating sports of all, she would laugh after hitting a poor or terrible shot, something in all my years in teaching golf I never experienced. She did the same in every sport she played. Not only did Nancy have this great attitude about sports, but she also influenced others to do the same.

Nancy made the events at her beloved junior golf events joyous by having people dress in costumes, hit out of a pond, hit a golf ball blindfolded, with a baseball bat and with a tennis racquet, to name only a few things she did to make the game more amusing for the kids. She did hop-skip-and-a-jump to get to their ball or had them throw the golf ball. The kids loved it.

Everyone who becomes proficient in any sport is just having a great time playing. I found when people are enjoying themselves, they become more creative and want to play more and more. As they play more, they become even better. Some get so good that they’re told they should make a living from the sport. Many times at that point, fun becomes practice, practice becomes work, work becomes boring, boredom attacks creativity and improvement stops. They go to sports psychiatrists, only to be told to just enjoy playing and not to worry about results. Vicious circle, isn’t it?

Let us teach the world that we are not what we do, we are not what we have and we are not what others think of us. Let us just love our sports and games and the friends that enjoy them with us.

That’s what Nancy did, and by doing, taught others the right approach to sports and life.