Over Before You Know It

BOSTON — In any year you have extraordinary times, where many are surprises. That’s to be expected. A few instances are scheduled, and their worth increases with planning. I’ve attended every annual summer conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists since 1999 except 2004’s in New Orleans.

I love the camaraderie most of all, which is a good thing because the serious work of a conference — panels and lectures and mini-workshops — seem to wrap up nearly before they start. Hey, you try to keep a common hour special, much less one that the presenters have planned for months. One problem is the occasional bad session, where sometimes it is rotten and other times it just wasn’t what you the participant wanted or expected. On the good hours, and the NSNC has maybe 85 percent good working sessions, you find yourself panting for the one good comment that will inspire you for months. You get it, but the time receiving it — there goes that whisp.

This morning Mary Ann Lindley of the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat recalled the early days of the society. She was president when I attended the 1991 Charleston, W. Va., convention, which got me hooked. Lindley, and Bill Tammeus of Kansas City performed my request of critiquing a few of my columns in the weeks after the conference. Even nice people don’t have to do that, but they did. But Mary Ann apparently left the Omni Parker House shortly afterward; I didn’t get to thank her.

By the way, I’m just recalling a very few key moments of the work of the conference. You want solid reporting on this, click on Editor & Publisher and poke around the magazine’s search engine with words like “columnists” for Dave Astor’s reports.

Derrick Z. Jackson of The Boston Globe recalled one of his early, good editors advising him when starting to write a piece to tune in a jazz radio station and form the “gist of your piece in one sentence. You get one comma.” Continue reading

Coursing into Boston

BOSTON — My first longhand note this morning:

Just because I’m an early riser doesn’t mean I’m a morning person.”

Getting into downtown Boston and only five minutes late for my 2 p.m. meeting of the columnists board was not quite as hard as we were warned by several sources that it would be. But we navigated it, helped by a couple of relaxing hours walking along the beach of Ogunquit first. It was hard to leave the sand of course but also our eccentric cabin at The Dunes.

Then we had a terrific brunch, driving north, not south, to the Maine Diner in Wells, which my wife had spotted as we drove to Portland yesterday.

We each had a lobster omelet, differing in choice of sauteed vegetables inside. We’re vegetarian but made an exception due to being in the neighborhood. Not only was the dish extraordinarily full of the local specialty but the lobster was in big, choice chunks, obviously the claws etc.

Driving south into Boston is as exciting as heading into any metropolis, dirtycrowdednoisybustlingintimidatingfun. This was our first visit. We plan to come back. -30-

Bunk, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport

PORTLAND, Maine — The Weather Channel, online, had warned us last week rain was likely every day, both our time in Maine and then in Boston. It drizzled on our drive last Sunday to Ogunquit from the Manchester, N.H., airport. But Monday and Tuesday stayed merely overcast; Wednesday seemed the best day for Kennebunkport and an afternoon whale-watching cruise, even though it also had the highest predicted chance for rain.

Sure enough, the late-morning outing was canceled as we tourists were boarding the boat so we received refunds. We were to sail near Walker Point, the Bush family compound. Dang.

We then walked around the town, spending the most time at an import shop specializing in Japanese and Korean goods. The proprietor said he was retired from the State Department, with his time in the Foreign Service in those countries and part of his sales inventory from his collection. He took a call while we were shopping and spoke fluent Japanese.

Still we kept thinking of Eureka Springs, Ark., in the questionable quality of the other shops — souvenirs are souvenirs and apparently the official bird of every state is the mosquito. But we were reminded of Branson, Mo., as well, in the bumper-to-bumper cars. Every shopkeeper in Maine told us, traffic was light, just wait until July.

Running out of things to do quickly, we drove in a steady drizzle to Portland, for the Museum of Art before dinner with a Stanford freshman dorm friend and his wife. It was terrific and though small deserved more hours than we gave it. Periodically I need to see how Impressionism evolved into Cubism, and between a traveling exhibit and the permanent collection this was made plain. The progression is as inevitable as for me impossible to explain. Read Robert Hughes; he comes close.

My favorite painting was “Un Jeu de Croquet,” 1872 by Abbena and owned by the Arkley family. Hey, classical croquet.

The Youngs took us to Walter’s in the renovated wharf area. The 25th reunion we all missed in 2005 in Palo Alto we created that night. These are smart, kind people living decently in a great region. Everyone lives so far apart; if only. … Our college lives had so much hope, and look at us now, not so bad at all but still. Oh let’s not go on either of those paths. -30-

Smell That Water

WELLS, Maine — With our quasi-oceanfront 1930s motel, My Beloved Wife and I felt a little sheepish that only on our second full day we waded across the Ogunquit River (doable at low tide) then clambered over a tall dune to find the beach.

The tourist season we were told begins on the Fourth of July. Heck, it was certainly still rainy and cool at the end of June; how unlike Arkansas. The un-season was obvious by the sparse crowd. We were close to having the ocean to ourselves, well, us and just a few locals and a number of birds.

The water, in the ocean itself and the “river,” was surprisingly clear. And as far as that briny smell of saltwater, where was it. MBW and I are quite familiar with California beaches from San Diego to Half Moon Bay, and a consistent odor. Before Maine, we associated the smell with happiness: We are here! In Maine — with only a nearly absent and maybe slight astringent quality — we realize the Pacific smell has a fair amount of rot in it, seaweed on good days, a little fishy on others.

We only would smell decaying fish on Wednesday, the Kennebunkport day, but that was more from the inevitable walking past restaurant trash bins more than the little port.

We drove one town up to Wells for the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge to learn about the ecology of salt marshes. As a child in the 1960s (not a “child of the ’60s), I remember seeing a documentary film about Carson in class. Inspired, I bought her Silent Spring. In recent years I looked through the classic somewhere and wonder how as a kid I got through it. Was it an abridged version from Scholastic Books?

After a satisfying dinner in Ogunquit, at the Impastable Dream (never mind the stale pun), we walked around; stores were starting to stay open late for the season. A drug store had a Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald, which I bought because it had the John Updike talk “above the fold,” 1A. Continue reading

John Updike, Really

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — After arriving at the Dunes of Ogunquit motor court after midnight and in a drizzle, My Beloved Wife and I gave ourselves permission to take it easy today, not push. We have through Thursday morning in Maine and we don’t want to waste a minute, but we don’t want exhaustion, either. The cabin had a small refrigerator and when I woke, MBW had driven in our rental car to Wells to a grocery for cereal, cream cheese, rustic bread and milk — and throwaway dishes and flatware.

Soon we drove into Ogunquit and walked its Marginal Way, a mile-long path along the Atlantic. At the other end we hit precisely one gift shop, our limit, then on its recommendation Caffe Prego for coffee and a look at the alt weeklies. One agate brief in the Portland throwaway said John Updike — the John Updike — would give a reading in Portsmouth, N.H., that very night. He was promoting his new novel, Terrorist.

While MBW drove to York to see some historical stuff about 5:30 p.m., I in the passenger seat phoned The Music Hall. The box office manager said my call was lucky: They sold out at noon, but two minutes earlier a pair of tickets were returned. I gave him my Visa number and asked for his favorite nearby restaurant.

We had a fun, funky meal at downtown Portsmouth’s The Friendly Toast, a block and a half away from the restored theater. The writer’s performance was a benefit for New Hampshire Public Radio and included an on-stage interview by the network’s Laura Knoy. She solicited questions from the audience, and I came up with one: Continue reading

You Can Get There

THE AIRPORT — We got to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport before 7 a.m., because My Beloved Wife and I are experienced post-9/11 travelers. Northwest Airlines, however, no longer behaves like an experienced carrier. Elaborating will just make me mad all over again. But we arrived at the airport in New Hampshire after 11, got the rental car and arrived at our motor court in Ogunquit, Maine, a bit after midnight, not the planned 7 p.m., entirely because of flub-ups by NWA (that’s Northwest Airlines abbreviation for itself, while our home airport is XNA).

OK, a snippet: The NWA agents at XNA were two amiable and patient young men in polo shirts and cargo shorts; they were luggage handlers substituting for the two agents on break at the same time and for well over an hour. We had been rerouted, and NWA sent the e-mail to an incorrect address. The first flight left at 6:15.

The twenty-something couple behind us learned from the guys they were rerouted and would have several unexpected hours waiting in the Memphis airport. Then a woman got in line, a one-time Wal-Mart exec just hired by another company, who told us her flight number was right but it had left a half-hour earlier than she had been told. MBW or I should have phoned the airlines a week earlier and obviously also a day earlier to reconfirm but: It wasn’t just us.

Handler One: “Dude, what’s the abbreviation for Manchester?”

Handler Two: “Let me look it up. Dude, it’s ‘MHT.’” -30-