a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Civil liberties: the next generation

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st February 2011

Binta Coulibaly, Maddie Nephew, Susana Perez
Binta Coulibaly, Maddie Nephew, Susana Perez

My daughter Maddie Nephew and her friends Binta Coulibaly and Susana Perez have produced what I’m proud to say is an exceptional video documentary titled “The Fight for Student Rights: Student Free Speech in Schools.” The video, based on a paper Maddie wrote earlier in the school year, is their entry in this year’s “National History Day” competition; their school — Eastern Middle School, in Silver Spring, Maryland — has built their superb humanities and communication magnet program around participating in this event.

For her paper, Maddie interviewed both Mary Beth Tinker — one of the defendants in the seminal free student speech case Tinker v. Des Moines — and State Senator Jamie Raskin, who among many other accomplishments literally wrote the book on student rights; the team went back for some very interesting video interviews with both of these civil liberties champions.

Last week, the girls (and I) were thrilled to learn that their work would be featured on the web site of the ACLU of the National Capital Area; the article is titled “Are You Smarter than a Seventh Grader?” I saw how hard they worked on this — and while I suppose I may be biased, I’m honestly very impressed with the result. Thanks very much to Johnny Barnes of the ACLU-NCA for rewarding their work with some very well deserved recognition. As he put it,

The future of civil liberties is in good hands.

[crossposted from the blog of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition]

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“One Nation” minus one friend

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th December 2010

We March For Hope Not Hate
Children with “We March for Hope not Hate” sign
at 10/2/10 “One Nation” demonstration
( Click for “One Nation” slide show).

The “One Nation” event — already unimaginably long ago, more than two months! — at least succeeded in discomfiting one fellow who needed it. John Avlon — the smug author of the unbearable “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Taking Over America” — was unaccountably assigned to the rally by the Daily Beast to confirm his superiority over attendees.  He reported:

The signs started off badly as I approached the Washington Mall. “Yes We Can… Bomb Civilians!” read the first sign I saw, held aloft by a 2008 Ralph Nader supporter from Providence, Rhode Island, named Adrian. Behind him, representatives from “The World Can’t Wait” positioned a black-hooded orange-jumpsuited effigy to protest Guantanamo next to signs that read “Stop Occupation and Torture for Empire!”

A pre-game rally south of the Washington Monument featured drum circles and papier maché puppets. President Obama was called an “imperialist president” who was insensitive to the “African community” and “the 2.5 million people in concentration camps called prisons.”

I’ve never been sure what’s wrong with drum circles and paper mache puppets, and I’m pretty sure nothing’s wrong with confronting a supercilious prig or his readers with the facts of mass imprisonment in the U.S., bombing civilians, occupation, torture, or an assertion of empire that matches facts and is actually embraced by leading thinkers on the right.  But if there is something wrong with it, I guess we’ll all just have to live with ourselves.

Next, though, Avlon noticed some more debatable signs — but just as debatably classified them all as anti-Semitic, un-American and beyond the pale:

The curious migration of anti-Semitism to the left was evident in signs that read “End All U.S. Aid to the Racist State of Israel” and “Fund Jobs, Not Israel.” I cringed as these marchers crowded past a group of World War II vets from Columbus, Ohio, being wheeled to their war memorial as part of the excellent “Honor Flight” program.

Why those vets would necessarily care one way or the other — either about Israel or about what protesters think of it — is presumably clear to Mr. Avlon, but was left unexplained for the rest of us.  It’s one thing to say these demonstration participants were somewhat off the main message of the day — jobs, employment, economic help for those needing it rather than for those not needing it.  (Though their signs did arguably match the One Nation principle of providing “greater national investment in new jobs, improved infrastructure, and public education instead of escalating military spending.”)

But Avlon’s objection was broader: these people had no valid point whatever, and their failings indicted the demonstration as a whole.  To me, that’s an insidious sentiment of its own. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Thanksgiving story

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th November 2010

It’s Thanksgiving, so as we have every year for the past many years, we’ve made the trip from Takoma Park, MD to Oak Ridge, TN to spend the holiday with my parents.  We got off to a late start, 11am or so, but still managed to arrive by 9pm yesterday evening, after an uneventful drive down I-81.

Several years ago, the drive was quite a bit more memorable.  It was before we got our new car; the old one felt unreliable for long trips, so we decided to rent a car instead, and left the day before Thanksgiving, but later in the day — planning to overnight along the way and arrive early the next morning.

Our initial route takes us along I-66 through Arlington; at the time, that stretch of highway had some exceptionally bad patches, with steel plates covering some of the worse potholes.  We drove over one with a bit of a jarring *kathunk* and kept going, thinking no more of it until a few minutes later, when a flopping sound alerted us to a front flat tire.  So we pulled over to the shoulder, got Maddie situated up on the embankment with her purple blanket — it was a little cold that day — and her stuffed gorilla Georgie, and called the rental company.  They said they’d send a tow truck along in half an hour, so we settled down together to wait and watch the holiday traffic zoom by.

About ten minutes had passed when a car slowed down and eased over onto the shoulder down the road from us.  A couple of men got out and came towards us.  I was a little uneasy and went forward to meet them, but it turned out they were a couple of Latino men (judging by their accents) who were simply worried for us and wanted to see if they could help.  I explained we had a call in to the rental company, and thanked them for their concern.

A few minutes later a second car pulled over.  A man got out and came over to see he could help — and again, he was a Latino fellow, again judging by his accent.  “You sure I can’t take you someplace?  It’s cold for the little girl.” “No but thank you so much, that’s really very nice of you; someone will be along any minute now.”  Convinced, he left.

My wife and I couldn’t get over it.  Of all the hundreds of cars that had passed us by, for the two cars that had stopped to have Hispanic drivers seemed like more than a coincidence.

Then a third car pulled over.

And we weren’t surprised any more when this driver was also Hispanic.

Soon after, the tow truck came and we were on our way again with a replacement car from the rental agency.

I’m thankful today for a lot of things.  We’re  healthy, we’re employed, my parents and my brother and his family are all doing well, Maddie loves her school, and she’s a joy for us every day.

And I’m also thankful for each of those offers of help, made years ago.  I’ve never forgotten them, and I never will.  These days, when I hear people fretting about immigration, Spanish language 800 number options, and the rest of it, I think back to that Thanksgiving weekend, compare those three cars to everyone else that day — and think we should be so lucky to have more like them in this country.  God knows we could use a little kindness around here.

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A phonebank story

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th October 2010

I dial the number.

While it rings, I read that I’m calling Mrs. X, age (quite old).  Mr. X answers the phone.  When I ask for her, he replies she’s crippled and can’t come to the phone; so is he.  I’m thinking well, I guess he got to the phone so maybe crippled means arthritic, so I go into my early voting spiel when he brings me up short: she’s just back from the hospital with a broken hip; she had been *his* caregiver; he’s lucky he has many children, some of them are upstairs with her now.  I say things like oh my gosh, good you have kids to help you, I’m so sorry.  I feel bad: look what I’ve intruded on, not that I could help it.

And then he says: would you like to hear a joke?  Sure.  He says a guy walks into the doctor’s office and tells the nurse, “tell the doctor I have a problem: I’m invisible.”  The nurse tells the doctor, and the doctor says “tell him I can’t see him.”

I laugh quietly and say good one.  He laughs quietly, and says just a little joke.  I told him I liked the joke.  I really did, I’m also really in a certain amount of awe that he has the equanimity to have told any joke to a stranger on the phone in the first place — to have wanted *me* to laugh when he’s facing this tragedy.

So it’s important to me he not think I’m just humoring him, and I hope maybe he hears that somehow.  I say is there any way we should try to get you to the polls next Tuesday, he says no, his kids will help him.  I say I really hope your wife gets well soon, thanks for talking with me.  Also, unspoken but somehow said and somehow heard: thanks for putting up with me.

We say goodbye. I hang up.

The dial tone is loud and empty.

NOTE, 12/19: EMBARGOED since 10/29

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A 9/11 visit to my friend’s mosque

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th September 2010

I visited my friend Fatou’s mosque today — that of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area, or ISWA for short.  Fatou is a dear friend of our family — she’s one of my wife and my best friends, she’s taught my daughter French and other subjects, her daughter and mine went to elementary school and now middle school together. She’s also a practicing Muslim from West Africa who holds an anthropology doctorate from a major European university.

Fatou and me in her mosque
Fatou and me in her mosque, 9/11/2010

Visiting the mosque with her was my idea, but one she was immediately enthusiastic about.  The 9/11 date was important to me — I wanted to show a little solidarity with her and other Muslims here in the U.S., after what I think was a notably ugly, disgraceful summer of anti-Muslim bigotry in this country.

This summer has been a season that nearly culminated in Koran-burnings in Gainesville — and that still might.  It is still a season that threatens to pressure Muslims wishing to build an Islamic community center near the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers into waiving their equal rights, their freedom of speech, and their freedom of association and religion, all just to appease the unfounded, bigoted sensitivities of far too many Americans.

And far too many more Americans are trying to have it both ways, essentially saying “I’m not for bigotry, but so many others are against the ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ that, well… those Park51 people ought to back down.”*  Don’t people understand how fast this could get dangerous, I’ve wondered  — sure, it’s not 1 minute to an anti-Muslim Kristallnacht midnight, not yet, but it’s 20 minutes or so too close, and people like Jones and Gingrich are doing their best to get us to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

So I got in touch with Fatou.  It was too late to try to organize some of my more extravagant initial ideas — interfaith service, local political leaders, press releases, whatever could be done.

But the visit I had was better than that.

Fatou and me in her mosque

It let me see a mosque on a quiet day — the way it probably usually is.  It let me realize many of my own concerns about what was OK and what wasn’t were overblown — sure, I could take some pictures; sure, I could sit in back while they prayed; sure, I was welcome even as an agnostic nonbeliever.

It let me realize how ordinary mosques can be — balloons hanging from the rafters to celebrate the latest holiday, instant coffee, sugar, and a hot water urn at a table, posters for a special “Muslim-American Day” (or something like that) at a nearby Six Flags theme park, people setting tables and preparing food in the kitchen for a memorial service, announcements posted in the foyer.  In most ways, it was like any local church I’ve ever walked into.

One of those evocative, wavering calls to prayer happened while I was there.  Some men were already in the room with the muezzin who had performed the call, others filed in shortly after; Fatou went to the women’s prayer room.  Learning I could sit in the back and observe the prayers, I did.  And I found it actually helped me to be in a quiet room, with alternating chants by a prayer leader alternating with the row of five or six congregants kneeling, prostrating, standing, silently praying or quietly echoing the prayer leader’s words — I’ve gotten into somewhat tense exchanges with friends and family about Park51 and related issues, and I’ve been a little upset by them.

I met the imam on our way out — a very nice man named Faizul Khan who asked us back inside.  He took me to his office. “People ask why Muslims didn’t condemn the attacks, ” he said.  “We did.”  He pointed to a framed Washington Times op-ed, dated early October 2001:**

In the midst of the catastrophic events that have hit America, questions have been raised as to how such [terrorist] acts are judged and interpreted by Islamic shariah [law]. Any calamity that affects humans has its ruling in Islamic shariah.

Killing the weak, infants, women and the elderly and destroying property are considered serious crimes in Islam. Acts of corruption and even laying waste to the land are forbidden by God and by His prophet. Viewing on the TV networks what happened to the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon was like watching Doomsday.

Those who commit such crimes are the worst people. Anyone who thinks that any Islamic scholar will condone such acts is totally wrong. Aggression, injustice and gloating over the kind of crime that we have seen, are totally unacceptable, and forbidden in Islam.

Mr. Khan did the same thing again last year when Nidal Hasan committed his murder rampage at Fort Hood, writing,

Since September 11, 2001, the peaceful community [of] American Muslims has been subject to all kinds of accusations and persecutions. This is happening despite the fact that — since 9/11 — Muslims have organized more than 3,500 interfaith forums denouncing terrorism and loudly condemning groups such as Al-Qaeda. I condemn the actions allegedly taken by the Muslim soldier at Fort Hood and would condemn any action by any Muslim who uses violence in the name of Islam. Perhaps the best investment at this time is to engage in projects and programs that are people oriented and that will project the humanitarian faith of Islam. (emphasis added)

Just as the mosque seemed very much like any church I’d ever been to, Imam Khan — in manner if not dress — seemed to have arrived straight from Central Casting for a pastor or priest: soft spoken, friendly, a little harried by his schedule. His congregation is lucky to have him, I think; you need a good man with patience of Job for patiently, repeatedly explaining, year after year, that he condemns violence in the name of his religion.

* The biggest disappointment in this regard: Howard Dean.
** I can’t locate the October 2001 op-ed online yet [UPDATE, EDIT, 10/28: not the Washington Post — the Washington Times; link and excerpt added], but have found other examples of Mr. Khan condemning extremist violence here and here.

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On Facebook

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th March 2010

Part of the decline in output for this blog is because I tend to use “Facebook” these days as my main platform for pointing out articles and events I think are worthwhile or important (maybe 75% of the time there), and for saying what’s up with me, music I like, and personal stuff (maybe 25% of the time).

The reason is simple: comments and  full-fledged discussions are much more likely there than here, partly because your latest item is transmitted to all your friends, so there’s a chance they’ll see it — even if it’s rapidly buried in the snowfall of posts by all their other friends.  One comment then begets another and another, as the facebook software propels commented-on stuff to higher prominence in the so-called ‘news feed’ (as opposed to the instantaneous, unfiltered ‘live feed’).

Facebook also lets you easily add photos, form groups, and announce events, and even advertise them; there’s also a “chat” feature, though I never use it.  The look of one’s “wall” — the place where one’s messages, photos, and found objects from the Internet pile up — is fairly “clean,” and of a piece with the so-called “home page” news feeds where your friends’ posts etc. pile up.  For quick interactions in a smoothly functioning environment, it’s a very nice system, and it lets you fine tune the degree to which you’re visible to facebook users beyond your circle of approved online friends — anywhere from hardly at all to come one come all.

But the drawback is also clear: Facebook isn’t about long form writing.  (Yes there are “notes”, no, they’re not used much.)  There’s an upper limit on how long the initial post can be, so that you’re more or less compelled to do ‘heh. indeed’ or ‘oh my god’ quick hit comments on your item and then express your views more completely in comments.  It can be kind of fun to combine your teaser, the headline, and a followup comment into one coherent message, but it’s not the kind of writing and researching I do for posts here — posts, to be sure, that go all but unread.

So that’s the trade-off, roughly: write or be read, research or discuss, write as if the world were reading or just as if you’re at a kind of neighborhood get-together.  I find Facebook to be quite absorbing — some people are excellent sources of news and opinion pieces, and others are reliably interesting commenters.  But I miss the kind of writing I did here and the interactions I’ve had with friends and readers here, and I think it’s time to rebalance my efforts between these two outlets and — oh, right! — the actual, real world.

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Lessons of the Snowpocalypse

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th February 2010

Narnia in Takoma Park and other pictures from the Snowpocalypse
Slideshow created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
  1. Magnolia trees do not do well in heavy snow.  If 10 inches or more of snow are forecast, consider chopping down the tree, most of it’s coming down anyway.
  2. Vintage Comfortmaker gas furnaces are sentient, know the difference between good and evil, and have chosen evil.  They do this by arranging for their ignition devices to fail the morning after a blizzard makes your house and neighborhood inaccessible to repair technicians.
  3. To relight a vintage evil Comfortmaker (non-pilot light) gas furnace:
    1. turn the thermostat to its lowest setting
    2. go to the basement,
    3. return to the dining room for a flashlight
    4. return to the basement, turn off the electricity to the furnace and basement lights.
    5. wait 5 minutes.
    6. squeeze through a six inch opening to a 18 inch space behind the furnace, remove panel
    7. light a candle.
    8. yell upstairs to set thermostat to 65.
    9. repeat request loudly but without yelling because you don’t need to yell
    10. light wooden kebab stick in candle flame, wait
    11. when you hear a ‘click’ put lit kebab stick above burner-looking things where you hope gas will be pumped in 5-10 seconds.
    12. wait 15-20 seconds; relight kebab stick quickly at least once.
    13. second 21: FWOOMP.  Resolve not to peer in quite as closely next time.
    14. Since ignition device is still broken, set heat to 78; the furnace will go out, the house will cool, and you can repeat steps 1-14 whenever you’re cold enough.
  4. The co-op will have everything you need that you spent three hours buying inadequate substitutes for at Safeway.
  5. While deep snow is your enemy, it is also your friend, cushioning falls from ladders.
  6. Try not to use ladders any more than necessary.
  7. A cat staring at a door for five minutes is unnerving.
  8. When released into conditions of deep snow, cats will either
    • retreat immediately
    • vanish for unpredictable lengths of time
  9. When you look for a cat in deep snow, the cat will appear at the front door either
    • just after you’re done suiting up to go outside to look for her again dammit
    • just before you return from looking all over creation for her dammit
  10. When removing ice dams from a roof gutter, avoid being swept off your ladder by an avalanche of snow no longer blocked by those ice dams.  One way to do this is by not removing ice dams in the first place.
  11. When snow first falls, take time to really enjoy the serene beauty of the scene.  It’s the last time you’ll feel that way for days.

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Love them while you can: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2009

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

— from “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” is that all too rare thing — a beautifully written, absorbing work of fiction written in the voice of a genuinely and believably good man.  The narrator is John Ames, a preacher in the town of Gilead, Iowa, in the late 1950s; though nearing seventy, he has married late and has one young child, to whom he dedicates a journal of what he suspects are his final months of life.

As the passage above suggests, Ames’s writings are also more than that: a vessel for reflection on what matters in life.  The “balm of Gilead” is a biblical reference that even I’m aware of, but it isn’t necessary to be immersed in Christian lore per se, or even to be a casual believer, to be moved to reflection and emotion by Robinson’s writing and Ames’s character.

I write “per se” above because this nation’s own particular “Troy Tale”, the Civil War, also looms throughout the memoir, (many of Ames’s recollections revolve around the John Brown-like figure of his grandfather, who fights in Kansas and later loses an eye in the war itself), and I join writers from Noll to Lincoln in locating an American theology derived from that.  The narrator explains and frames his father’s views here:

My father said when he walked into his father’s church after they came back from the army the first thing he saw was a piece of needlework hanging on the wall above the communion table.  It was very beautifully done, flowers and flames surrounding the words “The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire.”  I suppose that’s why I always think of my grandfather’s church as the one struck by lightning.  As in fact it was.

My father said it was that banner that had sent him off to sit with the Quakers.  He said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was “purifying,” and the thought that those women could believe the world was in any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him.  He stood there looking at it, visibly displeased by it, apparently, because one of the women said to him, “It’s just a bit of Scripture.”

He said, “I beg your pardon, ma’am.  No that is not Scripture.”

“Well,” she said, “then it certainly ought to be.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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A tale of two transportation systems and several whales

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th August 2008

Well, I’m back.

And for the third straight time in the past year and a half, the airline leg of my travel has taken at least six hours longer than scheduled. This time, at least, I got to the hub airport (JFK) from Portland just before things went south, instead of being stranded in some motel overnight. So I became a citizen of JFK Gate 23 and a hostage of Delta Airlines and the air travel industry, which conspired to assure me for the next 6 hours that my plane was “At Gate” and a scheduled departure time was always just a half hour away. (Hey — an “Annie” song! “Departure! Departure! I love you! Departure! You’re always half an hour awa-a-a-y!”)

To be fair, there were thunderstorms across the eastern seaboard yesterday afternoon. To continue being fair, this has happened before in our great country’s air travel history, without automatically triggering dozens of flight cancellations and half-day or overnight delays. I literally would have got home faster from New York by car than I did by air travel. In fact, thinking about it, we did door to door Maryland to Maine’s mid coast by car in about the same time it took me from Portland back by air. I am definitely, definitely looking at train or express bus transportation next time for anything in that mileage range.

When I finally got out to ground transportation at Dulles, however, my luck changed. That’s because lowly Metro has bus service from the airport to several Metro stops along the way (Falls Church, Rosslyn, L’Enfant Plaza). Walked on, swiped my card … and hung on, those buses can do some pretty impressive speeds on the highway. At L’Enfant, I happened to walk right on to the yellow line to Gallery Place, waited maybe 5 minutes for the red line home. It took me about an hour to get from Dulles to Takoma Park; whatever it was, I’m sure it was just about as fast as humanly possible unless you’re riding Chopper One.

Finback whale closeup
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

In better news, we all had a great time in Maine, which even my air travel experience — and frequent rainstorms during the week, and being unable to find the dang cabin the first night — did little to tarnish. Blueberries outside our cabin door on “George’s Pond” near Franklin, Maine; kayaks and a beautiful pond ten yards further; roadside lobster pounds, Acadia National Park, and whalewatching excursions down the pike. (Photos here.)

One highpoint of the trip: Maddie and I saw at least four or five finback whales (and heard them too, their blows are audible even at a distance). Sometimes you can see where they are even underwater; I learned (and saw) that the upstrokes of their tails leave huge circular “footprints” of momentarily smooth water on the choppy sea. It was really quite satisfying to see them going about their business — up, blow, slip back down without much fuss — without any visible concern about the boatful of humans a hundred yards away. The people up there care about them, so I have hopes there will still be some around for our grandchildren to see some day.

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She’s growing up

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th July 2008

“Fourmis” (Ants) cabin
The carving is of a very fierce looking ant.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

We took Maddie to a summer camp in Maine over a long weekend — returning in a single 12 and a half hour marathon drive ending Wednesday morning at 2 a.m.

She’ll be there for the next two weeks. It’s not Maddie’s first time away from home by herself, but the prior times have been with family, and it’s been easier to call at night when we miss her or vice versa. But I know she’ll have fun and learn a lot — for one thing, she’ll have to use her French, since “Camp Tekakwitha” is run by French Canadians, and most of the campers are from there.

And mainly there’ll be swimming and sailing and hiking and camping and probably bizarre contests and crafts and whatnot. I have the feeling she’ll be too tired out to spend too much time missing us. Don’t know how we’ll manage, though. It’s pretty quiet around here.

Incidentally, we stayed in a beautiful bed and breakfast on Monday night, “The Captain’s Watch” in Cundy’s Harbor, a little fishing town in a beautiful setting near Brunswick, Maine. If you’re in the area, it’s a great place, with very nice proprietors Ken and Donna. The house is a big handsome rambling structure built in 1862; it has a little cupola at the top, from where you can see the harbor and neighboring islands and peninsulas.

Another thing about Maine: it seemed to me like everyone was nice there — the waitress, the ice cream guys, the CVS counter person, the sandwich shop people, everyone we talked to. And I don’t mean nice in a “smile for the tourist” way; I mean just plain nice. What the heck is going on up there? Spooky. 🙂

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