The Suicide Birds of West Virginia

Hard to figure the intentions of that pretty blue song bird (maybe an Eastern Blue Jay- where is Tom Lally when you need him?). Maybe she thought we were predators? Or she saw a worm inside the cabin? Or she was just so filled with despair that the only thing she could do was repeatedly smash her beak at high speed into the oversized windows of our West Virginia cabin. And yes, I do think it was a she. Guys just aren’t that committed to anything.

We did what we could to save that beautiful but dumb bird. We tried lowering the drapes, affixing wet toilet paper on the window and stacking furniture up against the window. Still she persisted. If anything she grew more determined. At first she would fly away whenever someone stood by the window. An hour later she just perched on the deck staring that deadened gaze into our souls.

Maybe the first ever Passover Seder at Pipestem State Park

So I called the front desk. The fine folks at Pipestem Resorts are incredibly friendly. They also ask no questions. The other day I managed to procure from them two dollops of horseradish for our virtual Seder. Not one question. This time they listened to my concern without comment while transferring my calls to various departments within the resort. Eventually housekeeping said they would do what they could do. And then we left to begin our day, convinced there would be a dead bird on our deck when we returned.

Hours later we returned and there was no dead bird on our deck. We felt a weight lift from our shoulders. Then, like something from a horror movie, the bird returned to peck one more time at our window before flying away.

Update: Big thank you to Tom Lally who identified the bird as an Eastern Bluebird. He also thinks that he is attacking his own reflection in a bit of hormonal rage (knew it was a male).

Where we go to a soup kitchen: Common Good Soup Kitchen Community, SW Harbor Maine

At Common Good Soup Kitchen
It does not get more heart warming than this. The Common Good Soup Kitchen Community has been re-imagining the soup kitchen since 2009 when Chef Bill Morrison began making soup in his own kitchen for elderly neighbors. Since then the operation has expanded to a former, very quaint restaurant in Southwest Harbor immediately adjacent to Acadia Park’s Seawall Campground. In the summer it serves up yummy popovers, oatmeal, and coffee with jam, butter, and impressive views of the Atlantic. The place is a magnet not only to people in need, but also backpackers, campers, and the better heeled tourists. There also is a stage for music making and I write this now with the pleasing sounds of Timbered Lake playing in the background. It is pretty close to being 100% volunteer operated and also is a venue for assisting vocational skills for local special needs children. For more information go here

A volunteer at work

A volunteer at work

Great City Parks: The National Mall

Next in our series of Great City Parks is the National Mall in D.C.  The National Mall is unique in our series for 1) being a national park and 2) it’s absolute overshadowing of its host city.  D.C. without the National Mall (which includes the White House and Capitol Building) would be nothing more than a swampy suburb of Baltimore.  Instead, D.C., at least the part of the city in and near the mall, is a classically re-imagining of a cultured democracy where great ideas are debated, usually with the backing of multimillion dollars PACs. 

The last time in D.C. we wandered in and out of arboretums and museums (my favorite was the National Air and Space Museum with its emphasis on early airplanes and space travel; Henna preferred the American Indian Museum), walked past the Capital Building and White House, and capped our day off by listening to Garrison Keillor read aloud slightly dirty limericks as part of the National Book Festival (in person he is actually even more engaging and more of a presence than he is on radio).  All of this was of course free.  Being a Sunday, even parking was free and it should be noted that in both our visits to D.C. parking was never an issue.  Previous visits included longer strolls to the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, an extended visit at the National Gallery where we loved the Norman Rockwell exhibit (on loan from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s private collection), as well as contemplative moments at the Reflecting Pool and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I think House Speaker Boehner and President Obama would agree that our country is not perfect.  No place is.  But as a first impression for millions of international tourists, the National Mall succeeds in accentuating our best traits; accessibility, civic and scientific achievements, and a confidence in our ability to lead; even if our leaders do not always live up to expectations.   

Great City Parks: Boston Common

What constitutes a Great City Park?  Well, one first needs a great city (Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto are some examples).  The park itself should have some history, draw in locals as well as tourists, and let all visitors know at once the city they are in.  Some cities have more than one great park; Chicago has Millennium Park for tourists, but the lakefront is for everyone.  San Francisco has more parks than I can begin to list here.  For us, Great City Parks provide an oasis for the locals and a destination for the tourists. 

One often overlooked Great City Park is also our nation’s oldest.  Dating back to 1634, Boston Common has been used for first private and then public cattle grazing, a British war camp (in the 1812 War), a nifty place to hang witches, and ultimately as a Frisbee throwing/ softball playing park with a pretty cool water area.  Boston Common does not have the panache of Central Park or the overwhelming, in your face importance of the D.C. Mall.  The weekend summer day we walked around the park had the usual trappings of an urban tourist location; overpriced hot-dogs, balloon makers, and a carousel.  There also were the predictable hemp sweaters and bracelets for sale (and a shifty guy who might have been willing to sell us other hemp products).  But it lacked the frantic pace of other East Coast destinations.  And it was too big and popular to have the charm of the great public green area in Salem, MA.  We enjoyed cooling off at Frog Pond (a fun and very shallow pool filled with kids running and hopping about) and eating our overpriced hotdogs in shade.  And Henna loved the balloon animal that I held while she took a whirl on the carousel.  But the park itself is not as memorable as the city it resides in.

What Boston Common did have was a lot of historical interests ringing the park itself.  A short walk from the Common can take you to Paul Revere and Samuel Adams grave as well as other stops on the Freedom Trail.  The Beacon Hill neighborhood rests on the park’s southern border and makes for a wonderful stroll.  One of my wife’s favorite things to do in Boston is to find JFK’s boyhood home.  I always like to stop at the Cheer’s bar.  And the T can take you to Harvard Square in a matter of minutes (and to be honest we think it is more fun to wander around Harvard than it is the Common).  But we are grateful for Boston and it’s Common.

Great City Parks: Prospect Park, Brooklyn

It is not like no one has ever heard of Prospect Park.  Designed by the same team that brought you Central Park (Olmsted and Vaux), Prospect Park is the more wild, less visited cousin of that more famous park.  Quick, think of one movie or play that references Prospect Park.  Do you remember the guy a couple of years ago who found some film, developed it, and then tracked down the photographer to her home in Paris?  Almost all those photographs were taken in Prospect Park.  Also, a quick Wikipedia search came up with several “notable murders” within the park.  So there you have it, quirky internet stories and murder.  And now this blog article too.

Our experience with Prospect Park flowed from our laid back approach to the Big Apple in the summer of 2010.  After a maddening trip from New Jersey that left us nostalgic for our own Chicago traffic jams, we checked in to a converted basement apartment with a row house above.  The owner of this house was away and the house sitter was a writer from South Africa who let us roam the house at will. We made good use of the washer and dryer on account of her generosity.  She also hinted several times that we were welcome to walk the dog, which we passed on.  For $150/night, at the height of the summer tourist season, we were able to chill in a cool part of Brooklyn.  It was like crashing at a relative’s house with that same relative out of town.  Below grade windows, a blow up bed for Henna, a makeshift kitchen with the smallest fridge I have ever seen, and neighbors out of a Spike Lee film made us feel at home.  It seemed that those neighbors spent our entire visit parked in front of their house commenting on the people passing by.  Each time we said hello they had a new story for us and often referenced their neighbors as if we had a shared history with them.  They were never happier than when giving us directions somewhere (her with a strong Puerto Rican accent, him with animated gestures highlighting the hospital wrist band on his wrist).  It is with pride that I tell you he told me, after watching us cross a busy street with a defiant wave, “I can tell you’re from a city.”

That is the thing about New York and New Yorkers.   I find New Yorkers away from home to be obnoxious.  Not you of course, but other New Yorkers.  You know “them.”  But in New York, New Yorkers are funny, cool, and, always and without any exception, direct.  Several times while Corey, Henna, and I were planning our day on the subway, a stranger would interrupt with something like “You don’t want to go Times Square.  This is what you do….”  I quickly adopted this custom by looking any random stranger in the eye and, without bothering with an “excuse me” or “I’m sorry to interrupt, but” instead simply asking “Where can I get lunch?”  They seemed to respect that kind of thing and always had plenty suggestions to contribute to our day.

Upon first arriving in Brooklyn, after unloading everything of value into our new, small basement apartment, we walked through the neighborhood and stumbled into Prospect Park.  In the twilight Henna found a friend and they chased each other around the monkey bars.  We talked to his mom whose dark complexion and thick French accent intrigued us.  Like many urban park discussions, the topic of conversation was schools.  Remarkably, over the next three days we bumped into this mom and her son several times.  Each time she gave us great tips on neighborhood restaurants.  I think that maybe the reason New Yorkers away from New York are hard to suffer is that they miss the amazing amount and variety of good restaurants that are always a block or two from wherever you are.  The three nights we stayed in Prospect Park we sampled food trucks, devoured sushi and very authentic Mexican food.  The three of us sat outside and watched our waiter jump from the curb back into the outdoor café area each time he sensed a customer in need.  It was like being served by a bystander.  We dined after dark and Henna was by no means the only child awake as small children no more than ten skated, cycled, and walked by.  Past eleven, with Henna just asleep, Corey and I were amazed to hear an ice cream truck drive by. 

The next day we explored the park and delightfully got lost at every opportunity.  Besides the park itself, which features a wooded area, a medium sized lake with a classically designed boat house (Boathouse on the Lullwater), and plenty of open spaces, the park spills into the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.  For a small fee, one can wander aimlessly among the cultivated gardens and engage in several understated child friendly activities.  The Brooklyn Museum, with its impressive art collection that includes many works by Andy Warhol is also adjacent to the park (we especially enjoyed Andy’s creative use of urine).  Like Prospect Park, the museum has an unhurried and laid back feel that is quiet in contrast to the over visited island of Manhattan.  We also spent quality time reading and people watching at the Brooklyn Library.

Lest you think we are Central Park haters, we love that park too.  On a very hot day we enjoyed cooling off in the water fountains and it warmed my heart to see people from all over the world fighting for bench space.  My favorite moment there was throwing a water balloon at Corey.  When she furiously looked at me I pointed at the Russian tourist to my right who immediately denied this with a panicked   “nyet!”

Blue Mountain Lake, Adirondacks

On one of the shortest day of the year it seems fitting that I reminisce about the long days.  Summer to us means adventure; road travels and other.  I especially love finding a place beautiful enough to be popular to the masses, but, for whatever reason, remains a more local treat.  The Blue Mountain Lake region of the Adirondacks is such a place.

The Adirondacks is an interesting world.  It is sometimes a wilderness, sometimes a crowded resort town, and sometimes a quaint getaway.  The road from Utica (28) samples all of that on its slow ascent to the 28/30 intersection.  By the time you have reached the intersection of 28/30 you have shaken off many of the day trippers and resort goers.  The Blue Mountain Lake area to us feels like a small state park tucked into the mountains.  Eating options are decidedly fewer and if you have no groceries you might find yourself, as we did, dining on gas station pizza and potato chips.

Our lodging choice is Lake Durant, a stone throw from Blue Mountain Lake.  Lake Durant has one of the best swimming beaches we know.  Canoes are also available (a canoe truck drives through the camping loop each morning) and fishing is good.  Lake Durant has one camping area with sites on both sides of a gravel road.  Sites are either on the lake or are separated from the lake by the road.  Not surprisingly the lake side sites fill up first.  Several campers indicated that the campground only fills up completely a few summer weekends.  Nearby Blue Mountain Lake is larger and colder (the beach is bigger too but the colder water makes for worse swimming) and also offers canoe rentals.   Many years ago Corey and I took our first canoe trip on this lake.  We also fell into a lake for the first time ever  which led to our first canoe related lesson (how to successfully put a canoe into a lake).   

Blue Mountain is there for the climbing.  Corey and I have climbed it twice, Henna once.  The first time Corey and I were in our late 20s and I remember it being a pretty easy hike with a great view on top.  There are even better views from on top of the fire tower.  The second time up we were in our late 30s (Henna was not quite 7).  Henna did fine but was sort of pushed up the last half mile or so.  Corey and I worked harder to get up that mountain that I would care to admit.  The last chunk of the hike is straight up (no switch backs here) and I cursed gravity most of the way up.  We ended in a collapsed heap at the base of the fire tower.  There we met a mountain hermit or, actually, a young college student living at a cabin just behind the fire tower for the summer.  He was eager for conversation and told how a black bear walked just past his cabin a few nights past.  We stayed awhile on top of the mountain.  Henna and Corey refused to climb up the fire tower but I did and got some nice pictures for my effort.