Tip-toe Through the Tulips

Though it has been a dark time, and I will spare you the list of terrible things happening in the world, I want to focus on something lighter (literally and figuratively).

When I moved to Albany, New York 36 years ago, I was dimly aware that the area was originally settled by the Dutch (well, not originally, that credit goes to native peoples, but the Dutch were the first Europeans to put down roots here). Having grown up in Brooklyn, we learned some state history (though not much about native peoples, sad to say) and I knew a little bit about the Dutch connection. One expression of that connection that continues locally is Tulip Fest. The tulip is associated with the Netherlands and is also the official flower of Albany.

Since 1948 the festival is held on Mother’s Day weekend in Washington Park – a lovely expanse designed by the same landscape architects credited with Central Park in Manhattan – Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. Did they design every beautiful urban park in this country? Seems like most major city parks have their fingerprints. They certainly got around. Anyway, until Covid hit and forced its cancellation in 2020 and a scaled back version in 2021, the festival was held rain or shine, and one of its main highlights are beds of colorful tulips. There are craft and food vendors, and music. The festival came back full strength this year. We attended on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend and we were delighted to see throngs of people enjoying all the park and festival had to offer (due to the crowds, Gary and I stayed masked – a small concession in our opinion).

One of the things I have appreciated about Tulip Fest over the years is that it is increasingly diverse. The crowd includes young, old and every shade of humanity. I think in my early years, in the late 1980s, the crowd was much more homogenous.

The diversity extends to the tulips themselves. Until I started attending, I had no idea that there was such a wide variety. I knew they came in different colors but didn’t appreciate how vibrant those colors could be. I also had no idea that they came in such a wide variety of shapes.  

Here, for instance, are several that defy expectations:

Who knew tulips could look like that? More like lilies or maybe peonies?

They also have some interesting names:

That’s Vincent Van Gogh on the left – not the best picture but hopefully you can see the fringed end of the petal. It was quite cool in person. The one on the right is called Bud Light. I can say for certain that I prefer this version of a ‘bud light,’ I’m no fan of beer.

Over the last few years, I make a point of going to the park either a few days before or a few days after the festival. The flowers are in bloom and there are less crowds to contend with. Washington Park itself is lovely  – with some trees well over 100 years old. When I visited this past week, I saw graduates in cap and gown posing in front of the tulip beds. I was also asked by a young couple if I would take their picture. I was more than happy to oblige.

Statue of Moses overseeing the tulip beds.

As if I didn’t have my fill of tulips, I went to another garden this past Saturday, too. Knowing my love of gardens, Leah got me tickets for Mother’s Day to the Tulip and Daffodil Show at Naumkeag (which no matter how many times I ask I cannot pronounce), an estate in Stockbridge, Massachussetts. The estate has beautiful grounds that throughout the year host a number of different themed shows.

The show featured sculptures by George Rickey (middle photo) interspersed among the gardens.

I’ll leave you with one final photo which shows how vibrant the colors are. The sun shining on those petals lifted my spirits. I hope they will do the same for yours.

Air Travel: No Better Than a Bus Trip

Regular readers of my blog know that my relationship with Florida is fraught. I love the beach and sunshine, but I have been traveling there since I was 11 years old to visit elderly relatives. Those trips didn’t feel like vacations, they felt stressful. I connect Florida with aging, the state serves as a reminder of our mortality, not to mention its ridiculous politics, and even though I know my grandparents and parents loved their lives there, it is a negative association. Others with the same history feel positively and have warm memories of their visits. I can’t explain why I feel the way I do, but I can’t seem to shake it.

I have also had difficult travel experiences, from an Amtrak trip that took 24 hours longer than it should have, to last year’s nightmare landing in Orlando in turbulent weather, then sitting on the tarmac for more than two hours before taking off for our final destination, Fort Lauderdale; it rarely goes smoothly.

All of that said, we looked forward to our trip this year. We planned it as a long weekend getaway back in December. We would meet close friends near Port St. Lucie and see NY Met spring training games. We would also visit Gary’s mother and other family. I was determined to approach this year’s trip with an open mind.

We got off to an uncertain start when, not long after I made the flight reservations, I received an email from JetBlue advising us that the departure time for the outbound trip was changed. If I wanted to reschedule, the email said, it could be done simply by clicking on the link provided. I wanted to adjust our flights, so I did just that and was directed to their website but was unable to make any changes. After repeatedly getting the same error message, I called the airline. I was told by the automated system that my wait time would be over 120 minutes! It gave me the option to communicate with them by text instead. I took that opportunity. They would text me when a person became available. I went about my business that day, keeping the phone close so I wouldn’t miss their message. Seven hours later, as I was driving on the Thruway, I heard the familiar ding of an incoming text. I briefly looked at my phone. It was indeed JetBlue. Perfect timing! I would have to try again later.

The next day, I called and this time after the maze of menus, I chose the option of having them call me back. They said the wait time would be about an hour and I did receive a call in that time frame. Things were looking up! I explained the adjustment I wanted to make to the JetBlue representative. It seemed simple enough. After the call was completed, I received an email confirmation, but the heading of the email said, ‘Your itinerary has been cancelled.’ Uh-oh. I opened the email, the body of which provided a new confirmation code. I went online and put that code in, and it looked like we still had our reservations. Okaaaay. I was cautiously optimistic.

I know this is a lot more detail than anyone wants to read, but there is a point to all of this. The point is that with all the efforts to automate and streamline operations and allow passengers to ‘manage’ their travel plans, my experiences suggest that it is all a clusterfuck. I don’t like to use coarse language generally, but I need to call it like I see it.

I should have known at that point that this trip, at least the travel part of it, was destined to be aggravating. It got worse. I thought, based on finding our travel plans intact, despite the heading of that email, that we had what we needed. I was wrong. As the date of our travel neared, and I had not received anything from JetBlue, usually they bombard us with emails, I thought I better check. Good thing I did. Turns out my trip was cancelled, though Gary’s was not. How that happened, given that we had the same confirmation code, I will never know.

This required another series of calls and call backs. Finally, I reached a human being. It took 90 minutes on the phone to re-book my flight. I had already tried to do it myself online, the system would not let me. It gave me the message that this was a duplicate reservation!  You gotta love these systems.

Eventually, I was successful – we no longer had the same confirmation code, but Gary and I were on the same flights. Phew! Now the only disappointment was that it became increasingly clear that there would be no baseball. Oh well, we and our friends decided we would keep our plans. We were staying on the beach on Hutchinson Island, and we knew it was lovely there. After a long winter, shut in by Covid, I was especially excited to get away.

Gary and I got to the Albany airport, bringing only carry-on bags, and boarded the plane. We learned that not only was the entertainment system not working, but the wi-fi was out as well. They offered no complementary future service and no rebate or credit. Fortunately, I had lots of reading material. Gary tried to sleep. Other than the ambient tension around mask-wearing, the poor flight attendants had to admonish passengers multiple times, it all went smoothly. I don’t understand why folks make a big deal about the mask, especially when the airlines make the rules crystal clear. And you’re allowed to take it off to eat and drink! I don’t get why it is such a hardship. Gary and I made it to Fort Lauderdale, got the rental car and were relieved to check into our hotel.

The next four days flew by – we visited with friends and family, sat on the beach, tried pickle ball for the first time and ate good meals. Before we knew it, it was time to return home.

On our final night at the hotel, I used the lobby computer to check in for our flight. Since we had picked up a few items to bring back to New York, we had too much to carry on, so I paid $35 to check a bag. As I went through the process of the online check-in, I found Gary had an assigned seat, I did not. I would have to take care of that when I got to the gate. I printed out the boarding passes and went back to the room. Again, this is way more detail than anyone wants, but I share it because it illustrates how complicated travel has become.

We successfully returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the terminal. We already had our boarding passes, but we needed to check the bag. We looked for signage to tell us what to do. We went to one of the many kiosks. I tried to initiate a transaction with my passport – the system kept freezing, nothing happened. We tried another station. Eventually we had success and were able to print out a baggage claim tag. I fumbled with it, trying to figure out how to affix it – not rocket science, but not clear either. We got on a long line to check the bag. There were three JetBlue employees seemingly set up to receive luggage. One was doing something on their phone (perhaps it was work related). Another one needed assistance from the third one so no progress was being made. Only one employee seemed to know what they were doing.

The whole process was stressful. So many steps, so many glitches…and we weren’t through security yet.

Gary and I paid for TSA-Pre to expedite the security process. We approach the security line. The person checks our documents, we walk a little further and another stops us. “Will your bag fit?” she asks Gary.

“Yes, I put it in the overhead compartment on the flight down.”

“Let me measure it.”

“I don’t think that is necessary.”

“Yes, let me check.”

She takes the bag, and it doesn’t fit into their compartment.

Gary and I object. “I’ve taken this bag more times than I can count onto planes. It always fits.” “I’m sorry, we can’t allow you to go ahead. You have to check it.”

“Who is your supervisor?”

She points vaguely behind her.

We make our case to the guy we think she pointed to.

He says, “You have to go to the ticketing area.” We realize we are getting nowhere.

Fortunately, we left enough time for this nonsense. We walk back from whence we came and looked for the correct line to get on – someone tells us we need to use the kiosk. We don’t want to do that – we want to deal with a person. We are directed to another line.

We finally get to the counter and plead our case. Getting nowhere, we give up – we’ll check Gary’s bag. Another $35, but at least we can get through security and go to the gate. Gary watches to make sure they attach the baggage tag and put it on the conveyor belt. We leave, both of us beyond frustrated. We get through security without further incident.

I still need to get my seat assignment. No one is staffing the gate desk. I stand there waiting. Now it is only 30 minutes until the flight. When someone finally comes, they tell me to go sit down – I point out that there are no seats in the gate area (it is crowded – Gary has gone to sit at another as yet unused gate). The employee shrugs and tells me he needs to meet a plane and will be back. I go find Gary at the other gate where there are seats. I sit for ten minutes, stewing. I fire off a few angry tweets, decrying JetBlue’s service. Then I go back to our gate where there are now three JetBlue employees behind the desk, though no one looks up to acknowledge me. I approach and explain that I need a seat assignment and am hoping they can place me near my husband. They tell me they aren’t ready yet. One says, “It will take about ten minutes for the system to boot.” I back up. There are other passengers waiting to be helped.

I wait. Eventually another passenger approaches the podium, and they are helped. I figure now it must be my turn. The agent hands me a boarding pass. I am five rows behind Gary. Whatever, at least I have a seat.

We board. The woman sitting next to Gary is willing to switch with me. It isn’t essential that I sit next to Gary, we have flown by ourselves and separated by the aisle or rows apart, but it is more pleasant to be next to each other. The flight proceeds, this time with working wi-fi.

Looking back at the flights and our experience at the airport, I wonder why I got so easily riled up, why was I so frustrated? The process of changing the reservations was absurd, but the other stuff wasn’t that big of a deal. The additional fees were annoying, the extra steps irritating, but it shouldn’t have gotten me so agitated. I need to get back to meditating! There is something about air travel, and it precedes Covid, that ramps up the stress. There are so many delays, so much ‘nickel and diming’ us, the online systems are not user friendly, and the airports are woefully inadequate for the crowds of travelers, that I start to wonder if the trip is worth it. But I want to go places! I have sites to see! I don’t want to get to a point where I am dissuaded from exploring the world. Maybe I need to adjust my attitude, accept that it will feel like a giant cattle call, no more luxurious than bus travel, and allow that more often than not there will be a delay, and make peace with that. Or, is there some magic to planning air travel to improve the experience that I am unaware of? Suggestions, please!

The beach at Hutchinson Island – worth the hassle?

Successfully Replenished

Thank you to all who responded to last week’s post. Many of you shared, here on the blog or on Facebook, what you do to de-stress and refill yourself. So many good ideas were offered: physical activities (for example, bicycling and yoga are two that stay with me), talking to family and friends, sleep (of course we need to be rested!), cuddling with animals, grandchildren or spouses (not necessarily in that order) and crafting were some of the many suggestions. I am grateful to have more tools to call upon, though I know some are not a good fit for me.

Some crafts would be stressful. Anything that requires patience and fine motor skills is just going to frustrate me. Sewing, knitting and the like, which I have tried, are definitely not for me. I respect those who are creative in that way. I appreciate the product, but the process would make me crazy. While painting and drawing may be done more successfully if you have excellent fine motor skills, I think they can be done without that. Watercolors appeal to me. I may be signing up for a class or looking for some Youtube videos in the near future.

The idea of talking to friends or family is interesting. I definitely benefit from venting sometimes or from processing an issue with someone I love and trust (most often that would be Gary or Merle, though I have called upon others), but sometimes talking is the last thing I want to do.

Though no one mentioned this idea in the comments, we spent time with friends this past weekend who turn to their faith. I am quite sure they are not alone in calling upon God or whatever higher power one believes in. I think many pray for guidance and find it helpful. I believe our friends, in times of stress, call upon their pastor. I have heard and read of folks who believe that through prayer or reading the bible they received guidance through a sign or a peaceful feeling coming over them. I have not had that experience. Prayer is one of those things about which I have contradictory impulses. Intellectually I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I don’t judge anyone who does, in fact I envy them their faith. On the other hand, when I am most challenged, I find myself praying. Maybe it is like that saying ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’ When my father was dying, I must have silently asked for strength to get through it, for the wisdom to know the right things to do for him and for mercy on him so he didn’t suffer, ten times a day, at least. I can’t say doing it comforted me or refilled me, not consciously anyway. But I did it, so maybe it served some purpose. Or maybe it was a form of meditation that centered me. At the time I believed that the best way to comfort myself was to sit by the ocean for ten minutes (it was a few minutes drive from the hospital) or taking a walk in the bird sanctuary that was also nearby. Either way, I did find my way through it.

This past weekend, spent with friends from medical school, was replenishing. Though their life experience is so different from Gary and mine, and their faith is so strong and central to their lives in stark contrast to ours, we have lots of common ground. We were in Cooperstown, New York which is a lovely, charming town and home to the baseball hall of fame. It also has a large lake, named Glimmerglass for a reason. A museum (not an art museum, but a museum nonetheless) and nature – two of my favorite things. Plus laughter, friendship and good food. Now back to real life, a bit tired, but refreshed.

Some scenes from our visit:

To whoever planted that field of sunflowers – thank you! We came upon it as we drove out of Cooperstown on our way to the AirBnB and we had to pull over to take it in.

The Return of the Baksts

In October of 1989, when Daniel was 7 months old and Leah was almost 2 ½ , Gary and I took our first trip to the Outer Banks. Prior to that I had never even heard of it. I didn’t know it was a narrow barrier island that mirrored the coast of North Carolina – one of the earliest sites of colonial settlement and infamous as the resting spot for many shipwrecks. That trip was the beginning of a tradition.

It was thirty years ago when we rented a beach house with friends from medical school who also had two children. They were coming from the D.C. suburbs (I wrote a post about our experience with them – here). Since our children were young, we were not beholden to school schedules yet, we took advantage of that flexibility and went in the early fall. Late September and early October are wonderful times to be on the Outer Banks. The water is warm, but the days are not as brutally hot and humid as is typical in the height of the summer. The only downside is the threat of hurricanes is greater in the autumn.

In 1989, as I did before any trip, I went to AAA to get a triptik and guidebooks to help plan our route. We loaded up our Camry wagon, which did not have air conditioning, and made the trek. After that first year, we took that drive at least a dozen times over the coming years. We continued to meet our friends and, because we liked it so much, we went with family and other friends, too. We watched the narrow barrier island develop. The first few trips we saw wild horses roaming the sand dunes and munching on the wild grasses that abutted the properties. By the mid 1990s some horses were penned in next to the Corolla Lighthouse, the rest roamed the northern part of the island that remained undeveloped. With each trip we saw the wild areas become covered with huge beach homes and shopping areas.

A combination of school schedules, the kids’ other activities, a desire to use limited vacation time in other ways led to the end of our trips to the Outer Banks. I think our last time there was in 2001.

Fast forward two decades and our son went with his family to spend a week in Kitty Hawk (which people may know from the Wright Brothers, but might not realize is part of the Outer Banks). In 2019 they went with family and friends and enjoyed themselves immensely.  Gary and I frequently talked about going back, wanting to see how it has changed and to revisit great memories, but other places and opportunities kept taking priority. Until this year.

With Covid waning, we were looking for a family vacation that we could all be comfortable with and would fit everyone’s schedules. Going back to the Outer Banks was a great option. I found a home that would suit us, walking distance to the beach and with access to a swimming pool.

Our trip down was different than it was 20 years ago. It was just the two of us – our kids and their spouses and our grandchild were travelling from Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.

No longer using a Triptik, GPS adjusted our route depending on traffic. We took some back roads through Delaware to avoid congested main roads. I have always enjoyed road trips, especially when we get to see towns and neighborhoods off the beaten path. This trip fit the bill.

One thing we noticed as we drove down the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was the increased number of restaurants, stores and churches that catered to Spanish-speakers. We saw many iglesias and tacquerias. The demographics of the area must have changed. Much of the route was still sparsely developed, but there were more shopping centers (seeing all the chain stores and eateries, Gary commented “America has come to the Eastern Shore.”). Previously we saw more bait shops. There were still many places to buy a gun.

As we neared the bridge to the Outer Banks, traffic increased. We slowly made our way across the Wright Memorial Bridge which spans the Currituck/Albemarle Sound. It was early Sunday afternoon as we crawled north on Route 12 toward Duck, where our rental home was located. We passed development after development. When we last visited there were areas where there was just brush and live oaks. We saw bicyclists and runners along the road. Though it was clear that it was very densely populated in season, the homes, landscaping and shopping areas are tastefully done. There aren’t any big box stores (other than where you first cross onto the island), none of the buildings are higher than two stories, there aren’t any amusement parks or McDonalds (or the like). One could argue that it makes the area too exclusive and expensive, but there is no denying that it is lovely.

Throughout the drive, I was hit by waves of nostalgia. I miss the time when our children were young. I loved taking care of them, being involved in their everyday lives, taking them to see new places, and sharing adventures. Time marches on and I am blessed they are still a regular part of our lives, and they were willing to take this vacation with us, but as we drove along the familiar (but new in some ways) route, I had pangs of missing that earlier time. Thinking about our friends who we shared that time with, whose lives were shattered by the loss of one of their children, added another dimension of poignancy.

I am happy to report our week together was fabulous.

The weather was unbelievable – it was hot, and sometimes humid, but perfect for the beach and pool. We prepared great meals, enjoyed wine and each other’s company. We created new memories. As we were getting packed up to leave on Sunday, our granddaughter looked at me and said, “I want to stay here forever!” Me too, little one. Sigh.

Travels During COVID

I continue to struggle with the pandemic. I am fortunate in that I have been healthy, at least physically. My emotional health is another matter. Taking walks outside has been key to holding on to that. I want to share some of the views I have found particularly valuable.

Thacher Park – Helderberg Escarpment

I took on a consulting project in part to give my aimless days more structure (plus it doesn’t hurt to actually earn some money). But sitting at the island in my kitchen doing the work was wreaking havoc with my eating habits. So I decided to take my project, which mostly doesn’t require WiFi, to a state park that isn’t too long of a drive. I found a picnic table and set up my office with the above as my view. I felt better after spending a couple of hours out of the house, having done a chunk of work, not snacking and enjoying the beauty surrounding me.

Stewart Lake – Indian Lake Trail, Southern Adirondacks

Though the lack of rain may create problems here in the Northeast, selfishly, it has been good for me. It has allowed me to get outside more than one would expect in late summer, early fall. With good weather forecast and autumn colors emerging, Gary and I planned to take a hike over this past weekend. I did some research, looking for lesser traveled trails in the Southern Adirondacks. There has been a fair amount of press about crowding at popular spots in the Adirondacks. Given the pandemic, and the fact that the Adirondack Park is huge, it made sense that there would be good alternatives.

One of the things I am learning as we have taken up hiking (have I really taken up hiking?), and do research online to find trails, is that I need to take into account the source of the description. Sometimes the trail has been described as beginner level and we have found it to be quite demanding. Other times it has been rated as moderate and we haven’t been that taxed. I haven’t figured out how to assess that yet. Also when it is noted that the trail climbs 500 feet, I have no idea what that looks or feels like. There is learning curve and I am on the up slope.

The hike I chose (pictured above) was described as a ‘steady but easy ascent through a gorgeous hardwood forest.’ It was gorgeous and the ascent was steady, but it wasn’t easy. At least not for me. In fairness, it wasn’t that easy for Gary either. It was a good workout. It is interesting to note that walking 1.25 miles through my neighborhood streets is not the same as walking on uneven terrain, uphill. The latter works up a sweat, even with a breeze and temperatures in the high 60s. It also takes a lot longer. I do a 2.2 mile loop in the neighborhood in under 40 minutes. It took us almost an hour to travel 1.25.

We had planned to complete the hike, it was one way in and the same way out, to get to Indian Lake (a bit more than 2 miles). But by the time we got to Stewart Lake, it was already 1:00 pm – it took us almost an hour to get that far. It would take about the same amount of time to get back. Even if it is downhill, it still takes effort to negotiate the tree roots and rocks. Ordinarily on a Sunday we would have had time to continue, but that day sundown would mark the beginning of Yom Kippur, which we observe. We needed to be home in time to prepare for the fast.

We turned back, stopping one more time to take in the fall foliage reflected on a pond.

We drove home, legs tired, but fortified by the exercise, fresh air and lovely vistas.

Art or Not

On Saturday Gary and I met friends and went to Dia, an art museum in Beacon, New York, in the Hudson Valley. The building was repurposed, it had been a box factory for Nabisco. It featured large spaces that housed huge installations – sculptures, paintings, arrangements of stuff. We were told it was 30,000 square feet. We took a guided, one-hour tour.

The docent introduced herself, offered some history of the building and explained that she was an artist. Gary whispered to me, “Duh!!” From her theatrical manner to her inability to remember dates to the words she used to describe the art, she was what you think of when you imagine an ‘artist’ – creative and airy.

We were a small tour group. As we gathered to begin one gentleman coughed, a phlegmy, worrisome sound. Everyone took a step back and looked at each other. Coronavirus was on all our minds, but we were not deterred. During our visit we stopped once to wash hands at the restroom and later Gary passed around his travel sized bottle of Purell.

The first installation we looked at consisted of numbers painted on the walls of the gallery with a straight red line connecting them. The line and numbers were above my eye-level (I’m 5’6”). The docent explained that the numbers corresponded to the measurement of the space and the height of the line was the eye-level of the artist. She talked about it as a blueprint brought to life, bringing our awareness to the structure in which we stood. I thought it was interesting and gave me food for thought. I caught two of my companions rolling their eyes – they were not enthralled. Another person on the tour was moved to point out that the space wasn’t made up of perfect squares – the measurements across from each other weren’t exactly the same. The docent and that person engaged in some discussion. I was getting less interested by the second. Finally, we moved on.

The second room, see picture below, was comprised of a white dust arrangement on the wood floor. We were asked what we thought the substance was – we took some guesses. It was chalk. I liked the look of it – the wave-like pattern. Gary found this more interesting than the last room, but not by much.

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We continued walking through galleries. We came upon rusted structures designed for people to walk through and another area with free-standing discarded car parts, and a space with colorful fluorescent lights. We went outside to a garden where there was a soundscape – an artist had manipulated bird calls. The docent explained that the artist, a woman, was commenting on the fact that, other than her, when the museum opened all the exhibits were made by male artists. The sounds were the names of those male artists, distorted through a computer. If I hadn’t been provided that background information, it would have sounded like random noises. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I wasn’t sure it added to the experience either. Instead, I noticed that there were buds on the cherry blossom trees. A welcome sign of Spring.

After the tour, our foursome continued exploring the museum.

After about another half-hour, we agreed it was time to move on. One of my companions commented that the art had not moved him – he said he didn’t get it. Gary agreed. I was asked what I thought. I explained that I didn’t know if I ‘got it,’ but I enjoyed a lot of it. Some things amused me, in other pieces I liked the play of light, shadow and reflection. Without the docent’s explanation, I found some pieces pleasing even if I didn’t understand the artist’s intent, while others didn’t do anything for me.

Here are samples of pieces I found interesting (I didn’t take photos of those that I didn’t, which made sense in the moment but as I wrote this post I realized might have been useful to contrast. Of course I probably would have felt bad posting an artist’s work that I didn’t like.)

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It is interesting to me how my taste in art has evolved over time. When I was a teenager and young adult the art I appreciated were Impressionist paintings, like Monet’s Water Lilies or realistic depictions, like Andrew Wyeth’s. I was mostly interested in ‘pretty’ landscapes. I still like Monet and Wyeth, but my appreciation for other things has grown. Now I see nuance, depth and skill in a portrait – I especially like John Singer Sargent. I can also enjoy an abstract arrangement of colors that simply pleases my eye. I enjoy outdoor sculpture gardens, especially whimsical pieces.

Art is clearly in the eye of the beholder. For two of my companions yesterday, there wasn’t much art to behold. They enjoyed the light and wide-open spaces of the building, and the scenic views of the Hudson River but didn’t get much from the pieces displayed inside. They were good sports about it, and we had plenty of laughs (especially at the phallic sculptures – which I did not photograph :)).  Our visit was a success. But, it begs the age-old question: what is art?

To B&B or Not to B&B?

Gary and I are creatures of habit. Maybe most people are, I suppose, but we have our routines and we don’t often move outside our comfort zone. This extends to travel. Typically, when we are going to be away from home, I search the Marriott website for the nearest, least expensive property and book it. We like the reliability and predictability of it. We have only used airbnb (actually it was a different site, but the same idea) once and that was because we were traveling with friends and they found the property. It worked out fine, but we still didn’t feel comfortable planning our travel using it.

With this trip to the Canadian Maritimes (which refers to the provinces on the east coast – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador), we took a step away from our usual tactic. It may have been possible to travel using only Marriott or Hilton brand hotels, but the places we were interested in didn’t seem to offer them. I still didn’t take the home-sharing approach, instead I booked bed and breakfasts that I found through Google and TripAdvisor. This may not sound that adventurous, but it was for us!

I researched various websites to plan where we would go and mapped out a route. We knew we would drive. Albany, New York (where we live) has a nice, small airport, but you can’t fly direct to many places. To fly to Halifax (the capital of Nova Scotia) would have us going first to Philadelphia or Newark. It would end up taking as much time as driving. Besides, Gary and I like road trips. Once that was established, I looked for accommodations. Bed and breakfasts abound in the places we were going. I looked at reviews and amenities (Gary MUST have wi-fi!) and made reservations. While I like the idea of B&Bs and have stayed in them a few times over the years, I did have some trepidation.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not the most social person. I have written before about different approaches to travel (and not just travel, it could be waiting in line in a store). I am not inclined to initiate conversation. I’m not unfriendly, at least I don’t think I come off that way, but I’m just as happy reading my book or keeping to myself. Some of it comes from social anxiety, but some of it is just comfort with being quiet – at least in that setting.

Anyway, I thought staying in a B&B would force me to push myself…and it did.

The first place we stayed, Bailey House in Annapolis Royal, was an historic building, dating from around 1770.  The current proprietor decorated it with funky, brightly-colored art. Our room was lovely. There was one problem – the bed creaked. It was otherwise comfortable, but every time one of us turned over, we were reminded that the place was even older than us! The other parts of our stay more than made up for it. We were there for two nights and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast with our fellow guests. Conversation flowed easily – some were American (from Sarasota and Atlanta), some from England and another couple from Halifax.

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The table set for breakfast at Bailey House

Some observations from our breakfast table:

  • We got great recommendations on where to eat and places to see both in Annapolis and our next stop, Lunenberg.
  • I learned that Booking.com, the website I used to make my reservations, takes an exorbitant percentage (15%) of the cut from the B&B owner. I could, once I found a place I wanted to stay, call it directly and make my own arrangement (one of the guests at the table had done just that). That thought had not occurred to me. While the website is entitled to make money, the size of the hit surprised me.
  • I found out that Nova Scotia was way bigger than I thought. Though I pride myself in knowing some geography, I was pretty ignorant about this. One thing about traveling, and talking to local people, you get a much better and more accurate perspective. If you had asked me before we went there, I would have said Nova Scotia was probably somewhat bigger than Rhode Island. I was way off. It is only a bit smaller than Ireland, or three times the size of Massachusetts!
  • This may be seem like a non-sequitur, but:  we learned that Sarasota has a vibrant arts community – including great live music. Next time we go to Florida, maybe we’ll stop in and get a different view of Florida (as I’ve written about before, I have a number of negative associations with the Sunshine State).
  • The world is small – a woman at the breakfast table, who now lives in Atlanta, was born and raised in Albany, New York and attended the synagogue down the block from our house)! We played some Jewish geography, mentioning names and places to see if we could find some commonality. We were successful. (Do other ethnic groups play a similar game?)
  • We had great conversations with all of the guests and did not touch on politics at all! Hallelujah!
  • The smell of coffee and freshly baked pastry is a wonderful start to the day.

None of the above would have been possible if we stayed at a Courtyard.

Each of the B&Bs we stayed in offered something different. In Lunenberg, the Sail Inn was also an old, historic building that was well located close to the waterfront and near shops and restaurants, and the bed didn’t creak! An Asian couple ran it, they spoke heavily accented English, and they had a young son who was very inquisitive. He noticed that Gary had engaged the emergency brake when we parked our car, and he wondered why. Gary explained. The boy followed up with a number of other questions. It was nice to spend time with a family.

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The view from the Lunenberg waterfront – a stone’s throw from our B&B

We had breakfast that morning with a retired German couple who were finishing up their trip. We chatted about similarities and differences in our countries. They explained that when Germany reunited, some West Germans wouldn’t travel to what had been East Germany, thinking that there was nothing worth seeing. The couple thought that was foolish and shared what they had seen, recommending Dresden, should we ever visit.

The next B&B was located in a suburb of Halifax and was a modern home. The couple who hosted, Norma and Bill, were retired teachers. The room we stayed in reminded me of my parent’s bedroom in the house where I grew up. It had furniture that looked exactly like the Ethan Allen colonial style that Mom and Dad had, with the same drawer pulls. Norma and Bill’s bookcase was also crammed with history books, many familiar titles that sat on my Dad’s shelf, like Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. I felt at home immediately. The hosts also took great pride in their garden, which was clearly lovingly tended. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to truly enjoy it, but it added to the charm as we came and went.

Norma also offered helpful tips. When we mentioned that we were planning to go back to downtown Halifax to get dinner and listen to some live music, she suggested taking the ferry, rather than driving. The ferry made things much simpler and added to our experience. The weather was lovely for the ride across Halifax Harbour and we got to see the city from another angle.

 

The view from the ferry as we approached Halifax

The next two places we stayed weren’t B&Bs, but were inns, the main difference being that they didn’t include breakfast. We stayed in Cheticamp on Cape Breton Island, just outside the national park (a breathtakingly beautiful place). The hosts at Cheticamp Outback Inn were also welcoming. They gave us a great orientation to the town, including a rundown of places to eat (there were only four or five options since it is a very small town!). Since they didn’t provide breakfast at the inn, we were pleasantly surprised when, on our first morning, there was a knock on our door and one of the hosts delivered two slices of homemade lemon loaf to tide us over until we went into town. Yum!

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One of many spectacular views from Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Our B&B was just outside the park entrance

Our final stop was the Chipman Inn (Pratt House) in St. John, New Brunswick. It was located in the heart of downtown and did not have an onsite host. The building reminded me of a Brooklyn brownstone. The room was spacious and charming. We were two blocks from the waterfront, the sounds of live music and the cries of sea gulls added to the character of the place. Gary and I took a walk and found many restaurants and shops. I had not expected to find such a vibrant, hip neighborhood.

 

Two of the numerous painted salmon we found around St. John

Our trip to the Canadian maritime is now done, committed to memory. The scenery, the food, the history, the accommodations all exceeded our expectations. It also turns out that making conversation with strangers over breakfast can be fun, informative and enriching. We may have to reconsider our travel routine for our next trip. Bed and breakfasts may become the norm.

One preconception was confirmed: Canadians are very friendly.

A Treasure

I turned to Gary, “I’m in my happy place.” I felt giddy. We were walking through the Historical Gardens in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. I love gardens. I don’t know when this started for me but everywhere we go, if there is a botanical garden or other type of public green space (arboretum, outdoor sculpture garden, etc.) I am drawn to it. I want to visit – it is more appealing to me than most other tourist destinations. I am not a gardener myself, so I am not sure how to explain this, but I love them.

Whether it is the conservatory in Central Park in New York City, the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, the Chihuly exhibit in the New York Botanical Gardens, I feel a deep satisfaction looking at the meeting of nature and man. People have planted and tended these gardens and then nature puts on an awesome display.

I love the walking, the scent (even my compromised nose could smell the fragrance today), the colors, the breeze (if there is one and somehow there usually is). Yesterday was a perfect day for our tour in Annapolis Royal. The sun was brilliant, no humidity, a strong breeze to keep us cool, but not too cool. The idea behind this garden was to take us through the history of the area using gardens to show the changes in the region. Our tour guide was excellent, quite knowledgeable. We learned of the competing cultures – originally there was a First Nation tribe, then French settlers (who lived harmoniously with the indigenous people), then the British (who deported the French and were at odds with the local tribe), then the French attempted to reclaim the area. Some things never change – war, deportations, immigrants struggling to make a life. All of this told through the gardens. With the splendor around us, I didn’t get bogged down in the negative, though. Everywhere I looked I saw something gorgeous. Here is a small sampling, though my photography skills don’t do it justice.

 

I can’t think of a better way to spend the day. On the walk back to our bed and breakfast, we stopped in several art galleries. I bought a few things – a magnet to remember the trip, some postcards to send the kids, a couple of gifts for those who are watching our cats. The kind of shopping I enjoy!

As we walked, Gary commented that San Diego would be jealous of the weather. He was exactly right. There aren’t too many times or places where that can be said. Then to top it off we watched a lovely sunset, chatting with a likeable couple from Florida who were staying at our B&B.

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sunset on the Annapolis River

Whatever the rest of our vacation week brings, this was a day to be treasured.

Friendship

When I arrived on campus at SUNY-Binghamton in August of 1976, I was 16 and emotionally fragile. I emerged from the disaster that was junior high school and had grown more socially competent through high school, but I was still a bundle of insecurity. Plus, though I didn’t understand this about myself yet, I was prone to depression.

Thankfully, when I moved in to Cayuga Hall, I met Merle. It isn’t really correct to say that I met her because that implies that I didn’t know her before. Merle went to my high school and we were in many of the same classes. But Merle was out of my league. She had a posse of friends. She was captain of the booster squad, co-leader of Arista (the honor society), in the top ten in our class. [Editor’s note: since I posted this, Merle called to thank me and also to correct me. She was not captain of the booster squad! She was just a member of it. I stand corrected. :)] She was pretty, petite and seriously smart. I may have given myself partial credit for being smart – at least in English and Social Studies (my grades in math and science were very average), but I was none of those other things. In fact, feeling unfeminine and unattractive was my Achilles heel.

So, though I knew Merle, at the same time, I really didn’t. Imagine my surprise when we bonded over our shared struggle to acclimate to campus life during college orientation. Thus, began a beautiful friendship.

I learned there was a reason Merle had so many friends. She listened attentively, she empathized, offered great insights and gave useful suggestions. And to top it off, we laughed our asses off. We took one class together – Anthropology. One time we disrupted the class with our laughter, the professor stopped and glared at us. We tried to rein it in.

I came to college so young and inexperienced – in every sense of the word. I was wound up pretty tight, afraid to try things. Merle was a whole six months older, maybe not much in the scheme of things, but she had a much more adventurous spirit. I needed to loosen up and she helped me do that.

Much of our time, in the beginning, was spent commiserating about our roommates. Both of us were tripled; both of us were in a dorm room that wasn’t connected to a floor (the door to our rooms opened to the outside – hers on the first floor, mine in the basement). One of her roommates was quite beautiful and knew it. She lounged naked. She entertained her boyfriend at night, thinking her roommates were asleep. Merle wasn’t. It made for lots of things for us to discuss, and more to laugh about.

We signed up to be trained as counselors for High Hopes, an on campus help line that mostly gave referrals to students if they had questions or problems. Merle, I think, had already decided to be a psych major. I thought it would be interesting and believed it was an important service. The training was great. They taught us to reflect (using Carl Roger’s approach) when listening to someone’s issues because it helped the caller to clarify what they were thinking and feeling. That was one of the most valuable skills I learned in college.

We also attended a lecture about homosexuality as part of the training. It was 1977, before AIDS, before gay characters were on television, most lived in the closet – mothers were still being blamed for it. The lecture opened our eyes to something we knew very little about. A mutual friend of ours was in the process of coming out. In fact, Merle’s older brother, came out to her around that time. I went with Merle to visit him in San Francisco in June of 1978. I have great memories of that trip. I learned so much about opening my mind and heart to differences. He took us to the Castro, and though I wouldn’t have articulated it quite this way at the time, I began to understand that love is love is love….

We also went camping in Yosemite. I had seen mountains beyond the Catskills when I went with my parents to Rocky Mountain National Park years before, but Yosemite Valley and the majestic Sequoias were sights to behold. Merle’s brother and his friends brought food, but it was mostly vegetarian. While it all tasted good, Merle and I snuck off to share a ham and cheese sandwich when we were at the gift shop. We were kindred spirits even if we inhabited very different bodies.

 

 

I write this today because yesterday was Merle’s 60th birthday. I am happy and proud to say that we are still friends. Through the loss of parents, the birth of children, the ups and downs of marriage and career, we have shared a lot. I still rely on her empathetic ear, her insights, her suggestions and her laughter. I hope I have returned the same.

I have learned countless lessons from my friendship with Merle. Not the least of which is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. All those years ago I was intimidated by the cover. It turned out that while she is all of those things, popular, beautiful, petite, and smart, she is also warm, kind, vulnerable and funny. Here’s to continuing to celebrate life’s milestones and being there for each other during life’s challenges. Happy birthday, my friend!

 

A Very Educational Trip

Whose fault was it? Gary’s or mine? I’m actually not sure. When we’ve told the story over the years, Gary has taken the blame. But I’m not sure that’s how it went. It doesn’t matter because the outcome was the same. We were almost stranded on a Sunday evening, in the middle of a national forest in Oregon, but with luck and the kindness of a stranger, we were rescued.

Gary and I took this trip in June of 1982. I had just finished my master’s program, before I started a full-time job, and before he heard that he was accepted to medical school. We planned it meticulously.  Gary had not yet been west of Amish country in Pennsylvania. I had traveled a bit more, as I have written about previously, with my family, but was hardly experienced. In celebration of my completing graduate school. we decided to go California. We would fly out to San Francisco, rent a car and do a loop, first heading south (but not as far as LA), then going north (up to Crater Lake, Oregon), then back down to the Bay Area.

Gary and I went to a travel agent recommended by his parents to plan the trip. In those days, I think you had to use an agent to get airline tickets. Maybe you could call a particular airline on the phone and make a reservation, but it was confusing and time consuming to compare schedules and prices. We didn’t have the tools we have now to do our own research. We were young and inexperienced. In short, we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t even have a credit card.

The agent was very helpful. We got a package deal that included two nights in a nicer hotel. We decided to use those nights during our stay in San Francisco. She knew we were traveling on a tight budget and she told us about Motel 6 – the cheapest place to stay, other than camping. We weren’t campers. We planned our itinerary, taking advantage of the all the Motel 6’s that we could find. We flew to San Francisco, drove as far south as Monterey, then east and north to Yosemite, on to Lake Tahoe, then Crater Lake in Oregon, and finally back down to the Bay Area. We made the loop in one week.

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Gary’s first experience of the Pacific Ocean – Pacific Grove, CA 1982

The trip was memorable for so many reasons. We learned we were compatible travelers: enjoyed the same level of hiking (easy), interest in the same sites, on the same page as far as our budget for activities and food. Early on we bought a large Styrofoam cooler and filled it with ice at each motel stop. We bought breakfast and lunch supplies. Once, in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of the Redwood forest, we were chased back into the car by aggressive blue jays when we were picnicking. We were both cowards (hence the preference for a cheap motel over camping).

We had more success picnicking next to the Merced River in Yosemite. It was late Spring and the river was very high, white water rushing by, cooling and freshening the air as it went. I stored that memory, the pine scent, the sound of the water cascading over the rocks, and called upon it in Lamaze class years later. When asked to go to a peaceful place as part of the exercise, even though the water was anything but peaceful, I imagined our time next to the river. I felt relaxed and happy there.

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The Merced River in Yosemite National Park – June 1982

I wasn’t so relaxed on that late Sunday afternoon returning from Crater Lake. We saw signs for a natural bridge – formed from lava – in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It was about 4:00 and we were heading to Medford about 60 miles away. We took the opportunity to see something interesting. We pulled into the parking area, there were only a couple of cars. Locked the car – we are New Yorkers, after all, and our valuables were in it. We took the short hike to the bridge and wandered around. After about an hour, we went back to the car.

Gary asked, “Do you have the car keys?”

“No, I thought you had them.”

Gary was patting his pockets, then turning them inside out. I did the same. No keys.

Uh oh.

We walked over to the car and looked to see if the keys were still inside. Nope.

We head back the way we came, scanning the forest floor for keys, hoping the fading sun might catch the metal of the key. No luck.

Now it is about 6:00.

We go back to the car and look for ways to get in. We do manage to pop the lock.

Gary and I are good kids – we have no idea how to hotwire a car.

A couple of hikers pass by and we flag them down – explain our situation. They were as clueless as we were

We remembered that we passed a small town – and when I say a small town, I mean SMALL. Union Creek, Oregon. There was only one shop, but fortunately it was a gas station. We walked there, hoping it will be open, even though it is after six on a Sunday. It isn’t.

But, there is a pay phone. I call information and get the number of the rental car agency. After some more phone calls, fortunately we had change, I learn that if we get the car towed to an AMC dealership (we were driving an AMC Gremlin), they can make a copy of the key. They tell me there is a dealership in Medford. That was the good news.

Now, how do we get the car there? Gary and I assess the situation. We look around the gas station and notice there is a house right next door. Out of options, we knock.

Clearly, luck was with us. The owner of the gas station lived there and had a tow truck!!! He was willing to tow us the 60 miles to Medford for $100!  That was a lot of money to us, but we were in no position to negotiate – we were grateful. In retrospect, even considering inflation, it was more than fair. I think he took pity on us.

I don’t remember his name, I do remember his kindness. We climbed into the cab of the truck, chatted along the way, and took many deep breaths of relief. He deposited the car on the lot of the dealership. We said our good-byes, thanking him many times over. We walked to the Motel 6 and tried to sleep.

I called the dealership first thing in the morning to find out when they opened. We were there when they did. The rental car agency had given me the code for the key and they were able to make a copy.

We were back on the road again in no time.

Aside from learning we were compatible travelers during that trip, we got through a stressful situation without killing each other. I don’t remember either of us blaming the other, I think we behaved pretty well. Of course, I could be telling myself a story, but I tend to think it is true, since we are still together 38 years later to tell the tale. Perhaps Gary would care to comment?