The General

We all went to see The General at The Cabot, back by a live musical performance.

The General is (very loosely) based on a real-life train theft during the Civil War, but it’s played to some drama and comedy by a prime Buster Keaton.

The true story is that a group of Union spies stole a Confederate train (which was, in fact, named The General) with a plan to damage the rails and generally cause mayhem on their way back to friendly territory.  It didn’t quite work out as planned because they were pursued and (eventually) caught.

The cinematic version takes a few artistic liberties to entertain and “wow” the audience with stunts, as well as adding a love interest and a human side.  It’s considered one of Mr. Keaton’s finest works, and “[he] always said that this was his favorite of his own movies.” (source)  It’s an amazing film to watch, moreso when you realize that the stunts were real, frequently filmed in one take, and as hazardous in real life as they are in the story.

The film that we watched was from a restoration made in 2016, with a new musical arrangement that was played live.  The quality of the film is very good, better than the gif above, while live music accompaniment is the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

The Cabot is a restored theater in downtown Beverly, MA.  It contains many of the artistic features one would expect from a classic venues.  We had center seats and a great view.  This was our first visit, but won’t be our last.

Photo: © Lauren Poussard

Neil Gaiman in NYC

Meghan gave me an awesome Christmas present: tickets to see Neil Gaiman read from his latest book, Norse Mythology at The Town Hall on February 9, 2017 in New York City.  She only purchased two tickets and it’s a Thursday night.  Too bad kids — you’re staying home!  (We arranged for our neighbor’s adult daughter Sam to stay with the girls for the night).

looking up the aisle on the trainAs the day approached I watched the weather forecasts with growing interest.  Snow was forecast for Thursday, the day of the event and the day we planned to travel to NYC.  By Tuesday the forecast was clear: snow, and possibly a blizzard.  Driving to NYC was out of the question, and flying would be problematic as well.  We have easy access to trains, though, assuming they would run in a blizzard.

The storm could not wait to arrive and it was snowing hard by the time we left the house for our local train stop.  In order to head south on Amtrak, we take commuter rail from our house to Boston’s North Station, the subway (or walk when the weather is nice, which is to say not this time) from North Station to South Station, and pick up Amtrak there.  The Amtrak train was scheduled to depart at 11:15, so we left the house by 9 am to catch everything on time.  As usual, we forgot a few minor things like toothbrushes, and had to purchase them when we got there.

pink unicorns
We watched people skating at the park for a while, until the pink unicorns came out — then it was time to leave.

Amazingly enough, train service ran perfectly despite being a real, legitimate, certified blizzard.  We had periods where we could not see the landscape at all, but the train continued to rock along at 100+ mph (verified via Waze on Meghan’s phone).  The ride from South Station to Penn Station is about 4 ½ hours.

By the time we got to NYC the snow had wound down, though it continued to snow back home for another six hours.  The streets were messy and wet, with snow piled up at every corner.  The hotel is only a few blocks from Penn Station, a few blocks from Times Square, and a few blocks from The Town Hall — NYC is great that way.

meghan at beer authority
I still wonder what she’s thinking here

We ate dinner around the corner from our hotel at the Beer Authority. The food was yummy, the beer selection is well-curated, and we had a very enjoyable time.  (I thoroughly enjoyed a Founders Porter and Meghan tried a Timmerman’s Strawberry Lambic that was surprisingly tasty.)

top of the empire state building at night
We popped out of the hotel, went around the corner, and had a (relatively) great view of the Empire State Building

We killed a little more time before the show by wandering the local neighborhood.  Times Square is always blindingly bright, but within a few blocks are much nicer views.

Finally, the main event: Neil Gaiman.  “Norse Mythology” was finished some time before the 2016 election, and every story in it is a faithful retelling of stories from the original eddas, but the story he chose to read was eerily appropriate: a book about the gods building a wall around Asgard to keep the ice giants out.   The reading was followed by a pair of previews, one for the American Gods miniseries (based on his excellent book), and one for a movie adaptation of an old story of his, How to Talk to Girls at Parties.  Finally, he came back out with Ophira Eisenberg for a Q&A session.  Mr. Gaiman is, by turns, very thoughtful and very funny.  Despite the cramped seats made for midgets with abnormally short legs we really enjoyed ourselves.

Neil Gaiman on stage
Neil Gaiman. He read a segment from his latest book, Norse Mythology, about building a wall around Asgard

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and killed some more time waiting for our 11 am train.  We visited the Empire State Building’s lobby and checked out a few adjoining blocks.  Our train was delayed for nearly an hour due to “missing equipment”, but we got back to Boston by dark and back to our car by 6 pm.  (Rush hour on the subway is never fun, but all in all it wasn’t too bad.)  Glad to be home!

NYC 2016

nyc vs boston
Finding your way in NYC really is easier

Meghan and I like to keep our kids exposed to the cultural world, giving them a cosmopolitan worldview.  I chose a job near Boston in part to allow frequent trips into the city.  But one city isn’t enough to give them a breadth of experience.

We took an overnight trip to New York City during February school vacation.  Discovery Times Square is currently exhibiting The Vikings, which is of particular interest to Meghan and Alpha.  (That isn’t to say there isn’t interest from me and Beta, they’re just that much more keen.)  Meghan found a great deal on motel rooms (the girls are old enough now that we need two) right by Times Square at Four Points by Sheraton.  The view wasn’t anything to write home about but the location can’t be beat: two blocks from Times Square.  The rooms were clean and neat, and the staff were bend-over-backwards friendly.  I would totally stay there again.

We drove down early Wednesday morning, dropping Butter off at Marty’s and picking up Meghan’s mom (aka Baba) on the way.  Baba loves going to NYC, she knows the lay of the land better than we do, and she’s a bit more adventurous than I am when the kids are around, so we invited her along.  She offered to share the kids’s room to keep costs down — and that provided peace of mind overnight, too.

Meghan yelled at me for this selfie. She insisted that it was inappropriate to do while making 75 mph on I-91.
Meghan yelled at me for this selfie. She insisted that it was inappropriate to do while making 75 mph on I-91.

We rolled into town around noon and got situated in the hotel with time to spare before our exhibit reservations.  We walked from the hotel and poked around Times Square for a few minutes.

woody and olaf
Click to expand

There were a pair of people in costume, one dressed as Woody from Toy Story and the other as Olaf from Frozen, soliciting tips.  They made their own costumes and don’t work for anyone but themselves, so Meghan got photos with each and tipped them a few bucks.

I continue to be amazed how many people are continually in New York City.  The crush of people feel like there’s an event going on somewhere, but it’s really just an every day occurrence.  Dozens of people at every crosswalk, hundreds of people on every sidewalk, all the time.  Boston has nothing on NYC.

alpha holding viking sword
Alpha holding a reproduction Viking sword

We made our way through the crowds to the exhibit and spent about an hour and a half learning about Vikings.  As an aside: the exhibit is self-paced and just about the right length.  They had a number of artifacts grouped into several themes about everyday life, instead of constructing a sequential historical narrative.

We waited to get lunch until after the exhibit so we were somewhat famished.  A few storefronts down from Discovery is a pizza and Italian restaurant called John’s of Times Square, located in a former church.  The adults had excellent pizza and the girls had excellent pasta.  It might have been a case of hunger making the best sauce, but probably not.

ulfbehrt sword
There’s a great NOVA episode about the “mystical” Ulfberht sword

After lunch we shopped around Times Square a bit.  Alpha bought a New York-emblazoned sweat shirt and Beta got a pin for her hat.  Baba noticed that Phantom of the Opera was playing right in front of us, so she bought three tickets for 8 o’clock that night.  Beta wasn’t interested and I was wiped from driving all day; we chose to stay in.

We wandered back to the hotel to rest up.  I had to step out in search of a pharmacy: we had a snafu when we left the house and forgot to pack our bathroom stuff.

meghan and alpha at phantom
Waiting for Phantom of the Opera to start

Our motel offers complimentary dinner stuffs on Wednesday nights.  We were just coming off of lunch, not particularly hungry, but the food was delicious. Free wine and beer, too!

We finished dinner and Beta and I headed up to our room to watch some TV and get ready for bed.  Meghan, Baba, and Alpha headed out to their show, and didn’t get back until after I was asleep — sometime after 10:30 pm.  They said they had a great time though!

We started the next day with an excellent breakfast buffet at the motel.  We seem to have a knack for choosing motels with great breakfasts; it really makes dollars stretch further if your breakfast is hearty when you’re traveling.

We decided that we could fit in one more museum visit before leaving town.  The American Museum of Natural History was on our way home and is always worth a visit.  We also considered the USS Intrepid but decided to save it for another visit so we can give it the amount of time it deserves.

wrong-way shadows
Notice the shadows. The sun is rising off to the right, but the cars are throwing shadows the wrong way. The strange beauty of a city made from glass.

We got in early and encountered almost no waiting to get into the parking garage and admissions line.  We had three destinations in mind: the dinosaurs, the blue whale, and the gift shop.  We got to see all three, in that order. The life-size blue whale model is stupendously large – and that’s after seeing the full-size apatosaurus for comparison.

baba and girls
Driving home (click to expand)

We made our way out of the city around 1 pm.  We didn’t want to get home too late, and the drive can take upwards of six hours with stops and detours to Willimantic and Hampton. The ride home was uneventful, traffic was mostly light and Waze didn’t let us down.  Butter the dog was very happy to see us when we picked her up, and I was extremely happy to sleep in my own bed.

Hills Home Delivery: Day 1

Oh dear god what have we done to ourselves.

freezer packed with food
Our first delivery from Hills Home Market

One of Meghan’s friends raves about a grocery delivery service called Hills Home Delivery.  After listening to their sales pitch, trying some sample food,  working out the costs, and checking reviews online, we wanted to give it a try ourselves.

Our first delivery came tonight.  This is several months worth of beef, chicken, pork, sausage, fish, and veggies, packed into a freezer in our basement.  There’s a turkey and some cookie dough, too.  Not pictured is several shelves of dry goods: pasta + sauce, flour, sugar, paper towels, and toilet paper.

This isn’t completely new to us, Meghan already buys her coffee and a few other things from Amazon, but wow that’s a lot of food all at once.

The delivery guys were friendly and professional, and pretty darn close to on-time. (Ten minutes late, but our delivery was scheduled for 5:30 pm — it’s night-time dark already, and rush-hour traffic is in full swing.  I don’t consider that ‘late’.)

On paper, this looks like we should be spending the same or less on food than we’re spending now — and we can cut out a bunch of time at the grocery the store.  We’ll just need occasional trips for fresh things like dairy, eggs, and fruit.

Maine 2015

Backstory: a long time ago as the ice sheets from the latest ice age slowly receded, an island was carved out of the Maine coastline.  My father purchased a few acres of land shortly before humans showed up in North America to jack up the prices, intending to build a vacation home when modern building methods were developed.

Alpha, Beta, and Butter
Taking a quick break on the trail

A house never materialized but we made annual treks to the island, called Islesboro, for years while I was growing up.  After my parents lost interest, I occasionally went there on my own to go camping until finally I, too, got busy with life and stopped going.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, to last Sunday night in fact.  Meghan and I got to talking and we realized that we’re really only a short drive away from Islesboro nowadays– only about 3 ½ hours from door-to-ferry slip.  Why don’t we go?  So we booked a room for Friday night and started rearranging our schedules.

A little more backstory: When I used to go up by myself, I generally spent a my first night at a little motel on the mainland, just a mile from the ferry slip.  This motel was about as bare-bones as you can get: little cabins with a clean bed and a shower, and if I recall correctly it was about $25 / night back then.  They family that owned it made you breakfast in the morning (Best blueberry pancakes I’ve ever had.)

The hotel is still there, under new ownership and a new name but still relatively inexpensive – and still clean and comfortable.  They also accept dogs, so we could bring Butter instead of trying to board her on short notice.

We left mid-day Friday, after I finished up my tasks and morning meetings at work — my employer offers some scheduling flexibility and I put in a number of extra hours over the course of the week to make sure my promised deliverables were deliverable (I have to explicitly mention this since some of my co-workers may actually read this blog).

Meghan, WW1 memorial tower
Megh standing near the peak of Mt. Battie. The tower is a memorial to the soldiers of ‘The Great War’, dated 1921.

The trip was rainy as hell on the way up.  We detoured into Freeport to visit the LL Bean store — even if you’ve been to a L. L. Bean store, it’s not as big as the L. L. Bean store.  The girl-folk went inside to procure winter jackets for the kids, while I took a nap in the car and walked Butter around in between squalls.  (Did I mention I’ve been staying up late all week to get stuff done?)

Hiking Mt. Battie
Hiking upwards on the Tablelands Trail, Mt. Battie

We arrived in Lincolnville around 5:30 pm.  The rain was still coming down and occasionally pouring, but the breaks were getting longer.  After settling into our room, and letting everyone (including Butter) stretch their legs a bit, we headed back up to the road to downtown Camden in search of dinner.

We found a nice tavern, away from the main drag, called the Smokestack Grill.  Not much ambiance inside — it looks a bit like a sports bar with large TVs over the bar — but the building is an old mill so there’s architectural interest.  I had a jalapeño cream cheese and bacon burger, Meghan had calamari, and the girls split a fried shrimp dinner.  The bill was quite reasonable, our server was attentive and friendly, and the food was delicious.  Butter, sadly, stayed in the car and waited for us.

Afterwards we went back to our room and got ready for bed – except me, I stayed up until the rain stopped so Butter could get in a short walk — she is a princess and doesn’t like to get wet, and sleeping in close quarters with a wet dog is not high on my list of things to do.  I  didn’t have to wait too long, and we were all in bed early.  There’s something about travelling that just makes you tired, even if you’re sitting in the car all day.

Saturday morning was sunny but really breezy and chilly.  The kids were divided on whether or not to go to the island, so I cast the deciding vote: no, the seas are rough and I don’t want to spend $70 to have two seasick kids and a sick dog – we’ll come back for that.  Lets go do something else this time.

Right up the road, between the motel and downtown Camden, is a state park called Camden Hills State Park / Mt. Battie.  We drove in, paid our fee, found a place to park, and went hiking up the ‘Tablelands Trail.’  It takes you right up to one of the peaks, which overlooks both the Penobscot Bay and downtown Camden, from nearly 800 feet up.

After playing around on the peak for while, and after the clouds started playing peek-a-boo with the sun, we headed back down to find some hot chocolate in Camden to warm us up.  The breeze was making us chilly even when we were ascending on the trail, so without the sun we got downright cold.

Camden starts to shut down before October, so while a majority of shops were still open there were a few that have already closed for the season.  We window-shopped and walked around downtown for an hour, and hit the road for one last stop down Route 1.

Maine State Prison showroom
The Maine State Prison “showroom” for prisoner-made woodcraft. The store is still staffed by prisoners and prison guards. The items inside are made with impressive quality, including furniture that is as nice as a high-end store (but much lower cost)

For whatever faults the Maine prison system may have, they maintain an intriguing program of teaching trades to prisoners, including woodworking.  The finished products are then sold to the public.

I’ve been stopping at the Prison Store in Thomaston for as long as I’ve been going to Maine.  The last time I was there was in 2001, and the store was still attached to a working prison; in 2002 the prison was closed and subsequently torn down, but the store remains.

Unsurprisingly, we came out with some gifts for family and a few things for ourselves.

After Thomaston, we made a bee-line for Bath (home of the BFC – Big Friggen Crane – at the Bath Iron Works) and the interstates so that we would be home in time to make dinner.

All in all, it was a fun little jaunt, even if we didn’t actually step foot on the island.  Next time I think I’ll try to just take the day off instead of squeezing five days worth of work into four.

Penobscot Bay
Over looking Penobscot Bay – Islesboro is the big island in the middle, stretching the width of the picture. If you click to view the full-size version you can see the ferry.
View of Camden from Mt Battie
Looking down on Camden from Mt. Battie. There is a trail that descends from here into town, which looks like it might be a good hike for next time. The color is a little washed out because we’re pointed right into the light.
SE view from Mt. Battie
Taken from the tower on Mt. Battie, looking off to the south east.
View of Mt Megunticook from Mt Battie
Mt. Battie isn’t the highest peak in the park, it merely has the best view. Mt. Megunticook stands 400′ higher — I think I’d like to tackle that next time.