The Terrible Importance of Coffee and Cakes

In visiting various churches throughout the summer I was surprised by many things. Different traditions, different demographics, different scriptural interpretations. But nothing was more shocking or outlandish than the complete absence of Coffee Hour nationwide. For those of you who were not raised with such a tradition, Coffee Hour is the social time immediately following the service. Everyone goes to another part of the church (usually referred to as the Parish Hall) to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with a selection of cookies and treats brought in by whatever group of parishioners had signed up to bring treats that week. Growing up, this was an absolutely crucial part of church to me. Coffee Hour is the time when I talked with the other people in the community. It was when little kids sold wrapping paper for their school fundraisers, and when everyone got to enjoy a store-bought cake decorated to celebrate whatever birthday or anniversary was just around the corner.

At my current church, Coffee Hour sometimes takes on a life of its own, featuring such feasts as chili cheese dogs or sushi or red beans and rice. But even the smallest Episcopal congregations I’ve visited in my life manage to put together a nice loaf of banana bread and a coffee percolator. But I went to churches all across the country and found nothing. The entire summer I went to exactly one Coffee Hour, and it was at the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle.

When every day involves a journey of 200 miles, it can be hard to find time for church. After my Saturday in Portland I knew I wanted to attend a Sunday service, but I was also in a hurry to get to Acadia National Park. I woke up early to pack up my campsite, and I started down the road. My plan was to drive until about 9:40AM, then start looking for church signs. Most churches have their main service between 10AM and 11:30AM, and I figured eventually I would see a sign for a service that started in 5-15 minutes. That’s where I would go to church.

It was 9:45AM when I saw a church with the main doors open to the street. There were bells ringing and an usher at the door. A small sign pointed to the parking lot. I figured it wouldn’t get any easier or more obvious than this, and I pulled into the lot. I threw a skirt on over my shorts, which had become my standard practice at unknown churches. I never know what kind of place I’m walking into and what the dress code will be, but I know most people won’t take issue with a young woman in a skirt, so long as it covers her knees.

Three different people greeted me as I walked in and took my seat. The building was sparsely decorated but full of small touches. There was an instrumental prelude, and an old man with a box of matches waddled up to light the candles at the front. I saw on the front of my program that I was visiting the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle, which is part of the United Church of Christ. A few gathering words were spoken, followed by a hymn. An older woman carried a notebook up to the front. She had short, brown hair and red-rimmed glasses. She performed a solo for the congregation, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” She had a lovely voice, but it seemed strange to me because of my previous association with the song. I’d only ever heard Lauryn Hill sing it. In comparison to the emotional, gospel tone of Ms. Hill, the woman in the red-rimmed glasses seemed so rigid, so clear, so proper. I imagined my grandmother singing a cover of “Killing Me Softly” and smiled.

After the sermon there was a second solo, followed by the closing hymn. I went downstairs to attend my beloved coffee hour, and found the parish hall filled with brownies and blueberry muffins. I stuck up a conversation with a little old lady whose voice was high and delicate and reminded me of a famous actress, though I wasn’t sure which one exactly. Her eyes got wide when I told her about my journey, and she pulled another person into our conversation. A few seconds later she ducked away, and soon the gossip was spreading through the whole room and people kept coming up to me to hear my story.

And that’s when I experienced another first. I tend to get asked a lot of the same questions when I tell my story. But one of the first people I spoke with during Coffee Hour at Second Congregational managed to ask me a question I had never heard before:

“What can we do to help?”

I was so surprised I didn’t have an answer. I still didn’t have an answer a few minutes later when a completely different parishioner asked the same thing. Eventually I suggested that they take my card and contact me if they knew anyone I could stay with on my way back towards Seattle. They smiled when I explained that I hadn’t heard of their church at all before today, and that I simply stopped because they were starting the service when I happened to be driving by. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and when I came back out I saw a pair of women loading up a collection of brownies, cookies, and muffins into some tin foil. They handed me Ziplock bags full of extra veggies as well as some cheese and crackers, insisting it was the least they could do.

I have met some wonderful people on my journey. I’ve been invited into the homes of complete strangers. I’ve had men I didn’t know stop to fix my tires. I’ve had families give me a chair to sit on and a beer to drink. I’ve experienced some fantastic examples of humanity on my trip. But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so genuinely welcomed as I did at Second Congregational. And it all comes down to that one question: What can we do to help? We would all do well to make such a sentiment central to our lives, and I think churches have a duty to do so. It has been pointed out that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. I have never felt the benefit of being a non-member so strongly as I did in that little basement parish hall in Maine – a place I only found because the timing was right.

Portland as Seen from the World Wide Web

Welcome to MaineSome cities on my route I approach with no connection. I’m not staying with anyone, I don’t know anyone, no one has given me any recommendations. This was the case with Portland, Maine. I snagged the last open campsite at a campground just north of the city, and drove into town the next morning. With no real humans to turn to for advice, I was forced to rely on the top attractions listed on Trip Advisor.

The first stop on my list was the Maine Jewish Museum, which is inside the Etz Chaim Synagogue. I parked a block away, walked up to the door, and found it to be locked. This is when it occurred to me that I’d shown up on the sabbath, and of course it wouldn’t be open. I often lose track of the days of the week when I travel, because for me there is no such thing as a weekend. However I’ve come to realize that my sudden abandonment of the regular workweek hasn’t effected the rest of the world, and I should try to stay aware if I’d like to do such things as visit a religious institution or book a hotel room last minute on a Saturday night.

Victoria MansionI moved on to the next spot on my list, the Victoria Mansion. This large and beautiful building was built in the 1860s and is 97% original. Please take a moment to consider the likelihood of a 150-year-old, fully-furnished building being 97% original. The man who first commissioned the home was a wealthy hotelier from New Orleans. Construction was complete right at the start of the civil war, and the family ended up stuck in the South for several years, unable to see their new home. Even after that, the Portland mansion was only a vacation home, and the docent explained that if the family was going to be in Portland for less than a week, they wouldn’t bother to open up the house and hire servants. They’d just get a hotel room. When the hotelier’s widow decided to get rid of the home many years later, it was sold completely intact, right down to the silverware. The new family continued to use fine china bearing someone else’s monogram for many years, which is why all those pieces were still there when the building was turned into a museum.

Flatbread CompanyAfter the mansion tour I opted to grab some lunch at the Flatbread Company, which was highly recommended by the type of people who write restaurant reviews online. I sat at the bar and an attractive blond bartender with slightly shaggy hair asked me if I’d been there before. I told him I hadn’t, and he explained that they used all local ingredients, everything was farm-fresh and in-season, and that if I turned around I could see that all meals are cooked in plain view in their open, brick-oven kitchen “so you can see nothing weird is going on with your food.” After he explained the Farmer’s Market Salad and the special Shepard’s Pie Flatbread Pizza I started to wonder how much Portland, Maine had in common with Portland, Oregon.

After eating way too much food, I parked the car along the Eastern Promenade and began to walk. I walked down to the beach to see the boats and the children. I walked past the canoe rentals and onto the bike path. After about 45 minutes I walked past the foul-smelling water treatment plant and began to wonder if I should have turned around already. I got to the far end of the promenade and my endurance was rewarded with a shady, wooded return path on the upper side of the park to get me back near my car.

Old Dock copyFull of food and tired of walking, I laid down in the shade and took a nap of indeterminate length. I was reminded of my solo travels in Europe, which seemed to always involve me getting tired and falling asleep in the sunshine on the grassy knoll of a public park. After my nap I returned to the city for some highly recommended gelato and a walk down Commercial Street. Back at my campsite and tired from my day of walking, I opted to skip the campfire and go to bed at sundown.

Before I DieSo that was Portland. There was certainly something poetic about being there, a place I always considered to be the very last bit of civilization before the country dropped off into the northeastern ocean. Nothing too insightful happened in Portland, but that may be because I wasn’t helped by humans. Instead I was directed by the Internet. There is a huge dip in quality when you allow the faceless, nameless masses to put in their two cents. You miss the sense of purpose that you get from a real person offering advice. The fact is, even if it’s just a recommendation from a waitress you met in New Mexico when you stopped for a piece of pie, every suggestion offered by a single, living, breathing human will ultimately be more fulfilling than anything Yelp can ever provide.

A Real Writer

Library FountainA strange thing happened while I was visiting Boston. Regular readers of this blog will know that these posts are no longer in real-time, and that by the time you read about an adventure here, I have long since moved on from it in the real world. This means that I was in Boston the day I published my post on the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

Occasionally I will get nervous before publishing. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes I worry that I’m making too bold a statement, and that perhaps I haven’t thought it through enough first. I worry that people will read it and instantly point out all the holes in my argument I never considered. The WBC post was my first big post of this nature, my first post to really make an argument. It was also about a very controversial subject. A subject that inspires the worst in people. And I was suggesting a position I hadn’t heard put forth by anyone else. I was very worried.

Words and PhrasesBecause I almost always publish between 7AM and 8AM Pacific Standard Time, the post didn’t show up until after 10AM in Boston. By then I was on my way to the Boston Public Library near Copley Square. I had been told by friends that the library was worth checking out, and I found it to be a large and lovely place in which to get lost. After wandering in and out of the hallways for some time, I made it my mission to find the rare books section. It was somewhere up on the third floor and in a corner. I went back and forth, up and down. Not all of the elevators reached all of the floors. Not all of the floors were continuous. As I walked I started to wonder how people were reacting to my post. I finally reached the reading area right in front of the rare books section and pulled out my phone to check the responses on Facebook. A few of my friends had hit the Like button. Whew. At least I wasn’t completely crazy.

PuppetsThere were different levels of rare to the rare books section. The first seemed to be books that were generally interesting and old, but not fragile. The room wasn’t remarkably different than others in the building. Off to the side was a collection of old marionettes in glass cases. To get to the next section, I had to go through through a glass door. This was no ordinary door. It was the sort that seals completely when closed in order to maintain the temperature of the room behind it. This was the main section of rare books. The lighting was very dim. A woman was seated at a desk, explaining in whispers what they had in their catalog to a pair of patrons. Everything was delicate. Everything was unusual. They were featuring works by Daniel Defoe, including first editions of Robinson Crusoe from 1719. Behind another glass door was a third room, but this one was available by appointment only, and only to researchers. You couldn’t casually look at the books in that room. You had to prove yourself first.

I left the rare books area and went back out into the reading section. I couldn’t help it – I checked my phone again. There were a few more Likes, and now some Shares. My friends were saying very complimentary things about the post. What a relief.

Copley SquareI walked back out of the library, taking a quick detour to the map room because maps are great. I walked across the street into Copley Square and took a photo of two women taking photos of a turtle sculpture. The square was a nice open respite from the large, imposing city buildings. I saw a small fountain off to the side of the square, the shallow kind that kids will jump around in when the weather becomes too hot to bear. I sat on the edge of the fountain to take in a bit of sunshine. I pulled out my phone again. I read more feedback, now from strangers. People I didn’t know were sharing what I had written. People I didn’t know were complimenting me on it. I laid down and smiled.


I know many writers suffer from a sort of perpetual doubt, myself included. No matter what people say or how many times you hear it, there will always come those days when you think what you’ve written is not good enough. One might even say it’s what makes you into a good writer – the obsessive need to improve what you’ve created for fear that it is secretly worthless. I have received compliments on my writing before, and I can only hope I will receive them again in the future. But on that post, I actually got people talking. I got people arguing. Shirley Phelps tweeted about me, which was something I didn’t even realize was on my bucket list until it happened. No one pays me for what I do. I’ve never had anything traditionally published. I am still a beginner, an amateur. But on that day, leaning back onto the warm stone of Copley Square, I felt like a real writer.

The Boston Challenge: Part Two

Harvard GatesFor my second day in Boston I wanted to visit Harvard. I looked up the tour times and caught a train I thought would get me there just in time for the 10AM tour. When I arrived at Harvard Square Station I only had a few minutes to find the Harvard Info Center where the tours were supposed to take place. I took off immediately in one direction, but quickly realized I was going the wrong way. I began to speed-walk the other way and had gone a good four blocks before realizing that I was right the first time. I turned around and picked up the pace. I caught sight of the Info Center and practically ran through the doors and up to the woman at the counter as the clock struck ten.

“Unfortunately all our guides are students and we’re between quarters right now,” she told me. “Our summer tours ended yesterday.”


“Do you have a smart phone?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said out of breath and masking my disappointment.

“There’s a free audio tour you can download if you’d like,” she said with a smile. “It will take you all over Harvard Yard.” I thanked her and ducked into the hall to download the guide.

Harvard ChapelI followed my phone as it led me from building to building in the area I had so quickly ran past just a few minutes earlier. I listened as the polite voice explained the history of the structures and their uses. I couldn’t go inside any of the buildings, but the yard itself was littered with chairs for the tired student and/or tourist. As a professional tour group went by I overheard a young women explaining that the chairs were Harvard’s solution to the fact that they don’t really have a student lounge anywhere. My audio guide told me I could go inside the chapel, but there was a funeral going on and the place was surrounded by security guards tasked with keeping out lookie-loos like me. I found a set of steps nearby and took a few minutes to rest in the sunshine.

Big ChessI’m not really sure what I was hoping to get out of a visit to Harvard, but whatever is was I didn’t find it. I suppose it holds some strange Ivy League mystique, as through you will show up and magically look through the past at the hundreds of brilliant people who have passed through its gates. But in the end, it’s just a school. The same old buildings that undoubtably feel too far apart in the winter when it’s cold and you’re rushing to class. The same prospective student tours parading through. The same silence inside buildings when you’re in between academic quarters. And while I’m sure the education one gets at Harvard lives up to the reputation, in the end, the reputation is what it’s all about. That’s why it’s in our consciousness. That’s why you’ve heard of it. But you can’t really visit a reputation. You can’t get off the train and take a look at renown. Harvard is just a collection of buildings, the sort you might find at any old and decently-funded institution. I went to a public school on the West Coast. There was ivy growing on our walls, too.

By recommendation I went to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch. I sat at the counter and, like at lunch the day before, I was served by a man who seemed to own the place. The logo in the window was a clover leaf, and a sign above the cooking areas said “Irish NEED NOT Apply.”

Boston Tea PartyHaving completed my short tour of the Harvard area, I caught the train back into town to visit the site of the Boston Tea Party. Like happens sometimes, there is a highly visible area commemorating the event with a museum, a reconstruction of a ship, and plenty of ways for tourists to spend their money. However the actual spot in which the city has erected a plaque (and the site of the real event), is set off to the side and around the corner. In fact it’s a bit difficult to find the Boston Tea Party Plaque. It’s attached to a seemingly arbitrary building with no other stores or signs around it. But I suppose that’s what happens sometimes with historical locations. Simply because the area was important once doesn’t mean it can or will stay that way. In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the actual shipping dock no longer exists at all, having long since been replaced by more useful docks in other locations.

MassacreIn contrast, the site of the Boston Massacre is in the middle of a still busy and thriving intersection. It makes sense, as people rarely form mobs in out-of-the-way locations. The Boston Massacre is marked by a decorative ring on the ground, and is as easy to miss as the Tea Party sign for the complete opposite reason. A person could miss the Tea Party marker because it’s off to the side. A person could miss the Massacre ring because it’s so central. The intersection is packed and moving at all times, and it’s easy to let your eye move onto one of the impressive nearby buildings or an eclectic passerby.

I crossed the city to Newbury Street to see the shops. Shopping holds little interest for me normally, and no interest for me while traveling. Still, it’s sometimes fun to see the ways different stores appeal to different cities. I never miss an opportunity to slip into a comic book shop, and I saw a sign for one on Newbury. To my surprise, there were almost no comics in the entire store. Most comic book stores these days have large selections of related merchandise, and many make more money selling Superman action figures than Superman comics, but I’d never seen such an extreme example. I managed to find an aisle or two of comics in the back, and the rest of the store was music, movies, and clothing. I wondered what kind of transition such a place had to go through to start out as a comic book store but end up selling everything else. I wondered if they ever thought about changing the name.

Leif EricksonWith some effort I managed to find the statue of Leif Erickson on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Per instructions from a priest/judge I know, I stood in front of it and sang “I’m a Little Teapot.” I like to think of it as a sign of respect to the first European to land on North American soil.

It seemed a bit early for dinner, but I was too hungry to care. A friend had mentioned the “Daily Catch” in the north end, and I hopped on the train again. The restaurant was very small – there were only five tables. One such table was extra long and had one couple seated at the far end. I took a seat on the opposite end as it was the only space available. The menu was written on the wall in chalk. The one and only waitress said hello and, upon request, endorsed the black pasta with ground squid. By her tone I could tell she got asked the question a lot, and that she rarely had complaints after patrons followed her standard recommendation.

As she went to hand my order to the one and only cook, a family walked up to the restaurant door. The man asked the waitress how long they would have to wait for a table of four. She turned around to look at her five full tables and told him at least a half an hour. In normal circumstances the wait times given at restaurants seem very abstract. I always imagine a series of equations involving the flow of staff and the time it takes to turn over a table. Of course in reality these calculations that are based on guessing how long it takes people to eat dinner. When this waitress said the wait would be 30 minutes, I knew exactly which table she was thinking would be finished around that time. And the people at the table knew, too, since the restaurant was so small we could all hear the conversations she had at the door. I think most people understand intellectually that restaurants know how we eat better than we do, but there’s something strange about seeing a group of people and knowing you are the only reason they are still waiting.

Line out the DoorThe man’s wife took the kids across the street to pick up some pastries for later. More people got in line behind them. By the time I left the Daily Catch, there were more people in line than inside. I walked down the street to pick up a treat from Modern Pastry. They packaged it up in a box and wrapped it in string with the same quick dexterity I had witnessed the day before at Mike’s Pastry. On the train ride back to the hotel I checked my list. I was proud of all that I had managed to see, and mournful of all the things that had been left unseen. Should I have spent more time on the Freedom Trail? Was one scoop of ice cream at JP Licks really enough? Had the New England Aquarium really been worth the two hours I spent there, or should I have spent some time at M.I.T.?

AquariumThe problem with The Boston Challenge is that it goes on forever. Boston is a packed and beautiful city. There’s long history at The Old North Church and short history at Fenway Park. I think of it like Rome and Seattle. Some cities have too many nooks and crannies to ever get old. And even if they do, it’s so easy to find a new favorite park or restaurant or cafe. There’s always somewhere you want to go back to. And I will go back to Boston.

If nothing else, I still need to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees.

The Boston Challenge: Part One

I approached Boston as a sort of mission. I didn’t know anyone in the city, but I knew plenty of people who had lived there in the recent past. The day before I arrived, I posted a Facebook status asking for suggestions on how to spend two full days exploring Boston by myself. The response was overwhelming. I set out to experience as many of their suggestions as I possibly could.

Green MonsterI check into a nice hotel on the west end of the city, right off the subway line. The building is an old three-story walk up, clearly renovated from a previously wealthy home. The rooms are all named with titles meant to remind you that you are in Boston, such as John F Kennedy, Paul Revere, Boston Common, Constitution, and Old Bay State. Parking is at such a premium in the area that I have to pay extra to get a space in the back, and even then I am double parked and must leave my key at registration in case they need to move it later.

I settle into my room and start combing through the suggestions. I plot them out based on location and proximity to the subway stops. There is a collection of suggestions in the North End, and some more over near Harvard. Still more are in the area around The Common. I open tab after tab on my computer, trying to figure out the best route. An hour later I finally have a plan and I make my way to bed.

Boy at FenwayThe next day begins with a tour of Fenway Park. In an ideal world I would get to watch a Red Socks game in Fenway, preferably against the Yankees. Unfortunately chance hasn’t favored me in this regard, and the next home game won’t be for two more nights, at which point I am supposed to be setting up my tent in Maine. So the tour is the next best thing.

The tour group is huge, and the guide is old. He takes us from place to place, showing us the visitor’s locker room and the old bleachers. We sit in the seats placed on top of the Green Monster and learn how hard they are to acquire. There are, in fact, many seats in Fenway that one can only get via lottery because demand is so high. We hear over and over again how in 1947 Ted Williams hit the longest home run ever hit in Fenway. It’s marked by a special red seat, which is sold like any other ticket in the section.

Loge BoxI am surprised by how small the park is. I didn’t realize that its size is part of its legend and charm. I was expecting something huge and overpowering, but Fenway is about the small things, and the not-too-distant past.

I hop back on the train and make my way to The Commons, a beautiful public park that reminds me of Central Park in New York City. There are people sitting on blankets on every patch of grass, and ice cream carts attracting children on every corner. An old friend and fellow Episcopalian told me to check out St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I near the end of the park I see a prominent church on the corner and assume it must be St Paul’s. I am mistaken, but I wander inside anyway. It’s an old church, though it’s been restored. The design is simple and plain, and everything has been rebuilt over time. It’s hard to find the appeal in sitting somewhere that neither looks nor feels like it belongs to the past. I walk out, disappointed.

St. Paul'sI check my map again, sure I’m in the right place. I look all around but St. Paul’s is nowhere in sight. I begin to walk down the block, pulling out my phone every few feet to see if my tiny dot is going towards or away from the church’s tiny dot on the map. I circle around the entire block before ending up almost directly across from the church I was just in. I look up to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, hidden in plain site. It is massive and wedged right in with the rest of the big city buildings. It feels old and imposing, like the father’s bank in Mary Poppins. I walk inside.

View from the PewThe church is very dark. It looks as though it hasn’t been restored at all. Below each aisle seat the carpet is worn down to the wood, marking years of anxious parishioners taking the first spot available and tapping their feet during a lengthy service. There are cushions for kneeling, but they seem to be made of hard sand, making them only marginally more comfortable than the floor. A small Chinese woman with glasses is at the organ, practicing for Sunday. I find my way towards one of the older pew boxes in the back, the kind that still have doors. I sit and listen. We are the only two people in the cathedral.

After the cathedral I stop by the Copley Public Library, then walk over to The Esplanade for a leisurely stroll along the water. I see a few tourists unsuccessfully trying to windsurf on rented contraptions, and I watch their guide go from one tourist to the next, helping them get back upright. It is the first time my mind has ever considered the extremely difficult mechanics of windsurfing. Until this point it had been an activity strictly reserved for clipart and neon designs from the 1990s.

I’m starting to get hungry. My friends had made it clear that the North End was the place to eat, saying, “You can’t go wrong in the North End.” I get off the train and start walking up the street. I pass by many good-looking restaurants, and eventually step into a place called The Florentine Cafe for no specific reason at all. I take a seat at the bar, and the bartender hands me a menu. I find myself torn between two raviolis: a butternut squash and a lobster. I ask the bartender for his opinion, and he says without a doubt to get the lobster.

“Voted best lobster ravioli in town by Boston Magazine,” he tells me.

My plate comes out and the sauce is made of heaven itself. I have to fight the opposite urges to slowly savor each bite or to shove everything in my mouth at once. When the ravioli is gone I start lapping the sauce up with my bread, cursing myself for having eaten some of it as an appetizer with mere oil and vinegar.

I manage to pull my head up from my feast enough to witness the bartender transform into the owner. Vendor representatives keep coming up to the bar, each time having a small business meeting while the owner wipes down the glasses. A woman from the printing company has him approve the new menu layout, followed by a man who confirms the restaurant’s next order for drink supplies. A third rep comes in on behalf of a business I couldn’t quite catch, but he offers to do for $1200 what the bartender/owner had been paying $1300 for from another company. Sold.

Old North ChurchAfter lunch I stop by the Old North Church where, as usual, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. There is no entrance fee to see the church, and a laughably small fee if you’d like to get a guided tour. The Old North Church is famous for giving the signal to Paul Revere via lanterns in the window that the British would be arriving by sea rather than by land. While the real history does involve Revere and lanterns and a water attack, the true story is more complicated and less poetic than, well, the poem. Of course the church would be a site worth visiting even if the whole story was a complete fiction, since it would still be the setting for one of the most well-known and frequently quoted poems in America. Imagine if the local zoo had, through some miracle of time and space, acquired the actual raven Edgar Allen Poe had mused on – you’d want to see it.

A Nap in the GrassI take a walk through Fanueli Hall and catch a quick show from some local buskers. It’s been a long day and my feet are complaining. I walk along the Greenway for a short while before finding a welcoming patch of grass. I pull off my shoes and turn my purse into a makeshift pillow. The sun is warm and comfortable. I don’t know how long I sleep. An hour. Maybe two.

When I wake up I’m still not hungry. I have stuffed myself too full of food throughout the day to stomach dinner, but I figure I can probably manage a dessert. I have recommendations for two nearby pastry shops, and quickly find myself at the front of a long but fast-moving line at Mike’s Pastry.

“What’s your best cannoli?” I ask the man behind the counter. I had been told to get a cannoli at Mike’s, but I wasn’t prepared to choose between so many options.

“I’d say the chocolate chip is our most popular,” he replies.

“I’ll take it.”

Ted WilliamsHe constructs a beautifully simple white box around my treat, and pulls at a line of string suspended from the ceiling. He wraps the string twice in every direction, moving with the speed and precision only pride and repetition can create. I carry my little white box on the subway all the way back to my hotel. In the seat across from me, a fashionably dressed woman holds a beautiful white orchid in a pot. There is something fantastically cosmopolitan about the whole scene. I felt like a true city-dweller. I felt like I was living in New York City again.

And that was just the first day.

By Chance, A Windmill

I am still following the highlights of a National Geographic Road Trip plan when I stop in Chatham, Massachusetts. The tiny town is busy with tourists. I consider not stopping at all, since I can’t see anywhere to park my car and the main entertainment appears to be shopping. However the trip description mentions a park and a windmill, and I figure I will give it a shot.

Mill Arms

I have a hell of a time finding Chase Park. It eludes me in that illogical way certain locations can seem mystifyingly invisible. I drive in circles, crossing by the same streets and getting stuck in dead end roads. Eventually I find the tiny parking lot and the small park sign. In front of me and suddenly towering over the landscape is the old wind-powered gristmill.

I walk around the mill taking photographs. Behind it I see a rock labyrinth tucked away in a quiet, grassy depression. The large fans of the mill are attached to the roof, which can be rotated around the mill by way of a large pole that reaches to the ground and originally would have been pulled by mule. This, I assume, allowed the mill to stay in operation no matter which way the wind was blowing. As I walk around, I see a small door on the side. I don’t bother trying to open it, as I assume it is only for maintenance. I can’t imagine anything of note inside an old windmill. As I’m getting ready to leave I see an old man carrying a bag.

“If you wait ten minutes you can see the inside,” he tells me, pulling a small waist apron from his bag.

I look at my watch – it’s ten to eleven. The man attaches a name tag to his shirt that identifies him as a docent, and he explains that the other docent is the one with the key. I nod. There’s a brief silence before he realizes he might as well start telling me what he knows. He explains the long history of mill ownership and how the original structure was moved to this location in 1956 after it was given to the town of Chatham. He points to the fans and explains the dangerous way in which they used to change out the cloth sails. He tells me that right now the sails are inside, but they’ll be putting them on for the weekend.

“If you’re here on Saturday you should come by,” he says. “We’ll be firing it up and grinding some cornmeal.”

I explain that I’m actually only in town for about an hour, and another couple walks up to us. They ask him where the labyrinth is, and he raises a hand to point.

“The labyrinth is over there,” he begins, turning to see the other docent walking up the path towards us. “And the windmill will be open in ten … nine … eight … seven …” As he counts down the other docent approaches with the key. The couple laughs and the woman insists, “Oh there’s no need to rush him, we’ll be back up in a moment.” The couple walks down towards the labyrinth. The man opens the door. I look at my phone and see the time tick over to 11AM exactly.

With the door open I walk inside the mill, a docent in front and behind. The gristmill reminds me of the old riddle about a rowboat: You have a rowboat with a leaky board. You replace it. Over time every one of the old boards begins to leak, and one by one you replace them all. Is this still the same boat? And if not, at what point did it change?

The windmill has seen its share of terrific gales, and many of its old boards have had to be replaced over time. Still, the heart of the structure is the same, as is the primary grindstone. The second docent takes me upstairs to the second level, along with a pair of approximately eight-year-old girls and their mother. He shows us the stone and explains how it works. He tells us about its exceptional weight and how difficult it is to move the stone at all, let alone get it up onto the second floor of a windmill.

In explaining how milling works, the docent tells us that the grind stone gets dirty over time, and it must be cleaned. He points to a mechanism that allows the huge stone to swing out to the side for maintenance. Because of the way the stones are positioned in relationship to the floorboards, there is barely a foot of open space below the dirty surface. The docent focuses his eyes on one of the little girls.

The Girl and the Mill

“So what do you think we do?” he asks her.

She shrugs.

“Well I know I’m not going to fit under there, so we’re going to have to get someone small to sit directly under this huge stone.” The docent points to the little girl. “Someone just about your size.”

The girl’s jaw drops in the cartoonish way you assume never happens in real life. She is filled with disgust and horror at the very idea that anyone would make a child do such a thing. Her mother smiles.

“Well,” the docent says, “just in case there’s no one small around, we better have another plan.” He points to the large wooden levers and gears and explains that the entire stone can be rotated sideways, exposing the dirty underside and allowing for safe cleaning. The girls seem relieved.

I thank my guides for the wonderful lessons on the surprisingly interesting world of grinding. As I am leaving I see the couple from before. They are standing next to the folded up sails and learning how to ensure accurate measurement of cornmeal.

Mill GearsMy visit to the mill was short, maybe 45 minutes if you include the ten minute wait at the start. In the course of my whole trip, it was a blip. Nothing life-changing or monumental, just an interesting bit of history and engineering. But the mill is only open for three hours a day, three days a week. A tour would be easy to miss. And if I hadn’t gotten so lost trying to find the park in the first place, I most certainly would have missed it.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had almost a full year before I left. By way of the Listener Mail segment on one of my favorite podcasts, I had been in contact with a pair of fellow travelers, Scott and Edie. They were a married couple with a dog who had decided to travel full time around the United States in their car. I was excited to talk to them since they seemed to already be living the trip I was about to take. When they said they would be driving through Seattle I offered to take them out for Thai food near my house.

During our conversation they asked me what I was most looking forward to on the trip. I told them about the summer I spent living in New York City, and how one day I was wandering around Manhattan and stumbled onto a street festival that only happened once a year. I told them I was excited about the possibility of accidentally encountering big events like that.

“That will certainly happen,” Edie assured me. “For example, what is Seafair?”

Her question made me smile. She was asking because that weekend we were having one of the most well-known and largest annual events we have in Seattle. During Seafair there are pirates and parades and clowns and a fly-over by the Blue Angels. Scott and Edie just happened to be in town while it was going on.

And in Cape Cod, I just happened to be walking by an old man, who just happened to be a volunteer docent, who just happened to be waiting for his associate to come open a 200-year-old building that just happens to be open nine hours a week. And I know for every gristmill there are a hundred other occasions where I didn’t get lost and didn’t run into a docent and didn’t even know I had missed anything. But there’s no use focusing on all the things I have missed out on. Not when there are so many happy accidents left to have.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me About Provincetown, Massachusetts

In my entire life, I can recall hearing about Provincetown exactly once. It was three days before I got there, when my friend Marc in Washington D.C. told me I would like it. No other description, no other mention by anyone previously.

Well StrungSituated as it is on the very end of the Cape Cod peninsula, I assumed it would be something of a rich, white, tourist trap. Which in many ways it is. It has the same overpriced parking, the same quaint bed & breakfasts, the same pedestrian main street, the same fudge shops, the same busking musicians and human statues. What Provincetown also has, however, is hundreds and hundreds of vacationing gay couples. As such, it’s got advertisements for gay dating sites on the back of the pedicabs, rainbow flags hung between buildings, leather sex shops next to the fine art boutiques, and drag queens standing outside the theaters passing out flyers for their nightly review shows.

I had spent the day driving up the arm of Cape Cod and being generally unimpressed. I did see a pretty neat old house that dates back to the mid-1600s, but in general most of the local attractions seemed to appeal to people with much more time, disposable income and/or luggage space. Parking in Provincetown was clearly a problem, so I stopped at the first cute-looking inn with signs indicating both vacancy and parking. After setting my stuff down in my room, I walked the main tourist drag of the colloquially called P-Town looking for dinner. It was still on the early side, so I took my time wandering past the shops. It still amazes me how much seeing gay couples makes me happy. Any place that a gay couple can feel comfortable showing their affection for each other must be a place that will welcome me too – or so the thinking goes. It occurs to me that this will eventually go away as acceptance grows. Before you know it, the most bigoted and harsh neighborhoods in the country will have openly gay couples. Perhaps they’ll just have the harsh, bigoted ones? It’s funny to think that in some respects that’s exactly what we’re fighting for: to live in a world where gay people are so accepted that they are free to be intolerant.

ShotglassI was walking along the pedestrian drag when I saw a shot glass in a store window. I have been trying very hard to keep my shot glass collection in check during this trip, knowing that I have to carry whatever I buy around in my car. I don’t buy anything from places my friends and family are likely to visit (since they might pick up a shot glass for me as a souvenir), and I don’t buy anything too simple or ordinary. The shot glass I purchased in P-Town falls into both of these categories. It’s very possible people I know will visit this area, and it’s a very typical shot glass. Standard size, clear glass, with an attractive yet modest design. The reason I bought it was that it was being sold in a Human Rights Campaign store, and it occurred to me that I might live to see the day where such shops are completely unnecessary, at least in the United States. My little shot glass has one small square with an equals sign in it. I’ve got a lot of cool and interesting shot glasses in my collection of over 200, but this may be the first one that has the power to truly date itself. I certainly hope it does. I hope one day I have to explain what the equals sign means to some little child who doesn’t know of a time when who you love was cause for discrimination.

Woman the the SeaFor some reason the tourist atmosphere in Provincetown doesn’t bother me the way it does in some other places. There are still old people that walk too slow and families with kids that yell and scream. It’s still impossible to find a decent parking spot and there are shops full of things I don’t want to buy. But I enjoyed my evening strolling through Provincetown more than most. It’s calm and happy for no reason in particular. At one point I watched an older woman swim straight out into the ocean while wearing a hat. She kept her head above water the whole time. I watched for several minutes, but she showed no signs of turning back.

Katy PerryI bought a ticket to a drag show since it seemed to be the thing to do. The show was called Illusions, and we were encouraged by the emcee to get the dollar bills out of our wallets as the performers love accepting tips. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” she told us. There were about five performers in all, each doing at least two changes. Occasionally the very entertaining emcee would come out to get the crowd laughing. Her performances were among my favorites, and it didn’t hurt that she did both Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, two of my aesthetic pop favorites. Other performers busted out the likes of Pink, Cher, and the unexpected Gretchen Wilson.

Afterwards I ducked into a fudge shop for a late night snack, and saw a pair of young Russian tourist girls wearing adorable fake mustaches and filling entire baskets with candy.

The next morning I walked downstairs to enjoy the continental breakfast. All of the other guests (as well as the hotel owners) were committed, middle-aged gay men. In my experience men in this category are among the most pleasant of conversationalists. I told them all about my trip, including my stop at the Westboro Baptist Church. They were fascinated and wished me well on my journey. I drove out of town, passing many a beach house on my way.

BoatsI think there is something unmistakably leisurely about Cape Cod in general and Provincetown specifically. Perhaps it’s from my years of hearing characters in books and movies talk about “going to Cape Cod for the weekend.” It conjures up a life of such ease. The kind of life where one can simply go places for the weekend. Where weekends aren’t filled with errands or obligations or catching up on your sleep. Instead, they are a chance to get away from the dullness of a worry-less life, the kind of life filled with weekday lunches and club memberships and Great Gatsbys. Yet the undeniable liberal culture in Provincetown takes the stuffy edge off what might otherwise be a vacation town for the One Percent. I feel certain I will find some excuse to return to Cape Cod, if for no other reason than to show one of my fellow West Coasters what the big deal is. Maybe we’ll rent a beach house, take in a drag show, or buy some name brand leather whips. And we’ll talk about how nice it is to get away from the heat of the city and into the fresh ocean air. We’ll talk about it like it’s something strange and unusual. I suppose we’ll talk like we’re from New York City.

Waffles Amen

I wouldn’t have gone to New York City if it wasn’t for Sarah Ruth.

Excluding family vacations, I have been to New York City more than anywhere else in the world. When I was 15 my sister moved there right out of high school, and I visited her many times. The summer before college I lived on Manhattan for six weeks while attending classes at the School for Film and Television. I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and St. John the Divine. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and caught a show at the Village Vanguard. I’ve done the NYC thing. I had planned to skip it altogether.

But then Sarah Ruth got a summer internship at Saveur Magazine. Sarah Ruth was one of my best friends in college. We met in our improv troupe, and spent several quarters waking up early every Wednesday morning to get waffles at one of the dinning halls on campus. Wednesday Waffles were a good time to share all the things we didn’t want to say to other people, usually because they had to do with our problems with said people. We discussed our various tricky situations and tried to help each other out. Some Wednesdays we’d both be too tired to talk and we’d just stare blankly at our strawberries and whipped cream. I always loved our Waffle Wednesdays.

After graduation we would still get together occasionally for waffles. It was never on campus and it rarely included actual waffles, but the point was the same. We met and gabbed and felt better for it. Eventually Sarah Ruth moved out of state, and waffles could only happen every few months when she came back to town to visit friends and family. So I knew that if I had the chance to see Sarah Ruth while she was in NYC, I needed to take it. There was no telling how long it would be until the next waffle opportunity.

I sat on the New Jersey Turnpike for more than 20 minutes, trying to get to the front of the toll line. I was being aggressive, but I couldn’t change the behavior of the people in front of me who seemed hell bent on letting every cheating taxi cab cut to the front of the line. I was waiting so long and the sun was so hot my car started to overheat. At times I thought I might never get out of New Jersey at all.

Once I emerged from the tunnel onto the streets of Manhattan, it was time for red alert. Having been a pedestrian in NYC many times, I can say with confidence that it feels much more dangerous be a driver. You have less control. There are bikers and walkers and motorcyclists, and not a one of them has to deal with the same physical restrictions. On Manhattan everything is small, and everything is moving. It was like learning to drive again, trying hopelessly to expand my spatial awareness to accommodate the full size of the vehicle. Every passing bicycle felt too close, every moving pedestrian felt too fast. I had lived in my car for more than two months, and suddenly I felt like I had no idea where the thing started and ended.

In my own biased opinion, I did well. I didn’t run into anything or get turned around. I didn’t get honked at or feel the need to honk. And I managed to get to the other side of the island, approximately 12 blocks away, in less than 30 minutes. It went well, and I can safely say I understand what they mean about driving in New York City. I can also safely say that I never need to experience that again.

I paid a toll to get out of New Jersey, and another one to get onto Manhattan. There was a third toll to get off the island and into Queens, and another one to get out of Queens the next day. In total, I spent $30.15 trying to get through the city. I can’t imagine how commuting is even possible.

NeighborhoodSarah Ruth got an apartment through AirBnB that just happened to be blocks away from where my sister used to live. We hung out at her apartment for awhile before heading to a local diner for some long overdue waffles. Like every waffle conversation, we ran the gamut from frivolous problems on the subway to the serious problems of marriage. It was the first time I’d seen her since she broke up with her long-term boyfriend. It was the first time she had seen me since I changed jobs. After dinner we walked back to her place and moved on to another important topic of conversation: church.

I needed somewhere to go for church the following morning, and Sarah Ruth was trying to help me decide. There was a huge, non-denominational church in Times Square that intrigued me. But that would mean a long subway ride first thing in the morning. There were a few churches just down the street from the apartment, and Sarah Ruth offered to join me if I decided to go somewhere nearby. We got out our computers and began looking up the various churches online. That’s when we found Pastor Marnie.

The website for The Rock Church was certainly the most developed of the churches we looked at, and its reviews were the most … passionate. On Yelp it seemed that the church was only getting one star or five star reviews with nothing in between. The five stars praised the congregation for being so close to God. The one stars said it was a money-grubbing cult and a construction eye-sore. The church had an active blog with posts by someone named Marnie, and I pulled up a video of her called “Life with Marnie – Health Tip.”

Sarah Ruth and I were in love. Marnie’s accent was so thick and her talk so rambling. “Like a dog. An angry dog. Some dogs are nice. Most dogs are nice. I love animals.” We were sold. We had to check out the perpetually under construction house that Marnie called home.

ChurchThe Rock Church operates inside of the sort of huge old theater that makes you pine for earlier days. You look around and think, “This place could really be something if they just fixed it up a bit.” We were greeted when we walked in the door and found our way to the center of the folding chairs. The size of the building made the place seem empty, and it felt as though we were the only ones who didn’t have something else to do. Over a dozen people stood near the door, preparing various things and talking with one another. Several others were getting the light and sound booth ready and setting up the cameras. People were on stage, walking back and forth in front of a giant “I heart Jesus” sign. A choir was collecting off to the side. When I think about it, there were probably already 100 people there when we arrived, but the church felt empty since only a handful of us were actually sitting in the chairs. Sarah Ruth and I waited, constantly turning our necks to the back to see if anyone else was going to show up, or if we were to sit in a sea of empty chairs the whole time.

After the token promotional video on the big screen, the service began. The band started playing and the congregation started singing. I didn’t know the tune but I did my best. There was a woman on stage who seemed to be in charge, but it clearly wasn’t Pastor Marnie. Sarah Ruth and I whispered our disappointment.

“Maybe Marnie’s not here every week?” I asked. Sarah Ruth shrugged.

A few songs went by, and another woman came on stage. It was like we had seen the warmup act, and were now moving on to the headliner. But there was still no Marnie. We sang more, we prayed some, we stayed standing the whole time and most everyone had their praise hands up like in those videos advertising Christian Rock compilation CDs on television at 2AM.

Finally, after more than 20 minutes had passed, it was time for the main event: Pastor Marnie took the stage. Her heels were high and her skirt was long. She prayed and talked, back and forth. I had no idea what was coming next or what was typical for the service. We heard Marnie preach. She referenced being “at the point of death four times,” but gave no further information on the subject. She introduced a man who came out to do a sermon of his own. And they passed the collection plate – twice.

But more than anything else, what stood out to me at The Rock Church was their use of the word amen. Most people know amen as the word you use to end a prayer. In more vocal congregations it can be used as a sort of expletive, a way to shout your agreement during a sermon. In common speech you may even hear amen as a strong affirmation of something said, such as using the phrase, “Amen to that.”

At The Rock Church, you use it like a period. It goes at the end of almost every sentence.

Pastor Marnie said amen quite a bit, often posing it as a question to the audience. “…and that’s what you’re really looking for, amen?” We were supposed to say amen back to indicate that we both agreed and were paying attention. To me, this was an acceptable use of the word. I’ve seen the tactic used before. It’s a standard presentation technique.

But then another woman, quite pregnant, took the stage for announcements. Amen became the Valley Girl up-speak that turns every sentence into a rhetorical question.

“…which will start at 7PM on Thursday, amen?”

“…since we had so much fun last year, amen?”

“…we have that going on, amen?”

Over and over again. It started it wear at me. I was reminded of those times in high school when our teachers challenged us to listen for how often our classmates said “like” or “um” in their presentations. Suddenly you can’t hear anything else. Amen, amen, amen. Without end.

On the way out the door both Sarah Ruth and I had to thwart attempts to get our contact information. Luckily we could both honestly say that we wouldn’t be around for much longer, since she was leaving in two weeks and I was leaving in 20 minutes. Our pursuers seemed quite disappointed to hear such a clear explanation for why our info would be useless. I imagine they have arguments ready for most visitor rejections, but “I don’t even live here” is probably less common.

I will say one thing about The Rock Church. It reminded me of the power of following along. At one point during the service, I decided to raise one of my hands up. Just the right one, just a little. Everyone else was doing it, and when visiting churches I take on a very “when in Rome” mentality. And it worked. I enjoyed the songs just a bit more, even though my hand had moved less than six inches. But that six inches says a lot. It says why not. It says let’s go. It says I’m trying.  And I know that if I kept listening to Pastor Marnie, she would start to make more and more sense. I know I would start using amen to punctuate my sentences. I know I would greet people at the door and insist on getting their information.

Most people bring these things up when talking about the dangers of herd mentality. And it can be very dangerous. But it’s not inherently detrimental. Herding animals herd for a reason. Herding lets us rely on others, and helps us to make good decisions even when we can’t have all the information. Sometimes religious believers are mocked for following blindly, but that is a trait we all share. The only difference is what you follow. Some people blindly follow God. Some people blindly follow family. Diets, politics, culture, social convention, it’s all there. It’s just waiting to be followed. And sometimes when you make the choice to raise your hand up a little and be part of the crowd, a strange situation becomes a bit more familiar. We’re social animals, and we will always find a herd.


I am not particularly interested in military history. Some of you may remember my feelings towards Vicksburg. But I know the Civil War had a huge impact on this country and that lots of people love battlefields. So I wanted to give it another try. Actually, I gave it two more tries: Manassas and Gettysburg.

Statue TopThere were two battles at Manassas, also known as the Battles of Bull Run because of the nearby creek of the same name. I arrived at the Manassas Visitor’s Center first thing in the morning to watch the introductory film. The First Battle of Bull Run was the first major land battle of the war, and some of the facts from the film were vaguely familiar. I remembered the story from my history class about picnickers from Washington D.C. making the trip over to watch the battle from a nearby hill. Many Northerners thought the war would end that very day.

In another room of the Visitor’s Center there was a large, round map full of tiny lights. Any visitor could push the start button and an audio recording would begin to play. The recording recited the timeline of the battle while the lights on the map directed your eye to the appropriate locations. It was actually pretty cool. Of course, I always think maps are cool.

Unfortunately I couldn’t muster the same excitement about the battle. “War is Dumb.” Those are the exact words I wrote at the beginning of my notes for the day. War is dumb. I just don’t understand it. I don’t get how individual men think to themselves, “Yes, I’m going to stand directly in front of a fatal shot because I’m sure the politicians did all they could to resolve this without requiring my death.” I understand fervor and passion, but at the end of the day, when you’re guarding your own wounded enemy, doesn’t it all seem a little foolish?

Stone HouseNear the center of the memorial park is an old stone house that was used as a Union field hospital during both battles. I drove over to it and took a look at the refurbished inside. I did my best to picture wounded men running through the doors in the heart of battle. It was no use. There was nothing for me here. I resolved to stick it through to Gettysburg. If I wasn’t interested there, I couldn’t see how I would be interested anywhere.

The Visitor’s Center at Gettysburg was packed when I arrived, and overflowing by the time I left. There were various attractions and ticket levels available to the interested public, including guided tours of the park. I didn’t have time for a 2-3 hour bus tour, and I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it anyway. I opted for a ticket to the film, entrance to the cyclorama, and the optional museum visit.

Gettysburg National Military Park is very proud to have Morgan Freeman narrating their documentary film. Really proud. His name is on everything. The film itself is great and gives a nice history of the events before and after the battle. But the real fun starts when the show is over, and the doors open to lead you into the Cyclorama.

CycloramaAt the top of a flight of stairs you walk out onto a platform and into a large, round, windowless room. It’s a bit like a planetarium, but rather than stars above you, there is battle around you. Seamlessly lining the room is a single, solid, gigantic painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, based on actual events that happened that day. A recording plays and timed lights cause certain sections to glow, a bit like the map at Manassas. In one area you see men charging across the field, in another there are wounded soldiers lying on the ground. In one dark corner is the figure of the original artist himself, who couldn’t resist giving himself a cameo. After the recording is over you’re free to walk along the platform, looking at the individual features. It’s like staring at an old Where’s Waldo book. The more you look the more tiny dramas you find.

PosterI don’t think I would have found the Gettysburg Cyclorama nearly as interesting if I didn’t know it was over 120 years old. It was first created in 1883 by French painter Paul Philippoteaux, and versions of it were exhibited in various parts of the country for many years. It’s so large and connects to itself so cleanly, it’s a wonder how they managed to transport it in the late 1880s without completely destroying the work. I’m sure the piece at Gettysburg has been thoroughly restored, but moving such a painting would be a Herculean task for even the most careless of curators.

There’s a self-guided audio tour of the park available to visitors, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to last through the whole thing. Instead I drove up to the cemetery to see the spot from which Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address.

White TombstonesThe cemetery itself is lovely and quiet, with iron fences and pristine white tombstones. I went to the memorial marking the Gettysburg Address, which was delivered by Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863. The main speaker for the day had been orator Edward Everett, who talked about the battle and its remembrance for two full hours. Afterwards Lincoln stood up to give a few “Dedicatory Remarks.” By Everett’s own admission, Lincoln managed to say in ten sentences what Everett struggled to say in two hours. If nothing else, Gettysburg is a reminder of the importance of brevity.

Silence and RespectAnd with that, I left the region of the United States where we preserve blank, grassy mounds as the important battlefields of the past. The Civil War Military Parks are, in a sense, empty memorials. We fill them full of artifacts and statues, but the true nature of each one is the vacant lot where men once died. We make diagrams and journals to help us recreate what happened, so we can look out on a field and imagine how it once was. And we have light-up maps and cycloramas to help us decipher the plans and the blunders. We work so to understand military history and military strategy. I can’t help but think that pouring so much effort into trying to re-create the past is a guarantee that we’ll keep finding reasons to repeat it. We say that repetition of the past is the destiny of those who cannot remember it. I wonder if those who are obsessed with it suffer the same fate.