beautiful sights in “Rust Belt” America

I put the term in the title in quotation marks because it often connotes ugliness and depression, and while it’s certainly true that much of America’s Midwest has experienced economic decline over the past decades, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty–in all its senses, including aesthetic beauty–to be found throughout this region.  Here are a few word pictures of beautiful sights I saw in Ohio and western Pennsylvania this past weekend.

The Laurel Highlands with a dusting of snow: I always say that the temperature drops five degrees as soon as you cross into Somerset County, PA, and it sounds like a joke, but it’s a real weather phenomenon that others besides me have observed.  Last Wednesday as I drove west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Somerset County–the crown jewel (or the frozen heart) of the Laurel Highlands–was the only place where a powdered-donut coating of snow lingered, from a previous shower, on the trees and hillsides along the road.  I’m glad no new precipitation fell during my trip, but the snow coating added to the festive feeling of driving home for Thanksgiving.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Squirrel Hill tunnel in daylight: On Saturday, my dad and I took a day trip west to Ohio.  It was a sunny day, and when we hit Pittsburgh around 9:00 am, the city appeared to advantage, with the sun glinting off the rivers and the colorful bridges, which are always striking no matter how many times you’ve seen them and no matter how much bridge maintenance is occurring at any given time.  I remarked to Dad that Pittsburgh is fun to drive through (as long as traffic isn’t too heavy) because it’s a little like a roller-coaster, with tunnels, bridges, level changes, and exit ramps in odd places.

Patchwork farmland in Holmes County, Ohio: I’m not sure if Holmes and its neighboring county, Tuscarawas, actually count as part of the Rust Belt because they’re rural areas that have always (as far as I know) been rural and home to large Amish communities.  I did see a factory as we were driving, but even it looked old-fashioned and charming, with brick chimneys instead of metal.  Anyway, around 4:00 as we were leaving the retirement community in Walnut Creek where my grandfather lives, and the sun was just starting to think about setting, I remarked that the scene in front of us should be on a calendar (and it probably has been at some point).  Ohio has a gentler topography than western PA and West Virginia, with rolling hills rather than mountains.  At this time of year, the fields have been harvested but the pastures are still green, and the trees still cling to some leaves as they make architectural shadows against the hillsides.  The landscape isn’t dramatic, but the colors are, especially when the sun hits them just right.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Fort Pitt tunnel at night: There was a Penguins game Saturday night, so traffic was a little backed up going into the city, and Dad and I were musing about whose great idea it was to make tunnels the only non-aquatic way to enter a relatively major city.  The tradeoff, of course, is the breathtaking view when you exit the tunnel and immediately find yourself in the middle of a light show, with the bridge lit up above you, the skyscrapers lit up in front of you, and lit-up boats on the rivers on all sides.  On Saturday night, the effect was heightened by the gleaming yellow bowl of Heinz Field, where all the arena lights were on (apparently in preparation for Sunday night’s Steeler’s game?), and there was also a large, lit Christmas tree below us to the left.  The whole experience was like driving through a Christmas tree.

There’s beauty everywhere, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t that hard to find in Western PA and Ohio.

Happy Christmas from my tree

For my Christmas post this year, I thought I’d show you pictures of many of the 16 ornaments I bought while traveling in England (London and the Lake District) a few weeks ago.  I don’t have anything clever or profound to say this time–just that I hope you have a magical and blessed Christmas!

bird with carols written on its wings (from the British library) and bird on a post box (from Westminster Abbey)

bird with carols written on its wings (from the British library) and bird on a post box (from Westminster Abbey)

ornaments 2

Celtic cross from the British museum (bottom left), Hogwarts crest from the Harry Potter studio tour (top), Peter Rabbit painted on an egg from The World of Beatrix Potter (right)

ornaments 3

two Victorianesque ornaments: robins from Charles Dickens’s house and a Christmas tree from the British Library

ornaments 4

Here’s the postbox robin again, along with my other ornaments from Westminster Abbey. (That’s Queen Victoria.)

ornaments 5

These are from Harrod’s. I could have spent a fortune on ornaments there.

I forgot to take pictures of my Christmas pudding ornament, the heart-shaped ornament with Shakespeare’s face, and a few others.  But I hope these give you a taste of England at Christmastime!

The child is father to the man

Well, so much for posting every week. My last few weeks have been busy, but I’m hoping to get back on a regular schedule. The purpose of today’s post is clear: I want to show you how darn cute I was as a child. Also, I want to point out how some of my interests were established at a very early age. Photo credits are shared by whichever parent took them ages ago and Sarah, who recently scanned them. P.S. If you know the origin of the quote in the title, and/or what it’s supposed to mean (without Googling it!), feel free to show off your knowledge in the comments.

I still enjoy . . .


being feted, especially when presents are involved.


wearing costumes.


being in charge.





Top three places to read at my house

If you love to read, you know that there’s really no inappropriate place for reading (except, perhaps, in the driver’s seat of a moving car).  However, some places are more conducive to reading than others.  This post gives you a tour of the three best places to read in my apartment.  Sure, the kitchen table is great if the reader needs a flat surface to take notes, but that’s not really the kind of reading I’m talking about.  And the bed may look tempting, but there’s a reason why chiropractors says it’s bad to read in bed.  So the three places below are the top choices for someone who wants to read for an extended period of enjoyable time.

1. The guest room/office


Here you can sit on my slouchy old friend, the futon, and cuddle up with your book and a pillow.  Though you can’t tell in this picture, which I took at dusk, the window lets in some excellent reading light.


Possibly the presence of the Triwizard Champions and friends in the previous picture clued you in to the fact that this room is also home to my Harry Potter artifact collection.  In this picture you can see the Triwizard Cup (it can serve as a reading lamp too), the Marauder’s Map, and my wands.


Now that I have a designated office space, working on the computer isn’t so bad either.

2. The living room


Here you have two options: the couch or the recliner.


I prefer the recliner for reading and the couch for watching TV.  As you can see, the living room is also a great place to dabble in amateur geography.


This bird artwork has very little to do with reading (though it does have a lot of words on it), but I wanted to show it off because it’s the newest addition to my living room.  I just bought it this morning from Sassy Sal Sells.  The bird painting also gives a clue to something you might see if you go through the door right next to where it hangs.  Read on!

3. The balcony


Especially when it isn’t pollen season, the balcony is a great place for open-air reading, as you can see in this post-reading still life.  In case you’re wondering, the book is Barnaby Rudge, the final Charles Dickens novel I need to finish before I can say I’ve read them all.  Barnaby sure ain’t no David Copperfield, which may be why I’m taking pictures and blogging instead of reading.


The great thing about reading on the balcony is that when you look up from the page, there is natural beauty to behold.  Each season has its own special feature to focus on; in spring it’s the dogwood tree that I hope you can see fairly well in this picture despite the crummy lighting.


“Muggles think these keep evil away.  But they’re wrong.” –Luna Lovegood

The balcony is also home to my wind chimes, which I’m sure my neighbors love.  Well, they’ve never complained, anyway, and perhaps the reason is that both chimes are well-crafted and unusually melodious, and since they’re made of two distinct materials, their sounds don’t clash.  This traditional metal chime was a Christmas gift from my brother.  I also have an exotic-sounding bamboo one that I bought in the Outer Banks.

Not pictured: I recently bought a hanging basket of pansies.  Less than a week after I hung it up, I noticed that a bird had built a nest among the flowers.  (I posted an early picture of the nest on Instagram–my username is tessrs.)  Today I discovered that the nest now holds two tiny blue eggs, which I decided not to photograph, not only because of the crummy lighting but also because I thought the bird deserved some privacy.  The past few times I’ve gone out onto the balcony, I’ve noticed the small, gray bird flying away from the basket and over to a neighboring evergreen tree.  Apparently she doesn’t want to hang out with me while I read.

So if you come visit me, bring a book!  I won’t think you’re a rude guest if you slip away to one of these three special spots for a while.

Swallowed in the sea

I wish you could hear the wind where I am right now.  Then you might begin to understand with me that the old literary commonplace about the wind sounding like a human voice–moaning, screaming, calling–is more than just an old literary commonplace.  It’s a blustery day at Whalehead Beach, the tide is freakishly high (at least it looks that way to landlubber eyes), and the ocean’s surface is frothy.  The wind sounds like the voice of someone lost at sea (sorry, another cliche).  A formation of large birds flies by, and I think of the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.  I am also thinking about the climactic storm at Yarmouth in David Copperfield, and also about a Coldplay song, as you can tell by my title.  I am so little acquainted with the ocean that apparently I am unable to think about it except in terms of books and music.

These pictures will make you think I’m exaggerating; I am too scared (and cold) to go down on the beach and get a better view.  Anyway, you would need audio to really get a sense of what the sea is like right now.


Fairies in Melbourne

Fairies may be living in Melbourne, Australia.  Here is some evidence.

In the Melbourne Zoo (the world’s oldest zoo, but with a lot of up-to-date features reminiscent of Disney’s Animal Kingdom), there is a statue of Peter Pan similar to the one in London’s Kensington Gardens, where fairies found the baby Peter.  If you look closely, however, you’ll see that the Melbourne Peter is accompanied by a kangaroo.


Another good home for fairies in Melbourne is Fitzroy Gardens.  This park looks like (and is) a place where Victorians had Sunday picnic fundraisers for the children’s hospital.  Though the main thoroughfares are broad walkways lined with stately trees and charming classical statuary, there are several little wildernesses ideal for getting briefly lost (if you are a human) or living (if you are a fairy).  But the best evidence that fairies live in Fitzroy Gardens is the Fairy Tree–see below.


No worries, mate

People in Australia actually say, “No worries, mate”! I mean, not everybody. So far, I’ve only heard men say it. Store clerks tend to say “See ya” when you’re leaving (instead of “Have a nice day” or nothing). In general, the atmosphere is more casual–except on Collins Street (in downtown Melbourne) when everyone is getting off work!

This is the coolest thing I’ve seen so far in Australia: Loch Ard Gorge, along the Great Ocean Road.

Snow and some geese

Ok, I know that every blogger in Central Virginia has already posted pictures of today’s snow.  But not everybody has Walden Pond in their pictures.  By “Walden Pond,” I’m not referring to the place where Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately,” but to the little fishing pond in my apartment complex.  It’s not exactly a natural wonder, but snow makes everything beautiful.  I don’t need some transcendentalist to tell me that.