On Birthdays & Life

Oh my, the sacrifices the modern dad must make.

But I’m not afraid of a challenge.

So, on Saturday, I held on tightly to my wife and granted my daughter’s 12th birthday wish and – damn it – we made it happen.

“We” being used loosely because the “I” in the parental “we” was mostly cowering in the weeds, taunting when taunting was least warranted, singing when none of the twelve-year olds wanted to hear an old man sing, and challenging them in the pond when it was clear my time as “King of the Pond” has long passed. Damn. I swear it was only a couple of years ago that I think they thought I was cool. Time meet reality. And the page turns.

Our daughter, Bel, was given a blank canvas to paint her dream birthday party. It was one of those parental decisions that leaves you gritting your teeth and pondering the possibilities of what the wish might be. And, to our delight, Bel came forward with this scenario a few weeks back: “I want to invite three of my friends on a camping trip to Walden.”


For those unaware, I manage a 117-acre wildlife preserve in Walden, Vermont for the organization I still direct, Food & Water. It’s a very special piece of property that borders the 11,000-acre Steam Mill Brook Wildlife Refuge. Food & Water bought it about eleven years ago after our founder, Dr. Wally Burnstein, passed away. His passing resulted in a special fund to honor his life of kicking some serious activist ass.

There were many ideas floating around about how to spend it in “Wally’s honor.” Some board members wanted to purchase a full-page ad in the New York Times honoring Wally’s remarkable career as both a physician and an unbelievable visionary when it came to stopping the corporate bastards in our midst. Wally, for those who didn’t know him, successfully fought uranium mining in New Jersey and food irradiation nationwide but, even more importantly, he did it with love, laughter and an almost child-like lust for life.

Wally took me under his wing in 1987 while I was a drummer in a punk band and staff member for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in New York City. And my life was forever changed. Because Wally was a punk too – but a punk with a medical license and more connections than I thought were possible.

I was a young man from Iowa staying out late hammering drums at CBGBs and he was a Jewish doctor from Brooklyn who went to bed early with visions of activists strategies dancing in his head. And, somehow, we were like two peas in a pod who breathed life into an organization and laughed along the way as we made one corporate criminal after another cower at the mere mention of “Food & Water.”

Wally always wanted out of the suburbs of New Jersey. He spoke often of his failed attempt to make his break to the woods and fields of Northwest New Jersey, declaring that the good life was the one that both fought the good fight but also blazed the new trail of living the way we ought to be living.

Wally was, therefore, deeply supportive of my decision to take Food & Water’s headquarters out of Manhattan and into the woods of the Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in 1991. And he was particularly thrilled that the decision to go to Vermont also involved the marriage between myself and his niece, Stacy, who was a University of Vermont graduate looking to get back to the Green Mountain State. Indeed, all things are connected.

To make a long story shorter, I didn’t waste any time lobbying the Food & Water board to purchase the land in Walden when a local realtor called me about it a year or so after his passing. It was a large tract of land. It was in jeopardy of being developed. And it was the kind of place that Wally would have loved to retire to if he hadn’t been stricken by the disease he spent his career fighting and – better yet – seeking to prevent: cancer.

The board agreed with me, and the land was purchased in Wally’s memory.

And so it goes, more than a decade later, as our daughter who never had the chance to meet Wally but has been nothing but infused with his stories and memories, declared that her birthday wish was to do nothing but camp on the “Wally Land” with her friends. Cool.

We had a blast. Stacy and I were proud and happy. I thought a lot about Wally and his influence on Bel even though she never met him. And I heard Wally’s laughter well into the night as we swam, told stories, and contemplated ways to truly make a difference in these rather short lives of ours.

“Be a confrontation to fixed reality,” Wally used to like to say.


Happy birthday, Bel.

Here are a few photos from Saturday’s birthday camping trip:


  1. Oh no, your jealousy scar is showing again. Please — keep it covered. It’s making me sick.

    I’ve been in the Kingdom all week. Preserving wildlife is hard work — mostly because you’ve got to get your sugar ratios just right….

  2. All week and not so much as a phone call! I am always looking for an excuse to have a beer or ten as the man with the big beard would say.

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