Archive for July, 2012

Ranger Phillip teaches us all about calico crabs and the other denizens of the tide flats.

When one thinks of National Parks, New England does not come first to mind. We lack the vast, sweeping desert vistas and canyons of the west, and the compressed geography of these small states seems almost incapable of supporting any National Parks the way we usually conceive of them. But we’ve got a couple NPS managed places, and one of these is the utterly stunning Cape Cod National Seashore.  My husband’s family has been going to the Cape for summer vacations for many, many years, and I have been joining them since I was a teenager. And yet, it was not until this year, when we immersed ourselves in the Cape as only the Department of the Interior can do it, that I came to genuinely love the place.

We paid $45 for a season’s pass, and with it, we could come and go to all the National Seashore’s beaches as we pleased (otherwise, it’s $15 a day per beach). As we have kids who won’t tolerate a full day on the beach (and frankly, neither can I), it was a fine arrangement to be able to come and go as we pleased. So, in the course of the week, we visited seven National Seashore beaches, and several hiking paths, marsh walks, and tide flat explorations. We also discovered the Junior Ranger program, wherein kids 5-12 can complete a booklet, attend one ranger led activity, and visit one historical site and qualify to wear the official Junior Ranger badge. Naturally, we participated, and even overachiever Simon, at only 3, was granted Junior Ranger status based on his exceptional interest in intertidal zone organisms.

As the days passed, we tagged along with Ranger Phillip to muck around on the tide flats of Great Island, and we stopped in to the Old Harbor Lifesaving Museum in Provincetown. By chance, I had picked up a kids’ picture book at our home library before we left called Heroes of the Surf, about the very same sort of Surfmen/Lifesavers who once patrolled the ocean facing beaches of the Cape watching for shipwrecks. This book is the reason I knew about the lifesaving apparatus known as the Lyle gun and breeches buoy. As I pointed out a Lyle Gun in the Lifesaving Museum in Provincetown, a khaki-uniformed guide there named Richard Ryder (grandson of a actual, turn of the 20th century lifesaver!) turned a sharp eye on me and, in a somewhat accusatory tone, snapped, “How do you know about the Lyle gun?” Afraid I was not supposed to be privy to this secret knowledge, I told him about Heroes of the Surf. He seemed to remain suspicious, and I pictured a thought bubble over his head reading, “Who told this girl about Lyle guns?! She looks like every other touristy, yawning buffoon who passes through here!”

It got better, for us Lyle gun enthusiasts. That night, as they do every Thursday evening at 6pm at Race Point Beach, the National Parks Service staff and volunteers put on a reenactment of a rescue using that same apparatus. And there is real gunpowder, and real firing of a real projectile over the fake mast and rigging of a fake shipwreck. And then, a real person is rescued using the breeches buoy–a lifesaving ring with a pair of bloomers attached that the shipwreck victim would sit in while zip lining onto shore, and safety, over the crashing waves in the middle of a winter’s night on the deadly shoals of Cape Cod. Pretty awesome. If you are one of my readers a long way from Massachusetts, and unlikely to see this in person, here’s a little clip to give you the flavor of the thing.

So if you go to Cape Cod, do not miss the National Seashore! Stop into one of the Visitor Centers and pick up one of their little event newspapers. Buy a season’s pass, and beach hop to your heart’s content. Learn stuff from the Rangers. Go see Richard Ryder narrate the breeches buoy reenactment (and if he asks, tell him I told you about the Lyle gun.)

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Seeking shade along the McLaren trail in Merrimac, MA.

Runners tend to fall into one of two camps: cold runners and hot runners. Hot runners LOVE to run in the heat and humidity. They revel in a sweat-sodden t-shirt and short shorts. I didn’t believe such people could exist until I met some, for I am a cold runner. I love running in the winter, in the snow, sucking air through a neoprene face mask because it’s zero out. I love running in the sleet and wintry mix. I will stay off the roads only in the middle of an actual  bad storm when I will certainly be run over by a plow guy.

In the summer, on the other hand, I become a plodder, putting in miles out of obligation and habit most of the time. On the worst, most humid days, it feels like I’ve been accosted by a team of sadists who stop me on the road yelling, “Hey! You! Put on this suit of wet sponges! Ok, now we’re going to paint you with this super concentrated salt paste. Now, now, don’t cheat; keep your eyes open– corneas too! Now we’ll just spray you with this horsefly attractant and…there! All set. Have a great run!”

By July the air is heavy and sodden, and the smells so thick you can chew them. Silage and manure at the dairy farm; something small and dead rotting by the road; something larger and dead rotting out of sight in the bushes. These olfactory landmarks become as familiar as the visual ones, substituting for them in some cases, as the winter-time vistas are closed down and narrowed by the lush summer growth. The hedges and grasses sizzle and teem with insect life, and even the road kill is reanimated as the sexton beetles come to bury it.

Sexton beetles heft the body of a snake about. (Click the image for the video!)

I won’t ever be a summer runner, I don’t bet, but I have come to appreciate moving at my moderate pace among all the living things in their desperate, headlong dash through this short northern season before the frost comes down on them again.

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This is not the post I had planned, but as an avid blog follower/facebooker/tweeter, I would be remiss, I feel, if I did not address the controversy currently seizing my online circle. It seems that this Parents on Phones tumblr has touched a nerve with the iPhone set. Of which I am a member.

This wasn’t even an iPhone and it was more captivating than my snot-faced son (photo by other son Malcolm, who wants the world to know the truth.)

So, the idea behind Parents on Phones is apparently a sort of amateur gotcha journalism project, wherein the writer/photographer surreptitiously documents parents ignoring their kids in order to text/call/email/read blogs on their phones. Fine. Some of them are kind of funny, and some of them are a little depressing. The captions are at best mildly funny. Yet, this thing has generated self-righteous rage among smartphone using mommies and daddies. The objections are probably best stated by David Plotz of Slate. In his post on the subject, he argues that:

1) Smartphones allow high-powered working parents to interact with their children MORE because they can work from anywhere, not just the office.

2) Kids should be allowed to play on their own and should not be incessantly entertained by their helicopter parents.

3) Parents have always ignored their children, it’s just that reading the newspaper has been supplanted by reading Slate on a smartphone.

This is very ingenious, because he is absolutely correct on all three scores. But I’m afraid he’s deeply disingenuous on the details. Here’s why:

On the first count, we have seen this in our own family. When my husband was working at a big giant law firm, yoked to the whim of his self-centered clients, there were many evenings, weekends, and family vacations in which he was able to participate solely because his clients could reach him anywhere via his Blackberry, and he could login to his network at 11pm and work for several hours while the kids were playing or sleeping or whatever. So yes, technology has unchained professionals from their desks. But there is a big difference between setting aside a few hours for work on a Saturday afternoon and spending the ENTIRE weekend with an iPhone strapped to your waist, having a Pavlovian reaction to its every beep. (We have also seen this first hand in our family). Maybe I’m wrong, but there are very few people with jobs so life and death important that they can’t even set the damn phone down for suppertime. If you are a pediatric brain surgeon on call at suppertime, you receive a pass.

Malcolm also took this photo documenting his father ignoring him.

On the second count, yes. Absolutely this is 100% true. So send your kids off to play on the monkey bars without you spotting them. Read your favorite blog while they build a block tower at the children’s museum, and check your email while they listen to a book at library story time. But don’t strap your kid in a baby swing and then stand there texting. If you put your kid in a swing she can’t get out of, push the damn swing! Letting your kids problem solve on their own, and get bored and then get unbored, and make friends and play dangerous games with sharp sticks is all very important and you should do it. So send your kids outside or away and go text/email/call. Being put in a swing and then not having anyone push you is lame. The fact is, no one will be taking your picture and putting it on a Parents On Phones tumblr if your kids are happily playing off in a sandbox while you sit on a shady park bench texting. Or if they do, then they are insufferable, smug jerks about whom you should not care.

On the third count, yes again. I, for one, am a professional child ignorer. I do not play board games with them, I do not play on the playground with them, I do not play action figures or legos with them. I only do things Ilike to do with them. Which is basically read and hike. If we go to the beach, I give them shovels and buckets and then distantly supervise them while I read a magazine, or check my email on my phone, or read blogs. I make them go out in the yard and stand around and hit each other with sticks or whatever so I can go post to my own blog. Kids do need to learn to venture forth and play on their own, and parents need to maintain independent lives and interests. But the thing that makes smartphones different from a newspaper is that the ENTIRE internet is on that phone, and it’s always notifying you of things–things you like! Things that are more interesting than pushing a kid on a swing. Parenting is stultifying most of the time, so I get it; the phone is tempting!  And it would take more willpower than most of us possess to ignore an email from a witty, interesting friend and instead listen to your three year old sing Old McDonald. So you really have to just turn the phone off sometimes. Just sometimes. Suppertime would be a good start.

I read some good advice about blogging that applies to phones too: Go on your computer; read lots of stuff/blogs/sites you love. Then, shut off the computer and go do something. When you get back, blog about it.

No one’s asking David Plotz or anyone else to give up his iPhone, or leave it off all the time, or even most of the time. Just pick some things you think are worth paying attention to, and turn off the phone for those things. And when you’re done, tweet about your self-restraint. I’ll retweet you right away; after all, I’ll probably be ignoring my kids.

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There are really only three major things I’d like to instill in my kids. Three things that, if they manage to pick up, I will feel like I done good. These are:
1. Be kind. And really, I’ll settle for “be polite”, most of the time.
2. Be at ease in the wild.
3. Be a reader.

There are other important things of course. I would like them to be tolerant, empathetic, multilingual members of the Democratic party, focused in school, curious about the world yet suspicious of dudes handing them candy from solid-sided vans. But when I pare it all down, I’m left with the Big Three. Kindness, because kindness is more important than intelligence, ambition, success, or talent. Ease in the wild because the wild can give you both solace and adventure. And reading, because reading can teach you tolerance, empathy, curiosity, and the answers to your curiosity.
Whenever I think of anything else that I might want them to know, it turns out to fall under the umbrella of these three.

This past week, there were several moments when I got a bit of feedback on all three of these goals from the boys themselves.
1. The kindness goal: Malcolm got a book out of the library called “All About my Brother” written and illustrated by a young girl with an autistic sibling. Malcolm has asked for it repeatedly, and I often find him looking at it on his own. He likes the pictures, he says, because they’re drawn by a kid. And, he says, “I like to read about the boy with autism. I like his story.” Prep, I hope, for when he encounters this kind of non-verbal, severely autistic kid in the real world. If my boy can be someone who sticks up for such a kid, and not the jerk face who bullies him, I’ve done good.

2. The at ease in the wild goal: We work on this a lot. My kids are getting to be good hikers, they’re excellent swamp walkers, amateur entomologists, and adaptable to sleeping in a tent anywhere. Yesterday, Simon, playing in a sand hole at the beach in Maine, found several sea worms (small ones, not the big ones that can deliver a strong bite). He cupped them in his hands and said, “Mom, are these worms stunning?” My heart was already full to bursting. Then he looked out toward the ocean and said, “Mom! The waves are scurrying right toward me! It’s so beautiful!”

3. The reading goal: there’s been no question on this one; we read every day, sometimes all day. We read before bed, after lunch, in the car, under a tree, while camping, at the beach, and definitely at the kitchen table. While the boys breakfast on Kix and almond milk, they require me to stand tableside and read to them. The other day, I looked up from the book and saw that Malcolm had not touched his cereal and was gazing off with his spoon poised above the bowl. “Malcolm,” I said, “You need to eat your breakfast.” “Sorry Mom,” he said to me, “The story was just so interesting, I forgot to keep eating.”

I think I’m doing alright.

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Budget games: terror rabbit

At the end of a long day with the kids, when we’ve already gone to the library, caught frogs, played in the sandbox, and read until I’m hoarse, the children are not done yet. This is the desperate time of day when the exhausted parental brain devises games like terror rabbit, with simple or nonexistent rules, and a secret desire not just to entertain, but also to terrorize just a little bit in retribution.

Terror rabbit requires nothing but a creepy stuffed animal and a bit of stealth. Our stuffed animal is a rabbit my sister Kata made for Malcolm out of a tube sock. This rabbit has dead, button eyes, a grim set to his mouth, and no visible limbs. To play terror rabbit, you show the child the rabbit, holding it at a comfortable distance. Then, when the child has looked away and is not suspecting it, you hold the rabbit very close to the child’s head such that when he turns around, he comes nose to nose with the dead-eyed limbless bunny. And that’s it: terror rabbit. Try it with your kids today!

Creepy, but how fast can a legless rabbit move anyway?

Oh dear God!

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Last summer, Malcolm picked up a very beat up blue Sesame Street plastic lunchbox circa 1987 with someone else’s name on it at a thrift store. He used it as it was all year long, and now, with kindergarten looming in the fall, it seemed time to give this thing a makeover. We’ve used the insulated types of lunchbox, but the lining always peels away and you can never really get them to stop smelling like rotten broccoli and cheese. But these old school, simple, uninsulated lunch boxes are easily cleaned and clearly very durable, so we were willing to invest a little time in bringing this one back.

Sesame Street appears to be suffering some urban blight on this lunchbox.

Sometime in 2009, I tore a few pages out of one of my Audubon magazines and saved them for an unknown future project. The images were of dozens and dozens of different beetle species arrayed against a white background. (The photographer, Christopher Marley, does amazing things with beetles, and you should check out his article and photos.) I dug these beetle pics out of my desk, and set to work on the lunchbox.

I intended this post to be more of a how-to, and less of a gloaty, show-offy before and after, but I forgot to take pictures in the middle. Still, it’s a very simple project that anyone can do. First, you peel off whatever’s left of the old picture on the lunchbox, and clean the surface with soap and water. Let it dry. Then, cut out a picture, or make a whole collage if you like, to fit in the rectangular depression on the front of the lunchbox. I used Mod Podge to affix the magazine pages. The key is to smooth out the pictures so that no bubbles or folds remain. If you use thick paper, you can use a ruler to smooth the surface. If you’re using something thin, like magazine pages, be a bit more delicate in your handling. I used my fingers to smooth out the pictures.

Once everything is stuck in place, let it dry completely. I added a “The Beetles” logo I printed off the interwebs. If you do this, make sure the ink is totally dry before you glue it in place or you will get a smeary mess. After it’s all dried, you can use the rectangular depression to your advantage: I poured a whole bunch of Mod Podge right on top of the picture and just smeared it around like cake frosting (or what I imagine cake frosting would be like if I had EVER made a cake.) Then, let it dry. It starts out alarmingly opaque, and will take several hours to fully dry to a translucent finish (at least it did in the swampy humidity here in New England that makes me want to die.)

Then, voila! A brand new, kinda hipster, kinda cute, revamped 80s lunchbox for your 2000s kid! Or for you. I confess to coveting this thing. The Mod Podge is a pretty durable finish too, so you can wash the lunchbox thoroughly. I wouldn’t recommend the dishwasher, but that’s a small price to pay for a one of a kind item like this one.

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I went clothes shopping this week. This is a rare event for me since I am minimally interested in fashion and am, perhaps as a result, exceedingly frugal about clothing. Ten dollars for a shirt? Highway robbery! Which leaves me with few options, most of them falling into the thrift store or yard sale categories. Fortunately, one of those thrift store options is the Salvation Army Family Store. I shop thrift stores heavily and have since childhood, and I tell you, no one beats the Salvation Army for prices, inventory, and sheer diversity of product. The best couch and chair set I ever had, emerald green in some sort of crushed velvet, came from the Sally. A pair of 70s era patchwork vests I wore as an 8th grader until they disintegrated? The Sally.

Pretty, pretty rainbow: the “organizational system” at the Salvation Army Store.

Stuff at the Sally is unbelievably cheap. Cheaper than Goodwill, cheaper than Savers (another large format thrift store), cheaper than your adorably, fastidiously curated thrift store in the yuppie section of town. The reason for these amazing prices is in the completely unintelligible way in which the store is organized. At your up market thrift store, you can head directly to a rack of pants in your size, or cardigans, or tshirts. The Sally utilizes no such system. It is organized the way a preschooler or a lunatic would do it. Mostly, it’s organized by color. In the red shirts department, for instance, you will find everything from a tank top bearing a truck stop’s logo to a silk blouse to a Christmas themed fleece with sledding penguins on it. Sizes are unpredictable; a 2XL will hang right next to a petite small. So unless you have very specific color guidelines you’re following (“Today, I shall buy only chartreuse pants! Size doesn’t matter!”), you’re looking at a long session of flipping through about 800 yards of racks filled with stuff you mostly hate. There are gems amidst the detritus, but it took me 2 hours to comb through just the pants, skirts and shirts. I didn’t even tackle the sweaters, which are ludicrously housed under a sign reading “Unisex,” as no effort whatsoever has been made to separate men’s from women’s in that broad swath of the store.

House centipede (photo: wikimedia commons)

Stuff from the Sally has a distinctive smell. I have shopped at locations all over New England, and the smell is always the same. It’s not unpleasant, just…weird. Also, since Sallys are generally not located in the finest real estate, sometimes you make a startling discovery. As I shopped at the one in Haverhill, MA, which is in a rather old building, the undulating body of a house centipede appeared on the shoulder of a Christmas themed sledding penguin fleece just above my eye level. House centipedes are harmless, but rather striking in appearance. The first time I saw one, it was crossing the floor of a Little Caesar’s pizza place. I was rooted to the spot, mesmerized, and unable to speak. This time, I recovered quickly and the centipede and I parted ways amicably. Apparently not all ladies are so lucky, as in 1902, C.L. Marlatt, an entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture wrote in Circular #48 – The House Centipede, “It may often be seen darting across floors with very great speed, occasionally stopping suddenly and remaining absolutely motionless, presently to resume its rapid movements, often darting directly at inmates of the house, particularly women, evidently with a desire to conceal itself beneath their dresses, and thus creating much consternation.” Indeed.

All this for $44! And I probably could have gotten the house centipede too.

House centipedes, odd smells, and a pared down atmosphere (no mirrors in the tiny stalls used as dressing rooms, e.g.) aside, you can get some serious deals if you persevere. I got three pairs of pants, including a sweet pair of mustard yellow J. Crew corduroys, two blazers, 10 shirts, and a really shrunken wool jacket that I’m going to make a pillow out of. So if you wake up some morning feeling intrepid, bold, and desirous of adventure, I recommend your local Sally. It’s the green and socially responsible option too, since you’re saving these items from a landfill and choosing not to have brand new clothes made for you by the tiny fingers of children in Eritrea.

It may be harrowing while you’re in the midst of all those rainbow racks and entomological surprises, but you won’t get a better deal on brand name merchandise, and after you run it all through the washing machine (several times) it’ll be as good as new (to you)!


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The feral children in (what should be) their native habitat.

This week, I was invited by elder son’s fabulous Pre-K teachers to lead his class on a “rainforest nature hike” out behind the school. Miss Sue, Miss Samantha (as they are universally known) and I shepherded the crew beyond the chain link limits of the outdoor play area and off into a small woods with a shallow stream running through. Once there, the kids didn’t need much leading at all, except maybe to be shown how to roll away a rock or log and see what lives underneath it. But given a woods, a stream, and some logs, kids innately get it. And so they waded into the stream, and rolled logs, and skidded down slopes and swung bug nets at each other’s heads for an hour or so. I showed them a few things: raccoon prints in the mud, some water striders, sow bugs in a rotting log, but really, I was superfluous.

Which is why I beg everyone, regardless of science background, or nature knowledge, to let your kids go outside to a woods with a stream in it. Or an abandoned parking lot with weeds overrunning it. Or, if you are very fortunate, a sprawling wildlife preserve. But don’t wait until vacation, or until you learn more about the native birds, or until your kids are old enough to look through the right end of the binoculars. The perfect is the enemy of the good, after all, and if you wait until everything is just the way you want it to be, your kids will be gone from you and that’s the end of that.

If you think you need a pristine wilderness, you don’t. The stream we waded in issues from a cement pipe under the road, and meanders past axles, tires, and broken bricks. There was broken glass and an odd smell in the air. The woods were so narrow that you could see clear through them to the apartment building opposite. But if it’s what you’ve got, then go there. A trip to a well groomed playground is great in its own way, but there’s no substitute for stream walking or rock turning.

Even in a strange-smelling stream, one can find wonders like this Ebony Jewelwing (and we had to look it up together).

If you think you need encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, you don’t. That’s what field guides are for. Or google. Don’t worry about what will happen if you can’t answer their questions. They don’t mind that. Just don’t bullshit them. They won’t lose respect for you because of your lack of knowledge, but they will if you pretend to knowledge you don’t possess. Gather your courage, and admit you don’t know, and you invite them to find out with you. And there’s nothing in this world that’s better than that.


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North Point Park in Cambridge, MA from our picnic site under a willow.

There are country pleasures (and they are many; enough to keep me here a long time) and there are city pleasures. We have a number of good friends in the greater Boston area, and we occasionally venture down to visit them. Yesterday, we went on the pleasantest picnic of my life, as far as I can recall, at North Point Park in Cambridge with two dear friends from high school. Apparently, the park’s opening was delayed for two years by a seemingly endless stream of incompetence, bad luck and unforeseen obstacles. But you’d never know it now. The park runs in a green swath along the Cambridge side of the Charles River, right in the shadow of the Museum of Science. The duck boats were running back and forth on the river, and Segway tours from the museum passed in front of the mesmerized boys. Malcolm, our young Alex P. Keaton, asked how may weeks it would take him to save up for one. Then a State Police boat pulled into view, and over its P.A. system we heard, “Orange duck boat, pull over. Fireworks coming through.” The orange duck boat obliged and a huge barge came gliding past, loaded with an arsenal of explosives bound for the Harbor and the 4th.  Not the kind of thing you see at our local park.

Malcolm on the playground after a bracing bout in the water spray section.

It’s not that we don’t have green space or playgrounds here in New Hampshire. Of course we do. But there are things we can’t replicate for our kids any other way than by taking them to the city. One, of course, is watching the State Police yell at a duck boat. Another is proximity to densely packed humans. Another is a cultivated, urban landscape. But as we sat watching the boys play in the water jets at the riverside playground alongside kids who aren’t white, or who can speak languages other than English, I thought of my own childhood in the northeastern reaches of Massachusetts. In our town then, even Jewish kids were a novelty, and poor Guillermo, the exchange student from Honduras, and Omar, the only black kid in school for 5 years, must, I see now, have gotten pretty tired of even our most innocent but idiotic inquiries about hair texture or accents. And God knows what else they put up with that I never saw.

Obviously, an occasional weekend picnic in Cambridge isn’t going to cut it when it comes to multicultural exposure for our kids. New Hampshire, especially our part of it, is one lily-white kind of place. But I have hope. I didn’t really meet anyone who wasn’t a lot like me until I went to prep school. I didn’t really see anyone on t.v. who wasn’t like me either. For my kids, too, days can pass where they don’t see anyone who isn’t white. Or maybe only one or two, and sometimes only on t.v. But I can still take heart since, after all, one of them is the President.


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