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Casual Friday in the Continental Army

Casual Friday in the Continental Army

I have been remiss. I have allowed two days to pass without mentioning George Washington’s birthday. Rest assured, the occasion did not go unmarked in the Courchesne household. On Friday, we used a cardboard box to make puppets. Once they were constructed, (Simon’s looking like a blob on a stick, but purportedly a monster, and Malcolm’s like a guy in jeans and a mullet, but purportedly George Washington) it was time to devise the theatrical performance.

Malcolm and Simon set up the puppets on the coffee table and Malcolm announced, “There will be several pit stops.” “Pit stops?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, “like when people watching need to go to the bathroom.” “Ah, intermissions,” I told him. He then began the play. Thirty seconds in, he yelled, “Intuition!” “It’s intermission, Malcolm.” “Oh, ok. Intermission.” But there were two more “intuitions” yet to follow in the next two minutes alone.

The overall theme of the play seemed to be the Siege of Boston and subsequent end to the standoff upon Henry Knox’s delivery of cannon from Fort Ticonderoga. Script as Malcolm wrote it:

Washington: “Henry! You have brought the cannon! How many?”

Henry Knox: “All sir! We even saved every one from the icy waters when they went down.”

Washington: “We will rain cannon fire down on the heads of the British!”

What followed was a confusing battle scene that ended with Puppet George Washington leaping from the stage onto the couch and giving me what appeared to be a lap dance. The descent into absurdity was complete upon the arrival of the blob-on-a-stick monster, as I think you will see upon viewing their video.

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I promise, after this, I’ll write a few short, pithy, light-hearted posts. But this one, I must do now, for the obvious reasons.

I believe in civility, and I believe in civic engagement, so usually I try to encourage public participation in our democracy no matter which side of the aisle your guy may be on. But I confess, as we get close to election day, I am feeling a pit of anxiety opening in my stomach. My family is political on every level, from town referenda to Presidential primaries, and I always feel the stakes are high. But this time, I really mean it.

On the Mall on Inauguration Day, 2009.

We went to an Obama rally in Concord, NH today, and stood in line for 3 hours to stand in the press of a crowd 300 yards distant from the occasionally visible President. 14,000 other people and our kids were with us. They were also with us on a freezing day in Washington D.C. four years ago when we stood with millions of other people to watch this same President sworn in. Simon, our second son, was still in utero, and Malcolm, running a fever, was mostly confined to his snowsuit and blanket draped stroller. The crowd in Concord today was different from that inauguration day not just because it was a bunch of reserved, mostly middle-aged New Englanders who prefer dignified (though firm) clapping to indecorous hooting and shrieking. It’s different because this President’s been up to his elbows in work for four years now, and with our firm clapping and firm set jaws, we’d like to see him through.

Uncannily similar, four years later in Concord.

I don’t generally get weepy or maudlin. I do not cry at weddings, and I do not watch chick flicks. But today, listening to the President talk about teachers, and about opportunity for every kid, I found myself with an unexpected catch in my throat. So much so that I had to give up indecorous hooting and merely clap. Because here’s why I’m a Democrat: I’m a smart and talented person. But that is not nearly enough to make it. I am now what some might derisively call “an East Coast elite.” But it was not always so. My family generally had what we needed growing up, but not all the stuff we wanted. My mom went to nursing school at Northern Essex Community College with 4 kids at home. I did a lot of babysitting. We shared some tiny bedrooms. I went to public school up through eighth grade, and was pushed and challenged by Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Miller, and Mr. Doran, who gave me extra time, and special assignments and good books and told me about the existence of prep school, and that I should go there. So I did. And so I kept company with the elites for four years. I won’t say some of my best friends are hedge fund managers, but many of my acquaintances are. I didn’t appreciate how hard my parents worked to be able to afford Exeter until, clutching a fistful of acceptance letters from some of the very best private colleges, I listened to my father tell me I couldn’t go. We couldn’t afford it.  And so I went to UMass instead. My wild, sprawling, chaotic and wonderful state school out in the Valley. We could afford it. We could afford it because Massachusetts invested in it on my behalf. We could afford it because what wasn’t subsidized by my state, I could loan out from my country.

And then, with my four years done, and my diploma in hand, I went to veterinary school at another East Coast Elite institution: Tufts. But for a Massachusetts kid, that too was subsidized by the state. So heavily, in fact, that when the state hit tough times, and the subsidy was wavering, I contemplated what I would do after I had to withdraw from school. But the state came through every time, and I got that degree too. All the things I’ve accomplished may be my own, but the chances given to me were the gifts of a faithful and optimistic government.

Now, I teach at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. My students are moms in night classes, Iraq war vets on the G.I. bill, immigrants on Pell grants, and 25 year olds who can stay in school now because Obamacare lets them stay on their parents’ insurance for another year. This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do with my degrees. I won’t ever get rich off it, and it probably won’t ever pay off my own student loans. But I am no victim, and neither are my students. We are the next in line of long generations who wedged a foot in the door of this country and waited for their children to pry it open a little wider. There’s more than a little light getting through the space we’ve made in that doorway now, and I bring my boys, my exhausted, cold, hungry, good boys, to these events even if they’ll never remember it. Because I need to show them what I believe. That we are none of us able to to open that door all the way in one try, in one generation. But we’re nearly there now, and I want them to look behind when they go striding through, and remember to grasp the hand of the stranger running to catch up. Born Americans, but bred Democrats.

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The art of sardine cans at the Maine State Museum.

At either end of a line connecting greater Augusta with greater Waterville, Maine are two museums that perfectly book-ended my two weeks in the state. For both, I have Wayne Curtis’ Insider’s Guide to thank, and thus the East Kingston Public Library from whence I borrowed the book. In his section on the Maine State Museum, Curtis writes that it shouldn’tbe off the beaten path, since it’s right next to the statehouse in Augusta, but for some reason, few Mainers know about it, and basically no “from-away”ers. This makes for a very quiet and unhurried museum visit. Only a handful of other people were there the day we went. Perhaps it’s the forbidding, gray concrete exterior with “Library Archive Museum” in easily missed lettering. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that Augusta is no bustling metropolis, nor a major tourist destination. In any case, we had it basically to ourselves.

The museum covers all things Maine, from sardine canning, to archaeology, to lobstering and woolen mills. It’s four floors of beautifully curated exhibits, artifacts, and life-size dioramas with mannequins that look just on the verge of coming alive (this unnerved Malcolm deeply). The recreated carpenter’s shop looks like he only just stepped out, with flakes of wood strewn across the floor and tools lying on the workbench. A waterwheel in the basement churns away as the river flows past, and that wheel in turn spins gears all the way up through the four floors to replica work floors of a sawmill and the loom room of a cloth factory. The mechanism is visible on every floor through plexiglass. It’s all quite remarkable. The natural history galleries are marvelous, including the very popular and macabre taxidermic heads of two bull moose with antlers locked in their final, fatal combat (they were discovered that way, dead of dehydration and the brutal efficiencies of natural selection.)
For a museum of this caliber, it is scandalously inexpensive: $2.00 for adults, $1.00 for children over 6. So you’ve no excuse. Except perhaps that you never go to Augusta. But perhaps you should, if only for this museum.

At the other end of the Augusta-Waterville axis in Hinckley, Maine, is a strange and wondrous place called the LC Bates Museum. Dark, moody, and almost gothic in its atmosphere, it is a natural history collection of arsenic-dusted animals gunned down for science in the style of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Housed in a 1903 building that retains all of its period feel, this collection has very nearly supplanted Harvard’s Museum in my grim, morbid heart. Another absolute steal, admission is a mere $3.00 per adult. Though, you should be forewarned, the building is unheated in winter, which I can only imagine adds to the general ambience of this fantastic place. After emerging from the museum into the dazzling light of day, my mother and I both felt we had somehow fallen through a rabbit hole into a parallel universe. This sensation was enhanced by our subsequent visit to an enormous antique barn in the middle of nowhere (at least by our Massachusetts born standards). But that is a story for another time.

Sign on a locked door in the basement of the LC Bates Museum. How can one not love this place?

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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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Rainy day? Deadly humidity and temps of 100? When you’re tired of the pool, or the skanky pond in your hometown, hit a museum! While we moved away from the Worcester, Massachusetts area about 3 years ago, we still go back to visit friends there on occasion, and there are approximately three attractions in Worcester that are worth traveling to. (Sorry Worcester). The Higgins Armory Museum is most certainly one of these.

The collector: John Woodman Higgins. I don’t know what to say about this portrait.

The man who assembled this collection of arms and armor, John Woodman Higgins, was evidently quite the eccentric. How fitting then that the portrait of him hanging in one of the galleries is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. Gazing up expectantly at…what? An empty suit of armor? A man dressed as knight? Higgins appears ready to sweep the clattering metal figure onto his bony lap and stroke its pointed bascinet.

Nonetheless, I am grateful to people like Higgins who collect and collect and collect, and leave behind this kind of memorial. For those of us without the means to travel to Europe, this collection, “one of the few significant collections of knightly armor outside Europe” gives us a chance we would have nowhere else here in New England, certainly. And I say this despite my usual derision of Worcester.

Our family is of exceptionally low birth, but we let the boy dream, just for a day.

Perched atop one of the city’s famed hills, the Armory is an imposing building several stories tall. My sons were in love before we were even out of the car. Inside, the boys were captivated by the play gallery, where kids can build a castle, complete with faux stone arch, and no one gets hurt when they start smashing each other in the face with the gray vinyl blocks. There’s a dress up area, and a chance to try on the staggering weight of a mail shirt and breastplate. An outsized medievally-themed version of Battleship kept them amused for a surprisingly long time.

Ideally, one moves on from the play gallery only once the children have worked out their destructive energies, because the remaining galleries are your standard look-but-don’t-touch sort. Still, the top floor galleries are constructed to resemble a castle, and have just the right amount of darkness and dankness. The variety of armor and weapons is truly impressive, and apparently accommodated all body types, including this suit of armor made for the pear-shaped knight. One imagines that the suit is lined in Mom jeans:

All the accessories in the world can’t hide this unfortunate knight’s pear shape.

Another fascinating find: many suits of jousting armor with what are termed “lance shields” built in, ostensibly to bear the full force of a lance impacting the torso. I submit to you, however, their striking similarity to the “nursing covers” used by yuppie moms to offer surreptitious sustenance to their infants.

Is that a harried, Renaissance-era, “youcanhaveitall” mom under there?

The evolution of joust armor? Motherhood is a daily battle after all.

Perhaps I was particularly enamored by this museum because I am simultaneously watching the Showtime series  The Tudors, and reading Hilary Mantel’s new book Bring Up the Bodies, about the fall of Anne Boleyn. That notwithstanding, if you have any interest in history whatsoever, I think you will enjoy this well curated and well presented museum.

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After riding and driving past the puzzling sign on Route 97 in Salem, New Hampshire my entire life, I have at last ventured to America’s Stonehenge. Billed (by the proprietors) as a 4,000 year old prehistoric complex of granite chambers and stone calendars, the site was given its lofty moniker back in the 1980s. Before that, it was known as “Mystery Hill Caves.” The name change occurred to make the destination sound pseudo-archaeological, and less like a roadside attraction (“World’s Largest Twine Ball!”), but a strong thread of hucksterism still prevails at America’s Stonehenge. The goofball gift shop, the hand-lettered signs, and the cheeseball “recreated Indian wigwam” alert the visitor that this is no museum run by stodgy WASPs who practice archaeology as an avocation.

Yes, this is a bath mat being used to represent a hide at the "Indian settlement."

For some inexplicable reason, there is an alpaca farm at the site. But there are no guides, no tastefully done interpretive signage. There is just a two page pamphlet riddled with misspellings that gives such inscrutable descriptions as, “Sacrificial table is believed to have been used for sacrifices, not only for its size and the oracle speaking tube beneath it, as well as the carved channel on the top of the table.” These “educational” materials seem deliberately vague as to the age and origin of the stone channels and caves here. Radio carbon dating has confirmed use of the site by Northeastern Indians, but the “sacrificial stone” bears a striking resemblance to the lye-leaching stones used in the 18th and 19th centuries to make soap. The idea that a series of vertical stones set about the site were an ancient astronomical calendar seems questionable too, especially when reading this gem from the pamphlet: “This stone marked the southernmost set of the sun almost 4000 years ago, but is off today because earth’s tilt (obligity) has changed.” Obligity?

This sign greeted us upon arrival. I knew then that this trip would be amusing.

The name, America’s Stonehenge, does the place a disservice, elevating expectations that are inevitably dashed upon seeing a series of low granite walls and warren of cellar holes and root storage areas. And the idea that Druids came to America thousands of years before the English colonists and built these things is not only goofy, but detracts from what the site really does have to offer. Clearly, this place was used by native peoples for their fires, and tool-making, and agriculture. And an eccentric 19th century farmer named Jonathan Pattee was apparently responsible for some of the structures, as this was his homestead until the mid-1850s. But the whole matter is muddied by the efforts of William Goodwin, who bought the site back in 1937 and apparently had many stones moved to what he felt were their “original” Druidic/Celtic locations. His modifications altered the place quite profoundly to support his pet theory, and made it all but impossible to say for sure what went on at this place over the past few millenia.

So, if you go to America’s Stonehenge, and I do recommend it, you can see whatever you want to see in these stones. I am not troubled in the slightest by the prospect that they may just be the heavily modified cellar holes and potato storage areas of a 19th century New England curmudgeon. You can’t beat the feeling of crouching into a dark, granite walled chamber, feeling the temperature drop around you, the leaves and damp under you, and just sitting in silence for a bit with two awestruck little boys.

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