Winter Sports

This is why we don't wait for good weather to get outside
This is why we don’t wait for good weather to get outside

Last year, for a period of about two months, we could not take a walk. Every week we got pounded by another storm. Every week we’d laboriously clear the new fallen snow – moving it on top of the shoulder-high piles of snow that had already fallen. We struggled to make it to work. By the time the last foot fell, I was pretty sure that if another storm came it would be physically impossible to dig ourselves out – there was no where left to put snow. Everywhere we walked, we walked in narrow channels between vast and dirty snow banks. My awesome neighbors had a rotating potluck on storm nights so we could get out of our own walls, but eventually the entire world felt constrained and constricted. The walls seemed to compress under the weight of the frigid winter, as though it might finally crush us.

Family snow portrait
Family snow portrait

But some people seemed less claustrophobic. The skiers were ecstatic at the powder. The cross country folks went places they’d never gone before. The snow-shoers had the Fells to themselves. In the heart of this winter vice, we rented snow shoes to see if we’d like it. It was like taking the first deep breath for weeks, to get out into those woods again. My mother must have heard us gushing, because for Christmas this year we got the great gift of four sets of snow shoes, so we can break down those walls again.


2015 was also the first year that the Y offered ski lessons for the boys after school. They got picked up from the Y and taken to Nashoba Valley, where they were learning to ski like proper New Englanders. We signed them up again this year (with a ski group that doubled in size since last year!).

Then, this summer, came word that Stoneham Town Common would host a free, open to the public ice skating rink. For the price of a pair of skates, we could all glide around the common whenever we wanted, with our friends and families. Plus, Grey has started getting invited to open time at the Stoneham Arena (ice rink) on Fridays by one of his friends. When the local used sporting goods store announced they were going out of business, we quickly procured four pairs of ice skates.

So in the course of one year, we went from people with no winter sport proclivities to folks with snow shoes, ice skates and kids who know how to ski. (That’s what last winter did to us!) And now we find ourselves in our summer stomping grounds in the White Mountains. We have switched our regular tent for an unexpectedly swanky White Mountain Resort. I do not ski. I actually cringe if I start thinking too much about skiing, due to major knee injuries from the first and only time I went skiing. But Adam likes snowboarding, and the kids enjoy the slopes too. (Even if they do seem to be geniuses at losing ski gear.) So I’m enjoying hanging out in the resort and working on my book while the guys are skiing. (Edited: here are a few pictures I took!)

Well, at least that was the concept. In reality, it’s difficult to manage two not-strong-yet skiers simultaneously. Right now I have on my left a sweet little Thane-boy narrating the creation of Lego elements telling the story of Lloyd Alexander’s “Book of Three”, which he’s reading at the moment. Adam and Grey are skiing together. They’ll switch off in a little bit.

Brunch was tasty AND scenic
Brunch was tasty AND scenic

I’m enjoying the hygge of a mountain lodge. The scenery here is downright spectacular. The food is unexpectedly excellent. Last night, all the boys were asleep by 8:30. If the time spent skiing hadn’t gotten them to bed early, the hour the kids spent in the heated-to-99-degree pool while having a snowball fight would’ve helped them nod off. I wasn’t tired, though, so I got to spend two hours in front of the roaring fireplace working on my novel and listening to the guy behind me hold court for two hours. (I’m not sure anyone else in his party got a single word in that entire time.)

Of course, the hilarious thing is that this winter has so far been record-shatteringly warm. That ice rink on the common will open nearly a month after it was scheduled to. There hasn’t been enough snow to snow shoe on yet this year. In a Murphy’s Law moment, some of the heaviest snow of the year so far fell JUST as we were driving up here. I had an hour of white-knuckle driving of the highest degree. We haven’t gotten to try the rink yet. A repeat of last year is statistically unlikely, but it’s possible that this winter will be the inverse of last year’s unusual weather. (Of course, we’ll all remind you that the snow started after the Superbowl last year – it hadn’t kicked off by now.)

But when the snow comes, if the snow comes, we’ll be ready to enjoy it!

PS – Here’s a video Adam took of just how white-knuckle the driving was!

The Golden Summer weekends

You know, it’s hard to find a time that is a good time to write a post. By definition, times that I’m free and don’t have something else I should be doing are times that I’m completely exhausted by the living of life. Case in point: now.

But the weekends have been lovely lately, and this one was no exception. Friday we demolished our living room. I surprised some people on Facebook by demolishing the living room without announcing ahead of time what we planned. It’s a simple project on paper: take down the drop ceiling and cheap wooden paneling. Drywall the walls and ceiling. Replace trim and paint. For a pair of softwarey types doing the work themselves, this is no easy task. (And let’s be clear – Adam is doing 99.5% of the work. I’m “project managing”.) I anticipate it should be done before Mocksgiving.

This weekend we managed to turn our lovely dining room:

Lovely, functional dining room
Lovely, functional dining room

Into a disaster area:

Disaster in progress
Disaster in progress

What is it about improving things that so often makes them worse before they get better? We’ve completely finished the demo, and are ready to order drywall. Adam got the furring strips (firring strips?) for the ceiling today. Then he twisted his ankle bringing the heavy stuff in. This may slow things down somewhat. While he was doing that, I was visiting a friend after surgery. It seems like half the church is emerging from the surgeon’s knives, but all of them successfully so far!

The littlest carpenter
The littlest carpenter

The weather this weekend has been outrageously glorious. It’s a bit too cool to drive a person to the beach (the Atlantic remains quite cool even in August). But yesterday we FINALLY after YEARS of thinking we should probably do that some day, went boating on Spot Pond. It was ludicrously easy for us to obtain three boats: two single kayaks and a double. We spent a glorious hour or so lounging around a place I’ve driven past a thousand times, but feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere. The boys particularly enjoyed looking for buried treasure on some of the islands.

Spot Ponding
Spot Ponding
Looking for buried treasure
Looking for buried treasure

Today started with church, as Sundays so often do. Church is taking up a lot of extra thought-cycles with me right now. I’m chairing the Mission Study Taskforce, and feeling very much pulled to ask some really big questions about what it means to be a church, and where The Church (not just my little congregation) will be in 50 years. It’s clear that we won’t be doing what we’re doing now (which is more or less what we were doing 50 years ago, and very reminiscent of what we were doing 200 years ago). I’m feeling really excited about rethinking how we can serve the core needs of God and people (I’ve narrowed it down to three: sacraments, worship/teaching and community – and none of these require a big fancy building).

When I got home, I was oppressed by the number of things I have to do. I swear, the dirty dishes breed when my back is turned. I dealt with this oppression by wandering the neighborhood. You see, I have a long-neglected project to drum up support (by which I mean money) for a historical marker for the Nobility Hill Historic District (which my house abuts). So I figured I’d go take pictures of the coolest houses. At the very first one, I met the brand new owner and spent half an hour chit chatting about the house and the neighborhood. She seems very cool. Then at the next house I stopped to chat with the owner for a while as well. I couldn’t help but think what a neat neighborhood it is I live in.

My new friend watering her garden
My new friend watering her garden

I was on call this weekend, and will be next as well. That makes it hard to do a big adventure, since I need to be in cell range and within 1/2 hour of an internet connected computer. But these small, glorious adventures in the fractally-rich spaces around my home and community, well…. I was just called upstairs to comfort a disconsolate child who tearfully opined that he didn’t want to grow up and leave this home. (See also: massively overtired) I comforted, but I feel the pang too. This stage is so sweet, this life so golden, that I wish I could slow down the falling sands of time. I told him what I do in the face of such urgent sweetness. I take pictures, and I write down the stories of those times, and store them up against whatever may come next.

I want to ride my bicycle

New bike
New bike

I rode my bike a lot as a kid. This was back in another era, where a 2nd grader’s primary form of transportation was not “mom” but “myself”. I had the most beautiful wine-red Schwinn – with gears! I loved that thing dearly. I remember registering it with the police, somberly. (I mean, who wouldn’t want to steal that glorious machine?!)

That bike and I went all over town – to the roller rink, the swimming pool (often), Bonanza 88 (home to things I could actually afford on my allowance). We went to friends houses and parks. All this while I was younger than Grey is now. I remember once when Heidi and I went to the Tri-Cities for a ride on a bike path. There was a key issue which resurfaced several times in my childhood regarding my sister’s complete lack of navigational skills. (Ask me about the time we went to Tumwater when we were attempting to go to Tukwila.) The upshot was that 9 year old Brenda and 11 year old Heidi were massively lost miles and miles from home on our bikes in a pre-cellphone era. I remember being very thirsty and hot. You’ll be glad to hear that we did finally reconnect with our parents at some point.

It got harder when we moved to Mineral. NOTHING was a block away from our first house – it was over a mile to Dick’s store. And once you did that mile there was… Dick’s Store. It’s more like 6 – on steep hills with no shoulders and logging trucks – to the next interesting thing to do. Which was Elbe – not high on the list of interesting. My interest in my wine-red Schwinn waned as my interest in the dark, loamy forest paths waxed.

When I was maybe 13 my sister got in a near-fatal bike accident. I failed to understand the gravity, and made fun of her mummy-like bandages. She would likely have died without a helmet. As it was, I permanently lost my “stitches” competition with her, as she had scars across her face. (Happily, they are not -much- there now.) And that was pretty much the last time I rode a bike. I didn’t really realize it. There wasn’t a moment where I looked at my bike and thought “I’m never getting on THAT death-trap again!” I just didn’t have cause to ride. And so I didn’t.

At my college graduation, my parents offered to buy me an espresso machine. This was a brilliant idea, as I’ve never met a more caffeinated person than myself. Being eminently practical, I asked for a bike instead. I had two months that summer at the college with no transport, working on the college website. And summer at college is entirely different than college at college. I did ride my bike to get groceries, but uneasily. Nervously. Since that summer, it has sat unused in a variety of basements. (I actually got it all tuned and ready to go days before I busted my knee!)

Practice circles
Practice circles

But now my sons are nine and six. Next spring they break ground on the bikeway. Grey already has a small measure of independence but longs for more. In 15 months he’ll be going to middle school – and I have no intention of driving him there. On a bike, a kid from Stoneham can get to a pool, a forest, parks galore, a lake, the soccer fields, golf courses … the world within 5 miles of our house is wide and varied and wondrous. Even if they never take advantage of that liberty, I can’t quite imagine sending a young adult into the world who doesn’t know how to ride a bike, even if they don’t choose to do so. So the last few weeks I’ve been sneaking into parking lots with the kids, attempting to teach them.

Thane doesn’t have training wheels, and is still crashing and burning all the time. (Which is not fun.) Therefore I am spending a lot of time running behind him holding on to him. (Also not fun.) He’s gone two or three pedal strokes, but is not there yet.

But Grey… this last week Grey got it. He’s been able to kind of go 20 feet without falling down for a year or so. But he couldn’t get himself started, or turn, or you know… ride. But this weekend, he figured out how to start from a stop. He’s gone in circles and circles around the buildings. He can stop gracefully. My heart sang at the pride in his face, and enjoyment. “Mom, can we go bike riding tonight?”

On Saturday, Grey and I will go to the Breakheart Reservation and try out the bike trails there. I’m not sure who I’m more nervous for – him or me. But I am sure it’s going to be awesome!

Meme teaching Thane
Meme teaching Thane

Becoming a family

There are two socially sanctioned ways to increase the size of your family: babies and weddings. Adding babies is a lot of fun, but it’s not really a team activity. At most of the key stages, there’s two or a few people there. Also, pictures of the precise events are not, shall we say, to be encouraged.

Weddings, on the other hand, involve a team. Heck, they involve a tribe! And the moment where two people create one family is one of the most public, most photographed and most iconic in our culture.

New family!

My family just grew, this past Christmas. I thought it was growing by one – my sister-in-law Andrea. But then I met Harvey, and it became clear that it was growing by two.

We had almost a week together – my parents, my siblings and my new sibling and puppy-in-law – before we had to kick into wedding mode. The first activity was the traditional Johnstone Christmas, with the uncles and cousins and grandpa’s famous chip dip. I finally got my uncle to tell his war stories, and there were the age old arguments about which Seattle street had housed which relatives. These are the brothers and sisters by marriage in the prior generation whose relationships have lasted for over forty years. It was my oldest family – the family at whose feet I wandered when I was a kid and didn’t think much about what made a family. It was the first time I’ve been together with them in several years, and it was lovely.

Spinning yarns around the Christmas tree.

Then, the team turned to decorating cupcakes to be planets. It’s possible that way too much frosting was consumed. WAAAAAY too much frosting. It’s possible we stayed up a little too late giggling. We siblings by marriage started to get to know each other, under the influence. Also, the cupcakes and cake were delicious and way cooler than anything we could’ve bought.

Decorating. Not all that frosting made it onto the cupcakes.

Over the next few days we added in adventures – we went to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and wandered through a submarine. We watched animation techniques, had dinner together, poked through Powell’s books for an hour and made commando raids to find a better wireless router for the home castle. We talked Space Law & Insurance and then somehow gravitated to book recommendations on the long dark ride home. The week went on and Harvey went on walks, we went on hikes, puzzles got half-started, sewing and banners were created, children hid themselves in the basement and created imaginary worlds inhabited by Warrior Cats. By the time we rang in the new year, we were starting to feel gelled and connected, family-like.

The extended team

As they year ticked over to 2015, the rest of the team arrived. I’d quickly met Bobbi before, but not Joe or Susan. The wedding crew was in place, and we delved into the work with a passion. Fingernails were painted. Flowers (which were ordered but did not arrive) were purchased and crafted. Tuxes were obtained (with much angst – the flowers and the tux were the angst moments of this wedding). We were on the slopes, getting closer and closer together as we went, to the final moments of the wedding.

Group pedicures

The very best moment was the night before the wedding. None of us who had grown up in Mineral had EVER been to the Headquarters Tavern there. Given that Mineral has two churches, a general store, a bar and a post office… this seemed a lapse. We decided to cut apart an hour to go rectify said lapse the night before the wedding. It was fantastic. It’s possible there was head-banging to Bohemian Rhapsody. Some people might have reported that the dulcet tones of Sweet Caroline (so good! the bride is from Saugus) reverberated for the first time in the crawdad traps in the ceiling. It was, generally, phenomenal.

Such a sight the tavern hadn’t seen since fishing season ended

The wedding was beautiful. It was small, but lovely. I played trumpet. My mom performed the ceremony. The bride was lovely. The groom was smitten. The children (and dogs) were adorable. The two people became one family in a kiss.

Practice kiss

It was lovely. We took pictures at the Museum of Flight in Seattle and dined in the Melting Pot in Tacoma. From there, we all fragmented back to our packing and our regular lives. (Funny story about the rv we were staying in and the broken door latch… which wasn’t really all that funny until we found an unlocked window.) Our Kindles as thoroughly mixed up as any French farce could devise we parted – as a family. A new family. A larger, more joyful family, connected by frosting, puppies, submarines, Staples-runs, pedicures, Arbys, ice-crystals, Kindle-swaps and lipstick-color-arguments. Welcome to the family, Andrea & Harvey. Thanks for inviting us into yours. Welcome, Joe & Bobbie & Susan. I’m so glad we are together in this!

Team wedding

The lines between Christmas and wedding are blurry. I have two sets of pictures – the first half are here, and the second half you can find here!

An adventure of 12,000 steps

The last line of the love-note reads, “PS. Cats are already eating flowers. Disaster may ensue. Mea culpa.”

My husband left us for a weekend of gaming, leaving behind a clean kitchen and bouquet of flowers. The boys and I have consoled ourselves with his absence by watching “Back to the Future” last night. This morning, cold and gray but bearable, I hatched a plan.

Tragically, the super cool headband was lost on our sojourn.

It started by winding our way through familiar streets and over long-used routes to Oak Grove – starting point for many a foray and adventure. I held Thane on my lap to keep myself warm (I underestimated the temperature by a layer for myself) and quizzed Grey on Boston’s history. Once on the Orange Line, we whirred past miles of new construction and gleaming buildings rising out of graffiti-strewn rubble, and on to North Station. I know the North Station area very poorly. I’ve spent hardly any time there. So we carefully picked our way across streets, swimming up-current from a horde of Bruins fans come to see them play the Flyers (Phlyers?). I found the Starbucks that was a necessary first stop, and then we discovered the soaring, twirling pathway across Storrow Drive to the Esplanade.

A gray day, but above freezing means it’s worth playing!

Now, I’ve lived in the greater Boston area nearly 14 years, in three different places. As any Bostonian must, I have many times traveled the storied route up the Charles from the Zakim to Brookline, passing past the hallowed markers of the Hatch Shell and Citgo sign. Since my first son took his first steps, I’ve passed the parkingless playground and thought to myself “That looks fun! I should bring my progeny here!” On beautiful days where the sky was blue and the Charles was sparkling with waves and white sails and yellow-sculled boats, and the grass between the road and the water was hopelessly green… I’ve thought how pleasant it would be to stroll up the river.

The zipline was awesome. The kids didn’t need us to tell them to take turns, but lots of parents hovered by the line anyway.

And I’ve never once, in that twice-seven-years, set foot on the Esplanade. So harsh has this winter been that 45 degrees seemed like a downright invitation to make today that day.

I pondered “right or left?” at the bottom of the stairs, finally trusting that there was far more Esplanade to the left and I’d hit something fun if I went that way. My youngest son danced errantly up the path in front of me shouting out numbers that represented the score of some sidewalk game whose rules only he knows (but which apparently involve not stepping on cracks and stepping on anything interesting that is not a crack). My serious-minded eldest took long strides with wide eyes. We saw the very cold boaters on the water. We noticed the pile of their brightly colorful shoes like a spiral on the gangway. We dodged runners and bikers and inline skaters – all faster than we were. And then we finally came to that playground I’ve eyed for years and my sons broke into flat out runs to get there as soon as possible.

Both boys fell on this contraption, but it was designed in such a way that the falls were minor.

And it was WONDERFUL. I recently read a story which has influenced me greatly about Adventure Playgrounds and the disservice we do by trying to make even play risk-free for our children. (Which, yes. I got a call from the Stoneham police a few weeks ago because I let my 8 year old walk two blocks to a used book store by himself. I asked the officer if my son was behaving appropriately and he said he was. Which left me sorely wondering why he thought I needed to be called. I digress.)

So here, in this marvelous playground with soft, bone-friendly falls and risky-feeling fun and other children, I found a spot sheltered from harsh April winds and watched my sons be boys.

The swing did required someone else to push, but the boys just loved it.

For two hours they played. The scaled heights, and fell. They rode the zip line and struggled to return it to the next kid in line. (It was really interesting to watch just how many of the parents “handled” this difficult task for the kids. I watched Thane struggle to pull it back. And I watched him succeed. And I watched him stand a little taller at having done a difficult thing, a right thing, and having done it himself.) At a break in the play, I pushed the boys on this fantastic dish-shaped swing. Grey slung his arm around his brother and they both lay in a sunbeam swinging together – eyes closed. Thane sang a little song to the rhythm of the swing.

There were many paths to the top – some easier and more obvious than others.

A game of hide and seek broke out among the bigger boys, and Grey disappeared behind a wall. I watched his small hand snake out to draw pictures in the dirt as he waited to be found. Thane became fascinated with a wooden climbing structure – color so warm to a winter palette. He was frightened of a particular gap, and drew back afraid. I heard him cheer himself, “I’ll see if the drop hurts.” He took a big breath, swung out again, and dropped. Dusting himself off, “It didn’t hurt at all!” The next time, he crossed the chasm. Moving further around the perimeter, he came to a really high part he could not swing across. He gathered his courage and belly-crawled across a log so very high that my breath caught in my throat. I had to stop myself from singing out “Be careful!” He inched, so scared, across the great gap. He got to the other side. “Mommy, come get me down!” “Thane, you can get yourself down.” And he did. And once his feet were rooted in solid wood chips once more, he immediately went to go do it again, and again, and again. He never got blase, but he did get better.

The section to the left is the high chasm upon which Thane tested his courage and found it strong.

Finally, we got hungry & cold. I struck a path in towards the Common where I knew we could find sustenance. At the end of our blood sugar rope, we found a bistro and had noodles and orange juice and laughed in a lit window of a corner building, hundreds of years old. I showed them the Starbucks my father and I had visited some 19 years ago when I came out in the middle of a blizzard for my college tour. The august establishment was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and I realized that I had been there so very long ago.

I was here 19 years ago with my father, before I decided on the college where I met the father of these two fine young boys.

We wandered the common (wondering if any historical cow dung was still to be found there) until we chanced upon one more playground. There was much less playing before disaster struck in the symptom of a torn thumb nail – truly a painful injury.

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks a nail.

A cold quick journey to Downtown Crossing, then home again, 12,000 steps later.

I was thinking, on our journey, of this same time a year ago. Last April I took the boys to the Circus on a Saturday that Adam was aikidoing. It was, not to sell it short, one of the worst times I’ve had. Thane threw an epic fit, refused to watch half the circus and at the end I carried him a mile over my back kicking and screaming to the T. I despaired of ever adventuring again with him. But over the course of this year, my four year old has grown to a much more mature five year old who was indefatigable and cheerful the whole time (Two-hundred niney-two! Two-hundred-ninety-three! He counted his points the entire trip.) My eldest, sorely injured as he was, was a solid and cheerful companion.

How lucky I am to get to have adventures with these children as they grow!

My sweet sons

Hiking the Appalachian Trail (or 13 years of marriage)

Camp Grampers
Camp Grampers

Camp Gramp time is usually a week when Adam and I slip away, and remind ourselves joyously of why we chose to marry each other in the first place. It is appropriate, then, that Camp Gramp week almost always falls on our anniversary. On August 5th of this year, Adam and I marked thirteen years of joyful marriage together. Thirteen has always been a lucky number in my family, as my parents married each other on a Friday the 13th. I’m feeling 13 years lucky myself, these days.

Anyway, the rhythm of Camp Gramp was shifted a bit because my brother had obligations into the second week of August, and this year Camp Gramp was to be held at my brother’s manse* in New York. This had the effect of moving Camp Gramp week into Gencon week – two sacred obligations colliding. Since I could schedule time with my husband another time, I am sending him with goodwill to Gencon where – I am reliably informed – he has the best schedule he has yet gotten (possibly due to some algorithmic javascript software he wrote to help him rejigger his schedule on the fly.) So this year, there was no Istanbul, Austria or Ashland for us.

Still, there was the weekend. We left Friday night – after a full day’s work. This was – of course – the Friday night where the beer truck dangled off the side of the freeway. (An incident only amusing because I ended up making it home in good time due to some excellent and thoughtful reaction by MBTA employees, and because no one was hurt.) I fetched our farm share, prepared that which would not keep, schlepped the rest of it in the ‘fridge and consigned the three watermelons and two vast cantaloupe to Camp Gramp consumption. We packed full the back of the car and cossetted our sons with pillows and blankets.

Come and sit by my side if you love me

The last pink traces of sunset found the Flynn family singing “Red River Valley” in the car, with certain young voices picking up the refrain. I thought as I sang “Come and sit by my side if you love me” about Michael. I remember him crying when I crooned the old words to an infant grandson of his, remembering his lost brother Jimmy. And now those small voices from the back seat may someday fondly remember the same strains, and their beloved brothers. One of those small voices begged anonymity, as though I would ever find a love of singing something to be ashamed of, so you will never ever know who sang so sweetly back there.

Through construction, leaving the Red Sox broadcast area, crossing the mighty Hudson and late into a starlight night we went. Only I was awake when we finally got to Middletown. My mother was waiting for me on the steps – waiting up for me to pull in to the driveway, like she has done so many times. Small bodies were carried upstairs – perilously close to the last time that will be possible. Cantaloupe were unloaded. Blessed flat, soft surfaces were revealed.

How silly is that Unka Matt in the window?
How silly is that Unka Matt in the window?

We left not too late the following morning. It’s funny how little time is required to fall into the cadence of your family. For me this is a blessing – I’m very fond of my family. I ate breakfast, kibbitzed with my brother, brushed my niece’s hair, took a picture of the four of them – Thane clinging to his Kay, Grey with a comradely arm around his Baz – and we were on our way. We only forgot four things, and we hadn’t even left town by the time my mom called to tell me of it.

It was 11 on a Saturday morning, and my husband and I were at LIBERTY. We went shopping. We ate at Denny’s. We pointed the car northward in search of an elusive hike on the Appalachian trail. By the way, in case it ever comes up, I highly recommend searching for a particular unmarked trailhead on the Appalachian Trail as an excellent way of discovering and becoming intimate with the rural ways of Connecticut. We sought for signal to update our directions in the high places of grassy, half-forgotten graveyards. We went round and round main square intersections looking for signs. We accosted random hikers. We went on one-lane, washboard gravel roads thickly papered with no-trespassing signs. We did u-turns. We drove past horses and pastures and woods and rivers. We went past shoulder-high corn, dappled streams, private schools and mansions in Salisbury.

The author, on the Appalachian
The author, on the Appalachian

We finally gave up, and hiked a different section before turning around to Kent for our night’s repose in a fancy inn. Any implication that I picked the Starbuck Inn because of my coffee leanings is purely hypothetical, mind. We had a lovely dinner at the Fife and Drum, right next to the pianist. We laid out in the dewing air and watched the Milky Way stretch itself luxuriously across the country sky, hardly blemished at all by any falling Perseids.

The next day we got a good start on the morning, up in time for the breakfast part of bed and breakfast. Our host, calloused feet clad in sandals, regaled us with tales of what we’d missed the prior afternoon. The portraits and maps adorning the walls of the well-kept colonial attested to the fact that Starbucks had been in New England a very long time. I wondered if he was the hippy scion of a long and proud lineage. Anyway, two blocks to town for a cup of coffee! But look! The bookstore is open! I consider it a moral duty to stop at small local bookstores and find things I desperately need (even if you can get them cheaper at Amazon). So we found the new Arthur translation by Tolkien, and books for the boys. But hardly had we gone a block before we discovered the library was having a book sale! Tables and tables of trade paperbacks, clothbound books, best sellers and all manner of odd books were laid out. Well, that set us back long enough that I had to get a refill of my coffee before we left (happily, four times as many books cost a tenth as much as the bookstore). Finally, we were awa’.

Actual Appalachian Train - I have proof!
Actual Appalachian Train – I have proof!

This time, we did find the Appalachian Trail. We walked our way up the gold and green Connecticut hillsides, punctuated by old stone walls and periodic views. Adam was nursing a hamstring injury (a parting gift of aikido) and a nasty cold, and I was still trying out my new knee, so we didn’t go to far. But we talked and laughed and ate pretzels and talked through the latest developments in Season III of Downton Abby. We noted various interesting bugs and talked about how astronomy and atomic theory seemed on the point of convergence, like a fractal. We missed our children in the cheerfully satisfied way parents miss their children when those parents are perfectly satisfied that the children are having a blast and not missing them at all. Finally, we turned back (the path racing below our feet as we returned). We wound our way north over 7 and returned with abrupt reality to bad traffic on I90 – two days and a vast refreshing distance since we had traversed it Westbound.

And here I am now – at over 10,000 feet – on yet another business trip (missing my husband of 13 years, and my still-satisfied-to-be-gone children). It’s remarkable that although the days seems to blur together in an endless March of sameness, when I cast my memory back I find so many joyfully memorable moments popping up.

Business travel is losing what allure it once had by novelty, but yet I am content. Thirteen years I’ve had with my husband, and two bonny bright children. A thousand joyful memories we’ve made together, along with a home and a life strong enough to endure. I hope for thirty and thirteen more. Maybe then we’ll do the whole length of the Appalachian Trail together!

Housatonic River Valley
Housatonic River Valley

*I discovered later in life that manse actually has two meanings. In a New England context, it’s synonymous with mansion and means a fancy house. In a Presbyterian sense, however, the manse is the house that the pastor lives in. It usually specifically means a home provided for the pastor by the church. It is in this second sense I use it – since it is a classical manse, so close to the church as to almost be touching and built in a similar style. We actually lived in The Manse (a double-wide trailer) for two years when I was a young girl.

Camping with kids in the 21st century

The last camping trip we undertook was, as I said, a Fine and Pleasant misery. Near constant rain, freezing temperatures and winds conspired to keep us damp, cold and in the tent or the car for most of the trip.

This is what bliss looks like
This is what bliss looks like

This trip, a mere four weeks later, could hardly be more different. The temperatures were literally double Memorial Day, making gentle waves between 90 and 65. We had a spectacular time this trip. For the first time maybe ever we just stayed in the camp and went swimming and sat around and generally had a superb time. (Well, except for our trip to go see Despicable Me II, which the boys thought was hilarious and which Adam and enjoyed enough.) All in all, this camping trip was one of the most enjoyable we’ve ever had as a family.

Last time I went camping, a number of my friends and readers mentioned that they’d love to hear how one goes about camping these days. (Ok, so maybe that was one person… but it totally counts, right?) Having once again read far too much McManus this trip, I’d be happy to offer my expertise on the topic.

I was trying to remember why I decided to go camping the first time. I mean, I’ve loved camping since I was a little girl. I remember camping when I was five and my mother was pregnant with my brother. I loved wandering the woods, building dams in mountain streams. I loved the sound of the zipper on the tent, the patter of pine needles on the canvas roof. But for reasons that escape me, Adam and I did very little camping while we were unchilded. I think I thought I was too busy, when in fact I was just prioritizing wrong. I was also, in truth, still a total snob about East Coast vs. West Coast mountains and disdained the mountains and woods that were available to me.

But likely the summer I was pregnant with Thane I realized that this was it. This was my life. I lived in New England. I owned a house. And if I wanted to go camping with my kids, I would need to go camping in New England. My longing for backpacking as a family, of reading by the stream while their feet went numb and they built a dam, would only happen if we actually went camping.

Actually taken two days before the famous "dance class" picture
Actually taken two days before the famous “dance class” picture

Thane was 7 months old the first time we went camping as a family. I, more or less at random, picked White Lake State Park for our trip. It had facilities (a bathroom, running water), it was a reasonable drive for us, and it had a very highly rated beach. I figured it was as good a start as any. That first camping trip, I don’t think we had any chairs. We brought the pack ‘n’ play for baby Thane. We bought a cheap tent at Target (which I loved, by the way, until it died a good death this year). We froze because I didn’t bring nearly enough blankets. It was tough to work camping around naps and babies and lack of expertise. But yet, somehow, we kept coming back. Nearly every trip back, Adam and I review the trip and make notes on what we should do differently next time. We’ve gotten to a point now where it is pretty optimized and all we need to do is make adjustments for the particular time of year and the boys’ stages in life.

This year we attempted fishing.
This year we attempted fishing.

So… if you, dear friend with small children, were thinking about camping, what would I recommend?

First of all, gear. We have always had insufficient car space to take all the gear I’d like to take. I joke that our camping trips are equivalent to a space shuttle launch, in terms of our careful choice and selection of gear. The absolute minimum requirements are: a tent, an air mattress for the grownups, a chair for each person. Chairs are unexpectedly key; trust me. Most of the rest of the gear is small and/or optional. It’s definitely wise to have a light source per person and a knife. My husband will add that you should have roughly a thousand feet of rope and three tarps – definitely preferable if it rains. Tents start to leak under sustained precipitation. Then there are the nice-to-haves: table cloths, wood-shop class name plates (I don’t have one and confess to actually wanting one. I have years to go until my sons take woodshop though. I wonder if Boston suburbs actually teach woodshop?) Finally, approximately a thousand toys, which should be doled out to children gradually over the trip.

Food is actually a challenge. I have no problem planning breakfast. First morning: eggs and bacon. Second morning: pancakes and bacon. Third morning: instant oatmeal. Lunches can be managed with a loaf or two of bread, cold cuts, cheese, peanut butter and jam. Pretzels, cheese sticks, apples and snack foods fill out the lunch. Oreos and smores are the traditional desserts. Dinners, though. Dinners are tough. Usually we have hot dogs/sausages the first night. I tried hamburgers, but they never turn out tasty. Sometimes I’ll bring a soup – either a frozen stew I made ahead of time, or two cans of some sort of Campell’s. But usually I only plan on eating at the campsite for half the time – the rest of the time we’ll eat out.

Next summer I bet Thane will be reading too
Next summer I bet Thane will be reading too

And that’s one of the secrets of my brand of camping: we don’t stay at the campsite most of the time. We go on “Car walks” up the Kancamagus Highway. We go climb a local (small) mountain. We drive to North Conway or Lincoln for various excuses. (Starbucks!) We visited Mt. Washington and the Polar Caves. We bring our food with us, so we can stop and make our lunch wherever we find ourselves. But it’s nice to go to a nice clean restaurant and have dinner out. These car walks started, I think, because Thane had so much trouble napping in a tent and so much less trouble napping in a car seat. (A fact that remains true even today. Someone is snoozing in the back seat as I write, which would not be true if we were at the site.)

So one secret to camping with small children is to not be a purist. Our camp site has lovely amenities. It also has full cell phone coverage. We eat out while camping. We watch movies. We have digital devices, although we try to save them for times when there is not too much opportunity lost.

Key: build traditions. Have a favorite diner you stop at on your way down. (Like Miss Wakefield’s.) Stop by a little roadside stand. Have a favorite hike, or cookie, or campfire song. Have a set of toys that are sacred to camping. It takes very few times to have something become a tradition when you have small kids. Three times is plenty.

Our Miss Wakefield ritual is down to the exact parking spot
Our Miss Wakefield ritual is down to the exact parking spot

Finally: Starbucks Via is a great way of getting your morning coffee. Just putting that out there.

So how about you? Do you go camping? Are you horrified at how many compromises I’ve made to pure camping? Are you horrified at the thought of coin-operated showers? Have you found a great way to bring your kids camping? (Or your spouse?) Do you aspire to go camping? Do you have any logistical questions I have failed to address?

MLK day at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Thane is skeptical about the red-sweater dress code
Thane is skeptical about the red-sweater dress code

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day we headed to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. We have an embarrassment of riches in Boston, when it comes to great museums, which is my only excuse for never before having come to this particular museum. Also, there are no mummies. There was a time in my life where this meant a great deal. (See also: last year.) But finally the right moment came to take the trip to Cambridge and check it out!

The trip started, as most trips to Cambridge do, at Alewife. The kids still find the T to be an enjoyable and novel experience. Tragically, they do not have the cultural background to spend the entire T ride humming “Charlie on the MTA” the way I did for the first, oh, five years I lived in Boston.

On the T headed to Cambridge
On the T headed to Cambridge

Adam works in Cambridge, and I have been there pretty often. It was therefore quite surprising to realize neither one of us had ever been to Harvard Square. We walked through it – as the fastest way to get to the museum. I kept waiting to feel smarter. Instead, I mostly felt like a Japanese tourist.

The toe was shiny from rubbing
The toe was shiny from rubbing

The museum was a delight. It was 50% modern museum with excellent interpretations done by people with PhDs in interpretations designed to be interactive for the target demographic. Basically – a great modern museum. But the other 50% was the creepy, paper-noted, formaldehyde-ridden, dusty, wooden, ancient and slightly menacing type of museum right out of Lovecraft. The air smelled of ancient radiators and the banisters were worn from use and there were rooms with mysterious brass plaques on the front door. One of the volunteers admitted her entire motivation was to get into the back rooms – closed to the public – and see what was there. It was very cool.

Modern: photographic interpretation
Modern: photographic interpretation
Lovecraftian: evolution as shown through skulls.
Lovecraftian: evolution as shown through skulls.

There were also lots of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are really cool. Oh, and a coelecanth! (Not living, obviously. But, er, recentish?!)

Dinosaurs and bizarre creatures
Dinosaurs and bizarre creatures

After we did the “dead animals” side of the museum, we went over to the “interesting rocks” side. Bridging the gap between the two was an amazing room full of glass flowers. The crazy thing about these flowers is you would never ever ever believe they were glass. They were astonishingly realistic. Such a thing was a vast labor. It will never be done again – we have no need. We can photograph and freeze dry and sequence dna and do all manner of communicating and saving information on plants. But this tremendous artistry attempted to faithfully reproduce the ephemeral. It’s remarkable.

These are made from GLASS.

The minerals rooms was particularly fun since we’d just seen a very similar (much more modern) exhibit at the Tellus museum. Adam liked the natural fiberglass best. I liked this stunning piece. I’m pretty sure that my mother-in-law would turn it into a necklace if she could

This was my favorite piece

In the final room – about climate change – I actually learned something completely new. I had no idea that earth’s orbit was erratic over tens of thousands of years. I thought our orbit was pretty stable – other than annual variations.

We did wander a bit through the Peabody Museum (they flow into each other), but lunch beckoned. We found ourselves with two rather tired hungry kids at a local Cambridge landmark.

We had to explain who Johnny Cash was, because Thane was in his seat.
We had to explain who Johnny Cash was, because Thane was in his seat.

We ended the trip just sitting on these really cool old shoeshine booths in the Starbucks at Cambridge Square – just sitting together and talking and watching the world go by. I need more days like that in my life.

Zonked out at the shoeshine chairs at Starbucks

You can see all my pictures of the last, um, week here!

A life full of remarkable events

Random picture, because this topic does not lend itself to photography
Random picture, because this topic does not lend itself to photography

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend and I said, “A remarkable thing happened to me the other day!” With a loving exasperation in his voice he replied, “Of course it did. Remarkable things are always happening to you.”

“Huh.” I thought. “Is that true? And if it is true, why is it true? And if that is not true, am I causing people to think I’m more exciting than I am?”

I remember when I was a young girl, just WAITING and YEARNING to be in the midst of scintillating adventures, just like my older sister. I mean, around her people said the funniest things with the best timing, and there were remarkable happenstances and meaningful events and symbols. Obviously the world was a more interesting place when you were [two years older than I was]. Then one day, at the edge of the age of innocence, I heard her tell someone else a story about an event that she and I had both been to together. And it sounded so awesome – so much cooler and sophisticated than the standing around doing little and feeling awkward and out of place that I remembered. Then I realized. I was never going to get old enough that my life would be as exciting as hers. The difference was not that she lived in some glamorous world – it was that she was a much, much better storyteller than I am. (Still is, truth be told. All of you should bug her to resurrect her blog writing. Until then we’ll all just have to content ourselves with her book reviews.)

In some ways that’s what an online journal, or blog is. It’s a distillation of the good parts, with an editorial judgement leaving the trivial, mundane and unpleasant on the cutting room floor (unless they’re funny). The blogs that tell the reader a narration of “what happened in my life today” – unless you are Samuel Pepys – are for the most part only of interest to those who already know (and love) the writer. I’ve written one of those too. This kind of blogging is taking a moment (preferably with pictures) or an idea (preferably with pictures) and writing a sort of modern-day essay on the topic. My best blog posts have theses that I develop and conclude. Sometimes there are more than one. This one has two. See if you can find them. But anyway, unless my misfortunes are really funny or thought-provoking, I don’t tell you that I had a lousy commute today, or I’m trying to schedule my laundry a week in advance looking towards my next free night, or that I ran out of patience before bedtime hit tonight. Instead, I spin an entire story – up all by itself for a week – about the 15 minutes we sat on the lawn waiting for the parade of bats and making up stories about the pictures in the clouds. Or I tell you about what it means to me to have finally graduated to “bad guitar player”, who can play “Scarborough Fair” and “They Call the Wind Mariah” on the guitar. (I got taught the F chord today, for those of you following along on Facebook.)

I try to tell you fun stories. (With pictures.) And to tell stories, you must live stories. To write this way about your life is harder (unless you are Emily Dickinson) unless you are out doing stuff, preferably new stuff, often. I have always had a bent towards adventures – big and small. My children feed in to my desire to go out and do things. It’s a long, long day when we’re all home all day. In fact, I’m not sure I remember the last time that happened when no one was contagious. But part of how I experience those adventures is in the role of a narrator – your narrator. I see and adventure, or a journey, or a beautiful moment not only as a participant, but as a recorder. This might seem to cheapen the experience, but for me it actually deepens it. Without the writing down (and being reminded later when some random Google search brings the post back up), and the pictures… the memories become indistinct and no matter how lovely, they fade into the golden wash of these young-child-years. I’ve lost more beautiful moments to that indistinct fog than I care to count.

But I’ve saved from the compost of memory so many others; carefully canning them with words and a sweet jelling of photos. A little pectin and pressure, and I’ll enjoy those memories for years. Yes, they’re idealized. I throw out the bits I don’t want to keep by not writing them down. No, my life is not that perfect/organized/sophisticated/profound. And yes, perhaps my life is a little more adventurous (and a little more photographed) than it would be without the motivation of putting it all down here afterwards.

For mother’s day, my eldest son made me a huge card with a silhouette on one side, and a personal letter from him on the other. I must say that he hit on the parts of being his mom I think I do best:


Lilac loveliness

Grey and Adam admire the nest. Thane tries to grab onto Adam's backpack.
Grey Thane and Adam admire the nest. Thane Grey tries to grab onto Adam's backpack.

It was a busy weekend this weekend – even by my criteria. There were about 6 loads of laundry, 3 sets of dishes, two lawns mown, a three year old’s birthday, two aikido practices, one jello mold attempt and one 60s dance party. And that was just Saturday.

Today after church, I decided the weather was so lovely that I had to find my way down to the Arnold Arboretum for my annual sniffing of the lilacs. It was glorious weather, and glorious sniffing, for all it was two weeks before the planned Lilac Event, with the warm spring my timing was perfect. We wandered, romped, rolled, rough-housed, sneaked, ran and sniffed to our heart’s content. I realized, actually, that this annual event last year was just about the last time I walked without limping in the last year. I was much better, but very nervous on the rough ground today.

Anyway, the pictures I took reminded me that oh! I have a camera! And I should maybe download the pictures on it!

So here you are: a few pictures from recent days!