Roller coaster family

One of the great joys – and hardest parts – of becoming a new family by having children is figuring out who they really are. Do they love to read, like you do? Do they love hiking and camping? Are they morning people or night owls? Do they tend to see things as funny or offensive? Is their first reaction one of compassion? Do they work hard for their goals? There are so many things you discover over time about your children. Many of these things you can influence. It’s hard to get a kid who loves to read if they never have any books around, whereas a constant supply of books and time set aside for reading increases the odds dramatically … but not guaranteed.

Some of these identities extend from the individual to the family. We learn who “we” are. “We” go camping together. “We” play board games. “We” play soccer. For this period of twenty some odd years, we’re a team who does a lot of things together, or not at all.

This weekend, Adam and I asked our family a big question.

Do “we” like roller coasters?

Six Flags New England - I didn't take this one!
Six Flags New England – I didn’t take this picture!

There’s a lot riding on this question. If the answer is absolutely not, then I probably never ride the big coasters again. It’s not worth it to go with reluctant kids, and it’s probably not something I’d do after I have no kid responsibilities. I mean, maybe my life would hold one or two more big coasters… but not many more. With Thane at the 52″ mark, this was the first time we’d be able to investigate and really thoroughly address the question. I confess to being a bit nervous – I really like roller coasters and would be sad not to share that with my kids.

I’m happy to report, the kids loved the coasters.

We tried a bunch: the one built in 1941, the one where you bounce up and down from a great height. We went on the Mind Eraser three times, when a gentle rain dissuaded everyone else from riding it. Then the skies opened and there was thunder, which means nothing was going on. We had lunch (totally breaking from the Pantry Challenge for a day), bought ponchos that were apparently spun from the most precious plastic-sheep ever raised and waited for the rain to stop.

Legit downpour
Legit downpour

This was the best possible thing to have happen, since most folks left at that point. We bought too much fudge and waited. Miraculously, the weather cleared and we had fast run of almost all the rides. It was phenomenal.

Bumper cars were first to open
Bumper cars were first to open

Then we hit the big rides, with very very few lines. Our favorite coaster was the Cyclone. It was a perfect coaster – great drops, twists, upside curves… but not so shaky or vertiginous that we felt like barfing. The kids loved it. We loved it. I think we ran it three or four times.

Grey in line for the Cyclone
Grey in line for the Cyclone
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset

At the end of the day, Adam wanted to do one of the really big coasters. Thane is 52″, not 56″, so there was a category of coaster out reach for him. So Adam and Grey went to do the big one, while Thane and I tested our courage against 300 feet of elevation. Thane loved it. He was phenomenal. After every roller coaster he’d say “That wasn’t even scary! Let’s go again…”

So. This weekend I discovered, we’re a roller coaster family.

Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats
Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats

Mud season in Quebec City

You scream...
You scream…

I’m old enough to have nearly 20 year old friendships… that started in college. Ouch. One of these friends is a true globe-trotter. Spending time together feels a bit like waiting for our orbits to align long enough to get a chance to sit down and share time with each other. He’s ended up in Quebec City for a while, so we decided to take advantage of a few days around April vacation week to drive back up to winter and visit him and his lovely family!

We’re having a delightful time! We’ve rented this loft in the trendy part of the city (which was only slightly more expensive than a hotel room would’ve been). We’ve shared some excellent meals together, and spent much of today navigating mud and seeing the glorious views in this historic city, while enjoying what rumor has it is the first really nice day of spring up here.

The boys are becoming a real delight to travel with. I don’t worry too much about where they are. They’re flexible and fun and insightful. They can read over breakfast with their parents. They’re both really good with the younger kids – it was super sweet to watch Thane playing with a charming 1 year old girl.

A trip where you get to reconnect with the dearest of friends and enjoy your family in the warm sunshine… ah bliss!

Notes from Madrid

I’m finally coming to the close of my period of schedule insanity. I’m not entirely done – the next two weeks remain unusually busy – but at least today marks my last planned travel for… well, ok I have another fun family trip planned April, but I don’t have to fly anywhere for a while.

After eating the last of my lemon meringue pie last weekend, I immediately turned to packing my bags for Madrid. I’d never been to Spain before, and the work agenda left little time for sight-seeing, but being in a new country is always a mind-opening experiencing. I ended up having several extremely fine meals, met many of the locals, and snuck in two museums after work on Thursday. Here’s what I learned:

Weird Madrid art and architecture
Weird Madrid art and architecture

My Spanish is pretty decent, but very rusty
I spent years learning Spanish in school. I never have had the chance to live for even a few weeks in a Spanish-speaking country to move the “fundamentals are good, vocabulary is decent, overall not half-bad” level of fluency I’ve maintained for years to a real fluency. In the last six or so years, since I started really trying to improve my career, I haven’t really maintained my Spanish at all. I was wondering how it would work out in Spain. In most of the traveling I have done, English is more than sufficient to the needs of the day. It feels like everyone speaks some English. Even in Mexico, when I try to open a conversation in Spanish, they take one look at me and reply in English. (Sometimes I get a pat on the head for being an American who at least TRIES to speak another language.) But in Madrid, while most of the people speak some English, my Spanish was totally useful. The first night I went out with my colleagues, my Spanish was better than the waiter’s English, and I translated for the table back and forth. It felt amazing to have it be so useful! During our meetings, most of the folks I was working with were Spaniards. Periodically they’d lapse into discussions on some arcane point in Spanish. Because I shared domain knowledge, I could often follow along, and understand. The longer I stayed, the more of our conversations were happening in Spanish.

The Museums of Madrid
Last night my colleagues left and I was by myself, finally done. In the heart of the city, I headed to a park plaza Google maps had shown me, with some museums mapped. The public artwork of Madrid is odd – combinations of ultra-modern, near-soviet brutalism and baroque ornateness all intermixed in a way that says the city was once richer than it is now. The larger-than-life art deco statues stand above reflecting pools that have gone too long uncleaned. The museums were fun. I am no great fan of Chagall, but there was a retrospective of his and I spent an hour in a dark, cistern-like basement carefully studying his works. I think he might amount to something if he ever learns to draw. (I jest.) All the museum notes were given only in Spanish. But I read them, and I understood them. It was an odd moment – feeling almost Pentecostal to me in the unexpected understanding as the words unfolded themselves to me.

I also went to an exhibit celebrating Cleopatra. I’ve seen better exhibits of Egyptian artifacts in Boston, London and Istanbul. (For that matter, in Vienna as well.) My favorite part of the exhibit was the retrospective of Cleopatra in artwork. Half the time she looks like some silly ninny who just provides an excuse for the artist to show boobs. But some of the pictures of her were resplendent in meaning. My favorite showed her dead – her face lying in shadows – but the pose of her body speaking volumes of both pride and despair. Again, all the text was Spanish, and again I found myself understanding it.

So much delicious in one place
So much delicious in one place

I’m glad to be an adventurous eater
Traveling in Spain is not hard. It was not at all like traveling in Africa, where every night you wondered what was going to happen, and cockroaches were the least of it. But on several occasions I found myself faced with a menu I couldn’t parse. (Menus are actually just about the hardest, since they use such arcane vocabulary – especially in really good restaurants.) I would ask what the most “Madrilleno” dish was (of a companion or a waiter) and then eat whatever they put in front of me. This week I had pig’s cheeks (I think), squid in it’s own ink, grilled octopus (twice) and a couple dishes whose provenance I couldn’t guess. Some of it was exquisite, and some was not to my taste. But I thought about how much more fun my life is because I am not compelled to be picky. I didn’t have to worry whether there’d be anything I could eat. I didn’t even have to limit myself to foods I could recognize from where I’d been before. I could pick the strangest sounding thing on the menu and say “That.” I am not sure how much pickiness is a choice, vs how much it is an inherent value. I’m just rather glad that I somehow got the version that lets me experience new things.

Water and wine are practically interchangeable
The water was super expensive and the wine was super cheap. On several menus, set up “price fixe”, you had your choice either of water or wine. That blew the mind of this Boston-based girl!

I’m really bad at a 24 hour clock
I thought I had an hour more to get to my gate this afternoon than I actually had. Good thing I’m obsessively early, eh?

This set of jet lag was particularly devastating
Perhaps it was because I was still recovering from Piemas. Or I’d been knocked off an hour by daylight savings. Or I was still finding my footing again after 9 days on the West Coast. But this round of jet lag was BRUTAL. We took a redeye in from Boston to Madrid, but they turned the lights on for breakfast at what would’ve been my midnight and so I slept not a whit on the plane. When we got out of the airport, it was nearly 8 am local time, and we hadn’t closed our eyes for a minute. Then each night, between the end of the dinner and the beginning of the next days work there were not 8 hours to be had. Let’s just say that my phone wasn’t fully charged when I had to get up in the mornings. (Slow transformer, but still…) Madrid is a late-night city. The restaurants DO NOT OPEN for dinner until 8 or 8:30! The cafeterias didn’t open for lunch until 1 pm. So we had the worst of both worlds – a Madrid-centric evening commitment and an American-created morning agenda. (Ok, that was totally my fault.) There wasn’t really a siesta to make up for it, either. I wonder how long it will take me to get back to Eastern Time. Hopefully that’s a better transition.

Apparently the hot new sport in Spain is called Padel
I’m writing this sans internet on a flight (I KNOW! Can you believe they expect me to go SEVEN WHOLE HOURS without teh intarwebs?!) so I can’t provide links. But my sources inform me that a sport ‘Paddle’ is all the rage. It’s played on half a tennis court, with a net and a solid paddle. It has playable walls, like racquetball, but is played with a tennis ball and isn’t nearly as fast. And it’s so popular that the folks I was with had Paddle courts in their workplace. According to my reliable sources, it’s very fun but it’s not nearly as athletic and hard on the body as either tennis or racquetball, and you can have fun playing even when you’re older. You heard it here first, folks.

You can see the stadium on the right here
You can see the stadium on the right here

Speaking of Sports
It’s a small sample size, but I’d say the city is more into basketball than soccer (aka football). I was personally saddened by the fact that the Real Madrid playing on Thursday was the basketball team and not the famous football team. I would’ve risked life, limb and pocketbook to be in the stadium for a Real Madrid football game. I couldn’t even summon up an “eh” for basketball. Also, my cabbies upon learning I was from Boston kept going on about Larry Bird.

How many great cities have no great body of water?
As far as I could tell, Madrid has no major body of water in it. It was weird to be in a city where you couldn’t orient yourself to the water. Even humble Merced has Bear Creek. We were trying to figure out how many cities have a layout completely unaffected by a body of water. Las Vegas, perhaps? Santa Fe? Which cities can you name?

I’m not sure what Madrid is like
Sometimes I’d see a building of brutalist cinder blocks, ill-kept, and think of Athens. We’d pass a glorious baroque building (City Hall was particularly lovely) and I’d feel the ghosts of Vienna. The narrow cobblestoned alleyways reminded me of parts of London. But in parts of five days, I couldn’t really get a feeling for Madrid quo Madrid. All the people I met were imports from other regions of Spain. Around meal time glasses of vino, the unsuppressable longing for a home far away (far different) would start to echo across their voices. I still don’t have a feeling for the city, and I can’t tell if one will be granted to me retroactively or not.

Google Fi is awesome
This summer when we went camping in New Brunswick (or as I like to call it “The Trip Where Everything Got Mildew”) we more or less had to shut our phones off after we crossed the border. Verizon’s roaming rates were appalling, and without a do-or-die reason, we had to do without. But as I landed in Madrid and turned on my phone it politely informed me that except for some voice calling, all the rest of my data and text rates were identical to what I’d be paying at home. I did not have to figure out how to navigate a major modern city without a phone. I can never go back – it was so hassleless. I already loved Fi, but this really sealed the deal for me.

Thus the business is concluded. The meals are eaten. The journey home more than half-flown. I return to a more normal cadence and routine to my life (and not a moment too soon – this has been months worth of travel packed into only a few weeks!) I hope my family still recognizes me. I’ve missed them!

Kiss me and smile for me

If you had to sum up your objective in raising kids, what would you say? What’s a one-sentence goal for parenting? I think mine is something like this, “Raise healthy happy humans who make a positive impact in the world, and who are capable of full financial, emotional and personal independence.”

Saying goodbye to brother and father
Saying goodbye to brother and father

Basically, my job as a mom is to make it so my sons, when grown, do not need me. (Hopefully they’ll want me, but that’s another story.)

Clearly, to my mind, this doesn’t start when they’re 22 and turning the tassel on their cap for their BA. It probably doesn’t even start when they’re 18 and walking across the stage to the sound of their name in cheap rented polyester robes for the first time. It started a long time ago, and the work of that independence is in full force.

The long airport waiting
The long airport waiting

I’ve taken steps to encourage this all along. The kids have walked to school – about 3/4ths of a mile along a major road – pretty much every day this year. Grey has gone to sleepaway camp two years now. The kids have regular chores they’re responsible for, and just last week I trained them on how to do the dishes. (Not that I followed up with the educational experience by having them do dishes by themselves…)

He was, understandably, nervous
He was, understandably, nervous

But this weekend marks a major moment. I’m putting my ten year old son on an airplane for a transcontinental flight. (His first question when I told him, “Will I have wifi!?”). I’ve never done this before. The whole unaccompanied minor thing remains a mystery. (I love the advice to give my child a cell phone and credit card. Um, no. I’ll pack some really nice snacks instead, ok?)

Waiting to board
Waiting to board

He’s going to spend February break with his grandparents in Washington. So far I’ve heard of a major financial outlay for Poptarts. We’ve loaded his laptop with the software he wants and figured out authentication for Minecraft when we aren’t present. We’ve got a backpack and a computer case packed. Laundry is being done in support of the rest of the packing. And before dinner tonight I’ll wish him well and walk him to the gate and kiss him goodbye.

In most circumstances I would say “And then I won’t see him for a week.” But things are complex now. My grandmother’s health is very rapidly failing, and it’s not unlikely I’ll see him in California for a funeral in this next week. Death is hard to predict though, so there are almost two branching plans in my mind, with a great moment of uncertainty. I’ll talk more about that later.

He did not look back
He did not look back

But all these things help build independence. The trip across the country. The packing. Even the sudden change of plans and brush with mortality. They help turn a child into a boy. And lay the groundwork for a boy to grow into a man.

The weary traveler
The weary traveler arrives at the gate

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.

Liberty!
Liberty!

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 warm woods

The December weather was astonishingly temperate
The December weather was astonishingly temperate

The weather this winter has been exceedingly unwinterlike. It’s barely dropped below freezing since the thaw finally came last winter. The powerful El Nino that holds us in its thrall is bringing late September temperatures to a December-dark world. So much so that our activities last weekend were a hike and a bike ride. I had thought we’d put the bikes away for the year, but I was wrong!

The hike was more adventurous than anticipated. We started at about 2 pm, with about two hours of good daylight, with an unambitious course. I wanted to visit Doleful Pond, mostly because it’s named Doleful Pond. I also wanted to see the remnants of the old trolly line decaying above Doleful Pond. That section of the Fells is criss-crossed by unmarked trails. It’s easily the most-lostest section of the Fells. But I had not one but two maps! We would prevail! Grey stopped and sketched an interesting section of trees.

The artist at work
The artist at work

As we course corrected (despite my preparations, we had managed to be on the wrong trail. Sigh.) I saw a woman being held up by a man and limping badly. I called out to them and we booked it down the hill to see if they needed help. They did. She had badly broken ankle. We were 3/4s of a mile from any road access. I called 911 and then took off with Grey to guide the emergency responders to her location. Adam kept the backpack and got her foot elevated and worked to keep her from going into shock while we got help. Grey and I made excellent time to the trail head – but it served to make it clear to me that there was no way we were getting her out that way. (I actually slipped on some of the trail and have a livid bruise to show for it now). We met the fire crew and paramedics at the Bear Hill entrance. We drove partway up something that was generously marked as a road but that quickly became impassible to even to their manly 4 wheel drive. (Even under the circumstances I thought it was pretty cool to ride in a fire pickup through the Fells!)

A strange procession
A strange procession

We didn’t get nearly far enough. I led the crew the rest of the way to her on foot. I hadn’t realized just how much of first responding was improvising. As the paramedics stabilized her ankle, my maps became invaluable as we tried to find a better way to carry her out. That was my biggest lesson: maps can be the most critical first aid tool you have. They finally got her on a backboard and carried her out of the woods, and our stories diverged again.

Watching nervously
Watching nervously

The boys did an amazing job. They were both upset by her injury. But Thane was excellent in the role of comforter and care-taker. Grey’s feet had wings as he went with me to find help. I was really grateful, in a strange way, for this chance to show them how it is we should respond when need arises for helpers to help. I also felt really, really glad for the comprehensiveness of our first aid kit and hiking gear. It was a great reminder why we never go into the woods without it.

We walked out – never having seen Doleful Pond – just as the sun was setting.

She’s been in my prayers since. I hope that maybe the bone wasn’t broken at all? I hope her healing is fast, and that we run into her again on some trail in the Fells.