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


How scared should I be?
How scared should I be?

My plan for today was to wear all Boston gear, for a Boston pride day. Red Sox shirt, Patriot’s sweatshirt, Red Sox jacket (probably not needed – it’s a nice day!). While I was getting dressed, I pulled up my work email just to make sure that I wasn’t going to be client-facing. Red Sox t-shirts are not generally considered business attire, but it seemed like a small way of expressing the indomitable spirit of the region.

Then I saw a note from our CEO asking us to stay home, “in light of the recent news”. I told my husband to check his work email, and texted some friends who have similar Boston commutes. All of us were instructed to stay home.

I waited until the kids were out the door (Vacation camp/YMCA are still on) and then turned on the radio.

Right now, the towns that both my husband and I work in are shut down, with no traffic on the streets. One of those “towns” happens to be the City of Boston, the other the City of Cambridge. I have friends, coworkers, people I talk to all the time… who are in the hard core lockdown zones – both the orange and the red.

That's a lot of people with locked doors
That’s a lot of people with locked doors

My town is a considerable way north, but those cities in red… those are also quiet Boston suburbs. Safe places.

It’s hard to know what to do, what to say. Should I go pick up my kids? Is it ok to go out for lunch? It’s such a lovely day – is it ok to play in a park? In a yard? Or are our lives really on hold until the suspect is caught? Just how freaked out is the right amount for someone three towns away to be? And I’m hearing sirens… should that change my threat rating? (And how is there a vehicle with sirens still in this town?!)

Answer unknown. I will update you folks, but until then, I am fine. We are fine. We will persevere.

Update: I did go out to lunch, to Five Guys. It was packed. Nearly everyone there was wearing some sort of Boston-themed gear: Red Sox shirts, BU sweaters, Patriot’s hats. No one there was even talking about the situation. #BostonStrong

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!

Bus comes, bus goes

You try taking a good picture of the bus while you're running to catch it!
You try taking a good picture of the bus while you're running to catch it!

For two months now, I’ve had a bus commute. Despite living in Boston, one of the few American cities with a truly functioning public transit system (even if complaining about it is a local hobby), I have never had a public transit commute, or worked in the city. I always thought this was a pity. But now, my mornings and afternoons are governed by the uncompromising schedule of the 7:49 and 5:20.

My bus ride and my mile long walk to work give me some new and different things to think about. Ok, let’s be real. They give me some new and different people to think about. After two months, the folks around me have stopped being entirely noise, and turned into signal.

First, the etiquette of the 354 bus is very strict. Thou shalt not in any way inhibit others from sitting down. Thou shall not have conversations with others once thou hast boarded the bus. Thou shalt not talk on thy cell phone. Speaking to others is entirely optional. If you have to add your money to your Charlie Ticket, go last. If you see another bus rider running to make it, make sure the bus driver knows. Always thank the bus driver as you exit. Form an orderly line to get on. Don’t cut to get ahead, but don’t hang back either. It is a courteous and well-managed bus. It is even (usually) on time. Because it is expensive ($5) and requires planning ahead (who wants to get dropped in Woburn casually?), there are very few first-time, or “I don’t care” riders. As in, I haven’t seen one yet.

With this cloak of silence, I’m getting to enjoy some of my fellow riders. There’s the cute red-headed guy in business casual who always, ALWAYS has Bose noise-cancelling headphones on. He may not have ears, and I would never know it. There’s the older, Italian-looking woman with unrealistically black hair who looks like she would be at home selling limonada and tortellini on the Sicilian coast. One of my favorites (ride home only), is this guy who (when it’s not 80 degrees out) wears a trench coat. And he has a moustache – an honest to goodness 30s era moustache. I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw a non-Indian sporting just a moustache. He doesn’t like crowds and doesn’t mind standing, so he often waits at the edge of the crowd and boards last. There’s the guy who doesn’t speak English, Portuguese or Spanish but something that sounds related, and rides sometimes with his 3 year old (?) daughter. He always makes eye contact and gives me a big grin. There’s the woman who has the exact same commute as I do, and in my early days offered me some wry (but helpful) advice.

Then there are the folks who walk the opposite way from me on my way home. I can tell whether I’m early or late by where I meet them. There’s an older gentleman whom I always notice because he is always wearing jeans and he never looks like the sort of person who would wear jeans. He never meets my eyes, but I feel like we’re old friends. There’s a very tall guy with a very round beard whom I like to imagine as a viking warrior instead of a software engineer. (My walking commute is the epicenter of suits, and this guy is always wearing a funny t-shirt, so I think he must be technical.) Today I recognized four “friends” on my walk to the bus. I wonder how many I haven’t noticed yet, versus how many are too unreliable or just visitors. (You can usually spot the visitors. They’re the ones with the tricorn hats and big eyes pulled constantly skyward by marble-atriumed monoliths.)

Perhaps you can tell by my windyness, but I talk to you about these people, these things, almost every day as I walk and watch. I tell you about the gift it is to walk across the sea – even if a small, polite, well-contained bit of it – and watch the tides go in and out. I talk to you about how the eagle statue in Post Office square always makes me think of the Trolloc statues in Wheel of Time Series. We swap tips about how best to cross the intersections (when you can safely dash, when you should wait, where the advantages are of crossing which way). You commiserate with me when (a rare case so far) I watch the bus pull away, separated from me by an uncrossable river of traffic. We smile together every afternoon as we watch the children and parents swarm the Children’s Museum. And then, of course, I get to work or home and I have no time to remind you of our ongoing conversations.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone else notices or see me, the way I see them. Do any of my “friends” (or perhaps ones I have not yet noticed?) think about that woman with the brown hair and backpack, who is always hurrying and sometimes limping slightly? What about you? Do you have friends, people you pass or see every day, whose name you do not now nor are likely to ever know?

Top ten reasons you should move to Stoneham MA

So I’ve been waging a not-very-subtle campaign to get some subset of my friends who are “thinking about buying a house maybe some day” to consider doing so within convenient walking distance of my house. This is entirely selfish. It’s simply much easier to have a social life when you have friends on this side of the Big Dig.

Pony ride during winter fair on Stoneham Town Common
Pony ride during winter fair on Stoneham Town Common

In support of this attempt, I thought I’d put together a top 10 list of reasons you should move to Stoneham Massachusetts.

10. The local paper is hilarious. It assumes you already know everyone important in town, exclusively covers potlucks at St. Patrick’s church, and used to feature a safety column by Officer Rotondi, who was rotund. The safety column was excellent, with advice like “Do not put your credit card on the internet. Many criminals are now using the internet.” Best of all is the crime blotter. Every third entry has to do with someone calling the cops on the “youth” who were found to be loitering. One person called the cops because they saw a deer.

9. The Middlesex Fells reservation is part of Stoneham. Who knew that we had such an extensive quasi-wilderness area in sight of Boston? There are miles and miles of trails. You can take an all day hike, with excellent views of the city skyline. It’s close enough to Stoneham Town center to be a reasonable walk, or a quick bike-ride, and is open for cross country skiing and snow shoeing in winter.

The Fells in Stoneham
The Fells in Stoneham

8. Melissa’s Main Street Bistro has quite possibly the best menu I’ve ever seen anywhere, ever. Better yet, they deliver on the promise of that great menu. They mix an incredibly powerful martini (and delicious!) but the great news is that if you live here, you can just walk home.

7. We’re right at the corner of I93 and I95. You can find no better location for an equally inconvenient commute for you and your partner. We’re also 10 minutes from the end of the Orange Line (depending on where you are in Stoneham, it’s possible to get closer).

6. Stoneham Town Day! September 11th this year! (You can find this actually helpful information buried on page 6 of the newspaper….) There’s carnival rides, booths from every organization in town, balloons, politician’s kissing babies, raffles and fried dough. Fun for the whole family!

5. My neighborhood has a Walk Score of 80, which is very walkable. Grey can easily walk to: a grocery store, pharmacy, library, bank, post office, police station, park, ice cream parlor (2), about 15 restaurants, live theater, mechanic, bike store, hardware store, furniture store, homepathic store, dance studio, martial arts studio, 5 salons, and best of all, the Book Oasis. And more! As far as I can tell the only things you can’t walk to are the hospital (4 miles) or a movie theater (5 miles).

4. Local politicians actually walk around and knock on doors to personally introduce themselves during election season. I find this both charming and useful. I’m sure it happens other places, but I promise it never happened to me any other place I’ve ever lived.

3. The town square. It’s un-selfconsciously exactly what you imagine New England towns that predate the Revolutionary War to be. It has the bank, post office, funeral home, church, fire station, police station, town hall, park and Honeydew Donuts clustered around it. The church carillon plays music every hour on the hour between 9 and 9. Stoneham Town day is held there. During the summer they hold concerts on the Band Stand. Santa comes to visit in the winter. And every Tuesday in summer and fall we have a Farmer’s Market! You can see people taking strolls, sitting on the bench, or playing Frisbee on unscheduled evenings. Charming!!!

2. Housing prices have held up. The median home price is down about 10% from the peak and has risen this year. Stoneham boasts a nice mix of single family houses, multifamily houses for rent or purchase as a condo, and apartment units. It’s a demographically diverse and well-educated community, but not so upper class that you won’t be able to find a place here you could afford.

And finally, the top reason you should consider moving to Stoneham Massachusetts….

1. I live here, and you could hang out with me!