Road Trip 2018 #1 – Say Cheese!

Brace yourself for lots of posts about this year’s Pict Family Road Trip.  Long time readers of this blog may recall that in 2016 we took two weeks and drove from Pennsylvania as far west as Chicago before pivoting back and returning to PA.  Reaching Chicago in a week felt ambitious then.  What then do you think about the fact that this year we had to drive as far as Chicago by the end of our first day?  Yup.  What we took a week to do two years ago we did in a single day this year.  It’s not just because we are utterly crazy – though there is that – but because we needed to reposition ourselves in order to make the rest of our plans work.  It was a loooooooong day of driving and it really felt long but the kids were absolute troopers and didn’t rage or rebel once.

We spent the night in Munster, Indiana, our bellies full of deep dish pizza.  The first proper, official day of our vacation, therefore, found us in Gary, Indiana.  My 11 year old is a Michael Jackson fan so we, of course, were compelled to visit his childhood home.  The house is privately owned so can only be viewed from the street but it was worth a brief detour to see it just to appreciate how modest Jackson’s beginnings were.  I have lots of siblings and grew up in a somewhat over-crowded house but the Jackson household must have been bursting at the seams.  It is quite fascinating to reconcile the flashy, lavish-living man Jackson would become to how humbly his life started out and to ponder over the relationship between his alpha and omega states of being.

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After departing Indiana and whizzing through a corner of Illinois, we were in Wisconsin.  This was my first time in Wisconsin and meant I could claim* it as my 31st state.  When I think of Wisconsin, I think ‘Laverne & Shirley’, beer, and cheese.  The latter was our chosen theme for the day.  I am both a cheeseaholic and lactose intolerant – not the best combination but it means I am also a tad obsessed with cheese.

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We headed to Monroe and the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, which proved to be a much smaller scale than we anticipated.  The museum was tiny and centered around the mid-19th Century Imobersteg cheese factory.  It proved to be the most perfect welcome not just to Wisconsin but also a lovely, gentle start to our road trip.  When we stepped inside the museum, we were greeted by an ensemble of chipper elderly women.  One of these, Joanne, was assigned to be our guide and she was wonderfully warm and welcoming and also a trove of information about cheesemaking past and present.  We enjoyed our time spent in her company.

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We learned about the Imobersteg family, immigrants from Switzerland, who determined to make their traditional cheese in their new surroundings.  Inside their tiny factory, we were led through their process involving copper kettles, a special metal jacket to keep it at the perfect stable temperature, a harp to break up curds, presses, brine baths, and hot and cold storage.  Joanne got the boys to act out various parts of the process, such as swinging the copper kettle on its arm.  My favourite thing in the tiny factory was the funny little window hatch through which local farmers would pour their milk.

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Inside the museum, we watched a video showing a modern cheesemaker replicating the Imobersteg’s process and creating an absolutely massive limburger cheese.  We also saw various artefacts and Joanne informed us about the arduous process of becoming a master cheesemaker, farmers operating as cooperatives, and the cheese quality grading system.  One of my favourite items in the museum was a one legged milking stool, the design of which was to permit balancing on steep slopes.

Obviously after learning about cheese we absolutely had to go and get some cheese so we drove a little further into Monroe and stopped off at an outlet and deli selling all manner of cheese and associated munchies.  They had lots of samples available which the boys fell upon as if they were wolves after a lean winter.  For the sake of my digestive system, I exercised maximum self-control, though I would be lying if that didn’t mean I still nibbled a few pieces of cheese.  We bought cheese and crackers enough that lasted us days of on-the-road lunches.

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We thought we should go and have a squizz at Monroe’s city centre and were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely town square.  It was neat and shiny as a pin and was filled with independent stores, boutiques, and eateries.  They also had a series of wooden sculptures placed around the square that were on an outer space and sci fi theme.  The younger boys had fun running from one to the other which kept them moving in the afternoon sun.

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We took a series of winding country roads past beautifully maintained farms and interesting dilapidated properties I would have loved to stop and photograph.  We noted that even the grounds of the run down properties were well maintained. So much green! So much corn!  The problem with being in a rural area, however, was phone reception.  I did not own a smartphone until we emigrated to the US but I have assimilated and become dependent on it for navigation in unfamiliar places.  It was, therefore, weird to be back to using traditional maps to plot our course to Dodgeville, our abode for the night.  The problem, of course, is that traditional maps can only get one so far.  When it comes to locating things at street level, a map book is no use.  We, therefore, took a while to find our hotel even though Dodgeville is far from a sprawling metropolis.  The kids loved the hotel pool and the fact that they could walk to get dinner and explore instead of getting back in the car – at least until the next morning.

 

*My rules for claiming a state are that I have to accomplish two out of three things while within its borders: sleep, eat, or pee.  Therefore, while I have been in both New Mexico and New Hampshire, I am not permitted to claim and count them because I only did one of the three things in each.  I am as strict with applying my rules as I am obsessed with visiting all 50 states.

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My First Rodeo

A couple of weekends ago, Mr Pict decided we needing to do something fun and different and spontaneously got tickets for a rodeo.  Mr Pict had been to a rodeo before, when travelling in either Wyoming or Montana, but it was a first experience for the kids and me.  I am always up for trying new things but the kids were not sold on the idea, not even the horse daft 10 year old.  It has been grotesquely humid and stinking hot here in Pennsylvania lately so Mr Pict had opted for the evening rodeo.  Partly the kids were aggrieved that we were having to go out for the evening instead of them playing video games or watching a movie but I was glad that we had because it was still pretty steamy out even as darkness fell.  For me, the only downside to the evening show was that I didn’t have enough light to take decent photos.

We started our jaunt outside the arena where there was lots of food, drink, and paraphernalia to buy.  My youngest son had to be dissuaded from buying a cowboy hat.  The boys love fairground food so they leaped at the opportunity to gorge on funnel cake and my 11 year old bought himself a massive pickle on a stick.  What is it about sticks that makes the food more festive?  I cannot say that I can even guess the answer.

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We entered the arena and found a spot on the bleachers that gave us a decent view of the performance area.  Having never been to a rodeo, I had no notion of what to expect or how things worked.  I decided to treat the whole experience like an anthropological study since I knew I was going to be set apart from the action rather than being properly engaged in it.  The atmosphere reminded me a lot of the Redneck Festival we had found ourselves at three years ago.  I never even began to figure out how the events were scored.  Clearly an element of it was to do with time, how long each rider could stay on the horse or the bull, but otherwise it was all entirely obscure to me.

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The first event was the one I always associate with rodeos: folks wearing cowboy gear riding on horses that are desperately trying to throw them off.  Not a single rider lasted for very long.  Each one was “blink and you miss it” fast.  I couldn’t really follow what was going on in any great detail.  To my mind, most impressive were the chaps who were stationed on horses ready to get into the fray and rescue riders and lasso horses.  They had real skill.  The next event involved riding on bulls.  Bulls that were annoyed.  Completely crazy.  Why do people do this for sport? Again, no rider lasted very long.  It was over even quicker than the horse riding.  One bull fell on top of a rider, which made everyone in the audience gasp, but the bull got to its feet and the rider limped off as if it was just another day at the office.  Seriously, why do people do this for fun?  While the bucking horses and bulls were ridden by all male riders, there was an event that was all women.  That involved riding horses at high speed around barrels in a specific order.  Obviously the quickest horse and rider were the winners.  If you can imagine a horse doing a skidding handbrake turn, then that was what was happening as the horses pivoted around the barrels.  The angle of the horse to the ground was pretty shallow.  It was pretty impressive.

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There were “entertainments” between the events.  One of these was a Mexican cowboy who performed with a lasso while standing on a horse.  I don’t really understand how to make a lasso work at all so I couldn’t detect what was extra fancy or tricky about the things he was doing.  Folks in the crowd who did appear to understand, however, appeared to think his lasso jiggery-pokery was a bit special.  Then there was a clown who performed for the crowd within the arena.  There were clowns everywhere at the arena; it was teeming with them.  I have a lifelong clown phobia thanks to a dreadful early experience at a circus.  These clowns appeared to be members of the organisation holding the rodeo and fundraising for charity.  Despite their good deeds and honourable actions, they just made my flesh crawl.  My oldest son told me that rodeos are well known for having clowns and I should have expected it.  I hadn’t.  It was a shock.  Anyway, the clown doing the entertaining, however, was simply dreadful.  His patter was stilted and lame and from a bygone era, not one I am nostalgic for either.  My sons were aghast at the misogyny and xenophobia of the jokes.  At one point during a singing skit, my 10 year old had his head in his hands just willing it to end.

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I think we all felt that the rodeo was an interesting experience and that we were glad we went in order to have that experience.  However, none of us are likely to be eager to repeat the experience.  It just wasn’t us.  At least now we can all say, “This isn’t my first rodeo”.  That’s something.

The Education Learning Curve

Today my children all return to school.  This year, I have two left in Elementary – one of them in his last year there – and one in Middle School and one in High School.  With four boys in three different schools its going to feel like a second job for me to keep on top of their schedules, deadlines, requirements, and commitments.

Every new year of having my kids in American schools has brought with it new challenges for me as a parent.  Between technology developing too rapidly for my grey matter, the generation gap, and a vocabulary gap because of being British, it can be difficult for me to understand what a homework assignment even requires the kids to do.  I do a lot of googling and watching demonstrations of methodologies on YouTube.  This year, however, with one kid in High School, I feel like I am in for an even steeper learning curve than ever before.

My oldest and I attended a High School induction day a couple of weeks ago and that revealed to me how out of my depth I was.  I went all the way through High School, an undergraduate degree, and a postgraduate degree, and I then taught High School.  I am, therefore, well versed in education and the transition between primary, secondary, and tertiary education.  In Britain.  When it comes to how all of this functions in America, I have next to nothing.  And I had better learn quickly because the years are rapidly flying past.

The talks that were delivered at the induction event involved a huge amount of assumed knowledge.  Acronyms were being bandied around with no allowance for anyone, like me, who had only a scant idea of what they stood for, what concepts they represented, or how they pieced together into something coherent.  What I think I grasped, however, is that there is a through-line from the beginning of High School to its conclusion that will determine prospects for tertiary education.  Yikes.  I thought I had a couple of years to figure this stuff out.  Apparently not.  So I need to hit the books myself now and get on top of such things as GPAs, SATs, ACTs, credits, dual enrollment, AP courses, and all of those other things I am clueless about.

This new experience, this new area of life I need to research, is another stark reminder that my adult life and experience was all but reset to zero when I emigrated.  Whole areas of my knowledge were voided and made irrelevant and – even after nearly four years of living in America – I am still a stranger in a strange land trying to fill those gaps in knowledge with new learning.  I am an old dog so new tricks are hard but I will work hard to understand what I need to know.

The Unvisited States

Last week’s prompt for the Art Journal Adventure was to incorporate a list.  I am a big list maker.  It helps me process things mentally as well as being an organisational tool.  I always have several lists on the go at once.  Most are traditional paper-based lists but I also maintain some as computer files.  I sometimes get a bit control freaky about my lists.  I am one of those people who writes their shopping list according to the different sections of the supermarket – nothing freaky about that obviously since it is just common sense efficiency – but if I accidentally write an item in the wrong area of the list or if I don’t have enough space to neatly add an item into the correct area or if I just make some other sort of error, the handwriting equivalent of a typo, then I have to write my shopping list out again until I have a “fair copy”.  I have sometimes written a shopping list out five times just to get it perfect.

I could have used the evolution of a weekly shopping list as the basis of my art journal page but I am not sure how visually interesting that would have been.  Instead, because I am still focused on travel – since we just got back from our road trip and since my kids are going off, in pairs, on vacation with their grandparents – that was the subject my mind drifted towards.  I decided, therefore, to record a list of the US states I have yet to visit.  It is very much on my bucket list to visit all 50 states.  Mr Pict is actually only missing three (North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Alaska, since you didn’t ask) and maybe for that reason he doesn’t quite get why I am obsessively intent on “collecting” more states.  Upsettingly, before I undertook this journal page, I thought that as of last year’s road trip I had been to 31 states.  However, when I added up the number of unvisited states on the completed page, I had twenty.  What?  That couldn’t be.  I thought I had been on 25 states prior to last year’s road trip where I then added six more but it transpired my base calculation was incorrect.  A previous art journal page had led me to think I was on the half-way mark back then.  Nope.  I had included New Hampshire which I actually have no claim on.  As I have explained before, in order to claim a state I have to have done two of three things within its borders: pee, eat, sleep.  Although I have been in New Hampshire, I did not do two of those three things.  I, therefore, cannot claim it and am reduced to just 30 states visited with 20 left to go.  This art journal page is, therefore, a sort of check list I can return to after future travels around America.

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Now I need to devise another road trip that has a route through as many of these states as possible.

Small Differences: Dentistry

There are two stereotypes about teeth that we all know: Americans have big, wide mouthed smiles; British people have wonky teeth.  Studies show that there is no real difference in oral health and hygiene between Britain and America but the perception of vastly different aesthetics remains.

I have lived in America for almost four years now and still every time I visit the dentist for a check up I imagine the dentist recoiling in horror when I open my mouth and reveal my ever so British teeth.  Truth be told, my teeth are pretty skew-whiff even by British standards – perfectly healthy but very crowded and crooked.  Compared to my American peers, however, they are a complete and utter mess.  The first time the dental nurse at our American practice looked in my mouth, she asked me if I was British or Russian.  It was that obvious that my mouth was not tended to by American dentists.  I never felt self-conscious about my teeth back home in Scotland but here in America I most definitely do.  Cosmetically pristine teeth are clearly valued here and mine don’t pass muster.  I may have made it to the age of 41 and have only one filling but that doesn’t mitigate against the visual mayhem of my mouth.

I think the key to the different dental experiences may be in a different approach between the two cultures.  I cannot compare US dentistry to private dental care in the UK because I have never been to a private dentist.  For the five years when I malingered on the waiting list of an National Health Service dentist, I never had an oral emergency that compelled me to seek out a dentist and pay private fees for the privilege.  Throughout my childhood and all but those five years of my adulthood in Britain, I was treated on the NHS.  This means my dental treatment was heavily subsidised (great for the budget) but it also means that the appointments were pretty perfunctory.  In contrast, my US appointments last for an interminable amount of time even though all I am having is a check up and routine cleaning.  The hygienist actually performs the bulk of the treatment.  This involves lots of ponderous poking and prodding and then a professional cleaning that lasts so long I have to stave off panic attacks.  Only after that marathon is completed does the dentist appear to look over any xrays and give my gob a final, brief once over.

Every single time I go to my check up, either the hygienist or the dentist – and sometimes both – will comment on the overcrowding in my mouth.  It is as if they find it grimly fascinating to contemplate the abyss that is my British mouth.  My teeth are not straight, they overlap, and my lower wisdom teeth came in at right angles to my other molars (though to be fair my UK dentists always found that weird too).  Even the dental hygienist, an expert flosser, has occasionally trapped a piece of floss between my teeth because there is so little space between them.  When I first moved here, the inevitable follow up question was whether I had ever considered orthodontistry.  You can probably imagine their looks of surprise when I tell them that I had a mouth full of metal for almost six of my teenage years.  I don’t think they can comprehend that the mangled mouth they see wide open before them actually represents an improvement on what was there before.  I decline each time the subject is raised.  I have lived with my wonky teeth for enough decades now that I can just accept that this is how they are.  I have endured braces for enough years of my life and don’t need a redux.  Besides, I have to shell out a whole heap of dollars on my kids’ orthodontisty.

Sadly, yes, at least two of my children have inherited my British mouth.  Apparently I have a tiny jaw, especially the mandible, and I have transmitted that “defect” to two of my offspring.  My 10 year old is already in braces because, aside from the crowding, he also had a dramatic crossbite, and my youngest will start orthodontic treatment as soon as he has a couple more adult teeth.  In addition to all of the metal and wire work in his mouth, it has been mentioned that my 10 year old may need to have some teeth pulled to create space and will need a palate expander.  That aspect of the treatment diverges from my experience of having orthodontisry in 1980s and early ’90s Scotland.  I had no teeth pulled and certainly didn’t have my palate expanded which, therefore, means that no extra space was ever created in my apparently minuscule jaw for the relocated teeth to move into.  So, while the six years worth of metalwork pulled everything into line, as soon as all of those devices were removed, my teeth simply began to drift back – especially once my wisdom teeth came in when I was in my mid-20s.

Even with very good dental insurance, the out of pocket cost for the orthodontistry is a major expense.  Multiplied by two kids, that expense becomes eye wateringly winceable.  They need the treatment for physical reasons, not just cosmetic ones, but I also think it is important to their self-esteem that they have winning smiles that fit in here rather than having my experience of people looking quizzically at teeth that look like collapsed tombstones in a long abandoned cemetery.  I am, therefore, going to stick with my awfully British teeth so that my children’s mouths can evolve to become more American.

From Surviving to Thriving

Today marks exactly three years since my four children and I stepped off a plane from Britain to join my husband and their father and embark on a new life in America.  Three years is a weird way-marker because in some ways it feels like we have not been here that long and in other ways it feels like we are way more established here than we would be after a mere three years.  We are inbetweeners.

Looking back, I think the first year of life here was very much about just surviving.  Back then I was so focused on getting through each day and each new challenge that I could not distance myself enough to have adequate perspective to recognise that we were just surviving.  I was just putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes stumbling, but mostly moving forwards.  However, so much has happened in these first three years that have helped us put down roots and start to feel settled here.  We bought a house – which was a massive deal for starting to “belong” – and everyone got settled into rhythms and routines, adjusted to new schools and work places, made new friends, developed new traditions to meld with the old ones we imported from Scotland, passed driving tests, and the children officially became American citizens.  Now I alone am the only Green Card holder, the only alien.

All of these things mean that we are well out of survival territory.  But nor are we quite thriving here yet or at least not in every area of life.  The transition takes far, far longer than one could ever anticipate.  It’s a long journey.  And there are road bumps.  And tolls.  And wrong turns that need to be corrected.  We are still moving towards the same fixed destination but it is just taking a bit longer than we expected.  So, to mix my metaphors, we are in this weird No Man’s Land between Surviving and Thriving.

Long time readers might recall my Lego nightmare and how it became a metaphor for our immigration experience.  I am happy to report that most of the Lego sets have now been rebuilt and are displayed on shelves and played with regularly.  However, there are a few sets left to build and there are some that are going to be extremely challenging to rebuild because it seems that some critical pieces are missing.  We will get there with the Lego and with the feeling of being settled enough to thrive.

Lemonade Stand

This Labour Day weekend, my four boys got to experience an American tradition: running a lemonade stand.  They suggested the idea and we supported it.  This was not something they would have experienced back home in Scotland so we were keen to let them do something that their born-and-bred American peers have probably done.

They made a gallon of lemonade from scratch, all taking turns at squeezing the juice from the lemons using the citrus reamer.  I think they liked how aggressive they were getting to be with a kitchen utensil.  I am given to understand now that actually the American tradition for lemonade stands is to use a powder mix as the base of the drink but never mind.  They had never made lemonade from scratch before so that just added to the joy of it all being a new experience.  I also baked chocolate brownies for them to sell.

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We left them to come up with the promotional posters and to decide on things like the price points.  We provided them with a float and showed them how to set out their income and expenditure accounts, a basic version of course, and then it was time for them to set up their stall.  A Saturday of a holiday weekend and with a storm predicted was always going to be slow going so I used the modern grapevine – Facebook – to send a message around the neighbourhood that they had set up stall and were selling freshly squeezed lemonade and brownies.  What was lovely was that so many neighbours stopped by to give them some support and encouragement, financial and verbal, but they also got some passing trade from cars driving through the neighbourhood and from our mail man.

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It was, however, still pretty slow going and so they learned something about the boredom involved in certain retail ventures, about handling a rush period alongside stretches of inactivity, and finally about the math of determining profit.  They actually made a surprising amount for a couple of hours of work and were quite pleased with their earnings.  I think they had hoped to rake in much more, however, so it will be interesting to see if they wish to repeat the exercise next summer and – if so – what they might do differently.  It was fun to see them experiencing something new about America, something that is a tradition for many American families, but I mostly enjoyed seeing them work cooperatively as a team and having to interact with other people without having we adults hovering as a crutch.  I like to think they have learned some life skills from the whole experience.  They also got to eat lots of leftover brownies.