Longwood Gardens and The Last Days of Pandemic Summer

And so our summer has officially drawn to a close with the return to work (me) and school (my sons).  It has been a very peculiar summer, of course.  I am sure most people reading this have had a very different summer from the one they anticipated and planned for.  We, for example, were supposed to fly back to the UK for a few weeks to spend time with our families and attend my youngest brother’s wedding.  Instead, my brother contracted Covid 19, his wedding was postponed and we obviously did not travel to Britain.  We have tried to make the most of our family time, being stuck together pretty much 24/7, but – again, I am sure in common with everyone else – it has been fatiguing and dispiriting.  I think, however, that the transition back to work and (distance learning) school is going to be far tougher than anything we have experienced so far.

We decided to have one last family adventure of the Summer.  Having spent six months avoiding being anywhere peopley, we thought we would brave going somewhere a bit busier but which would still afford us the opportunity to social distance and be safe.  After considering at least a dozen options and discarding them as not having robust enough safety measures, we hit upon the idea of Longwood Gardens.  Not too far from home, largely outdoors, and lots of procedures to mitigate the risk factors.  Mr Pict and I had visited Longwood two years ago but a) I was suffering with some post-op complications and b) the kids had never visited.  We spent a lovely few hours there, felt completely safe throughout our visit, and were glad we went.

In case you were wondering, one of my sons decided when we went into lockdown that he would not cut his hair for that whole period; now he has decided he won’t cut it for the duration of the pandemic.  I suspect his hair is going to get very long.  And my oldest son is not dressed appropriately for the climate because he prefers to wear a “uniform”.  It is slightly crazy making but, as the parent of two autistic children, I have to choose which battles I am going to go full Viking on and which I am just going to wave the white flag at.

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We continued to return to trails we had not visited in years.  Some of these walks were more successful than others.  For instance, we made the poor decision to revisit French Creek State Park in the aftermath of a very nasty storm.  The ground was hard going, sticky and slick, which combined with the steep terrain at points made it very exhausting to walk and I found I was having to concentrate so much on my footing that I was not remotely enjoying my surroundings.  It was also disgustingly humid.  I felt like I was breathing in water.  I just felt muddy and gross and mosquitoes the size of zeppelins were devouring me and making me swell up.  I completed the walk, about 5 miles because we abandoned our intended trail for a shortcut, looking like a parboiled lobster cosplaying as Rambo.  So gross.  We did encounter a lot of frogs on our trek though.

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We have also been playing a lot of board games.  I really like board games but my husband is really fanatical about board games and has amassed quite a massive collection over the years so we always have lots to choose from.  One of the games we have been playing is Pandemic, thematically apt, a co-operative game we don’t often win.  We, however, had a stonking win one afternoon and defeated all of the diseases.  Let’s hope that is a portent of things to come in real life.

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One of my big summer projects was to tame the chaos of our converted garage space and turn it into an organized storage space, including a space for my teaching materials and a larder for all the things I tend to buy in bulk.  I should have thought to take a before photo because it really was a mess.  Things had been hurriedly and thoughtlessly dumped in that room first when we had our basement flood and then when we had to reorganize household spaces with everyone learning and working from home.  Since shelves had become inaccessible during that period, things that actually permanently belonged in that room had not been put in their correct place.  Necessary changes at work due to pandemic mitigation mean I also have to store all of my teaching resources at home and, of course, the only place I had to store them was also the garage.  You will just have to take my word from it that it was an overwhelming mess.  I have spent this summer working on it bit by bit because it was a time consuming project.  It does not look like much and certainly is not going to win any awards for being aesthetically pleasing but the chaos is no more, everything now has a place, and everything is so organized that I can put my hands on any item in that room in an instant.  The shelving unit of square cubbies contain my lesson plans, teaching materials, toys, and books.  It still needs a fair bit of finessing with better storage solutions for some items but it is a functional and much more efficient system.

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On the subject of work, I have also been spending time going into my classroom and getting it ready for a new batch of students and, of course, a new way of operating.  I have had to strip out so much fun stuff from my classroom and my lesson planning because of teaching in the context of a pandemic so it is a bit deflating and dispiriting but I am excited to meet my new students and create fun learning experiences for them.

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I continued to bake my way through the stress of this situation.  I will never be an applicant for a baking show but I have definitely improved my skill level and confidence when it comes to baking.  I have had the odd failure – such as a sunken chocolate cherry cake – but my successes have outnumbered the failures and even the failures were tasty enough.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, however, my boys have become way too accustomed to having a sweet treat available on an almost daily basis.  Since I will not have time for daily baking when I am back at work, it is going to be an adjustment for them and may involve some sugar withdrawal.  Incidentally, that cake in the photo is supposed to have a crack in it as it is an orange Madeira cake.

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All of these summer blog posts have ended with portraits of the cats so here are some portraits of Peanut (ginger) and Satchi (grey) doing their feline thing.

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And here is one of our “bonus” pets.  When our basement window wells flood, frogs move in.  Here is a photo of one who brought his packed lunch slug with him.

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July Projects

A lot of my time and emotional energy this month has been dedicated to the question of what school was going to look like for my boys in September.  It generated a whole lot of stress, to a pretty debilitating degree, as there was all sorts of information, thoughts, and feelings to navigate on the route to arriving at a decision.  It was one of those textbook rock and a hard place things where no matter what we decided we knew there was no completely right decision and we felt that as parents we would be failing our kids in some way.  We arrived at the decision to opt for distance learning, which we could make work for our personal family dynamic.  I then spent time making peace with that decision and figuring out the logistics of making it as successful as possible.  And then, just a few days ago, the school district announced that school would be virtual only for the first marking period at least.  So it turned out all those sleepless nights going back and forth on what to do were pointless.  I am still busy with yet more Zoom meetings about school but at least I know for sure what is happening now (no small thing for a control freak like me) so the only uncertainty remaining now is whether I will be working or furloughed come September.

Anyway, in much more positive news, we have continued to keep ourselves busy and occupied in the Pict household.  My husband continues to work from home full-time and the boys and I are filling our days with projects and fun.  Some of what we have to do might be boring (chores) but we are never bored.  We always have To Do lists longer than time permits and I don’t think that is a bad way to live so long as we can appropriately prioritize those listed items.  We have not done a lot that generates blog fodder this month but this post contains some snippets of some of the things we have been up to.

Despite being together 24/7 – which has the potential to be a powder keg of emotions and frustrations – the four boys are getting along really well together.  They are finding the right balance between time together and time apart.  The only arguments that have broken out are completely daft.  One argument was about whether the Turkish city was best when it was Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul, and another debate was about whether the best siege weapon was a canon, ballista, or trebuchet.  They managed to unite on catapults being the worst.  The boys also continue to make progress with their chosen summer projects.  The oldest is making a computer game on a Greek mythology theme, the 13 year old is learning Latin, and the 14 year has actually completed the online course he was enrolled in about the history of movies.  Incidentally, he (sporadically) writes a movie review blog which you should check out if you are a cinephile.

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My youngest son doesn’t have one big project he is working on as that would not be appropriate for him.  Instead he has been working on all sorts of smaller scale things, some with me and some independently.  One thing he did was complete that jigsaw puzzle that also appeared in last month’s blog post.  He also disassembled an old busted chromebook, made pizza from scratch, and painted a birdhouse he had previously made.  And then I remembered why we had never completed the birdhouse project before: because we don’t have a low enough tree branch to hang it from.  So now I need to problem-solve a way of attaching the birdhouse to a tree that does no harm to the tree.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Our oldest son passed his driving test!  That’s a milestone for him and also for us as parents.  He is actually not very enthused about the prospect of driving but we felt it was important for him to get his license and we preferred for him to be a new driver under our auspices.  We let him put it off for a year and then persuaded him to just get on with it.  Taking the test with Covid mitigation measures involved some peculiarities but maybe that made him less rather than more nervous.  He did great and we now have three drivers in the house.

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We have been tackling some overdue household projects.  It was not so much that we had procrastinated over them as that other projects had queue jumped because of something suddenly needing to be replaced or a household emergency.  One of those neglected projects was giving the kitchen a makeover.  It was not in the budget to overhaul the entire kitchen (which was installed in the early 1990s) and honestly it was not necessary as the cabinets are all still in really good condition and completely functional.  The microwave was, however, literally falling apart so Mr Pict installed a new one and then it was just a case of freshening up the walls with a lick of paint.  The dual aspect windows at the far end of the kitchen means I could not hang any art work on that large blank wall without it rapidly bleaching and the space is too narrow for hanging anything that might get bumped into.  I, therefore, had the idea to put up a large pinboard.  That way I can pin up all of the letters and notices and appointment cards the six of us generate and which usually get piled on the fridge doors.  Now the fridge doors can just be a gallery of the boys’ artwork and my weekly meal plan.

This was what the kitchen looked like just before we embarked on the project.

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And this is what it looks like now, the walls switched from magnolia to a silver grey.  It is a subtle difference but it is so much cleaner looking and so much lighter.

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My art space is the kitchen table at the other end of the kitchen.  We have a dining room so we don’t need that table for eating and, therefore, I can leave it set up so I can grab art time in little gobbets.  The problem with that permanent set up is that I sometimes accumulate a lot of clutter on my art table (which I share with the cats) and it gets a bit chaotic.  I, therefore, used this opportunity to streamline and simplify my art table set up.  I kept out only the things I use frequently and stored the rest away elsewhere.  Three of the four chairs were also too broken to be safely sat on so we got rid of those and got new ones.  I neglected to take a photo of the before scenario but you get a glimpse of it in this photo of one of my cats “sharing” my art space.

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This is what it looks like now.  Much less cluttered and more efficient.  Still shared with the cats.

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Another household reorganization project I had not gotten around to for ages was sorting through all of the bedlinen and making the linen closet more organized.  I forgot to take a before photo so you will just have to trust me that this closet was a complete and utter mess with far too much crammed in and no ability to tell from a glance what sheets were for which bed.  After the flood and the consequent reassignment of bedrooms and new beds, we also had some bedding that was surplus to requirement.  It proved to be a bit of a Twilight Zone project, however.  I pulled out all of the bedlinen and sorted it into piles: keep, donate, recycle.  I generated two large boxes for donation and six garbage bags for recycling.  You would think that would free up so much space in that closet but no.  Once I started to put the linens we were keeping back in, I was still struggling to fit it onto the shelves.  It is a shallow closet but that still makes no sense to me.  The boxes contain the sheets and pillowcases organized by bed size.  I need to come up with a neater way to store all of those bulky comforters and spare pillows.  Again: suggestions welcome.

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We have been so busy that we have mostly just been walking around our own neighbourhood.  We did, however, venture slightly further afield by going for a wander around Ridley Creek State Park.  Last time we went there it was Winter and we did not see another soul; this day, by contrast, the temperatures were in the 90s and it was swarming with people.  The parking lot was so packed that we almost decided to jettison the plan, since we are taking social distancing very seriously.  We walked a couple of the trails before we capitulated to the kids’ complaints about being sweaty and itchy.  Incidentally, just in case you were wondering, our 13 year old has decided he is not cutting his hair for however long quarantine social distancing lasts.  Brace yourselves for Cousin Itt appearing in my blog at some future point.

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On a whim (and inspired by several of Claudia McGill’s blog posts) we had an explore of Norristown Farm Park.  It was another baking hot afternoon so we stuck to one circuit without veering off to explore side paths or a bigger loop but we were still there for a few hours.  It was great to have points of interest along the way to keep the boys engaged and create natural breaks in which we could rest in the shade.

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I, of course, enjoyed seeing all of the decaying farm buildings.  While the kids were paddling in a stream, I went for a donder around a ramshackle building where I encountered a fox (who was too speedy for a decent photo) and lots of my national flower.  There was also a field full of sunflowers.  It has been many years since I saw so many sunflowers gathered together.  One of my brothers has a phobia of them so obviously I had to take plenty of photos to send to him.

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We will definitely go back and wander there again and poke around in some of the areas we never made it to – but when he air temperature is cooler and we are better prepared.

And, of course, we are still baking like crazy.  Despite the “pandemic pounds”, I cannot seem to stop baking.  I justify it was being an activity to engage my youngest son in but really it is just comfort food for the soul.  When we first went into lockdown, I had intended to learn how to make decent quality bread.  I used to bake bread with my Granddad but have never had huge success independently.  I have not actually embarked on that self-improvement project, however, partly because I have not had the time and partly because we have not been eating much bread so I don’t have the same inclination.  If we are still social distancing when the days get chillier, then I might be motivated to dig into that project.  Until then we will just keep churning out desserts.

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Since it is now a tradition to include the cats in these “Pict pandemic posts”, here are Peanut and Satchi “assisting” me with the reorganization of the linen closet.

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Learning to Bake

One of our Summer “pot luck” activities involves each boy learning to bake a recipe of their choice.

The first to bake was my 9 year old and he chose to make banana bread.  I probably make banana bread at least fortnightly.  It is so simple and straightforward to make and it is impossible to fail at making banana bread – which is great since I am a pretty good cook but a pretty basic baker.  I also like that banana bread uses up bananas that are so overripe and squishy that nobody is going to eat them so it prevents waste.  I tend to make banana bread that contains either chunks of sticky date or chocolate chips but we had some surplus blueberries so my 9 year old decided to experiment with making banana and blueberry bread.  It was pretty tasty and very sweet.

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Next to bake was my seven year old.  He elected to make Dulce de Leche chocolate cake from the Hungry Mum blog.  Last time I made it, it was no chocolatey enough – though still delicious – but I have since got my hands on some better, more robust cocoa which made all the difference.  My youngest did not have his patience tested making the actual dulce de leche: I already had one in reserve as I boil up several cans at once to speed baking up and then store them, labels off, ready for use.  He was a great little pastry chef and followed the instructions given.  His reward was getting to lick the spoons and bowl clean.  We did end up overfilling the loaf tin but, since it was silicone, happily it expanded during cooking to accommodate the expanding cake batter.  It was scrumptious and very sweet.

Cooking - Dulce de Leche cake 1

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My 10 year old chose to make Tablet.  Tablet – if you have not hear of it – is an incredibly sweet Scottish confection made from milk, sugar, and condensed milk.  It is so sweet it makes teeth scream and gums cry.  I do not, therefore, make it very often.  However, I made some for my ten year old not so long ago as he was delivering a presentation to his class all about Greek mythology and decided that they should sample Tablet as a stand-in for Ambrosia.  Imagine Zeus nibbling on Tablet?

Tablet is actually pretty simple to make.  The real hassle is that it requires constant stirring for up to half an hour.  The kids got fed up of stirring a pot of very hot sugary goop after approximately five minutes.  This cooking stuff is hard labour, don’t you know!

Cooking - Tablet 1

Cooking - Tablet 2

It turned out we went a bit awry in our process (I said it was simple but apparently it is not foolproof) and probably let the sugar boil into too much of a syrup.  The result was that when the tablet set it did so in a way that was still sticky rather than it becoming firm and smooth like fudge.  Never mind.  Since this batch could not be eaten as a bite size snack, we just had to turn it into dessert and serve it with vanilla ice cream.

Cooking - Tablet 3

Last but not least was my 13 year old son.  Since he is older and a little more experienced, I selected a slightly more complicated recipe to work through with him.  We made Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies, a recipe I found on Cooking is My Sport.  We found it a little challenging because I don’t own a mixer so we had to do everything by hand and the dough mixture became quite dense.  He certainly worked his arm muscles stirring.  I must admit that I was worried that we had allowed the butter to get too brown but my concern was unfounded as the finished cookies were absolutely divine.  The flavour was incredible and they were just the perfect balance of chewy and crisp.  I heartily recommend the recipe.

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Cooking - Browned Sugar Chocolate Chip Cookies 2

 

Constructing Random Desserts

As I mentioned recently, my 9 year old loves to watch cooking challenge shows.  That was why he recently convinced his Dad to eat a massive steak when we were on vacation as it was a challenge the restaurant ran.  That was down to those competitive eating shows.  He also watches shows where the contestants are given a box of random ingredients from which they have to concoct a superbly delicious and delectably presented meal.  He asked if he and his brothers could have a try at doing the same thing.  Who am I to stand in the way of culinary creativity?  However, given they have limited experience in the kitchen, I decided it was best to steer clear of savoury ingredients for now and let them work on creating desserts.

What was a cooking challenge for them was a control freakery challenge for me.

Phase 1 was to take them shopping for the ingredients.  I promised myself that, aside from stopping them going crazily over budget, I would let them buy whatever ingredients for the box of options as they saw fit.  It started really well.  They chose some dried cranberries, prunes and dates – all things they have seen and helped me bake with.  But then in the bakery aisle, they reached for a bright blue cake mix.  I gulped and went to say something, almost reached out to snatch it from their mitts and place it back on the shelf, but I had a word with myself and let them plonk it into the trolley (cart).  That blue cake mix seemed to taunt me from the bottom of the trolley.  This was not going to be easy.  Then they decided to pick some frosting.  My youngest son, a total chocoholic, reached for a chocolate fudgey type one.  “No,” I said.  “I really don’t think that is going to go with the dried fruit you picked out.”  My 13 year old tsked at me and reminded me that I had said I would neither guide them or interfere with their choices.  OK.  Lips sealed – but pursed – I let them continue.  The chocolate fudge frosting was not selected.  Instead they picked out a lemon frosting.  I managed to say nothing.  How is that for self-control?  Then there were sprinkles and jelly (jello) and all sorts going into the trolley.  Still I said nothing.  We went through the checkout.  I had not made them put back a single item.  I gave myself a mental high five.

So then the challenge was theirs.  They made up the cake mix according to the box instructions and made the jelly.  Once that was all ready, all the ingredients they had selected at the store, plus a few things we had in the larder cupboards, were set out on the kitchen counter and I left them to it.  I had to leave them to it because, you know, control freakery.  About an hour later they ushered me into the kitchen to show me their creations.  The kitchen was utter carnage.  It felt like every mixing bowl, spoon, and spatula had been used.  There were sprinkles all over the floor.  All.  Over.  But their faces were beaming with delight and that was the important thing.

Random Dessert 1

Random Dessert 2

Random Dessert 3

That evening, for dessert, Mr Pict and I got to taste test each of their random dessert creations.  The sugar high was pretty intense and lemon frosting and blue sponge cake were an interesting combination as was biting into cake and squelching into a jelly layer.  We were nevertheless entirely positive and encouraging in our critiques.  The best part of this challenge was that the boys’ confidence in the kitchen had grown.  By creating something edible without any adult guidance whatsoever they realised that they were capable of doing more in the kitchen than they thought they were.

Now they want to do a savoury food version.  I might just have to retain some control over the ingredients for that one though.