First Day of Virtual School

Can I just state that I deserve all of the acting awards for insisting to my kids that everything about online education would be functional (I made sure not to oversell with superlatives I could not deliver on) while behind the facade I was pivoting between screaming panic and weeping skepticism.  As a parent, I am obliged to create an atmosphere of calm for my offspring but there was one day earlier this month where I hid out in a closet so I could weep tears of rage and frustration.  Weird fact about me:  I really don’t cry very often but, when I do, it is usually because I am a human pressure cooker and it is a release of frustration.  I have had to contend with a sudden influx of a gazillion emails per child, some of which has content so opaque that I needed to be an espionage level code breaker to figure it out.  And some of those emails also contradict each other and contain broken links.  So that’s great.  Meanwhile my gigantic kitchen pin board is so chock full of print outs of schedules and associated material that it looks like a crime solving board from a police procedural show.  All I need is the red string.

However, the boys each have a designated study area – or areas in the case of one child – and their own chromebooks so everything looks organized and ordered.  Calm space for a calm mind, right?

I now have a Senior:

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A High School Freshman:

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An 8th Grader:

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And a 6th Grader embarking on Middle School:

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And apparently Peanut decided it was his first day as Cheerleading School Mascot:

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Luckily I was home for the first day of school.  Going forwards, however, I am back in my preschool classroom so the boys will be flying solo at online school.  This should not pose too much of a difficulty for my older children but it is a bit of a stressor when it comes to my youngest.  He is not only transitioning to Middle School – having to navigate different subjects and teachers and stay on top of a schedule – but he is also a student with an IEP used to having support.  Since he has both autism and ADD (of the inattentive kind), learning through the medium of a screen is far from ideal.  I have reduced my hours at work for the short term (thanks to some understanding colleagues) so that I can be home in the afternoons to function as his aide.  Hopefully he picks up the routine and operating systems quickly.  I am also thankful to have sons who have agreed to check in with him when they have breaks between classes or study hall.

It is certainly going to be a memorable school year!

Ridley Creek State Park

Happy New Year!

My first post of 2016 is about our final Pict family outing of 2015 when we went for an exploration of Ridley Creek State Park.  Located near Media, the park comprises over 2000 acres of land but we confined this first visit to one particular trail.  We had visited the adjacent Tyler Arboretum in April and I must admit that I was bracing myself for similar levels of moodiness from the four boys.  However, the opportunity to roam free, climb trees, battle with sticks, and generally be their feral little selves meant they were stunningly well behaved and agreeable throughout the trek.

We parked up by the Jefford Mansion, a beautiful stone built building from the early twentieth century which now serves as the park offices, and the kids immediately scurried off into what was a cross between an artificial grove and a portico of trees surrounding a formal fish pond.  They soon had it turned into an imaginative playground where heroes were doing battle with mythological monsters, twigs brandished, roaring, and racing around.

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From there, we ventured into the woods.  The ground was still sodden and boggy from the previous night’s deluge of rain but we all squelched along quite happily.  There were lots of good climbing trees which the boys were soon scaling and even better were lots of felled trunks that they could shimmy along.  It soon became a competition to see who could complete an obstacle course of tree trunk running in the quickest time.  The smallest Pict is nimble, fleet of foot, and quite frankly impulsive and reckless so he easily won each and every time.

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It was because of the 6 year old’s intrepid ways that we stumbled across the highlight of the trip.  We were veering off the demarcated path anyway in order to run along logs but the wee one plunged off into the woods even further and, in doing so, chanced upon the skeletal remains of an adult white tail deer. Well, you would think my boys had just discovered pirate treasure!  They have inherited my macabre fascination for decay and mortality so the fault / credit is almost entirely my own but it seems my children are rarely happier on an outdoor adventure than when they stumble across a corpse.  The body parts were spread across the clearing so they had fun trying to find all the different parts, like a slightly gross jigsaw puzzle.  The skull was the easiest fine after the spine and rib cage but the two middle boys literally jumped up and down with glee when they found the two parts of the mandible.  Each hoof was located and identified at which point my youngest son declared that the deer must be a lady because it had high heels.

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Animal autopsy over, we kept on with the looping track.  We found interesting fungi, including a lump of gelatinous brown slime, like a tree hugging sea anemone, but we did not spot any more wildlife, either live or dead.  Wandering through the woods with four loud children never presents the best opportunity for spotting critters but perhaps there was not much to encounter at this time of year anyway.  I will just tell myself that.  It is a lovely park so we will have to return in the Spring when the flora and fauna are bursting with new life once more and perhaps we can explore another trail.

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Halloween 2015

My kids absolutely love Halloween in America.  They started talking about plans for costumes during the Summer and the middle two have been literally counting down the days for months.  Although this is now our third American Halloween, the novelty of the experience has not worn off on my kids.

Festivities began on Friday with parties and a parade at school.  The school has rules about gory costumes, face paint and hair spray so there was much angst over needing different costumes for school than for actual Halloween.  Happily, since my younger kids love dressing up, we have two sacks full of dressing up gibbles for them to dip into and everyone got something together.  I went in to help with the First Grade party and was assigned to a room full of fairground type activities on a Halloween theme.  By far the most popular activity with the kids was one involving hitting a wooden frame with a mallet and thwacking frogs in the air.  The objective was to get the rubber frogs into buckets in order to score points but the kids much preferred seeing how high and how far they could propel the frogs across the room.  Ceiling tiles were battered, I had to drag frogs down from overhead projectors, and crawl behind bookcases to retrieve them.  Some groups invented twists to the game such as goal keeping and using the sticks from a hockey type game to bat the frogs as they flew through the air.  It was exhausting and I had the sound of the mallet hitting the wood ringing in my ears for hours afterwards.  Good fun though.

Then – after a very quick dash home to get some laundry in the dryer – I was back to the school to watch the parade of kids and staff all dressed up in their costumes.  It was great fun seeing them all, especially the kids who had made their own costumes.  The parade was immediately followed by more parties, this time for my Third and Fourth Graders.  Last year, I was a Room Parent so all my party time was spent in one classroom with one of my kids and I rarely saw the other two participating in festivities.  I was very glad of the opportunity this year to spend time with all of my kids during their parties even if it meant speeding up and down a corridor to pivot between classrooms.

I didn’t get much chance to sit down or stand still in one place during Halloween itself either.  It was another hectic day.  We also reached a bittersweet milestone as my oldest son went out Trick or Treating with friends.  It was the first time we had not had all four of our kids with us to go guising but we are very happy indeed that our oldest son has made such good friends here that we wanted to spend the evening with them.  My oldest was dressed as a plague doctor.  Apparently only one adult on his whole trick or treating tour had a clue what his costume was but, even though we had assumed everyone would get it, he rather liked being a tad obscure.  My other three went trick or treating around our neighbourhood with our next door neighbour kids and the children of our friends.  My 10 year old was the Joker, my 8 year old was Robin and my 6 year old was Frankenstein’s Monster.  The kids walked and walked until their pails were so full of candy and other treats that their arms were getting a bit orangutan like and their feet were sore.  We visited haunted houses, met Chewbacca on his porch, and my little Frankenstein’s Monster even got to meet his biological parents.  Then it was everyone back to my house – where we had left the dads on the porch to hand out treats to visitors – for steaming hot bowls of soup and hot dogs.  It was a long and busy two days but filled with so much fun and laughter – and sugar.

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PS  If you would like to read a comparison between Scottish and American Halloweens, I covered that in my first Halloween post.

PPS If you like all things monstrous, then you might be interested to check out my altered book project over on my art blog, Pict Ink.

Our Halloween

My kids were giddy with anticipation over Halloween this year.  Their experience of their first American Halloween had been a wonderfully positive introduction to life in America for them. They loved everything about it and were eager to repeat the same fun experiences this year.

Having selected a pumpkin each when we visited the pumpkin patch, the boys settled on imagery and I set about carving them.  The reason I did the carving is that, with the exception of the smallest pumpkin, which really was tiny, the skins and flesh of the chosen pumpkins was extremely tough.  I resorted to using exceedingly sharp kitchen knives in place of the carving tools and, of course, the children could not be let loose with kitchen knives.  That really would have been a Halloween horror!  So we ended up with a large Minecraft Creeper, a baby Creeper, a galloping horse and the head of Jack Skellington to place on the steps leading up to our front door.

The younger three boys had Halloween celebrations at their Elementary School.  They each had parties full of crafting, snacking and games and were all involved in the Halloween parade.  The High School band played while all of the costumed children walked in a large square on the playing field.  As a member of the first Kindergarten class, our 5 year old was actually the leader of the entire parade.  He was clearly loving it, waving to the crowds as he passed them, though his Iron Man mask meant he could barely see where he was going and he had to be steered in the right direction by his teacher.  That morning I had told the children that I was going to levy a tax on them of one piece of their Halloween candy for each Elsa, Anna or Olaf costume we happened across on the day.  There were five Elsas in my youngest son’s class alone.  My kids said no dice to the tax proposal.  There were some really inventive costumes on show and it was fun to see all of the kids enjoying themselves.

My boys had daytime costumes, appropriate for school (Iron Man, Boba Fett and a weird Dark Knight Ninja combination that my 9 year old insisted on cobbling together) and different costumes for evening.  I got the majority of their costumes from thrift stores and the younger ones like to play dress up throughout the year so I don’t mind the costume changes at all.  My oldest son was a Clone Trooper, the 9 year old was Star-Lord (because he is obsessed with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), my 7 year old was a Werewolf (he has been longing for a werewolf costume for years) and the youngest was Frankenstein’s Monster (his favourite classic monster).  I also dressed myself up as a Vampire, complete with pallid face and bright red lips.  Thankfully I was not the only adult wandering the streets in costume or I might have felt like a total pillock but the kids appreciated my efforts and my get-up entertained them so any embarrassment factor was worth it.

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Together with one of the boys’ friends, my monstrous mob traipsed the streets of our neighbourhood for two hours. Mr Pict had devised the route as if he was a military General manouvering troops.  At first they were part of a pack of neighbourhod kids but gradually they pack drew out into a long line which was probably easier for each household to manage instead of having to open the door to a dozen kids bellowing “Trick or Treat” in unison.  The majority of houses in our neighbourhood were participating in Halloween and handing out edible treats but some had gone to incredible effort to entertain the little ghouls.  One house had set up their garage as a den of horror.  My 9 year old and his friend refused to even enter and the 7 year old came out howling, but the other two loved it.  Another house had set up three rooms in their house to be a haunted house full of spooky props and people in costume.  My 9 year old again didn’t go in but everyone else had fun on their spooky tour.  Our neighbours had set up their porch with elaborate decorations including a zombie baby doll, Frankenstein’s Monster sitting in an electric chair and the Bride of Frankenstein standing alongside them.  My boys loved going up to the Monster, especially the little one who declared he was Frankenstein Jr.  It was a really fun night and my kids came home with their Halloween buckets full to beyond the brim with sweeties, chocolate and crisps which they then spent half an hour trading up.

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And they never did give me my ‘Frozen’ tax.

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Nature Ramble

The final excursion we took before my parents departed to return to Scotland was to a local environmental education park.  We have always enjoyed going on nature rambles and used to go on lots of local forest walks when we lived in Scotland in search of critters and minibeasts.  We had only gone a few yards from the car when we spotted a snake slithering along the banks of a stream, wending its wiggly way towards the water and the juvenile fish who were teeming within it.  Our eyes had been drawn to the fish but the snake was large enough that as soon as it moved, even at the edge of our field of vision, we were instantly drawn to it.  A friend later identified it for me as a Northern Watersnake, which makes a great deal of sense, and we watched it slope down towards the water, moving its head to and fro as if studying the area and then slip into the water and rapidly thrash its tail to hide out in the vegetation that fringed the bank.  We were all pretty stoked to have seen a snake in the wild.

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The snake encounter, however, placed rather high expectations for the rest of our meandering around the park.  The children began speculating about all of the things they might encounter: deer, bullfrogs, raccoons …. However, they were so consistently vocally loud and moved so noisily that any critter in the area would have had more than adequate advanced notice of our imminent arrival and would have plenty time in which to scurry off and avoid us.  We did see lots of beautiful darting dragonflies.   In his poem ‘Laggandoan, Harris’, Norman MacCaig describes the dragonfly as being made “of mica”  and as a “zeppelin” which has always seemed like the perfect description to me: the hovering, darting movement and the metallic sheen glinting in the light.  We also saw some amorous beetles, spiders, frogs galore, turtles and we heard the racket of bullfrogs croaking, the boys found wild raspberries and brambles, played helicopters with sycamore seeds and we found sap in a tree that we poked with a stick.  So, despite the clamour caused by my children and there blunderbuss style running around, it was a pretty successful nature ramble.

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Geeking Out at Comic Con

On Saturday, Mr Pict took the two middle-sized boys to Comic Con in Philadelphia.

One of the things that we considered in our relocation to America was that the particular area of Scotland in which we lived did not especially serve the needs of my geeky children.  With two certified nerds as parents, it was always likely to be the case that we would spawn geeky kids.  For years, the context in which we were rearing them worked perfectly.  Had they been into competitive sports, especially ones like football (soccer) or shinty, or into playing traditional music (brass band or bagpipes) or been passionately outdoorsy, then there would have been no real difficulty in continuing to raise them where we were.  However, they love movies and our closest cinema was an hour away – and it only reopened the year before we departed – and they also love museums and art galleries and comic book stores and shops selling items from cult TV stores and exhibitions of geekdom.  Every time we wanted to take them to something like that, it was at least a 180 mile round trip.  Furthermore, that trip was on roads that wiggled through mountains and glens and around the crinkly coast line of sea lochs.  Given that two of our children (oldest and youngest – boaking bookends) get very travel sick, it could all be a bit tiresome.  Therefore, while it in no way was even among our top priority reasons for relocating and, indeed, emigrating, being a whole lot closer to accessing such things is a very welcome benefit.

I have shared before that my middle two sons are comic book fanatics.  The other two also like comic books but with nothing like the zeal of their brothers.  Those two love anything DC or Marvel in particular and have now read so many books on the subject that they are geeky wee encyclopedias of knowledge of different heroes and villains, even obscure ones.  They were overjoyed to learn that we were going to be living just a very short car journey from a great comic book store.  They, therefore, just about exploded with excitement when Mr Pict told them that Philadelphia was one of the cities that hosts Comic Con.

They wanted to dress up in costume to go but opted not to go over the top.  The 7 year old wore the accessories from his Batman costume and the 8 year old dressed as Finn from ‘Adventure Time’.  One of the things they really enjoyed about their day at Comic Con was seeing all of the cosplayers in their top notch outfits.  Mr Pict told me that they were reacting as if these people were the actual characters or actors from the movies.  Their mouths were apparently agape when they saw one guy dressed as Deathstroke.

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The highlights of their days were going to a Q&A with Sean Astin – especially when he stated he thought the “Truffle Shuffle” was mean and did an impression of Gollum – and a Q&A with Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie from ‘Captain America – The Winter Soldier’.  The kids love the way all the movies in the Marvel universe tie together so they were geeking out getting to see two of the main characters from that movie.  They also got to sit in a Batmobile, see displays of art work, buy minifigures from a stall selling custom lego, shoot zombie targets with a BB gun, root around stalls selling all sorts of toys and memorabilia and had their photos taken against a bluescreen which put them in the line up with the Guardians of the Galaxy.

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(Photos taken by Mr Pict on his phone.)

Suffice to say that they came home exhausted, exhilarated and entirely geeked out.  They want to go next year too. 

 

 

Catching Fireflies

As a follow up to my recent blog post about fireflies, here are some photos of my kids out in the garden catching fireflies.  They loved it.  Even though they are now seeing them every single night, they are still as excited by it as they were the first time they saw them.  They want to go out into the garden every single night with a jar and collect enough to make it glow like a lantern.  They think it is completely magical.  Every.  Single.  Time.  What I am also enjoying are the bats flying overhead, swooping around and probably eating the lightning bugs but, you know, circle of life and all that.  We used to get bats in our garden in Scotland too so it is lovely to see them here in Pennsylvania.  Even though these ones might have rabies.  Less welcome are the mosquitoes that bite me constantly.  I am allergic to bug bites so I swell up into hot, throbbing, red patches of grossness every time one nibbles on me.  Definitely not magical.  However, this is all about the enchanting wonder of fireflies so here are some pictures of my sons in their jammies collecting the lightning bugs.

 

PS  A friend from back home in Scotland informs me that she has sometimes seen fireflies just a few miles from where we lived.  I lived there for over a decade and never once saw them.  Glowing little blighters.

 

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Matryoshka Momma

The Week 24 challenge for the Documented Life Project was to incorporate a text page into the Art Journal.  This was a difficult one for me because I am normally so very precious about books that the idea of tearing one up and cutting it was anathema to me.  However, having purchased an old dictionary from the library for the purpose of collaging, I decided to just go for it.  I did, however, plump for a preface page rather than attacking the actual dictionary.  Baby steps.

I don’t actually know where the inspiration for the page came from.  I must have been mulling over creating something that represented myself and my four sons, however, as the idea of a matryoshka doll suddenly hit me.  If only giving birth to them had been that easy!  I was short on time last week so the idea of a simple page containing simple shapes also appealed.

The background was just blobs of acrylic paint spread with an old store card in order to keep it uncontrolled and random.  I then cut the matryoshka shapes from the preface page and glued them down with gel medium.  I added the details with pen and kept it all quite naive in style because it was a page about kids and that childlike simplicity seemed apt and – mostly – because I was seriously short on time.  I then added to some of the negative space by sticking in some washi tape.  The whole thing probably took me under ten minutes if you subtract the drying time for the paint and glue but I think that sort of slapdash energy complements the subject matter so it’s all good.

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Slasher Movies at French Creek State Park

Saturday was a wonderful weather day here.  After weeks of snow, chill winds, gloomy skies and general dreariness, Saturday was a proper Spring day full of blue skies, sunshine and warmth.  It was, therefore, the perfect day for a family outing.  We used to spend a lot of our time in Scotland wandering in woodland or circuiting lochs or travelling through glens and now we are eager to explore the great outdoors in Pennsylvania.

We decided to go to French Creek State Park, which is near Elverson.  We stopped for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel – because my boys have still not tired of American breakfast experiences – and while there my kids bought one of those toy knives where the blade disappears into the hilt on contact.  This gave them the idea to film a slasher movie on Mr Pict’s iphone.  They spent the rest of the car journey storyboarding it and discussing special effects and casting character parts.

I should state, categorically and for the record, that my kids have never seen a slasher movie.  They have, however, picked up some elements of the genre from parodies in cartoons that they watch and from looking at the images on DVD boxes.  The fact they were able to piece together a narrative based on that paucity of information and experience testifies to how cliched such movies are.  Still fun though.

Hopewell Lake, near the centre of the Park and where we parked the car, was still partially frozen so the boys had fun poking sticks at the ice and watching bubbles move beneath the surface.

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We decided to trek the Boone Trail, a six mile meandering walk through the woodland.  It was slow going as the kids kept stopping to film scenes for their movie – much to the bemusement of passers by on the trail – but it was a glorious day for a wander so we did not mind.  They did three takes maximum per scene which is not bad going for guerilla film-making.

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One area they loved playing in was a leaf strewn gulch over which a large tree trunk had fallen.  They, therefore, scrambled back and forth across the log, at first on hands and knees and eventually scampering across on two feet.  It was a bright but shady spot for a stop and a glug from our water bottles too.

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Just a few paces further along the trail we came across some cabins.  Cabins in the woods.  This was a little film maker’s dream location!  The boys had a whale of a time filming creepy thriller scenes in one cabin while I wandered around trying to look for local fauna.  At one point we did see a chipmunk and we saw a fair few birds but the sounds of kids making a thriller don’t exactly induce critters to malinger in the area.

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Once they had exhausted that location’s possibilities, we trekked onwards through the woods.  It soon became apparent that we were moving at far too slow a pace – what with all the filming fun and games – to complete the entire circuit of the Boone Trail so we decided to walk as far as the Fire Tower and then head back down towards “base camp” once more.

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We were wandering in the woods for over five hours and barely covered any ground in the Park.  It was a great place for a family trek as there was plenty to see and do along the trail to break up the monotony of walking in woods for the kids.  We will definitely return to French Creek State Park time and time again to explore the Boone Trail further and have a wander along other pathways too, especially as the seasons change and the trees fill in.

My kids continued their movie making when they got home and now have lofty ambitions of editing the whole movie together complete with post-production digital effects, a soundtrack, sound effects and a 1970s style set of opening credits.  They have appointed me chief editor.  Good grief.  I better start looking up tutorials on YouTube.

 

My Kids doodled in my Art Journal

Being new to art journaling, I decided to join in a project that would provide me with prompts, tips and inspiration.  As such I am participating in the Documented Life Project.  This week’s challenge was to have someone else draw in your journal and then finish the page.  

Back in Scotland I would have asked one of my many artist friends to collaborate on the challenge with me but here I had three options: ask Mr Pict to draw something; ask one of my kids to draw something; ask all of my kids to draw something.  I plumped for the last option.  Since one of the ideas behind the project is to – as it says on the tin – document your life, I decided that the prompt for my children should be a reflection on the things they have enjoyed about living in America so far.  This was what they came up with:

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My four year old drew a minion because he is obsessed with minions and was excited to meet one when we were in Times Square; my six year old drew the Empire State Building because visiting it fulfilled one of his ambitions – and he even included King Kong on it; my eight year old drew Abraham Lincoln because he has been enjoying learning all about Presidents; and my ten year old drew a hot dog because he is enjoying eating lots of new foods.

I determined that I did not want to alter their drawings too much as I wanted to preserve this moment of reflection on their experiences of their new home five months into our relocation.  So I just added some detail to the drawings using red and blue ink, added some words generated during a chat with them about the things they were enjoying about life here so far and then added some stars because that seemed to work well with the colour theme.

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