Homemade Cola

The great thing about spending time with small kids is that they come up with all sorts of ideas for activities that we, as grown ups, probably would not have thought of.  Last weekend, our youngest son, aged 8, mentioned that he would like to make cola from scratch.  Other than lemonade, I don’t believe I have ever made a soft drink from scratch.  Making cola would definitely be an interesting challenge.

Mr Pict decided to take the lead on this project since I was so busy.  He googled and found a recipe, he took the littlest Pictling to the store to gather the ingredients, and then they set to making it.  The mixture of citrus zest and juice and spices smelled wonderful as they cooked.  It made me think of mulled wine on winter nights but I admit to cynicism about whether it would end up tasting remotely like cola.

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Once the syrup was made, it was added to a glass and topped up with seltzer water.  Our youngest son obviously got to be the first to taste it.  He sipped and declared it was delicious.  It actually was really tasty.  It did not taste like cola in the way that Coke or Pepsi taste like cola but it did remind me of those glass bottles of old-fashioned cola you can find in places that also sell drinks like dandelion and burdock or sarsaparilla.  The older brothers also approved.  The experiment was a success.

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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.

Peach and Apple Picking

We have had such a momentously busy summer as a family that we were tempted to just let Labor Day weekend be a sludgy three day break of chilling and preparing for returning to school and work.  Obviously Mr Pict has worked throughout the summer months but the kids and I have been footloose and fancy free for the most part which means big adjustments and transitions.  So the plan was just to stay home, sort things out on the home front, prepare for the school year, and relax.  However, we could not let Summer depart without one last trip to bid it farewell.

We, therefore, decided to go fruit picking.  It is peach season here.  I adore peaches and scoff loads of them every season.  We have, therefore, established a new tradition since emigrating which involves going peach picking each year and then making all manner of peach desserts – in addition to eating them fresh.  Honeycrisp apples were also in season at the orchard.  I had to have some.  I had never had a honeycrisp apple before we moved to the US.  Indeed, a quick google tells me that it is a variety that was developed in Minnesota and has only been available for public consumption since 1991 so it is a fairly new variety.  I love them.  I was always someone who ate green apples as I like my apples to be a little tart and definitely firm.  I rarely ever ate red apples because I hate the floury, powdery texture that so many of them possess.  Honeycrisps are like the best of both worlds – firm and the right balance between tart and sweet.  So juicy too.  Yum.  But also very expensive when bought in grocery stores.  They are so expensive, in fact, that I rarely ever treat myself to honeycrisp apples as I cannot justify the chunk of our food budget.  My in-laws actually gifted me a box of honeycrisp apples for Christmas last year.  At the orchard, however, the apples were a fifth of the per pound price it would cost me in the store.  Yes!

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So we picked peaches and honeycrisp apples until we had full pails of each.  It was the perfect way to round of the summer – picking fresh fruit and baking cosy desserts.

Tie Dye Fun

Between our own road trip out west and the grandparents taking a brace of boys on a brace of vacations, we have not had a huge amount of time this summer for group activities.  It is for that reason that I did no run a summer project this year.

One group activity we did do, however, was tie dying t-shirts.  We decided to work outside so that we reduced the risk of staining things we did not want to dye and essentially reduce my stress levels.  Since we have done tie dying before, this time I felt able to let all four of the boys take complete ownership of their shirts and complete the process for themselves from beginning to end (though I did do the laundry stage).  My youngest son needed a bit of help with getting the elastic bands around his spiral folded shirt but otherwise they all worked independently.  My oldest even decided to go for an ombre effect which was a style we had not attempted before.

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Predictably, we did make a bit of a mess but that may have been because we were outside and knew we had the freedom to be a bit more lax.  Blasting the patio area with a hose was all it took to make the dye puddles disappear, however.  I think we will definitely do all future tie dye outdoors.  I think the kids did a great job with their t-shirts and they seem pleased with what they created.

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The Case of the Zombie Cicada

It is not unusual at this time of year, as Summer slowly starts to wend its way into Autumn, to start finding dead cicadas on the ground.  Cicadas produce the sound of the summer – a modulating, thrumming buzz like the sound of hundreds of tiny maracas or drum kits.  Finding their corpses, therefore, is a signal that summer is nearing its end.

What is unusual, however, is to find a zombie cicada.  If anyone was going to find a zombie cicada, however, it was going to be me.

I was collecting in the washing from the line when I spotted a cicada hobbling across the patio.  Guessing it was injured, I picked it up.   I studied the cicada in my hand and noted that he was missing a leg.  I assumed a bird must have tried to eat him.  What a shame, I thought, to be missing a leg.  My youngest son is also obsessed with cicadas and collects their shed skins so I knew he would be interested in seeing a cicada and especially one who, like our older cat, was missing a leg.  But incredibly it was only once my kids were handling the cicada that I realised he was missing more than a leg.  He was, in fact, missing his entire abdomen.  This cicada was managing to hobble around and climb without having a body.  It was the Undead!

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As zombie fans, we were all excited to have found a zombie cicada.  My kids wanted to keep him as a pet.  They reasoned and argued that he stood no chance of surviving without our assistance.  I pointed out that he stood no chance on surviving in a house with two cats either.  They named him Worf because he liked to cling-on to them.  Naming the cicada did their case no good.  I refused to adopt the Undead cicada.  We left him to go his merry way.

The next day, we found an actually fully dead cicada.  My youngest son wanted to adopt that one too.  He wanted to go full Frankenstein and see if we could revive it.  Things were easier when he just collected their sloughed off skins.

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Concord Point Lighthouse and Elk Neck Park

We had started our second day in Baltimore so early that we found we were leaving the city before noon.  We, therefore, decided to do something spontaneous as we drove through Northern Maryland and head to the Chesapeake.

We first stopped in Havre de Grace.  I have driven past the small city several times before but have never actually been in.  It looked quaint and picturesque, the type of place that would be pleasant for a stroll.  We went straight to the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is sited where the Chesapeake meets the Susquehanna.  During the War of 1812, the British attacked the city and, during that attack, Lieutenant John O’Neill manned the cannon single-handed in order to defend the town.  Injured and captured, the story goes that his 16 year old daughter rowed out to the British vessel and plead for her father’s release.  She was succesful and her father was released and the British Admiral awarded her bravery with an expensive snuffbox.  When the lighthouse was built in the late 1820s, O’Neill and his family were made its hereditary keepers as an expression of gratitude.  The granite lighthouse is 26 feet high with the lantern bringing it to 36 feet.  Although we could not go inside, apparently it is a rope ladder that allows people to ascend through a trapdoor to the lantern.  The keepers did not have to be accommodated within the lighthouse itself as there was a separate dwelling nearby.

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After our visit to the lighthouse, the boys were keen for a dip in the water.  We, therefore, headed to a town named North East – which also looked very pleasant – and Elk Neck State Park.  The kids immediately donned their swimming gear and rushed down to the shore.  The beach was rough, scrubby, and pebbly but the kids said that it turned to finer sand once they were further out in the water.  The incline into the water was gentle and the kids could get really quite far out while standing.  Beaches are not my thing but the kids had a blast swimming, splashing, and floating around.  It was a good way to burn off their energy before the rest of the journey home.

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Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore

Our second day in Baltimore was dedicated to all things Edgar Allan Poe.  I have been a fan of Poe’s writing since I was a tween – not a super-fan by any stretch but his work is something I have returned to frequently through the years.  Poe was rather itinerant so Baltimore was only one of many cities where he lived and worked.  Indeed, there is a Poe house in Philly that I really must visit some time soon.  It was, however, in Baltimore that he died.  If you have read my blog enough then you will know me to be an avid wanderer of cemeteries and graveyards so the prospect of visiting Poe’s grave was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is a charming little spot in an otherwise not so charming area.  The small graveyard predates the church building by over half a century and, as such, the Gothic Revival building straddles the ground below by being placed on top of piers.  The result is a sort of crawlspace under the church.  We could get under it by stooping.  It was pretty fascinating to see since I have never seen anything quite like it.  My kids enjoyed exploring all of the nooks and crannies the space had to offer which was fine by me as it gave me more time to read the memorial inscriptions and study the grave architecture.

Poe, in fact, has two grave sites within the burying ground.  We visited them in reverse chronological order as the second site is imposing and just inside the entry gate.  Poe died in 1849 at the age of just 40.  His death was rather confounding as nobody could figure out why he was in Baltimore and he was in too delirious a state to explain.  He was also wearing clothes that did not belong to him.  Even his cause of death has been lost in the mists of time.  In the end then, Poe’s death was as mysterious as one of his stories.  Apt but sad really.  Anyway, in 1875, with Poe’s literary reputation posthumously established, a group raised enough funds to establish a more impressive memorial in the graveyard.  Poe’s remains were exhumed and he was re-interred at the site, a large block of pale marble on a granite base and a medallion portrait inserted into its face.

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There having been no challenge in locating Poe’s memorial, the boys then scuttled off to see who could find the original grave first.  In such a small space, it again was not difficult to find.  This burial spot had a much more modest headstone with a carving of a raven on it.  This had been a family plot so the grave of Poe’s grandfather was nearby and his brother was also buried in the vicinity.  Poe’s cousin/wife and aunt/mother-in-law had also once been laid to rest in this spot but – like their famous relative – had been relocated to the memorial site.

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Poe is not the only famous resident of the graveyard, however.  Tucked against an exterior wall is the grave of James McHenry.  He had served as Secretary of War under Washington and Adams, had signed the US Constitution as a delegate representing Maryland, and Fort McHenry named in his honour.  Also of particular interest to me was the grave of Philip Barton Key.  Key, an attorney, was an attorney and the son of Francis Scott Key.  See how niftily I managed to tie up so many of the elements of our Baltimore trip!  He was having an affair with Teresa Bagioli Sickles which very much displeased her husband, despite his own notorious philandering.  The husband, Daniel Sickles, shot Key repeatedly after confronting him on a Washington DC street.  Mr Pict’s ears pricked up at that part.  Not only was the murder victim somewhat famous but so was the murderer.  Dan Sickles was a New York politician and lawyer who later became infamous for almost causing a Union disaster at the Battle of Gettysburg when he moved his troops without orders and with catastrophic results.  The Civil War nerd was, therefore, suddenly interested in the grave.  The murder, however, is interesting for another reason: it was the first time in US legal history that a defence of temporary insanity had been attempted and by gum it worked because Sickles was acquitted.  This was in 1859, before Gettysburg and the loss of his leg, and before his congressional career.

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There were other interesting graves in the grounds too, including several more people of historical significance.  One area of the burial ground, very near the underside of the building, was covered in graves belonging to one tragic family.  They were the graves of John and Sarah Brown and four of their children.  Six of their ten children died young, many in early infancy, and Sarah also died prematurely in one of the city’s epidemics.  It was a poignant reminder of the high mortality rates in times past.  There was also a bowed grave, marking the resting place of a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  The raised slab of marble, which was atop four pedestals, had been eroded by the elements and by pollution in such a way that it had buckled into a curve.  I had not seen anything like that before in all my visits to cemeteries.  There were also large, above-ground vaults for various families.  They had fancy looking facades to them but it was interesting to note that the rest of the vault looked rather like a large pipe.

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Having seen both of his grave sites, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to go and visit one of Poe’s houses.  The house in Baltimore is actually the earliest surviving house in which Poe lived.  It almost did not survive as it was slated for demolition in the early 1940s but was saved thanks to a Poe society.  It was, therefore, preserved and stands at the end of a terrace of 1930s houses.  It was quite the juxtaposition.  Among the stories Poe wrote while resident in the house were ‘M.S. found in a bottle’, ‘Morella’, and ‘Berenice’.

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The house was rented by Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, who lived there with her mother (Poe’s grandmother), her daughter Virginia (who Poe would marry when she was just 13), her son Henry, and nephew Edgar.  It was a very small house to have accommodated all of those people and it was explained to us that the women would all have slept in one of the rooms while Edgar and Henry shared another room.  The rooms were decorated as they would have been in the 1830s but there was no furniture as part of the reconstruction.  This was probably fairly lucky as there was very little space in each room as it was.  The room the males would have slept in did contain some items linked to Poe, including a chair and his lap sized writing desk.  From that room, a tiny, narrow, winding staircase led up to an attic garrett room which contained a bed, chest, and chair.  The spaces inside the house were dark, gloomy, and more than a little claustrophobic but that actually felt completely apt for Poe’s house.

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I was thrilled to have visited one of the three remaining houses that Poe once lived in.  I was even more thrilled that the visit inspired by youngest sons to become interested in Poe.  They have subsequently watched a series of animations of short stories and have read the pop-up book of Poe writings we own.