Robots and British Nosh

Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm.  In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums.  The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy.  For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits.  My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids.  While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas.  Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person.  That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.

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While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution.  It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life.  For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine.  There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones.  There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle.  A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals.  They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.

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We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable.  It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer.  We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.

We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city.  Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues.  We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen.  I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner.  The Dandelion serves British cuisine.  For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good.  The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic.  It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood.  Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too.  Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup.  There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish.  I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.  I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation.  Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too.  Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed.  The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.

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Wild in Cape May

In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore.  I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year.  It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours.  We, however, have only been a couple of times.  This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms.  However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings.  This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago.  All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times.  Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.

Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo.  The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards.  Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.

We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house.  The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there.  We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen.  There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.

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With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see.  My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa.  We also got to see a brace of black bears.  Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line.  Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence.  In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar.  It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring.  There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.

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We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature.  I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.

After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore.  It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach.  The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun.  We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result.  They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic.  A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked.  Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf.  Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat.  He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time.  Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.

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I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse.   The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot.  I guess third time was the charm.  I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it.  Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.

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Harry Potter Festival – Our Year Three

On Saturday we visited the Harry Potter Festival held in Chestnut Hill, another suburb of Philadelphia.  This was our third year of visiting and it has become a family tradition to attend.  We almost did not go this year as we had a three way schedule clash to contend with, I have a pretty debilitating chest cold, and the weather was cold and rainy.  My Potterphile kids were aghast at the idea that we might not go along to the Festival this year, bottom lips pouting out like open drawers, so when our schedule clashes were cancelled because of the weather we decided to head on over to Chestnut Hill.

The first year we went to the Festival, it was a delightful experience.  There was lots of space to wander around and really absorb the magical atmosphere and observe the efforts the people of the town had gone to in order to turn their town into Hogsmeade.  There were also very few long queues so the kids could get involved in all sorts of activities and really make the most of the day.  Last year when we went, it was evident that the organisers were struggling to manage the vastly swollen number of visitors.  Longer queues and more crowds meant we had to get the kids to prioritise what they wanted to do because there was no way we could complete their wish list.  This year, I would estimate that the number of people attending had increased tenfold.  It was unbelievably busy for what, in essence, is a local fete – albeit one with a theme that has massive appeal.

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We were very lucky to secure a parking spot a few streets back from the town centre so that our walk was not too long, especially given it was cold and raining.  As soon as we hit Germantown Avenue, however, we were met with a wall of people.  I will state that the atmosphere was still brilliant.  A large proportion of those visiting were either in full costume or were wearing clothes related to Harry Potter.  My own children were wearing Harry Potter themed t-shirts but did not have them on display since they were wearing two layers on top.  We had a great time seeing people all dressed up, including a baby in a front carrier dressed as a mandrake and a dog with a harness that turned him into Fluffy the three headed dog.

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The crowds, however, were just intense.  There is no other way to describe it.  They got so thick at the train station end of town that it was impossible to move other than be carried along by the crowd.  I spoke to two cops who were being pushed along beside me and one commented that it was a bit crazy thinking about how challenging it would be for them to move quickly towards an incident.  I do not do well in crowds at all.  It makes my anxiety spike and makes me feel aggravated and, with the kids, a little panicky.  Everyone was being completely lovely about being squashed together and were being very accommodating and understanding but it was still pretty stressful.  The numbers of people also meant that the queues for every activity, stall, and shop were staggeringly long.  I overheard a whole lot of people complaining about the dearth of portapotties in town and that queues were often an hour or more long for those that were available.  We were lucky that none of us ever needed a comfort break.

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We did manage to squeeze into a couple of activities.  Two of the kids bought potions in the grounds of the Jenks Elementary School and the other two snagged the last two bottles of butterbeer.  They also got to have a go on some manual typewriters which they loved.  It was peculiar to me to think that a machine that saw me through my undergraduate degree was now being considered something antiquated and alien to kids.  They had no idea how to operate them, tapping the keys way too lightly as they would a computer keyboard.  Furthermore, the children (not just mine) seemed to have no idea what to do when they reached the end of the line.  I could  see mine searching the keys for a return button.  I showed them how to push the lever and move the roll along.  And then I realised that a mother standing next to me also had no idea how to operate a manual typewriter.  That made me feel very old.

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As Potterphiles, we will definitely return to the Festival next year.  Hopefully lessons will be learned and adaptations made but I wonder if anything can be done (beyond more portapotties and perhaps pedestrianising a larger stretch of road) to really accommodate the massive crowds in attendance.  But we will give it another go next year and see if things have improved so that we can enjoy the Festival again as much as we did in our first two years.

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Montgomery Cemetery

Having gone to the beach on Friday – very much not my cup of tea – on Monday we decided to go and explore a cemetery – graveyards being very much my cup of tea.  Since Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, we elected for Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown since it contains a few graves of notable Civil War soldiers.

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Dating from 1848, the Cemetery covers a fair amount of land and was enjoyable to amble around with clear paths carved out in the long grass even when there were no surfaced tracks to follow.  It was nowhere near the scale of the sprawling urban cemeteries we have visited in the past, however, so the idea of finding particular graves without a site map was not a ridiculous notion.

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In no time at all, we found the grave of the wonderfully named Samuel Kosciuszko Zook.  He had changed his middle name from Kurtz at some point because clearly Zook was not a conspicuous enough name without that more exotic middle name.  A professional military man before the outbreak of the Civil War, he was present at several notable battles.  It was at Gettysburg, however, that he met his end.  He was shot by rifle fire as he advanced his troops towards the Wheatfield.  He died of his wounds the next day aged just 42.

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The most notable Civil War General buried in the cemetery, however, was Winfield Scott Hancock.  He has a tomb tucked in a corner of the cemetery.  Another career soldier, Hancock was a veteran of both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.  He is most celebrated for his leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg where he made controversial decisions that ultimately assured Union victory.  Immediately after the war, Hancock was tasked with supervising the executions of the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination.  Later he ran for President but lost out to James Garfield.  Hancock died at the age of 61 of an infected carbuncle, a pretty mundane way to die after a fairly dramatic life.

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We also found the grave of John Hartranft, which is marked by a towering obelisk.  Another Civil War general, he was a Medal of Honor recipient for his part in the First Battle of Bull Run.  Coincidentally, it was Hartranft who had led the Lincoln conspirators to the gallows and read them their last rites.  In the 1870s, he served two terms as Pennsylvania’s Governor, overseeing a period of economic instability and related civil disobedience in the state.  He died of kidney disease aged just 58.

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Wandering around graveyards and cemeteries is something that I enjoy and history – especially the Civil War – is something that Mr Pict enjoys so we were very happy with the choice of excursion for the day.  Our children, not so much.  It is, therefore, necessary to find ways to engage them in the activity of strolling around a cemetery. The easiest way I have found to do so is to set them a couple of competitive challenges: who can find the earliest burial or oldest extant grave marker and who can find the person who died at the oldest age.  The earliest grave marker we found was for someone who died in 1855, though obviously there must have been earlier burials than that.  The oldest person, however, turned out to be a good contest.  We had an early contender at the Zook plot with a woman who was born in 1802 and died in 1902.  We then found several more centenarians.  The winner, however, turned out to be someone who died at the grand age of 104, having been a child when the first aeroplane flew and lived long enough to witness the internet age.

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These challenges still did not engage my ten year old, however.  He stubbornly clung to boredom and was very vocal about his resentment at being dragged around a cemetery.  He even threw in a side moan about wearing a black t-shirt on a hot day – despite the fact he had chosen to wear said t-shirt.  Nothing could persuade him to drop the griping and attitude and just find something of interest.  He was our own little thunderclap.  Then we happened upon a miracle that raised his spirits and led him to rally: I found a turtle.  The turtle was just wandering among the graves, presumably basking in the sunshine to warm up before heading back to the water for the evening.  He was a pretty sturdy fellow so we felt confident in picking him up to inspect him closer and briefly grab a few photos of our close encounter before setting him back down where we found him and letting him go on his way. The kids were thrilled.  My 9 year old wanted to adopt him and name him Porky.   I later identified him (or her because I didn’t take time to ascertain gender) as a Midland Painted Turtle.  And that is how a turtle saved the day.

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Long Island Beach, New Jersey

Every Summer there is seemingly a mass migration of the greater Philadelphia population towards the coast of New Jersey.  Most people I asked about their summer vacation plans were headed to The Shore.  As has been documented on this blog a few times before, I am not a fan of beaches because I loathe sand.  A beach based vacation, therefore, is not my idea of rest and relaxation.  However, because the rest of the Picts do enjoy the sand and surf, we do head to the beach on occasion.  We all agree, however, that we do not like crowded beaches and that rules out most of the Jersey Shore at this time of year.  Last Friday, however, we decided to experiment with a trip to Long Island Beach – or LBI as it is known.

The advantage of Long Island Beach is that, being devoid of a boardwalk, it is less touristy than many of its neighbouring beaches and is, therefore, a bit more subdued.  It was even quieter on Friday, however, because there was a damp chill in the air and a murky sea mist that never properly lifted.  As Brits brought up cowering on cold and grey beaches, however, we were unperturbed since the air temperature was perfectly pleasant for us.

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Mr Pict and the Pictlings spent a good few hours frolicking in the sea and playing on the sand.  The boys took turns burying each other, the youngest set himself a challenge of seeing how many clam shells he could find in the sea, and the middle two decided to turn seaweed into wigs.

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LBI is 18 miles long and very narrow so it is a very easy spot to explore.  After a delicious lunch at a diner and an ice cream break at Ben and Jerry’s, we went to the southern most end of the island for a snoop.  A whole fleet of heavy plant vehicles were labouring away on the wet sand to dredge and restore the sand dunes so that was interesting to watch.  The highlight of the trip, however, as far as the kids were concerned was finding the rotting carcass of a small shark.  They were even excited by the maggots wriggling beneath it.  It reeked.

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In our exploration of the island, the boys had spotted a very small amusement park type place called Fantasy Island which was opening at 4pm so we parents were persuaded to take them back there for one ride each.  There were not many rides to select from but that worked for us since we were limiting the kids.  Three of the boys elected to go on the ferris wheel accompanied by Mr Pict while the 13 year old decided to spectate with me and pocket what would have been spent on his ride.  Sensible child.

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Evansburg State Park

In addition to returning to old favourites and nearby haunts, we have been very gradually exploring more of the state parks in our surrounding areas.  Our most recent trip was to Evansburg State Park, near Collegeville.

This was an area first settled by the Mennonite community.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings are descended from Swiss Mennonites who emigrated to and first settled in Pennsylvania (though not in this area) before migrating north.  That then was an added bit of interest for me, as a family history nerd.  Our trek started off next to a building that I assume dates from that era of the area’s history.  The main feature of the woodland landscape is the Skippack Creek which carves the landscape up into steep ridges and leads the pathways to curve and wind and double back on themselves.

We set off on one of the multi-purpose trails.  It was a lovely, peaceful spot and I enjoyed spotting some definitive signs of Spring asserting themselves in the woodland.  Farewell, Winter.  The boys loved climbing trees and scampering down embankments to watch the water, or throwing small branches into the creek to play Pooh Sticks.  The younger trio then spent some time engaged in imaginative play, orcs and hobbits I think.

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All four boys like to do this running, leaping, bounding, climbing, dangling escapade in the great outdoors that I can only really describe as “woodland parkour”.  That was when things got messy.  The entire walk was incredibly muddy under foot.  The pathways were essentially “quick mud” and we walked the trail by navigating a route that followed yet did not involve actually stepping on any of the trail paths.  Of course, as soon as the kids started racing at speed through the woods, more focused on leaping and jumping, they started sploshing in the mud, sinking into it, making loud sucking squelches as they withdrew each foot.  My youngest made literal the metaphor “feet of clay”.  My oldest lost his footing on one leap and ended up ankle deep in a stream.  The sticky, clay mud was so unremitting and tenacious that we were all entirely plastered as we trudged back to the car park and, apart from Mr Pict who was driving, we all journeyed home bare foot.  It took me two hours of scrubbing to clean our shoes.

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It was a lovely spot to explore, however, and we will definitely return in a dryer season.

*PS It seems my recent run of bad luck with appliances and electronics has not yet concluded.  During this particular walk, my Nikon DSLR decided to shuffle off its mortal coil.  I am not a very capable phone photographer and, therefore, the quality of photography in this post drops off somewhat at the end.  Anticipate my photos being duff for a while until I can either repair or replace my DSLR.*

Doylestown Kids’ Castle

I have mentioned a few times before that there comes a point – frequently during the colder months – where cabin fever hits my kids, they start acting like wee caged beasts, and they desperately need to burn off their excess energy.  With that in mind, this weekend we took them to Doylestown.

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The Central Park in Doylestown has a superb playground known as Kids’ Castle that provides lots of opportunities for climbing, balancing, sliding, and swinging in a safe and clean environment.  This was not our first visit to the Kids’ Castle playground but it has been a good while since we were last there.  The playground is a community funded project and, as such, it was encouraging to see that changes and developments have been made since we were last there.  It is great to see such signs of success for a community project.

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My boys had a whale of a time clambering inside the many layers of the castle, shouting greetings from the tallest turrets, whizzing down the tube slides.  They also spent some time on the swings, including a tire swing that made them queasy.  What they were most enamoured by on this visit, however, were the pieces of equipment that were new to them.  There was a large piece of play equipment in the shape of a pirate ship, complete with a sea serpent slide, scramble nets, and canons that made a “boom” when whacked.  My three younger boys had soon turned it into the scene of an imaginative game I think loosely on the theme of piratical vikings – if that isn’t a tautology.

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They also loved a new addition to the castle, a kind of hydraulic fireman’s pole with a platform.  They could step from the castle onto the platform and it would slowly descend and deliver them to ground level.  The younger three could not get enough of this.  They thought it was brilliant fun.  My oldest son – almost 13 – was confounded by what they could possibly find so entertaining about slowly descending from one level to another.  I had no sooner told him that it was because he was getting older than his almost 41 year old father hopped on the pole and had a go himself.  I guess it isn’t age related after all.

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After the older three were tiring, the 6 year old still had energy galore to spare.  He wanted to go and look at the outdoor gym equipment so he and I headed off there to see what the equipment did, what exercises could be done, what if anything he could do there to burn off more energy.  I imagine the gym equipment is a great resource for people who enjoy that type of thing.  There were clear instructions regarding how to use the equipment in different ways.  The youngest and I did some of the exercises but mostly he just ran and jumped and climbed until finally his energy levels dropped to a reasonable level.

 

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