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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Teenage Bedroom Makeover

We actually decorated our oldest son’s bedroom months ago but I forgot that I had been sharing our makeover process on the blog.  He has the smallest bedroom so it was the easiest to tackle.  Having become a teenager since we moved into this house, we also felt his room deserved to have a bit more of a mature look to it.

When we viewed the house, this room was being used not as a bedroom but as an upstairs snug living room.  It was full of chairs and tables and a TV and so looked very cramped.  It also had a mud brown shag pile carpet.  We had the carpet replaced before we moved in to make life easier.  The room was very spartan but provided us with a totally blank canvas.  It has a built-in closet that provides good storage space but we definitely needed more furniture to make the room functional.

9a A Bedroom

We asked our son what colour he wanted his walls to be painted and he said black.  The compromise was a deep charcoal grey.  While moving furniture around in order to paint the walls, his bed collapsed and broke beyond repair.  Happily, the previous owners had left a nearly new double bed in the basement so we dragged that up to his bedroom.  He was thrilled to have such a large bed to himself.  His younger brothers were warned to not even think about breaking their beds in order to get bigger beds. We also installed additional furniture to store all of his stuff, especially all of his school and stationery materials.  We had these great quality shelves that had been in our formal living room so we put those on our son’s wall above his bed so that he could display his collection of Funko Pops and other assorted nerdy things.

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All really simple changes but now he has a bedroom that will last him a good few years.

Our Library Corner

We have been like the Three Bears trying to find a feature chair for our library corner in order to finish the makeover of our more formal living room: we wanted a chair with some personality and visual interest but those we had found were either too expensive or were not comfy enough or looked too rigid, lacking the cosy feel we were aiming for.  We had put our active questing on hiatus and figured we would resume our search at some point and would maybe stumble across something appropriate in the interim.

Last weekend, we were perambulating around Costco with the four kids in tow and, somewhere between buying enough toilet roll to build a wall and a huge sack of basmati, we wandered past one of the furniture aisles and spotted a chair that looked like it was worth investigating.  The kids wasted no time in giving it a test run and discovered it was a recliner chair.  We had not even considered a recliner chair for our library corner but I instantly liked the idea.  It was comfy, had a high enough back to support the neck and head, had sturdy arm rests and was sturdy enough to make a visual statement in that area of our living room.

We bought it.  We are now all enjoying having a really comfy spot to park ourselves for quiet activities.

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Home Makeover – Family Living Room

As I explained in a previous post about gradually making over our home, our house dates from 1970.  Home owners of the 1970s appear to have had a fondness for wood panelling and our new home was no exception.  When we moved in, the family living room was very dark and felt small because all four walls were dark wood panelling.  That was not for us: we wanted the room to feel light and spacious.  Part of our aim in redecorating the house, however, is to maintain some of the original features.

In the case of the family living room, two of the walls were lined with storage cabinets.  On the window wall, there are cupboards with lattice work doors.  One of the cupboards was designed to house a television set.  The opposite wall – which also serves as a corridor between the formal living room and the kitchen – is lined with almost full height, deep cupboards.  The central two doors of the four open up to reveal a cocktail cabinet.  How awesome is that?  When we came to view the house, I was instantly smitten by the idea of having my very own cocktail cabinet.  I was won over by that particular original feature.  Of course, the reality is that what I actually store in there is baking equipment, salad bowls and serving platters.  But some day I will fill it with ingredients for cocktails.  As a family of six, storage was important to us when we were looking for a house to buy in America.  I was sold on this house partly because of all the good quality, sturdy storage available throughout the house.  So all the cupboards in the family living room had to stay.

That decision taken, we knew we had a few different surface types to deal with.  We decided to paint directly onto the wood panelling and cupboard doors in order to unify them while also retaining the original features and the textures they provided.  We went for a very pale stone paint in order to make the room as light as possible.

The before photos were taken once we had been living here a few months so we had already purchased new sofas and the media unit.  The photos still illustrate what the walls and cupboards looks like, however.

Before - Living Room B

Before - Living Room C

These are the after photos.  The room is much lighter as a result of the painting and, therefore, looks more spacious.  We have also been able to personalise the space by having a gallery of our art work – half of which is by me – on the sofa wall and objects we have collected over the decades displayed on the media unit.

After - Living Room D

After - Living Room E

After - Living Room F

We still have a couple of projects left to attend to in this room: the walls have speakers built into them and the fronts of those speakers are brown so we would like to replace that brown mesh with something lighter; there is a copper plant trough beneath the window which we have a plan for but which we have not gotten around to yet; and the oriental style handles on the cabinet doors need to be replaced with something more contemporary and less stabby.

Home Makeover – Formal Living Room

We bought our new house last August and have been chipping away since then at making over the house.  It is none too easy to redecorate as busy parents of four kids, especially with Mr Pict working long hours.  It has also taken us a bit of time to purchase all of the furniture we needed.  When we emigrated from Scotland, the only furniture we shipped was a dining table and chairs, a coffee table, a roll top desk and two pull-out chair beds.

Our house dates from 1970 and retains all of its original features, fixtures and fittings with the exception of the kitchen which is from the 1990s.  We found many of those original features appealing when we viewed the house, they added character and charm, but we also knew we would have to update the house a lot and make it more functional for modern life and more “us”.  Initially we made a start on almost every room – and some rooms need a lot more work than others – but that was too chaotic an approach for the time we could regularly commit to DIY.  We, therefore, narrowed our focus to the public rooms.

The formal living room was in good condition.  The original hardwood floor and fireplace were features we wanted to retain.  I quickly grew to like the 1970s fabric of the main curtains.  We quickly ditched the net curtains and roller blinds, however.  The net curtains were so brittle that the fabric broke to pieces as I folded them.  There was also a wooden panel with grass wallpaper attached to one wall, where a piano had once stood.

This is what the room looked like when we had been living here a few months, a view of each end of the room:

Before - Formal Living Room B

Before - Formal Living Room C

The walls needed filled and repainted.  We chose a light but warm pale sand colour and hung a mirror above the fireplace to bounce light around the room.  The mirror also made the fireplace more of a feature since it does not have a mantelpiece.  Then it was just a case of filling the room with new furniture, getting our trinkets and objects out on display and hanging some of our collection of art work on the wall.  At the front end of the room, we created a little music corner to house all of the guitars and a library area for all of our non-fiction books.  We will eventually replace the Ikea chairs for something with more character and personality but they are comfy and do the job so that is not a high priority.  We also want to replace some of the lamps but again that is not a high priority right now.

This is what the room looks like now:

After - Formal Living Room F

After - Formal Living Room H

After - Formal Living Room K

After - Formal Living Room O