Philadelphia Women’s March

On Saturday, Mr Pict and I took our four sons to participate in the Women’s March event happening in Philadelphia, one of many marches happening across the country and around the world.

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As a result of my Gran’s passion for politics and issues, I started attending protests, marches, and demonstrations when I was tiny, maybe five years old.  I have attended scores of such events over the years but then I developed an anxiety problem related to crowds that prevented me from attending any large events, from music festivals to rallies.  I could not join last year’s Women’s March anyway because I had to work but this year I decided to push myself past my crowd anxiety for a number of reasons: I wanted my sons to have the experience of this form of civic engagement and understand how they can utilise their privilege for the benefit of others; as someone not eligible to vote, it is one of the few opportunities for me to stand up and be counted; and most importantly, I am an advocate for civil and human rights, social justice and equity so I felt compelled to go there and represent not just myself and my family but also be there to support all those who could not attend for reasons of mobility, finance, logistics, or personal safety.

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The event was superb and very well-organised.  The atmosphere was energising and inspiring.  Although there were tens of thousands of people there (I read an estimate of 50,000 people), the route up Benjamin Franklin Parkway was wide enough that I never once felt hemmed in enough for my crowd issue to spark my anxiety.  The boys were great and enjoyed reading the placards that so many people were carrying and listening to the chants along the way.  Our ten year old is particularly engaged in current affairs so he especially enjoyed the experience of participating in democracy in this way.  The march ended in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it was there that we listened to various women delivering powerful speeches about the importance of engagement, participation, and activism.  It was also thought-provoking and challenging and, given I am a white woman, prompted some self-reflection on what more I can do to channel my privilege for good.  I am so glad that we went and added our voices to the throng.

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World War 2 at Graeme Park

This past weekend we visited a World War 2 history festival at Graeme Park.  The park is a historic site in Horsham, to the north of Philadelphia and, therefore, not too far from where we live.  It was the summer residence of Sir William Keith, an 18th Century Governor of Pennsylvania and Delaware.  While the mansion is still called Keith House, the park is named for the next generation of residents to live there.  Our visit, however, was not about the eighteenth century but was all about the Second World War.  We will have to return some other time to learn the history of the property and park.

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Mr Pict and I are history fanatics and we, therefore, grab every opportunity we can to engage the children in history.  Military history is not especially my thing but I accept that most history events and festivals will be dominated by major conflicts from across the centuries.  Indeed, the Chalke Valley History Festival that we attended last year on our trip back to the UK was themed around different periods of military history with some social history tacked on for good measure.

First up was a small aeroplane, minus its tail and wings, that the kids were permitted to climb inside.  They enjoyed taking turns pretending to be pilots.  Then we arrived at some stalls where genuine artifacts and memorabilia were being sold alongside replicas and war themed toys.  The kids always enjoy things like flea markets, boot fairs, and jumble sails so they had a great time rooting around.  Mr Pict and I were amused to see that toys from our childhoods, such as little plastic soldier figures and Action Men (GI Joes in the US) were being sold as “vintage”.  My oldest son and I also had a wee tour of some military vehicles and classic cars from the 1940s.  He chose a cream Chrysler as his favourite whereas I liked a sapphire blue Lincoln best.

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Then it was time to watch a reenactment of American infantry troops moving across a field towards SS and Wehrmacht troops who were occupying a farm house and adjacent land.  It was interesting to watch the maneuvres and the strategic use of the limited land forms but I think the kids would have engaged more had there been an MC commentating and explaining what was happening.  They did like all the gunfire and explosions, however, and liked trying to predict which soldiers were going to “die” next.

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Next up was an Abbot and Costello tribute act.  I grew up watching Abbot and Costello movies so I introduced my boys to them a few years ago.  They love the movies that crossover with the Universal monsters.  The tribute duo were skilled impersonators and were great at the rat-a-tat-tat high speed repartee but, as you might expect, the jokes were a bit dated for the kids to always “get” the punch line.  They did enjoy the puns, however, and my oldest found an elaborate, extended pun about a baseball game amusing.

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We then wandered around the encampment while the boys munched on pretzels (of course, because we cannot go on any outing without them consuming pretzels).  We saw reenacters depicting woodland defences and firing from foxholes, a few more military vehicles, and “soldiers” sitting outside their tents to eat their lunches.  We also did some dancing to Glen Miller music.

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After all the formal activities, we let the boys spend some time climbing some large fallen trees.  They always love scrabbling around on trees and this one had some great long branches for them to balance on plus a little “cave” formed by its exposed root system.  We also found a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail.  I assume it was injured in some way as it did not fly off when we approached it and even allowed the kids to gently handle it.  We moved it to a more secluded spot so that it could hopefully recover and then fly off.  Then, on the walk back to the car, the kid and I encountered a few snakes.  Most slithered a speedy retreat but one large Eastern Gartersnake stayed on the spot which enabled us to get up close and study it.  It soon became apparent that it too had been injured, probably by a car, so I picked it up and moved it to a grassy spot, safely away from tires.  It thanked me with a farewell hiss.

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Pumpkin Picking

In what has become a Halloween tradition in the two years that we have lived in America, we headed to Shady Brook Farm this weekend to have some spooky themed fun and pick out pumpkins.  Mr Pict and I had thought to take the kids somewhere else, change things up a bit instead of repeating the previous years’ jaunts, but the boys all protested and wanted to return to familiar territory.  The Pictlings have determined the tradition.

The boys bounced on the giant trampolines, looked at the animals, played on the climbing frame, and ate pretzels, funnel cake and deep fried oreos.  The middle two boys had a shot of a corn cannon, blasting corn cobs at various objects.  Everyone guffawed when my 10 year old managed to hit the giant corn doll in its groin.  Our 6 year old had fun blasting zombies with a paint ball through a rather too rapid fire technique.

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There are two barns that get decked out spooky style for Halloween.  In the evening, folks can wander through the dark interior while real life “ghouls” terrorise them but by day it is equally fun to wander around and see all the grotesque and fun decorations.  The kids love the alien barn.  Donning 3D glasses makes paint jump off the walls and models of aliens seem to vibrate.  The kids think it is massive fun.  My 12 year old and I then had a wander through the horror barn.  It’s grotesque in places with imagery lifted from gory horror movies but it’s the room full of clowns that freaks me out the most.

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Then it was time to head to the pumpkin patch so that each of the boys could select a pumpkin for carving.  I guess the pumpkins were nearing the end of their season as there were many rotten and smashed ones littering the ground.  It, therefore, took a while for the kids to find the pumpkins they wanted.  We set them a size and weight limit which was not an issue for our 10 year old who wanted the smallest, roundest, most orange pumpkin he could find.

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We then did some freestyle carving to turn the pumpkins into a My Little Pony, two vampires and Jack Skellington.  With that, the pumpkins were ready to be transformed into lanterns for Halloween.

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Our Geek-End

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, an annual event we were introduced to last year.  Knowing what was in store for them this year, the boys bounded out of bed.  The middle two even dressed themselves appropriately, one in an Avengers t-shirt and one in his homemade Star-Lord t-shirt.  Despite neither parent having an interest in comic books or superheroes, my three younger sons are obsessed with that whole culture.  Our 9 year old in particular is a walking, talking encyclopaedia of Marvel and DC knowledge.  He can talk ad nauseam on any character one dares to mention.  It may not intersect with our interests but Mr Pict and I are always happy to promote geekdom in our children so we support their comic book obsessions.

When we arrived at our local comic book store we found that the car park was jam packed and we grabbed the last vacant spot in the adjacent car park.  Last year, the tables with the free comic books had been set up inside the store but this year they had set them up beneath a marquee outside the store.  Although we arrived just after opening time, a lengthy queue had already formed.  The queue was moving swiftly and the event  was well organised, however, so it did not take long for the kids to reach the head of the queue and start selecting their three free comic books each.  Just as last year, there was a large and diverse collection to choose from so they had no difficulty picking out three each without there being any crossover.

Having done the free bit, the kids then went into the comic book store to peruse their wares.  I thought I had seen the place at its most busy during the same event last year but it was even more jam-packed this time.  It was great to see so many people milling around from the young to the old, many in costume or at least themed t-shirts.  The staff gave my 9 year old props for designing his own Star-Lord t-shirt which had him puffed up like a wee peacock.  The three younger boys all follow a comic book series so they picked out the latest editions of each from the shelves.  My oldest meanwhile is a collector of Funko Pops so he looked at the massive stack of Pops available in the store.  In the end, the only way to compel the kids to leave the shop was to remind them that we had pre-booked cinema tickets and had to go.

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The cinema trip was a continuation of our geeky day as we were off to see ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’.  To say my kids and husband had high expectations of this movie is a terrible understatement.  Sequels can often disappoint. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ‘Godfather II’ and ‘Toy Story 2’ are rare exceptions.  In my humble opinion, ‘Ultron’ did not surpass the fun and spectacle of ‘Avengers Assemble’ but nor was it a case of “diminishing returns”.  Some characters (Hawkeye in particular) were fleshed out more in this movie, promoted from being elevated sidekicks, while others (such as Thor) were pushed to the peripheries.  The character relationships were developed further and all the individuals were shown to be working effectively as a team.  However, at the same time the movie seemed to be about fractures and splinters appearing in the group which made it a bit less rip-roaring fun.  There were stupendous action set pieces and the baddie – pretty much a personification of the internet gone bad – was effective.  There was a flabby section, however, where my eyes began to droop and I wasn’t that engaged with all the new characters.  But the cinema trip was not about me and the important thing is that my kids were on the edge of their seats throughout, loving every moment of it and lapping up all the comic book geekdom.  My 8 year old was sitting next to me and kept leaning over to whisper to  facts to me or his predictions for the movie.  He was disappointed but forgiving when one of his predictions failed to materialise.

Then we went home to cook and eat a barbecue in the sunshine.  My youngest boys decided that they should make “mocktails” for me.  They pillaged the fridge for fruit juice and fresh berries and the cupboards for candy and lollipops and constructed several drinks for me to sample.  They even made little decorations for each glass.  It was sweet, cute and thoughtful of them – even though they used up gallons of juice and punnets of fruit.  I am going to have to stock my 1970s cocktail cabinet with actual liquor so that they can learn to make me actual cocktails.

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Picking Pumpkins

It is a weird experience to have now lived in America long enough (a year last Friday) to be cycling round the same events and holidays and experiences.  We arrived in the country amid the build up to Halloween and now here we are with Halloween on the horizon once more.  This time last year we went to Shady Brook Farm for the kids’ first ever experience of picking pumpkins to carve; yesterday we returned to Shady Brook Farm to pick out some pumpkins to carve this year.

The farm runs a whole Halloween event.  In the evening, adults – or at least adults who like a thorough scare and have strong bladders – can explore various barns, fields and corn mazes in the dark while people dressed as various horrific things terrorise them and they encounter horrible props.  In daylight, it is still possible to wander through the attractions but, of course, there are sources of light and there are no actual human horrors lurking in corners, just grotesque props.  We, therefore, started our afternoon at Shady Brook Farm by heading into the Horror Barn.  I went in first with my 11 and 7 year olds.  Later Mr Pict went in with the 5 year old.  Our 9 year old didn’t want to do it at all, which is fine.  Getting the creeps is not for everyone.  The thing that unsettles me in the barn is actually the claustrophobia.  The narrow corridors created by hoarding and the darkness creep me out far more than corpses dangling from a ceiling and vampiric girls chewing on pet cats.  However, this time around, the first room was filled with clowns.  I have a proper, deep-seated fear of clowns.  Even happy clowns give me serious chills so horror clowns really make my flesh crawl and my spine judder.

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After the horror barn, we went into another barn that is a 3D Alien experience.  It’s pretty lo-fi but really effective.  We were each handed a pair of 3D spectacles and then we entered the darkened barn where the walls of the corridors had been painted with fluorescent paint that vibrated and sprung forward from the walls.  There were also dangling dayglo threads and the odd alien figure lurking in a corner with its big eyes and long fingers.  There was also a walkway through a rotating cylinder that was dizzifying and the exit was via two large inflatable pillows that we each had to squeeze between.  It was exactly the same as last year but none of us minded because it was a ton of fun.

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The boys then played on various items of play equipment: an inflatable assault course, a bouncy slide, giant bouncing pillows to trampoline on, wooden play equipment with slides and fireman’s poles and a rope spiderweb.  They also snacked on pretzels because we cannot take those kids anywhere in Pennsylvania without them eating pretzels.  After the snack stop, we decided to undertake one of the mazes.  Last year we had attempted the large corn maze and became terribly lost and bewildered and then panicked as one by one the kids all needed to pee.  In desperation, we actually exited via an unofficial gap, having entirely failed to discover each of the designated stations and the exit.  This year, therefore, we stuck to the weenie haystack maze and the kids had fun playing hide and seek among the haystacks and crawling through and inside the corn tunnels and the corn wigwam.

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A tractor-towed wagon ride delivered us to the pumpkin patch where the kids selected and rejected and selected again about half a dozen pumpkins each.  A couple of them were even set on taking home pumpkins that were too heavy to lift.  They were told to scale back their ambitions.  With carving designs in mind, they finally chose pumpkins they felt were the perfect size and shape for what they wanted to create and construct and two were even green instead of the traditional orange.

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It’s rather nice to be cycling through things again as it means we are establishing new traditions in our new country.

*PS  I am unsure as to why some of my photos are appearing so small.  I have just moved to using Flickr to host my photographs for the blog and I clearly have not got the hang of it.  Hopefully it is not too visually annoying.*

Fourth of July

Friday was only my second ever Independence Day spent in America and was the first for the children.  We have celebrated Independence Day in Britain because Mr Pict is half-American and frankly because it is a good excuse to barbecue and feast.  However, without the festival atmosphere, the red, white and blue everywhere and the fireworks, it could never be quite the same.

This Independence Day, therefore, was special because it was our first one spent in America as a family and also because my parents are here visiting.  The fact that three of us are fully non-American did not deter us.  We might be British but we all believe in a nation’s right to self-determination anyway so even politically we would have supported the Revolution.  And, of course, we get to barbecue and feast.  All celebrations end up revolving around food so this was no exception.  Mr Pict grilled up everything from hot dogs and sausages to pork chops, steak and chicken and I made up salads and potato salads.  Because we were not quite bloated enough, we then had chocolate cream pie or a patriotically decorated sponge cake.

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The only other time I have been in America for Independence Day was 19 years ago.  Mr Pict and I sat on the hard, cold, bum-numbing steps of the Lincoln Memorial for hours to snag a prime spot for viewing the fireworks over the National Mall.  That was a pretty spectacular experience but our rumps did pay the price.  This time we decided to keep it simple by staying locally so we headed out to one of the local High Schools to view their fireworks display.  Woefully ill-prepared, we had entirely failed to move our new lawn chairs into the boot (trunk) of the bigger car and we didn’t even have a blanket to sit on.  We were going to plonk ourselves on the grass when we spotted a long bench tipped over so we were able to right it and perch on it.  A chap running for Congress was offering people free water ice (which is a bit like a UK slushy) so the boys even got to have a snack despite having parents who had not adequately forward-planned.

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Daylight swiftly became dusk and settled into darkness and the sense of anticipation and expectation was palpable as the sky darkened to an inky blue.  Finally the fireworks started.  My kids are used to fireworks being in November (for Guy Fawkes night) and have usually watched displays while standing on the side of a loch, freezing cold and with their welly boots sinking further into sodden grass.  The only exception was watching fireworks during the last Summer Olympics.  It was, therefore, a welcome and lovely experience to be sitting on a balmy night watching the sky lit up with colourful, sparkling gunpowder.  It was a really good fireworks display with a fantastic finale.  We would definitely go to the same event in future years.

Overall it was a very successful Independence Day.

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Small Differences: Games Day

This morning was Games Day at my sons’ Elementary School.  In their school in Scotland they had one afternoon at the end of each academic year that was Sports Day.  I had assumed that this was just a vocabulary difference but actually the two events were really quite different.

At their school in Scotland, there was an emphasis on athletics type events, not like proper track and field, but events with a sharp start, a clear finish and obvious winners.  The events, therefore, were things like flat (sprint) races, egg and spoon and obstacle courses.  By contrast, at their American school the emphasis was more on having fun while being active rather than there being much that would approximate a recognised sport.  So, for instance, there were events that involved carrying a stack of pizza boxes, transporting water from one bucket to another using a sponge and pairs of children throwing water balloons to each other until it inevitably burst.  With the younger kids, there was very much an emphasis on having fun – there was even a pirate hunt for pieces of eight – albeit while using gross motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination.  It was only when observing my Fifth Grader that I saw any competitive aspect to the event as they were divided into two teams and were scoring points during each event.  Some of those kids were fiercely competitive too, the veins in their foreheads bulging and screaming at their peers like drill sergeants.  Even so, however, the competition was between the two teams rather than between individuals which somewhat diluted it.

I think it would be fair to describe Games Day as organised chaos.  The gym teacher had clearly put a great deal of effort into preparing the kids for the events as they all seemed to know what they were doing but as an observer, not comprehending what the actual point of the game was, it often felt like I was just watching a pile of kids in tie-dyed t-shirts running around in frenetically random ways.  I didn’t care because I would personally rather be a spectator of kids having fun than of kids being bored waiting for their brief stint in a relay race.  Because that was another difference between our experiences in Scotland and here in Pennsylvania: the amount of time spent actively doing something.  As things were more tightly and rigidly organised in their school in Scotland, there was an awful lot of kids standing on the sidelines waiting for their turn to arrive because, of course, if you are going to have clear winners then you cannot have a whole pile of kids running in each race so they had to be broken into smaller groups.  Here, on the other hand, there was never a point where the kids were not actually engaged in an activity – except for when they had a popsicle break.  They rotated between activities that were already set up which meant there was no time lost waiting for the equipment to be swapped around or reset.  This did present a challenge for me, however, in that I had to keep dashing around the grounds as I moved between spectating the activities of my three different children (the fourth thankfully being in preschool so that he did not become a human hurdle as he has in previous years).  I am used to using slack periods to swap which of my sons I am observing.  Without such slack periods, I did an awful lot of speed walking.

It is my understanding that a lot of schools have phased out the whole idea of winners for sports day.  However, the school my sons attended in Scotland still handed out stickers for first, second and third places.  Two of them would at least win one or two events but my now 8 year old never managed to get a sticker.  This is because he does not care for sports at all and is not remotely competitive.  Last year he actually danced his way through the obstacle course.  Literally danced.  Remember how the Sharks and the Jets dance-fight?  He dance-sports.  Everyone else was across the finishing line while he was still pirouetting his way across the field.  He did not care one jot.  Regardless, however, I think that permitting kids to experience success and failure on sports day is no bad thing.  It’s part of valuable life lessons about not being capable of experiencing success in everything that you do and that you can derive pleasure from participating even when you don’t achieve complete success.  Furthermore, I tell my kids that not everyone has to be great at everything.  Sure, there are always going to be high achievers with the Midas Touch but most mortals will find that they are good at some things and not at others.  That’s absolutely fine.  I absolutely sucked at Sport and at Maths when I was in school but I was great in English, Art and History.  As such, I got to experience both celebrated success and abject failure.  Meanwhile, a student who perhaps struggled with academia got to experience success on sports day.  It’s preparation for life.  The school my kids now attend in Pennsylvania seems to be taking something of a compromise stance when it comes to the whole winning thing.  For the lower grades, there was really no winning or losing going on, even when they were in teams racing against each other – as with the speed stacking of cups – because no one appeared to be keeping score.  The racing was just part of the fun.  With the older grades, however, they were collecting points (in some way I just could not fathom) for their teams and one team would be declared the overall winner.  However, the teams were so vast and the experience of glory and defeat shared across so many that the impact of either position was diluted.  That didn’t stop the kids from being grimly determined to win or to endeavour to do their best, however.  There were still a whole load of inherently competitive kids.  But it did remove the focus from the strengths and weaknesses of individuals.  I understand that here in Pennsylvania there is a gradual phasing in of traditional team sports within school, with those sports replacing games – such as capture the flag – as the kids get older, so an event like this is probably good training in sportsmanship to a degree.

So it was a very different sports day experience for me this year than in previous years.  I think each event had its pros and neither had particular cons.  I have a feeling my kids enjoyed today better simply because they were always doing something and, of course, because of the newness of it all.  I think my favourite difference about sports day, however, was that I got to be outside in the sunshine watching my kids participating without being eaten alive by midges.

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