Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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A Tree-mendous Birthday

My third son was gifted a session at Go Ape for his 11th birthday.  My oldest son had done Go Ape back in Britain for his tenth birthday but this was a first experience for the other boys.  The three older boys were eligible to do the full course under the supervision of Mr Pict and their grandfather.  My youngest son, being too wee for the full course, had a ticket to spend an hour on a junior course which my mother-in-law and I could supervise from ground level.

It was just as well I could supervise from the ground as I don’t think I could have managed even the junior course without my fear of heights causing me to go into a panic.  The staff at Go Ape were fantastic.  They were competent, of course, but they were also great with their encouragement and praise and creating challenge.  My youngest son – who is completely fearless – got the hang of the course pretty quickly so they encouraged him to try and beat his own personal record, then to do one of the routes backwards, and to try different types of jump on the zipline.  He had a whale of a time and absolutely loved it.

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Once our time was up with the junior course, we headed into the woods to track down the others and see how they were getting on.  We had seen them getting fitted into their harnesses and being trained and at that time they were all smiles and excitement.  We wondered if, almost two hours in, they were flagging or finding it was getting too challenging.  We met up with them just as they were doing the fourth stretch of the course.  They were definitely feeling challenged but were still enjoying the experience.  It made me queasy seeing how high up they were.  Shortly after we met up with them, they had a choice to make as to whether to take a difficult route over to a platform or an extreme route.  My oldest son wanted to do the extreme route which meant his father had to take a deep breath and accompany him.  They had to move between a series of short scramble nets which were dangling in the canopy of the trees.  It was pretty terrifying to watch even from ground level.  Meanwhile, our birthday boy was having an attack of nerves as he found the combination of height, wobbly platforms, and wind to be overwhelming.  It took him a while to collect himself but, with some advice and encouragement from a member of staff on the ground, he took a first step and then another and then in no time he was across to the next platform.  That experience, however, meant that once he was back on the ground, he decided he was staying there.  He was done.  So were his 12 year old brother and grandfather.  My oldest son decided he wanted to complete the course in its entirety, however, which meant one final set of challenges.  Since he had to be accompanied by an adult, that meant his father had to complete it too.  This included what my husband declared was the scariest part of the course: a just-too-long drop off of a platform to swing across onto a net.  Once they ziplined back across the lake, they too were done.

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Every member of Team Pict had challenged themselves and felt a sense of accomplishment.  Just maybe even my mother-in-law and I get to include ourselves in that since we overcame our anxiety enough to spectate and offer encouragement.  Everyone was hungry after hours spent in low temperatures in the woods, especially those who had been burning calories swinging here and there, so it was time to eat.  The birthday boy wanted to have pizza for dinner so we headed to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and had some delicious food.  Once we were home, he had his special birthday dessert, a platter of cannolis, one of his favourite things.

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Virginia Air and Space Center

On our final day in Virginia, we decided to go to the Air and Space Center.  We were staying not too far from Langley so it seemed appropriate that we should go and see one of the things the area was famous for.  As a family, we have visited many types of science museums and many types of transportation museums.  Some of these have been fantastic and some very much less so.  This one proved to fall into the latter category.  It was a waste of money and time.

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The museum had some interesting exhibits, such as the Apollo 12 command module, but the whole place just fell flat.  It was all very tired and uninspired and very overpriced.  It was probably cutting edge a couple of decades ago but it just wasn’t up to scratch for 2018.  Too many of the interactive areas were not working at all and those that were had problems with appropriate pitching.  What I mean by that is that the interactive aspect of the exhibit was appropriate for engaging a child but the content was far too esoteric and dry to capture or hold their interest. The worst offender was a room dedicated to a fictional Mars mission.  The graphics were dull and the voice acting was horribly flat.  The room was also hot, stuffy, and claustrophobic.  I stopped listening or looking after a couple of minutes because I thought I was at risk of passing out.

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My older kids really did not enjoy the experience with the exception of an excellent Imax movie about hurricanes.  My youngest son enjoyed dressing up in a space suit and playing in the children’s play area but otherwise he did not engage much either.  It was interesting that this was ostensibly a museum with much greater focus on young visitors yet it failed to engage them whereas the Air Mobility Command Museum in Delaware was less child-oriented but really held their interest.

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Ultimately, the highlight of the day turned out to be a delicious lunch around the corner and a small store across the street from the Air and Space Center.  The shop sold British food so the boys were in their element with tingling tastebuds and nostalgia. Most of the items were too expensive for us but we allowed the boys to pick a small treat each.  They had a hard time choosing but had fun making their selection.

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Civil War Virginia

Our children had gone to Virginia to spend Spring break with their grandparents, who had flown over from England. On the Tuesday, Mr Pict and I were able to travel south to join them.  As regular readers of this blog will know, my husband is a Civil War nerd.  He was, therefore, relishing the prospect of spending some time mooching around Civil War sites in Virginia, though he agreed to restrict himself to the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 for this trip.  On our journey south, needing a comfort break, he selected the National Park visitor centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.  While I availed myself of the restroom, Mr Pict undertook a warp speed visit of the visitor centre and determined that we should return some time with the kids.  It was largely determined that Richmond should serve as the capital of the Confederacy because of these iron works so it is a significant site.  I did like that the visitor centre was housed within such a historic building.

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The next morning, with the four boys and my in-laws in tow, Mr Pict took us on a tour of Civil War sites.  We started at Yorktown.  Yorktown is more strongly associated with the War of Independence and so it proved to be at the National Park.  The focus was very much on Revolutionary history with just a slight nod to its place in the Civil War.  At the risk of muddying the waters of the boys’ learning for the day, we subjected them to the film about the history of Yorktown.  I write “subjected” because it had not been updated since probably the 1980s and the quality of performances and production values were pretty tragic.  I am not sure, therefore, that the boys engaged much with the film but hopefully some learning stuck and they at least took away from it that it was the place where Cornwallis surrendered.  They did, however, enjoy the various canons outside the visitor centre.  There was to be a lot of clambering on canons that day.

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Our next stop was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  As regular readers will know, I absolutely love cemeteries.  While I personally enjoy just wandering around and appreciating the memorial architecture and funerary sculpture, it is always useful to have some famous burials to search out and provide focus to the wanderings.  Turning a cemetery visit into a “treasure hunt” also helps engage the kids.  The reason for our visit was because the cemetery, while a public cemetery rather than a military one, is chock full of confederate graves.  It, therefore, formed part of Mr Pict’s Civil War tour.  We started with a massive granite pyramid erected to commemorate the confederate dead.  It was in an area where the confederate dead of Gettysburg had been interred following their recovery from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  Can you imagine the grim task of locating all of the remains on the battlefield and preparing them for transportation to Virginia?  Nearby was the grave of George Pickett, he of Pickett’s Charge.  We also saw the grave of JEB Stuart.

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I have no political, ideological difficulty with the commemoration of the confederate dead within the context of a cemetery.  The confines of a cemetery’s walls makes it about the living processing the grief of lost loved ones.  I can think that these are people who chose to fight on the wrong side of history, who were fighting to uphold an appallingly horrific system, who may even, particularly in the case of the military leaders, have been loathome, morally bankrupt individuals.  But I can square that against them being someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, and therefore deserving of being buried with dignity and not left on a battlefield to moulder.  What I have real difficulty with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration.  That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.  Again, while tricky in the context of a cemetery, there was definitely something that troubled me about the grave of Jefferson Davis.  The fact that some workers were placing new cobbles around Davis’ statue, in order to make the whole area look polished and smart, seemed to me to underscore the fact that this was a site that was being venerated.  Then there were all the flags.  Those flags always make me feel uncomfortable.  This was not simply a place where family members could come and pay their respects to a departed love one, gather their thoughts about their experience of loss; this was a space that was bigger than that and was imbued with more political meaning than that.  It was weird.  Just weird.

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Hollywood is also the final resting place of two American Presidents.  They are buried within the same attractive circle in an area of the cemetery that is elevated and provides a striking view over the river.  James Monroe, fifth President, had a very unusual tomb, an elaborate and fancy cast iron structure, reminiscent of a gothic church, surrounding his granite coffin.  I read that it was known as the “birdcage” which is entirely apt.  Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Monroe’s grave was the monument to John Tyler, tenth President.  Tyler famously became President when William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.  He also has two grandsons still living.  Imagine having a grandfather who was born in 1790?  His grave was marked by an obelisk with a bust built into its front facade.

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After Hollywood Cemetery, Mr Pict took us to visit battlefield after battlefield.  The first was Gaines Mill and it was only slightly more interesting than the sites that followed because of the presence of a house.  Mr Pict and his father were very interested in a creek that ran through some woods that flanked the fields and went off for a wander there but to my mind the site was pretty featureless except for that house.  I read that the house was home to an elderly widow whose slaves carried her out of the house on the day of the battle.  She was never able to return home because the house was all but destroyed during the conflict.  I think the next stop was named Glendale Crossroad or Frayer’s Farm but I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that stop and cannot remember what my husband told me about it.  As far as I was concerned, it was literally a crossroad and there was nothing to see.  The last stop was at a spot named Malvern Mill.  Mr Pict was very keen on this spot and explained why but I did not absorb the information.  To me, these were literally just fields filled with scrub or the stubble of old crops.  The only thing that indicated it was a place of historic significance was the presence of canons lining the field.  The boys enjoyed clambering on the canon and seeing a whole car lot filled with fire trucks as firefighters were running a controlled fire nearby.

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I would like to claim that I learned something new or interesting about the Civil War that day but honestly I did not.  I am none the wiser about the Peninsula Campaign than I was before because I just could not absorb the information my husband was sharing with us.  My brain just is not that keen on military history, what can I say.  Still, the cemetery was attractive and Mr Pict was very happy so it was a day well spent.

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Grounds for Sculpture

This has been a horrible winter.  It has not actually snowed much but instead we have had to contend with various pestilences and too many rainy, miserable weekends.  While I do enjoy hibernating a bit over winter, cabin fever definitely set in.  I desperately needed some fresh air and exploration for the sake of my mental wellbeing.  This past weekend, therefore, we took advantage of a dry day to go and visit the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey.  We had previously attempted a visit there but it was Labour Day weekend and all of the tickets for the day were gone by the time we arrived.  This time we prebooked to be assured of entry, though in reality it was pretty quiet.

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The Grounds for Sculpture is essentially an outdoor exhibition space for sculptures by a variety of artists.  The museum was founded by artist Seward Johnson.  I must confess that his was not a name I knew but it turned out I did know some of his sculptures.  The one most people can probably recall to their mind’s eye is ‘Double Check’ which depicts a seated businessman looking through his briefcase.  It was captured in an iconic photo of 9/11 as, covered in dust and debris, it looked no different from the real people making their way through the streets after the towers collapsed.  A replica of that statue greeted us as we entered the Visitor Center.

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The Visitor Center showcased some of Johnson’s other works too, such as his Marilyn Monroe based on the famous photo of her from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, a group of musicians, and a styrofoam sculpture of a reclining girl that was painted to look like it was made from marble and chrome.  What was a big hit with the boys, however, was a room made to look like Van Gogh’s painting of his ‘Bedroom in Arles’.  We all enjoyed the feeling of having stepped inside the painting and be seeing such a famous work from a different perspective.

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The vast outdoor space contained hundreds of sculptures.  Every pathway brought us to a different art work and we enjoyed the almost “treasure hunt” aspect of finding some of the statues that were partially concealed behind bushes or were only accessible by following a small path.  Some statues made the kids chortle, including one of a man urinating into bushes and a very phallic obelisk.  I enjoyed the variety of art works on display, from the abstract to the kitsch, from the ones hewn from natural materials to the brightly coloured ones crafted from manmade materials.  We all enjoyed the oversized, three dimensional versions of famous Impressionist paintings because of that feeling of being able to magically step inside a painting.  We also enjoyed the celebration of kitsch and the fact that many of the statues could be touched and interacted with as adjacent signs specified that they could be respectfully touched or even climbed on.  I believe one of the mission statements of the Grounds for Sculpture is to engage more people in public art so it was great to be able to let the kids feel the texture of a bronze sculpture or hang out with Renoir’s party-goers.

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The grounds themselves were lovely, very peaceful, filled with trees and plants, and peacocks.  There were also some nice buildings dotted around and bodies of water and arching bridges.  I can imagine that the whole place looks even more appealing in other seasons when there is more colour and leaves on the trees.  Since the Grounds are spread over 42 acres, we had lots of opportunity to wander and run around and explore.  However, even though we were there for a few hours, we did not manage to see everything.  We will absolutely have to go back some time.

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Keeping It Real

At least once every couple of weeks two things happen: someone will comment about what a wonder woman or inspiration I am and I will fail spectacularly at some aspect of life.  Clearly there is a disparity – sometimes of chasm proportions – between people’s perceptions of me and my reality.

I absolutely do not set out to convince people that I am some sort of incredible individual who has all of her ducks in neat and pretty serried rows.  Each and every time someone compliments me, I am flabbergasted and don’t really know how to respond because it is unexpected.  And also because I have never really learned how to graciously accept a compliment.  Anyway, I am not deliberately presenting a facade to the world or hiding my shortcomings from public view but somehow, nevertheless, people have this perception of me that is far removed from the reality.

When I first started blogging (over four years ago!), I made a promise to myself that I would “keep it real” on this blog.  My original intention had been to maintain the blog as a sort of diary of my early experiences of life in a new country so it would have totally undermined the purpose had I finessed the truth.  Obviously I now maintain my blog(s) for other reasons but I still hold to that aim of presenting the reality of what my experiences are, sometimes red in tooth and claw.  Clearly, I don’t write about the mundane reality of my everyday life.  My readers don’t need to know that my sock orphanage, where all the unaccompanied single socks accumulate, is currently a mountainous stockpile.  Nor do they need to know that I spend every single weekday morning yelling the same script at my children who must surely be bored by now of my voice loudly hectoring them to put on shoes and coats and pick up backpacks and lunch bags.  I yell so loudly that I understood entirely why my new neighbours, when we first moved into our house, knew the name of my youngest son without the need for introductions.

People seem to perceive me as being super-organised, efficient, a fantastic time-keeper, with an ability to juggle multiple and varied draws on my free time while somehow, miraculously, still having time for art and other hobbies.  Many of those things used to be true of me.  Before I had kids, I was anal retentive with my organisation and punctuality.  I was notorious for my To Do spreadsheets and my colour-coded everything.  However, as my life became more complex, I had to choose between maintaining that level of efficiency or my sanity .  These days I am still a massive control freak but one who regularly freaks out amid the chaos I have little to no control over.

The truth is that I am perpetually frazzled, am prone to yelling because I am apparently hard-wired to associate assertiveness with volume, and frequently over-scheduled.  I experience regular spikes of anxiety because of running late or barely making it on time when punctuality is one of my neuroses.  I juggle many balls and fail to keep them all in the air.  Frequently I drop the ones that can safely bounce; regularly I drop the ones that smash and need cleaning up; and ever so often I just drop all the balls everywhere.

And the truth about how I find time for my hobbies, especially art, isn’t that I am massively efficient with my time or am spectacularly whizzy at getting things done – though I do work fast.  The truth is that I make time for those things by sacrificing other things ranging from dusting to TV viewing to sleep.  I confess I sacrifice dusting a lot.  Furthermore, there are times when my scheduling of “me time” goes spectacularly wrong – such as times when we end up having the most random, cobbled together dinners because I forgot to prep a key ingredient in advance.

I am often in the midst of a scheduling mess.  Back in November, I had a day where I had to be in three places at once.  I am used to problem solving being in two places at once but three was just too much.  It was head-imploding crazy.  And then my oldest son asked if he could be dropped off at the cinema as if it was no big deal to add in being in a fourth place at once.  Clearly my kids think I have super powers too.

Then there was the day when I was already up against it at the thought of having to get my two youngest sons to the orthodontist for 3.30 only to receive a phone call asking where we were since the first appointment was actually 1.30.  This necessitated me dropping everything – literally since I was doing laundry at the time –  quickly organising myself while calling the school secretary to ask for the boys to be whipped out of their classrooms and ready and waiting for me at reception, and driving rapidly to the school to pick them up, and then to the orthodontists’ office.

And, in another orthodontist related example, there was the recent day when my youngest son finished getting his braces fitted at 3pm only to have snapped them by 4pm simply by fidgeting with the wires.  Coincidentally, he snapped them at precisely the minute that the orthodontist is supposed to close up shop for the weekend.  We quickly dashed back to the office in the hopes they had not totally packed up and gone home, which luckily they had not.  I cannot tell a lie – yelling was involved.

Yes, as previously stated, I am a yeller.  I yell a lot.  My kids turn it into white noise so I don’t know why I do it.  Cathartic primal screaming maybe.  When Pennsylvania experienced an earthquake on 30 November, for a fraction of a second I thought it may have been caused by my frustrated rage at supervising hideous mathematics homework.

So, yeah, I am not some wonder woman or role model of togetherness.  I will keep accepting praise and compliments when they are given but – for the sake of keeping it real – please know that my successes are absolutely balanced out by my failures.

 

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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