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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Peddler’s Village

We had other plans for this weekend but between the murk and cold and my aches and pains, we decided at last minute to jettison them for something else.  We decided to go and explore Peddler’s Village because it afforded us a comfortable balance between fresh air and bursts of time spent indoors.

Peddler’s Village is essentially a shopping centre but one laid out like a small village rather than a strip mall.  The architecture is interesting and harks back to a bygone era and rural idyll but is, of course, completely faux.  I found it to be quaint and quiet and certainly preferable to the atmosphere of the average shopping mall.  It also presented us with the opportunity to pootle around in some independent retail stores as opposed to the same old chains.

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The first of these we visited was a cheese shop which tells you a lot about our family’s priorities.  I may be lactose intolerant but I am also an unrepentant cheesaholic.  I have given up all other forms of dairy except for cheese and clotted cream.  I take the hit of physical pain over the emotional pain of a life without cheese.  The cheese shop offered a wonderful array of delicious cheeses.  We all nibbled on samples and pressed our noses against the glass of the display case.  Imported and artisan cheeses aren’t cheap here in the US so we had to exercise self-restraint and limit ourselves to two wedges of cheese.  In the end we chose some Port Salut for reasons of nostalgia and a wonderfully tangy, mature cheddar that had been marinated and aged in balsamic vinegar.  On the subject of vinegars, the shop also sold bottles of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  I absolutely adored an orange and cranberry vinegar and even more so an amazing pomegranate infused one but I managed to leave the store without making a further purchase.

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The boys particularly enjoyed a store filled with geeky t-shirts and accessories and a toy store.  They spent ages in the toy store because it contained lots of items they had never seen in a chain toy store, despite the fact that most of those items were for a younger age group than them.  We also took them into an arcade where they enjoyed clambering on pieces of equipment and watching graphics.  Two of them decided to spend some money on playing a game but otherwise they weren’t really into it.  I have always hated arcades but Mr Pict has many happy childhood memories of playing in them.  Our sons seem to fall somewhere between our attitudes.

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There were lots of stores selling ceramics, housewares, a very tempting glassware shop, purveyors of jewellery and clothes.  I am not much of a shopper but I probably would have had more of a nose around in more stores had I not had the boys in tow.  Since there was nothing I needed or was looking for, I opted out of the stress and worry of taking kids into stores or listening to their whines as they were forced to wait outside for me, especially since by this juncture the boys were growing “hangry”.

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We left Peddler’s Village and crossed the river into New Jersey.  It had been ages since we had visited New Hope and Lambertville and we had never eaten there – discounting doughnuts and ice cream.  We choose to eat in the Lambertville Station and happily, despite being a party of six, there was only a brief wait for a table despite the place being very busy.  As its name suggests, the restaurant is a converted train station.  It’s interior was lovely with lots of wood and brass.  The Maitre’ d’s desk was what looked to be the old ticket booth.  We were seated in the area that had once been the platform which gave us a view over the canal and the streets outside.  The atmosphere was lovely, the staff were attentive, and the food was delicious.

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Since we were all stuffed full, we decided to get a spot of fresh air before getting back into the car and heading home.  We thought the boys would just have a bit of a wander on the shore line, watching the ducks and geese, but in the end they were there for ages, making up some game to entertain themselves, and we had to drag them into the car.  So the day might not have been remotely what we had planned but it was still a success.

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The Three-Legged Cat is Three

Last week was Satchi the cat’s third birthday.  To be more precise, it was his honorary birthday which the boys decided should be held on his “Gotcha Day’, the anniversary of the date we adopted him a year ago.  He celebrated with tuna for dinner and even more cuddles than usual.

He has changed so much in a year.  When we adopted him, he had just had his leg amputated and was very unstable in his movement.  He was also underweight and, while friendly, wasn’t that sociable.  Now he is a healthy weight, possibly even a little plump, and super fluffy and manages just fine with three legs.  While Satchi is still not a lap cat, he has become much more sociable, seeking us out for cuddles and affection, and cuddling up on one of our beds each night.  He also has an adorable relationship with Peanut.

We really lucked out adopting two cats who are the best of friends.  Our cats are just the best.

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Nutcrackers

 

For a fun festive activity, I bought some blank wooden nutcrackers for my sons to paint.  I am actually not a huge fan of nutcrackers – I find them a little creepy – but my kids like them.  I think they appeal to them for largely nostalgic reasons: my mother-in-law has a large collection of nutcrackers so the kids associate them with fun-filled Christmases spent at their grandparents’ house.  Somehow, despite my mild aversion to nutcrackers, we now have a small collection of our own that appear every December.  Now we have four more!

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The nutcrackers were created by, from left to right, my 11, 13, 7, and 9 year olds.

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Painting Peg Dolls

The Thanksgiving break gave us a healthy dollop of uninterrupted quality family time and that afforded the kids and I the opportunity to experiment with another arts and crafts activity.  I had some little wooden peg dolls of various shapes and sizes and we each picked a few out that we customised.  We used layers of acrylic paint and finally some paint pens for the smaller finishing details.  Everyone had lots of creative fun and everyone was pleased with the results.  My seven year old made a trio of aliens, including a large gold one; my 9 year old made Flash and a Scout and Titan from the anime ‘Attack on Titan’; my 11 year old made four ninjas; my 13 year old made a trio of little characters he decided were little demons or voodoo dolls; and I made the Bride of Frankenstein, a diminutive zombie, and a figure inspired by the portraits of Gustav Klimt.

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Eastern State Penitentiary

Thanksgiving is one of my favourite things about living in America.  Of course, I am glossing over the horrible history of European colonialism and the acts of oppression and genocide towards the indigenous population that are enshrined in the mythology of Thanksgiving.  My husband and kids may be Mayflower descendants but we still don’t truck with that whole lore of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around peacefully and munching corn and turkey as an act of friendship.  No, forget the mythologising.  What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that not only celebrates gratitude but also togetherness.  We have four solid days together as a family to just relax and enjoy each other’s company – and eat a disgusting quantity of delicious food.  As the mother and chief organiser of any festivity or event, I am also thankful that Thanksgiving involves minimal preparation and stress.  No gifts to buy or wrap, no decorating to be done, just food to be purchased, cooked, and feasted upon.  And that enjoyment of a stress-free, low-hassle holiday is precisely why – despite my thriftiness and love of a bargain – I don’t participate in any Black Friday madness.  I loathe shopping at the best of times.  Fighting through frenzied crowds in the hopes of finding things I actually wanted or needed at a much lower price is not the best of times.  This Black Friday, therefore, we steered clear of any shopping and shoppers and instead headed into Philadelphia to absorb some local history.

Our destination for the day was Eastern State Penitentiary.  The prison is an imposing building of thick stone walls in the centre of Philadelphia.  We entered through the original entry way and were directed into what was once the guard’s armoury to purchase our tickets and pick up our audio guides.  A few steps later and we found ourselves in the grounds of the prison and all sense that we were in the middle of a major city melted away.  The thickness and height of the walls meant that barely any sights or sounds from the city outside intruded on our wanderings and we could immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the historic prison.

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The building of the prison was completed in 1836 and was modelled on a wheel-spoke design.  A central, octagonal rotunda served as the hub of the building while the corridors containing the cells radiated from this hub so that guards could more easily observe what was happening and navigate the prison.  It is an architectural design I have seen in old British prisons and asylums but I don’t know which side of the Atlantic developed the idea first.  The cells were obviously now in a state of ruin but we could see from the recreated cell that they would have always been very spartan but spacious enough.  While the only light was through a hole in the ceiling – known as the “Eye of God” – the cells did have a rudimentary system of flushing toilets and pipes that filled with hot water to keep the cells warm in Winter. We were able to wander along most of these corridor spokes and poke our noses into the decaying cells, many of which were in ruins all while listening to Steve Buscemi relate the history of the prison through our headsets.

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Eastern State Penitentiary had instituted what was a novel approach to corrections by insisting that all prisoners held within its walls be subjected to what essentially amounted to solitary confinement.  There were initially no doors into the cells from the corridors, just hatches to allow food to be passed in and for guards to observe the prisoner.  Access to each cell was gained through a door from the exterior, via the exercise yard.  We learned that if prisoners were being moved around the prison they were made to don hoods over their heads which both prevented them seeing their fellow inmates and their fellow inmates being able to identify them.  Obviously with the benefit of hindsight we know this to be harsh treatment but this model was actually very enlightened for its time and was motivated by a desire to improve the experiences of prisoners and their quality of life and inspire them to true penitence.  Nevertheless, knowing what we now know about the awful psychological impact of that degree of isolation, I felt quite chilled.  This insistence on solitary confinement ended in the early 20th Century not because reformers were concerned about mental health but because the prison was so overcrowded that it was no longer feasible to keep all the inmates separated.

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We emerged from one spoke out into the exercise yard.  There was a playing field for sports and also a greenhouse and gardening area.  In the middle of the scrubby baseball diamond, a large bar graph was used to illustrate how rates of incarceration in the US have rocketed in recent decades and how the US imprisons far more of its population than any other country in the world.  This was not news to me but seeing it presented in such a way, through a simple but dominating sculpture, and within the context of the stone walls of a prison really made the message quite stark.  Some areas of the penitentiary were being used as exhibition spaces for various art installations, some permanent and others revolving.  One, for instance, was used to recreate the cells found at the detention camp at Guantanamo.  Another had been made by a former prisoner while incarcerated and comprised panels made from sections of his bed linen.  He had apparently mailed each little piece of fantasy landscape home upon its completion so that it was only once he was released that he could piece the whole thing together.  All pieced together, it covered the walls of one particular cell.  Another cell had walls glowing with flecks of gold paint as the artist had added fragments of gold leaf among the pieces of peeling, flaking paint on the walls.  I thought that suggested not only something about the possibility for redemption and rehabilitation but also something about the importance of finding value and beauty in the ugly and ruined, preserving history and the importance of places even with such superficially awful histories as prisons.  Plus I love gold, shiny things.  The most arresting of the art exhibits to my mind, however, was a cell containing monochrome portraits suspended from the ceiling.  Each portrait depicted a person who had been murdered by one of the inmates of the penitentiary.  While I had been feeling a strong sense of pity and sorrow for the prisoners who had been held in the prison from its opening right up to 1970 when it really must have already been deteriorating, that exhibit punchily reminded me that some of those people I was pitying had committed despicable and violent crimes.  My kids were especially taken with a display in one cell which would not have looked out of place in a museum of natural history.  It was a collection of specimens gathered within the confines of the prison – insects, birds, and even a mummified cat.

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I enjoyed the glimpses into everyday life at the prison.  One cell contained a barber’s chair and I could well imagine prisoners gathering there to have their hair cut and chat and gossip just as would happen in any other barber shop.  I was also able to pop into the beautifully restored synagogue that was nestled between corridor spokes.  We also got to see Al Capone’s cell with its recreation of his home comforts.  Eastern State Penitentiary was the site of Capone’s first prison experience and I don’t think it was altogether miserable for him.  Apparently, while the media made much of Capone receiving special treatment while he was imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, he was probably being treated not vastly differently from the average inmate in that era of the prison’s life, maybe just a few simple perks. Recent research, we were told, explains that the radio he had in his cell was purchased from its previous occupant and also indicates that Capone had to share a cell when surely not having to share would have been one of the first luxuries insisted upon if in receipt of special treatment.

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It truly was a fascinating place in and of itself but also in terms of the wider context of penal history and attitudes towards punishment and rehabilitation.  I could easily have spent another hour or two wandering around the Penitentiary, listening to every last morsel of the audio tour.  However, our kids – especially the 11 year old – had had enough and were at the threshold of what they were willing to tolerate.  We, therefore, chose not to push our luck and to depart while the going was good.  I was very pleased to tick off another historic Philadelphia landmark from my list of places I must visit.

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