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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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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Laurel Hill Cemetery

Peculiar though it might seem, for my birthday trip I chose to go for an explore of Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Although I don’t think I qualify as a taphophile, I have always loved cemeteries.  Along with museums, art galleries and libraries, they are my favourite places to visit.  Cemetery trips feature not infrequently on this blog as a result.  It is only surprising, therefore, that it has taken me three years of living in the suburbs of Philadelphia before visiting one of its historic cemeteries.

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Laurel Hill Cemetery sits on a hillside above the Schuylkill River and covers a huge expanse of land.  With all the Autumn colour in the trees, it was a rather beautiful spot for a wander even regardless of the history and funerary sculpture.  The cemetery was founded as a garden cemetery in 1836, originally rural but soon eaten up by the growing city.  In some ways it was reminiscent of the huge municipal London cemeteries I always loved visiting (Kensal Green being my favourite) but it was a little more organic in design and not as regimented in its organisation.  Happily, I had done my usual over-planning thing.  I had printed off a map of the cemetery and used the Find A Grave website to plot the location of the graves I was particularly interested in visiting.  This proved useful because not only were the individual plots not numbered but neither were the different areas of the cemetery.  Thanks to my map, however, we were able to locate almost every grave we were searching for.  Annoyingly one of the graves I missed was that of Scottish born John Notman, the architect who had designed the cemetery.

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We began our trip by popping into the office where a helpful young man provided us with a bigger version of the map I had printed out and some scavenger hunt activities for the kids.  The scavenger hunt was a great idea as it not only kept the kids occupied but also engaged them with subjects such as the symbolism of monumental masonry.  Directly opposite the Gatehouse was a sort of grotto containing a statue depicting Old Mortality, his horse, and the author Sir Walter Scott – plus a bust of their sculptor.  In Scott’s story, Old Mortality wanders around Scotland preserving the memories of Covenanters by carving the inscriptions on their headstones.  Thematic connection to tombstones aside, it was a tad obscure.

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Just behind the statue was our first famous grave of the trip.  In the shrubbery was the Deringer family plot, including the grave of Henry Deringer, the innovative gunsmith known for the Derringer pistol.  Just a short wander away, I found the unassuming grave of Sarah Josepha Hale.  An author and activist, Hale is now principally remembered for two things: it was she who wrote the nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ and who successfully campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday.  Although I am not American, I love Thanksgiving so I shall be sure to raise a glass to Hale in a couple of weeks’ time.

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I visited the graves of a couple of photographers because one of my nerdy interests is the history of photography (partly because I am descended from a Victorian photographer).  First up was Frederick Gutekunst, one of the most famous American photographers of his era.  His studio particularly boomed as a result of the Civil War as soldiers, including Generals such as Ulysses S Grant, stopped in to have their portraits taken.  I was more excited, however, to find the grave of Robert Cornelius.  Cornelius was a photographic pioneer who, while experimenting in order to perfect the daguerrotype, in 1839 took a self-portrait which is the first photographic portrait.  Cornelius’ grave was small in its own right but was especially small compared to the grand tombstones in that particular area of the cemetery.  I was, however, able to spot it from a distance precisely because of that famous selfie because a small oval copy of it was stuck to the fascia of the grave marker.

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My 11 year old is currently learning about Explorers at school so I dragged him down a few flights of steep stairs past lots of marble mausoleums to find the tomb of Elisha Kent Kane.  Kane, a naval medical officer, was part of two Arctic expeditions launched (in vain) to locate and rescue explorer Sir John Franklin.  The second search led him to travel further north than anyone had previously managed, thereby paving the way for those Arctic explorers who came after him.  Sadly, the site of Kane’s tomb was overgrown and rather neglected.  This was because it was positioned right by the roadside on a fairly steep slope and was, I assume for safety reasons, fenced off from the rest of the cemetery.

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When Laurel Hill Cemetery was in its infancy, the founders found it a challenge to attract business.  People were too used to being buried in graveyards next to whichever building they attended for religious services.  They, therefore, had the interesting idea of having the remains of some famous Philadelphians exhumed and then reinterred in the cemetery.  As a business practice, that is a tad ghoulish.  It meant, however, that I got to see the grave of Thomas McKean, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and David Rittenhouse, astronomer, surveyor, and first director of the US Mint.

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The cemetery contains many military graves, including those of over 40 Civil War Generals.  As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he was particularly interested in spotting the Civil War graves.  The two most significant of these that we visited were those of Generals Meade and Pemberton.  General George Meade was a career military man involved in many conflicts but he is known to me for his part in Gettysburg where he led the Army of the Potomac, helped secure the Union’s victory, and contributed to that turning point in the war.  Because Mr Pict takes us all off to Gettysburg at least once a year, Meade was one of the Generals I could have named from the top of my head.  John Clifford Pemberton, on the other hand, is the only Confederate General buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Despite being a northerner and having two brothers fighting for the Union, Pemberton had chosen to fight for the Confederacy for personal reasons.  As a Confederate, his internment in Laurel Hill had been controversial.  Among those who campaigned against his burial there were the family of General Meade.  Ultimately he is there, albeit in a far flung corner of the cemetery.

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Finally, we visited the graves of several people associated with the sinking of The Titanic.  I almost literally stumbled over the plot where Lily and Olive Potter, who survived the sinking, were buried.  We then found the Widener Mausoleum on the stretch of the cemetery known as Millionaire’s Row.  The Mausoleum is actually dedicated to Peter A B Widener, the wealthy Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist.  His son, George, and grandson, Harry are also commemorated there.  Both men drowned when the Titanic sank and their bodies were never recovered.  George’s wife Eleanor survived and she established Harvard’s famous Widener library in memory of her son, a passionate collector of rare books.  Lastly, we found the mausoleum of William Crothers Dulles.  Dulles’ was one of the few bodies recovered from the Atlantic and identified, this due to his monogrammed tie clip.

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I recognise I have filled this blog post with the potted histories of dead celebrities.  This is because that is something I find it interesting to do when pootling around in cemeteries.  I like the way cemeteries and graveyards intersect with history, whether that is family history, social history, national or global history.  It is in large part because I am a history nerd that I love to visit cemeteries.  However, I also love cemeteries simply because they are lovely spots of wander around in, an oasis of calm and serenity away from the hustle and bustle of the town or city.  Laurel Hill had plenty of that to offer too.  The views across the river and to the rest of the city were pretty impressive, especially when we got onto higher ground, and the Autumn colour in the trees was magnificent.  The boys particularly enjoyed playing in a huge pile of orange leaves.  They rolled around in them, threw leaves in the air, jumped into piles of them, and made “leaf angels” in them.  My 9 year old also made several insect and invertebrate friends on his travels.

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The kids also enjoyed having the freedom to roam.  Normally on trips into the city, I have to rein them in a bit in order to keep an eye on them and stop them getting lost.  But in a quiet cemetery, it was possible to let them wander around and explore and be their feral little selves so long as they didn’t wander too far.  Them having a bit of freedom also afforded me the opportunity to seek out the graves I was interested in and also enjoy the monumental sculpture in the cemetery.  One of the most impressive of these was the sculpture on the Warner grave.  The sculpture depicts a soul emerging from the tomb which is being opened by a female figure.  The tomb was sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, fellow Scot and originator of the Calder sculpting dynasty.  The other tomb I really liked was one for a family named Berwind which is marked by a beautiful figurative sculpture titled Aspiration by another local sculptor, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth.

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As you can no doubt discern, I was in nerdy cemetery heaven at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Had I been on my own, I could have kept meandering around the vast cemetery for hours longer.  As it was, Mr Pict and the Pictlings were very tolerant and allowed me plenty of time to explore, locate graves, and take photographs.  After the cemetery, we headed into the city centre for my birthday meal.  We ended up ditching the booking Mr Pict had made at one restaurant because we were too early for the full menu to be available and instead ended up at a Chinese restaurant where we had an amazingly delicious feast and the boys sampled and enjoyed things they might otherwise have not tried.  All in all, therefore, it was a very successful birthday trip.

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Magical Music with the Philly Orchestra

On Saturday, we Picts headed into the city to see a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was our first time seeing the Philly Orchestra and our first time inside the Kimmel Center.  For our four boys, it was their first ever time seeing a full orchestra live.  That, indeed, was our motivation for going: we try our best to expose them to all sorts of interesting experiences so that we can see what makes an impression, determine what interests and enjoyments might stick.

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What made this particular performance a great one to sample was that it was the orchestra’s Halloween show.  Not only did this mean that it was pitched at children in terms of content and length but it meant we could be assured that the audience would comprise families, making it a bit more relaxing as a first venture to see a full orchestra.  The Kimmel Center itself is a glorious space and we had a great view of the stage within the auditorium despite being in the cheap seats.  It was fun seeing most of the children in the audience all bedecked in fancy dress.  Our kids went as two Scouts from ‘Attack on Titan’ and Wolverine – and a teenager in teenage mufti.  Furthermore, the musicians were also in fancy dress.  There was even a T-Rex on percussion.

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The general theme of the performance was Harry Potter which meant lots of excerpts from John Williams’ score for the movies.  Followers of my blog will be aware that the kids and I are Potterphiles and Mr Pict and I essentially have the scores of John Williams as the soundtracks to our lives since he composed the music to so very many of our favourite childhood movies.  It was magnificent to hear that music, with all its conjuring of magic, being played live.  There were other selections of music that were familiar to our kids too, such as Grieg’s ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ but they also got to hear some music with which they were either less or not remotely familiar – pieces such as Liadov’s ‘Baba Yaga’ and Khachaturian’s ‘Masquerade’.  As a performance, it truly was incredible.  I loved every last minute of it and I think the younger kids in particular gained a lot from experiencing the music live.  My oldest son is not really into music so he just let it wash over him.  We tried.

In addition to the music, however, the performance was also designed to engage children through other means.  The conductor, Aram Demirjian, was dressed as a Hogwarts professor and played the part with aplomb as he explained to the audience about each piece being performed and delivered the segues.  He was accompanied on stage by a brace of magicians who performed traditional tricks for the kids in the audience to watch while listening to the music.  We all gasped when handkerchiefs turned into doves and laughed when a levitating walking stick accidentally walloped one of the violinists.  There was also a clever running motif about using the Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat to decide which section of the orchestra four different musicians belonged to.  This was a smart and thematically apt way to introduce children to the percussion, wind, brass and string sections and I think much preferable to the Benjamin Britten approach I was taught at school.

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It was a wonderful day out and hopefully the first of many to see the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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Annual Gettysburg Trip

As I have related on the blog many times before, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd.  As such, we end up visiting Gettysburg at least once a year.  This past weekend was time for our 2016 pilgrimage to the battlefield.  It seemed apt to have a family day trip as a last Summer outing since the climate switched almost overnight from muggy summer days to chilly Autumnal ones.

What we try to do when we visit Gettysburg is to balance out revisiting favourite haunts – namely Little Round Top and Devil’s Den – with visiting new areas of the battlefield so that eventually the children gain a fuller understanding and experience of the history of that particular battle and its place in the context of the War.  So, for example, over the past couple of years we have visited McPherson’s Ridge, the National Cemetery, and the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This time we decided to visit the Museum housed inside the Visitor Centre.

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Mr Pict specifically wanted the boys to see the Cyclorama.  I had last seen it in 1995 when it was basically lining the walls of a barn somewhere on the battlefield site and it had very little impact on me.  It is much better displayed now, with good quality lighting, and lighting effects that complement the audio narrative.  The cyclorama – a 360 degree painting – was completed by a French artist named Philippoteaux in the 1880s and has been on display at Gettysburg since the early 20th Century.  The painting depicts Pickett’s Charge, a climactic moment in the battle.  It is a wonderfully detailed painting with its attention to detail, its use of perspective and scale, and its immersive qualities.  It made much more of an impression on me this time.  The kids, not so much.  They preferred the video narrated by Morgan Freeman that we watched prior to seeing the cyclorama.

The cyclorama tickets also covered the Museum so we headed there next.  It is actually a very impressive museum.  There is a lot crammed into a reasonably compact space but the flow was well engineered and the artifacts and displays thoughtfully organised.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the furniture from some of the homes in Gettysburg that bore the marks of bullets and shells and spoke to how the ordinary people of the town experienced the battle.  Unfortunately, the boys did not engage in the museum at all.  They had been dragged around the National Civil War Museum just over a year earlier so in some ways it was fair enough.  With the exception of Mr Pict, we all have a limit to how much we can absorb about that particular period of American history.

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It was, therefore, time to burn off some energy, let the kids clamber and climb, and basically return to their feral ways.  We headed first to Devil’s Den where they always love to climb and jump from rock to rock.  They also have some favourite nooks and crannies where they like to hide.  For the younger boys, there are lots of opportunities for imaginative play.  My oldest meanwhile found a rock to perch on and then read a novel while his brothers played.  Then we moseyed our way up to Little Round Top where they could do more climbing, including of the tower, and take in the views.  The boys were completely happy and eventually had to be dragged back to the car so we could head home.  The lesson learned was that all trips to Gettysburg need to involve freedom of movement and the ability to be wild things.

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Steamtown and Jim Thorpe

I am pretty sure Scranton is not a place that features highly on most people’s Travel Bucket Lists.  Somehow, however, this Summer I ended up going to Scranton for the third time within three years.  The recent visit was inspired by my in-laws, visiting from the UK, since my Father-in-Law is a lifelong, massive railway enthusiast and he very much wanted to visit Scranton.  This is because Scranton is home to Steamtown, a National Park site dedicated to the history of railways.

On our previous visits, we have wandered the adjacent yard and nosed around the freight cars and locomotives parked there.  This, however, was our first visit to the actual National Historic Site museum. The museum buildings circle the periphery of a working turntable and roundhouse.  It was to the turntable that we wandered first.  There was a locomotive that the kids and their grandfather were able to climb aboard complete with a rope to make the whistle blow.  We had tickets for a train excursion so, after an impatient wait in the blazing sun, we clambered aboard some carriages from the 1920s and headed off on a short jaunt pulled along by a steam locomotive.  As it had only been a short while since our last steam train journey, the older kids were not remotely enthused or engaged: the 10 year old decided to nap while the 13 year old had his nose stuck in a book for the entire journey.  I have to admit with struggling to engage myself.  Industrial and infrastructure heritage just is not my thing so, while I could recognise that the young man acting as tour kid was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of this particular railroad and railways in general, I really did not absorb any information or at least none that stuck for more than a short while.  The route took us out to a gorge which was the location of an event that was really the beginning of the end of this railroad company as a commercial venture.  A storm had damaged the line at that spot and, already struggling due to the region’s failing economy, the rail company collapsed.

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By the time we hopped off the train and toured a section of the roundhouse with several locomotives on display, three of the kids had had enough and went to go and play outside the museum under the supervision of their grandmother, who readily volunteered for the job.  To be honest, the only reason the 10 year old stayed with the remaining three adults was because of the air conditioning though I think he actually quite enjoyed the museum.

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Much of the museum’s contents were the result of a seafood millionaire collector and was originally housed in New England. For various reasons, the collection was relocated to Scranton in the 1980s and eventually won National Park status.  Nevertheless, the place struggles financially.  I guess there are not a high enough proportion of railroad enthusiasts in the country who are intent on visiting Scranton to make it economically viable.

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Regardless of its woes, however, we found the museum to be organised and well considered.  I actually quite enjoyed wandering through historic carriages because they represented an aspect of social history.  It was interesting to see how cramped the sleeping conditions were within a Pullman carriage, for instance, but the lounge area and dining area on the same carriage were pretty spacious.  My favourite, however, was a mail car.  I loved the rich patina of the wood and all the little shelves.  It appealed to my love of organising things.  I could actually imagine myself rattling along the tracks while placing the mail into the appropriate pigeon holes.

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The museum had clearly figured out that it needed to appeal to people like me who were into social history more than industrial history as one whole area was dedicated to displays about people of the railroad.  As well as there being a vintage ticket booth and waiting room – where my 10 year old did an outstanding method acting job of “imagining” he was sick and tired of waiting – there were displays revolving around different types of people.  We could, therefore, learn about the role and history of such folks as conductors, telegraph operators, hobos and the little kids who sold newspapers, snacks and drinks to passengers.

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My Father-in-Law thought that Steamtown was absolutely terrific so clearly it is the perfect place for railway enthusiasts to visit.  I, therefore, highly recommend it to people who fall into that category as even I could recognise it was a great collection.  The rest of us, however, were less enthused and had to really work hard to find an engaging angle.  While I saw plenty of other kids who were loving the whole experience, including a fair few who were dressed up like tiny railroad engineers, my boys were totally not digging the the place at all.  They were relieved when it was time to move on to other things.

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After a quick snack and a run around the Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park – a place we always enjoy visiting – we visited Jim Thorpe.  Our first stop was at the Jim Thorpe Monument.  Jim Thorpe is celebrated as the first Native American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.  While the medals he won were for pentathlon and decathlon, Thorpe was an accomplished athlete in several sports, including American Football, baseball and basketball.  The memorial statues at the site represent Thorpe in two of his fields of sporting success: football and athletics.  Apparently the grave monument includes soil from Oklahoma, Thorpe’s home state, and from the site of the stadium in Stockholm where he won his Olympic golds in 1912.  It is also inscribed with the words of Gustav V proclaiming Thorpe to be “the greatest athlete in the world” which actually does not seem ridiculously superlative given Thorpe’s multitude of achievements.

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The town of Jim Thorpe was one we had often driven through since emigrating to Pennsylvania but had never wandered around in.  We, therefore, decided to get out and have a stroll in the late afternoon sunshine.  Jim Thorpe actually never sat foot in the town that bears his name.  The story of how it came to be named for the athlete is actually quite a sad and somewhat sordid one.  Upon his death in 1953, his widow (his third wife) made off with his remains, apparently without the knowledge or consent of any of his children, and made her way to Pennsylvania where she had struck a deal with a town regarding memorialising her husband.  Thus the town purchased the body and Mauch Chunk was renamed Jim Thorpe in his honour.  Thorpe’s children pressed various courts to order the repatriation and reinterrment of their father’s remains to Oklahoma, specifically on Native American land, but all attempts failed and so they continue to remain in a small town in the Poconos.  Told you it was sad and sordid.

The town itself is rather quaint and picturesque, a cluster of streets nestled in a mountain valley, lined with interesting buildings.  Mauch Chunk was founded, as with most places in the area, because of the mining industry and it was an important hub for the railways transporting coal from the Poconos to the region’s cities and across the nation.  As such, the town’s prosperity very much follows the familiar curve of boom and decline.  It’s the variety of 19th Century architecture there, however, that probably gives it a bit more of a boost than most places in the vicinity because it makes it visually appealing and that attracts tourists and tourism businesses.

 

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We focused our stroll on the street named Broadway, knowing the kids were unlikely to tolerate a longer meander than that.  The architecture of the place really is pretty fascinating with, for example, buildings that would not look out of place in New Orleans’ French Quarter given their ornate wrought iron balconies sitting on the same street as buildings with European style turrets.  I particularly liked the red stone library and the old fire station with its arched doors and bay window.  We browsed in the windows of a few shops and even made a purchase in one, a shop that sold nothing but varieties of jerky including ones as exotic as mako shark.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings settled on a sample pack of interesting beef jerkys.

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Ultimately we did not spend much time in Jim Thorpe but I think we will definitely stop off there again and have a more extensive wander and perhaps visit the museums and historic buildings next time.  I think we will steer clear of the railway for a while though.  I think my kids are a bit sick of trains now.