Our Halloween

My kids were giddy with anticipation over Halloween this year.  Their experience of their first American Halloween had been a wonderfully positive introduction to life in America for them. They loved everything about it and were eager to repeat the same fun experiences this year.

Having selected a pumpkin each when we visited the pumpkin patch, the boys settled on imagery and I set about carving them.  The reason I did the carving is that, with the exception of the smallest pumpkin, which really was tiny, the skins and flesh of the chosen pumpkins was extremely tough.  I resorted to using exceedingly sharp kitchen knives in place of the carving tools and, of course, the children could not be let loose with kitchen knives.  That really would have been a Halloween horror!  So we ended up with a large Minecraft Creeper, a baby Creeper, a galloping horse and the head of Jack Skellington to place on the steps leading up to our front door.

The younger three boys had Halloween celebrations at their Elementary School.  They each had parties full of crafting, snacking and games and were all involved in the Halloween parade.  The High School band played while all of the costumed children walked in a large square on the playing field.  As a member of the first Kindergarten class, our 5 year old was actually the leader of the entire parade.  He was clearly loving it, waving to the crowds as he passed them, though his Iron Man mask meant he could barely see where he was going and he had to be steered in the right direction by his teacher.  That morning I had told the children that I was going to levy a tax on them of one piece of their Halloween candy for each Elsa, Anna or Olaf costume we happened across on the day.  There were five Elsas in my youngest son’s class alone.  My kids said no dice to the tax proposal.  There were some really inventive costumes on show and it was fun to see all of the kids enjoying themselves.

My boys had daytime costumes, appropriate for school (Iron Man, Boba Fett and a weird Dark Knight Ninja combination that my 9 year old insisted on cobbling together) and different costumes for evening.  I got the majority of their costumes from thrift stores and the younger ones like to play dress up throughout the year so I don’t mind the costume changes at all.  My oldest son was a Clone Trooper, the 9 year old was Star-Lord (because he is obsessed with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), my 7 year old was a Werewolf (he has been longing for a werewolf costume for years) and the youngest was Frankenstein’s Monster (his favourite classic monster).  I also dressed myself up as a Vampire, complete with pallid face and bright red lips.  Thankfully I was not the only adult wandering the streets in costume or I might have felt like a total pillock but the kids appreciated my efforts and my get-up entertained them so any embarrassment factor was worth it.

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Together with one of the boys’ friends, my monstrous mob traipsed the streets of our neighbourhood for two hours. Mr Pict had devised the route as if he was a military General manouvering troops.  At first they were part of a pack of neighbourhod kids but gradually they pack drew out into a long line which was probably easier for each household to manage instead of having to open the door to a dozen kids bellowing “Trick or Treat” in unison.  The majority of houses in our neighbourhood were participating in Halloween and handing out edible treats but some had gone to incredible effort to entertain the little ghouls.  One house had set up their garage as a den of horror.  My 9 year old and his friend refused to even enter and the 7 year old came out howling, but the other two loved it.  Another house had set up three rooms in their house to be a haunted house full of spooky props and people in costume.  My 9 year old again didn’t go in but everyone else had fun on their spooky tour.  Our neighbours had set up their porch with elaborate decorations including a zombie baby doll, Frankenstein’s Monster sitting in an electric chair and the Bride of Frankenstein standing alongside them.  My boys loved going up to the Monster, especially the little one who declared he was Frankenstein Jr.  It was a really fun night and my kids came home with their Halloween buckets full to beyond the brim with sweeties, chocolate and crisps which they then spent half an hour trading up.

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And they never did give me my ‘Frozen’ tax.

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Small Differences : Mail Boxes

I own a mail box for the first time in my life.

We had no sooner moved into this house than a letter arrived informing us that the postal service required us to install a kerbside mail box (as opposed to one attached to the exterior wall).  I imagine this was the result of some sort of efficiency drive on the part of the postal service as the kerbside box means the postal worker does not even have to exit the mail van.  Upon receiving this communication, I looked left and right along our new street and right enough ours was the only house without a kerbside mail box.  We duly installed one within a week of moving in.  I can only assume our mail delivery person is now happier.

I  am new to this whole culture of mailboxes and cannot quite wrap my head around it.  In Britain, you have a letterbox in your front door.  The postie can then shove all your letters and even some small parcels through this flap in your door so that the mail lands safely and securely inside your house.  No risk of weather damage or theft.  The only risk was tripping over a massive pile of mail on returning from a vacation.  Here in America, on the other hand, it all seems to become quite complicated because the receptacle for the post is outside the house and is, therefore, not so secure against the elements or sticky fingers.  It would not have been a concern in our new house since we have a porch but at the rental property, on rainy days, I had to ensure that I grabbed the mail from the box as soon as it arrived otherwise it would all turn into a soggy mush of papier mache since the box attached to the side of the house allowed water to drain into it, creating a destructive puddle at the bottom.  Furthermore, because the mail is not securely deposited inside a house, there have to be all sorts of mail tampering laws in place – as I learned last November.  This means that only an authorised mail delivery person can deposit anything into anyone’s mailbox.  Furthermore, since the mail cannot simply be left to accumulate into a small mound on the other side of the door’s threshold, when travelling it becomes necessary to halt the delivery of the mail, have the postal service keep hold of it, and then resume delivery upon return.  That then becomes yet another one of those thing you need to remember to do before going on a trip.  Finally, although we paid for an installed our mailbox, it is not our property.  No.  Apparently all mailboxes are property of the United States Postal Service as that then gives them the authority to impose all of these mail tampering laws upon it.

So it is all very weird and alien but I do love having a mailbox all the same because it’s that little slice of Americana that reminds me everyday that I am now living on a different continent and am experiencing new things.

Small Differences: Games Day

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

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

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

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

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

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Small Differences: Pretzels

Pennsylvania is obsessed with pretzels.  

Perhaps all of America is but I feel confident in stating that pretzels are a big thing here in PA.  A really very big thing.  A cornerstone of Pennsylvanian culture indeed.  Pretzels originated in Europe, probably in Medieval monasteries, and according to good old wikipedia the distinctive form of the pretzel has often been used as a symbol of a bakery in Germany.  Nevertheless, despite their Old World origins, pretzels were not a big deal in Scotland.  We had ready access to the tiny hard ones that come in a bag but the baked soft pretzels were hard to come by.  Mr Pict would arrive home triumphant with pretzels in hand for the kids, as proud as any neanderthal father dragging home a side of mammoth from the hunt.  The Pict menfolk love pretzels.  I loathe the hard ones and feel very meh about the soft ones.

Pretzels emigrated to America with the Amish and Mennonites fleeing Switzerland and Germany so I guess it is the whole Pennsylvania Dutch thing that contributes to pretzels being so special here in PA.  Mr Pict is descended from a family of Mennonites who first settled in Pennsylvania so perhaps he and the boys are genetically predisposed to love them.  According to Wikipedia (again, because I cannot be bothered conducting in-depth research) “[t]he average Philadelphian today consumes about twelve times as many pretzels as the national average”.  They really are massively popular here, even statistically it seems.

My kids, who have always liked pretzels well enough, have been indoctrinated into loving pretzels.  They are not quite at fanatical levels of adoration yet but they love that the school has pretzel days every few weeks where they each get a soft pretzel to snack on, they love that bakeries sell varieties of pretzels they had never even imagined before we emigrated here and they love that pretzels are sold as street food here or at events in the way burgers and chips (as in fries) would have been in Britain.

Today I was on a field trip with my preschooler.  The kids were instructed to “sit like pretzels”.  Six months ago that would have meant nothing to my 4 year old.  No reference point.  Zero understanding.  Blank.  But today he tucked his legs under him into the lotus position without even pondering it.  Back in Scotland we used to instruct the boys to adopt lotus position by instructing them to put their “legs in a basket”.  I guess it is pretzel position from now on.  Indoctrination.  My kids are now officially part of the Pretzel Cult.

Spring Break Day 8 – Gettysburg

We packed up the holiday house in a jiffy in order to head off as early as possible and squeeze another fun day out of our holiday.  My in-laws had arranged to have lunch with friends in Aberdeen so we Picts went on an adventure to Gettysburg.  This was entirely apt because it was last year’s 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg that ultimately led to our relocation from Scotland to America.  Mr Pict is a total Civil War geek and had this idea two summers ago that we could vacation in the US so that he could be at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of the battle.  We were just mulling that over when, two weeks later, he casually mentioned late at night that instead of just going on holiday there maybe we could investigate moving to America.  So that was how the seed was sewn: the history of a bloody battle.

My husband decided to take us on tour of the highlights.  He had come by himself before we arrived in the US so that he could indulge in several hours of touring around the vast site using a phone app as his guide.  The only time I have been before was in 1995 and it is very different now with an impressive visitors’ centre and locations much more clearly demarcated.  We went to the visitors’ centre first to use the conveniences after our journey from Virginia.  Mr Pict bought pretzels as K rations for the kids and the boys also bought some things in the shop: the 8 year old bought a cuddly Lincoln and the 7 year old bought a poster showing Union Generals on one side and Confederate Generals on the other.  We also grabbed a photo opportunity with a bronze statue of Lincoln before heading back to the car to start the tour of Mr Pict’s highlights.

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First stop was the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This involved ascending seven flights of metal stairs.  I suffer from vertigo but I also have a recurring nightmare about a child falling – usually one of my own – and I always wake up at the point of impact.  My other recurring dream – which I have had since I was 4 – is about a T Rex stalking me.  That dinosaur turns up in all sorts of dreams.  He was once scary but now he is just a pest.  Anyway, as my boys charged up the pretty open staircase, my anxiety levels spiked.  I felt quite wobbly.  It was all probably just about maybe worth it, however, as the Tower afforded us a good view over the terrain which helped what Mr Pict was saying about tactics and strategy make sense.  We could see and appreciate the significance of Little Round Top in that geographical context.  And in the other direction we could see Eisenhower’s farm which was a little history bonus.

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We then drove over Big Round Top to get to Little Round Top.  We saw monuments to the Maine, New York and Pennsylvania regiments.  The boys loved clambering over the boulders between bouts of actually listening to their Dad explaining how the battle unfolded.  I meanwhile pottered around taking photos (of course!) of such things as the statue of Gouverneur K Warren, who had prompted the defence of Little Round Top, overlooking the landscape and reading poignant stories on the interpretive boards.  It was not actually very difficult to imagine the terrible noise and bloody carnage of the battle.

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Mr Pict and three of the boys then walked from Little Round Top, descending through the scrub, to meet the 8 year old and me (who brought the car around) at Devil’s Den, doing a reverse of confederate troop movements.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed playing on the large rocks and among the crevices at Devil’s Den.

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There are monuments galore all over the place at Gettysburg – well over a thousand of them.  Some are plain with a focus just on the words but others are more elaborate and some are quite intriguing.  Scattered across site as they are, they also serve to emphasise the scale of the battlefield and the huge number of casualties, the largest of any Civil War battle.  I must explore them more some time when we return and I also want to go to the Cemetery as it was at its dedication that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address which I think is the most perfect speech ever written.

Spring Break Day 7 – Manassas

After brunch at the Silver Diner, Mr Pict and I, along with my Father-In-Law, took our two youngest sons to the battlefield at Manassas.  Amazingly the kids managed to sit through the 45 minute introductory film which told the story of the two battles that took place at Manassas.  The stylistics were very much borrowed from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and the production values were certainly better than the film we watched at the Shiloh battlefield in 2002.  Mr Pict was absorbed in all the military history elements, watching the tactics unfold on screen, whereas my only way of engaging in the Civil War is through the social history or the human elements so for me the key parts of the story were the poignant death of Judith Henry and the African-American driver of the gloriously named Fannie Ricketts being taken as contraband and probably sold into slavery.

We walked the battlefield according to the tour along the sites of the first battle of Manassas.  It took us past the building rebuilt on the site of the Henry House and the grave of Judith Henry.  The family of the elderly Mrs Henry had tried to remove her to a safer position during the battle but she ordered them to return her to her home.  Caught in the crossfire, a shell crashed into the house and mortally injured the 85 year old woman. 

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There were cannon scattered across the field to mark the positions of artillery during the battle.  We saw the foundations of the Robinson house which had somehow managed to survive both battles unscathed. Manassas was where Stonewall Jackson earned that sobriquet.  The nickname was coined by Barnard Bee whose place of death is marked by a commemorative stone on the battlefield.  Adjacent to it is a modern statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback.  The statue is comical in its absurdity as it is of a muscular horse and a disconcertingly curvaceous Jackson who is sitting astride the body-building beast in what my 7 year old astutely described as a “Superman pose”.  He is now obsessed with Stonewall Jackson.

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 Mr Pict enjoyed being a Civil War nerd in the shop with all the old male docents who are Civil War buffs.  We bought a National Parks passport for the kids to get stamped as we travel around the US and received the first two stamps at the main visitor centre.  We knew we could not pick up the stamp at the Stone House as it is only open at weekends but we then trekked to Brawner’s Farm to get another stamp only to find it too was closed.  Despite their tender ages, our two small Picts really got absorbed in the Civil War while wandering around the battlefield.  My husband may have found his acolyte in our 7 year old who has decided he is Daddy’s “Battlefield Buddy”.

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Spring Break Day 6 – Museum of American History

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We took the metro into Washington DC having decided that the National Museum of American History would be a good choice of place to visit since the kids had done a Natural History Museum when we were in New York and because we are trying to provide them with an overview of US history and top up their general knowledge of American History.  Disappointingly, however, it transpired when we picked up the map that half of the museum was closed.  Literally half of each floor was unavailable.  Perhaps we should have done our homework rather than relied on our own knowledge to select the venue for the day but still it was incredibly frustrating.  I had last been there in 1995 but had remembered it as being really interesting and full of diverting exhibits and the kids were looking forward to it so we decided to plough on with the plan.  The Museum has, as one might expect, had a major facelift since I last visited but sadly – like many literal facelifts – this one was not beneficial.  It was a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good section was that focusing on the Star Spangled Banner.  When I had last visited, I had entered the main entrance and been greeted by the original Star Spangled Banner.  It was an impressive site and an awesome welcome but from a conservation point of view it was clearly catastrophic.  Therefore, in the intervening decades, it has been moved into an atmosphere and light controlled room and is displayed behind a vast glass panel.  The corridor around the flag has been cleverly thought out in terms of the exhibits as it is themed on the national anthem, using Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” to tell the contextual story of the flag’s creation and significance.  So there was a rocket – as in “rocket’s red glare” – and a bomb – as in “bursting in air” – showcased along with some other military items.  There was also a display case of sewing items as might have been used to create the flag and biographical information about Mary Pickersgill who sewed the flag along with her daughter, two nieces and two African-American women.

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The Bad was the Presidents’ section.  The kids were really looking forward to it since they have become pretty obsessed with learning facts about various Presidents as my 7 year old did a school project about George Washington for President’s Day and my 8 year old had to do a research paper on a President of his choice.  Since he loves to be obscure, he chose James Abram Garfield who actually turned out to be more interesting than you might imagine for a president who only lasted 200 days, most of those days being spent on his deathbed – yet not completely interesting either.  The 8 year old is also a massive Lincoln fan and the 7 year old’s favourite is Teddy Roosevelt because he protected wildlife in the US while going around shooting it and also hunting animals in other people’s countries.  My husband and sons are also related to two Presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – so that was another route to engagement in the whole history of the Presidency.  The Presidents’ section should have been fascinating since it was filled with such wonderful items to showcase.  However, it had been organised in such a way as to be a complete muddle.  One might think it would be organised in terms of chronology, from Washington to Obama, or maybe even in terms of the President’s role if the curators were wanting to do something more avant garde.  However, they had opted to organise it in such a way that it was just a hodge podge with no clear thread pulling visitors through the exhibits.  It was like a pot luck supper as we wandered from one area to the next.  We moved from a side section dedicated to Presidents who had been assassinated or died in office into a section about weddings at the White House, surely a strange and awkward juxtaposition by anyone’s standards.  There was just no logic to it at all, as if the people curating it had a junkyard mentality.

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The Ugly was the American Stories section.  My understanding was that the items displayed had been chosen through ‘crowdsourcing’, by “the people” deciding by some unclear mechanism which exhibits best represented America.  As much as inclusivity and democracy are wonderful ideals to aspire to, the whole section was evidence of the fact that not all curators are created equally as it ended up just a random “jumble sale” of bits and bobs with nothing properly telling any kind of story about America because there was simply no context, no structure and no apparent point.  I was very excited to see Miss Piggy, Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, FDR’s microphone from his Fireside Chats and a life mask of Lincoln but I think anyone would be hard pressed to see a connection between any of them beyond their icon status, though that was a theme not supported by the inclusion of dozens of other items.  Furthermore, none of the labelling supported the claim to be telling us stories about America or the American experience.  I subsequently looked at the Museum’s website and read that the exhibits fell into five clusters representing eras in American history but that was not supported by either the layout or the labelling. The whole thing made by brain feel fidgety and, since the kids were becoming increasingly literally fidgety, we decided to depart from the museum.

We walked to Union Station past the sculpture garden of the National Art Gallery.  I think the kids would have liked to have spent more time there but we were on our way to meet up with a friend at Union Station.  That just added to the sense that we had wasted time in the Museum of American History.  We dined at Thunder Grill.  The food was delicious.  I had a catfish sandwich with smoked tomato aoli and salsa which was succulent, full of strong but well-balanced flavours and very satisfying.

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Spring Break Day 5 – Cinema and Lego

We decided to have a mid week slump in terms of level of activity so we spent the morning at home base so that the kids could enjoy playing indoors and in the vast garden.  Then in the afternoon we went to the cinema at Tyson’s Corner Mall.  Our oldest son was not bothered about the movie options so he stayed behind with his grandparents and played board games instead. Mr Pict and the two middlies saw ‘Captain America – Winter Soldier’ while I took the youngest to see ‘Rio 2’.  He and I had a bit of time to kill after our film ended but before the other film let out so we had a bit of a wander around the mall.  He liked testing poufs out in a home décor store called West Elm and he was fascinated by the sushi conveyer belts in an eatery.  We also spent some time in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble book store but the thing the littlest Pict loved doing most was just travelling up and down on escalators. 

Once the others had joined us, we headed to the Lego store.  The kids love to make their own minifigures up so they spent some time doing that.  Our 8 year old has read ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy a few times and is a bit obsessed so he wanted to make minifigures that represented characters from those books.  They have a new thing in the lego stores whereby you can hold up a set that contains over 500 pieces to a screen and it then shows a 3D representation of that model.  I asked a staff member to demonstrate how it worked and it was brilliant so my 7 year old and I tried it and nothing happened.  So the same staff member showed me how it worked again and I tried again and yet again nothing happened.  I was going to ask for another demonstration but the 7 year old said that would be embarrassing.

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PS  Please excuse the quality of the photos – I am not very good at using the camera on my phone but I didn’t have my DSLR on me.

 

Spring Break Day 4 – Air and Space Museum

After a leisurely start to the day, we set off on an expedition to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Chantilly – an extension of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum housed in two old aircraft hangars.  The incredible space afforded by the nature of the buildings means that it can house some of the most significant aeroplanes in American history – in world history in some instances.

The kids were handed Scavenger Hunt sheets that instructed them to find about eight aeroplanes across the collection which all had a name or nickname associated with an animal.  That was a good means of pulling them through the space to see various highlights.  Our oldest son accompanied his grandparents to undertake a more thorough tour with a bit more science and engineering focus while Mr Pict and I took the other three children around.  Our 8 year old can be very difficult to engage in even arts and humanities subjects at times but trying to engage him in science and technology was pretty much mission impossible.  I think there were two things in the entire Museum that he showed a particular interest in.  I am intrigued to discover, in the weeks and months to come, how much information he actually managed to absorb from osmosis or subliminal learning.

The boys liked the Blackbird because it features in the movie ‘X Men: First Class’.  In the film, one of the mutants designs it and it can transport the whole team.  It was interesting for them to note, therefore, how miniscule the cockpit actually was, especially in proportion to the scale of the rest of the plane.  They also enjoyed seeing various aircraft from Nazi Germany which they knew from the Indiana Jones movies.

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The space section was probably the most successful in terms of holding the kids’ attention.  I am not massively interested in space travel and exploration but even I was excited to see the space shuttle Discovery up close and my husband – who is very much into astronomy and outer space – was absolutely thrilled.  I have been to Cape Canaveral before so the scale was something I was familiar with but for some reason I felt I could see the detail more on this shuttle – or maybe I was just a bit more interested this time.  I noted the smoothness of the design and even of the component parts.  The same area also housed various space modules and re-entry pods and glass cases full of astronaut artefacts including some vomit-inducing foods inside squeezy tubes and some underpants for collecting urine.  Somewhat incongruously but excitingly for me, there was also a model of the mother ship from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ on which the model makers had hidden various real world items such as a submarine, sharks, a VW minibus, a graveyard and R2D2 – which our 8 year old found right away.

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I had seen part of the Enola Gay in the regular Air and Space Museum back in 1995 but it really was quite something to see the entire thing reassembled.  I had not appreciated how large it was before seeing it in its entirety.  It’s impact, of course, is not so much what it is in itself but the role it played in the Second World War and consequently in the history of the modern world and in the history of ethics.  Apparently our 11 year old took part in quite an in-depth discussion with his grandparents about the efficacy and ethics of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

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We saw aircraft on every scale – from tiny little things even I, at my height, could be hard pressed to fit into to Concorde – and of every colour – from plain varnished wood to dazzlingly shiny chrome –  and from every era – from pioneering aircraft to modern engineering.  We also saw items linked to specific pilots, such as Amelia Earhart’s jumpsuit and a whole series of glass cases filled with souvenir trinkets and toys celebrating Charles Lindbergh.

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Spring Break Day 3 – A Birthday and Jamestown

Our oldest son’s eleventh birthday fell on the third day of our Spring Break vacation. We, therefore, began the day with card and gift opening.  He was delighted with everything he received: games, books and video game stuff and clothing.

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Our oldest had recently completed a 5th Grade project called “Discovery”.  His teacher organised the class into groups and each group had the objective of setting up and sustaining a colony as a sort of challenge game while he also teaching the students about aspects of the history of colonial America.  As such, we decided an appropriate day trip would be to Jamestown Settlement where the colony of 1607 has been set up as a “living museum” of replica houses, Indian village and ships.  Last time I was at Jamestown was 19 years ago and I was devoured by insects.  I had only recently developed an allergic response to such bites in the form of cellulitis swelling which had me blowing up like a blimp.  However, the infection from those particular bites led to septicaemia and a short spell in hospital followed by a long spell of antibiotics.  That experience took some of the gloss off my memories of Jamestown but I still remembered it as being worth visiting.

 The very long and tedious journey down served as a bum-numbing reminder of how vast Virginia actually is.  It was made even longer by being snaggled up in construction related traffic jams.  We pit-stopped off for breakfast in Fredericksburg at Shoney’s just in time for its breakfast buffet since the Birthday Boy is such a fan of breakfast food.  We happened to mention to our server that it was our son’s birthday so he was given a birthday sing-song and a chocolate fudge cake in celebration.  He was embarrassed and found the attention awkward but accepted it with good grace and gratitude.  I thought it was thoughtful and sweet.

The actual outdoor exhibits at Jamestown had not changed at all since my last visit but in place of the once small and traditional museum there is now a massive interpretation centre that houses not only the exhibits but also shows a movie and contains a large shop and lots of facilities.  The film shown was similar to the one I saw all those years ago but as well as covering the colonists and the Indians they had built in a section about the Angolan slaves who were brought to Jamestown.  They also no longer even referenced the romantic story about Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life.  Both are positive and welcome changes.

We started with the colony as that was where our kids scampered off to.  The boys all enjoyed exploring each building.  The littlest liked trying out the rope sprung beds and was desperate to climb into the pew in the church.  The 7 year old liked the musket firing display.  The oldest liked seeing how everyone lived and details like the tobacco leaves hanging from the rafters.  The 8 year old meanwhile decided to play with the dried dirt on the ground, calling it “spirit dust”, filling the pockets of his shorts with it and sprinkling it all over the place to determine where to go to.  Off-task much?

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The settlement also showcases replicas of the original three ships – the ‘Susan Constant’, ‘Discovery’ and ‘Godspeed’.  All the boys thoroughly enjoyed exploring the boats, especially the ‘Susan Constant’ since it was the largest.  It was hard to imagine how such small and ultimately pretty fragile boats had undertaken that crossing and how they had fitted enough people and provisions on board to even begin to establish a viable colony.  The small size of them did however mean that we were comfortable just letting the kids have the run of the place so they soon settled into playing some sort of pirate game, not historically faithful or even relevant but fun all the same.

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We then explored the Powhatan village.  The kids all loved that section of the site and it became their favourite bit of the trip.  They especially liked seeing all of the fur pelts hanging from the walls of the houses which ranged from squirrels and raccoons through to bobcats, wolves and even a bear.  Our 7 year old also liked seeing a deer hide strung up and being turned into leather using oyster shells to scrape off the hair. 

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On the way home, we stopped off in Fredericksburg again for our freshly-minted 11 year old’s birthday dinner.  We ate at Chilli’s since that is his favourite restaurant (so far!) and we experienced some of the best service we have ever had as a family as the waiter brought refills without being asked and knew the balance between checking on us and leaving us be.  We were all actually still quite full from breakfast so we ended the day stuffed well beyond our gunnels.  Vacation bellies.