Fish Stories

A few weeks ago J attended a marathon bat mitzvah in which we dropped her off at our local neighborhood temple and picked her up roughly 3 weeks later up in Saratoga. Okay, you’re right, it wasn’t three weeks later–I’m exaggerating–but it was, like, seven hours later, which seems to be a truly courageous length of time to willingly assume custody of a passel of adolescent girls. I mean, doesn’t it? I suppose that, with enough chicken fingers, inflatable guitars, and a very loud deejay, one can avoid restroom weeping and/or rioting. And I’m only supposing because we barely slowed down the car at drop-off and pick-up.

Anyway, we hardly ever get to Saratoga. I don’t know why. It’s a lovely place. I guess that we’re too close to be tempted to act as tourists and too far for a casual lunch. So when we needed to schlep up and retrieve J in the evening, Cute W and I decided to treat ourselves to an early dinner date at The Merry Monk.

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Okay, yum. I didn’t intend to write about it, necessarily, but then everything was delicious and I could not, in good conscience, continue eating without taking a photograph first. Cute W very patiently disengaged his hungry hands from shellsville while I tried to make things look presentable for an image to share. Ta da.

Our picks from the menu were the Americana mussels,  with bacon & blue cheese; and the Classic Meuniere mussels, with butter, garlic, and white wine. We went with the Chipotle and Roasted Garlic mayos for dipping the frites. I think that whenever we go back next time, I’ll want to order the exact same thing. Not because there aren’t other great choices, but because it was all so very delicious, I don’t think that I could return and not want them all again.

I don’t know what it is about Moules Frites that makes me love them so. Part of it, I think, is that Belgian food was enjoying a minor heyday in New York City when we were living there, after we both left school and started working and actually (barely) had enough money to eat out once in a while. So those frites aren’t just dipped in mayo: they’re lightly salted with nostalgia.

I also love, love, love mussels. Pretty much anytime we go out on a date, if mussels are on the menu, I want them. Which is peculiar because I can be a little bit fussy about seafood. I like a tuna fish salad, but only when it’s more celery than tuna. I keep trying–and failing–to like clams, oysters, and salmon.

Talking about fishiness that I love and fishiness that I hate reminded me of a couple of fish stories. First, fish I hate. Salmon. I know,  you guys. It’s really good for us. Normal adults like salmon. I would like to be a normal adult. I’ve tried and tried, but ewwwwww. No. So, long ago, when Cute W and I were dating, we went on a trip to Colorado so that I could meet his extended family. At one dinner, his grandmother served salmon, and I did an amazing job of eating it all and smiling and chatting and acting like I thought it was delicious. And then the next day we sat down to lunch, and guess what was on the menu? Salmon loaf, made with the leftover salmon! My reward for an excellent performance.

And now: fish & chips. I like fish & chips, but only if it’s really excellent fish & chips. You won’t find me picking up those frozen fish sticks, like ever. Same thing with crab cakes: I often find that I like the idea of crab cakes more than actual crab cakes, but I think that’s because they’re often not cooked well. I’m spoiled because my Dad is so good at making seafood, so I can’t just eat average stuff. Come to think of it, I’ve spoiled my children for most cookies for the same reason (if I do say so myself). But, anyway, back to the fish & chips.

When we lived in Brooklyn, along with enjoying the Moules Frites Heyday, we were fortunate to live just down the street from The Chip Shop. Oh, it is delicious. Oh, my gosh. The Park Slope location, the original location down the street from our old apartment, has shut down. Apparently the other location is still open, but I need to take a minute here. A moment of silence, if you will.

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I’m alright. [Wipes eyes.] No, really. It’s fine. I’m fine.

Where was I?

Okay, so The Chip Shop was a favorite of ours. Now, for our last months in Brooklyn, I was pregnant with M. Backstory here, if you don’t already know it. At the time, I had a job working as a museum educator at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum which is approximately way to hell and gone, otherwise known as a one hour and fifteen minute-long subway ride from our place in Brooklyn. I loved that job and I had a wonderful time, even when my boss was sure that I was going to go into premature labor from climbing too many stairs. But the subway ride became difficult. I was always starving by the end of my busy workday. Sometimes I’d run across the street and pick up a snack at the grocery store so that I could scarf it down on the train. But as time progressed, reasonable snacks just weren’t enough, and the meals that I would try to juggle along with my book and my belly just got too unwieldy for the train. I remember one embarrassing episode that involved a massive baba ghanoush spillage. So then I tried to hold out until I got home. In the train, I’d fantasize about whatever food I was going to eat, then I’d arrive home and eat a massive feast, then I’d fall asleep until Cute W arrived home from work, at which point I would act as if I hadn’t just eaten a meal, and we’d start cooking our dinner. Once I spent the entire train ride home thinking about the leftover Chinese food in our fridge only to discover that Cute W had dumped it. He trashed my Chinese food, and Oh Hell Yes He Knew My Wrath. To this day, Cute W is afraid to throw things away without checking with me first.

But on another day, somewhere around 49th Street I decided that I needed fish & chips and nothing else would do. Which was about par for the course, except that this time, Cute W unexpectedly arrived home early. He opened the door to see me hunched over  a massive spread of greasy newspaper covering the entire coffee table, malt vinegar spotting my smocked belly, cod becoming oily and rank as the remains of my feast cooled, and fists clutching limp fries. Cute W recounts the story by saying that my expression screamed, “Don’t look at me! I’m hideous!” I remember his expression clearly, too, and the best way to describe it is: imagine that we’re both characters on the Walking Dead and Cute W stumbles upon me feasting on a small child’s intestines. Of course, he recovered himself quickly and slapped a smile on his face because, of course, He Had Done This To Me and he was still terrified after the Leftover Chinese Food Incident. At that point, the jig was up, and he knew about my 4th Meal, which came well before Taco Bell’s. Luckily, we moved shortly thereafter. And a good thing, too, because that 90-minute commute was getting way too long for my nine months’ pregnant bladder.

Ramblewild

On Father’s Day, we’d planned a visit to Ramblewild, a new tree-to-tree adventure park in the Berkshires, right next to Jiminy Peak. I was super-excited for some family-bonding fun, and then. . . I wasn’t. It was a horribly rainy day, remember? I was concerned that perhaps I had ruined Cute W’s day by committing us to a rain-drenched activity.

I didn’t need to worry. First of all, hello? It’s in a forest. That means plenty of leaf cover, and honestly? Hardly any rain reached us. Yes, things were a bit wet, but it was much better than I’d anticipated. And this is one of the aspects of Ramblewild that I love, that they are open year-round and rain or shine (only an electrical storm will shut them down). I do feel, sometimes, that we’ve got such an indoor culture that people tend to say, “Ugh, it’s January, I don’t want to be outside,” or “It looks like rain, so we can’t go for a walk.” And okay, yes: sometimes I do that, too. But I like the idea of embracing whatever’s outside and jumping into it. Kids love to jump in puddles and hunt worms in a rainstorm, and we only truly loved winter as a family once the kids started skating and skiing. So I was excited that Ramblewild is open even during the winter, complete with snowshoe rentals and fires outside to keep people toasty.

Okay, I got off track. So I arrived worried, and pretty soon I was psyched again. First because the place is fabulous. It’s only recently opened, and the lodge is gorgeous and smells like wood, and everyone is friendly and helpful.

It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lot/lodge area to the actual tree park, and we spent it getting a little tour of that patch of forest, with our guide giving us a quick natural history of the area and pointing out different varieties of trees. We also heard more about Feronia Forests and its other projects. Feronia Forests finds sustainable ways to make trees profitable without cutting them down. Along with Ramblewild, there are Mission:Maple products and Vertical Water, a water produced my maple trees, as well as the nonprofit Feronia Forward, which works with schools to get kids connected to nature. So, yay! Now, not only do you get to have fun, but we each get to feel like we’re The Lorax for having that fun. It’s a win-win.

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Okay, I already wrote an official review for KidsOutAndAbout, which you can find here. And, actually, I also read a couple of awesome reviews of Ramblewild here and here. I realized that I was doing quite a bit of basic introductory stuff, but here’s the stuff that you really don’t need to know, but maybe it will make you laugh.

Basically, I came into this experience perhaps a bit too cocky.  As I remember saying that time in college when I was drunk and casting off from the rail above a large flight of stairs, uneven-bar-style, my attitude is sometimes, “Don’t worry! I used to be a gymnast!” Alas, I used to be a gymnast a long time ago. It doesn’t feel like a long time ago, but if I count years. . . never mind. Shut up. But also, I felt cocky because I trusted the system. They have this Smart Belay system which makes it literally impossible to not be hooked onto something, and they do a little introduction on a mini ground-level course, and I was feeling good! And competent! And I was mostly competent. But also, arguably, the least competent member of my family. But I choose to argue that it was all cockiness and not lack of skill. Wait, have I ever told you that I used to be a gymnast? I have excellent balance. . . .

My first Fail was at the first zipline I encountered. I guess, come to think of it, that the only other ziplines I’ve ever done landed on the ground. Incidentally, the ground is a profoundly sensible place to end a zipline. But this zipline ended on another platform, set right into the middle of the course. Now, for our first foray, we’d decided to have me go last. And I was looking around, having a good old time, and not noticing the Ramblehands, helpful staff members who are always nearby, ready to assist, coach, or cheer you if needed. In fact, one thing I really loved about Ramblewild is that you  feel like you’re off on your own. There are eight different courses to explore, all starting from a central hub (that’s a view of the hub above), and while the Ramblehands are around, you don’t have to stick with any particular group or have a guide lead you. That’s excellent. Loved it. But at the beginning, I didn’t really realize that the Ramblehands would offer up words of advice. And since I was the last of the four of us, I missed a crucial little piece of advice that was offered when the first of us approached. This was that it’s a good idea to grab something in order to stay on the platform. That, if someone failed to do this, she would  start a slow-and-steady backslide into nowheresville. Oh, yeah. Maybe it was common sense. In any case, I could have ended up stranded there for the rest of the afternoon, but luckily a staff member threw me a rope and yanked me to where I was supposed to be. Phew.

Okay, next: observe, if you will, this delightful little “element,” as they call it. It looks like a bunch of upright logs attached to wires. Now, as we approached this little beauty, some staff member called up some coaching. He suggested that the easiest way to get across was to wedge your foot between the side of the cylinder and the wires. Well, I thought, that might be easier, but it seems like cheating. Wouldn’t it be more challenging and fun to actually trip from log-top to log-top, lilypad style?

 

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Well, it was absolutely more challenging, but since I am not, actually, a tree frog or a butterfly, I managed to flip one of the logs and fall (thank you Smart Belay system for saving me!), and because of the nature of this little element and the, umm, dramatic nature of my fall, I managed to get seriously tangled up in multiple logs-on-a-wire. And of course Cute W is right behind me and the Ramblehand below has been joined by a second one, because they are pretty sure that they’re already going to have to bail this lady out. But just like drunk-at-college Katie, I waved away all offers of assistance and managed to disentangle myself and proceed with as much dignity as I could muster. Which was, of course, not much. But more than if someone had to, I don’t know, get a ladder or something.

My next big challenge was this bad boy:

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The Ramblewild folks figured you might get bored by just doing ziplines, so they offer other goofy options, like a skateboard or a trapeze.  This one was a saddle that traveled over a stream. Super fun. Now, I mentioned before that grabbing onto something is a key element of tree-to-tree zipline success, and this one was a doozy. M was the first in the family to do it, which might have been a miscalculation if she weren’t totally and completely awesome. She somehow managed to jump off her pony and onto the platform, then stood ready to help her little sister J, who was next in line and didn’t quite have the arm length to manage it on her own. I was next. Now, if you’ll look closely, you’ll notice that the saddle is suspended with two horizontal poles attached to cables. The bad news is that I totally slammed my shin into one of these poles as I made my clumsy dismount. The good news is that, even though I slammed my shin, these moments were possibly my favorite of the entire day. M was yelling out orders, telling me what to do, grabbing the saddle, hustling me onto the platform, and giving me the update on J’s progress, all almost simultaneously. She was in full-on, adrenaline-filled, crisis mode. It was really adorable. And impressive. She was so awesome and helpful and Team Family that I got a little teary-eyed. Although, that could have been related to the massive swelling that was rising from my shin.

And. . .  oh, okay! Here’s another crazy zipline, on a toboggan!

 

aerial element tobaggon

And I put this one in here because, after I formed a massive bruise on my shin, I stood in just exactly the right place so that, when I waited on the platform to help J off the toboggan, it knocked directly into my bruise. Oh, that hurt.

Also, it was only on the drive home that I learned that I was supposed to be bicycling my feet the entire time I was hanging from ziplines.  That explains why I kept spinning around. “Mom,” M said, exasperated, “She told us that at very beginning!” Apparently I hadn’t been listening properly. “Wait,” I said, “I thought that they just meant at the end. You know, like the whole ‘Hit the ground running’ thing?” All three members of my family looked at me like I was crazy. Then Cute W launched into an explanation of how it was “simple physics” that he thought was common knowledge to most adult people. Like how that’s a bicycle works. I don’t think I ever, ever really considered how a bicycle works. This is one of the differences between my husband and me.

But we had a terrific time! It was so fun. We only managed to make it through the four easiest courses during our three-hour visit. Then we had time for one more, and J wanted to re-do a favorite, and M thought she’d try the next level, and I was all, “Bring it!” because in spite of it all, I remained cocky. And then she literally climbed up the ladder to the next-level course, took a look at the first element, and changed her mind. At which point the kids went with Cute W one last time. In fact, J was a little bummed, because every time M was behind her she’d spend half the time saying, “Are you done yet? Can I go yet?” Which is annoying. And unnecessary, because you’re allowed to pass each other on the platforms. I chose to ignored that mild Sister Drama, and instead, I ran for my camera. Well, eventually I ran for my camera. First I had to climb down from the hub, and due to the Smart Belay system, which doesn’t allow you to completely unhook yourself until you’ve finished the course, a Ramblehand had to come and release me. Now that, folks, is some security!

I’d absolutely love to go and try the tougher courses. Because I’m cocky! And because it was fun! I think it would be a great moms’ outing, too. And if you live close enough, they do memberships, like go play outside instead of going to the gym. If we lived closer I’d love that.

Here we are enjoying a picnic I’d packed. I’m looking smug, because I’d totally planned an awesome Father’s Day, after all.

Katie and girls eating

Now, go over and look at the review on KidsOutAndAbout. Even if you’re tired of reading, there are more cute pictures!

J’s World

One of J’s great pleasures these days is berry picking.

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Our next door neighbor installed a little patch between our houses, and for the last week or two we’ve been picking piles of berries. Here’s one day’s yield, and ended up picking another bowl later the same day:

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Yumma. Our yield inspired Cute W to make his Good Fruit Pie Stuff. Which is delicious.

Why, yes. It’s berry-picking season. If you want to go, here’s the KidsOutAndAbout list of Summer Fruit Picking in New York’s Capital District: Strawberries, Cherries, Berries, and more! and here are my 10 Tips for Berry Picking With Kids.

Meanwhile, J’s creative pursuits could bankrupt me if I don’t watch out. Back when she working on her entrepreneurial project, which involved making a bunch of clothes pin dolls to sell, one of the characters was an army guy wearing camo and sporting a parachute. When it was time to make the parachute, J bypassed the massive pile of vaguely khaki-colored Hannaford bags and some bright green newspaper delivery bags and went straight for the recycled plastic bags. The ones I just use as wastebasket liners and leave in there unless there’s something super-gross, because even though they are trash bags, they’re too expensive to just throw away. I swear, it’s an uncanny sixth sense that she has.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an unauthorized craft-in-progress that J was working on in the kitchen. “It’s a birdfeeder,” she explained, happy and proud. I checked out what these lucky birds would be eating: organic hemp seed, organic flax seed, sesame seeds, all stuck together with almond butter. . . . ummm, no. My friend Ms. Google suggested that oatmeal would work just fine, thank you very much. If those birds want fine dining, they’ll have to check somebody else’s backyard. Unless they like strawberries. Then they’re all set.

We are finally, finally winding down with school. In fact, on Friday morning I let J play hooky with me to visit miSci’s new exhibit, “Earth Exposed: Discover Our Planet’s Hidden Secrets.” She was mesmerized by the tornado.

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Our visit was super-fun, and the exhibits were terrific for real interaction and experimentation. Along with the cool exhibits borrowed from San Francisco’s Exploratoreum, miSci also pulled out a bunch of their pretty minerals:

 

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I highly recommend going for a visit. You can read my complete Review of “EARTH EXPOSED: Discover Our Planet’s Hidden Secrets” at miSci over on KidsOutAndAbout.

Tuesday is the girls’ last day of school. Hooray! We’ll be continuing the tradition of having a few of J’s friends over right after school. I’m getting them completely conditioned to come over to our house after school, and I have high hopes that our house will be the hangout when she hits middle school. Sure, M never wants to invite anybody over, but by golly, it’s going to be a whole different story with J and her little crowd (I hope).

I’m excited for the girls to have some serious free time. To do the important stuff, like practicing the balance-an-umbrella-on-your-palm trick.

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Niagara Falls

I mentioned that J had a big gymnastics meet recently, but I don’t think that I mentioned that it was all the way near Buffalo. That’s a massive schlep, plus I wasn’t sure how the meet would go, so I decided that we should try to work a mini-vacation in. Before Sunday’s meet, J and I spent Saturday in Niagara Falls. Cute W and M stayed home so that M could go to her friend’s bat mitzvah.

I had somehow never visited Niagara Falls. The closest I came was on a visit to my aunt & uncle’s house. They planned an outing there, but since I was massively phobic about rain and it was a drizzly day, I believe I stayed home. Either that or I blocked it out entirely due to being traumatized by excessive mist. Have I mentioned that I had. . . issues as a child? Many of them have resolved themselves.

Now I know that many will say that the Canadian side is better, but Cute W, who represents cities and villages across New York State, made an impassioned defense of the American side, which is a beautiful free state park, even if they strongly encourage you to buy a $38 Discovery Pass to their many special attractions. He was practically chanting U-S-A as I considered my options, but I was happy to stay on the American side. With my tragic sense of direction and my keen awareness of how cars can kill people, I’d be working hard to act breezy and stress-free without having to worry about reading and speaking Canadian. Yes, I’m kidding. But anyway.

After a little research (including a review of KidsOutAndAbout), I decided to spurn the Discovery Pass but planned to do the Maid of the Mist boat ride and the Cave of the Winds attraction.

I had planned our trip so that we’d arrive in the area in time for lunch and spend the afternoon at the falls. After consulting Yelp, I offered J a choice of well-reviewed places of some of her favorite kinds of food, and she chose Indian, so we headed to Spices of India. This was basically a grocery store with a casual eating area and buffet. We loved the buffet, and we had fun wandering around the grocery store finding many, many items we’d never heard of before. We were tempted to buy them, but knowing that everything would be sitting in a hot car for the rest of the day helped us confine ourselves to a jar of mint chutney. Then when we arrived at Niagara Falls State Park I felt pretty silly, because the place is pretty much surrounded by Indian food–yes, you can pick up a hot dog, but you can also grab a samosa and curry just as easily. Who knew?

The place was also crazy-busy when we arrived, so the park’s parking lot was full, and I headed for a city garage a couple of blocks away. Since I had no idea where I was going, I was tremendously pleased to ditch the car, but J really hated the parking garage. The stairwell we descended to get to street level smelled strongly of sweaty hands on metal (think, playing on old-school monkey bars and then smelling your palms in August, but then imagine you’re a 14-year-old boy and make it six times stronger). In fact, when we walked back at the end of the day, J actually started gagging and convinced me to walk up the car ramps. So, you know: there’s that.

But the falls were lovely! J was impressed.

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There was quite a sea of humanity, but they’re clearly experienced at taking care of bulk piles of tourists, because it was easy to find our first activity, the Maid of the Mist. As we approached the boat, J loved looking down at everyone getting ready to go on the boat with their blue ponchos.

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There’s nothing like putting on a poncho to whip up a ton of excitement. Once we were on the boat, J was jumping up and down trying to see beyond taller passengers, but of course she’s way too old and mature to allow me to lift her myself. She managed to survive the embarrassment of me asking some guys to let her stand in front of them at the rail.

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Our favorite part of the boat ride was afterwards, when you can climb up alongside the falls (if you click on the photo above you can see a snaking trail of blue-poncho-wearing tourists). We got very, very wet.

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J, in her thin white shirt, was not super-psyched. I thought that the ponchos would be sufficient, but we ended up lingering on the observation tower to air dry for a while.

Next we headed across the pedestrian bridge to Goat Island on our way to the Cave of the Winds attraction. If I were to go again, I’d plan to arrive early enough to park in the lot, go on the boat ride in the morning, and then linger over a picnic lunch on Goat Island. It had some really lovely and serene spots that were, as they say, far from the maddening crowd. Here’s a map of the park. It’s genuinely a pleasant place to lie on a blanket or throw a frisbee.

Okay, so the Cave of the Winds attraction is really just a spot where they’ve built boardwalks and staircases right among the falls so that you can get up close and personal with the water. J and I had loved getting wet climbing the stairway after Maid of the Mist, but by the end we were feeling water-logged and red-eyed, even with our sunglasses and ponchos. Again, if I were planning another visit, I’d leave a little more time for hanging out and playing, maybe getting hot, before doing the attraction, because J was pretty much done as soon as she arrived. This also may have been because she was annoyed with me. More on that later.

For Cave of the Winds, your timing is key. They actually rebuild all of those wooden walkways and staircases every year (or so the staffer told me), because everything get dislodged and destabilized with the winter ice. So when we went, the so-called “Hurricane Deck” was not available. If that access is important to you, you should call ahead. Second, we were fortunate to arrive as roughly a gajillion gulls were nesting and tending to their eggs, and in some cases, their chicks. These birds were very close to the walkways, and it was great fun to watch them. It was by far our favorite part of the attraction. If you’d like to see them, too, keep in mind that we went the last weekend of May, and there were mostly unhatched eggs and just a few chicks when we visited, so early to mid-June is optimal time to visit and see them.

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And that’s why J got annoyed with me. Because of this bird:

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Well, not exactly because of the bird, who, you’ll see if you click on the picture, is taking care of an egg. It was the tourist guy who, moments later, was trying to touch this bird while this bird was freaking out and flapping its wings to protect its future chick. And the guy just kept trying to stroke the bird and then I told him to stop and then I said it again and then I yelled at him until he backed off. In retrospect, I don’t believe that English was his first language. And I don’t endorse shouting at strangers. But I was definitely on Mama Bird’s side. J, meanwhile, quickly moved a discreet distance away from me so that she wouldn’t be seen with me.  I meanwhile, stood there next to the bird with my bitch face on until the man moved along. J was embarrassed and unmoved by my argument that since everyone was wearing hooded yellow ponchos, we already pretty much blended in with the crowd. Frankly, it put a damper on the next half hour or so, which was unfortunate, but it was not like I made a conscious choice to be humiliating to my daughter. It was pure instinct. I am instinctively humiliating. Oh, well.

We ended up staying at Niagara Falls much later than I expected, but not so late that J wasn’t begging to jump into the hotel pool as soon as we checked in. I let her go because I thought that we might meet up with teammates for a group dinner, and by the time I realized that that wasn’t going to happen, it was well after 7 pm. Sadly, my plan to eat hotel food was foiled by the lack of a hotel restaurant, and when J requested Chipotle, I was so starving that I agreed. I left her at the hotel chatting with friends and then watching tv in the room, because it looked like a quick trip.

The GPS said 3 miles, but the drive was a hop on-and-off the highway, just the kind of stuff I hate. I arrived and there was an enormous line, and luckily I’d only waited on line a few minutes when I realized that I’d accidentally put my wallet into my overnight bag instead of my purse when I checked in. That’s right: back to the hotel. I retrieved the wallet, navigated back to Chipotle with one fewer wrong turn than the first time I’d driven there, and arrived to discover that the line was almost exactly as long as it had been twenty minutes ago. When I finally got up to order, I found out that J’s favorite meat was unavailable and I almost started crying right there. Instead, I got two different kinds of burrito bowls made to J’s specifications, then begged them to dump all the other delicious toppings in another bowl so that I could throw them onto whichever bowl she rejected. For the record, J is willing to accept steak, too, albeit grudgingly.

Oh, and the meet went fine. Some successes, some disappointments. It was good to get home.

It’s off topic, but I wanted to let you know about a giveaway for a trip to Rochester. I’ve been to many of these places (see some reviews here) and they’re super-fun, so if you’re looking for a quick family vacation, you should enter.

 

Day Out With Thomas® Giveaway!

Thomas logo

Are you and your kids huge Thomas the Tank Engine™ fans? Then here’s a giveaway for you!

Peep! Peep! Thomas the Tank Engine™ is celebrating friendship at Day Out With Thomas®: The Celebration Tour 2015, and families across North America are invited aboard! Little engineers everywhere are invited to join Thomas when the #1 Engine pulls into Utica’s Union Station June 19-21 and June 26-28 for Day Out With Thomas®: The Celebration Tour 2015, presented by Fisher-Price and sponsored by MEGA Brands and all inclusive Hard Rock Hotels.

This fun-filled event offers little engineers and their families the opportunity to take a ride with Thomas the Tank Engine, star of the popular Thomas & Friends® series. In addition, children will meet Sir Topham Hatt™, Controller of the Railway and enjoy a day of Thomas-themed activities including arts & crafts, storytelling and more.

This year, Thomas & Friends celebrates 70 years of friendship.  All aboard the Best Friends Express for an unprecedented year of Thomas-themed programs and activations as the #1 blue engine celebrates friendship with fans around the world.

Tickets for Day Out with Thomas: The Celebration Tour 2015 are on sale now and available by calling Ticketweb toll-free 866-468-7630, or by visiting www.ticketweb.com/dowt  or www.adirondackrr.com.  Ticket prices are $24.00 plus tax (peak times, 11:00am – 2:00pm Saturdays and Sundays) and $20.00 for off peak times for ages 2 and up (service charges and fee may apply).

You can enter to win a family four-pack of tickets to Day Out with Thomas: The Celebration Tour 2015 for Sunday, June 28th at 3 pm leaving from Utica Station (likely 1 to 2 hours west of many of you). To enter, just comment below by Wednesday, June 17th at 6 am with answer to one of these questions:

1) Who’s your child’s favorite character from Thomas & Friends?

or

2) What quality do you most value in a mama (or dad) friend?

I’ll randomly select the winner when the drawing closes.

Good luck!

Thomas train

4th Grade is Tough

I should have asked this before, but can you do me a HUGE favor and fill out this KidsOutAndAbout survey about your favorite local kid-friendly places? I appreciate it!

My last post was originally going to be called Yin & Yang, because sometimes I feel like my daughters grow up as if they’re playing a relay race, passing the baton back and forth. “I’m feeling really low-maintenance,” one might say, and the other one will sigh and reply, “Well, in that case I better bring out my inner uber-bitch.” You know, because it’s important that parents stay challenged.

And with M in a delightful stage, the pendulum has swung over to J. I blame too much work with just a splash of pre-pubescent hormones.

Except that I realized that her high-maintenance phase isn’t misbehavior. She’s just stressed, and it’s hard to be around. In the mornings she is frantic to get out on time, which can be aggravating because her “on time” means “one of the first kids to arrive at school, always.” In the afternoons, she is moaning over homework, then she makes me feel like I’m shipping her off to a gulag when I’m politely telling her that she can’t watch tv because we need to go to one of the activities she (theoretically) loves. In the evening, she’s overtired, but it takes forever to get her to settle in and sleep. And then, especially since we sprung forward, she’s up at the crack of dawn and doing things when she could really use a little more rest. I have told her not to get out of bed before 6 am, but I can’t enforce this rule properly because I am always fast asleep at that time.

Fourth grade has been brutal. I expected this, because in our school, especially, all the parents talk about how demanding 4th grade is (and how 5th grade is a vacation afterward–fingers crossed on that one!). The kids had their huge New York project, and way back on April 30th I’d said that “I’m hoping that J can go into coast mode.” And then, instead, we jumped right into another huge, anxiety-causing project. It’s not that I hate the project so much, except that we could have used a week of normalcy before kicking back into high gear. So once again I’m hoping that the worst will be over after today, when the latest project wraps up. Although we’ll still have her reading book, which means she’ll want to take notes while she’s in bed. I really can’t believe that all of the kids in her class are taking the ridiculous number of notes that she’s taking while reading her book. I want to wrestle the little lapdesk away from her and shriek, “Just enjoy the damn book!”

It’s interesting, though, because this whole year I’ve felt like J’s been a little bit less joyful about school. Then, yesterday, we had a conversation in the car. I asked her, now that the school year was almost over, how she thought her current teacher ranked among the others that she’d had. She thought for a long stretch, and then she said, “Well, most of the other teachers are meaner to the other kids and nicer to me.” After a little probing, we figured it out. This year’s teacher doesn’t play favorites. Which is great, in theory, unless you’re the kid who is always, always teacher’s pet. J behaves well in school, making her an instant magnet for teachers’ affections. Then she walks to and from school, which offers her a little bit of extra time with her classroom teacher. She loves to  do little jobs or chat with her teachers about favorite tv shows or their kids’ antics at home. This year’s teacher is terrific, but what feels like standard professionalism to grown-ups feels, to J, like he’s aloof. J summed it up: “You know I really like being the teacher’s pet slash friend, and that aspect was lacking with [my teacher].” Funny, huh? But you’ve got to think that all of the kids who tend to get ignored or labeled naughty had a terrific year.

Beyond school and homework, J’s been a little bit stressed because she’s feeling torn about her activities. She does a long gymnastics practice three times a week, and lately she’s been interested in field hockey. She did a field hockey clinic over the winter in a gym, and we were eagerly awaiting information about more field hockey in the spring. And, of course, it turned out to be scheduled in direct conflict with gymnastics. Now, gymnastics is long enough that even though field hockey takes up the first hour of practice, I could still drive J over to gymnastics afterwards. In fact, the way traffic works, it means a smidgen more free time for her. I was okay with her missing some gymnastics, and so we went ahead and signed up. But then J started fretting about missing practice before her last meet of the season, the “states” meet. Except that she was fine missing gymnastics for her friend’s birthday party and Niska-Day. This is in contrast to M, who has skipped the most fun things possible (overnight camping parties, excursions to Great Escape, etc.) without hesitation because she’s so devoted to soccer.

And here’s the deal: J’s had a tough gymnastics year. In previous years she’s had moments of glory on the podium, but this year? Not so much. So I really, truly didn’t think that an extra ten hours (or 30 hours, for that matter) of practice was going to bring her medals  at a meet that would have stronger competition than all of the other meets where she hadn’t placed this year. Not that I said this to her, of course. But if I thought that she had a good chance of placing really high, I might have urged the practice. Instead, my attitude is: where’s the fun? This is a little stress-puppy who needs some fun. Part of this, too, is colored by witnessing how much M loved being on her school soccer team this year. There’s no school team for gymnastics and no one from her school is on the team, so a back-up sport would also offer a back-up social group at school. Yes, middle school looms. And the thing is that gymnastics has been great at teaching J to persevere and to use her perfectionist tendencies for Good instead of Evil, and I think her coaches are terrific, and they do a wonderful job of getting the girls to cheer each other on. But I also hate that someone feels like they have to specialize so much at 10 years old. And, with field hockey, I was really proud of J for trying something new (I wrote about how nervous she was on that first day).

J ended up skipping most of the field hockey before her big meet, which was last weekend, and now she’s attending field hockey again. But when I picked her up after her field hockey-gymnastics combo yesterday, she was bemoaning the fact that she’d missed a couple of really fun things at gymnastics. And I said that she could choose what she wanted to do, so we’ll see what happens.

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I have a feeling I’m not alone about the homework fatigue. I shared this post about homework on the KidsOutAndAbout Facebook page, and commenting teachers and parents agree that we wish the kids would just go play outside, dammit. So if we all agree, why aren’t we doing it?

Way To Go, I’m So Proud of Me.

Lately, not to jinx it or anything? But, for me at least, M’s been a delight. That kid is sharp. She is funny.  She says all sorts of jokey pleasant things, which I appreciate, and when you realize that she’s turning 13 in two weeks, it’s remarkable how much of a tremendous pain in the ass she isn’t.

Okay, here’s an example. M just bought herself a new sweatshirt at a recent soccer tournament. It is her new favorite piece of clothing, tie-dyed blue and white, with a logo in front and her jersey number in back. Except that she recently wore it while eating a juicy plum, and now it has three fairly significant pinkish splotches. She brought it to me and showed me the stains.

“What do you think?” she asked, as if she were an orthopedist who’d like a second opinion on an X-ray.

“Hmmm. . . we’ll see how it goes. . . .” I said.

“Mom, you got this. I believe in you,” she said.

“Well,” I mused, “If I can’t get the stain out, we could potentially rub the rest of it with plum to make it look like it’s another tie-dye color?”

And then we both laughed and high-fived.

The next day, M saw the sweatshirt hanging from a hook next to the washer.

“How’s the sweatshirt doing?” She asked. Again, sounding like she was asking about a patient.

“I haven’t even tried yet,” I answered.

“Okay,” she nodded and walked away.

Alright, perhaps you’ll say that my expectations are too low, but this seems like a fabulous success story to me. M was pleasant, undramatic, and appreciative.

But you know what’s even better about it? When she acts like this, it’s because I taught her to do it.

1. She brought her stained clothes to me. Hello? Do you know how much training it took for me to get my kids to understand how important Stain Awareness is to The Laundry Sciences? I even made a flow chart long ago, which got prettied up for KidsOutAndAbout:

Laundry Flowchart

So, yeah. That kind of awesome requires significant teaching. And re-teaching.

2. She made that “I believe in you” comment. Well, that’s a long-standing saying of mine from times when my children have said that they were incapable of something that was entirely within their capabilities (think cleaning rooms, helping to clear the table, finishing spelling sentences). I’ll say things like, “I believe you can do it” or “I am profoundly confident in your abilities.”
Is there a wee bit of smart-assery when I’m saying this to my children, and then when they say it back to me? Yes. But you know what? Even if there is occasionally a smirk involved, there’s no getting around the fact that these are affirming comments. So, when I say something like, “Phew! I finally caught up with all of my emails!” and M responds with, “Way to go, Mom. I’m so proud of you,” the truth is I know that she is half-kidding, but also that she’s happy for me. And I feel perversely proud of myself, too. Possibly this is also because I try to model appreciation for small things.

3. She nodded and moved on. When M realized that for an entire day, I’d completely ignored her favorite piece of clothing, in her opinion a true laundry emergency, she was completely polite, accepting it with nary an eyeroll. She didn’t even ask when I’d get to it. Am I the only one amazed by this lack of drama? Did I mention that she’s a 7th grader? And this is her new favorite sweatshirt? Again, maybe my expectations are low, but if you think I’m silly for appreciating this completely normal and reasonable behavior, I’ll tell you a secret. Low expectations=joy. And once again, it’s even better because I know why there isn’t any drama. Once upon a time, back when there used to be Laundry Drama, I came up with a powerful phrase which can be adapted for your use. This is where Cute W would claim that it was his “patented method,” but that’s another story, and I’m getting distracted. Here’s the phrase:

“Anyone who feels so passionate about laundry should clearly be doing her own laundry.”

I think that I only said this two to three times before it took effect. And I was completely in earnest, following up with the offer of doing a little laundry clinic and writing up a cheat sheet to help the girls remember the steps to follow. When that happened, my kids fled in terror. But now, see: it’s out there. Laundry is something that I’m doing for them as a favor. Because I’m nice. They are fully capable of doing it for themselves. I am offering this service out of the goodness of my heart, but this service could be rescinded at any time. Do you see how awesome this is? Instant gratitude! Now, imagine the applications! “Anyone with such a refined palate should probably be in charge of cooking his own meals” or “Someone so excited about getting the kiddy pool filled could really pour that passion into scrubbing away the mildew!” See. . . ? I highly recommend it.

And guess what? In the time it took to write this post, the sweatshirt went through the wash and came out, plum-free.

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Damn, I’m good.

 

 

 

Memorial Day Weekend

For Memorial Day, I took the girls to the mall where we bought M a dress for a bat mitzvah. Because I’m a #truepatriot.

So, yes, okay: I felt a little guilty. Especially because I was listing off all sorts of parades on KidsOutAndAbout.com and talking about activities that you can do to enhance the meaning of Memorial Day. But in fairness, we’ve done that in the past. We’ve been to parades, crafted tissue paper poppies, brought treats to our veteran neighbor, etc. We have no ancestors residing in the local cemetery whose grave we can spruce up and then take a photo for Facebook. So. . . we took the opportunity to get the girls some shorts.

Actually, it was pretty much an emergency situation, because M reminded me on Sunday night that she had this event coming up on Saturday, so we had to get moving. Shopping is bad enough without having to fit it in with midweek carpooling and such. Crap, come to think of it, we should have gotten the gift at the same time. Dammit. There’s going to be midweek shopping, anyway, isn’t there?

But, anyway, after the shopping excursion, J and I kicked off the summer season with a visit to the Schenectady JCC’s pool, which is open a full two weeks before the town pool, another perk we appreciate. I didn’t actually get into the pool myself, but I was happy to lounge on the chaise, Plus two of J’s friends were there, so she was happily cavorting with them while I chillaxed with their mamas. This was excellent, because after spending the morning shopping, I needed some Serenity Time. Prior to the pool outing, my sweet J was cozying up to me while I tried to cut meat and throw it into a marinade. This is not actually optimal cuddle time, so it became awkward.

Let’s see. . . what else did we do this weekend? Cute W took M to a soccer tournament over Friday and Saturday nights. They loved the soccer and the bonding but came home exhausted. J and I saw both Tomorrowland with a friend and Pitch Perfect 2 as a mother-daughter date. I thought Tomorrowland was more fun than I expected: a little heavy-handed with the I-believe-the-children-are-our-future theme at the end, but with plenty of girl power, so that was excellent. As for Pitch Perfect, I loved the first one, and this one was. . . fine, too. I think my expectations were too high, plus it suffered from putting so funny parts in the trailer. And yes, I know what you’re thinking: she took her 10-year-old to see a PG-13 movie, one with all sorts of innuendo and crudeness–have I lost all my standards? Well, yeah, pretty much. First of all? Hello, second child. When M was little, we had some standards! But also it helped that she had no idea what she was missing. It was also interesting because Tomorrowland’s rated PG, but there was a surprising amount of stressful violence. I think they skated by on the ratings because a lot of the “people” getting shot were supposed to be robots who looked like people, but come on. Meanwhile Pitch Perfect had references that (I hope) flew over J’s head, but also the kind of snarky humor that we’ll see on tv, like when the commentators say ridiculously inappropriate things. So I decided it was fine. M’s in 7th grade and J’s 4th grade, and I feel like once M hit middle school, it hardly feels worth it to try to shelter her from bad words and crudeness, because middle school is basically all bad words and crudeness, with some body odor thrown in. But it does get difficult when I approve something for M and not for J.

Oh! And I did some houseplant maintenance over the weekend, too.

Basically, I’m terrible at taking care of the houseplants. Yet in spite of my neglect, many of them manage to thrive. Not all. But some. Except that those plants that are hardy enough to survive eventually outgrown their planters and/or become unwieldy, and next thing you know I have a major surgical situation on my hands instead of just a little trim. So I really just have to wait until I can move “everybody” outside to take care of them. Far from the image of a serene lady at a lovely little potting station wearing a wide-brimmed hat and tugging on her floral gardening gloves, I am splayed out all over the yard, like so:

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If you check out this mess, I had two schefflera plants that I divided into six more reasonably-sized plants (located at 6, 7, 11, & 12 o’clock), one abusively-trimmed basil and a bunch of seeds that I’m hoping to convert into a lovely little rectangular herb planter (at 9 o’clock), a mini plant (at 1 o’clock) that’s outgrown its home and dwarfed its two neighbors that I put into one of Mary’s old pots and have replaced with a new tiny succulent (below), and a spider plant (2 o’clock) that I re-potted on a whim because I happened to have a spare pot, and then when I saw the huge tangle of more-root-than-soil that was in the pot, I kept apologizing to the poor long-suffering thing.

So that was productive! Although, this reminds me, I should water them if I don’t want them to die by day after tomorrow.

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I hope that you all had a meaningful/relaxing/fun/productive weekend. . . whichever you were hoping for!

 

 

Hiding the Mess

I forgot to tell you about the funniest part of Niska-Day!

Okay, I’ve said that I invite people over to watch the parade, right? And we usually bring our outdoor table and chairs into the front yard so that people can snack on something breakfast-y: sometimes people bring muffins or donuts, and we have stuff, too. And perhaps I’ve mentioned that now that we have hammocks, our front yard sometimes has a bit of a vacant-lot-at-the-trailer-park feel. Well, about twenty minutes after the parade ended, not one but two different people approached our house, assuming that we were having a garage sale! It was completely understandable. We normally have a red bench, two hammocks, and a little cafe table with two chairs in the front. Right after the parade, there was also that table and chairs as well as scooters, bikes, Ripstiks, and sweatshirts littering the lawn. I had to wave the people away and explain, “No, sorry, we’re just a mess because we’re partying over the Niska-Day parade!” Then I got the kid who’d left her bike to move it into the backyard just in case, since our neighborhood has been known to fall victim to scavenging. All in all, it was a great motivational tool for getting the kids to clean up. “Kids, people literally think that I’m selling your stuff, so if you don’t want it sold, you’ve got to put it away!’

Ah, good times.

I’ve begun to emotionally check out of school for the year. In September I’m eagerly packing nutritious lunches in the morning and pouncing on the shiny red folders filled with school information and completed worksheets in the afternoon. I realized that I hadn’t checked and signed J’s assignment book for at least a week on the same day that I stumbled downstairs in the morning to discover that J had made herself a breakfast of Buffalo Chicken Dip and chips and was watching it in front of the tv. That’s right, folks. Someone hand me the Mother of the Year sash and tiara.

J, however, is still all in. That poor little dumpling is working like a dog. At our school, fourth grade is widely considered the most challenging grade, followed by a relative coast through fifth grade. Honestly, M pretty much coasted through all of elementary school, enjoying a unique combination of character attributes: she’s a smarty-pants, she’s very disciplined, and she cares, but not all that much. So she’d get all of her work done with a low level of drama. J is just as much of a smarty-pants, but she is cursed with a perfectionism that can be almost disabling. The fact that it’s within the realm of possibility that she will Fail To Achieve Greatness on any given project makes it difficult to start or continue any project. I was super-excited when her Susan B. Anthony project was done. I was ready to let her coast for a bit. But instead, there was another project, an entrepreneurship project, that they jumped into almost immediately.

So days after the big New York State Spotlight shebang, she was laboring over her business plan and resume. Basically, writing and writing, then looking up to wring her hands as if to say, “I’m ten years old, and what have I really accomplished in my life?” And then writing some more, with occasional pleas for help.

“What jobs do I do around the house? I don’t do any jobs around the house!” she half-wailed.

“Yes, you do, honey,” I answered. “You keep your room clean and you put away the laundry and you help clear the table, and you and your sister are responsible for keeping your bathroom clean and the playroom clean.”

“But I’m terrible at all those jobs!” she protested. “My room is a mess right now!”

“Well, it’s true that you could do better at those jobs. But that’s what resumes are. You’re not obligated to tell the whole, entire truth: don’t lie, but focus on the positive.”

At which point M chimed in with a real-world example from our school board election. But that’s water under the bridge, the election’s over now.

Niska-Day Fatigue

We pretty much exhausted ourselves this weekend. It was Niska-Day, aka the girls’ favorite holiday after Christmas.

I’ve said before: I love the Niska-Day Parade. It’s such a terrific neighborhood celebration. We love seeing friends and the kids love running wild. I’m always full of neighborhood-love this time of year, with the flowers blooming and the leaves coming out to form tree tunnels over all the streets, and the love hits its peak during the parade.

But by the end of Niska-Day, I am toast, and this year was no exception. M had a tremendous run of some of the Most Fun Ever. On Wednesday, it was a marathon trip to New York City with her school chorus, where they watched Aladdin, which M said was awesome, and ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, which M said was terrible, as well as walking around and touring Radio City Music Hall. On Thursday it was an outing with friends to see Pitch Perfect 2. Then she and her friends cooked up a Fun Marathon for the weekend. On Friday, she hosted a sleepover for a few girls—

–Wait a minute, did you catch that? My daughter invited friends over. I know, right? For those of you who don’t recall, M hardly ever invites anyone over. I’m not sure why. She hasn’t hosted a birthday party since the 4th grade. In fact, Niska-Day is one of the days that I can still manage to get her to invite people over, because it’s the parade and we’re right on the route. So having friends over felt like a major score. They ended up doing a backyard campout, and I bought a ridiculous amount of junk food and everything went fine with no drama. So yay. Anyway. . .

So, the sleepover, followed by Niska-Day shenanigans, followed by (wait for it) another sleepover at a friend’s house and a soccer game on Sunday. M was actually much more pleasant on Sunday than I anticipated, given what must have been quite a bit of exhaustion. Actually, she got a decent amount of sleep because she takes after Cute W, who was always first to fall asleep at any sleepover. When I picked her up, the hosting mom joked that M was her favorite. Anyway,  she was a superstar at getting down to work on Sunday afternoon, because she had plenty of  homework. Personally, I believe that Niska-Day weekend should be homework-free, but I am not in charge.

Meanwhile, J had several friends over for parade-watching, and then a bunch of them played in our basement playroom. She spent much of the afternoon frolicking at our block party, then headed to the Niska-Day late. I think that next year I’m going to try to plan a little better for her. She’s getting to the age where she wants to be with her friends, but she’s not quite at the point where she plans it all herself, either. So there were some communication/planning snafus. She was also completely exhausted. Between the block party and heading to the carnival I urged her to take a little rest, and she headed down into the playroom to eat some ice cream and lie down. Halfway down the stairs she burst into tears, “Oh, why is it so messy?!?” she wailed. Never mind that it was she and her friends who’d trashed the room. She was almost comically pathetic: so beside herself that she couldn’t eat her ice cream, so she just cried and fell asleep. But later she was rejuvenated and able to go to  the fireworks with a friend.

Usually Cute W will take the girls to see the fireworks, but he’s been sick, so after watching the parade, he retreated to the couch.

By nightfall I was ready to join him. Every morning I love Niska-Day, but the truth is that by night-time I hate it just a little bit. It takes a full night’s sleep before I’m ready to look forward to next year again.