Weekend at Laurel Hill State Park

We spent the weekend camping with my parents and brother at Laurel Hill State Park. It's a large state campground with a little man-made lake and beach and lots of hiking trails, about an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh. Memorial Day weekend is pretty busy at most of the state campgrounds and this one was pretty much filled up. We went on a really nice kid-friendly hike on the Hemlock Trail and saw a stand of old-growth hemlocks. Laurel had a good time identifying flowers using our Audubon guide. We saw jack-in-the-pulpits, violets, bluets, trillium that were done blooming, foam flowers and some interesting fungus. A portion of this trail is slightly treacherous for the 3 and under crowd, so if you take little ones be on guard for that. The stretch isn't very long - maybe a quarter of a mile up, but we had Marko in the backpack and I wouldn't have wanted him to walk there, because of the steep drop down the side of the hill. I know not everyone has a 2 1/2 year old that is still small enough to easily carry around, though. M got some good long runs in, as the Laurel Highlands trail passes through the park here. My brother had the excellent idea of renting some canoes and going out on the lake, where we saw a bird fishing. We think it may have been an osprey. It was impressive to watch it soar above the lake and then dive down into the water. It made about 3 dives before it got something big enough that it carried it away into the forest. The beach provided a lot of entertainment for Laurel and Marko. Laurel caught tadpoles and made friends with every kid there. Marko moved sand around with his tiny shovel and rolled in the sand, telling us he was a turtle.

We camped in a tent loop and I'm always pretty satisfied with the noise level, even when there were thousands of people there like this weekend. Things do settle down once it gets dark and it's really quiet after 11, other than the occasional crying kid. (Including ours, from time to time.) It was freezing cold on Friday and Saturday nights, but I expected this so the kids had long underwear, coats, hats and mittens, which they slept in some combination of.  We lucked out and had no rain at all. Laurel is big enough now to let her join the throngs of children roaming around the campground. Occasionally kids would stop by our site, and my mom taught a couple of them to play bocce.

As for camping with kids, it's definitely getting easier and more fun now that they are a little older. We go to sleep with them when it gets dark, and usually end up splitting up because we have two backpacking tents that are not really big enough for all four of us anymore. We make s'mores at the breakfast fire so there's no pre-bed sugar rush. I take a lot of baby wipes and don't bother trying to really bathe them properly. They get incredibly filthy, regardless of what you do. A thorough tick check, including scalp, should be done when you get home. My parents can be sort of fancy when they camp...so it was fun to be with them this time and have full meals. My dad was all about the bacon-wrapped gourmet hot dog this weekend. We often just eat Clif bars, apples, pb&js and will maybe roast hot dogs. For entertainment I brought sketch paper and colored pencils, a soccer ball, 3 Audubon guides and a couple of Ranger Rick magazines. Laurel also had her razor scooter. Mostly, they dug in the dirt and enjoyed lighting sticks on fire.

I brought a red quinoa salad and it really traveled well. You can check out the recipe here. It was very easy to make and filling if you have vegetarians along.

I'm glad we kicked off the summer season with a camping trip and I hope we can get out there a lot in the next couple of months.


8ish Years Ago, Somewhere in Virginia

Yesterday our refrigerator broke. Well, I could probably say that several months ago, our refrigerator began to break, and while M&K are great at many things, home maintenance is not something that comes naturally to us. We are greatly inclined to ignore the compressor ka-chunking after every cycle. Until we realize the ice is not frozen. And actually, most of the food is not cold. (Good thing we don't ever stock up on meat.) Then we are motivated to take action. We spent this morning at the Scratch and Dent, selecting a suitable replacement. It was actually the first appliance we have ever purchased. And a side note about the Scratch and Dent....is this a Pittsburgh thing? Literally everyone from friends to neighbors to the crossing guard at Laurel's school recommended that we go there. Actually it all sounded more like, "Yinz have to go the Scratch n Dent!" (Even if they don't normally speak in a Pittsburgh accent.) Anyway, we found a fairly unscratched and undented model and they will deliver it on Thursday. Until then, it's ice chests and everyone has to clean their plates. No leftovers. In other news, the post office has lost a package M was expecting and the PWSA still has not issued us a water bill since February. The dental office charged the wrong insurance account, and I had to straighten that out. Marko is in a "dumping out" phase. The weather has suddenly turned hot, so I need a bigger diaper bag to take when I go out to make sure I have enough water for all of us. And that was pretty much my week so far. Yes, life is indeed exciting right now.

Cheers! From the AT, 2007
Here you can see a picture of us from about 8 years ago. Clearly slackpacking on the AT, since we seem to be carrying a bottle of wine. I believe we are somewhere in southern Virginia. I remember I saw a scarlet tanager that day. There was a lot of sidehill trail. Hiking without a pack felt effortless. A couple of '07 thru-hikers that we know are on the PCT right now and posting updates on their Facebook feeds. Watching my friends' adventures unfold reminds me of the many adventures we have had. Some folks we know are moving to Phoenix, which stirred up all these memories of late-night stir fry at Johnny Chu's and watching Akron/Family sweat in Modified Arts. The homemade tamales my teacher's aide brought me, and walking across the entire South Mountain Preserve with Leah and Kristijo. And my cousin Lisa is moving cross-country and just texted me from the road, which made me think of cooking blueberry pancakes in the Bitterroot Mountains with Lance and M, for some reason. Not sure why. They are nowhere near Idaho. I guess it's just the adventure. Rolling into a place that you've never been and seeing it with fresh eyes.

I think I'm on the path I'm supposed to be on, but there's so many different ways life can go. Actually, I guess I don't even believe in a "supposed-to-be path." This is just where I'm at. Enjoy it, or change it. But when my fridge breaks down before we're ready to do the rest of the kitchen upgrades, or someone asks me what's new and I have to say that I spent most of the day on hold with the water company, or sweeping up cheerios, I sometimes think, "seriously? How did I get here?"

The other night, M took me to see Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, we went on a date to see an astrophysicist give a lecture. Trust me, he's very entertaining, although I just can't get into Cosmos. He was speaking about something he calls the Cosmic Perspective. It was very interesting to see his slides zoom in on DNA strands and zoom out to theoretical models of multiverses. You can read more about his ideas in this essay. I think I was most moved by the interconnectedness of it all, and the way that patterns repeat themselves across nature and space. He's right that if you are musing about the cosmic perspective, you have it pretty good because it means you aren't mired in day to day survival.

And for all the mundane chores that must be done and redone, I have this incredible gift of watching a two year old and a five year old navigate the world. They pick up a shard of a buckeye nut and bring it to me. Which tree did it come from? Who ate the rest of it? How did they crack it? Can a tree still grow from this part? Can we put it in our mouths? Things I would just step over become reasons for curiosity and conversation. Last night and today we had a lot of wind, and little sections of new leaves from the chestnut tree had blown down all over the school yard. Marko spent a half an hour gathering them up as if he had found something amazing. He probably doesn't even remember last fall, so this idea that leaves coming down to his level, where he can examine them and touch them was sort of mind-blowing. Plus, he insisted on wearing this blanket as a cape, so it was very cute to watch. Laurel is reading more and more everyday and seeing her eyes light up when it "clicks" is just as rewarding as it was when I watched my America Reads Challenge mentee.... little six year old William in...gulp...1998, do the same thing.

So, that's life right now. Good as ever, but not because it's perfect or easy. It's just amazing when you stop to think about it.


Marathon Sunday

Marathon Sunday is pretty much my favorite day of the year, for one reason. The route goes by our house, and so our block is closed off to traffic. Every single year, at least one car will come flying down Braddock Avenue and go slamming into the wooden barricades Public Works sets up. For this reason, I do not let my kids actually play in the street, but it is tempting. We do go down to the corner and hang out with all the neighbors to cheer the runners on. Some die-hards arrive early with lawn chairs to see the elite runners to go by. Most people drift down with cups of coffee in hand and babies in strollers once the big crowd of runners starts to pass. There's always a cranky police officer there, dealing with all the people who forgot about road closures and are trying to get to work or church.

This year, M ran again and finished respectably in 3 hours and 21 minutes. He's still got Boston on his mind, so plans to run another marathon in the fall and will hopefully get to that pace he's been chasing. It was really great to hear from friends all around town who saw him running and yes, he always looks that happy when he is running. He also saved me from navigating downtown traffic by riding his bike home from the race. (Yes, M is hardcore like that. He will run 26 miles and then bike 8 home, up a giant hill.) Marko and I cheered him on at mile 17, with Marko briefly joining the runners on the course. I had to dash out and scoop him up while he screamed "DADDY!! I RUN WITH DADDY!!!!"

Although, Daddy running is not that unusual for Marko to see and he greatly preferred watching the street cleaners come by after the race.


Spring is in the Air

Yesterday, Marko met a little girl and apparently they hit it off quite nicely, because he came over to me to say "I'm going with my friend, mom, BYE!" before running off to the field with her. They played some kind of game that involved picking dandelions and running around and rolling in the grass. I'm guessing his friend was about 4 and I would have loved to hear their conversation, but I was trying to give him some space.

The playground after school on a nice day is a mob of kids, babies to fifth grade. The kids are delighted to break all the normal recess rules for the playground equipment and therefore perform death-defying tricks, launching themselves off the top of the slide and dangling on the outside of the play structure. The parents don't notice, or pretend not to. Nobody wants to be a helicopter parent. It's a really great set-up, actually, with a wide, gently sloped lawn out front. The whole block is fenced. There are shade trees and little bushes that the kids disappear into.

And this is Pittsburgh, so on a nice day, people have a real appreciation for the good weather. And if the weather is not so nice, we sort of pretend that it's better than it is, and pull our jackets tighter, or ignore the rain drops until the last possible moment.

I'm looking forward to summer, and being home with both kids. The longer I stay at home I realize the need to be a little organized and to at least have a loose schedule or plan. We have a museum pass and I'm going to get a pool pass. I think we'll spend a lot of time on the bike trail and looking for good climbing trees. I want Laurel to stay in touch with her buddies from school, so I'm going to set up some play dates for her. I think I would also like the kids to engage in some sort of service. When I was a kid, my dad used to take us to a nursing home and we did crafts and exercise classes with the patients.



Last week, my mom took Marko to her house for an overnight visit. I cut my foot badly enough to need a few stitches and was having a little trouble walking, and therefore keeping up with a busy two year old. That night, M and I had dinner at home with Laurel. Nobody screamed, we talked about our days in fully formed sentences, and at the end of the meal, there was no food on the floor.

Every so often I get a glimpse of what it will be like once our family is passed the young children phase. When they are little, so much of the day feels like treading water. You cannot see where you are headed, just stay afloat as best you can.

On Sunday we went for a bike ride, with Laurel riding solo for the first time on the trail. Bike riding has turned out to be an unexpectedly sentimental experience for me to witness. It feels like such a transitional milestone. When I think of kids riding bikes I remember my own experience as a kid, how it expanded my range out our backyard. I now have this very vivid image in my mind of the back of Laurel's head. As if from this point on, she will be moving ever-further away from me.

Of course, once we saw how awesome she was doing, we immediately began scheming about overnight trips on the GAP this summer.


Because I Wanted To

Yesterday I took the kids to the Andy Warhol Museum. An art museum is a risky move on a Thursday after school, but I figured if we went during the last hour of the day at least it wouldn't be crowded, plus I had to be downtown later that evening and planned to pass the kids off to M when he was done with work.

Frankly, I didn't care whether they got anything out of it. I wasn't interested in visiting the kid-friendly areas, or teaching them anything about Andy Warhol and objects as art. I just wanted them to be well behaved long enough for me to check out the Corita Kent exhibit.

It's easy to slide into a space where you forget about what you want when you are a full-time caregiver for your kids. It can get relegated to every other Tuesday when you go out with your friends, or maybe a few hours a month when you go to yoga. Blogs advise to wake up before your kids do to get your time, and some parents are adamant about the hours they are afforded after a strict early bedtime. And while I agree that time away from your kids is pretty important to maintaining sanity, I have found it very rewarding to prioritize my needs and interests and make them come along with me to something that I want to do. Sometimes it backfires, like the time I took Laurel to my neighbor's concert where he demonstrated his amazing opera singing (opera pieces turned out to be a bit long for her attention span that evening).

But other times, like yesterday, they rise to the occasion. Also, I promised to take them to Chipotle if they were good. We practiced walking through the art gallery without touching stuff. Sitting on the benches to get a good long look. Keeping our voices low to preserve the piece. When we got to the floor with the Corita Kent stuff, my kids gravitated towards an interactive area which was way above their abilities. They parked themselves at this table and asked me to read the prompt, grabbing sketch paper and pencils. And then they got busy and I had a solid half an hour to look at the exhibit, while they wrote poems inspired by ads in magazines. Well, Marko drew "ovals" and Laurel wrote words about what she saw. Poetic in their own way. I was really happy to be able to genuinely thank them for coming along with me and I'm now scheming up all kinds of things we can do this summer.

Corita Kent was an activist/artist/art teacher/Catholic nun/designer/feminist. The exhibit is running at the Warhol until April 19, and I totally recommend checking it out if you are in Pittsburgh.


We Walk

It snowed overnight but the sun came out the next afternoon, melting all of it and revealing the green tips of daffodils, tulips, crocuses everywhere. We took the long way home, stopping at the library on the way. Laurel eased her way in to another mother's read aloud. Marko found the pop-up books, and sat there paging through one after another. Nobody needed anything from me, so I read my book.

Sunday night, they couldn't fall asleep, so I resolved to make them walk more this week. After the library we hopped on a bus that let us out at the gate of the park, instead of the one that drops us on our corner. Their pockets were filled with many little rocks and bits of mulch by the time we got through that stretch. Every time I turned around, one of them had stopped to bend over and examine something interesting on the path. I would walk past all of it, if not for them. They make it look not only interesting, but important. Worthy of study.


The Long Game

Last night I went to a dinner party at my friend's house. A real adult dinner party, as in we ate late and long, and I had marvelous conversation with people I had never met before.  Part of the reason for the gathering was to celebrate her son's 18th birthday and I thought it was a really neat idea that she had us gather in a circle and each give him a bit of advice. The advice people gave really reflected their most formative experience or their biggest challenge in life. Having friends with older children is so helpful to me...not only in hearing their challenges from various stages, but also seeing how both the parent and the child have grown as a result of their relationship. Sometimes parenting books for little kids make it sound like a one-way street....you apply certain techniques to your child and sort of mold them. But the only strategy I have found that consistently works is taking a second to walk in their shoes and imagine what they are thinking or feeling.



Days like today are why I like this city best of all. The cyclical changing of the seasons. That first day when you bundle up or strip down. How 65 and partly sunny is all we need to reset from a too-long winter.



Honey, we're going to travel, she says to him. They pile into the play car at the playground. Do you want music or talking on the radio? Ok, first you drive, then I'll drive. 

They play, acting out all the mundane and fantastic scenarios from our life. They use our words and add their imaginations.

The hotel they dream up today has a robot who will check you in. Breakfast is at nine. Are any of you vegetarians? They spend a lot of time fiddling with an imaginary lock on the imaginary door. Marko builds a vacuum cleaner out of a stick. 

Then suddenly, it's time for school in this fantasy world. I'm the principal. Laurel sends Marko. He has a red smiley face, she says, grimacing. He was not resting peacefully.

Kids reveal everything in their play.y You know what they've heard and how it makes them feel.