Saturday, 21 January 2017

My Women's March

We had planned to go to Washington D.C. today. Not originally for political reasons... my husband had to go for work reasons, and we figured it was easy enough for us all to go. Once I realised our visit would coincide with the Women's March on Washington, I planned to join it, assuming it stayed peaceful enough to do with the kids.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of parents are not proof against a stomach bug going through the school. Instead, today, we are sitting around in quarantine, unable even to join our local Women's March.

So this is my virtual one. My little statement about what the Women's March meant to me: a chance to show women and anybody else who might feel marginalised, oppressed or intimidated by current politics that we still have our voices, we still have people who will listen.

Today, the President of the United States is somebody accused of being a sex offender (Wikipedia link) and a paedophile (Snopes link). These accusations are unlikely to ever be proven one way or the other, but the brutal truth is that they are entirely plausible based on the words from Trump's own mouth. (Telegraph link, New Yorker link, google it...) Yet this man can be elected to the office of a World Leader.

That's a discouraging message for all victims of sexual harassment debating whether or not to report it. It's a discouraging message for all women who want to be valued for their skills rather than their looks. It's a discouraging message for all women who want to look beautiful for beauty's sake and not for the approval of others. I hope the hundreds of thousands of people Marching around the world have countered that message with their own one of encouragement.

As far as I am concerned, President Trump's words and behaviour do not represent the country of which my children are citizens. He is not a role model for my son. And he sure as hell isn't allowed anywhere near my daughter.

I will close with a Women's March of a different kind, one more suited to our quarantined, housebound protest: a Women's March of Books (for children). Three of our favourites, all of which give a better message of strength, respect and equality than the political rhetoric from the past year.

Barnes & Noble links:
All the World
Star Wars graphic novel

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Building a Bridge for LEGO's Gender Divide

Having a son and a daughter, it's important to me that the children be able to play together. They choose their own toys, and I am always insistent that there are no toys boys can't play with and no toys girls can't play with... but I try to steer them toward toylines that actively encourage both genders.

LEGO is a great one, since it's something I can develop as an adult hobby too, and we can all share and build upon each other's sets. But LEGO genders its own sets. There are the pink and purple boxes which are specifically for girls and are sold in one aisle at the toy store. In the next aisle, everything else becomes, by default, for boys.

To be fair, our family probably falls within LEGO's market research predictions. We all like different things. I like buildings, making a world in miniature. My son likes vehicles and things he can make a story with. My daughter likes story as well, but—perhaps because she gets bored building the more complex sets—tends to focus more on character creation. Hence our minifig station:

(Yes, it's a warzone. Don't judge our artistic methods!)

When it comes to characters, like most five year old girls, my daughter is overly enamoured of Disney Princesses, so we have a good proportion of those sets. She also likes dragons, so we've picked up some of the Elves' sets, and a handful of Friends sets have made their way to us as well. These are the three LEGO lines targeting girls that come with the sculpted mini-dolls instead of the traditional yellow "Minifigs".

I have a few issues with the minidolls, not least that there are already so many skewed body images in the media aimed at young girls. The chunky minifigs are a reassuring break from that; the slender minidolls, not so much.

More practically, the only part of a minidoll that is compatible with a minifig is the hair, meaning interchanging parts between the two lines is minimal. And while the cartoonish minifigs come in a wide variety of expressions and clothes, the more 'realistic' (in an anime sort of way) minidolls are much more limited.

As an example, the below picture shows the full diversity of our minidolls (the one in the centre is male, for the record) alongside just four female minifig heads and torsos.

There is minimal variety of expression among the minidolls, and although the faces are more detailed, the features of each doll are almost identical with little regard for age, ethnicity or gender.

The traditional minifigs ignore ethnicity (though movie tie-ins use flesh tones—predominantly light ones, because Hollywood), but there's a lot of personality in their simple faces. They benefit from being featured in a wider range of LEGO products... in fact they have their own line of blind bag characters, so we have many more parts for them. The minidolls (minus hair) take up only a single drawer of our minifig station.

If I had to guess, I'd say my daughter prefers the minidolls' prettier look... but there's far more scope for creativity with the minifigs, so while she builds characters out of both, she spends more time on the latter. Below is a sample team of adventurers I found on her bedside table one day:

The unfortunate side effect of this is that the traditional minifig line is short of female characters because they've been diverted to the minidolls. I've had to make a conscious effort to collect female minifigs and parts, though this is something that's improved even in the short time we've been buying LEGO. When I started, it was hard to find a set for less than $20 with a female minifig. These days, most sets with multiple figures have at least one female character. (The gender ratio is much worse in the minidolls, where we only have two boys among our collection.)

The other thing that makes me twitchy about the gender division in these product lines is the prettiness aspect. Aside from the ludicrousness of every single animal having blue eyes and eyelashes, there are... a lot of flowers. Elsa's ice palace was supposed to have flowers blooming in the snow outside, but my daughter and I decided that was too silly and left them off. (I also tried to persuade my daughter that the ice cream dispenser was anachronistic, but she thought that was a stroke of genius and insisted it stay.) Moana's boat has flowers apparently growing on it. Piece count is a big factor in the set's cost, and I am a little tired of it being driven up by flowers.

Especially when it seems to be at the cost of more interesting details. On the left we have Moana's Ocean Voyage, a $39.99 set, 307 pieces. On the right, Ninjago's Tiger Widow Island, $49.99 and 450 pieces.

Obviously, the Ninjago set is a larger one, and the island is the focus rather than the boat, but it's here as an example of how cool a LEGO island can look. Moana's boat (even with the flowers) is pretty great, and I really like it, but the island is frankly rubbish. The problem is that Moana isn't getting her own movie tie in LEGO line with four or five sets exploring different movie scenes. She's part of LEGO's Disney Princess line up, she's only been allotted two sets, and it's clear they aren't banking on any more, because they have tried to shoehorn in as many story elements into those two sets as possible.

So along with Moana's boat, we have a tiny raft representing the battle with the Kakamora (most of which actually took place on a massive ship) and a highly scaled down version of Te Fiti's Island, where the climax of the film takes place. The island does have an action feature, but it's just a quick overly symmetrical build, which barely has room for Moana to stand on and none at all for Maui.

I did my own quick fix, replacing the Ninjago temple with Te Fiti to create a much larger and more exciting island for the end of Moana's journey.

I appreciate that there is a lot of marketing research behind this which I don't know about. Ninjago is a highly successful line with its own cartoon which probably sells better than the Disney Princess line, and honestly, Tiger Widow Island is also greatly scaled down from its cartoon counterpart.

Here's the thing though: Tiger Widow Island appeared in one episode of a LEGO cartoon series. Moana is A Freaking Disney Movie. How is there not a market for multiple Moana sets? If they had produced Moana sets with traditional minifigs and sold it alongside the Star Wars and Super-Hero sets (i.e. in the explicitly or implicitly "for boys" section), wouldn't Te Fiti's Island sell? Or Kakomora Attack? Or Tamatoa's Cave?

That brings up another problem. Tamatoa the crab was my daughter's favourite part of the Moana movie, and when we first saw Moana LEGO sets, she told me she wanted the one with the crab. I had to tell her that wasn't likely to ever exist, because the minidolls lines don't go in for villains (with the exception of a few Elves sets). They're more focused on parties and playing than dangerous circumstances. Fun rather than adventure.

Again, I'm no market researcher, but this seems to go against my own experiences of how little girls play: what's the good of being a princess if there isn't a witch out to kill you?

The minidolls are expanding into superhero territory this year, with the Super Hero Girls. I know little about that storyline, other than the heroes in question are at high school (which I have issues with, but that was DC's call, not LEGO's.)  The early sets do look like they're more action-oriented, but I don't know yet if we'll get into that theme and the characters... I'd rather see similar sets in Disney Princess or Elves.

As disappointing as it is to realise we're unlikely to get Prince Philip's battle with Dragon Maleficent in LEGO form, the flipside of this trend is the "boys" sets are almost exclusively focused on conflict.

Just about every Ninjago set we own is a battle between good guys and bad guys. For the record, both kids and even I love the Ninjago cartoon series which is very nicely done. Great characters and they have significantly expanded the lone female regular's role over the course of the show. But it's painfully clear the franchise is targeting boys not girls. The only set we have that isn't a battle scene is the Temple of Airjitzu, which is a huge, expensive village set, aimed at the adult collector. (It's beautiful, and the kids loved playing with it, but the age on the box is 14+.)

Don't get me wrong, my son loves battles. His favourite LEGO lines are Ninjago and Star Wars, and he likes to build his own fighting spaceships. But the other recurring theme in his creations is Secret Base. Like the one in the below picture which I am not allowed to take apart.

It has a control center, a small rocket-powered vehicle and a larger truck... but it also comes with a surprisingly well-stocked larder, and a dining table. The variety of food items is one of my son's favourite things in his LEGO play. Even soldiers have lunch breaks from saving the world.

You'd think the so-called 'City' sets would fulfil this roleplaying need, but they have a particular focus on the emergency services, especially the old 'cops and robbers' motif. Let's not forget the fun world of trash collection and roadside assistance.

OK, so there is also an annual City theme which generally features scientists exploring the Arctic, or under the sea, or volcanoes... (Before you ask, female scientists are included, but over among the minidolls in the girls' aisle, scientists remain in scandalously short supply.) The sets are cool-looking and you can create your own stories from these, however, the 'City' name is still failing to produce anything that looks remotely like the experiences my children associate with city life.

The Creator line (currently the closest thing in LEGO to gender neutral) does a better job of producing houses and shops. Our Christmas present to our son was the camper van / yacht, which has some really nifty living arrangements. I built LEGO versions of our own family, and they are currently living in the yacht and sailing to... well, destinations are limited, if we don't want to engage in battle.

On average, for boys, there isn't a lot of daily life roleplay available. Yet that is precisely what the Friends line is all about.

So on Christmas day, from his sister, our eight year old son received one of the amusement park sets in the Friends line. It had bumper cars, a cotton candy machine and a tumbler ride. The tumbler is a particularly nice build, since the gears are set up so that with each revolution of the arms, the car holding the riders would turn all the way around twice. And yes, standard minifigs can also ride.

When our son first unwrapped it, he baulked at the Friends packaging, but then he looked at the rest of the box and grew excited. He built it the day after Christmas (flowers and all), and from there decided that he wanted to buy the roller coaster set in the same line.

(For the record, you can buy a minifig fairground set at the LEGO store, but again, it's aimed at the adult collector. The Ninjago cartoon has also featured an amusement park in a few different episodes, but LEGO has yet to produce a set based there.)

As it happened, my son has been into saving and earning money lately, to the point that he had over $50 in his piggy bank. So we made a trip to Target, and he went looking in the unofficial girls' aisle for the roller coaster, hoping it would be on sale. It wasn't there, but the new Heartlake Summer Pool was.

My son also looked at the Star Wars sets, and the latest Ninjago sets, and even the sets for the upcoming Batman Movie, but at the end of the day, none of those could compete with waterslides, so he spent his savings on Andrea, Martina and their pool. Because both genders can appreciate aquariums, hot tubs, a diving board that actually bounces and smoothies at a poolside tiki bar.

(It's still covered in flowers, but we got two brand new watermelon pieces, so we're satisfied.)

As a toy, LEGO is pretty phenomenal, since your imagination really is the limit. But as it's currently marketed, there is a surprisingly hard line dividing playstyles between genders. The boys get the adventure, and the girls get the fun.

Obviously, just because LEGO doesn't make a set, that doesn't mean we can't build it ourselves... except we learn building techniques from the sets we buy. (Not to mention part acquisition!) We're all gradually getting better and more ambitious with our freebuilding, but we'll never rival a professional designer. The skills and materials come from LEGO itself, and if you're only buying for one gender, LEGO's put an invisible cap on what you can achieve.

As a family, we have always ignored the 'for boys / girls' recommendations, yet even for us, it took a while to realise the full range of LEGO available, because I started out with the intent of ignoring the minidoll sets. It's taken a conscious effort to buy sets that allow the kids to take their favourite characters through the story they want to tell. I suspect most of the children playing with LEGO are only getting half the experience.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Time to start reading the comments

One of the common trends in internet advice goes as follows: Don't read the comments. Don't worry about the comments. Don't feed the trolls. Some people aren't just worth the time.

And then came the events of 2016 and the common question is: "How did this happen?" Even the people who are OK with the political outcomes this year are surprised by it. Somewhere along the way our communications have broken down.

There's been a lot of focus on the media's role in this, but on a personal level, it's made me re-analyse the way we use and advise each other to use the internet. We use social media to spread our message, but we're avoiding—in some cases, actively blocking—the messages we disagree with. We encourage each other to talk but not to listen.

Obviously, I'm generalising here... there is a difference between an alternative point of view rationally presented and trolling. But when it comes to trolling, we've all been generalising because there is also a difference between trolling and somebody with an alternative point of view losing their temper.

A few years ago, I went on a podcast and talked, among other things, a bit about my views on gender issues. Afterwards, a listener tweeted the following at me: "Please stop cockblocking Rob's podcast with your nonsense about male bias."

I replied frostily, and then something happened which is not supposed to be possible on the internet: the conversation de-escalated. We talked through our differences, exchanged constructive criticism and parted ways with a cordial, "Cheers."

I can't say if I changed his attitude on anything at all, but I learned a lot from that series of tweets. Most notably, I've never since been afraid to engage with hostile commenters, and by now, I've got a few ground-rules in place for those confrontations.

 Don't Attack

We often say that trolls forget that there is a real person on the other end of the screen, but that's exactly what we're doing every time we dismiss somebody else as a troll. We're dismissing this person and the experiences that have led them to their perspective, in favor of demonising them, saying their opinion doesn't count.

Clearly, some people genuinely are trolls, arguing for the sake of insulting you. I usually start with a couple of bland responses to see if there's any depth to their accusations. If there isn't, I leave it be, and no harm done. If there is, I'll pursue it further.

What I try (and rarely succeed at) is to argue the point without diminishing the other person's point of view. I might think they're wrong, but I usually don't think they're a bad person, an idiot or a bigot. (I get bogged down in disclaimers a lot, trying to make that clear.) If I do catch myself judging somebody personally, I'm probably too angry to have that discussion, and that's when I should walk away from the keyboard. Sometimes I don't. Then I regret it, later.

Don't Defend

Not just on the internet, but in general, there are three common assertions that I never, ever say:
  1. I am a nice person.
  2. I am not a racist/sexist/homophobe.
  3. I am a strong, independent woman.  (OK, so only about half the population says this one.)
I don't like these statements because they're so sweeping that they require too many disclaimers to actually be meaningful; Everybody is selfish sometimes, everybody is capable of prejudiced behavior, everybody has moments of weakness.

If you find yourself saying one of the above, then you're almost certainly in defence mode. Getting defensive easily is a bad habit of mine and I try and guard against it because I'm too familiar with the drawbacks: I am taking things personally, which makes it impossible for me to be objective; I am making the subject about me, which means I'm probably missing the real point.

For all of those statements, I try and take the classic writers' advice: show, don't tell. Odds are high that the person I am talking to isn't interested in making those judgments about me. They're even higher that if they have made those judgments about me, I can still learn something from talking to them.

 Nobody Wins Arguments

Scoring points in arguments is a bit of a fiction, in my opinion. Most of the time both sides come off thinking they were the victor, and if you do believe you've lost, you probably haven't changed your view... you just want to find a way to argue it better.

The real point is not to 'argue', but to 'communicate'. It's not about who wins and who loses. It's not even about changing minds, necessarily. It's about understanding that alternative point of view.

Remember my de-escalating twitter argument? The one that started off with cock-blocking? The turning point in that argument came with this tweet: "I think we're talking about two different things here, Sarah. I'm talking about your approach, not your viewpoint."

He had singled out our point of disagreement, and once we knew that, it was easier for us to understand each other's perspectives.

So when I argue with my friends or engage the anonymous and hostile, in my own clumsy way I'm trying to find our point of disagreement: where is it that our perspectives diverge and why? I don't always succeed, and it's even more common that the other person isn't interested in finding it, but when I do find it, I learn something every time.

Keep a Balance

Obviously, this is easy practice for a small scale internet writer. For people with a bigger social media presence, there's too much to engage with and the hostility can be considerably worse. The emotional stress of that hostility isn't necessarily something you can just walk away from, either. So, everything in moderation and do what works for you.

Yet if you have the opportunity to be open, take it and see what you can learn rather than what you can teach. It seems that these days we all need to be a little wiser.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Limbo of the Stay At Home Mum

On the left hand side of this page is my bio, written when I started this blog almost five years ago: "I plan on getting qualified in Montessori pre-school in another few years. For now, I'm a stay-at-home Mum." It's unchanged, because it still applies. It might be more than a few years later, but that's still the plan... and I'm still a stay-at-home Mum. Which means that in five years there has been no movement on how I see myself. I have sat comfortably on my personal goals rather than make headway in achieving them.

Perhaps you're expecting that this post will be some burst of inspiration about how I am going to get off my backside and revolutionise who I am. It's not.

The Background

The main factor in this stagnation is that I'm living in a country not my own. We came to the States from the UK, due to my husband's career. Our residence here is tied to his job, which means my legal status is literally my husband's dependant. He even gets an allowance for me (provided I am not earning above a certain income). Yes, reconciling this with modern ideas of feminism is a fascinating personal journey. (Actually, it's not. We can skip that part.)

What this meant when we moved, as a young, married couple, was that I had the unexpected privilege of relaxing a little about my own employment and trying something new on a whim. That was how I stumbled into Montessori and preschool—and discovered I loved it. I was never the sort of person who knew what she wanted to do when she grew up, but after a year or so of assisting in the classroom, I wanted to make this my career.

First things first though: having children of our own. And again, the benefits of being my husband's dependant meant that I had the freedom to stay at home with the kids. Occasionally I would help out at my school on a voluntary basis, and my original plan was to go back to work there once the kids were old enough to attend, but some trouble developed at the school, and it eventually closed down.

We sent the kids to a different Montessori, and I reconsidered my employment options: the convenience of having one parent at home to deal with sick days and vacation days vs. the disproportionately inconvenient pile of paperwork involved in renewing my work permit. (I cannot stress enough how much of a pain this ridiculous process is.)

Besides, I would only have wanted to work for a couple of hours in the morning before picking up my daughter at lunchtime. It was easy enough to conclude that it wasn't worth stressing over, and to delay my career plans for another "few years".

The Future

What takes precedence over my personal career goals is the long term plan for our family. We might have emigrated in 2005 and had american children, but the plan was always to return to the UK. My husband and I were both agreed that this was not a permanent move, and as much as we've enjoyed and benefited from living here, that hasn't changed.

Of course, our deadlines for returning are entirely arbitrary, because we have the luxury of waiting for the right opportunity—i.e. the right job for my husband, both from a practical, financial viewpoint and from a career satisfaction viewpoint. He's happy in his current job, and the kids are flourishing at their school. There may come a time of 'having to' return, but until then, it makes sense to us to play it cautiously, tracking and discussing potential jobs. Nothing has yet come of it.
The end result is that we tend to live life six months at a time, eternally ready to kick off the transatlantic move process. We get twitchy booking holidays too far ahead of time, and it's become a running joke at our school that we're never sure if we're going to complete the academic year.
This, ultimately, is why I've not carried out my plan of training in Montessori. I'm afraid that I'd not be able to complete any course I started. There's also the practical consideration that we might move to an area with no Montessori schools. I still plan on working in preschool care eventually, but I want to wait and see what those options are before I get the relevant qualifications.

However, we have now reached the point where my youngest is at school all day. And I am still unemployed, receiving my allowance—well, technically, my husband is receiving the allowance on my behalf—with no concrete plans to restart my own career.

The Status Quo

This is, of course, very much a first world and middle class problem. I wouldn't even describe myself as unhappy: I've always been more family-oriented than career-oriented, so I don't mind identifying as a mother rather than a teacher. Having two healthy, happy children and a marriage still going strong after twelve years means the world to me.

Besides there's a side of me that appreciates the irony of me being so gung ho about gender equality while my own career track is practically Edwardian.

Rather, this contributes to a sense of... inadequacy? Insecurity over my self-worth? Is there a German word for "concern over one's suitability as a role model for one's children"?  Perhaps it's a social stress rather than anything else. There's never anything new with me; I only update people on the children.

Actually, the aspect of this that gets me down the most is that there's no sense in anybody but me doing the housework, and I am frankly rubbish at it. I'm not perfect at being a Mum, but I take pride in doing parts of that well. When the children are at school though, I am a 'housewife' or 'homemaker'. All my talents count for nothing when my chief contribution to the family is an untidy house, mediocre meals and forgotten laundry. At best, I can consider this a lesson in humility. At worst, I'm struggling to justify my position in my own household.

On the flipside, I've always written as a hobby, and while I have no ambitions to rise above amateur level, I've spent the past four years writing for a reality TV website. This gave me an outlet for mental stimulation as an armchair psychologist and allowed me to effectively play at having a career. I've honed my writing skills. I've learned about using social media for networking and promotion. I've tried my hand at podcasting which does not play to my strengths but has allowed me to face down my fear of public speaking. (So long as I'm sitting in the comfort of my study talking to a computer.)

None of it is remotely useful for my CV, but I have learned new skills, made new friends, and most importantly, done something I am good  at. From a self-esteem point of view, it's been a lifesaver.

Yet in the end, it's just a hobby and one that is, by default, very remote from my day to day life. My friends from my local peer group are either going back to work or meeting up for baby and toddler playdates. I am the anomaly.

So the question I am asking myself is: "Where do I go from here?" And being a procrastinator by nature, I don't know the answer yet. But I rather suspect that I won't be able to stick out eight hours a day of being a housewife for long. Currently, I am dealing with the excess of time to do a thorough clean out, purging the house of clutter in preparation for the ever-potential Move. But this surge of motivation won't last.

Most likely I will end up volunteering somewhere, both to get myself out of the house and so that I have something on the CV for when I do get my career back on track. Maybe I'll throw caution to the winds and start a Montessori qualification after all. Maybe I can find a way to feel like I'm pulling my own weight in this family again. Maybe I'll have a midlife crisis and go right off the rails, but let's hope not.

In the meantime, the limbo continues, and—fifteen hundred words to the contrary—I try not to dwell on it too much.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Mt Rainier, Cooling off in Portland and Goodbye Oregon!

Monday was our last day of the trip before we caught a red-eye back to Virginia. We took the circuitous route back to Portland and it's airport, so that we could get a closer look at Mt Rainier. You can't actually go up Mt Rainier, short of a hardcore hiking expedition. It's over 14,000ft and it's an active volcano. But you can go up the nearby Mt Crystal via cable car, so that was what we did.

Mt Rainier from the top of Mt Crystal
There's a restaurant at the top of Mt Crystal, but we had figured out that it was on the pricey side so we brought our own picnic and were charmed to find a row of deck chairs to sit on for said picnic. The fact that these were right on the edge of the slope with absolutely no barrier did not deter me or the husband. The children, however, only needed a few minutes of the view before they decided to take a more prudent locale in a secondary row of chairs.

Picnic on a precipice.
We did get some drinks at the restaurant and the kids found a patch of snow to play in before we returned to the bottom and made tracks for Portland. As per usual, we hadn't made concrete plans for the second half of the day, but while our initial visit to Portland had been cold and wet, this day was hot and sunny, so we decided to take the kids to one of Portland's splashable fountains: Keller Fountain Park.

The kids were not particularly impressed by my explanation. They've played in fountains before and were so uninterested in repeating the experience that they wouldn't put their swimsuits on when leaving the car. They took one look at this fountain and changed their mind.
The scale. Dear god, the scale.

All ages were playing at the top.
My own take on the fountain was something along the lines of: "Kids have totally died here, right?" (Surprisingly, the Wikipedia article lists only one fatality and that's an adult who drowned rather than a kid who fell.) The top level(s) of the falls is a maze of streams, cascades and pools of varying depths. The pools at the edge of the big falls are three feet deep so that the lip of the falls acts as a wall, but that wall is wide enough that you can easily walk along it--in fact, I watched kids running and jumping on it as part of a water fight.

But the unlimited access is what makes the fountain so breathtaking and as long as you supervise your children and set groundrules, they can have a blast in perfect safety. There are pine trees all over granting shade and the cool breeze off the water meant that this was simply a great place to sit and escape the heat without needing to get wet. Our kids swam, we paddled a bit, and were thoroughly impressed.

Afterwards, we drove past Mill End Park (the World's Smallest) and had dinner at the Laurelwood Pub, which had great food, though we thought we preferred Hopworks for atmosphere and kid-friendliness (though Laurelwood is certainly excellent at the latter.) And then it was back to the airport and back to the humidity of Virginia.

To sum up the trip:

We were generally agreed that the best part of it was the treehouse.
Favourite meal was probably Slappy Cakes.
We ticked off two places that regularly feature on To See Before You Die lists: Thor's Well and Oneonta Gorge.
Aside from living in a freaking treehouse, new experience highlights have to be sandboarding, abalone kisses, and seeing whales.

In short, Oregon (or at least, Western Oregon) is amazing and well worth the effort!

Washington Friends and Seattle

The plan was to head out of Oregon and up to Seattle for the last two days before our flight. Come Saturday morning, 8 days into the holiday, we were getting a little jaded.

After a solid week of hotel breakfasts, (so the usual self serve of waffles, scrambled egg, cereal, yogurts, toast and pastries....) we needed a change, so we took ourselves to Slappy Cakes. This little cafe had griddles built into each table on which you made your own pancakes. You ordered your choices of batter which came in squeezy bottles, extra fixings to cook into it and toppings if desired.

None of us had ever cooked American style pancakes before (I don't like them in theory, but the lemon poppyseed batter converted me), and we had a ridiculous amount of fun with it. Crazy batter/fixing combinations, a buttermilk pancake with a chocolate batter smiley face, a bite size pancake with a single chocolate chip on the centre.... This is something more restaurants should do!
Flipping buttermilk with chocolate chips.

From there, we left Portland and Oregon for Washington. As it happened, my husband and I each had a friend en route to Seattle, so rather than sight seeing, our plans revolved around meeting other people. First up was a play date with an old, old online friend of mine who lived in Vancouver and had kids of her own. We had arranged to meet in Esther Shore Park, only to discover that there was some massive market going on that had taken over the entire park.

However, all we really needed was the playground and as it happened, there was a family craft tent set up next to it, so once the kids had run off their first burst of energy, they moved into the tent to make their own sculptures out of various odds and ends. For my kids at least the opportunity to sit down and focus on something creative was a welcome change of pace. For my friend and I, it was great both to meet for the first time and to see our kids playing and working together.

My husband's friend was an old colleague who had retired to Olympia, so we went there for lunch. Afterwards, we took a stroll past the Capitol building and along the docks to another playground so we could chat while the kids played. Olympia seemed a really lovely place from our brief glimpse... Then again, it was a perfect weather day, so perhaps that isn't the best time to judge!


Olympia's Capitol Building and splashpad.
 Despite the traveling, it was a pleasantly low-key morning, making for an entirely unhurried journey to Seattle.

Our time in Seattle suffered a little from coming at the end of our trip, so we were tired of doing touristy things. I had done my usual research but found it hard to muster up enthusiasm. Still, the Space Needle was the obvious, and I had discovered that there was a pretty amazing playground all but right next to it, so that was where we took ourselves.

Once we had purchased tickets to go up the Space Needle, the playground was the easy waiting spot. Our kids were captivated by the sight of it: crazy climbing structures leading to two long slides. There was also a massive labyrinth painted on the ground and a couple of other features but my daughter's favourite was a roundabout of the old-fashioned pile the kids on kind that usually don't pass safety policies these days.
Child heaven

We had dinner at a food court, then got in line for the Needle. I think I enjoyed the queue more that the time we spent on the observation deck, since they had signs explaining the planning and building of the Needle which held even the kids' attention. The observation deck was noisy and crowded, as these things always are, and I was too tired to enjoy it. They did have some fun touch screens inside that let you 'navigate' some famous Seattle landmarks, which the kids got a kick out of.
Looking out over Seattle

Mt Rainier

My husband had managed a good deal on a nicer hotel than our usual standard, and this resulted in us all sleeping in until 7am. (We had been waking at 6am if not earlier.) However, breakfast was not included, so once showered and dressed we walked to The French Bakery in an ornate office building where we all indulged in crepes and took a few pastries with us for snacks.
We love a good pastry.

It was a Sunday, so we took ourselves to the Center for Wooden Boats where free rides were offered on Sundays on a first come, first served basis. However, we were running late for the 10am sign up, and it was immediately apparent from the line of people that we weren't going to make the cut.

We were wandering around the dock looking at the boats and fish and watching seaplanes come in when my husband heard talk of an ice cream boat. After asking around, we found the ice cream cruise which left on the other side of the Center for Innovation. This took us around Lake Union, showing us such landmarks as Chihuly's glass studio and the house from Sleepless in Seattle, plus it served ice cream below decks. We all approved.
The Gasworks Park

Chihuly's Studio

Floating Houses
Ice cream served here.

Afterwards, we weren't really hungry enough for lunch, so instead we went to Pike Place market and nibbled our way through the free samples. It was National Pride Day, so lots of people were in town for the parade, which also meant lots of closed roads and difficult traffic. But a lot of fun rainbow displays too. The Space Needle sported a rainbow flag and when we visited the first ever Starbucks (had to be done!) that was sporting its own rainbow decor.
Space Needle with Pride Flag

Pride Starbucks-style

(While sitting in traffic on the way home, we also saw policemen handcuffing somebody. The kids were fascinated and speculation about why the man was being arrested led to us having the Drugs talk. As per usual, I was woefully unprepared for the topic as it came up.)

We could have done more, but we didn't really want to. Instead we went back to the hotel and enjoyed the pool, then visited a nearby mall with a Lego store. For dinner that night, we gave the kids the choice of driving to a restaurant or simply grabbing Panda Express. Panda Express won, and it wasn't close.

They went to bed early, we watched the Game of Thrones finale on an iPad, and the following morning, we all slept until 7:30, and barely had time for another visit to the French Bakery on our way out of town.

Seattle had a ton more to offer that we could have sampled, but there comes a point in every holiday where you have to stop and breathe, and we had reached it. However, it was a beautiful city to take that pause in.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Oneonta Gorge and Portland

After Bend, it was a long drive back to Portland, the latter half of which was spent tracking the early EU Referendum results, back when we were still blithely confident that the UK would probably vote to remain. Suffice to say, the evening in our hotel room grew steadily gloomier. Don't blame us--we voted by proxy, apparently while exploring the lava tubes yesterday.

Once we had slept on the fact that our country has decided to jump off a cliff to see what would happen, it seemed a good idea to go and lose ourselves in the Oregon wilds. After Thor's Well, there was one other place on Buzzfeed's most surreal places list that we were determined to tick off this holiday: Oneonta Gorge.

The attraction of this short, half-mile hike is that the creek is the trail. We came prepped in our swimsuits and water shoes--and warm layers and towels, since the day was colder than we had hoped.

Steps lead down, but from there you're on your own.
Our research had told us that we would need to get over a log jam near the start. This proved tricky, especially with the kids but we managed it. I was wearing toe shoes with thin flexible soles, which were great for this, and I comfortably balanced along all kinds of logs while steadying my daughter. However, in the river, I could feel every stone shifting beneath my feet and it was incredibly difficult to manage any speed but sloth. I saw at least one person doing it barefoot, so it's feasible, but I wouldn't recommend it!

The problem was that the water was ridiculously cold and a little higher than we had hoped, with a current forceful enough to make the kids struggle on the shifting stones. Even carrying them through the first 'deep' bit (up to our thighs), they started crying, so we stopped on a small island midway down the gorge.

Even going that far, it was an eerie place with mossy, ferny cliffs towering on either side and a constant 'rain' dripping off them. Birds swooped casually past us and my daughter spotted a small snake curled up in a crevice by our island.

A common garter snake but very cute.

My husband went on ahead to a smaller log jam, and from there he could see the falls. However, the water got steadily deeper from his logs on. We watched two girls (who had done this before) pass us and strip off most of their clothes to leave on the rocks before tackling the last stretch. They made it and took selfies, but we decided we would have to call it where we were.
As close as we got!
The kids had perked up tremendously once we put warm clothes on their top halves and gave them some sweets. They were quite happy on their island, snacking and cooing over the snake, so I also went out to the logs, to see the falls for myself. Then we turned back, carrying the kids again--I was so ridiculously slow with my shoes, that my husband deposited our son on an island near the log jam and came back to take our daughter from me.

We were all cold, but our daughter was really struggling. By the time we got back to the log jam, she was shivering and her lips were turning blue. This gave her a lot of trouble crossing the logs, though mostly we managed pretty well, with me sitting astride logs and swooping her over to the next steady spot, my husband assisting at the trickier, more perilous moments.
Giant Log Jam of Doom. For scale reference, all four of us could stand without touching each other on the foremost rock at the bottom of the picture.
Then my husband stepped on a log which broke. With a "Holy shit!" he disappeared into the depths of the logjam. I freaked out, tried to rush to his aid shrieking his name and slipped on a log myself. Fortunately, I was holding a spur of wood, so instead of plunging  to my doom, I swung around until my knee whacked into something, and I came to rest sitting on one log and clinging to another while my husband yelled at me not to come after him.

When he had fallen, he had managed to hold on to a log with his left hand, so although he hit the water, he did not discover how deep it was. He got himself out, with help from a floating log as a foothold, and although his entire lower half was soaked, he managed to keep our bag of possessions (complete with phone and car keys) dry.

Through all of this, our daughter sat patiently on her log and waited for us to stop trying to kill ourselves and get back to helping her across.

I don't remember getting these bruises on the back of my leg, but I'd guess that happened when I slipped.
So I suppose our verdict on the Oneonta Gorge is that it's a little ambitious for children as young as five. That said, it was stunning and a really cool little hike, to the point that my husband is suggesting we go back on Monday before our flight home. Today was a cold day after a rainy day. Between now and Monday, Portland weather should be hot and dry. Perhaps the creek will be lower or at least the cold water will be more tolerable.

I'm not sure we will be able to talk the kids back into it (even if they were pretty chipper by the end of the walk), but watch this space?

After turning the car's heater on full blast and changing out of our wet things, we drove a short distance back along the pretty Historic Columbia River Highway to the even prettier Multnomah Falls. The car park there was overflowing, and it took us three passes to find a space. (Afterwards, we realised you could also access it from an interstate rest area via a pedestrian underpass.)

Multnomah Falls

The Upper Falls as seen from the bridge.
There's a lodge and assorted snackbars there, so we got the kids a giant cookie because they needed a sugar pep-up, got our dry clothes wet with waterfall spray, and then got ourselves a hot chocolate before returning to the car.

We had no further plans for the day, since we hadn't been sure how much time to allot to Oneonta Gorge, so we lunched at a McDonalds with a play area and did some quick googling which led us to take a ride on Portland's Aerial Tram, which runs between the university campus by the river and the hospitals at the top of the hill. This short trip gave us stunning views of Portland and a pleasant walk around the two tier balcony garden at Oregon Health and Science University.
Looking down Marquam Hill to Downtown Portland and the Willamette River.

The Upper Tram Terminal.
 Afterwards, we took the kids to Washington Park. We did not have anything like the time required to explore it properly, but they played at the playground, while I wandered briefly around the Rose Garden before we headed out for dinner. (At Hopworks Urban Brewery Bikebar. They had a train table for the kids to play at. It was phenomenal. Food and atmosphere was great too.)
The Inkspot, Washington Parks' 'blackest' rose.
Finally a dip in the hotel pool, where the kids tried to see if they could drown me by making me laugh. (They failed.) An earlier night for them, and laundry for me; tomorrow we are Seattle-bound!