Saturday, 30 December 2017

Last call for snow in Vermont

Tuesday morning, Boxing Day, my brother and sister-in-law left bright and early, and we were bleary-eyed and dopey as we saw them off in the coldest temperatures we'd had yet.

It was our last day, but we were agreed we wanted to take it a little easier. We all got one request for what to do: my husband and son wanted to try skiing. My daughter (who, as we recall, is frequently Done With Snow) voted for the indoor pool. I was interested in another snow-shoe expedition. So after some hasty scheduling, my husband took the kids swimming while I joined a tour on winter survival.

From my limited experience, it seems that all snowshoe guides will take you off trail at the first opportunity, although in this case we were finding a spot to gather wood and build a fire. The kids and I had made little, fifteen-minute, fires over the summer and even bought a flint (we have yet to turn sparks into a fire). This minimal grounding made me the most experienced member of the group, so I helpfully advised the teenage boys with the firestarter tool to "try hitting it really hard."

Peeling papery bark from birch trees for kindling
Digging a hole in the snow for a firepit

Not that it worked as the bark was too cold for sparks to take. Our guide had some char cloth and scraps of frayed rope; a spark got the cloth smouldering and that ignited the rope, but it still took a couple more attempts before we could get anything but the bark to burn. The resultant fire gave off so little heat that we were colder standing around it than we were walking—obviously we only had a few minutes and were just using sticks, but coaxing a fire to burn larger logs would be a long, daunting test of patience in sub-zero temperatures.

The other people in the party were a family from New York (Mom and teenage sons, all prepared for the cold) and a family from Florida—three adults, three kids, all wearing snow boots but, crucially, jeans and leggings rather than snow pants. Ironically, the latter gave us our biggest lesson in winter survival as the loose powdery snow found its way into their boots then packed around their feet. We had to cut the walk short (only by a little) because they were too cold to safely continue. This made me appreciate how well our hastily assembled warm weather gear actually worked. Kitting us all out for the holiday had been a big expense on top of the already costly resort booking, but for the entire trip, we stayed warm and dry.

Meanwhile, the rest of my family had stripped down to swimming costumes to enjoy a warm hour or so in the pool. This was nothing fancy (the resort has a nicer pool with slides and such for the summer... outdoors), but it had a floating basketball hoop. More importantly, it was warm and a welcome change from muffling up for snow-play.

After lunch, the boys went off for a skiing lesson—neither had tried it before, and they soon discovered that two hours is a long, painful, introduction to the sport. They were sore and aching long before the end. My daughter decided to get our money's worth out of the fireplace by sitting next to it while playing on her iPad. To be fair, we don't have a fireplace at home, so this was a vacation treat. I decided to pick my battles, and instead of dragging her out into the cold, I used the time for some clearing up and packing. I didn't want to leave it all for the evening, as I had other plans...

Those plans were I Did A Sled, a scheduled activity at the introductory ski slope. The resort provided all comers with cardboard and duct tape, and we had forty minutes to build a sled before putting our creation to the test—with ourselves as guinea pigs. True to stereotype, Dad took over the design, our daughter did the bulk of the painting, I sat back and took pictures and our son mostly got in everybody else's way. We probably spent at least fifteen minutes of the build time just on a cardboard Union Jack.

When time was called, I felt reasonably confident in our creation until we found ourselves looking down from the top of the hill. Our sled could hold three, and my husband volunteered to sit out, which seemed less sacrificial as we sat at the crest of the slope, realising that we had absolutely no idea how fast we were going to go down.

The answer was "very fast", but fortunately not "too fast". (Unfortunately, in terms of the competition, "not fast enough!" For anybody seeking to create a cardboard sled, the biggest tip I can give you is to ride lying down.)

Most surprising of all, the sled survived the run—if not fully intact. We were told that the lights would be on for another hour, so we could slide down as many times as we wanted. My husband promptly ran back to our condo and got our actual sled. We spent a good half hour riding down that hill, long after everybody else had got bored and left. Best sledding conditions we've ever had—even our daughter loved every minute. It proved to be a fantastic high note to end our holiday on.

The next day, the temperatures plummeted, which made it easier to say goodbye and head south. We did take a few minutes to try freezing bubbles again—except the kids weren't interested, so it was just my husband and myself messing around with this little bit of physics.

Frozen to the wood.
I poked a hole in the top. For science!

All that was left was checking out and the long, long drive home. The cold followed us down. Good thing we've got all the gear to protect against it! We're already talking about doing another trip to colder climes since we do have the warm clothes... just don't tell my daughter.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

White Christmas for Dog-lovers

Since we were going away for Christmas, which I don't typically like doing (even if it was my idea), I wanted to do something really special and unique on Christmas Day. That ended up being Eden Dogsledding, about thirty miles from our Vermont resort. After a phonecall with Jim Blair, the owner, we booked for Christmas Day with the advice to obtain a four wheel drive vehicle to manage the hill road.

Renting a four wheel drive car in Virginia is not an easy task, but the Toyota dealership said they could do it, so we reserved one. When we went to pick it up on the 22nd, we found ourselves with a vehicle that had a snow mode and big wheels... but was not four wheel drive.

We were a few hours from departing for Vermont, and we had no fallback plan, so we took the car, demanded a discount and hoped for good weather. By the time we reached Smugglers' Notch the following evening, a blizzard was predicted for Christmas Day. My brother and his wife had originally intended to stay with us through Christmas morning, and drive down to her grandmother's for Christmas dinner, but once they saw the weather forecast, they decided to extend their stay with us.

Easy for them. We needed to figure out a fallback plan to get to Eden. My husband spent yesterday evening making phone calls to Jim and various people at Smugglers' Notch to see what our options were. Smugglers' Notch thought they might be able to provide us with transport (at a cost) and we also found there was a taxi service with four wheel drive, but ultimately, Jim kindly offered to meet us at a general store on the main road and give us a lift the rest of the way—this is not normally part of the service, and we appreciated the extra effort he went to so we could make our booking.

The kids woke up this morning to find that Santa had filled their stockings and left a handful of presents (the rest are waiting under the tree at home.) The adults woke up to find that most of the snow had dumped overnight, and while more would blow through in the middle of the day, it wouldn't be as bad as first predicted.

This mean we had a fairly straightforward drive through snowy roads under clear skies to the car park where we'd wait for Jim. When he arrived, he came with a passenger: Rose, a fifteen year old former sled dog, who was horrified to discover that she had to share her backseat with me and the kids. The kids were delighted, but Rose was just a preview. When we got there, there was immediate barking and jumping up from the shelter next to us, and then we went inside to find another dozen dogs scattered through the waiting area.

On the sofa with Leonard and Mufasa.
The dogsledding experience was three hours of time with the dogs: forty-five minutes of it, out on the sled, and the rest was interacting with them. For me and the kids, the dog-lovers of the family, this was paradise, and even my avowed cat person of a husband got a kick out of getting to know the pack.

We spent almost an hour loving and playing with the group, while Jim figured out who would make up the team that day. He brought in a handful of other dogs and showed us how to harness them, before we all bundled up to head outside and hitch them to the sled.

Our seven strong team: Aslan who not only knew his commands but knew to choose the other way when we came back to the same intersection. Mitzy (so little!) who was still learning her gee from her haw, but jumped up at us to give kisses. Jersey who hid in his corner under the television until it was time to go, gazed at us devotedly during the post-ride treats, and then went straight back to his hermit spot once they were done. Princess (she must have had some black lab in her) who shivered when we stroked her but stood boldly on her hind legs for treats. Rambo whose blue eyes gazed lovingly into mine, and who pawed me every time I stopped stroking him. Brima, the only one who could care less about the treats, but adored every scrap of attention we gave her. Leonard, the lone runner, who ignored us from his preferred corner on the sofa, left it reluctantly to be harnessed and reclaimed it the moment we returned. Mufasa, who had the other end of the sofa, but tapped us to get our attention so he could be loved too. Finally, Phyllis, who did not follow us outside once harnessed but sneaked back to get the bed she wanted and had to be retrieved so we could start.

Harnessing Brima while Princess and Rambo wait for their turn.
Besides these guys and Rose, we also met Simba who followed us around, pawed us and leaned into any attention we gave him. (Mufasa, Aslan, Leonard, Simba and another dog called Llewellyn were all part of the same July litter.) Bandit, the skinny one, who was originally going to be on our team, but Jim looked him over, gave him the day off and hauled Leonard on board instead. Grettel, Waffle, Lucky, and Flint, also hanging around and taking caresses where available. Ben and Jerry, the ten month old puppies who were racing around the outdoor pens with another dog, watching for the sled to go by. And a few more of the thirty-six dogs total.

Sympathy strokes for Ben and Jerry who so badly wanted to be in on the action.
After all our concerns that we were going to be sledding through a blizzard, trying not to freeze, the conditions ended up being absolutely perfect. Fresh snow on the ground, no wind to blow it off the trees, and the sun peeking through just a little bit. The trails criss-crossed all through the forest: uphill was sedate going, allowing us to admire the wintry scenery; downhill was a thrill ride, especially on some steeper hills. The sled had a 350lb passenger weight limit, so I did twenty-five minutes with the kids and then swapped out for my husband to enjoy the second half of the ride.

Post-run refueling.

Aslan rolls in the snow to cool off
After the dogs had been taken care of, we had hot chocolate and cookies. The snow had started falling as we fed the dogs, and using Jim our chauffeur became a problem when his afternoon group arrived an hour early in an attempt to avoid the worst of the snow. This decided Jim on never giving lifts again (Sorry, future customers! Our bad) as they had to wait in their car, while he drove us back down the hill—this time Aslan insisted on riding with us. We packed ourselves back into our lesser vehicle, and thanks to Vermont's on point snow-ploughing, we made it safely back to Smugglers' Notch. There, the kids decorated the gingerbread house my sister in law had brought and the grown-ups chilled out on the sofa.

The evening's experience was snowmobiling—in the dark. This was the one I was terrified of. I'd much rather put my life in somebody else's hands but my brother and sister-in-law were not taking responsibility for having one of our kids as a passenger, so I had to drive myself and my daughter. I nearly bailed when the guide sternly told us that they lose one sled a year from somebody accidentally pushing the throttle while trying to steer.

However, this felt like a face-your-fears kind of thing, so I resolutely set off with my daughter riding behind me. It was bumpy and wiggly, I couldn't accelerate or brake without jerking us around, and, terrifyingly, my visor misted up at one point, forcing me to stop and open it. Equally unnerving, I couldn't tell whether or not my daughter was still behind me, so I had to put my faith in the knowledge that she has a really good sense of balance.

Going up the mountain was a nerve-wracking experience, but I didn't die, and I had to admit it was pretty cool when the headlights suddenly illuminated snow-covered boulders as we zigzagged through the switchback trail. On the way back, I started getting into it, going faster over the bumps and having confidence through the curves. I could feel my daughter squeezing me with her knees on occasion and saying something impossible to hear through the wind, but after careful listening, I was pretty sure it was Christmas carols. This was so like her that I cracked a smile: I was proud of myself for facing my fears, and delighted that we had done this as a family.

Yay us!
From my daughter's perspective, things were very different. 

She had handled the climb up pretty well, enjoying the new experience and adventure, but as I sped up on the descent, things became scarier. One of her gloves started coming off, so she was clutching that to her chest and holding on with only one hand. Every bump and jiggle became a jump-scare of "Will I fall off?" while her gloveless hand gradually lost all feeling. What I had thought was singing was actually her shrieking to no avail: "Mummy, please stop! Stop! Stop!"

I finally figured out what was wrong when we paused to gather the line of snowmobiles before getting into the trees. She wanted to be done then and there, but our only option was to continue. I was close to the back of the line anyway, but I waved my brother ahead so there was only a guide behind me and then I slowed right down to a snail's pace. The rest of the group disappeared into the distance almost immediately, and the ride back in the dark with the (incredibly patient) guide seemed interminable, though my husband told me we got back only a few minutes after everybody else.

I am never snowmobiling again.

My daughter was a wreck by the time we got her off the horrormobile. She'd lost her glove somewhere along the way, and the guides had to help us off with our helmets so we could hug each other. I gave her one of my gloves and the guides told her they would look out for her lost one. (They found it on the next trip up and we collected it after dinner.) In the end, the only thing that actually consoled her was the suggestion of breaking out the nail polish set she'd got in her stocking that morning.

So as we got dressed for Christmas dinner, we all (brother and uncle included—Daddy somehow missed our pop up salon) had our fingers done with Claire's finest water-based nail polish. We had packed some relatively smart clothing. My brother and sister-in-law hadn't been planning on still being here but my sister-in-law is always prepared for such occasions, so it was only my brother letting the side down with the casual look.

They had to miss out on the Christmas crackers though, as we had only brought four with us. I've done Christmas dinner at pubs in the UK before, but this was the first time I've done it in an American restaurant, and we drew some odd looks as we pulled our crackers and put on the paper crowns inside. Being British, we were too polite to show our pity at their ignorance, but shout-out to the little boy at the next table who was openly amazed and delighted by this tradition.

Afterwards, we had a shuttle ride back to the condo, where the kids were packed into bed and the adults played the 80s / 90s trivia game from my husband's stocking—all of us completely failing at the (American) sports questions. 

It was a very different sort of Christmas, and one that often didn't feel like Christmas—especially without the proper dinner. I missed roast potatoes and alcoholic gravy. But there was enough snow to make up for the forty green Christmases that came before, and—aside from the Snowmobile Ride of Horror—it was insanely fun.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve at Smugglers Notch

Years ago, I decided that what I want for my 40th birthday was a white Christmas. I've seen snow fall (but not stick) on Christmas Day. I've had a Christmas with three day old snowdrifts on the ground. But I've never had a real, Christmas Card picture perfect, white Christmas.

So we booked a three day stay at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont, which came recommended as a family friendly ski resort for Christmas. We arrived last night in the rain, but a few hours later that turned to snow, and that's what we walked through to dinner.

My brother and his wife joined us, (mostly because we wanted somebody to make us pancakes for breakfast) and today was a case of "Let us do all the Snow Things!" Because we've had to buy an awful lot of thermal and/or waterproof clothing for this trip, and we're bloody well going to get our money's worth.

Naturally, the kids were ready to get outside long before we were, but I had put a bottle of bubble mix in the fridge overnight, and I sent them out on the balcony with the instruction to try and freeze bubbles. That worked surprisingly well on all counts. Next time, I'm making them wait until I'm dressed, so I can play with them too. Frozen bubbles are a little crazy.

By the time we grownups were ready, the kids had been sledding, made snow angels and had a snowball fight around the condos. My daughter was pretty much done with snow already, but we made her go tubing with us anyway.

After lunch, we booked a snowshoe tour, but my daughter put her foot down at this. We dithered between dragging her around the walk or letting her stay at the condo with her aunt and uncle. In the end we decided that yelling: "We're supposed to be enjoying ourselves!" isn't as good as actually enjoying ourselves (and would make us much less popular on the walk) so we left her behind.

Our son was brought along to be our photographer
The snowshoe trek was supposed be a special family one for children as young as four. In fact, our guide decided to take us off-trail on a short cut that repeatedly had us scrambling down steep banks and across small but icy streams. Our family was totally up for this. The elderly couple who thought they would be getting a gentle stroll were less enthused, and one small child gave up a third of the way round, so her father struggled gamely through the rest of the expedition with her on his shoulders.

We met up with Daughter, Uncle and Aunt for the evening bonfire and hot chocolate. There was a special Santa and Fireworks event that evening, so we had dinner and stayed out, because quite honestly, we were afraid that if we went back to our condo, we'd never get our daughter out again.

So, after some night-time tubing (faster slope; longer lines), we spent an hour securing a good spot to see everything, only for everybody to come crowding in front of us at the 7pm start time. Luckily, I'd had the foresight to clip some little torches (flashlights) onto the kids' coats, because they got lost in the crowd immediately, and we could only tell where they were by their lights.

We were hoping this was going to be worth it, and honestly, we weren't disappointed. Snowboarders holding red flares came weaving down the mountain, lining up briefly in front of us before making way for a massive snowplow bearing Santa (who got out of there pretty quickly while the fireworks went off.) After the firework display, we could go and meet Santa inside, although we really only went in for the cookie and hot chocolate, because our family has priorities.

Torchlight Parade
So now the kids are tucked up in bed, and the stockings are by the fire, along with a handful of presents. (Most of them are waiting under the tree at home.) Tomorrow, I'm getting the White Christmas I've always wanted, but it's a case of "Be careful what you wish for," as a blizzard is coming through and threatening all our plans...

Monday, 18 December 2017

From 25 to 40: 15 years of adulting

Today I turned forty. I'm not having a midlife crisis at the moment, so it's been fun to have a 'big' birthday—especially as I really wasn't in the mood to turn thirty, so the last time I actually celebrated a milestone birthday was when I turned twenty-five.

As it happens, a friend of mine turned twenty-five four days ago, and his commentary reminded me that this had been (for me at least) the birthday where I really had to admit I was an adult now, no matter how I immature I still felt... So what have I done in my fifteen years of determined adulting?

I got engaged, married—I fell in love with my husband before turning twenty-five, and that was possibly the most miraculous accomplishment of my earlier adulting. (I don't fall in love easily, and it took having a nervous breakdown to achieve it. Long story.) We had two children, after a lot of fertility treatment and an incredible amount of privilege when we discovered our health insurance covered IVF. Long before the children, we've had the two cats who've been an integral part of our adult lives. Last year we killed four fish. I don't want to talk about it.

We bought two houses which came with two mortgages—at the time it seemed horrifically depressing to think these would not be paid off until we were in our forties. Now we're giddy at the thought that we're just a few years away from being debt-free. (Touch wood!) We've moved several times, twice it was barely a mile, once it was across the Atlantic Ocean. We moved back in with my parents for a long three months. Four years later, they moved in with us for one month. Can confirm it's easier that way round—for me at least. They may tell a different story!

First House

At twenty-eight years old, I finally figured out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: Teach Montessori pre-school. I then proceeded to have babies and gradually transitioned to stay-at-home Mum. I am not as good as caring for my own children as I am at caring for other people's, and I am utter rubbish at housekeeping, so for all the conveniences stay-at-home parenting brings, it's come at a substantial cost to my self-esteem. Going back to work became so daunting that I procrastinated. This year, I reminded myself how much I used to enjoy it and started a Montessori qualification that I should finish next summer. Let's see if I can get my career on track before I'm fifty?

I'm lighter than at twenty-five, in part because I weigh myself daily now and attempt to maintain a healthy lifestyle—and in part, because I'm no longer on the pill and my screwed up hormones are at least kind to me in the weight department. This year, my knees started clicking as I go up stairs, which I am inordinately annoyed by, but physically, I'm still active and can do anything I ever used to—in most cases more, because I've been making a conscious effort that I never did before—with the weird exception of swinging: I now get vertigo at the zenith. (Yet roller coasters are fine.)

 Selfies for Today

I've been finding grey hairs for most of the fifteen years, but as yet there are no grey streaks and I've not been tempted to dye, though this is going to be one of the hardest transitions for me. I'm vain about my hair. After thirty, I noticed a dramatic increase in "bad" photographs... my face was becoming weathered, looking more tired, the crow's feet had appeared... But ten years on, I'm not 'wrinkly' yet—except for my belly button, which hasn't been the same since pregnancy. Otherwise, the things I don't like about my body are the same as fifteen years ago—admittedly, these have got worse rather than improving.

One of my friends (no children) commented on my facebook today that at forty-two she still doesn't feel old enough to have kids. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I immediately knew what she meant. I struggle with what are surely basic adult tasks like cleaning kitchen appliances or anything to do with the car; I run to and from the mailbox because I'm too impatient to walk; I have the attention span of a goldfish and the sense of humour of a twelve year old. On different occasions, I've successfully dealt with the clean up of excessive amounts of bodily fluids—urine, vomit, faeces and/or blood—but I'm honestly a little baffled as to how.

Parenting sometimes feels natural

Yet I've learned a lot about myself. Faced a few fears; discovered more. I've had a couple of medical conditions diagnosed and treated; I wonder about some neurological ones—though that's about understanding my own idiosyncrasies, their limitations and how to work around them. It's an ongoing project. I've invested more heavily into my relationship with my husband and children than I would have believed possible—or maybe it's harder than I believed... I do know I'm grateful for the payoff.

Fifteen years ago, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my husband. The idea of us turning forty together seemed quaintly romantic. Now it's our reality (we're halfway there... he'll be forty in a few months), and that's perhaps the best thing about today. I know better than to think this means "Happily Ever After," but I still feel that there's a hell of a lot of "Ever After" to come. So far, time remains on our side.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

"I'm Glad I'm Not Black." - Parenting Race Issues when White and Ineffectual

Yesterday, my six year old daughter started talking to me about Rosa Parks. I'm not sure if this was something that had come up at school or if she had been reading the picture book we have about Rosa Parks, but she embarked on this conversation about how unfair it was to black people to be treated like that and how she would be like Rosa Parks and not give up her seat. And I went along with it, making agreeing noises and throwing in comments about being aware of injustices and standing up for those who need help... all very standard and a little trite.

And then my daughter said: "I'm glad I'm not black."

Obviously, in the context, I get what she meant. But it was such an awful thing to hear on so many levels, that I had no suitable reaction. It's a depressing acknowledgment that her life is easier because she's not black. It's horrible because it completely negates everything worth celebrating about black heritage and culture. And it's uncomfortable, embarrassing, because that's the kind of thing we're not supposed to say out loud. It's the kind of thing we're not supposed to feel.

As always when the children go off my parenting script, I rambled helplessly for a few minutes trying to tag off the key politically correct points. I talked about white privilege and how it was good to recognise that we had advantages because we're white but that doesn't make it bad to be black. I talked in very vague terms about how black people have a lot to be proud of, but of course I couldn't give any examples because I am a well-intentioned but ultimately insular white person who doesn't think well on her feet.

I remember what I talked about, but—crucially—I dont remember what I said, and I'm not convinced that my daughter understood any of it. I need to prepare, find a time to bring this topic up again and talk through it a bit with both children. In the meantime, it's another reminder of just how ineffectual we actually are when it comes to supporting equal rights.

PS In another fantastically uncomfortable parenting moment, my daughter started reading this blog over my shoulder as I typed, so we got to revisit this topic sooner than I expected. For the record, she's OK with me publishing the blog. I'm still not sure she understands what I mean about white privilege, but I'm a little happier about how I said it this time.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Irresponsible Adulting - A Palos Verdes Hike

As the kids get older, they're doing more things without us. Breaking the ties that bind and all that. On the flipside, this means we do more things without them. This is something I have to remind myself of: to do things without the children—to do things because I want to.

This was the motivation behind an impulse trip to Los Angeles this week. It was a chance to get together with a few online friends, which didn't really justify spending so many frequent flyer miles and hours of travelling for a day and a half. I've never even liked LA that much. But we've had a few trips this year that didn't pan out for one reason or another, so I wasn't passing up this opportunity. I was just going to have to find things I did like about LA.

I've always been a beach-lover, and the Pacific Coast is far more reminiscent of the British one than Virginia's shores. (Much of my growing up was done in Cornwall with its miles of clifftop paths.) Walking is my favourite form of tourism and exercise, but my less enthusiastic children usually limit me to three or four miles. Freed from any sort of consideration for others, I planned an itinerary based around the coast. For Thursday morning, I wanted to explore a bit of the Palos Verdes peninsula: stony beaches and sandy cliffs.

My vague plan was to get to the shipwreck, the SS Dominator, but as I was going at high tide, I knew I might not be able to reach it. I also knew that I didn't have suitable shoes—the internet was recommending sturdy hiking boots with ankle support, while I was packing sandals and thin-soled Vibrams. The shoes ended up being the problem rather than the tide. My pace was so slow that I didn't get anywhere near the shipwreck before I ran out of time. While I had planned a roughly seven mile round trip, I probably only covered about three miles after all.

Mildly Unsuitable Footwear
It was still worth it.

I started at Roessler Point with a detour: following the canyon trail down to pretty Malaga Cove where I watched paddle boarders gathering to make the most of a calm day.

Malaga Canyon
Paddleboarders from Malaga Cove
Malaga Creek reaches the beach
Then I headed back to the road, following it south and west and up as the cliffs rose higher.

At Flat Rock Point, there was an easy, gradual path down to the beach on the map. There was also an unmarked trail that appeared to lead straight down the point to the rocks themselves. Somebody had secured a rope at the top to assist travelers—I wasn't sure if I should find that reassuring or alarming. However, this looked far more fun than the well-traveled path, so down I went.

What could possibly go wrong?
Fortunately, the rope was secure, and the ground was mostly so. The trail itself stayed intact, but it was covered with loose sand and gravel, so with every step, I slid several inches. I should probably have changed from sandals to Vibrams before heading down it, but even with my grossly unsuitable footwear, I was able to get down with little difficulty. Still, I resolved to be a bit more responsible when choosing my path back up. Famous last words.

The tide was too high to get to the rocks the point was named after (I don't know if it's even possible at low tide), so I changed from grossly to mildly unsuitable footwear and set out along the beach only to find myself stranded at a little headland. As calm as the sea was, I didn't feel comfortable wading across slippery and shifting rocks to get around it, so it seemed my choices were to wait for the tide to recede or to go back the way I came.

No way out.
Too impatient for either, I studied the headland and decided I could probably climb it. It was maybe fifteen or twenty feet high, and the rocks were dry, 'grippy' and steep rather than vertical (or over-hanging). Plus, if something went terribly wrong, there was a guy at the top who would presumably contact the emergency services on my behalf.

The only thing to go wrong was a scraped leg, but there were a few points where I was reminded that I don't actually have the confidence for free-climbing and a few more where I was grateful that I do have small feet. I was also grateful to the guy at the top for passing no comment on this crazy woman who was scaling cliffs rather than coming down the nice, easy trail he had used.

Looking back the way I came.
At least I was able to follow the easy trail down to the beach on the other side of the headland and continue my trek.

I quickly realised that I did not have the pace to meet my goals. The stones would shift beneath my weight, so I was meandering lightly rather than striding with confidence (shoutout to the hardcore Californian who went blasting past me in flip-flops), and I had to watch my feet constantly. Periodically, I would remind myself to stop and actually look around at what I had come to see.

Nevertheless for two hours, I had the sound of surf in my ears, a stunning view whenever I wanted to look, and while I might not have found a shipwreck, there are always discoveries to be made along a beach.

Not sure what this started out as, but the ocean does wonderful abstract art.

Rock Graffiti
Thanks to whomever built this bench; it was a welcome rest stop.
Somewhere ahead, I knew there was a cliff path that ran down a drainpipe, and I had hoped to at least make it that far, but as it drew late in the morning, I consulted Google maps and found a closer route back to the cliff to finish out my hike. I felt grateful to modern technology until I started up this alternative trail and realised that Google has a very generous definition of 'footpath'.
Foot-path, all-fours-path... Eh. Close enough.
More loose sand and gravel, more searching for handholds... this was a harder trail than the one at Flat Rock Point, and now I had no rope to help me. I made it up, but I would not recommend this as a trail to go down. I'm also sure no Everest climber was more relieved to reach the summit than I. (OK. I'm not at all sure of that. But I had very strong feelings for that stretch of scrubby but level ground at the top.)

I was at the side of Nowhere Road by this point, but modern technology really did come through. All hail online taxi services! In ten minutes, I had a ride back down to sea level and onward to my hotel.

I've waited in worse places for a cab.
The way it turned out, it was just as well I had done it alone: I didn't have to worry about my slow pace holding anybody up, I'm sure any travelling companion would have thwarted my first attempt to leave the trail, and were the kids with me, I wouldn't have risked those climbs. Yet for all I'm an introvert who likes her solitude, I'm not really a solo adventurer. I missed having somebody to share the experience with. (This is probably why I'm committing it to blog.) 

I won't pass up a similar opportunity, even if I do have to fly solo, but the next few adventures will be with the family. I just need to remember to—every now and then—push for what I want over what they want.

Monday, 17 July 2017

How My Family Bonded over Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I usually reserve my posts for the socially approved stuff we do, because The Internet Judges, and I have to make sure Our Family Is Better Than Yours, or else why do I even have a blog?

However, the truth is that we are a nerd family. We parents grew up playing videogames and getting very into those videogames. So the Internet-reading mother side of me gets very anxious about screentime, while the geek side of me is all: "Omigosh, did you see the trailer for the new Zelda game?"

No, really. Did you?

Breath of the Wild came out to great reviews and great word of social media, so after a couple of months, we took the plunge and bought a Nintendo Switch so we could play it. (And the internet-parenting-one-upmanship side of me feels compelled to assure you all that this is the first games console we have bought in years.)

Prior to this, we had played Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with the children, which had a game feature where you could teleport back to the home village at any time, giving the kids a safe area to play around in while their Dad fought his way through the main quest. Both children had got into the story as they watched Dad play the game, and they really enjoyed taking their own turns, even if they didn't do much more than mess around, maybe do a few side quests. All four of us went into Breath of the Wild as firm Zelda fans.

First off, Breath of the Wild is fantastic, whether as a stand alone story, as the latest installment of the Zelda franchise or as a gaming experience. It has a very open game mechanic / storyline, so while you begin the game with amnesia and are effectively guided through the first section by way of introduction, after that you are unleashed on a beautifully rendered fantasy world with only suggestions of where to go—and even if you follow these, you're soon left with a scavenger hunt of tasks that you may accomplish in any order.

Without restricting your exploration, the game still manages to unfold a compelling storyline, as you discover the events of your past in random order. Most of this revolves around the tragic figure of Princess Zelda, who becomes the best-developed character of the game despite being trapped in the castle for the entirety of it.

Secondly, this may be the best family game we've ever played. Dad was the only one of us with the nerve to take on the various monsters, but gradually we all started taking our turns to explore. As in Skyward Sword, you can teleport to somewhere safe at any time—but in Breath of the Wild there are multiple safe zones and these all have their own sidequests where you interact with the residents of Hyrule and discover their stories: some silly, some tragic.

It was thanks to the kids that we discovered what happens when you attack a Cucco three times. (Try it for yourself, then imagine that repeating for ten minutes straight and you'll understand how I suddenly became a lot stricter about limiting screentime.) The kids also proved to be astonishingly good at identifying the assorted flora, fauna and weapons in the game. "That's a Hearty Bass, Mummy! You can tell because it's blue."

My six year old daughter was a little young to fully engage with the game in the way we did. She generally wanted to spend her turn changing the appearance of the hero and/or his horse, but she also took care of the homeowner sidequest more or less by herself. My eight-year-old son was much more invested with the main quest and was full of suggestions for where to go and what to do next—he was also by far the most observant of us at spotting treasure chests. For both kids, the favourite character in the game was Hestu, and they can now perform his dance on command.

Beyond monster battles, a lot of the game advancement—particularly when it comes to making yourself stronger—is based on puzzles which we all worked together to solve. I loved the story of Breath of the Wild, and exploring different areas of the map was insanely addictive, but my favourite moments of playing the game were the whole family trying to figure out the various shrines. One person makes a suggestion, somebody else makes a connection, and suddenly the apparently impossible has an obvious solution. High fives all round.

There are few things that all four of us genuinely enjoy as a family. Getting to geek out together was very much a treat, and something that will give us in-joke fodder for months to come.

Anyway, while we still haven't finished exploring Hyrule (and will likely never finish finding those bloody koroks), we did complete the game this weekend. For the foreseeable future, I will try and assuage my Net-Mum-Guilt by going full "Fresh Air and Exercise!", but the actual, Who-I-Am-Mum side of me is really pretty damn satisfied with how we've spent the past couple of months.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

When Men Get Creepy, A.K.A. Why the Hell Do I Need to Explain This?

One of the new habits I've developed now the kids are older is taking the time to go for a solitary walk on the beach. We live two and a half blocks from the sea, and it's three miles from my door to the end of the beach, so it's a good way to get some exercise, fresh air and generally chill out. I don't do it every day, but I try and do it whenever the weather's good.

Of course, this is the first time in at least seven years that I've regularly gone out walking without children or my husband, and so I have rediscovered the fascinating culture of catcalling. I thought I'd aged out of this phenomenon, but I had underestimated the area in which we live. Ocean View is... special. It's usually not on the beach that I get the attention--there people are exercising themselves and their dogs, or they're fishing. However, walking along the road as a woman alone is a totally different experience.

Is there some level on which I'm flattered by the attention? I don't know. Maybe? I mean, I'm in my late thirties... sexual prime, right? I genuinely don't mind if a guy tells me that I look beautiful, but a lot of guys don't express it as a compliment; they want to show their interest. That might sound harmless, but it gets creepy really fast.

This morning, I left the house at what I thought was an innocuous time of 9:10am. When I reach the main road, I walk along it, watching for a break in the traffic so I can cross. On the far side of the road, a white pickup truck goes past with the driver blatantly staring out of his window at me. That's creepy. Annoying rather than concerning, but already creepy.

Ahead of me, the truck reaches the intersection and does a U-turn, stopping just inside the turn off--i.e. it's now on my side of the road and I'll have to go around the vehicle when I reach the intersection. Still creepy; now unsettling.

Thankfully, I had my break in the traffic and as the driver finishes his U-turn, I am already crossing the road. My route to the beach will take me down the other side of the intersection, directly opposite from where he is now waiting. This is a quiet dead-end road with no traffic, and I consider staying on the main road where there are plenty of people (witnesses) around. However, it's also a short road (this is the half-block), he can't curb-crawl me once I'm on the steps that lead over the dunes, and there will also be people on the beach itself.

Besides, he wouldn't be so blatant as to cross the intersection a second time to keep following me... right?

As I make the turn, a car honks. Might not have been the truck, but there aren't any other stationary drivers around. Halfway down the road, I hear a vehicle behind me. I do not turn around at this point, mostly because I fear that if I make eye contact, my innate Britishness will take over and I will feel compelled to have an unwanted conversation. But it's entirely possible that it's some other vehicle with a large engine that happens to turn into the road for the first time in my personal experience and come all the way down to the dead end.

I don't turn around, but I watch the steps over the dunes, reassuring myself that I will reach them in time. (I have a moment of genuine panic when I think they have been blocked off, but it's just a trick of the light.) The sound of the engine is far too close behind me, but what I'm really listening for is the engine being switched off and the sound of somebody getting out. Thankfully, that doesn't happen. I reach the steps, walk up them and away.

I didn't look around until I was on the beach. By this point, I fully expected him to follow me on foot, but apparently he'd reached his limit. I was still concerned that he might hang around waiting to see if I would come back. Usually, I leave my sandals on the beach side of the steps, and put them back on when I return. This time, I carried them with me and, although I doubted he'd wait the hour that it usually takes my walk, I took a different route off the beach.

Statistically speaking, I assume this guy was a particularly brazen opportunist who was hoping to get my number or maybe some fully consensual truck sex. But I don't know that he wasn't planning on hauling me into his truck and making me his personal sex slave in a basement somewhere. Call it Schrödinger's Rapist... and forgive me if I'm not going to hang around to open the box.

And that's the difference between being paid a compliment and being freaked the F out. That guy probably shrugged this morning off as a swing and a miss. Personally, I wanted to go for a relaxing walk without having to improvise escape plans as I went. Too much to ask?

Monday, 17 April 2017

Building our own Obstacle Courses

In Virginia, spring is the best season to be outdoors... not too hot, not too cold, and no mosquitoes. We spend most of the year guiltily cultivating a habit of hiding indoors, and when spring break rolls around, I make grand resolutions of spending more time outside.

Because we live in a flood zone, we've never invested heavily in outdoor play structures. We have a tree on which we've hung a swing and a hammock chair, but it's tough to hold the kids' interest, and if they do go out and play, they're more likely to go into the street than the garden. We live on a dead end, so the street's safe enough, but my British sensibilities are perturbed by the notion.

Inspired by a recent birthday party my son attended, I decided that the theme of this spring break would be obstacle courses in the garden. So it was that our first excursion of spring break was to Home Depot. We purchased three 8ft long 2x4's and six 8x8 concrete blocks, and came out with change from $20.

Once we got home, we built a balance beam:

It would never pass any health and safety requirements: the blocks were not stable on our tufty grass, so the whole thing wobbled and we had a couple of occasions where the wood slid off while the kids were walking on it—though at less than two feet up, this was more exciting than dangerous.

My priority was that the children could move all the materials themselves. It would be very simple to create different configurations, we just had to use a little imagination... and any other supplies we could rustle up. (Like a search for free logs on Craigslist. Or the wooden pallet which a neighbour serendipitously put out by the side of the road.)

Here's how the rest of the week went:

The beanbag/cushion stuffed hammock swing was really too light to be more than a mild inconvenience. However, if you replace the beanbag with a child, you have a wrecking ball with some punch and a fun game for the whole family!

Rubber bracelets and yarn handcuffed the children to one end of the rope. They had to make their way to the free end.

The see saws were my favourite.

Figuring out the route through a concrete block maze with just two portable 'bridges'.

Throughout the week, this experiment was a success. While the kids didn't always play on the day's obstacle beyond the first run, they stayed outside. The novelty of each day's extra feature, plus the gradual accumulation of accessories throughout the week seemed to be enough to spark their imaginations. They've also been using the swing and the basketball hoop more than they have in month.

For my kids at least, the balance beam was the biggest thrill. "Don't touch the grass, it's lava!" "Poisonous, spiky lava!" (Truly, the most deadly kind.) Their legs are covered in scratches and bruises, which they don't remember getting, and that's my favourite testament to the project's success.

What they haven't tried yet is to build their own courses. They find the rough concrete blocks painful to carry and have been satisfied with my daily constructions. But I'm done making those. The next step is to wait and see if they will still be excited to play outside, and if they are... what will they build for themselves? (And do I get a turn?)