Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Retro Camping

I feel like I'm a bad parent if I don't take the kids camping at least once a year. And yet with the start of school just around the corner, we hadn't yet trekked to the woods to make the annual ritual offering of our bodies to the mosquitoes. So I packed up the car a few days ago and we headed out to nature.

Speaking of packing the car, look how crowded it is with everything jammed in there! Keep in mind this was only a one night camping trip.

All that stuff packed in there, and yet I feel like I'm forgetting something. Oh yes! The kids!

I would just like to take a moment to draw your attention to the the giant sleeping bag rolled up and stuffed between the kids. That is David's sleeping bag, and it dates back to when he was the Boy Scouts, in approximately 1923. I think it's made out of cotton -- since they didn't have man-made fibers back then -- weighs about 20 pounds, and sucks up water like a sponge if it rains or is damp, or is even just kind of humid out. The bag also sports a charming variety of stains. This is definitely a piece of camping equipment you don't want to leave home without.

We had hoped to camp at a nearby state park near the Wisconsin Dells, but all the camping sites were full. So instead we went to a private campground, chosen more or less at random, where I put up the tent. I PUT UP THE TENT! Successfully, with no swearing at all. Sure, it's an easy-to-assembly pop up tent, but I have the spatial intelligence of an inebriated duckling, so I am pretty proud of myself.

Man, my kids love a tent like a golden retriever loves a tennis ball. Before I even had it halfway up, they had scurried inside and were pretending to be mice, in their little hole.

The campground we were at was like a slice of old Wisconsin life, frozen in time. There was a tiny swimming pool, a playground that hadn't been updated since -- well, since about the time David was a Boy Scout, and lots of ashtrays. There was a grumpy old guy manning the front desk. You just know that people were drinking brandy old fashioneds somewhere on site. The campground had very little to recommend it, and yet it was perfect for us.

The playground alone was a big draw for the kids, especially because it included a teeter totter. Nowadays, playgrounds don't have teeter totters, and after I got over my wave of nostalgia, I understood why. Both kids were crying from teeter totter-induced injuries within three minutes. And after we returned home, one person in our party discovered a good-sized splinter in a very sensitive part of his or her body, inflicted by the unpainted wood of the teeter totter. Basically, it was a menace all around and so of course that's mostly what the kids wanted to play on.

(Note the metal slide in the background of this picture -- the kind that heats up to the point where you can cook an egg on it in the hot sun -- and the world's simplest monkey bars. It's like a museum of ancient playground equipment.)

We rotated between the playground, the tiny swimming pool, and playing cards in the tent. We also ate the occasional s'more. The kids love s'mores but they find it stressful to actually roast them, what with the possibility of the marshmallows catching on fire. So I roast them, and if they catch on fire, then I get to bite out the burnt part of the marshmallow, to "fix" it for the kids. Of course I love the burnt part, but make sure to act like I'm doing the kids a big favor.

That stuff you have to eat before you get a s'more
After 24 hours of camping fun, which included about 3 hours of sleeping, we headed back to town. Walter fell asleep in the car as soon I turned the engine on, and I think Stella napped too, with her head on the vintage sleeping bag that took up the whole back seat. I knew that sleeping bag was good for something.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Day 2 of Costa Rica: A Volcano, I Think

Today we drove to our first destination in Costa Rica, and already I am very grateful to David for doing all the driving. David lived in Los Angeles for years, and as a result can drive in all sorts of difficult conditions, whereas I start crying the minute somebody doesn't let me merge.

I heard that it was difficult to navigate in Costa Rica, and boy, people weren't kidding. There are virtually no street signs, and we got lost multiple times. We had a GPS unit in the car, but that seemed to be in on the game, directing us to take left turns when there wasn't a left turn within 20 miles. I'm thinking Costa Rica should change its slogan from "Pura Vida" to "Sure Hope You Know Where You're Going."

We eventually made our way to Arenal, where there is apparently a picturesque volcano that I haven't had the pleasure to actually see, since it was kind of rainy today. The kids had a lot of fun in the rain. Here they are standing under a downpour from a roof. And then we spent the rest of the day in the pool and watched hummingbirds. A good day.

Day 1, No Goats

We made it to Costa Rica! Well, so far we made it to a airport hotel in San Jose, which is right next to an enormous casino, with a huge flashing neon sign that says "FIESTA." But still! Costa Rica!

Yesterday we spent mostly in transit. I was excited that we had a layover in El Salvador, because it just seemed so exotic. What does the airport in someplace like El Salvador look like, I wondered? Do peasant farmers bring crates of chickens on the plane and tie them on top?

 But you know what? The El Salvador airport bore a strong resemblance to the one in Harrisburg, PA (which I fly to all the time because my mother lives there). And there are never any chickens in the Harrisburg airport. The occasional goat, sure, but no chickens.
Not a goat in sight
 Despite the lack of chickens, there were one interesting things about the El Salvador airport. This lovely poster, for instance, which urged us to contact health officials if our kids have a rash. I'm curious what disease it is that health officials are protecting against, but maybe it's best if I don't know.

 And this poster, which the longer I look at, the more I wonder about. I don't know if you can tell his from the picture, but the "victim" underneath the tires is a doll. What's that all about?

Today's plan: head to Arenal. And keep an eye out for goats.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Oh, right. Forgot about the blog there for a bit.

Next week I turn 40. As part of reaching a landmark birthday, I've been thinking about how I want to spend the time that makes up my life, and how to do more of things that I find enjoyable. As part of that stock-taking, I remembered that one of the things that I like to do is write about my life here. So perhaps it's time to blow the dust off the blog, or since I have little kids maybe a better metaphor would be that it's time to wipe off the smeary something-or-other that might be peanut butter, but is probably refried beans, from the blog.

For the record, the other things that I want to do more of are (a) playing the piano and (b) data visualization. I'll just apologize upfront for using the word "visualization," because I think it's one of the most annoying words getting tossed around right now, along with "infographic," "persuadables," and "robust." Oh! and "eatery." (Later tonight I'm going to the eatery to show my infographic to the persuadables, hoping to make my viz a little more robust.)

Since I last wrote here, a hellacious winter has come and gone. We had the coldest winter in 30 years, and we're talking Wisconsin winters here, so you know things got cold. The cripplingly cold temperatures this winter made me think of the pioneers and Native Americans who lived in Wisconsin a couple hundred years ago, who had to feed themselves and keep themselves warm through the winters despite not having central heating or advanced man-made fabrics. Those people were brave. And TOUGH. And maybe not quite all there, because who would want to trudge through a foot of snow to go hunt a deer or milk a cow in -10 degrees?

Get out there and do the milking, boy.

I also went to New Zealand since I wrote here last. My father lives in New Zealand, so I try to take the kids down there most years. And we happened to be in New Zealand for the coldest days of this insanely cold winter, which I think happened because God is smiling on me for letting the girl that sat next to me in 8th grade copy my German homework all the time. He took His sweet time coming through with the reward, but it was definitely worth it.

I can still conjugate many irregular German verbs.

Thank God spring is here, which means that the giant piles of snow are mostly gone and it only occasionally snows and every third day or so it gets above freezing and we all rejoice. Spring also means by birthday is here and  yes, I'm turning 40! More on that after I clean the refried beans off my keyboard.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Four Thoughts on Camping (Actually, Two Thoughts on Camping and Two Thoughts on S'Mores)

Even though we just went camping two weeks ago, we went camping again, because apparently once you have kids, you are legally required to take them camping twice a year. Don't believe me? Read the fine print on the birth certificate. Right this moment, Prince William and Kate Middleton are probably taking breaks from cuddling their newborn princelet to shop for a 3,000 square foot tent and jewel-encrusted marshmallow roasting sticks.

A few thoughts about camping:

1. Seriously, I must really love these kids to take them camping, because a large part of the appeal of camping eludes me. Basically, camping involves taking all the technological improvements made over the last 200 years and chucking them out the window with two hands: No dishwasher, no flush toilets, no soft beds, no heat or air conditioning -- all the things that make life better now, we leave behind when we go camping. Basically, we become Amish for a few days. And you know how much fun the the Amish have.

2. If you are spatially challenged, be sure to get your sister to put up your tent. That's just common sense.

Sticking your sister with tent duty is especially smart if it starts
raining while she is putting up the tent.

3. You can tell your children that marshmallows taste good even if they catch on fire, but they are not going to believe you.

This is the face of a child who is learning a hard life lesson about burnt marshmallows.

4. Camping is mostly about s'mores. This chart shows what my kids think about while on camping trips:

And speaking of s'mores, they are even better when you slightly melt the chocolate. This is easy to do when you are using a camp stove (hey, something invented in the last 200 years!) rather than a camp fire. Just lay the chocolate bits on the graham cracker and set the whole package near the flame so the chocolate has a chance to get nice and soft while you are roasting the marshmallow, like this:
Best practices is s'more preparation

The melty chocolate and gooey marshmallows really optimize the s'more experience. Plus, the melted chocolate gives the kids a chance to get not just really dirty and sticky, but really quite stupendously dirty and sticky. Thank goodness for wet wipes on camping trips, is all I can say, and don't tell me that people from 200 years ago didn't have wet wipes. Of course they had wet wipes. What do you think they used to clean their hands after they plucked the chickens and milked the cows? Wet wipes are essential for any camping trip, and everybody knows that. I hope Will and Kate know it too.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Run, Fall Down, Run, Fall Down: A Trail Half-Marathon

I ran a half marathon for the first time in a million years and lived to tell the story. And I'm dying to tell you about it, since David for some reason seemed less than fascinated with hearing a mile-by-mile account of the whole event. ("And then at mile 8, the aid station had vanilla Gu instead of berry Gu, which really threw me for a loop...My shoelace came untied at mile 7...")

Running the half  marathon was somewhat of a last minute decision. I had originally signed up to do a 10K as part of this trail race series, but at the last minute I decided to do the half-marathon instead. A half-marathon represents a pretty ambitious distance for me at this point, so I was a bit apprehensive. It's not that I was unprepared, exactly, it's just I didn't have the kind of mileage base that I would have liked to have in order to run a solid half marathon. In other words, I was. . . what's the word I'm looking for? . . . oh, right: unprepared.

I rode up to the event with two runner friends. We talked about the things that runners talk about, and spent the entire 45 minutes in the car discussing race strategy. If you're not a runner, you might not realize it's possible to spend that long talking about the details of an upcoming race, but it is. Heck, we spent a good 15 minutes just talking about the pros and cons of wearing a hat during a race. And it was a fascinating discussion, I will have you know. I'm going to try to turn the whole hat vs. no-hat discussion into a TED talk.

Running the actual half-marathon was fun, in a 13-mile kind of way. The event was all on trails, there were loads of hills, and all the rocks and roots made for challenging footing. The complex footing meant I fell down during the race. In fact, I fell down FOUR times during the race. Fortunately, despite doing four total and complete face plants, I somehow managed to avoid actually injuring myself, and just sustained a few scratches. My guardian angel must have been watching over me, once she managed to stop laughing so hard at me for constantly falling down in the first place.

My legs at the end, muddied from falling down so damn often.

Showing off some scrapes I got from a bush that was alongside the trail
One unpleasant surprise occurred when I got stung by a yellow jacket halfway through the race. I found out that several other runners also got stung by yellow jackets. Is it me, or are yellow jackets really very angry insects? It wasn't like we were bothering them! We were just running by on the path! Listen up, yellow jackets, to a message I am sending you on behalf of all humanity: You just need to CHILL THE FUCK OUT already. It's for your own good. All that aggression can't be good for your buggy blood pressure.

There was some really beautiful scenery during the half marathon. It looked something like this photo:
Not a picture I took during the event
Or maybe the race scenery looked something like this:
Also not a picture I took. But you knew that.
Actually, I have no idea what the race scenery looked like. I was too busy watching my feet to make sure I didn't fall down a fifth time to take a gander at the pretty views. For all I know we ran to the North Pole.

I was really enjoying myself until about mile 9 of the race. When I passed mile 9, I really started looking forward to the finish, but couldn't figure out how far I had left to run. When I run, all the oxygen gets sucked out of my brain, and I can't even do the most basic arithmetic. This is called Running Math Syndrome, and it kicked in big time for me near the end of the race. "Let's see...the full distance is 13 miles and I've run 9 miles, so the distance remaining is...72 miles? Pi? A hypotenuse? Gosh, I guess I'll never know how far I have left to go." That's the pain of RMS.

But I did make it to the end, muddy knees and all. Thanks to narrow age groups and prizes that ran five deep, I even managed to snag an age-group award. Most importantly, I had a good time, and I'm already thinking about signing up for another trail half marathon, maybe in the fall. I would like an event that has been certified as yellow jacket-free.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

All the Animals that Didn't Eat Us

We went camping and didn't get eaten by bears! Mission accomplished!

Granted, we were camping in a park in an urban area with no bears within a hundred miles, but I'll take credit for even dubious achievements. We didn't get eaten by possums, either, and I bet there some were some of THOSE things hanging around.

We camped in a small pocket park about half an hour from home, still in the Madison metropolitan area. The park was right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, so the whole experience wasn't exactly Into the Wild. (Still, the possums, if there were any, were probably vicious.) I chose a location not far from home because it seemed to me that if we wanted to get eaten alive by mosquitoes and have a sleepless night from trying to get rest inside a boiling hot tent, we may as well do that half an hour from home instead of 3 hours from home, since the kids don't know the difference. That's just smart parenting.

Mosquito fodder

Just me and the kids went on this trip, and David stayed home. We almost never have family vacations with David, mostly because David has been on this weird schedule his whole life where he sleeps until noon. That is a hard schedule to accommodate while on vacation, so David usually just stays home. The kids always ask where Daddy is, and I'm not sure what to tell them -- that few things are more important to David than being able to sleep in? -- and so I just tell them that Daddy is a vampire. Then everybody is happy.

The kids had a blast, mostly centered around (a) being in the tent, and (b) eating s'mores. I had forgotten the matches, so we couldn't light the campstove or build a fire, but that didn't matter because the kids were just as happy to eat the s'mores uncooked. Stella demonstrated a technique (below) for making marshmallow "taffy" that I swear to god she said she learned in science class. I'm glad schools are finally getting back to the basics of science education. Now maybe we'll finally catch up to China.

Kids in China learn to make marshmallow taffy insi
I did a few scientific experiments of my own, trying to develop alternatives to s'mores (see pictures below). Since I am a slave to the scientific method, I had to gather many data points to determine that the marshmallow/pretzel sandwich had a small but statistically significant taste advantage compared to the chocolate/pretzel sandwich. The results of my experiment will be published in The Journal of Camping Cuisine, after peer review is completed.

Alternative A
Alternative B. The winner.
We got a bunch of mosquito bites, naturally. The mosquitoes think of my kids as my kids think of s'mores: Rare delicacies that should be taken full advantage of whenever offered.

The nice thing is that even though the weather has been very rainy, the mosquitoes weren't awful. We have had a lot of rain, and I thought that all the standing water would mean lots of places for the mosquitoes to breed. But I read in the paper that the abundance of rain has flooded out the places where the mosquitoes like to breed, keeping populations down. So let's see...rain leads to mosquitoes, but LOTS of rain leads to fewer mosquitoes? This sounds a little suspicious to me, sort of like the argument that the best way to combat gun violence is to make sure more people have guns.

Anyway, now we're back, and it's amazing how just one night, spent less than an hour away, can still leave you tuckered out, dirty, with a bunch of bug bites. The kids had a blast, and I'm pretty proud that I managed to pull off the trip by myself and get everybody back home happy and safe, and that we didn't get eaten by chipmunks. Those things can be nasty.