Sunday, October 20, 2013


I went to my Yoga On The Beach class this weekend and the house next door to the instructor's was getting torn down. There had been some damage to the house from Sandy, but I don't know all the reasons for the demolition and new build rather than repair.

What I do know is that I could not stop watching, and trying to understand based on what I learnedd from a picture book when I was a kid. It took most of the class for me to remember the name of the book (not accurately, but well enough to find it again) but I knew the "jaws" of the backhoe looked like a mouth eating plaster because I'd seen that before. I've seen just about everything from a picture-book perspective first. Before I went to the beach, learned about presidents, tried to cook, studied the planets or needed motivation, I'd had a primer and knew the general outline. School and life just filled in the colors.

I don't remember the names of most of the picture books I read growing up, or had read to me by my parents, but there were plenty. Primary grade teachers spend a lot of time with books on their lap, going through them one at a time, holding up the pictures in between pages, so I'm sure I saw some books over and over. I then read a few hundred books a few thousand times to my own kids. But even without the titles or specific details, what's inside the books comes back to me when the situation arises.

Without a lot detail, I knew by age six or seven:

  • what was different about living in Texas, or Hawaii, or other countries
  • what could be dragged behind a tractor to plow fields
  • where dolphins lived, why they came into captivity, how they were trained to do tricks
  • the mechanics of a plane, and how a bridge was built (and a pyramid, a cathedral, a city, but these came later. I could only learn as fast as David Macauley could write.)
  • how the Pilgrims survived their first winter in Plymouth (actually, I knew this in fine detail. My aunt worked at the Plantation re-creating the experience and was very authentic about it. Thanksgivings we pulled cold carrots from the ground and had cornbread made from course-milled grain. There's a story about a hog's head and a dishwasher that is best kept within the Creane family. But before that I still knew about how the Pilgrims lived).
  • How horrible some racist fans were to Jackie Robinson when he desegregated baseball
  • Why we couldn't live on any other planet in our solar system, and what the sun provided us (and every other living thing on this planet).
  • What animals live in a rain forest, on a savanna, under coral reefs, over polar ice
  • How electricity is made and moved.
  • What yeast does to make donuts
  • The pieces and players of a hospital operating room
  • Weather patterns, and extreme events (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, typhoons, earthquakes)
  • How our government works, newspapers print, writers publish, musicians create, artists inspire
  • Sex (thank goodness Peter Mayle, who made it seem goofy). 
  • Careers to consider (I credit Richard Scarrey's Busytown )
  • How to fly a hot air balloon
Most picture books teach about emotions and relationships. Socialization's important so that's fine. We all need practice. Some children's book authors use fantasy to make the lessons more exciting (cue Dr. Seuss). The favorites of mine were Maurice Sendak's. I cannot recall any poems in full, but I can recite his entire Nutshell Library. They fuel the imagination while giving us help with the brother teasing us from across the couch. My first adventure books were Curious George, who was as wild and badly behaved as I've ever wanted to be at the zoo. 

But the books that taught me about the world behind our apartment, our hallway, our backyard, were the ones that gave me the outlines to understand life as it came at me fast once I was beyond the realm of picture books. In psychology, it's called scaffolding--getting enough general knowledge of something to be able to place new, specific knowledge in context so you can remember and apply it--but in reality, it's called confidence. No one likes to be ignorant when facing a new situation, that's scary and embarrassing. We want to be ready, and curious, and excited. 

So when the demo team was working (I realized the demo had gone on the day before, with the wrecking ball. This was the debris removal, completed by an excavating team, which I figured out from the signs on their trucks), I was pressed up against the window, watching and learning. One guy was spraying water on the dust to keep the insulation pieces from floating everywhere. The backhoe guy worked the levers like spider arms, folding the beams of metal into thirds to fit in the dump truck. One guy had to go at the concrete hot tub with a sledge hammer. It was all so cool, and I owe it to Mike and his steam shovel, who gave me a little info bank that's grown with interest over the years. 

I ran home for my camera, and asked questions of the crew, so I owe a debt to Curious George too. Without the trouble. This time, anyway. 

Love, Lisa

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Vacation options for big families on a budget are limited to those with lots of beds in one place--lake cabins,
Lake cabins. Cheaper than the beach :)
campgrounds, and not a lot else. We did both, plus a dude ranch twice and Disney every five years or so, staying in a...cabin or campground, but with a big Mickey imprint. Plus peacocks. Fort
Disney peacock, and her train
Wilderness is the only place I've ever seen a peacock peeking in my cabin door.

When our kids were younger and extremely badly behaved, we went on trips with other foster families who wouldn't be shocked. We met some nice people on these trips, but there was an obsession with trying to get the kids under control that I don't see in families where two parents have their own six or eight (or more) kids. I'm not sure why that is, but it was nerve-wracking to watch, and especially to live around for a week. So we stopped those trips and just went off by ourselves, or with our friends or relations. That worked better, as long as they could tolerate our own...obsession with getting our kids under control.

In the end, what worked best was an RV at a campground resort, with daily activities ranging from kickball
Travel Trailers: they pack a lot of beds
to scavenger hunt to bingo to movies. The camper payment was less per month than one night in a hotel, and a full season of camping every weekend we could get there was less than a week's vacation anywhere else.  Our favorites were Brialee  in Odetah, CT, and Strawberry Park, in Preston. We spent a lot of years in these two spots, cozy in our air-conditioned, heated travel trailer that slept 10 and had 2 televisions with VCR's and cable, a 3-burner stove, a large fridge, a couch, a dining room table, a separate master bedroom, a bunkhouse and a bathroom.

Lake Zoar at Kettletown State Park
The thing about having all those luxuries for less than the price of a new car is: lower-end travel trailers like the ones that sleep 10 (as opposed to higher-end ones marketed to senior retirees) are not that sturdily made. Especially if you take them to Disney every few years, or even to the Cape. All the rattling on the road shakes the brackets loose, and the glue sometimes holding the cabinets together loses its grip. Things were crooked after a few years. We traded one in and got another. That one was worse, after less time. We fought to get it replaced through the lemon law. It apparently doesn't apply. So we lost our enthusiasm for travel trailers around the time our older kids outgrew camping and didn't go to any campground for another few years.

This year we re-discovered camping in a downsized fashion. Tents. State campgrounds with few amenities
Lake Waramaug State Park  in Kent
and typically no activities. They all have seem to have at least one essential missing. At Kettletown, it's firewood. At Hammonasset, it's hand soap and fire rings (though you can rent them for $15/weekend plus $30 deposit). Lake Waramaug had ice, but it was only available for 3 hours a day. More quirky than annoying, it made camping a scavenger hunt. Kids: can you find the recycling bin and the dishwash station? Not at the American Legion State Forest, you can't.

American Legion State Forest
in Barkhamsted
Yet roughing it was better than camping had ever been at commercial campgrounds. The focus was on hiking, and swimming, fishing and boating. If we looked up we saw stars; if we took the fly off the tent we could sleep that way. The kids we brought contented themselves with kindling gathering and digging holes in the ground. Mark got on the trails nearby and the kids begged to go with him (lots of stories there). Our daughter with a bug phobia got over it, fast, and became an expert fire-tender. We walked and talked and shared a lot. We ate good food. We read.

There's a lot of mental adjustments to make when going from an RV to a tent. There's no temperature control on your bedroom, to start. We boiled. We froze. We bought battery fans to cool, and mummy bags to warm. Cooking's also more complicated, including the preservation of food in coolers. It was very overwhelming for me to start, but practice did make it more fun and manageable. I put the camping list I compiled on my website here. Not for this year, since camping's winding down, but for your winter of planning for warm-weather vacations.

Next year I hope to go camping outside of Connecticut, ideally in Acadia National Park in Maine. But I can't put the link in here because the government has shut down and none of the websites are running. Which I still can't believe. Those in National Park Service campgrounds this month had 2 days to leave before most of the rangers were furloughed and the gates locked. Totally absurd when they're such a tiny part of the federal budget (1/15th of 1% ) and the disruptions so major.

But that's the thing about downsized, back-to-basics camping.
It's an unpredictable adventure, the best kind.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Do you know how Wikipedia works?

In my quest to make myself useful, and do the one thing I seem able to do adequately (read and write in a quiet room), I joined the untold number of people adding to and editing Wikipedia. It's nearly effortless--I think (not that I remember) you just put in your name, email, a couple of details about you. Then they bring you to a page that tells you how to "start small."

So, rather than going in and starting a treatise on an uncovered subject, they suggest you go to an entry that needs help, say because it was flagged by a reader as "needing clarification" or "needing editing for grammar"  and you go to work. You can save a draft before posting it, but--really--you make the changes and they go right up. Then someone else does the same to your version. Not a lot of what I wrote is left.

The first random article suggested to me for editing was on LGBT rights in Kazakhstan. For the record, they're better than than they were under Soviet rule when you could get 8 years in prison as a man for sodomy (what they inaccurately called pederasty) or the original Kazakhstan charter (where sodomy was referred to as buggery, also punishable by up to 8 years in prison for men). Now gay sex is decriminalized entirely for those over age 18, though there are no specific protections given either, and a lot of prejudice.

Kazakhstan on the globe
That's what I learned through an hour or so of reading through law books on the internet and fixing some problems in the article. It was pretty challenging, actually, trying to be fact-based only. The original article didn't make a lot of sense. I think it was written in Kazakh and then auto-translated into English. That works surprisingly well, but still sounds choppy and odd. Some things seemed like opinions so I took them out. Then someone did the same to me. The current entry is about 1/3 the size of the original, and only a dozen sentences or so. That's typical for a lot of these "mini-branches" off larger topics like LGBT rights in general.

I have found that some people put an enormous amount of detail in their articles, with one primary source after another, relevant pictures, sidebar pieces and alternate viewpoints. They're works of art, really, written by people who have a passion for the subject and a willingness to explain it to others. It's a hugely democratic process, and while skewed with the smaller topics especially, there's staff at Wikipedia that moderates disputes. Even without registering as an editor, you can flag anything there you think warrants review, by a citizen-editor like me (or you), or by a staff member who can help decide what needs fixing or deleting, or what was deleted by an editor that needs to be restored.

There's an article I was looking for that's not there, that in the back of my mind I think I may start writing. Again, you can start with as little as a dozen sentences, and a couple of subheadings. If you use Wikipedia like I do, as the least biased (which is not unbiased, I know, but still) reference shy of a trip to the library for the real-live encyclopedias (which are on disk, actually), then you should think about popping in some time and contributing your expertise, while broadening your world.

Because we're all experts, even when we aren't aware. I happen to know there's no English word called
"happystance." Even though, thinking about it--wouldn't that be nice too?

:) Love, Lisa