Friday, November 30, 2007

Chicago-St Louis-Memphis-New Orleans-Houston


We had a wonderful time seeing a little more of this rather large country. We had been invited to Houston, Texas to spend thanksgiving with Rowan and Shirley (my brother and sister in law) and Shirley’s family… or we invited ourselves, can’t quite recall. 

Instead of flying both directions, we thought it would be a great opportunity to include some side trips along the way. A brief amount of planning, a couple of guide books, a GPS box and a hire car saw us depart on Saturday 17th November – bound for Saint Louis, Missouri. Driving through Illinois, we truly understood why this state is known as the ‘prairie state’: very little topography, not a lot of vegetation (unless one counts corn fields), and seemingly endless expanses of land. 

We booked the Adams Mark hotel in St Louis ahead, overlooking the rather lengthy titled Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. This was a lovely hotel with a great buffet breakfast. Each of the hotels we stayed at along the way, made the mistake of allowing the boys to eat free at the buffet breakfast… little knowing that the Gearon boys (although only 2 and 3 years of age), can make a serious dent on a buffet serving unlimited scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage, bacon and lots of fresh fruit – their favourite foods. 

The ‘big arch’ in St Louis is truly remarkable and timeless. A true ‘folly’, this piece is the defining monument in St Louis and is of gigantic scale – it is very hard to capture the enormity of it in a photograph. I applaud the construction of these monuments – extremely contentious and hugely expensive, but really able to give a city some presence and focus (think Eiffel Tower, Paris: Guggenheim Museum, Bibao).  We took the boys to the top of this in a rather cramped gondola/ tram/ ferris wheel type conveyor. The views were far but flat, yet we were able to witness the grandeur of the mighty Mississippi River below. 

From St Louis we travelled to Memphis, Tennessee. We tried to get off the interstate highways for a little while to see some smaller towns and to get a feel for the land. The interstate system throughout America is a very comprehensive network of roads, interchanges, looping connections, overpasses and merging lanes. We thanked the GPS system a hundred times over for guiding us through this maze, which can be somewhat daunting to the uninitiated, but extremely efficient to the well-versed or direction-loaded driver. The system ensures one can drive through several states without ever having to reach an intersection.  All amenities (with mostly chain restaurants / fast food joints) are located at regular intervals and the traffic volumes ensure these are well patronised. 

We checked into the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. This was out of our price range, but had been well recommended by Paul’s parents, the online guides we referred to, and my much trusted Lonely Planet guide. This hotel is huge, long established and of an opulent nature. The most oddly defining feature is a daily parade of ducks from their rooftop home, down an elevator, through the hotel lobby and into the lobby fountain at 11am each day, with a return journey at 5pm. This is a well-publicised event and hoards of people turn up each day to witness it. A ‘Duck master’ provides a description of the event, rolls out a red carpet and then escorts the ducks to the fountain. Duck motifs proliferate in this hotel. Another feature of this hotel is really comfortable beds. So comfortable that they have a mail-order service to provide these, and their signature linen, to satisfied guests. 

While in Memphis, we debated visiting Graceland (Elvis’s home). It was not necessarily high on our agenda… but we were there... so why not. We had told Luc that we were going to Elvis’s home. Luc has had some experience with Elvis, having heard his songs on the Lilo & Stich soundtrack and on our own ‘kids mix’ that we play at home. As we stood in line to buy tickets for the Mansion tour, Luc asked me “Does Elvis live here?” I replied “No honey, Elvis died. He doesn’t live here now” I’m sure their would have been a dozen people nearby that would have disagreed with me, but this didn’t stop Luc’s face falling “He died?!” Not that Luc really understands death yet, but he was shocked. Later in the tour, a line of people were waiting to pay their respects at Elvis’s grave. Luc wanted to know why the people were all standing in a line. Paul explained to Luc that this is where Elvis had been buried. Luc immediately wanted to go and “dig Elvis out of the garden”. A fascination with death, burial and resurrection was born!

From Memphis, we headed towards New Orleans, Louisiana, passing through the state of Mississippi (known as the ‘poorest state’ in the Union). 

Reaching Louisiana (the second poorest state), it was sad to see ‘Casinos’ appear as readily as gas stations and fast food outlets. These were not in the ‘Casino’ status that I have come to expect of Australia’s high-end and pretentious casinos, or Las Vegas’ embracing and exuberant casinos, but dirty looking pre-fab buildings, located road-side and often tacked on to gas stations or seedy diners. We figured that a road journey to a Louisianan must include a gas, food and gamble stop. It was rather disheartening. 

We checked into our ultra-luxuriant hotel Le Pavillon and wondered if we had checked into the right place. All marble, chandeliers, plush upholstered furniture, artworks and a bourgeois French appeal, the grotty travellers and two young boys seemed somewhat out of place! When we found out the hotel provided complimentary p&j sandwiches and piping hot chocolate from 10 to 11pm every night, we realised we had, indeed, checked into the right place ;-)  The boys took advantage of the rooftop spa and pool the next day (although only Paul braved the unheated pool). 

New Orleans has a skeleton of a really happening place. We could see it in the vibrancy and pride of the locals, the sheer volume and breadth of good places to dine and listen to music, and a huge focus on shopping and fine art. (Hurricane) Katrina obviously had a huge impact upon this poor city, as these options are largely relegated to the touristy French Quarter, while the rest of the city remains somewhat destitute. There is an eyrie quietness to the shuttered up businesses, and ‘for lease’ signs proliferate. An implied air of desperation lingers and we were strongly advised to keep away from certain quarters (due to muggings and street violence – even in broad daylight), and advised to catch a taxi when we went out one night (even though we were only traveling several blocks). The St Charles streetcar had just lengthened its route the week we had arrived and this was obviously a huge psychological hurdle cleared. New Orleans once survived on the trade that conferences brought in. Katrina helped destroy many accommodation options and the city has had a hard time reestablishing itself as a destination city.   

Luc’s fascination with death and burial was fed with a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery No 1. The defining feature of New Orleans cemeteries is that they are all above ground – as the city is below sea level, graves fill with water and bodies can be washed away in storm events. Cemeteries are therefore filled with family crypts and vaults. Bodies are ‘repackaged’ after two years, into more compact bags, and therefore these ‘burial grounds’ have large capacities. 

The Garden District is truly beautiful with some magnificent homes. Paul and I were reminded a little of Brisbane, with the lush vegetation and sub-tropical feel of the place. We could only imagine how stinking hot the place must get in the height of summer. We both agreed that we would love to spend some more time in this magical and exotic place – quite unlike anything else we have witnessed in the States (it felt like we had travelled to another country). 

Our last days drive on Wednesday (21st) included driving right across Louisiana into Houston, Texas. Our approach to Texas saw us driving into some ominous storms which we managed to beat – thankfully. The storms brought with them some cooler and rainy weather – a little unseasonal and not at all what we had been hoping for!  Houston is all wide roads and strip malls. Accusations abound as to Houston’s lack of a ‘heart’. I sure wouldn’t want to be a tourist without a car in this city. Despite it being against all my urban design principles about what constitutes a good city, Rowan and Shirley were able to show us some really interesting places and give a bit of history and context to the spread-out city. I will have to write more about this at a later stage… 

Photo: the boys at the Downtown Aquarium, Houston. Looking up from underneath a fishtank

Monday, November 26, 2007

Return from Houston


Well, we are home safe now after our mammoth car trip to Houston, Texas. Thank you so much to Rowan, Shirley and cat Sushi for putting up with us and making our stay so memorable. We were able to see a few sights along the way with overnight stays in: St Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; and toilet / rest stops in Arkansas and Mississippi! I will attempt to blog about this trip some more... just need to recover now! 

Photo: Luc at the base of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (otherwise known as the whopping great arch in St Louis). 

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fun weekends


We have been doing some fun things with the boys over the last few weekends, in addition to a couple of birthday parties and flu shots for the boys (although, Luc wasn’t so keen on this one!) Chicago is very well set-up for activities and destinations for children. 

Recent trips have included the following:  

An annual festival by the lake, children were able to make and decorate their own kites. Children were given a large paper bag was filled with a reel of string. With printed directions, cut lines and markings, some artful scissor-action some sticky taping and string tying, the bag became the kite! Children were then able to decorate their kites, add colorful tails and fly the kites. Despite a rather breeze-free morning, there were some very successful flights. The serious kite-enthusiasts were out in force with some stunning kites.   

Paul’s first visit there, and an opportunity to see some of the expansive and very impressive Impressionist collection. We are waiting in anticipation for the opening of the new Modern Art section- It would seem that Luc has a bit of a thing for modern art and sculpture, and the modern collection has been safely stored away for some months now. 

As members of the Aquarium, we were invited to a special viewing opportunity of the new Beluga Whale baby. This provided us an opportunity to see the baby swimming with its mother before it went on public display. The boys really like the reptile collection with a Komodo Dragon and other lizards including colorful chameleons. 

Nic did not like this so much – except for building a magnetic rocketship and the sensorial video display relating to conditions on the moon (complete with simulated wind and heat). Luc, on the other hand – a geek in the making – loved the Mars rock-sample-seeking robot and the movies about the planets. Paul was determined to take some emphasis off ‘fantasy’ science fiction (Star Wars et al), and to show to Luc what ‘real’ space travel was all about. This visit further fueled Luc’s obsession with space filght and black holes. He has been talking about the Planetarium lots! He still wants to be an astronaut. 

Pumpkin Patch & Luc’s School’s Halloween Fest: 
We are currently amidst Halloween season. We revisited the Pumpkin Patch in Oz Park. Exceptional weather this year ensured that it was very busy – but boys were still able to choose and decorate their own pumpkins, go on a hay-ride and play on some bouncy toys. Luc’s Halloween school fest allowed the boys an opportunity to dress in their Halloween costumes (in daylight hours), play on some more obligatory blow up bouncy playthings, see a ‘spooky’ marionette show and participate in some more pumpkin-seeking-painting. Paul and I took turns to help out children with pumpkin decorating. 

This included a selection of (eleven) international films in a session specially devoted to the 2 to 5 year old age group (in the morning while children are still fresh). We saw some wonderful films, followed by a question and answer session with several of the film makers. The family favorite was Astons stones – a poignant Swedish film about a young dog who finds ‘special’ stones and takes them home- all the more special given Luc’s penchant for stone collecting. I loved the Knuffle Bunny film – an adaptation of one of my favorite children’s books. Written by Mo Willems, it is based on his own family and involves a story about his daughter Trixie’s firm attachment to a stuffed bunny named Knuffle, the impending disaster when Knuffle bunny goes missing and utmost relief when it is found. 

Willems wrote and did animation for Sesame Street for some years and has written some other favorite books including the Pigeon series, Knuffle Bunny Too, Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and many more. He wrote one of my favorite lines “She went boneless” to describe that moment when children, in a rage, lose all ability to stand up and behave like a dead weight. Love it! 

Picture: At Montrose Harbor Kite Festival

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

On the move


Well, what have we been up to? 

We finally have a car. It took only two mornings for Paul to deliver Luc to school, before announcing that we really ought to have a car. Luc’s school is a 20+ minute walk from home (at a brisk pace with both boys in the stroller). The idea of a three year old walking that distance, trying to get a reluctant student dressed, breakfasted and there by 8am, plus the impending winter (where walking a mere 100 metres can be brutal despite being gloved, hatted, coated, layered and snow-booted), was enough to make a decision for us. That, and a very rare (paid) parking position opening up just near our home. 

When we first arrived in the US, I noted that a VW Jetta might be the right size car for us (medium size, larger than my preferred Golf, European – and therefore suited to snow). After going through all the permeations of car, origin, internal space, and features (everyone steered us away from buying an American car), Paul went to a VW showroom in search of a Passat. He came home nervously suggesting a Jetta that he had found, before realizing that this was the car I had suggested in the first place! He didn’t have to convince me too much.

Last Wednesday I got my driver’s license. All people planning on living in Illinois need to get themselves an Illinois license within 90 days of arriving. Our car insurance wanted us to pay some $200 extra for excluding me from the policy, so there was some degree of urgency! I was not feeling at all prepared and was a little flummoxed by all the information I needed to prepare for the exam…. Let alone driving on the wrong side of the road. 

The examiner at the counter made a big deal of congratulating me for scoring 100% on the written test. I didn’t think the exam was actually too difficult - given it was largely multiple choice, and my initial concern that I didn’t fully remember all the cases for license, suspension, revocation or cancellation or all the various and numerous penalties for DUI… first offense, up to fourth offense - varying by age group, blah, blah, blah.  I did however, notice a large stream of people being informed that they had failed the test and were being given instruction on how they could re-sit the test that day should they want to. The cost of sitting a driving test (including instruction and issue of license) is only $10. I remember it being a costly exercise in Australia (one that you really didn’t want to mess up). 

The driving instructor, who happened to know a little something about Australia, spoke about football (soccer, AFL, Gridiron, Rugby, Union), cricket and baseball the entire driving test… He was still chatting at the end, and hadn’t given me any clue as to whether or not I had passed! I was surprised that no parking component was included as part of the test, to my relief…. but given the high extreme shortage of parking in Chicago, and the need for people to touch park, it did seem a little remiss. 

After we took possession of our car, we travelled out the suburbs and visited the Kohl Children's Museum. This is an excellent indoor resource for children, with a variety of themed rooms / areas for children to be active or involved in imaginary play. Nic loved the car room with a gravity-powered racing track for lego-type cars, a car wash and the outdoor adventure garden. Luc adored the mini Dominick’s Supermarket (like a Safeway), the Potbelly Sandwich shop and the water play area. At the end of our visit, we visited a Pretzel café and Luc made and decorated his own pretzel. It was such fun. We became members of this museum in anticipation of returning sometime soon. 

Photo: Nic running through the prairie grass maze at the Kohl Children’s Museum 

Saturday, September 8, 2007

School Daze


Luc has now started preschool. We have found a gem of a preschool in a very expensive and short-supply area – where people are prepared to pay in excess of $17,000 per child per year for preschool (!), and add their names to countless wait lists and lotteries (all requiring a non-refundable deposit of, sometimes, several hundred dollars)! The school, Cardinal Saint Bernardin Early Childhood Center, is run out of a co-parish Catholic school. Luc is attending the Montesorri room. We are really looking forward to this as it is not graded, and 3, 4 and 5 year old children intermingle. This will allow Luc and Nic to play together when Nic is entitled to attend after his third birthday. Report cards are not written (yes, some schools do this!). Learning is child-focussed and occurs at the particular child’s pace. Some pre-schools are tuition-based (a great way for little boys to fall behind at an even earlier age). The school seems to be everything expounded by some of our favourite child-expert authors: Steve Biddulph and Leonard Sax. Other than that, the teachers are committed, long-term and very caring. We are very excited. 

While not extremely worried before the big ‘first day’, Luc had some concerns “I will cry when my family is not there”. I was able to allay this fear with “Oh, don’t worry about that. All the kids will cry. The teachers expect this and will help you to feel better”. Luc found a great deal of comfort in the thought that everyone would be crying.
Day two – and Luc didn’t even give Paul a parting glance when Paul dropped him off! 

We do have some excellent children’s television programming here – with several stations devoted exclusively to preschoolers. Our favourite show is definitely Sesame Street. Providing a dose of nostalgia for Paul and myself, this program has kept pace with current trends and music and is the only show we have found to consistently present numbers and letters to children. As a result of watching this, Luc knows his alphabet, upper and lower case letters, most phonetics, and is recognising words. I hope someone at school teaches him how to write properly as he has taught himself how to write his name and many letters in a very unconventional manner (I don’t dare try to teach him as I have never held a pen or pencil correctly ) 

Despite some good programming, some stations sneak in advertising. We have taught Luc that the advertisements only want us to buy things, and have tried to impart a healthy scepticism. He will often shout out for us to press ‘mute’ when advertisements come on.  We prefer the boys to watch movies over television and have introduced the boys to some classics that sometimes, (I fear), are beyond their age group – but they have lapped these up. Nic, at the exact same age as Luc previously, has developed an obsession with Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story. Nic requests to watch Buzz everyday.  Both boys have really got into the Star Wars series and Luc (with his keen eye) now knows every astromech droid (of the R2-D2 variety). Paul thought he would earn some Daddy points and bought Luc and Nic an R2D2 each, and a coveted R4 for Luc. Luc was really upset at his R4 and told us it was the wrong one. Further investigation revealed that Paul had ordered an R4-G9, as opposed to the R4-P17 that Luc really wanted.  

Luc (and Paul and I) loved ‘Singing in the Rain’, and more recently, ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Luc has adopted the persona of Tinman, seizing up every now and then and requiring a squirt of oil. He carries around a ‘can of oil’ that he made out of his stickle bricks (actually, Builders and Benders). 

These bricks are the best toy that the boys have. Thank you so much to Aiden and Mikayla for handing these down. Every time Luc is inspired by something he sees, he goes to the bucket and makes something out of his stickle bricks. The most recent incarnations have been a tornado (complete with sucked up house) from Wizard of Oz, an assortment of lasers and “things that go tchoo tchoo” from Star Wars, rocket controls for spaceships, rockets, planets, money for purchases from the ‘toy shop’, all manner of vehicle... The imaginative possibilities are endless. 

Another obsession that Nic has inherited (as per his brother), is that he is a puppy. This has presented itself much sooner than Luc’s obsession. Nic crawls around ‘arfing’ and panting, rubbing up against our legs, and generally being cute. Nic takes the obsession one step further than Luc though, and eats anything he finds on the ground and drinks water from puddles. One really has to be fast to get to Nic before some unidentified and nasty item is on its way to his stomach. This obsession, however, has made it very easy to adopt a ‘child leash’. Luc struggled against this, but I think it helps Nic feel that little bit closer to being a real dog – and it allows him out on the street to run (rather than being trapped in the stroller). Nic has one speed – and that is flat out and racing. This morning, Nic tried to put on the ‘leash’ himself – very excited at the prospect of going out. 

The settlement of our house occurred in late August. Yes, our homey little cottage in Brisbane went up for auction at the end of July. While financially advantageous to us – we were able to pay out all our debts in Australia and the US, purchase items for establishing my home business, and put some away for a future deposit - it has left us with a certain feeling of being ‘lost’. Where is our home now? It is very strange to think we will never be going back there – we didn’t even say goodbye to our little house. We have no ‘insurance policy’ in the form of somewhere to return to. The housing market in Australia has gone so incredibly crazy, we don’t know if we would ever be able to re-enter the market. However, the freedom of not having to send a lump of money home to Australia each month will hopefully ease things over here – allow us to pay Luc’s school fees, put some money towards a car (and parking!), allow me to explore setting up my business, allow us to eat, etc.

Photo: Paul takes Luc to school.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Charming or charmed?


There is something about Nicolas. He has quite a unique character and loads of personality. He wears his heart on his sleeve and his moods, the highs and lows, are very apparent. Nic has boundless energy and curiosity, is fearless and adventuresome. He is outgoing and loves introducing himself to people with a great big “HI!” and a broad grin. He makes the sullenest people smile. With his wit and happy disposition, his curly ringlets and natural charm, people are constantly telling me how gorgeous he is. These qualities also make it quite a task to keep an eye on him. Nic exhausts me. 

I took the boys downtown recently. We spent the whole day there: sliding down the big Picasso sculpture, ate gelato at Lavazza, took part in some summer activities specifically for children, attempted to listen to the symphonic orchestra practising in the Pritzker Pavilion, ran about, played in the Crown Fountain and visited the Institute of Art. Phew, what a day! 

The Crown Fountain was covered with children playing. I let the boys join in. Luc is extremely good at watching Nic – as far as a three year-old can be – and this allayed some of my fears at letting the boys play in such an open, public and inaccessible (for me) area. Fears were also allayed as there was a contingent of Millennium Park ‘people’ watching and observing and the boys were amongst a very distinct demographic – their white sun-screened skin ‘shone’ amongst the sea of ebony bodies. 

The large videoed faces on the two towers of the fountain occasionally close their eyes and pucker their lips. A well-orchestrated timing system ensures that the faces then spurt a stream of water from their mouths. This is followed by a cascade of water falling from the tops of the towers. The kids playing under the fountain are more than aware of the signs and timing of this process, so a line of kids congregate every so often under the impending stream of water. It is very amusing to watch. 

There were several different groups of people watching the boys and they commented upon Nic’s extreme energy levels: rushing from one tower to the other. They marvelled at the way he was able to ‘cheat’ the huge cascade of water… he would stand under the tower, and would just happen to move off to see something else, moments before the cascade would fall. It saved his skin every time. The observers couldn’t help but notice how Nic would rush about amongst a sea of other rushing bodies and remained standing and how he could crawl over girls lying in the water, and yet no one objected. They commented that he seemed to be surrounded by an invisible bubble that protected him: he was charmed. I noted that yes, this pretty much summed up Nic. His bubble burst a little later on and he was bowled over. I had to tear my shoes off and race through the water to rescue a sodden and crying little boy. His tears of pain soon turned to tears of desperation when he realised that I was not going to let him go back to play in the water. 

Another recent and big bubble burst occurred at the Zoo. We visited one of Luc’s favourite exhibits – the climbing tree. An intricate maze of multi-level suspended platforms, encased in netting, this is a fantastic indoor resource, particularly for the winter months where it allows children to burn some energy. Despite its recommended age range of 4 to 8 years, it is full of pre-schoolers during the winter months, and Luc really got into it at age 2 ½. When Nic, a natural climber, recently expressed interest in climbing it, I wasn’t too worried. 

On our last zoo visit, Nic decided he would climb further than the lower levels. A zoo official didn’t object to him climbing on it, so I let him go. He climbed almost all the way through, then turned around and came back (despite it being a one-direction path). Our friend William (same age as Nic), also made it through with a little help from a very capable young 8 year old girl. Nic played with the other exhibits then decided to give climbing another try. This time he got a little lost and ended up at a very high dead end. It was then that fearless Nic lost it. He started to cry. 

I sent Luc up to try and get him down. Luc prides himself at being able to help kids through (as he has often done with children older than himself). But in this instance, Luc couldn’t navigate himself to where Nic had trapped himself. The little girl that had helped William offered to help, but Nic would not let her hold him or help him down. The zoo official that had let him climb the structure then offered to go up. Upon finding that she had never actually climbed up it before, I knew I was going to have to save him. I then embarked upon a very humiliating rescue mission. 

The structure was not made for anyone over the age of eight, let alone a forty-year old mother that suffers from claustrophobia. I had to squeeze my way up, pushing against the tide of children on their way out. Nic was sobbing uncontrollably at this stage. I managed to get all the way up and was very grateful that I had not worn a skirt that day. I grabbed Nic who immediately clung to me and did not want to let go. I started on our way down, as far as Nic would let me. It was then that Luc decided he was going to lose it too. There I was, lying very dishevelled, and prone on my back, 10 feet in the air, covered with two sobbing boys. Nic gained some composure as he tried to push Luc away (after all, this was his rescue mission, not Luc’s), but continued to sob. It was then that Gabrielle took some photos for posterity sake. I wondered if life as a mother could get much better than this?! 

As I very ungraciously made my way down, bra strap hanging out my sleeve as it decided to unattach itself, another zoo official decided to give me a serve about how irresponsible I was to let a 20 month old up in the first place. As if I had somehow failed to see the error of my ways or feel humiliated enough! Nic continued to sob inconsolably for some time. Only the offer of some food saw him cease. 

We ate lunch and spent the early afternoon walking around the zoo. I was later confronted by a little boy who announced “It’s you again!” I was a little puzzled as to who this boy was, and how I should know him: until he noted he had seen me on the embarrassing rescue mission. SIGH… I had now become a notoriously bad mother.

Photo: Nicolas having a babycino in our favourite local, Lincoln Perk

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cardboard Envy


I very much agree with children the world over – cardboard boxes make the best toys. We order a few things online here (as one does when one lives in America, and lives in a climate that can be inhospitable), so we regularly receive cardboard boxes. When a large box arrives, the boys become quite excited: Nic at the prospect of something to climb in / out of and to hide in, Luc with the prospect of creating some new form of habitation. 

From the larger boxes we have made a fort, castle and houses… These have a limited life span and once they start to disintegrate, we await the arrival of the next big box and potential plaything to take its place. 
Demise of a cardboard house. The house - that Luc decided should be red - in its final moments. 
Luc has an obsession with rocket ships at the moment. Wanting to be an astronaut when he grows up is part and parcel of that obsession. One morning we were lamenting the demise of our latest ‘house’ box, and Luc mentioned the prospect of building a space rocket. We had no suitable boxes available. When we walked out on the street to visit our local park, voila, sitting on the pavement was a very large, very lonesome looking box. Luc took one look at it and exclaimed “A space rocket!” we knocked on our neighbours door and asked if we might have the box if they had no need for it. That was no problem, so we claimed it and put it inside our buildings foyer. 
Nic examines our cardboard box find
The whole morning, while we were out and about, Luc wanted to go home to build the rocket. After his nap that afternoon, he was upset to find the box hadn’t transformed itself into a rocket. After another days disappointment, I was compelled to build a rocket. I ran out of cardboard for the ‘fins’ and knew this would be the first thing Luc would notice, and sure enough, after the initial excitement of seeing his very own space rocket the next morning, he exclaimed “I wanted a rocket ship with fins!” Another box, and the fins were attached. 
The rocket ship (with fins) showing some sign of wear and tear. Luc decided the rocket should be blue. 
The need to have astronaut attire was (partly) satisfied with the discovery of a small cardboard box that Luc promptly put on his head and pronounced a helmet. Luc wore this to the park. I must say, I had a number of quizzical stares from strangers, whilst pushing around a stroller with a cardboard clad child. I said “He’s an astronaut” to a bemused couple as we walked past. They called back “Perfect!” We arrived at the park. Gabrielle was amused, 3yo James impressed and 1yo William non-plussed. 

The next day we planned to meet Polly, Callan and Finn at the Green City Markets (a weekly expedition for us). Luc again wore his cardboard helmet. Upon seeing Luc, Polly exclaimed, “For goodness sake, buy your child a sun hat!” Callan was very impressed and wanted a turn wearing the box. Luc, not about to hand over his prized helmet, promptly refused. Quite a bit of tussling ensued and we had two 3 year olds in (sometimes physical) competition for a very simple, plain, unadorned, brown cardboard box. Polly and I couldn’t believe it. We had to institute a 2-minute-rule (Callan could wear the box for 2 minutes, then Luc for 2 minutes – alternating between the boys). Thank goodness that 2 minutes is still an arbitrary concept and can last for as long or as little as required or is necessary. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Michigan


We returned from our journey to Northern Michigan a week ago. We had a magnificent time and thankfully all came back intact and (mostly) unscathed. 

It took us some time to get moving on Sunday June 24th: Paul had to wait some time for the hire car, we had to pack the car, then were caught in a traffic snarl. We missed our turn (due to recent roadworks and Google directions not complying), hit another snarl due to roadworks.. then finally made some headway. 

I do really like the simple directions that can be printed off from Google or Mapquest for road trips – but these really come unstuck when there are detours / roadworks, a turn is missed, alternative names are provided on signage or simple merging directions seem to carry as much importance as critical turns. As someone who is pretty map-savvy, I find these both helpful and frustrating. There is nothing like a good map! 

We arrived in Ann Arbor in time for dinner. We met our friends David and Bernadette, children Aidan and Mikayla and David’s niece Rachel and boyfriend Mark downtown. After a quick tour, we visited the wonderful delicatessen Zingermans, collecting some provisions for dinner. We ate our dinner, while watching a bustling Arts festival. I love daylight savings! Ann Arbor is a university city, providing the site for the well-regarded University of Michigan. As it was summer break, the city was not as busy as it is normally (a third of the population is comprised of university students). The next morning, we did some grocery shopping, gas-filling, car packing before having brunch with Rachel at Café Zola. We were then bound for Mackinaw City

The name ‘city’ has completely different connotations to an Australian. No thriving metropolis, Mackinaw City was a modest-tourism based town. We arrived at the Mill Creek camping site and set up camp. This is an immaculate and well-planned camp ground with a mix of tent sites, on-site cabins and RV parking spots. A general store, swimming pool and toilets and hot showers available 24 hours a day, made for a comfortable camping existence. As for the pillows however, dispense with any notion of using blow-up pillows. Paul and I didn’t sleep at all and made a special trip the next day to K-mart to buy ourselves some sleep. Despite this, we did see a beautiful sunrise! 

Our first tourist destination was Fort Michilimackinac. This historic village outpost and former fort, was an interesting introduction to the significance and importance of Mackinac’s gateway to Lakes Michigan and Huron: a vital transport route and ground for the very important fur trade to Europe. A number of volunteer guides, in period dress from the 1770s, completed tasks and gave an insight into life as it once was. In the afternoon, we visited the Old Mill – a saw-milling operation using a water wheel for power. Again, guides in period dress gave demonstrations. Many of the guides share their time between visitor destinations – I think the majority are university students. This would be a fascinating way to spend the summer months. 

Wednesday, we caught a ferry to Mackinac Island. This island is entirely tourist-orientated – with only 600 year-round residents. One of its most redeeming features being that it has absolutely no cars. Horses, carts and drays and bicycles of all types (we witnessed people riding penny-farthings!), were the only means of transportation. I even saw a UPS delivery person on a bike with trailer. One other notable feature of Mackinac Island is the fudge. We had been warned of this, but weren’t quite prepared for the preponderance of fudge shops. Of course, we had to sample all that we could, and soon sussed out the ‘chain’ fudge stores from the ones that sold the more exotic and interesting flavours. A trip up to the fort (relocated from Michillimackinac), made apparent the more defensible (and desirable) location. 

Mackinac Island is approximately 8 miles in circumference. We witnessed this on a leisurely bikeride around the island. Some beautiful homes face the lake, nestled amongst the woods. We all agreed that this would be a great place to return to and spend some time in a B&B over the idyllic summer. Paul started dreaming about working remotely from the Island. With a limited number of snow or frost-free days (the island is covered in snow for a large portion of the year), I’m not sure if I would survive the resultant cabin-fever. 

We thought we might have dinner in the very aptly named Grand Hotel. As we approached, we read the dress code policy – “coat and tie for gentlemen, and dresses or pantsuits for ladies”. Other than this, there was an admittance fee for non-guests of $12 per adult and $6 per child! We decided our sweaty and weary selves would eat in the much lower-key Gate House instead. Thankfully we did as Nic had a rather nasty and embarrassing intestinal accident. Our brilliant waitress Marsha helped us to deal with this in a very discreet and proficient manner – she got a big tip! 

After our visit to Mackinaw, we made our way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (UP): destination, Sault Ste Marie (USA, not to be confused with the Canadian Sault Ste Marie across the water).

Michigan, like a few of the states in the USA, has a very unusual shape: a combination of natural boundary and the arbitrary straight lines of frontier state making. The northern, or upper peninsula (UP) that looks, to all intents like it should be part of Wisconsin, has its own special character – not unlike an island off a mainland. 

We arrived at Sherman Park camp ground, definitely located on the wrong side of town -  and were a little shocked to hear that there were no available showers, only pit toilets after hours, recent break-ins, vandalism and theft, with a very cold and strong lake breeze. Luc was rapt though as the park included space-rocket play equipment, complete with flight deck and long slide. We did a little reconnaissance of the other camp grounds in town (i.e. parking lots for RVs) and realised that this was by far, the most scenic campground. Promised locked gates at night, security surveillance and police presence helped to allay any concerns with security. 

It turned out that we could get hot showers (phew): a glitch in the capacity requirements for campgrounds, means that Sherman Park can only be operated as a ‘primitive campground’. But, say, however… if we happened to be a beach visitor, get our feet a little sandy, and be in need of a shower, then we were entitled to use the shower facilities?!! Thank goodness, as it was really cold at night and I needed a hot shower before bed. 

The next day, Friday, was Engineer’s Day. This is the one day each year in which visitors are allowed across the Soo Locks separating Lakes Superior and Huron. The locks allow boats to cross a height difference of some 21 feet. This height difference had been taken up by St Mary’s falls. The boats that use the locks include many very large freight transporters – much larger than ocean freighters (as conditions in the lakes are not as rough as the open ocean). As you might imagine, these locks are huuuuuge! 

After visiting the locks and marvelling at the size of the boats, we had some lunch at local favourite Lock View Restaurant, before walking to the Valley Camp museum (located on a large ship) and taking a boat cruise from Lake Huron, through the locks to Lake Superior, then returning via the Canadian lock. A very long day outdoors, followed by a way-past-bedtime dinner for the kids and the prospect of packing up camp very early the next morning were deciders for cancelling a proposed bridge walk (across to Canada) the next morning. While disappointing, we were all very relieved! 

We said goodbye to fellow campers and headed towards Wisconsin. We stopped off to see Cut River Bridge and had lunch at a roadside diner. We made it to Green Bay, and spent the night. After breakfast, we tired the boys out in the hotel swimming pool before our next long car journey. We made a brief stop at the beach near Harrington Beach State Park, then drove through some local towns, including Port Washington (that I would like to explore more) before heading directly to Chicago. 

The boys were fantastic travellers. I was very impressed at their ability to cope with so much driving. Perhaps car travel is still a real novelty for them.

I had my reservations about Nicolas in an environment in which he could not be contained, that included camp fires and open water. Nic loves to run away – and seems to move the fastest when supervising eyes are diverted. David tried some ‘puppy training’ on Nic to prevent him from running away. Not surprisingly, this was the least effective when I tried it… but it has definitely curbed his enthusiasm for running away when cautioned “Stop!” Nicolas was definitely in his element camping. He loved roaming about and exploring all the smells, textures and tastes (!) of the great outdoors. I was getting a little nervous at how many changes of clothes we had (or hadn’t) brought!

Luc, possibly taking a lead from Aidan, started asking some very considered questions. Staring into the campfire one night, he asked “Aidan, how does fire burn things?” Aidan looked a little exasperated (as elder children often do at younger children’s persistence), but provided Luc with a very good explanation. Luc listened carefully and responded with an “Oh”.  When we were viewing the museum ship Valley Camp, Luc asked “How do boats move in the water?” We (simply) explained how this particular ship had an engine to drive a propeller - pushing it through the water. I think Luc was far more interested in posing an interesting question than listening to the answer… but time will tell in what he might regurgitate in the future. 

A great big thank you to David, Bernadette, Aidan and Mikayla for a wonderful week and all your planning and preparation. We all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and were so pleased to see some more of this big country. 

See the Snap Happy page for a few holiday snaps. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Suburban-bound


Last Friday night, I planned to meet Deb and Ann for a long-overdue social drink and some dinner. Deb suggested we go and visit her family’s new home in Oak Park (a western suburb), as she needed to water some recently transplanted plants and drop off a few items before their future move. This was a great opportunity to escape the city and see a little more of Illinois. Deb picked up Ann and myself and we drove out to Oak Park. Oak Park is notable as it contains the “world's largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings and houses, with 25 structures built between 1889 and 1913”, and Wright’s studio. I look forward to exploring these sometime in the future.

Given my brief (and superficial) visit, Oak Park was much more ‘urban’ than I expected. There appeared to be a good mix of low and medium-density housing to provide the population needed to support services and conveniences such as restaurants and boutique shops. There was quite a bustling vibe in the main shopping strip, with abundant families taking advantage of the beautiful evening. 

Unfortunately, I developed a horrible migraine while having dinner. I later joked that perhaps this was an allergic reaction to the suburbs! 

On Sunday we went to John and Yoly’s son’s (Joseph) 4th birthday party. This was held in the Exploratorium in Skokie (a northern suburb). Paul hired a Zipcar to take us there. We were a little concerned as to how Nic might travel in a car – as he has had very little car-travel experience (save for taxis). I held Nic while Paul fitted his car seat. Nic meanwhile had a meltdown. We thought we might be in for a torturous trip until it dawned on us that Nic was not upset at the prospect of travel, he was merely showing his impatience with Paul! Once seated in the car, Nic grinned from ear to ear. His conversation on the journey consisted of repetitions of “Car!” and “What’s that?” as he had a new high-speed perspective on life. 

The Exploratorium consists of a large play area with abundant toys, a water play area, dress-up section, library, and a large climbing frame with slides, bridges and tunnels. This would be a fantastic resource for the winter time. We had some free play-time before adjourning to a private party room upstairs. Spiderman was the theme – much to Luc’s delight. Pizza and juice were followed by some superb spider cakes. The boys had a great time. We were concerned about the journey home with sugar-hyped boys and the potential for car-sickness (particularly from Luc), but needn’t have feared – they were fine. We took the opportunity to drop in at Trader Joes on the way home to do a bit of grocery shopping.

Paul and I agreed that we so loved the freedom of having a car for the afternoon – we would now love to get one! 

Photo: Joseph, the birthday boy, and Luc, involved in a duel with Spiderman blowers

Monday, May 28, 2007

Five, four, three, two, one.... Luc is go!


I was chastising Luc for complaining to me that he couldn’t do something “It is too hard for me” I told him “Rubbish! It is not too hard for you” Luc responded “It is not rubbish!” I responded that yes, indeed it was. He told me “No! It is not rubbish. It is trash!” 

Luc started singing the Hokey Pokey to me “Put your wrong hand in…” I corrected him “Put your right hand in...” he laughed and continued to sing with a cheeky grin, “Put your wrong hand in, put your wrong hand out!” 

Paul and I were chatting about the movie the Exorcist. Although I haven’t seen the film, I am aware of Linda Blair’s character speaking in tongues with a strange voice. I did my best imitation of this…. and then stopped abruptly when Paul and I heard Nic, standing up in his cot doing his impression of a demonic /possessed child. We looked at him, and he just laughed. He is not interested in repeating words so much, but if a strange voice brings about a laugh…! 

Luc is crazy about rocket ships at the moment. Coupled with his love of robots and space, this has spurred an obsession with building rockets. The boys were given a set of Builders and Benders that are an excellent brick building system and are perfect for building rockets, houses, whatever is the obsession of the day. Having given up on me saying “just a moment…” when he has requested me to build things, Luc has really started using his imagination and has built some complex and inventive shapes himself. 

Paul bought a compilation DVD of the Thunderbirds TV series. This ‘supermarionation’ sci-fi puppet show has been parodied by everyone from the D-Generation and Trey Parker and Matt Stone of SouthPark fame. Luc adores the shows and has been requesting these frequently. Luc told me the other day that “Nic is scared of the man with the glowing eyes” - a ‘bad guy’ character from one of the stories.  How Nic manages to closely watch these ‘glowing eye’ sequences while Luc is in the bedroom, tentatively  peeking out from behind the bed toward the TV screen, is beyond me. 

The Thunderbirds episodes begin with a countdown of the Thunderbird spacecraft “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Thunderbirds are go!” We have had to incorporate this counting into many routines with Luc - including counting him out of the bath.

When we were at the doctors a couple of weeks ago, Luc pointed at an occupation poster and said “OH, that is what I want to be!” I looked at the page of children dressed in occupational attire (firefighter, doctor, construction worker, teacher…) and saw his choice, an astronaut! Look out NASA! 

I am SO supportive of the cardboard box school of toy design. The most inspiring toys the boys have are their blocks, random cardboard boxes, and the things I make for them out of cardboard and construction paper. These home-made toys disintegrate approximately the same time (sometimes a little before) their usefulness has worn out… but by then, another obsession is taking root. 

We were members of a toy library in Brisbane. This was an excellent resource as we had access to a new toy on a monthly basis. We sought toys that were bulky or outdoors in nature and these were returned at the end of the month or when interest waned. Slides, pedal cars, houses, trucks…. were all things Luc was able to play with – without us having to purchase / store / dispose of.  I haven’t discovered anything similar to this in Chicago. 

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Chatting and charming


We had a certain vocabulary for items we brought with us from Australia. Now we have moved to the US, we have had to use alternative names for certain items. To ensure that Luc has a grasp on the dual names for items, we play a game with him to ask him “what is another name for nappy” “diaper”, what is another name for dummy?” “pacifier”, “what is another name for  rubbish bin?” “trash can”. 

Luc played this game with me a week ago. He directed me “Ask me what another name for ‘work’ is”. “What is another name for work?” I dutifully asked. “Problem!” he responded with a big grin. I am not too sure how he arrived at this one…. Perhaps Paul mentions the ‘problems’ he has at work when he arrives home? Or perhaps it is just due to this being Luc’s word of the week. He often announces, “Mummy, I have a problem”. I then have to ask what his problem is. It is usually a problem with Paul or I going out, and him not liking the idea, or him not wanting to go for a nap. 

We were speaking recently about our favourite foods. Luc predictably states sushi and hotdogs as his favourite. I was asked what my favourite food was. I couldn’t pick one but said I liked French food. Luc thought about this for a moment and asked “Like French Toast?” I couldn’t argue with that. 

Nic charms people in the park, doing nothing other than being himself (and of course, his curls just draw people). I often hear from carers and other mothers that ‘he is just so gorgeous’. When told this the other day, I responded “Yes, but he is very naughty”. The mother responded ‘Ah, but yes, that is a good thing’. I thought about it for a bit and realised that yes, this trait, while driving me insane at times, often provides a great deal of entertainment. It also adds inordinately to Nic’s cheeky appeal and should hold him in great stead for the future – he has definite wit and personality and can already hold his own when amongst others. He is no shrinking violet – he just doesn’t give a damn and does his very own thing, life-threatening, dangerous or not. 

I spoke to my sister Jenni about Nic’s disinterest in speaking the English language. Jenni (a speech pathologist) came to the conclusion that he has absolutely no need. Luc anticipates many of Nic’s needs (as do Paul and I), and Nic creates his own fun and games and therefore has little need to use language. If Nic wants something, he doesn’t wait for us, he goes and gets it – this includes carrying around his small chair and using it to climb up anywhere. When he is hungry, this includes climbing onto the kitchen bench to reach the fruit bowl. Nic also goes through my bag as he knows I keep snacks there. Nic turned 18 months yesterday.