Midwestern Meander 2012: Greenfield Village

Photos from our visit to Greenfield Village outside of Detroit, Michigan.

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For those unfamiliar with Greenfield Village, it’s the location to which Henry Ford had bunches of historic locations trucked in, from the Wright Brothers’ home and bicycle shop originally in Dayton, Ohio, to Thomas Edison’s labs and offices at Menlo Park, New Jersey. The exhibits and interpreters avoided all mention of the controversies surrounding many of the achievements of these great people in favor of hero worship and a rather rosy view of bygone days (stretching from the 1600’s to the 1920’s), but we were able to set these shortcomings aside and enjoy ourselves. I mean, they’ve got a carousel and a steam engine and Model T’s driving around cobbled streets. How can that be anything but awesome?

I’m a little concerned that now my children are going to think that all of these innovations happened in Detroit, but I’m sure I can set them straight in the future.

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Midwestern Meander 2012: The Michigan Challenge Balloon Fest

We visit our families in Ohio and Michigan most years, and each time we visit, my father-in-law suggests two or three venues or events that we just can’t miss. With younger kids, we often missed most of these, but now that the kids are both a little older, we’re able to pack a little more into our schedule with minimal negative repercussions (ie, our kids don’t whine or throw tantrums as much as they did a couple of years ago).

This year, one of the two main attractions of our visit  to Michigan (besides being spoiled by Grandma and Grandpa) was the Michigan Challenge Balloon Fest in Howell, Michigan.

We got there early and staked out a good spot under a hill on a tree. We supplemented the treats we’d brought in the cooler with elephant ears and fresh lemonade and other classic fair food. We saw skydivers dive from the sky, watched jugglers juggle, sat in a small airplane, and visited with a groundhog and a great horned owl while waiting for the main event.

The wind grounded many of the balloons; of the ~40 scheduled to take off that evening, we got to see 10 go up. But we didn’t mind. For my family, ten hot air balloons was all of the excitement we needed.

I’ve posted a few photos here, and I’ll post more on the Imperfect Happiness Facebook Page.

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Midwestern Meander 2012: New England to Niagara Falls

It’s eight hours from our house to Niagara Falls. Because my kids are champion road-trippers, this wasn’t actually as hellish as many people might expect. We listened to several of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books and began Black Beauty, which we all loved. My daughter loved that it was told from the horse’s perspective and my husband and I loved the not-so-subtle messages of temperance from the 19th-century Quaker author.

On this trip, we discovered that my daughter can’t stomach hip/retro decor. She literally felt ill at the cafe in Utica where this delightfully kitschy owl perched on one of the thrift-store formica tables that populated the dining room:

The rest of this leg of the journey was more pleasant, with two exceptions: The guard at the border didn’t make a big enough deal about it being the very first time my children or I had used our passports (I wouldn’t have wanted her to search the car or anything, but a little, “Woo-hoo!” might have been nice), and my son refused to wear his poncho on the Maid of the Mist boat tour. Poor guy wailed the whole time but no amount of dousing by the falling waters of the Niagara River could convince him to put on his poncho. My husband, daughter, and I stood around him like blue Dementors trying to shield him from the mist but he just cried on. (I probably should have given him chocolate when we returned to shore.)

The highlight of the trip (besides the falls themselves) was discovering a little wooded walking trail behind the police station and next to the public rose garden that allowed us to take a less touristy path back to our hotel from the falls.

Some more photos:

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Midwestern Meander 2012: The Ohio Leg

“Midwestern Meander” is the name I’ve given the road trip we took in late June 2012. We traveled from our home in New England to Niagara Falls, across Ontario to visit family in Michigan, the rest of the way around Lake Erie to visit family in Ohio, then back home again. I plan to post a bit about each stop, but I’m going about it in rather scattershot fashion.

This time we visited family in Ohio, we tried something a little different. Instead of staying at my mom’s house, we stayed about five miles down the road at a KOA (Kampgrounds of America). We’d considered tent camping but two adults, two kids, my blender, clothes for ten days, and a large number of snacks and audio books was about all we could fit in our VW Jetta. Tent and sleeping bags and other camping supplies would have made us look like the Griswolds on vacation. Our compromise was a stay at the KOA’s “Deluxe Kottage” where there were linens provided, a kitchenette, a bathroom with a shower and hot-and-cold running water, a porch swing.

“You guys like this kind of thing?” my second-cousin asked when she came to visit us. The cabin was, to her eyes, too rustic. But for us, it was heaven. Humid and buggy heaven, but heaven nonetheless. My daughter declared that she’d slept better at the cabin than she does at home. I loved the simplicity of the cabin and the quiet and dark of its forest locale. Add one more room and a cellar, and I would be ready to move in.

Our trip itself was filled with visits with my immediate and extended family and a trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio’s only national park and home to Brandywine Falls, the second-largest waterfall in the state and where my son lost the stuffed dragon my mom had given him the night before.

The night before we left Ohio, my daughter discovered what she called The Most Beautiful Place in the World. With her dad’s help, she’d followed a friendly camp cat they named “Pat” down a path hidden in the brush between our cabin and the next. When my daughter came in to tell me about it and ask me to go with her to see it, I was trying to compose a tactful and compassionate text in response to a volley of texts involving my mother’s unexpected absence at dinner at my sister’s house earlier in the evening. My phone was losing its charge and the signal kept going out, and I was feeling frustrated. I put my daughter off impatiently until finally I realized what I was doing. I turned off my phone and let her lead me down that dark path.

At the end of the path the brush opened out into a moonlit meadow surrounded by trees. The meadow and the trees sparkled with hundreds of fireflies. It’s an image I won’t soon forget, and a feeling I hope will warm me forever, my daughter’s hand in mine as she shared her awe with me.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012 Day 6: Home

Friday morning, we packed up, said goodbye to Grandpa, and drove northward again.

Looking towards NYC from the Tappan Zee Bridge. I was moments too late to get a photo of the skyline. I’m not sure what exactly I was looking at, but it appeared to be big buildings.

I was inordinately thrilled when “America” came up on the iPod and Simon and Garfunkel sang, “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” while we were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.

On the Garden State Parkway, I observed a motorcyclist in a t-shirt and shorts going about 90 mph and being tailgated aggressively by a large pickup truck. I concluded from this and other driver interactions that New Jersey is the kind of place people want to leave any way they can, and that they want to take as many people with them as possible.

We encountered traffic all along our route, even though we gave New York City a very wide berth. We drove from 9:30 am to 8:00 pm, and we only stopped once, and that was to pick up my husband in New Jersey and get the kids some more junk food for lunch. Near the Massachusetts border, my husband wanted to stop because his rear was sore from sitting for so long. We asked the kids if they needed to use the bathroom.

“No!” was their emphatic cry from the backseat. They wanted to power through and get home. And so we did.

My husband declared them Road Warriors. I tend to agree.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012, Day 5: The National Zoo

When we first moved to Northern Virginia in 1990, we visited the National Zoo. I’d lived my young childhood in San Diego, and we were frequent visitors to the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. If those zoos were great, I reasoned, the National Zoo must be wonderful!

If you, too, have been to both of those zoos, you know why I was somewhat disappointed about the National Zoo.

In the intervening 20-odd years, either the zoo has improved or my zoo snobbery has been tempered because it really wasn’t too bad.

I was irritated that the gorilla enclosure was surrounded by a three-foot-high concrete wall atop which grew bamboo, making it nearly impossible for my children to observe the gorillas. When I stood them up on the wall to see, the zoo workers came by and reprimanded us for the kids standing on the wall. From what I could tell, their only job there was to instigate tantrums in two-year-olds who wanted to see the gorillas.

Aside from that, though, the kids were pretty happy with their zoo visit. There were rocks to climb on near the panda exhibit and a giant plastic pizza play area. They got to see elephants eating and a prairie dog sitting on her bottom and goats climbing playground equipment. They got to pet a cow and play with my friend from high school and her two kids. They ate hot dogs and played in the dirt.

It was a pleasant way to spend our last day in DC.

I’ll post more zoo pictures on my Facebook Page.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012 Day 4: The Mall

On Wednesday, we visited a different kind of mall: The Mall.

I’d promised the kids a reflecting pool, but it was torn up for renovations. They didn’t seem to mind. They like construction equipment.

We found a duck pond where my daughter herded ducks and my son threw sticks into the water. It was an incredible day. The weather was beautiful, my dad pushed the limits of the parking regulations and got neither ticketed nor booted nor towed, and my kids got a lot of exercise and got to see police horses.

Then my son fell asleep in his baby carrier on my back and we went to the Natural History Museum. My daughter read every single sign in the Mammals section, and I saw the Hope Diamond (just so I could say I’d seen it). We also paid extra to see the butterflies in their pavilion.

Butterfly on my daughter’s hat. She was thrilled to have a passenger!

You can see more photos (including the obligatory monument photos) on my Facebook Page.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012 Day 3: The Pentagon is BORING!

On Tuesday, my dad offered to give us a tour of the Pentagon. They offer guided tours to the public, but since he works there, he could give us a condensed tour better suited to the interests of my 2.5-year-old and my 7-year-old.

I wasn’t sure the largest office building in the world, even shaped like a pentagon, would be interesting to my daughter, but when I presented her the options for that day she jumped up and down and said, “The Pentagon! The Pentagon!”

“It’s the place where Grandpa works,” I clarified, thinking that maybe I’d not been clear enough about what the Pentagon was, exactly. “It’s his office. Like when you visit Daddy’s office?”

“Yeah! I want to visit Grandpa’s office!”

All right then.

We didn’t really need to take the Metro to get there, but the kids really wanted to ride an underground train. So my dad parked at The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City where there’s a Metro stop and we rode the one stop to the Pentagon from there. After passing the security checks and promising not to use our cameras, we were inside. Dad pointed out a bullet hole in one of the doors from the 2010 shooting there. Good times.

The Pentagon really is a huge place. We walked through the center courtyard (the snack bar there was the target of Soviet missiles for years) and it wasn’t readily apparent that we were surrounded by the building.

My dad says it’s the largest no-salute zone in the US military. It’s a pretty practical relaxation of regulations. With so many military personnel in one building, if they were required to stop and salute, they’d never have a chance to get any work done.

Another interesting thing: it’s like a mini-city in itself. There are restaurants (including a nice formal dining room) and a dentist’s office, a hair cutting place, a pharmacy, a florist. There are places to buy sheets and handbags and suits. Dad says it’s set up like that so that the people who work there don’t have to leave during the day, since it’s kind of a pain to get in and out.

And there are twice as many bathrooms as they need for the number of employees there because when it was built in the 1940’s, they had to have double facilities to comply with the segregation laws of the time.

But the most fun part of the Pentagon for my kids? The white board in Grandpa’s office. It was a pretty basic white board, but they got to draw on it with markers in FIVE colors! The United States clearly is the best country in the world.

Second place went to the pretzels in Grandpa’s office.

Everything else my daughter declared in an irritating singsong, “BOR-ING!” And then my son tried to make a break for it and, when I attempted to restrain him, decided to have a tantrum as we were trying to exit the building.

There’s something unsettling about managing a toddler meltdown under the gaze of officers carrying guns.

Since we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the building, the best I could get was the pizza lunch the kids enjoyed back at the mall food court.

I couldn’t find anything I could eat so I enjoyed the snacks I’d brought in my bag.

I love how they hang the American flag the same way they hang the advertisements.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012, Day 2: Turtle Playground!

In Delaware, my children talked me into buying them candy and road maps at a gas station convenience store. I think they could sense that my resistance was weak after our night in the hotel and the adventure of getting them a hotel breakfast in the morning. I’d managed to re-pack the car only by letting them pillage the hotel landscaping and throw rocks into the “pond” (the large puddle that had formed in the parking lot during the previous night’s thunderstorms).

Fifteen minutes from my dad’s house, my son declared that he had to go potty. I scanned the exits to see if there was an easy place to take him to the restroom.

“Goddard Space Flight Center, Employees Only,” read one exit sign.

“NSA, Employees Only” read another.

Apparently this exit was also home to the National Cryptologic Museum, which may have had a restroom we could have used, but the “employees only” and my reluctance to risk a wrong turn into the NSA kept me driving. Luckily, my son was able to wait until we reached Grandpa’s house, even with the couple of wrong turns I took down rather sketchy-looking streets.

After my sister arrived, we all headed off to Friendship Park (also called “Turtle Park”) near American University to let the children run free after the hours on the road. On the map, the park didn’t seem all that far from my dad’s house, but in practice, even a short drive across DC is rather complicated.

I drove in the city twice in the four years that I lived in Northern Virginia. One trip involved me driving on the sidewalk across from the White House and the other ended with me bursting into tears in front of a nice soldier at the gates of Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery is a fine destination, but I’d been trying to find the Library of Congress.

This time when we determined that public transit wouldn’t be a great option, I not-very-subtly roped my father into driving. “We’ll only have to take one car!” I said over my shoulder as I raced to move the kids’ car seats from my car to his before he had a chance to protest.

Even for my dad, who’s lived in the area for the past 20-odd years, traversing the city by auto proved to be an exercise in frustration and served as a reminder that he is, in fact, the man who taught me to swear. Confusing intersections, road construction at every corner, misleading GPS directions, and the legendary (and gratuitous) aggressiveness of drivers inside the Beltway all conspired against us, but we eventually made it to the playground.

One website billed Friendship Park as “one of the best playgrounds in DC.” If it is, that says much more about the other playgrounds than it does about this one. It was nice, but nothing spectacular. It had clean restrooms and ample shade, something that the playgrounds back home lack. It had a fenced play area and plenty of benches for the nannies to hang out while their charges climbed the play structures and fought over the communal toys in the shadow of the large turtle statue.

My son pretended the turtle statue was a stegosaurus and that he was Mr. Conductor on the Dinosaur Train.

“Pet him gently, Mommy,” he instructed.

My daughter spent most of her time conquering her fear of the three firemen’s polls there. By the end she was jumping and sliding like a pro on even the tallest one. Over and over and over (and over) again. Both of my children are fairly persistent, but she’s the clear winner in this category.

A trip to a nearby (and very crowded with surly and distracted people) Whole Foods rounded out our day, and we headed back to Grandpa’s house to make plans for Tuesday.

MA to DC Road Trip, 2012: Day 1

This road trip, I was prepared. I bought some nifty little travel bag thingies (on sale), rolled our clothes into little tubes, and packed the suitcase in what was actually a somewhat organized fashion. I fit all of the clothes and toiletries for myself and the two kids into one suitcase, and still had room for my daughter’s flute and her music and about 20 more disposable pull-ups than we needed.

On Sunday, after 4.5 hours on the road, the kids and I dropped my husband off in New Jersey.

We settled Daddy into his dorm room (which involved climbing into the empty wardrobes and then jumping out and scaring each other, getting free cookies from the registration staff, chasing the birds and squirrels on the otherwise quiet campus, and taking a couple of potty breaks) and then we traveled down the road a bit to a hotel outside of Philadelphia.

This stop was a little gratuitous, but I’d never taken a road trip of any significant duration on my own with the kids. An overnight stop would break up the remaining 4.5 hours of the drive and give the kids a chance to swim in the hotel pool and sleep in hotel beds. You’d think our six weeks living in a hotel last summer would have dampened their enthusiasm for hotel stays, but if anything it seems to have done the opposite. They seem to have the sense that a hotel is just a variation on the idea of “home.”

One of my daughter’s photos from the road trip. She took this book and her World History encyclopedia and was set for hours. I have no idea how she can read in the car without vomiting, but I’m not complaining.