Lessons Learned On Vacation

1. That feeling you have, while driving away, of having forgotten something important — that is in fact accurate. In my case, we headed out to the coast for three days lacking two things: Nathan’s coat and our camera. The first was easily replaced at a thrift store. The second was not. This is why there are no pictures in this post, despite the fact that we were in some of the most beautiful coastal territory imaginable.

2. Kids at the beach don’t need toys. At least young kids don’t. They have sand, rocks, dunes, grass, sticks, water, foam, and their hands. Toys are irrelevant. The only place where toys are useful is in the hotel room, where you would like the kids to entertain themselves in some way that involves neither destruction nor excessive noise. Speaking of which:

3. Hotel choice is critical. Thanks to Oregon Coast Magazine and Google, I decided on the San Dune Inn. It billed itself as kid-friendly, and boy was it ever. It wasn’t just that they had things like videos in the office that you could snag for a quick distraction. Far more importantly, the hotel room required almost no child-proofing. Compared to the room we stayed in the year before, which was crammed with all kinds of games and knick-knacks, this was a dream. And then there was the kitchen…

4. Don’t eat out. Eating out with small children just annoys me. Trying to select something they’ll eat, entertaining them before the food comes, trying to snatch bites of my own food in between helping them with theirs, running off with them again once their appetite and patience wears out… I think it was on our last trip to the coast that I began to hate the whole process with a passion. So this time we didn’t do it. Our hotel room had a decently stocked kitchen; I brought supplies for our meals; and I planned ahead (again, thanks to Oregon Coast Magazine) for fun places to scrounge our dinners. The first night we were there, the Manzanita Farmer’s Market was open, and we feasted on corn-on-the-cob and a stir-fry of beef and fresh veggies. The second day we hit Cannon Beach and the Ecola Seafoods Restaurant and Market, and used the salmon and prawns thus obtained for another rather excellent meal. I’d planned to go out a few times, but in the end we didn’t — and we all enjoyed it much more. Especially me.

5. Young kids must be outside. Maybe there exist small children who will play quietly and contentedly for an hour in the hotel room before bed. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never met them. Except for meals or sleep, our children needed to be outside pretty much all the time for things to be happy. I had mostly planned on that anyway, but making slight adjustments to our plans to include things like, say, after-dinner walks… that made everything smoother.

6. Always carry extra clothes. Not just because of the rain, either. You never know when your tired two-year-old will try to stomp in the edge of a tide pool, totally misinterpreting the clear water to be shallow, and end up stumbling down the steep side of the pool four steps and falling over into the water, so that you have to pull him out and take him, wailing, back into a cave out of the wind to be stripped down and wrapped into warm dry clothes. Just as an example. We got so many Bonus Parent Points for having those extra clothes on us.

7. Know when to bail. Our first day, Friday, was lovely; we spent all afternoon in beach heaven. The forecast for the weekend had called for a few showers Saturday and Sunday. Saturday morning this was true, and we got in a great hike to another fantastic beach. It poured all Saturday afternoon. We are not afraid of rain, but shivering little kids are not happy kids, and their parents are not happy parents. Coupled with Lesson #5, this meant that we drove back Sunday instead of Monday. We first got in a another great rainy morning at the beach on Sunday — and then, when everyone was wet, cold, and (in Ryan’s case) exhausted, we changed into dry clothes (Lesson #6) and headed out. It was the right choice.

And we’ll go back again. We like Manzanita a lot. Maybe we’ll make the coast trip a yearly tradition.

Undoubtedly more learning will occur every year.

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Another Experiment

New this year: cranberry beans. Actually I planted a variety of shelling beans this year, in various nooks and crannies of the garden. The Tiger’s Eye beans have already dried and been harvested — ten beans turned into about a cup and a half. I also have some black beans coming. It’s clear to me that growing my own supply of dried beans, besides being rather silly (they’re about the cheapest things ever to buy) would also take a lot of space. Still, it’s been a fun experiment, and I might keep growing some specialty types if I have a good corner handy.

I intended to let the cranberry beans dry too, but at the last minute ended up cooking them fresh instead. They’re so beautiful, creamy and plump and streaked with pink, when they come out of the shell. Unfortunately they lose their striking looks as they cook. But with some garlic and sage, they turned into a rather delicious side dish.

Italian Prunes

I spent a week calling Sherwood Orchards every day, waiting for the Italian prunes to be ready. I appreciate that they care enough about their fruit enough to wait for it to be really ripe — I was impressed by how ready and tasty the fruit was when they finally opened the trees for picking.

I got over fifty pounds of Italian prunes (and another sixteen of apples). I didn’t really realize that I was picking so many prunes; my trouble is that my sense of harvest is guided by the fruit-picking I did as a child, in our own little orchard. Picking two five-gallon buckets of prunes just seems reasonable — if anything, it seems a little light. But it turns out that fifty-six pounds is actually a lot of fruit, both to pay for and to process.

I canned some of the prunes, like Mom used to do, and made plum butter, and of course we ate a lot fresh. Ryan in particular (my little fruit monster) can eat them six at a time. And since I was also making applesauce that day (mainly from some apples from a friend), I had to try some Plumple sauce. The kids, especially Nathan, have declared this a serious success.

I could never have done plums and apples in the same day if it hadn’t been for our new toy. Tipped off by the applesauce recipe on Pick Your Own, and facing down more than fifteen gallons of mashed blackberries to be processed for wine, we invested in a strainer assembly for our mixer. Holy cow, does this thing do a job. Puree goes in the top; juice or sauce, depending on your task, comes out the bottom; and undesirable solids come out the end. Not only did it speed up the blackberry puree process about a thousand-fold, but it makes applesauce and plum butter incredibly crazy easy. And it even entertains the kids. The solids ejected from the end resemble nothing so much as fruit-solid poo. “Bah-bay poo!” Ryan kept saying, while we were processing the blackberries. The plum remnants are even more fun for them.

But back to the prunes. I’ve also been drying some of them with a borrowed dehydrator, and honestly that may be my favorite way to eat them. I remember eating dried prunes by the fistful as a kid; it was one of my favorite snacks after school. Munching on them now is a sweet, nostalgia-laden pleasure. The kids are not hugely interested, which is all the better for me. I don’t really want to share. Apparently fifty-six pounds of prunes was not enough.

Back At The Children’s Museum

Their train set is considerably fancier than ours. (Ryan's shirt was a casualty of our water bottle within five minutes of entering the building.)

Ryan helped to decorate my face in the makeup department of the theater. It occurs to me occasionally how little I worry about dignity now that I have kids.

Theoretically the scale in the digging pit is for driving trucks onto. But it can also weigh Ryans.

Nathan dove right in to the water section this time. On his first few visits, he'd refused to even enter the room.

Ryan took a little longer to acclimate, and refused to wear a smock. But eventually he got his metaphorical feet wet. And his literal arms.

Wild Spaces

There are bits of wild space around us. Not many, and not large. But when I look — taking walks with the kids is a good way to do this — I can find the bits and pieces.

Often it’s just a matter of framing, and having the camera handy can help with this. The little beach down at the river is within view of the bridge where the freeway crosses — so I try to keep my gaze on the water, or upstream. The creek pictured above has a plastic pipe running alongside it — so I turn a little the other way. And sometimes just focusing in, on some small, delicate piece of nature, lets the surroundings nicely fade away.

Growing up, I was surrounded by wild spaces, my need for them so satiated that I never even thought of it as a need. Not that I didn’t use them, or love them; but I lived in such abundance that I never really thought about scarcity, and whether it would matter. The skill of finding wildness has come slowly — and a bit grudgingly. For a long time I resisted “making do,” as though there was something inferior in enjoying a few trees by the road instead of endless undisturbed woods.

But if approached the right way, I find now that a suggestion can be nearly as potent as full immersion.

No Me!

Recently I ordered Nathan a small backhoe loader from Amazon.

This may not sound momentous, but it kind of is. He’s been wanting a backhoe loader in good repair (i.e., with a back scoop, which his other one lost) for a long time. I don’t know how many times he said it. “I want a backhoe loader with a back scoop,” he’d remind me, several times a day, in case I’d somehow forgotten. It was the first time that he’d asked for a toy so specifically, and we took the request seriously.

Our first response was to start scouring thrift stores for such a toy. After all, this is where his original backhoe loader came from, and is generally our first stop for anything we need. When Nathan, at one year old, dropped the lid of my spice grinder down an open vent hole, did I run out and buy a new spice grinder? No, I did not! I figured out how to cover the top with a plastic lid and press the button with the tip of a knife, and meantime looked for a “new” grinder every time I went to a thrift store.

However, it’s also true that after more than two years without success, I eventually shelled out the cash for a new spice grinder. And after a few months looking for a backhoe loader, it was time to do the same for Nathan. (Buy a backhoe loader, that is. Not a spice grinder.) From his perspective, the months he waited were probably equivalent to the years that I did.

So I did some research, Amazon-style, looking for a backhoe loader that would stand up to actual play and was within a reasonable price range. And when I ordered it, I also threw in a little pack of mini construction equipment. Having a single new toy arrive in the mail, I thought, would just be asking for trouble between my two little diggers. I felt rather clever for having anticipated and (I thought) solved that problem.

It felt kind of special to fulfill this request for Nathan. After only a few days of Nathan asking “Is my backhoe loader here yet?” we arrived home one day to find a package waiting. What excitement! The new backhoe loader not only had a back scoop, but hydraulic arms facilitating its movement! It was detailed, sturdy… slightly smaller than I’d anticipated, but a good match for the mini machines at that.

For about two hours the boys explored their new acquisitions on the back dirt pile. And then, somehow, Ryan figured out that the backhoe loader toy was the most special in Nathan’s eyes. Instantly it was exalted to a place of honor.

By about noon the next day, I was about ready to chuck the thing into the garbage.

It isn’t, of course, the fault of the backhoe loader. (Although these new toys seemed to set off a bigger reaction than usual.) This is just the phase we’re in right now — the “no me” phase. For example: Nathan asks me for a drink. I tell him there’s a cup on the kitchen table. (Just like the last four hundred times he asked. But that’s a different grievance.) Before I’ve even finished speaking, Ryan yells “No me!” and does his best toddler sprint for the table. There’s a brief duet of “No me no me no me!” and then someone is in tears because the other one got the cup first.

Asking them not to fight over the cup is useless. Pointing out that there is plenty of good clean water in the house is useless. Even keeping two cups on the table (which doubles Ryan’s potential damage if he gets into a water-pouring mood) is useless — the wailing loser still, every time, requires me to point out the presence of the second cup before he’s mollified. And he still sniffles a little.

That’s just for a drink of water. Imagine the fun to be had with a brand new, snazzy backhoe loader.

Or, for that matter, any of the other new toys. Having six new little toys instead of one helped keep the peace for those first two hours. For the next week we played the game of Guess The Good Toy. Each day it seemed that a different little machine had entered the golden circle of favoritism. The backhoe loader, so precious that first day, was soon supplanted by the front loader. The front loader gave way to the bulldozer. And so on.

I am, of course, not reporting anything new and exciting for parents everywhere — at least, parents with small children who are close in age. Parents who had children farther apart keep telling me, “Yeah, we never really had to deal with that.” Unfortunately it’s a little late for me to solve the problem by spacing out the birthdays more.

But eventually it does die down. The squabbles — at least over these particular toys — have now become occasional and brief. Nathan and Ryan are able to play happily on the dirt pile together for as much as twenty minutes at a time again.

Nathan, entranced by this concept of simply ordering toys that he wants, has informed me that he wants an excavator with a cab that turns around, as well as a trailer truck where the trailer can hitch on and off. I have no issues with him having those toys. If we find something at a thrift store, we’ll get it.

But ordering it new, just to grind through another week of desperate tears? Not so interested, thanks.

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First Melon — Ever

I realize that in some parts of the country, growing melons is no big deal. Maybe that’s true even for more experienced gardeners in the Willamette Valley. These people just take harvesting a ripe melon out of the garden as an inevitable part of summer.

They will undoubtedly not understand my excitement at picking a single, baseball-sized melon after two years of trying. But my little fruit monster Ryan and I — we were very excited indeed.