Two to Do in Boston

This year we decide to spend Thanksgiving in Boston. The Floridians don’t react to this idea with the same incredulity that they did to Thanksgiving in Houston or going to Arizona in July, but we are warned that, in contrast to the fine weather in Florida, it will be cold at this time of year. The chilly fresh air, however, together with the autumnal colours in the parks and the historic landmarks of the city, invoke fond memories of London (*sigh*). We visit many of the main tourist destinations, such as Faneuil Hall, the Boston Tea Party Ship and the hugely undersold Museum of Fine Art, but for us the highlights of the trip are the Mapparium and the Blue Man Group.


Hidden in the Mary Baker Eddy Library at The Christian Science Plaza, the Mapparium is an  illuminated, stained glass globe 30ft in diameter that you can walk through via an elevated bridge. You enter through the Indian Ocean and exit through the South Pacific:

MappariumBuilt in 1935 to celebrate the success of the Christian Science Monitor and intended to outdo the gigantic spinning globe of the New York Daily News, it’s one of those vanity projects that it’s hard to imagine being approved these days.

There are three striking aspects to this exhibit. The first is the geographical perspective. It’s widely known that world maps give a distorted view of the relative size and position of countries. It’s also commonly assumed that a globe solves this problem, but when viewed from the outside, different parts of the globe are at different distances from the eye and so are distorted by perspective. From the centre of the globe, however, the eye is the same distance from every point of the map. It can therefore be argued that this is the only place in the Universe where you can look at the surface of the world without distortion. Of course if you were actually in the middle of the Earth and able look out, you’d see a concave reversal of this image because you’d be looking from underneath the land masses, but let’s not complicate matters.

What I see very much reminds me of (and perhaps vindicates) the controversial Peters Projection world map that is area-accurate. Most land is north of the Equator, Africa is much bigger than you think it is, and North America, Europe and Asia cluster around the North Pole.

Then there is the historical and political perspective of a world map designed in 1935. The USSR looms large, and while you’ll find Siam, French Indochina and Italian East Africa, there is no Indonesia, Vietnam or Israel.

Finally, the acoustics are the most unsettling I’ve ever experienced, reportedly taking even the designers by surprise. As a child I was never convinced by the so-called ‘Whispering Gallery’ at St Paul’s Cathedral, but because this is a full sphere of glass which doesn’t absorb sound at all, the effect is extraordinarily clear. If you stand in the middle of the bridge and speak, you hear your own voice in surround sound. If two people whisper from opposite ends of the bridge, they hear each other as if they are muttering directly in each other’s ears. We’re part of a group and the various snippets of disembodied voices are as fleeting as they are startling. I feel like I’m being buzzed by invisible, supernatural entities, albeit ones that only wish to make inoffensive chitchat about our surroundings. So all the fun of auditory hallucinations then, with none of the distressing psychosis that usually accompanies them; that has to be worth the $6 entry fee alone. Oh, and the whole experience lasts less than half an hour, which is ideal for those of us lacking in time or attention span.

Blue Man Group

This is a show that markets itself as ‘modern vaudeville’, with its projected animation, LED screens, old-fashioned comedy and 90s music, presented by a trio of muted, bald performance artists painted a gooey blue.

2969560739_c3e55cbda5_zI have only been obliquely aware of this show before now, but since its inception in 1997 it quickly became an established commercial success in Las Vegas, further expanding to employ 700 people and playing to a cumulative audience in excess of 12 million people, with ongoing shows in nine cities, including Boston’s Charles Playhouse.

There is quite a bit of pseudo-intellectual nonsense in online editorials about how profound and relevant the show is to the information and communication age, which I think is ultimately responsible for the swathe of mixed reviews from disappointed theatre-goers who were expecting some kind of life-changing enlightenment from the evening. We went in with no such expectation and found it to be an hour and 45 minutes of very family-friendly entertainment. With no spoken lines, there’s plenty of silly slaptstick to delight the kids, with enough clever observations about modern technology to keep the adults amused. I don’t want to give away much more about the show to anyone that hasn’t seen it yet, but suffice to say that earplugs are available on your way in and plastic ponchos are handed out to those in the first few rows.

Flickr Image credits
Mapparium: Jassy-50;
Blue Man Group: qnibert00
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Book Review: King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak

King Matt the First

This is the first review of fiction that I haven’t been paid or otherwise obligated to write, but I’m posting it because this is the best book we’ve read to our eight-year-old to date.

‘King Matt is a fable that offers a fierce, truthful picture of children struggling to make sense of grown-up nonsense . . . This small masterpiece is a rare tribute to the psychological depth and marvelous workings of a child’s heart and mind’
So said Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s also a favourite of Brian Selznick, who wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the book behind Martin Scorcese’s Hugo.

It’s about a child prince who accedes to the throne upon the sudden death of his father. With no trusted friends or mentors to begin with, King Matt must learn his life lessons the hard way; through trial and error.

This premise allows Korczak to go beyond well-worn themes such as the nature of friendship (spoiler alert: it’s about mutual respect, love and trust, kids!) and introduce more challenging concepts such as the value and absurdities of tradition, the morality of war, and competing notions of justice. Most of the issues highlighted by Matt’s escapades fall under a very broad heading of politics, touching on the chicanery and hypocrisy inherent in both domestic government and international diplomacy. A series of adventures interspersed with triumph and failure teach Matt the limits of generosity, the need to delegate, the value of first hand experience and the dangers of propaganda. There are even rudimentary comparisons between monarchy (both absolute and constitutional) and democracy.

Prejudice around gender, age, class and race is never far from the surface, and has caused a little unrest in some corners of the Internet. While the general portrayal of Africans in the book can be compared to that of Native Americans by J. M. Barrie in Peter Pan, I believe this is sufficiently offset by Klu Klu, the African Princess who is by far the wisest, most skilled and resourceful character in the book.

The novel’s leitmotif is the clash between Matt’s naiveté versus the cynicism of the world he is thrown into, and his ensuing search for a balance between idealism and realism. He learns that he cannot solve all the world’s problems by himself, no matter how hard he works or how efficiently he schedules his day. His ever more sweeping reforms often have unintended consequences, and practicalities frequently force Matt to change tactics, often on the advice of other kings that he has befriended.

It’s hard to say what age this book is appropriate for. All children are different, but I decided that it would be a good book to read aloud to my eight-year-old. Parental advisories aside (vodka, cigarettes, death by hanging and other things you won’t find in Diary of a Wimpy Kid), there’s so much in it that’s ripe for discussion. Some nights we spent far longer talking about what had just happened in the book than actually reading from it. I might suggest that he reads it again by himself in a year or two.

What makes this book stand out is Korczak’s ability to contrive situations that kids find both funny and thought-provoking, such as when King Matt decrees that every child should receive free chocolate daily, or when his children’s parliament demands the abolition of the smallest children. Though obviously impossible, the story is surprisingly realistic and never condescends to its readership (or audience) by trying to serve up ready-made answers. It’s also a pleasure to read as a parent; Korczak’s description of our world through the eyes of a child serves as a constant reminder to think about what it is to be a good child or adult.

Highly recommended.

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Not So Itsy Bitsy Spiders

My Facebook friends already know that we had a large, eight-legged and most unwelcome visitor a couple of weeks ago…

Fortunately for the spider, it is discovered by my son and not my daughter. Carla’s somewhat direct approach to problem-solving would probably have resulted in it being summarily pulverized by fairy wand, Barbie doll or other gender-appropriate blunt instrument. Stanley, on the other hand, comes running to tell me all about it.

Unlike my wife, I’m not normally scared of spiders, but this is a biggie and I must confess to letting slip the odd abortive expletive while looking at it. As well as its impressive size and reach, it’s also fast and canny, as I discover to my cost. While I’m uploading this photograph to Facebook, the spider seizes the opportunity to completely vanish, much to the annoyance of my wife who is refusing to enter the bathroom and is blaming me for losing control of the situation. I look everywhere, tentatively using my camera to snap nooks and crannies that I can’t or won’t get close to, but there is no sign and the search is called off for the night.

The next day I’m not thrilled about calling pest control to come and deal with a spider that isn’t there any more, but it’s the only way to persuade my wife to come home from work. In the event, pest control fails to show, but Jenni does (reluctantly) and she proceeds to feverishly run Google image searches.  She concludes that the intruder must be a brown recluse (or fiddleback). They’re not native to Florida but there have been reports and they can deliver a nasty bite.  Thank goodness it’s gone.

Five days later – inevitably – it’s back and this time it has a plan. That plan is to lurk in the folds of the hand towel. It’s a good plan, but I too have a plan, and that is to get the can of bug spray without updating Facebook first, which affords me the decisive advantage I lacked in our first encounter. I discharge half the can at point blank range on its sorry, brown cephalathorass. It’s not spider spray; it’s roach and wasp spray, but I figure it won’t half make its eyes water – all six of them. The effort to crawl away from the foamy, noxious deluge that’s following it across the bathroom floor proves futile, until the spider abandons hope, embracing itself and then death.

It’s over.

And then a couple of days ago…this:

It’s above the door to our shower, and I can assure you that this image has not been Photoshopped in any way. Let’s just do a crop and zoom, shall we?

I momentarily wonder if a picture of me is soon to be uploaded to its Facebook page, but – after doing what I have to do – I discover that it’s quite common for the eyes of large spiders to reflect a camera flash. Next time I’ll see if the red eye setting makes a difference, but before then I hope I’ve managed to replace the now empty can of bug spray.

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A Hefty Fine, Traffic School and a Ton of Junk Mail

I’ve written about driving in Florida before, but I stopped short of expressing my opinion that some speed limits in Florida are too low. Dead straight, three lane carriageways flanked by vast grass verges with no pedestrians or residential buildings in sight can have 35 mph speed limits. Sticking to them reminds me of when Animal from The Muppet Show is forced to play a minuet until he loses it and doubles the tempo in a frenzy, which is basically what happens to me shortly before I’m clocked doing 62mph down just such a road.

It’s the second time I’ve been stopped. I previously escaped with a warning, but then I wasn’t exceeding the limit by nearly as much on that occasion, and even my mother-in-law who was travelling with me (I know, right?) didn’t think I was going too fast.

I have never thought of myself as a speed freak. In Britain I would find myself on roads in rural areas that were practically single track with blind corners, and yet the speed limit was 60 mph. I didn’t have the confidence to go anything like that fast and so I invariably held up a procession of seething locals. Then again, someone who had moved to Boca from Honolulu told me that she thought people drove like maniacs in Florida, leading me to conclude that there can’t be any point in even having a car in Hawaii, because it must be quicker to just get out and walk. I guess you get used to whatever is the norm and it takes time to adjust.

This time there is no free pass from the sanctimonious fascist law enforcement officer who is just doing his job for the safety of all, and I’m hit with a $280 fine and a choice of either points on my licence or Traffic School, a kind of online ordeal-by-boredom to which you can only subject yourself once a year and up to five times in your lifetime (a limit imposed, presumably, for mental health reasons). I quickly accept that it would have been safer if I’d been driving slower and I further accept that this probably needed to happen for me to change the way I drive, and yet within days there’s a dramatic uptick in the junk mail that’s shoveled daily into my mailbox, which seems intent on changing my mind:

Either my alleged traffic violation and associated personal details are in the public domain before any guilt has been admitted or established, or the state of Florida is selling them to attorneys who make money from contesting cases brought by…the state of Florida. Neither would surprise me.

Needless to say, it’s an easy decision for me to pay the fine and take the course rather than talk to any of the people pictured in these flyers.

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Natural High at the Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu

Flying makes me nervous. Not to the extent that it stops me from getting on a plane, but a stiff drink beforehand is required regardless of time of day. And while the kids are still young enough to find the thrills and spills of violent turbulence hysterically funny, I have to contain a rather different kind of hysteria by constantly reviewing the balance of probabilities, scouring the faces of cabin crew for any signs of concern and testing the compressive strength of my arm rests.

Hot air ballooning is an entirely different experience for me, however, as I discovered when Jenni and I took our maiden flight in the Dubai desert last year. Oddly, the low-tech mechanics, together with exposure and surrender to the elements somehow banished any nightmare scenarios, making way for a sense of languorous, antiquated adventure. So I’m quite looking forward to the International Balloon Festival in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, some 20 minutes from Montreal where we’ve been spending a few days. It’s an annual event that includes fairground rides and a large concert venue (Mika, The Wanted and Carly Rae Jepsen are among the performers this year), but it’s also an opportunity for a balloon ride, with over a hundred flights at dawn and dusk for nine days straight.

My youngest isn’t tall enough yet. I’m not sure if this is a safety issue or just because there’s little point if you can’t see over the top of the basket, but either way I’ll be taking Stanley for his first flight, while Jenni remains with Carla on terra firma.

It takes a team of six about an hour to unload, unpack and inflate the canopy, while all around there are dozens of others at various stages of the process, feeding into a continuous stream of ascending balloons.

I sense a crescendo of foreboding in Stanley as preparations for take-off conclude, and by the time we’re in the basket it’s clear that he has simply resigned himself to certain death.

Passive resignation turns to quivering embrace when our basket lifts off and buffets against another inflating canopy, but once we’re a few hundred feet up, Stanley takes a backwards peek and his anxiety palpably melts away.

We don’t feel the wind, because we are moving with it. In fact, we don’t feel any motion at all. It’s as if we are perfectly still and it’s the earth below that’s dragging by, receding further with every roaring flame that breaks the silence.

For over an hour we point things out to each other, inevitably succumbing to clichés about ants and toys, and spot other balloons around us that caught our eye before we took off.

The pilot speaks very little English, and I clearly didn’t pay attention when we covered hot air ballooning vocabulary in French class, but I do manage to establish that he can’t steer the balloon at all. All he can do is go up or down and let the chase team with the SUV and trailer know where he thinks he’s going to end up.

With the sun setting, the time comes to land. I say ‘land’, but you can’t really ‘land’ a balloon; you just have to crash it as gently as possible.  Ours is a comparatively soft impact, with minimal bouncing and scraping, but I haven’t prepared Stanley for this bit and it’s his least favourite part of the experience. He finds the subsequent efforts of others, however, far more entertaining…and even more so when they clip trees or tip the basket with people still in it.

The chase team pack the balloon up into their trailer and drive us back to the festival. By the time the family is reunited night has fallen, and the dazzling fairground rides and live music are in full swing.

When Carla’s grown another six inches, we might just have to come back.

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Cowboys and Injuries in the Arizona Desert – a Family Vacation

We had decided on the road trip through California. While catching up with admin that I really should have completed during the day, Jenni spends several evenings mapping routes, researching the pros and cons of taking a convertible versus an RV, and deciding what we should or shouldn’t include along the way. But the more progress she makes, the less enthused I feel about the whole idea. Fortunately, just as Jenni is consulting me on the finer details prior to making bookings, I’m able to put my doubts into words.

I explain that living in Florida means making significant car journeys to do pretty much anything. Back in England, I walked the kids to school and ambled into town to pick things up as and when we needed them, so we spent maybe a couple of hours a week in the car. Here it’s more like 15. What’s more, experience suggests that the average Wonder of the World (natural or man-made) only distracts the kids from their desire for electronic entertainment for about half an hour, tops. That might be a sad indictment of kids today – okay, my parenting – that’s crying out to be challenged, but we’re trying to organize a fun vacation here, not make gruelingly transformative reality TV.

Activities are what we need. Things we haven’t done before, things we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in England, and things we might carry on doing if we like them. A photo of Jenni’s thousand-mile stare might have been appropriate at this point but, being the empathetic type, I think better of whipping out the camera.

To cut a long story short (new brief / new browser tab / new search), our destination is now Tanque Verde, a 60,000 acre ‘dude ranch’ just east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s centered on horseback riding, which none of us have done before, and we’re booked in for eight days. Other onsite activities such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing and tennis are also on offer. Even though it’s the largest and one of the best reviewed ranches in North America, our choice still elicits a now customary look of disbelief from our American friends. This time it’s because nobody goes to the Arizona desert in July, on account of the temperatures soaring above 100°F. But we do, dammit, because it’s already over 90°F in Florida and it’ll be a dry heat, which will make all the difference. In any case, we’ve gone and booked it now.

sonoran desert

Image credit: Matt Ottosen

Our casita has a stunning view of the Sonoran desert, making up for the lack of television. Well, that’s what I tell my skeptical children on the first day, anyway. The subject never arises again though, because the early starts and daily program exhaust us to the point where we’re ready to retire as soon as we return to our lodgings each evening.

Riding is so tiring because, like most creatures, horses are as lazy as they can get away with being. They know when they have an inexperienced rider on their back and are literally unmoved by how much has been spent on the Stetson and cowboy boots. When a wrangler yells at me to kick my horse ‘like it’s a red-headed stepchild’ to distract it from eating some dried-out shrubbery, I dread to think what it’s going to take to actually get the beast to walk, trot or lope in accordance with my rapidly buckling will.

More out of frustration than anything, I do summon up the courage to kick the bejesus out of my steed and things get much easier very quickly. The basics of western-style riding are straightforward, and everything I’m taught to do I can remember seeing in some cowboy movie or other, which somehow makes the whole experience that much more satisfying. The rest of the family take to riding as well as I do, though the flapping pink boots of a four-year old must surely be irrelevant to the obedience of Carla’s horse, which is merely responding to the verbal cues of a nearby wrangler, right? Yes, that must be it.

Once I get the hang of it I’m deftly steering my four-legged friend ‘Buckshot’ around the cacti, some of which have grown enormous through hundreds of years of growth. I look down on the occasional rattlesnake and jackrabbit, up at the scattered eagles gliding on thermals in a cloudless sky, or off at the stately Rincon Mountains in the distance, and I find myself taking in the whole sensory experience as completely as I can, knowing that it’s one I’ll want to recall vividly.

As well as gaining hands-on practical experience, we’re also taught a great deal by the wranglers by way of instruction and observation on the trail, or explanation and demonstration back in the corral at sunset.

And then there’s the fishing…

This isn’t our first attempt at fishing, but it’s by far our most successful. Assisted by a lake teeming with bluegill sunfish, Stanley is proud of his 13 catches inside an hour, and I’m equally proud of my outstanding bravery in squeezing each of his flippity quarry long enough to unhook it and throw it back in.

One of the advantages of coming here in low season is that there’s no waiting for anything, such as food, drink, horses etc. and there’s always space in the group activities. Jenni & I decide to have a go on mountain bikes. The kids are too young for this and so they’re off on horses while we’re taken out with another couple by Mike, our instructor, for a gentle introduction to the sport. I enjoy it so much I sign up for another session the following day, while Jenni opts to read a good book instead.

This time I’m the only one to show up. Great…one-on-one training! We start where we left off yesterday, move on to a pump track and proceed to some increasingly challenging ‘dips’, all of which I accomplish with aplomb. Then Mike stops at the edge (‘precipice’ might be a better word) of what they call ‘CB Hill’. He stresses that it’s optional; we could just turn back. He goes on to explain how to tackle it and asks if I ‘want to go for it’. ‘Sure’ I reply, unthinkingly. Before I can change my answer, Mike launches himself over the edge, hurtling down and then up the sides of this mini-ravine before vanishing over the next ridge where he is presumably waiting for me.

I stare into this rocky, sandy, cactussy abyss for a full two minutes, getting all ‘you only regret the things you don’t do’ on my own ass. Not for the first time, I go on to prove this to be a dangerous fallacy. Look what it did to me:

On the way back Mike tells me that the ‘CB’ stands for ‘collarbone’ and refers to the most common type of injury sustained there. He’s also known people to break other bones and one person even knocked himself unconscious. Thank goodness he hadn’t told me any of this beforehand, or I might have thought better of it and missed out. This is why we signed all those waivers at check-in.

Despite the mishap, our time here has been one of the best family vacations we’ve ever had. I could bolster this claim by singing the praises of the food, the staff, the pool and the evening entertainment, but that’s what Tripadvisor is for if you’re interested. Having said that, I’d certainly recommend this bottle of wine from the fabulously branded Merkin Vineyards if you do decide to visit:

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What did bored SAHMs do before the Internet?

It’s probably a good thing there were no SAHDs at the time.

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