Monthly Archives: May 2010

Con Artists

We are all about the whole “meet your kids where they are” thing. You like gemstones? Let’s go to the Hall of Gemstones at the American Natural History Museum. Ballet? We’re at the Nutcracker, regardless of how overpriced it is. We will see how this all plays out when one of our kids gets into NASCAR.

In the meantime, Mr. Big is all into superheroes. So while researching an article for Bold Life magazine, I was surprised and excited to discover the previously unknown-to-me world of comic book conventions (aka ‘cons’). I mean, I kind of peripherally knew about them, but I had never before made the connection that for a three-and-a-half year old boy this is what heaven must be like.

Spidey, Batman, Superman, Obi Wan Kenobi, stormtroppers, wookies: they are all just walking around. They will get their picture taken with you and high-five you. We did a little toe-dip into the world of comics by going to our local comic store Pastimes on Free Comic Book Day. The very kind staff loaded us up with free comic books and a few action figures. The main event was our new local comic book convention Fanaticon. With the help of some very awesome grandparents, we took three boys ranging in age from three to five for a few hours. Mr. Big ran into Supergirl, who he had met at Free Comic Book Day, gave her a little wave and said “Nice to see you again,” as if they were business colleagues or perhaps had met at a cocktail party. There was a costume parade, a great band, and tons of zombies. It was fantastic (and free!).

No matter where you live, I bet there is a comic book conference of some scale nearby. You can research the places and dates at Conventionscene. Even for non-geeks (n. in-group term for enthusiast of comic books, video games, fantasy), it’s just plain fun. I found what Fanaticon organizer Chance Whitmire told me to be true: “geeks have good hearts.” Everyone was super nice and patient with the boys: not a Simpson’s Comic Book Guy among them.

Oh, yeah, and there were also pirates.


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The Cloud Appreciation Society

Ever since Miss M was a baby, clouds have been kind of our fallback source of entertainment. They’re ever-changing. They’re big (important when trying to impress kids). They’re open to interpretation. And of course, they’re free. A lot of people have portable DVD players for long car trips. We have audio books (more on that topic later) and clouds. They’re a great source of distraction if things start to go south on during the ride (“Wait! Did you see that cloud? It looks like a dragon eating an anaconda!”). The Cloud Appreciation Society is a great site for cloudspotters young and old. The founder, the wonderfully British-named Gavin Pretor-Pinney, has written several guidebooks which are pretty and informative. The site has ‘cloud news’ and lets cloud lovers from around the globe share their cloud-inspired poetry, art, and photos, as well as chat about clouds. Just lovely.

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Cabin Fever! (Southeast Edition)

Cabins at the LeConte Lodge, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

As the school year comes to end, wandering families’ thoughts turn to summer vacation! We’ve started looking for close-by but unique places and came up with this wanderlist of rentable cabins in the southeast (I’ll cover other regions later). These are all on public land (state parks, national parks, national forests, I have a soft spot for anything having to do with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), so I’ve tried to include as many CCC cabins as I could find.

Charming and rustic are the keys concept here: many of these accommodations don’t have electricity or plumbing (and one doesn’t even have door locks!). They are sometimes, but not always less expensive than staying in a budget hotel. Several can be reached only by foot or horseback. In other words, it’s about the experience, not the free continental breakfast.

For the Truly Adventurous

We’re not going to attempt the LeConte Lodge cabins (pictured above) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until the kids are older. They’re reached only by trail, ranging 5.5 to 8 miles long, 4 to 5.5 hours as a liberal estimate. My source (thru-hiker husband Andrew) says that the cabins book up about a year in advance and the food is fantastic.

Reached only log bridge (!), the Donley Cabin in the Cherokee National Forest pre-dates the Civil War, has no electricity, plumbing, or door locks and is served by an outhouse.

Mild, Not Too Wild

More our speed at the moment are the Swan and Stewart cabins, both historic cabins that you can rent in the Nantahala National Forest here in Western North Carolina.

Stewart cabin, Nantahala National Forest

I also love the look of the CCC cabins at Mount Nebo State Park in western Arkansas, and they have quite a few amenities.

CCC cabin at Mount Nebo State Park, Arkansas

These CCC cabins at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville, Alabama also look charming.

Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville, Alabama

We’ve been to Myakka State Park in Florida, but we didn’t stay in these cute palm-log cabins, which were also built by the CCC. 

We recently found out about some affordable rentals at the Cape Lookout National Seashore. They’ve got some basics (including hot water) along with generator hook-ups. They’re not nearly as charming as the ones I’ve pictured here, but they’re right on the beach, which kind of makes up for it!

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This Place Matters

Historic bridges of Pittsburgh

For another week at least, it’s National Historic Preservation month. The National Trust for Historic Preservation just released their 2010 list of 11 Most Endangered Places (a subject which I covered in 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12!). The list mobilizes people to protect historic places and properties under imminent threat, such as the Wilderness Battlefield in Virginia, which is currently in the path of, you guessed, a proposed Walmart Development.

I am a big fan of all the Trust’s programs and really love what they’ve done with the This Place Matters campaign, which helps people advocate for historic places that are important to them. You can check out their Flickr account here and their YouTube here. I love the diversity of people and places represented, and that kids are involved! How I wish this had been around when I was a kid in Atlanta and the city was being systematically dismantled!

Finding a ‘place that matters’ to your family could be a great way to introduce your kids to concepts of history and preservation: What’s worth saving? What’s not? How much does it cost? Who pays for it? And what do we lose when we lose a piece of history?

Ingles Ferry Tavern, Dublin, Virginia

The Do-Wop Motels in The Wildwoods, New Jersey

The Dr. Howe-Waffle House in Santa Ana, California

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The Wanderlists Observer: Tree Tunnels

When we come to a place in the road where the trees on either side lock arms over our heads, we call it a tree tunnel. They are a rare and wonderful occurrence, and we’ve even gone out of our way to see one (like the breathtaking one at Wormsloe Plantation outside of Savannah, Georgia, pictured above). There is something magical about these places, where the trees have conspired to create their own architectural elements: tunnels, cathedral ceilings, picture frames.

Even if there is nothing particularly special at the end of one (though often there is) there is a delightful sense of anticipation as you are going through one. One of us always shouts out “tree tunnel!” just so we know that everyone else is appreciating the same feeling. We absolutely hope one day to make it to the mother of all tree tunnels: Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. Watching out for tree tunnels or the slightly less dramatic “tree gateways” as Ms. M calls them, can make an ordinary car ride more adventurous. It’s also a great chance to talk about trees: how long it takes for them to get that big, what kind they are, and of course, to discuss what their personalities would be like if they were human.


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The World of A Book

The other day, Ms. M was so engrossed in her book that she took it along while we were on a walk. We stopped, she read, and when it was time to move on again, she looked up, forlorn and said, “It’s so hard to come back from the world of a book.” I couldn’t agree more! I’m an inveterate daydreamer and often find myself somewhere very far away, if only in my head.

My friend Susan Stewart (professor of Special Education at Western Carolina University) recently introduced me to Google Lit Trips, a great tool that lets you track the world of a book with Google Earth, placing markers on the real-life places featured in the books. Their site has a tutorial on how to use it, and aside from that, all you need is to download the Google Earth software. I haven’t tried it yet, but there’s a range of lit trips on their web site, for readers from preschool up through adult books. This lit trip for  Make Way for Ducklings (Robert McCluskey, Viking, 1965)  shows how it works.

I’d love to see one of Lyra’s Oxford (Phillip Pullman, Knopf, 2007) or the book that inspired me on my own lit trip, A Room With A View (EM Forster, Signet Classics reissue, 2009)

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Museums without Walls

OZYMANDIAS by Douglas Cornfield, at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA

I still remember the exact moment when I realized our gallery-opening days were over, or at least on hiatus for a decade or so. Miss M was about two and a half and we were at an opening featuring work by many of my colleagues at Lark Books. M was no longer containable in a pack or a stroller, so I spent the frustrated hour following her around, darting between exhibit stands and relaxed patrons, redirecting her hands before they reached fragile functional ceramics.

Going to shows and openings had been such a big part of our life, it was a real loss, until I discovered how we could still get a semi-regular art fix: sculpture parks. No worries about my kid being the one who breaks the $3000 piece. No annoying other patrons. No problems with sticky fingers on oil paintings.

Now, wherever we go, I find out if there’s a sculpture park we can visit. As Miss M has grown up, we’ve been able to talk about the art interacting with the landscape and the elements, the different materials used when a piece is meant to be outdoors or to be temporary.

Spider (1996), Louise Bourgeois, Storm King Art Center

Tops on my Wanderlist want-to-visit sculpture parks are Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley outside New York and the DiRosa Preserve in  Napa Valley. I’m also intrigued by the sculpture gardens at the Frank Lloyd Wright house Kentuck Knob near Pittsburgh (the Frank Lloyd Wright house is a bonus). And of course the giant spoon with a cherry on top at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden of the Walker Art Center.

Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje Van Bruggen (1985-88), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center

Red Army (1990) by Ray Williams, at Kentuck Knob, Chalk Hill, PA

I lived in Florence, Italy in the early 1990s and had heard about Niki de Saint Phalle’s Giardino dei Tarocchi, but it wasn’t completed at the time. When we went to Italy in 2007, it was the one place I insisted we visit. I don’t think Miss M will ever forget it—it was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Stateside, the only large-scale permanent work of Niki’s is at Kit Carson Park in Escondido, California. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is on our Wanderlist!

Graft (2009), Roxy Paine

Earlier this year, we got to visit the sculpture gardens at the National Gallery of Art in DC and the kids really ate up the steel tree by Roxy Paine.

House (1996), Roy Lichtenstein, National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

Both kids also still remember the Hidden Hill Nursery outside Louisville in Utica, Indiana. It’s primarily a plant nursery, but there’s a sweet little sculpture garden there, with low-key, whimsical, sight-making pieces. It was a hot day, and we must have spent an hour and a half running around the gardens, checking out the pond, miniature outdoor train, and the other features.

Each sculpture park/garden has it’s own rules, so check it out before letting your kids climb on/touch them. Any other great, kid-friendly sculpture parks I should know about?

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