Saturday, August 30, 2014

The End

Well, that's over. By that, I mean the summer. By that, I mean this blog, at least for 2014.

Summer 2014 was almost precisely two months this year, a little bit shorter than normal. Storms created a school year that ended unusually late (June 25 was my last day) and Labor Day falls on September 1, which creates a new school year that ends as early as it can in my district. As of Tuesday, I'm back doing work that I love with 11th and 12th graders. Also it means Sam and Caroline return to York Avenue, and I'm optimistic it will be a good year for them. I was impressed at Caroline's willingness to attack works when she learned to read last year, and I'm eager to see how she does in the bigger setting of first grade. Sam is entering third grade, and I remember that my third grade year marked the beginning of a lot of great things for me.

Aside from brevity, adventures far away also characterized the summer of 2014. Sherry traveled to Australia for two weeks. The four of us traveled to Ontario and Michigan for another two weeks. Given that the summer was only about eight weeks long, one or more members of the household were on the go for more than half the summer. Was it too much travel? Perhaps. But I'll look back on this year as one filled with seeing some extraordinary places.

The place we visited that no photo can truly capture: Sleeping Bear Dunes. 

I'll also remember it for the trips not as far away that were just as meaningful. The kids and I got camping three different times, each of those times with friends or family. And after the big adventure in July to Hickory Run, it might be hard to convince them that it's cool to go camping with just Mom and Dad. We got a chance to visit Philadelphia, New York, and Washington again. By the way, we did that New York trip right into Manhattan with a 1:2 parent:child ratio.

Sam, Caroline, and I at Tenement Museum.
I can't help but chuckle when I think of the places where members of this family slept this summer.

Alexandria, VA: 3
Hickory Run State Park: 4
Promised Land State Park: 1
In our tent at Promised Land, July 2014
Over the Pacific Ocean: 2
Melbourne, Victoria: 14
Centre Hall, PA: 3
Ottawa, ON: 4
Sudbury, ON: 1
Mackinaw City: 2
Mackinac Island: 3
Traverse City: 1
Dearborn, MI; 2

I tried not to turn down any invitations or opportunities this summer, and for that I'm glad. I didn't get into school once this summer, which is good. Work intruded into this summer less than it did any other. I might reconsider how good that is on Tuesday when I have to teach again.

I wish I had seen the kids' grandparents more than I did. That is the greatest casualty of a summer filled with some pretty neat adventures. Also, the timing of our big trip was a bit awkward, and when we returned to Lansdale it seemed as if our neighborhood had returned to school year mode.

The final thing I consider as I look back on this summer is how much my daughter seems to have grown. She was the only girl in the house for much of the summer. And when we were on the go during Sherry's Australia trip, I normally had to trust her to go into women's public bathrooms by herself and she had to put up with a motor-mouth dad and a talkative big brother. Through that I see that she's grown into quite a young lady. Heck of a swimmer, too. So I'd like to conclude this blog with one of my favorite photos of the summer. It is of Caroline putting on a fashion show for a friend and I while we sat on the porch sipping beers as boys played inside with Legos.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The kids of a Social Studies teacher get dragged to museums

I guess the statement in that title is true for a lot of kids. But at least the kids of a Social Studies teacher get dragged to quality historical sites. Our odyssey (in an Odyssey no less) through Ontario and Michigan brought us to some of the more interesting historical sites I've ever visited. Here are the favorites.


This might be the most fun time I've had at a historical site in as long as I can remember. It's a four-story complex built beneath the countryside about 40 minutes west of Ottawa. The bunker was meant to be the home for the Canadian government in the event of a nuclear war, and could serve as such for 30 days until food supplies ran out. Of course it was never used. In fact, it became obsolete about 10 years after it was built: it was designed for an era of bombs, not ballistic missiles.

Projected casualties from a bomb dropped at the airbase near Ottawa.

A public relations room in Diefenbunker.

An office for public relations in Diefenbunker.

At a desk in the PM's office.

This freezer would've served as food storage for days 1-12. Then, it would've become a morgue. 

Tunnel leading away from Diefenbunker. 
The guide made the trip worthwhile. Sure, had we done the walk-by-ourselves route we would've picked up some interesting things. A self-guided tour would've generated some goosebumps looking at the period furniture and pastel institutional coloring. But our guide, Les, made the place come alive with his irreverence, rapid-fire recitation of the bunker's capacities, and fairly deep knowledge of what the facility could do. The museum was also bold and blunt in its quest to figure out ways to fund its operations. It rents out space for parties, retreats, and weddings (?!). It hosts Halloween-themed zombie events. It holds spy camps for kids. But, oddly enough, it didn't have a gift shop. I would've spent a mint at such a shop. I did, though, walk away with two mugs, one of which is one of the neatest mug I've ever seen (became a gift for my friend).

One of the greatest gift shop mugs I've ever seen. 
The Henry Ford

I was expecting a museum that was about half automotive history, half stuff. Instead, I found a museum that was about one-third automotive history (and that history stretched beyond just cars) and about two-thirds rich cultural history story telling. In some ways, they're doing some stuff just to impress (to wit, what is the chair in which Lincoln was shot doing there?). For the most part, they're engaged in a valuable story-telling endeavor. I was surprised at the exhibits on culture from the twentieth century contrasting living rooms and bedrooms across the decades. There was more there than I could take in in one day.

Kennedy's limousine. 

Ike's limousine.

The Holiday Inn exhibit. 

1930s era Texaco station. 

Three eras, three tvs. 

An aluminum home designed by Buckminster Fuller. 

The bus Rosa Parks made famous is at the museum there. I was surprised that they gave us the opportunity to get on board and even sit in the seat that Ms. Parks sat in that day in the 1950s. However, they do so because the bus has been extensively renovated (apparently vandalism and age ravaged it before the museum acquired it). Their exhibit regarding Parks is just as moving as is the exhibit at the National Museum of Civil Rights.

Adjacent to the museum is Greenfield Village, which I could've spent an entire day at. For the most part, the village is a recreation of an American town circa 1910, but there is an eclectic collection of other houses spread throughout, such as a southern farmstead from the Great Depression. I enjoyed being in the midst of Model T's sputtering around (yes, we took a ride) alongside omnibuses and Model A buses. There was too much there to take in in one afternoon, and after a little bit I stopped trying to hustle from spot to spot, confident that there's enough there to justify visiting again.

From our Model T Ride. 

A Depression-era home from the south. Newspaper is the insulation. 

Canadian Museum of War and Canadian Museum of History 

These two museums sit across the river in Ottawa and Gatineau, respectively. One doesn't quite associate war with Canada, so I'm a bit surprised at a whole museum dedicated to it in Canada. I was shocked at the number of artifacts there, my favorite being a Canadian-built tank that, while in use by Soviet forces in 1944, broke through a frozen river and remained at its bottom until recovered in the 1990s.

The Canadian War museum begins with an assertion that war is a behavior in which nations engage that gives them definition. I guess I never thought of it that way. It works the visitor through how conflicts with the native peoples, then with the Americans (War of 1812), and then with World War I (Vimy Ridge is an enormous source of pride) gave the Canadian people an identity. It was a very good museum to learn about World War I in particular though it treated other wars (including the Boer War) quite thoroughly.

Sam on the Western Front. 

We had seen the Canadian Museum of History before, when we visited Ottawa last year. It remains one of the better museums I've visited. Rich story-telling and good diversity of exhibits are its strengths (it's not really a showcase of artifacts, however).

Fort Mackinac

I was impressed at the state-run historical site on Mackinac Island. The fort there is a vast facility with a lot of well-maintained buildings. Though it changed hands a few times, no angry shots were ever fired in, at, or over it. They employ a lot of college-age historians as third-person interpreters and those interpreters do a good job showcasing military techinques and ways of life across a couple of eras.

One bit of historical cheese: an animatronic officer spots the approaching British. 

Late 19th-century quartermaster's storeroom. 

The live fire presentation on War of 1812 weapons technology. 

The Fort's properties spill over into the town below to a few buildings such as a fur trading shop as well as a period home and blacksmith shop. The blacksmith shop was more interesting than I expected, largely due to the efforts of good interpreters.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why I want to go back to Michigan

Before going there, I didn't think there'd be enough to do in Michigan to make a one week trip there worthwhile. I was wrong. There is a lot to do up there, if I'm willing to slow down my pace a little bit. I could easily see being up there for two weeks. After all, there was a whole Upper Peninsula we really didn't see (I don't count our one-hour trip down I-75 as a true UP experience).

The water is enough to make me want to return. The whole time at Mackinac (or Mackinaw City) I was impressed at how the water turned three different shades as one looked out across the strait. Sandy yellow by the shore, green a little ways out, deep blue way, way out.

But when I go back, I'm going with bicycles. One for each of us. Traveling by bike around Mackinac Island was a thrill, albeit one of the pleasant variety. The trip around its perimeter is about 8.2 miles. Sam was able to do it pretty easily, though he wasn't necessarily too fast. (He's a fairly cautious biker, not a bad thing). Sherry and Sam stayed together and Caroline rode on a third-wheel tag-along with me. Interestingly, Caroline was not enjoying the morning one bit before the ride. I think she expected she'd be getting her own bike and having to pedal herself around the island. When she realized I'd be doing the work, she perked up considerably.

At the end of our trip. 

Pausing for a family photo. 

Sam and Sherry come in for a break. 

Caroline points out our progress on a map. 
I think the biggest thing I underestimated about Michigan was Sleeping Bear, and I regret not giving it a whole day. I couldn't really believe how immense the dunes were, and how one could take a day making a slow hike across a mountain of sand to see Lake Michigan. Traverse City (only 45 minutes from Sleeping Bear) was worth a two-night stay, even if our hotel there was small.

When Caroline wanted to run up the mountain I said, "Sure, knock yourself out." She actually had the easiest time of it, what with her long legs and light frame. 

Do you see Caroline in the pink toward the left? 

From atop a peak at Sleeping Bear Dunes. You can see Lake Michigan in the distance. 

Caroline tries a modeling pose. 

Good photo, I think, of Sam. 

Sherry signals to us from afar. 

I think I can talk Sherry into a return to Michigan. After all there are more lighthouses than one can shake a stick at. But next time it's with bikes, camping gear, and a desire to spend a lot of time outside.


We've been back now from our vacation for more than a week. While away, I tried to update this blog frequently, but our time at Mackinac Island and Traverse City made that pretty difficult. I'm therefore behind, still behind, on filling in the gaps of what we did while away. Rather than give a day-by-day account, it seems more appropriate to write around some of the common elements of our vacation, such as our accommodations, which will be the theme for this post.

During our vacations, we typically stay in a rented home for the bulk of our vacation. In 2014, this was only true for the four days we were in Ottawa. Our house there was a town home on the outer edge of what's considered downtown Ottawa. It had three bedrooms and a pair of bathrooms on the third floor, a living room, kitchen and dining room on the second, and a foyer on the ground floor. It was clean, in great condition, and roomy. It wasn't as intriguing as some of the rental homes we've had over the years, like the two we had in California in 2012. The neighborhood, as is often the case in with these Homeaway and VRBO properties, is in transition. In a few years, it'll likely be too pricey to be appropriate for such vacation rentals. It did end up being a very short drive from the very center of the downtown. Though it lacked a few finer touches to make it truly homey (and though the trash and recycling standards of Ottawa are bewildering) it was a good base of operations for our stay in the city.

Our home in Ottawa.

Our kitchen and dining room in Ottawa.

The living room of our Ottawa home. 

We eventually found ourselves in Mackinaw City, Michigan, where we made a quaint motel our home for two nights. The Riviera Motel is different from the places we normally stay. It's an old-fashioned motor court. Our room was simple: two beds, a bathroom. It had a spectacular view of the Mackinac Bridge, which aside from the Golden Gate is the most impressive bridge I've seen. I liked the care the owners of this property took. Something of this vintage is easy to let fall into disrepair.

The Mighty Mac from the parking lot of our motel. 
Trying to recreate the photo from the motel's website. 

Our motel at night. 

Our stay on Mackinac Island had us at the Main Street Inn and Suites. By far, the most fancy hotel we've ever called home on a vacation. Of course, we promptly wrecked the place when Caroline decided to crawl up on the very unsturdy luggage stand: fortunately they didn't charge us for the broken piece of equipment. The place was lavish. We had a large living room and a sizable bedroom. Those rooms were separated by an opulent bathroom (jacuzzi tub). On one hand, it was sad to see the kids use it as their base to watch a horrible Disney movie. On the other hand, the size and comfort helped us deal with fairly lousy weather the first half of our vacation. Perhaps the kids would've minded the constant fog and cold and rain had we not had such a nice place to stay. I think the hotel is the biggest reason why Sam said he wants to someday return to the island.

The kids' favorite hotel. 

Living room. 

View looking west from our small balcony. 

View looking east from our small balcony. 

Our other stays were at hotels, none bad but none noteworthy. The kids' disappointment upon arriving at Traverse City's Hampton Inn was palpable. It's tough to go from what we had the nights before to a simple one-room, two-queen-bed room. Our hotel in Dearborn was a bit more spacious, at least.

Relaxing in Dearborn.

Dearborn's Country Inn.
In retrospect, I don't regret staying where we stayed, but the bills added up a bit more than I would've liked, and it would seem I should either look for bargains more aggressively in the future or buy an RV.