The Other West Texas Giant

“You just kind of drive through it. Push on the gas.” He was so calm.

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My jaw clenched,  left eyebrow frowned and good ol’ right eyebrow raised high in an arch of stubborn New England skepticism.  My future husband smirked at my reaction.  Although his lilting Texas drawl was bursting with trust, the sheer craziness of “just driving through” a 4′ tall, 10′ wide gate made of solid steel bars, was anchoring my right foot. We weren’t going anywhere. New England skepticism: 1, Texas Bump Gate: 0.

“You can do it.  Just go kinda slow, then push through.”

skull

 

Thousands of what if’s and why’s flooded my brain as I slumped my shoulders in frustrated despair.  Why can’t I just get out of the truck and open the gate?  What if I break the gate? What if I break the truck? Or the horrifying question – what if the gate swings back and hits us? This swinging behemoth of steel, wood, pulleys and cables was scaring the hell out of me.  Instinctively my future husband read my mind and said again, “You can do it.  You won’t hurt anything.”

The parched dirt below the parched tan 1975 Chevy  Silverado cracked in the scorching Texas sun. Hungry buzzards screeched overhead watching a death march below.  I felt like I was in a wild west shoot-out with steampunk villain.

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No, not the 1975 Silverado, but another beauty and former gate bumper.

“This is nuts!”  was the only thought reverberating to the tips of my shaky toes.  I finally hit the gas, pushed the gate open and drove through.  The back swing of the gate came inches from scratching down the side of the truck as I plowed through in a cloud of dust, gas fumes and fear. But I did it.  I opened my first Texas bump gate without killing anyone.  My future husband laughed.  This was my crash course in the rare West Texas bump gate.

Wikipedia offered this definition as to what a Texas bump gate is:

bump gate is a drive-through gate used in rural areas to provide a barrier to livestock that does not require the driver to exit the vehicle, open the gate, drive through, and then close the gate. By contacting the swinging bump gate with the front of a vehicle and then accelerating, the bump gate is pushed open, allowing the vehicle to pass. This requires some skill to avoid the gate swinging back and striking the vehicle. Accordingly, a bump gate is unsuitable for long vehicles.
The bump gate self-closing mechanism consists of two cables mounted on the gate, and also on an elevated crossbar. The gate does not swing on a conventional hinge. Instead it is fastened to cylinders that encircle a post. When the gate swings open, the swivel action causes the cables to raise the gate slightly. After the vehicle passes through, gravity causes the gate to swing like a pendulum (parallel to the ground) until it settles in the closed position.
While not a common type of gate, it has been observed in several locations in West Texas.

If you’ve never seen a bump gate before they seem to defy all logic and common sense.  Plowing through an imposing steel structure seems, well, crazy.  But then I realized that the swinging ton of rolled steel IS actually the most common sense approach to opening the gates out where the days are long, hot and lonely.

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Approaching a gate that has clearly been bumped before.

From a rancher’s perspective, why would he want stop their truck and get out to open as many as 20 or more gates on a 104 degree August afternoon? Especially when they could stay in the cover of their truck and drive through them saving precious time and energy.  It’s practical.  West Texans are practical and the bump gate’s simple reason-for-being reflects the pragmatic ideology of the ranchers using them.

But it’s also a recipe for some naive “city-slikah” Yankee to come down and really mess things up…

A few years ago my father-in-law entrusted my husband and I to drive his brand new truck down from the dealership in Dallas. My husband drove our truck and I followed him in the new one.  The 6 hour trip to Ozona, TX was smooth and uneventful.   I heaved a sigh of relief as we drove onto their ranch. We made it!

Fueled by a desire to finish the drive we rashly decided that to get up to their house (another 20 minute drive from the entryway) we should double up on the bump gates and drive both trucks through at once so we could save time and I wouldn’t damage the grill on his dad’s new truck by bumping the gates.  My husband would bump with our truck and I would follow him closely in the new truck and drive through behind him.

I think we were both a little nervous.

The gate swung open as my husband plowed through and I punched the gas and followed.  Time stopped when I saw the gate swinging back at me – FAST!  I swerved to the left to try to avoid the inevitable screech, crash, metal twisting convulsion that ensued.

Thankfully, my in-laws still talk to me.  And I think he’s had a few more bump gate mishaps judging by the fresh scars that now adorn his truck.

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Future gate bumpers

To me, the bump gates are an integral part of the West Texas culture.  They’re hard working, unapologetic, and strong.  Just like the landscape.  Just like the people.

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Brother-in-law and niece at the ranch

 

 

 

 

 

So you want to take the kids to the Louvre, eh?

“Maybe we should just go get dinner instead…”

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photo: www.louvre.fr

I sighed watching an endless line snake around the Louvre’s famed glass pyramid. The kids shuffled their feet, exhausted after a long, hot day absorbing a city that overwhelmed their young senses. Tourists clattered.  The sounds of a distant cello echoed from underneath a stone entry. Cigarette smoke carried laughter through the air. Feeling depleted, I felt my enthusiasm wane.  I just wanted some water, shade and somewhere cool to sit. But thankfully my husband, stubborn and sweet, persevered.  “We’re here.  We can do this.  Only if it’s we spend a few minutes inside, let’s at least try.” He was right.  This was our chance to bring the kids to the Louvre and rely on the pre-planning and research we did to make this moment work.

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For as many things as our family fumbles through while traveling, visiting the Louvre is one thing I feel like we got right.   A little strategizing and planning made our visit to the Louvre in August with kids, stress free. To be perfectly honest, I was completely (and pleasantly) shocked.

What made it work?

1. Paris Museum Pass. Our strategy started with the purchase of four Paris Museum Passes. If you are not familiar with the Paris Museum Pass, they are worth their weight in gold especially if you are traveling with kids.  You pay once for a 2, 4, or 6 day pass and have access to a myriad of Paris’s top spots (including the Louvre, Rodin, Arc d’Triomphe, Pompidou and more).  By using the pass we eliminated the pressure and cost of buying four individual tickets at each sight which, as a result, eliminated the need to make a general admission fee “pay-off”. We didn’t feel the pressure to spend max-time at any given spot and knew we could come and go as we pleased.

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http://en.parismuseumpass.com/

But that is not the best part.  The greatest perk of having Museum Passes at the Louvre is that you skip the general entry line.  There is a separate (and when we were there – empty) entry line for Museum Pass holders. We strolled right past that  long, snaking line in front of the glass pyramid and walked right onto the escalator down to the lobby. Right then and there the Museum Pass paid for itself!  It was like having a FastPass at Disney!  Best. Thing. Ever.

2. Go late.  The Louvre is open late on Wednesdays and Fridays.  The last entry is at 10pm. We arrived at 8 and although it was late, the crowds and mammoth tour groups had waned.  We were grateful. The absence of tour groups was apparent when viewing famed works like the Mona Lisa. Don’t get me wrong, it was still crowded, but not enough that our kids couldn’t get a front row, close-up look at the famous smirking lady.  The lighter crowds were manageable.

And because the crowds are lighter, the Louvre lets artists set up in the main halls to paint under the canopy of the world’s greatest masterpieces.  Our kids were witness to some amazing art; past, present and future.  It was pretty incredible.

3. Know what you want to see.  We planned for three scenarios: must see, would like to see, and will see if the kids haven’t crashed yet. Of course the Mona Lisa which is housed in the Denon Wing was the primary piece we wanted the kids to see.  Most of the other pieces we chose were also in the Denon Wing, and we knew that keeping our visit isolated to one wing was probably the best idea for our family.  The Louvre is vast and paring our visit down helped tremendously.

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4. Read ahead.  Give your kids an idea of the pieces they will see before you visit.  This helped because we didn’t have to spend our limited time getting them up to speed on what they were seeing.  It gave us the opportunity to revisit the work and talk about things we already discussed. We could prompt them with a few, “remember when we talked about XYZ?” It piqued their curiosity, and they asked a few questions but we didn’t feel the need to recite a diatribe about the who, what, where, and when of each piece.  Our reading let us sit back and enjoy what we saw.

5. What we forgot to do?  Study the Louvre map for exits and bathrooms!  It sounds so basic.  This was the only “ugh!” of our time there.  We got caught up in the artwork and the crowds and before we knew it, we were stuck in the Egyptian section and couldn’t find a fast route out.  We all had to use a bathroom.  We were all ready to go.  I checked our map, but every “Sortie” only led to more tunnels and corridors. Next time we visit, I will study the map like a HAWK.

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theotherparis.net

As with any trip (with or without kids), a little planning goes a long way and the Louvre is certainly a testament to that.

Do you have any tips to share? Please do in the comments below!

 

Learning to Fly: Kids, Caterpillars and Unfinished Homework

When our kids started kindergarten many moons ago, they were asked to bring in a Monarch caterpillar for their first day.  We searched and searched.  And searched.  And searched more, wandering through overgrown fields and frantically turning over the leaves of milkweed plants that the caterpillars eat. But no luck.  As a parent, I kind of felt like a failure. “Sorry kids, I know it’s your first day of full-time school and all, but we can’t hand in your first EVER homework assignment.”  Gulp.

As the years passed, I still searched for the elusive Monarch caterpillars and got that pit in my stomach every time we saw a milkweed plant.  That kind of crazy fist waving, “Ooooh, I’ll get you!” feeling. Clearly, I was tormented.

By early this summer however, as our kids prepared to enter fourth and fifth grade, my obsession faded.  I gave up hope of our family ever raising caterpillars and to witness first hand the miraculous metamorphosis of the Monarch.  I felt like it was time to throw in the towel.  My scrappy, hunting prowess had failed me.

…Until my friend Stacey tells me about her caterpillar menagerie!  (Cue the valiant trumpets!)

Stacey and I have been friends for many years and she is a fifth grade teacher so I often look to her for advice and guidance.  So when she mentioned in passing that she had LOADS of caterpillars, caterpillar eggs, milkweed plants in her yard, etc etc etc, I knew it was kismet.  She was to become my caterpillar sensei.  All hope had not been lost.

Stacey loaded us up with four caterpillars all at varying stages of growth, and a bundle of milkweed leaves to bring home.  She suggested wrapping them in a damp paper towel and storing them in a plastic air tight container in the fridge.  We did this and it worked really well.  We would replenish our supply every few days and change the caterpillars leaves daily.

Stacey taught us about their different phases, timelines for each phase and more.  We discussed the Monarch’s annual journey to Mexico, organizations that can track your butterflies, and different books  about the life of these magnificent and complicated creatures.

Our front row seats to the the circle of life exhibition performed by the monarch caterpillars was nothing short of awesome.  Doubling in size every few days, the journey was like watching our own lives in fast forward.  Egg, baby, shedding your first youthful layer, growing, getting big and fat (HA!), unzipping the outer layer you no longer need, and eventually becoming the being you were intended to be… then spreading your wings to fly.   Maybe I’ll go to Mexico too.

In the end, our kids were not scarred permanently because we did not complete their first ever homework assignment. Hooray! They were however thrilled to “raise” their caterpillar family and watch them grow, evolve and eventually fly away.  One in fact, hatched from his chrysalis in our car.  We knew he was close to breaking through and didn’t want to miss the transformation so we brought him with us. When we arrived at our destination we were in possession of a beautiful, newly emerged Monarch.

In an ironic twist our caterpillar adventure came full circle.  The afternoon after I started writing this post, I got a message from a friend, desperate, as her daughter was starting kindergarten in a few days and SHE DID NOT HAVE A CATERPILLAR!!! We still had one chubby guy in our possession. We packed him up and sent him with his new caretaker, Annie.  Grateful, she marched off with her new creature and her kindergarten homework, her first big homework assignment EVER – complete.

 

A Sensory Carnival in Granada’s Albaicin Neighborhood

Buzzing mopeds, the exotic scent of incense and hookahs, fierce color, and leathered gypsies offering sprigs of rosemary… We’ve finally arrived in Granada.  And it’s incrediblel!  Our family who is travel weary and coming off of a nasty stomach bug,  immediately snaps back to life. We’re so grateful to enter this vibrant, boisterous place of mixed culture and wild history – both of which play leading roles in shaping the electrifying city known as the “Moorish Jewel”. Gritty and provocative, brilliant and benevolent, Granada is as unapologetic as it is welcoming.

After we get settled in our cozy apartment near the Plaza Nueva  we venture up to the Albaicin area and the eye-candy souk that serves as this neighborhood’s entryway.  Although it’s a gray and dreary day in Spain, color beams from every corner of the Albaicin!  For our family, the souk of the Albaicin embodies the city and keeps the tempo at a family friendly vibe (*see side note at the bottom of this post).  The colors, cultures, sounds and scents melt into a seductive, heady concoction. Our kids’ walk the streets, wide-eyed, only stopping to ask questions (or eat gelato).

Our first stop in the souk (Calle de la Caldereria Nueva) was a small, Turkish lamp shop operated by a kind man, who was happy to let a foreign family browse and take pictures.  The lights were heavenly.

Luscious color sparkled from every globe, and as our Turkish friend flicked different plugs in and out to show-off the light’s brilliance, our kids’ stood silent; fascinated by the light show. Wishing we could own the 900 Euro glowing blue chandelier, we opted for a much smaller and much more affordable table top lamp.  It’s our favorite souvenir.

Making our way up through the souk, we played the “Game of Senses”.  How many different things could we smell?  (Coffee, incense, perfume, smoke, spices/cooking) What catches your eye? (big, baggie & bright “hippie” pants, colorful tea cups, scarves, hookahs, colorful bags, leather) What do you hear? (laughter, guitar music, singing, different languages, dogs). It was a fun way to get our kids’ to connect with their new surroundings. Everything they saw, smelled or heard, was familiar to them and because of this, the city became familiar, or at least more comforting.  It was a fun way for them to connect with Granada and make the city theirs to enjoy. 

We continued to stroll the streets finding small alleyways and courtyards tucked into the Albaicin’s labyrinth.  Color and moorish influence was found at every stop. Street art abound.

Eventually we wound our way up to a (kind of seedy) playground.  We found out later (on an incredible, kid-friendly segway tour – post to follow!) that this playground once housed a secret passageway for Mohammed XII  (aka Bobadil), the last Moorish ruler of Granada. He used his underground passage to sneak from the Alhambra to the Albaicin neighborhood to visit his mother who was living in a nearby palace.  Bobadil was not very popular with his family let alone his enemies, so the secret protected passageway was necessary to his survival. The entry to the tunnel is still there but encased in an rub-el-hisb, or eight-point Islamic star made of marble. The eight point star symbolizes the end of passages. A poignant fit for Bobadil.

As our feet and our kids became weary, we stopped for a drink and tapas at the top of the Caldereria Nueva.  We were dazzled by street performers, and enjoyed a free tapas while sipping sangria. A perfect end to a great beginning in Granada.

The vibrance and soul of the Albaicin and Granada embraced us.  Even though we were surrounded by fellow tourists while walking the streets, we weren’t bombarded by tacky, airport souvenir shops or the artificial properness and antiseptic feel that’s typical in some tourist towns. Granada proudly wears her scrapes and bruises.  This city begs you to experience it.  Through that mantra, we fell in love with this provocative Moorish Jewel. We can’t wait to go back.

*…ON A SIDE NOTE

For a more in depth look into the city’s culture, a nighttime jaunt into the Sacromonte district (Gypsy neighborhood) to see a Flamenco show would have been eye-opening.  We were warned that this was not a good idea with young children, however if we had a few more nights in Granada we may have tried a taxi ride up to see the clubs and neighborhood after dark.  (We did visit the mysterious Sacromonte during the day.  Incredible! More to come in a future post!)

Family Travel Planning & Reading Lists: The Spain Edition

For us, family vacation planning is like child development.  When your child is born you first confirm that all of the large, gross motor skills are functioning then move on to assess the more detailed, fine motor skills.  With trip planning it’s generally same thing. We get the big heavies out of the way first… planes, trains, and automobiles.   When this stage of travel planning is complete  my husband & I heave a long, sigh of relief and start planning the details.  What will we see, do, eat, and experience?  This is the fun part. The “fine motor details” of the trip, necessary to having fun and being efficient with our time.  This is crucial especially when traveling with kids.

 

S reading at Shakespeare & Co., Paris

 

The development that goes into your vacation planning can foster your child’s personal development.

Reading about our destination (in a non-travel guide format) is just as much a part of travel planning as is scouting out local markets or researching historic sites.  We try to nurture our kids’ personal development, education and cultural mindfulness through our travels. Choosing captivating reading material to peruse ahead of time is a fun way to launch the adventure.

We create family book lists for all trips, domestic or international.  (Unless we’re going to Disney.  They’ve been adequately schooled.  Thanks Walt!).  If our lists are done well (and followed through with…) it’s fascinating to watch the kids’ minds puzzle together pieces from their reading, their travels and their school education.  Below is our book list for our upcoming trip to Spain.

 

The Story of Ferdinand  by Munro Leaf

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

“Ferdinand” was first published in 1936 and it weaves the tale of a young bull from Andalucia, (Ronda as it looks from the illustrations) who finds his inner strength not from being the chosen bull for the bull-fights in Madrid, but by being himself and enjoying the simple pleasures  in life that HE treasures.

 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Don Quixote of the Mancha (Everyman's Library Children's Classic) by Miguel de Cervantes adapted by Judge Judge Parry

Classic, Spanish and fun.  Although we are feeling bad for Don Quixote right now…

 

Platero y Yo  by  Juan Ramon Jimenez

Platero y yo / Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez

Jimenez paints a beautiful picture of the Andalucian countryside in his touching tale of a young man traveling with his donkey Platero. He describes the life and children of Andalucia and bits of their rich heritage.  We bought the bilingual version so we can practice our Spanish.  Honestly, this has not “grabbed” our kids yet, so excerpts from the book will do the trick.  There are more kid friendly all-Spanish versions available.  Hopefully a good read for post trip reflection.

 

Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez

Building on Nature - The Life of Antoni Gaudi by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez

“(Antoni Gaudi’s) home is in Catalonia, a place of jagged mountain peaks and silvery olive trees, splashed by the sparkling sea. The wild beauty of this landscape makes a deep impression. He thinks of it as the Great Book of Nature, and he will read from it all of his life.

Gaudí becomes an architect, learning the rules of form and structure that buildings are supposed to follow. But the shapes and colors of the natural world still inspire him, and he works them into his buildings. Leaves climb up walls. Pillars are giant animal feet. A long bench snakes around a playground.

Antoni Gaudí turned nature into art, and in the process he revolutionized the world of architecture.” (text courtesy of Rachel Victoria Rodriguez and Amazon.com)

 

Messi: The Inside Story of the Boy Who Became a Legend – (a biography) by Luca Caioli:

Messi: The Inside Story of the Boy Who Became a Legend, by Luca Caioli

Now, even though Lionel Messi is Argentinian, he has become a legend for Spanish soccer (and beyond!).  Our son adores him and this book was for his enjoyment and pre-trip excitement.  Now if we could only get our hands on four Barcelona vs. Real Madrid tickets.  Sigh.

 

The Story of the World: Volume 2:  The Middle Ages, by Susan Wise Bauer

Story of the World, Vol. 2: The Middle Ages, by Susan Wise Bauer

 

Great children’s history series!  This volume covers the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance and honestly, and I cannot wait to read it!  Again, this is another “excerpt” read for now, but the info collected in this series is really well-done and will be a great cross-over book for future European exploration with the kids.

 

Trip planning and child raising both have unique development phases.  But a well developed trip can help form a well developed child.  

PLEASE feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section.  We’d love some more ideas!

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

Bouncy Balls for Snow Balls

Pink Bouncy Ball!

It’s 2 March and we just had our first snow day (no school) of the year which is pretty unheard of, this late in the season, in our part of the world.  I’ve been waiting for this day all winter!  The first snow day is unique because you haven’t been jaded by the wrath of snow and cold and you’re still happy to see some of the white, fluffy stuff and snuggle by a fire.  However, this usually happens in November. Not March.  But I’ll take it.

The first snow day (for us anyway!) is a day of celebration.  It means family fun, food, games and crafts.  So when we found a recipe  online for making polymer bouncy balls(here is original recipe from About .com) we all agreed it was a perfect snow day activity.

Although the balls were not super bouncy, nor were they clear like the original picture I saw on the recipe the project was a lot of fun and we had a great time experimenting.

Here are the basic ingredients:

The Ingredients

  •  borax (in the laundry section at a grocery store or superstore)
  • school glue (we used clear and Elmer’s Gel which is blue.  White is supposed to make them opaque, but ours were anyway so I’m not sure it makes a difference.)
  • Cornstarch
  • Disposable cups for mixing (I recommend clear small Solo cups, but any paper cup will do)
  • Food coloring
  • Warm water
  • Spoon or craft stick or mixing
  • Ruler (to measure the bounce!)
  • Zip tight sandwich bags to store the balls in when your done.

Here is my really ingenious tip for organizing ahead of time.  Get your ingredients out of their store bought container and put them into something that is easy for your kids to scoop from.  Probably a tip that most people would figure out ahead of time, but it took us one round until this one registered upstairs…

But I digress…

First, label your mixing cups – one with borax mixture and one with ball mixture.  Next combine 2 Tbsp. of water in you borax mixture cup.

Mixing the Borax Solution

Then add 1/2 tsp. of Borax powder.  Stir the until borax is dissolved as much as you can. (Ours never dissolved completely but it was ok).  Add some food coloring.  We did about 5 heavy drops.

Next grab your ball mixture cup and add 1 Tbsp of glue.  Then add 1/2 tsp. of the borax solution you just made.

Measuring the glue

Next, add 1 Tbsp. of cornstarch to your ball mixture.

Adding the Cornstarch

Do not mix.  Wait 10-15 seconds and watch the chemical reaction take place.  This is why I suggest using clear plastic cups over paper or colored plastic; you can see the reaction through the bottom of the cup.

Checking out the chemistry

After you’ve waited a few seconds you can stir the mixture until it becomes difficult or impossible to stir.

Take your mixture out of the cup and begin to knead with your hands.   This will be REALLY sticky at first but after a minute or so your creation will solidify and begin to form a firm consistency.

A Fantastic Sticky Mess!

Super Sticky in the cup

Form it into a ball and bounce away!

Observations:  Does the length of kneading it affect the bounce?  How high does it bounce?  Does it bounce in different directions and why?  Just a few observations we made.  Please feel free to post your own observations below!

Store in a zip close sandwich bag.  FYI – they flatten out when not used but you can easily remold for extended play.

Have fun!!

 

 

The Final Product!