July 17, 2014

My Grandfather's Eye

My mother's dad, Boris, was an avid amateur photographer. Family lore is rife with stories of him checking the light meter and slowly adjusting the focus on the giant lens attached to his equally giant camera as we, posed and poised, started shuffling impatiently. I loved the cozy and alien feel of the tiny red-lit darkroom that he had set up in a closet in my grandparents' apartment, with its semi-mysterious trays of developing solution, floating upside-down images, and drying black and white photographs hanging from a clothesline. I never wanted to do it myself, but I loved watching him.

Many of his shots were turned into slides. Actually, the division was straightforward: black and white film became photographs and color film was developed into slides. It may have something to do with the availability of the necessary equipment in Russia in the 80's? In any case, I have recently started the long project of digitizing the slides. As expected, there are many fantastic pictures of our family. But a surprising delight has been seeing the more artistic photos that Borechka would sneak in here and there - landscapes, street photography, bits of nature that caught his eye. Here are a few of my favorites:

And what did I look like 30 years ago? Check out those 4 inch diameter braids, people. Those ponytail holders look industrial strength!

July 13, 2014

One more peek of summer

Lara caught a little friend!

Summer, Summer, Everywhere

Another summer, another amazing summer vacation! That's right, folks - the tradition of the annual family road trip continues! And continues to be an unquestionable success. What did we do this year? I believe the question you should be asking is actually what didn't we do!

We started with a few days in and around DC, where besides the always welcome delights of my mom's pool,

we checked out a re-enactment of one of the battles of the War of 1812 (you remember - that's the super opportunistic war a very young America decided to fight against England while most of England's resources were dealing with the small matter of Napoleon conquering half of Europe). And by checked out, I of course mean that the kids got a crash course in how to man a 19th century 3 pound cannon. Here's Lara being a rammer (the one who rams the power and ball in) and Jake on ventsman duty (the one who sits with his thumb on the vent hole preventing fire from catching until the ball is ready to be shot):

From there it was on to Shenandoah National Forest, with its amazing mountain views:

We hiked;

we camped next to a grove of bushes that was home to a doe and her fawn (the deer there have no fear at all of humans. They're basically overgrown pets at this point, really);

the kids got to explore nature trails as Junior Park Rangers (which is a fantastic program that everyone who goes to a National Park should totally sign up for. It's amazing - for $5/day, you get to borrow binoculars, activity books, maps, guides to flora and fauna, and a cool backpack to tote it all around in);

and we drove over to Luray Caverns to check out this utterly otherworldly and unbelievable cavern and its uncountable myriads of stalactites and stalagmites. By the way, in this picture? There are no stalagmites - the bottom is actually a completely mirror-like reflection of the top in the world's clearest underground lake:

Whoever designed the lighting in this place needs some kind of award, by the way:

Later, after a few failed attempts, we built a satisfyingly big fire and then watched it burn late into the night. Do you have that same primordial fascination with fire? I could stare at it for hours... and did.

On the way out? We saw a bear. A BEAR!!! We were in our car, but still: BEAR!

From Shenandoah to Asheville, NC, to the gorgeous house and lovely company of Misha's aunt Jane.

You guys, Asheville - or at least the way we lived it via Jane's amazing hosting abilities - is idyllic.

We swam in and boated on this beautiful, clear lake. By the way, have you noticed the sky in every picture? We had ideal weather during our whole trip. Amazing.

In the city itself, we ate delicious tacos at the White Duck Taco Shop (definitely worth a stop) and yummy Nutella and berry crepes in the serene garden of the Creperie Bouchon.

And then this crazy thing happened: Lara's splash pad joy got her onto the front page of the Asheville Citizen-Times! The onrush of fame and fortune may then have slightly gone to her head...

The next day, we had some fun at the huge and generally awesome North Carolina Arboretum:

Jake got to be an entomologist for the day (there is a great kids program there which lets you borrow one of several types of naturalist kits)... but maybe not the world's best one quite yet, since he would mostly run away from any bugs he saw rather than catching them in his net and looking at them under the magnifying glass:

Lara made a more successful ornithologist, what with her already abiding interest in all things bird. Honestly, I have spent 36 years of my life not paying the slightest attention to birds, but she has somehow made them totally fascinating for me with her explanations of their behavior - and her ability to identify them!

And finally, for the last bit of the trip: the beach! No summer vacation would be complete without it. We spent a wonderful day in the very warm water in Virginia Beach, which I have to report was delightfully - and surprisingly - not at all Ocean-City-like. Just very soft sand, lots of relaxed families, and an ocean that no one wanted to leave.

Good bye, summer vacation! We'll miss you!

June 10, 2014


When's the last time you went camping? Before last weekend, I hadn't been since about the 7th grade. I mostly remember waking up in a soaking wet sleeping bag and having to deal with a lot of cold misery in the company of similarly cold and miserable fellow girl scouts. So... last weekend went way better. Our tent was awesome, the weather rocked, and the mountain lake that we camped next to was a beautiful and peaceful place.

Oh, and did I mention the food? Because the chicken I marinated overnight was freakin' phenomenal cooked over a wood fire. (My tip? Marinate and bring in ziplock bag, then dump onto heavy-duty aluminum foil. Mmmm.)

Fire, stars, the sound of tiny pieces of tree debris hitting the tent - just perfect.

And of course, there were the requisite bugs that no trip into nature would be without. Not sure what the kids are fascinated by here. Giant caterpillar? Weird round egg sack? Shed snake skin? We saw all those at one point or another!

The lake was idyllic, if slightly too chilly to swim in. Wish we had a boat!

Then, after packing up, we stumbled on idyllic lake #2! Doesn't this look like a screensaver that came with Windows 8?

Nothing beats throwing rocks into water. It just never gets old somehow. Jake was also a fan of watching the little fish scatter as he flung the pebbles near them.

And finally, because we are trying to commit to always checking out whatever tiny museums we see advertised on the road, we ended up in a coal mining museum, touring a mine that opened in the 1850s and closed in the 1930s. Totally fascinating, and instructive! See kids, isn't it nice that you don't have to work in a pitch black coal mine for 10 hours a day?

May 20, 2014

Jake-a-saurus Rex Turns 5!

Well, I don't know how you spent your weekend, but around here we dinosaured ourselves out celebrating Jake's birthday! Everyone had a totally dinoriffic time, and we as always out-dinoed ourselves!

First up? Some amazing skeleton shadows that Misha just free-handed (of course) on black poster board. I love that this was both thematic decor and also a potential rainy-weather activity - scared-face photo op. Lara demonstrates:

Misha then carved this watermelon-saur which we eventually surrounded with delicious blood-red "meat" chunks. Can you believe the tongue in that thing's head? Bonkers!

Luckily, the weather cooperated and we had a glorious day in which to pursue all of our paleontological plans. Following the internet's advice like I always do, I made fossil dig things out of plaster of paris and dirt. Pro tip: if you ignore the ratios that the plaster box tells you to use for mixing with water, and just mix however in small batches that you then just pour over each other, you will end up with multi-colored striations! Just like real rocks! Even more pro-tip: only do this if you don't mind cleaning up a ton of not-entirely-properly-set-plaster.

To keep the kids somewhat clean and also somewhat protected, I whipped up some paleontological aprons and loaded them up with small rock hammers (read: tack hammers), protective goggles, brushes, and magnifying lenses. Whatever they dug up could also go into the pockets. The aprons and finds would also serve as the party favors, avoiding the "bag of plastic crap" dilemma. Did the kids stay clean, you ask? Well, let me counter with another question: what do you consider "clean"?

Inside the fossil blocks were dinosaur skeletons, geodes that could be smashed apart, and polished semi-precious stones. Hammering them apart was the best part of the fossil hunt:

Followed closely by brushing them off:

Followed by some serious appraisal and classification decisions. (Also, check out our thematically appropriate plants - ferns! We have them all over the back yard much like the dinosaurs did back in the day.)

I think you can see from these pictures that the plaster gradually covered our entire back yard. And everyone's shoes. And then the interior of our house. Pro tip: mixing plaster with dirt before adding water makes for easy cleanup later! Vacuum your house and hose down your patio.

We also had another kind of dig in the back of our yard. After pulling up a bunch of the bricks (necessary because I will eventually level and re-brick that whole thing), we realized that the resulting dirt pit was the perfect place to bury some more dinosaur figurines.

Check out Jake's pile of tiny found dinos:

And of course, there would be no party without a dinosaur-shaped pinata. Nothing was funnier than watching all the kids whack this thing with a bat trying to crack it open. I think at some point, Lara figured out its weak spot and her very directed hitting strategy was the winner. Everyone else just went for the head though, which was probably more psychologically satisfying.

Happy Birthday, Jake! I cannot believe you are already 5! I also cannot believe you are only 5!