Friday, July 29, 2011

A Cabin in the Woods

Written by Heather

There is a place that I love, nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont. It's the sort of place that quietly shines with simplicity and makes you feel the possibility of things. It isn't much by most standards, but at the same time, it is everything. 
I remember the first time I came here, thinking "Of course those words were written here, how could they not have been?"

I'm surprised by how accessible it is. A short drive down a dirt road, then a brief walk up a foot path into the woods... no gates, no visiting hours, not a soul around. A cabin in the woods, just sitting, being. The humble work of this cabin is in the past and the world has been made better for it. 
Imagine if these walls - tucked beside the apple trees, overlooking fields and mountains, had never existed. If one man did not have this place to spin words and revel in nature. We would be without some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

This was Robert Frost's cabin; from 1939-1963 he spent summers here writing much of the poetry you and I love. Can you imagine having such a place to stir creativity and inspire your craft. 
I am reminded of a time when artists were encouraged to be artists, to create prolifically and share beauty with the world. I think of yogis and prophets who were told to practice, pray, and offer their gifts of peace and enlightenment to society. 
I've been thinking a lot about 'place' lately and its affect on the human spirit. On these set apart days we give to ourselves each week, not once do I ever pine for a more hectic pace, a water cooler chat, or a schedule to keep beyond that of following the sun as it traces the sky. 

My place is in the quiet of nature, the connection with loved ones, the natural unfolding of a simple day. It isn’t much, but then again, most would say Mr. Frost’s place wasn’t much, and look what he did. 
When you find your place of grace, anything is possible.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Avisiting We Go

Written by Jonah Lisa

Almost every culture throughout history has had some tradition that involved visiting your neighbors, maybe even taking them gifts. The Norse did it on Christmas; the Scottish and Chinese did it on New Years Eve and Day, respectively; the Germans hung flowers on neighbors’ doors for May Day; and then there’s the Jewish tradition of bikur cholim, visiting the sick.

Though most of us can’t quite remember the days when it was common here. We read books like Little House on the Prairie and Ann of Green Gables and feel nostalgic for the times when you always greeted new neighbors with a welcoming homemade pie or quick bread to eat while their cookware was still being unpacked. We long for the simplicity of a tight knit community that took care of their own.

The closest most of us come to it now is visiting a self-created cyber-neighborhood daily (well not on Sundays!). We check in on our favorite blogs, people we don’t even know but have come to feel close to, and we read Facebook to see what our old high school friends are doing. In fact, we probably know more about these people than the ones who live on our own block or subdivision. 

Something is upside down with that. Don’t you think?

What got me working toward setting things right side up again was pure coincidence. In the same season, we re-committed to Unplugged Sundays and I planted too much head lettuce in my garden.

Now that was the state of my garden a few weeks ago, but you can clearly see the fifteen heads of lettuce planted on the same day. I don’t know what I was thinking. My family was at salad over-load. I had to do something with it. And with an entire day free from distractions and plans, giving it to neighbors seemed like the perfect idea.

So...avisiting we went.

We cut and bagged 8 huge heads of red and green leaf right in the garden, loaded up the bike and started up the road, slowly making our way through the neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon.

Without exception, everyone was happy to see us. 

Some folks invited us in and we got to catch up on what was going on in their lives. Others had something going on and didn’t, so we chatted on the porch for a bit and moved on. We always had the excuse of more deliveries so it really didn’t matter. But we always had the time to go inside and accept some reciprocal hospitality if it was offered. 

Only a day as unharried as an Unplugged Sunday could really accommodate such spontaneity.

We talked gardening and sewing and sports, and learned about a great new swimming hole we’ve never been to. We ate cookies and fruit, played with some dogs, and had a really wonderful time. Not a single person was put off by the surprise nature of the visit. Perhaps because we came bearing gifts. 

It all felt very old-fashioned. Like we were connecting to something old and lost, but something everyone we visited with was happy to have back for bit.

We were connecting.  

Connecting to real, flesh and blood human beings. We were solidifying old friendships, and making new ones, and sharing some bounty, and hopefully teaching our kids a small lesson about contributing to a community.

But above all the lofty ideals, it was fun. I felt like Santa Claus. 

I may even plant extra head lettuce next year, radishes too, just so we have a good excuse to go avisiting again.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Gosh It's Hot

Written by Adam

If you watched Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings, you may remember this episode with the Abominable Snowman. Mr. Abominabable would not like New England this week as temperatures hit record highs.

We scoff when an inch of snow shuts down southern cities, so I know some people in Arizona might think one hundred plus degrees Fahrenheit is no big deal. The nice thing about the cold is that you can always get warm, but it is not so easy to cool off. Then again you never have to shovel sunshine.

The real issue in our region is that it's not a "dry" heat. The high humidity makes everything unbearably sticky and uncomfortable, and your natural cooling is ineffective. It can be difficult to find things to do when it is nasty hot, especially with kids. Children are more susceptible to high temperatures than adults, and the heat can injure them without warning.  

As another very hot and humid day was on tap for Sunday, we needed to come up with some safe ideas in case it was too warm to hike. 

Let's go skating!

One excellent suggestion was to go ice skating. We are an ice hockey family (Connecticut had a NHL team once), and there are a few ice rinks in our area. Skating is always cool, very fun and reasonably affordable in the summer. Depending on the rink times, you can while away the high heat of the day in icy comfort.

If ice rinks are scarce, consider roller rinks or bowling instead. 

Visit the Library...

Our local libraries close on Sunday, but the Colleges and Universities (we have one right around the corner) hold decent weekend hours for summer students, locals and alumni. 

I always enjoy browsing the stacks, newspapers, and magazines for interesting tidbits. There is reference material and the chance to gain some real knowledge in relative comfort.  If feeling especially motivated, I might venture into the language section and learn Portuguese.

... or a Museum.

If you have kids in tow, make it a fun museum. Honestly, kids do not want to read the placards of obscure artists who died a hundred years ago. They have short attention spans and want to see wild creatures, interactive exhibits, and hair-raising shows

In Connecticut we have plenty of such places, like the Connecticut Science Center, Mystic Aquarium, and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. One of our favorites is the Yale Peabody Museum

The museum is famous for its dinosaur collection (kids love dinosaurs). It also has vast natural history (kids love mammoths and bugs) and anthropology (kids love ancient weapons and skulls) collections. Even the Gothic building is cool.

What I really like is that the admission is reasonable - only $5 for youngsters!  Admission prices for a family going anywhere can be steep, so this is refreshing.

One way to save on admission is to check your library for free passes. I believe this is a fairly universal library perk, and it can make a big difference in how much you spend. Museums also offer discounts for students, groups, and certain employers.

Also consider buying a membership to save a bit of dough. Many times it is just a bit more than your family admission for the day. We did this at Sturbridge Village for many years and felt it was a great value. 
What about hiking?

Hot and humid plus hiking equals hot and humid hikers. 

Bring lots of water and food, and rest often. When we venture out on hot days, we stick to the woods where it is a few degrees cooler. The ultimate goal is avoiding the sun, and shade always delivers the goods. No surprise that we also try to incorporate trails with streams for wading and cooling off.

Keep in mind bacteria levels can be higher in the summer, so swimming with open cuts and kids gulping water while swimming should be avoided. 

Mid-summer means horseflies and deerflies are swarming, and they seem impervious to even generous repellent doses. They have no qualms about biting through fabric either. I use a head net over a wide brimmed hat, and plenty of kung-fu slapping to keep them at bay, but it is rarely enough. 

I have been literally chased out of the woods by these tenacious predators. After making it safely to the vehicle, one actually went to the passenger window and menacingly peered in. I let him know what I thought about that in no uncertain terms. If the insects are really bad, make a hasty retreat and head to the ice rink. No one will think less of you.

And the glorious Canoe?

I do love my... I mean our, canoe. Here's the catch: there is no shade on the lake. Add in the reflection off the water below and you end up looking like you came out of a rotisserie oven. 

Also, I do not recommend trying to swim from a canoe. The raft is better for this, but there is that whole tepid pool of funky water with sand, mud and potato chips thing. Did I mention the unrelenting sun? 

Just stay home.

We don't always go out if it doesn't flow for us. Extreme heat is a good reason to just stay home. Crank the fan or air conditioner, shut off the lights, and lazily do any or all of the following:
  • Nap
  • Eat lots of ice cream
  • Eat lots of fresh fruit dipped in lemon yogurt
  • Read, a lot
  • Create something, anything
  • Listen to music, or create your own
  • Learn Portuguese

Is the heat wave hitting where you are? 
What are you doing to weather it out on your unplugged day?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Getting Kids Outdoors

A little weekend inspiration for you, have a great one!

Friday, July 22, 2011

To Be Honest, Last Sunday Wasn't That Great

Written by Heather

Before we get too far along here at Unplugged Sunday, it's important that our visitors realize it is not always gumdrops and buttercups. Please don't have the impression that the families writing this blog are living a page out of Mother Earth News, Backpacker or the L.L. Bean catalog. 

The idea of unplugging and enjoying the good life as a family is the intention, and when made a regular practice it is often the result... but sometimes it all hits the fan too.

Case in point: Our house, last Sunday.

With a huge, exhausting tag sale on Saturday, I knew we wouldn't have much get up and go for Sunday. Things were still in disarray around the house from a week of cleaning out and preparations, and the usual 'planning' (choosing a hike or destination, planning food for the day, etc.) just wasn't happening.

Believe it or not, setting aside time each week to relax and connect involves some prep work. Totally worth it, but not to be overlooked.

Before bed on Saturday, we decided to go see Harry Potter Sunday morning. There was a 9:15am showing and we thought that was our best opening weekend chance at avoiding the crowds. Well, with a 40 minute drive to the theatre, and one very exhausted family, the necessary wake up time to make that showing did not exactly happen. There was a unanimous decision (fortunately) not to go to any of the other crowded showings that day. But... what to do?

One thing I notice in parenting a young teen is how tricky it can be to meld three individual lives together into one communal experience. I'm up for the challenge, but the delicate arrangement can take some creativity to achieve. I remember when Emily was little, she would just tag along wherever mom and dad decided to go. Camping? "Sure!" Nowadays... Camping? "How about a hotel with a pool and day hiking?"

Thankfully, I know in my heart that while her immediate wishes are important, my life experience allows me to trust that nudging her in meaningful, family centered directions is always a good idea. And she gets it, she really does. She just likes her hair dryer, clean sheets, and a lot of hot showers!

We knew that Emily was to attend a cookout with friends later on Sunday afternoon, so we didn't want to venture too far off. It  was hot, we were tired, inspiration was lacking. This did not feel like our regular Unplugged Sunday and we were all a little irritated by that, for two reasons:

1. We depend on the comfort and calm of this day.

  • Even though it can sometimes be difficult to fulfill the interests of three people simultaneously, because we have established (so firmly) this weekly rhythm over the last several months, we've all come to depend on it. This time together each week is not a chore, it is not an obligation that we dread. 

2. We were bored. 

  • This left us feeling like we should go fix something around the house or clean the garage. Not exactly the kind of things known for recharging spirits. Sometimes being bored though is a good thing. If we let ourselves sit with boredom and restlessness (meaning we did not resort to turning on the computer and surfing the entire internet), often times inspiration will come to light. And so we did, we sat in the center of boredom...

Eventually, we had a few ideas. They were home based, could be enjoyed together, and would be interesting enough that we could quit lamenting about not getting out of the house for a hike or swim. Choosing to be content with what was, we stopped feeling like we 'failed' at Unplugged Sunday.

What did we do?

We watched the Women's World Cup! Those of you that saw the game know how amazing it was, and that the victory was so clearly destined to be Japan's. Through raising our daughter, and following her interests, we have become a pretty big women's sports family. Watching this game together was the perfect thing to do on this Sunday afternoon.

Of course, we needed food! 

Given the disjointed flow to the day, it seemed comfort food would hit the spot. Enter what I call Summer Pasta (not a very original name), a dish that is incredibly delicious and oh-so-rich; we try to keep its appearance to a couple times each summer. But it is quite yummy!

After the game Emily went to her cookout, Adam and I hung out at home. There was talk about an evening 'date hike' but it felt like we were forcing the idea. Like it just wouldn't be Sunday without a little trail time. That isn't true! 

Even though we were rattled and out of sync early on, we eventually did find our Sunday groove and felt like we did push the reset button. Which is ultimately what this day is about.


Today's post was about keeping it real. Unplugged Sunday is not defined by the perfect hike, picnic or canoe ride - it's about a certain state of mind. On days that don't seem picture perfect, don't sweat it! Just keep the intention alive and go with the flow. 

Who knows, maybe out of boredom or plans not coming to fruition, an unexpected family memory will be made. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Family Adventuring on a Budget

Written by Damien

Anyone who attempts to pursue outdoor adventuring as a family with any seriousness quickly comes to a realization: gear costs money.

Early on in the process, you can get away with a minimal investment. If you go for short hikes in fair weather, close to home (or close to the car), in popular areas, and you are only out for an hour or two, clothing and gear do not matter much. In those conditions you are not likely to be putting yourself in a situation where you are in danger of getting hypothermia or something worse.

The problem you may find - like we did - is that these short, close to home outings whet our appetites for more. As we started to progress we found ourselves gradually pushing further in a multitude of directions:

  • We started to increase our distance and the amount of time we spent outdoors. To the point where we would be on the trail for up to 8 hours in a day, often to remote locations.

  • We started to venture out in all weather conditions. Unless things looked really bad, even if rain was in the forecast we didn't change our plans.

  • We started to venture out in all seasons. We didn't want to restrict our outdoor fun to summer only, eventually getting to the point where we were doing it year round through New England winters.

  • We started to venture out on multi-day trips. 

What we quickly learned was that in any conditions other than ideal conditions, clothing and gear made the difference between success and failure. And failure could mean a compromise in safety - something we wanted to avoid.

The other thing we quickly learned was that outfitting a family of five isn't cheap. If this was something we wanted to pursue, we needed a strategy.

The strategy we came-up with (and still use today) is as follows:

  1. Family Outdoor Adventure Budget - We created a family outdoor adventure budget. I, the gear junkie, was put in charge of managing it.
  2. Family Clothing Budget - I was put in charge of managing the family clothing budget also.
  3. Trip Expenses - Actual trip costs (food, gas, camping fees, etc.) came out of our regular budgets, NOT the adventure budget. (This is an important one!)

1. Family Outdoor Adventure Budget

This was a very important first step for us. By doing this, we were officially acknowledging the importance of spending time in the outdoors together as a family. We were putting our money where our priorities were.

We work on a mostly cash-based budgeting system. We have an adventure envelope and every month put the allotted amount in there. I, the gear guy, do the research and have free reign over how that budget is spent. If the money is in the envelope and I think we need a particular item, I can purchase it.

This system is also very helpful for budgeting and planning. Since I know I can count on a certain amount every month, I can plan how to save for larger purchases.

Another important rule we have is that any time we sell gear, the proceeds from the sale go back into the outdoor budget. It keeps things nice and tidy.

Yes, outdoor gear can seem expensive. But you can say the same thing about any quality gear, whether it be for hockey, soccer, tennis, you name it. If you are putting your money into a wide variety of activities, then you may have difficulty justifying the expense. For us, we chose to focus more on the
outdoors than any other activity so as to not spread our finances too thin. Also, since we use our outdoor gear for travel, using a tent instead of a hotel, we consider it a cost savings investment.

2. Family Clothing Budget

For the outdoors, gear and clothing go together as a complete system. I didn't want to spend the adventure budget on clothing when I knew full well that any clothing purchases we made would be used everyday, not just on our hikes. I knew what kinds of clothing we needed, but didn't have any way to budget for it. The solution to the problem was to put me in charge of the clothing budget too.

What is cool about this system is that whenever a clothing need comes up in the family, I try to kill two birds with one stone wherever possible. For example, if someone needs a pair of pants I evaluate whether or not it makes sense to get a pair of outdoor pants that can also be used as everyday wear. Of course if the need is for a pair of dress pants, then that won't work. Often though, a lot of clothing purchases can be made to work in the outdoors and everyday life.

What this means is that we now have a lot more multi-purpose clothing than we used to. We wear more outdoor clothing on a regular basis, because it works, and we need it for the outdoors anyway. We also have less articles of clothing because we don't need multiples of everything.

Yes, outdoor clothing is more expensive. But it is usually high quality, and if you are wearing it everyday, not just for your weekend hikes, it is much easier to justify the cost.

3. Trip Expenses

The third rule we instituted was to NOT pay for our outdoor trip expenses out of the adventure budget. Or, said another way, the adventure budget is not a vacation budget.

The biggest limiting factor for us in doing the outdoor activities we wanted was having the right gear. It was important to make sure that the adventure budget was used for gear, not as an “everything to do with the outdoors” fund.

When we travel, food expenses come from our food budget, gas expenses from our gas budget, etc. For us, integrating the expenses of outdoor activities into our regular budget signified that pursuing adventure together is a key part of who we are, not something separate, for “recreation only”.
For our family, adventuring on a budget is not about doing it on the cheap. It is about budgeting it into our lives like we would any other high-priority expense. Building-it-in rather than tacking-it-on.

We were created for the outdoors, it is our natural environment. 

Doesn't it seem funny that we have to draw lines in the sand in order to make it a part of our lives?