Friday, August 10, 2007

Mountain Kids

I'm getting ready to leave the Teton mountain range area in Wyoming and drive Janet and Jack back to the sloping ridges of New Canaan. Both spent a month each at the same ranch camp (Teton Valley Ranch) southeast of Jackson Hole, and Jack additionally had a month with us at our lodge unit at the base of the Jackson Hole ski area while Janet's camp session was going on. My mountain kids; I'm grateful that we have been able to provide this gift to them.

I was basically a summer "beach child," spending upwards of six hours a day lying prone on the sand at Comp Beach, especially as a teenager. My family also spent at least two weeks a summer on a beach island off the Jersey shore. Although a couple months of our childhood winters lead us up to the mountains in and around Stowe, Vermont, my brother and I were not mountain kids (until my brother lived in Stowe year 'round during his twenties). But Janet and Jack - they're most assuredly of the mountain variety.

Both children have been spending time every summer and one week per winter out in Jackson since they were toddlers. They learned and continue to appreciate and respect the wide and varied, rugged landscapes out here, as well as the power and beauty of the Snake River that winds it's way through the Teton Valley. With their Jackson-based aunt and uncle as their first guides - and now their camp counselors - they have trekked through sage brush and shale up and around many a peak. They've stood on the tops of mountains at elevations that astound. It's all a far cry from Connecticut in many ways and that's what makes it special and unique. And Teton Valley Ranch serves to keep them grounded, if only for those 30-days and a few more 24-hours beyond the final campfire of the session.

When my sister-in-law first told us of the camp during the summer of Janet's fourth grade summer, we felt it would be a terrific way to get her away from her "safe" cocoon of New Canaan and get her unplugged from all things electronic for a month. She would meet and bunk with girls from all over the country, spend an inordinate amount of time outside, active and hopefully eager, all with the Grand Teton as a backdrop.

Since her fifth grade summer, Janet has had one month a year where the most amazing things happen. All of the other 11 months, she is a shower-a-day girl, practically panicking if it looks as though that can't happen. Her clothes must match and be oh-so-specifically purchased at the "right" store, and feminine and pretty and clean. And the hair, oh the hair! Brushed and flattened or curled and blow-dried and styled just so. The eye make-up application is an art even her 50-year-old mother hasn't managed to master. But from the middle of July through the middle of August, she is going three to four to five days without a shower when her group goes on back-packing trips and/or pack trips into the mountains with the horses. Through the wonders of e-camp I can see her wearing mismatched socks, mismatched rain gear, baseball and knit caps pulled jauntily over her pleated hair. Her knees are sometimes cut-up, her western riding wear is dusty and worn-in and decidedly not East Coast trendy. And in every photo she is wearing the biggest smile I have ever seen and she has never looked more gorgeous. On the day of the final rodeo, my pampered pet is roping like a champ, giddyapping around the ring like the cowgirl she has temporarily become and doing the "boot dance" like a pro.

For one month a year, she - and now Jack - prove that they can easily exist without cell phones, television, I-pods, and computers. I should only be so lucky the rest of the year.

And for one month a year I get to be a mountain mama, doing a lot of what the kids are doing but without cool counselors and in a more cautious manner; ah, youth!
I love the peace and serenity I find at this altitude and the sound of the fluttering aspen leaves and swaying pines is as calming as waves on the seashore. The vastness of the Wyoming sky is a marvel.

At the final campfire of the camp season, I feel as wistful as the campers, and the melancholy is palpable. There is one camp song in particular that never fails to choke me up as we take one final look around at the hills and mountain ranges and the dry, western heat sinks away into cool nip. The first lyrics haunt me and comfort me all at once, and I find that every July they spring immediately to my ears as we set our sights Westward.

"Yellowstone winds, oh they're calling me back again. 'Come here to me my friend,' they whisper to my soul..."

I love that my mountain kids' souls are also being nourished by those winds. And that in addition to New Canaan, they can call Teton Valley "home."

Monday, August 06, 2007

Thank You, Harry Potter
Young muggles have united for the past 10 years in one of the oldest forms of entertainment and perhaps the keenest building block for learning - by reading. Most specifically by tucking in to the thick-paged and mysterious and magical world of a bespectacled, charming young wizard, named Harry Potter.

With the recent release of J.K. Rowling's last installment in the Harry Potter series ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"), many accounts that I have read and watched on the television have featured the testimonies of teens and 20-somethings - as well as their parents - extolling the virtues of the books and how they aided in the child's love of reading. Harry not only captured imaginations,but he guided young readers into the wonderful world of books.

My 9-year-old niece in Wyoming has a hard time putting her Potter books down. She reads in the car - a feat that always turns me deathly nauseous - for hours in her bedroom, at the dinner table while waiting for the main course, and even on trips to the banks of the Snake river. Her example prompted my son Jack to begin his summer sixth grade reading assignment by gobbling up the pages of two Harry Potter adventures in two weeks! I thought it would be a struggle to get him into reading a book on his post-camp vacation, but blessedly I have been proved wrong.

Summer is such an easy time to introduce young children to reading without the pressure of book reports or quizzes or peers perhaps reading at a faster pace. They can get a jump start before September. They can discover that there is just as much fun to be had between the covers of a book than a video or computer game, or t.v. show, or even dashing about the yard. It is welcome down-time and the opportunity to learn without realizing that's what is occurring.

My husband rarely, if at all, reads during the fall, winter or spring, but finds himself absorbed in a good book or two or three during the summer months. I, too, will devour novel upon novel with a greater pace in the warmer, lazier months, and I think our example lends itself to the kids' reading a tome of their own.

"It's reading time," I have announced while sitting on the beach with Jack and Janet, or hanging out in our unit in the wilds of Wyoming. Sometimes there is protest, but mostly it is welcomed and my suggestion is taken to heart and mind. And it goes without saying that the quiet time is very apreciated indeed.

Observing the types of books the kids choose is a fascination for this parent as well. Blake has always gravitated towards works of military fiction and non-fiction as well as spy thrillers; Kenny as a young boy read each and every one of the "Goosebumps" books and now chooses more short how-to's regarding entreprenurial works; Janet has only read one of the Potter novels, and instead spends time with the pages of various girlfriend-themed series (although I have been pressuring her to read my 30-something year old, dog-eared copy of "The Catcher in the Rye"), and Jack predictably loves books on sports, especially baseball, plus Harry's trials and triumphs at Hogwarts.

With a month remaining until the trill of the school bells, there is still time to get your child immersed in a book be it Harry or Mary and her little lamb. I'm sure DandyTales and Elm Street Books will reveal more than a treasure of titles for everyone, both the newbie young and older, seasoned readers.

Wave the magic wand of the written word in front of your son or daughter and watch the wizardry of reading take hold.