Friday, March 16, 2012

Small-scale excursion

The kids had a professional day yesterday, so I decided it was a good time for a Very Small Excursion.

Well, not small in terms of carbon footprint. Our destination was 45 minutes of highway driving in both directions, though we did drive the Prius. Regardless, our plan was small in terms of ambition. Whereas sometimes we set out with far grander plans, bound for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or the hiking trails of Mount Manadnock, somehow I sensed this week that the excursion most likely to succeed would be an easy one.

Our first destination was the Post Road Art Center in Marlborough to see an exhibit I’d written an article about a few weeks ago. An art gallery sold $25 bags of art supplies, each bag identical, and then held a contest for artists to see what they could create using only the contents of the bag. I was curious to see how many different ways a canvas, an orange marker, a tube of blue paint, and a few other art supplies could be deployed.

Dozens, as it turned out. We spent an hour examining all the different entries. The kids – Holly, Tim and Tim’s friend Will – took their time examining each piece of art and offering observations on the artists’ different interpretations. Being able to vote for a winner lent extra intrigue to the process; they discussed at length whether to vote based on visual appeal alone or on creativity of approach in terms of how the variety of materials was incorporated. Finally, Tim voted for the one he found most beautiful; Will voted for the one he thought was most difficult to execute; and Holly, who in the end couldn’t bear to choose just one, appropriated my ballot to cast one vote for the piece she considered most detailed and another for the one she liked the looks of best.

From there, we drove to Wegman’s, the mega-supermarket new to Massachusetts. I’d read about it when it opened a few month ago and tried to describe to the kids what I knew, but none of us was prepared for the magnitude of the lunch area, with its row upon row of buffet tables, each dedicated to a different kind of cuisine. It took us a full thirty minutes to take in all the options before we made our choices: cheese pizza for Holly, fried chicken for Will, Chinese sweet and sour barbequed chicken for Tim, Indian curried vegetables and brown rice for me, and tortilla chips with salsa for everyone to share. But the greatest attraction of Wegman’s turned out to the self-service soda machines operated via by touchpad screens. The kids were mesmerized.

It was an easy day and a fun one, and it reminded me of the extent to which less can be more when it comes to planning outings. Even with small-scale plans, we’d all learned a bit about art and retail. The boys got into a fairly sophisticated discussion over lunch about the amount of revenue an enormous lunch hall like the one at Wegman’s generates compared to what its operating costs might be; then the conversation turned to the question of how that particular location was selected for the state’s first Wegman’s, and the kids forayed into topics such as target consumer groups, local zoning laws, traffic patterns, and competitive retailing.

When my children were really little, I would remark sometimes how little it took to come up with a plan that kept them amused. We could board the train in Concord, ride it to West Concord, cross to the other side of the tracks and do the same thing in reverse and they’d consider it a big day. We could read a picture book on a park bench and it was something to tell Daddy about when he got home. We could throw pebbles into a river from a bridge and they’d recount it during Sharing Time at preschool the next day.

Now that one child is a teenager and the other isn’t far behind, it seems only natural to me that their standards are higher. I try to look for opportunities that are more intellectually stimulating or physically challenging when we have a chunk of free time. But yesterday, I learned anew that sometimes simplest is best. As long as there’s a really cool touch-screen soda dispenser somewhere along the way.

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