Five Minutes with Bobby Orr

Published in the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey, October 2012

Five Minutes with Bobby Orr

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
 ~Author Unknown

         To hockey fans, Bobby Orr is a legend. To our family, he’s a gentleman.
         The Sports Museum of New England, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now located in Boston’s iconic “Gah-den,” home of the Bruins and Celtics, has always held impressive attractions, including sports artist Armand LaMontagne’s life-sized wooden sculptures of some of Boston’s greatest athletes. Bobby Orr is one of those LaMontagne immortalized in basswood.
         My sister-in-law Denise worked for the company that commissioned the Sports Museum Orr sculpture, and to celebrate the work's completion the firm hosted an unveiling for its employees at a hotel ballroom. Retired Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr would be on hand to pose for pictures beside his wooden look-alike. As her guest, Denise brought her mom Bertie, a huge fan of the Bruins in general and Bobby Orr in particular.
         My mother-in-law had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis years earlier and by the time of the sports museum gala she was largely confined to a wheelchair. Neither MS nor the chair stopped Bertie from living with grace and gusto, and she dressed to the nines, complete with earrings and pearls, for the evening with Bobby Orr.
         When Denise and Bertie arrived, a long line already stretched from the hockey great and his chiseled likeness. It would be a while, it appeared, before they’d be able to shake Orr’s hand. Then Bobby looked up and saw them. Excusing himself, he walked to the back of the line, introduced himself to Bertie and asked permission to take her for a spin.
         As people watched, Orr wheeled a smiling, delighted Bertie through the venue and to the statue. For a full five minutes -- or at least what felt to Bertie like five amazing minutes -- he focused solely on her. They talked, laughed and admired the artist’s work. Bobby Orr conducted a private showing in a crowded room, just for Bertie.
         A few years after Bertie died my husband Mike attended a business dinner that included a charity fundraising auction. Mike zeroed in on one item: an 8x10 color photo of a young Boston Bruins’ #4 in action on the ice, autographed, “Best of Luck, Bobby Orr.”
         Mike put in bid after bid, but another man, in the interest of raising as much as possible for the charity, kept outbidding him. Finally, when the man’s bid reached a level bordering on too rich for Mike’s wallet, Mike approached the man and told him about his mom’s evening with the gracious former Bruin.
         “That’s an incredible story,” said the bidder. “You can have the picture. And not only that, but I’m going to buy it for you!”
         It hangs on our wall today, and when we look at it, we see more than a hockey player. We see a caring human being who brought joy to another through a simple act of kindness. And we also remember that kind man at the auction who carried on in the same tradition.

~Lori Hein

A Holiday Romance

Published in the book I Can't Believe My Dog Did That! by Chicken Soup For the Soul, September 2012

"I'm watching Olive while India's in Costa Rica," announced my daughter, Dana, home on summer break from college. The news alarmed me because Olive is a dog.
            "Where are you watching her?" I hoped Dana was moving into her friend India's Boston apartment for the duration of the caretaking assignment.
            "Here. I'm getting her tomorrow. She'll be here for nine days."
            I smiled the "that's great" smile moms conjure when they need to show support for something their kids are doing that mom wishes wasn't happening while my brain began contemplating how I'd survive what I was sure would be the longest nine days of my life.
            I'd had a dog, Licorice, when I was a kid, and I loved him. But my good dog feelings had been gnawed away by years in a town where dogs roam unleashed in the green spaces where I run, owners invariably saying, "Don't worry, he doesn't bite" as Rover nips at my Nikes, and where a half-dozen dogs on my street are allowed to bark early, late, often, and for prolonged periods, making sleep difficult and life less enjoyable. I'm not shy about letting my neighbors know I don't appreciate the auditory assaults. Once I sent a morning email that read, "It's 6:23 and your dog is killing me."
            When Dana pulled up with Olive, a Pyrenean Shepherd puppy, I admit to feeling an odd joy on seeing her round-eyed, hairy face. And when Olive strained at her leash to get to me, pulling Dana up the walkway, I felt a little special. 
            "She likes you, mom!" said Dana, either sincere or clever. Olive and I had our first physical contact, she exuberantly licking my shins, me patting her once on the head then moving away. This was Dana's gig, not mine. I'd said hello, now Dana was on duty.
            Or not. Dana's 19. She sleeps in. 
            When I woke at six I realized Dana's "I'm watching Olive" really meant that I was the one watching Olive. Olive hadn't been out since the night before. Dana wouldn't be up until after noon. I realized with mild horror that a fair amount of the upcoming canine care would fall to me. 
             I called Olive's name. When the furry ball bounded out of Dana's room and down the hallway, I felt a little flutter. She didn't know me, but she nuzzled my legs and looked up with trust and anticipation that warmed me. Hmmm.
            I noticed the training pad we'd put down -- India had sent Olive's gear, including pads that smelled like grass to encourage duty-doing there rather than on the floor -- was saturated with pee and piled with poop. I was delighted. 
           "Olive," I said, bringing her near the pad and stroking her back and head, "You're a good, good girl." In a strange house, with strange people who didn't get her out in time for her day's first constitutional, Olive had kept her business on a small plastic square. And, she hadn't barked since setting paw in our home. I was officially smitten.
            It got worse as the days progressed. Olive worked some animal magic and cast a dog endearment spell on me. I started doing weird things -- and enjoying them.
            I became an ardent dog walker, confounding my neighbors, which I loved. I looked forward to our walks and the way Olive circled the kitchen in joyous frenzy when I jangled her leash to call her. As we walked, sometimes side by side, sometimes one pulling the other, I studied the sniffing Olive did before choosing where to make her deposits. 
            I saved the plastic bags I bought my produce in and became skilled at wearing them as gloves then turning them inside out after I'd retrieved Olive's neat little messes. I left the door between our kitchen and deck open all day. That way Olive could be outside whenever she wished and hang with me while I read my newspapers at the umbrella table, forgiving the flies that found their way into my house and bounced off walls. I spread a blanket on the deck, and Olive spent hours lying on it, lifting her head frequently to give me a happy gaze and contented smile. 
           On a shopping trip to buy Dana back-to-campus items, I threw dog treats and chew toys into my cart. I perused my grocery store's pet aisle, comparing food labels to ensure Olive was getting the good stuff. I stopped wincing whenever Olive slurped my limbs and face, which was often. And, I, who heretofore would run for hand sanitizer anytime politeness dictated I pat someone's dog, developed a soothing chin-chuck that made Olive close her eyes and grin. I even considered giving Olive a bath. I didn't, but I thought seriously about it.
            "I'm taking Olive home in a few hours," said Dana one morning. "India's flight comes in tonight, and I'm picking her up at the airport."
            The news hit me hard. This dog had achieved the impossible: she'd made me fall in love with her. I looked down at Olive, who was licking my toes. "I can't believe it's been nine days already. They went by so fast."


Outdoor Art Adventures

Published in the April 2010 issue of Boston Parents Paper

Not all art lives inside museums and galleries. Wonderful, whimsical pieces – perfect for exploring with children – pepper parks, playgrounds and public places throughout Greater Boston. Now that spring is here, consider exploring these destinations that have creations to delight all ages.

Art-Filled Acres
DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln features contemporary art indoors and out. Says DeCordova's Victoria Glazomitsky, “Kids and families love the park. It gives little ones 35 acres to run around on while providing a creative backdrop that lends itself to family discussions.” The changing exhibition of about 75 works includes many for kids to enjoy – such as Doug Kornfeld’s outsized Ozymandias figure and Paul Matisse’s xylophone-like Musical Fence. The museum offers many family programs including a kid-friendly Sculpture Park audio tour.
DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln; 781-259-8355; Park open daily dawn to dusk, admission charged during museum hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am – 5pm. Adults, $12; kids ages 6-12, $8; kids ages 5 and under, free.

Water Works
Enjoy sea and city views as you discover art along Boston’s Harborwalk, a public path that runs along or near the water’s edge from East Boston to Dorchester. About 38 of the Harborwalk’s planned 47 miles are completed, with plenty of long stretches perfect for family outings. Pick a route from the Harborwalk Web site, pack a picnic, and set off to find delightful works, including marine animal sculptures, fish-shaped benches and fanciful aluminum panels in South Boston’s Eastport Park. There are also mosaic walls and a spiral tower in Charlestown’s Paul Revere Park and eye-catching, large-scale sculpture at Arts on the Point on the UMASS Boston campus.
Boston Harborwalk,

Outdoor Gallery in Cambridge
The Cambridge Arts Council (CAC) has helped turn Cambridge into a giant gallery of accessible art, much of it outdoors. “Because we serve the public, all of our projects are for a multigenerational audience,” says the CAC’s Lillian Hsu. There are interesting works in a variety of media all over the city, with lots of engaging installations to make kids smile. Check out Danehy Park’s half-mile-long “glassphalt” path by artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Nancy Selvage’s Waterwall in Trolley Square. The exteriors of public buildings, restaurants and stores host vibrant murals like Crossroads, Crosswinds and Potluck that celebrate the city’s diversity.
Cambridge Arts Council, 344 Broadway, Cambridge; 617-349-4389; .

Cemetery Sculpture
Don’t get spooked. Founded in 1848 as a park and arboretum as well as a burial ground, Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery offers a 250-acre oasis of paths, trees, and a lake alive with frogs and turtles. It’s also home to an extraordinary sculpture collection. In addition to elaborate Victorian grave art, there’s a Sculpture Path of contemporary pieces that “children and families enjoy exploring,” says Forest Hills Trust’s Cecily Miller. Favorite pieces include interactive works like Mitch Ryerson’s Poetry Chairs, inscribed with poetry written by teens, and Andrea Thompson’s Knock on Wood, with knockers that make different sounds. Forest Hills’s summer camps host more than 800 children, and July’s Lantern Festival draws people of all ages for Japanese drumming, dancing and the sunset launching of lanterns across the lake.
Forest Hills Cemetery, 95 Forest Hills Ave., Boston; 617-524-0128;

Skate Into Spring... On Wheels

Published in the March 2010 issue of Boston Parents Paper

March is mud season -- not always a good time to romp in the great outdoors. When the weather or winter-weary grass isn't cooperating, burn off some energy at an indoor roller rink. More than a half-dozen rinks across eastern Massachusetts welcome skaters of all ages and abilities. Admission averages about $7 and skate rentals, if not included in the price, are available for about $3. Most rinks offer lessons and birthday party packages. Public skating hours vary by day and season, and some rinks have special sessions for tots, teens and families. Call or check a rink's website for the schedule before setting out.

Family Focus

Colorful murals deck the walls at Carousel Family Fun Centers. Recently refreshed and updated, the rinks provide a bright, safe place for kids, teens and families to gather for fun and fitness. With snack bar, game room, great sound system, a Wednesday night all-you-can-eat family pizza package and frequent themed entertainment, there's something for everyone. Non-skating parents accompanying their kids are admitted free, but parents might want to return on Sunday evenings for the Adult Fitness Skate: the background music's beat ramps up gradually for a cardio workout that really rocks!
Carousel Family Fun Centers, 1055 Auburn St., Whitman, 781-857-1286 and 4 David Drown Blvd., Fairhaven, 508-996-4828;

Super-sized Saturdays

With a Saturday public session that runs from 11:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. and skate rentals that run from a toddler's size 8 to a man's 16, a family can log a lot of miles at Roller World in Saugus. Blacklights make painted images of the planets pop off walls and carpets. Like other family-friendly rinks, Roller World's a social place and can be a good spot for playdates. The rink's Michelle Breen says there are many skaters "of all ages who come two or three times per week, and they've made friends." Parents might want to get a sitter on Tuesday or Saturday nights when Roller World becomes a dance hall hosting ballroom and line dancing.
Roller World, 425R Broadway, Saugus; 781-231-1111;

Laser Labyrinth

After they've chased each other around on skates for a while, kids can chase each other through the laser tag mazes at Roller Kingdom's two locations in Hudson and Tyngsboro. Each $4 game is a high-energy, 10-minute adventure complete with pulsing lights and sound effects. A computer prints out individual scores, and players earn tickets that they can cash in at Roller Kingdoms' prize counters. After an exhilarating laser battle your kids might be too pooped to put their skates back on, but some snack bar fuel should reenergize them. Parents accompanying their kids skate free at Roller Kingdom.
Roller Kingdom, 5 Highland Park Ave., Hudson, 978-562-3440 and 355 Middlesex Rd., Tyngsboro, 978-649-3440;

More Places to Get Rolling

Roller Palace, 130 Sohier Rd., Beverly; 978-927-4242; Has an adjacent soccer facility

Skateland, 19 Railroad Ave., Bradford; 978-372-3050; New rock maple floor and jamskating to hiphop

Silver City Skateland, 1 Lawton Ave., Taunton; 508-824-4866; Tiny Tot Sessions include a beginner lesson and free skating for one parent

The Universal Language of Pigeon

Published in HCI Books' The Ultimate Bird Lover. Book publication date February 2010

Arming your kids with corn and sending them into a flock of pigeons is a surefire way to connect with locals when you travel. Pigeons swoop, crowds gather, international relations ensue. You may not speak the locals’ language, but if they’ve got pigeons and you’ve got kids, you’ve got a lingua franca.

Some of my family’s favorite travel memories involve pigeons. In cities all over the world we’ve used the birds to make connections with people.

Like the bevy of Italian models who interrupted a photo shoot in Venice’s Piazza San Marco to marvel at my then nine-year-old son, Adam, who, by throwing the corn straight up but not out, made the top of his head the site of multiple pigeon landings. The models called him “PEE-jin boy” and took pictures before giving him corn-throwing advice. Italians speak with their hands, and it was interesting to watch a half-dozen drop-dead gorgeous women mime effective grain-tossing techniques to a little boy.

Nearby, our daughter, Dana, then six and already a skilled animal whisperer, had attracted her own fans. She laid a trail of corn and, by repeatedly cooing, “Yo, whitey, my man,” coaxed San Marco’s sole albino pigeon to walk a straight line, pecking each piece as he went, right into her hands.

The summer before he started school I took Adam to Bolivia. He liked the boat ride across Lake Titicaca and thought “Andy’s mountains” were cool. But what he most enjoyed was just hanging out in the capital, La Paz. He liked having his shoes shined by teenage boys who nodded earnestly while he explained the powers of the action figures he carried in his pockets, and he liked eating cotton candy in Plaza Murillo, a popular public space and heart of the city.

One sunny Sunday in the plaza, anchored by grand government buildings and a neo-classical cathedral, Adam spied a boy about his age sitting on a bench with his parents watching the pigeons gathered in the center of the square. We knew what to do.

I bought seven bags of corn from a vendor, gave Adam one, and sent him into the flock. He threw a handful into the air and the pigeons went loco, whirling to get the grain. As they swarmed around Adam’s feet, the little boy stood up and clapped.

I called Adam over and gave him two bags of corn. He went to the boy and offered him one. Then they ventured, the little American in a Pokemon windbreaker and the little Bolivian in a sweatsuit of red, yellow and green, the colors of the Bolivian flag, into the middle of the plaza, where they threw corn, dodged dive-bombing pigeons and laughed together from the bottom of their bellies.

After four more bags of corn had been happily tossed and consumed, the boy ran to his parents’ bench and returned to Adam with a soccer ball. The parents motioned to me to join them and asked if Adam could play for a while.

While the new friends kicked the ball for an hour, the parents and I, mixing simple Spanish and English, talked about life in our respective countries and about the joys and challenges of raising a family. There was little difference between their experiences and hopes and my own.

And, looking at our sons, running and grinning and enjoying the day and each other, we knew there wasn’t much difference between them, either.

Latin: Alive and Well in the Classroom

Published in the January 2010 issue of Boston Parents Paper

Among the classes that kids take in public and private schools today, Latin isn't the first to come to mind. Many people might say it's unnecessary, a "dead language" that no longer applies to "real life."

Yet, more than 60 percent of our English vocabulary has Latin roots. And, while you may not know the origin of the words you speak, many of today's Massachusetts students do. Latin is alive and well in schools across the state. Long a cornerstone of classical education at many private schools, this ancient language now has fans in a wide range of academic settings from municipal to Montessori, charter to parochial, in grades as early as elementary.

For the past five years, Boston lawyer Gregg Bailey has voluntarily taught Latin to Dorchester tweens and teens attending rigorous area schools where the language is required. He does it through Project D.E.E.P., the Dorchester Educational Enrichment Program that tutors and prepares Dorchester youth for entry exams required by schools like Boston Latin and Roxbury Latin. D.E.E.P.’s been so successful getting kids into these institutions that five years ago it launched Learning Latin to support them in their schoolwork.

Bailey, who holds an undergraduate classics degree, stepped in to teach the program. Once a week he and a group of mostly 7th, 8th and 9th-graders study Latin vocabulary and tackle homework challenges. Enrollment doubled in the first three years and, according to D.E.E.P. assistant director Lauren Hughes, continues to climb.

“Latin,” says Hughes, “is paramount to a comprehensive education. It can expand a child’s knowledge of English as well as help in learning any other Romance language.”

Growing In Popularity

Recent Latin enrollment statewide has held steady or grown, with Latin’s value as a building block of English a key reason why.

Alice Lanckton, a Newton South High School teacher who’s seen Latin enrollment double to about 100 since 2002, says, “Students appreciate the importance of Latin in increasing their vocabularies, both for the SATs and for life. Kids who take Latin enjoy understanding words.”

Claire Planeta, Latin teacher at Easton’s Oliver Ames High School agrees. “People tell me they use Latin more than any subject because it helps them with vocabulary. Most of my students would tell you they learned English grammar in Latin class," she says.

Latin classes start in the 6th grade at many private schools. At Brookline’s Dexter and Southfield schools, for example, middle schoolers take three years of Latin, then decide whether to continue at the high school level. About 50 percent do. “We’ve always had a strong interest in Latin among our student body,” says Lisa Pyne, the schools’ classics department head. “Because they’re exposed early, our students are invested in their study of the language.”

Early exposure means parental investment, too. Lynn Sullivan-Galvin, a Boston mom whose son is a Dexter 8th-grader, says, “Sam’s in his third year of Latin; therefore, I’m in my third year of Latin.” Sullivan-Galvin’s seen Sam read novels without looking up words while his high school-age sister, who doesn’t take Latin, keeps a dictionary close. “I can’t believe how much Latin has helped Sam’s vocabulary. When reading, he can figure out words because of the Latin root, making the reading much more enjoyable. When writing, he’s able to use less common words because of Latin.”

Putting It To The Test

Currently, Latin is taught at about 20 percent of middle schools in Massachusetts' 220-odd public school districts and 62 percent of high schools, according to state education department data. A quarter of those high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) Latin, built around works of ancient Roman poet Vergil.

A trend toward diligent SAT preparation in recent years may help explain the old tongue’s 21st-century appeal: that Latin-takers outperform peers on the verbal (now Critical Reading) portion of the SAT is supported by 2007 Educational Testing Service data showing average scores of 678 for Latin-takers versus 502 for all students. For younger students, Latin may provide an MCAS edge: a study of midwestern 6th-graders shows those exposed daily to Latin surpass peers in reading, spelling, math, social studies and science.

Hingham High is one local school with a robust, multi-level Latin program. Teacher Ron Urbinati reports “a recent increase in enrollment,” with 160 students in Latin I through AP.

Gail Ryder, who teaches middle and high school Latin in the Dover-Sherborn system, has seen Latin explode beyond the one 8th-grade and one high school course offered when she arrived in 1986. “We’ve built an incredibly successful Latin program,” she says. “We now begin in 6th grade, and this year’s 6th grade class has over 40 students.” Dover-Sherborn has strong 7th and 8th grade enrollment and four high school offerings, including AP. “Many of our students wish to be admitted to top colleges and feel that taking Latin AP is a way to help with admission.” Ryder reports that “usually by the end of freshman year students are reading real Latin regularly: Cicero, Caesar, Pliny and all the poets.”

At St. Agnes, a K-8 Catholic school in Arlington, students start Spanish in kindergarten then, at the end of 6th grade, choose to continue or, as Latin teacher Christopher Bogdanski puts it, “come over to the dark side.” About 35% make the switch to Latin, and Bogdanski notes that some of his students continue in high school where, he says, “we’ve had several go on to earn perfect scores on the National Latin Exam.” The exam, offered at several study levels, had about 6,000 takers when first offered in 1977. About 140,000 turned out in 2009, with Massachusetts delivering 11,948 -- more than any state.

Making It Fun

Ed Foley teaches Latin at Arlington’s Ottoson Middle School, where enrollment’s risen and now holds steady at about 180. Foley thinks new teaching methods play a role in the renaissance. “The old image of Latin as a dull, difficult and dead language is no longer accurate,” he says.

Teachers such as Newton South’s Lanckton use games: I Piscatum (Go Fish) and bingo-like Id Habeo (“I’ve Got It!”). Hingham’s Urbinati uses hands-on projects related to Roman history and mythology. The vast reach and influence of the Roman empire, a multi-ethnic, multi-racial culture, allow teachers to wrap art, archaeology, architecture, politics and philosophy around the Latin language and literature core, furthering engaging and enriching today’s students.

Kids may take Latin to gain academic advantages then find their minds opened to its timeless cultural and societal legacies, topics worth exploring. “Non scholae sed vitae discimus.” (We do not learn for school, but for life. )

The Sauerkraut Cure

Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family. Book publication date October 2009

A recent genealogical expedition into my dad’s childhood yielded a folk remedy brought by his grandmother to Brooklyn from her native Alsace. I’d asked my dad to spend a day sharing memories of growing up in New York in the 1930s and ‘40s, and he had tales to tell, the most colorful of which involved Grandma Fink, the tender-tough matriarch of the extended family that shared her six-unit Brooklyn apartment building.

The close quarters of the Lincoln Avenue tenement were, thought Grandma Fink, a breeding ground for germs, critters and other unpleasantness, so she maintained vigilant guard over her clan’s health, administering poultices, plasters, salves and syrups and occasionally calling Dr. Hantmann in for a 25-cent kitchen table consult (the patient laid on the table for examination). And, she did seasonal cleaning, not just of the house, but of her grandsons’ insides as well.

Grandma Fink counted tapeworms among the potential threats to her family’s well-being, and twice yearly she waged war on any that might have found their way into my father and his two older brothers. Her weapon? Sauerkraut.

“One day each spring and fall, Grandma Fink would call me, Henny and Eddie into the kitchen," recalled my dad. "On the stove was a huge pot of water in which cabbage had been cooking for hours, made into sauerkraut. We knew from the towels and blankets covering the pot that it wasn’t for consumption. It was to attract tapeworms.”

The boys took turns standing on a stool that Grandma Fink had pulled to the stove. She’d lift the heavy towels that covered the steaming pot and push the boys’ little heads into the stinky steam. "We," said my dad, "were told to inhale the sauerkraut aroma, which Grandma said would ward off colds but most importantly, lure out any tapeworms growing inside us.”

Grandma Fink knew that tapeworms loved sauerkraut, especially kraut as delicious as hers, made from an old family recipe, and that to get some, the parasites would swim up through the intestines to the mouth and try to jump into the sauerkraut pot.

As the boys sniffed the pungent mash, Grandma stood close by, waiting to pull out any tapeworms that might emerge. “Grandma was ready to capture them,” said my dad, “and we thought she was quite brave, because she told us they could be thirty, even up to eighty feet long.”

As far as my dad knows, Grandma never did catch a tapeworm. “I cannot recall a single one ever coming out of us,” he chuckled. But Grandma never let her guard down, pulling out the pot and firing up the semi-annual sauerkraut boil year after year after year, releasing each grandson from the ritual only when he became a young man and moved, for work, marriage or the military, out of her Brooklyn tenement and into the wide world.

Get Your Family Into the Cosmos: Great Places to Stargaze

Published in the October 2009 issue of Boston Parents Paper

We’re all shining stars. Really.

That bright star your family contemplated on your summer camping trip? You’re made from bits of one just like it says renowned astronomer Phil Plait. In a video for the British website, a collection of thoughts on why science is so important, Plait uses astronomy to show that "science is everything, and it's everywhere, and it's you."

"The iron in your blood and calcium in your bones were created in a star that blew up five billion years ago, seeded a gas cloud with elements, and these elements formed – you," Plait says in the video. "That’s science.”

And that's bound to captivate the imaginations of your kids.

Children are tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. The more skilled they are in the process of wondering why -- the basic tenet of science exploration -- the brighter that future will be.

Astronomy is the perfect science for piquing curiosity and sparking critical thinking. It’s beautiful and mysterious. It’s one of the easiest sciences to investigate, requiring only eyes and, as interest grows, simple optical equipment. And it’s satisfying. Said Joe Doyle, curator of the Bridgewater State College Observatory, “Astronomy is a personal journey, since you’re alone at the eyepiece. You experience the universe through your own eyes and feel a sense of accomplishment when you find an object. The chance of discovery, which is very real, is thrilling.”

Exploring astronomy can make for some unique family outings. Massachusetts is home to many local public stargazing sites -- places where you can view our galaxy and beyond with precision equipment and expert guidance. Both Doyle and Tony Houser, director of the Wheaton College Observatory in Norton, said visitors are awed by magnified views of Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its moons, and our Moon and its craters. Houser said the Andromeda Galaxy, Ring Nebula, Pleiades star cluster and naked eye objects like satellites, meteors and shooting stars also pack “a big wow factor.”

Check out one or more of the observatories described here and let skilled enthusiasts guide your kids through the universe -- perhaps unleashing their inner scientist. Just remember that stellar viewing requires clear weather, and viewing schedules change, so check an observatory’s website or information line before blasting off for your trip to the cosmos.

College Observatories
Wheaton, Bridgewater, Salem State, Merrimack and Boston University are among the area colleges that share their telescopes with the public on scheduled open viewing nights or by special arrangement. The observatories, some boasting platoons of equipment and others one or two powerful reflectors, are usually manned by physics instructors or passionate students.

Depending on the venue, you may be scanning the heavens from the roof of a science building or from inside a structure whose dome retracts to reveal the night sky. When groups of very young visitors are scheduled, Wheaton even sets up a portable, inflatable planetarium. “The kids – and their parents – enjoy crawling through the dark tunnel to get into the dome, and we have a star projector to tell stories and show star motion in the sky,” said director Houser. Find schedules and visitor information at the observatories’ websites:;;;;

Clay Center for Science and Technology
A five-story, state-of-the-art learning center in Brookline operated by the Dexter and Southfield schools, the Clay Center (; 617-522-5544) includes an observatory housing seven professional-grade telescopes. During fall and spring Clay holds weekly public telescope nights for facilitated exploration of planets, stars, the Moon and other celestial surprises. Pre-registration is appreciated. When you’re not gazing upward, enjoy panoramic views of Boston from the observation decks, wander through fiber optic versions of the constellations in the Stars Courtyard and use the Planetary Scales to see what you’d weigh on Mars.

Gilliland Observatory
Most families are familiar with the spectacular Charles Hayden Planetarium at Boston’s Museum of Science. Less well known but just as exciting (on a clear night) is the Gilliland Observatory (; 617-589-0267), nestled on the roof of the museum’s parking garage. At 8:30 on Friday nights, museum staff invite the public to step up to Gilliland’s powerful Celestron telescope and observe the night sky’s current offerings. Before heading to the observatory, watch the 7 PM planetarium screening of The Sky Tonight, a film that helps you and your kids better appreciate what you’ll see up on the roof.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)
The CfA (; 617-495-7461) sponsors observatory nights the third Thursday of each month, except in summer. Starry-eyed future scientists can learn a lot from this Harvard University center. Observatory nights begin with a non-technical lecture (intended for high schoolers and older, but children are welcome) and end with telescopic viewing from the observatory roof. The CfA also runs special events like a Kids Academy and Sci-Fi movie nights. For details check the center’s website, which has a kid-friendly, content-rich “Fun Things To Do and See” section.

Astronomy Groups and Clubs
In addition to regular meetings, at which potential new members are welcome, groups like the South Shore Astronomical Society (, North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club ( and Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston ( share their astronomical knowledge in various ways.

If your child’s school or scout troop would like to hold a star party to investigate and celebrate the abundant wonder of deep space, both ATMOB and NSAAC can provide support and expertise. SSASTROS invites the public to join its frequent Saturday night observing sessions in Norwell’s Centennial Field. Bring the telescope that’s been sitting in your garage and they’ll teach you how to use it, or get equipment advice if you’re considering a purchase. NSAAC helps run the public viewing nights at Salem State and Merrimack College, and its just-launched Young Astronomers Program features an essay contest for 4th- through 8th-graders, with cool equipment as prizes. To view the heavens with NSAAC members, join their Friday and Saturday viewing nights at Veasey Memorial Park in Groveland.

Tips for Parents of Would-Be Stargazers

Local astronomy experts offer these suggestions for sparking a child's interest in the heavens:

Use a laser pointer to guide young eyes through the night sky

Start with a familiar object like the Moon, and look for things kids can relate to, like large craters or the Apollo landing site

Use binoculars, easy and inexpensive, to effectively view many objects

For a good first telescope, consider the $200 Orion Starblast

Experience the excitement and camaraderie of gatherings scheduled around major events like meteor showers

Let kids click their way through the cosmos on websites like, and

Use star charts, like the downloadable tools at, to identify what’s in your sky tonight

Boston By Boat

Published in the July 2009 issue of Baystate Parent

Boston By Boat

From craft shaped like swans to machines tricked out like monster fish, Boston is home to a flotilla of vessels that ply the city’s waterways. With peaceful ponds, major river, scenic harbor and island-studded open ocean, Boston offers lots of ways to have family fun afloat:

Swan Boats: A 15-minute ride that’s a 130-year-old tradition. Drivers ease elegant paddleboats around the tree-lined lagoon in Boston Public Garden, America’s first botanical garden.; 617-522-1966; $2.75 adults, $1.50 child.

Boston Harbor Cruises: From Long Wharf near the New England Aquarium, this company offers a cruise menu for all tastes, including whale watches, fast ferries to Cape Cod’s Provincetown and harbor cruises that take in lighthouses, the skyline and historical sights. Or ride Codzilla, a 2,800 horsepower beast with fish fangs painted on the hull that flies through the sea at 40 mph, music blaring. Screaming encouraged.; 617-227-4321; prices vary.

Harbor Islands Ferries: From Long Wharf, Pier 10 in South Boston and from three suburban docks south of the city, ferries and water shuttles take you to some of the 34 islands that make up the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. Georges Island, with its 19th-century Fort Warren, and Spectacle Island, which offers swimming, hiking trails and marvelous views of the Boston skyline, are among the most popular and accessible.; 617-223-8666; prices vary.

Duck Tours: Travel the streets of Boston in a restored World War II-era amphibious vehicle while a ConDucktor narrates, then “splashdown” into the Charles River. Boston sits on one riverbank and Cambridge on the other. 80-minute tour departs from both the Museum of Science and Prudential Center.; 617-267-DUCK; $29.95 adults, $20 child.

Tall Ships Poincare and Formidable: The crew serves bottled water and ginger snaps, but you’re welcome to bring your own provisions and libations aboard these identical 50-foot square-rigged sailing vessels that accommodate 40 passengers on a two-hour tour of Boston harbor. Depart from Long Wharf’s Boston Waterfront Marina.; 617-262-1119; $25 adult, $10 child.

Entertainment Cruises: Cruise the inner harbor from Castle Island to Old Ironsides while enjoying food, drink and dancing. Spirit of Boston offers a variety of sailings at different times of day, departing from the World Trade Center in Boston’s Seaport District.; 866-310-2469; prices vary.

Charles Riverboat Tours: Float down the Charles, Boston on one side and Cambridge on the other, taking in sights like the Longfellow Bridge, Beacon Hill and the golden-domed State House, the Esplanade, Back Bay, and the campuses and boathouses of MIT, Harvard and Boston University. Hour-long tour departs from the Cambridgeside Galleria.; 617-621-3001. $14 adult, $7 child. Also offers harbor cruises.

Charles River Canoe and Kayak: Paddle the Charles on your own steam. Pick up your hourly or daily canoe, kayak or rowboat rental at Artesani Park in Allston and explore a nine-mile stretch of the Charles River Basin. Guided tours available. Open Thurs.-Sun. in season.; 617-462-2513. Kayak/canoe rentals about $15/hour or $60/day.

Jamaica Pond: Rent a sailboat or rowboat from the boathouse at this 68-acre pond, a glacier-carved kettle depression and a jewel in the F.L. Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace of Boston parkland.; 617-522-5061. Rowboats $10/hour, sailboats $15/hour.

Affordable Europe: Travel Tips for the Budget Conscious

Published in the Spring 2009 issue of Tufts Magazine

Affordable Europe
Travel tips for the budget conscious

Skip summer. Everything costs less in the iffy weather of off-season. Yet a great place is a great place year-round. An October walk on Spain's Mediterranean beaches calls for a sweatshirt, but the sun's still warm enough to let you linger over wine and grilled fish at al fresco cafes. Germany in December is chilly, but it's alive with holiday lights and ornament shops. And a Scottish February's gray sky is the perfect backdrop for ancient castle ruins.

Fly frugal. If the major airlines' off-peak prices are too high, investigate economical carriers like Icelandair and Aer Lingus. Travel midweek. Check airlines and tour companies for air/hotel bundles, often cheaper than airfares alone. Browse discounted packages at sites like Then be ready to combine air travel with other transportation options. Say you've found a cheap flight to London but are headed elsewhere. Grab the flight, then travel to your destination by train, bus, ferry or low-cost intra-Europe airlines like Ryanair or easyJet.

Hotel hunt. Sites like Expedia and Orbitz list some budget accommodations, but a little digging can uncover many more two- and three-star hotels. Start at your destination's official tourism site, which will likely have an expansive list of accommodations, often with links to their websites.

Make contact. Email each hotel you're interested in. Explain that you're looking for budget accommodation for specific dates, and ask for the best rate. If you can write a few words in your potential host's language, do. Bypassing a booking service gives the hotel an opportunity to actively compete for your business and fill a room that might otherwise go empty. And the personal contact can yield surprise perks like a welcome gift, view or upgrade.

Dine midday. Make luscious lunches your day's major culinary event; for dinner, grab something quick or buy groceries and eat in. Eating your main meal in the afternoon lets you indulge inexpensively in local cuisine -- and get enough sleep for sightseeing: European dinnertime is typically nine or ten.

Natchez: A Fish Tale

Published in Country Roads Magazine, April 2009

Natchez: A Fish Tale
A magical Mississippi moment on a cross-country trek

by Lori Hein

When we rolled into Mississippi a few years back, my kids and I were a thousand miles into a summer-long journey across America. Since leaving our Boston home, we’d taken small routes instead of interstates and spent our time in places where people lived and worked, played and worshiped. Our trip thus far had been a connect-the-dots of a hundred proud downtowns.

When we got to Natchez, we sized it up as a good place to fish, and we drove to Bailey Park early one morning so Adam could spend some quality river time before the day’s high heat and humidity set in. He looked under the seat for his rod and tackle box. “Where are they, mom? I gave them to you to hold.”

So he did, back in Vicksburg, where I’d laid them down to take a picture. I felt worse than bad. Adam had been looking forward to this. Up in town, there was a K-Mart next to the Natchez Market, where the day before we’d spent a few fun minutes watching red plastic shopping carts roll through the downhill-sloping parking lot and bump into shoppers’ cars. I told Adam I’d replace his equipment as soon as K-Mart opened. But that was over an hour away, and I had ruined this perfect fishing morning. Adam was decent about not rubbing it in but did utilize his keen eye for opportunity: “Since I’m so devastated, can I have a root beer for breakfast?”

Two men in a pickup backed down the cement boat ramp pushing a Bass Tracker. “How you doin’ today?” asked the driver.

I pointed at Adam, sucking down his 7 am root beer. “Well, right now we’re trying to get over the fact that mom left his fishing rod in a park back in Vicksburg.”

John and Mac immediately became everything good about Mississippi that we needed to know. Our chance meeting meant they couldn’t solve the rod problem (“If I’d a known these kids was gonna be here, we’d a brought some rods – Mac’s got about ten,” sighed John), but they found other ways to show the kids a fine Mississippi River time.

They hoisted Adam, then 13, and his sister Dana, 10, into the bass boat and opened coolers holding yesterday’s catch. Three catfish, a whiskered one and two flatheads, each about six pounds, sat on ice. They looked huge to me, but Mac dismissed them as small, unprofitable fry he hoped he’d be able to sell. “The best eatin’ catfish are about eight to nine pounds. Size matters. Caught a seventy-six-pounder once. Nobody’d buy it. Bad eatin’. Too much fat.”

Then Mac pointed to a spot in the Mississippi and shared “evidence” of an alleged 110-pound flathead on the loose, a monster capable of turning the who-eats-whom tables. “Right out there. Eat a man whole.” As Adam listened to the fish tales, I imagined him wanting to get to K-Mart as soon as possible to retool so he could reel in one of these leviathans. And he probably envisioned me emptying the cartop carrier and filling it with ice so we could haul the thing around for a while.

Mac did most of the talking while John got ready to launch. He was crossing to Vidalia on the Louisiana side to check some catfish lines he’d sunk near a spot where a new hotel was going up, and he offered to take us along for the ride. It was tempting to go out on the Father of Waters and watch a Natchez fisherman at work.

But I couldn’t. While intuition sounded the all clear, on this trip I needed to err on the side of too much caution when it came to safety. Traveling alone with the kids required keeping my guard up, even if it meant missing some experiences. I had a fitting but truthful excuse.

“Thank you, but I’m afraid of the water.” Mac, either sharp, sympathetic or both, said he understood my fear. “So’s John’s girlfriend. She won’t get in the boat.” He paused, lowered his head, then added, “This river’s taken a lot of my friends.”

But he loved it. “I been on every inch of her. I’ve camped on all these sandbars, me and my wife. We got a generator and TV.”

The signature steel bridge that connects Natchez with Vidalia began to shimmer with heat as the sun assumed its position over the Mississippi. Mac and John told us that about four years back the water level was so low you could stand on the bridge and look down on a pile of cars and trucks, dumped into the river when a barge hit the bridge in 1945. “River’s got stories,” said Mac.

By now, John had an overdue date with some catfish lines, and K-Mart was open and ready to sell us new fishing gear. We shook hands. John looked at Adam. “Take care of your mama.”

We felt happy as we drove away. The whole day and the whole country were ahead, and everything we’d left behind was good. “Just think, Adam. Some kid in Vicksburg is catching catfish right now.” Adam smiled. “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”

Lori Hein is the author of Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America (from which this story is adapted). Her freelance work has appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit her at or her world travel blog,