Our Top 6 Tips for Successful Cottaging

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Few things evoke summer idyll as much as cottage living does.  Rustic beauty, swimming and sport in clear lake waters, Muskoka chairs on the deck to watch the gorgeous sunsets, maybe a campfire – these are all part of cottage dream for good reason.

As the owners of any cottage will tell you, though, the cottage experience doesn’t just make itself. My husband and I don’t own a cottage ourselves, but we do have regular access to one (my in-laws have a stunning spot on Georgian Bay) and we know firsthand, sometimes through our own oversights, what works and doesn’t work at the cottage. As with any project, a fun cottage experience is the result of good planning, collaboration, and consideration. Here are our top 6 tips for making the cottage dream a reality.

  1. Make an offering. If you’re a visitor, you can’t really defray the costs of the cottage, but you can offset anything associated with your stay. Bring a host gift, but keep things on the practical side – a cottage can’t hold many knick knacks. Offer to pay for boat gas (exorbitant, because boat engines burn right through it). Ask whether you can bring anything up to the cottage and cover it. Last weekend we were invited to friend’s cottage and it turned out she had a wish list of organic groceries, which are hard to source near her cottage. We brought up everything.
  2. 2. Arrive prepared. If you’re doing the cottage right, you’ll be spending time outdoors. Bring appropriate attire (swimwear, towels, warm clothing (especially for rides in boats), swim diapers). Remember life jackets and other flotation devices. Bring hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen (preferably an eco-brand, cottagers want to keep their waters pristine).

    3. Bring insect repellent. Canada’s recent public health advisories on ticks, which can transmit Lyme Disease, reveal that bug spray is about more than avoiding itchy bites. I’ve always try to use deet-free sprays, especially with my kids, and was eager to try Deet-free PiACTIVE when they offered it to us. The Canadian Paediatric Society states that PiACTIVE‘s main ingredient Icaridin “is considered to be the repellent of first choice by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Canadian Advisory Committee on Tropical Medicine and Travel for travellers six months to 12 years of age.” Thus reassured, we can report that it works great, is non-greasy, has no scent, and sports a convenient pump. Plus the cover for the pump contains a working compass. I wanted to pack the repellent for the cottage but my son claimed it for overnight camp: “I need the compass!” he cried.  I gave in, because not only is he going to wear that repellent, he’s not going to get lost either. Thank you, PiACTIVE. Available online and at selected retailers, including Mountain Equipment Co-op.PiACTIVE™ Insect Repellent Launches in Canada (CNW Group/Talvi Kuld Strategic Communications)

    4.  Get your licenses. Are there boats where you’re headed? Get your boating license. Do you like to fish? Get your fishing licence.  Don’t fish and don’t keep the catch unless you’re permitted to. Respect the regulations and the environment they seek to protect.

    5. Work. You’ve arrived at the cottage after a long week of work, somehow squeezing in the time to ready yourselves and pack.  Your one goal for the weekend: to relax. And relax you should. But interspersed with your relaxing should be work. Even at the cottage, someone still has to look after the kids, make the meals, wash up, maintain the boats, chop wood, return things to the shed, strip the beds, clean the bathrooms. If you’re not working, someone else is doing it for you. You’re at a cottage, not a resort. Find out what needs to be done, and do your part (or more).

    1. beach bookShake it up. Part of the pleasure in returning to the same spot several times a year, every year, is knowing what to expect and enjoying the rituals of our stays. But sometimes the same patterns grow a little stale and it’s good to usher in something new. Maybe invite a guest, bring up a new game, or plan a new activity. This year, I brought up The Beach Book: Loads of Things to Do at Lakes, Rivers and the Seaside by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, which is filled with nature-based ideas and inspiring, beautiful photographs for play along any shoreline. Prompted by one of its ideas, to create a dam and channel water, I join my boys who were trying to catch minnows with nets. I eventually let go of the dam idea because they were already engrossed, but I did hang around and dove into the water (which I often sidestep because the bay is chilly). I ended up swimming and sunning myself on rocks with them for the afternoon. They loved this, and so did I. There are many more ideas in the book, and I’m sure to consult it again, but if it does nothing besides inspire us anew to enjoy ourselves at the cottage, it will have accomplished what it intended and more besides.
    2. Cook! Make an effort to have nice meals. Most people like to eat good food, even if they don’t like to prepare it. Plus everything tastes better when someone else cooks it, so this is a nice thing to do for a cottage host. Even if you’re on your own, take some time for this. One of the beauties of cottage life is the slower pace, and having the time to prepare good eats is one of its hallmark pleasures.
    3. Cover your cottage bases and with any luck, you’ll get invited back. Unless you’re family, and then they’re kind of stuck with you either way. But it’s good karma to be a good member of the clan, and cottage peace is a sweet prize.

      Have I missed something? What is your favourite tip for successful cottaging?

End the Summer with Volunteer Work by Anne Cooper

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Some Rights Reserved, puck90 via Flickr Creative Commons

August is often the most dreaded month of the year for children as it reminds them that summer is coming to an end. To make those last few weeks really count, it might be a good idea to take the family on one last hurrah, but instead of taking them up to a cabin by the lake or on a Disneyland adventure, consider doing some volunteer work. Unlike your regular vacations, these philanthropic trips are much easier to plan, as many specialized tour operators such as Projects Abroad tend to organize details such as flights, accommodation and the itinerary itself. Plus, it makes your vacation a little more meaningful and one the whole family will remember.

Volunteering has always been recognised as a great way to give back while strengthening family bonds, but throughout the school year some families struggle to fit in charitable activities because of their busy schedules. With child sponsorship programs and other nonprofits expanding their scope of operations by providing opportunities for volunteers rather than just accepting donations, this kind of vacation can really open up you and your kids’ minds to a whole new world.

Although there are plenty of options out there that your family will enjoy, one destination that you should consider is the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Angel Canyon, located north of Kanab in Utah. Run by the Best Friends Animal Society, this place is an animal refuge for almost 2,000 homeless animals, from sheep to dogs and cats. The sanctuary allows animals to heal from illness, neglect and abuse, and with the help of volunteers from around the world, the animals thrive and eventually find loving homes through adoption programs. Best Friends Animal Society welcomes volunteers to stay at their many on-site cottages and cabins. They also have RV sites for families on road trips.

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All Rights Reserved, Troy Snow via Flickr Creative Commons

Daily activities at the sanctuary include tours and looking after the many animals, so depending on the preference of your kids, you will have an option to work with specific types of animals, doing things like preparing meals, grooming and socializing. Despite all the hard work the kids will have to put in to taking care of these sick animals, the family will benefit from these beautiful memories in the long term, and hopefully you’ll want to continue doing volunteer work in the future.

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Some Rights Reserved, Kim Piper Werker via Flickr Creative Commons

This post was contributed by one of our partners.

The Home Away From Home Eatery: Everyone Needs One

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I like cooking, sometimes. Often, even. But some sweltering summer nights, the last thing I want to do is charge up the stove. On these nights, I might get enterprising and put together a dinner sans heat: maybe serve up a salad or wraps with a side of popcorn (air-popped of course).

But some nights, what I really like to do is get away for a quick meal away from home, that feels like it might have been made at home, just not my home.  You know the type of place, where you can sit back with a book or your phone and tuck in to a tasty, reliable meal that reminds you of the homey kitchen you’d rather not be in.

Everyone needs a place or two like this.  It’s a modern day essential, up there with sunscreen and the little black dress.

I confess I flit around a little with where I like to go, but here’s my current favourite: a steaming bowl or noodles at Mimi Restaurant, a Vietnamese eatery in east Chinatown. There are tons of variations off a few types of noodle bowls and soups, all hearty and delicious. Vegetarians can actually eat here; there aren’t many veggie options but at least there are some (hard to find in a Vietnamese restaurant), and they’re really good.

Also, there’s a woman there who is ever so friendly. She always asks after my sons (who love the noodles there) and has a smile for me.  She’ll talk if I want to talk, or serve quietly if my nose is in a book. I go to Mimi’s and know exactly what I’ll get and how I’ll get it.  It’s kind of perfect as far as summer essentials go.

Where’s your go-to for a home away from home meal?

~~~

ps. The folks at Mimi’s don’t know I’m writing about them. Think they’d blush if they knew?

Summertime Margarita

This post by Beth-Anne was originally published last summer, but as everyone knows a good margarita is timeless.  Enjoy!

This summer we’ve been all about margaritas! They are so yummy and can easily be made without alcohol. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not comfortable in the kitchen and I have a tendency to “wing” it (insert disastrous result), and I do the same when it comes to mixology too. I like to go by taste, so every measure that I am about to give you is an approximation. Let your sense be your guide!

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Start off with some limes, both regular run-of-the-mill juicy limes and those flavour-bursting key limes. Juice 2 limes per glass. This is where the math comes in. If you’re going to make a pitcher of 8 drinks, you’ll need sixteen limes. It’s a lot of squeezing but it will be worth it.

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Pour the lime juice into the pitcher and add some club soda (1:1 ratio). Now add a healthy dose of tequila. I prefer white (or clear) and I figure about 1.5 – 2 shots per glass. Again with the math.  Squeeze in some agave nectar. This is where it gets personal. Sweetness is subjective, so be sure to taste and add accordingly.

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Pour in a touch of orange juice. That’s a very technical measurement. Don’t screw that part up.

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I’ve sampled several versions of this recipe over the summer and each time I tweak it slightly. I know nothing for sure, other than this drink tastes best served in a tall glass over lots of ice and a thinly sliced key lime.

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Vampire Campfire: Live Comedy and Improv Means Summer Fun for Kids (and Adults!)

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If you’re looking for fun events with the kids this summer, you must go see The Second City‘s Vampire Campfire. Nathalie and I were invited to check it out with our kids and it was a total hit.  There is lots of singing and dancing, and children are invited to participate in various ways, not least of which is shouting out ideas that the five actors then employ in their show.  A lucky couple are invited onto the stage. Humour rules the day, and I’m not too proud to tell you that I’m pretty sure I was laughing louder than any young person there.

The plot: when lackluster monster children are disappointingly unscary, their baffled/disappointed parents send them to remedial Camp Boo. Friendships form, and the bonds between the mini-monsters help them defeat an evil plot to cut down all the trees in the camp, surrounding areas, and the world!  Camp Boo helps the monsters find a way to scare on their own terms, and the monster children grow into the unique creepies there were always meant to be.

The Second City‘s set-up is perfect for kids.  It’s a small and intimate theatre with no bad seats in the house. You are close enough that you can see all facial expressions and hear everything without mikes. Also, in what I consider appropriate respect to 4 Mother’s dedication to food this month, you can order food at The Second City while watching the show and take a break from the hot summer kitchen!

Nathalie and I attended with kids aged almost 4 to 10 and runs about an hour. The youngest of our group was a bit young to understand what was happening although he listened and watched all the live action.  The other kids loved it, my older two keep asking to go back!  It’s not such a crazy thought, since all the shows would be different depending on what feedback the improv actors get from the audience. Also, with family four packs at $45, the show does not break the budget, and you might luck into a discount coupon (I found one in our kids’ summer packs from school).

Vampire Campfire also opened our eyes to something we don’t see very often: good improv. When I told my husband about it, I mentioned the classes and camps they offer for kids (they also have classes for adults). He immediately suggested it for the (biggest) little joker in our family.  Who knows what his potential for fun might be if he were surrounded with other funny kids instead of me?

In the “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” vein of things, I have to say that this was an event that I truly enjoyed bringing my kids too – it was a real pleasure. If you want to treat your kids to some live, funny entertainment that will have you laughing right along, Vampire Campfire is the way to go for easy summer fun.

Photographs courtesy of Nathalie

Chipotle Restaurants: A Fresh and Fast Take On Real Food

It’s summer, and if you’re like us, that means more moving around than usual. Most of what’s involved in this is good – we get to see different things, learn from new surroundings, expand our notions of the world beyond ourselves. But there’s an underbelly to travel, whether local or distant, and that’s the challenge of feeding yourselves well. At home, we take pains to eat and cook mostly at home, because that’s where we can best get the healthy, delicious, whole foods that we know we thrive on. Not so much when we venture into the unknown.

Last weekend, my husband and I took our kids for an overnight stay at a hotel in a neighbouring city. Again, this was mostly fun, but on the morning we were to leave, our youngest couldn’t get out of bed due to fever. And on the drive home, our middle son threw up in the car (he doesn’t get carsick).

The culprit, we knew, what what we had been eating. Although I had packed fruit and water, we were relying on restaurant meals. We were avoiding fast food, but our more expensive restaurant meals weren’t much better in the end. There were no other causes for their illness, and they recovered as soon as we got home: I think that we let our children eat themselves sick.

What if there were fast options for on the go that were actually healthful?  When Chipotle sent us some grow books and invited us to try out some of their food, I knew that maybe such a goal could be achieved. With tag lines like “Whole or Nothing”, Chipotle is leading the charge on responsibly sourcing high quality, local and organic foods in the fast casual industry. Thinking back to our crappy feeding experience while away, I was more than eager to find a better alternative and take my boys on a Chipotle outing.

Chipotle was downright busy at lunchtime, but the line moved quickly. It has a simple, rustic decor, but otherwise looked like a bustling eatery. It distinguishes itself quickly enough though, with the following statement prominently posted right next to the menu: “Food With Integrity: We serve ingredients that are raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers. That includes meat raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones and seasonably available local and organic produce.”  A sigh of relief and ray of sunshine to whet the appetite!

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The food offerings are at once simple and varied: different types of burritos, bowls, tacos, and salads. There are several meat options, but we enjoyed the tofu special called “sofritas”, and had a burrito bowl and tacos. We chose which types of rice and beans we wanted, as well as a range of toppings (4 types of salsa, sour cream, cheese, etc.) and it was impossible not to notice how fresh the lettuce and tomato salsa were. (I would later learn that their tomato salsa is prepared by human hands every morning on site. No wonder it’s so good.)  From what I had heard about Chipotle‘s commitment to fresh, wholesome food, I expected our meals to be delicious.  They were.

If we had at Chipotle‘s during our travels instead of at the unknown pubs and restaurants we found, we would have saved a pile of money and not gotten sick. We would have filled ourselves with real food that is delicious and nutritious, and known that our money is supporting a fast-growing food giant that is blazing the trail to responsible sourcing and preparation of food. Take a read of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and fast food’s enormous impact on animal, agricultural, and human health, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Chipotle is making a huge positive impact where it is desperately needed.

A few years ago, a vegan friend committed to all things eco sent me an untitled email with a link. It was an animated clip of a fast casual restaurant’s concern over factory farming and their commitment to making better choices, and the first time I heard of Chipotle. I wouldn’t forget it, and having had their food, I’m a good old-fashioned fan.  Here’s the clip: sometimes a cartoon is worth a thousand words.

OK Friday Barn Fair: Top 6 Reasons to Visit!

OK Friday Barn Fair_Betty's(4)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling PicturesWe all revel in a good farmer’s market, and OK Friday Barn Fair, launched by Burl’s Creek Event Grounds, has just taken things up a notch (or four). This weekly arts and market space, located in Oro-Medonte and conveniently en route to cottage country, showcases a wide range of goods from local farmers and vendors, selected Toronto imports, and live musical performances.  I recently had a chance to visit OK Friday Barn Fair and loved it, and am here to report to you my top six reasons for visiting.

1. There’s an amazing and thoughtful array of local goods.  You’ll find wonderful local produce, cheese, meats, maple syrup, honey, as well as jewelry and other crafted goodness at OK Friday Barn Fair. When you meet the farmers and craftspeople doing the growing and the making, you’ll also know that they’ve been selected with care and in collaboration with The Karma Project, a non-profit cooperative dedicated to promoting sustainable and accessible local food.

2. Cottage-goers never had it so good. So it’s Friday and you’re desperate to leave the city and you didn’t quite find the time to buy what you need to make your weekend the culinary delight you were hoping for.  Never fear! You now have delicious local options that are moons away from the jaded produce from Foodland in Barrie or the IGA in Wherever. Stretch your legs, score some great food, and support local farmers and businesses while you’re at it.

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Or, if cooking after the commute feels too much, grab dinner from the eateries at OK Friday. Rodney’s Oyster House offers up its famous oysters, mussels, and lobster rolls. Fans of Toronto’s restaurant trinity Fat Pasha, Rose and Sons, and Big Crow will be pleased to know that Anthony Rose also presents a range of his wares for sale.  Enjoy tastings of award-winning VQA Norman Hardie wines, and take a bottle home with you.  And for those of us lucky enough to be guests for a weekend away, it goes without saying that OK Friday Barn Fair is a treasure trove of lovely gifts for host or hostess.

OK Friday Barn Fair_Rodney's Oysters(3)_Image by Daniel WilliamsDowling Pictures
3.  The locals never had it so good.  One of the magical things about OK Friday Barn Fair and Burl’s Creek Event Grounds generally is the boost its giving to its community of Oro-Medonte. The market and grounds provide business development, cultural programming, and visibility to a beautiful region of Ontario. Restoration work on a 1930’s landmark barn with soaring 40 foot ceilings has been undertaken with assistance from the Mennonite community, and will serve as a destination event space, including weddings. During my visit to OK Friday Barn Fair, we enjoyed not just performances by Reuben and the Dark, but also by a local school who treated us to singing and their ukeleles, which were received through a musical grant. The presence of the local community of Oro-Medonte is infused throughout the market and the grounds.

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4.  Drop by or spend the day.  If you only have time for a quick stop, the amazing vendors will help you make the most of every minute.  But if you have the luxury of a day to spend, it’s worth the trip to go. Time moves easily as you check out the grounds, browse the stalls, or just take in the glorious natural setting.  The eating is great (of course), and the music is an ever-changing series of local Canadian talent – this week is Dan Mangan. You can even heighten your peace of mind with an outdoor mid-day yoga practice at 3pm with Shanti Vira Yoga Studio and Green River Yoga Company.

5.  The music festivals!  OK Friday Barn Fair runs every Friday from 2 to 8 pm except for July 24, when Burl’s Creek hosts WayHome Music and Arts Festival (Neil Young headlines days of jam-packed talent) and August 7, when the huge Boots and Hearts Music Festival comes to town.  With over 700 acres of pristine land, Burl’s Creek is Canada’s largest outdoor event venue, with space for 60,000 people and 45,000 campers.

6.  It’s a labour of love. During my visit to OK Friday Barn Fair, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting next to Burl’s Creek owner Stan Dunford during lunch (by Anthony Rose!). His goal was unwavering and simple from its inception: to create a world class facility. When asked what motivated Stan to take on this project, he points to his nephew, a fellow lover of music and the person who helped inspire the expansive vision behind Burl’s Creek. Stan talked about how the heart of an endeavour like this was never clearer to him than when a music festival was cancelled, but 40,000 people showed up anyway. They weren’t there for the music (there was none), he explained, but the chance to be together.  The core of Burl’s Creek is not just food and fun, but family and friendship.  It’s a good place to be.

OK Friday Barn Fair_Northwinds planters(3)_Image by Daniel Williams-Dowling Pictures

The OK Friday Barn Fair operates every Friday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. until October 9, excluding July 24 and August 7 when Burl’s Creek has planned festival events.

Photo credits: Daniel Williams/Dowling Pictures

On Selfies and Motherhood

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Until Nathalie brought it up, I had never given much thought to the selfie. Largely because I don’t see very many, with my kids too young to selfie and me too old to know people who do. In theory, I don’t see much wrong with a selfie, or even a load of them, although in practice wouldn’t it get dull fairly fast?

As for me? No, I don’t selfie. It hadn’t occurred to me to, but because I gave it some thought because of this blog, I can now illustrate more reasons why not.

Remember the foster kittens I mentioned?  Well, the last one was finally released from the vet yesterday and he returned to my house. I assumed the reunion with his siblings would be a happy one.  Then, as I was about to sit down to dinner with the kids (husband works nights), I heard myself say, “I smell cat poo.”

Frozen, I sniffed again. “I think it’s on you.”  I pointed to middle son, seated at the table.

“I don’t have cat poo on me,” he said, as if I were ridiculous.

My eyes scanned down until I saw the blobs and smears on his shirt. I helped him take it off and went upstairs to the toilet to scrape, wash, soak (and silently cuss).  I was drying my hands when middle son walked up the stairs, swinging his pants.

“What are you doing?”

“My pants smell like poo, so I took them off.”

“Stop swinging them then! You could be flinging the poo everywhere.”

“They just smell like poo,” he said patiently, “they don’t have poo on them.”

But of course they did, all across the middle section. I scraped, washed and soaked that up too, then searched for the cats. I caught the culprit, and cleaned her up. What could cause such strange behaviour? Perhaps her brother’s return stressed her?

I finally return to stiff risotto and soggy salad but before I sit, the boys point to the couch: “There’s poo there too.” What? I walk tentatively over. It’s everywhere! All over my iPad case, the floor and who knows where else? Stop moving! I cry. The two youngest have stepped in it and trekking it around.

One is sent hobbling on his heels to the bathroom; I carry the other. I run the bath, and quarantine all the kittens in the bathroom. I go back to the kitchen and start cleaning all the disgustingness. My youngest is three; I thought I was done with this nonsense.  By now, to avert contamination, my eldest is basically standing on his chair.

The doorbell rings. Seriously?  I hate solicitations anyway, but never more than now. I am so going to send the person away, or maybe we can just pretend we’re not here.  Except all the lights are on and she can see me through the window in the door.

Arg! It’s the Toronto Environmental Alliance, and I actually want to support them and have done for years. I tell her that I have to clean up cat poo and it’s everywhere and can she please come back in 10 minutes. I go back to cleaning up the cat crap in the kitchen and then notice I am getting dripped on. I look up.  O.M.G.

I run upstairs and my youngest is bailing water out of the bathtub onto the floor and the flood is leaking through to the kitchen below.  I freak out, just as effectively as I have every other time he’s done it. Only his size prevents me from flushing him down the toilet.

Cut! I could continue, but why bother. You get the picture.  There’s not a word of a lie, and it’s only a bit more outrageous than many a night around here.

Why would I selfie this??

And yet…

Anyone who’s into it could tell you that parenthood is equal parts gore and glory, and they trade places with schizophrenic alacrity.

For today I took my youngest to the beach, in search for his brothers who were spending the day there with their school.  It should come as a surprise to no one that I could not find them, but all was not lost, not at all. My baby has been asking me for days to go to the beach, and we were finally here. Just us two. Instead of trailing along for his brothers’ events, my youngest took centre stage. We played at the beach, and I gave him the best that I have: my full attention.

It was gorgeous outside and in, and I took quite a few pics of him with my phone to record it.

And then: I took a selfie.

IMG_20150623_142133Lopsided pony tail, wisps of hair flying with the wild wind, sporting gold rimmed sunglasses found in the car and almost certainly bought by my husband from the thrift store along with 15 others as a joke three Christmas dinners ago.  Retro is in again, and I think I could actually look pretty cool in those shades if only my face were 40% bigger.

I had a sense of what I looked like, but I took the selfie (and some selfies with my little son) anyway.  I took it because on that beach I had survived the day before and was still standing there in the sand, in the present – truly, madly, deeply. I took it because there was no one else to take it, and that wasn’t good enough. I took it because when my son looks at pictures of this stunning day, I want him to know that I was there too, that I looked at all the rocks he showed me, that we dug for pirate treasure together, and that I gave him my sweater when the windblown sand stung his skin.

I took the selfie because I was satisfied, and I wanted to remember it.