Monday, September 7, 2009

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So Long to Summer

This is not my final blog entry of the summer. No, I still have many adventures to report, including the release of turtles into the wild, swimming lessons, more surfing, a pirate adventure, and a surrey ride for nine down the boardwalk. As summer comes to an end, I have so many stories to tell. Yet, I felt that I must commemorate the end of the season with an official goodbye today, Labor Day.

Our summer ended with a frenetic burst of activity--frequent trips back home for soccer practice for the boys, a houseful of guests as Grandma and Grandpa flew up from Texas to experience the New Jersey shore firsthand and were joined by Colleen and Brian, and a series of "last times" and "last chances" before autumn's arrival.

We seemed to not be the only ones trying to soak in the last remnants of summer. Ocean City exploded with people and activity. My Dad suggested I attach a spear to the front of my stroller to motivate slow walkers on the boardwalk to get out of the way. We joined the masses for several trips to the boardwalk this last weekend, scarfing up Johnson's Popcorn and Ike's Crab Cakes, going for one last whirl at the Wonderland Pier, pedaling back and forth on a surrey, and surfing, surfing, surfing at the 7th Street Beach. Our busy last days of summer were followed by fun family dinners, slow walks for ice cream and quiet, cool evenings on our front porch.

The end of summer came with what seemed like the flip of a switch. The crowds emptied, our guests drove away, and the hum of the washer and dryer honed on. We feel just a little bit sad, as most do as they realize a much anticipated, much planned for event is now over. After all our waiting and planning, all our fun, after all that has happened, summer is over now.

Will cried today as he realized our beach time would be relegated to weekend trips that we are able to squeeze in between soccer game and birthday parties. Craig frequently reminds us that we don't have to lament over a "last time" of doing anything at the shore--since we own a home here, we can come whenever we want. But I understand how Will feels. We won't have another stretch of time here at the shore until next June. We've enjoyed the family time and I, for one, feel a renewed closeness with my husband and kids. We've spent a summer together and have learned the ropes of shore living. I'll miss our morning bike rides, afternoons on the beach, shell seeking and wave riding.

I never want to wish my life away. As one phase, one time, one event ends, there is always something else to look forward to. School and soccer games start this week. The boys will be reunited with their buddies. We'll return to our house in Pennsylvania, with our own swing set in the back yard and a little room to spread out. We'll start swimming lessons, and trips to the library, and playdates with friends we haven't seen for months.

Yes, the arrival of fall is bittersweet.

After dinner tonight, we took one last family trip to the playground. The 51st Street playground, known in our circle as the "Playground with the Fish" was the destination of Carter's choice. On our drive down West Avenue, we noticed the empty streets, the dark houses. The playground, usually spilling over with children, was empty. Even the weather seemed to welcome in the fall--we shivered in our shorts and flip flops and we noticed the dog walkers bundled in jeans in fluffy sweatshirts.

We'll head home tomorrow. But our adventure at the shore is far from over. We'll be back. Devotees of the NJ shore know that September and October are prime months here--warm water and no crowds. Stay tuned. I'll have more stories to tell.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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And They Rode Off Into the Sunset

I write a lot about our main beach transportation--by bike. There's a certain freedom spending a summer in a small town with a low speed limit and lots of sidewalks. At home, the kids could never ride around the block--our neighborhood is just too close to a nasty intersection--even though we live within walking distance of a coffee and ice cream shop. When we're in Ocean City, there's something kind of exciting, liberating even, about hopping on our bikes and going somewhere.

With Will on his dirt bike and Charlotte and me on my cruiser, Carter has been dutifully following behind on a smaller version of Will's bike with training wheels. Carter is the most competitive kid I have ever met and trailing behind him just kills him. Crossing intersections is hard, too. Sometimes, those training wheels just get caught on the curb and I have to maneuver my bike, with a baby in the back, while pulling a pouting Carter on his own.

We have spent the summer with this arrangement. That is, until yesterday, when Carter announced that he wanted his training wheels off. If you have ever met Carter, you know this is a child who speaks in truths. When he says that he is or is not going to do something, he means it. He is seldom rude, but matter-of-fact. Still, when he told me to take his training wheels off, I just wasn't sure.

The wheels, first of all, were on incredibly tight. I had trouble getting them off. I assigned Will to pull Charlotte around in the wagon as I struggled and struggled to remove the wheels. My fear was that Charlotte would not cooperate as Carter needed a few days of extra attention to teach him to ride his bike. Or, that I'd get the wheels off and, after falling off the bike, he's ask me to put them back on--and I wasn't sure I'd be able to.

Once the wheels were off, Carter and I stood in the back alley, as Will and Charlotte sat in the makeshift wagon bandstand. I held onto the back of the bike seat as he began to pedal. He told me to let go. I did, half expecting him to topple right over. But he didn't. He kept going. All the way around the block.

And that was that.

Of course, the event was not without drama. Carter is a dramatic kid. He never really fell off his bike, but he has problems starting and stopping. Every so often, while trying to start or stop, his bike would fall over. Carter would then throw himself over, rolling around in the grass, much to the alarm of passers by, who would run to his aid. He always gets up with his jack-o-lantern grin, never a tear. Carter made a friend of an old lady who is renting the corner house. She pulled Charlotte in the wagon while I ran to keep up with Carter. She, too, was in awe of his new-found skill.

Carter's only request of me today was to go on a bike ride. After errands and planned activities today, after dinner was the only time for us to go. As our summer comes to an end, night comes quickly. We watched the sunset as we rode our bikes around the block. Carter rode ahead as Charlotte and I trailed behind. In true Carter style, he chatted the entire time he rode. Since I was behind him, I could hardly hear him, but peppered into his conversation of one were phrases like, "I did it! I'm doing it! I'm riding my bike."

At nightfall, we pulled our bikes back into the garage. Carter pulled off his helmet, looked up at me and smiled. "I think I'm the best 4-year-old in the whole world. I can ride my bike." We think so too, Carter bear.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

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The Shell Seekers

A trip to the beach is a treasure hunt to us. Every time, it is so different. You never know what you might uncover. Each of us has a different prize we seek. Charlotte is happy to find any piece of shell that she can fold into her fat, dimpled hand. Carter is attracted to muscle shells these days, particularly treasuring the bivalve shells that are still intact. Will is on a constant hunt for a sea star or sand dollar, but will settle for the discovery of a horseshoe crab. I am more particular and covet a whelk shell. New Jersey's answer to the conch shell, a whelk is hard to find this time of year. Nevertheless, I keep my eyes open as we comb Ocean City's beaches.

Last week, I took the kids to one of Ocean City's beach walks. Every Tuesday and Wednesday in the summer season, the town gives guided tours down beaches in the north and south ends of the island. Last year, we attended one in the south end, at Corson's Inlet State Park. Since then, it has become a frequent destination for us for treasure hunting. This year, we went on the beach tour in the north end, near the Longport Bridge.

If you're interested in really learning about what you regularly see on a New Jersey beach, a beach walk is a great way to do so. Most of the shore towns around here have them. In Ocean City, it costs $1 for an adult, and 50-cents for a child to go on the hour-long tour. The kids get a bucket, too, which adds to the fun. As they deposit sea treasures into their buckets, the guide is able to tell them a little about what they have found.

As often happens, I got a wary eye from the tour guide when I showed up on the beach walk with my three in tow. There were two tour guides, and I heard some debate over who would take "the young ones." As we walked down the beach with the guide, accompanied by another family with slightly older kids, my boys knew all the answers to the questions that the guide asked, identifying different types of crabs, egg sacks and sea shells. With a good knowledge of the sea shore life already, this beach walk was a great way to add more details about stuff they already knew. But, at this point, Will could probably lead the tour himself. We got compliments from the tour guide afterwards, who said the kids were both good and knowledgeable.

The kids and I each picked up important pieces of information during our walk. For Will and Carter, the guide talked about the dangers of litter to both the landscape and wildlife of the beach. The children were just as interested in spotting and picking up pieces of trash as they were sea shells. For me, the guide mentioned that whelk shells have been appearing on some of the beaches on the way to Strathmere. That piqued my interest, for sure.

My friend Jen is also an Ocean City devotee and also in search of a whelk shell. Once I told her of the alleged location of whelks, she loaded her four into her car to go find some, promising me one if she was successful. She wasn't. I also loaded my kids up and scanned the beaches between OC and Strathmere. I made the trip during high tide, and was equally as unsuccessful.

Saturday, while Craig stayed home with a napping Charlotte, the boys and I headed down to Corson's Inlet with two plastic bags--one for shells and one for garbage. The beach was crawling with fellow shell seekers. Our shell bag was soon loaded with our finds--whelk egg cases, bits and pieces of unfortunate spider, sand and green claw crabs, moon snail shells and broken pieces of whelk shells. The beach was scattered with large clam and oyster shells, too, but we have moved beyond those pedestrian, every-day-shells and are on to much bigger and better. Although we still have not found a whole whelk shell, we have some nice pieces of them. And part of the fun is the hunt, anyway.

What left the biggest impression on Will and Carter, however, was the informal beach clean up we conducted. We quickly filled the bag with candy wrappers, empty beer cans, lonely, pairless beach shoes, pieces of latex balloons, a box of cigarettes. Will is a child tightly in tune with the injustices of the world, a cheerleader for the underdog, a tireless fighter for what he believes is right. He would find pieces of litter with an eagle eye and dramatically question, "who would throw their trash on this beach?" as he would toss it into the waiting plastic bag. Corson's Inlet is a state park with a "carry in, carry out" garbage policy. We don't know if the trash we picked up was left there by beach-goers or washed up by the ocean, perhaps a byproduct of the beach replenishment project in Sea Isle, which seems to be churning up a great deal--from seaweed to crabs to trash--onto the shores of Ocean City.

Regardless, we found a sizable amount of trash during our walk, including a torn up piece of tire that Will and Carter worked together to drag down the sea side. A woman passed us and smiled. "Boys and their treasure," she said. I think Will was slightly insulted. He has moved on from finding treasure to leading a one-boy effort to, as he puts it, "save the earth." He is still grieving that I made him leave a washed up pair of furniture cushions on the beach--they were just too much for us to carry.They wanted to take the trash home with us, so they could show their Dad all they collected. I talked them into a photo instead.
Our beach combing will continue as we enjoy this last week of summer. We have different missions now, though. I'm still in search of my whelk shell. Two shells would be ideal--one for me and one for my friend Jen. Will is determined to continue his beach clean up operation, one plastic bag at a time, with his trusty helper, Carter, at his side. Woe be to him who litters in front of Will and Carter. They're working hard to clean up our beaches and take it quite personally.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

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The Turtlesinger

Tonight, after a day of surfing at the beach, we headed to the Bayside Center for the last of their "Sunset Series," an event we have attended almost every Tuesday this summer. Going to a regularly scheduled event has helped us note the passage of time--in July, we'd leave the Bayside Center just as the sun was setting, with enough time left before dark to fit in a quick trip to the playground before bed. But tonight, we left in the cool, dark night. As the days are getting shorter, it is our signal that summer is coming to an end.

The entertainment tonight at the Bayside Center was The Turtlesinger (, a fixture at the shore, attending many family events at the shore. A husband and wife team, Mr. and Mrs. Buckley, travel around with their own team of turtles, to sing and tell stories about our terrapin friends. Slightly hokey, yes, but the kids were enthralled. In fact, this was the most well-attended event at the Bayside Center this summer.

Each turtle that the Buckleys would show to the children had its own song. Mrs. Buckley would play the keyboards and sing the song as Mr. Buckley would walk around with the turtle. No touching was allowed, but he'd bring the turtle as close as you like, if you game him a signal to come closer. Children who were too scared to be close to the turtles were instructed to put to hands up. My favorite part of the show was a song about feeding turtles worms. Mrs. Buckley walked around with a bowl full of gummy worms and a pair of tongs. The kids would tilt their heads way back and she'd drop a gummy worm right into their open mouth--just like a turtle would eat.

After each song, the kids could volunteer to feed a turtle. Will got to feed Gracie, a tortoise, a blueberry stuck on the top of a chopstick. Carter got to feed Big Bad Bart, a snapping turtle, a circle of squash, also stuck on a chopstick like a big, healthy lollipop.

We met up with some friends of ours to see the show. The boys are friends with Zack. His little sister, Cecelia, is just a little younger than Charlotte. As the three boys enjoyed the turtles, the babies put on their own show in the back of the room. They danced, traded pacifiers, ate goldfish crackers and performed for the watching adults. Charlotte picked one man who sat in back of us to babble too. And when music played, she bounced up and down, smiling and clapping her hands. When the crowd clapped for the Turtlesingers, Charlotte would look around in mock surprise. "Moi?" I'm sure that is what she said to herself. Every so often, the babies would toddle into the crowd of children, picking a random child to sit next to, to poke at, to talk to, before running back to the safety of their mothers' arms.

Charlotte has seen lots of turtles this summer, between our trips to the Wetlands Institute, the zoo, and the Bayside Center. It is one of her favorite words, which she says distinctly while separating the two syllables: tur-tle, tur-tle. She puts her left hand into a fist, with her little thumb sticking out, and the places her right hand over top, like a terrapin shell, sign language for turtle. Without a doubt, she knows what a turtle is. She has hesitated to touch a crab, whelk and other sea creatures that we have come across this summer. But, she was all about the turtle, reaching out for them as they would pass them by.

Of course, another highlight of the night was door prizes. Will won a turtle magnet and Carter won a small stuffed turtle. They are sleeping soundly now, holding their turtles tightly in their fists, dreaming, I'm sure of turtles.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

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Sitting on Top of the World

We're exhibiting classic signs of shore addiction. Once upon a time, it was enough for us to travel down to the beach for an hour or two, stick our feet in the water, maybe dig a hole in the sand, while we soaked up the summer sun. Soon enough, we needed more to satisfy our beach craving--maybe extending our time by the ocean with a game of paddle ball and a tasty treat from the Bustard's Custards man. Now, we carry in our gear to the beach like pack mules and stay until my mom sensibilities tell me it is time to march the crew back home for dinner and bed. But still, we're left craving more. So, it should be no surprise to anyone that surfing has been added to our beach time repetoire.

Craig signed up for a surf lesson at the 7th Street Surf Shop on the Boardwalk last week. He came home spilling out tales from his inaugural surf adventure. After his second lesson, he pulled up to the house in his Jeep with a long surf board hanging out of the top, an early birthday present from me to him, saving me a shopping trip later in October. He's hooked. He sends me numerous text messages over the week, asking me about the waves and beach conditions, dreaming of his next time to surf.

Ocean City only allows surfing at designated beaches, or after the lifeguards have gone in. So, at 5:30 pm on Friday, Craig ran home from our beach outpost to grab his board to catch some waves. (You'll have to excuse me; I still don't have the lingo down.) The boys were intrigued. They each sat in a beach chair and watched. Even Charlotte thought he must be on to something. She grabbed the leash of Will's boogie board and laboriously dragged it down into the surf. Once in the water, she handed me the leash and promptly hopped on board, holding her arms out on either side to help maintain her chunky-legged balance. She's seen plenty of kids on boogie boards this summer, but never a surfer until Craig. I still am not sure how she put that together so fast.

After a few minutes of watching Craig, both boys were declaring their desire to surf, so we signed them both up for lessons. Honestly, I had never really thought about surfing before. It seemed like it would be hard and dangerous. According to Craig's surf instructor, surfing is an extreme sport. And the most dangerous part of it is getting across the Boardwalk in once piece.

Today, we all headed down to the 7th Street beach off of the Boardwalk, a designated surfing beach. Charlotte and I enjoyed sticking our toes in the 75-degree water as we waited for the boys to suit up. They soon emerged, like real surfer dudes, wearing their wet suits up to the waists, leaving their arms and chests bare. Their instructors game them some basic direction on land, showing them how to paddle out and how to balance.

Soon, they were off into the ocean, without once looking back to us for reassurance. They paddled out, with their teachers by their sides, and soon, we were watching them balance back to us on a wave. Carter soon toppled off of his board, but jumped up from the foam of the wave with a smile on his face and his arms thrown high over his head, proclaiming a happy victory. Will, on the other hand, maintained his balance and stayed on his board much longer, revealing his pride and excitement with the slightest of smirks on his face.

For a solid hour, they paddled out and surfed back in. They clearly have grasped the concept and are learning technique. The other big learning is timing. For now, their patient instructors will shove their boards into the approaching waves. But soon, I know, they will learn to anticipate a good wave on their own. What a great way to put their summer of swimming lessons to work--and what a great way to use their newly honed skill in the ocean. I've always said that someone should offer ocean swimming lessons, to teach kids how to swim in the varying conditions of the sea. And a surfing lesson seems to do just that.

Surfing does not seem a sport for the faint of heart. I had expected a tear or two, or at least a complaint, about salt water or sand in the eye, being tired, frustration at the frequent falling. But we heard not a negative word. In fact, the boys were so focused at their new task, they hardly seemed to notice us at all, save a quick glance here or there to catch our enthusiastic "thumbs ups" after a particularly impressive performance.

Once their hour lesson had ended, their instructors offered them the use of the wetsuits and surf boards for another hour, an offer the boys eagerly accepted. Craig took them out, one at a time and they continued to sail back to the shore, beaming from ear to ear.

Will is already begging for his next lesson. Carter has entertained me all afternoon with stories that start, "This one time, while I was surfing. . . "

We have often joked that we plan to throw it all in and move down to the shore full time. Surfing may just be an extension of our beach obsession, the lure that keeps us drawn to the sea. The boys are sleeping soundly now, but I know they are hearing the ocean waves and dreaming of their surfing safari as they snooze. And, as September creeps closer, we'll soon be integrated back into our regular lives, but our thoughts will be in Ocean City still. Yes, it's a true addiction--and one we can't wait to satisfy!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

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We All Scream. . .

Plenty of screaming goes on here. Some of it is to protest the inevitable bedtime or the required consumption of vegetables. And some of it accompanies a rousing game of "alien" the boys play with a neighborhood friend, where they save the world from imaginary outer space evildoers. But mostly, when we scream, we scream for ice cream.

Ice cream is a natural accompaniment to shore living. I can think of no better ending to a hot day on the beach than a long, slow walk to our favorite corner store for a scoop or two of a cold, icy treat. The kids agree and an ice cream trip has become a much requested--and much obliged--evening family outing.

At first, we strolled south towards Kessel's Korner, a favorite of the Buchholz family since Craig vacationed in Ocean City. Family lore has it that he would sneak home from the beach early only to treat himself to an ice cream cone at the counter--and then again when the rest of the family would head to Kessel's for dessert the same day. The Kessel's takeout window has a few things going for it. They serve Breyer's ice cream. Flavors are the usual suspects--vanilla, chocolate, strawberry--sprinkle in a cookies and cream, maybe a Moose Tracks. Kessel's has quite the popsicle collection as well, namely the Spongebob and, Carter's favorite, the "Two Ball Screw Ball." (It's funny to hear him say it--he can't say the "r" sound--so I typically ask him a few times what he wants to order, and then ask him to order it himself.) And sometimes, we're satisfied with a popsicle or two or a scoop of 'scream on a cone. But, most of all, we're a fan of the Kessel's ice cream drinks. The boys can hardly ever pass up a Kessel's milkshake. I'm a chocolate ice cream soda fan myself. It is hard to find an ice cream soda on the menu, and even harder to find someone who knows how to make one.

A few weeks ago, instead of our southbound trip, we headed north and found ourselves at Aunt Betty's Ice Cream, kin to the infamous Uncle Bill's Pancakes, on 21st and Asbury. We've been to the Blitz's Market tons of times over the summer, and even though Aunt Betty's is right next door, we'd never realized that another ice cream store was so very close.

Our trips to Aunt Betty's are done partly on foot and party on wheels. I go on foot, of course, pushing Charlotte in the stroller. The boys go on bike. Will rides ahead as I continue to give Carter guidance on riding his two-wheeler. He needs reminders that his shoes are not brakes. To stop when he gets to the street. But not to stop so far away from the corner that he can't see from side to side. To pedal. To watch where he's going. To pedal and watch where he's going. To watch where he's going and to pedal. By the time we get to Aunt Betty's, I have earned my ice cream cone.

While Kessel's is a quaint family restaurant, Aunt Betty's is just for ice cream treats. It is a narrow, little store with a nice, covered outside seating area. The boys particularly like their selection of ice creams, with Birthday Cake and Crazy Vanilla as perennial favorites. Will has never liked chocolate, so these two flavors are right up his alley. His partner in crime, Carter, has decided that he does not like chocolate now either. We don't call them the Even Steven Brothers for nothing. They bond over the fluorescent colors of their desserts, unabashedly trading licks.
Charlotte is too little to eat an ice cream cone on her own. I'm sure she wouldn't mind helping herself, actually, but it would make a sticky mess. So for now, while the boys each pick out their own treat, she has been content to share one with me. I'm not a vanilla fan myself, so we typically share a cone of strawberry, my preferred summertime flavor. I always order mine on top of a sugar cone, savoring the crunchy treat to the last bite. Up for a change, on our last trip, I changed my selection to Mint Chocolate Chip.

Given my new flavor, Charlotte has switched allegiances and now turns to her brothers to share. I'm not sure if it is that she doesn't like the mint flavor or that what the boys have seems much more appealing. She opens her little beak wide, protesting loudly if no one shares. She, too, now is a fan of Birthday Cake and Crazy Vanilla. And vanilla milkshakes. And rootbeer (pronounced "rootbeard" in our house) floats. She shakes her head and wags her finger at offers of spoonfuls of my ice cream. "No, no, no," she says, while extending her hand towards the boys, opening and closing it in a frenetic motion for more. And when they don't respond quickly enough for her liking, she screams. She screams for ice cream. . just like I scream, you scream and we all scream for ice cream.

Monday, August 3, 2009

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So These Kids Walk Into a Bar. . .

A sandbar, of course. The ocean has been unusually warm and especially rough these days, probably due to the torrential rain that has been plaguing this part of the country. We've missed out on most of the rain, but are feeling the effects of the weather in the sea instead.

Only a few feet out from the shore line, Carter and I first discovered the sandbar. Since it is typically just me and three kids at the beach, I tend to keep the boys as close as I can to both land and lifeguards, not giving them much opportunity to go in past their hips. Charlotte is content to observe the boys' ocean antics from her seat on my hip. Will has always loved jumping in the waves, but Carter is usually more content to splash around in the surf. I believe that he thought that was the real draw of the ocean--splashing around, throwing the occasional handful of sand into the water, jumping over a wave or two. But, in just over this sand bar, he could swim. The water here is deep, at about Carter's waist, yet only ankle deep on either side, Carter's own private pool.

Since this discovery, I have a hard time getting Carter out of the water. I love watching Carter swim. I'm not the only one, either. His happiness in the water is contagious. At swimming lessons in our pool at home, Carter has such a good time, he swims with his mouth in a wide-open smile. He's always swallowing water that way, but he just can't contain his excitement. Now that he know that the ocean is for swimming, not just for jumping over waves, it has much more appeal to him. Face in the water, he shows off his strokes in the brief moment between waves, and then lets the waves carry his little body to shore. He'll jump up, throwing hands in the air as if he has just completed a complicated gymnastics move and exclaims, "Carter is washing up!"

Today, Will joined him in the fun. Both boys ventured out to the sand bar and these flotsam and jetsam brothers spent the day diving under waves, coming up with handfuls of sand and shells, then letting the water carry them back ashore. There, they'd bask in the sun on their tummies, tanned arms propping them up, like two skinny walruses, and let the water lap up over their backs. When the waves weren't strong enough to carry them up onto the sand, they'd furiously crawl, a wet, splashy race up to the beach. Sometimes, a strong wave would catch them by surprise and the boys would get tangled together, washing ashore pell-mell, clearly not knowing whose legs were whose. Pearly grains of sand coated their skin and the salty water stung their eyes. But these nuisances remained unnoticed as they bobbed up and down, back and forth, as hours flew by like minutes.

As the tide rolled in, our beach chairs and toys were soon covered with water. Time to head home. The boys sadly left their place in the sand, as we left the beach, our feet tip-toeing over the hot sand. We've made a date to go back to this bar tomorrow, sand and all.