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Friday, May 28, 2010

Mama Blue Jay

My husband will be the first to tell you that I tend to morph into a crazy bird lady as soon as our fine feathered friends start migrating back to balmy Ohio and it doesn’t require a snowsuit to fill the bird feeders.
“You spend more time and money feeding those birds than you do your own family” he jokes. But before he can say another word I stuff some suet in his mouth and go on my merry way.
I was never a birder in the past. Quite the opposite, I was the kind of person who made fun of them, with their binoculars draped around their pocketed brown vests with matching safari-style hat. But I never really took the time to realize why birding can be kind of fun and now I have guide books and binoculars with me all the time.
There are birds everywhere, from the deepest jungle to the busiest of city streets. They are the creatures of the air and if you stop and think about it, they’re as alien as the fish in the ocean. Somehow they manage to survive around us, adjusting and thriving with each new human obstacle thrown at them. They live in a balanced world up in the sky, with even the strangest of habits.
But enough of all that philosophical stuff.
Let’s talk blue jays.
Blue jays are, you can guess, blue. They’re also big and have a scary looking black beak that was made for smashing seeds and acorns, and one look at a blue jay up close and you’ll swear it’s going to peck your eyes out.
But the truth is that these birds are pretty smart for having a bird brain, and from a mother’s point of view, I can’t help but think that somewhere along the evolutionary chain they were made in an image of a good mom. So just what is it that makes me feel like a blue jay?
For one, they tend to sit up high in the trees and keep an excellent eye out on whatever is happening below. Kind of like how I watch out the kitchen window or sit on the back porch and watch my children play. At the very first sign of danger, whether it is a hawk, and owl, or even a dog or human, the “policeman of the woods” as I like to call them will let out a shriek that sounds like “jaaaay! jaaay!” or as I tell my kids, “heyyyy! heyyyy!” and instantly the animals who were just snacking happily away in tranquility will perk up their ears or fly off to safety.
Similar to when I call out “yellow jacket!” and my children all flail their arms and run in the house screaming like it’s the Apocalypse.
Secondly, the blue jay is a food hog. It hoards acorns all through the fall and then feasts away all winter long. It also will to any length to survive, even to go as far as raiding the nests of other birds for a few fresh eggs.
Not only that, but if it wants in at a delicious feeder of seed that is being hogged by puny little sparrows or other birds, smarty pants blue jay will mimic a hawk sound and scare the others away, free to feast all by itself.
Kind of like how when the kids are attacking an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies and I scold them and say that we’ll be eating in just a few minutes (even though I hadn’t even thought about dinner yet) and that they should run off and play.
And then I sit, in peaceful silence, with my very own cookies, and crack a smudged grin at the way the world works.
Heyyyy! Heyyyy!

**DID YOU KNOW: Blue Jays aren't really blue. Fun fact-- the feathers act like a prism in the sunlight and are not blue independent of the sun. Don't trust me? Find a blue jay feather and take it into the shade. Even better proof, smash it up with a rock a bit and destroy the "inner prism." Bye bye blue birdie.**

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Worm activities for toddlers

Introducing nature to toddlers can seem challenging, but doesn’t have to be. Toddlers are naturally inquisitive and exploratory, and parents and caregivers should take advantage of this special time to introduce the child to the natural world.
When planning activities with toddlers, parents should follow the time-tested “KISS” rule, keeping it short and simple. The following are some short and simple games and learning activities about earthworms that toddlers will enjoy, while they are learning and working to create a lasting relationship with nature.
Wiggly, Wiggly Worms
While the thought of holding a worm may not appeal to most adults, toddlers love the tickly feeling that a squirming worm will bring. Adults should collect a few worms beforehand and introduce the worms to the children. Gently place the worm in the child’s hand – toddlers have a tendency to pinch or squeeze the worm. Let the child hold the worm for a few seconds, and make sure to wash the child’s hands when finished.
Worm Body Parts, Child Body Parts
Earthworms have no ears, nose, or eyes. While toddlers might not be ready to understand how something might not have these parts, they certainly enjoying pointing to their own. Ask children to point to their own ears, nose, and eyes. Then show them the worm and ask them to find the worm's parts. When they can’t find them, tell them that worms are a very different type of animal that do not have ears, nose, or eyes like they do. Scientists have shown that worms actually do have the ability to smell, but toddlers will enjoy “seeing” and “hearing” like an earthworm.
“Hear” Like an Earthworm
Worms rely on vibrations to “hear.” This phenomenon is quite easy to demonstrate to toddlers. Have the child stand on the ground while an adult jumps close by. The child should be able to feel the jump of the adult. This activity works best on certain types of ground or flooring. Wooden decks provide the easiest surface to feel vibrations.
Without eyes, worms see using a sense of touch. Children can experience this through a simple sensory game. Adults can gather basic natural items, such as small twigs, rocks, and pinecones, and keep them in separate bags. (When collecting items, make certain there are no sharp edges.) Invite the children to reach in each bag without peeking, and feel for the item, therefore “seeing” like a worm. Have the children try to guess what the item is after experiencing it using only the sense of touch.

Earthworms are very safe to handle. They do not bite, and besides a little wiggling, are easy to hold. Toddlers will benefit from these simple and short activities, both in enjoyment and education.

To create a wormery for these new wiggly friends, see my Suite101 article, the "Pop Bottle Wormery Science Craft"

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer preparedness for the queen of the backyard

I knew it was going to be eye-widening, the total number that rang up at the register. But I had to do it. We were already one case of poison ivy and three skinned knees into the season and I was so unprepared, if I was a Boy Scout that would have ripped the badges right off my chest.
And so I went, list in hand, to the store to prepare for summer. I’ve done this so many years now it’s practically second nature, but it wasn’t always that way. I had to learn, over time and as my children grew, just what a family needs to get through the roughest season of the year.
Bandages. Small ones, big ones. Favorite cartoon character ones for children who would purposely fall off their bike to be decorated by Spongebob, and the plain flesh colored ones because you know at some point you’re going to take a beating too. (This coming from the person who slices at least one leg on at least one berry bush a year.)
Burn-your-skin-off-antibacterial wash for cuts. Sure, we tell them it won’t hurt, but it does. And call it instinct, but the second it burns we all do the same thing—blow on it. How kind of us mothers to blow our germy mouth air into those open wounds!
Creams. Anti-bacterial cream for under bandages, burn cream because the 4th of July is inevitable and wonderful, anti-itch cream because mosquitoes and poison ivy are also inevitable (yet not so wonderful.) And don’t forget moisturizing cream for yourself, because shorts season is upon us, ladies.
Nail polish. Sandal season is here, too. Purchase the shade of polish that is right for you; bright, flashy colors if your legs are not dry and/or covered with bandages from berry patches, or a light, muted tone if you’d rather not draw attention to your bruises from that adventure hike your kid really wanted you to take.
Bug spray, sting-aid. Covering yourself in plastic-melting chemicals may not sound all that appealing, but sit by one campfire near a swampy area, and you too will wish you had the strong stuff. Sting-aid for the wasp nest that you know will form in your deck or on your swingset and will attack the tiniest of all the children on the street.
Sun block. Long gone are the days of generations past when the goal was to be as tan as you could, even if it meant covering yourself in baby oil and laying in a truck bed lined with foil. Peeling skin is as appealing as stark white golfer’s tan, so keep a tube in your house, one in your garage, and another in your car.
Popsicles, lemonade, candy. I learned this from a wise, wise woman. If you freeze it, they will come. And if they come to your house, you know exactly where they are and what they are doing. So provided you want your backyard riddled with neighbors and friends, give them goodies. Not only will it help you keep tabs on your children, but you’ll also be known as “popsicle lady” and children for miles will love and worship you.
Bubbles, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes. Some things never go out of fashion. For extra credit, get a book with the old-fashioned jump rope and hand-clapping rhymes that you chanted as a child but really don’t make a lick of sense. When it’s too hot to jump, bubble, or draw, sit in the shade and teach your kids Oh Jolly Playmate, and be prepared to explain what a rain barrel is.
Sunglasses, book. For yourself, of course, queen of the backyard, so that you can sit and rest your sliced up legs while you pop fresh blackberries in your mouth. Position yourself centrally so you don’t have to get up to squirt them with bug spray or sunblock as they run by, most likely on the way to the freezer to get another popsicle. Ask for one too, because you certainly deserve it.

No recipe this week-- too busy getting ready for summer! I will share a quick tip for homemade popsicles, though. Making your own always resulted in an unflavorful pop, in my opinion. Then I tried using Natural style apple juice, the kind with little brown chunkies in the bottom. 100% better, super delicious, and it tastes like you're eating a frozen apple. Worth a shot if you're looking for a healthy snack for kids of all ages this year!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Make a Maple Friend

Learning to identify leaves is no different than identifying Thomas the Train characters, Matchbox cars, or Barbie and all of her friends. Children are whizzes at this stuff. They recognize details and crave order and category, so what better way to appease that and ditch the toy aisle and teach them something practical.
Native Americans and other children of pre-Wii cultures could identify trees at an early age. Their jobs required it. What was the best firewood to collect? Which twigs made the best cooking utensils? Building supports? Weapons? It was a way of life for them. Happily we don't need to send our kids out foraging in the woods to stay warm and survive, but that doesn't mean that learning trees and leaves isn't a great learning exercise.
'Cause it is.
Start simple, start young. My older children, still in school, can readily ID a maple tree, so I'm taking this chance to teach my youngest about the trees in our backyard.

Find a Maple Friend
Maple trees are pretty much everywhere around our part of the world, and are among the easiest to recognize. To make it easier for small children, you can point out that the maple tree has leaves shaped just like your hand.
From an ID standpoint, they have five pointed parts to each leaf which nicely equals the amount of fingers and is also a super fun number to count to.

For this activity, you need only a maple tree, pens or crayons, paper, and the hand of a wondrous child.
Start by taking a walk around the tree. This works really well in the springtime because there are leaves of various sizes at easy reach. Collect a few (all in the name of good science, I say) and bring them back to your work space. Carefully trace around them, ignoring the small serrations and exaggerating the five points.
Then line up the child's hand over the trace of the leaf. Trace around the hand, stretching out to match the leaf as much as possible. Count to five, touching each point and finger.
When they magically match up, the leaf and the hand, in size and number of points/fingers, your child has found her very own Maple Friend! Such love, such love...

Finish up the activity with some pancakes smothered in maple syrup, although explaining that the syrup came from a hole that was drilled in the new friend to drain out the inner liquid might not go over so well...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Short order cook: tortilla pizza

I have this terrible habit of asking my kids what they want for lunch. It's a bad habit because they will always, without a doubt, say three different things. I swear it's on purpose just to make their mother frazzle right there on the spot.
One such episode happened just recently.
"Ham and cheese," said one.
"Chicken nuggets," said another.
"Tortilla pizza," said the third.
I threw down my fists and responded, "I am not a short order cook!" and they looked at me blankly because they had no idea what I was talking about.
"Pick ONE" I demanded, still thinking they didn't know how lucky they were I didn't give them old, crusty bread and glass of spoiled milk.
After much deliberation, they settled on tortilla pizza, a go-to standard of this house that originated somewhere in the mountains of New Mexico on a backpacking trip where bread would have been squished in my 40-pound backpack. Cooked over a campstove, it's a delight beyond belief, especially while overlooking a sunset that uses every color of the rainbow.
But cooked over a real stove, even in Ohio, it's a good treat.

Tortilla Pizzas
(basically, you're making quesedillas with pizza fillings, but work with me here!)

frying pan
cooking spray
flour tortillas to fit in the pan
fillings (pizza sauce, cheese, pepperoni, etc.)

Heat pan over med-hi heat. Spray with cooking spray, lay one tortilla in the pan. Immediately top the pizza-- first the sauce (go light!), then the cheese and toppings. Cover with the other tortilla and spray the top of it.
When the bottom tortilla starts to brown, carefully flip the pizza over. Continue to cook until the other side starts to brown and the cheese melts.

My favorite pizza? Pesto, goat cheese, and sliced tomatoes. Coincidentally, it's my children's LEAST favorite pizza, which works out so very well for me. The clever, clever mind of a short order cook...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wanting for a wall: something's off balance here

Whether learning to walk or riding a bicycle, it’s very typical to hear about the ears because that’s where the beautiful technique of balance does its job. The inner ear has tiny canals have tiny hairs that can detect even the slight change in the fluid that resides in those canals as we tip ourselves over.
But there’s another part of the body involved that might be overlooked: the eye. The eye sends some serious feedback to the brain, helping the ear and keeping us walking and running upright without face-planting into the ground. For this I am very thankful.
The eye does double duty and also works its magic in seeing straight lines. It knows to prefer things that are completely level, absolutely straight, and amazingly can detect when things are slightly less than perfect. They crave things like the horizon and other things that either parallel or perpendicular to it.
My eye, however, isn’t seeing a single thing when it comes to my family room wall.
At the time of this posting, it has been exactly 72 days since I first asked my husband to hang two pictures on our east facing wall. Freshly bare after a change in furniture, I thought it would be lovely to fill it with a simple piece of art and a beautiful collage of our children’s photographs instead of the beige canvas with a lonely stuffed walleye dangling off to one side.
Two pieces of art to hang all together, most likely three nails involved, 64 days of looking at nothing.
I admit I asked him out of apprehension and simple fear that I would make the slightest mistake over and over and my beautiful bare wall would be speckled with more erroneous nail holes than not. I am just not that confident a person when it comes to hanging a picture so balanced and even that the onlooker won’t cock his or her head to one side to have a more pleasing view.
I was raised as a bit of a picture perfectionist, my father hanging every frame with a trusty level or two. I know that to hang a picture the correct way takes time, patience, and tools. And quite frankly, I don’t like to do it.
So I give the job to my husband, who doesn’t like to do it for the same reason. But it’s his job, we both know, because he’s better at it than I am. My skills shine in the nagging department, like how I’ve been nagging him for 64 days to hang these two pictures. We are a talented duo, he and I.
Henny Youngman may have said that “the secret to a happy marriage remains a secret,” but I know there’s more to it than that. There’s got to be an ample amount of give and take. For example, I give him the pictures, he takes them and hangs them on the wall. Or more likely, he gives me flowers and I take the pictures that I had placed in front of the TV during his favorite show and put them off to the side of the room.
The French have their own marriage proverb, undoubtedly written by a person in a grumpy marriage. “A good husband should be deaf, a good wife should be blind.” This one would work well in our situation, if he couldn’t hear me talking about the pictures I couldn’t see if he hung or not, and we could be a dysfunctional happy and balanced couple.
But that’s not the kind of balance I’m looking for. I’m looking for the kind of balance that I can stand back from and say, “dear, go get the level. The picture that only took you 72 days to hang is 1/32 of an inch lower on the left side” and the words would ring right through his inner ears.

One final note: There are no accompanying photos to this post because I am anxiously awaiting until I can photograph the items actually hanging on the wall...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wonderment Wednesday: Play with a rain drop

This summer as I share my love of the out-of-doors with children, I thought I'd share some of our favorite activities and new experiments with readers of this blog. Visit on Wednesdays each week to find something new to do and try when the kids invade your home!


Our weather this week couldn't get much worse. They say if you don't like the weather in northeast Ohio, stay one more day and it's likely to change. Lately around here it's gone from bad to worse. As I type this, I can look out my window and baby pea plants, beautiful bachelor buttons, blooming lilacs, and it's only 43 degrees. And raining. Spring sprung, then went back to bed, apparently.
The good news is that it's supposed to warm up. The bad news is that the rain is supposed to be the big story all week long, which is par for the course when it comes to spring, but a veritable doomsday when you're a kid and really want to go out and play.

Instead, touch some raindrops. Play with them. Even roll them around....

Play with a rain drop
pie plate
flour (any kind will do)


Place an inch or so of flour in your pie tin and wait for it to rain...

Put on your best rubber boots and head outside. The bigger the rain drops the better, so wait for the nice, fat ones to start falling!

Head back in and carefully scoop out the flour where the drops have landed and gently sift them out.They will be fragile, but what you are looking at are the actual drops of rain! Let them dry and harden to be more durable.

Get really bored? Paint them. Extra credit? Catch some in a heavy storm, some in a light rain and use this as a tool to see how all rain drops are different.

When you're finished, either leave your flour and pie tin in a safe spot and wait for the next rain, or store your flour in a plastic bag. You can use it again and again if you keep it clear of raindrops!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Good Gracious, great grilling: Carolina Pork Chops

It is upon us, the great season of grilling and picnics. Every evening in small town USA, you can bet your bottom burger bun that there will be the sweet smell of charcoal wafting through the air as you smile, nod, and stir your potato salad.
Swing sets will be creaking and soon enough, hoses will be squirting. Someone will yell "tag!" about the same time someone else finally gets close to digging to China in the comfort of their own sandbox.
And we'll love it.
I always start craving the good grill and macaroni salad when the snow melts, but it takes a few weeks to really get into the groove of remembering your outdoor cooking appliance. This is one of my favorite things to whip up in advance and store until the weather is just right and corn first starts showing up in the grocery stores (and not at outrageous winter prices.)
Heat the grill, mix this up, smile, nod, stir your potato salad, and enjoy.

Carolina Pork Chops
Spice rub:
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt

This will make enough rub for approximately 4-5 center cut pork chops. Double (heck, triple!) the recipe and keep some on hand.

Liberally cover chops with spice rub. Grill as usual.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Out of the mouths of mothers

*I never really planned on being a mother, not that I didn’t not plan it, either. I was just never the mothering type as a girl.
I didn’t really play with dolls or Barbies. While most little girls transformed cardboard boxes into beautiful houses in which to raise their babies, my cardboard box became a boat where I was a park ranger that gave people tickets for cutting down trees. (True story. You can ask my mom how long that giant box lived in our great room.)
When I got older, I didn’t do much babysitting. I tried it once, and after dealing with annoying kids for what seemed like forever, I earned a measly two bucks. End of career.
And so it goes that I never daydreamed about being a mom when I was a girl. (True story. You can ask my mom how many times she has recently said to me, “I still can’t believe you have THREE kids,” because even she has a hard time believing the maternal transformation.)
I don’t know when it actually happened, if there was some deep inner-body hormonal change that clicked without me knowing, but now that I’m a mom, I could imagine it no other way. I have three children, all of whom have challenged me in one way or another before I ever even met them, and continue to challenge me to this day.
There are days I want to stick a price tag on their foreheads and leave them on a corner, and other days where I seriously consider keeping them home from school just so we can snuggle in bed and read books all day long. But whatever the way we’re feeling on any given day, I know deep in my heart that I would do anything for these three tiny people.
For me, being a mother means that I will do whatever it takes for my children to do well, be healthy, and live the best life that they can. I feed them good food, teach them good lessons, and give them more love than I knew was humanly possible. The beauty of it is that I know I should do this not only instinctively, but also by example. My mother lived her life selflessly while raising me.
But don’t take my word for it.
I asked a group of friends to finish this sentence, and I hope you all grab a box of tissues and enjoy these answers from real mothers as much as I did.
Being a mother means…
…a new appreciation of all the things your own mother went through to help you grow into a beautiful young lady! Now I get it! I love my mom!
…entering into something without any instruction manual but knowing everything will work out in the end... with the help of your own mom.
…a continuous state of chaos.
…being tired.
…teaching your children proper morals and values of life and hoping that along the way they learn from their mistakes without compromising their dignity.
…one less row of Oreos for myself and 4 extra hand prints on my heart... and my stove.
…knowing that you would give your life for your child in a heartbeat if you could...but also accepting that sometimes life doesn't work that way.
… appreciating your own mother.
…loving your baby everyday even when you don't know how long you get to.
…watching your children grow up to become your best friends!
…not getting paid for the best, but hardest, job on earth!
…having more love, happiness, worry and anxiety than you ever thought was possible.
…loving your children, even through their teenage years.
…never being allowed to get sick yourself, ever again.
I’m not sure if any of these fabulous moms planned on being a mother or if like me, something just happened. Either way, there are some lucky kids out there. Including me.

Happy Mother’s Day! Especially to you, Mom. :)

*Child #2 was taking the picture!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Maple Walnut Chicken: plate-scraping good

Forget licking the fingers, this one had my kids literally scraping their plates with their forks and asking for more, which is scary because kids don't normally do that unless the food in question is full of sodium, fat, sugar, or all of the above.
For me, it all started with panko flakes. If you've never heard of them, check out the breadcrumb section at the grocery store. That's where they live, those japanese-style breadcrumbs. They are pointy and apparently not made from the crusts of bread, just the insides, and the texture is totally different and delicious. You can panko bread just about anything, and just about anything will taste better.

Maple Walnut Chicken
(recipe adapted from Betty Crocker)

4 chicken breasts, sliced in half so that their flat (or you can pound them if you've got pent up frustrations)
1/2 cup maple syrup (fake stuff is just fine)
2 Tbl mayo
1 Tbl dijon mustard
3/4 cup panko flakes
3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

Materials needed: 2 shallow dishes, baking sheet covered in foil and sprayed with non-stick spray because this stuff is a bugger to clean

Preheat oven to 400.
In shallow dish one, combine maple syrup and mayo. Dish two is for the panko flakes and the walnuts.
MAKE SURE YOUR CHICKEN IS DRY. This will help immensely!
Dredge chicken in the syrup mixture, and then plop it into the panko/nut mix, patting it down and making sure the chicky is loaded with the good stuff. Place directly on sprayed foil baking sheet.
Bake chicken for 15-20 minutes. You are supposed to flip them once, but honestly if you do, the crumbs will not be as crispy and delicious. Resist the urge and check to make sure your chicken is cooked all the way through.
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