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Thursday, October 28, 2010

No basements in Florida/The Seasonal Changeover

It was there, sitting among a sea of shoes and being rained upon by hundreds of mismatching gloves that I figured out why there are not basements in Florida.
Of course I realize that the fact that the water table sits so close to the surface and the giant sinkholes have something to do with it, but really there must have been an underlying factor when that part of the world was cosmically being designed.
Water table or not, they just don’t need basements down there because they don’t have to endure the endless and daunting task of The Seasonal Changeover.
The Seasonal Changeover happens every spring and every fall and unless you’ve got a shoe closet that rivals the size of New Jersey and a clothes closet that could swallow Canada, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Out go the attire of the day, in goes the one for tomorrow. In this case, I spent hours packing up sandals and rain boots and hauled out the leather and snow boots which were still caked with last spring’s mud because I was too lazy to clean the melt off of them. I sorted through a massive bin of gloves and mittens, some with matches, some without, and daydreamed about how the average Floridian couldn’t handle anything so taxing because they just have no idea of how much work it is to separate the hand coverings for five people.
Just think – for every sun visor you’ve packed away, they’ve been able to sit for an extra minute soaking up the sunshine. And while they’re out there plucking an orange from their backyard tree, you’re plucking a sweater out of a box and wondering how something that was once clean and neatly packed away can come out looking like the sweater gnomes got a hold of it. You know, when it’s all wadded up and smashed flat, full of wrinkles and lint and smells slightly of a wet dog? I’m convinced those are the sweater gnomes. Must be.
Not only that, but I’m pretty sure the shorts gnomes attack the summer clothes during the winter months when I’m not looking. I know this because the very shorts that fit just fine at the end of a long summer suddenly have shrunk a size when I pull them out in the spring. Surely it must be gnomes, for I certainly can’t possibly think of another explanation.
And so time and time again, we suffer through the Seasonal Changeover like good little people, reminding ourselves that we are anxious to snuggle up in a thick woolen sweater in the dead of winter and that we enjoy the feel of fleece socks when the mercury drops and the first smell of the heater kicks in. We pack up the shorts and t-shirts, baseball caps and flip flops in oversized boxes and haul them down the basement, where we find the boxes of turtlenecks, wool garments, hats and boots have been residing (and keeping the gnomes happy) while the weather was warm.
Oh, the boxes, and for some of us with multiple children, even more boxes, all gently stacked on shelves and in rows below the surface where it belongs because realistically, there’s no other place in the house that could handle this substantial seasonal storage. And that is why it makes total and complete sense that people in Florida don’t have basements.
They just don’t need the space.
So this year as I organize sandals and fold the shorts that will be oh so disappointing come June and I wash and freshen the mangled sweaters just reeking of snow boots and gnome, I will think of my friends in Florida who might have their share of orange trees and one set of footwear and remember just how lucky I am.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pumpkin black bean soup - perfect for Halloween!

I was never quite sure why the colors of Halloween were orange and black. Is it the pumpkin that eventually rots on your front porch? Is it the orange teeth of the witch dressed in black?
In any case, we're stuck with the color theme which is unfortunate for me because I just bought "rust" colored shoes with black soles that make me look extremely festive in October, but rather goofy the rest of the year.

Oh well.

If there's one good thing that comes out of this orange-and-black thing we've got going on, it's got to be this: my new favorite soup.

Many thanks to my friend, Jennifer, for serving me her leftovers for lunch a few weeks ago. I am a changed woman!

The results are in:

Says my husband to the kids, "next time mommy gets grumpy, let's make her a pot of this soup because she can't stop smiling when she's eating it."

I don't really care what the rest of the family thinks...

Pumpkin Black Bean Soup

(You can make this vegetarian if you want, by subbing out the chicken stock for vegetable broth. Otherwise, bring on the flavor!)

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes

1 can (15 oz) pumpkin

1/2 cup red onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

olive oil

4 cups chicken stock (or veggie if you want)

1 Tbl cumin

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1 big dash nutmeg

1/2 tsp pepper

balsamic vinegar for serving

1. In a large pot, saute onion, garlic, and seasonings in olive oil. (Best to wait to throw the garlic in right at the end so it doesn't burn.)

2. Dump in everything else. (Don't you love these dump recipes?)

3. Puree and heat until warm. (I have a stick blender that works so well for these types of soups. In fact, if you don't have one, this is a good excuse to go get one or put it on your Christmas list.)

4. Serve with balsamic vinegar drizzled on the top, unless you're my mother who apparently doesn't like vinegar. I for one think it makes the world a better place to live.

5. Invite me over for leftovers.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

There was a time I would have given anything for a refrigerator box. They were worth their weight in gold, and whenever someone in the neighborhood got a new appliance they were quickly snatched up by imaginative children and moms desperate to contain those same kids. My containment unit was none other than a fully equipped boat with a high-powered motor, CB radio, ropes, maps, and a hook for my Smokey the Bear hat.
It was my park ranger boat. And against the will of my parents, it lived for many months in the middle of our family room, where I sat daily and discovered unchartered wild waters and forests, and wrote tickets for people who cut down trees.
Besides the boat-box, I also spent many hours toiling behind the secretary desk of my father’s work. I had an old broken (and gigantic) calculator that used to ring up prices and an inoperable rotary dial phone that rang constantly and at times I was scheduling appointments and adding numbers. Life was busy, but it was just so much fun to play pretend job.
Why ever did we as children think it would was fun to work? Instead of playing games and coloring pictures, I spent my hours on boat patrol and getting paper cuts. I think society in general tried to brainwash across the span of generations because I grew up thinking work was fun. Even our toys became work items—a tiny light-bulb powered oven to do the baking, a vacuum cleaner, a lawn mower. We grew up pretending to work and actually liking it. I sometimes wonder if it was subliminal messaging done in the cartoons to improve the overall work ethic of our nation because I wasn’t alone, either.
A quick survey of friends shows that most of us had dream jobs that we imitated when we were young. A dolphin expert, a teacher, a banker, a feed-mill operator, cashier, veterinarian, pirate, and even someone who wanted their job to be naming the color of nail polish. All wonderful and exciting jobs when you’re a kid. (Although I admit that training dolphins and being a pirate sound pretty exciting even as an adult.) And of all of us, not many of us made our dreams come true. The occasional teacher, the waitress, maybe even the writer. So what happened? When did reality finally hit and we give up our dreams of being a secretary in a high-rise building on 5th Avenue?
Maybe it was the discovery that training dolphins would take us far away from our home or the possibility of spending years in a wet suit, but probably not. Maybe it was the realization that naming nail polish wasn’t something to make a career out of. Maybe it was the pay scale of a cashier vs. a veterinarian or figuring out that while being a pirate might look really cool on TV, the thought of wearing balloon pants and an eye patch didn’t quite match your mature personality.
As for me, I’m not really sure why my dreams of being a park ranger didn’t outlast my refrigerator box, but I do know that I’m so glad that no one ever burst that bubble. I won’t say the dream is gone, more like it just moved over and made room for other dreams along the way to adulthood. So when I see my own children hard at “play” emailing potential clients or stacking firewood for their guided hunting expeditions, I shake my head and wonder how long they’ll hold on to those dreams.
I hope forever.
Or at least long enough to earn lots of money and buy refrigerator boxes for every kid on the block.
**Note: I realize that the picture of me in my coal mining days has nothing to do with this column directly, but starting in about 3rd grade, I knew I wanted to be a geologist. So I might not have lived out the park ranger dream, but for sure got my kicks in a coal mine.**

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Raising a pack of dogs

If you’re out running errands or at the park or library, and you hear someone saying “coyote!” repeatedly in increasing volume and intensity, don’t panic. Chances are there is no coyote running wild among the aisles of the supermarket or stalking the teeter totter.
It’s just me, telling my kids to be a coyote for once.
Not that it’s a standard thing for a mother of three to do, but an introductory class to basic animal tracking has opened up my eyes to a new and exciting hobby. A single footprint in a muddy or snowy area is a natural mark of what was once there when I was not, something so simply poetic I can’t help but immediately squat down and stick my nose in this beautiful trace.
From a set of tracks, one can not only determine the animal, but whether it was male or female, its mood, where it was going and why, and if you’re really, really good, even if it had a full belly.
Mostly I’m happy knowing what kind of stuff ate my garbage and walked through my flowerbeds.
One special thing I learned was to how to tell the difference between a dog and a coyote track.
Not native to Ohio, coyotes are now present in all 88 counties. Quite beautiful but considered dangerous by many, the footprint of this wily creature looks a lot like the kind of canine beasts that distribute dog hair in every corner of my life. So how can you tell them apart?
For one, coyote are usually running or jogging, so that only the two center claws show up in the track, as compared to a dog’s print that tends to consistently show all four claw marks.
Secondly, the coyote tends to know where it is going. It makes a decision, and acts upon it in with great intent. Compare this to a dog, who in walking from point A to point B might sniff around to every other letter of the alphabet before actually getting to where it is going.
Compare all of that to my children and I realized that I am raising a pack of dogs.
For example, a simple command such as “please go upstairs and get ready for bed” to a coyote would mean to actually go upstairs, put on pajamas, brush teeth, get a book, and climb in bed. But to my pack of dogs? Not so much.
They walk towards the stairs but get distracted by a toy they may have left under the couch, so they crawl under to get it. From there they may again venture in the correct direction, but suddenly find themselves trying on old Halloween costumes instead of getting their PJ’s. Eventually they come around and each are donning the correct clothing, but we lose them again with the whole teeth brushing. I swear, you give a kid a mirror and all purpose disappears and they magically turn into movie stars. Singing, dancing, staring up their noses, putting in hair clips, sometimes just standing there making faces. All of it a fantastic time waster to a coyote, but par for the course for our sweet doggies.
With teeth finally brushed, they settle into where they should be, but not before zig-zagging around the entire house, leaving invisible dog tracks in every direction, none with reason or purpose.
Truthfully I can expect no other. Children by nature must be doglike, for I don’t think I’ve ever met one who isn’t. Sadly, becoming a coyote must happen with age, because I know when I get a chance to head to bed, I make a direct beeline. Perhaps I’m just exhausted from an entire day of running and yelling out the names of carnivorous, non-native animals at my children, trying to get them to move with intent and break the obvious laws of nature.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Easy (and easily eaten) roasted chicken and potatoes

I knew this recipe was definitely worth sharing when I found myself drooling all morning at the prospect of a leftover lunch. But if that doesn't convince you to try this one, let my kids tell you their reviews.

"Wow, I'm super picky and actually like this!" (I'll take it!)

"I can't speak-- I think I've died and gone to chicken heaven." (Literally, this is what he said. Goofball.)

"Can I have some noodles?" (She's two and 80% of her diet consists of pasta.)

Says husband, "it's a keeper!"

And says I, "holy moly, if this was any easier someone would have had to drop it off at my doorstep."

Without further adieu:

Easy roasted chicken and potatoes

4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1.5 pounds redskin potatoes, cut into medium chunks
1/3 cup mayo
3 Tablespoons dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2-3 garlic cloves, minced (we looooove garlic. I load it up but not everyone likes it as much as we do!)

Arrange chicken and potatoes in a sprayed jelly roll pan. Blend mayo and remaining ingredients in a small bowl and brush or spread over chicken and potatoes. Bake uncovered at 400 F for 25-30 minutes or until potatoes are soft and chicken juices run clear.

I would have included a photograph, but in the time it took me to type this out I have since eaten the rest of the leftovers because it's just. that. good.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sing, sing, sing

Many years ago while visiting church with a friend, she leaned over and told me to sing louder. “But I don’t have that great a church voice,” I reminded her.
“Well then, give it back to God for not blessing you with that talent and belt it out!” she replied.
From that moment on, I have made a conscience effort to thank God for the alto voice He has given me, even when straining up to those high notes.
The truth is that I love to sing. Always have, always will. My parents have plenty of VHS tapes to prove it, including one especially embarrassing dance program where my feet didn’t move but my vocal chords got a real workout.
I grew up with a singing family, and not so much a professional or choir-type family. More of a belt-it-out-in-the-car or around-a-campfire family. I don’t think we could have a car trip without the accompaniment of Merle Haggard or a fire without the accompaniment of my dad’s guitar.
And it must be true, that what you are exposed to as a child makes you into your adult self, because singing and music is a huge part of my life. it pains me, though, that not enough people do it. I know people don’t do it, because when I am stopped at a light in my car, I specifically watch people drive by and the only mouths I see moving are the ones that have a cell phone attached to their ear.
I wish I could say the same for myself and my kids, who seem to rip out a full blown karaoke party every time we buckle up. Even when I’m all alone, I find myself filling the car with enough sound waves to shake the steering wheel. Sometimes when I’m stopped or there are people around, I totally admit to pretend I’m talking on the phone while I’m really singing, hoping to fool passersby to my goofy habits. This is not something I’m proud about, because there should be no shame in singing. Out loud. With emotion. Whenever you want.
I have the utmost honor of working as a music teacher for small children. A few days a week I gather together with toddlers and preschoolers and sit in a circle on the floor and sing folk songs. It is a most fun and challenging profession, filled with wooden rhythm sticks, finger plays, and my own voice doing the best I can to encourage these kids to sing, sing, sing, for the good of themselves and of others.
Historically speaking, these old songs are the ones that belong to our American heritage. Ask an adult to sing a song from childhood and they’ll give you Twinkle, Twinkle. (Ask me and I might give you a Merle Haggard tune.) But there’s so many more, and we’re sadly losing our classics.
Educationally speaking, children these days are not exposed to real sounds anymore. We have music on the radio which has all been digitally altered and television and movies with no real sound direction. Teachers use microphones and video games, well, I’m not even going to go there. The point is that all of these sound waves that our children hear aren’t real sound waves. They’re different, somehow, and when kids are constantly surrounded by electronic background noise, it’s absolutely amazing how the strum of one single guitar string or a single sung note can catch their attention.
I know it for a fact.
Which is why I always try to have a kazoo handy. No lie. There’s usually one in my car, in case I need to break into a super rockin’ solo during my favorite song and while hopefully no one is looking, maybe it would be better if instead they rolled down their window and joined in. They may not have a kazoo, but you always have your voice and can sing along – with whatever you’ve got -- and make this world a little better place.
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