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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sigh of relief on a cool rock

There are times as a parent when you wonder if all of the things you’ve said and all of the influences you’ve given have ever really gotten through the thick skulls of your children. You wonder if the bargaining you’ve done and the words you’ve yelled repeatedly and the slight hinting towards liking things that are good and decent actually got absorbed.

Sometimes, you fully doubt yourself.

But then there are those moments, those sweet parenting moments, when they catch you totally off guard and all you can do is smile.

I’m pretty sure the majority of readers don’t care about what we did on a Sunday afternoon in mid-Summer, but I would be remiss if I didn’t file this memory deep in my soul to pull out on one-of-those-days.

With a husband swinging around a golf course, I chose to take our kids to one of my favorite places in the world. Virginia Kendall Ledges, located in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, is an outstanding bit of Earth. Even in the heat of summer, the cool air coming from cracks in huge sandstone cliffs makes life just grand. The trail is well marked, travels around cliffs and past the infamous Ice Box Cave. Depending on how you take the loop, in the middle of the hike is an overlook that will knock off your socks, even if you’ve chosen to just wear sandals to hike in that day.

I spent many hours on that overlook as a child and teenager, hiking with family and friends, and have a library of memories from those woods. And call me crazy, but I really want my kids to have the same fond memories from that place, no matter what it takes. So naturally I drag them around that same loop trail whenever I get the opportunity.

This particular Sunday, though, I made them walk the entire loop, without the option of cutting out early. (There was an ice cream reward at the end; I’m not that mean, you know.) Of course I chose the hottest time of the year to make them hike a full three miles, not including the extra mileage we tack on by scrambling up and around the boulders, through the cavernous splits in the rocks, and slipping off trail to watch a wood thrush.

You might think they complained or whined, especially since a large portion of their friends were probably floating in a pool or in the comfort of the air-conditioning conquering levels of some video game. But they didn’t. They walked, they stopped, and when we saw the most amazing spider web caught in the sunlight, we actually dropped backpacks and looked at it for a span of a few minutes, which equates to years in kid-time.

But the greatest of parenting moment for me came when my youngest child, a curly-haired three year old said she needed a snack. We stepped off trail in an average part of the park and found a large smooth rock, cool from shade and forest dampness. The four of us stretched out on that rock in a row as if we were sunbathing in the shade. Water bottles were passed out as well as peanut butter crackers, and for a minute the only sounds I heard were the quiet crunching of snacks and the occasional slurp of water.

Finally, they started to talk.

“These trees are so cool.”

“I can’t believe how neat these rocks are.”

“I love this place.”

“Some of our friends never get to see anything so neat because they don’t want to go into the woods or get muddy or get bitten by bugs.”

“Thanks for bringing us here, mom.”

And then, finally, I heard, “it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

Photo was taken at "the stage," a seemingly perfect place for any sort of rock concert. I've since retired as a rock star, passing the air guitar on to my talented kids.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ten pounds of fun: One weary summer

A friend shared this brilliant idea that she saw on one of those parenting blogs where surely the mother has a nanny or spends her entire day posing her clean children in organic clothes in her vintage house with crumbs of homemade granola strategically placed on the floor. The idea? A giant poster, a large to-do list of summer fun and you are supposed to hang it in a common area so it’s a constant reminder to not let the summer slip by without you cramming in ten-pounds of fun into a five-pound summer.

Sounded like a good enough idea, I thought, and so on our first full day of summer vacation, my kids and I sat down with a huge piece of paper, some markers, and a hankering for a summer to remember. At first, it came easy. We wrote things like “zoo” and “park” and “have friends over.” But then we sat there and looked at this thing and I wondered why on Earth I chose such a large piece of paper.

There was a lot of blank space at the bottom. A lot.

So we had to get a little creative, to think outside the box and to reach deep within our imaginations to come up with ways to make summer break something spectacular. We filled the paper, knowing full well, of course, that our competitive personalities would require us to do the entire thing, even if on the last night before school starts that I would be making the children dig a hole in the yard by flashlight, because we wrote “put in a small pond” and by golly, we were going to cross it off our list no matter what it takes.

And just like writing things down, checking things off were easy at first. We had a campfire on the first good evening and could even check off “learn to play the ukulele” because we passed it around and can all play a good, solid C chord. The summer was off to a great start.

But then, as usual, the season kicked into high gear. There were camps and scouting events, family reunions and holidays. Before I knew it, I blinked and we were staring at late-July and still had a heap of things to do before we would let summer end.

Fun became our job, but in a good way. I am no fool to know that soon enough my children will not want to spend a morning walking through a creek and eating sandwiches at the park. I know that too soon they’ll be off with their own friends and not want to tour the zoo with their goofy mother. And I know for certain that they won’t think it’s nearly as exciting to make ice cream in a plastic baggie as they do now. (This is actually pretty exciting as an adult. Not to mention surprisingly delicious.)

And so I fully subscribe to this “fun-til’-you-drop” summer of wonder, even though it’s wearing me out to the point of exhaustion.

I wake up in the morning and roll my weary self out of bed only to check the weather in hopes of a rainy day where I have a good excuse to stay inside, do some of the fourteen tons of laundry, and maybe sit down and crack open a book.

Instead I find a sunny forecast and bright eyed and bushy tailed kids, asking what we’re going to check off today, and I start a pot of coffee as big as our to-do list.

For the good of a fleeting childhood and the hopes that someday, as a parent themselves, one of them will say, “now I understand why mom drank so much coffee. But I’m so glad she did,” I will suck it up, press on, and work through my weariness.

We’ve still got to build a piece of log furniture and play putt-putt.

Visit and contact Karrie at www.KarrieMcAllister.com.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bring dirt into your house: Mason Jar Terrarium!

I have a new found love of canning jars. They hold the summer sun all year long in the form of canned garden goodnesses. They also store my dried goods, my bulk foods, and numerous things all over my house because they're so darn handy.
We've done pop bottle (yes, I'm from Ohio, where soda don't grow) terrariums, but I thought it might be kind of neat to try something on a small scale in, what else, a canning jar.

And so, here's what you need:
-Large canning jar
-activated charcoal (buy this at a pet store with the fish filters)
-small plant (leaves of three? no thanks.)
-chopsticks or thin tongs to help position things in the jar

Starting at the bottom, but a small amount of gravel. This is to allow drainage of water.
After gravel, put an even smaller layer of charcoal. The purpose of the charcoal is to clean the air and water as it circulates through the closed system. (Did you see the lid?)
After charcoal comes moss, which acts as a filter so that the dirt doesn't get into your gravel.
After moss comes dirt, and that should either be potting soil or the soil around where you find your plant.
Speaking of your plant, don't be afraid of heading into the woods. Our Ohio forests have lovely little plants called wood violets that have leaves shaped like hearts, and they'll stay small.
Once you've got your plant in, put a bit more moss on the surface of the dirt, around the moss. Not only is this for show, but it also acts as a second filter and a sponge to keep the water levels at a happy place.
Chances are you're going to need to add a bit of water before you close it up. Add just enough to keep things sufficiently damp, but not floating. This may be a trial and error as you keep your terrarium for a few weeks.

Done well and kept in correct lighting, closed terrariums can last for years. (Wow!) Scientifically speaking, you can watch water condense on the sides of the jar and then percolate back down into the soil.

Plus it's just plain neat.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ice Cream in a Baggie

It's not that kind of ice cream in a bag. This kind is much more fun and probably tastes better, too.

You will need:
2 T sugar
1 cup half and half
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup ice cream salt or rock salt
ice cubes
1 gallon-sized ziptop baggie
1 pint-sized ziptop baggie

In the small bag, combine sugar, half and half, and vanilla. (That's it. Then go read the ingredients on your store-bought ice cream...yikes.)
Seal the small bag well and set it aside.
In the large bag, add the rock salt and enough ice cubes to fill about half of the bag.
Place the small bag inside the large bag, seal well, and shake, shake, shake for at least 5 minutes. I suggest having a towel handy because it gets pretty cold.
Check the ice cream periodically and stop shaking when it's done. Grab some spoons and eat right out of the little bag, or squeeze into a bowl and add all the fixin's.

We think it tastes like McDonald's soft serve, which we think is pretty delicious.

Give it a whirl and enjoy National Ice Cream Month!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

National Ice Cream Month!!

I’m only going to say this once, because something so significant does not require repeating:

July is the national ice cream month.

This means that while we flipped our calendars and watched fireworks and wondered how it got so very hot all of a sudden, we really should have been sitting around, each with our own tub of ice cream and a nice, sturdy spoon. It’s practically the patriotic thing to do.

In 1984, a very wise president Ronald Reagan designated July as National Ice Cream Month, and the third Sunday of that month being National Ice Cream Day.

He said something along the lines of, “it’s good for you, and it’s a fun food! Eat up, America.” The figures pointed out that 90% of Americans at that time enjoyed partaking in the frozen dairy delight, so I can only extrapolate that of every 10 people reading this, only one should not have a blob of chocolate sauce on his or her shirt by the time you reach the end.

Statistics show that of all of the age groups, children between the ages 2 and 12 and adults over the age of 45 eat the most ice cream. This figure is something I completely understand, because looking at my own family it is absolutely true. The older crowd is no shock. My parents and grandparents have been ferocious ice cream sneakers (“oh, just a little late night snack…”) for as long as I can remember. My mother: black cherry. My grandfather: butter pecan. Some things never change.

And my children eat way more ice cream than I do, mostly because my hands are so tired after scooping perfectly even balls of hard-as-rock ice cream into matching bowls, and then running around collecting sauces, sprinkles, and spoons before the ice cream turns into soup. I’m just to pooped to scoop for myself, although I admit licking the spoon. Plus if you figure in the dreaded ice cream man, who plays his mystical, hypnotizing music that would wake a child from a dead sleep and within milliseconds begin begging their parents for a few bucks, it’s no doubt that kids eat more ice cream than their weary mothers.

But if childhood doesn’t contain ice cream, something is missing. There’s undeniably something special about the nostalgia of sitting on a front porch eating a cone with vanilla streaming down your chin and all over your hands. I have ice cream memories engrained in my head and my heart like strawberry sauce on a white shirt. They’re indelible, and I have no hope of ever getting rid of them.

And the best part is that memories seem to come to life when the sense of smell or taste is involved, and all I need is one bite of a hot fudge sundae, and I’m right back in my hometown, sitting next to my Grandpa on a Tuesday night at the local ice cream parlor. A single nibble of a cookie coated ice cream bar, and I’m sitting at my lunch table in elementary school, eating as fast as I can before recess starts. A scoop of good old vanilla bean, and I’m about nine years old, sitting in my living room and watching Bugs Bunny after school.

So go ahead, reach into your freezer or stick your head out the window and listen for the ice cream man to lure you in like a siren of the sea, and belly up to America’s favorite frozen treat. If you’re young, enjoy the worry-free calories. If you’re old, don’t sweat it. If you’re in the middle, think of the duty to your country you’re doing by supporting our dairy industry and being patriotic.

Or if you’re more of a cone person, you should know it takes, on average, 50 licks to polish off a regular cone. It’s your American obligation to put it to the test before it’s time to flip the calendar again.

Check back tomorrow for a recipe-- Ice cream in a plastic bag. Fantastic summer fun, and pretty delicious, too!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tick tock, tick tock

As a mother, there are certain words that you’d rather not here. In the summer, some of my least favorite words are, “Mom? What’s this bump on my head?” because I have been around enough to know that if you spend time romping through the woods, that little lump is going to have eight legs and a thirst for blood.

A tick.

I’m no stranger to the little insect, and have been on both sides of the tick experience more times that I can count. For every tick I pulled off myself or a dog, my poor mother pulled at least that many off of me as a child. I have vivid memories of sitting on a picnic table while my parents yelled at me to “hold still!” and “stop moving!” and before returning to their game of horseshoes would ask me, “what do you do, roll around in the woods?”

And actually, I kind of did. The woods were my personal playground when I was little, and now my own kids spend a lot of their summer season in the same type of places, running and playing, and generally being kids.

But I fear there are a few less kids playing somewhere in Northeast Ohio.
I recently came across a news article explaining why a certain playground had been closed. Someone recognized some ticks on the slide, and authorities decided that the best thing to do would be to close down the playground area and spray heavy pesticides all over the place.

At of my knowledge, the playground remains closed until further notice.

Whether or not you’re on the side of the officials or the side of the ticks, one fact remains: no matter where we are, we’re still at the mercy of our natural surroundings. Even little blood-sucking insects like ticks kind of have a right to hang out in neatly mulched, plastic constructed playgrounds.

As a parent, I admit that I’m not super fond of ticks. This year already I’ve removed four from my dogs and one from a very creeped-out kid. That may have not been a drop in the hat to my parents, leaning over my head with tweezers and a flashlight, but it seems that times have changed. Back in the good ol’ days, tick-born diseases were either non-existent, non-reported, or just weren’t splashed all over the media, scaring us into our houses and dousing ourselves with DEET.

Today, we’re made very aware of the dangers, and if we listen closely and try not to panic, we are also informed the best way to remove ticks. According to the CDC, you should take fine-tipped tweezers and grab as close to the head as possible. Slowly and steadily, without jerking, pull the tick out and then clean the area topically.

It’s pretty much just that simple, and for generations, we’ve been doing that exact same procedure on our pets and children. It’s an unfortunate part of being outside, but in my opinion, it’s even more unfortunate that a single tick or two would close down a playground and kill likely hundreds of thousands of insects.
To the children, please don’t hate bugs. Remember that your playground was also their home. Be respectful of your surroundings, inside and out, and don’t be afraid to hit that slide again as soon as the park reopens.

To the insects who may have fallen before your time, rest in peace. And to you, the ticks, I’m sorry you had to go this way. If it were me, I would have waited until I found you in my hair, plucked you out and flushed you down the toilet like in the good old days.

Visit www.cdc.gov for more information on ticks.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Neighborly spirit

Many years ago, Robert Frost penned a line that would become a philosophical discussion for decades to come. “Good fences make good neighbors,” he wrote, in his poem “Mending Wall.”

I remember reading it in my school-aged days and thinking that our neighbors were the best ever because we had a fence. In hindsight, I bet that they loved our fence just as much because it contained our childhood ruckus.

In any case, that phrase has stuck with me over time because mostly my brain loves to sit and postulate things without answers. It has an affinity for driving me batty, I think. And here at our current house, we don’t have fence. But we have great neighbors. Probably some of the very best in the whole world.

We have shared impromptu pizzas and have a long-standing tradition of looking for campfire smoke rising from a backyard, because that’s our open invitation to bring over a chair and a bag of marshmallows. Our children have learned to be a fantastic team of lightening bug and toad catchers, while us grown-ups stand barefooted in the street and solve all of the world’s problems.

But more than just the fun stuff, my neighbors have become a vital part of my life, nearly necessary to my survival and sanity.

Our neighbors have rescued me countless times with the perpetual one cup of sugar that never seems to be there when you need it. They’ve plowed and shoveled my driveway when we were on vacation and loaned me their lawn mowers when ours happened to break while I was using it. (Note: I did not break the lawnmower.)

They also recently came to my rescue during a slight disaster that, as usual, happens when my husband wasn’t home. Away with the kids at a movie one evening, my upstairs toilet chose exactly that moment to break and spray hundreds of thousands of gallons (give or take a few thousand gallons) all over my bathroom. Those thousands of gallons then decided to drain through the ceiling down into my kitchen, and I walked into my house thinking we had a sprinkling system that had gone awry or that while I was gone someone turned my kitchen into a large shower room.

But we don’t have a sprinkling system. My kitchen was still a kitchen, and it was really, really wet.

Within minutes the fire department showed up, and at this time I’d like to publicly apologize for being completely ridiculous, sprinting around my house and throwing every towel and blanket we own at the kind volunteer fireman, all the while drenched and potentially speaking authentic frontier gibberish at high decibels.

But before long, my neighbors came to my rescue.

“What can I do?” he asked.

“Keep me from going crazy,” I said. “And you can have bucket duty.”

Another neighbor showed up and helped remove the light fixtures that were full of water, something that I know that if I would have tried to do I probably would have somehow turned off power to the entire town and have hair that permanently looked liked the Bride of Frankenstein.

When it was all said and done, with the help of unbelievable family and generous neighbors, we live to see another day. A bit of cleanup and some replacing and my family will be back to normal…or whatever you want to call it.

And so I have to really ponder Frost’s poem and his “good fences make good neighbors” line. And while I still semi-agree, I think there should be an addendum to the poem. At the bottom, below all the lines should be, in parentheses:

(But great neighbors don’t really need fences.)

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