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Thursday, December 20, 2012

She with the ugliest tree…

We’ve been married thirteen years, and by that calculation it’s been 13 years since my prettiest Christmas tree.  Young and full of energy, we were gifted beautiful glass ornaments for wedding gifts.  Each was packaged in safe space age padding, and I specifically remember hanging each and every beautiful one.  Delicate glass icicles hung and the thinnest of tinted glass sparkled in the soft glow of the Christmas lights.
Back then, without the general rigors of family keeping me overly occupied, I actually did something I can barely bring myself to mention.  I, um, used to watch crafting television shows. I thought it would be decorative and clever to tie tiny rustic bows on the tips of each limb, and I remember posing by the tree that took me hours upon hours to embellish, wearing my best Martha Stewart grin.  Those were some different times.
Nowadays they are but faint whispers on a faded photograph of times gone by and thankfully never to return.
When you start having children, you never really think about things like Christmas trees.  You think about hanging extra stockings and leaving cookies for Santa.  You think about the fascination of Christmas morning and the piles of perfectly wrapped gifts with giant bows arranged underneath the billowing tree, each ornament radiant.
You don’t think about glitter glue.
You don’t think about popsicle sticks.
You don’t think about wads of dough with buttons stuck in there willy nilly that is so heavy that you have to either hang it directly from the trunk or reinforce the poor chosen branch with steel rebar.
But when you’re a parent (and a good one, I might mention) that’s what you get.
This year as we set out to decorate our tree that our children chose (read: not the one that mom wanted) we opened our boxes of ornaments from years past.  There they were-- a thousand different decorations all placed ever not so gently between wadded up newspaper and others just tossed in with the box of lights because we must have missed a few last year during disassembly.  
I don’t know about everyone else, but when it comes to the holidays and my kids, I run myself ragged trying to make each year a memorable one.  We annually have some commemorative ornament that my children make, and I save and savor every one.  Sure, when they are young there isn’t much ornamental about a piece of wood with some fuchsia paint smeared across half of it, but still I cherish it.  When you have three children, though, they start piling up over the years.  And then they go to school and if they’re lucky, some sort of crafting class.  And if each kid makes an ornament with you, in school, and at a class, I am up at least nine ornaments each lucky Christmas.
When I opened the boxes this year, I looked long and hard at what I was faced with.  The delicate crystal icicles were still there, amazingly in one piece, right next to a glittered snowflake that had somehow maintained a good portion of its red sparkles even though the slightest touch of it leaves you shimmering for days.  I needed to make a choice.
You may have guessed, but I hung the glittery glob.  And the fifteen pound hunks of dough.  And the giant photographs in foam photo frames.  And the paper cup turned angel.  And the clothespin reindeer made by my husband as a child.  And even the pile of sticks that I glued together and tied with the ugliest of golden ribbon so very many, many years ago.
When I had finished, I stepped back and looked at the most beautiful tree I have ever seen, with nary a speck of fancy and not even a dollop of taste.  Just a bunch of the loveliest love I have ever seen hanging from tree branches, even the ones drooping low from the fifteen pound décor.

ps.  The look on our dog's face gets me every. single. time.  

When the star touches the ceiling. Then it's big enough.

There is never a time when I want more to live in a house with a vaulted ceiling than during December, when we go shopping for a Christmas tree.  Not because I really long to decorate and manage anything so massive, and not that I really want to rearrange my whole house to accommodate the girth for something so large.  Mostly I want to live up to the challenge and the memories of my youth, when the star brushing against the ceiling was all my parents really wanted for Christmas.
You know how, when you look back at the way your parents acted when you were a child, you stop and chuckle and wonder deep down in your heart if you missed something because there’s no way they could have been that nutty on purpose?  That’s how I feel during the annual event that is the Christmas tree.  In my own life, I just can’t imagine trying to tackle anything near to what they did.  (I think they must have sniffed a little too much eggnog.)
But these are my memories, my wonderful and crazy memories.
We used to borrow my Grandfather’s brown El Camino, whose nickname I cannot disclose to anyone outside my family.  He loved that vehicle and it surprises me to this day that he’d let us drive it out into what we thought was the country on dark snowy nights.  It always used to be dark and snowy when we got our Christmas tree.  Global warming is really ruining this for our kids.
Off we’d go, my father driving, my mother white-knuckling the door handle as we slid down the road, and I, the only child, was smashed between them on the seat that was never ever comfortable.  We’d put on a cassette tape of some country artist singing carols and change all the words and laugh our heads off until we pulled down the gravel drive and parked.
“Give me the biggest tree you’ve got,” my dad would say.  And the salesman, who grew to know us over the years, would lead us into a special garage where the extra large trees were kept.
Some years, there were no trees big enough to satisfy my parents, but when there was, life was good.  They’d strap it across the top of the El Camino and it would dangle dangerously in front of the windshield, impairing our vision and further increasing my mother’s grip on the door handle.
We always made it home safely, even with the laughing spells and the snowy nights.
Furniture was shifted, the bright lights were turned on, and they would strain their backs attempting to get it in the house and, by some bit of a miracle, standing straight enough for my father’s liking.  At this point, when the tree was in and up, he would disappear, leaving my mother to tackle the rest.
With the sweet sounds of Willie Nelson singing “Pretty Paper” coming from the record player, she’d prop the extension ladder against the wall and start stringing lights, strand after strand after strand.  I think it must have taken 4,000 ornaments to cover the tree, but all were hung with care using bits of string and make-shift hangers made from distorted paper clips.  We hid the Christmas Spider and hung tinsel everywhere that the dog couldn’t reach.  (A lesson was once learned about how much dogs love to eat tinsel.)  The nativity scene was set up under the tree, and while I moved the Three Wise Men around to bring their gifts to the Baby Jesus, my mom would carefully place the star on the top so that it just barely touched the tip of the vaulted ceiling.  
When it was finished, boxes were simply stashed away, the bright lights turned dim, and with the soft glow of the giant tree, Willie Nelson kept sang me to sleep.

Friday, December 7, 2012

RACK-ing ‘em up for Christmas

Come December, we are all suddenly reminded of the spirit of giving.   It’s more than just buying presents for your family and friends, it seems that the whole giving thing has spread out and bubbled over onto every bit of life.  Teacher gifts, extra tipping, kettles of every color.  Every organization I know has some sort of charity for which they are raising money, and I admit at times I feel overly obligated to give away everything I have and then some to the point where, honestly, I get a little exhausted by it all.
But even with the barest of pockets, I still find myself wrapped up in the spirit of giving because it just feels so good.  As if you can actually feel your heart getting bigger every time you do it but you just can’t quite explain it.  There are plenty of places and programs that I feel I need to donate to, but it is the other small things that I don’t really have to do that get me giddier than a gingerbread girl.
That’s why I decided to RACK it up this year, an incredible idea that I admit I didn’t create, but wish I did.  RACK stands for “Random Acts of Christmas Kindness” and while the acronym is pretty catchy, the whole act of RACK-ing is starting to catch on, too.   You can do it however you like, but a lot of people like to count down the days to Christmas by doing one small act each day in December.
With dozens of ideas online, it’s hard to pick what random acts of kindness we’ll end up doing.  Hang a candy cane on a few parked cars?  Stash a dollar bill with a note in the toy section of a store?  Tape a quarter to a vending machine?  Surprise a favorite librarian/postman/etc. with a treat?  Perhaps just something as heartfelt as writing a note to a friend telling them how much they mean to you for no reason at all?
Being kind will never be more fun.  And with little clever notes attached, it’s sure to bring holiday cheer to others and snickers of delight to our family.
My son wasn’t quite as sold on the idea as I first was.  The thought of sneaking a gift to a stranger was appealing to me—kind of like the opposite of playing a practical joke on someone and still getting the benefit of hiding in the corner and watching the action.  His response was simply, “but why don’t you want them to know that you did it?  And how come you are giving gifts to strangers when you don’t have to?”
And then came a long and wonderful explanation about paying it forward, how one simple act of kindness might just change the mood of someone’s day, and maybe that person will be inspired to spread a bit of joy to someone else.   “It’s a lovely and vicious cycle,” I said, nearly choking up by the end of my long drawn out soliloquy.   “There’s so much bad in the world, that we have to remember to celebrate and share the good.”
And so that’s what we’ll do, as we celebrate the days leading up to Christmas, counting our blessings and sharing our joys with people we know and total strangers as we RACK it up all over town.  
And if even half of the RACK’ed people decide to spread their own random kindness, and just one half of those people decide that a-RACK-ing they will go, what a crazy happy mark we will make on this season of caring and sharing.  And sneaking and snickering.  And non-planned niceness.  And randomly RACKing and making the world a better place.

Print your own!  Spread some cheer!  Trust me, you'll love it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Man vs. Woman: brain style

I once read an article that perfectly explained the woman’s brain.  (I’m guessing now that I’ve got the attention of plenty of men.)  So often in my life, while harboring so many tasks and duties in my head that I feel like it is near explosion, I go back to that tidbit of psychological knowledge and feel just a tiny bit better.  There’s just something so comforting about knowing that you’re not alone and understanding why you are the way you are.
Because personally I know that sometimes I feel like a cartoon character with my tongue hanging out and dripping, running so fast that the artist only has to draw my image once when I start, then a giant blur bouncing off all four walls, and then finally again when I crash into one of them and collapse in a heap with little stars and birdies flying in circles above my head.
This particular article clearly depicted a man’s and a woman’s brain by using the analogy of a room with doors around the walls.  Each door was labeled something specific.  “Work.”  “Children.”  “Chores.”  Other such things.
The great difference is the manner in which all of the doors are visited.  Men apparently open only one door at a time, totally immersing themselves in whatever activity their brains tell them to choose.  This explains why my husband can watch his favorite TV show while I run around like the aforementioned drooling cartoon and not even notice.  It also explains why he is unable to put his dirty dishes into the dishwasher and instead sets them directly on the counter, on top of the empty dishwasher.  He simply can’t open that door.  In his brain.  Or the dishwasher.
If you are a woman, you might already guess what our room of doors might look like.  Our set of doors is seemingly larger, especially if we take on the role of mother or homemaker.  My own personal set of doors might rival a fun house at times, with doors labeled things like “work,” “laundry,” “food,” “shopping,” “sewing,” “cleaning up dog barf,” “scrubbing grass stains from my son’s pants,” “forcing the children to bathe,” “instrument practice dictator,” and just a few thousand more.  The distinction with the female door system is that we are mentally unable to close doors.  Or rather, the doors just don’t ever shut themselves.  While I am trying to make dinner, the children need help with homework, someone is yelling for help from the bathroom, and inevitably the phone will ring.  And it’ll be my mother, who is making dinner too, and can’t remember the recipe and will test the hinges on my ol’ memory door which is getting rustier and rustier each long and weary day.  
I realize that I am making generic gender generalizations here and that assumptions cause nothing but trouble.  But there is scientific backup.
A study published in the American Sociological Review showed that women are indeed better multitaskers than their male counterparts.   For men and women in similar working situations, women spend an average of 17 hours per week on chores, compared to men’s 10 hours on the same tasks.  (My husband would argue that they are just more efficient.  I would argue otherwise after I finished with the silent treatment.)
The study also mentions that the time that dads doing multiple chores made them feel pleased about it.  The mothers were more likely to be stressed out in the same situations.
I can’t help but wonder if they stopped here to ask me my opinions, but I was conked out in a pile of drool in the corner, and the circling birdies scared them away.

Batty for bats

Even in the aftermath of Halloween, when a few soggy decorations linger and pumpkins begin to rot, I can’t help but think about bats.  And thinking about bats takes me back in time to the most stressful interview of my life. At first I was not asked about myself at all.  I was asked about our flying mammalian friend.
There I was, a high school student still trying to learn to like the taste of coffee and trying not to look like a dork, and I sit down to my first interview for a college scholarship, and she asks me about bats.
Nothing specific, just something like, “tell me about bats.”
Truthfully, I don’t remember how I answered the question.  I was so nervous that probably all that came out were a bunch of “uh’s” and “um’s” and a trickle of drool down my quivering chin.  I think I spent a lot of time questioning in my head what she wanted to hear, if she wanted to hear about bats as they are in the movies, or bats as they are in real life.
I could have told her that bats are mean and vicious creatures.  They fly around on spooky nights and seek out their human prey.  I could have told her that they make nests in the hair of well-coiffed ladies and have a thousand little bat babies that will suck your blood to fuel their evil plans to overtake the mortal world.
I could have also told her that bats are blind, and that they all have rabies and are just waiting to infect every non-suspecting person and animal.  I could have told her they are dirty, nasty flying rodents when they’re not roosting in Transylvania or transforming into a caped villain.
But as I mentioned before, I pretty much just say “derf.”
Now that I’m older and wiser and generally a lover of things falling into the nature category, I know exactly what I would have told that nice woman who scared the bat wing right out of me.
Bats are fantastic, amazing creatures.  They are not blind, and in fact all bats can see.  They just prefer echolocation, something that we’ll get back to later.  They do not in fact, suck the human blood of passersby, but instead most bats feed on insects.  The little brown bat (and that’s its real name, I promise) is a ferocious insect-eating machine and can eat thousands of them in one night!  I don’t know about anyone else, but I could do with a few thousand less mosquitos in the dead of summer.
These flying mammals are not rodents, but something of their very own special caliber.  Their wings are similar to our hands, and they even have something like a thumb, making me wish I could train one and name him The Fonz. Their cute little faces are not only cute, but they’re quite clean.  They groom themselves many times a day, which is something I wish my kids could manage.  And no matter how lovely your hair looks, a bat will not make a beeline for the curls on your head.  Bats roost in small cavities that provide protection, not even something super extra strength hair spray can provide.
But my favorite thing about bats is their sense of echolocation.  They send out signals and wait for the waves to bounce off their flying meals so they know where they are and can dive bomb them with more energy and speed than I’ve seen in decades.
And if I could do that interview again, I’d reschedule it at dusk when the bats just appear like little darting specks in the sky.  I would grab a handful of pebbles and say to that nice lady, “bats are great.  Check this out.”  Ad I’d toss a tiny pebble out in front of a bat and watch as it located and tried to catch it, swooping down with swiftness and grace, but never quite catching the stone.
I think I may have gotten a full ride.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Life is like a pile of leaves

Look out, Forrest Gump.  Life may be like a box of chocolates to you, but ‘round these parts when fall is in full swing, I’d like to argue that life is like a pile of leaves.
And Shakespeare might debate whether to be or not to be, but when it comes to that pile of leaves, we might argue to rake or not to rake.  That is the question in late October.
The glorious colors that light up our autumnal days with trees of bright reds and yellows eventually lose their ability to hang on and fall ever so gracefully to their final demise wherever the wind may take them.  And by wherever the wind may take them, I mean all over your lawn.  At this point in the season, we have a few options.  We can rake them ourselves, hire someone, invest in a leaf blower so the job goes more swiftly but annoys the neighbors with the loud noise, grind them up with a lawnmower, or just leave them be.
According to the experts, the option is up to you.  Some say that you should mulch them with a lawnmower and add delicious nutrients to your lawn.  The process of leaves decomposing is like dumping bottles of vitamins all over the ground.  Look at the dark, rich soil on the forest floor.   Others, however, say that you need to remove the leaves so that they don’t rot and suffocate out the grass below, especially if your grass has not yet gone dormant for the season.  And still other don’t really care about their lawn, but use the actual act of raking to beef up their muscles or punish their children.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.  On one hand, I appreciate the natural cycle involved with returning the nutrients of the leaves to the Earth.  There’s a large part of me that knows that messing with Mother Nature is never the best way to go.  But the rest of me can’t go through autumn without a bright day of good old-fashioned leaf fun.
And so starts the annual progression.
It starts with rakes of many sizes for all sizes of children involved.  (And yes, I include myself in that category.)  After only a few minutes, someone has tired arms and someone else wants some apple cider.  Pressing on, there are intermittent leaf fights and any small piles we may have formed are destroyed by the dog.
By this time, it’s lunch, and we all eat steamy soup on the back porch.  And while we eat, we hear the roar of the leaf blower starting up, meaning that dad has had just about enough of our autumnal shenanigans, and before we know it, there’s a huge pile of leaves waiting for the “one, two, three…jump!” 
But when it comes to leaf blowing, anything goes.  Anything, and everything.  Every small toy that was hiding under cover.  Every small stick with the point as sharp as a needle.  Every bit of physical evidence in the yard that we own a dog.  It’s all whirled up in the tornado of beautiful, inviting leaves and piled and ready for you to jump, too.
The safe side of you knows that diving headfirst isn’t the smartest thing, that there’s a good chance that you’ll get poked by a stick or nosedive into something rather stinky.  You could whack your head on a missing yard tool, and there’s a 100% chance that leaf litter will stick in your socks and hair and everywhere else.
But the rest of you ignores all of that and before you know it there’s less “pile” and more “kid” and less “worry” and more “smile” and you realize that life is like a pile of leaves.  You never know what you’re going to hit.
But you jump anyway.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Mom who didn’t was dishes

Way back in 1950, a little book was written and published about a man who just stopped doing his dishes.  He simply came home one night, starving, and quickly fed himself and thought he’d do the washing the next day.  But the next day, he came home twice as hungry, and that was the start of it all.  Soon he ran out of dishes, so he began using any vessel in his home he could find, including eating from a candy dish and a flowerpot.  Dirty dishes piled high all over his house until finally he thought he should do something about it.  She hit the breaking point.
Mothers and fathers who are raising children who do not pick up after themselves across the world now have a bit of a hero, a mom who simply stopped doing everyone else’s dishes.  And picking up their clothes.  And everything else.  For a series of days, she handwashed and put away any dishes that she herself used, and would only wash laundry if it was left near the washing machine, sorted.
This brilliant mother cataloged her experience on a blog and even appeared on the national TV to share her story of legitimately doing what so many of us wish we had the guts to do: nothing.  She writes about how her counters were filled with stinking bowls of rock-hard cereal and milk leftovers, and her couch was littered with dirty socks, empty drink bottles, and used tissues.
My favorite part of the whole story is that her children did not unpack their lunch containers, and so she sent their lunches in doggie doo baggies to school, which is clever and suburb parenting skills in my book.
After a few days of doing nothing except taking care of her own things and kicking back her feet, the children began to catch on, and soon enough there was a victory and big ol’ cleaning party.  Whether or not the tween aged children have caught on is yet to be seen, but I can’t help but think that moms and dads everywhere are considering this little experiment of their very own.  I know I am.
The very fact that this mom had the audacity to put this strike into action makes me feel a little bit better about my own kids, that I’m not alone in the plight of dirty clothes on the floor, crusty dishes on the table, and paper airplanes everywhere else.
There are certain tag lines that I find myself saying or shouting around the house over and over.  I would sound like a broken record to my kids, if they knew what a record was and what would happen if it were broken.  “Who didn’t rinse out their cereal bowl?  Well here goes five minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.”  “Do you think these socks are going to walk themselves to the laundry?”  “How many cups can three children go through in one day?  I need another top rack in my dishwasher.”
I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to do with the striking mom of Alberta, Canada did, but I am proud of her.  Envious?  No, because when the strike ended she reports that it got a little ugly.  Children turning on each other, milk completely dried in glasses, and two entire bottles of Pinesol.  The wise mom put the house on lockdown while the children were told to clean everything to their mother’s standards, and I’m sure there were plenty of words said under the roar of the vacuum cleaner.  Did the kids learn a lesson?  I hope so.  I hope they learned to appreciate the things that their parents do for them on a daily basis.  I hope they also learned to appreciate the things that their parents have done for them their whole life, including reading books about men who didn’t wash his dishes.  (If they did, they would have followed his lead and waited for a rainy day, and carried half the house outside.)

Getting to the core of apple philosophy

October, well known for its color and crisp mornings, also has something else going for it.  It’s national apple month and has been just about since 1904.  And because I love apples almost as much as I love October, I feel it is my duty to pay homage to the humble apple as I admit my naivety about one of America’s favorite fruits.  Juicy, sweet, convenient, and crunchy, just thinking about them makes me want to head to the kitchen and shine one up on my shirt.
I eat a lot of apples, but after learning recent facts, I’ll never eat another apple and not marvel just a little bit.
Growing up in Ohio, I was fed story upon story of Johnny Appleseed.  I’d even go as far as to say that a good portion of us have sat in dimly lit classroom watching a cartoon man with a pot on head and nothing on his feet on a massive TV that was wheeled down from the library.  I grew up thinking (and singing) that he planted lots of trees, and so today we honor him.  Pass the cider, please.  
And then I learned a little more about apples and thought about them probably more than an average person should.
First a bit of basic apple biology that I sadly recently learned.  If you eat a scrumptious yellow delicious apple and want to have a whole orchard of them, you cannot plant the seeds from that apple and expect to get yellow delicious trees.  Instead, you get a some wild cross-pollinated probably inedible variety.  The only way to get a yellow delicious apple is to graft a little from an existing yellow delicious tree.  By this logic, every single yellow delicious apple tree has been grafted and grafted, and grafted again, from one very special tree.  That very special tree happened to be in West Virginia in 1905, and the variety was absolutely by chance.
Think that’s old?  The red delicious apple was first grown in Iowa in 1880.  The granny smith originated in Australia in 1868.  And every single mcintosh apple that you have ever eaten came, essentially, from the same tree in Ontario, Canada in 1796.
Apples have five seeds that form a beautiful flower image if you slice the apple through its equator, and one quick look and you’ll be taken to spring when the blossoms fill the trees.  The pretty little seeds are evolutionarily brilliant, though, each containing the slightest bit of cyanide to keep the little critters from eating them.
So what about all of those apple seeds that our local hero Johnny sprinkled from his burlap sack as he whistled a happy tune?  Knowing what I now know, those apple trees made apples that weren’t so tasty.  I bet Johnny knew this too, and yet he still planted orchards all around our part of the world.  The reason?  Apple cider.  Hard or otherwise, it was the cleanest thing to drink on the frontier.
And so here we are, in national apple month, on the brink of the holiday apple bobbing and pie seasons, faced with a rather philosophical relationship to apples.  We’ve picked bushels, we’ve sliced and diced and cooked and strained applesauce, and the lunches of my children are constantly filled with apples.  If each apple has five to ten seeds, I can’t fathom the amount that I’ve thrown away.  And in each tiny, discarded seed there is a new apple, unlike any other apple that has ever been.  Maybe the next braeburn or Jonathon got tossed out.
I can’t help but wonder what my pie would taste like if I planted just one.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A daring adventure race

One of my choices for a time machine lunch would have to be Helen Keller.  I’d have her over, sit at my kitchen table and tell her that if she could see it, one of her own quotes hangs upon my wall, just above the door.  It serves as a graphic reminder to me that, “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”  (She said that.  I think she’d dig my fancy wall sticker.)
A quest for adventure is nothing new in my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The time spent out of one’s comfort zone, whether or not your well-being is in danger, gets the blood pumping and just gives you that little boost of life that only comes from situations like that.  It’s a natural rush and honestly a bit of an addiction.
So when The Wilderness Center advertised an adventure race, I immediately signed up and took my husband with me.  A team race that was scheduled in about a month, the two of us looked at each other after reading what the day was all about: 35 miles of biking, 3 miles of canoeing, and 10 miles on foot.  The looks we gave each other were along the lines of “what in the world have we gotten ourselves into?”
“A daring adventure” was my answer.
As casual joggers, we had to ramp things up a little so for the four or so weeks we morphed into make-believe athletes and got to work.  And I’m so thankful we did.
There’s something about pushing yourself to your very physical limit, that point when your muscles tremble and you know that if you let your mind give up, your body will gladly cave as well.  It takes all you have to envision yourself at the top of that hill, at the end of that road, across that finish line.
So that’s what we imagined as we pushed ourselves for a full eight hours.
Adventure racing, for others who are new to it like we are, is an event that involves multiple sports such as cycling, running, orienteering, boating, and climbing, and varies in length and distance from a few hours to several days.  The combination depends on the season and the amount of time given is something you tend to need every minute of.
Our day started on a frosty Sunday morning, layering clothes and gloves and preparing our bicycles for some serious changes in elevation.  Despite a few accidental detours and a few dozen massive hills, our ride was fairly beautiful.  There’s something about moving on a road with no motor sounds to interfere with your view of the countryside. 20 or so miles later, we learned that we would have to run three miles to get to our canoe, so that we could paddle back downstream.  Once the jog and canoe was done, we hopped back onto our bikes, said multiple curse words under our breath, and rode 17 miles back (we thankfully didn’t get lost that time.)
The final leg of the race was an orienteering course, where each team is given a topographical map with marked points around a piece of property.  Our goal was to use only a compass and map and find as many as we could, even if it meant wading through a sea of prickers and thorns.  My legs looked like I walked through a storm of razor blades by the time it was over, but sprinting across the finish line at the eight-hour mark felt incredible.  It was an accomplishment with my very best friend at my side, full of briars and scrapes and sore muscles. 
I’m not sure if all of that is what Helen Keller had in mind all those years ago when she said those words that hang in my home, but I’m glad did.  If you have to choose between a daring adventure or nothing at all, I most certainly, with every tired bone in my body, recommend adventure.

Friday, November 16, 2012

And now, your local fishing forecast

I have this ongoing beef with weather forecasters, and having actually met a real, live, on-tv-everyday weatherman, I still continue to have issues with the things they tell us.  I fully understand that weather prediction is not an exact science, and that the plethora of factors that go into a single sunny day is enough to give anyone a 50% chance of accuracy, but really.  C’mon.
Originally, my question was this: if they announce a 30% chance of rain, does that mean that it will definitely rain in 30% of the area?  Or does it mean that there is a 30% chance that rain will fall?  Will it rain 30% of the time?  (This is really a legitimate question.  I promise.) I have since learned that, by definition, 30% chance of rain means that “30% of the viewing area will see rain.”
So that USED to be my beef.  Now my biggest question is: Have you ever been on Lake Erie?  Do you know what a “wave” is?  What about a “ruler?”
As it happens, our family booked ourselves a perch charter on the mighty lake to the north.  Anyone who has a memory of perch fishing knows how great it is.  Two hooks at a time, hitting the hot spot, hitting your limit, and fresh perch for dinner.  It’s enough to make even a non-fisherman want to give it a go.
But perhaps not a young girl.
Our daughter was not thrilled about going, having only experienced the boring side of fishing hours for very little fish.  She was also concerned about the weather, knowing that a cold front had come through and the whole trip would be potentially canceled due to rocky seas.  So when the night before the forecast was suddenly changed to one-foot waves, we still had to convince her.  And perhaps bribe her, but that’s not really important at this point.
As most fishing days go, we were up way before the sun and heading north with warm weather gear and a cooler of sandwiches and water.  The boat was beautiful, the captain was fantastic.  The lake was neither.
Coming around the breakwall, we were greeted by nothing like a one-foot wave.  More like 5 foot rolling swells, and even thinking about them as I write this my body starts rocking back and forth and my dinner sits a little lighter in my stomach.  It didn’t help that we had forgotten to all take our motion sickness medicine before leaving home.
But still we fished, as true fishermen and fisherwomen do.  After a bit of searching, we hit the “honey hole” and started pulling them in pretty quickly, which was a great distraction from trying our best not to toss our cookies.  The entire trip was in full motion, to the left, to the right, and back again.  For five hours we endured a ride that would rival the Tilt-o-Whirl at any amusement park.  
The thoughts running through my head were unstoppable.  I knew that if someone was sick, I’d be sick, and then the whole boat would be heaving over the side.  For that reason I completely ignored my upside down stomach and avoided all eye contact with my husband, except for the one dirty look I gave him while trying to calm my frantic kid and holding on for dear life.
Towards the end of the day, not a word was spoken until we hit land with our own feet.
“That.  Was.  Horrible,” said someone.
“But we caught almost 100 perch,” said another.
“I’m never fishing with mom again,” said another child who was not pleased that his mom was a perching machine and was on fishy fire out there.
“I’m just happy to be on shore,” said I, wobble walking in attempt at my losing my sea legs and dreaming of the upcoming fish fry, and just how sweet they would taste.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Toma-toe, tomat-oh

All hail the tomato.  It is the base of so much of our cuisine and stands firm in its acidic ability to thrive, multiply, and fill home gardens everywhere.  Often misunderstood and living its life as a conversation topic in the fruit or vegetable debate (we’ll get there later), the simple tomato deserves a little more respect than we give it.
First, a basic history of this odd plant whose leaves leave the distinctive tomato-y smell whenever you brush against them.  It is generally believed that the tomato that we know and love today originated somewhere in South America.  In the 1500’s, it traveled across the ocean blue and made a quite a splash; it’s nightshade relation to other poisonous plants typically turned people away.  The Italians, as I’ve read, were the ones who eventually fell in love with it.  I figure that they were faced with a giant bowl of un-sauced spaghetti when this thing showed up, so they gave it a whirl.  Personally, I’m glad they did.
It didn’t make its way into the United States until the 1700’s, at which point I’m pretty sure someone was standing next to a fire pit and said, “thy cheeseburger doth need something more than just thy lettuce and all beef patty.  Let us try this fruit/vegetable in slices.”  Welcome to America.
Fast forward to the 1800’s, and the lowly tomato began to raise quite a ruckus in the food science and taxation world.  Scientists had defined this reddish orb as a fruit.  By its very make up, it had all of the exact traits of a fruit.  It is the fleshy part of the plant, containing seeds and that can be eaten.  This was pretty basic science stuff, but when a tax was introduced on vegetables being imported into the United States, some guy who was bringing in tomatoes was forced to pay more.  
You could imagine the banter.  “Fruit!”  “Vegetable!”  etc.  “I’ll see you in court!”
And that’s just what happened.  The infamous Nix vs. Hedden case in 1893 had the following outcome:  Though biologically the tomato is a fruit, according to the Supreme Court, it should be considered a vegetable because we don’t eat tomato ice cream.
Again, in 1981 this fruit vs. veggie quandary again arose, this time in the way of working “vegetables” into children’s lunches in the form of ketchup.  For what it’s worth, I don’t care much about the outcome of that whole issue because I have my own beef to pick with the tomato.
My problem with this ancient fruit/veggie is that it comes in too many forms and no matter what I call it, my children insist on opinionating over each and every one.
Consider the various ways that the average American child consumes tomatoes: pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa, ketchup, the occasional diced tomato in a casserole of some sort (my word, the audacity of you, mother!) and rarely just popping them raw into your mouth.
The same child that insists on applying ketchup only every piece of food that comes near their mouth refuses to eat salsa.  And the same kid that thinks pizza is so delicious because of that special red sauce they put on there would rather have a bowl of plain pasta than to taint it with a nice marinara.  And no matter what type of tomato-based product they eat or do not eat, chances are you are wearing a white shirt that will be stained before the night is over.
And as you’re standing there in your pajamas hunched over the sink scrubbing a once beautiful white shirt, your worries reach beyond the fruit and vegetable argument and daydream a nice Italian meal in a black shirt.

Note:  I am really late in posting this.  I promise we were in full swing tomato season when this ran in the newspaper.  Really.  I swear.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Worth the weight snack mix

It's hard being an anti-chocolate person. Even harder as a woman. But when I came across this snack mix (or something similar), my inadequate feelings flew out the window.
This is like Rice Krispie treats on steroids.
I admit that I often post recipes on this blog so that I have a place to keep them safe from certain irresponsible members of my family who continue to lose things.  It's me, by the way.
So after perfecting this recipe this morning, i thought it wise to quickly taupe it here for safe keeping. And sharing, of course.

This doesn't have a good name.  Suggestions accepted!

Mia together in a large bowl:
4.5 cups golden Grahams
6.5 cups rice chex
2 cups shredded coconut (unsweetened is best, but sweetened will work, too)
1 cup sliced almonds

In saucepan combine:
1 stick butter
3/4 cup Karo syrup
3/4 cup sugar

Cook and bring to a boil.  Continue to simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from hear and add in 1 tsp vanilla.  Pour over cereal mix and stir to combine.  Spread on cookie sheets (waxed paper makes easy cleanup) to cool and harden up a bit.

This is a tad less sweet and gooey than other recipes out there.  You can always add more cereal to make it even less sweet.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Writing in Mrs. M. on the ballot

During my time at the College of Wooster, I was selected for a special course in leadership.  My first day, I looked around the table at the fine young men and women who, quite frankly, were smarter than I, and instantly panicked.  As a geology major, I was up to my ears in my senior thesis which involved collapsing roofs in coal mines and while the rest of the students in class were studying the classics and great leaders throughout history, I could easily tell the stories of the deposition of our eastern Ohio stratigraphy.
This didn’t help much when it came to the course on leadership.
On the first day of class we each went around the room and named someone whom we each thought was a great leader.  The historians in the crowd named kings and authors.  The political science majors named politicians.  Knowing that I would inevitably embarrass myself, I named a person who served as a personal leader, someone who while may have not changed the course of history, changed my life.  I named Mrs. M., the Girl Scout leader of my youth.
You know those humiliating moments that stick with you?  For me, this was one of them.  At the time I felt like my brain was shriveling up and someone put a “DUH” sticker on my forehead.  The blank looks I received spoke their disbelief, but even to this day, I stand by my answer.  
Nowadays, when our lives are inundated with the upcoming presidential election, I can’t help but think back to the things Mrs. M. did to define what leadership means to me.  
Mrs. M. taught us responsibility.  Every girl has a job, and every girl will do her job because it is her responsibility to act as a part of the whole.  If you are supposed to do it, you do it.  Or else you pay for it.  There was minimal hand holding, a general intolerance for whining, and through it all a gentle reminder that we young girls were quite capable of taking care of ourselves.  We had to unload the gear, plan and cook our own meals, clean our own bunks, and if we didn’t, we were held accountable.  If you burnt the scrambled eggs, we all knew it.
Mrs. M. taught us fairness, that in reality we get what we deserve, which can be great things if we put forth a respectable amount of effort.  Girls were all treated the same, given the same opportunities, and it was our duty to treat each other with kindness and equality.  Above everything else, we were all scouts working together, no matter our differences.
She taught us that if we worked hard, we would play hard.  The reward system is nothing new, but for everything I have done in my life, I still remember the sweet feeling of passing tent inspection after sweeping and cleaning half of the campground and being allowed to run wild and get out of dish duty.
Mrs. M. taught us to do it ourselves.  If you were faced with a challenge, whether it was knot-tying, fire-building, puffy-paint on a t-shirt, or trying not to burn the eggs, she made sure you were given the tools to succeed and then were set free with the knowledge.  And if we complained about how hard it was, we’d hear her voice saying something like, “tough noogies, you can do it.”  (Although she didn’t say “noogies.”  She was a pretty honest gal.)
And finally, she taught me to dance in your underwear.  At the end of the day, when camp is clean, the girls are fed and in bed, don’t forget to celebrate all you have accomplished by guiding those you care about.  It just so happens that, on a day when a craft includes tie-dying underwear, putting them on and boogying through the wilderness is simply what makes a great leader absolutely human.
I just wish she were running for president.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Things that make me happy

Sunshine, shiny apples, apple pie.  Grandma’s apple pie, Grandmas, Grandpas, family, family tree, trees in general.  Seeing the forest for the trees.  Tree houses, houses that are homes, Home on the Range, a clean stovetop range, cooking popcorn on the stove, cooking popcorn on the fire, campfires, camping in tents, intense camping, backpacks, binoculars, birds.  Birds in my backyard, kids in my backyard, dirt in my backyard, dirt on my kids, dirt on myself.  Mud. Muddy Waters, blues music, bluegrass music, music in my car, music in my house, music in my heart, heart strings, strings on a guitar or banjo or mandolin.   Ukuleles kept close at hand, holding hands, holding onto memories, making memories, making time, finding time, time for bed.  Made beds (but not making them,) flower beds, flower skirts, summer skirts, summer weather, winter weather, spring weather, autumn weather, October, October, October color.  Coloring, the smell of a new box of crayons, the smell of an old book, non-fiction books, cookbooks, picture books, taking pictures, explaining ‘film’ to children.  Children laughing, people passing, silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row.  Rowboats, fishing boats, catching fish, lakes and ponds, skipping stones, healthy bones, no bones about it, skull and crossbones and sea chanties.  The sea, the rivers, the creeks, the clouds, the rain, the snow, skiing, sledding, shivering, staying warm, sipping on hot cider.  Cider and donuts, hanging donuts on a string and eating them with no hands, eating donuts with hands, eating with chopsticks, Pick Up Sticks, sticking it to ya’, y’all come back, back scratchers, the itch you finally reach.  Reaching for the stars, stories in the stars, feeling like a star, stars and stripes.  Fruit Stripe gum (for about 30 seconds), clean gums, clean teeth, new toothbrush at the dentist, postcards from my dentist, postcards from anyone, mail of all sorts, all sorts of coffee, coffee on an evening walk, coffee in the morning, coffee with a crossword puzzle, newspapers.  Newspaper columns, writing this column, knowing that people actually read this column (especially the nice lady who wiped mud out of my eye at a recent running event), shaking people’s hands.  Paper to hold in my hand, the touch of paper, the touch of cotton, the touch of a baby, a baby holding my finger for dear life.  Life in all forms, people of all forms, people of all ages, young people, old people, that old couple sitting at the table in the corner drinking coffee and sharing a sandwich, grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, homegrown tomatoes, gardens, snapping fresh beans to snack on, snapping fingers, snappy dressers, dressers full of clean clothes, clean floors, clean bathrooms, hot baths, bubble baths, kids out of the bath, baby powder bottoms.  Not quite bottom of the barrel, old wooden barrels, front porches with checkerboards, checkered blankets, picnic blankets, picnic baskets with enough food to share with friends.  Friends that are old, friends that are new, strangers that become friends while I’m standing in line at the store, standing for the National Anthem, the Fourth of July, the American flag, the Polish flag, being Polish.  Pierogi on holidays, Doc Holliday, cowboys, the wild west, saloon doors, playing cards.  Cards on my birthday, birthday phone calls, Call of the Wild, wilderness, seeing wild animals, animal crackers in my soup.  Chicken soup and ginger ale when I’m sick on the couch, cuddling on the couch, cuddling with my kids, my kids, my kids, my kids, my family.  You, me, the world, the Earth below and the heavens above.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How to stay happy

I recently had a happy day.  A really happy day.  A zip-a-de-doo-da day.  It was so great I wouldn’t have blinked if a cartoon rabbit went hopping by and Uncle Remus himself was sitting on my front porch with a bluebird on his shoulder.
There wasn’t anything super special about the day.  Nothing really monumental had taken place and I didn’t have any huge upcoming plans.  Part of me wondered if somewhere in the great galaxy, the fourth moon of Jupiter had aligned with the magnetic pole at noon in China, causing this elated mood.  Another part of me wondered what I had eaten to change the chemicals in my brain—those levels of dopamine and serotonin and adrenaline and other things I can barely pronounce.  But the rest of me didn’t care because, hey, I was having a good day!  Life is good, the world is good, and I was floating on top of it all.
But as sadly expected, that fourth moon must have shifted or something and two days later I lost that feeling of shivery warmth that was the joy coming from deep within, for no good reason.  And I, the newly grumpified person, was bummed about it.  So like so many people with a mild ailment, I turned to the Internet to figure out how to regain that jubilant euphoria that I had, or at least to discover what the cause of this bliss really was.
Oh, the great wealth of knowledge that lies waiting for us to stumble upon…
Of all of the articles I came across, one of my favorites listed ten things that, according to “science,” make us happy.  
Science?  Happiness?  Being a girl with a heart of faith and a brain of reason, I had to read on and learn something new.
The article’s first tip was to savor everyday moments, doing more that just stopping to smell the roses.  It urges one to pause and enjoy the smallest of things, even mentioning watching children play.  (The author probably never had to clean a playroom, but that’s beside the point.)
The second suggestion was to avoid comparisons and focus on our own personal achievements, which sounds clear and fair to our own selves.
It also urges to put money low on the priority list and to seek less satisfaction in material goods.  Most practical people may disagree, but I know I fall into a category that puts money on a shelf, in an old mason jar.  The money I speak of comes directly out of the dryer.
Have meaningful goals, take initiative at work.  Smile even when you don’t feel like it.  (I’m assuming this does not mean gritting your teeth and saying even things without moving your smiling lips.)  Give it away and be charitable, say thank you like you mean it.  Get out and exercise.
And finally, make friends and treasure family.  Happier people have supportive, involved, happy families and friends, and I bet that those families are generally happy people.  Happy people that smile a lot, say thank you, play outside and get exercise and do all of those other things.  
Suddenly I realized my happiness was only partly my own—that the happiness I felt was coming from my family, friends, and my entire world.  It came from a coffee date with a cousin, the excitement of a new school year, even the sound of the cicadas singing all night long.  Happiness then becomes the most beautiful viscous cycle I’ve ever seen.  If mama ain’t happy, no one happy, and vice versa.
So, here’s an assignment for readers of this column.  Make a list of all of the things that make you happy.  Use nice paper and hang it on the refrigerator when you’re finished.  Write as many things as you can with as many pages as you wish.  I’ll share my list, and joy, with you next week.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hot sauce and birthdays

I know this photo has nothing to do with hot sauce.
It's just a matter of showing off my sweet 'stache.

I recently had yet another birthday, despite my best efforts at turning the calendar page one day before it was time.  Another year older isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just feel like it makes me feel like I have to work all that much harder to remain young.  So when it comes to my inevitable big day, I have no problem soaking up the love and letting my youngest daughter call me “queen” all day, which was totally her idea.  I swear.
This year for my birthday we happened to be traveling and staying with my husband’s aunt and uncle, who are just about the world’s best hosts.  They are also the world’s best chefs, and so I had no problem laying out a complete menu for them on by special day.  For lunch I asked to be taken to a Thai restaurant for a big bowl of spicy green curry.  For dinner, I politely begged for our uncle’s famous shrimp and grits, one of my many secret southern obsessions.
Sitting at lunch over my bowl of curry, I found it difficult to make decent conversation between the sniffles of spice, the frequent sips of beverage to extinguish the flames, and my constant commenting of how fantastic it all tasted.  “Oh, this *sniff * is so – pause to breathe and wipe nose and eyes—delicious!”
Over dinner I found myself giving hefty sprinkles of hot sauce and eating quickly before the grits swelled in my stomach and made me uncomfortably fat and happy.  Somewhere between the shakes of the tiny bottle of red it dawned on me.  Here I am, thirty-five, and a spice girl.
This is totally a revelation because I spent my entire life not liking anything spicy.  My disdain for all things peppery may very well stem from my father’s love for hot.   One day when I was around nine years old I simply walked through the kitchen while they attempted to concoct the latest heated crazy and before reaching the other side of the room my nose was bleeding and someone was yelling, “cover your eyes!  Cover your eyes!”  So thinking that spicy things could potentially kill me was fairly realistic to understand.
But motherhood does funny things to a person.  My first pregnancy found me eating all things salty.  (My daughter, however, is sweeter than the day is long.)  My second found me putting down multiple cream stick donuts without a blink.  (My son is filled with anything but sugar.)  My third, however, was a flavorful affair.  (I have to admit the logic doesn’t quite work here—she is one flavorful, full of spice kid.)
I found myself eating anything and, let’s be honest here, everything with any kind of zing.  Mustard, pickled peppers, Tabasco sauce, vinegar, and more.  There happened to be a sandwich special at our local café that included salami, banana ring peppers, and mustard.  It got to be that people would call me when it was on the menu.  Even at this moment I’m finding it difficult to keep myself from drooling.
For all the drooling and sniffing and extinguishing, there are some serious perks to eating this hotness.  Doctors and researchers have been studying the health benefits of consuming capsicum, the stuff that makes peppers spicy.  They say it actually aids in digestion, can help with inflammation and fight infection, help stimulate heart and liver function, aid in weight loss and help keep depression at bay.  If only they would add in that it would keep me youthful, I’d be all set for many more birthdays to come.  
Just order up the queen another round of spicy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Needs and wants and dirty feet

There are few things as humorous as trying to explain the difference between “needs” and “wants” to a group of young children.  For reasons our adult brains cannot understand, they honestly believe they need certain things to survive, including the newest plastic doll, video game, or the latest in absurd fashion crazes.  
I remember this feeling quite well, trying to convince my parents in the early 1980’s that I needed parachute pants or else life would just not go on.
In my attempt to avoid having to enlighten my own kids, I find that nothing better puts life into perspective than a good ol’ family camping trip.  And I’m not talking about loading up an RV and driving to campground where you plug in your satellite dish and the dangly Christmas-type lights from your instant front porch.  I’m talking about the sort of camping that involves a tent, a fire, the hum of a Coleman lantern, and walking a half a mile to use the bathroom.
It’s a beautiful thing, really.
With the limits of our smallish vehicle, once we load the tent, sleeping bags, food and other essentials, there’s barely enough room for our children.  
“Kids, you each have a shoebox to pack your things in for the weekend.  Be wise, and even though I know what you’re thinking, yes, you need to take a toothbrush and extra underwear.”
Suddenly, the differences between needs and wants become quite an important thing to think about.  In an instant, a large game is traded for a deck of cards.   An extensive wardrobe is exchanged for simple clothes, all which can hold a bit of dirt and still be presentable.  And in the great crusade against video games, you can honestly tell them that there is no real way of charging those awful things in the wilderness, so best to leave them at home.
Once reality sets in and the shoeboxes are packed, the family camping trip ensues, with all of its glory and frustrations.
We had the pleasure of taking a weekend long trip lumped in with a family reunion earlier this summer.  Amid the RV’s and pop-ups, we found ourselves one of the only tents on the campground road.  At night, the song of the cicadas just about drowned out the buzz of the air conditioner two sites down, and my kids got yet another lesson in the subject of needs versus wants.  True camping is the essence of living simply, taking only what you need, and making use of everything you brought.  
And for what it’s worth, my kids had a great time with absolutely nothing.  Sitting back and watching a family worth of children, they fought with sticks, jumped over holes, invented games and a million other things, some of which I’m glad I don’t know about.  After a long morning of playing, we headed to the actual family reunion gathering, filled with table upon table of potluck goodies and a heap of silly games for all of the kids to play.  Balloons were popped and relays raced, but when there were a few prizes remaining, someone other than myself shouted out, “ok, last game.  Which kid has the dirtiest feet?”
The contestants instantly thrust their feet in the air and there, at the end of the line, were the two big winners… My daughters.
I couldn’t have been prouder if they just won a gold medal in the Olympics.
In a world of overprotecting our children, the primping of girls and getting sucked into the astonishing need for material things, there were my daughters, wearing a cloak of complete filth on their tootsies.
“What?” said my oldest.  “I didn’t think I needed to wash my feet.  I brushed my teeth and I thought that was good enough until I got home.”
Oh, that one.  She’s one smart (and grimy) cookie.

Back to school routine

Hooray!  Boo hoo!  Ugh!  Waa!  Cheers!  
The first day of school brings on many emotions for members of the family.  Kids may be apprehensive or nervous about a new school year, parents may have their heart strings pulled a bit as they watch their child embark on another older year of academics.  There are also the children who sprint away from their crazy mothers who have done nothing but yell at them for the past month, and the mothers who kick them onto the bus so that for once they can sit down and listen to the peace and quiet.
Thankfully I fall somewhere in the middle.  Having endured a long and fun-packed summer of sun, my family was more than ready for school to start.  By mid-August we all were vacation zombies, not able to function without running to the next bit of summer that we had to squeeze in before the first day of school.  No sleep, meals that consisted of cleaning out bags of potato chips and a scoop of peanut butter, and general brain mush had turned us into a moving glob of sunscreen and bug repellant.  We were all ready for this bit of normalcy and routine, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss our adventurous, care-free days of youthful bliss.
When my oldest daughter started kindergarten I was an emotional mess.  Through tears of joy and sadness, I decided to best fill my day with something productive and overdue – I cleaned out the car.  
I’d like to believe that saying about people with clean houses lead dull lives also applies to one’s vehicle, because if that’s true, I am one wild and exciting person.  Cleaning the car is no small feat, especially after a long summer of activity.  I remember that day so many years ago with disgusted vividness—pulling crusty french fries from beneath car seats, scrubbing mud from floor mats, and vacuuming the vacation sand from everywhere else.  It’s enough to make a person get a little angry, and maybe enough to make a person glad that summer is (sniff) over and that it’s about time those little dirty filthy kids of mine (sniff) got out of my car and messed up something else for a change.
But that is the bittersweetness of the first day of school, when suddenly they are messing up someone else’s stuff, and at the same time, that someone else is there to lead and guide them while you sit idly at home, with a bottle of Armor All, a rag, and a pocket of soggy tissues.  
Oh, and a clean car.
Ever since that day I have made it an annual routine, that on the first day that all of my children venture back into the hands of someone else, I use my first ounce of free time to de-summer and de-child the vehicle.  I clean the seats, the windows, the floors.  I haul out the trash and scrub dried up lemonade from the cup holders.  And when it’s all done I replenish supplies of hand sanitizer and granola bars for the extra curricular limousine that my car has instantly transformed into, now that school is back is session.
Just before I close the door, there’s something that catches my eye tucked up under the seat.  I reach and feel and tug, and it seems that the very act of pulling a stray kid meal toy out that has been somehow wedged beneath the driver’s seat is cleansing to more than my car, it also does wonders for my soul.  An act of finality of a summer well spent.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

20 miles and the tent giggles

We had been planning it for nearly four years, but because of babies and children, we were never able to sneak away for just two days until this summer.  There we were, two moms escaping the rigors of daily life in exchange for nearly 60 pounds of gear strapped to our backs and a daunting trail ahead of us. Boots snuggly tied on, we headed out for our first backpacking trip in what seemed like forever.
This sort of backpacking is like camping on steroids, and not to be confused with the lofty dreams of a graduate hoping to tour Europe via trains and hostels and find the meaning of life with a camera and some quick-drying clothes.  This is the sort of backpacking that takes you deep into the woods, miles away from other humans and cars and basic conveniences of life.  Minimalist doesn’t even begin to describe this sort of hobby.
But backpacking is something special.  It brings out the absolute rawness of a person, and I’m not talking about the rawness that is the giant pack rubbing on your shoulders or hips or your big toe. I’m talking about the rawness that is your true self, where you can hold nothing back and all truth and honesty comes pouring out with your gallons of sweat on a 90 degree day.  There is no room for modesty while you are on the trail.  You don’t politely excuse yourself if you need the restroom, you announce to all in your party to face the other way while you find an appropriate tree.  There’s no room for daintiness, either, as you guzzle your water and attempt to replace the calories you burn by hauling a tent 13 miles into the wilderness.  There’s no room for beauty contests, either, when your perfume of dirt, sweat, and bug spray heavily scents your snagged and crusty clothing.  
You ache, you moan.  You curse the weeds and the extra granola bars you brought which you are certain must weigh 20 pounds.  Insects constantly buzz your face and steep inclines and glances at how many miles you have left to go try their best to break your spirit.
But there’s something else on the trail with you—a friend.  A true friend.  For me, that’s the greatest thing about being backwoods with someone, far from the rest of humanity.  My friend and I spent a mere 24 hot and challenging hours in the hills of southern Ohio, wearing our motherly bodies out while we talked and shared and laughed mile after mile.  Connected in such a natural place, you become a stronger unit.  She stops when you need a break.  You take some weight when she’s feeling tired.  You share silence and strength at all the right times, until you finally make camp and collapse in the tent.
Physically and mentally weary, conversation was at a standstill as we drifted away between sentences.  At one point, I must have said something witty that didn’t register in my own foggy head, and my friend burst into a fantastic spell of contagious laughter.
“Someone’s got the tent giggles,” I snickered back, and though we were the only people for quite some way, our laughs rolled from that mountaintop as far as they could.  They rolled past the whippoorwill we heard calling at dusk, past the animals we sensed walking around at night, past the steep slopes and all the way up to the stars.
We hiked out the next morning, finishing our nearly 20 mile loop.  At some point an insect flew into my eye and set up camp and I spent the next day or so with a swollen irritated eye.  Our legs are covered with scratches and bites and poison ivy.  The physical demands were so much that I can barely walk up a flight of stairs without complaining, but if asked, I would do it all again…as soon as the muscles heal and as long as a friend is my number one packed item.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Stopping by a barn on a rainy afternoon

When you write a weekly column, people are always tossing ideas at you.  Mostly they come in the form of, “oh no, you’re not going to write about THAT in the paper, are you?”  But sometimes, it’s not people supplying material.  Sometimes it’s something greater.
It was a rather rainy weekday after a rather busy week.  Visiting my parents at a place we have been hundreds of times, we decided to do what most people never do—be a tourist in your own town.  We all fall victim to this commonality of never going to local attractions until someone from out of town visits, but once the clouds passed we piled in my jeep and hit the back, gravel roads in search of a couple of historical sights.
We drove to a covered bridge that was built just before 1900, for the cost of $150.  The economical engineers of yesteryear figured that if they put a cover over their wooden bridges, the life of the bridge would be much longer.  Covered areas also served as places for the wearing travelers and their horses to rest in a bit of shelter. Now the covered bridge makes an excellent spot for lunch because there’s a picnic table smack dab in the middle of it.  Cars no longer pass through, just tourists and hungry visitors.
This particular bridge was rebuilt in the last decade or so, for the tune of $186,000.   The wood and painting are all new, but there’s just something about stepping back in time. Around the outside of the bridge are lovely flowerbeds, meticulously maintained and mulched with loving hands. 
“I wonder who takes care of all of this?” my mother asked.
And then we went to the barn.
I’ll call her “Joanna” for the purposes of this story, but I’ll tell you that she’s one of the ladies who plants those flowers by the bridge.  The garden club does it, she told us, while we stood there and chatted.
The barn itself is a historical piece, rare not only for the area but for most of the world.  Joanna and her husband have taken it upon themselves to restore it and keep it tidy on the outside.  The inside, well, it’s a barn.  It’s just where stuff goes.  She let us in and walking over ladders and siding, we saw corn equipment that dates back over 100 years, a swing she is reupholstering for her daughter, and a loaded .22 rifle.
“’Possum was in here this morning.”
Joanna is in her 70’s although you wouldn’t know it as she gave us a tour of the barn that quickly transformed into a tour of her life, her yard, and her goldfish pond.  And somewhere along the way, she transformed from a tour guide to a wonderful person with stories of a rich life to share, and by the time we left I wish I could have spent the whole afternoon with her, drinking iced tea and sitting on her front porch, listening to all she had to say.  Some people just radiate kindness and quality.
Instead, when it was time to go, I gave a clear warning that I was coming in to give a hug to seemingly a stranger.
She hugged back.  Tightly, I might add.
I’m always telling my kids that the world is full of people who help make up who you are.  “Everyone has a story to tell, a lesson to teach,” I preach to them.  “Sometimes the person teaches you how to be, sometimes they teach you how not to be.  But you’ve got to pay attention to everyone who crosses your path because it happens for a reason.”
Most times they don’t really listen to me, but next time I give my little speech I’m pretty sure there will be an addendum about historical landmarks, ‘possums, and the value of stopping to say hello.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


For me, it’s a shot of myself around three years old.  I am standing on our back deck in the sunshine, and I’ve got a perfectly shaped black mustache, thanks to my short career of singing into the hose of the Shop Vac which was just used to clean out the fireplace.  
I’m pretty sure I’m wearing a green shirt, but like most pictures from the past, the colors that were never that great in the first place have faded away over time.  The telltale while border around the outside of the square photograph is starting to curl and yellow from age, and the actual quality of the photograph pales in comparison to what we can do today, even on our cell phones.
But there’s just something about those old pictures.
Today, whether or not you are tech savvy, actual cameras are practically a thing of the past.  Ask a kid what “film” is and they’ll give you the same blank stare they give when you ask them what it means to “rewind” something.  The mere idea of having to take 24 photos and then drive somewhere to turn them in for developing, only to wait a week to get them back, would about blow the mind of anyone born in the last 15 years.  The cameras of even recent times have been replaced by cell phones, a conveniently on-hand device that lets us take pictures just about anywhere, anytime, where they are easily uploaded to social web sites so that all of our friends can keep visual tabs on our lives.  
The ease of photography these days leads to an excessive amount of pictures, and I wouldn’t be surprised if only 5% of what is taken actually ends up printed on a piece of paper.  What was once a special moment that you hoped you captured is now a string of fourteen shots, because one of them is bound to be good.
So I have to wonder, have we lost the wonderment that is the photograph?
Maybe.  But I think it’s coming back.
Because of the ease of smart phone applications, people are now able to take their bazillion photographs and convert them into those old fashioned looking pictures.  You can make them black and white, sepia tone, washed out, and even fade those colors just like the mustache picture from youth.  You can add that classic white border to the square photo, or even one that looks like torn paper.  
And then you can share it for all of your friends to see.
Extremely simple, extremely clever, and as some might think, extremely comical to see people with their expensive smart phones purchasing apps to make their photos look old and worn out.
I think there’s a reason we’re all jumping on this insta-memory bandwagon.  I think we miss those special shots that we once waited weeks to see.  There was trust involved…Did you actually get that shot?  And of course, suspense…When, oh when will the photo booth open?!?  But mostly there was the limited number of memories you could grab with your camera.  You had to consider if something was good enough to spend the money on shooting and printing, and then you had to get it just right because that shot was you only chance.
And chances are you got it.  Sure, there are plenty of pictures that contain thumbs over the lens and closed eyes and blurred faces.  But there are some that freeze the ideal moment in time so much that I have to wonder was world was truly black and white when my grandparents were small?  And in the late 1970’s were the colors were a dim and muted? I’m not sure I want to know the answer, even if there was an app for that.

ps.  Mom, if you're out there, you know which picture I'm talking about.  I wish I could find it so I could post it!

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