Keeping Busy

Every time I sat down to blog during the month of April, something drew me away from my computer.

A strawberry and starfruit salad.

There was a solid week of both Starkitten and Sunfilly needing my attention with every waking moment, because they missed their father and their old home in Dallas.  I’d also had a few job interviews to survive, my best friend’s wedding to attend, and I picked up a temporary legal job called document review (which ended on Cinco de Mayo) in Dallas.  I had started running/walking a 5k with the kids and my brother during the times I was in East Texas.  I rejoiced in the rainstorms that quenched a Texas still recovering from a nightmarish drought, and I rejoiced even more when I learned that the 15 tornadoes that touched down in Dallas claimed not even a single human life.  I explored downtown Little Rock and became reacquainted with downtown Dallas.  I have been tending my little flowerpot garden.  I colored eggs with the kids for Easter and made fruit salads with strange new fruits like starfruits and pommelos and had a few heart attacks from Sunfilly’s daredevil stunts (and even an ER visit).  And I wrote 40,000 words in a fiction novel I started when I arrived here in a flurry of depression-turned-to art; I think it took about three weeks to churn out that much that quickly.

So, needless to say, April was a pretty busy month.

Divorce is a Lot Like Being in College  

Downtown Dallas seen from Reunion Tower

Downtown Dallas seen from Reunion Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I laughed when I realized this.

The day before I had to start on my document review project (a term which lawyers often shorten to “doc review”), I stopped at a Wal-Mart to pick up non-perishable lunch and snack items and cheap portable toiletries. So I filled up my shopping cart with Easy Mac, cups of ramen, trail mix, and other sure-to-give-you-cancer fare.  I was wearing a shirt I’d picked up at my 10-year high school reunion.  Both the cashier and the man behind me in the grocery line asked whether I was in college.

Since I no longer had my cute little condo in Dallas, I slept on a friend’s couch while I was working doc review.  I had no car, so I took the bus or hitched a ride with my friend, who worked a couple blocks away from where I did.  I worked 12- to 15-hour days.  My iPod became the key component to my sanity.  I kept a book in my purse… just in case I had 5 minutes to read.  Happy hour was a must, when I had time for it.  It really felt like I was back in college.  (In case you were wondering, my parents were watching the kids while I was in Dallas).

I realized that divorce is also a lot like being in college in that it’s a period in a person’s  life when she turns a new leaf or “finds herself.”  Divorce is muddling through the painful end of a relationship that went south for whatever reason.  It’s her swearing that she’ll never love again, but secretly hoping that she still has a shot at that “happily ever after.”

Tales from the Trail

Some friendly cows. The local rancher raises dairy and beef cows without hormones or antibiotics and will humanely butcher and sell the beef to interested buyers.

Since my parents’ home is out in the middle of nowhere, it’s easy to feel isolated.  But sometimes the solitude that comes with living in the country is the best medicine for a broken heart and/or broken spirits.  The little road here runs through an idyllic countryside.  It’s tree-lined and it has the perfect blend of cozy little houses and vast expanses of pasture.  It flows with the land, rising and falling, curving around hills, crossing creeks at their most melodic points.  About 1.75 miles down the road from the house you can find a trailer where an elderly Mexican woman sells some of the best tacos I’ve ever had.  So my brother, the kids, and I began walking/jogging down the country road.  We’d stop at the little store for tacos and gatorades and then head back.

Ripening fruit of a Dewberry (Rubus) plant.

Ripening fruit of a Dewberry (Rubus) plant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As usual, I tried to make it educational for the kids.  I taught them to recognize certain birds by their calls.  How to tell a young horse from an older one, or how to tell a milk cow from a beef cow.  We’d catch lizards along the road, learn their names, and set them free.  We’d see how many different wildflowers we could find, or forage for wild dewberries.  We’d count slider turtles sunning themselves on logs in the creeks.  We’d count cows, goats, and puppies.

We became acquainted with people whose homes are along the little road, people whom my parents never got to know in their eight years of living in this house.

The funny thing about this community in East Texas, I learned, is that it defies the stereotypes about this region.  The East Texas stereotype is that people are ignorant, hateful towards those of different faiths (even Catholics are persecuted), in favor of Jim Crow laws and segregation, xenophobic, and trigger-happy.  In some cases, that is true.  In this community, people are much more welcoming, open to new things, and embrace a live-and-let live ideology.  I learned that, although there are only a handful of black families here, the children were never labeled or singled out; in fact, two of them were valedictorians in their classes and one was a student body president (if you knew the kind of community I grew up in in Louisiana–where classes were still pretty much segregated at the turn of the millennium–you’d understand why this is really a big deal to me).  The gay and lesbian kids and the atheists are also not singled out or harassed, not really.  I learned that one transgendered boy (meaning s/he identified as a girl) was allowed to put her name on the ballot for homecoming queen–and nobody cared.

And this is the heart of East Texas.  So much for stereotypes!

My Best Friend’s Wedding

Flaunting our pedicures at the entry to Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro.

I actually have two really good friends who share the title of best friend.  We’ve known each other since our first year of college and eventually became roomates/suitemates.  We were the Trinity (I’m Jesus), the Three Musketeers (I’m Porthos), Kirk/Spock/McCoy (I’m Kirk), Harry/Ron/Hermione (I think I was Ron), and any other famous trio.  Well one of the trio, whom we’d endearingly refer to as “Sparky the Holy Spirit,” tied the knot last month in a beautiful wedding in Little Rock.  The reception was at a posh hotel.  The bachelorette “party” was really a mani/pedi spa day, followed by lunch at a restaurant in Downtown Little Rock called Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro (I had the black truffle ravioli and it was out of this world).  During that weekend I also learned that downtown Little Rock has a fabulous little farmer’s market on its riverfront and a “natural” playground for kids, since it is the “Natural State.”  The park is made up of local rocks, arranged so that there are walls to climb and tunnels to explore; it was a great way to wear out the kids.

Starkitten was the flower girl at the wedding, and she was certainly adorable in her little dress.  Despite being very shy, she walked down the aisle perfectly, only hiding her face once she was near the front and noticed all the cameras snapping.  Sunfilly, who wore an identical dress, decided that she was a princess and the church was her castle.  The comments she made regarding this were incredibly entertaining.

I also learned that toddlers can be masters at terrible timing.  At the reception, when the other part of the trinity, who served as the maid of honor, was about to give her speech, Starkitten told me she had to go potty… now.  So I was forced to miss the one speech I’d been waiting to hear, but I heard later that it was a moving speech, all the same.

A New Family Member

Two days ago, the neighbors discovered a litter of shepherd puppies in the creek that runs through their property.  This creek flows along the local highway before it turns into their property, and so, by the looks of things, it appears that someone dumped off the puppies at the side of the road (as what happens with tragic frequency in the country) and they got washed down the creek in the rain.  The puppies didn’t seem that harmed by the water, but when the neighbors found them, they were being eaten by coyotes, so the neighbors chased off the coyotes and rescued the puppies.

Yesterday, my parents went next door and adopted the little female, as female pups have a harder time finding a forever home and she was the spunkiest and had the brightest eyes.  My girls were very excited to have a new puppy in the house, but my chihuahua, Skeeter, and my parents’ Australian shepherd mix, Myrtle, were none too happy about it and proceeded to sulk for the rest of the day.  When we tried to name the little puppy, Starkitten vetoed every name we suggested, including:  Ingrid, Astrid, Priscilla, Anastasia, Eunice, Princess, Duchess, and Baby (we do have a fondness for old-fashioned names for our dogs).

The one name that Starkitten liked, and the puppy immediately responded to, was Drusilla (a name shared by both one of the wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella” and a psychotic vampire from “Buffy.”)

Drusilla, it turns out, has chosen Starkitten as her human.  She gets so excited whenever she sees Starkitten and follows her around the house everywhere.  And she was apparently very distraught that Starkitten did not accompany her to the first veterinarian visit.  The vet told my mother that Drusilla had worms, but otherwise a clean bill of health.  He estimated that she was about six weeks old.  We also discovered that Drusilla is, for the most part, housebroken–she cries when she wants to go outside, but when she is too busy playing, she won’t say anything.

I’ve been charged with Drusilla’s training, with help from my mother, who is used to shepherd mixes.  And Starkitten and Sunfilly are charged with running around outside with her.

I intend to post pictures of little Dru as soon as I get a camera working again (I was using my camera phone, but that cell phone has since died).  And then you can all bask in the adorableness that is Drusilla.

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Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

Plastic-eating fungi found in Amazon may solve landfill problems

Today a friend of mine shared an article from Digital Journal that I found exciting and fascinating.  It was too cool to not share with others:  http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/320986

For anyone with environmental concerns, there is now hope for our landfill and plastic waste problems:  a fungus known as Pestalotiopsis microspora.

One of Dryden, Ontario's Landfill's. This one ...

One of Dryden, Ontario's Landfill's. This one is located in Barclay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The article explains:

The group brought back a new fungus with a voracious appetite for polyurethane, which is a common plastic used for many modern purposes, including shoes, garden hoses and other non-degenerating items.

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is able to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and, which is even more surprising can do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. Perfect for conditions at the bottom of a landfill.

I’m curious to know whether it eats other things, as well, or if other things eat it, in case the Pestalotiopsis microspora population gets out of control.  We don’t want to turn from one environmental crisis to another.

Still, this is very exciting!

Spring is Summer and Tarantulas for Teaching

Springtime in Texas doesn’t really exist.  “Winter” doesn’t, really, either.  But there is a rather obvious span of chilly, wet months which people who live in Texas call “winter” because it happens during that time of the year so named by the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.  As I’ve mentioned before, the intermediary seasons of springtime and autumn don’t seem to exist in the South, and so the transition from “winter” to what is mildly named “summer” is rather abrupt.

List of U.S. state flowers

Bluebonnets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

March 20 for those of us living in the South, then, was really the “first day of summer.”

Texas Paintbrush

Texas Paintbrush (Photo credit: Knomad)

The chilly nights are now gone.  Days warm up to the mid-80s ˚F.  Garage sales and yard sales abound.  Children–including my own–play outside as much as possible: coloring with chalk on the sidewalk and driveway, blowing bubbles, tossing around a ball, digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, picking wildflowers, chasing butterflies.  I sit and enjoy watching their playtime, smelling the neighbors’ barbecuing, listening to distant tractors, or simply soaking up the warm sun.

Summer came in less than a week.  One day, the trees are all dead and bare, the grass still brownish and starved-looking.  Then after a week of rain, suddenly daffodils and dandelions and redbuds and my parents’ plum trees were all abloom.  They added some color to a gray world, much like a 1930s lithograph.  Then little green shoots began to dot most of the trees, and other flowers–wisterias and bluebonnets and Texas paintbrushes and dogwoods and primroses and oxalis and random yellow wildflower–made the landscape seem alive.  And, by the end of that week, the trees were all covered with leaves.

Early spring narcissus

Narcissus (Photo credit: mobilene)

On nice days, one of my brothers or my parents would walk down the quiet country road with the children and me.  We’d observe the world waking up from dormancy, counting cows and horses and goats.

During this time, my youngest brother returned from Texas Tech on spring break, bringing what I’ve dubbed the “Panhandle Plague” (a rather nasty cold) with him.  Combine this with a week of rainy weather (forcing everyone to stay inside) and you have a good petri dish for germs.  After he went back to school, we all came down with it, and most are still recovering.  But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the outdoors (and fortunately the kids bounced back the fastest, so it didn’t faze them much).

Mourning Doves will perch for safety but eat o...

Mourning Dove (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I just sit on the front porch and watch the cars race down the distant highway.  Life here in East Texas is slow, so it’s easy to just sit and soak up the world around me.  I’ve learned to recognize the calls of the local red-tailed hawk and know which trees it likes to roost in at night.  I’ve noticed that mourning doves really only coo early in the morning and in the evening.  I let the crickets and frogs serenade me (but I’m still unsettled by coyotes–probably because I’ve overheard them killing some hapless critter too many times in the past).  I can spot all the trees and shrubs in our area that were killed by last year’s vicious summer heat and drought (and that sometimes makes me wonder if climate change is pushing the Texas scrublands eastwards).

Oxalis triangularis

Oxalis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve taken to walking around the yard barefoot as much as possible.  It’s therapeutic, letting me feel like I’m reconnecting with the earth.  A neopagan mentor of mine once advised me that walking barefoot in the dirt is important spiritually (at the time, I was living in Dallas and finding myself getting sucked into the selfish materialism that plagues the “Beverly Hills of the South”).  I must admit I didn’t do that very much–not even in Ohio–until recently.

But lately, feeling the lush blades of grass between my toes is revitalizing.  Digging my toes into the clay soil is soothing.  I’ve learned that I can tell how warm it will be during the day by feeling the temperature of the morning dew under my feet.  Sometimes I feel like I’m getting back in tune with Mother Earth, and so when I’m at my lowest points emotionally, I try to go outside and dig my feet into the grass and just let the world surround me.  I suck at meditating, but I do have these moments where I just lose all thought and almost feel a part of the living things around me, instead of a separate body.

Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.

Tarantulas for Teaching

Texas Brown Tarantula

Texas Brown Tarantula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we have the stretches of rainy days, the girls get bored because they have to remain indoors.  So I wind up being creative in the things I do to keep them occupied.  One of the games we play is “name things that start with this letter.”  One day, we were playing with Letter T.  The kids quickly ran out of things that began with ‘T.’  So, I suggested “tarantula.”  Naturally, they asked me what a tarantula was.  I decided it was time to give the kids the foundations for learning to gather their own information.

First, I took them to my parents’ encyclopedia shelves.  There, we looked for the first ‘T’ volume and I opened it to the entry on tarantulas.  I showed them a picture of the big, hairy spider in the encyclopedia and read aloud some of the details about it.

Then I explained that you can also use the internet to find information.  I took them to Wikipedia and showed them that you can type in “tarantula” and find an entry.  We compared the physical encyclopedia to the electronic one and noted that the information was about the same (Wikipedia actually had more details).  I also showed them that one could do an internet search for tarantulas, or even just pictures of tarantulas.

Similarly, on a later day, Starkitten and I had a discussion about doctors issuing shots and how getting shots (or any other probing that doctors do) is not meant to harm the patient.

I explained, “The doctor gives you a shot, or puts the stick on your tongue, or shines the light in your eyes to make sure that you are healthy.”

“What is healthy?” Starkitten asked.

“Let’s go look it up.”

So I proceeded to take her (and Sunfilly followed) to the encyclopedia shelves again.  This time, we pulled out the dictionary, determined through phonics that “healthy” starts with the Letter H, and I helped them find the entry for “healthy” in the dictionary, which I read to them.

Then I showed them, once again, that they could also use the internet for more information.  I have a dictionary widget on my laptop (incredibly useful for anyone who loves to write) and showed the girls that I could type in “healthy” and get a definition, a list of words with similar meanings (and opposite meanings), and an explanation of how the word itself came to be.

Hopefully, this will plant the seeds for a thirst for knowledge.

Jobitis

I’m still suffering from, as my sister so wonderfully coined, “jobitis.”  It came about during a discussion in which I lamented that for all the interviews I’ve had in the last two years–and the exponentially greater number of resumes and applications I’d sent out–the way employers rejected me you’d think they believed they would contract the Black Death if they hired me.  People who have shared such an experience, whose unemployment makes them feel like a social leper, have jobitis.

But that hasn’t stopped me from applying for jobs.  My law degree pushes me into the legal job market, which is incredibly brutal.  Jobification as a lawyer typically requires a level of schmoozing and ass-kissing I’m incapable of doing.  This is especially true in East Texas, where, like North Louisiana (where I grew up), securing a job has very little to do with one’s actual ability to perform the tasks at hand and more to do with who your father is and what part of town you’re from… and sometimes which church you attend (if at all).  And so, while law school was relatively a piece of cake, I lack the charm and golf finesse and fancy wardrobe required to actually work for a law firm (and that’s kind of a tough case to pitch to one’s student loan servicers).

I’m not limiting my job search to East Texas, but since it’s the part of the state in which I currently reside, it’s where I’ve placed a good portion of my efforts.

My law degree has also made me “overqualified” for any other kind of work.  I faced this problem in Ohio and Dallas, as well.  Even the kind of work I once did (call center) is now unattainable simply because I’m too damn educated.  In all this time, I’d only had one interview scheduled, and it was a phone interview at that, and the company flaked on me.

I have seriously considered standing in front of the courthouse of any of the major Texas cities holding a sign that read, “Will draft pleadings for food.”  Or even just a busy high-rise, holding a sign that read, “Will oppress the masses for food.”  Or even just start rejecting the rejection letters potential employers send me (which others have done before).  And if my jobitis proves to be chronic, I may very well have to.

I could go off on a soapbox tangent here about how my law school still insists most of our class is now gainfully employed, making an average of $100,000 a year, when that is far from the truth (many are in my position or worse), so that they can dupe another couple hundred cash cows into a lifetime of debt (unless they came from a wealthy family–and even then it’s arguable at this point whether a job will be waiting for them when they graduate, and their parents’ money not simply wasted).  Or how unemployment numbers don’t count those who’ve graduated and haven’t found work, whose unemployment benefits have expired, who were denied benefits, or who simply just gave up looking.

I could also admit that sometimes I do get a little jealous when I look at my Facebook feed and it’s filled with people I care about getting awesome jobs, going on fantastic trips, finding their happily ever after, getting the house with the picket fence… and my life is falling apart.  It’s not to say that I’m not happy for them, because I am, but sometimes it makes me feel like a buzzkill when I need to talk about a problem because I don’t want to rain on a friend’s parade.  And sometimes I’ve wondered if there’s something wrong with me for failing at life.  I realize now that these are also normal human sentiments that we all feel at some point (hopefully not multiple points) in our lives, but when those moments hit me, it’s hard to not beat myself up.

So I make light of my situation by over-generalizing it:  “I’m an overweight 30-year-old who lives with my parents and plays World of Warcraft.”  Few outside observers would care for the details, as it’s all about the stereotypes.

Or I crack jobitis jokes to myself.

I am pleased to say that my husband has signed up for AA and has taken up cross-country running again (he was a star in college) to help keep his mind off the booze.  Hopefully, for his sake and the kids’ sake, he will follow through with it, as the girls need a sober father in their lives.  For the most part, he is cooperative with me.  We have had our bitter exchanges via email or over the phone, but I also understand that this is pretty much a normal cycle for divorcing couples.

He is also mailing me a box of things I’d forgotten or couldn’t fit in the car when I left, including the cord for my camera, so that I can upload photos again.

I find myself also borrowing the “Serenity Prayer” from my Christian friends to keep myself from panicking about all the troubles I must grapple with.  The prayer says:

God/dess, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I still have my existential moments, and even had my “Why does every man think I’m ugly and horrible?  I wanted to be treated like a queen!” moment.  Thanks to good friends and countless virtual monsters needing slaying and beautiful starry nights at which to gaze in silent awe, I’ve muddled through each of them, feeling a little stronger after each one.  And each time, I say that prayer to remind myself that there are some things I cannot change, and worrying over them will only do me more harm.

In the meantime, while waiting to jobify, I’ll sun myself like a turtle on a log while the kids play outside, before it gets too hot for that.  And I’ll masochistically level my noobish retribution paladin on a PvP realm.  And I’ll keep writing my fiction.

And try to appreciate all the things I’d hurried past before.  Maybe I’d missed something important along the way.

Dragon Hunting with a Side of Vegetarian Steakburgers

Jump to Portobello Burgers

Starkitten’s favorite game, since moving to Ohio, is dragon hunting.

When the weather is warm enough, we go outside with sticks in hand and bandanas on our head (Sunfilly calls them “pirate hats” and believes this is necessary attire for dragon hunting) and look for dragons.  We usually do a few ninja kicks and make some war cries, but sometimes we walk around wielding Lego-made lasers instead of walking sticks.  And sometimes we have shields made from toy box lids.

Starkitten usually tells us what dragons she sees or hears and whether they are good or bad.  For instance, Kitty Dragons are apparently very kind dragons.  Sun Dragons are good because they kill the Rain Dragons and Snow Dragons, which want to eat the house.  There are also Alien-Zombie Dragons, but Starkitten has apparently only seen them on moonless nights, and by the way she talks about them, I suspect they must be pretty scary.

Sometimes, if we are near a body of water, we also go hunting for murlocs.  This is especially true if we are fishing.  A murloc, in case you did not know, is essentially a fish-like humanoid from World of Warcraft, and not to be confused with H.G. WellsMorlocks (although in a critical analysis of each one’s mythos you could probably draw a few similarities, but that would be its own blog post).  Usually players in World of Warcraft kill murlocs to fulfill some kind of quest, and so they are seen as enemies.  Startkitten’s murlocs, however, are all good, and vary dramatically in colors, and so the hunting is more of an effort to catch one to play with.

I usually try to ask Starkitten to give detailed descriptions of the fantastic creatures she sees.  Was it large or small?  What color was it?  What color were its eyes?  Did it have any stripes, spots, or other markings?  Did it breathe fire or some other breath weapon?  Does it talk?  What does it like to eat?  And so on, fueling her active imagination.

While stargazing tonight, Starkitten told me she saw a Star Dragon in the sky.  It was so black that you could only see it for a brief moment against the velvet sky, and only then if you were using the telescope.  Its eyes looked like stars.  Apparently, this Star Dragon was a baby dragon.  And a baby murloc, also nighttime black and with starry eyes, was riding it.

Starkitten informed me that they were friendly and that she wanted to catch them to keep as pets.

“If you catch the baby dragon and the baby murloc,” I told her, “then they won’t be with their mommies.  They will be sad, and their mommies will be sad, too.”

Starkitten sat pensively for a moment, and then said, “Okay.  I want to play with them.  Then they can go to Dragon House and Murloc House and play with their mommies.”

“Let’s see if we can find some bad dragons to hunt instead,” I told her.  “Do you have your laser ready?”

“Yes.”  She showed me her Lego-made laser.

“See this telescope?  It’s also a special laser for shooting Alien-Zombie Dragons.”

By the time we came back inside, Starkitten was excitedly telling my husband how she and the baby Star Dragon and the baby murloc vanquished ten of those nasty Alien-Zombie Dragons.  I was, apparently, useless (as usual) when it came to dragon hunting.  I’d been eaten three times.

I love her imagination.


Portobello Burgers

The inside of the portobello gets a little hollow after it's been grilled, making it great for filling with something flavorful.

Speaking of fighting imaginary monsters and making imaginary friends, I recently experienced the wonders of a Vegetarian Steakburger.

One of my vegan friends once commented that portobello mushrooms are to vegans and vegetarians what steaks are to carnivores and omnivores.  So lately I’ve been eager to try some of this “vegetarian steak.”  I knew that people would grill portobello mushrooms for burgers, and so I decided to give that a try.  I made up the recipe below, influenced heavily by Louisiana cuisine.  The recipe calls for Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, which is a pretty ubiquitous spice blend in the Deep South.  You could probably find it easily in a grocery store or online, but if you cannot find it, you can mix something close to the same blend by following the instructions from his cookbook here.

Ingredients for the Filling

Grilling the filling in a frying pan.

  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips or small cubes
  • 1 cup of frozen sweet corn
  • 1 tablespoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (add more or less, to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Ingredients for the Portobellos

  • 4 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • water
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Grilling the portobello mushroom on a skillet.

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan.  Add all the onions and saute them until they are starting to get tender.  Then add the red bell pepper and continue to saute until all the vegetables are tender.
  2. Add the corn to the mixture.  Cook until everything is hot.
  3. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil on a skillet.  Add the portobello mushrooms and a few sprinkles of water.  Cover.  The steam should help soften the mushrooms.
  5. Flip the mushrooms over.  While the bottoms are grilling, sprinkle salt and pepper to taste on the tops.  When the mushrooms are tender, they are done.
  6. Remove from heat.  Place mushrooms on a plate, undersides facing up.
  7. Spoon some of the filling into the mushrooms, filling the caps.  Feel free to mound it up a little.  Serve on bread or a hamburger bun, with the same condiments you would use on a burger.  If you want to make homemade hamburger buns, you can try this recipe.

And now I understand why vegans consider portobello mushrooms “vegetarian steak.”  These burgers were absolutely amazing!  I fully intend to make this a regular menu item for our household now.

The finished product, served with cheese, tomatoes, avocados, and lettuce on sliced homemade bread, with a side of spiced pan-fried potato slices.

Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

Jump to Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Jump to Punjabi Sweet Rice

Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

Tales from a Winter Trail

Jump to Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

Quadrantids meteor shower may dazzle under moonless sky late tonight – Capital Weather Gang – The Washington Post

I plan to recap New Year’s festivities and get back into my regular blogging schedule tomorrow.  But I wanted to share this lesser-known but really awesome meteor shower with you.  If you’re in the Eastern Time Zone, the meteors will be at their peak between 3 am and 4 am.  Bundle up!–It’s going to be very cold.  But it will be worth it to take a gander:

Quadrantids meteor shower may dazzle under moonless sky late tonight – Capital Weather Gang – The Washington Post.

English: Quadrantid meteor is bright enough to...

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower - Image via Wikipedia (by Mila Zinkova)

I plan on taking Starkitten to see them, if she is cooperative.  The results of this experience will be part of tomorrow’s blog post.

Happy New Year!

And happy stargazing!

Holiday Traditions, Nerd Style

Jump to How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Since my husband only worked a half day on both the 22nd (Yule) and 23rd and was off through the 26th, it felt like he had a whole week off.  He commented that it reminded him of the Christmas breaks we’d have in college and that I had in law school.  So we enjoyed the time being kids with our kids, playing games, eating lots of sweets, and basically basking in all the snuggle time we could get before we hit the years where wanting to hug our kids (especially in public) becomes an attempt to ruin their lives.

Of course, there are always things families do as tradition over the holidays.  Some traditions are pretty, well, traditional.  Many families do it.  Like opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.  Some traditions are pretty unique.  Some traditions reflect a particular culture or background.

One really cool thing about traditions is that, when you’re older, keeping parts of the traditions can evoke pleasant childhood memories.

For my husband’s side of the family, Christmas is a pretty solemn event.  But they live in Kenya, where people have bigger things to worry about than who gets an Xbox or the latest Elmo doll.  Like pissed-off Somali terrorists, militant government censorship and government-sanctioned violence against women (and other human and civil rights violations), and whether they or their neighbors or the refugees their country takes in will have enough food and medical care to survive.  For some people in his village, Christmas is one of the few times they can eat meat.  But it’s also a happy time–of singing and celebrating and having a great feast.

kenya 170

A Kenyan city - Image by Mister_Jack via Flickr

So my husband brings to the Christmas traditions of our family singing and dancing with the kids.  He taught us some hymns in Swahili and his tribal language (Kalenjin), which were fun to sing and dance to.  One of his favorites is “Lulu,” which is the Swahili word for “heaven” and is basically about getting there (you can watch the video here) and “Tarajet,” which pretty much has the same message, but in my husband’s language (video here).  I guess we could add to our traditions giving a bit of gratitude for sites like YouTube that let us dredge up obscure Kenyan spirituals (that is, so long as such songs are legitimately available–but I’ll not get on a SOPA-box).

And eating until we feel like we might burst.

From my side of the family, there are certain experiences that take me back to happy times that I want to share with my kids.  Seeing a can of sardines in winter time reminds me of eating sardines on crackers with my father while watching the NFL playoffs.  The smell of anise seeds always takes me back to a late aunt’s kitchen and the amazing Mexican breads and cookies she’d make for Christmas.  And Christmas break meant family game night, especially once I was in my junior year of high school and drowning in a rigorous academic workload (and living on campus).  And family game night in my family meant one of three things: spades or pinochle, dominoes (if extended family was visiting), or Dungeons and Dragons (called “D&D” within the gamer community).

So we watched the New Orleans Saints go down in history again on Monday night while eating sardines with crackers and cheese.  We baked and devoured cookies all weekend (as I mentioned earlier).  And, now that the girls are near preschool age and Starkitten is learning to add, we wanted to introduce them to the world of D&D.

Okay, so the rest of this may sound a bit nerdy.  I will try to explain anything that sounds too technical or supply a link for more info.  Most of this will sound pretty basic to anyone who’s played D&D for a while.

The challenge with D&D is that, at minimum, it is very complicated and would pose a challenge for a small child to learn.  And then there are some PG-rated aspects of the game, depending on the kinds of adversaries the dungeon master, or DM for short, chooses for the player characters (the dungeon master is the person who runs the game, and could also be called a game master, or GM).  Most role-playing games, like D&D are pretty rule-intensive, and it can be very overwhelming for someone new to the game.  But once you play for a little bit, you find that most of the rules are pretty intuitive.

And any good player or DM knows that the rule books aren’t the end-all of the game.  This is extremely important when playing with first-timers and young kids.  And patience is equally important.

How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Some of our D&D dice

I’d been playing D&D since I was 5 or 6.  My dad, who is something of a nerd himself, felt that his kids would learn D&D, Monopoly (that was more of my mom’s thing), and Stratego while other kids were learning Go Fish, Old Maid, and Candyland.  When we were older, he added Risk and taught us Spades and Pinochle when other kids I knew were learning poker and blackjack (to this day I don’t know how to play poker–but I could hold my own in Magic: The Gathering).  But the version of D&D my father had was the old school first version, which was very simplistic compared to later versions of the game.

However, growing up with D&D at an early age meant I was the family DM by the age of 11.  And, being 8 and 10 years older than my two younger brothers, it gave me an idea of how to include little kids who wanted to play with everyone else.  As a teenager, I figured out how to include kids who couldn’t really read or write yet into the game, and still make it fun for everyone.

Here are a few considerations for playing D&D with young children:

  1. Let go of some of the rules, and fudge the game in the little kid’s favor a bit–not too much, as they need to understand you don’t have to win all the time, but enough to still let them feel like they are doing better than the grown-ups.
  2. Be patient.  Expect to explain things.  But give points of reference.  Start off with monsters and situations that the child can identify with–maybe borrow ideas from his/her favorite cartoons or books.
  3. Animate the story.  And I mean by using descriptive words, maybe gesturing (or even act it out a bit).  Some DMs do this and some don’t, but–explain what the characters see or experience like it’s a story.  Tell it like a storyteller, putting emotion into your words:  “As the party walked down the stone passageway, everything got darker and darker.  Even the torches didn’t seem to bring much light.  The dungeon was quiet.  Maybe too quiet.  They could hear the skittering of the mice darting away before them.  Their own footsteps echoed loudly down the hall.  As they kept walking, they began to pick up a faint acidic odor.  And, soon, the sound of something scraping against stone.”  Seriously, kids love storytellers.
  4. Encourage the child to feel like a part of the story.  Just as much as kids like a good story, they want to be in the spotlight of the story.  Ask him/her, “Is your character scared of the dark hall?  What does your character think is making the scratching noise down the hall?”

    A D&D game session in progress

    A D&D game session in progress - Image via Wikipedia

  5. Let them be silly, especially if it encourages creative thinking.  For instance, when my youngest brother was 4 and learning to play the game, he asked me if his character could vomit into a bucket and toss it on the monster he was fighting, arguing it was acid vomit.  (Yes, this is gross, but that’s little kid thinking for you.)  Sure, why not?  If he can roll a “vomit check” (I picked some arbitrary number based on his character’s wisdom–can he make himself vomit?) then I’d give it the qualities of an acid splash spell.  I don’t remember the outcome of the roll, but it was hilarious for everyone and he had a fantastic time.
  6. You may have to adjust information on the character sheet for him/her, but explain what you are doing and why.  And turn it into a learning experience.  D&D can be a fun way to teach math, strategy, and empathy (once they are ready to learn to role-play).  For instance, have the child count backwards with you as you deduct hit points.
  7. Make the adventures short, until the child demonstrates that he/she can sit for a longer game.  And make the goals of the adventure simple: rescue the princess, find the secret treasure, that kind of thing.  Adventures dealing with mysteries and riddles and more complicated story lines should wait until they are older and/or get the hang of it.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure I could think add more, but it’s meant to be a guide.  Also, every kid is different, and as a parent (or other relation) you’ll know best what would work with the child.  And the Number One thing to remember is:  It’s just a game, and the point of the game is to have fun!

That being said, I’ll share a little bit about the game we’re running with Starkitten and Sunfilly.

To begin with, we gave them a point of reference by letting them choose characters styled after their favorite fictional characters.  For Starkitten, that’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and for Sunfilly, it’s Mulan.  So Buffy (who specifically fought the undead and demons) became a human ranger with undead as her favored enemy.  Mulan (a woman warrior) became a human fighter.  See?  Easy enough.  My husband decided to be a cleric, and we let the kids choose his character:  Yoda.  And, since they don’t have… whatever the hell Yoda was in the D&D manual, for the sake of simplicity, we made Yoda be a gnome.  And even though I was the DM, I rolled a character, too, so that they’d get the idea of what you can do in D&D.  I wanted to be Hermione Granger, a human mage, but Starkitten gave an executive veto and insisted I instead be Tinker Bell.  “Tinker Bell” to my girls really means any of the Disney fairies (or any fairy, for that matter), so I went with Rosetta, because she’s spunky, as an elf sorcerer.  I assigned them standard equipment (I gave Buffy an axe and a crossbow, instead of a stake, because on the TV show, when she’s pissed off, she likes to carry huge scary weapons like axes and crossbows).

The  pop culture points of reference are helpful in teaching the kids to role-play.  They know how Buffy would react to a scary situation (fight first, ask questions later), versus how Mulan would (come up with a plan, don’t jump right into the fray).  They know Yoda will stick back (they have only seen the original Star Wars, when Yoda is more of a teacher with “magic” powers–the Force) and guide the fighters.  And they know that Rosetta is little and fragile, and so most likely to be squished, but she has useful magical talents.  So when it finally did become battle time, we would ask the girls, “What would Buffy do?” or “What would Mulan do?”  It’s the first step towards imaginative role-playing.

We rolled stats for a very simplistic home-made character sheet (which I have made available for you here if you wanted to look at it and/or use it).  Starkitten read the numbers off the die and we guided her in adding them up: “The first dice reads what number?  4.  And the second one reads…?  5.  And the third?  5.  Let’s count.  4 plus 5 is 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  9 plus 5 is 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.  So we have 14.”

For experience, to keep engaging the kids with math, we changed it to “kill counts.”  So they just count the number of monsters that the party kills (we decided to go with party kills as opposed to individual kills to encourage a teamwork mentality).  To reach level 2, the party needs to kill 50 monsters.  Tough monsters, arguably, could count as more than one kill, but I don’t think the kids are at that point of understanding.

In the back of my mind, I was keeping up with all the more complex rules, like their saving throws and that sort of thing.  This way, there is still some consistency to the game and it could still be enjoyable for my husband and me.

The fun part for the girls, especially Sunfilly, was the actual playing of the game.  We just made a very simple, “let’s run through the dungeon and find treasure” adventure, as the kids have seen my husband play games like Zelda and Gauntlet and have a good idea of what that means.  And, since Starkitten has a huge fascination with zombies, why not let the kids imagine themselves running through the dungeon killing some zombies.

So I made paper tokens for the characters and the monsters using a spreadsheet I created (I’m sharing the blank template with instructions in Excel 2008 format here, and a PDF sample orc template here and zombies/kobolds here).  For a dungeon map, we just used the cardboard map pieces to a dungeon set I’d had for almost 10 years (but you can make your own or find one online).

Close-up of the kobold tokens

Then it was time to tell a story and set the scene.  The girls enjoyed the story, but seemed the most engaged once we got to the part where the party was ambushed by zombies hungry for braaaaiiiiiiiiiins.  Starkitten knew just what to do:  “Buffy wants to squish the zombies with her sword.”  I explained that she had an axe and showed her a picture of an axe, and she then called it an axe.  We acted out how we were fighting the zombies.  Sunfilly really enjoyed rolling the dice, so much so that I’d let her roll for the zombies as well.

Sadly, the zombies had no treasure, but I explained that the characters got a little wiser from fighting the zombies.  They got experienced:  “How many zombies did we kill?  Let’s count the tokens on the side here.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  We killed 6 zombies.  Good job!  Let’s write it down as our experience.”

Then the party wandered into another part of the dungeon and found a different set of monsters (kobolds) which had a different reason to attack the party (we were stealing things from their dungeon) and a different way to fight.  This helped the kids to understand that “bad guys” may have different motivations to want to fight a protagonist in any story: the zombies were just hungry, and the kobolds were just defending their dungeon (but they really don’t like meeting new friends or sharing and want to kill you if you try to visit them, and that’s not very nice, either).  We really did have a brief discussion about this.

Two encounters were all the kids could sit through before getting restless, as toddlers tend to do, so we called it a night and went back to dancing ourselves silly to “Tarajet.”

It was, overall, a great bonding event.  Everyone had a good time, and I think the kids could see that it was something my husband and I enjoyed playing.  Even now Starkitten is counting down until the weekend when she can be Buffy and “Buffy squishes more zombies and finds the secret pirate treasure.”  Pirates?  I guess I need to make some pirate tokens.  Arrrr!

This is what one of our battles looked like. I could totally imagine Buffy and Mulan tearing through those orcs and kobolds like they were paper dolls.

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

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