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.

November Recap Part 2: Happily Hiking and the Awesome Cranberry

Jump to How to Hike with Small Children

Jump to Making Trail Mix

Jump to Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce

As I mentioned in my prior post, this is to be the second part in summing up November.  And as I mentioned before, we spent most of November hiking the local nature trails.

I’ll begin by sharing some of our adventures on the trails.

Probably the scariest moment was when Sunfilly threw a tantrum for no apparent reason (as two-year-olds are wont to do), throwing herself into a pile of leaves along a creek bank.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small, dark brown banded snake slithering out of the leaves towardsher.  My split-second reasoning was this: “Garter snakes usually get startled and try to get away from screaming humans.  This snake has a diamond-shaped head, a trait shared only by poisonous snakes.  Poisonous snakes tend to be more aggressive than nonpoisonous snakes.  Even baby poisonous snakes are poisonous.  It’s probably not a garter snake and probably poisonous.  It’s not worth waiting to find out.”

Possibly a baby copperhead.

This is the snake that I killed and the stick I whacked it with. It's a crappy underbelly shot. This is a lousy picture because I took it using my pseudo-intellectual phone.

Okay, well, actually it was instinct, but that was what pretty my instinct was saying.

In that split second, I grabbed the large branch Starkitten had been using as a makeshift walking stick and whacked it on the head with all my strength.  Three times.  Then it was dead.

I took advantage of this tragic situation (I don’t like killing things that aren’t for food) to explain to the girls why I ask them to be careful when going through leaves, or why I instruct them to stay on the trail, or simply why they need to listen to me.  Starkitten is old enough to understand when I say that something can hurt her, but I think that when she observed the snake die, she understood what I meant when I explained that snake bites could make her die, too.

Since the snake’s head was crushed pretty badly, I couldn’t determine for sure what it was, but I suspected that maybe it was some kind of water moccasin, which I thought was pretty common in North America.  Then after talking to one of the volunteer park rangers I meet frequently during our hikes on the trail, I’m led to believe it may have been a baby copperhead, which was his suspicions based on my description of the markings and the aggressive behavior of the snake. He informed me that water moccasins don’t live this far north, which surprised me, considering how cold it does feel in humid Louisiana; and those nasty buggers made a terrible habit of getting into the house I grew up in and sleeping on the black curtain rods, blending in with the viny design of the metal.  I assumed they did something similar here–hiding in warm buildings to weather the cold.  But apparently it gets too cold for them in Ohio.  I was also surprised that copperheads do live here, as I always thought of them as preferring warmer climates.

Well that was a fun little herpetology lesson for me.

A group of slider turtles sunning themselves on dead trees in a creek.

And speaking of herpetology, we did spot quite a few red-eared slider turtles here.  They are fun to observe, especially when there are many of them piled onto each other on some log, sunning themselves.  The game the girls and I played was to see how long we could watch them quietly before startling them into swiftly diving into the water.  Hopefully such games will prepare them for the eventual camping and hiking trips my husband and I would love to take them on, where you would have to be extremely quiet to spot an animal, or to avoid something spotting you.

And one thing that I have really enjoyed about autumn in Ohio is the plentitude of migratory waterfowl.  I never really saw them so numerous in Texas, and rarely in Louisiana.  Here, they are everywhere.  And what is really amazing is that, in the late evening or early morning, if the kids are asleep or being quiet, you can hear the geese honking and ducks quacking overhead as they fly south–past my old home–for the winter.  The stillness of late November, after the first snow, really made experiencing this seem surreal.

As we passed someone's farm along the trail, we spotted a flock of ducks. Too bad it wasn't a public hunting grounds...

But when it was still warm enough to hike, and since it rained quite a bit here (making me think of that song by Guns n Roses),  we would happen by flocks of waterfowl anywhere there was water.  And “anywhere” included low-lying spots in some farmer’s land that had just accumulated water from all the rain.

Ducks and geese were a lot braver than the slider turtles and certainly braver than the wood ducks in Louisiana that I grew up seeing, but not as used to humans as the ducks we would see at the public parks in Dallas (where the birds were used to being fed by humans).  They would stare at us as we passed, swimming off nonchalantly if the girls got too loud, and only flying away if they thought we were running towards them (which at first the girls would do–“Look, Mommy, a duck!  Let’s catch the duck!”).

The "mystery bird." It blends in with the tree on which it is perched.

There were also some kind of crane or heron that we would observe on occasion.  It would sit up high in the trees, and then suddenly dive into the water, and emerge with a struggling carp in its beak.  It looked very majestic.

Even more amazing to observe was the rare sighting of a bald eagle swooping over a lake and catching a fish in its talons.  We saw it happen twice, and both times Starkitten couldn’t stop talking about it.

How to Hike with Small Children

The trick to hiking with small children is all about patience and preparation.

You have to realize that kids do not have the stamina that adults have, even if they seem to have a million times more energy, and toddlers will have meltdowns about things over which you have no control (Sunfilly once had a meltdown because a dragonfly landed on Starkitten and not her).  And if they are in a foul mood, it is probably best to not take them hiking, because the odds that they will not obey orders that would ensure their safety are pretty high.  And you have to keep in mind that they cannot regulate the body temperatures as efficiently as an adult, so overdressing or underdressing them can lead to an unhappy toddler or ultimately even a sick one.

I typically took them in the morning, right after a big breakfast, and dressed them in layers.  This way they were in a good mood and it would be easy to dress/undress them to make sure they were comfortable.  And this way, by the time we returned, they would be nice and sleepy and nap well.  I also made sure they had comfortable sneakers for hiking (there are hiking boots for kids at specialty stores, but since we don’t have that kind of money, I looked for sneakers that seemed to have a lot of cushioning in the soles and arch support).

Maybe it’s because I’m a little neurotic, but I tended to keep my backpack stocked with things like:

  • an extra change of clothes and socks for each girl
  • diapers and wipes (and diaper wipes are great for washing your hands in a pinch)
  • a first-aid kit containing Benadryl, children’s pain reliever, bandages, Kleenex, Neosporin, and pain reliever for me
  • pocket ponchos for each of us
  • several bottles of water
  • a Thermos full of coffee for me
  • kid-sized Thermoses filled with milk for each girl (they are amazing at keeping drinks cold, even in the triple-digit Texas heat, for several hours, and they have convenient tot-friendly straws which detach for easy cleaning)
  • trail mix
  • a lunch box with our picnic lunch
  • a few empty plastic shopping bags in which to put garbage

Of course, the backpack was certainly heavy, and reminded me of my ROTC years in college, but it was worth having these things handy when we needed it.  I usually would carry Sunfilly on my shoulders on the way home, so undoubtedly my back was sore, but I was amazed at how much weight I was losing from all the exercise.

As for lunch, I usually packed fruits like apples, oranges, and peaches.  For protein, I’d pack tuna or egg salad sandwiches, although occasionally it would be hard boiled eggs with crackers and cheddar cheese squares, at Starkitten’s request.  If I forgot to freeze my ice packs for the lunch box, I’d pack the non-perishable lunch kits, like the tuna kits or chicken salad kits that you can get at any grocery store.  These kinds of foods are low-mess and can be eaten while sitting on one of the park benches we’d find strewn along the trail, or even while sitting by a stream and watching the ducks.

For conservation reasons, I’ve educated my girls about the harms of littering.   That is why I’d make sure to pack extra garbage bags.  I’ve explained that dumping your trash on nature can hurt the wild animals and plants.  Of course, now Starkitten complains when she sees an empty beer bottle or some other refuse marring otherwise pristine woods.

After the snake incident, I make sure to keep a walking stick handy.  The walking stick I use is just a branch from a tree chopped down by our landlord.  It’s straight, solid oak and is handy for whacking whatever nasties may try to hurt my babies.

Starkitten flaunts a maple leaf she found, which is larger than her head, and her makeshift walking stick.

And I cannot stress the “patience” part of hiking with kids enough.  Some kids love being outdoors, some don’t.  Some kids are content to walk and explore nature, others want to get messy in it.  Fortunately for me, my girls love being outdoors and are learning to not just grab at things.

But I still have to keep them engaged.

So we play games, like who can find the biggest leaf? or how many colors of leaves or flowers can we spot? or how many turtles can we find?

I’ve also noticed how easy it is to educate kids during a nature walk: that fungi and insects and vultures help to clean up things that have died and return them to the earth to benefit other living things; that the gingko tree is a living fossil; that some animals hibernate and some migrate; that not all trees shed their leaves for winter; and even how to watch the clouds for rain.

Making Trail Mix

Trail mix is really great for staving off growling tummies, and is packed with carbs and protein.  Since it’s expensive, I tend to make my own, as the ingredients can be much more affordable if you buy them individually (and in bulk).

You can really mix together any combination of ingredients, but here is what I tend to use, as the kids seem to like it best:

Homemade trail mix.

  • peanuts
  • dried edamame
  • sesame sticks
  • raisins
  • dried cranberries
  • dates
  • sunflower kernels
On occasion, I may toss in some M&Ms, as it makes the kids happy.  I’ll also toss in dried blueberries or strawberries or fiigs if I find them on sale at the local natural foods store (yay for supporting small businesses and organic farmers!).  If I was mixing it for myself only, I’d add wasabi peas, which are just amazing, and toss it all in some cayenne powder.  I like my food spicy.

Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce
I’ll spare you the cliche “why we should give thanks” Thanksgiving speech that everybody and their mother has said something about and skip right to the food.  I tried a citrus brine for the turkey for the first time, and it was divine.  Another thing I tried for the first time, and my family and our guests loved it so much I’m finding myself making it at least twice a week is homemade cranberry sauce.
I honestly never thought it would be so easy to make, but it was.  And, frankly, I don’t think I can ever eat canned cranberry sauce again–and my husband made that declaration on Day 1.

This is where the cranberries started popping.

Ingredients
  • 4 cups (about 1 bag) of cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
Directions
  1. Pick through the cranberries for any that look overripe or moldy or just gross you out.  Rinse them and let them drain.
  2. Pour the sugar and water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Stir occasionally so that the sugar dissolves better.
  3. Let it boil for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add the cranberries.  Reduce heat to medium and boil for about 10 minutes, or when the cranberries start popping.
  5. Reduce to a simmer, add the spices, and stir.  Let it simmer for another 2 minutes.  Then remove from heat.
I’ve read that most people cool it and then refrigerate their cranberry sauce, but my family likes to eat it while it’s still warm.  With the spices, it gives all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings that are classic for this time of year.

Okay, so I'll get a little Thanksgiving-sentimental here. I'm thankful for evenings like the one pictured here, enjoying a perfect sunset to a perfect day lost in Mother Nature with my family.

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