Thanksgiving, bikes and dim sum and veggie turkey, 2017

Thanksgiving! Or, as I like to think of it, The Best Day to Bike in Philly! There is an early morning parade, finished way before noon depending where you stand to watch, and biking is the best way to get there for us. And the biking is fantastic. It’s usually a cold, sunny, dry day and there is almost no traffic. 

The kids have gotten better at biking and our destination is clear. Once we reach the Art Museum, which is the end of the parade route, we can bike towards the start of the route and stop anywhere we like. Too crowded? We move on. Marching band performance? We can stop and watch. 
We met Mr. Fantastic’s brother and family and went to Chinatown, the best place to hang out on holidays because everything is open for business. The 10 of us had an amazing dinner, then went our separate ways to cook and eat a second, more traditional dinner. Well, if you consider tofurkey traditional, since we are all mostly vegetarian. 

This year as we arrived at the parade The Wheelmen caught my eye. They are the local representatives of the national organization for antique bike enthusiasts. One of them (that guy on the far right above) made my day by allowing me to get up on the Ordinary, also known as the Penny Farthing, also known as That Old Bicycle With The Giant Front Wheel And Tiny Rear Wheel.  I was thrilled beyond belief! I was also creating a giant bruise on my inner thigh, which I would notice later, from the act of hoisting myself up on that strange vehicle. Worth it.

The cousins were happy, the Chinatown restaurant was superb, and the day was lovely.

We walked back past stunning City Hall, the tallest masonry building in the world yeah Philly!! There is a craft market this time of year and even a carousel. Here is a tile and a fish spout detail, the view of the tree from inside the plaza, and the central plaza.

 Then we went home and cooked and ate, just us fantastic six. Each of us cooked something!


Allegheny River, PA and Hocking Hills, OH, October 2017

My brother planned a 20-mile, two-day packraft extravaganza. Just the two of us! The weather was a question mark but as the date drew closer, things looked good. It turned out to be unseasonably warm and just as gorgeous as one might imagine in the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania in the autumn. We were paddling on the great Allegheny River.

Photo by Jonathan Tressler:

That’s me above! Yes it was that beautiful and that peaceful. We met in an area called President Village in Tionesta, PA where there is a semi-public boat launch. It is closed one day a month and there is a small fee, honor system style. It was an adorable, quiet group of houses next to the river. We would end here and start upstream near the town of Tidoute, PA.

Photo by Jonathan Tressler:

The packrafts are so easy to inflate and Jonathan had everything so well organized that it was easy getting started. We also could handle a lot of weight since we weren’t hiking. Our campsite and food therefore were kind of lush! But first we had to get there. 

Photo by Jonathan Tressler

The West Hickory launch is part of the National Forest. It has an adjacent parking lot and we were the only car. We inflated, lashed packs to rafts, and launched. The river flowed at about two to three miles an hour, and we paddled when we wanted to go a little faster. We quickly passed under this bridge and floated by Tidiuote. There are many narrow islands in the river, some privately owned but many, like parts of the river itself, are preserved for recreation in the Allegheny National Forest. The Forest, by the way,  is over half a million acres and makes up most of northwestern Pennsylvania. We paddled a bit less than halfway back to Tionesta and stayed overnight on one of the islands. Here’s the launch where we started and part of our camp:

The camp photo really doesn’t show how nice our site was. We chose a picturesque island without nearby houses, we had a gorgeous night sky with no light pollution, and it was quiet. No one else was on the island, nor did any other watercraft pass by. I imagine the area gets more crowded during summer months, but these were two weekdays in mid-October and we had the river almost entirely to ourselves. As for the camping, I slept in a camping hammock with a sleeping pad and pillow. Jonathan brought chairs, a table, even a radio! By the way, he had camped in the area before and he even knew a good radio station- 92 Gold- which played an unexpected mix of 70’s to 90’s pop music. We set up camp and he made an amazing jambalaya for dinner. I slept like a baby… in a cradle… held up by large trees sometimes swaying in the wind.

The next morning we were enshrouded in a gentle mist. I had seen the low-lying clouds early the day before while driving and now we were in one! After a few hours, we could see the blue sky above but the mist at our level was thick. We had a very lazy morning partly by choice and partly for safety, since boats would not see or hear us if we paddled in that fog. Breakfast was coffee and tea, leftover dinner, and stroopwaffles, yum! We filtered river water for drinking and packed up the gear. Other photos from that morning:

Photo by Jonathan Tressler

Photo by Jonathan Tressler

We paddled five or so hours that day back to the president village launch. A hurdle towards the end was bridge repair, which limited passage under the bride and brought debris we thought might puncture the rafts. We portaged around the bridge then got back to paddling. It was another stunning day and I enjoyed relaxing and watching the scenery pass by.

The evening was approaching as we reached the launch. We deflated the rafts and packed it all up to go back to my car, and then to lake county, Ohio about three hours away. 

Later that weekend, I visited friends in Columbus, Ohio. We decided to take a day trip to Hocking Hills in southeast Ohio. We walked part of the Buckeye trail there, which includes over 1,400 miles as it makes its way around the entire state. Hocking Hills is a forested portion of the trail and has impressive rock formations as well as gentle Appalachian beauty.

I was so happy to be with longtime friends and hiking on a gorgeous day!

Dedicated to Jody, gone too soon. You are a part of every trip and a part of my soul forever.

I’m not a food blogger, but…

Without much fanfare, I decided to quit white sugar about four months ago. I just got tired of eating it several times a day, supporting the unethical way it is made and the harmful effects on my own body. But it’s always been my favorite vice. And I do cheat on rare occasions, like when Fiercely made crème brûlée from scratch a few weeks ago. Anyway, I’ve been worried about the coming cold weather and hot chocolate. I’ve been experimenting with maple syrup and cocoa. It’s great! And I made whipped cream sweetened with maple syrup, too. Bliss on one of the first chilly days of autumn. Also, we have a good supply of honey since we have a bee hive at a friend’s property a few miles from here. I’m hoping that will help with my cold-weather baking jaunts. 

Ithaca, NY, October 2017

The autumn colors were sumptuous, the farms were lovely, and the cabin was as cozy as ever. It seemed like our first family trip in a long time, just the six of us. We planned to visit Iron Kettle Farm and get some pumpkins, and to hit the venerable Ithaca Book Sale while we were in town. But first was the roadside stand. They had these brain-looking squash and pumpkins galore.

We got way too much autumnal produce and while we were paying, the lady mentioned four-leaf clovers. Apparently this farm has an unusual amount of them! The kids were delighted to find a few.

Iron Kettle Farm was next. Since we already had pumpkins, we could focus on the entertainment there, like the pumpkin-headed displays of fairytales. Here are just two of the many that can be found: the first is the little mermaid, and then the crooked man with his crooked house:

We, like many families, come back when we can in the fall and the kids keep growing!

Here’s a re-do of an old photo:

And here’s the same bus and us in 2011- (photo of a photo; you can see my thumb!)

The twins made a fort, and also rescued a baby mouse who had been abandoned by its mother.

The sunset at the cabin was unusually beautiful!

Footnote: we said goodbye to Pippin the dog during this trip. We had a particularly difficult week with injuries to both parents (nothing too serious but we each had to go to the ER) and Pippin somehow had fleas despite expensive anti-flea medicine. We found a no-kill shelter and it was sad but also for the best.

Before the blog, there was the zine. 2004-2009.

I found the originals in the basement yesterday: issues # 1-11 of Madre Zenith, my mama zine! Documentation of those crazy years of leaving Philadelphia for Ithaca NY with two kids and no job, pregnancy #3 which turned out to be twins (detected in week 34!!!), nursing school, both myself and husband losing jobs, the move from Ithaca to rural Tioga county and from there back to Philadelphia. Here’s the cover from issue #1:

My favorite cartoon-the pregnancy stomach:

And we went to Disneyland?! Apparently we did! It’s all a blur!

My family in Pokemon:

Papa’s secrets for putting the twins to sleep and the start of article on the twins’ homebirth:

Good times. The kids are ROTFL over these. I’m exhausted just looking at our lives from those years!

They did grow up- just like everyone said they would. I avoided blogging but when I started, the benefits were clear. I do miss the zine, though! I actually have a partly-completed issue #12 but don’t know if I’ll ever complete it. What a great peek into our lives then. Enjoy!

On owning, and failures in owning, a dog.

It was the sixth or seventh visit to the SPCA last April when she entered our lives. We had been to that place of chain-link cages and sad-eyed occupants more times than my heart could bear. Not only that, there never seemed to be puppies. All were either older or behind a sign that read “adopted”. We were sure we wanted a puppy. We could get the maximum cuteness and influence that way, we thought. So we held out for a pup. The staff came to know us and alerted us to potential adoptees for our family. One day, we got a call about two available puppies and again made the traffic-infested, 45-minute drive to northeast Philadelphia.

There was a lab mix and a second dog there. A lean, white terrier-hound mix bounded over to the kids and gave what can only be called a hug. She wiggled all over and leaned her quivering flank against our charmed children one by one. Who wouldn’t love this sweet four-month-old puppy? She had a natural bindi on her forehead, tan against the white and perfectly centered between her tan, adorably floppy ears. She cocked her head in a terminally cute gesture and came home with us that same day. Pippin was the name we bestowed on the little bundle of fur, and thus she became part of our family.

I may have a husband, four kids, and a house I moved into almost 20 years ago, but I am not very domestic. I have come to terms over the years with the reality that my enthusiasms in life come more from travel and other extradomestic pursuits than from homemaking. I don’t point this out to lessen the importance of creating and maintaining a beautiful, comfortable house: sometimes I wish I had that ability. Life, though, has reinforced for me that my talents do not lie there.  Even as a mother, I do best with my kids outside the home. Hence, the many journeys I have documented here. But we had gone on an extraordinary 15-month world tour and the rest of the family wanted domesticity. They wanted a house, a kitchen, their own bedrooms. And they wanted that trope of family home and hearth: they wanted a dog. I had never had a dog in my life. I wanted the travel, and they had gone along with it. I reluctantly agreed to the dog.

She really was cute, especially at first. She pulled on the leash and pooped in the house, but she would learn better. She played in the park with other dogs, even happily running around off leash until she ran into the street and across two lanes of traffic. And even then we tried again, and she got into a nasty dog fight over a toy. And then another fight. At our rural property, there were no busy streets or dogs to fight with, but when we had our annual party there, Pippin had moments of aggression towards four of the other five dogs in attendance, and also towards a toddler. That was when we got serious about training her.

We signed up for an expensive private session and more affordable group lessons. Now Pippin can sit and stay, but persists in nipping at the kids’ friends when they visit, and at random strangers during walks. She is not consistent about coming when we call. She inserts herself, half growling, into any two people interacting in the house, often barks and growls at visitors, and, six months into her time with us, still surprises with urine and feces on the floor. I often consider how she would be the perfect dog- with a muzzle, a diaper, and a sedative. I am aware that this attitude is not conducive to improving this animal’s behavior. 

My contribution, initially a range of activities to exercise this energetic puppy in the hopes of encouraging good behavior, became narrowed after numerous bad experiences. What I felt best doing was riding my bike with her running next to me. She could get exercise this way in our urban environment without risking fights or escape, though dog biking does have its own challenges. There are cars with which to share the road, leash entanglements, and squirrels. But still, it works pretty well for a number of blocks, and then we reach the tennis courts, which are usually empty. There she can run or sniff around in safely fenced bliss. After a time, we bike home. 

What I am not so good at is dominance and consistency. We heard it over and over- we humans have to be the “top dog” in Pippin’s “pack”. Again I have been confronted by my weaknesses: I do not like imposing my will on anyone, and I am not particularly consistent. My temperament leans to the peaceful, lassaiz-faire and hobbit-like. I like books, good food, comfort and peace, and excitement when I choose to seek it. I like to live and let live. I did not like to expose my toddlers to society’s dangers and constraints (gender roles, motor vehicles, commercialism, school), but often had to, and had to shape their behavior to some extent. I wanted to let my babies explore a nontoxic and free world, but we are in the urban east coast in the 2000’s.  Similarly, the puppy is in a dense urban neighborhood full of people and other dogs, in addition to cars and squirrels, and she can’t act on many of her natural instincts to defend her territory, hunt prey, and so on. I don’t relish the needy presence of this whining animal clamouring for interaction after my hard day at work. I seldom have the energy to assert my dominance in many situations, certainly not between sleep and the day’s demands every morning and night with a young canine. Her age was likely misrepresented by the pound, by the way- vet students from the nearby university invariably told us she was at minimum six months old when we brought her home. We don’t know anything about her prior life.

Though I may not feel dominance, I do get angry at the dog, but that’s another no-no. It is not ok to hit the dog, according to most sources. Negative reinforcement of any kind is frowned upon by the trainers with whom we are working. We are supposed to “set the dog up for success”, which means lots of attention, exercise, consistency, and clear rules. In the case of this puppy and myself, my thoughts return to diapers and muzzles and sedatives. 

She has fleas this week, despite our monthly applications of expensive anti-flea products. Fiercely took the lead on researching and dealing with this situation. The kids have become more involved after a serious discussion on whether we are the best family for this dog. We have gone as far as locating a no-kill shelter in upstate NY as a potential plan. She may or may not be with us in the future. To be honest, both options are uncomfortable for me. Dealing with her day in and day out is stressful, but giving her away carries its own difficulties. I am not sure which way this sequence of events will go. 

I guess I am writing this to tell a story behind the cute photos we all see of ostensibly happy families. Anyone with children knows that the photographic moment is preceded by many moments which are far from photogenic. There are tantrums, potty training, filthy kitchens, marriage problems, mental and physical health issues, and more. Our situation with Pippin is another one of struggle and cuteness, and one from which it is easier to extricate ourselves from if necessary. I offer our evolving story to anyone pondering the world behind appearances, and to those questioning dog ownership. I know couples often get a puppy in preparation for childrearing, but my experience was the other way around and not very helpful: four children did not prepare me for this!

Burning Chicken, August 2017

Burning Chicken is an outdoor party we have hosted since 2006. It involves building and burning a large wooden structure in the shape of an animal. Last year we were on our big trip so we didn’t do it, but this year we were back. And it was a camel! The sequence below goes from finish to start:

We had some rain but nothing too bad. And we had a brilliant double rainbow for a little while.

Another great thing we did this year was build and use a mud oven! We bought kiln bricks and made a base, then made a curved frame from willow branches. We built it up with more bricks and clayey mud, the predominant soil there, mixed with some dry grass. The first attempt collapsed because the branch frame wasn’t strong enough. The second try succeeded!

Then we used it to bake. This was pizza the first night. 

The mud hadn’t dried completely and it didn’t seem to get hot enough. The second night, after the oven had dried an entire day and a fire burned inside for hours, a friend cooked a large piece of pork in the oven and it turned out very well! Here are some more oven photos:

You may have noticed our fancy canvas tent in some of the photos. Our family got even more invested in the Society for Creative Anachronism by attending another Pennsic event and buying a replica medieval tent (used, of course! We’re still on a pretty tight budget around here.). In fact, we were there at Pennsic for almost the whole two weeks this year, excluding this working mama who was only there a few days. Fiercely learned about the mud stoves there, and the kids did theater, various crafts, and became newspaper-shilling “urchins” during their time there. It really is an exceptional event with intriguing people. It is hard to describe, though I have heard it called a hybrid of a renaissance fair and Woodstock. I sometimes call it a family camp/medieval reenactment. I hope to go for longer next year. 

Other highlights of August were that Mr. Fantastic and kids went to Lake George, we watched the eclipse (about 80% of the sun was covered) in Philadelphia, and I went to Ohio as I wrote on a previous entry. And the seasons turn, August becomes September, and we are on the verge of autumn as I write. What will happen next?