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?

Columbus, Ohio August 2017

Columbus, Ohio is the state capital and home of Ohio State University.  I went to OSU and I have friends in Columbus. We used to go hiking and camping and canoeing and all when I lived there and it was so much fun. It had been too long, so we got together. We met a few minutes drive from downtown at the sweet home of S (photo above is her garden) near Highbanks metro park that runs next to the Olentangy river. I went running  in that park after my drive to Columbus and I saw deer, many birds, and the Olentangy, which is designated a State Scenic River. I was amazed by the metro park infrastructure, just as I am when I go to northeast Ohio where my parents live. Ohio really has a lot of natural beauty and preserved lands- they have even reintroduced bison at a Columbus area park! And everything is so close to the city. 
We went canoeing and kayaking on the Big Darby Creek. We used excellent kayaks from Olentangy Paddle, run by the wonderful Lisa, who is a part of the Columbus crowd I love. Thank you!! The Big Darby Creek has, I believe, 17 miles of protected riverway and I can tell you it was sublimely beautiful that day. 

The next day we went hiking at Shale Hollow Park. Beautiful! And there are concretions! These strange rock spheres were all over the place at Shale Hollow. 

There was a nice education center on the 200-ish acre preserve, and paths that took us through the small ravine with a lovely creek next to shale walls, and out into a meadow full of wildflowers.

It was a beautiful weekend full of memories and catching up and re-living our 20’s, which just don’t seem that long ago. I enjoyed getting to know rivers and fields and creeks and hills in Ohio with this amazing group of people back in the day and it was just as much fun exploring again. I don’t plan to wait so long until next time to return to Ohio and my friends!

 A couple more shots of S’s back yard. The path bricks are from historic Ohio brick kilns!

Ohio, July 2017

I estimate I have made this trip about 50 times, roughly thrice a year since Fiercely was born, give or take. That’s a lot of miles!! Each trip has memorable and forgettable parts of course. We took a different route this time, a welcome change from the way I usually get there. I’m still not happy about having to drive at all after literally going around the planet with almost no driving, but we always have a good time once we are there. This time, we saw some Amish areas, did some Jazzercise, went packrafting, and had a garage sale and a surprise party. 

As for getting there, we took the turnpike, NOT recommended since it costs close to $40 and drivers are subjected to overpriced gas and food in the service plazas the whole way across Pennsylvania. On the positive side, it did lead us to some nice country roads as we meandered north and east after entering the Buckeye State. One was Middlefield, 4th largest Amish settlement in the world, according to the sign we passed. Horses and buggies sharing the road, laundry on the line, houses without electric wires, more buggies in driveways, and miles of pasture and cultivated fields. We saw plenty of non-Amish Ohioans on riding mowers on this sunny July day as we ambled along. We saw a lot of gardens bursting with flowers and vegetables. July is such a beautiful time of year in rural Ohio. 

This buggy was parked behind me at a store!

One morning, we joined my about-to-turn 76 year old mom at Jazzercise. This was a stark contrast to a quiet, contemplative yoga class I had taken a day or two earlier. Thumping pop music, relentless Midwest cheerfulness, bright and optimistic faces from our leader and us, sweating in the little Knights of Columbus building on Mentor Avenue. Here we are, three generations in spandex and sneakers.

Then we were back at the suburban subdivision. The heyday of the neighborhood garage sale seems to have passed for Concord Township, at least in my parent’s area. There weren’t as many sales or customers as in previous years, according to my Dad. We did, however, get to haul out a lot of stuff to the driveway and wear gorilla suits with the neighbor kid. Dang-can’t find the photo! Maybe later…

The surprise party turned into a reverse surprise party! Family dynamics being what they are, it happened that the object of the party had to be informed to make the timing work out and to keep the main party planner happy. There were still many surprises such as a homemade tiramisu cake and some friends who stopped by. And we got this family photo-so rare for us all to be together- my parents, siblings, and kids. Yes, I have the only grandkids unless you count pets!

So many parks! Hoping to go kayaking and packrafting with my brother, we drove back to Middlefield area to Headwater Park where there are free kayaks but no swimming. We passed at least three other parks on our way to Headwater. On this sunny July Sunday it was packed with a long waiting list so we headed to Fairport Harbor where we could take turns on Jonathan’s two packrafts and also swim and play at the beach. Kayaks there were also unavailable with so many people enjoying the beach that day. We took turns and enjoyed Lake Erie, watching the other kayaks, a sailboat or two, and the lovely sky. 

Bike trip part 3

Technically the biking part was over, but we had more traveling to do since we had to cross NY state to get home. We Fantastic 6, our bikes, plus dog Pippin (with wildflowers above!) rumbled and rambled in our overflowing car across upstate NY to Ithaca for a few days. It was all back roads of fields and forests until we reached ‘gorges’ Ithaca. 

We found a roadside ice cream place, below:

And we hung out downtown: that’s a mural on a parking garage, and the kids at the awesome Ithaca library:

And we spent time at the cabin and our property there, too:

Eventually it was time to pack us all back into the car and head home until next time!

Bike trip June 2017, part 2


More narrow historic locks to the left, wider modern locks to the right

We had to see the famous “Flight of Five” locks for which this town is famous. We had learned a lot about locks and even stayed in a lock house on our last trip, and I find the system of transportation interesting. The Lockport locks were actually in use, the historic five alongside the newer locks, and we watched a tourist vessel go through the modern side. It was so cool to see the locks operate as we remembered walking in the dry lock spaces on the disused C&O canal. We also had seen historic, rather narrow locks operating in Carcassonne, France when we were there last year. Those seemed to be for tourists as well. We heard that Lockport does host some commercial boats, I think it was under 20 per year and I could not find details, but I’m impressed that locks have any modern commercial uses after becoming obsolete at least 70 years ago with the rise of railroads and highways. 

We biked into the city from the east along the Niagara river. The path was right next to the water for a while near the city borders. We could see Lake Erie. We were briefly on Unity Island, from which we could throw a stone into Canadian waters if we chose. We were near several bridges into Canada, and this old iron bridge (below) on the island. It was a nice place with fields and wildflowers, but unfortunately the path was closed so we had to go through a more trafficy urban area. The Buffalo neighborhood called Allentown had a colorful progressive vibe and was full of unique older houses with varied architectural styles. We stayed in a large apartment there for the night. We walked around and had a nice dinner at a Mexican bar/restaurant. Mr. Fantastic and the Fantastic dog set out on their own and found a dog park and an open mike comedy place which allowed Dogtastic to sit on Mr’s lap! 

Niagara Falls

We packed up the next day and headed to Niagara Falls. The cars were loaded with 12 bikes, 12 people, and a dog!

We stopped by the park next to the rapids upstream from the falls. Then we were there in the thick of it. I wasn’t excited to be heading to the tourist frenzy, but I was resigned to the plan. And I have to say, as uncomfortable as I am with large-scale, expensive tourist experiences, I concede that the Maid of the Mist was worth it. I have to report that it cost my family $95, or more than our daily budget in Thailand, for the 20-minute experience, but it was really neat. I’m particularly happy with my photos of the Falls from the boat.

And here are some from up top above the boat launch area:

After the boat ride, you can walk up these stairs (below) next to the Falls. I was mistaken in thinking 1.) we were walking back up all the way because 2.) we could and 3.) removing my raincoat because I was 4.)thinking it couldn’t be that wet. I got soaked and really couldn’t appreciate this view due to much spray and wet glasses! And then we took the elevator up.

The kids loved their raincoats and inflating them in the wind!