Monday, July 18, 2016

How to Spot a Rooster...and What to Do With Him

It's that time of year again, lovely readers. The time of year when spring chicks start.....showing their true colors. This spring I purchased 10 beautiful pullets, or females, of various winter-hearty breeds and color variations. I knew I had a 10% chance of getting a rooster instead of a hen and I did not care. It wasn't gonna happen to me this year. I just knew it wouldn't.

You see, as some of you may remember, I had this problem last year. The beautiful white rock pullet I bought turned out to be a white rock rooster, complete with crowing and aggressive behavior. Poor Gandalf the White became a most magical stew.

So it couldn't happen to me this year, right? I mean, pssssh, I got that crazy risk of roo realized and over with last year. This year was going to be different.

 Meet Conan, my Easter Egger....rooster.

I had a sneaking suspicion about Conan from the very beginning. I mean, with a name like Conan, how can you fight the power of manliness. He was doomed from the start.

But then today, as I let my babies free range under the glorious July sun, I took a good look at Tater, my Buff Orpington.

 Hmm, I thought. Lookin a little masculine there, Tater. Sure enough, the longer I looked, the longer I realized.....I didn't just get one rooster this year. I got two roosters this year.

I had to formulate a plan....and if you raise chickens, you should have a plan, too. Because roosters happen. 

Let's start with making sure you have a rooster. One of the trickiest things about poultry is that as babies, they all look the same. Chicken sexers (real job, real job title) are incredibly rare and the job is difficult, hence the 10% failure rate in determining boy from girl. Chickens don't really start exhibiting gender-identifying traits until they start getting their feathers...and even then, it can be extremely hard to tell the difference.

Here's what I look for:

1. Size: This is the biggest hint in my experience (see what I did there...). All 3 roosters I've landed were big as chicks; they grew faster and were larger than the other babies born on/around the same day. This trick isn't as helpful when you have a mixed flock...Buff Orpingtons, for example, are almost always larger than Wyandottes. My Easter Egger chicks were huge compared to the Rocks and Wyandottes. That being said, one of my Easter Egger chicks (guess which one!) was larger than the other...and they hatched on the same day. Bigger doesn't always mean roo, but in my case, all of my roosters were larger chicks.

2. Strut: This is another one you just kinda notice. Absolutely nothing scientific about a strut, I get it, but it's a real thing, I swear. Gandalf, my white rock (pictured in crock pot, above, and below, as a chick), held himself above the other chicks from the moment I brought him home. His neck was always high, his chest out. He looked proud 24/7. Conan wasn't as "proud looking" but was noticeably statuesque compared to the other chicks. I mean, look at him (second picture below) at 8 weeks. Proud little struttin boys.

3. Feet: My roosters have enormous feet. In the next picture I circled Conan's foot and the foot of a hen standing directly behind him. Rooster feet are thick and huge and again, when you compare them to the feet of other birds born on/around the same day, they are typically larger.

4. Combs: This one is tricky. I have hens with huge combs. My roosters, however, develop their combs quicker. If you have a rose-comb breed, like Wyandottes or Easter Eggers, a rooster typically has a 3-row-rose comb (see giant, ironically-pink arrow in picture below). Single combs (one line right down the center) are harder to really peg as rooster or hen, but again, my roosters all developed their combs at a faster pace.

5. Saddle Feathers: That area of a chicken's back, right before the tail and a little behind the wings, is where a saddle would sit. Roosters develop saddle feathers that waterfall down and end in points instead of curves. Check it out -  see how Taters feathers are starting to fall down and away from his body? See how they are pointy? Hens have saddle feathers too but they don't do that cascade-thing and they are curved on the edges.

6. Tail feathers: This was the second clue Conan gave me...he developed these gorgeous green feathers that started to fall downward, pointing to the ground. A hen can have long tail feathers, too, but they typically do not arc away from her body all dramatic-like. Conan's tail feathers are huge and long and beautiful, while Triss, the Partridge Rock behind him, has tail feathers that end rather abruptly.

7. Crow: This is the only surefire, 100% accurate way to know you've got a roo. All the other tricks mentioned above are just that...tricks. Sometimes hens have feathers that look pointy. Sometimes roosters are smaller as babies. You will never truly know for sure what gender your bird is until you step back and look at the whole bird....if 4 out of 6 clues point to rooster, then you likely have a roo....but there's always a chance she ends up being a hen. Unless it crows. If it crows, you're done. Rootown.

Let's say you're an Overconfident Jen and you've got a rooster. What can you do with him?

Cook Him
This is my first choice. I love my birds, but it's my job as a responsible chicken owner to provide them with a good, happy, natural life in exchange for their eggs and eventual sacrifice. They work for me, not the other way around. Hens die and roosters happen and I refuse to let that life go to waste.

Gandalf was delicious. He was the first bird I processed myself and it was not pretty or easy. There are lots of YouTube videos and tutorials out there. They are helpful but I can almost guarantee the first time you do it, you'll take a minute to get it done. I've since found a couple places nearby that will process my birds for me, one at a time if needed, for about $5 a bird. I will gladly pay $5 to get the job done quickly and proficiently. If you don't process many birds, this might be a great option for you. Don't know where to start? Ask the farmers selling meat at you local farmer's market where they process their birds. I had two farmers help me find a local processor and one farmer even offered to take my birds along with hers during her monthly run. 

Now before you go throwing your fresh-plucked boy into the oven, understand you can't just cook a rooster like any other chicken. They are big and muscular birds and if you feed them well, they don't typically develop very much their meat is tough. Low and slow is the key to making the meat tender enough to eat. I let my rooster sit for at least 2 days in the fridge before tossing him in the crock pot. Roo meat is perfect for soup and sandwiches. Rest, low temp, slow cooking...these are the keys to a yummy rooster dinner.

Give Him Up
I am a member of about 10 Facebook groups, 2 of which are local chicken groups. People post roosters on the group feeds all the time and depending on your breed, this might be a really great option with a significant number of interested chicken breeders. Posting your "purebred" roosters is also a great way to keep our heritage breeds alive and well. Sometimes 4-H kids need roosters for shows or to start their own flock. Sometimes a farmer needs a rooster because hers kicked the bucket and she needs protection for her remaining flock members. If you aren't looking to butcher your bird, consider finding a local chicken group and offering him up to a good home.

As with any online transaction with strangers, do your homework and try to make sure you're not giving up a good, healthy animal to illegal, immoral, inhumane gambling operations. I would kill a rooster with my bare hands before I sent him into a fighting ring to die a slow and painful death in the name of money. 

Keep Him
Little secret....I am going to try and keep Conan. He is so gorgeous and I would love to breed him with my other Easter Egger and make more Easter Egger babies. His life is in his own hands, however, as I can't keep an aggressive boy around. I also need to figure out a solution for that pesky crowing neighbors are not fans of rooster crows at 4AM. Perhaps some blue eggs would soothe them, hmm? We shall see.

Roosters are fantastic protectors. They are great at telling the hens where to eat and when to hide. Roosters are also very beautiful and can be kind, welcome additions to a flock. They complete a natural hierarchy that operates the way it would in the jungles our lovely chickens originated from. 

But if you want to keep your rooster, be prepared for crowing 24/7, not just in the morning. Be prepared for a potentially aggressive animal that may attack kiddos and other animals. Be prepared for your hens to be mated with - roosters can be selective and hens do show physical signs of wear and tear. You can prevent babies by collecting eggs each day but if you free range, consider the sneaky, sneaky ways a hen can hide her eggs. Keeping a rooster isn't that difficult but it requires some additional planning to keep things running smoothly.

Finding out your rooster is a hen can make you feel like your egg dreams are dashed and your idealistic backyard flock of well-behaved, sweet girls is impossible....but roosters are not all horrible. Some can be very sweet, docile little gentleman who work hard to ensure your girls stay safe and happy. Other roosters....well. They can be damn delicious. 

Do you have chickens? What is your rooster plan? If you don't have birds....tell me....about how many eggs would it take to keep you quiet about a rooster next door? I'd love to hear what you think in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


Monday, July 11, 2016

Free Summertime Kid Activities for Moms Who Can't Even

I am a lucky woman. I have two healthy, smart little girls. They are beautiful and funny and they make my world go 'round. Don't know where I would be without them.....maybe a Greenpeace boat fighting whalers, maybe a tropical island establishing irrigation systems for villagers, or maybe on the Serengeti researching endangered species but the point is, I don't know where I would be without my two beautiful girls.

Seriously now, my kids capture and create much of the joy I am privileged to experience. They are my little lights........and they are also my little foghorns. They scream, and cry, and fight fairly consistently during summer break. Do you remember my typical morning sequence as described in my Winter Break post? Yes it's like that....only everyday, earlier, and for much, much longer. Queue Greenpeace-island-Africa daydreams.....

Now I know what you might be thinking. Jen, what is wrong with you. Get on board with the majority of working American parents and send your child to camp. And I have read about those beautiful summer camps and remember my time at camp and think to myself, yes, that would be amazing! They would love that! Then I see the prices and I die a little inside. Not happening. But neither is the work I need to do while my kids are playing "let's see who cries first" for the 100th time.

Hmmmm....where did I place that handy-dandy list of strategic, inexpensive summertime activities.....ah. Here it is.

Give your kiddo a spade, a packet of seeds, a cup, a designated area of the yard or even a pot, and let her go to town. Let her tear out the grass, shovel up dirt, play with spiders, and use the hose. Let her stick worms and leaves and seeds in her mouth. If you're worried about her getting poisoned, take a few minutes to teach her about her backyard flora and fauna. Kids (literally) eat that stuff up and will mimic your attitude. If you're scared of spiders, she will be terrified of them, too. Teach her to grab nature with her bare hands and use her senses to identify safe from dangerous, seedling from weed, food from foe....and watch her love for her garden blossom.

Public Services
Making use of your local parks and recreation centers is a summertime "given"....but I had to mention them anyways because you know what we didn't have when I was little? Splash pads. We had water parks that seemingly cost a billion dollars to go to and were always crowded with camp kids in matching colored t-shirts that clogged the slides and pools like giant rolls of screaming, sunburned toilet paper. We had the beach with its burning hot sand, swarms of poop-filled "swim diapers," and brown lake water that always, always had a hundred warm spots. We had the hose and the sprinkler. But we did not have these incredible, roomy, miracle-like splash pads, complete with towering water daises and interactive misters and sparkling, shooting streams of cool, fresh water. If you can find a free splash pad in or around your town (my town has two), take your children there. Bring a book. Splash pads aren't so large that you've gotta pay a ton of attention but they aren't so small that kids hurt each other trying to sit on the jets. Splash pads, oh how I love you.

Life Skills
So my ten year old, when provided with some simple instructions one or two times, can cook her own dinner. Her new thing lately is scrambled eggs. She wants to cook them all the time. She cracks them, seasons them, cooks them over our gas stove, and even adds chopped spinach. Yep. Knives and fire - and not a single cut, not a single burn, not a single piece of eggshell. I only had to show her once and act as reassurance when she cooked them alone for the first time. Kids love to learn new things....everyone enjoys feeling pride and empowerment. Take some risks and go outside your parental comfort zone to teach your kiddo some life skills. I can't even explain how incredible it is to take a night off from cooking because my kid volunteered to cook - the only thing that's better is the moment I actually get to sit down and enjoy the healthy, delicious dinner she produced.

Tell Their Story
My kids love, love, love to hear their birth stories. I use my suspense voice and hushed tones to describe the days leading up to their birthday and all of the craziness and uniqueness about the nights they took their first breath. My youngest loves to hear about how stormy it was the night she was born; my oldest loves the part of her story when mama's friend made her laugh while she was eating a hoagie. I describe the doctors and the nurses and who was there for each birth and how mama felt before, during, and after. They sit silently, if you can believe it, while I describe how they looked, the noises they made, the first time they opened their eyes. The best part about this activity? It can be as long or as short as you like, as detailed or as general, wherever and whenever you want. Plus I don't know a mom on this planet who doesn't like talking about her birth experience, amirite?

Kid Art
Kids can make art out of maxi pads and tampons, people. We've all seen it. How about we arm them with materials that maybe cost a little less and are a little less....absorbent? It is berry season and whether you grow your own or buy from a store, there's always a handful of berries that go bad before you can eat them. Turn them into art! Let your kids smoosh them on paper plates and squeeze all that bright, beautiful color into a masterpiece. Have some twigs and sticks covering your yard from the most recent summer storm? Task your children with picking the sticks up and allow the kids to build little homes or "fire pits" with their finds. Show them how to pick colorful flower petals, muddle them (smash them) in a little bit of water, and then give them a brush and let them decorate the side of your house with nature's watercolors. Mud, rainwater, grass name it, art can be made.

Freedom to Mess
It's ok for your kids to look like ragamuffins in the summer. I mean it. Knots in their hair, shoes missing laces, mud stains on their clothes, skinned knees, sunburns, mosquito bite rashes....if your kid looks like a woodland hobo at any point this summer, it means she has lived. It means she was allowed to play in the mosquito-larvae-filled mud puddle and sit in her clothes on the wet ground and jump off tree limbs and fall into holes because the uncut grass was too long for her to see and ride around in the truck with both windows down and stay up late eating garbage and watching fireflies wake up instead of taking a bath. It means she is experiencing life in it's purest, rawest form. Look at her face - does she even care that her hair is covered in leaves and she has a random welt over her left eye? No. No she does not. That right there is all any mama can ask for. Let her be free and messy!

Talk Time
I try and sit down with my kids to eat dinner every night. Sometimes it doesn't work out and I need to work late or their dad comes to grab them, but most of the time we share that one important meal together. That being said, it's not like in all the magazines where they tell you about the importance and meaning behind time at the dinner table.....we will talk about our days, sure, but eventually the conversation degrades into a chorus of loud, unintelligible noises. Someone yells at the dog who is chasing the cat and the cat who is eating the food the 4 year old dropped and the 4 year old who is crying because the cat ate her food and the 10-year-old who is saying she is full after one bite of vegetables even though the whole world knows she can put down an entire pizza in under 10 minutes and the mom who wants to be engaged in her kids but is secretly walking through her to-do-list in her head and wondering how long she needs to survive until she can lay in the bathtub with a beer. It's times like these I like to say screw magazines, live real life. Do what works for your family. If dinnertime is too chaotic to connect, take 15 minutes at the end of every night to give your kid undivided attention. She gets 15 minutes to talk your ear off, fill you in, ask any questions, and connect with you one-on-one. It doesn't take long and it does wonders to not only satisfy the needs of your kiddos but also quell that mommy guilt we so often feel when we can't do it all.

Leave Them Be
I saved my favorite free summertime activity for last. Let. Your. Kids. Be. Do not give them activities, or tasks, or playdates....give them nothing. Make them be responsible for finding their own entertainment. I promise I am not crazy - this can, and does, work. Think back to when you were a kid. Did your mom sit down with you each night and play game after game and read book after book and spend every free moment she had taking you places and making sure you had fun things to do? My mama sure didn't. She busted her ass every day to make sure my sister and I had food to eat, a healthy and happy home to live in, clothes on our backs, and presents under the tree at Christmastime. She made everything magical, but not by spending countless hours entertaining me and keeping me occupied. I was told to go outside. I was told to go to my room. I was told to go do something about 50 times a day. So I went outside. I went to my room. And I found something to do. It is not your job as a parent to entertain your children. It is your job to raise them into decent, productive, good human beings. Let them find their own fun. If you leave them alone long enough, they will. You may not like what they end up finding to do, but this is where compromise and boundaries all come full circle - maybe it's ok that they're climbing all over each other, as long as they're outside. Maybe it's ok to have a puzzle piece war, as long as they understand the puzzle may never look the same again. Maybe it's not that big a deal to pull all the pots and pans out, provided everything is cleaned up afterwards. Be flexible and open minded. Even a kid who knows her limits may still try and test them...but a kid who is never allowed to explore the boundaries of her world will never learn what she's fully capable of, either. Let her make mistakes. Let her be unhappy. Let her be responsible for herself. It is so, so hard for me to do this because I am ridiculously impatient.....but I've found when I leave my kids alone, they come up with their own creative ways to play, learn, and experience their world.

Kids are wonderful and terrible and beauty and horror all wrapped into one delicious and stressful bundle of love you would unquestionably die to protect. Summertime isn't always breezy and warm with when the going gets tough, whip up a couple creative, cheap boredom-busting activities and let the sunshine in.

What are your favorite summertime activities? Any foolproof anti-boredom methods you've learned and implemented already this summer? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!


Monday, June 27, 2016

Building Confidence as an Anxious Single Mama

Do you remember your first date? I remember my first date.

I was an awkward and lanky 13-year-old girl at a church BBQ when I first saw him. He was tall, with dark hair and a beautiful smile. I remember telling my girlfriend I "liked" him (what does that even mean to a 13 year old Jen?) and wouldn't you know it, her mother was good friends with his. Before I even realized what was happening I had plans to go bowling with this 16-year-old boy, his friend, and my girlfriend. A group thing, you know, because....well.....I was 13. And church, people.

He and his friend picked us up from my house. My mom supervised the hand-off. I think I said hello? I might not have said hello. I couldn't for the life of me look at him. I sat in the backseat of that car, silent and sweating, my heart pounding, while my girlfriend and his friend chatted it up. By the time we got to the bowling alley I was in full-blown panic mode, my mind racing between the drive-in scene in Grease and those horrible 1960's sex ed videos they'd started showing us in health class. What am I doing here? What should I say? What does he want to hear? How am I supposed to act? Do I need more lip gloss? Do boys even like lip gloss? Teen Magazine, oh how you've failed me!!

After an hour of me staring at the ground, lips sealed shut, he and his friend gave up and took me home. I practically jumped out of the moving vehicle when it turned down my street and I, of course, never heard from him again.

Dating, I realized right then and there, absolutely sucks.

Flash forward to present day and I can't say I'm any better than my 13 year old self. Here I am, fresh out of a ten year marriage with someone I thought I was going to die next to like in The Notebook (yep, welcome to Jen world), and I am scared shitless. The pain hangs on me like dead weight. It gets me stuck in insecurity, doubt, and shame. It's like quicksand. I am afraid to shake and fight it because all that moving might make me die faster, right? But if I just stand still, I will sink.

The answer, dear readers? The answer is to find the confidence to fight. And risk. And continue pulling upwards and out of that mess of a person who was left behind when her marriage went to shit. We don't need to feel helpless. We don't need to feel like we're not in control. We don't need to stand there and let the sadness and unfairness and disappointment overtake our happiness. Imagine how different my first date would've been had I flashed a smile, been proud of who I was, and stopped questioning myself. The best things that've ever happened in my life happened because I was brave enough to ask for them, pursue them, and grab them.

So let's build some confidence, shall we?

Positive People
The last thing a broken person needs is someone telling her she's broken. People who criticize, complain, can't be satisfied, and otherwise make you feel like garbage have no place in your journey right now. Consciously consider who you surround yourself with and choose to weed out those who cause you pain or anxiety. This is the time to rally your support people. Do yourself a favor and lean on your friends. The good ones will understand and be overjoyed to help.

Be Alone
I talked about some great, frugal ways to be alone a few weeks ago. One of the key components to gaining confidence is knowing you will be ok all by yourself. You will not go crazy. You will not be seen as someone to be pitied. You will be ok....happy, even. This was an especially hard lesson for me to learn (and one I am actually still learning) as I love being with those I love. I love to talk and be with others - I've always felt I was made to be a partner. If that's how you feel, too...kick rocks. Seriously, cram that crap with walnuts, it's time to be your own partner. Figure out how to get stuff down from the top shelf. Learn basic home repairs. Redo your bedding so there's one giant, fluffy pillow right in the middle of your more sides....just you. Wonderful you.

Music Magic
My best dear girlfriend just told me the other day that music is the only thing in the world that lights up the entire brain while listening to it. Can you believe that? It's the only thing that lights up our whole brain at once. Use it. You know all those songs dudes sing about hot girls and summer girls and the loves of their life? Pretend they are singing about you. Dance and sway and sing and feel sexy and desired and love on yourself like you are the only woman in the world that he could possibly be singing about. Then listen and sing along to some Kacey Musgraves and Sia because both those women are power in a bottle.

Mirror, Mirror, on Your Wall
I'm the opposite of a "high-maintenance" woman so hear me when I say you could never wear an ounce of makeup again and you would still be just as beautiful as any woman in Hollywood. That said, even I have to admit I feel different when I leave the house in sweatpants versus cute jeans. When I'm leaving the house and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, there's a certain attitude I get when my reflection smiles all pretty back at me. I'm not saying you need to get all dolled up in the traditional sense with makeup and fancy clothes (although you can if you want to!), but try not to let your feelings of rejection cause you to give up on the things that make you feel beautiful. If you feel beautiful in long dresses and bracelets, wear them even though you're feeling gross. If you feel beautiful in flip flops with crazy hair, wear flip flops with crazy hair every chance you get. Don't let those things go just because someone made you feel worthless. If looking pretty makes you happy, look pretty, embrace it, don't stop, because you are more precious than gold.

Flirt, Flirt, Flirt
So you know the creeper guys who pull up in their cars and you get this weird feeling they're staring at you and trying to mack all up on your stuff? No? Try looking around next time. They are out there....remember me talking about them in my Worst Driving Offenses post? When you're recovering from a bad breakup you need to use these guys. I'm serious. Look their way and smile and blow them kisses. See a hott construction worker? Wave at him. Standing next to a good looking man at the grocery store? Smile at him and say hello. Take every opportunity to flirt your sweet little ass off because the reactions you'll get are priceless and definitely worth the risk of interacting with strangers.

Be Selfish
You likely just spent weeks, months, years putting another person's needs above your own. Now is the time to break free from that for a little while. I have kiddos and they need me, yes....but they need me happy and healthy. If I can find a way to care for them while caring for myself, I'm going to take it. Try doing what you want on the weekend instead of what your friends and family want. Pamper yourself with baths every day and don't feel guilty that you're soaking in a bathtub while your kids watch a movie because you know what....nobody cares. The kids will not remember it....but they will remember your mood, your reactions, and how you treat them. So treat yourself and try not to provide excuses for it. Allow yourself to be happy, explanation-free.

Fake it Till You Make it
There's something to be said about mantras, or the act of repeating something to yourself over and over again until it becomes concrete. New routines become habit, habits become your way of life...and the same can be said for self-perception. Hate a particular part of your body? Stand in front of the mirror and look at it every single day and name at least 3 positive things about your least-favorite feature. My breasts fed my babies. My breasts don't have cancer. My breasts are soft. Over and over and over again until you start to realize that the positives are the truths......and everything else is just noise and conditioned responses. Recondition your brain. I am a good mom. I am enough. I am worth it. Fake it, say it, portray it, until it becomes reality.

The Critical Challenge
This little trick actually came to me via my ex-husband! He suggested it to me after a particularly rough conversation about our future as friends and co-parents. The challenge is to not say anything critical about yourself for one entire week. No negative comments about yourself, no excessive apologizing, no talking down about your behavior or your actions. If you can, stop apologizing all together. This is a super tough one for me. I feel sorry all the time, either by way of empathy or remorse. The first time I did this challenge I failed miserably. I'm hopeful about my second attempt. Think before you speak and don't automatically assume you are to blame and deserve criticism. Chances are you're not and your mouth just needs to catch up to this new way of life.

Got Kids?
Use your children like the rails of a pool table. Before you say something, or react to something, mentally bounce the thought off your children - If my baby were thinking this right now, how would I feel? If my daughter were doubting herself, what would I say? If my son were to react this way, what would the outcome be? I try and use my kids as a baseline for my self-image all the time. I would never want my daughter calling herself fat, so I am careful to not say the same about myself. I would be furious if my babies bent over backwards for someone who didn't appreciate it, so I try and be sure I don't portray the same weakness. Children bring wonderful perspective to life. Use it! They think you are the most beautiful creature in the world, mama. Act like it.

Don't Keep Your Head
If you're anything like me, being single after ending a bad marriage creates this catacomb of caution. Don't let yourself get hurt again. Don't let someone break you again. Don't allow yourself to be that dependent again. Don't lose yourself in love. Keep your head on your shoulders. Take things slow and carefully. Don't make another mistake. Don't, don't, don't......don't what? Allow yourself to feel vulnerable? Allow yourself to take risks? Allow yourself to fall in love? Allow yourself to live? If it makes you happy, if it makes you smile, if it makes you feel good and it doesn't harm your body or those around you really need to keep your head about it? Or can you just let go and free fall for a little bit? Chase dreams? Live in the clouds? Think about and work toward the reality you want to have instead of the one you currently have? If the idea you covet doesn't interfere with your responsibilities, I see nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with allowing yourself to be terribly, deliciously, irrationally impulsive and indulgent. You are raising kids husband-free, woman. You've earned some time to dance around, play, and lose your head. Go nuts!

There's no easy way to get back to the person you were before. You'll likely never meet her again, to be honest. But do you really want to? Chances are you've grown and are forming new leaves and petals on those pretty flowers of yours. Don't look back and wish for what you once were. Look ahead and see, with renewed, joyful eyes, who you will someday be. Hold tight to her and think about her everyday. Practice, pretend, play, and promote yourself and your confidence each morning. Kiss yourself goodnight every night. And don't worry, mama. You are the most mesmerizing, breathtaking woman in the just need to start believing it.

I'd love to hear from you dear, readers. How do you keep your confidence up when recovering from hardship? Tell me about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading :)


Monday, June 20, 2016

AC-Free Ways to Keep Your Family and Animals Cool This Summer

I am a winter baby, dear readers. Pale and pasty by nature. I turn red in the sun, that's it. No loving mocha shade of brown here. Real red - red - peel - white. That's my summer skin cycle. I'm already feeling the sting of my third sunburn this year. And today is only the first day of summer.

Now I know what you're thinking. Buck up and deal Jen, it's sunny and beautiful outside. Stop whining!

And you may be on to something there. But first, allow me to remind you that I am a transparent, sweaty beast with a head full of hair that goes ZING in the heat. I, like my incredibly hairy dog, fully-feathered 10-week-old-chickens, and similarly sweaty-beast children, need ways to chill after being in hell the summer of satan outside.

Thankfully I have the internet....a beautiful tool that connects me to people who've been there, done that, long before I was doing anything at all. Here are my favorite, creative cool-down methods, brought to you by the beautiful bloggers and homesteaders around us.

Cooling the House
The Attic Fan - Stick a fan in the attic opening of your house with the "blow" side facing into the attic. Close all your windows and draw the shades in sunny rooms. Make sure the door to the basement is open and then turn the fan on - it will suck cool air from the basement into the attic, leaving a trail of cool in its wake. Instant breeze!

Plant Vines - Morning glory, ivy, and other fast-growing vines are easy to plant and spread rapidly. Grow them a few feet off the exterior wall on the sunny side of your house to cool it down by up to twenty degrees!

Cook Outside - Heating up your house with the oven is counterproductive when temperatures rise. Grill outside and if you're really craving meatloaf, consider building your own outdoor oven.

Implement Passive Cooling Strategies - Things like paint, roof overhangs, and ventilation are easy, affordable ways to cool your home without utilizing any crazy resources. The dude in the video I linked to obviously has the perfect example with his earthbag home, but some of these strategies can be applied to your standard suburban home, too....specifically the section where he talks about plants.

Cooling Your Body
Homemade Popsicles - My mouth is the quickest thing to fire off when I'm heated. Why not cool things down with a super-simple, budget-conscious popsicle? Cold foods are enjoyable, refreshing, and quite literally decrease your body temperature as you eat them.

Homemade Fudgsicles - And when popsicles don't work, try the sweet, soothing elixir that is cocoa all up in my mouf. These lovely little additions to my summertime snacking only have five ingredients.

Pools, Pools, Everywhere - You don't need to run to WalMart and spend $500 to create your own backyard swim zone. Check out these creative (and often hilarious) ways to build a pool without the crazy costs.

Get Up and Out - Early mornings are always cooler than blazing hot summer afternoons. If you have chores and outdoor activities you've gotta get done, do them bright and early before that sun gets too high.

Build a Portable Swamp Cooler - If you just can't beat the heat but aren't ready to fire up the air conditioner, try building one of these puppies. They're intended for smaller spaces but run off so little electricity/battery power, you could easily make one for each person in your family. Neato!

Clothes Matter! - Cotton, cotton, cotton. Wear breathable, loose fabrics. I personally love Pact, an organic cotton company that doesn't use any child labor or sweatshops and is Fair Trade Certified.

Drink - Now everyone knows alcohol dehydrates you.....but a single glass of homemade blackberry mead isn't gonna kill anyone.....might even help distract you from the heat. Ok maybe I just really wanted to link to homemade mead. You can always follow it up with a glass of water right? Eh? Ehh?

Cooling Your Animals
Freeze it for Chickens - Stick mint and strawberry tops into muffin tins, fill each muffin cup with water, and then freeze. Pop those suckers out and your little chickie babies will be happy (and cool!) as can be.

Freeze it for Pups - Mix a little bit of fruit, yogurt, broth, and scrap meat together and pour into popsicle molds. Stick dehydrated chicken feet into the top for the "stick" and freeze. Wah-lah! A delightful way to help your dog beat the heat this summer.

Freeze Water Bottles - Fill up water bottles (or any old container with a lid) with water and freeze them. When the temps climb take your frozen bottles into the coop to help your girls stay cool.

Baby Pools Are Cool - Drag out that cheapo $10 plastic pool and fill 'er up. Chances are someone, be it a feathered friend or a furry one, will be grateful for the effort and gladly jump in.

I'm relieved to know I'm not the only one who struggles with the heat. A long, long time ago, creativity around the household was vital, especially when it came to withstanding the elements. I am so grateful I can read about the many interesting and eco-friendly ways people beat the heat....hoping to employ a number of these tips and tricks this year to see which ones work best. Maybe I'll learn to love summer, after all! :)

Now I will stop whining, mkay? At least until next week ;)

What about you, dear readers? How do you beat the heat and keep your flocks and families cool? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!


Monday, June 13, 2016

Biscuit Pot Pie: A From-Scratch, Kid-Friendly Recipe

"Mama, I don't like this. I think I'll go to bed instead."

My four-year-old announces this to the dinner table at least three nights a week. I'll call her over to eat and she'll come running into the room, clambers up into her chair, her eyes always huge with anticipation...and then the minute a pepper, or tomato, or potato hits her little lips, she willingly puts herself to bed. 

"No, I don't think I like this, Mama. I'm going to bed."

In our house the choices are: 
1. Eat
2. Go lie down until dinner is over

So you see I can't really get upset when she obeys by quietly getting down from her chair and padding her little bare feet down the hall to her bedroom. I don't get mad when I hear her quietly playing in her bed, either. But dear gosh, does it ever break my heart and annoy me to no end when she wakes up in the morning crying because her stomach hurts. That's not the way it's supposed to be, right? I'm supposed to make sure these kids eat, aren't I? I cooked for her though, secret Judgmental Jen who loves to judge herself! I cooked for her! I swear it!

Now I've developed a number of tricks to try and get my kids to eat healthy over the years. So far the most foolproof method is pretty simple: cook food they like. My youngest loves breads and cheese, just like her mama. My oldest prefers stuff with lots of flavor and predictable texture (no mushy noodles or soggy cereal for her). 

This recipe, this beautiful, golden, shining recipe of dinnertime peace and hope, fulfills both wish lists....and it is easy, affordable, healthy, and honestly delicious. Ready to read all about it? Of course you are. But first....

Disclaimer One: I try and use organic, source-conscious ingredients in all of my cooking and those types of ingredients are listed here....but at one point in my life I found such specificity obnoxious as hell and I wouldn't blame you for printing this off and crossing all the "organics" out. Plain ol' flour is just as fine and delicious as organic unbleached flour, especially when compared to the dough in a can.

Disclaimer Two: There are two parts to this dish - the biscuits and the filling. I make them both at the same time like a boss and I am not even graceful so don't be afraid. You can do this.

Ready? Let's go.

1. Start by getting all your ingredients out and prepped.

Ingredients for the Biscuits:
  • 2 cups organic unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon organic cane sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons cold grass-fed butter or lard leftover from cooking your forest-foraged pork on your cast iron skillet (ok now I'm just being a brat)
  • 1 cup buttermilk***
***Side note about buttermilk - I never remember to buy the stuff in the store or I do and then it goes bad because I forgot I bought it. Instead I make my own buttermilk by combining a couple tablespoons of vinegar with some of my favorite fresh whole milk. Let it sit and stir it every now and then and it'll thicken up all buttermilk-like. For this recipe you just add the 2 tablespoons of vinegar to your measuring cup then fill it up to the 1 cup line with your milk. Easy-peasy. 

Ingredients for the Filling:
  • 1 pound of your favorite ground meat - I typically use ground turkey or pork - thawed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter or anything greasy, really, to cook your meat
  • 1 10-oz bag of frozen organic veggies (yep, you read that right - frozen veggies are cheap, even the organic ones, and will save you prep time on this dish)
  • 1/4 of an onion - purple, white, yellow, doesn't matter at all - diced
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic all mashed up 
  • 1/3 cup of organic unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups of chicken broth (learn how to make your own - it's so cheap!)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • Seasoned salt and pepper to taste
The great thing about this filling is you can change the non-base ingredients (meat and veggies) to match what you have. If you score a ton of peas and carrots at the farmers market, for example, but didn't have enough cash for onions, you can leave the onions out completely and just add peas and carrots. If your garden is hoppin' with corn and tomatoes, add them to the filling. Vegetarians can leave the meat out completely. The filling will still taste fantastic. On lazy nights I use meat and the frozen veggies that's it. Still good. 

2. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. If you're making buttermilk out of milk and vinegar get that started now, too. 

3. Heat your oil over medium heat in an oven safe pan - cast iron is honestly perfect for this but stainless steel works well, too. 

4. Add your meat, onions, and garlic to the pan. Some people say you need to sweat out your onions and garlic first (let them saute until brown) but I don't wanna and you don't have to, either.

5. While the meat is cooking stir the dry biscuit ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, baking soda, and salt) together in a medium-sized bowl.

6. Take your cold butter or lard and cut it into the dry ingredients. To "cut" means to mix it up without making it so hot it want it you don't want to use your hands. I invested in a pastry cutter but a fork with nice big tines works too....*giggity.*  The dough should get crumbly - big chunks of butter is fine and fantastic and perfect so don't stress. Give your meat a quick flip and stir. 

7. Add your buttermilk and stir with a folk just until the ingredients are incorporated. Take your hands and knead the dough a couple times so it comes together.

8. Now this is the part where you'd typically roll this dough ball out and cut little circles out of it and have it be real pretty. That is not what we're doing here, but you're welcome to if you prefer a cleaner biscuit. Me? I prefer a biscuit in my belly. My belly does not give a crap. Set the bowl aside.

9. Flip your meat around and make sure it's nice and cooked. Add the 1/3 cup flour to the pan. Nope, don't drain your meat, that is blasphemy. Your meat/flour mixture will get real thick and you'll be afraid you're going to burn it. You will not, promise. Let the meat absorb the flour. Takes a minute or so.

10. Add your chicken broth and milk. Stir it all up and turn the heat up to medium-high. 

11. Add the frozen veggies and your seasoned salt and pepper. Mix it all up.

12. Now this is the best part. Let the mixture get real hot and bubbly. Keep stirring, don't let it sit. You're waiting for that flour to kick in and make the liquid go from watery to thick and tasty. If it's taking too long, realize you are the master of your kitchen and you can crank the heat up as high as you want to speed things up. Just be careful to keep stirring and scraping along the bottom and sides of the pan so nothing burns. When you can pull your spatula across the mixture and see the bottom of the pan, it's ready.

13. Slide the pan over, off the heat. Now grab that biscuit dough lump (or pretty little circles) and start plopping them on top. You can be as messy or as clean as you'd like.

14. Take the entire pan and put it into the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes - you want the biscuits to get a nice golden brown on top. You might get impatient and take the pan out when they're only a little brown on top and that's ok. It will smell real good so I don't blame you. 

15. Let it sit for a minute as it will be super bubbly and hot....or, be like Jen and burn yourself a little trying to shovel it out onto plates as fast as you possibly can so you can finally eat it. 

Wa-lah :) A healthy, easy, from-scratch dinner that Mamas and Kiddos and Doggies love. Enjoy!

What is your favorite homemade recipe? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Chipmunks in the Garden: Wildlife Warfare

Birds and sunshine and thunderstorms, oh my! Early summer has arrived, dear readers. My newly-expanded cinder block garden is finally starting to see some action and I am overjoyed to say most of my transplants are kinda sorta growing. 

Now typically this would be my favorite part of the gardening season - it's direct sow time! I love direct sow seeds. Just pop 'em in the ground and bam, you are golden. Well. Kinda. Last year I may have direct sown some sweet corn with popcorn and ruined my harvest by cross breeding the crud out of them BUT we don't need to talk about that! It's a new year :)

And that means, of course, new garden issues. My backyard chipmunk population has exploded. I don't know what these little guys were doing all winter but I swear I cannot step outside without seeing at least five of them at any given time. Their chirps wake me up in the morning. Their scratching in my garage scares the crap out of me when I let the puppy out at night. And during the day? During the day they wage war against my garden.

That's right. The chipmunks are tearing my garden, and consequently my heart, apart.

I had visions of planting enough sweet corn this year to last me the winter. I planned it all out, ordered the very best seeds, and made sure to design the beds so they wouldn't cross-pollinate like they did last year. I went outside a few weeks ago and gently planted well over 100 corn kernels into my raised beds. They sprouted and I rejoiced.

And then. *sniffle* And then.....this. 

One bed, the popcorn, was destroyed. The sweet corn was intact...but my precious multi-colored popcorn was gone. 

I scoured the internet. Squirrels! it said. Squirrels! Or birds! Just cover your seeds!

I went out and spend $150 on hardware cloth and chicken wire. I couldn't bear to start with the expensive stuff first, so I replanted the popcorn and installed a chicken-wire cover with a bamboo rod to keep it from sagging under the weight of a bird or squirrel. Because that's definitely what it was that was eating my corn, right? A bird or squirrel! Yes, yes, that's what the internet told me. A bird or squirrel. I deny being in denial.

There, I remember thinking. I checked the sweet corn beds....they were untouched so I left them alone. Again, my wishful thinking blinded me to the obvious. Maybe they don't like sweet corn, I thought. No Jen. No. You and I both know that is a load of rainbows you're telling yourself so you don't need to face the reality of your situation.

Sure enough, the next morning my sweet corn was gone. Both sweet corn beds, destroyed. I sniffled and checked the popcorn bed. Still good. Whew, those covers must work! I thought. So I replanted and installed covers over the sweet corn beds, too. That awtta fix 'em

By the afternoon the popcorn bed was dug up again. They'd managed to get under my screen, obviously with the use of devil magic. I wasn't ready to accept what was happening so I replanted and weighted down the screen, then left to get groceries. By the time I came home all three beds were dug up in their entirety. 

I'm not going to lie to you here, this is a safe place. I cried. I cried my sweet little eyes out. 

Then I went back online. I found a recipe for homemade chipmunk repellent made from hot peppers, garlic, and water/oil/soap. I mixed up two batches. I replanted all three beds and sprayed the crap out of them. I even sprayed the outside of the beds. When my sprayers got clogged I ripped the lids off and shook the bottles all around like I was shaking gasoline on a cheating lover's nicest dress shirts. I danced with that pepper spray. Then I put my covers back on.....not like I needed 'em, I was sure of it!...and went to bed.

The next morning everything was gone. Again. I felt my heartbeat in my temples, people. 

There comes a time when every gardener, especially one with a short growing season, must admit defeat. After planting over 300 seeds, spending hours concocting ways to secure my beds, and burning the crap outta my hands, eyes, and ego with hot pepper spray, this was absolutely one of those times. My local farmers will be supplying my sweet corn this season.

But I still want to use these beds, you see. And I have other things I need to plant, like my beans and squash. Chipmunks, however, like all seeds. All of them. If my screen weights don't work I am down to two final options....1) trap those buggers or 2) provide them with a food source away from my garden. I don't like either option, to be honest. I'm kinda hoping my chickie babies grow up fast so they can act as my infantry and just go to town on the entire thieving lot. 

And yes, of course there's a little part of me that truly believes they won't like beans..... :)

What would you do, dear readers? Ever had chipmunks in the garden? What did you do to control them? I'd love to hear about your garden pest experiences in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Monday, May 23, 2016

10 Fantastic (and Frugal) Things to Do Alone

I had my very first night alone on Friday. Oh yes. And I don't mean I had a night without the kids, no. I had plenty of those when I was married. What I mean is, I had a night alone. No kids, no man, nobody. That's right. It was just me.

I didn't know what to do with myself at first. I made dinner plans with friends ahead of time, so that was good. Kept me busy Friday night. Saturday morning rolled around though and I thought I would sleep in a little but the new puppy had other ideas. So there I my house....alone.

I went about my business, you know, the standard. Did some yoga. Ate some leftovers while watching House Hunters Renovation on Netflix. Fed the chickens. Fed the puppy. I tried to soak up my alone time. I felt so lucky and free. But then 8AM came and I started to panic. Only a few hours left. Am I using my time wisely? What should I do? What do people do?

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Chick, you are free. Just go do something. Be happy. And I am with you! I was so happy! I'd been waiting for this moment for months! But where does one begin? How does someone who's constantly surrounded by people learn to feel comfortable alone? And if you're like me, how does someone who struggles with anxiety deal with running around public places all by her big-girl self without her cloak of kids? How do I dodge the infamous "Netflix series all day!" black hole that definitely has its place but won't help me grow like I wanna while I have this precious free time?

I'll tell you how I did it. And how I'll do it again. And how you can do it too.

1. Walk
Outside is your best friend. I mean it. You are never alone when you are outside because the outdoors will surround you and swallow you whole. I don't care if you live in the city and are surrounded by steel and people or if you're in the country and are engulfed by fields and flies, the minute you leave the house something visceral just happens to your mind and your body. You notice insects, birds, cars, noises, smells, and even the air as it moves around you. You are not alone when you are outside. You are part of it all.

Saturday morning I packed up the doggy and headed on over to my very favorite nature preserve. We walked the trails all by ourselves. It was glorious. I walked whatever way I wanted. No one needed to use the bathroom or complained about the weather or the bugs. I even stood in one spot and just listened without hearing a single voice. It's good for the soul, walking. Give it a try.

2. Sit still
Sometimes sitting and doing absolutely nothing is the best use of time. I took time on Saturday morning to just sit in my backyard and listen to the birds. I tried to relax and lean my head back and not let my mind wander. I watched the leaves and flowers blow around, I watched my chickens peck at the ground, I watched the light shift slowly from one area of the yard to the next. It was supremely relaxing and gave me time to just wipe my mind clean of the various things I stress over. Kinda like meditating without closing my eyes.

You can do this in town too - more like people-watching than nature-watching but the concept still applies. Allow yourself to think your thoughts but then let them go and immerse yourself in your surroundings. Breath it in and give yourself permission to be still. It's incredibly hard to do at first...almost annoying....but I've heard with practice it gets better and better.

3. Sip at a coffee shop one town over
Everyone has their favorite coffee shop. I don't even drink coffee and I have a preferred place to sit and sip. When you're not meeting someone and you have nobody else's preferences to worry about other than your own, take a risk and head out of town. Allow yourself to learn a new menu, try something for the first time, and don't forget to ask the person behind the counter about the local favorites. Coffee shops are perfect for anxiously-alone-type-people like myself because nobody looks at you. Everyone is either talking or working, so you're the farthest thing from their minds. It's glorious. And delicious.

4. Visit animal shelters
Almost every animal shelter has a need for attention. If you can't contribute your money, see if the shelters in your area need help with animal interaction. Offer to take the dogs for a walk or to play with the cats or clean out the kitten pens. Animals provide an instant jolt of energy and life, one that is unmatched by human interaction. When you've earned their trust they love you for life; it's reflected in every move they make. Therapy-via-animal is a real thing!

5. Explore other libraries
They have this cool library network in my area - if you hold a library card, you're welcome to borrow from any of the surrounding libraries in the area. All libraries, whether you're a cardholder or not, will allow you inside, however. Try checking out a library you've never been to before. Figure out where the best seating areas are. See which giant nonfiction art books they have. Visit the children's section and try and find a favorite book you loved to read as a kid. Libraries are intricate and welcoming and they smell good. A definite must-do if you're alone, it's raining, and you don't need to worry about rushing.

6. Test drive cars
I have yet to do this but it's on my list. Car dealerships are intimidating so this might take some guts, but the payoff is your booty behind the wheel of a 2017 Camaro ZL1. That, my dear readers, is called "rewarded risk." Go in with a plan, a story, and stick with it. I'm checking out cars for my teenage daughter, sir. I just got married and my husband is flying back from business in LA so he told me to come decide what I wanted, sir. I know nothing about cars but really like that red one, sir. I mean really play it up. No car seats to move. No husbands or passengers to scream "oh shit!" Just you, a new car, possibly a creepy car dealer, and the open road.

7. Go on a photo shoot
I love taking pictures. One of my favorite classes in high school was photography. My teacher was the best. He showed me how just shooting something off-center completely changes the way the image makes you feel. Light, angles, perspective - each one invokes a different reaction from the person viewing the photo and I am obsessed with how 10 pictures of the same flower could create 10 different emotions in the same person. So grab yo camera, grab yo phone, and go take some still-life shots. Nature, again, is perfect for this....but so is architecture. You can photograph a mailbox from 3 different angles and end up with a completely different shot. Go nuts!

8. Try your hand a new, time-honored skill
I want to make cheese so bad, it's stupid. I'm always afraid to get started, though, when my kids are running around. I can never find the time. Same thing with soap making. Soap making chemicals are no joke and I don't want to bust those things out around little fingers when I don't know what I'm doing. Alone time is the perfect time to try something for the first time. Nobody is around to laugh at you or scream when you mess up and you have nothing to distract you from the job at hand. Old-school skills like chopping wood, canning food, and even sewing a dress can be incredible learning opportunities.

9. Browse a farmers market
If I had a million dollars it would all be gone after visiting a farmers market. I love buying produce and supporting local vendors. What I don't love is how broke I am afterward. So instead of heading to the market with my usual wad of cash, I like to go empty handed and just check it out. I make mental notes in my head of which booths I like the most and how I could effectively stop using the grocery store and make all my meals from items purchased from the farmers market, instead. It's challenging but fun, especially when you're alone and you can take all the time you want to really figure out what you can cook and spend.

10. Visit 5 National Historic Landmarks
Did you know that every state has a slew of National Historic Landmarks? These places are, according to the National Park Service, "nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States." My state alone has 88 places delegated as a National Historic Landmark. Some of them may be boring, some may be awesome, some may be far, others close, but who cares? You have nobody to answer to but yourself.

Time alone doesn't need to be anxious, or rushed, or filled with chores and visiting others. Time alone can and should be used as just that....time alone. It's time to reconnect with yourself and your surroundings, time to expand your realm of possibilities and interact with the world as an independent individual free of outside influence. Time alone doesn't need be scary, or expensive, or even productive. It just needs to be.

How do you reconnect with yourself, dear readers? Any of you feel anxiety at being alone or are you in your happy place when you get some privacy? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)