Monday, July 25, 2016

Creating the Best Summer of Your Life

Best summer of our lives, he said. I hadn't spoken to him in over ten years. Our reunion came via Facebook, of course, the almighty finder of long lost friends and faded memories. The little red notification popped up last winter and I thumbed my way through the menu, fully prepared to ignore yet another request from yet another person I didn't really know or want to explain my life to. But then there he was. Hi, Jen. How are you? I saw his picture and memories flittered into my mind like butterfly wings.

I worked on the ranch during summer break from college. I'd just completed freshman year and I wanted the money and I wanted to ride horses and I wanted all the fame and fortune that went with being a wrangler at a summer camp and vacation lodge in small-town Missouri. It was the first time I was bucked off a horse. It was the first time I rode on the back of a flatbed truck, my legs dangling off the edge and my borrowed paddock boots dragging in the dirt. I ate cheesy potatoes for breakfast every morning. I woke up before dawn with a scratchy throat and would walk down the dew-slicked road yawning and rubbing my eyes. I fed horses, saddled horses, rode horses, kept little kids from falling off horses, but mostly I sweat a lot. Eventually the sun would fall and I'd slowly haul myself back up to my cabin, the sound of crickets and frogs cheering me on, or laughing at me, I could never tell which. I'd get there, climb into the shower stall we had tucked into a closet, check for ticks, wash, rinse, and repeat it all the next day.

That was the best summer of our lives, he said.

You know how a manual car feels when you stall out? That neck-breaking jerking motion, back and forth, back and forth? His comment hit me kinda like that.

Best summer of my life? I mean yes, I rode around pretty hills and sang around campfires with pretty people and ran through wildflowers on the backs of beautiful animals....but I also rode around drunk in cars with boys I didn't know and was a free-falling passenger in a camaro that ramped a guardrail and flipped over 3 times before hitting a tree outside a meth trailer in the middle of nowhere. I backtalked my boss and went 110 mph in a 45 and ruined a friendship and got involved with a bad guy and went to work still drunk from the night before and by the time that summer was over, I was glad to be rid of it all. The sludge of a few bad experiences coated my memory of the place and turned it bitter and black.

But to him, it was the best summer of our lives.

He was there, too, he experienced all those things I mentioned above. It was his car that carried everyone from the totaled camaro to the hospital 45 minutes away. It was his smart comebacks I stole to tell my boss off and his foot on the petal that took us to 110 and his girlfriend I hurt so badly and his best friend who treated me like dirt and his ID that bought the beer. He experienced all the things that stained my perspective. But he didn't see black. His memories of that time shone bright, not a smudge in sight. He chose to accept the bad and celebrate the good.

Every element of life has this jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, love and death, peace and anxiety. They turn on each other and cycle around you and can spin you around so badly that you sometimes don't know which way is up. The contrasts in life are everywhere, from the trivial stuff to big time life events.

Eating: Fresh, organic food vs ice cream and beer
You eat healthy to stay strong but then eating healthy becomes deprivation and deprivation overpowers your strength.

Exercise: Strong, healthy body vs finally sitting down
You work out to feel better but then working out becomes a chore and you resent your own health.

Children: Chubby cheek kisses vs freedom
You love holding little hands and kissing boo-boos but there's more to life than playdates and crumbs on your feet and when, oh when, are they ever going to stop screaming.

Relationships: Partnership vs independence
You love your partner and can't do without them but then sometimes, often suddenly, you're forced to do without them and you're angry you ever allowed yourself to need them that badly in the first place.

People: Hatred vs love
You watch towers fall and hear shots ring out and smell the fire of disgust burning but then watch entire nations rally around the fallen and inspire change.

We experience these cycles of good and bad all the time....the outcomes of our day are tossed into the air at random intervals, flipping our lives around with little to no explanation. It is easy to get sucked into the sometimes overwhelming sadness of our routines and surroundings. Same day, same job, same frustration. Same terrorism, same politics, same dying planet.

It's easy to find the darkness. Every time something looks up, something comes crashing down. We finally have a black president but racism is more rampant than ever. We've finally learned that monocropping is killing our nation but our farmers are financially powerless to stop it. My kids can finally talk to me and tell me what they need but now they won't be quiet. That's a lotta sludge leaking onto my perspective, wouldn't you say?

The key is to find the light. Every time something comes crashing down, something looks up. Racism is more rampant than ever but we are finally publicizing, acknowledging, and talking about its existence. Farmers are financially powerless to stop monocropping but communities are noticing this and setting up local, cooperatively-owned grocery stores to allow farmers to save themselves and our food system. My kids won't be quiet but they have voices and healthy bodies and are strong enough to speak and be heard and sing songs and tell me I look pretty when I wake up.

When darkness surrounds the people and places around us, we need to consciously seek out the light.

Allow yourself to feel as much as you need to feel. It's ok to sit in the dark for a little if you want. Embrace it, allow it to envelop you, and then realize to move forward, you need to accept that there will always be darkness to battle. Darkness is what makes the light shine so brightly. We need it.

Find a talisman. It could be a song, a person, a book, a place...hell it could even be one of those "25 Pics That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity" links. Find something or someone that you can embrace and will remind you that pain is temporary, laughter heals everything, and light can always be found. Go to them during moments of darkness.

The more you practice a positive perspective, the easier it becomes. I get swamped by emotion when I feel things....I mean swamped. I get into that accept stage and I just let the feelings wash over my head and I sit there, submerged, for sometimes too long. This is where having a practiced routine helps to pull you out of the blackness. It's easier to find the light switch at night when you've been in the room ahead of time and made a point to look for it. Keep your happy thoughts close by....written down, pinned, frozen in the freezer, or saved on speed dial....and add to them each and every day.

If you look, and I mean really look, you'll see that nature never fights the cycle. Night breaks to dawn. Prey feeds the predator. Life lost is life gained. The cycle never stops, not even when we, as flawed humans, get stuck. Nature follows the rhythm and sets the perfect example for us...there is both comfort and pain in knowing life continues with or without you. Strive to realize that your participation will only make things better, especially for those around you.

Fearing the inevitable is about as wasteful as a Donald Trump cue card. The only certainty in life is that at some point, everyone will return to the earth. So we have a choice......spend our entire lives fearing that the worst will happen until the worst finally does happen, or live each day refusing to be scared of the inevitable and feel the rich, full pleasure of a mind that is freed up and allowed to feel true joy. Might be the easiest choice you have to make all day.

Do like Mister Rogers and look for the helpers. I promise you will find them. Sometimes it's really easy to spot the people who are helping, other times you need to seek them out of the peaceful places they've stashed themselves. Read their books, participate in their conversations, visit with them often, and ask how you can help.

Start a conversation about change. Climb the side of a mountain. Go to a movie. Be someone's kind moment. Leave the house (seriously, get out of the house). Realize that just by being you, you might be making someone's summer the best summer of his life....and consequently, perhaps even the best summer of your own. Be determined to live as if you had only days left to do so...because in all actuality, that's all we're really given. Balance your responsibilities with the gravity of our temporary existence and don't be afraid to take risks and jump every now and then.

I'll end by saying this one last little piece.......when you find your true moments of joy, when you get that crystal-clear perspective that all is going to be ok, relish it without abandon. This eyes-wide-open, big-picture attitude doesn't last long and before you know it, you'll be angry that some guy cut you off and worrying about what to make for dinner again. And that's ok, that's the way it should be. That is that emerges, as always, from darkness.

What do you do to combat despair, dear readers? When you find yourself feeling run down and pushed to the edge by the sadness in our world, where do you go? Who do you talk to? What is your escape and how do you find your light again? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading. 

This post is dedicated to the most balanced seat I've ever seen....Bo, you were taken too soon. To me you'll always be riding the hills of Potosi, singing Rascal Flatts harmonies and making me go first so I catch all the cobwebs. Enjoy your ride in the clouds, darling friend. 


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!