Things We’ve Done

PC240599Whew! What a Christmas! It’s taken me a whole week just to recover from our vacation. We went to The Motherland (Utah), where several relatives on both sides met us. We spent the entire time going from family to family with tiny interludes of seeing old friends. Relaxing, it was not. Not even close. But it was still a good vacation because we got to spend so much time with the people we love the most. I always have this crazy notion that vacations are meant for relaxation and if that doesn’t happen then I feel gypped and angry. And of course when I feel angry I like to take it out on Mister and vice versa, so there were a lot of fun moments where we sent daggers from our eyes to each other.

I may or may not have also taken my lack of sleep and stress about the holidays out on my mother-in-law.  We had a little “incident” over a lemon pie (formerly Lemon Truffle Pie but hereafter known as The Pie That Ruined Christmas) that ended with me being unpleasant and my mother-in-law sobbing at the kitchen table. If you want to know how to make my husband madder than he’s ever been, try being mean to his mom. On second thought, don’t.

But, like I said, it was a good trip because we got to spend time with our relatives; all of whom we adore. These are all the cousins who were in Utah from Mister’s side. A whole bunch are missing but hopefully we’ll see them soon.

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The kids also got to go skiing. It was the first time Ada and Jasper had seen snow since they were babies. Nothing beats that Utah snow. I, of course, did not go skiing because I don’t go outside when it’s that cold unless the house is on fire. There’s not enough hot chocolate in the world to make outdoor sports worth it.

On the second day of skiing Arabella and India ended up stranded at the top of a “terrifying ski run” (from the way they made it sound it was a black diamond, but turned out to only be a green. But they’re newbies, OK?). The Ski Patrol tried to lead them down but they preferred to sit at the top of the mountain and cry for over an hour. Finally one of their grown-up cousins tracked them down and coaxed them down the hill, reassuring them the entire time that they weren’t about to die.

Skiing at Park City

We flew to/from Utah on Southwest Airlines. This was necessary because of the two free bags that are allowed for each person. When Christmas presents and winter clothes are involved, you need all the baggage you can get. The trip north was fine (only nine suitcases!) but the trip home was a little iffier. We ended up with two additional suitcases and a box of beautiful wreaths that I bought the day after Christmas (yay for sales! And yay for Tai Pan Trading!).*

We required our own shuttle out to the airport parking lot when we got back to Austin, we had so much stuff and people. Mister had actually come to Utah on a later flight than the rest of us so he brought the near-empty minivan to the airport when he left. He had the brilliant idea to throw the rooftop luggage rack in the car at the last minute since he knew we’d be short on space.

Only it turns out the luggage rack doesn’t fit our car. It was for our old minivan. He swore up and down that we’ve used it on Betsy, my current minivan. But evidence proved otherwise and there we were with not only a million bags but a giant roof rack that didn’t come close to fitting on the top of my car. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and with the help of a luggage strap and some yarn from a knitting project, we strapped that roof rack on the top of my car. It jiggled and rocked precariously the whole way home and I expected it to go flying off onto the car behind us at any moment. But we drove 45 mph on the freeway the whole way home. It took us an extra 15 minutes but nobody behind us was decapitated. Success!

We did manage to get all the bags in the car but everyone had to sit Indian style so we could put bags under the kids’ feet. And then we all had to pile suitcases in our laps.  You should probably know that by this point I was screaming, “shut up!” anytime someone tried to speak. Never has anyone been so glad to pull into their driveway. I made a quick dinner, took a sleeping pill and was in bed with earplugs by 8:30. And I slept until 8:00 the next morning.  The perfect way to end any vacation.

I’m quite sure we won’t be taking our show on the road for Christmas again. Although it was lovely to spend the holidays with our relatives, the stress and trouble are simply too much. Unless our relatives want to spend Christmas in Hawaii. I’m pretty sure we could make that work.

*I’m going to overdo it on decorating next year. I have to make up for this year; Although I decorated my house, I didn’t put up the Christmas tree. We wouldn’t be home for Christmas! Can you blame me?  The sad thing is that I bought a new star and a new tree skirt and didn’t even try them out. I’m so lame sometimes that I shock myself.

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Our Big Tour of the South started out on July 3. The dates we could be gone were strictly dictated by a fancy choir that India is in this summer. She was allowed to miss no more than three rehearsals or she would be sacked. So we had to be very selective about where we went and what we saw. Starting out on this trip, I wanted to make sure we saw as many states as possible; my kids have seen very little of this country due to the fact that we go to the same places again and again, as dictated by where our extended family lives (Utah, Arizona and Oregon. Rinse and repeat).

Our first destination was North Carolina. We zipped through Arkansas and Tennesee on the way. Arkansas was flat and looked pretty much like Texas. (The town of Texarkana is pretty scuzzy, by the way. In case you wanted to form a mental picture.)

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My kids had to endure me singing “The Arkansas Traveler” about a hundred times. In particular every time we’d pass by a broken down shack. (You may think you don’t know this song but I promise you’ve hear the tune before; just click to listen.)

Arkansas Traveler

My grandparents lived in an adorable, quaint little town called Tryon. It is in the very hilly part of western North Carolina that skirts the border of South Carolina. Growing up it was my happy place. My grandparents loved antiques and had a couple of shops that I would spend as much time in as possible. They were filled to the rafters of interesting odds and ends. Even as a little child I used to wonder how many hands had opened the same dresser drawers that I was now opening.  Their house was almost as fun, being filled not only with interesting antiques, but closets bursting with old dresses and fur coats, drawers stacked with black and white pictures, perfume bottles and dainty white gloves. The musty rich smell of old things still makes me feel happiness and serenity.

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The strangest thing is that their town is not the same. Everything looks very much the same; even the sweet little hardware store downtown has stayed put. There is still a giant toy horse in the middle of downtown (it’s the town mascot). There are new coffee shops and boutiques in the old buildings where ladies clothing stores used to be, but for the most part it’s eerily similar to the way I remember it. But it just doesn’t feel the same. You know what I mean? It’s like listening to music that you haven’t heard in twenty years. The music might be the same but your life is completely different and that changes everything. My grandparents are gone and so is my reason for being there. They were quite old when they died and their friends have all passed on. I doubt anyone remembers them. Their antique shops are now other stores. We drove past their old houses which now seem impossibly small. It was nice to be there but I felt a melancholy and homesickness for a place in the past that is impossible to travel to.

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Tryon is still outlandishly lush and green, and is parked on the side of the poetically named Hogback Mountain. This is the street where my grandparents lived the longest. My kids all swear they want to live in North Carolina when they grow up.

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We showed up on the Fourth of July. Not only was everything closed up tight, including the pizza joint where I had planned on eating dinner, it was raining crazy cats and dogs (much worse than regular cats and dogs). My plan before I left Texas was to buy some flowers and visit my grandparents’ graves, have some dinner in town and find a local firework show. When we actually arrived in Tryon I forgot which church their ashes were at (Methodist? Presbyterian?), there are only local mom and pop stores and nobody selling flowers was open on a holiday, and all the fireworks were rained out.

I haven’t been to Tryon since my grandmother’s funeral over a decade ago and I don’t anticipate I’ll get back there in a very long time, so I was determined to show the kids their grandparents graves (they were cremated so their graves are quite small and consist mostly of a small metal plaque in a church garden).  We drove for twenty minutes until we found a grocery store that was open and I could buy some flowers, then we drove 20 minutes back to town. We spent the next hour searching for the right church (it was the fourth one on my list of possibilities). The rain let up when we got there, however the kids were stir crazy and acted like spazoids and generally it was nothing like the scenario I had imagined.

At this point let’s address the obvious: travelling nonstop in a car full of six children can be a bit . . . trying. I’m naturally a very patient person, but this pushed me to the limits. In some ways being without a husband can be nice–having a husband is sometimes like having another child (“what, you’re going to start complaining too???”), but on a car trip another adult is really nice to deflect the quarelling and squabbles. After twenty hours of being trapped with each other we were all rather testy. I completely lost it in The Pizza Hut parking lot (yes, Pizza Hut was the only restaurant we could find that was open) and uttered several choice words that may or may not have included the phrase “can’t you all just shut up for five minutes before I go insane?”. The guy in the car next to us with his window rolled down was probably a little worried for us, but he looked pretty redneck and I’m sure he’s seen worse things that that at the trailer park.

The next morning, we set out to to hike up the waterfall we used to visit when I was a child and my grandparents had gotten sick of us. We hadn’t brought any crappy shoes that I felt OK about ruining so we stopped and bought everyone a new pair at Dollar General ($6 each! Bargain!). In case you’ve never been to a small town, Dollar General is the closest you’ll get to one-stop shopping. It’s like a tiny WalMart, but grosser–if you can imagine such a thing.

Because the rain had been so bad the waterfall was closed. I was determined to show my kids how beautiful Pearson’s Falls is, and I found a spot where the barbed wire wasn’t attached to a pole. Wouldn’t you know it, my kids all refused to sneak in. Even after I explained that we totally had the right to go inside because how can anyone even own a waterfall, much less tell other people when they can and can’t see it? It’s nature, man!  But my kids were being all prissy and refused. I told them they were lame and that sneaking through barbed wire is exhilarating.

So we piled back in Betsy and headed off to Chimney Rock instead. Have you ever seen Last of the Mohicans? Chimney Rock is where the little sister throws herself off of at the very end. They even have one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ costumes from the movie on display. It’s a stunning place. I remember going there as a little girl and all I recall is one thing: fright. I have always been deathly afraid of heights. But as I am a grown-up now, things would be different.

The road was windy and I had to give several kids dramamine, but it didn’t take us much more than an hour to get there. Chimney rock is right in the middle of a very touristy little village. The kids wanted to stop and buy tacky crap as they always do, but I wanted to get started before it either 1) started raining again–or heaven forbid– 2) got sunny and hot.

So here’s how Chimney Rock works: you drive through the  little village of Chimney Rock to the entrance of the park. Then you drive up a super curvy little road for a couple of miles til you get to the ticket window. You buy your tickets, drive even higher on the road until you get to a parking lot. Then you park and have this view right in front of you. That lake down below is Lake Lure, where they filmed Dirty Dancing. Not a huge fan of Dirty Dancing, but maybe you are and might care.

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After you oooh and aaah, you walk into a cave and take an elevator 27 stories up through the middle of pure rock. Then you come out of the elevator into a gift shop and snack bar. You exit the snack bar onto a deck and immediately have a coronary because OHMYGOSH-it’s-so-high-up-and-what-was-I-thinking-I’m-still-totally-scared-of-heights. I almost fainted as my kids skipped off to hang over the railing completely unaware that the railing would most likely break at any second and they would plunge to their deaths. I was pretty much paralyzed with fright. Seriously, what was I thinking? There’s a rickety wooden bridge where you can climb up to this thing:

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The kids all climbed it but I stayed put. Lame. I was completely lame. But even the thought of going near the edge made my pulse speed up, my face sweat and my head start spinning. I just sat there praying that my kids wouldn’t die. Nobody died and then we went to wait in line for the elevator back down. Of course the elevator broke just as it was our turn. But don’t worry because there are stairs down to the bottom! Stairs barely clinging to the sheer rock face. My passel of mountain goats skipped happily down all 27 flights while I slowly trudged down, holding onto the railing with a death grip, never looking anywhere but at my feet. The strangest thing about being in a situation where I’m up high is the worry (mostly unreasonable, but you never know) that I will suddenly go insane and fling myself over the edge. This is so preposterous, but it runs though my mind the entire time.

Besides almost having a heart attack from fright, the worst thing about having to march down a thousand steps is that my calf muscles hurt so badly over the next three days that I could barely walk. Apparently I need to walk backwards on the stair-stepper at the gym sometimes too.

I’m back from our Grand Tour of the South. First things first: I managed to kill my laptop while I was travelling. So I am wearing black in mourning from destroying yet another computer. I’m beginning to thing I am made of magnets. How else to explain the destruction I bring upon all computers I touch? Mister tried all his tricks and my laptop (which I just got six months ago) is DEAD. I’m just praying that I didn’t kill the hard drive of my computer because you know I didn’t back up anything.  Who backs up stuff on a new computer that is working perfectly? Anyway, I’m back to using the kids’ computer. What a drag.

It’s going to take me a while to give you the details of our trip, but in a nutshell it was excellent. We spent two weeks travelling around in Betsy–my trusty Honda Odyssey who behaved perfectly–and seeing most of the South. We covered over 4000 miles. Because I like to kind of plan as I go and because I didn’t have access to a real computer most of the time, we didn’t see as much as I would have liked to. Planning a trip on an iphone is not the easiest thing to do. I’m sure some of you are pooh-poohing and thinking how if I’d planned everything meticulously before I went then I wouldn’t have been up a creek. But I do hate how planning excessively makes me feel very trapped and incredibly frustrated when the plans change. When there are six kids involved, plans most certainly do change.

But we hit all the high points. And saw lots of stuff.
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We ended up travelling through Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. I wish we could have spent several days in each place but, alas, our budget conspired against us. Plus we had to work around various kid activities so our scheduled departure and arrival times were completely inflexible.

As we drove across the Mississippi River (the first time) I realized that except for a couple of trips to DisneyWorld my kids had never been to the Eastern U.S. We have become Westerners. I was happy that I finally had the opportunity to show them this wonderful (and might I say it, best) part of America. (OK, slight correction: we took India to North Carolina when she was a baby to visit my Grandmother.)

Here are the most important things that I realized driving around on the trip:

1. I totally love to drive. Seriously love it. Except for a couple of hours when I turned the wheel over to India, I did all the driving. I love to look out the window, listen to music, eat junk food and hang out with my kids. This is the perfect marriage of all four things. I like the quickness of airplanes, but my heart belongs in a car. (That’s what happens when you’re born in Detroit, I guess.)

2. I really, really miss hills and trees. I’ve spent many years living in places that either don’t have a ton of greenery or are very flat (Utah has obnoxious mountains but most of it is flat as can be. I’m more of a rolling hill kind of person). I had forgotten how beautiful greenery can be. I was constantly trying to take pictures from my moving car because I simply could not get over how gorgeous the scenery was. Especially in North Carolina and Virginia. I won’t lie, I was looking at Zillow a lot.

3. Books on CD are worth their weight in gold. We got through four Harry Potter books on our drive. We might have killed each other if not for JK Rowling and Jim Dale.

4, Being a single parent is a drag. With six kids I can’t exactly say I was lonely, but I missed having someone to discuss everything with. Also, someone to take the reins when I was done. Instead I lost my temper a few times. But there are pros to be a single parent too; namely one less opinion to consider. We were all pretty thrilled to see Mister when we got back to Texas.

 

I’ll have more details to give you later, but I wanted to check in and say hi first. Hi!

 

P.S. Mister just came in and told me that the hard drive on my computer is fried. Crap! crap, crap, crap.

 

This is one of my most popular posts and I like to repost it every year in case you’ve got a houseful of bored (hence, annoying) kids and need to know how to keep them occupied without relying on TVs/vieogames/ipads to babysit them. This is a great way to keep everyone in the house quiet and entertained. It’s really the best thing that’s happened to our summers! We’ve added a few changes to the system as our kids have gotten older. I’ll mention those at the end of the post.

My kids started driving me crazy the day after school got out. There was the constant squabbling, playfighting, and watching each other play video games for hours on end ( I loathe that, but it’s just so peaceful while they do it, that it’s hard to crack down and turn it off). Some people go cold turkey and turn off all screens during the summer, but I think it should still be a fun time of year (especially since we really limit TV and video games during the school year). I just needed to figure out some sort of system.

My friend Amy and I escaped for lunch a few weeks ago. She told me about the system she uses in her house and a giant light bulb went off over my head. I took her idea and ran with it, expanding on it to fit our family’s needs.

This is how it works:

–Our house is divided into six stations (Art, Reading, Computer, Puzzles, Academics, and TV).

–Each station is in a different part of the house (or in separate parts of the same room) so there is very little annoying and teasing of siblings going on.

–Stations last for 45 minutes each (sometimes if we have other plans for the day we’ll only do stations for 20-30 minutes a piece). Then the kids rotate to the next station. Each child goes to all of the six stations every day, Monday through Friday. We usually begin in the late morning after everyone has done their chores. Since we live in Texas which is HOT in the summer, we usually spend the mornings playing outside (after chores!) and don’t waste precious cool time indoors.

–Everyone gets a chance to choose which station they would like to start with. Yes, they will all have a chance at every station, but you know how much siblings like to compete with each other. Currently we are picking popsicle sticks labelled with the kids’ names. I draw one and that child picks where they’d like to begin.

–It’s helpful to have a list of activities available at Academics and art. We have things listed like “work on handwriting”. The kids all tell me they want to improve their handwriting but they forget. Their are workbooks for the littles but the older kids can do it on their own; they just need a reminder. Some of the art things we have are kept in my craft closet and the kids tend to forget about them. Having all the choices on a list makes a good reminder.

Here are the details:

Art (at the kitchen table):
Everyone has a sketch book, so there are minimal amounts of loose paper floating around. All coloring and watercolor go on sketchbook pages. We also have Shrinky Dinks, pipe cleaners, Sculpey clay (for the older kids), Play-Doh (for the younger ones), and brand new sets of watercolors, crayons and markers. I stocked up on the fabulous coloring books that Dover Publishing carries. We also have an assortment of drawing “how-to” books and creativity-building exercises.

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Puzzles (on a card table set up in the Mudroom): I bought ten new puzzles of all different skill levels. I also got one of those roll-up puzzle savers so the older kids can work on the same puzzle day after day. We also have Sudoko, crossword, and word-search books of different skill levels. My friend Amy and I will be swapping puzzles after a while to keep things fresh.

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Academics (on the coffee table in the family room):
There is a real variety here since Jasper barely knows his letters and India is taking AP classes. Probably our favorite item is the Flashmaster. It’s a fantastic gizmo that quizzes kids on their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. They can be timed or not timed, and the computer remembers which problems they got wrong. It’s been wonderful since my younger kids have never been required to learn their math facts very well. You can get Flashmaster on Amazon for $50.

We also have a Geography Globe from Oregon Scientific, the Phonics Firefly (perfect for helping the younger kids learn their letters and sounds), and some educational Leap Pad sets.

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In this category we also have workbooks (the great kind sold at Costco that are full of worksheets), handwriting practice sheets and spelling word quizzes. I try to get items that the kids can do on their own so I don’t have to sit there all day. The older kids are working on assignments they were given at school to complete over the summer.

 


Reading
(in the Living Room which is where our bookcases are):
This is read-alone time. Every few days I rotate the supply of kids’ books so they always have something new to look at. Library books stay in here too. The older kids usually have a novel they’re reading. This is a perfect time for teens to work on their summer reading assignments for school.


Computer
(playroom):
The kids can play whatever they want without someone claiming that “she took my turn!”; I don’t really care what it is, whether it’s Webkinz or something educational (Finn has been doing a teach-yourself-German program). This is their entire computer time for the day. This would probably include Nintendo DS time, if you have those at your house.

TV (in the playroom where our only TV is):
This includes video games and DVDs. Whatever takes place on a TV, this is the time to do it. The best part of this system is that you don’t have children sitting around watching their siblings play games (one of my major pet peeves). Occasionally we’ll watch a movie as a family in the evening, but for the most part this is their entire allotment of video games and shows.

You could tailor the stations to suit your family better. If you all play instruments, you could do music time, for example. Or you could do an outdoor station. With our blazing summer temps, though, the kids stay indoors most of the day but we spend evenings playing outside or swimming. This system would work with a smaller family, too. For the last week India and York have been visiting their grandparents in Oregon and we’ve been rotating four kids around the six stations. It’s been fine.

We have been doing Stations for a couple of weeks now and it has been phenomenal! The kids never complain about being bored and they bug each other so much less. My house is actually quiet during the day! It’s a miracle!

Jasper doing summer stations

UPDATE: now that our kids are getting older, we’ve made a few changes. We’ve combined academics with spiritual stuff. The kids all have goal programs that they’ve been working on at church and this is a great time to accomplish the tasks they’ve set for themselves. We’ve also made a reading plan to for the scriptures this summer and having time during a station for this works a lot better than expecting tired kids to read at night.

We are accumulating a lot of instruments around our house, my new harp being the most popular. So now along with puzzles, we have the option to play an instrument during that station. Not all of the kids are interested in this, though, which is why I didn’t just add another station. My children are finally old enough to use the instruments unsupervised. I would never have done this when I had preschoolers. It would have caused way too much trouble.

Picking strawberries in an annual tradition in our family. It’s one of my favorite things to do not only because it makes me feel like a farmer, but I just flat out love strawberries. There’s a u-pick farm near Austin that we go to every Spring. Well, “near” meaning an hour away in a lackluster town called Marble Falls. We travel to Sweet Berry Farm to pick strawberries first thing in the morning, then head over afterwards to Peete Mesquite, a really excellent hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint (Texas has a jillion of those).

Yes, the boys picked strawberries too. But they don’t like to stick near their mom. Especially when there are pet goats nearby.

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We aim to pick about 14 lbs of berries. I’m an avid jam-maker and this will make between 25-30 jars of jam. That’s enough to last us all year.

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The kids are put to good use. Ada’s especially good at hulling strawberries.

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It takes me about a million years to chop everything up and make the jam, but eventually I get these jewels all ready to be put up in the pantry. I don’t do freezer jam for a few reasons: it’s kind of watery and I don’t care for the texture; freezer space is at a premium in my house. I can’t waste the square footage on jam!; the preparedness person in me insists on something self-stable.

 

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These jars are made by a German company called Weck. They’re a little spendier than the ho-hum jars available at the grocery store but look how crazy cute they are! I’ve had these for about eight years and I’ve totally gotten my money’s worth out of them. I do a few Mason jars too, for giving away to friends/teachers. I’m not about to part with my Weck jars! You can get Weck jars from the company website here –which is the cheapest option. (I use the 1/5 litre Deco jars. If you buy Weck jars, they work a little differently than regular canning jars. You’ll need rubber gaskets instead of flat lids and and metal clips instead of screw-on rings.I happen to think Weck jars are superior to Ball or Kerr brands. And not just because they’re European!)

 

Our Spring Break is officially underway! York is at track practice and India’s taking the SAT but soon all the kids will be FREE! For the first time ever we will actually be going somewhere over Spring Break. Just to Grandma and Grandpa’s vacation house in Arizona, so it’s not terribly fancy. The grandparents won’t be there so it’s just us. Well, Mister can’t get away from work so by “us” I mean “the kids and I”. And India’s friend, Summer. She only has one sibling so her head might just explode after spending the week amidst our noisy chaos. (Mister’s brother and his wife will be showing up at some point too, with a bunch of their friends.)

Oh yeah, I should also mention that we will be driving. We never drive anywhere. We do little day trips all the time but as for driving more than three hours in a row? Hasn’t happened since we moved to Texas, lo these many years ago. I’m a little nervous but I think we have enough ipads and electronic gadgets to make sure that there is as little interpersonal involvement as possible.

The temperatures look great next week so my days will consist of sleeping in, lying by the pool (in the shade! Don’t want to lose that vampirish pallor), taking naps and watching lots of TV (There is cable! Such a luxury for us!). I might cook some food. Or we might just eat quite a lot of cereal.

Right now I’m hollering at the kids to keep cleaning out the car. One is Windexing the inside of the windows, one is vaccuming, and one is on petrified-chicken-nugget patrol. I suppose I should think about packing. What am I talking about? I’ve got two new pairs of yoga pants and my bathing suit. I’m totally set!

Snacks for the drive are already parceled out. Yes, I do this myself rather than buying prepackaged snack-sized stuff; What do you think I am, made of money? Pretty much everything is totally sugar-y. I’m quite a mastermind and have decided to pump the kids full of sugar while keeping them confined to an incredibly small space in close proximity to the people they fight with the most in the entire world. Brilliant plan, no? Wish us all well!

 

Last weekend I went up to Utah for the Snap Conference: a get together for bloggers who craft or DIY. Before I get into how fun it was, let me apologize for not contacting anyone who lives in Utah. It was a quick trip in and out. I plan on coming back to Utah this summer and will hopefully see every friend or relative I have. Let’s move on.

How much fun did I have? A ton. This has got to be the nicest and friendliest bunch of people anywhere. I stayed with two other Austin bloggers, Kristen Duke, who woke up at the unhumanly crack of dawn early every day to teach a photography class and Lorie from Be Different Act Normal. Kristen is quite possibly the most outgoing person I’ve ever met and Lorie is hilarious. It made for a fun hotel room.

Classes were offered. Among those I took were SEO which means Search Engine Optimization. Also known as How to Get Google to Like You. I wrote things down but I have no idea what they mean. The guy who taught the class was Dutch and had really cool blue and tan saddle shoes.

Also somewhat mindblowing was the class on Photoshop. I can do a few things in Photoshop–zit removal and such–but I need to improve my skills tremendously.  The teacher, Amanda Padgett, happens to be brilliant and a very good teacher. I am an utter dunce at most things computer-related but I learned how to do a bunch of super useful and generally awesome things in Photoshop Elements. By the end of this year my pictures are going to be so stunning you’ll cry!

The other classes were more crafty; things like party planning and flower arranging. One of my favorite classes was about growing your handmade business. I don’t have a handmade business and the main thing I learned was that I never want to have one. What a pain! I also enjoyed a class about developing your own style taught by, among others, Shelley from House of Smiths. She is one of the funniest people ever.

I forgot to take any pictures but fortunately Kristen did and I stole this from her blog.

This is a photo of Kristen Duke, Kirsten from KoJo Designs who is simply gorgeous in real life, me (contrary to appearances I am neither pregnant nor obese; just wearing a flowy shirt that wasn’t behaving itself), and Heidi from Sew.Craft. Create (who is way cuter in real life).

Such a fantastic trip. I feel energized and excited to get back into a creative groove. Now I just have to put this stuff away (remind me again why I thought it was a good idea to unpack in the family room):

You know what’s nice about Texas? Strawberry season starts in March. It’s been Spring Break this week and our big outing was driving over an hour to Sweet Berry Farm in Marble Falls. (“Forget Disneyworld, kids, we’re going to pick strawberries in the middle of nowhere!”)  You’ve got to get there early to get the best berries, and go on the right day (they’re closed on Wednesdays, so Thursday morning is when the most ripe berries are out.)  The weather was lovely, the bluebonnets and wildflowers were showing off everywhere, and Mister played hookey from work and went with us.

PhotobucketSweet Berry Farm has several varieties of berries and Chandler is one of my favorites for making jam. They’re a little on the soft side and very juicy, quite unlike grocery store strawberries. Because of this they turn to mush within a day or two so you’ve got to eat them or use them right now.  The taste is out of this world. It’s like a strawberry explosion.

 

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I’ve had my work cut out for me over the last couple of days. I made a strawberry almond pie and 36 jars of jam. Not to mention eating lots and lots of berries.

Massive strawberry overload.

But in a good way.

 

P.S. If you do go out to Sweet Berry Farm, be sure to stop at Peete’s Mesquite BBQ in Marble Falls. It has the best brisket I have ever tasted. And I’ve eaten BBQ all ever the place,  even at Franklin BBQ which was voted the best in America by Bon Apétit magazine this year. Peete’s ribs were second only to Franklin’s. And their peach pie and macaroni salad are phenomenal! Seriously, go there!!!

Welp, my “week of Oreo recipes” certainly ended with quite a fizzle, didn’t it? I was bursting with enthusiasm when I made my little announcement that I’d make a different recipe every single day. I hadn’t thought it through for more than ten seconds.  What didn’t occur to me was that I was swamped last week.

I had forgotten that I bought 22 lbs. of chicken breasts with the intent to can them. When I say “can” I technically mean “bottle”. It’s surprisingly easy; all you need is a pressure canner which I’m guessing not a single one of you has. I don’t have one either but my mom does. I’m sure she’ll talk all about it in her novel comment.

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By the way, those are not feathers floating in those jars, as some people have suggested. It’s just, uh, residue of some sort. Or maybe congealed fat? I don’t know. But I now have shelf-stable chicken that hopefully won’t develop botulism and kill my family.

Also last week I had to paint 23 tiny wooden peg dolls for a church project. It was for a re-creation of the first Relief Society meeting. It made sense to me when I thought the idea up but in retrospect it seems a little odd. In my usual style I finished the dolls without a second to spare. I was at the kitchen table serving dinner to my kids with one hand and blow-drying glaze with the other.

 

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Why wasn’t my husband serving dinner, you ask?

Because he has been doing this every day. It’s SXSW. When Austin, Texas swells to about ten million people (this picture is solid people on one of the busiest streets downtown.) He volunteered to run soundboards at a bunch of concerts so he’s getting to do whatever he wants for free. And he’s taking advantage of it.  Fine by me. He deserves to go out and have fun.

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Especially since he never once complained that these three bags of groceries were sitting un-put away for four days. Although he didn’t put them away either. Mellow or passive aggressive? Sometimes it’s a fine line.

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I bought some new rainboots.

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I had to, you see, because it’s been raining a lot lately. Especially on Saturday when I was tromping all over nature with my friend Tamara looking at beehives. Don’t believe me? Behold!
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Despite appearances I do not have a wiener. A beekeeping suit is not the most flattering of outfits. Especially when one is wearing two sweaters and a jacket underneath because MYGOSH!!! ITWASFREEZING!!!

In addition to these fun activities I also had to go to a couple of school programs, including a play in which my daughter had zero lines. So I made faces at her the entire time trying to get her to laugh instead. Because in my house it’s all about being the comic relief.

So, yeah, the Oreos.

I tried my best.

As I mentioned before, it was raining all week. And my kitchen is in the middle of my house with no windows. And the lighting was terrible. So I did a couple of those tutorials outside. You may notice a few shots of lawn in the background. (No, I do not have a mixer in my backyard.)

It was all for you, delightful and lovely readers. I love you that much.

 

Before I lived in Texas I had never heard of the Round Top Antiques fair. Which is amazing to me considering that it is the largest antiques fair in the country. How big am I talking about? Over 300 acres of antiques, cool finds and crafts.  300 acres. Wow.

It’s right here in central Texas, halfway between Austin and Houston in a tiny town called Round Top. Actually it’s spread between Round Top,  Carmine (pronounced CAR-meen), and Warrenton, all teeny-weeny towns of less than 100 people. But tents are set up twice a year (the first Wednesday-Saturday of April and October usually) and hordes descend on this cute little area. Most visitors are women but I am lucky enough to be married to a man who loves to shop like I do.  So we set out for Round Top last week and had a grand time. This was Mister’s favorite booth at The Red Barn:

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Let me explain how it works in case you happen to go sometime. North of Round Top you’ll find the Big Red Barn. You can’t miss it because, well, it’s a big red barn in the middle of a field. This is one of the major shows. You’ll pay an admission fee to get in to the barn and the other big tents that are nearby (usually it’s $10). Parking is free.  There are mostly antiques here. Dealers from all over the country set up makeshift booths and exhibits. Some items are gorgeous and fancy, some a little more modest but this place it mostly upscale. I did find the booth of a woman that sold nothing but vintage buttons. It was so overwhelming that I left with my hands empty even though I adore buttons. I also found a darling cupboard that would have looked fantastic in my kitchen. But I don’t happen to have $1500 sitting around.

If you head south towards Warrenton you’ll pass all sorts of tents that are full of antiques, collectibles and miscellaneous stuff. Stop at these as you wish. These little areas are all run separately so it’s hard to say from year to year which sellers will be there and what they’ll be selling. The crazy thing about Round Top is that nobody is in charge. There is no master planner. All these tents and buildings are rented and run separately. Most of the smaller areas are free. You could easily spend days snooping around Round Top. It’s that big.

Halfway to Warrenton is Marburger Farms. This is the biggest of all the antiques venues. This year it was something like 40 acres. It has everything from fancy French armoires to adorable baby shoes–mostly antiques but there are plenty of things that are vintage as well. And some things that just look vintage. There is more of an eclectic collection of items at Marburger. Marburger requires a separate admission (also $10 this year). Your admission at each venue is good for the entire weekend. You could end up spending quite a bit of money just on admissions alone. But if you’re bothering to come this far, who really cares?

Down towards Warrenton is where most of the action is. Most of it is free too. There are some really fun and funky places like Zapp Hall. Most of these areas tend to be more vintage and flea-marketish. You can find a lot of seriously weird and cool stuff. There are tons of craft stalls set up around the area too. So much fun. And lots of interesting food options too. I may or may not have spent $8 on a homemade Ding Dong the size of a salad plate. It was heavenly–what you imagine a Ding Dong ought to taste like.

Here are some of the wacky/cool/unusual things I found this year.

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Did you know this much purple glass even existed? Me neither. But I really think it’s pretty.

 

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An assortment of racially insensitive salt and pepper shakers.

 

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This week’s preparedness item is mermaids. Everybody stock up!

 

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I keep forgetting to eat lard. Maybe if I had a nifty holder on the table I’d remember.

 

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Well, shoot! If only I’d thought to look at our Scrabble game before we left. We’re missing about six tiles and I can’t remember which ones.

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Of course you can get vintage Cowboy boots. It’s Texas. Duh.

My brain was thoroughly worn out by the time we left. Mister kept saying on our way home, “why didn’t you tell me how cool this was? We’re definitely going again in April!”  Yes, it’s certainly a trip worth taking.