How A Pumpkin Turns Into An Owl

Friday, October 29, 2010
1) Take one pumpkin
2) Print out your free stencils from Better Homes and Gardens.
3) Use some improvised tools for the carving process.

Voila: owl on a pumpkin. 

Happy Halloween!
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Project Feeder Watch and Wildlife Encounters

Thursday, October 28, 2010
Pine Grosbeak
Last week, our Project Feeder Watch packet showed up in the mail. This morning, a fine snow is falling. Winter is truly coming. 

I grew up with  Project Feeder Watch, a project from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY and the new Project Feeder Watch calendar taped on our fridge door is one of the surest indicators of winter's arrival. The project calls upon amateur birdwatchers across North America to set aside two days every couple weeks from mid-November - April, to record the birds who visit your feeders.  The idea is to record the largest number of one particular bird species you see at your feeders at one time. The data gathered over these two day periods is then submitted to the Lab where they can use it to help track trends, disease, and unusual occurrences among the bird populations. The first reporting season starts on November 13th. We still need to buy a big bag of sunflower seeds and get the feeders set up.

We may have yet to make ourselves consummate hosts to the birds this winter, the wildlife certainly haven't been hiding themselves. Every time we drive down the road, we scare up flocks of the migrating snow buntings. Bald Eagles are making their way down to Lake  Superior. I see them wheeling around in the skies.

So many visitors to the museum this summer were less than thrilled with the eight-mile stretch of burned forest they had to drive through to get to the museum. Maybe the new forest (burnt in spring 2007) isn't exactly postcard perfect pretty, but I have seen so much more wildlife in the woods this year that I'm rather inclined to think that our burnt shell of a forest is a quite healthy forest. We even spied a porcupine in the late summer: something I haven't seen since I was teeny.

Yesterday, I spent the day over at the museum, getting the gift shop shut down for the season. In an idle moment, I gazed out the window. A large animal sidled past my car and headed down the pathway to the biffy.  "Oh a stray dog," I thought.  

I looked again. What a big tail that dog had. His eyes were rather large, his paws were a good size and he had big ears.  And such BIG TEETH . . . .

Yeah, that's no stray dog. That's a wolf. 

I decided to keep myself busy inside a little longer. I just didn't feel like being mistaken for a white-tail deer yesterday, or any day for that matter.
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False (?) Dichotomy: a good time or gum disease?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My senior year of college, I wrote a weekly column for the student newspaper called “Preparing for a Paradoxical World.” I was in my second year as news editor for the paper and why I decided I had time to pen a weekly column addressing the hypocrisy that most college students will face following graduations, I don’t know. Anyway . . . .

The real point is, we twenty-somethings face a barrage of contradictory advice: take time to build your career, don’t rush into a relationship, have kids before you’re too old to enjoy them, travel now, don’t go without health care. Obviously we can’t have everything and when we sidle up to the life decisions’ counter, we have some interesting mixing and matching to do with an infinite amount of choices. Just yesterday when Andy went into the clinic for a minor (minor) illness, his prescription ended up costing more than $100 out of pocket. Even when we make decisions, like to be one of the young adults with health insurance, we’re not always in for a straight forward ride.

Last week, I wrote about my resistance to get my hair cut with any regularity. Today’s topic is another source of procrastination: making a dentist’s appointment.

My teeth are pretty much just fine. I never had braces and my parents (bless their souls) had the foresight not to feed my brother and me tons of sugary pop, candy, or other “teeth busters.” Cavities are not something I have to contend with. Still, my teeth are due for a check up and cleaning. To be honest, they’ve been due for a check up and cleaning for nearly two years.

Yet, there always seems to be some expense that takes precedent over a dentist appointment. Just last week, as Andy and I pondered whether or not we should go down to Duluth the night before his seminar and spend the night in a hotel, it struck me that the cost of the hotel room for the night was just about the cost of a visit to the dentist.

Really, I thought, I’m making a decision between a good time and gum disease? It should be a no-brainer. I mean, plaque that builds on your teeth is the very same stuff that can clog up your heart and lead to heart disease down the road. And I’ve written enough health and wellness articles this year to know I’d rather not deal with cardiac rehab anytime soon.

But the money spent on the dentist is just high enough and my teeth are just fine enough, to make me think this is an expense that can be put off, for another month here or another two months here. Keep up that behavior long enough and before you know it, it’s been two years since the last time I had a dental hygienist yelling at me about not flossing.

Being an adult often means the fun thing to do is not the right thing to do. And that’s an irony I don’t always feel strong enough to deal with. But I’ve really got to make a dentist appointment one of these days . . . .
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Hunkering Down

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Tonight the NOAA weather forecast reads as so:

Tonight: Rain. Areas of fog after 1am. Low around 32. Breezy, with a south wind between 20 and 25 mph, with gusts as high as 35 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%.

Wednesday: Snow before 1pm, then rain and snow. High near 39. West wind between 15 and 20 mph, with gusts as high as 30 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 1 to 2 inches possible.

The radar looks like this:

As the wind howls and the rain (soon to be snow) splatters against the windows, it sounds like a good night for pizza, wine and a big fire ripping away in the wood stove.
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What are pepitas?

Monday, October 25, 2010
As much as we like to think we treat all birthdays the same, the truth is all birthdays seem prone to a certain amount of seasonal influence. Summer birthdays will hold on to a resentment about their largely ignored birthdays well into adulthood. (Who knew bringing birthday treats into school meant so much?!) Birthdays right around Christmas will inevitably get neglected. And no matter what the season, it seems birthday sweets will always be influenced by the outside weather.

As an early spring (as in, the snow is just starting to think about melting) birthday, my birthday sweets have usually been citrus based: lemon filled layer cake, key lime pie. There's something about the tangy promise of hot places in a citrus dessert that proves to be just what you want at winter's tail end. Meanwhile, the autumn birthdays bring about heavier desserts. Just last year, I made Andy a chocolate stout cake (hello Oktoberfest!) for his mid-November birthday and I whipped up a pumpkin pie which I neglected to put sugar in for my father's late October birthday.

My father's birthday was yesterday and after last year's disaster of a pie (he literary had to poke holes in last year's sugarfree pie and drizzle it with maple syrup to make it palatable), I knew I needed to redeem myself in the birthday baking department. I decided to make a cake from the cover of the latest Fine Cooking which Dad had taken a shine too.

Here it is: Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake - Fine Cooking Recipes, Techniques and Tips

The recipe looked straight forward enough, although I decided to make a couple minimal modifications to the recipe (see note below).  Then I noticed a slight problem. The recipe called for pepitas. What the heck?

I'm no pastry chef, but I'm fairly familiar with all the ingredients that would normally be involved in baking a cake. And pepitas? That was a new one for me.

In the whole foods co-op, I had an epiphany. Turns out pepitas are just hulled pumpkin seeds.

Now: what's the need for all the sugarcoating? Can't we call a pumpkin seed a pumpkin seed? Don't half the problems in the world come from refusing to call something what it really is?

But as I roasted pepitas and pecans in melted butter and tossed them in brown sugar, I started to have second thoughts about my indignation over the sugarcoating of pepitas.
Maybe all that sugarcoating's not so bad after all.

(Note: I followed the directions for the Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake basically verbatim. However, to ease transport of the cake, I baked all the cake batter in a 9x13 pan and increased the baking time to 40 minutes. Many other reviewers of the cake complain about its richness. I resolved the richness problem a bit by just putting a half batch of frosting on top. A half batch of frosting looks a little skimpy, but the topping classes it up and the cake is one rich puppy even with half as much frosting on top.)
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Writing On Purpose

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I spent all summer writing on purpose. I wrote articles when deadlines loomed. Radio commentaries got penned in a slightly panicked, bi-weekly frenzy. I chugged along on the radio documentary assignment and at work, I dutifully filled out grant applications because, well, it was my job.

Noticing a trend here?

Unless there was some form of compensation involved, I didn’t write it this summer. In fact, this spring, when things were getting kicked into high gear, I turned down a pro bono gig because I knew there just wouldn’t be time to squeeze it in with my other (paying) obligations.

Obviously, my goal as an aspiring freelance writer is to make money. The brilliant C. Hope Clark recently posted about not knocking the writer trying to make a living with their craft. As freelancers, our general goal is to write on purpose. And that purpose is often to write things we enjoy while making a buck. We’re told over and over again to set goals for our success. How often have you (regardless of your profession) heard: “you can’t get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going”?

This past week was meant to be my return to a more focused writing life. Yet an overnight trip to Duluth and one filthy cabin have kept me from spending too much time at the writing desk this week. Still, yesterday afternoon I found an hour to hunker down with the novel I revised last winter to begin writing a synopsis and working on proofreading and editing the text.  

As my red pen scurried busily across the novel’s printed pages, correcting comma splices, adding in forgotten words, crossing out sentences, I was struck by something: how much fun I was having. I realized how much I’ve grown to love all of my characters in the more than five years [gulp!] since I first I sat down in my room in the Irish cottage I lived in during spring 2005 and tapped out the short story that would grow into the 80,000 word novel it is today.

Let’s face it, taking the time to pen a novel is not exactly a great “get-rich” scheme. It’s kind of like pinning all your hopes on a single lottery ticket. Writing a novel with the purpose of fame and fortune is a largely delusional pursuit, especially since the bad economy seems to be prompting more and more people to focus on their literary skills. When it comes to writing a large work of fiction about the loftiest goal you can have for the experience is to have a good time.

Certainly there are hopes and dreams tied up in this little novel of mine. Still, as I read through the novel’s beginning yesterday, I realized all summer I’ve been missing out on writing just to see where the story goes. I’ve missed the writing that comes from not having a purpose or any guaranteed compensation.  

Maybe the novel will never find a snazzier binding than the three-hole binder it currently resides in. Maybe the novel will never make it to the bookstores’ shelves. But it’s sure been fun writing and reading it.  
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Making the Cut

Friday, October 22, 2010

I rarely get my hair cut. It’s not that I don’t have a fashion sense (okay, that statement’s questionable) or that I don’t understand the concept of cutting off my crispy split ends. But my entire family on my mom’s side was gifted with loads of hair that make most hair stylists gulp. Add in the fact that I almost always have bizarre experiences at the hairdressers and you have a perfect equation for an appointment I procrastinate in making just slightly less than heading to the dentist.

A haircut has ended up being an annual event for me. (I know all my teen magazines recommended a haircut every 4-6 weeks, but now that I’m older, I sometimes suspect those magazines had ulterior motives, and not necessarily my best interests, in mind when they penned those “helpful” beauty articles.) Last Tuesday, when I was bumming around Duluth for a day while Andy attended a seminar for work, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and take off a few inches half a foot of hair. I knew with a walk-in appointment, I was subjecting myself to the barrage of questions: why I never cut my hair; why I don’t dye my rapidly graying hair; why my eyebrows slightly resemble a Wookie; why last night’s mascara is still hanging out underneath my eyes like a raccoon.  

But I had a lovely stylist, the same one who fought with my mane last year, I think. The experience was surprisingly painless, although the poor lady used nearly an entire bottle of serum to keep my newly released curls from going all Bozo under the hairdryer’s heat. Yet, during the whole haircut, we sat just to the side of a salon stylist workshop.

Since I don’t get my hair cut terribly often, I don’t spend a lot of time about the profession of hairstylist. But when you suddenly find yourself in a room filled with capacity with stylists while the head stylist lectures them on setting goals and pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone, your mind kind of starts to muddle over the whole haircutting profession. I mean, did you know they only make minimum wage? While tipping stylists is a pretty standard practice, it’s not exactly as ingrained into our American psyche as tipping waitresses is. And these aren’t unskilled laborers. Maybe they’re not big on the book learning, but most of them have some training and they can all do something I can’t do. I mean, I occasionally trim my father’s hair and it usually just looks like some wild animal with talons mauled the back of his head.

Haircuts are usually paranoid self-centered events for me. But listening to the head speaker address all these stylists, urging them to fill up their schedules, send out appointment reminder cards to their clients, I realized that stylists have a ton of external pressure placed upon them. All the scary questions I dread so much from hairstylists are just part of their job. And probably not necessarily a part of their job they’re nuts about. Plus they have to deal with people who can’t bother to cut their hair more than once a year.  
I walked away from the salon with shorter, healthier hair and a reminder that we’re all in this together. Making the cut’s never easy.
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Smoke! Fire!!

Thursday, October 21, 2010
Despite losing our leaves what seems like a long time ago, we've been having a knock-out October in these parts. The nip in the air has been perfectly complimented by bright blue skies and just the slightest breezes. (Of course, we're all worried about the decided lack of rain as the lake levels get lower and lower, but that's another topic for another day.) And all that beautiful weather translates into smoke in the air.

We live on a small pocket of private land in a national forest. As you head up the road towards the cabin, the rolling hills of mixed forest that dominate alongside Lake Superior start to fade into granite outcroppings as you approach the very southern edge of the Boreal forest. This is a landscape that's been shaped by fire for centuries, if not millenia and as a result, one of the prime ways the local forestry agency keeps the forest healthy is by lighting control burns we know as "prescribed burns."

Prescribed burns are meant to be a fairly routine procedure around here, but pulling off what is essentially a controlled forest fire is kind of tricky business. On top of needing very particular weather conditions to pull off the burns, funding can often be a roadblock since the burns are controlled by a federal agency. But all the pieces of the puzzles have somehow miraculously fit together this fall and last week, a (very) large plume of smoke appeared on the south edge of our lake from a prescribed burn, several thousand acres in size, that had been lit about 15 miles southwest from the cabin. For the past week and a half, the air's often filled with the smell of campfire. The smoke in the air can make the setting sun look a bit like a candled egg.

It can be funny to think that a bit of smoke in the air is probably one of the most natural things to smell up here on a fall day. Beyond the wood that heats so many of our homes or roasts our marshmallows, we tend to think of fire only in destructive terms. A large part of my summer was spent talking with people who had just seen the evidence of our 2007 wildfire for the first time. Fire often doesn't look real great and we forget its functionality. I just read in The Secrets of Wildflowers that Native Americans used fires to in the eastern part of the United States for agricultural purposes for hundreds of years before the Europeans showed up.Fire is a powerful tool if we use it correctly and Mother Nature's ability to recover so spectacularly after a fire should be considered miraculous, in my opinion.

Andy's been part of the volunteer fire department for the last couple years. Today he's helping out with the prescribed burns, mostly being available in case one of the fires creeps out of its designated boundaries and makes a run for a residential area. Both Andy and I grew up with forest fires being treated as a necessary reality of life in the woods. To us, the smoke doesn't signal distress, but something exciting that helps our forest grow strong.

After all, it's just a bit of smoke in the air.
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Don't Mind Me: I'm Composting

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I’ve been thinking about composting a lot lately. We pulled in the garden a couple weeks back and we’re trying to figure out how we can improve the garden’s productivity next year. As I’ve mentioned, some things did really well in our garden this past summer, but that’s not to say that we had a miraculous vegetable garden our first time out. We were definitely victims of our own limited understanding of gardening. The wind battered the onions to oblivion, the spinach simply refused to go, the squash sat stagnantly all summer long. And the soil? The soil could use some testing and alterations.

Soil has always been a struggle in our neck of the woods and our raised beds by the cabin are filled with a concoction of who-knows-what: bags of black dirt, the naturally occurring sand in the area, whatever came with the nursery plants. Growing up, my parents’ garden was a veritable field of clay. I watched them dump manure and ashes on the soil. And we saved all of our kitchen scraps and took them “out back” to the compost heap.

Frankly, when I was little I thought the compost was disgusting. The pail we threw all the kitchen scraps into always smelled terrible. The pile could attract bears to the yard and it took forever for the decomposition to actually occur.

Now that I’m grown, I’ve come to see the virtue of composting. It only makes sense to save your food waste and turn it into something that can drastically improve your garden’s soil.

On Monday, I went out back to spend some time with our compost pile at the cabin. I separated out the most recent additions to the pile into its own pile and discovered a rich, black soil forming in the pile’s bottom half. It’s pretty amazing. I have my fingers crossed that the latter bit of compost will be ready to be spread over the garden come spring.

It struck me that it’s time for me to turn over my own compost pile. I’ve been spending the last five months wound around an out-of-the-house job. I’ll still be tied to the job throughout the winter as I work a couple days from home, but I’ll have much (much!) more time for writing. Now is the time to delve deep inside the part of me that supposed to have been experiencing a wonderful transformation and rejuvenation during my “otherwise engaged” summer. Now is the time to pull out the neglected writing projects, to re-engage with conversations with editors who have likely forgotten about me, to start querying, and doing ferocious self-promotion.

Compost still isn’t always a “good time.” And I can’t say I’m really looking forward to plunging my elbows into my own compost heap and doing all the grunt work that comes with any sort of writing success.

After all, compost takes some getting used to. But if we refuse to turn our compost, or if we just give up on stuff that looks like waste, we’ll never know what can become of things we’ve let sit for a while. I am looking forward to seeing what blossoms when my compost turns to soil.
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Friday, October 15, 2010
At long last, the summer season is wrapping up and I have just three (THREE!) days of work left. I've been looking forward to the winter months with uncharacteristic longing this year and since business has slowed to a mere trickle of daily business, it's proving to be time to shut up shop and direct energies otherwise.

Because Wednesdays have been a bear to get covered all season and since we close on Sunday, I begrudgingly  selflessly decided to shift my weekly schedule back a day, so that instead of working Thursday-Monday this week, I'm working Wednesday - Sunday this week, and just took Tuesday off. On paper, the move made perfect sense. In reality, I'm having a hard time figuring out what day of the week it is. Feels like a Saturday to me, but thankfully, it's just Friday, since Friday happens to be a deadline day.

Got up this morning to finish up my monthly writing assignments. I'm flirting dangerously with the deadline, but am basically done. Huzzah!

While I got up this morning at a reasonable time, Andy did not. Having come down with "the crud", he's laid up in bed, sniffling away.

It's all a little discombobulating. What day is it again?
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Anne of Green Gables Set Me Up for Domestic Failure

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
My mother did not raise my brother and I as slobs. We made our beds each morning. We were expected to vacuum every evening. Despite my mother's belief that our house was always dirty, we really grew up in a tidy, clean home.

In college, to stave off the omnipresent housekeeping battles among roommates, we established a cleaning schedule. Each week all the roommates alternated between cleaning the kitchen, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, and scrubbing the floors. Of course that left dishes as a free-for-all and as can be expected among a group of stressed out girls that did not go well.

The point is, while I prefer a tidy house, I'm not the sort who's going get their knickers in a twist over a little dust and will go so far as to claim that a little dust strengthens the immune system. But oh are there times I wished my living space was just a little cleaner.

Let's take this past week for example. Andy is undertaking yet another project that involves cutting holes in the ceiling (installing a bathroom fan over the shower to help battle against the mildew problem) and that means the living room that was clean for about two minutes when we took out all the recycling last Tuesday, is again a pile of power tools and empty cardboard boxes. The rug by the couch is so dirty that I haven't done my knees exercises the last few mornings because I can't be bothered to vacuum. The kitchen counter seems coated with some mysteriously sticky substances that Mrs. Meyers' countertop spray can't penetrate. The bedroom basically looks like to went through a hurricane of dirty clothes.

When I first read Anne of Green Gables, I was an impressionable young adult. In the books, the characters are always overwhelmed with domestic duties: cooking, cleaning, etc. There is a particularly poignant scene where Anne expresses a desire to make sure every inch of the house is always spotless because while guests to the house would never know that cellar steps hadn't been swept or the attic dusted, she would know it wasn't clean. It seemed so admirable to set yourself up to such a high standard of cleanliness and deep down, I wanted to be like Anne. I wanted to be the perfectionist who knew there was no dust to be found in the house. 

But I can't do it. I just can't. 

I mean, do you know how often you're supposed to be washing your sheets?! At the risk of an over-share, let me just state that I feel lucky if I get the linens washed once a month around here. This morning I swept up a dust pan full of dust, hair, crushed tortilla chip particles, and goodness knows what else from our kitchen floor, which, for the record is about 12 square feet. I can almost feel the glare of Marilla Cuthbert (Anne's guardian) on me every day I walk through our front door.

With today's standard two income households, housekeeping seems like the most logical first thing to let slide. (After all, I can deal with a dirty house, I'm less tolerant of an empty stomach.) I could blame Anne of Green Gables for prompting me to set unattainable standards of cleanliness. But the truth is that Anne and I are from different eras. I don't spend every day cleaning and preparing meals. I spend my days out of the houses pursuing a paycheck. Even my days off involve more errands than cleaning. I should feel any range of emotions about the fact that I will not be Good Housekeeping's poster girl any time soon: guilty, disgusting, a failure. But for some reason, I don't.

Because let's be honest, even Anne, after she'd hunkered down with Dr. Gilbert Blythe, hired Susan, the housekeeper.
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That Time of the Month

Saturday, October 9, 2010
No, not that time of the month . . . . But any regular reader of the blog knows that middle of the month is not notorious for treating me well. So is it any great surprise that it's October 9th and all I want to do is write about how overwhelmed I am?

Yes, it's that time of the month when all the deadlines seem to come at once. Articles need to be written, I have yet to be written and recorded commentary scheduled for this coming Wednesday, and this blog's editorial calendar has fallen spectacularly to pieces. To add to the craziness, work is rapidly winding down and I only have one day off between now and the end of season which means only one free day to deal with all of this extra stuff not to mention dealing with the regular work stuff like shutting down the gift shop, preparing grant applications, and dealing for a massive school field trip next week.

You'd think that would be enough to quell the little voices. Instead, the little voices like to take these overwhelming times to say things like: "You know, you're really not doing that much, if you'd just apply yourself a little bit more this wouldn't be so hard." The little voices worry that I "should be doing more." They wonder if I'm "getting stuck in rut." 

So in the midst of all the little voices yesterday, or perhaps because my utter inability to concentrate, I signed up for a writing class. It's just a one day nature writing class in town next month, but it will be the first time I will have put myself in a writing classroom since college. I know I need to get out and network with other writers, but it seems once you have minor success with something, it's easy to shut yourself in a little box that inhibits growth. Sometimes we have to shake up the normal routine by doing something that truly scares us.

Even as I dig the rut of "this time of the month" deeper and deeper with my ineffectual worrying, I know I need to remember that ruts are just a small part of a very long road.
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Occupational Hazards

Thursday, October 7, 2010
This spring someone asked if I had a pocket knife they might borrow. I hoisted my "Sex and the City" tote bag higher on my shoulder and looked around, assuming they'd been talking to someone else. Just because I live in the woods, one shouldn't forget my pile of high-heeled shoes collecting dust in a corner. In lots of ways it feels that woods chose me more than I chose them and as a result, I'm not the most proactive woods resident. Pocket knife? What pocket knife?

Still, I'm not Carrie Bradshaw. I'm not going to throw a fit if a squirrel scampers up on the windowsill. I'm pretty in sync with the other animal residents of my neighborhood. The squirrels, chipmunks, birds, foxes, etc., all have a special place in my heart.

But going back to the whole not always being that proactive . . . . For whatever reason, despite having grow up in older houses, I'd never actually set a mouse trap until this summer. But when you work in a 76-year-old building that was never winterized, you learn pretty quickly. Now I think nothing of setting mouse traps or wiping bat crud off the cabin's bathroom walls, for that matter.

Yet I wasn't quite prepared for the woodland intruder I found beneath my desk at work last week: a little garter snake. He was just a teeny little snake who must have slithered through the crack by the front door, probably to soak up some of the sunlight the large slab of slate next to my desk had absorbed.

Years ago, in my kindergarten days, we rented an old house that seemed to be a veritable garter snake refuge. My brother and I often were called upon to remove snakes from the basement or stairwell. But after one of the snakes defecated on me (one of their defense mechanisms), the chore kind of lost its enjoyment. I looked at the little snake and thought, "I could live a long happy life without having to touch you."

Luckily one of the visitors had a thing for snakes. She thought nothing of crouching down by the desk and pulling the snake out by his tail. Here's our bold little snake. He really wasn't too scary. We got him back in the woods in no time, although he left our fearless snake remover a present by musking on her hands before she let him go.
I apologize if this not how one should properly hold a snake. The intent was not animal cruelty but to release the snake into his natural habitat.

That's just life in the woods.
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It Always Ends This Way !

Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Since grouse season started a couple weeks back, our evenings have fallen into a bit of a schedule. As I close up shop at work, Andy stops at home to get a snack and fill up the water bottles. Then he heads over to work and we set out on evening ruffed grouse reconnaissance. Some nights we bump around in the pickup truck on gravel roads. Other nights we stretch our legs on nearby snowmobile or ski trails, enjoying the sweet musty smell of decaying leaves, the way the setting sun sinks into the horizon this time of year, and the last lingering wildflowers. The grouse have been plentiful this year and we’ve already had three grouse dinners.

I also spend a decent amount of our evenings out in the woods hoping we don’t run into a moose. The moose are in rut right now which makes them plenty cranky (Andy’s experiences a few years back are a perfect case in point) and the fact that it’s also moose hunting season gives me just one more reason why I don’t need our paths to cross with a moose. After last year's experience I’ve had enough fun moose experiences to last me a while.

Mama and Baby outside Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center: August 2010

People always think I’m being a jerk when I say “I only see moose when I don’t want to see them.” (Well, I might be being a bit of jerk, but I am sick of being asked “where’s the best place to see moose?” and then receiving incredulous looks when I explain that there is no rhyme or reason, people see moose all over at any time of day.) But it’s true: I rarely see moose in a situation where I have the luxury of observing the moose. More often than not, moose and I run into each other because one of us is in the wrong place.

On Sunday night, we’d almost back to the truck when Andy motioned for me to stop. “There’s a huge bull moose up there,” he whispered. I gulped. Once we were back in the truck, we tried to figure out what the moose were up to. There were definitely two moose moving about in the woods, but it was hard to tell what they were doing. They obviously weren’t too terribly concerned with us.

Then on Monday night, while Andy and I had paused in a wooded clearing, a wolf let out a long low howl. It sounded like to came from right behind me. “Here take my knife,” Andy whispered. We tiptoed back to the truck. Of course nothing happened.

But: dang it! These fabulous autumn hikes of ours always end like this!

Luckily, our evenings also often end with yummy grouse dinner (usually consumed around 9 p.m.) like homemade grouse noodle soup. You can make it with chicken too.

Homemade Grouse (Chicken) Noodle Soup
4-5 grouse breast or 1 whole chicken
12 cups water
2 teaspoons powdered chicken bouillon
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon thyme
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 ½ cup carrot slices
1 recipe homemade noodles

In a small saucepan, cover grouse with water and boil 20 minutes. Remove grouse from pot, cool and cut into bite sized pieces. Simmer in a large soup pot with all the remaining ingredients except the noodles for a ½ hour. Start noodles while soup is simmering.

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup water

Mix flour and salt together. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, oil and water. Mix into flour. Turn dough out onto a floured countertop: knead for eight to ten minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Divide dough in half. Roll each dough piece until 1/16-1/8 inch thick. Cover with a cloth and let rest for 20 minute to relax gluten. Slice dough into strips 3/8 inch wide. Drop noodles, one at a time, into simmering soup. Cook until tender: about 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to the soup to taste: Enjoy!
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Happily Ever After? What's Wrong With Fairy-Tale Weddings

Monday, October 4, 2010
Marriage may be at an all time low in the United States, but it doesn't seem the twenty-somethings of the country have gotten that message. I'm not be getting married, which pretty much means I'm standing still while a stampede of brides-to-be course around me. Starting to feel like a tinny, broken record of "Congratulations!" here.

I'm not opposed to marriage in the least. But over the years, I've grown increasingly apprehensive of the notion that we need just wrap ourselves in a "let's get married and have babies" bandage to reach "happily ever after." For half of us, our marriages won't last a lifetime. Contrary to popular belief, problems to any potential union aren't vanquished with the magic words "I do." So I tread carefully with the whole marriage issue.

Still, I'm a girl. I get the excitement that goes into planning a wedding with all the decisions about cake, dresses, and colors. If we can keep our inner-Bridezillas at bay, I think planning a wedding sounds like a pretty good time.

But I guess I'd forgotten that the stampede of brides-to be rushing past me spent as much, if not more time, watching Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, as me. And that means that this whole generation of girls grew up with Disney's female leads, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine, as their style inspirations. I never realized the biggest first name in the wedding dress industry isn't "Vera" or Vivienne," but "Walt."

This past week, Disney announced its "Fairy Tale Wedding" dress line which offer seven dresses all inspired from dresses worn by animated characters from Disney films. And the dresses aren't bad. Some of them are really quite pretty. But I find something discomfiting in the amount of suspended reality that's involved with slipping into one of these dresses.

Can I say something? It does not bode well if you are getting married solely so you can be princess for the day. A wedding's meant to be a celebration of two people committing to a life together. It's not supposed to be your last shot at the great Halloween costume you never had. This latest dress collection just seems mildly unhealthy for the concept of marriage.

But I could be wrong. . . . Maybe it really is true love if you can get your fiance to stand at the alter looking like this: 

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Confessions of an Unfocused Writer

Friday, October 1, 2010
Then there’s the other reason why I don’t broadcast the fact that I write to every Joe Schmo I meet: I really have no idea what I write.

Other than finally giving up on poetry (really, that wasn’t going anywhere), I’ll write about just anything. The blog and commentary center around my experiences as a local twenty-something in the woods, but I’m not sure that’s what I want as a “niche.” So I also write articles on local happenings, produce a historical radio documentary, and write travel scouting reports. In the fiction realm I dabble in short stories and longer works. I’d try out other writing too if given the opportunity. After all, it’s the process of getting the words on the page and editing them into the right order that I enjoy.

But does that mean I’m getting lost and overwhelmed on the freeway of information? Should I be looking for an exit, some specialized, smaller path on which to hone my skills, if only to have a break from the noise and bustle of the freeway?

Maybe we writers are better off choosing a genre and sticking with it. At the very least, we might want to spend enough time with one particular type of writing to develop some specialized skills. There’s always a huge risk involved with being a generalist: that we’ll learn to be fine at plenty of things but exceptional at nothing.

It’s been an age old problem. I don’t want to choose. My last two years of college were filled with an underlying fear that I was going to be forced to gather all my skills and interests into one tidy package as soon as I graduated. As I contemplated careers in publishing, editing, magazines, and newspapers, I realized I could be happy doing a lot of things. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that choosing one option over all others would result in me painting myself into the corner. Eventually I settled on freelance writing because I felt it gave me the broadest writing opportunities.

But if we’re to reach our earning potential as freelancers, there needs to be a certain level of specialization. Only by developing specific clips, credibility, and a reputation can we really prove our ability. It’s one thing to be well rounded. It’s another to be able to write in-depth stories.

I had a wonderful conversation with a man last Saturday who spent his career writing for a PR firm. He kept wanting to know what I write. I kept talking in circles. The conservation ended with him being certain he’d found the perfect story for me to pitch to the New York Times. But what struck me was my complete lack of a specific elevator pitch for my own writing, the very thing I claim to want to spend my life doing.

It seems growing up is about making choices. So is it time to stop playing at Peter Pan?
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