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Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Whirlwind of a Weekend

What a weekend!  From a visit from the tooth fairy to hurricane simulators to book fairs and a kickoff for Catholic Schools Week, a lot was squeezed into a few short days.

The excitement in our family began when our youngest lost her front tooth at school (with some help from a teacher) and the tooth fairy visited early Friday morning.  Our daughter not only left her tooth on the windowsill Thursday night (it's too difficult here to locate a tooth under a pillow), but she also left a post-it note and marker so the tooth fairy could write to her.  In addition, there was a mystery bag filled with something white and squishy.  When I inquired about it, she said it was a cotton ball soaked in water so the tooth fairy can clean her tooth more thoroughly.  I love the imagination and wonder of this little girl.  I'm not looking forward to all our little ones growing out of this stage of life.

Friday afternoon the children and I took my future daughter-in-law shopping, and then we met my husband, his parents, and our grown son at a local brewery/restaurant to celebrate his 23rd birthday.  We had lots of food, sampled some good beer, and had some fun looking through a stack of baby pictures of our eldest son that his grandmother found in a trunk at her house.  He looked so much like one of his younger brothers when he was little, and he is looking so much like a younger version of his dad now.

Saturday morning we got up and drove out of town to their cousin's birthday party that was held at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in Harrisburg, PA.  What a fun, interactive, educational place to spend hours on a Saturday afternoon.  Our children were all over the place, but the most popular area seemed to be the hurricane simulator where you could walk in and experience 91 mph winds and have your hair and belongings blown all over the place.  Since I had actually spent time styling and spraying my hair that morning, I passed, but my kids went in there over and over again.  I couldn't get any good photos because they were constantly moving and every picture was blurry, I'm sad to say.

Our youngest isn't just a tooth fairy fan; she's also an artist.  She took up a lot of time on this piece of graffiti art that I was surprised to find later.  She's still young enough to write something like this in front of a bunch of little boys and not be at all embarrassed.  Those little boys waiting in line behind her were quite patient because she took that spot for a very long time.

After getting home late Saturday night and dropping into bed, we awoke early Sunday morning to get to Church to kick off the beginning of Catholic Schools Week.  Two of our children sang with the choir at Mass, and then while my husband and kids had doughnuts and drinks, I helped out at the school's Scholastic Book Fair.  My job was to answer questions, tidy up, and bring out more items.  We'll all be there numerous times throughout the week.  After the book fair and open house shut down for the day, three of us returned to Church for a second Mass because two of our sons were scheduled to be altar servers.

When we left the second Mass at 1:00, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the fifties.  Our foot and a half of snow and ice from Jonas was melting away.  Even though we had homework and studying and laundry and blogging, we had to get out in this beautiful, spring-like weather.

The boys got out their bikes while the rest of us walked behind with our beagle...

...and one of our cats tagged along too.  Sometimes all four of our felines walk behind us and cry when we get to the bridge that they don't like to cross.

Even our older daughter pulled herself away from Pinterest long enough to start training for spring track which will begin in a month.  What a change this busy warm weekend turned out to be from the last when we were all snowed in up here with Jonas.

I can't wait to see what February brings.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How This Cat Threw Out My Back

When I described our weekend with Snowstorm Jonas in my last blog post, I left out the part about our pets and my back.  We took pity on our four "barn" cats and the beagle and let them in for the day while the snow fell and the winds blew outside our farmhouse.

If we don't let them in, the cats and chickens line up on the back porch railing and stare into the kitchen window looking hungry, cold, and pitiful.  I put my foot down with the chickens and other livestock, however.  They must stay outside in the barn.

After playing outside with our children and running the best she could through over a foot of snow, Tippy was content to lie on the kitchen floor in front of the warm coalstove for hours.  She didn't mind the mess of boots and gloves drying all around her.  She was quite well-behaved except that her hound smell permeated every part of the kitchen, but she can't help that.

  But this black cat, Star, is our favorite; or should I say, he WAS my favorite pet.  He is big, fluffy, gentle, the best mouse hunter, and a survivor.  He stands up to loose dogs, brings his prey to the other feline residents, always waits until the other cats have finished before he eats a morsel, and takes the least comfortable chair if he is allowed inside the house.  He even stands at the door and meows when he needs to go outside.  His only flaw is that he hates to use the bathroom in the snow.

On Saturday afternoon, as the snow was winding down and my husband was outside shoveling and making paths for the younger children to go sledding, I was making a hearty beef stew in the crockpot.  Star began walking around me, looking up into my eyes, and being restless.  I gave him water, but he didn't want that.  I gave him food, but he didn't want that either.  I opened a cupboard door to retrieve a measuring cup, and he tried to walk into the cupboard.  I realized he needed to go outside, so I opened the front door and called for him.  He looked me in the eyes, turned around, and ran the other way.  Before I knew it, he sneaked behind the dining room door where the childrens' backpacks were hidden out of sight, and I heard our daughter yell, "No, Star. Noooo!"

As I realized what he was up to, I rushed to the backpacks and lunged forward to grab the cat squatting there, and then I felt it.  Something pulled in my low back, and I could not move.  Our daughter grabbed the cat and put him outside as our teen son cleaned up the mess he made on the brand new backpack and the floor, and I was paralyzed on my hands and knees next to it all.  I felt most undignified, but I couldn't stop laughing at the hilarity of the situation.  Had I really just thrown out my back because this cat would not willingly use the bathroom in the snow?  Really?  It took five minutes, two teenaged children, and a dining room chair to successfully get me back up on my feet.  Even then, I couldn't stand up straight.  For the rest of the day and night, I could only walk very slowly, hunched over, with the assistance of two people.  Lying flat on my back was the only relief I got from the pain.  I went to bed that night with a heating pad, a muscle relaxer, and some ibuprofen wondering if an ambulance would be able to get up our snow-covered lane because I was certain I could never get in and out of our SUV.  I couldn't imagine going another day without a visit to the hospital emergency room.

Believe it or not, after a restful night's sleep, with the exception of a snap and shooting pain at one point when I tried to prop myself up on an extra pillow, I awoke the next morning pain-free.  I was able to get out of bed and walk downstairs on my own.  As the day progressed, I became more mobile and the tight muscle in my back gradually loosened.  As the weekend ended, I felt almost back to normal, and except for a little twinge every now and then, I have been fine ever since.  Our six-year old believes that is due to all her prayers Saturday night.  I certainly did my own share of praying too since I knew I would need to be able to drive children around and do tons of laundry all this week.  I have thanked God numerous times and breathed many sighs of relief that my mishap was short lived.

While I definitely believe in the power of prayer, I'm also not willing to tempt fate.  I'm afraid Star has been banned from the house for the foreseeable future.  Or at least until the next major snowstorm.  Perhaps I should just invest in a litter box.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Visit From Jonas This Weekend

I know many of us had a visitor named Jonas this weekend.  For us, it was a rare weekend where we didn't have to go anywhere, my husband wasn't on call, and we were expecting no other company.  Since it's already late January, and we'd only received a few inches of snow this winter, we were excited at our house and hopeful that we would get at least half a foot.

This sign I drew for our front porch expressed our sentiments as we went to bed Friday night.  The forecast said we might receive anywhere from 1 inch to 10 inches over the next day or so.

We awoke Saturday morning to a winter wonderland of a foot of snow!

It continued to snow throughout the day Saturday.  The snow got higher and higher until the winds started blowing it around.

It was rather pointless to shovel driveways or paths until late in the afternoon.

All of our children spent a great part of the day outside building forts, throwing snowballs, eating snowflakes, and...


Lots and lots of sledding.

Even Hubby got in on the action by making paths and sledding too.  He made me promise I wouldn't post any photos of him on the sled though.  It's too bad because those were some of my best pictures.  Sigh...

By the end of the day, we got somewhere between 14 and 16 inches, as far as we could tell.

We woke up this Sunday morning to the sun shining through the pine trees and glistening on the snow.

And the sky was this breathtaking blue.

Snowstorm Jonas was a perfect visitor for us this weekend, and he didn't disappoint.  Our prayers go out, however, to all those stranded on the turnpike, who lost electricity and heat, and to those families who lost loved ones due to the storm.  Here in the Alleghenies, while we did get a whopper of a snowstorm, we were spared the absolute worst of it and were able to enjoy our visitor and a day of being snowed in at home.

I'd love to hear stories from those of you who also met Jonas this weekend.  How did you spend these three days?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Baked Cavatelli, Botox Conversations, and Cookie Bars

In keeping with my earlier attempts to beat the January doldrums, we had some friends over for dinner last weekend.  While the boys took turns riding a dirt bike, the girls chatted and listened to music, and the adults discussed all kinds of unrelated things over some pumpkin beer and white wine.  This family is of Italian descent, but that slipped my mind when I prepared a menu of two full baking dishes of cavatelli, garlic bread, and salad.  Once they arrived, it occurred to me that none of my Italian dishes could possibly compete with what their grandmothers prepared.  But it was too late to change my mind.  I apologize for the somewhat blurry pictures today.  I took these shots hurriedly with my tablet after a few glasses of wine as everyone watched and waited for me to be finished so we could finally eat.  I'm not sure how other bloggers discreetly photograph their subjects for upcoming blog posts.  I always feel rather embarrassed photographing in front of my guests.

Baked Cavatelli

Prepare 1 pound of wagon wheel pasta al dente.  Drain and set aside.  Bake 1 pound of Italian link sausage for 45-60 minutes until cooked through.  Slice approximately 1/2 inch thick and set that aside.  In a small skillet, cook 3 small diced onions and 2 minced garlic cloves in some olive oil until tender.  In a baking dish, combine the cooked pasta and sausage, the onion mixture, 1 jar of spaghetti sauce, 1/2 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese, some oregano, basil, salt, and pepper.  Toss gently to combine.  Bake, covered, in a 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until center is hot.  Uncover and sprinkle another 1/2 cup of shredded mozarella on top.  Bake uncovered for another 5-10 minutes.  This serves 6-8.  I doubled the recipe to fill 2 baking dishes.

We picked up a couple of frozen loaves of garlic bread from the supermarket and put them in the oven right before it was time to eat.  Along with a tossed salad with a simple oil/vinegar salad dressing recipe I use all the time, dinner was made for 11 people, and there was some cavatelli left over.

There are friends you're just so comfortable around that you can talk about anything easily.  Somehow the topic of Botox came up.  And Botox parties.  And mobile Botox party trucks.  And injections of Juvederm and a host of other mid-life topics.  I don't even know how this all originated except I have only recently become aware of the existence of such things and have been rather curious about their effects.  When I was in my twenties, I thought that when I reached my forties and fifties, I would finally be able to relax about my appearance.  I mistakenly assumed that there would no longer be this pressure to look young, svelte, and...perfect.  But somewhere in the past 20-30 years, it seems that the standards have definitely changed.  I remember when a woman of 50, who could be a grandmother, would still look attractive, but she looked like an attractive middle-aged woman.  She didn't continue to look 30.  Now the checkout aisles are full of magazine covers of celebrities my age and much older who still look the way they did two or three decades ago.  It doesn't seem fair that we women never get to relax.  Not only are these women careful about their diets and exercise regimes, but I discovered a thick magazine in Barnes & Noble that is all about the latest products and procedures and surgeries that even non-celebrities go through in order to still look youthful and flawless.  At what age does this immense pressure to look like the cast of Friends end?  I hate that this exists, that I even think about it, and that my daughters will face this their entire lives.  Anyway, that is sort of what the Botox dinner conversations were about.  Only with good friends can these things be discussed at the dinner table along with politics, religion, and all those other impolite topics.

To finish off dinner, I made these sinful Dark Chocolate/Peanut Butter Chip Cookie Bars.  Fortunately, they were gone by the end of the evening so there were no temptations for me the rest of the week.  

Dark Chocolate/Peanut Butter Chip Cookie Bars

Stir together 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  In another bowl, beat (with mixer) 2 sticks of softened butter, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until creamy.  Add 2 eggs and beat well.  Gradually add flour mixture, beating well.  Stir in 1/2 bag of Hershey's Special Dark mildly sweet chocolate chips and 1/2 bag of Reese's peanut butter chips.  Spread in a greased baking dish and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

As I end this blog post and continue to strive to age gracefully, I share the following quotes that keep me focused on what really matters:

"At the end of the day, you will not remember the person with the most beautiful face, but you will remember the person with the most beautiful heart and soul." (unknown)

"A pretty face gets old, a nice body will change.  But a good woman will always be a good woman."  (unknown)

"Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised."  (Proverbs 31:30)

"Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.  Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile."  (Mother Teresa)

And a heartfelt thankyou goes out to all my friends and family who have blessed me with their companionship over the past few weeks.  You are making winter fly by!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Preparing for Power Outages: What I Learned From the Amish

This past week brought our first snowfall of the season and also some extremely heavy winds which caused our electricity to flicker off and on several times during the night.  Our past experience has shown us that the flickering is a precursor to a full-blown loss of electricity for several hours or even several days.  Living in the country and up on the side of a mountain means at least half a dozen power outages a year, with many of them occurring during the winter when it's freezing outside.  Sometimes summer thunderstorms bring them on as well, but those are a little easier to deal with since it stays light longer and a cold house isn't an issue.

In the nine years we have lived in this house, our only "next door neighbors" have been Old-Order Amish.  That means they have absolutely no electricity, telephones, or even indoor plumbing.  It is truly like living back in the mid-nineteenth century except that they do allow gasoline powered ringer washing machines and chainsaws.  I learned that it is possible to live without electricity, computers, running water, and appliances.  Life certainly isn't as easy or as comfortable, but our family has gradually learned enough and purchased enough essentials to be able to sit out any storms or blizzards that might wipe out electrical or phone lines for a time.  The above book, Living Without Electricity, and Lehman's Company have been extremely helpful in our pursuits to prepare for periods of time when we would be living off the grid.

For some reason, about nine times out of ten, our power goes out at night.  That means we need to have alternative light sources all over the house.  We have a total of five oil lamps, a couple of lanterns, numerous flashlights and headlights stashed all over the house, and too many candles to count.  When you have to be concerned with starting a fire or making some coffee in the wee hours of early morning, and it's still dark everywhere, you don't want to be stumbling around an old farmhouse trying to find a flashlight that works.  Some of our oil lamps and candle holders actually have little handles to hook a finger through so you can carry them around wherever you go.  

Of course, those candles and flashlights are useless if there are no working batteries, lighters, or matches.  I try to keep us stocked up on those at all times.  We used to have a crank-up flashlight that worked for brief periods of time, and those are nifty to have around as well.

The same goes for lamp oil for the oil lamps.  I keep about half a dozen bottles stashed in the basement at all times.  The colored oils are beautiful in the clear-bottom lamps that can be located all through your house.

I have learned that not all oil lamps are of great quality though.  The two I have pictured in this post are my favorites because they give off a ton of light.  The one in this photo has this reflector attached to the wall which helps brighten a room.  The brass one shown in the other picture is a ship lamp which can be carried around because it always stays upright and doesn't spill.  It also creates lots of light.  With just those two lamps lit in my kitchen, we can see well enough to cook and eat.  Sometimes even if we haven't lost power, the children ask to eat by lamplight.  It makes us feel like we're in Little House in the Prairie.

We even keep this covered candle hanging on a wall near the top of the stairs.  My husband made the wooden candle holder in his junior-high shop class.  This can be such a help during a power outage for little ones who need to make their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

I think my main concern during a snowstorm is that if we lose electricity, we'll lose our electric heat and hot water.  Out here a wood-burning stove or coal stove is a necessity.  Our Harman stove burns both wood and coal.  Coal definitely burns hotter, doesn't create creosote in the chimney, only needs to be added about twice a day, and keeps our entire farmhouse toasty warm.  However, we don't always have coal on hand, and once our mountain lane gets covered in snow or ice, the coal truck can't make it up here, so we sometimes have to burn wood.  Our stove gets hot enough to easily boil water, and it is equipped with a motorized fan to blow the hot air out the front of the stove, making it even more efficient at warming the house.  The problem is that the fan requires electricity.  So some friends of ours gave us the fan above that sits on top of the stove and moves once the stove gets hot.  The hotter the temperature of the stovetop, the faster the fan runs.  My boys are awestruck by this.  While this stove is not the most attractive thing in my kitchen, it can be spiffed up by applying black stove polish, and when it's below freezing outside and we lose power, I am so grateful that we have it even if it is an eyesore.

Insulated curtains are another huge help to maintaining a comfortable temperature in this house.  When closed in the winter, they really keep out the cold air that seeps in through the windows and chills those sitting nearby.  In the summer, they're great at blocking out sunlight and trapping the heat behind the curtains.  This means we're not using air conditioning or as much heat.

Other important items to have on hand in the winter are lots of wool or polartec blankets and down comforters.  Hot water bottles and long underwear can be quite useful too.

After lighting and heating concerns have been addressed, I know it's only a matter of time before I have to deal with feeding our big brood without an electric stove, oven, or microwave.  I try to keep some of our pantry shelves in the basement stocked with canned fruits, vegetables, sauces, soups, and meats.  We also have dried beans and fruits that we've dehydrated ourselves.  I usually keep several bags of rice and a few other assorted items as well.  If the electricity stays out for quite awhile, then refrigerated items get used up first, especially in the summer.  If it's winter, we actually have less of a problem because our basement is as cold as the refrigerator or even colder.  We've successfully kept items from our freezer in coolers kept outside in the winter or even packed in snow.  I have seen our Amish neighbors keep dairy products from spoiling by setting them in spring water all day, which is something I wouldn't have thought of on my own.  Because we grow some of our own food in our gardens and greenhouse, and we keep dairy goats and laying chickens, having enough food on hand isn't usually our problem...

...Cooking/baking the food is more of an issue.  Fortunately, our coal stove is hot enough to warm up almost anything and can be made hot enough to boil or fry things as well.  You can't use just any cookware on top of this stove, however.  We keep several cast iron skillets, dutch ovens, and other items around that can be used either on the coal stove, a campfire, or on our charcoal grill.  They're versatile enough to be used indoors in the winter and outside in the summer.  This can be a lifesaver if the electricity is out for more than a few meals.  Sandwiches and snacks get old fast when it's cold and our bodies want something hot and nutritious and comforting.  We've made all kinds of meals this way.  It sometimes takes a bit longer to cook (especially in the Dutch ovens), but it is worth the wait.

We also have a propane burner used for camping and extra bottles of propane.  If we have to, we set this up outside, and we can cook something small on it or make coffee.  I also have this French coffee press that only requires hot water to make two cups of coffee.  These things have been stored in the basement, so forgive the spiderwebs and dust on them.  This leads me to the one extremely important thing I forgot to mention that I must have first thing in the morning...

...Coffee!  If I use the French press, then we simply heat water in our enamel tea kettle.  But I prefer freshly perked coffee that is rich and steaming hot.  The coffee maker above is actually the one we have used every day since our last electric coffee maker bit the dust.  In the nearly 16 years we've been married, we have gone through at least five or six coffee makers.  When the last one broke, my husband dug out this one from his camping supplies in the garage, and we decided we like the taste of the coffee made in it better than any other coffee.  When we have electricity, we just heat it on our electric stove, but when the power goes out, we make it on the little propane burner.  If we have fire in our coal stove, we keep the coffee pot warm on top of the stove.  The same goes for keeping hot water in the tea kettle for cups of tea or cocoa throughout the day.  The steam also puts some moisture back into the dry winter air.

While we're talking about coffee and tea, I need to mention the trickiest part of living without electricity in the mountains, and that's water.  Our water comes from our well.  It is treated with a UV light to kill any bacteria.  The UV light runs on electricity.  The water is pumped from the well into our house using electricity.  Our hot water heater is an electric one.  When the power goes out, we no longer have indoor plumping. Actually, I should say that no water comes into the house via plumbing.  Technically, water can still leave the house through the pipes because our septic system is down hill from the house, so gravity still pulls it to where it needs to go.  I am so grateful for that. 

We keep bottled water around for drinking because our well water smells and tastes like sulphur.  We also fill the above 6 gallon plastic, food-grade container with fresh spring water from up the mountain.  In the middle of winter, we can't usually drive up there due to the lane being iced over, but so far this winter, that hasn't been a problem.  When the electricity is out, this water is used for drinking, boiling, making coffee or tea, washing dishes, and brushing teeth.  For washing hands and bodies and hair, we have used freshly fallen snow or rainwater that we brought inside in 50 or 100 pound empty chlorine containers that we buy for our swimming pool.  We then pour that into stock pots that can be heated on the coal stove so we're not washing with ice cold water.  For flushing toilets, we fill five gallon buckets with water from our swimming pool if the cover hasn't frozen over.  In a bind, we have gone down to the creek below and hauled up water for flushing.  I have learned that each flush requires a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of water.  If there is laundry to be done, I say a prayer that the power returns soon because I have washed loads of laundry before by our bathtub...with many, many pots of water heated on the coal stove...rung out by hand...and hung on Amish drying racks in my bedroom.   And!

Before I leave the subject of cleaning up, when water is at a premium, bottles of hand sanitizer are a must.  Fortunately, our 13 year-old daughter seems to have a fetish for various fragrances of these, so there always seem to be an abundance on hand in our house.  It's also imperative that toiletries are stocked up because if a storm has created a power outage, there's a good chance that our local roads will be covered in snow until the snowplows finally make their way to the outlying country roads.  Even if the roads are plowed, that doesn't mean our lane will be, so it could be awhile before we can make it out to the stores.  In the spring and summer when a snowstorm isn't the problem, we do get flooding.  There have been a number of times that every road leading anywhere involves a one-lane bridge over creeks.  Typically if one bridge is flooded, they are all flooded, and we are stuck at home until the waters recede.  Let me tell you, there is nothing worse than being stuck at home without power, and your family has run out of toilet paper, and tissues, and baby wipes, and even paper towels.  And your mind is desperately trying to think about what the pioneers did when there was no toilet tissue.  And you just don't want to go there.

There are a few other items that are great to have around in case of power outages that we have purchased.  The wind-up/solar radio above has been great to keep connected with the outside world even if you have dead batteries.  I also love my portable charger, which itself can be charged in our SUV, therefore, not needing electricity.  We use this to power cell phones, laptops, cameras, and other technical things.  Unfortunately, when we lose power, we lose our Wifi.  If our cell phones get service, we can access Internet that way, but our experience has been that if our electricity is out, we don't get enough cell phone service to go on the Internet or make/receive calls or texts.  Of course, that also means our cordless home phones don't work either.  This is why we still keep on hand an old fashioned, land-line telephone that we plug into a phone jack.  There are times that the phone lines are down as well, but this has been rare.  This phone and the handcranked radio are what keeps us from feeling that we are completely shut off from communicating with the rest of the world.

Believe it or not, I do have some other alternative appliances.  This non-electric vacuum cleaner doesn't work as well as the "real" ones with all the attachments, but it will do in a bind.  When the power is out, I don't want to think about cleaning, but sometimes it's a necessity, so this is good to have around.  It's stored in the attic which, ironically, has never been vacuumed since we moved in here.  Do people actually vacuum their attics, I wonder?  We also have an old fashioned hand mixer, meat grinder, ice crusher, food mill, and probably a bunch of other items I've forgotten about that are stashed in the dark corners of our basement.  I'm pretty sure that even if we lost power for an extended period of time, there isn't any food preparation or cleaning that I couldn't do with the variety of non-electric gadgets I have on hand.  Except for maybe making smoothies...because I don't have a blender alternative.

Here's hoping none of us have to worry about a power outage any time in the near future, but in case if we do, we'll be prepared.  It can even be fun pretending to be like the Ingalls family in the big woods or out on the prairie.  At least, maybe for a little while.