Monday, July 22, 2013

Four Thoughts on Camping (Actually, Two Thoughts on Camping and Two Thoughts on S'Mores)

Even though we just went camping two weeks ago, we went camping again, because apparently once you have kids, you are legally required to take them camping twice a year. Don't believe me? Read the fine print on the birth certificate. Right this moment, Prince William and Kate Middleton are probably taking breaks from cuddling their newborn princelet to shop for a 3,000 square foot tent and jewel-encrusted marshmallow roasting sticks.

A few thoughts about camping:

1. Seriously, I must really love these kids to take them camping, because a large part of the appeal of camping eludes me. Basically, camping involves taking all the technological improvements made over the last 200 years and chucking them out the window with two hands: No dishwasher, no flush toilets, no soft beds, no heat or air conditioning -- all the things that make life better now, we leave behind when we go camping. Basically, we become Amish for a few days. And you know how much fun the the Amish have.

2. If you are spatially challenged, be sure to get your sister to put up your tent. That's just common sense.

Sticking your sister with tent duty is especially smart if it starts
raining while she is putting up the tent.

3. You can tell your children that marshmallows taste good even if they catch on fire, but they are not going to believe you.

This is the face of a child who is learning a hard life lesson about burnt marshmallows.

4. Camping is mostly about s'mores. This chart shows what my kids think about while on camping trips:

And speaking of s'mores, they are even better when you slightly melt the chocolate. This is easy to do when you are using a camp stove (hey, something invented in the last 200 years!) rather than a camp fire. Just lay the chocolate bits on the graham cracker and set the whole package near the flame so the chocolate has a chance to get nice and soft while you are roasting the marshmallow, like this:
Best practices is s'more preparation

The melty chocolate and gooey marshmallows really optimize the s'more experience. Plus, the melted chocolate gives the kids a chance to get not just really dirty and sticky, but really quite stupendously dirty and sticky. Thank goodness for wet wipes on camping trips, is all I can say, and don't tell me that people from 200 years ago didn't have wet wipes. Of course they had wet wipes. What do you think they used to clean their hands after they plucked the chickens and milked the cows? Wet wipes are essential for any camping trip, and everybody knows that. I hope Will and Kate know it too.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Run, Fall Down, Run, Fall Down: A Trail Half-Marathon

I ran a half marathon for the first time in a million years and lived to tell the story. And I'm dying to tell you about it, since David for some reason seemed less than fascinated with hearing a mile-by-mile account of the whole event. ("And then at mile 8, the aid station had vanilla Gu instead of berry Gu, which really threw me for a loop...My shoelace came untied at mile 7...")

Running the half  marathon was somewhat of a last minute decision. I had originally signed up to do a 10K as part of this trail race series, but at the last minute I decided to do the half-marathon instead. A half-marathon represents a pretty ambitious distance for me at this point, so I was a bit apprehensive. It's not that I was unprepared, exactly, it's just I didn't have the kind of mileage base that I would have liked to have in order to run a solid half marathon. In other words, I was. . . what's the word I'm looking for? . . . oh, right: unprepared.

I rode up to the event with two runner friends. We talked about the things that runners talk about, and spent the entire 45 minutes in the car discussing race strategy. If you're not a runner, you might not realize it's possible to spend that long talking about the details of an upcoming race, but it is. Heck, we spent a good 15 minutes just talking about the pros and cons of wearing a hat during a race. And it was a fascinating discussion, I will have you know. I'm going to try to turn the whole hat vs. no-hat discussion into a TED talk.

Running the actual half-marathon was fun, in a 13-mile kind of way. The event was all on trails, there were loads of hills, and all the rocks and roots made for challenging footing. The complex footing meant I fell down during the race. In fact, I fell down FOUR times during the race. Fortunately, despite doing four total and complete face plants, I somehow managed to avoid actually injuring myself, and just sustained a few scratches. My guardian angel must have been watching over me, once she managed to stop laughing so hard at me for constantly falling down in the first place.

My legs at the end, muddied from falling down so damn often.

Showing off some scrapes I got from a bush that was alongside the trail
One unpleasant surprise occurred when I got stung by a yellow jacket halfway through the race. I found out that several other runners also got stung by yellow jackets. Is it me, or are yellow jackets really very angry insects? It wasn't like we were bothering them! We were just running by on the path! Listen up, yellow jackets, to a message I am sending you on behalf of all humanity: You just need to CHILL THE FUCK OUT already. It's for your own good. All that aggression can't be good for your buggy blood pressure.

There was some really beautiful scenery during the half marathon. It looked something like this photo:
Not a picture I took during the event
Or maybe the race scenery looked something like this:
Also not a picture I took. But you knew that.
Actually, I have no idea what the race scenery looked like. I was too busy watching my feet to make sure I didn't fall down a fifth time to take a gander at the pretty views. For all I know we ran to the North Pole.

I was really enjoying myself until about mile 9 of the race. When I passed mile 9, I really started looking forward to the finish, but couldn't figure out how far I had left to run. When I run, all the oxygen gets sucked out of my brain, and I can't even do the most basic arithmetic. This is called Running Math Syndrome, and it kicked in big time for me near the end of the race. "Let's see...the full distance is 13 miles and I've run 9 miles, so the distance remaining is...72 miles? Pi? A hypotenuse? Gosh, I guess I'll never know how far I have left to go." That's the pain of RMS.

But I did make it to the end, muddy knees and all. Thanks to narrow age groups and prizes that ran five deep, I even managed to snag an age-group award. Most importantly, I had a good time, and I'm already thinking about signing up for another trail half marathon, maybe in the fall. I would like an event that has been certified as yellow jacket-free.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

All the Animals that Didn't Eat Us

We went camping and didn't get eaten by bears! Mission accomplished!

Granted, we were camping in a park in an urban area with no bears within a hundred miles, but I'll take credit for even dubious achievements. We didn't get eaten by possums, either, and I bet there some were some of THOSE things hanging around.

We camped in a small pocket park about half an hour from home, still in the Madison metropolitan area. The park was right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, so the whole experience wasn't exactly Into the Wild. (Still, the possums, if there were any, were probably vicious.) I chose a location not far from home because it seemed to me that if we wanted to get eaten alive by mosquitoes and have a sleepless night from trying to get rest inside a boiling hot tent, we may as well do that half an hour from home instead of 3 hours from home, since the kids don't know the difference. That's just smart parenting.

Mosquito fodder

Just me and the kids went on this trip, and David stayed home. We almost never have family vacations with David, mostly because David has been on this weird schedule his whole life where he sleeps until noon. That is a hard schedule to accommodate while on vacation, so David usually just stays home. The kids always ask where Daddy is, and I'm not sure what to tell them -- that few things are more important to David than being able to sleep in? -- and so I just tell them that Daddy is a vampire. Then everybody is happy.

The kids had a blast, mostly centered around (a) being in the tent, and (b) eating s'mores. I had forgotten the matches, so we couldn't light the campstove or build a fire, but that didn't matter because the kids were just as happy to eat the s'mores uncooked. Stella demonstrated a technique (below) for making marshmallow "taffy" that I swear to god she said she learned in science class. I'm glad schools are finally getting back to the basics of science education. Now maybe we'll finally catch up to China.

Kids in China learn to make marshmallow taffy insi
I did a few scientific experiments of my own, trying to develop alternatives to s'mores (see pictures below). Since I am a slave to the scientific method, I had to gather many data points to determine that the marshmallow/pretzel sandwich had a small but statistically significant taste advantage compared to the chocolate/pretzel sandwich. The results of my experiment will be published in The Journal of Camping Cuisine, after peer review is completed.

Alternative A
Alternative B. The winner.
We got a bunch of mosquito bites, naturally. The mosquitoes think of my kids as my kids think of s'mores: Rare delicacies that should be taken full advantage of whenever offered.

The nice thing is that even though the weather has been very rainy, the mosquitoes weren't awful. We have had a lot of rain, and I thought that all the standing water would mean lots of places for the mosquitoes to breed. But I read in the paper that the abundance of rain has flooded out the places where the mosquitoes like to breed, keeping populations down. So let's see...rain leads to mosquitoes, but LOTS of rain leads to fewer mosquitoes? This sounds a little suspicious to me, sort of like the argument that the best way to combat gun violence is to make sure more people have guns.

Anyway, now we're back, and it's amazing how just one night, spent less than an hour away, can still leave you tuckered out, dirty, with a bunch of bug bites. The kids had a blast, and I'm pretty proud that I managed to pull off the trip by myself and get everybody back home happy and safe, and that we didn't get eaten by chipmunks. Those things can be nasty.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Keeping the Rats Out

We have a teeny tiny problem with RATS at our house, if there is such a thing as a teeny tiny problem where rats are involved.

Before I delve into our rat issue, first I want to show you some pictures. Here are two things that are NOT helping with the rat problem:

Non-rat eater #1

Non-rat eater #2
To be entirely fair, these cats are strictly indoor cats, and the rats are an outdoor problem. But even if the rats were coming inside, the cats would be of no help. The cats understand perfectly that they themselves are merely ornamental additions to the household and do not have to serve any useful purpose whatsoever other than covering the wood floors with a protective layer of cat barf. (Actually, that's not true. The cats did help me pick my bracket for March Madness. And then they barfed on the floor.)

The real reason we have rats hanging around outside is because we have a lovely, rat-friendly compost pile. I know a lot of people who are really into their compost piles. (Not literally into their compost piles. You know what I mean.) Some people lovingly deposit alternating layers of yard waste and food waste onto their compost pile, turn it, water it, sing it lullabies if it is having problems sleeping, and make sure the pile takes an ACT prep course so it can get into a good college. We take the opposite approach, and just basically throw our banana peels in a pile behind the garage and call it a compost pile. The rats LOVE our approach.

Our compost pile: basically an open-face rat sandwich
For years we had no problem with this approach. But the last few years, rats have moved in. I think we started having problems right around the time Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Once the rats moved in, we formulated a three-step plan of attack:

Step #1: Ignore the rats and do nothing. That is pretty much our approach for many of our problems. And it worked just as well in this case as it did in all the other cases, which is to say not at all.

Step #2: Get a rat trap. This is like a classic snap-the-neck mouse trap, but three times as large. Every day, David painstakingly baited the trap with chicken skin smeared with peanut butter. And every day the trap was sprung and the bait eaten, with no rat in the trap. The rats all but left little thank you notes for the food. ("Everything was so delicious...sorry we couldn't stay longer.") 

We never caught a rat in the rat trap, but one day I checked the trap and found a dead cardinal in there. That was the end of the rat trap.

Step #3: All right, we're done fucking around. We decided to completely rat-proof the compost pile. We got some metal trash cans and drilled a bunch of holes in the bottom of the can, and in the sides of the bottom half of the can. I would like the record to show that yes, I managed to operate power tools in this one instance and did not injure myself. Much.

This picture just looks like trouble waiting to happen, doesn't it?
And yet everything turned out just fine. Weird.

And then we partially buried the cans.This is our new compost pile! The holes in the sides of the cans let bugs and worms and bacteria in and water out, but rats cannot get in. Look how beautiful this is!

Shield your eyes from the glory of our new compost pile
Seriously, this project turned out so well, and is so visually appealing, that I feel like I should post it on Pinterest. Does Pinterest have a special section for rat-proofing crafts? Because if it doesn't, it should. 

The only thing that is missing is some sort of decoration for the compost cans. Maybe the kids and I could paint some pictures on the can lids or something like that. I might like to paint a cardinal.