The Christmas Present

I was watching TV about a year ago, just before Christmas.  There was a commercial for some hot new toy.  Usually I tune out the ads, but this particular time it caught my attention when the announcer said, “Hurry down and buy this blah, blah, blah toy before they are sold out!  You don’t want to be the worst parent on your block!”  Now I am not opposed to commerce and believe in the elusive free market system, but this just rubbed me WRONG!  I swore right then that I would not be caught up in the hype.  I did not give piles of presents for Christmas last year, or this.  Instead I turned my focus to my family and friends, making sure that I appreciated them all year long.

There are some who say that Jesus was not actually born on Christmas and so it is not a celebration of his birth, but I disagree.  The name says it all…CHRISTmas is a celebration of the birth and life of the Christ child.  He brought to this world many special gifts.  Even those who don’t practice Christianity can appreciate the teachings of the Man from Galilee.  It is a universal message of love and a way of living with respect for both yourself and those around you.

The best Christmas present I ever had or ever will have is just enjoying being together with my family and friends.  And the coming year I will remind myself how lucky I am to have wonderful people in my life.  Every day I count the blessings that I have experienced and try, in some small way, to share that good fortune with others.  May your Holiday be blessed with gifts that cannot be purchased for any price.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or some other holiday, may peace and joy be yours today and all through the coming year.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, Va

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, Va

Shooting stars...wishes anyone?

Shooting stars…wishes anyone?


Things To Do While The Kids Are Home

Getting ready to put a foil-wrapped banana on the coals.

Getting ready to put a foil-wrapped banana on the coals.

I am blessed to live in a rural area.  With young kids this can, sometimes, be a challenge though because many of the things kids want to do are a good distance away.  On the other hand, we are able to do things that city dwellers don’t have easy access to.  One of the favorite activities this time of year are bonfires.  Yes, this can be a little hard in the city, but with the advent of the Chiminea it is not impossible.

One of the old stand-by’s for bonfires is S’mores, which are roasted marshmallows and a piece of chocolate sandwiched between two pieces of graham cracker for those unfamiliar.  Variations include using Reese’s cups instead of chocolate bars or Oreo cookies instead of grahams.

Another, perhaps less well known fireside treat is roasted bananas or apples.  If using bananas, leave them in the skin but slice them lengthwise.  Don’t cut all the way through, leave the skin to act as a “banana boat” to hold the goodies.  If using apples, pears or other similar fruit, cut the core out but don’t go all the way through on these either.  Next take your favorite fillings and stuff them inside the cavity.  For bananas you can use chocolate, peanut butter, marshmallows, jellies, nuts, caramels, etc.  For the apples I like brown sugar, cinnamon, maple syrup, peanut butter, walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries…you get the idea.  Let your imagination run wild!  After you stuff these fruits to the point they are no longer resembling health food, wrap them in foil and stick them in the embers.  You may need to turn them a few times to cook them evenly.  While you wait, roast a few dogs or marshmallows.  When they are soft and steamy pull them out and open the foil enough to allow cooling.  This is the hard part.  DON’T burn your tongue!  They will be VERY hot!  Once they cool, dig in and enjoy!  You can, of course, bake these treats in your oven, but you will miss the ambiance of the fire.

At our last bonfire we asked each other where the term came from.  Can you guess?  We couldn’t so we Googled it…most sites refer to the origin as being “bone fire” where animal bones were burned to get rid of the waste.  Now you know.  Perhaps this bit of trivia will further enhance your youngster’s enjoyment of your next bonfire!  In any event, be safe, have fun and make sure not to leave any hot embers unattended.  Please share with us what sort of things your family likes to do together!

Life’s Not Fair, Get Over It

I used to hate it when my mother said that to me. But not only is it true, it is an important lesson to learn.

We, as Americans, seem to have this mistaken idea that fairness is some kind of right. It’s not. In fact, bad things happen to good people all the time. Sure, that bitch we call Karma will eventually even the score, but in the here and now there are tons of instances where her sister Life sticks her foot out to trip us up.

Most of the time when “unfair” things happen it is our own fault. Sometimes we spend more than we should and an unexpected expense pops up that we can’t afford. Other times it is not our fault at all but I find this to be more of the exception than the rule. But I digress and that is for a different post.

Back to the point, life is full of setbacks and inconveniences. There are bullies in every stage of our life and we must be able to work around and often with them. There are things that happen to us because of poor choices that we or someone else made and we must adapt and overcome.

The successful person, the free citizen, finds solutions to problems and overcomes adversity. If we shield our children from the “unfairness” that they inevitably encounter in their youth we are denying them the tools they will need to thrive and excel as adults. So thanks, Mom, for all those moments when I hated hearing, “Life’s not fair, get over it!”

Are We Cheating Our Children?

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children, keep them from harm.  But in

Are you accidentally robbing your child's chances for success?

Are you accidentally robbing your child’s chances for success?

doing so are we depriving them of essential skills they will need as adults?

Consider this…in life you must face adversity.  There are confrontations, negotiations, people who would attempt to deceive or defraud you and those who would physically harm you.  If you have been sheltered as a child and adolescent, you will be unable to recognize and effectively deal with these inevitable situations.  So I suggest to you, as parents, don’t insulate your child from these learning experiences.  Instead, stand beside them and offer support and guidance where appropriate, but let them figure out how to deal with challenges.  You will be guiding them toward success instead of cheating them out of valuable life lessons.

Being Judgemental

There is a common saying, albeit an older and somewhat dated saying, “Don’t judge me.”  I speak with many people who claim to be non-judgmental…but why?  Making assessments, assigning risk and making decisions based on that judgement is essential to survival.  But more importantly, we must make those same assessments of ourselves or we will not effectively direct our personal growth.

I actually WANT to be judged.  I welcome feedback even if it is contrary to my outlook…often especially if it disagrees with my views!  This is how we learn (unless we already know everything and therefore are not open to learning).

By the same token, I make decisions daily based on calculations tempered by my observations of the world around me.  This include things like which route to take when traveling, who to trust with my children or my bank accounts, whether the guy walking toward me on the sidewalk looks like a threat, etc.  All of these things are important and all are necessary to my well being.

But there are more personal assessments that we make in life.  Do you know someone who has a lot of friends?  There are people who call everyone they meet a friend and then there are those who realize that true friendship is earned over time.  In order to determine who is worthy of that exclusive title we must make judgments of the person’s character and use that information to determine if they are worth investing the time it takes to maintain a close relationship.  If so, the rewards are immeasurable.  If not, the risk is greater than the potential.

So the next time someone says that they don’t judge people, ask them why they don’t.  Teach your children to be discriminating and to know the difference between an acquaintance and a true friend.  And by all means, be your own worst critic!  It is your best tool to enhance your station in life.

Self Sufficiency

I haven’t written much in the last few days because I was otherwise occupied with getting food in the freezer.  We processed a pig…yes, we butchered a real pig in its entirety.  Many people don’t think about such things as they simply go to the grocery store and purchase their meat, produce and condiments.  Some people never see raw meat, they only eat packaged foods that they stick in a microwave or oven.  But what would happen if the grocery store shelves went bare?  This is not as unlikely as one might think.  After Hurricane Sandy or an ice storm, or flooding, or any number of natural disasters, deliveries can be disrupted and inventories strained or depleted.

Some of us who live in the country are blessed with gardens, livestock and other resources.  Our supply chain is more dependent on our labor and Ma Nature.  In fact, in talking to many who remember the Great Depression (and there aren’t many of you left) I have learned that those who lived in the cities had trouble feeding their families while those who lived in the country were not nearly as affected.  To hear these country folk talk about the depression they recall not being able to get things like tires or new clothes, but their food source was what they grew or raised so it was still there.  This concept is not so outdated as one might think.  It just takes some backbone and some planning…you know, that responsibility thing that goes along with freedom!

We had two huge marine coolers full of meat!

We had two huge marine coolers full of meat!

So back to this weekend.  We cut up a pig into pork chops, loin roasts, hams, bacon, ground sausage and vacuum sealed the meat.  Today I emptied some freezer space and packed all the meat in…all except the hams and bacon.  Those have to marinate in the seasonings for a while before they are smoked.  Then they will join the rest of the meat in the freezer.

Freshly ground breakfast sausage

Freshly ground breakfast sausage

We had some help from volunteers who wanted to learn this valuable skill and we held an informal class.  We were fortunate to have a teacher who has been a professional butcher show us how to get the greatest yield from the harvest.

Some of you will probably think this is cruel, and you have that right.  Others will be content to eat supermarket meat that has been raised on commercial mega-farms and sent to USDA slaughter houses for mass processing.  On the other hand, the pig we just harvested lived a happy life on a farm with its sister, ate fresh grass and loved life.  It wasn’t fed hormones to make it grow faster or antibiotics to counteract the effects of overcrowding that occurs on commercial farms.  The harvesting was quick and the animal didn’t have any pain or stress.  The processing was sanitary and efficient and the meat is healthy and wholesome.  This is the way it has been done for centuries, maybe millennia.  What better way to honor the circle of life than to let the harvested animal nourish us?

Self sufficiency is a virtue.  There are many necessary skills in life and this is but one.  Being a part of our world, communing with nature, isn’t always pretty, but it is part of life and has its own rewards.  The natural world is checks and balances, life and death.  The trick is to find the life in the death…to complete the circle.  Then it is not all for nothing.

Preparedness – Everyone’s Responsibility

A few years ago we had a strong line of thunderstorms roll trough our region.  There were wide spread

Do you know what these symbols mean?

Do you know what these symbols mean?

power outages that lasted for days in some areas.  To some this may be only a minor inconvenience, but for others it can be a real challenge.  Aside from the obvious food spoilage issues, if you live in a rural area and are dependent on well water you will not have any water without electricity. This also means you can’t flush!  Gas stations can’t dispense fuel, ATMs won’t work, credit transactions may not be able to be processed, and cordless phones are reduced to paper weights. What can you do to prepare for unexpected interruptions of our daily conveniences?  There are a lot of things.

1. Keep your car from falling below a half tank of gas.  If the power goes out for extended periods you may need it!  And once the power is back on be prepared for long lines and shortages.

2. Keep some basic supplies in your vehicle.  They are:

  • Water (at least a gallon)
  • Food; something with dense nutrition and long shelf life that is not affected by heat or cold
  • Flashlights…and remember to replace the batteries annually
  • Blanket/shelter.  You could be stranded for extended periods in cold weather.
  • Basic tools; you should have a hammer, flat and Phillips screwdrivers, a knife, plyers and/or adjustable wrench and a lug wrench at the bare minimum.  Consider adding a small hatchet and/or bow saw to that.  Also a small or folding shovel is a good thing to have.
  • If you live in a colder climate carry some cat litter or sand with you to help with traction if you get stuck.
  • Matches (waterproof is best) and/or flares
  • A backpack is advisable to keep these things together and useful if you need to hike to safety.  A change of clothes is not a bad idea either.
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Some form of personal protection
  • A first-aid kit

3. Keep some basic things in your home:

  • Water – you can use empty milk jugs (cleaned of course) or other things to store several gallons of water.  If there is flooding in your area there may not be potable water for a while.
  • Candles/oil lamps/battery powered light sources
  • A generator if you can
  • Canned food and dried food that is not dependent on refrigeration.  Also consider if you will be able to cook…is your stove electric?  Do you have a grill?  Do you have plenty of charcoal or gas for that grill?
  • A heater that is not dependent on electricity
  • A corded phone if you have a land line
  • Extra batteries for your cell phone…that are fully charged!!
  • A manual can opener
  • Fire extinguishers in the kitchen, garage and bedrooms
  • Chain saw/bow saw if you live somewhere where there are trees around your house
  • Emergency battery powered radio with weather radio function.  A two way radio is also not a bad idea.
  • Some form of personal protection
  • Medical supplies and if you take prescription medications don’t let them reach critically low levels.

These are not an all inclusive list, by any stretch, but they are some of the bare necessities to ensure you will get through an emergency with minimal problems. The one other thing you need is a plan.  Especially if you have family, you should have a meeting place, an alternate meeting place, and some planned escape routes.  If your family lives elsewhere you may designate a meeting place or a way to let each other know you are okay.  Communications may be interrupted or jammed.

One other thing to consider is protection.  I choose to carry a pistol with me wherever I go and I take the time to stay proficient with it.  It is not the right choice for each individual and there are other options available including knives, pepper spray, tasers, collapsible batons and more.  Some of these may or may not be legal in your area.  This is a personal choice, one to be decided by each individual.  But be aware that in a catastrophe, like Katrina or Sandy, law enforcement may be days away, not just minutes.  Criminals will take advantage of this and looters may not hesitate to take a life.  Again, your safety is ultimately your own responsibility.  Have a plan to defend yourself and your life-giving stash of supplies!  This includes getting proper training, practice and safeguarding your defensive tools from unauthorized access.

There are many web sites, classes and books on the subject of emergency preparedness.  I suggest doing some research, educating yourselves and taking positive steps to prepare for what could happen.  Think of it as a “self insurance” policy against potential disaster.  If you think it couldn’t happen to you, think again!  It can happen to anyone.

If you want to know what could happen in a real life situation, one book you can read is Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.  It is a true story about a man who rode out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I offer this information because I have been through both summer and winter storms that disrupted power and caused potentially life threatening situations.  We were prepared and came through fine, but had we not been ready thing could have been very different.  Sharing this with others can perhaps help them be ready in the event a disaster hits their region.

The Problem With Equality

It is true that we are all created equal in that we have the same amount of time each day.  But we are not all equal, nor should we be.  I prefer to embrace individuality and try to appreciate each person for who they are and what their special talents are.

If we were to make everyone equal then we have no opportunity for excellence.  How sad would this

If we were all equal we would all be able to do this!

If we were all equal we would all be able paint like this!

world be if Michelangelo had never painted the Sistine Chapel or Alexander Bell never tried to talk to someone in another building?  Yet we deprive our children of the excitement of competition by not keeping score at Little League games so that the loser’s feelings aren’t hurt.  I have seen leagues where all the kids get trophies at the end of the season.  This not only makes the ones that didn’t win feel worse, but it robs the ones that did win of any sense of accomplishment or pride.  It also teaches our youth that both winning and losing are bad!  In reality, both are necessities and learning how to win, how to lose and how to utilize the lessons from the experience are vital to becoming a successful adult.

Another place where “equality” is misappropriated is our school system.  I became aware some years ago that when the elementary school kids bring their pencils, erasers, glue, crayons and other items that they picked out special for themselves to school they are instructed to put them all in a communal pot.  After all, we don’t want those who can’t afford Crayola scented markers to feel bad because they have the Dollar-Tree brand!  But we are really teaching the kids that they don’t own anything, they don’t have the right to keep what they work for and that financial success is evil.  Is this really what we want our kids to learn?

I submit to you that equality is a relative term.  We are all human.  We all have the right to follow our own path, reap our own rewards, revel in our successes and learn from our mishaps (okay, failures if you insist on using that word).  The motivational speakers will say that failure is the stepping stone to success.  I say it is a learning experience and a necessity for success.  If you never failed at anything you never left your comfort zone…and you are cheating yourself out of a vital and exciting life!  Let’s try to instill in our children…the future generation…the love of life and the ability to embrace our differences.  After all, it is those differences that have propelled us to where we are today.  So instead of all being equal, why don’t we all strive to achieve our individual best in whatever we do?  How great would that be?

Raising Children To Be Independent Thinkers

Will your child be the next great thinker?

Will your child be the next great thinker?

I raised my kids to think like free people. This makes an already difficult task of parenting even harder!  But the rewards are immeasurable.

If we are to have a future for humanity we must teach our children to think, to question, to explore and to rationalize…not to blindly except what is fed to them.  The beginning of this is teaching how to negotiate (and what is non-negotiable).  There are limits, of course.  And applying those restrictions simultaneously to instilling the love of freedom is not easy!  But it comes from balance between freedom and responsibility.  It gives our youth the tools they need to assess situations and make educated decisions all through life.

When I was a child I was told repeatedly by my mother, “Because I said so, that’s why!”  It infuriated me because all I wanted was the logic (and sometimes to get my way!) behind what she was saying I had to do or couldn’t do.  I was an inquisitive child and my children were as well.  I swore that I would never, NEVER say use that dreadful phrase with them…and I can only recall one instance where it slipped out of my lips, followed immediately by the thought, “Oh, my God, I am becoming my Mother!”  And it never happened again.  I am not saying that I didn’t make mistakes, we all do.  But my kids have grown up to be pretty awesome adults so I guess some things actually went as planned.

But the purpose of this post is not so much to talk about my kids as it is to inspire others to take into consideration how they interact with their own.  The mantra that children should be seen and not heard is counterproductive for a thriving society.  Talking to toddlers in baby-talk teaches them to speak baby talk.  Talking to them as if they were adults gives them a higher goal to strive for…after all, we learn by imitating what we are exposed to.  As they get older, do you let them make their own decisions about what to wear?  Do you negotiate about dinner items that may not be favorites?  Do you encourage trying things that are outside of the comfort zone?  Do you teach them that it is OK to win and it is also OK to lose?  To never allow failure is doing children a disservice.  They will not be able to cope with the inevitable setbacks in adult life and will have a stressful life as a result.  If success is discouraged (ever been to a little league game where they don’t keep score?) then we are robbing the kids of their sense of pride and self worth, plus we are not teaching them how to win gracefully.

These are all skills that are vital to success in life.  Negotiation is vital for getting jobs, buying necessities and maintaining relationships.  If you don’t know how to negotiate then you are reduced to arguments where no one wins.  Critical thinking skills are essential as well, for obvious reasons.  Suppose that Patrick Henry, George Washington, Galileo, Socrates, Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein had never questioned anything?  Where would we be today?  Will your child be the next great thinker?  Not if you don’t encourage free thought!