Escape from Tallahassee

I love to travel, and while you’ll never catch me backpacking through Europe on $20 a day, I don’t mind having to vacation on the cheap. To that end, we’ve been utilizing Florida’s excellent state park system to take a few mini-breaks that involve (gasp!) camping. We’ve managed three weekend trips in the last six months.

In September, we went with a group to Fort Clinch, north of Jacksonville. It was our first time camping in the non-primitive areas, and it made a huge difference in our comfort level. We had a string of Christmas lights and our own spigot! What riches!

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We also had unseasonable heat, rain, and an unfortunate episode in which raccoons got into the van and ate a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, so we cut only stayed two days instead of three.

It was Hazel’s first camping trip, and she LOVED getting filthy.

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In December, we were invited to St. Joe Peninsula State Park to camp with friends in a camper. In other words, we leveled up.

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The park is right on the beach, and this time the unseasonable warmth worked in our favor.

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Camping in someone else’s camper is delightful, in the same way that riding around in someone else’s boat is delightful. Don’t worry – we gave them lots of beer for their troubles.

This past weekend, Jason, Hazel and I stayed in a cabin at Gold Head Branch State Park in Keystone Heights, Florida. When I was a kid, a bunch of our neighbors used to come here over MLK weekend every year. I was interested to experience the park as an adult.

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The older cabins at this park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and are just adorable. Ours had a bedroom/living area with a fireplace, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It was furnished and had basic kitchen equipment, but was by no means fancy.

The lake’s a little low this year, but the view is still relaxing.

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Saturday morning we hiked every trail in the park, totaling over 3 miles. Hazel was content to ride in the backpack most of the time, but insisted on getting out for the last half mile or so.

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After lunch at a local barbeque restaurant, we settled in at the cabin for Hazel’s nap. Temperatures started to fall, and we lit a fire in the fireplace. Then it started raining. Guess who didn’t care? Us! We had a roof, and food, and plenty of firewood. We spent the evening reading books, cooking dinner, and playing with Hazel.

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Sunday morning we made a stop in Jacksonville to have lunch with my mom, then headed home.

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One thing I have learned about myself is that I don’t “staycation” well. If I’m at home, I’m looking for projects, worrying about things that need to be fixed, and planning for the next day/week/month. When we went away, there was no laundry to run, no fridge to clean out, no animals to feed. I was able to devote my entire attention to finishing my book and working on a pair of socks I’m knitting. It was perfect.

It was also inexpensive. Major bonus.

I used to say flatly that I did not like camping. I must amend my previous statement, having experienced more than one type of camping in the last six months. I enjoy camper camping and cabin camping. Tent camping is fine with the right equipment. And all camping is made better with an electric skillet for pancakes and breakfast meats.

 

 

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Gumbo for Beginners

For Diana Briggs, because she asked.

Many people mistakenly believe that gumbo is a mysterious dish requiring a thick Louisiana accent, possibly the carcass of an alligator, and a large cauldron bubbling in the woods. Not so. Gumbo is a straightforward dish, but does require the cook to get up close and personal with his or her stove for a good chunk of time. Don’t let that dissuade you.

I’m going to share how I make gumbo. I almost always make a chicken and sausage version, because it’s most popular at my house. But if you’d prefer seafood, go for it. Shrimp and chicken? Sure. The mechanics of the dish remain the same.

First things first. You’re going to want to fix yourself a drink.

Then gather your ingredients. Let’s break them down into four groups:

  1. Meats – I usually use 2 chicken breasts and a pound of andouille sausage. Can’t find andouille? Super. Use kielbasa. Prefer skin-on, bone-in thighs? Awesome. You do you. Season your chicken with salt & pepper, and slice your sausages.
  2. Vegetables and Accessories – The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking is bell pepper, onion, and celery. I refuse to buy celery on principal (I use one stalk and end up tossing the rest), so I chop up two green bell peppers and one big sweet onion. Put these in a bowl with a big spoonful of minced garlic and a couple of bay leaves. I also add a bag of frozen sliced okra at the very end of cooking, but keep that in the freezer for now. The dish is garnished with sliced scallions and/or parsley.
  3. Liquids – Homemade chicken stock, canned chicken broth, beer, water, canned tomatoes with juice, whatever. You’ll need about 8 cups of liquid, so mix and match. I like to use 12 oz. of beer and chicken stock for the rest.
  4. Roux – this is the foundation of the dish. It’s equal parts flour and fat. I like to use 1/4 cup oil, 1/4 cup butter, and 1/2 cup flour. Again, if you want to go all butter or all oil, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.

Ready? Let’s do this thing.

Heat a couple of TB of your preferred fat in a big Dutch oven over medium heat. Add your meats and brown them for a few minutes. You don’t need to cook them all the way through, just get some color on them. When they’re done, move them to a plate to hang out.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Next up, add the rest of your preferred fat to the Dutch oven. When it melts, add the flour. YOU ARE NOW MAKING A ROUX. TRY NOT TO PANIC. I use a whisk for my roux; others use a wooden spoon. Either way, don’t make any plans, because this is the time-and-attention portion of your gumbo.

Remember that drink you made? Be sure it’s handy.

The roux will start out a pale tan color. Keep whisking. You don’t have to be quick, just keep everything moving. After 10 minutes or so, you’ll notice the magic happening.

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The roux is now the color of your favorite novelty coffee drink. Ta-da!

Keep stirring. After several more minutes, your roux should approach the color of milk chocolate.

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It will smell deeply nutty, almost smoky.

Once your roux has gotten nice and dark, add the bowl of vegetables, switch to a spoon or spatula, and stir that mess around to distribute the roux. Let the vegetables soften for 5-10 minutes, then add the meats back in, followed by your liquids. If you want more heat, add some Cajun seasoning or cayenne pepper.

Like any other thickener, roux only works once the mixture has reached a boil. Crank the heat up to medium-high and wait for the bubbles. Once your gumbo has boiled, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for, um, a while. You can simmer it anywhere from an hour to all day, just make sure to add more liquid if it looks dry. Make some rice and chop your parsley and green onions.

When your stomach starts rumbling, add the bag of frozen okra and fish out your chicken pieces. Remove the skin and bones (if you went that route) and shred the meat, then return it to the pot. Test the gumbo for salt, pepper, and cayenne.

Gaze into its majestic depths.

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A word about gumbo file (pronounced FEE-lay): File is made from ground sassafras and was banned by the FDA in 1960 because some parts of the sassafras plant are possible carcinogens. Blah blah blah. If you feel that your gumbo experience is not complete without sprinkling some on your finished product, then by all means get some. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Gumbo is a spectrum, not a single dish – everyone makes it a little differently. I tossed my jar of file a few years ago when it expired and haven’t replaced it.

To serve, spoon the gumbo into a bowl. Top with a scoop of rice, sliced green onions, and chopped parsley.

The hands-on portion of gumbo takes at least half an hour, so you might want to save this one for a weekend. But I assure you the result is worth every minute.

 

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High Five for Friday!

Five truths with which I have recently made peace:

  1. I will never finish Infinite Jest.
  2. “I am too old for that sh*t” is a perfectly acceptable reason.
  3. I do not care what anyone (except Jason) thinks of my parenting choices.
  4. Ditto my book choices.
  5. I do not Feel the Bern.

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#DryJanuary

When I first heard about #DryJanuary last year, I rolled my eyes. Oh, boy. Like we need another ascetic competition, along the lines of swearing off gluten for non-medical reasons, or replacing white sugar with tears.

I have never understood people who consciously make a choice to do X, then complain incessantly about doing X. “I’m going to the gym! Sweating is horrible!” “I gave up cheese for Lent! I’m miserable!” If your frivolous choice actually leads to misery, MAKE A DIFFERENT CHOICE.

Anyway.

As you know, the last year has been particularly stressful, and by December I became concerned about my drinking. I looked forward to having a glass of wine in the evening – but was I too eager for it? I had a drink almost every night – was that too frequently? I wasn’t terribly concerned about the amount of alcohol I was drinking, but I was a little worried that it was becoming too habitual. When the clock struck 6, I was like Pavlov’s alcoholic dog.

This January, Jason and I decided to take a real break from drinking. I told exactly one person about it, because of the reasons set forth in paragraph 2 above. I thought it would be a good chance for me to evaluate my relationship with alcohol. Secretly, I also hoped to lose five pounds and sleep better at night.

It’s been almost three weeks. I haven’t lost a pound, and I’m not sleeping any better. My skin didn’t magically clear up, either. But on the plus side, I don’t think a single person noticed – even the kids were surprised when I told them this morning.

Not drinking has been surprisingly easy. In the evenings I fix a tonic water with lime, or a cup of tea, just to get a break from water (which I drink all day). I was never really tempted to swan-dive off the wagon, and all our alcohol stayed in plain sight. I didn’t have a problem attending events where other people were drinking.

To celebrate our temporary sobriety, we re-did our wet bar last weekend.

When we bought our house, we envisioned using the sunroom as a place for the kids to hang out. But now, nearly five years after moving in, we’ve decided to repurpose the room as an office/creative space for Jason and me. And nothing says “work” or “crafts” like an awesome wet bar.

This is what the area looked like when we bought the house:

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And in October 2015:

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It was a functional space, but it didn’t thrill us. Here’s why:

  1. GOLDEN OAK WHYYYYYY???
  2. Cheap peeling laminate counter top.
  3. The upper cabinet was off-center and seemed like an afterthought.

We decided to paint the lower cabinet, fabricate a new counter top, and replace the upper cabinet with open shelves. Oh, and not spend a lot of dollars doing it.

We think it turned out fantastic.

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First, we primed the cabinet box, drawer fronts and doors with Zinsser’s Cover Stain Primer, then painted them a pale blue-green we already had on hand. Jason constructed the counter top out of 1×4 boards, glued with construction adhesive to a thin sheet of plywood. The counter top is edged in 1×2 boards.

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The upper shelves are 1×12 boards, and we made shelf supports out of plumbing supplies – 1/2″ flanges, 1/2 x 12 pipe nipples, and 1/2 caps. Each one is screwed into a stud for maximum stability and capacity.

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We stained all the wood with some Bombay Mahogany left over from our bed, but I tried a new technique. I wanted the wood to look somewhat aged and distressed, without looking like something I just pulled out of a dumpster. Jason brushed the stain on, and I counted to five and wiped it off. Perfect. We sealed the shelves with one coat of satin-finish polyurethane, and put about five coats on the counter top.

I love the way the paint, wood, and brick go together:

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This project cost right around $230. The priciest bit was the materials for the shelf supports – each one was $14, and we used eight. However, I could not find anything similar for less money online, and I adore the way they turned out.

I think we’ll be putting an end to our dry January in the next few days. I am relieved that it was such a non-event.

Cheers!

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

2015 was the most difficult year of my life.

That’s saying something. It’s been harder than the year my father died. It’s been harder than the year I got divorced. It’s been harder than the year our house burned up and Jason lost his job. 

I feel like I have had to be the bad guy most of this year. Tyler has struggled mightily with personal responsibility this semester, and our relationship is somewhat strained. I love him, but some days I find it hard to like him.

My mother tells me Tyler behaves this way because “he comes from a broken home.”

Which brings me to my mother.

I became her primary caregiver in May, and I’ve been her crutch and punching bag since then. She has never been a warm and fuzzy person, especially where I am concerned. She is intensely, weirdly secretive. The first thing she said when she found out she had a brain tumor was, “Don’t tell anyone.” 

She is angry about her situation, understandably so, but in her mind it’s my fault. I forced her from her home, I took away her checkbook, I destroyed her independence. She lashes out at me; she accuses me of stealing from her. She starts almost every phone call with, “Do you have my wallet?” She says I am throwing my brother to the wolves, because I put him on an allowance instead of continuing to let him live off of her. I’m the bad guy.

Because she was so private, learning to manage her household has involved an almost-vertical learning curve. I just now feel like I have a handle on it, and yet every week seems to bring some new minor emergency. 

To sum up, 2015 has left me emotionally exhausted and cranky as hell. 

2016 has to be better. Right? Let’s look forward.

My resolution for 2016 is to be more appreciative, and to demonstrate that appreciation. A small example occurred a couple of weeks ago, when a neighbor up the street repainted their front door an awesome shade of teal. I wrote them a note applauding their bold color choice and left it in their mailbox. It was such a simple thing to do. Last week I congratulated a woman at Publix for constructing a particularly delicious-looking custom sub. It seems silly and small, but over the last seven months the simple, small, silly kindnesses have made the biggest positive impact in my life. 

Happy New Year.

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Halloween

True story: Jason doesn’t like Halloween. I adore Halloween. He doesn’t think it’s a holiday. I don’t either! But I think it’s a lot of fun. And I don’t hear him complaining as he’s crinkling his way through a bag of leftover candy. AHEM.

We agree to disagree on Halloween.

Last year, we hosted a big Halloween party. This year, we were too busy.

Friday night was Trunk or Treat at our church. A group of young adult members wanted to put together a series of Seuss-themed trunks. We had the Lorax, the Grinch who Stole Christmas, the Cat in the Hat, the Sneeches, and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Hazel was roped into duty as the fish in a bowl from the Cat in the Hat.

Inspiration:

Execution:

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I made her costume using a red t-shirt, red remnant fabric (felt and velvet), a red bandanna for the hood with black and white felt for the eyes, and a posterboard on which I painted the fish bowl. Total cost: $8.87 and about two hours of time.

Saturday was Halloween. Jason and Tyler went to the FSU game while Hazel and I made chili and pumpkin cream pies for a party that night.

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Hazel wore a hand-me-down Tinkerbell costume, which was perfect because it was 85 degrees outside.

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Despite my repeated prompting, Tyler failed to come up with any clever costume ideas, so he recycled a mask from last year and that was that.

I’m glad we had a breather this year, but I hope to put a bit more effort into Halloween next year.

 

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New York, New York

This summer, I asked Tyler what he wanted for his 12th birthday. To my mild horror, he replied that he wanted “to travel.” Specifically, he said he would very much like to go to New York.

It was a lovely, though expensive, answer.

He went so far as to dig up an essay he’d written in third grade, detailing his dream trip to New York.
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(Translation: Have you ever really wanted to go somewhere and planned everything, I have. If I went to new York City I would ride the subway. They are very fast. The first sub I went on I almost barfed. Subways are cool. The second thing I would do would see the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty has about 257 steps. I wonder how big it is. The third thing I would do would see the empire state building it is the second tallest building in the world. It’s in the big apple. The fourth thing is to see the FAO Shwarts. It’s a famous toy store. I’m going straight to the Lego sec-shons (said like this). The third thing would to go to see Uncle Bubba. He is awsome (said like this.). I hope I go to New York.)

From this essay and conversations with the boy, I made a short list of things we had to do:

  1. Ride the subway
  2. Statue of Liberty
  3. Empire State Building
  4. The Lego Store in Rockefeller Center (due to the closing of FAO Schwartz)

I needed to get creative. I found cheap plane tickets through Jet Blue, and my friend Jamie graciously agreed to put us up in her apartment. Tyler’s birthday was August 1, but New York in the late summer is almost as oppressive as Florida, but with far less air-conditioning and far shorter tempers. I booked tickets for late October, and then got to work planning.

After an absurd amount of research, I decided to get City Passes for each of us. This was a good decision. I definitely feel that we saved money on tickets, and there was never any issue using them.
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We flew out of Jacksonville on October 21, arriving on Jamie’s doorstep near midnight after a flight delay and a long Super Shuttle trip (which I prefer to think of as a low-cost tour of various midtown hotels).

Thursday morning we hit the ground running. First up: a ride on the real-live New York City subway. It wasn’t even 9:00 a.m., and we’d accomplished 1/4 of our goals! Winning!

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I decided we should start with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I was just beginning my senior year of college when 9/11 happened, and it very much shaped the end of my college experience. The last time I was in New York, the site was bare, and I was eager to see what had been done.
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The museum was very well-done. I was surprised by how much of it focused on the building itself – the engineering that made the buildings possible, and the forces that brought them down. My guess is that because the memory is still so fresh, people are not as willing to part with the personal artifacts that might one day find their home in the museum. That said, the dozen or so Kleenex dispensers scattered around the hall were put to good use.  Untitled

After the tour, we headed to City Hall and Chinatown for some lunch at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, which serves (surprise!) tasty hand-pulled noodles in a space the size of my family room. I got pan-fried noodles, Tyler got noodle soup with pork dumplings. Both were delicious.
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Fueled by carbs, we were ready to tackle another list item: The Statue of Liberty. We made our way to Battery Park and caught the ferry to see a real big lady. It was around this time that I began regretting my choice of adorable gray Converses for the weekend. My pinkie toes had already developed large blisters from sock-seam chafing. Needless to say, I was psyched to sit on a boat for a few minutes.

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Tyler and I agree: the Statue of Liberty is surprisingly impressive. I mean, everyone knows what she looks like, but to see her up close is just awesome, in the old sense of the word. Awe-inspiring. We took the free audio tour, which I recommend. I wish we’d had more time to sit by the water and gaze at the skyline, but they were closing up shop by that point.
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Back in Battery Park, we discussed our next moves. We were scheduled to meet a friend in Brooklyn for dinner at 6:30, and she’d suggested walking across the Brooklyn Bridge as an appetizer, so we started strolling up the east side of Manhattan. As the Brooklyn Bridge became clearer, I realized that the pedestrian walkway is above the roadway – and I am moderately acrophobic. I wasn’t going to say anything, but Tyler had a mild freak-out about the height as well, so we nixed that idea in favor of taking a cab across the bridge into Brooklyn.

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Nope.

 

Dinner that night was at Pok Pok, a very nice Thai place, followed by ice cream at the Farmacy, which was straight up the most Brooklyn thing I have ever seen. Ironic mustaches and floral rompers for days, y’all.

Friday morning we headed to the American Museum of Natural History. But first – brunch at Shake Shack. Delicious. I had a caramel shake and fries, Tyler had a chocolate shake and a burger. Don’t judge.
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The natural history museum is a heck of a thing. It has four floors of dioramas, skeletons, and other artifacts. We saw probably 75% of the exhibits on display, and that was exhausting. I developed a new appreciation for taxidermists.

Behold, the bear-seal.

After many hours, we were museum-ed out.  Grabbing street food (falafel for me, gyro for Tyler) we wandered across the street into Central Park and rested our brains – and our feet. Tyler spotted a huge rat and tried to pet the pigeons. Oh, Tyler.

Our next destination was Rockefeller Center, home of Tyler’s new favorite place: THE LEGO STORE.

Several dollars later, we met Jamie at The Kunjip in Koreatown for some authentic Korean fare.  Surprising everyone, Tyler did not sear his own flesh on the hot stone pot in which the food was served. Way to go, Tyler.

It’s funny – I’ve been making bibimbap for years, having never tried the real thing. I was pretty close!

Jamie took one for the team and walked us through Times Square. Quickly. Zoom!

Friday night we saw Les Miserables, which Tyler thought was fantastic. It was wonderful to watch him enjoy something so far outside his normal experience. Now he wants to watch the movie for comparison’s sake (and to hear the songs again).

Saturday we stayed in Jamie’s neighborhood. We had brunch at an Irish place, then met up with another Amherst alum and his family at a local playground. They have two babies, so Tyler was thrilled. He loves kids, especially babies. We ended up spending most of the afternoon with them, which was delightful. Then we walked into Fort Tryon Park before an early dinner at a Salvadorian restaurant.

And then it was time to head back to the airport, which ended up being an adventure unto itself. Part of the A line was closed, so we had to divert to the J train and take the AirTrain in from a far north station. It ended up taking almost 2 hours to get to the airport. Then our flight was delayed – for four hours. We landed in Jacksonville at 2:30 a.m.

To his great credit, Tyler never complained. He was a fantastic little companion on this trip, and I will be happy to travel with him any time.

However.

When I got the dirty clothes out of his bag, I found four pairs of clean, folded socks. That means he wore the same socks for four days.

Oh, Tyler.

Overall, the trip was fantastic. The weather was beautiful, the crowds were minimal, and the food was delicious.

My takeaways from the trip are obvious: wear the most comfortable shoes you own, pack a family-size bottle of Advil PM, and budget extra travel and wait time for everything. You’re all set!

 

 

 

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