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Chandra's Blog

 

Friday
Jul112014

World's Most Famous Bubble-Wrapped Harmonica Player

planning his futureWhen our oldest son was born, almost thirteen years ago, he weathered a long stint in the NICU in the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. Sitting over his isolette, my husband told Hayden's nurses, "Remember this kid's name. You are looking at the future, world-famous bubble wrapped harmonica player." They laughed while he explained that after everything we had watched our son go through, all traditional sports were off the table. For our son, there would be no football, baseball, lacrosse, hockey, soccer... The list went on. "And none of those big string instruments either," J joked. "Do you know how heavy a cello is, what could happen if that fell on him? He'll play the harmonica. In bubble wrap. Nothing dangerous about that."

 

 

 Fast-forward five years later, to November 2006, when we realized that winter in the Northeast with two little housebound boys might cause us to do bad things to one another. Against all our earlier proclamations, we signed the whole family up for ice hockey. Hayden became a goalie--safest position on the ice--and his little brother followed in his footsteps a few years later. 

My Dad would watch me heft their giant gear bags into the car, bigger than they are, and sigh, "Boo, really, have you given any thought to the harmonica plan?"

I remember Max's second Triple A goalie game last year, when his team had no skating subs. They were grossly outmatched, getting killed, 2-16. I watched from the stands as the shots kept coming--rattling off his face cage, right in his gut, a hack to his exposed wrist as he covered the puck. 

"At this level, just so you know," one of the dads told me, "they don't stop shooting when there's a blowout." I could see Max's shoulders shaking with sobs as they scored on their seventeenth breakaway, and then they fucking celebrated, and it took every scrap of restraint I had not to storm out on the ice like Susan Sarandon in Safe Passage, yelling, "Alright! Enough already!" pick my kid up under my arm and carry him home. The physical shelling was horrible, but I also feared was what was happening inside. 

Hayden up a tree, 2012

 

 Fastforward another few years to Isla de Utila, where we lived for six months on a remote Caribbean island. Here, our children swam with whale sharks, broke a world record SCUBA diving, monkey-climbed limbless palm trees, and jumped off the roofs of rickety waterfront bars into the water. They ran barefoot and snorkeled through caves. The closest medical care was on the mainland, a flight away.

 

On the whole, we have done a lousy job of bubble-wrapping our children. They play ice and roller hockey, lacrosse and soccer. They swim in questionable water, bounce on trampolines, and have turned our driveway into a longboarding body luge. They rollerblade and skateboard, leap off boathouses and rope swings, ride bikes and horses. 

 

 

 

Fastforward to last week, when Piper (7) and I headed out on the trails behind the barn where she has been riding for the past 9 months. It was a dreamy, much anticipated mom and Pip moment. Though we ride in the arena together often, and I have loved returning to my childhood love of horses with my daughter, this was our first trail ride. 

It was going beautifully--a little paddling down in the creek, our horses quietly walking over branches the recent summer thunderstorms had downed, and then a little trot down a country lane. Piper called to me she was losing her stirrup, and I turned to tell her to stop, when I saw it happen. She was falling perfectly, over the horse's left front shoulder, poised to land with a tuck and roll that would protect her helmeted head, and put the majority of the landing on her impact vest. It was looking like the kind of fall that would shake her up, but she would ride home from. Except on the way down, the horse's hoof caught her in the neck, and then despite his best efforts not to, when she hit the ground, he stepped on her chest and shoulder, breaking her collarbone and ribs, but worse, puncturing her lung. 

Back in the ICU at CHOP, with Piper on a rebreather, as I curled at the foot of her bed like a pet mommy and watched the numbers on her machines, as the adrenaline of the day ebbed and I replayed and wallowed in gut-souring what-ifs, I remembered almost thirteen years ago, and our vow to raise the world's most amazing bubble-wrapped harmonica players. I was physically sick over the fact that I had broken our little girl, that I had lead her to this sport I love, and she was here because of it.

 

"Pip," I told her, while the machines beeped and her oxygen hissed, "there's a saying about how you 'have to get back on the horse.' Most people use it as a metaphor, meaning don't let hard things that have happened scare you, or face your fears. Horsepeople use it to mean don't end a ride on a fall or you'll lose your nerve. But honey," I took a deep breath, "this was a big fall. And you do not have to get back on the horse. Ever, if you don't want. We can stop riding now."

Let me say again that I love riding. I grew up riding throughout my childhood. When I was sixteen, I managed a three-horse barn. I took my naughty off-the-track Thoroughbred to college with me, trained beach-ride horses in Grand Cayman and rode as a jockey in a Caribbean race season.

 

 

When our daughters were 5 and 6, my sister and I bought a 3-lesson Groupon to a local stable. "Let's see if it takes..." we said, remembering our years with horses. It took.

Piper and Callie, 2013I have loved watching Piper evolve as a strong, independent, confident little equestrian, because I know from my own childhood that all those elements carry over into life. We both had plans to start competing this summer, and she talks of the mother-daughter barn we will open, after we visit the ponies of Chincoteague, when she has her golden birthday, age 19. 

"What?" Piper said, stricken, her voice garbled by the mask. "I'm not going to quit riding!" 

Later, while she slept, I texted one of my oldest friends. We grew up riding together, harmonizing 'You Are My Sunshine' and belting out Reba McEntire as we cantered on mountain trails, galloping around cornfield perimeters and vetting boyfriends by how they acted around horses. She lives across the country, and her daughter rides, a gutsy, fourteen-year-old pole-bending barrel racer. 

--I feel horrible for bringing pip to this. Worried she only does it for me, but she says she still wants to ride. Tell me about Lu's worst fall... I wrote, hoping she would tell me about something I hadn't remembered, something that stopped her motherly heart, that she had replayed in her head as often as I was replaying Piper's--the horrible sound of his hoof connecting with her jaw, the sight of the jagged collarbone tenting her skin. Tell me we'll get over this, is what I meant.

--Lu's worst fall was out of a tree! She wrote, and I remembered her phone call from across the country several years ago, Lauryl's two broken arms, the beautiful but banged up face from the branches on the way down. And I have a darn hard time getting her to wear a helmet and impact vest while playing in the yard! 

Here's the thing she was telling me: this was an accident. It was not the fault of the horse or rider, or maybe even the mom. She was as protected as she could be, short of bubble wrap, in a helmet and impact vest. (Stay tuned for me to write more about the importance of those later. This could have been far, far worse.)

And I still think, how did we fall so far, from the parents who promised, a few floors in CHOP and thirteen years ago, to keep our children safe?

Because life is dangerous. Because there are accidents. 

But there are rope swings to leap from, and trees to be climbed and ponies to be ridden. There is creating a partnership with a person or an animal that stretches our expectations and enriches our lives. There is the feel of the cold winter air in your lungs when you skate across the silver ice at night. There are moments when your team carries you on your shoulders and celebrates your season win, when you conquer a fear or stomach a shelling you didn't think you could do.

Max (in red) and his team take the championship, 2014

 

There are summer mornings when you grin at each other and jump out of bed, pull on your breeches and boots to beat the heat to the barn, and you ride, side by side on your matching ponies while their tails swish and you beam at each other. Piper is home now, expected to make a full recovery, and in a few months, we will both don our impact vests, get back on the horse, and put what has happened behind us.

Summer ride

Because though we have never tried it, I think the view from the podium of the Bubble Wrapped Harmonica Finals might be a little colorless and flat.

* *** *

Saturday
Jun212014

Hoffmans' Happy Hens or #birdnerd

So it begins, with Harper and Good GirlFor three years, I waited to push send on my mypetchicken.com shopping cart. I read books, researched breeds and coops, free range vs. pasture rotation vs. predator proof penning, puzzled over exactly what I wanted, how many, the types, and the eggs, oh the colorful eggs! It's no secret that there's a little bit of farmgirl lust in me. You can read my essay about goats here or this blog post where I confess my secret cow milking fantasy. But the timing was never right, until last summer when we returned from our tropical adventure. I finalized my shopping cart, and hit CHECK OUT. 

What has followed has been such a year of adventure and birdnerdom. I ordered our first batch to arrive during birthday week in early September. Since that original order, we have added to our flock four times, a second fall batch that included fun pet chicks for each child (they chose two Silkies, a Buff Brahma and a copper Marans--Welcome Poppy, Nugget, Posey and Fancy Pants.)

Poppy, one weekThis was followed by an accidental impulse order from the feed store this spring since we didn't have any Buff Orpingtons and who wouldn't want a few more Easter eggers? (Welcome Sunny, Cleo and Pai).

Our Spring Chicks--Sunny, Cleopatra and Pai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then this past month, when our Silkies Nugget and Poppy went broody, I drove 40 minutes in the pouring rain, and bought them fertile eggs to hatch. (Welcome Bright, a Wheaten Ameraucana and Clara, a black copper Marans.) 

 

Last week, we adopted Orphan Annie, a rejected 3 day old barred rock from a friend, bringing our total chicken count to (cringe) 17. Seventeen chickens. 

 

 

And I don't even consider myself a bird person.

 

 

Nugget mothering the adopted Orphan Annie

THE GIRLS

But there is something about my girls. Maybe it's because we purchased unique, distinctive chickens that created the possibility for us to bond. If I walked outside to feed and clean and care for a random flock of seventeen Red Stars, indistinguishable from one another, I imagine I wouldn't feel the same attachment I do to my girls.

But we know each of our hens, their personalities and quirks, their habits. Good Girl is my faithful early morning layer, a quiet and fair leader of the flock. Magda has a bit of a mean streak, but lays gorgeous olive eggs. Posey and Fancy Pants are besties, never more than a few feet apart, so that I felt Fancy's devastation and betrayal the day Posey made a play for a coveted upper level roosting post spot, like one of the medium popular girls finding a rare entré into a posh clique, leaving Fancy running around the yard crying like Posey was dead to her. (Good news: Posey was promptly ousted by Prima and returned to her former second post status.)

Ding-Dong and Siren like to forage at great distances, way down by the stream. Prima dawdles at sunset; she prefers to be the last girl in at night. Nugget wants to hatch ANYTHING, and is very willing to be a lap chicken and ride on the swings. Poppy doesn't have many friends, but she'll do whatever Nugget does. 

Quinn takes Nugget on our evening walk

 

HABITAT

Raising chickens turned out to be surprisingly easy. We converted the 6x6x6 playhouse connected to our swingset into their night coop with minimal cursing and marital strife. We removed the slide and covered the windows with black coated hardware wire. We stained and mounted some AC Moore craft crates on their sides as nesting boxes and some 1x4 as roosting posts, and bam--we had an elevated, predator proof coop. 

my crazy kids going barefoot mid-snowstorm to collect eggs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My middle son is an early riser and lets them out in the mornings, where they spend the day free-ranging. They put themselves to bed at sunset and we count heads and lock the coop door at night. Throughout the day we are endlessly entertained by their hilarious antics and the chicken politics, as they roam about, eat ticks, bugs and compost, dig dust baths under our rhodies, and lay their eggs. 

EGGS GLORIOUS EGGS!

This is by far my favorite thing about the girls, other than sitting out with my coffee and watching them be chickens, is the eggs. Oh the eggs! I selected girls so that my egg basket is distinctive and colorful. No boring, red stamped, pale yolked white eggs in our house. In fact, Siren, my Silver Lakenvelder is my only white layer, and I find her egg beautiful because of its distinctiveness. 

While most venture back into the coop to lay, a few of them have gone so far as to offer us kitchen door service, climbing into the box where I keep my gardening tools and depositing their treasures there. 

Posey delivers her eggs to the garden box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

our countertop egg basket

I have a strange passion for animals doing what they want to do, and it benefitting humans. (Like my goats and poison ivy.) The girls are happily out chickening every day, running free, catching bugs, fluffing up their feathers in flowerbed dust baths, and then trotting up to the coop to lay their eggs with a faithfulness that defies the best egg predictions on the websites. Most of my girls, even the rare breeds, are laying daily. 

As a mother, I feel good about feeding my kids a protein source as fresh and close to nature as I possibly can. And it never gets old. My kids run out to collect multiple times a day, if I haven't beat them to it, proudly announcing the egg and its layer as they drop it in our basket. 

And even though we can eat some eggs (I used to buy 36/week) we have more than enough to share. Enter the idea of Hoffmans' Happy Hens. My kids love knowing who was responsible for their breakfast, and order them by name, "I'll have two scrambled eggs on a bagel, um, I'll take a Freaky and a Ding-Dong, please." 

When we started getting almost a dozen a day, more than we could eat, we offered them for sale--fresh, free-range eggs. (There is usually a wait list.) We thought other people might like to know where their breakfast came from, so we wrote biographies of our chickens, and took some sunny morning glamour shots.

 

These inserts go in the tops of our egg cartons, like a box of chocolates, identifying the source and the personality of each of our gorgeous eggs. Truly, they bring me a ridiculous amount of pleasure and I am only sorry I didn't venture into chickendom sooner. 

* *** *

 

Hoffmans’ Happy Hens

Know Where Your Breakfast Comes From (L-R in carton)

our daily egg carton, listed below L-R

 

 Good GirlGood Girl (Red Star) our first and best layer has laid a large brown egg every morning for 115 days straight! Top in the pecking order, she uses her leadership wisely. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 SlackerSlacker (Red Star) a beautiful dark auburn who took a while to get going; but now lays a medium brown egg almost as faithfully as Good Girl.

 

 

 

 

 

PrimaPrima (Plymouth Barred Rock) a docile curious girl, she’s the first to come find you out in the yard. She lays a lovely, pinkish egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Ding DongDing-Dong (Plymouth Barred Rock) named this because of the burnt feathers on her back when she got too close to the heat lamp, we are grateful for this distinguishing feature from Prima. Their eggs are as similar as they are.

 

 

 

 

 MagdaMagda (Easter Egger) this bossy girl lays the more olive-tinted blue egg. We often catch her bearded face peering in the kitchen window to see what we’re doing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Freaky FridayFreaky Friday (Easter Egger) this sweet girl endured a scalping accident as a chick that earned her this name. We think the way she combs her feathers over the scar on the back of her neck disguises it nicely. She lets the world know, crowing from the railing of the coop steps, whenever she lays a lovely pale blue egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 Fancy PantsBig Mama/Fancy Pants (Buff Brahma) this full-bodied, feather-legged girl is hilarious to see running across the yard. She lays a pink egg with white speckles in the front porch gardening box and screams like an old lady if you check on her.  

 

  

 

 

 

 

PoseyPosey (Black Copper Marans) Best friends with Big Mama, these girls are never more than a few feet apart. Posey lays a very large, gorgeous “chocolate” dark egg, sometimes speckled.

 

 

 

 

 

 NuggetNugget (Silkie Bantam) this tame sweetheart loves to be held and stroked. She lays a tiny cream-colored egg. She has recently gone broody and hatched two adopted eggs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 PoppyPoppy (Silkie Bantam) this little darling loves to hang out with Nugget but sometimes Nugget leaves her out. (This makes Piper sad.) She lays a tiny, golf-ball-sized cream tinted egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 SirenSiren (Silver Lakenvelder) this shy girl lays our only true white egg with a torpedo shape like her body. Her breed name is Dutch for ‘shadow on a sheet’ and we often catch a glimpse of her darting across the yard to forage.

 

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Wednesday
Jun182014

Huffington Post Travel link

I'm excited to announce that my latest travel article on an island near and dear to my heart was picked up by Huffington Post. 

Click here: Utila -- The Authentic Island Experience Still Exists

Enjoy!

Thursday
Apr102014

Morning Report--an unfinished Favorite on Friday

2013Donald Owen Kistner

At approximately 9 am every morning, my phone rings. If they are within earshot, my children break into the song from The Lion King, “Morning Report”, because we all know it is 'Petah', my father, calling to give us his. He is 83 years old, though you would never guess it. A few weeks ago, we went to a pre-op consultation for a heart procedure. Before stepping on the scale, Dad kicked off his Docksiders, removed his coat and belt, took his billfold out of his pocket and handed it to me, and then made sure to mention what a large breakfast he had had to the nurse, adding that he might have quite a bit of hair gel in, if the number seemed high. She laughed--nurses adore my dad. Once in the exam room, he asked a little sheepishly if his age would be a factor in the procedure. 

“I don’t see why, Mr. Kistner,” she chirped and then glanced at his chart. The nurse turned bright red. “Oh, I, I’m sorry,” she stammered, “I thought you were sixty-three.”

"Oh," I rolled my eyes, "he gets this all. the. time."

  But as a retired man of a certain age, living alone, with maybe too much FOX News in his life, Dad grew concerned in the past few years that Something might happen to him in the night, and then whether it is urban legend or a reported horror from Nancy Grace, he is afraid that his cats might eat him.

 

  So we set up the Morning Report. He calls me every morning at nine. If I have forgotten to turn my ringer back on from the night before, he leaves me hilariously macabre messages, about how El Gato and Serena are maybe just nibbling at his toes, but he will fend them off until I can call back. He always ends the message, "Love from my house to your house."

In the Morning Report, we share all the details of what has happened since the last time we spoke, which is usually a matter of hours. He tells me who went home the big winner from his regular poker game, what new series he's into on Netflix, highlights something outrageous from his news feed, or says whether or not he slept with the windows open. "Great sleeping weather last night!"

Next I give him the report from the Hoffstead. He knows which of my children has a cough, or grouched about going to school that morning. He asks what I know about my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. I catch him up. We discuss animal news: which of my chickens are laying, which pony Piper and Quinn rode in their lesson, whether or not Sampson has gotten into any trash-digging or trouble. 

Then we move on to weather, which is a real treat. If his cats have woken him early, he has already been through a round of The Weather Channel. My father has eight children, all grown, and when we started to leave the nest, I noticed he used a morning perusal of the Weather Channel to connect with us. He doesn't speak to all of his children every day, but he likes knowing what the sky is doing in their part of the world, whether they left the house with an umbrella, or if it is cold, hopefully with their throats covered. (My father is a big fan of scarves and turtlenecks to keep you from getting sick. He has an entire drawer of 'dickies', those fake turtleneck squares that fit under a collar, in every color.)

"Looks like the Louisiana crew is getting some heavy rain," he'll say when we talk. Or, "Did you see the fires in Colorado? Wonder if it's hazy out near Gavin and Lisa today." When my sister lived in the Caribbean, she said Dad was her most reliable early warning system for tropical storms, that he would call her with alerts to low pressure systems long before they were on her radar. 

My father also loves wordplay and nicknames. Sometimes he tells me witticisms he has come up with in the night. "What do you think of this one, Boo?" he'll say, and recite a little ditty, like this one bemoaning the challenges of aging:

Can't see

Can't pee

Can't hear

Can't drink beer

Why am I still here?

 

****

10 April 2014

I started the above blog late last year, for my Favorites on Friday section, but then never published it for a variety of reasons. Despite a proclaimed general avoidance of female authors, my father read my blog religiously, and I worried this one might embarass him. It was maybe too intimate or trivial to share. (So her Dad calls her every morning, so what?) I wondered if it would make my other brothers and sisters envious that I got to be Dad's point person every morning, making sure the cats were not snacking. When we lived abroad last year, the Morning Report transferred to my younger sister, who confessed that she missed it when it switched back to me.

Regardless of the why, I'm sorry I never published it, that maybe he never knew how much I cherished this.

Two weeks ago, Friday, March 28, the phone did not ring at 9 am. 

There is no blog entry or tribute or whole memoir that can capture the wonder that was my father. This is by no means the last word on him. Impossible to sum up, he was a complicated man, with very simple, elemental loves: big dogs, little children, puppy breath and convertibles with the top down. Click here to view the tribute of words, images and music we created in his honor. Dad, I am beyond grateful to have shared the morning minutiae with you the past few years. You are missed.

* *** *

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Mar182014

Rules of the Room (and life?)

Rules of the Room

 

  Piper, age 6, just posted this to her door and I am a little taken with her precocious wisdom.  

 

If you want to hang in Piper's striped pink palace, you are NOT allowed to: 

--bring food into her bed

--hit

--tattle

--in fact, you can't eat in her room at all

--you also may not be mean

--no fighting

--and no making a 'messie' room

 

 

 

 

 

What you MAY do in Piper's room?

--draw

--play

--have fun

--be kind

--forgive

--share

and HUG. 

 

I simply love this girl. 

 * *** *