Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part I: a minivan, a mom, and four kids.

Why am I rushing from New England to Minnesota the day after school lets out for summer? (Cue Alice Cooper: School’s Out!)

And how does one rush to Minnesota from here, anyway? Why, by minivan, of course.

MinivanRegular readers may have noticed another oddity already: the title of this post says there are four kids in my minivan. Two of them are mine. Where did the other two joyriders come from?

I’ve posted before about the rare domestic opportunity for immersive study of foreign languages that exists in Bemidji, MN. I read about it for years before taking the plunge and attending Family Week with DS1 at Concordia Language Village‘s German language site, Waldsee. That was two years ago.

We’re heading back to Family Week at Waldsee this summer. Due to an abundance (some might say surfeit) of enthusiasm on my part, I wasn’t content to return with just DS1. He is a middle schooler who has been learning German since 1st grade.

His younger brother, DS2—who keeps reminding me that they don’t study German at his school, they do Spanish!—has also been drafted into our party. I remain convinced that DS2 will be a full convert to the joys of Waldsee after his first bite of Kuchen from the Café. He also loves to sing and dance and generally make a spectacle of himself. He’s going to fit in just fine.

Our party is completed by the addition of a pair of friends—brothers, and, in fact, twins. They are making the transition from school to home education for next year, and German is one of their areas of interest.

The seed of this idea was planted when I discussed with the twins’ mother the difficulty in finding local home school classes in less popular languages. It clearly grew into her acceptance of my offer to act in loco parentis for the twins during Family Week.

OSV 2 yellow flowersIf CLV is willing to define a family as any group of at least one adult and at least one child who wish to be counted as family, so, apparently, am I. Let’s see if my crazy idea flowers.

I’ve known the twins for several years, and, by all available evidence, they are very nice boys. Ask me in July if I’ve revised my opinion.

Our route from New England to Bemidji, MN will take two and a half days (25 road hours) of driving. God bless America, but it sure takes an effort to cross it.

The plan is to complete two ∼10-hour days on the weekend, then complete the final five hour stretch on Monday morning, arriving in Bemidji around check-in time for camp. That’s 2:30-4 pm.

If I survive, I then immediately begin an intensive language learning program while supervising my four charges.

Or maybe I will smile beatifically, let it all roll over me, and eat lots of Kuchen. We’ll see how my energy holds up.

We’ve got our Pimsleur German lessons loaded in the car‘s hard drive, headphones for all the kids, and enough distracting electronic devices for a small army. I’ve packed water bottles, snacks, and a Tupperware bowl with tight-fitting lid in case motion sickness* strikes.

Embarking on an epic road trip a few hours after school ends with no alternate driver and a van full of kids might be counted as one of my more… optimistic endeavors.

Remember, that which does not kill us, or any of the children, makes us stronger. (So we can kill them better at a later time?)

I’ll accept any prayers, well-wishes, or cones of silence from whomever cares to offer. Ah, those carefree summer days… (Cue Beach Boys: I Get Around)

Continued in Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II.
*Add ginger candies, mints, Sea Bands, and an eye mask to the list of offerings to the god of seasickness. DS2 is a risk. No screens allowed for him during motion. He’s got hours of audio books on his iPad.

Capsule wardrobe for summer outdoor adventures: keep safe; look pulled together

What do you pack when there are real physical constraints to work around (biting insects and unhealthy levels of sun/UV exposure), but you just don’t feel like yourself in clothes that don’t make the cut as an “outfit”?

Camp wardrobe rainbow ADD layers

Most of these are technical garments with special properties appropriate to spending time outdoors in comfort and good health

Here’s my attempt to address this question!

Keeping safe while attempting to look cute(ish)

When I prioritize “keeping safe” for this wardrobe, I’m referring to the gradual and progressive hazards of spending most of my time outdoors for a week. These are primarily insect bites, sun exposure, and temperature extremes.

At an official summer camp run in a legal and safe way, it would be wildly exceptional to encounter a predictable life threatening risk. My general knowledge of risk statistics in the US leads me to guess that I’m in more danger driving to camp than I am when enjoying the great outdoors in my cautiously mainstream way.

Ignoring the realities of nature, however, can lead to immediate discomfort and developing a (potentially) non-trivial illness down the road. Sunburn is a risk factor for skin cancer. Insect bites spread disease.

I’ve built up a wardrobe of clothing designed specifically to address these two risk factors.

Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) and sunburn

Much of my summer wardrobe is made of UV blocking fabric with a high UPF. UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor is the fabric equivalent of the SPF you look for in sunscreen lotions; higher numbers mean greater protection.

A normal white cotton t-shirt might have a UPF of only 5 (five), whereas a t-shirt designed for sun protection in high Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) regions can guarantee UPF of the recommended 50 (fifty) or even higher.

I’m particularly fond of sun protective clothing by the brand Coolibar. Their ZnO knit fabric feels like a soft t-shirt made of regular cotton, and is comfortable, easy care, and easy to wear. Their styles are more likely to suit my personal wardrobe aesthetic, too.

You will also find UV protective garments in my specialized outdoor wardrobe made of Solumbra (Sun Precautions catalogue), by ExOfficio, and by Columbia Sportswear.  Most (quite possibly all) of my Insect Shield clothing is also certified to have a 40+ UPF.

All of these are reliable brands whose UPF promises I trust. Most athletic and outdoor- oriented clothing companies will offer at least some pieces with UPF ratings, so buy any piece you like that carries an official UPF rating.

UPF ratings are more accurate than the SPF rating given for sunscreen lotions and creams. Few people apply sunscreen as heavily as is used in the laboratory testing scenario. Wearing UPF designated clothing means a guaranteed level of protection.

It is relatively easy to find attractive clothing styles in UV protective fabrics. There’s a lot of variety.

UPF is usually woven into the fabric of a garment, not applied as a surface treatment. This means that the sun protection will last as long as the fabric is sound. UPF doesn’t usually wash out. Check your garment’s hang tag or ask the manufacturer to be sure.

Insects: mosquitos, ticks & the diseases they spread

Protection against insect bites has the very obvious benefit of keeping you comfortable in the short term. Camp—or any other activity—is more fun when you aren’t itching, scratching, and swatting at hovering pests.

Less immediately, however, avoiding insect bites can prevent you from becoming sick down the road. Which illness and in what location will vary. What won’t change is the risk of infection. Repelling pests—keeping them off of your body, and preventing them from breaking your skin—removes the possibility of infection from their bites.

I’ve written more extensively in the past about how Permethrin treated insect repellent clothing works. Here, I will focus on how I use these pieces in a wardrobe that I don’t mind wearing.

Because the Permethrin treatment is a surface application added to the fabric, it washes out over time. Garments treated at the factory will remain effective through 70 washes; home treatments wash out much more quickly. These items should be laundered separately from untreated clothing to avoid leaching small amounts of insecticide where it isn’t wanted.

It is much harder to find clothing to suit my personal style in the Insect Shield (insect repellent treatment) category than it is in the high UPF (sun protective) category, but it is not impossible! I’ve even managed to get most of these pieces at clearance prices by being patient and buying out of season.

I really like Sierra Trading Post for low prices on last year’s high end outdoor products.

Now, on to the clothes in my outdoor adventure capsule wardrobe!

Capsule wardrobe for outdoor adventures

Bottoms

I always begin with my bottom half, because it is harder to fit.

I own fewer trousers than tops, and that is due, at least in part, to my shape. My waist is proportionally much smaller than my hips. I do have what poet Lucille Clifton described as “mighty hips.” I don’t match the standards used by garment manufacturers. Waistbands gap. I’m short-waisted.

These are issues that I deal with whenever I buy clothes for my lower half. They are often exaggerated when I shop for athletic clothing because those items are typically designed for a muscular, “tomboy” physique.

Fortunately, I’m tolerant when it comes to activewear. I’ll settle for a lesser aesthetic result in an otherwise functional garment.

Here are my Insect Shield certified bottom pieces:

I’m most excited about the charcoal grey knit ExOfficio trousers. They feel like regular cotton knit jogging pants: soft and comfortable! I avoid black in my wardrobe, and only tolerate charcoal, but the comfort factor wins by a mile when I’m looking for cozy clothes to wear around the campfire.

I wish the waist fit me better (it’s huge!), but I think I will wear these whenever it’s chilly. Joggers are also a bit silly on a hip-heavy figure, but the fitted hems will stop crawling insects and intrepid flyers. I’m willing to look silly.

You might notice that the olive green Columbia trousers are safari style and have a cargo pocket. This is not something I would tolerate on any other type of clothing, but it can be hard to avoid in hiking pants. Nothing suits my mighty hips less well than a cargo pocket adding bulk, but at least this one is sewn down and relatively flat.

These will probably feel cooler than the first pair of pants on a muggy day due to their lightweight woven synthetic construction. I’ll reach for these when the bugs are out but the temperature is high. If I’m in tick country, I’ll look even nerdier when I tuck my pants into my socks.

The Craghoppers maxi skirt is a slightly more attractive green than the muddy olive (army green!) of the Columbia trousers. It is a lighter weight knit, so should feel pretty good when it’s hot out.

I am packing this primarily because there is one “dress up” evening at our summer camp, and last time, I got bug bites all over my legs when I switched from my usual Insect Shield evening wear to a regular travel skirt that bared my legs. The mosquitoes won’t get to enjoy my ankle buffet this year: I’m prepared with this long, treated skirt!

I failed to get a group snapshot of my UV protective bottoms, but they are all Coolibar products with a 50+ UPF. I’ve got knit yoga pants in coral, knit capri pants in taupe, and a knit, knee-length A-line skirt in coral/white chevron print.

Capri pants aren’t particularly flattering to my shape, either, but I don’t wear shorts. I hate them. When the weather gets really hot, I prefer long, loose dresses, but capri pants are what I wear when I want the coverage and flexibility of pants on the muggiest days. Fashion must bow to function, and I apologize to those who suffer looking at me on hot days!

In the front row of the wardrobe photo (at the top of the post), you will also see something black. Those are my long underwear bottoms. I’ll wear these under any of the longer wardrobe items if I’m cold late at night or early in the morning. Odds are, no one will ever see them. They are underwear, after all!

Tops

If you just returned to the full wardrobe photo at the top of the page, you may have noticed, at the right, second row, above the long john pants, four small rolls in pink, orange, white, and grey; these are regular cotton/lycra tank tops. I like the ones from Duluth Trading Co.

These are usually layered under my other shirts to add warmth, modesty, or extend the time between washings, but I will wear them alone if the weather gets hot enough. I wouldn’t expose that much of my skin to the sun, however, and I’d have a UV protective shawl or wrap with me if I couldn’t find shade.

Now let’s look more closely at my Insect Shield tops:

I am packing my two safari style button front shirts. The coral shirt is Columbia and fairly boxy. The olive/tan shirt is Craghoppers, and quite fitted. The latter does include cute buttons shaped like flowers and some decorative tone-on-tone stitching. It has a more feminine feel than the more unisex Columbia option, but it’s slightly less comfortable.

Much like cargo pockets are an offense to my broad hips, chest pockets look stupid whilst highlighting my ample bosom. I’m not wearing safari shirts on purpose. These are just the most common styles in adventure fabrics, so they are most readily marked down.

I paid less than $10 for the Craghoppers shirt on Amazon; retail was probably $85 based upon a peek at their website today.

I also like that the Safari style shirts look right layered (worn open if the predatory insects allow) over a plain tank. I prefer to keep a layer of untreated fabric next to my skin instead of the Insect Shield—called NosiLife by Craghoppers—material.

The green tunic is Craghoppers, and it matches the maxi skirt I listed before. It would look better on me with a v-neck and more fitted waist, but I don’t feel bad wearing it. I just don’t feel cute.

On me, it looks best with the waist tie pulled to the back from both loops, highlighting my narrow waist without drawing a belt-line across my middle to make me look shorter. It looks better with my simple pants than it does with the bulky shirred waist of the matching skirt poofing up underneath.

The wide waistband of the maxi is meant to make it operate as a convertible halter dress, but that is not a style I’ll be sporting. Aside from a general policy of never going bra-less in public, I also find ties behind the neck trigger muscle pain and headaches for me. The extra fabric at the waist is not ideally flattering, but it is comfortable. It looks better worn over a tank top (tucked in) on me, but whether I wear it that way will depend upon the number of insects who are biting.

More to my liking is my newest acquisition: the rose colored open cardigan, also by Craghoppers. It offers less coverage from biting insects, but it better suits my personal style. It feels more cottony than some of my other pieces, but there is a rougher hand to the fabric, likely due to the treatment, though the ExOfficio knit trousers avoided this issue somehow.

Shown below the cardigan is a Columbia long sleeve t-shirt in rose that I’ve had for years. It just happens to work really nicely with the new wrap. I’ll call this my “camping sweater set.”

The polyester fabric of this t-shirt is too sporty to thrill me, but, on previous camping trips, the piece has proven its worth by protecting me from the mosquitoes who love me. I don’t reciprocate their feelings.

I’ll show some detail shots here to highlight a major problem with all Insect Shield clothing: ugly logos.

I’m not a fan of visible branding on anything. Nope, I don’t even want a designer handbag to sport an exterior brand. That. Is. Not. My. Style.

There might be a regulatory issue with Insect Shield clothing. Perhaps it must show a visible mark for reasons of consumer protection? But, at minimum, I’d like to see every product use tone-on-tone stitching for the most invisible branding possible.

I’m delighted to talk about where I got my clothes, or a clever solution like Insect Shield garments. I don’t want my wardrobe to advertise for itself. Craghoppers’ white logos on otherwise “fashion” oriented pieces are the most baffling to me. Why?

Finally, the periwinkle Insect Shield hoodie by White Sierra. This piece is my least favorite of the batch. Aside from standing out as an obvious mis-match to my capsule wardrobe color scheme, the fabric of this piece is that not-so-pleasant polyester used for hiking clothes. It doesn’t feel very nice next to the skin.

I thought about leaving it behind. However… this is my campfire staple piece. I don’t like it so much, so if there are drippy s’mores, or kids with charcoal on their fingers seeking hugs, this piece can take whatever abuse nature hands out.

Perhaps every item of Insect Shield clothing is “grubby” and designed to work hard in the great outdoors, but this hoodie is my most grubby. I’d wear it if I were painting a wall and there were annoying bugs.

I added two other tops.

One—an ExOfficio crinkle tunic in white—is such a favorite, I bought three more when they went on final clearance and I’d realized how much I loved the first one.

Bottoms w white top

ExOfficio tunic shown with my Hilton Head wardrobe

This tunic fits me perfectly, has a flattering v-neckline and a nipped in waist. It’s just long enough to cover my bum, but it doesn’t overwhelm my 5′ 2.5″ body. It breathes easy with its seersucker texture, and it washes well as it’s made of some kind of smooth synthetic blend.

The final top is a Coolibar long sleeve t-shirt in taupe. It has a crew neck, which is good for UV protection, but adds nothing to my appearance. The color is drab, but it blends neatly with my neutrals for this wardrobe. Being ZnO fabric, it feels wonderful on. I will layer with this, probably wearing it most mornings during the coolest hours.

There’s a reason this top is in my camping wardrobe instead of rotating through my everyday Coolibar collection. It’s not the cutest, but it functions well and matches the safari color scheme that outdoor clothing manufacturers continue to thrust upon us. I bought it to pair with the capri pants in the same shade, but the head-to-toe (actually: shoulder-to-upper-calf) taupe makes me want to cry.

I’m not a neutral person!

Footwear

The camp packing list is very specific about bringing enough footwear. They suggest at least two pairs of sturdy shoes with laces in case one pair gets wet/muddy. Sandals are suggested, and hiking boots are an option.

I’m opting for two pairs of grey sneakers. The grey with coral (front row, 2nd from right) are breathable mesh. The grey with magenta (back row, far right) are waterproof.

I’m also bringing pair of sandal-alternative-almost-cute summer shoes by Propet, in taupe. I prefer my grey pair of these, which is why I’m leaving them at home. There’s rain in the forecast! If I’m going to ruin shoes, it’ll be the less attractive pair.

I’m not skipping them, however, because I hate having hot feet. This is the lightest weight, airiest shoe I can wear comfortably for any length of time.

My Crocs are hideous, but they fit my orthotics and they allow me to get around indoors without crippling pain. I don’t walk barefoot even to use the bathroom at night. My foot problems won’t allow for such liberties. Consider these my slippers, or house shoes.

Crocs will also work for shower shoes, which is reassuring in the summer camp environment. They’re even safe to throw in the washing machine when we get home. I don’t love my Crocs, but I appreciate the mobility they support, and I’m happy not to have to step my naked foot in a communal shower stall. In nature. Shared by kids…

Accessories

I was done packing. The suitcase was even zipped. But I hesitated.

Here’s what I grabbed:

Camp accessories scarfThis is a rayon scarf. I’ve had it for years. It is soft against the skin, and not too warm to wear in summer. It goes with everything warm colored—red, coral, peach, orange, even purple. And, after all, you never know when a scarf will be wanted.

It will keep me warmer. It will make me feel more dressed up. I feel more like myself when I’m draped in something colorful and sensuous. I’m the kind of lady who wears a lot of scarves.

I’m not going to wear drape-y rayon around a campfire, though. I’m pretty sure this stuff is highly flammable!

Of course, there are nightclothes, socks, and undies in my bag, too. I’m only willing to show you the socks:

It’s a lot of socks, but camp is dirty. I also have everything from thick wool socks on the left, to tiny footie socks in the back row. They take up almost no space, and I will have what I want to be comfortable. Sore feet can ruin many outdoor adventures. I consider these to be some of the most important items I’ve packed.

There are even two pairs of Insect Shield treated socks. They are blue because I got them on sale. Stopping ticks will rate higher than nicely coordinated socks in some conditions. Considering the very limited colors available for treated socks, I’d likely have been compromising on color anyway. Price mattered more.

I’ll be bringing my teal blue knee length soft shell coat for outerwear. The forecast calls for more rain/storms than heat. If we get heat instead, I probably won’t need the coat. teal raincoat

I am also bringing both a broad brimmed sun hat (more Coolibar), and an inexpensive rain hat (that worked great in Alaska) to shield my face and/or keep my glasses dry whatever the weather.

Combinations

With six bottoms and six tops, this is not a minimalist capsule wardrobe. It does all fit—with the exception, in this case, of most of the shoes—in my Tom Bihn Aeronaut (original size, aka Aeronaut 45) carry on size suitcase.

If every piece worked equally well together, we’d have 36 obvious outfits from this mix, and that’s without considering my layering pieces as stand-alone alternatives. Since I will be traveling for several weeks in total, I’m happy to have lots of options.

Packing light for camp borders on the impossible because we need to bring bedding, pillows, towels, and clothing suitable for many conditions (40-90º F) with no access to laundry facilities. We did it last time (sort of) by renting bedding, but we didn’t sleep comfortably under so-so blankets on not-quite-right pillows.

Simple sleeping bags are no longer an option for summer camp. It’s considered a risk during a fire, so zipped up sleeping bags aren’t allowed. Unzipped, a sleeping bag won’t create that useful microclimate of warmth that makes them so space efficient to pack.

This time, we’re driving instead of flying, and we’re packing what we need to be comfortable.

Also, even with most of the Insect Shield items removed, the remaining  pieces make their own more minimalist capsule wardrobe. It’s wearable for days, and lacks only my usual accessories to make me feel fully dressed, and fully expressive of my own style.

The three bottoms (coral, taupe, coral/white) plus the two UV tops (taupe t-shirt, white tunic) and tanks coordinate very well. If I just keep the Craghoppers wrap in the mix, I can “cover my bum” when wearing the stretch pants with tinier tops. Or, I could buy a few large scarves for souvenirs and complete the looks (and cover my backside) that way.

I know it might seem a little odd to plan a wardrobe for a nature excursion, but it’s such a great way to point out the value in buying clothing aligned to a broader vision of how you want to dress.

I don’t think it matters how you look while hiking in the woods! I wouldn’t let mis-matched clothes prevent me from enjoying a week outdoors with my family this summer.

But, on the other hand, I do enjoy creating a thoughtful packing list that will ensure I bring what I need, wear what I bring, and am happy about how I look and how I feel.

I hope this post has been enlightening to a reader or two, and perhaps given someone the notion that it’s okay to think about what you wear while you’re adventuring, so long as you attend to function as well!

How do you pack for camping, hiking, or other outdoor adventures? Do you have a specialized wardrobe?

Learning language as a gift to people we may meet

“I want to go everywhere and understand everyone. I never will, but it does motivate me.

It’s amazing how people respond when you [as a visitor] use even a little of their language, though. Like you’re offering a gift. And, I suppose, we [language learners] are: that of our time and attention.”

This post started as a reply to a comment left by Torazakana, a Japanese language learner whose efforts and accomplishments leave mine in the dust.

I include “living 3+ months in a foreign country with a different language” on my bucket list, but the longest I’ve stayed abroad yet was three weeks in Europe after finishing college. That was fun, but emphatically a tourist experience, not one of cultural or linguistic immersion.Beach sunset - 1

I don’t expect to be admired or congratulated for the work I do on foreign languages. I enjoy the challenge, the mental stimulation, and the sense of accomplishment from doing something more useful than binge watching Netflix. I like setting an example for my kids of lifelong learning and self improvement.

But I really love the light that comes into the eye of a friendly native speaker when I make an effort to communicate in their tongue, according to their terms. I love to give this gift. I revel in the return offering of goodwill and appreciation.

Even more than my (sometimes laughable) attempts at, say, Icelandic and its multitude of challenging sounds, or Catalan that tricks me repeatedly with its brushes against both Spanish and French concealing a reality of total independence, more than any speech itself, the international interpersonal connection is in the attempt. It is the reaching out that bridges the divide.

Language itself is just walking across the bridge that sincere effort built.

Books by my bedside 2017/06/09

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Pimsleur

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Fiction

Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

The Great Passage written by Miura, Shion, translated by Carpenter, Juliet Winters (note: this was a freebie from Amazon for being a Prime member)

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

Reading Notes:

Great Passage coverI finished The Great Passage last night. It was a novel I read at a slower pace; not urgently, but in a concerted and thoughtful way. That fits neatly with the book’s narrative about the team of employees at a publishing house working—for years!—on the publication of a new dictionary of the Japanese language.

It wasn’t what I’d consider a quotable book until the very end. I highlighted these two passages that I liked very much, which might help you decide whether this is a novel you’d enjoy reading.

“A dictionary is a repository of human wisdom not because it contains an accumulation of words but because it embodies true hope, wrought over time by indomitable spirits.”

(page 193)

and

Human beings had created words to communicate with the dead, and with those yet unborn.

(page 200)

The book does a beautiful job of shining a light on a subject that could easily be overlooked: the creation of a dictionary.

What kind of person commits to such an endeavor? What is the work like? Why does it matter, to them and to you?

For me, it also presents a lovely view into a very different culture. I could see evidence of differences I’d read about. I also learned many new things about the Japanese language and office culture in Japan.

The Great Passage is a well-translated foreign book that made for peaceful, but contemplative, bedtime reading. I would gladly delve into works by this author—and this translator—again.

Anxiety has little sense, but so many urgent sensations

Here’s something funny about anxiety:

It’s so forceful, and feels so compelling, yet it makes no real sense.

Completely wrapped up in my worries about preparations for a big trip on a tight schedule, I completely forgot to be afraid alone in my big bed at night while my husband was away.

Usually, I (unconsciously) wait up for the man who isn’t coming.

linen duvet on bed - 1Though I lay awake some hours consumed with fears of forgotten necessities, I never once heard creeping marauders making mayhem downstairs. I didn’t even need earplugs to let the little night noises go unregarded.

I’ve had some success with the process of unspooling my anxious thoughts to their ridiculous conclusions. Often, doing so allows me to finally drop off to sleep at night.

Perhaps I can use this new observation about competing irrational thoughts to do something similar the next time my husband is away from home overnight.

If I have the power to ignore a fear to focus on a different one, surely I can do myself the favor of letting it go for the benefit of a good night’s rest.

Sleep is such a beautiful thing, and anxiety is the mortal enemy of my much needed repose.night marble moon

Posting schedule: summer vacation is for blogging moms, too

I’ve been posting almost daily since April, when I started in earnest to write Really Wonderful Things. I hope that all of this hard work has built up a nice portfolio on a variety of topics, and that my archives now have lots to offer for new readers who stop by.

Starting immediately, my summer schedule will be a post on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

PEI beachSummer vacation, for us, means travel, family activities, and time away from our desks. Wifi isn’t readily available—nor would I want it there!—in the wilderness.*

I’m not neglecting those of you who do me the honor of following RWT. I’m unplugging. It’s supposed to be good for you.

And I’m really only unplugging a little bit.

If I have access to Wifi, I will still read and answer comments every day.

Contact phoneI expect I will continue reading most, if not all, of the blogs I follow, too. Following a blog can feel like making a friend. I want to find out what happens next.

I reserve the right to write extra posts at any time. I may not be able to help sharing Really Wonderful Things that I learn, see, or do this summer. I’m an enthusiastic over-sharer. It’s who I am.

Here’s wishing every reader** a summer season abundant in everything really wonderful to you.OR Florence - 2011

*Maybe wilderness can be defined here as the local park, or a campground with hot showers, but the point remains.

**I know I have some followers from the Southern Hemisphere. You are headed into winter. Perhaps my summer posts can help warm your cold days.

Quickest whole grain breakfast cooked in a Thermos insulated jar

Breakfast? We don’t need no stinkin’ breakfast!*

Oh, wait… Yes, we do!

Breakfast Thermos cereal preppedYou’ll find many better resources for recipes and cooking all over the internet, but I have one time saving breakfast solution that I want to share.

All of the (very minimal) preparation can be done in advance. The only work you must do in the morning is boil water. For those of us who start the day with a cup of hot tea, this means zero extra time or effort at the busiest part of the day.

Remember that Thermos food jar that I recommended so strongly when I wrote a post with suggestions for packing a waste free lunch?

Here’s another use for that Thermos: a quick and easy hot cereal for a hurry-up-and-wait kind of morning.

Breakfast Thermos cereal ingredientsIn my case, there’s one day every week when I have to get up extra early and rush out the door to take my son to his violin lesson. The lesson starts at 7:45 am, and it’s 20 minutes away. Yawn!

I was getting my son up, fed, and there on time, but I was having trouble fitting in my own breakfast. This simple Thermos hot cereal solves that problem.

During the winter, I often prep several insulated jars at a time. Family members can grab one, top off with hot water from our always on (Japanese style) kettle, and eat according to his own schedule.

I also bring a thermos and containers of pre-measured ingredients when I travel. You can make this simple, filling breakfast with a hotel room kettle or coffee machine, too.

Simple steps:

I hesitate to even call this a recipe.

  1. Start with a clean, dry Thermos. (I fill multiple jars at once, on the weekend.)
  2. Add measured quantities of dry ingredients, to taste. (I’ll specify one blend shortly.)
  3. 30+ minutes before you plan to eat, fill Thermos with boiling water and stir.
  4. Cap the Thermos and take it with you on your commute.
  5. Open and eat!

The longer you wait to eat, the softer the cereal grains will become. My husband likes oatmeal cooked much longer and with more water than I do. Vary according to your tastes.

Rolled oats are edible in about 15 minutes. I prefer a 30-40 cooking time for oatmeal blends. I usually include steel cut oats, and I appreciate that they retain a firm texture at 30 minutes.

Ingredients:

Here are the specific quantities I used to make the hot cereal for my photos today. I want to stress, though, that I don’t normally bother to measure my ingredients at all. This is a forgiving recipe!

  • 50 g Oats, rolled (1/4 cup)
  • 20 g Oats, steel cut (1/8 cup)
  • 10 g Buckwheat cereal (∼1 Tbsp)
  • 10 g Coconut milk powder (1 Tbsp)
  • Brown sugar, maple sugar, salt & raisins to taste
  • 125 mL Boiling water (enough to fill the Thermos, leaving a little space to stir)

I didn’t weigh or measure my toppings, but if you really want guidance, try one spoonful each of raisins and sugar and a tiny pinch of salt.

I never measure out my boiling water. I just dispense it until the Thermos is full. I used the scale today just to provide a guideline for anyone who’s unfamiliar with cooking hot cereal from scratch.

Breakfast Thermos cereal water 125 mL

127mL of hot water topped up my Thermos jar

Some people argue that oats aren’t healthy due to high levels of phytates. This is controversial. I love oatmeal and I think the nutritional benefits they provide outweigh these risks, but I have adopted the routine of including some buckwheat grains in every bowl.

I don’t like buckwheat cereal on its own, but I don’t even notice its flavor blended in with other grains.

You can read more about how adding buckwheat might be helpful here. Sometimes, I do soak my oats overnight in an acidic liquid according to this philosophy. Frankly, however, I don’t enjoy the taste of the resulting oatmeal as much, even when I rinse it before cooking.

Barley is another grain that works well when prepared by this Thermos cooking method. I like it combined with oats in roughly equal proportions.

I missed lunch because I was busy preparing this blog post, so I took the completed Thermos full of ingredients with me to after school pick up. I ate the hot cereal about 40 minutes after preparation, and it was just the way I like it: slightly chewy, but definitely, thoroughly cooked.

You can purchase ready made steel cut oats to eat on the go. Amazon’s price for Pacific Steel-Cut Oatmeal is $2.41 per serving when you buy them by the dozen, and this product is packaging intensive.

I calculated my cost per serving using my Thermos method by finding prices for all organic and gluten free ingredients from Amazon.com. $1.31 per serving for Thermos oatmeal is probably on the high side, but I wanted to provide a cost estimate.

My absolute favorite hot cereal is steel cut oats, brought to a boil the night before then left to sit at back of the stove overnight. Re-heated in the morning, these are soft and delicious, but retain the chewy goodness of Scottish oats. Making these requires forethought, and spending a specific amount of time both the night before—and the morning of—the breakfast.

Thermos cooked hot cereal, on the other hand, tastes pretty darn good. It can be made with any whole grains you wish at an affordable price. The minimal time you spend prepping can be done as far as days before you want to eat; the only step that is time dependent is adding the hot water.

I feel strongly that some fat is essential at breakfast if I want sustained energy to get me through my morning. This is why I always include the coconut milk powder in my blend. Powdered (dairy) milk is readily available, and costs less (even for organic) on Amazon than my brand of Coconut Milk.

If you add the boiling water to your Thermos jar first thing, say, before getting dressed, you could just pour in a liquid dose of your preferred milk straight from the fridge after giving the cereal time to cook. Dairy, soy, coconut, or almond milk—add whatever you like.

A personal trainer I know likes to use chia seeds in his hot cereal. I eat chia, but I don’t like that particular crunch in my oatmeal. Try this for added protein and fiber if you like the idea.

Nuts are another great add-in option for extra nutrition, but, if you grind or chop them for this recipe, remember that they will oxidize (become rancid and unhealthy) faster once broken, so don’t cut them up too far ahead of time. If you must prep them early, consider storing your filled Thermos in the fridge until ready to use it.

Storing a prepped Thermos jar in the fridge might add to the time needed between adding boiling water and eating your cereal. I haven’t tried it. Allow extra time if you try this, and let me know the results if you do!

This recipe will work any time you can boil water, then wait half an hour to eat. Just don’t forget to pack a spoon! I keep a Light My Fire spork packed in a silicone “popsicle mold” in my car for just such occasions.

Let’s not talk about how many times I’ve found myself waiting outside the kids’ schools or activities with my meal packed, but no utensils. I’d like to retain a shred of dignity.

Bon appétit!

Breakfast Thermos cereal spoon

*Just couldn’t resist the reference. I had no idea this popularly quoted phrase from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre took its most common form on the TV show The Monkees! Did you?

Exposé: Gai King wants ewe

Did anyone else watch Force Five in the early 1980’s?

My husband and his best friends did, and now they are binge re-watching them together once a month or so.

DH’s newest fascination is collectible toys from the franchise. He’s not the sort to keep a toy pristine in a box, however. Naturally, he’s been playing with them.

This morning, he ended up in the kitchen, posing Gai King in front of an interesting backdrop (a backlit Rubbermaid Cereal Keeper.) DH conscripted a molded beeswax candle of mine—one shaped like a resting lamb—into his vignette. He snapped a few more photos.

My son, observing from the breakfast table, intoned in his best Uncle Sam impression:

“I want ewe

to eat this sheep!

Gai King wants ewe.jpeg

And that’s how we got here today.

 

Summer road trip planned? Schedule a check up for your car now!

It’s a great idea to have a professional give your vehicle a once over before a road trip, especially if you didn’t ace auto shop. According to my mechanic, I’m the rare customer who schedules a car appointment well in advance.

Welcome to Iowa signI was going to include a list of stuff to have them check. There’s a battery, and there are tires and fluids… Then I realized how much I rely upon having an excellent mechanic to keep my vehicle in good operating condition!

I’m planning to drive several thousand miles across multiple regions of the United States this summer, so I scheduled a check up for my van. I made an appointment for the week before our departure date. I did this when I had my snow tires taken off in April.

I asked the scheduler at the auto shop, “Is one week ahead of my trip okay? If you find a problem, will that give you enough time to fix it?”

He said yes, and I scheduled the appointment.

The mechanic also laughed and included this wisdom:

Most people come in the day before a trip. When I find something wrong, they beg me to fix it immediately. I don’t always have the parts or the time!”

Anecdotally, I believe the mechanic.

Yesterday, my husband came home from work and asked what time we’re headed out to visit friends today.

He said, “I’m going to be driving back and forth to that conference next week, and it’s pretty far away. I want to get an oil change in the morning and have them check whether anything is wrong with my car.”

He’s driving out of state to his conference tomorrow…

I had already written the first paragraph of this post.

Coincidence? You decide…

Cue Twilight Zone music

Good lunch in a hurry: less waste doesn’t have to take more time

Sticking with the theme from yesterday of how to pack a waste free lunch, today I’ll shift the discussion to getting a low waste lunch packed in a hurry.

Remember, the idea of a zero waste lunch is to avoid generating unnecessary garbage (usually packaging) to lighten our ecological impact.

Time is of the essence

No one seems to have enough time in her day anymore, and this is at least as true of moms as it is of the general population. Mom has the same 24 hours available to squeeze in caring for herself and her offspring.

Today started off with one of those mornings. It was predictable, and I often employ strategies to reduce morning stress, but sometimes I fail to achieve my idealized solutions.

  • I didn’t pack lunch the night before.
  • I needed to get laundry in the machine this morning so it would be dry by evening.
  • I didn’t prep the breakfast ingredients the night before.

Each of these tasks is quick—taking perhaps 5-10 minutes—but, when added together, there goes my precious early morning tea time. Not the end of the world, but it sets a very different tone to the day.

When I’m not prepared, it takes more work to have what the kids and I call a “good” morning. No yelling! No taking frustrations out on family members. No blaming someone else for the jobs we left undone and are scrambling to complete.

We did manage a good morning, in spite of my poor planning. One reason for that was having strategies in place for a speed-packed lunchbox. I even took a few extra seconds to snap some pictures. We arrived at school with three minutes to spare, though, if I’m honest, that’s only because traffic was mercifully light and I lucked out with every traffic signal on the way there.

Here’s how I packed a lunch so fast.

Main dish straight from a bulk package in the freezer

There were no leftovers ready to go, so DS2 got his favorite treat for a main dish: chicken nuggets. These are the gluten free version from Applegate Farms. He can use a microwave oven at school, so I packed them in a CorningWare 16 oz glass casserole dish. A paper towel and the heating instructions are folded into the dish with the food to make it easier for DS2 or a helpful teacher, to prepare his lunch.

The heating instructions call for the paper towel when re-heating nuggets in the microwave. At home, I would use the oven heating instructions and avoid the waste, but that isn’t an option for school.

When I’ve included glass dishes in a child’s lunchbox, I make a point of reminding him to be a little extra careful about how he handles it. I suspect that this advice is forgotten before he’s even through the door, but we have had very good results in spite of careless boys and breakable containers.

I’ve been happy with both CorningWare and Pyrex dishes. They are very sturdy. The insulation/padding of a modern, soft-sided lunchbox no doubt helps cushion the glass as well.

Side dishes zip from storage to containers

Here’s another case where I have to own up to my imperfections in the area of less wasteful grocery practices. One of the reasons I always keep “baby carrots” in our fridge is that they go straight from storage to the lunchbox or plate. The value of this ease can’t be overstated when it comes to getting fresh veggies into the lunchbox, and making vegetables a quick grab snack to which the boys may help themselves.

I also have regular carrots on hand that I buy from our local farmers. We use those when we are cooking and prepping lunches and snacks ahead of time in an ideal scenario. But baby carrots are the champions of less than ideal mornings at our house. Cherry tomatoes are really easy, too.

Another corner I cut on a day like today is patting dry the other produce before I pack it in the round stainless steel containers. The U Konserve/Kids Konserve rounds with silicone lids will hold whatever water remains while in transit, but I will probably get a moderately grubby lunchbox back at the end of the day due to dribbles, crumbs, and dirt.

Thank God it’s Friday! We only wash the lunchbox once a week, on the weekend, to maintain some semblance of good hygiene.

Potato chips are a rare lunchbox treat, but, like the chicken nuggets, both popular with the child and super quick to pack. Since he’s getting two servings of vegetables today—one for snack, and one for lunch—it’s a good day for this concession. I’ll avoid anything high in sodium for dinner tonight to make up for the little guy’s salty lunch.

Washing twice as many veggies took less time than choosing and getting out an alternate snack option, like nuts (kept in the freezer) or an egg (which I peel for him at home, thus costing more time.)

The apple wins the award for least packaging needed, but my son may well skip eating it. Sliced apples are much faster to eat, which is why I usually take the time to cut them up when I include them in his lunch. Reducing packaging isn’t necessarily an ecological improvement if it results in wasted food.

I mention this to, once again, underscore how personal all of these choices can be. What works for me may not be ideal for your situation, but I hope my tips generate ideas you can use.

Dessert and drinks are prepped ahead for the week

Both a treat and a beverage were already portioned and ready to pack. I almost always have these prepped for the week on Sunday night.

Sweets for school—except on a rare holiday—are home baked goodies with a healthier profile than packaged products. The blondie I packed today uses whole grain teff and millet flour and a healthy dose of almond butter for flavor and fat content. They taste great, and are helpful for tempting my little guy, who’d rather play than eat during his allotted break time.

My recipe is adapted from one I found here.

Lunch quick pack busy morning - 5

Today’s lunch pack required four U Konserve rounds (medium, 2 small, mini), a CorningWare 16 oz casserole, Nalgene 8 oz bottle, and a Bumkins small snack bag. The apple required no packaging.

My water bottle choice: Nalgene 8 oz rectangular

The water bottle issue is one I’ve grappled with for years. I’d prefer not to use plastic, but I have yet to find a glass bottle that is affordable enough, durable enough, and sized and shaped right for the way I want to pack a school lunch.

The Nalgene 8 oz wide mouth rectangular bottle is the best option I’ve come up with for daily school use. Here’s why:

This bottle fits inside the lunchbox. My younger son, in particular, will not remember a separate bottle. Either the lunch or the water bottle will be lost. I don’t like that option. He could carry a larger lunchbox, but then it wouldn’t fit inside his backpack; once again, he’d be responsible for managing two important items. It’s a recipe for more frequent replacement of expensive, necessary objects.

Also, rectangular dishes use the space in the lunchbox more efficiently than round ones. I tried packing our small Sigg bottles in the same spot, and the bag bulged alarmingly, if it would zip at all. The Nalgene rectangular bottle is the perfect shape.

I was really upset by how the Sigg company handled the issue of its use of BPA in the liners for its otherwise great aluminum bottles. We still use the ones we have, but I won’t be buying more.

I fill six Nalgene 8 oz bottles with about an inch of water on Sunday night. I freeze them all. Each morning, I top off one bottle’s chunk of ice with filtered water and pack it in the lunch. This helps keep the contents of the lunchbox cold, and it reduces the temperature of the water in contact with (HDPE) plastic.

These factors are important to me for food safety reasons and to reduce my child’s exposure to leached toxins, respectively.

When the weather heats up, or if I know the class is taking a nature study field trip, I’ll add a second frozen bottle to the lunchbox. This gives DS2 enough water to stay hydrated, and keeps the lunch chilled longer.

I have frozen ice packs in a variety of sizes which I also employ as needed, but frozen water bottles are sufficient during most of our school year in New England’s climate.

Not all or nothing, just a best effort for today

It’s taken me far longer to describe packing this lunch than it did for me to complete the task. I’ve had years of practice, but it takes more desire to avoid waste than it does talent or skill. A few containers in convenient sizes also come in handy.

More than anything else, I hope that someone reading this who feels like waste free lunches are out of reach can see that this is a process. It isn’t all or nothing. Do what you can manage today, and aim to do a bit better tomorrow.

Here’s a secret: I keep a small shelf full of pre-packaged snacks at the top of my pantry. Why? Because, some mornings, tossing a ready made bag of pretzels into the lunchbox is the best I can do. It doesn’t matter why, and it doesn’t make me a bad person, or a failure as a mother.

Taking even small steps to reduce waste is a fine start. Just keep following those steps up with more. You’ll get to where you want to be.

What do you do on your busiest mornings to get the best lunch packed in the least time? Do you use more packaged goods, or have you got better solutions? Please share in the comments!