5 Reasons Why Camping Will Make Your Life Better

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Letchworth State Park, the Grand Canyon of the East, where my family and I go camping every year.

 

 

Camping season has officially begun! For those of you who say, “Camping is NOT for me,” here are five reasons you should leave your comfort zone and try it out this year.

  1. Fresh air

If you live in a metropolitan or suburban area, the air you breathe daily cannot be considered “fresh air.”  Although you may not notice it, the air in populated areas is laced with automobile exhaust, factory and business emissions, and other forms of pollution that come from living in a densely populated area.  We don’t pick up on these because we have become accustomed to them. However, once you go camping in middle of nowhere, you will know what true fresh air smells like. You pick up the different scents of the trees and foliage, the water running through a nearby brook, the dead leaves and pine needles that form the forest bed.  THIS is fresh air in its truest form!

  1. Hiking

According to the International Health, Raquetball and Sportsclub Association, Americans spend 2.8 billion dollars a year on gym memberships in order to get exercise. We spend countless hours on treadmills, either running or walking, and not getting anywhere. Hiking is free exercise.  No gym, treadmill, or personal trainer required.  Just throw on some hiking boots and set off down a trail. Maybe the trail leads to a fishing hole, or winds up a hill, or meanders to a waterfall.  Maybe it just loops back to where you started.  No matter what, you will get the blood flowing and inhale some of the fresh air described in #5.  Two for the price of one.  Plus, you get to see all the beauty of nature.  We often overlook the natural wonders that are so close to home– woods, mountains, deserts, streams– whatever the terrain, you are certain to see things that you didn’t know existed in your area.  The world is such a beautiful place, and hiking gives you a chance to actually see and appreciate all that it has to offer.

  1. Camp food

Some say it’s the air, or it’s the exercise, or even cooking over the open flame of a campfire.  Whatever it is, camp food is some of the best food in the world. There’s something about camping that allows you to stuff your face until you are inches away from being grotesquely full without suffering from tremendous guilt.  You can just work it off tomorrow while you’re collecting kindling to start the fire for the next meal.  If you aren’t convinced yet, I have one word for you– s’mores.  ‘Nuff said.

  1. Disconnecting from social media

In this day and age, no one can seem to survive without his or her smart phone.  We must be constantly connected to the internet in order to receive our news, weather, and society updates.  A recent article in Time magazine stated that the average American checks his or her phone 46 times every day.  Camping in a remote location without cell service forces you to disconnect from your screen and reconnect with your surroundings.  You talk to the people you eat with.  You point out the woodpecker high in the evergreen tree to your fellow camper.  You ask them how they like their marshmallows cooked for their s’mores.  You may discuss more serious things, like politics, global warming, or the Common Core.  You may discuss trivial matters, such as why you put the wood in a teepee formation when you build a campfire when your significant other uses a hatch method.  The topic really doesn’t matter.  It’s the fact that you’re having human interaction and building relationships.  This is something we all desperately need to do more often.

  1. Campfires

Campfires have been around since the dawn of time. When cave men discovered fire, the first thing they did was sit around the open flame and stare at it.  We haven’t evolved that much since then!  Sitting around a campfire gives you time to reflect on the day.  You can think about the hike you took and the great food you ate.  More stars are visible in the sky when you are camping than you would be able to see on a clear night in the city or the suburbs; the illuminations from buildings, streetlights, and cars make the stars less vibrant in the sky over populated areas.  But when you’re out in nature, there are very few man made lights to distract from the natural beauty of the night sky.  You may even see your first shooting star! Also, campfires provide the perfect setting for storytelling.  Here is a great way to start a group campfire story:  one person begins the tale with a couple of lines, then each person around the campfire takes a turn and adds a line or two to the plot until it’s finished.  This is a great way to include kids; they often add the funniest things! Campfires can easily last late into the night, because time flies by when you’re relaxing with good company and feeding off one another’s creativity.

All of these aspects of camping will make your relationships richer and your love of nature stronger. Your head will be clearer (as will your lungs from the clean air).  I can also guarantee that when you get home, you will thoroughly appreciate your indoor plumbing!  So go camping this season. The memories and benefits will carry you through the year, until you’re ready to plan your next wilderness adventure!

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My girls on a hike during one of our earliest camping trips.

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Life Lessons From My Brother (Who Happens to Have Down’s Syndrome)

When my younger brother BJ was born, I was twelve.  I remember being so excited to meet the newest member of our family.  Before my dad took my brother Rob and me to the hospital, he sat us down for a talk.  My father looked sad and unsure as he told us our baby brother was born with “problems.”  He told us BJ had Down’s syndrome, and that meant that he would never be able to do the things a “normal” child would; it would take him a long time to learn to speak and walk, he would never be able to read and write, and he could have severe health problems also.  Needless to say, this came as a huge shock, and I tried to prepare myself to see my brother hooked up to tubes and wires, fighting for survival.  However, that’s not what I saw when I got to the hospital.  Yes, BJ was in an incubator because he was jaundice, but other than that he looked like a chubby, healthy baby boy.  When I was much older, I learned why my father was so afraid.  After BJ was born, the pediatrician came in to my mom’s room and informed my parents that BJ had Down’s syndrome.  He said that because of this my brother would be severely mentally retarded and would require constant care for the rest of his life.  He finished by stating that the best thing my parents could do was place him in a home for the disabled and forget they had ever had him.

Fortunately, my mother refused to listen to the doctors, because she knew through experience that physically and developmentally disabled people could accomplish great things.  Her younger brother, my Uncle Fred, had been born with spina bifida.  Fred was a paraplegic, but that never stopped my uncle from trying new pursuits.  He graduated from high school, held a job, played wheel chair basketball, collected coins, was a HAM radio operator, and loved Monty Python movies.  Most importantly, he was one of the people to lead the fight to make all public buildings in New York State handicapped accessible.  We still have the newspaper articles detailing his protest at the state capital.  Yet when he was born, his doctors doubted he would survive.  He proved them wrong and accomplished great things in his life.  So instead of listening to BJ’s doctor, my mom began doing research on Down’s syndrome.  She contacted parent support groups and advocates for the disabled, and before we knew it, BJ was enrolled in an early intervention program to help him develop both physically and mentally. Although he’s had his ups and downs (doesn’t everyone?), today BJ is a healthy and happy 32 year old who lives in a group home with other guys his age. He loves painting, playing video games, and going to the movies. Recently, he has started his own wood turning business.

If my grandmother and mother would have listened to “the experts” when my uncle and brother were born, our families would have missed out on having these talented, giving men be a part of our lives. Often in our society when we see people who are different than us, whether those differences be physical appearance or ability, skin color, ethnicity, gender, or religion, we make assumptions and judgments instead of taking it upon ourselves to become educated about those distinctions. When we don’t appreciate the diversity of those around us, we miss opportunities for growth in our own lives.  I’ve tried to instill this lesson in my middle school and high school students through the literature we read and discuss, and I’ve endeavored to raise my children with this sense of acceptance as well.  I assumed, that with the passage of time, the stereotyping and judgement that my uncle and brother faced would have faded, especially from people in the medical and educational fields.

It’s obvious that I was wrong based on what happened to BJ just last month.

My brother had a meeting regarding his job within the community.  BJ works one day a week at the local sandwich shop.  This position was secured for him by a state agency that has the goal of getting all mentally and developmentally disabled individuals outside employment instead of having them spend their days in a workshop setting.  As a developmentally disabled adult, BJ has the right to have an advocate present at these meetings to speak for his interests.  My mother, who is BJ’s advocate, was not informed of or invited to attend this meeting.  The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate BJ’s job performance, as well as make a plan for the future to ensure that he moves forward toward his goal of full time work.  My mom received the paperwork from the meeting much later, but the first issue she was made aware of was that BJ was very distraught when he returned from the conference.  He told his group home supervisor that they were making him give up his wood turning business.  This didn’t make any sense—why would an organization that was designed to help the handicapped get jobs want to stop a small business that was becoming successful?  When the person who had been in charge of the meeting was contacted, it was determined that that was exactly what they wanted to do. The supervisor, we’ll call her “Mrs. Smith,” told my mom that BJ needed to give up his business because it was interfering with his job at the sandwich shop.  His efforts should be solely focused on that job, and according to the plan that Mrs. Smith established, BJ was not to speak of his woodworking business anymore, either to his coworkers at the sandwich shop or his care providers at the group home.  Support of any kind for his business was to end; coaching efforts were to be offered for his sandwich shop position only.  In return, BJ would be guaranteed one four hour shift per week at the shop.  One four hour shift per week?  What about the other 36 hours BJ could be working to earn income?  When my mother asked this question, Mrs. Smith informed her that she had 30 years of experience in her position and she knew what was best for BJ.  She also stated that if BJ or my mother didn’t like her decision, she had the ability to take away the sandwich shop job permanently.

When my mom told me what was going on, I began helping her fight for my brother’s rights through phone calls to Mrs. Smith’s superiors and letters to various agencies and politicians.  I’m confident that with my mom’s persistence, this situation will be resolved and BJ’s business will continue to grow.  He recently gave a presentation of his wood turning skills at a fundraiser, and ended up with an unbelievable number of product orders from gift shops and individuals across the area.  At this rate, his wood turning skills will provide him with full time employment in no time.

But what if my mom had listened to those doctors when my brother was born?

What if, as a family, we accepted the decisions of people like Mrs. Smith who want to bully and manipulate my brother into doing something that is not in his best interest?

What if I accepted the idea that people who differ from me in intelligence, gender, color, ethnicity, or religion are not valued in society?

What if I was complacent, and as a teacher and a mother I did not educate my students and children to see everyone’s worth, to value individual differences enough to stand up for others when they are being treated unfairly?

If my brother BJ had not come into my life, I don’t know if I would have realized the importance of acceptance, and the significance of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.  Every day through my words and actions I try to impart this moral to my children and my students.  My younger brother BJ taught me this lesson, the most important one of my life.  I am forever grateful that my mom did not listen to the doctors and listened to her heart instead.

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My brother Bj and me

Read Between the Wines – 2014 Rooster Hill Estate Gewurztraminer and Garlic Chicken with Orzo Noodles

Everyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite things to do is drink a good bottle of wine, but I’m not a wine snob (no, really I’m not!).  Wine doesn’t have to be $50 a bottle to be absolutely delicious.  As a matter of fact, I love trying out wines that are under $15 a bottle.  When I find one that’s exceptional, I feel like I’ve discovered a gem and I can’t wait to share it with the world.  I also try to pay attention to the style of wines my friends like to drink, so that I can make sure to have their favorites on hand when we get together.  For example, I know that Amber likes sweet wines like Moscato, Larry’s favorite is a dry Bordeaux, Livia prefers Champagne, and Kathy enjoys a good Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.  When I discover a wine that I know one of my friends will love, I feel like I’m giving them a gift when I introduce it to them.  It’s great to compare their first tastings to mine, to see what flavors their palettes pick up.

Because of this need to share, my friend Melanie suggested I write some periodic posts about the really good wines that I drink, so I can convey my obsession to the world! I thought that if I’m going to discuss good wines, I should also pair them with good recipes; I know many people will only drink wine in combination with a meal.  My husband is one of these people, so for my first wine/ meal pairing, I decided to review one of my husband’s favorite dishes, along with a wine from one of our favorite wineries.

First, the wine…. 

My husband and I love visiting the Finger Lakes of Central New York.  Not only is the scenery beautiful, but the lakes are home to some of the country’s best wineries, breweries, and distilleries.  If you are in New York State for business or pleasure and you are a wine lover, you have to taste in the Finger Lakes!  One of the wineries we love to visit is Rooster Hill Vineyards which is on Keuka Lake in Penn Yan, New York. Their wines are frequently reviewed in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast , and have won awards for both their reds and whites.  One of these award-winners is their 2014 Estate Gewurztraminer.  It recently won the Silver Medal at the 2016 Finger Lakes International, and it’s only $17.99 per bottle.  An awesome price for a wine this good!  Many people are afraid to try Gewurztraminer because it is often referred to as “spicy.”  In reality, many Gewurztraminers have hints of ginger, and this is what the palette picks up.  This wine is no exception.  The bouquet presents pear and floral notes, with traces of citrus.  There are suggestions of ginger when the wine first hits my taste buds, but the finish is smooth and slightly creamy.  Gewurztraminers are often recommended to be served with spicy Thai and Szechuan dishes because they balance out the heat.  This wine definitely balanced the strength of the garlic in the orzo.  Rooster Hill’s 2014 Estate Gewurztraminer is a great place to start if you have never tried this style of wine before and want a nice bottle of wine to go with a spicy meal.  You can order it directly from the winery, but it is also sold at many retail wine stores.…and now the food!

I need to start out by saying that if you love garlic, this is the recipe for you!  The other nice thing about it is it’s really easy to make.  I get tired of making the same old thing week after week.  This recipe switches things up a bit, using orzo instead of the typical spaghetti noodle I would usually turn to while making dinner on a weeknight.  Cooking the orzo in chicken broth gives it a nice flavor as well.  To make this recipe even easier, I use the precooked chicken strips so I only have to heat them up in the garlic/red pepper/oil mixture.  I also buy the prewashed baby spinach to save myself another step.  This meal cooks up in about 15 minutes, which is perfect when I’m tired from shuttling my teenagers around town for their after school activities. This recipe serves a family of four, but it’s very easy to double for a bigger family.  Plus, when you plate it and put grated parmesan on top, it looks like a dish you would get in a five star restaurant!

I hope you enjoy both the wine and the meal, and feel free to let me know your impressions of both.

Cheers and bon appetit!

Recipe adapted from Allrecipes.com

INGREDIENTS:
1 cup uncooked orzo pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts – cut into bite-size pieces
salt (or chicken bouillon) to taste
2 cups fresh spinach leaves
grated Parmesan cheese for topping

DIRECTIONS:
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. (I usually cook mine in chicken stock, it isn’t necessary, but it definitely gives some added flavor.) Add orzo pasta, cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until al dente, and drain.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, and cook the garlic and red pepper 1 minute, until garlic is golden brown. Stir in chicken, season with salt, and cook 2 to 5 minutes, until lightly browned and juices run clear. Reduce heat to medium, and mix in the cooked orzo. Place spinach in the skillet. Continue cooking 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until spinach is wilted. Serve topped with Parmesan cheese.

“To Be Old and Wise You First Have to Be Young and Stupid”

When I was younger, I remember wondering why older people were so cranky.  Why did they seem to have such short tempers?  Why were they so quick to fly off the handle when someone said something that they felt was inaccurate or inappropriate? Why did they get so angry when they were asked (or expected) to do things that weren’t necessarily their responsibility?  Wouldn’t it be easier (and nicer) to just do what was requested and not make waves? It was as though they had all the angst of teenagers, but unlike teenagers who often sit and stew in their misery, these adults weren’t afraid to make all of their complaints known. I couldn’t understand what they were so miffed about.

Now I get it.

There are many reasons why older, or as I prefer to be called, “mature” people speak their minds so freely without fear of judgement or hurting people’s feelings.  It took me forty-five years, but I now understand these people and support their resentment wholeheartedly.  Why?

Because I became the older person.

Years of being beaten down by the system, striving for goals and then being disappointed by the outcomes, and being overworked and underappreciated will mold a person into the crotchety man or woman that young people look down upon. Yes, twentysomethings!  Your parents and grandparents didn’t always have these attitudes!  We used to be optimistic like you!  We used to let the little things go in the hopes that our hard work and generosity would be acknowledged and would pay off in the end!  Oh how things change!  Here are the reasons why.

  1. Unappreciation

No matter what our occupation or marital status, by the time we reach our forties many of us have experienced being unappreciated for our efforts.  We have taken on extra work to help our co-workers or spouses.  We have single-handedly finished projects at home or at work which would normally require a whole team to complete. We have come to the aid of family or friends in need, often at our own personal expense.  Inevitably, in one or more of these instances we have not been appreciated for our efforts. When we took on the extra work, we didn’t do so because we expected praise or rewards.  However, somewhere along the way our extra efforts became expected.  It was that moment when our attitudes started to change.  Showing a little thanks and gratitude goes a long way. Being acknowledged for our labors is motivating.  These small acts of kindness make people more willing to go the extra mile in the future.  Likewise, when others begin to assume we will take on additional responsibilities and then aren’t grateful for our help, we learn that it’s not worth the effort.  When we see colleagues complete the bare minimum yet advance in status because they know how to schmooze the boss, we realize that hard work doesn’t pay like we’ve been told it would.  When we hear about moms “going on strike” because their families simply expect them to work full time and then come home and care for them full time, we understand. Being unappreciated in any position breeds bitterness. Bitterness leads to a lack of willingness to do extra.  The consequences are unavoidable.

  1. Being Taken Advantage Of

Unappreciation and being taken advantage of go hand-in-hand.  Many people are willing to help another person in need.  Unfortunately, once a person is taken advantage of, he or she will become less likely to want to lend a hand in the future.  The definition of “taking advantage” of someone is when a person can do a task on his/her own, but instead expects someone else to complete the task for him/her.  An example of this is when a teenager knows she is supposed to wash the dishes, but instead leaves them in the sink for mom to do when she gets home from work.  Or when a neighbor sends her kids next door to play for the day, because she knows the mom will feed all the children lunch and keep an eye on them while the neighbor watches her afternoon soap operas. Or when the boss assigns the employee a project and then takes all the credit for it at the monthly staff meeting.  The list could go on and on.  When we are younger, we are more likely to shoulder a certain amount of these acts in an effort to keep the peace at work, at home, or with neighbors and friends.  As we get older, however, the realization hits that the peace isn’t worth the added frustration.  So we speak up and say no when we’re asked to do something that we don’t have the interest/time/energy to do.  We are blunt and say, “You can do that yourself.”  Others may view this as selfishness.  We realize it is simply self-preservation.

  1. Knowing the System

When we hit middle-age, we have lived half of our life expectancy.  We have held many jobs, gone on many adventures, had many successes and made many mistakes.  We know how the world works.  We have been in the same career for a decade or more. This means we know how to get things done, because we’ve learned through trial and error.  We can be excellent mentors for young people who are just entering our fields of employment, because the younger generations do not have these experiences to draw from when it comes to making decisions and accomplishing tasks.  However, many times young people with little to no experience are hired for leadership positions because they are vibrant and viewed as “go getters” who will motivate and energize the workforce.  This is wonderful in theory, and can lead to success if those in leadership roles are willing to listen to veterans who have understanding of the business and the skills needed to meet the goals.  Unfortunately, many young people come out of school thinking they know everything (see my Teenager for Sale: Make an Offer post).  They look down upon the older generation, often assuming they don’t want to try new things to get the job done.  Here’s the truth:  they aren’t “new things.”  They are the same old ideas being repackaged with new names. They’ve already been done! And they didn’t work!  Veterans have been down these roads before.  We were once the young people trying to find our way through demanding careers with tasks that seemed insurmountable, and we came out the other side.  Time has shown us the quickest, most successful ways to complete jobs.  So when the newbies look at us and think we’re being bullheaded about not doing things their way, it’s not because we are trying to be stubborn. It’s because experience has taught us the right way to do it!

So the next time you hear an older person speaking his mind about a request or expectation, look at the situation from his perspective.  As Atticus Finch so famously said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Experience is a wonderful teacher, and older people have had many more lessons.  These lessons have taught them to stand up for themselves and to speak their minds, but they are also willing to share their knowledge with those willing to accept it. Don’t write off the “older generation” as a crotchety bunch of fogies!  Listen to what they have to say—you just might learn something new!

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Atticus Finch talking to Scout about “walking in someone else’s skin.”