Back to the Land Part 1: Barbara Make Fire

I know the title implies that I have, in fact, ever been to the land. I guess I have, if only technically. My parents used to take us “camping,” which involved our pop-up Volkswagen camper van with the stove and sink and green and yellow plaid upholstery futons. From those experiences, I have taken the following lessons:

1. Make and eat your ham and cheese sandwich before selecting and eating your bag of Cheetos to keep your white bread pristine.

2. Get up early for first pickings from the mini cereal variety pack; last one gets the Special K.

So, I saw these 3 weeks in the north woods of Michigan with my 8 year-old as an opportunity to test my inner grit and commune with nature. Or, at least as blog fodder.

Day 1 was hectic dropping Gus off at camp, getting supplies, and settling in. We had frozen pizza. It wasn’t coal-fired, so I consider that roughing it.

Day 2 was lovely, so we spent most of it at sailing camp and at the beach. We had spaghetti. But, because my son wanted corn on the cob, and I only have 1 large pot, I boiled the corn and the pasta at the same time. If that’s not enterprising pioneer spirit, I don’t know what is.

Today I felt emboldened. It was rainy this morning and with a high of about 55. It was a good day for a fire. I have a grill, matches, and lighter fluid, but my hippie landlady frowns on charcoal. She lived out here for years in a yurt. I can manage hamburgers and s’mores, over a wood-burning fire, surely.

After consulting a few YouTube videos, (yes, I have wifi – don’t judge, otherwise you wouldn’t be getting a blog) I was ready. The kindling outside had been soaked by last night’s rain, but there was a crate inside the door of 2×4 ends, twigs and wood bricks, as well as old newspaper.

I removed the grill, stacked the wood in a careful pyramid-ish shape, put the gloves on, doused the wood with lighter fluid and created a torch out of twisted up newspaper. Instant roaring goodness! Red hot success. I put the cover on to let my fire set and went in to make my patties.

When I came out, the fire was all but out. I repeated steps 1-5. Again, the fire died. I decided it wasn’t getting enough oxygen through the cover vents and left it off completely. I put the grate on and placed the patties lovingly atop. Everything seemed to be going ok until I went to flip them. Half of the patty stuck to the grill. It looked like my burger had been skinned alive. I was using 95% lean, after all. I tried the next. It was cooking too fast on the outside, but was completely raw inside. I had too much direct heat and was ending up with scorched nuggets of raw meat. I had char-tare bitlets – half jerky/half tartare. I had too much flame, but I couldn’t put the cover on for fear of losing the fire altogether.

In an effort to save the mission, I tried to picture the Burger King commercials. Isn’t this how they show it? A perfect patty gently tickled by fiery fingers? Mine were more like sun-scorched pieces of raccoon entrails after the vultures have moved on.

I moved to destroy-the-evidence mode lest anyone try to diagnose my failing and doubt my survivalist credibility. Though the Hybrid SUV in the driveway and the wetsuit on the clothesline might yet give me away.

I consulted Eric via phone, and he pointed out there are air vents in the bottom of the grill, which should also be open. I do know enough not to go out there and touch hot metal to open them now.  I also got impatient and probably didn’t let the fire die down to embers enough to create indirect heat. Got it.

Tomorrow, more hamburger meat and s’mores material and a bag of Cheetos just in case.

Required Reading: Holiday 2013

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Welcome to the Milhizer Holiday Letter 2013 – the literary version. Why the literary version? Because it has often been said that life imitates art, and for what I’m about to reveal in a serious plot twist…

She’s Come Undone

Some might say I fell down the well and bumped my head this year. I did slip on the ice and fall into the pool during an ice storm, but as far as I remember I did not hit my head. I am down one appendix, however. To make up for it I decided to take on several new projects, including starting a Fine Arts Coalition, advocating for arts programming in the Carroll School District, becoming a featured writer in Southlake Arts Magazine, coordinating Youth Programming for Apex Arts League, and um… going back to school to get my post-grad certificate to teach High School English.

As for that last part, I blame Ms. Pete, my junior English teacher. Like an oracle in some Greek tragedy, she prophesied this would be my fate. So I accept it. I have fallen down the well, realized I’m 41, and look forward to what’s next. I’ve never been one to stay still for long, so I start classes in January at UNT. I’ve already passed my literature content exam and am knee-deep in high school reading lists, hence the literary version of this letter.

I still enjoy HR consulting at PeopleResults (which I plan to continue during my studies and over my summers), teaching yoga, practicing piano, planning vacations and photographing them. 

A Man for All Seasons

Eric may be the only constant around here. He’s the eye to our hurricane. He has the adaptability skills of phytoplankton. MetroPCS was bought by T-Mobile last spring, and Eric has transitioned well into the new organization. He was named a “Luminary” by Nielsen and invited to present at their annual leadership conference as a client who continually challenges them. I’ve yet to see what tangible benefits “Luminary” status confers, but if you look closely you can detect a faint glow about him.

Eric remains checker of math homework, expert Beignet-maker, ski coach, audio book hound, and indulger of my wild ideas. He keeps the boys in the latest technology and me from blowing myself up.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

What 2 years ago we might have thought of as passing fancy has become full-fledged obsession. Gus continues to pursue piano doggedly and has progressed to some very complicated pieces. He was invited to play at Thanksgiving mass this year on a Lang Lang signed Steinway. Trust me, it was a big deal. He’s decided to apply to Interlochen this year, a 3-week intensive camp in Northern Michigan. He’s my inspiration for continuing piano lessons and expanding Fine Arts opportunities in Southlake schools.

This year, he’s also playing percussion in the band at school, dancing in the Hip Hop Company, working on his 2nd degree black belt, and generally tearing up 6th grade. I can guess where he gets his intensity, but not his stamina.

He turns 12 this year, and like any pre-teen is experimenting with being alternately maddening and sweet. I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know our confrontations would mostly be over metronomes and sixteenth notes.

The Storyteller

Nate inhabits a world of wonder of his own making. If there is one area of 1st grade where he is laser-focused, that is story-writing/telling. His creations this year have included a tale of a lizard that lives on Eric’s head and the riveting “The Time Papaw Bumped the Curb.” He will also school you on the genetic peculiarities that make Colombians the master scissors-wielders that they are.

Nate plays the piano with a natural ear for it, unlike the rest of us who require sheet music. He began gymnastics this year, and is progressing to pre-competitive levels. He is resident comedian and entrepreneur. At my dad’s 75th birthday party, Nate saw an opportunity when asked to play the piano. He ran upstairs and emerged with a hat seeded with his own quarter. He collected quite a few dollars busking with “Joy to the World.”

He also hit the jackpot this year when two new neighbors moved in with a total of 4 boys between the ages of 6-9. We are all excited that Colombia will be in the World Cup this summer, in which they are sure to prevail if scissors-skills play any part.

On the Road

No Milhizer family letter is complete without an accounting of our travels. I can often be found on vacation planning the next one. This year we were in Michigan over the New Year where we watched Northwestern win its first bowl game in the post-war era. Needless to say, hopes of bowl-watching travel have been dashed handily this year.

We skied again in Steamboat for spring break with Gus passing my ability and everyone passing me in general. Slow skiers get no rest. But my thighs are the most taut given that I turn 300% more often than anyone else. So, I’ve got that going for me.

Our big trip this year took us overseas to relive my college days on a much improved budget. We visited Munich, Salzburg, and Prague and had a fantastic time. The boys went everywhere, tried every food, learned a little German and Czech, and generally impressed us with their adventurous spirit. We spent time at museums, castles, Mozart concerts, and a chapel decorated entirely with human skeletons. Something for everyone.

We rounded out the summer with our annual trip to Lake Charlevoix, where we discovered the joys of the stand-up paddleboard and the wisdom of wetsuits. Almost everyone came, and we enjoyed the rare instance in which all of Eric’s siblings and most of their kids were in one place.

We also finalized the plans for our vacation house up there and picked a builder. The bank was less enthusiastic about the size of the house than we were, so it will likely be another year before we start construction.

The Call of the Wild

Santa, ever the jokester, brought our dog, Sheba a friend last year. Otto, the Dalmatian joined our family and has tormented poor Sheba ever since. Santa’s return policy is unclear.

Having two dogs keeps things interesting, but scratches and bruises on children are way down. Torn-out clumps of fur and swollen paws (thanks to a Copperhead snake bite), however, are up.

Now that you’ve read the novel, here’s the movie

Twenty fourteen promises to bring more homework, piano practice, pre-teen angst, fabulous trips, laughs and a precious few moments of stillness. Stay tuned for the sequel, due out December 2014.

That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.

Crime and Punishment

Happy Holidays and a Joyous New Year,

Barbara, et al.

Dispatches from Comma Mama



Consider this an intervention. I don’t want to hear another word about English as the national language. Just stop. Your native citizenry doesn’t have a firm grasp on the distinction between its and it’s, there and their, and the realization there is no such word as “alot.” The people who speak your precious language routinely have their way with it like a two year old with a caterpillar. Auto-correct, you protest? DENIAL, I say.

I’m not even going to get all up in your stuff about using the possessive in front of gerunds or not splitting infinitives. We’re talking basics. Drastic action is in order. For a complete detox, we need a clean sweep:

1. Stop using all apostrophes.

It will solve a lot (see how I did that space thing?) problems. It will solve the it/it’s thing and the near-stroke I have every year when I receive Christmas cards from the “Miller’s.” This causes me to ponder, an object possessed by which Miller is signing the card? Is Father Miller’s colon polyp sending me glad tidings? Cheeky bastard.

It may cause some extra keystrokes to write “could not” and “the book belonging to Helen,” but abstinence is the only effective policy. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Ban effect and affect from your vocabulary immediately. It is (see how I did that?) clearly too much. A simple substitution of the word “impact” will work. It is a noun and a verb all in one and can handily be used to describe recalcitrant molars, too. You can’t get that kind of mileage from effect/affect.

3. Look up the word, “literally.” Now consider it as dead to you. Replace with “actually”. If you actually wet your pants from laughing so hard, say so. On second thought, keep it to yourself.

4. No more quotation marks for you- no direct quotes and absolutely no air quotes. You are on probation from abuse.

5. A lot is 2 words. If you cannot handle 2 words, then use gobs, scads, or oodles (best accompanied a jaunty accent).

6. The word “definitely” is hereby suspended. There is no “a” in definitely, and you only seem to use it when you really mean something is quite questionable. I best not wait around if you say you will “definitely” call.

7. Replace there and their with “yon” and “belonging to them,” as in “Yo, fetch me yon goose belonging to them, Homes.”

There is certainly more, but that is a good start. Tough love.

Texas Toast

Am I paranoid if someone is actually trying to kill me? The apocalypse is nigh, friends, and ground zero is my backyard.

Texas is becoming unlivable. Never mind its low rankings in education, high infant mortality rates, low percent of people who trust “facts” and the hellscape we call summer. No, no; now it’s personal. It’s bent on my destruction–trying to purge me from its borders.

First poisonous snakes slithered their way out of the creek and curled under bushes. So, we bought a laser-sighted BB gun, dispatched a few, and displayed their BB-riddled carcasses as warnings. Now they brazenly stretch themselves out on the patio asking if I feel lucky enough to make it to the grill, laughing at me through their little snake-y eye-slits, mocking my organic garlic spray, flimsy pooper scooper defense and my flip flopped feet.

Maybe it was my DEET-induced fog this morning that caused me to stand in a mound of fire ants for several minutes while the little bastards had their way with my ankles. Luckily I found I’m not allergic to fire ants, which can kill you in minutes if you are. They are indestructible, and they know it. I went bleeping nuts on their little poison sac posteriors with the jet spray nozzle, but they just scattered, re-swarmed and regarded me with their beady compound eyes as lunch. I retreated and re-applied my DEET.

I’m not sure which will get me first, the West Nile Virus bearing mosquitos or routine self-fumigation. I’m starting to think of Family Care Off as my signature scent.

They might seem harmless, but I’ve nearly run into oncoming traffic trying to shake one of those gigantic mesozoic grasshoppers loose from my yoga pants.

I do like those spiky lizards. I haven’t discovered their sinister plot to undo me yet.

Droughts, wildfires, and tornadoes – bah. Something wicked this way slithers/hops/flies, and its antennae are trained on you.Image

Milhizers in Europe 2013

Follow us on our journey to 3 of my all-time favorite cities. I had the great experience of living and studying in Munich my junior year of college. I have not been back to these cities in 20 years. So, it seemed like the perfect opportunity when the boys complained they were not invited to our trip to Turkey 2 years ago. It was dubbed the Mozart/Castle/Beer Tour. Something for everyone! Here’s how the trip rated for each of its intrepid travelers:

Barbara: Still amazing cities. Even better on a post-college travel budget. Can still rock the German and the chocolate croissant.

Eric: Beer. Pretzels. Milka Bars. He’s in.

Gus: Museums, concerts, subways! Already knows 30 useful phrases in Czech and is deciding where to be an exchange student first.

Nate: Walked those little legs everywhere with little complaint.  Thumbs up.

You Can’t Handle the Tooth

Dentist-hardwareI’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I want to know what double-life my dentist leads that he and his scrub-clad henchwomen can’t fit me in for a cleaning in the next 205 days. Are they hoping lack of dental care will result in a more interesting and meaty treatment option?

They can’t be that busy. I’ve never encountered anyone in the waiting room, and no more than 1-2 in the anti-gravity chairs at any given time.

I’m the patient that brushes and flosses. I don’t drink coffee or tea and have never touched a cigarette. Of all of the people’s mouths I know they have to look into, I’d think they’d want to bump me up a bit. I don’t bite and am not afraid of needles. I don’t have a sensitive gag reflex. I have a high tolerance for pain and don’t complain even when they put the Clydesdale-sized x-ray cardboard in.

It must be a front for black ops. Think about it–an office no one would willingly wander into, all the “tools of persuasion” immediately at hand, shapeless scrubs concealing body armor and wire taps, and a reasonable shell for ordering and storing large amounts of toxic chemicals.

I know what game you’re up to T.S., DDS, and it ain’t golf.

Going to see a woman about a marimba…

securedownload-4I had my Sophie’s choice moment the other day — the moment you have to choose one child over another. Actually I chose neither child and opted for the expensive and breakable purchase.

When your child is “honored” with the invitation to play percussion in the band (there is a try-out and everything to make sure you feel sufficiently privileged) you automatically sign up for a number of expensive (and by the looks of them, noisy) items.

Early on we procured all of the necessary mallets, practice pads, and music stands. I’m proud to say they have not, as of this writing, been used as projectiles at humans or pets in the Milhizer household. But, we knew we were in for the expense of a practice marimba, which as far as I can tell is in the same species as a xylophone, just $1000 more. Practice marimbas, in case you are not up on the current cost of a marimba, will run you about $1500.

“Practice” is a misnomer. “Practice” implies something smaller and less expensive than the actual thing. There is no “practice” about this beast. It is the size of a small shetland pony. It is on wheels because of its size. And in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I have plans to fashion it into my getaway vehicle by attaching the leaf blower to the back. Come to think of it, I could have used it about 2 weeks ago when post-appendectomy, I seriously considered getting a walker with the tennis ball feet. Pushing around a marimba on wheels as an aid to standing would have made me look far less old, if no less ridiculous.

Last week about 12 pre-precussionists’ parents began the search for that elusive species, the used marimba. I was ready to buy the new one and save myself the trouble. Eric couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a new marimba. He posited that there is a law of conservation of marimbas (or is it marimbae?). No one keeps a practice marimba. You don’t see them in people’s houses, other than perhaps as a fancy drying rack. And I’ve never seen one at the curb on trash day. Therefore, if in any given year there are x number of entering 6th grade marimbists, there must be an equivalent number of exiting marimbists on the other end jettisoning x marimbas. Eric hinted I may not be up to the shopping challenge.

Resolute, I was crafty enough to find a used marimba in my own town at a reasonable price. I was there at the first opportunity, cash in hand. As I mentioned, the thing is huge and only comes apart into 3 enormous and inflexible parts. It actually doubles in size when deconstructed. It would not fit in the back of my car. I folded down one rear seat, promoting my 11-year-old to the front seat, invoking the “Marimba On Board” exclusion to the law that you must be 12 to ride shotgun.

Still no fit. I removed the car seat and folded down the other rear seat. I wasn’t going to have my 7 year-old sit up front too, I’m no monster. I was going to drive slowly and have him walk along side the car the 3 miles home in 90 degrees. “Officer, I could have put him in the car without a carseat. Would you have me do that? Clearly I have made the safer choice.”

Or I could have tied the marimba to the bumper and dragged it home on its wheels. But there is a little known clause in the law of the Conservation of Marimbas, which states: Harm no Marimba.

So there I stood with a marimba half hanging out of the back of my car, and no way to get it home; cursing and longing for the French Horn and all of its spittle accommodations. Finally the woman suggested she put it in her mini van (which she got to haul the marimba around. No one told me a mini van was a prerequisite for percussion. I guess I’m in for another $30k) and follow me home.

The thing has now taken up residence in my office. It comes in handy. When I think a conference call has gone on too long, I give the ding-ding-dong universal signal to wrap it up. My youngest has already told me he wants to play the pan flute. Look out Zamfir! I can definitely fit that in my car.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

studio-etiquette-nose-pickingI’ve recently started to question a catalogue of things I assumed to be true because my mother told me so, and lo, they were delivered unto us on stone tablets by Saint Emily (Post) herself. I took them as understood by everyone to be the only things holding us back from savagery. But recently I’m not so sure everyone lives under the same code. Their blatant disregard seems to signal the end of civilization. Top no-nos listed in the order of grievous offense and what circle of hell they send you to automatically:

  1. Cash as a gift. Gift cards are a gateway drug. (I still don’t do this. You will get a ceramic soup tureen in the shape of a swan for your wedding. Sell it on eBay if you want cash.)
  2. Poor grammar or punctuation
  3. Speaking of or asking about money
  4. Returning a gift
  5. Taking a gift to a wedding
  6. Having a gift table–that would be presumptuous
  7. Sending Thank You note with the words “Thank You” on the outside. Duh!
  8. Failure to send a handwritten thank you note within 2 weeks
  9. Piercing your ears. (This one came from my grandmother, and I’m less clear on the details but I do recall the word “strumpet” was involved.)
  10. Spitting
  11. Cigarettes
  12. Toothpicks
  13. Gum
  14. Fingernail biting
  15. Basically anything in your mouth other than food
  16. Call Waiting
  17. Failure to wear a slip
  18. Ordering a hamburger in an ethnic restaurant
  19. Tattoos
  20. White shoes (slightly lower on the list than tattoos because, well, you can take them off)
  21. A hairbrush anywhere other than the bathroom
  22. Any talk or mention of body parts or functions uncloaked in adorable euphemisms
  23. Curses stronger than “Mercy Maud!” or referring to someone as a “Blankety-blank”
  24. Using the first name of someone a generation or more older than you
  25. Failure to use your turn signal

Does anyone else hold these truths to be self-evident? You can imagine how, living under this code, I walk around disgusted and offended the majority of the time. I’m just saying I might have come by my snoot honestly.