Monday, April 25, 2016

Into the Earth Day

Well, hello! The Little Dragans and I are just readjusting to city life again after a spring break jaunt to the wild, wonderful mountains of West Virginia!

Terrible view. 0/10. Absolutely no reason to go there.

I love this state so much, almost as much as I love my home state, the Virginia without the West. My grandmother was born and raised in West Virginia, my family vacationed here several times when I was young, and then I married a West Virginian, so now I get to spend holidays here with my mountaineer in-laws. What is it about West Virginia that has always held such allure for me? The mountains take my breath away, whether or not the mountain laurel are in bloom. The rivers mesmerize me—the one in the pic is the New River, cutting its way north through world-class rapids and dramatic, pristine views.

This was the view on my first trail run the morning after we arrived. It pretty much sums it up.

Taken about 1/4 mile past a deer carcass I had to leap over. Sorry I missed that photo-op.

I'm equally glad that my children are getting to love this state, proudly singing John Denver's Country Roads, which has been their bedtime lullaby from birth, and chowing down on pepperoni rolls.

What's that? You don't know about pepperoni rolls, West Virginia's unofficial official state food? (Looked that up and learned it is actually official.) Let me tell you a few things about pepperoni rolls.
1. They're impossibly delicious.
2. The sketchier the gas station that sells them, the better they taste. I recommend Little General. Ask for a fresh one. Wait for them to make more if necessary.
3. Coal miner's wives are said to have invented them in 1937 to send with their husbands in their lunch pails.

This trip was mostly about seeing family, the absolute best part of West Virginia, so we got some priceless moments like these.

The Little Dragans are old enough now for some educational/touristy activities, so I wanted to check out the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, WV. I can't believe I've been traveling to southern West Virginia on a regular basis for fifteen years and I had never been! After our visit, I am categorizing this as a must-see for anyone who passes through the area during the season it's open, April to November. It might be hot outside, but it's always a damp 58 degrees inside the mine, 140 feet below the surface of the Earth.

Coal was first discovered in West Virginia in 1742, and its production from underground mines is first in the nation. The industry employs 30,000 people, and has historically driven the lion's share of the state's economy.

We thought we had arrived early, but the mine tours were sold out for a full hour.
Insider Tip: Be sure to remind your mother-in-law, loudly if possible, that she does qualify for the senior discount. She'll be impressed with your quick thinking and frugality and will appreciate the $5 you saved her.
The hour was no big deal to wait because there are all sorts of things to do other than go underground. We chose the children's museum and the exhibits upstairs. And the rocking chairs. Always a good bet.

The coal mine we toured was once a working mine, the Phillips-Sprague mine, but is preserved to accurately portray the workspace and conditions for a miner in the nineteenth century. Luckily for us, we could go through the mines in a small train with the mine ceiling open above us about seven feet. They used to dig mines this tall to allow ponies to haul out the coal.

Train rides make Little Guy blurry with excitement.

That's Steve, our veteran miner guide, more about him later.

Now, miners are only cleared enough space to work on the coal seam itself. How tall is a coal seam? TWENTY-FOUR TO FORTY INCHES. That's all the space they have. And they might have to crawl more than a mile from the entrance to get to the spot they are working on. And the only light you have is from a tiny, fireproof lamp. Oh, and there are rats.

Our guide, Steve, regaled us with his own tales from the 30+ years he spent as a fire boss for Massey Energy, formerly the largest coal extractor in Central Appalachia. Listening to Steve was fascinating, not just because of his anecdotes and knowledge, but also because of the way he told his stories. There's a specific cadence to Appalachian storytelling: a subtle build, a dry, gently-ribbing humor underneath the stories themselves. If you've never heard it, you might not know it. If it's part of your blood, though, and your own history, it's beautifully familiar. And you miss it when you go a long time without hearing it.

Steve tells a "humorous" tale about the day his lamp went out and he was alone in the dark for six hours. Alone, that is, except for the rats scurrying across his legs.

I know it's probably controversial to take your kids to a coal mine on Earth Day. Coal's impact on the environment, and on the human workers inside them, has been nothing short of catastrophic. Two years ago, a chemical spill left a sixth of the state without access to drinking water. Steve was above ground, but clocked in for work the day of the worst mining disaster in 40 years at Upper Big Branch. Coal extraction for energy use is on the decline, perhaps with good reason.

But this is why it's so important to show our kids these places. Let them love the rise of those mountains. Let the river rush past them. And then take them deep into the belly of those mountains and let them hear the stories of those who made their way of life within them. We would not have the country that we have today without the coal miners of Appalachia. Their history and their stories, even their way of telling them, are as ruggedly beautiful as the wild state around them.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The CTA-team

One of the questions I'm asked frequently as an urban mom is how we get around in such a big city. While we do still have a car, it's often the least practical option for transportation given traffic and the availability of parking at our destination. That's why we make our way on the CTA!

We're lucky enough to live within walking distance of three different "El" stations and have a bus line that stops at our back door. The station in the picture is next to B's school and we can zip downtown on the green line in less than ten minutes. We have a friend with us in the picture because she comes along on Tuesdays to ballet class. Urban carpooling at its finest: the green line is my minivan.

The Little Dragans love the CTA. What was B most excited about when she turned 7? Getting her student card.

Kids 6 and under ride free, but 7 and up need a pass, although it is heavily discounted on school days. Cheezits are always optional, but highly recommended.

Like most things in my life, I try to turn our frequent trips into learning opportunities disguised as games. When we're riding on the CTA one game is "How Many Stops?" Before we board a train, the kids race to answer questions about which line we're on, how many stops until our destination, and what our stop is called.

Little Guy is really good at this game and can even tell you alternate lines that you can take in the Loop. The purpose of the game is to help them be aware of their surroundings, but there's a safety motive, too. If we should ever be separated (*currently knocking on wood that this never happens!!*) I want them to be able to tell someone where they were going.

When we're on one of Chicago's elevated trains, this is how we ride:

There's a lot to see out there, and we wouldn't want to miss a single thing! Headed into the Loop we're treated to a passing view of some really interesting murals on the sides of the buildings and they are a huge hit. Here are two of our favorites.

Hebru Brantley's  Chi Boy is one of his recognizable characters adding energy and movement to the positive narrative that he brings to street art around Chicago. As the train travels north, Chi Boy actually flies into view! It's difficult to get a sense of the size of this mural from this photo, but it is impossible to miss. Brantley has created such a memorable aesthetic that the Little Dragans can pick out his work anywhere. 

This photo-illustration entitled Moose Bubblegum Bubble by Jacob Watts makes us laugh and creates a wonderful tension just as the train begins its curve into the Loop. As the moose disappears behind us, what will happen? Will the bubble pop leaving bits of bubblegum stuck to his antlers? Our anticipation builds and mirrors the feeling that something is just about to happen as we enter the bustling heart of the city.

It's not always so picture perfect on the CTA. Grant and I can both regale you with tales of unpleasant travel companions, indescribably horrific odors, and the occasional mugging. Just last week Grant's bus driver stopped the bus and exited the bus in the middle of Clark at rush hour with no explanation. 

Growing up in a town of 900 people, I'm sure I never envisioned my future life having anything to do with bus schedules or educating my children about train stops. The blue haze on the mountains I once watched from the reverse seat in the way, way back of our family's station wagon has been replaced by street art and occasional glimpses of the lake between rows of skyscrapers. I choose to enjoy this adventure on the CTA, and happily answer those who ask that getting around in a city is an exciting challenge. If 1.6 million riders PER DAY can do it, so can we!


Hi! Me again...B! When you use the CTA it's fun to look out the window and see the city. That's exactly what you should do! My favorite thing to see is the big buildings of the city because sometimes you can see people inside the windows. What's yours? Leave a comment below!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Zootopia Review

A trip to the movie theater is a rare treat for a Dragan of any size, mostly because by the time we've paid for the tickets, popcorn, and Raisinets we've almost matched our monthly mortgage.

It's tough to turn down popcorn and Raisinets, though.

We'd heard so many positive reviews of Disney's Zootopia that Little Guy and I decided we had to check it out.


Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) wants to break the family tradition of carrot farming to pursue her dreams of becoming a police officer in the big city, "Zootopia." As a young bunny she has to overcome many obstacles, namely her parents' expectations, a fox bully, an academy designed for animals much larger than herself, and a chief who limits her to parking-meter duty. When a series of kidnappings threatens the carefully maintained equilibrium in Zootopia, Judy has the opportunity to find a missing otter, but she must do so within forty-eight hours or she will lose her job. With the help of a shifty fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Judy uncovers a far more complicated scheme with sinister implications. Judy and Nick have to put aside their differences and work together if they want to save Zootopia.


Zootopia tackles issues that may or may not reach a child in the audience, but they do so within the context of a beautifully designed movie with laughs for all ages. Employing animals in allegory is not a new concept, but the film uses some new tropes in the predator/prey relationship. In Zootopia, animals of either camp have supposedly evolved beyond being a danger to one another, but lingering stereotypes and fear continue to divide the animals. Wisely, the writers leave room for interpretation, and I have found convincing analyses of Zootopia reading it as a commentary on ISIS, the drug war, and racial profiling, to name a few. The central message, as reiterated by Gazelle's catchy song (Try Anything, performed by Shakira!) is that while fear can only divide us, celebrating our differences lets us all achieve our dreams. The theme is conveyed with importance, but without preachiness, and will resonate with most audiences.

Extras - for the Kids

In addition to the astronomical price, one of the reasons we don't take the little Dragans to the theater often is the overwhelming sensory experience. Movies with big jump scares or long, intense scenes leave one or both kids scrambling for my lap, and I wonder why I've paid for more than one seat as I peek through their hair at the screen. Zootopia is rated PG for thematic elements, rude humor and action. There are a few of those jump scares and one very intense passage. Little Guy was on my lap for the last forty-five minutes. The PG rating is subtitled "Know your kid," and, in this case, I agree. Zootopia was just fine for Little Guy: the jumps didn't leave him hysterical, the intensity resolves, and the rude humor went totally over his head. B can wait for the DVD; jumps are harder on her.

A great website to use while evaluating movies for kids is "Common Sense Media". It gives a kid and adult rating and breaks down the specific rationale behind the MPAA rating, which can be vague. My favorite section is the "Families can talk about..." tab that offers topic suggestions for further discussion with kids. For Zootopia, they suggest conversations about stereotyping; character strengths such as courage, empathy, and teamwork; and also bullying, which is a part of both Judy and Nick's backstories.

Extras - for the Adults

The film is full of laughs, jokes, and references that are in place for adults in the audience. A scene mocking the DMV, references to The Godfather, and Breaking Bad, and numerous "Easter Eggs" that I won't spoil here will keep adults laughing and engaged. It doesn't seem to matter that these jokes go over the heads of most of the younger audience, as there is enough humor in the tight script for everyone. I prefer any children's entertainment with a few allusions thrown in for the chaperones to the more saccharine films and tv shows that ignore an adult audience. I'm definitely more engaged with something that works on both levels and then more likely to talk about it later with my kids.

An interesting question that this film raises is whether or not the message, in addition to the jokes, is actually aimed at an adult audience. Are the filmmakers deliberately putting forth a topical issue for the consideration of the adults in their audience? Gene Demby addresses the message of police profiling in this article on the NPR blog, "Codeswitching." Or is it the adult audience member who brings his or her own analysis and interpretation to the allegory? Either way, Zootopia entertains, delights, and leaves family members of all ages with jokes that linger and questions to ponder. Little Guy and I highly recommend it!

Sunday, April 3, 2016


Eating (or otherwise using up) an entire Ham within a week the octave of Easter

The Easter meal is serious business in Draganland. There are traditional, time-honored recipes featured. We have ordered rare ingredients by mail before. The preparatory shopping trip takes at least two hours, all for the supporting cast.
Because there can be only one star.
The ham.
Ham is the meat of a Dragan Easter, so it has been proclaimed and so it will be forever more. Dining at someone else's house? We have a ham delivered ahead of time. We don't mess around.
There's a problem, though. Hams (good hams, anyway) come in two sizes: big or bigger. And there are just four Dragans, two of whom eat like tiny little birds. Ever see a tiny bird take down a hog and eat it?

Yeah, me neither.
So we have A LOT of leftover ham. I know what you're thinking: Why don't you all just invite some people over for Easter supper and share the wealth? Believe me, I've tried. Grant gets this crazed look in his eye because he knows I will try to send these kind, unsuspecting people home with some of HIS HAM. And if there's one thing that he relishes more than the Traditional Easter Feast, it is the Ceremonial Easter Leftovers.
Have you experienced a HAM-bundance of leftovers in your home? I'm here to help.

Day 1: Feast
Feast your heart out on ham today. Have seconds. Try thirds. Pick a little ham off the platter every time you walk by the counter. Look the other way when the cat sneaks some off of a plate -- it's Easter! Everyone should celebrate. And there's plenty of ham to go around!

Day 2: Leftovers!
You're excited about leftovers today! The potato salad's flavors have married nicely. The ham hasn't started to drip all over your refrigerator yet. You are still residually fueled by the 86 Cadbury mini eggs that you ate while washing dishes last night. Leftovers are great! Why do you get so sick of this every year?

Day 3: Ham Sandwiches
These are pretty good. Grant has mastered the leftover Easter sandwich. At one point we daydreamed about starting a food cart that sold holiday-themed sliders. The Easter sandwich would have been a best seller. We brainstormed Easter, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, and Hannukah sandwiches for the menu. Come to think of it, this was one of our better business plans...
Here's the Easter sandwich:
Ham (duh)
mayo (make it Duke's, people)
provolone cheese
bread and butter pickles
Hawaiian roll
Assemble and microwave for a minute. Enjoy. Ignore the emerging puffiness around your eyes.

Day 4: Cheesy Ham and Potato Soup
Make this soup. It's really good! Keep repeating this to your children so that they'll eat more of it. See if you can stretch the 1-2 cups of diced ham that the recipe calls for to 1-2 pounds; you've barely made a dent in the ham. Didn't your friend just have a baby? She'd love a few bowls gallon or two of this soup! Walk it over to her house, you haven't gotten off your couch in days.

Day 5: Ham -- The Gift that Keeps Giving
Don't let anyone leave your house without a freezer-size Ziplock bag full of ham. Ignore their polite refusals/protests/looks of disgust. They want this ham, they just didn't know how to ask for it. The neighbors sent you a Christmas card, surely they that earns them some ham! Write all notes to your children's teachers on ham. Slip slices between pieces of outgoing mail for your mailman.

Day 6: Get Creative
How is there still ham left?? Sew new soccer jerseys for your daughter's team and suggest they change their name to the Hamsters. Fashion new wedding bands out of ham since your old ones won't seem to fit over your fingers anymore. Reupholster that couch you've barely left. With ham.

Day 7: Ham Coma
Ban the use of the word ham in your home and place of business. Swear off pork products and research religions that would help you abstain. Assume an unresponsive fetal position on the new HAM-polstered couch until your husband threatens to call the HAM-bulance, he said Ambulance, he swears! Stop swinging that ham at him, wait -- SWEET GOODNESS THAT'S YOUR ARM!!

Day 8: Only the Ham Hock Remains
YOU'RE NOT GOING TO THROW THAT AWAY, ARE YOU??? There's a lot of meat left on that bone! Throw that in a stock pot with some red kidney beans, some celery, peppers, and rice -- baby, you've got yourself a stew! (recipe credit: Carl Weathers) Start oinking all affirmative sentiments.

Rehamilitate for 357 days.