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Saturday, September 6th 2003

1:20 PM

Caterpillars

September 3, 2003

Greetings from Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. We are approaching our two-month anniversary in our new home. I would love to report all boxes unpacked and pictures hung but, sadly, life in West Virginia is no less hectic than it was in California. I suppose it was a little naive to think that moving across the country would somehow reduce the chaos in my life…

After nearly a month of downtime following our little medical emergency, I am happy to say that I am back in business. And not a moment too soon. I don’t think we have had a rockier month in our six years of marriage. For four weeks, I had fought Chad to do anything. I was lucky he didn’t think of a bedpan or I would have never gotten up off that couch. This is only a partial truth, of course, because Chad had to go back to work. The second the van pull out I was up cleaning and unpacking and chasing rascally kids. "Downtime" is relative when you have three small children. After swearing a blood oath that I wouldn’t do anything crazy, I was freed from my couch prison. Freedom definitely had its price. Tired doesn’t begin to explain the exhaustion that I am still battling but anything beats watching everyone else have all the fun. Despite whatever Chad says, I have been taking it easy. It’s all in your perspective!

With my promise at the forefront of my mind, I decided homeschool would be the best way to get us back on our feet. I can be low key yet the kids’ energies are being directed at something a little more constructive than running wild through the house. We have a fantastic backyard with countless types of plants and critters. Armed with paper and crayons, we ventured outside to learn the art of observation. It was my first day back on the job and I was being careful not to push it. An oath is an oath. We sat quietly on towels and listened to the chirping crickets and songbirds. We took a short stroll and smelled the flowers birthed from the spring rains. We were simply enjoying God’s handiwork, and most important, I wasn’t doing anything that Chad might consider strenuous- which is almost everything!

The second part of our morning was spent observing the differences between plants in our yard. We identified types of edges, lengths of stems, designs of veins. I was starting to regain some of my confidence about this whole homeschooling thing. The fun started when I showed them how to make a leaf rubbing. You can make a rubbing of almost any object by laying it on a smooth flat surface, covering it with a paper, and then coloring the paper to reveal a replica of the object, in our case a leaf, below. My little trick generated more enthusiasm than I could have hoped for. Within an hour, we had rubbings of nearly all the leaves in our yard. The boys excitedly distinguished between the textures and shapes of the leaves. As far as I was concerned, our experiment couldn’t have gone better!

You can take the girl out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the girl. After restless weeks on the couch, I was excited to share our morning’s accomplishments with Chad. He politely listened as the boys jabbered about our experiment while he eyed me suspiciously. I didn’t even have to feign innocence. I had quietly sat there on my towel while the kids ran around and collected their specimens. I was still getting the evil eye when the boys brought out their rubbings. "Leaves of three let it be." Am I the only person on the planet ignorant of this cute little rhyme? Yep. City Girl did leaf-rubbings of poison ivy. What can I say? Yes, I was in girl scouts but our focus was more on the cookie side of things. I am sure that we had campouts but our parents had enough sense to take us someplace free of poison plants! Everyone was fine, if you don’t count poor Drew. Bubble Boy had it ALL over his face, down his back, arms, legs, buns… even his little button had bubbles! This was not a good way to kick off our science unit.

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Who comes up with these stupid sayings anyway? I think a more apt expression would be, "If at first you douse your children in poison ivy, rethink your hands-on science curriculum." Two itchy weeks later, Drew’s face almost looked normal and City Girl had gathered up the courage to resume homeschooling. We were enjoying an uneventful afternoon at the park with some new friends when the subject of butterflies came up. Being country homeschoolers (who know the little rhyme thingy), their children had just started growing monarch butterflies. It never entered City Girl’s mind that perhaps her plate was already full with moving and recovering and such. It never occurred to her that she would be bringing in another life to be responsible for. What could be cooler for her budding scientists than watching complete metamorphosis in action? My unsuspecting friend informed us that there was milkweed (their food) in that very park and our adventure began.

Our experiment began with three not-so-little caterpillars. Two were beautiful monarchs and the third was a funky black and yellow guy having a bad hair day. Diversity! I threw the milkweed in a jar of water safe on my kitchen table and waited for them to do their thing. Imagine City Girl’s astonishment when she came downstairs the next morning to a kitchen table completely covered in caterpillar poo! I still marvel that three cute little critters could generate that much waste. They must have set a record or something because it was unbelievable.

After reclaiming my kitchen table, we ran to the library to check out books on our new houseguests. It took a half-hour of reading for Drew to determine that City Girl was going to kill his caterpillars. "Mom, water is the enemy of caterpillars! You can’t put them in a jar of water. They are going to drown if we don’t save them." Of course Kaleb picks this very moment to inform us that a caterpillar had just fallen into the ocean abyss. Completely forgetting my promise to Chad, I make a mad dash into the kitchen to rescue my little furry ward. I never made it. One minute I was running, the next minute I am flat on my back seeing stars. Have I mentioned that our entire house is hardwood flooring? This beautiful alternative to carpet is deadly when sabotaged with killer hot wheels. The boys don’t care that I may be maimed for life; they half drag me into the kitchen to save their drowning caterpillar. Have I mentioned that these are very poopy caterpillars? It turns out that Kaleb was watching the waste drop off the leaves. I killed myself to rescue a floating turd.

Fearing that my next dash might be my last, I grabbed Drew’s caterpillar book. According to the experts, you are supposed to wrap the branch stems in wet paper towels and then put them, caterpillar and all, into a butterfly box. It doesn’t say anything about avoiding your kitchen table so this box must somehow contain the poop. I’m sold. How do I build this sucker? The directions for our butterfly hotel seemed simple enough. Cut out side of a box, insert critters, attach mesh over open side. How hard can it be? After a quick lecture about the importance of stewardship, we whipped up one fashionable caterpillar hotel. Our science curriculum was really coming along! We had fully recovered from our poison ivy and there was no longer poop covering my table.

Do I sound over confidant to you? Drew’s book said nothing about what to do when invisible eggs hatch and you jump from three cute houseguests to ten hungry ones. Neither did it say how long they could munch on dried out leaves. Do I have to make a milkweed run now or can it wait until morning? It did inform City Girl that that cute black and yellow guy, the one with the bad hair day, was poisonous. Unfortunately, it didn’t say what to do when he escaped into her kitchen. It was also silent on how to deal with heart broken (and rather accusatory) children when their "favoritest" pets in the whole world went AWOL. A nice boring textbook would be so… safe. But nooooo, City Girl was determined to take a hands-on approach to science.

This morning we had ten very hungry, very poopy caterpillars. Being a good host, we packed up (despite torrents of rain) and headed to the park (again) to find more milkweed. Those of you who have potty trained your little ones will smile with understanding when I say that the park is in the middle of nowhere. There is just something about being miles from a potty that makes nature call to your toddler. By the time we had gathered our milkweed and make not one but two trips to the potty, I was soaked to the bone. Even my little puddle jumpers were ready to change their clothes. Two billion years later all three kids were buckled into the car seats, the precious milkweed had been secured (after checking very closely to make sure we had no hitchhikers), and I was way ready to head home.

Ever wondered why everyone in the country drives a pickup? It’s because they come with four-wheel drive. Having spent my entire life in the city, I casually listened to the locals advise me on purchasing a new car-- one with a four-wheel drive. I have three kids. Why would I trade in my spacious mini van? I have a double stroller the size of Manhattan Island, three car seats, and all the junk that comes with hauling these rascals around. I have no immediate plans to do any off-roading. Why does a City Girl need a four-wheeled drive?

Stranded at the park in the middle of nowhere, City Girl remembered she lived in the country. In California, it sprinkles a few days a year making everyone forget how to drive. Here, it rains for days on end like God is going to re-flood the earth. My very hungry caterpillars didn’t care that I might get washed away during their milkweed run. I had taken them from their home so I felt obligated to drag my kids out in the rain and find them some food. City Girl here decided to park as close as she could to the stinkin’ milkweed. She was obligated to feed her very hungry, very poopy caterpillars but she didn’t have to be out in the storm any longer than necessary. The park doesn’t have roads per say, you just drive where everyone else has already killed the grass. She gave no thought to the fact that day of rain makes a grassy field quite muddy. It never crossed her mind that after she secured her precious milkweed, she would not be able to back up the muddy hill in her 2 wheel drive mini van. No… City Girl parked as close as she could so she wouldn’t get so wet.

"Mom, do you know we aren’t going anywhere?"

You think? Is that what the flying mud in my rear view mirror means? Thank you very much, Mr. Smarty Pants. He doesn’t get that from my side of the gene pool! Through gritted teeth, I remind Chad’s child that I am the one with a driver’s license and am perfectly capable of driving my vehicle. Granted, it is a California license. A place where they believe in paving their roads and where it doesn’t rain buckets. Having made my declaration to Oh Insightful One, I was in the position of getting us home. It is now raining harder than when we hot here, if that is a physical possibility. There isn’t a soul this side of the Mississippi foolish enough to think about driving to the park so yelling for help would be an exercise in futility. There are no phones in sight and we frugally disconnected my cell. Lovely.

If it’s not a four-wheeled drive then one should deduce it is a two-wheeled drive. Never being into the whole car thing, it takes City Girl going out into the storm to figure out that the mud flying in her rear view mirror meant it’s the back wheels that aren’t getting any traction. I make a mental note not to make any gene pool comments this adventure is behind us. Even a city person would have the sense to stay home in this weather. They are just stupid caterpillars. Who really cares if they go a little hungry. Here I am stuck in Nowheresville with no food to feed my kids and I don’t know how to unstick my car! Having established that it’s my back wheels spinning, I am no closer to freeing myself from this mud hole. Didn’t the Dukes of Hazard guys use 2x4’s to free the General Lee once. Darn, fresh out of 2x4s. The next time you are stuck at the park in heavy rain, heavy paper is not a viable substitute for 2x4s.

"Was that supposed to do something, Mom? We still aren’t moving."

Desperation was starting to sink in. The only way I was going to get home was to push my van backwards up the hill. Four or five feet should be far enough to let my wheels grab fresh grass. Ignoring my blood oath of rest, I pushed that van with all my strength for ten stinking minutes. Pushing a van uphill, in the mud, after surgery, is not a good thing. I actually had it going once, but I was so surprised I lost my footing and fell in the mud. And to think I parked here to stay dry!

Why did we move out to the country? What is the attraction of being in the middle of nowhere, with no one to help you when you are stuck in the mud? Today I realized country life is so much more than living in a post card. In real life, the post card smells like cow manure, has torrent of rain, and has insects the size of small children. In the country, only city people are dumb enough to go picking milkweed in a storm. All the country folk know the little rhyme thingy about leaves of three. Leave it to City Girl to do leaf rubbings of poison ivy. I miss California concrete and crowds. You might have to wait forty minutes in the checkout line, but by golly you can have three kinds of taco sauce when you leave. I climbed into the car, if possible, even wetter and, definitely, muddier than before.

"Mom, do you know you’re getting the seat all wet?"

I can be miserable just fine outside. I felt like Pooh Bear, "Think, think, think." Don’t think about the very poopy caterpillars who got you into this mess. Don’t think about how warm and sunny and paved California is. Don’t think about shipping your backseat peanut gallery to Timbuktu. Sadly, I came to the realization that my van was not going to back up that hill. That just meant it was going to have to go forward. A log was preventing me from driving further down the hill so it would just have to be moved.

Do you remember the day you realized you were old? I used to be athletic. I could run without dying of oxygen deprivation. I lifted weights. Who would have thought that three babies later, I would meet my demise trying to push a log off the road? Blood oath? What blood oath? Surely Chad would understand that this was really the lesser of two evils. Once they take your staples out, you should be much less likely to pop back open, right? The fact that I thought of these things before I got started should have been enough to deter me, but they didn’t. I was mad at my poopy caterpillars. I was mad at my know-it-all son. I was mad at the unrelenting rain. I was ready to take on the log.

It took a few minutes of serious heaving, but I managed to move the log. I was so busy rejoicing it took me a minute to realize that the van was now moving, all by itself. In fact, my van was now slowly sliding sideways down the hill! I worked an hour to get that beast to move and now it is sliding sideways down the hill. My kids are locked inside a car that is sliding down the hill. Realizing that this is bad, very bad, I do what any right-minded mother would do. I step in front of the van. It never occurred to me that if I couldn’t move it without momentum I was certainly not going to reverse the momentum it now had. Hindsight is 20/20 when you are nice and clean and dry sitting in some city café drinking a five-dollar latte. I am a quick study and did eventually realize that my best chances were to hop in the car and try to steer it to a place where I could turn around. Fifteen minutes later, we were safe at home swearing I would never drive my stinking two-wheel drive again.

Once we had changed our clothes, it was time to turn our attention to our hungry houseguests. I don’t honestly know if I was more angry or surprised to find five of our ten caterpillars missing. Those ungrateful little critters. Didn’t they know what a service we were doing driving out in ungodly weather to find them food? How dare they not appreciate their cozy caterpillar hotel where they could quietly live out their life cycle. We had made a promise to protect them and now I had lost half my wards. What kind of an awful zookeeper am I? My guilt was further compounded by Kaleb’s tears, "Poor Raven the Ravenous! Her big brothers are going to miss her so."

A frantic search turned up two of the five missing caterpillars. Apparently, Sammy the Great and Hungry Henry had decided it was time to move on to bigger and better things. They had spun themselves into cocoons. I would have been excited it they had not done this on the outside of their mesh cage. I had no idea how they had escaped but now that they were spun, I couldn’t very well just pop off the cocoon. I made a pledge to protect them and so I would. Very carefully I trimmed the mesh where they hung and duck taped it, cocoon and all, to the top of the bug box. This action meant that I would need to do some fancy footwork to keep our other caterpillars safe inside their cozy homestead but it was part of my duty. It was also my duty to figure out how these little creatures escaped from their haven.

It didn’t take long to find their escape route. The box had a large crack running down the back, which I had meticulously duck taped. For some mysterious reason, part of the tape didn’t stick and had fallen back to reveal a hole. When I went to re-secure the tape, I made a gruesome discovery. One of our three escapees was stuck to the tape!

Some steward I turned out to be! I take three poor creatures away from their home so I can watch them live out their life cycle under glass. I justified this with the intention of setting them free once they became butterflies. I end up with seven stowaways, two of whom are still missing. I can only pray that they are in better shape than poor Willie the Wiggly here. Little did I know that my cozy hotel was really a caterpillar tar pit! Poor Willie. All of his legs were completely stuck to the duck tape. He was a very angry caterpillar.

I spent my afternoon trying to free Willie. What a heart wrenching afternoon! I could just imagine his little caterpillar screams as I tried to free each of his little legs. After two hours I had manage to get his front (almost) half free and his back (almost) half free. We would have been in great shape if he didn’t have those middle legs glued down. This poor caterpillar was just living out his mundane existence until I dragged him into the Johnson Tar Pits.

I felt only pity and guilt at first but then those middle legs just refused to let go. I guess there was just something about prying those legs free that brought out a callousness in me that I never knew was there. Caterpillars grow by shedding their exoskeleton, something akin to a snake or crab. I started to feel myself growing angry with Willie. If he would just hurry up and shed this darn exoskeleton, we could move on with this whole business. I beeged and I pleaded with him. I promised to take care of the duck tape. I assured him he would be that much close to being a beautiful butterfly. I even threatened to help him along if he didn’t pick up the pace. Wiggly Willie refused to shed that darn exoskeleton.

By this time I was a mess. I wasn’t a zany zookeeper. A caterpillar mutilator was more like it! Poor Willie looked like he needed a break (maybe an eternal one), so I calmed myself down long enough to call Chad at work. Can you believe that he had the nerve to laugh at my caterpillar crisis! He reminded me that this was "just" a caterpillar. Just a caterpillar? He went over the line when he suggested we change his name to Tiny Tim and make him some little crutches. I was horrified. What if we did manage to set him free? What if he was going to be crippled for life. Worse, what if we had touched him too much and his fellow caterpillars ostracized him. What if they wouldn’t let him into the Caterpillar Club anymore- all because I insisted on a hands-on science curriculum? Didn’t Chad realize that this was about more than just a caterpillar? My whole homeschooling foundation was at stake here. We were supposed to be starting an aquarium for our fish unit. How can I bring delicate fish into my house when I can’t even manage to keep all of the feet on my caterpillars? I reminded him that I still have two caterpillars missing, one of which is poisonous. What kind of a mother loses a poisonous caterpillar in her kitchen? What am I supposed to tell the doctors when Bekah finds it and decides to see if it tastes good? What kind of a family eats their houseguests?

Despite his ill-timed jokes, Chad came home and rescued Wiggly Willie. The other two are still missing in action, but Chad has faith that I will have some butterflies fluttering around the house in a week or two, assuming I don’t find some way to mutilate them between now and then. I have decided that when I become rich and famous, I am going to start an education campaign for Monarch butterflies. This mess has definitely revealed an important gap in caterpillar literature. Never put very poopy caterpillars on the kitchen. Beware of the inherent drowning dangers caterpillars face. Never go on a milkweed run in the middle of a storm. Most importantly, never ever, under any circumstance mix duck tape and caterpillars. Who knows, maybe this city gal will even author the first "Monarchs for Dummies" book… what not to do!

Your Zany City Girl,

Heather Johnson

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