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King of the Swamp

Landon loves being outdoors: hunting, fishing, kayaking, random nature walks. You name it--he's all for it. He's been an avid hunter since he was just a little thing, long before I knew him, but he's usually hunted what I consider to be normal animals, mostly deer and turkeys. 

However, his love of nature and hunting took on an entirely new twist when two events happened: the show Swamp People came on, and South Carolina began offering entries to a lottery for alligator tags. 

And yes, Landon has entered the lottery for the last three years that South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources has offered the alligator tags. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're considering my poor heart that would have to deal with my husband out hunting something that could bit back), Landon hasn't won tags in the last two lotteries. We haven't found out about this year, but he's still gung ho on all things gator-related. 

So, that's why he had an alligator/ Swamp People themed 28th birthday party this past week!

My parents and sister decorated my parents' house to look like something out of the swamp, complete with camo table covering, an alligator pinata and green plates. 

And what is a swamp without a plastic snake or two? Of course, Landon had to wiggle the snake in front of the camera. Ew. (I don't care if it is plastic. It still looks like a snake!)

Amber and I spent one hot and sweaty afternoon on the porch painting Swamp People t-shirts. Landon's shirt read "King of the Swamp." (He wishes!) We also had "Cajun Princess" (Amber's, of course), "Choot 'Em!" (mine, complete with tiny painted rifle and alligator), "Dat's a Tree Shakah, Baby" (Mama's), and "got gator?" (Daddy's). It was really simple to do: we just bought a pack of swampy colored pocket t-shirts and used yellow fabric paint to add Swamp People sayings.

Amber is the baker of the group, so she volunteered her services to bake "Ol' Swampy." He's just a bunch of cupcakes covered in green frosting. The scales were chocolate Honey Grahams, the teeth and eyes were marshmallows and the claws were banana Runts. So cute (and tasty!).

Amber working on the appetizers. The camo party hat is a must for any aspiring chef!
Our menu?
Appetizers: Fried Alligator Tail (pretty good: like a chewier version of chicken)
Entrees: Chicken with Red Rice, plus Muffalettas for Landon and I (Oh, Corner Grocery in NOLA, how I wish you were closer to Charleston!)
Dessert: Ol' Swampy (above) and vanilla ice cream

Landon had a special birthday boy alligator hat that we made him wear.
All in all, a GREAT birthday party! I loved that we had leftover cupcakes from Ol' Swampy. Guess what's been my breakfast and snacks since then? :)

Cheesy Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole

I'm still in London, and there's just SO much going on that I'll have to update later, but in the meantime, here's a recipe I've been meaning to share for some time now. Let me know if you like it!

This dish (another from my Pinterest recipe board) takes some prep work with cooking the chicken and two kinds of rice, but the end result is totally worth it. Plus, it makes a TON of food, so you could make it for a family gathering or you could make it and freeze what you couldn't eat in the first couple of days. Landon and I ate on this dish for DAYS (for lunch and dinner and a couple of snacks) and we were still just as happy with it on the last day than when we first tried it. 

Cheesy Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole (originally from Picky Palate)

3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 stalks celery, finely diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 Tablespoons fresh minced garlic
2 Cups shredded, cooked chicken breast
2 Cups steamed white rice
16 oz prepared wild rice (I get mine at Trader Joes, LOVE it)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
Cheese Sauce
4 Tablespoons butter
1/4 Cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 Cups chicken broth
2 Cups shredded cheddar cheese
Top with 1 1/2 Cups shredded cheddar cheese
1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Heat oil into a medium dutch oven or pot over medium heat.  Saute onion, celery and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes.  Stir in garlic and cook for 1 minute.  Stir in chicken, both rices, salt, pepper and garlic salt.  Reduce heat to low.
2.  To prepare cheese sauce melt butter into a medium saucepan over medium high heat.  Whisk in flour, salt and pepper then slowly pour in chicken broth whisking continuously.  Whisk until thick and nearly boiling then stir in cheese until melted.  Pour cheese sauce into rice mixture then transfer to a 9×13 inch baking dish. Top with additional cheddar cheese and bake for 25-30 minutes or until cheese is melted through.  Serve.
8-10 servings

What I Think Book Review: Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography

If you've ever wondered why London is so consistently influential, then you need to first understand its history. Though it is anything but a quick read, Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography provides an incredible and sweeping look at London's long history that will keep you reading despite the seemingly overwhelming 900+ pages.

I've long been a fan of Ackroyd (his fiction is just as good as his non-fiction offerings), and I was delighted when I received this book for Christmas from my brother-in-law. (Thanks, Lyle!) At that time, I knew I was going to be in London (where I am now), so I figured it would be the perfect way for me to prepare for my upcoming field trip. 

Ackroyd doesn't just give the reader a dry review of London's past. Instead (and the title should be a clue here), he approaches the history as if London were a person, which makes for a much more interactive reading experience. He doesn't write in perfect chronological order, though the book does begin with the Stone Age inhabitants and ends with modern London. He may begin a chapter with a description of 17th century church bells, and then bring the sounds of London forward to more recent times. It is a unique approach--one that I've never encountered before--but it works. There were a few times when I was reading that I was so struck by the intricate weaving of past and present in the book that I wondered how in the world Ackroyd kept all of this information straight in his head while writing. 

All aspects of London's past are covered: the Roman Lundinium, the Anglo-Saxon Ludinwic, the origins of Cockney English, the sights and smells of Victorian London, and the terror and effects of World War II. He also includes sketches, paintings, photos and carvings to illustrate each period of time. 

I adore London, and I thought I was well-informed about its history, but after reading this book, I was surprised at how little I'd actually known. For any history-lovers or for an Angolophile, this book should be a must-read.

Dear 17-Year-Old Natalie

Part I: the general stuff you need to know right now

Dear 17-year-old self,

Eleventh grade stinks just as much as you think it does. At 17, you feel like an adult (sometimes), but you still have all of the rules and regulations that comes with being a high schooler. Though you feel like the people around you should be with you forever--and the thought of being separated from them feels like torture--you will realize that moving away from those closest to you is an inevitable part of growing up. Don't worry: you will grow apart from your high school friends, but you will always, always keep them in your heart and think of them fondly as you all go to the right colleges for each of you, begin your careers, move far and wide, and start families of your own.

First day of school, 2001. Embrace the uniform!
The gang, 12th grade year. Shannon's 18th birthday. (L to R) Sims, Stephanie, Liz, Shannon, Katrina, Claire, me, Nicole and Anna-Kate
Don't worry so much about finding a boyfriend...and especially don't waste time mooning over those boys who don't pay you an ounce of attention. While I acknowledge that crushing on a boy sometimes has to be done, make sure you remember it's called a crush for a reason--because you'll sometimes feel like your heart is an aluminum can in a trash compactor. And, for heaven's sake, don't tell half the school who  you're crushing on. Trust me on this one; knowledge can only lead to complete and utter embarrassment when you know your crush has no hope of returning your affections. There will be other boys, boys who return your affection, boys who like you for all of those quirky oddities that make you feel like you're completely unlovable right now. They won't care that you're tall and gangly and completely un-athletic, that you'd rather read than play video games, that you're smart and have plans; in fact, these boys (the good ones!) will be proud to be your boyfriend because of these traits. Then one day, in about two years, you'll find that boy, the one that changes everything. And then the two of you will never feel whole without the other from that day on. He's worth the wait.

Landon and Natalie, summer 2004.
Love your parents, even though doing so can feel very, very difficult at times. These are the people who loved you and comforted you through thick and thin, so trust them when they advise you not to get a tattoo before seriously thinking about it. They were right about the six or seven ear piercings you want right now--when you grow up, you'll be glad you only stuck with the two. Your mom and dad are right to watch over who your friends are now. Even though you think that everyone is good and honest like you are, Mama and Daddy know better. Don't get mad when they ask where you're going and who you're going with and what time you'll be back. They want to be safe and healthy so you can go to college, get a job, get married, travel and have kids of your own. Appreciate your little sister: she will grow to be your very best friend if you let her. Even though the two of you fight sometimes now, you will miss her like you didn't think was possible when you go off to college in a year.

Family Christmas card, 2011.
Cling to that wild, adventurous self that you have deep inside. You will have so many opportunities to travel, so never be afraid to go somewhere new or try something difficult. Sometimes all you need is a little bravery. I promise, even if your world seems small right now, you will do so much by the time you're 27: go to England 4 times; study abroad in one of the greatest cities in the world; eat a chocolate croissant in Paris; see a real conch on Andros Island; go ziplining in St. Martin; see where your ancestors are from in Loch Lomond (Scotland); meet Johnny Depp, Brittany Murphy and Elton John; go scuba diving in Key West; commune with William Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey; and visit Lucy Maud Montgomery's house on Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia. Fight for these opportunities, as they will put your entire life into perspective.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. August 2008.
St. Andrews Cathedral, St. Andrews, Scotland. November 2011.
Work hard in school. I know you hear it from Mama and Daddy constantly, but all of that studying will be worth it. You'll be completely prepared for college, and, when you go to Clemson, you rock the socks off your classes! You'll graduate Clemson magna cum laude and with Calhoun honors, and you'll get to wear lots of fun medals and stuff at graduation. If nothing else, work hard for the rock star gear at that ceremony. You'll eventually go to a great graduate program in English Literature, which will, in turn, land you a fantastic job when you're 26. Keep studying!

Clemson Graduation, May 2007.
Know that failure sometimes is an option. Law school--the place you've been working towards since you were twelve--is not actually where you need to be. Knowing when to quit something, whether it be a course of study, a job or a relationship, is more important than just about anything else. It's okay to say "no" sometimes. You'll go through some messy breakups, and you will be called selfish and hurtful and many other things, but realize this is the other person's hurt coming through. Ending a relationship is selfish because you are putting your feelings over that of the other person's, but if the relationship's not working, it's just not working. You will both feel better after the dust settles again...and, in the long run, the break-up will be better for all involved.

And above all, know that life is a journey. Don't rush one part because you're trying to get to another. It's not all wonderful, but it is all a learning experience. People will come and go in your life. You will change your own perspectives on the world. But through it all, love your family and love yourself. You are an amazing person.


The 27-year-old Natalie

(Update 9/15/2012: Linked up with Chatting with the Sky's Dear Teenage Self linky party)

Wnat to see what the almost-30 year old Natalie has to say to 17-year-old Natalie? Read here.

Kayaking in the Charleston Harbor

A few months back, Landon and I decided that we wanted to start kayaking. We live in one of the South's most beautiful cities (Charleston), and there's water all over the place. In fact, on a really high tide, we could launch a kayak from our backyard into the tidal creek that's back there!

Since I grew up in Charleston, I've been around the beach my entire life. Years and years ago, I tried (with all of my heart and soul) to surf, but I just didn't have the balance for it. Landon's definitely an outdoors-y kind of guy, and he was eager to find something we could both enjoy. Enter our new kayaks.

I'm still not the greatest kayaker ever, but I've really enjoyed the times we've gone out so far this year--it's just warming up to Natalie-acceptable temps, so I've refused to go out on all but the warmest of late winter/ early spring days. Landon's biggest fear when we first got the kayaks was that I would get bored (read: feel suddenly wimpy) and stop paddling halfway through the kayak trip.* In case of any impending wimpiness, Landon and I have figured out how to easily attach my kayak to his for a quick tow until I'm feeling back up to paddling!

So, here are few pics we took on our most recent kayaking trip to the mouth of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant and out into the Charleston harbor:

Landon launched second, so I waited patiently for him.
A beautiful, beautiful day
On the bird sanctuary island in the harbor looking back towards Mount Pleasant. We found out later that we shouldn't have been on the island--it would have been a $450 fine if we'd gotten caught!! Next time, we'll do some research before we leave the house...
Okay, so there were some signs or something up there. A second look would probably have been smart! But really, do we honestly need a sanctuary for sea gulls??? We have more than enough of them already down here!
I love living near the ocean!
*He may have good reason to believe this as showcased the summer before my senior year of high school. I went to camp that summer at the place where I'd always gone to camp; I was especially excited because I was eligible to join the senior kayaking trip out to a nearby island for exploring and picnicking. On the way back, the tide was going out. I paddled and paddled and paddled and got nowhere. Eventually, I gave up and did what any sensible person would do in that situation: I bawled like a baby until the camp counselors came out to get me in a motor boat. Shame was my middle name for the rest of the camp session.

Sisters' Trip 2012: Orlando Bound (Part 2)

For those of you who didn't read yesterday's post, my sister and I went on a "just us" trip this past weekend to Orlando. We had a blast! Yesterday, I posted about the beginning of our day, as well as our fun times in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter  (inside the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure park). Today's post showcases the rest of our trip:

After we'd gotten our fill of Harry Potter, us Muggles headed to the other portions of Islands of Adventures.

Side note: If you're thinking about taking a trip to Orlando any time soon, know that timing is everything. We purposefully chose this past weekend since it was too late for spring breakers and too early for the summer break crowd. Not to mention the weather was perfect--slightly overcast (so no sunburns!) but warm (in the mid-70s). The forecast had called for 100% rain, but we were totally lucky and it didn't rain a single bit until we were eating supper--and the rain was over by the time our meal was!

Anyway, we spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon exploring all of the fun things Islands of Adventure had to offer:
I remember when the original Jurassic Park movie came out--I was in the 2nd grade and absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs. My favorite was the protoceratops, and I wrote the world's most awesome 2nd grade science report on them!
We went on the River Adventure in Jurassic Park and got wet. And then we went to ride on Dudley Doright's Ripsaw Falls and got SOAKED. We definitely looked like wet rats for at least an hour after we had this brilliant idea!
If you know my sister, then you know she is the popcorn QUEEN. Note the delighted smile she has on her face--his was just after she found out she could get popcorn refills in her bucket for only 89 cents all day. 
We ate at Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoopenous in Seuss Landing.
Amber with her hamburger at Circus McGurkus. She ordered a hamburger, but of course she got cheese on it--Amber is picky and only likes the bread, burger and ketchup, but somehow everyone messes her order up!
We caught the cute (and sometimes cheesy) Sindbad show after lunch.
Then, it was back to Seuss Landing to ride the Caro-Seuss-el.
Caro-Seuss-el Amb
What is it about a carousel?!? I'm in my 20s and I STILL love them!
I know I'm no spring chicken, but I hadn't realized just how old I've gotten until my sister and I got onto the Hulk (the biggest coaster at Islands of Adventure) and got horribly, horribly nauseous. I used to be able to go on any coaster as many times as I could, then immediately get off and eat dinner. Now, I feel bad for making my dad go on all those crazy rides even after he said he felt sick!

After we finished up with Universal, we headed to Downtown Disney to do some shopping and eat dinner at the Rainforest Cafe there. I got a new Mickey scarf (which I wore to work yesterday) and a new wallet, and Amber got a new shirt.
Downtown Disney's best kept secret: the make your own rice krispie at Goofy's Candy Company. you get to choose your own dipping chocolate flavor, topping and drizzle. YUM!
We headed back to Charleston on Sunday morning; I wish we could have stayed for a week!!

I can't wait until Sisters' Trip 2013--any suggestions on where we should go? We'd like to go somewhere that isn't more than a 7 hour car ride from Charleston, SC, but other than that, we're up for just about anything!

Sisters' Trip 2012: Orlando Bound (Part 1)

For our second annual (sort of) sisters' trip, my sister and I headed down to Orlando, Florida for a few days  of fun (well, actually just a weekend--we left on Friday after work and came back Sunday). 

Our destination: Universal Studios...and in particular, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which I've only wanted to go on since it opened about two years ago.

My sister and I always have so much fun together no matter what we're doing. She came to get me after school on Friday and we headed down to Orlando. We stayed in a fun hotel called "The Castle" right on International Boulevard and only a few miles from Universal Studios.

I think Amber's ready to hit the park (Saturday morning): 

We made shirts to wear to the park--they got lots of comments. Among our favorites: "Oh, a sisters' trip? What sorority?" and "I hate my sister. You'd have to PAY me to go on a trip with her."
Also, note that the purple sister on the left (me) is slightly taller than the pink one. Amber tried to be as realistic as possible when making the shirts!!
SOMEONE is excited about going to the park. We were amongst the first few let into the park on Saturday!
First stop: HOGSMEAD (!!!) and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Another view of Hogsmead
Yours truly in front of the Hogwarts Express
We're in Hogsmead!
Approaching Hogwarts Castle. I loved the ride, though I may or may not have closed my eyes and screamed like a tiny child when the huge spider was in my face!
Some of the fun displays in Hogsmead. This one was in Gladrag's front display, and is a replica of Hermione's dress that she wears to the Yule Ball in the fourth movie/ book.
The Butterbeer cart! I had some of the frozen Butterbeer and it was amazing. It tasted like a caramel/ vanilla/ butterscotch Icee. YUUUM.
Also, I had a picture of me with my Butterbeer, but my camera malfunctioned and ate half of the picture. Boo.
In front of Zonko's Joke Shop, also in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Amber checking out Gilderoy Lockhart's newest books--I wonder if she knows that he is a five-time winner of Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile Award.
The Hogwarts Frog Choir treated us to some of the wizarding world's favorite a cappella tunes. 
I also got a new Harry Potter shirt, which I will definitely be sporting when I go to the Warner Bros. Backlot Studio Tour of Harry Potter in London this June!

I don't want to overload you with pictures, so I'll share the other half of our trip tomorrow. I already want to go back!

Have you ever been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? If so, what did you think?