Monday, March 30, 2009

There is such a profound difference between sitting in my apartment and being up at camp. I like my apartment, but I find myself growing depressed if I spend too many consecutive hours there, especially if I'm on the computer. The computer can be a window to the world, but it can also be a hobbling chain around my legs. It sucks me in sometimes, and I find myself spinning in mental circles. I think that after I finish my last school term, I'm going to take a week off from the computer - just as kind of an experiment to see if I go through withdrawals.

On the other hand, when I'm up at camp, I feel I can really breathe. The wheel of the sky spins through the night, and I can watch the moon and stars slowly spin away behind the dark silhouettes of the hills. I can see the pale shadows of deer out on the moonlit field, heads bowed as they chew, but ears alert and twitching. I can feel the cool night air refresh me and lift me. I feel that I'm making a difference in the lives of the kids who visit me in the night, whether they're homesick or have other problems. I love seeing them leave the camp office with smiles. I also love being up alone at night. There's nothing more peaceful than being out under the stars while everybody else is sleeping.

I think I'll go back out there now.
This is the first in a planned series of posts about my childhood nature experiences. I'm presenting a workshop at the upcoming AEOE conference (Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education) that touches on this subject, with a focus on reptiles and amphibians.

Toads were one of my first loves. I can remember scouring the neighborhood for them when I was a child. I don't remember the very first time I found one, but I have a very clear memory of the feeling I got when I discovered a likely hole under a rock or inside a drainage pipe. There was that undefineable toad smell too - kind of a moist, swampy odor, that served as an olfactory clue for me to follow. I would reach my hand into the hole, sometimes feeling my fingertips brushing against the rough skin of the hiding amphibian. They would puff themselves up, of course, making it impossible to pull them out of their hiding places without hurting them. I quickly discovered how to get around that. I would flush them out with water. I got pretty good at this, and soon I was able to find toads everywhere. I would bring them home and keep them for awhile, and it pains me to admit that sometimes they expired in my care. I still had a lot to learn back then. For instance, you can not successfully keep toads inside a toy Winnebago, and you shouldn't ever leave a glass terrarium or plastic bucket full of toads out in the sun. These failures did little to dampen my enthusiasm, although I'm left with some lingering adult guilt over the deaths I inadvertently caused.

Still, there was nothing quite like the feeling of seeing an enormous toad crawling grumpily out of a hole that I'd just spent a half an hour flushing with water. That was a grand accomplishment for me.

Looking back, I find it amazing that there were so many toads living in suburbia. I'm willing to bet that there are nowhere near as many now, and not because of kids like me either. There are fewer fields, and even the parks have become more sterile. A lot of the decorative boulders, so beloved of toads, have been removed. Suburbia is much harder for wildlife to survive in than it was.

Now, I bring my camera along and take pictures. That way nothing gets harmed. Of course, the last time I took my camera out, it was to the beach and now there's sand in the lens mechanism and the camera will no longer focus correctly. Dammit.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I tried something new yesterday, something I'd never really thought about doing and something I've never really had much interest in doing. I did it because I was invited to try it, and because I thought it might be an interesting experience.

I can now say that I've fired a gun. Several of them, actually. I went up to a rifle range and did some target shooting, and later on, shot at bottles and cans. I started out with a 22, which has about all the kick of a pellet gun, and graduated to a couple of higher caliber rifles, the last of which left my shoulder a bit sore. While shooting cans, I dropped back down to the 22 and also used a 9 millimeter handgun.

I'm told a did quite well for a first-timer. I managed a relatively tight cluster of shots on the targets, and I used the 22 to put a hole through a 3 inch ammo box from 120 feet, and moved on to perforate countless larger cans and bottles.

I found that it was a much more zen-like experience than I would have expected. You have to have a steady hand, and a fair amount of focus. It is not something you want to rush, and procedure is law.

That said, a fire was not ignited within me. I enjoyed the experience, but I am not hooked in any way. I'm not too surprised - I've always leaned away from "macho" interests and activities. I don't drink, have never been to any sort of sporting event, prefer small to moderate sized vehicles... well, you get the idea. Hell, I don't even eat meat.

I guess the more "manly" side of my personality has manifested itself in my occasional need to listen to loud heavy metal and my fascination with lethal animals.

Still, I'm grateful for the experience. The invitation enabled me to try something new, and that's almost always a good thing. I might even do it again someday.

In the evening, I ended up in Berkeley doing something more typical - watching a theatre/dance piece called Twobird, a solo show by Michael McCamish of the Sun and Moon Ensemble. The story took us through southern preaching, love, attempted murder, prison, and work at the chicken factory. The music was handled by Nils Frykdahl and Chuck Squier (the both played together in Idiot Flesh many moons ago), and beautiful, silly, and haunting it was! It's hard to pull off silly and haunting together, so hats off to them! Afterwards, we ate fried okra, rice, and cornbread (with chicken for the non-vegetarians).

Now, onwards into Spring!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spring has wrapped us all in warm green. Birds are flitting around, and reptiles are no doubt crawling from under their rocks. I can look out my window and see the bright green of new leaf growth fuzzing the upper branches of the trees in the park. Natural seasonal changes always energize me.

I'm continuing to think about what resonates with me. Last night, walking around in the dark at work, I felt a sudden surge of belonging. The quiet hills and the darkness resonate within me. I stood there in the dark for a bit, looking out towards the glowing undersides of the clouds above the city (sure, I could see more than one city from where I stood, but it's all really just one city - the "dense donuts of development", as Richard Louv calls the suburbs in his book, "Last Child in the Woods") and realized that I've never really felt a connection with anyplace I've lived. They've all been houses, but not homes. There are no roots grounding me anywhere. I'm floating free. Sure, there are people who ground me, but never architecture. The hills seem a better home than the houses.

I sometimes describe myself as a spiritual person, but that's a relatively meaningless term - meaningless because it has so many different meanings. In my case, I would have to say I subscribe to a vague form of nature spirituality. I coat my experiences in nature with almost mythic overtones at times, seeing portent in the appearance of certain animals at certain times, or finding in wilderness a balm for my soul. I've felt like this for as far back as I can remember. Perhaps another time I'll have to delve into childhood experiences. A more recent case in point though, is the time a friend and I were on a roadtrip, and it seemed as if the crows were following us. Everywhere we went, we seemed to draw the attention of of crows. They would land nearby, or fly slowly across the road in front of us. It struck a chord in me to such an extent that at the apex of the lazy geographical circle we were drawing as we drove (Flint, Michigan, to be precise), I got a tattoo of a crow on my arm to serve as a reminder. Nearly a decade later, when I started working at an outdoor school, I took the name "Crow" as my camp name. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kids across the Bay Area who know me only as Crow. Crows are never far from my mind and heart these days. They seem to have a habit of appearing at just the right times.

There are many other moments and stories that would illustrate my vague point here, but I can't recount, or even remember, them all. Let it suffice to say that stories have power and that the world, both indoors and out, would be a duller place without them.

Currently listening to: Nurse With Wound "Live at Bar Maldoror", and looking forward to seeing them tonight.

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's Monday morning, and I'm excited to get back to work. Right now, "work" means tying together the loose threads of schoolwork - getting down to business after wrapping up my second of two solo weeks in the classroom. The solo weeks proved to be tiring and exhilarating, often at the same time. I like those kids, and due to the different types of personalities in the classroom, it has been an excellent classroom for me to learn in. Now, I'm scaling it back again and focusing on teaching social studies, although I'll be involved in other things as well. This week, I'm going to be spending a lot of time entering things into the grade book. If I'd been smart, I would have been doing that as I went along, but I didn't do that, so the papers have piled up. This will no doubt ensure that the next time I'm teaching full-time, I will be staying after school to take care of the paperwork in a more timely fashion. Ha.

I took Willow over the hill to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk this weekend. We had initially intended to meet up with Terilynn and her son, but her son was sick, so it ended up being just the two of us. We'll all meet up another time. I met Terilynn recently, and we've been spending time together when our schedules line up, finding that we have an impressive amount of things in common. For now, I'll just say that I'm excited and that she's on my mind a lot.

As for Willow, she was excited too - about being at the Boardwalk. We went on the ferris wheel ("wow! You can see everything!) and the Cave Train ("that was awesome!) before going inside for some miniature golf. Afterwards, we walked along the beach, heading for the wharf. On the wharf, Willow was hugely excited about the sea lions, and we spent a long time watching them, even staying put when it started raining on us. We ended up buying an umbrella for the longish walk back to the van (I'd parked near downtown) and hanging out at Bad Ass Coffee so Willow could get some hot chocolate and thaw out after the cold walk back from the wharf. Then we went to the bookstore. Willow wanted to buy a Dora the Explorer book, but I bought her a couple of books featuring Native American stories instead - one about Crow, and one about Coyote. It was a good call, because although she initially resisted, she ended up liking them enough to ask me to reread them to her.

The next day, she was still excited enough about the sea lions that when we went to the birthday party she'd been invited to, she told and retold the sea lion story to each arriving guest.

We'll be visiting those sea lions again.

Now, it's back to work for me.

Currently listing to: Murder by Death "In Bocca Al Lupo"

Friday, March 20, 2009

Some years ago, the girls created a ritual, to be performed while walking to the grocery store. Down by the walkway, behind the building, there is an open pipe, probably some sort of vent, jutting out from the wall. The ritual involves shouting into the opening. When the girls were young, their rants were relatively nonsensical - aargagk bkabka gaaabbaaa! Poopy diaper baby butt!

Here's what they said today:

Sophie: In the nineteen eighties, George Bush was in a bar! He pulled down his pants! He lost his pants!

Willow: Hi, my name is Willow! I'm a little kid! Bye!

I've always imagined some hapless grocery store employee looking around in bewilderment, wondering where the little voices are coming from, and wondering if professional help is needed.

Am I a bad parent for laughing? I did ask Sophie where she got the idea to say such a thing. Her Answer? I made it up!
Why having an editor is a good idea:

At the moment, I'm helping a classroom of 6th grade students create Powerpoint presentations on ancient Africa. They're finishing up the design phase now, creating paper mock-ups of what their finished presentations will look like, including text and picture orientation. The process has awakened them to the importance of teamwork and staying on task, and in some cases, emotions are running high.

I've been checking the mock-ups as the groups finish them, and came across the following sentence fragment on one of the papers: they raped there mommies... It was a test of willpower to soberly suggest to the girl who had written it that she might want to check her spelling. She had no idea what she'd written, having intended to write: they wrapped their mummies...

Yep. Proper spelling is important. That's why we teach it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I have to admit that, despite not being a morning person, I love the early morning. This morning, I had a few moments between finishing my preparations and the arrival of the first kids, so I stepped outside with my coffee and sat down upon one of the gently curving buttresses juttng out from the circular school building. From my vantage point, I could see the misty foothills magically beckoning. Recent rains have clothed them in green, and the morning veil of moisture added a layer of mystery.

The kids started showing up as I sat there. I asked one of them if he ever spent time in the hills. His reply was, "not really." He then went on to tell me about how his cousin had blown up a tree with an improvised bomb fashioned from several M-80s.

Oh well. Kids are a different kind of magic. Much more unpredictable than the hills and the rains. I guess I wouldn't have it any other way, but I'm always going to enjoy those early morning moments when I can.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This morning, I saw the moon out the crack between the blinds and the edge of the sliding glass door. It inhabited the little slice of sky visible to me, and it was clothed in tattered gray overcast, looking like it wished to be welcomed in for a cup of something warm.

Despite being up much earlier than I would have liked, I smiled.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I'm home after a great day of sand and surf and fine company over the hill.

In fact, this has been a pretty full weekend. Last night, I went to see the latest Central Works play, The Window Age, in which the characters' surface layers are pulled back to reveal their subconscious thoughts. This is fitting because one of the three characters is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Sigmund Freud. Another is Virginia Woolf, here named Valerie Fox. Ha ha.

Friday night, in fine Friday the 13th tradition, we did an improv soundscape/noise show at the 21 Grand. I'll write more about that over at my music blog when I have a moment. Let it suffice to say that I think things went pretty well.

I begin my second solo week of teaching tomorrow morning, and it should be interesting because the regular teacher is still out of town, and I'm not quite sure where things have left off in Language Arts and Math. I'm sure things will turn out okay though. I'm getting there an hour and a half before the kids do. I just hope others get there that early, or I'll be waiting outside.

Right now I'm home, reflecting on questions. I don't often ask questions, either because they don't occur to me, or because I don't want to know the answers. I'm one of those people who usually has to work things out for himself. If somebody explains a process to me, I'll listen, nod, and maybe jot a few things down for later review. If I'm asked if I have any questions, the answer is almost always, "no." Maybe it's because I learn best by reading or doing. I guess that makes me a visual kinesthetic learner or some such. Of course, sometimes I just don't want to know the answer. After all, the answer is always "maybe" until you ask. Sure, some people will tell you that the answer is always "no" until you ask, but they always forget to tell you that it's still sometimes "no" after you ask too. If you don't ask, the possibilities are endless. Asking strips away the mystery.

I'm half joking here. I know that nothing ever gets accomplished if you exist entirely in a world of possibilities. It is necessary to ask questions while moving through life. Asking questions opens doors, and illuminates new paths for us to follow.

It's just that I like imagining possibilities.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Don't be a boiled frog.

Now there's some sound advice.

Once upon a time, there was a sadistic experimenter who discovered that frogs will, of course, leap away if they're dropped into boiling water. On the other hand, frogs will stay put if they're placed in cold water which is then slowly brought to boil.

This is why I have started trying to write daily reflections. I say "trying" because I don't actually manage to do this every day. It's a work in progress, I guess, making this part of my routine. The boiling water is life situations. The frog is us. We sometimes find ourselves stuck in life situations that are bad for us - it may be a bad marriage, a dead-end job, or pretty much any other harmful set of circumstances. If you have arrived at such a situation gradually, in tiny little increments of time over a span of years, it's hard to pinpoint when things went bad. It's easy to tell yourself that everything is okay, because hey - things aren't much different than they were yesterday, or the day before. What you don't realize is that they are markedly different from what they were several years ago. The magic has gone, or the excitement has worn off. You don't jump out of bed in the morning with any enthusiasm. All the while, you keep telling yourself that everything is just the same as ever.

Imagine, however, that all of a sudden you're dropped without warning into a dying marriage or a dead-end job. Ouch! That fucking hurts! Out of the water!

Daily reflections function as a thermometer for the pot of life. If we are honest with ourselves, they will indicate when the temperature is rising to unhealthy levels.

Okay - I have just turned the results of a sadistic experiment into a self-help metaphor. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Still, if nothing else, it's food for thought.

Ouch. There I go with the cliches. And so continues the neverending process of self-review.

The point is: keep things vital and exciting. Find what resonates with you, and stick with it. If life seems to be a chore or an unvarying routine, change something!
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.


The above poem (not included here in its entirety) is quoted at the beginning of Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods". I find myself thinking of my own childhood and reflecting on how my early days on this Earth still resonate within me.

I remember the innocent days of elementary school in that rose-colored way we adults do. Everything was simpler and brighter then. I can remember creating worlds in the little microcosm of my backyard. I'd often look up the spiders there, hanging steadfastly in the centers of their masterpieces - their elegantly constructed meal tickets. I can't remember when my fascination with spiders began, although, knowing me, it probably coincided with my discovery that my mom was terrified of them.

I do remember being aware of natural cycles though, although I would have been hard pressed to put a name to this concept. I would stand there in the backyard, anthropomorphizing away, pretending that the spiders dangled there unaware of the impending doom of Winter. I imagined that they were faced with an apocalypse of wind, cold, and rain, and that they faced it with human-like despair as, one by one, they succumbed. Even then I knew that many of the little creatures, those that last only a season or so, never get to see their second Spring. They don't get to see the big picture as we humans understand it. The advent of Winter does indeed come for them with an ominous thud of finality, leaving the webs hanging bare, glistening with moisture and tattered by the breeze.

Of course, I'm not so arrogant as to suppose that I can see the big picture myself. I'm working on it, as we all must, but the picture is bigger than all of us.

To this day I am still fascinated by spiders and by the changing of the seasons. Last night, I even had a conversation about spiders with a teacher up at camp. We talked about the personalities of Jumping spiders. I'm glad I'm not alone in my fascination.

I'm glad that I can share my fascinations with new generations.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The moon is full tonight. I was just in time to see the bottom edge clear the eastern hills as it rose, bloated and orange, into the fading sky. It's funny how profoundly still it appears, especially when contrasted against the hive-like activity of San Jose freeways, with lines of cars, like huge, phosphorescent ants, whizzing mindlessly along under its pale glow.

What's the hurry?

For me, it was the rush to get my latest assignment electronically submitted. This involved a late evening drive to the school to retrieve a video tape, followed by a slightly later drive to purchase burritos.

I couldn't help thinking that we have much to learn from the moon.

Now, at work, I can relax a bit. The kids are in bed, and there is a library book nearby, waiting for me to continue reading it. I once had a friend note that I look absolutely serene when I'm reading. In this case, looks aren't deceiving.

Currently listening to: Mirror "Islands". Yeah, I digitize my vinyl. What of it?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Here's where daylight savings causes trouble - little girls who aren't tired at bedtime. Willow is on yesterday's time still, and is not even a little bit sleepy.

We spent a good chunk of time with her homework earlier. This is partially my fault because I believed her a couple of days ago when she said her weekly homework was done. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out to discover that she hadn't started it yet.

It's still strange to me that kindergarteners even have homework. Back when I was her age, we just colored with crayons and threw blocks at each other. I also vividly remember chasing classmates around with an earwig, yelling, "earwigs go in your ears!"


Now, my ears are covered with headphones (what a wonderful way to keep out the earwigs!), and I'm listening to the new Neko Case - "Middle Cyclone"
Lots of activity today. Willow has carpeted the apartment with her haul from yesterday's party, and she's got The Wiggles playing on the TV (dvd of course - no actual TV allowed!). We're going to do a cleanup and finish up her homework soon though.

I've been working on my own class assignments while she has been playing, something I wouldn't have been able to do if she didn't have all of this diverting new stuff. We've been out today - once to my mom's to visit and pick up a package (Amebix dvd!), and once to school where I student teach so I could talk with my friend/master teacher. Of course, Willow took advantage of the opportunity to actively investigate the playground equipment there.

It's funny though - perhaps the most vivid moment of the day was discovering a lone ladybug on the sidewalk in front of my mom's house. Willow and I knelt down and watched it make its way into the lawn, climb a weed, and eat an aphid. Nearby, a line of ants marched purposefully by. We talked about what it must be to be bug-sized, and watched the little drama of predator and prey unfold for a few moments before the spell was broken and we reentered the human world of grandmas and dvds.

Spring must be around the corner. The clocks have been forced ahead, and all around us, living things are reawakening.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Willow just kicked my butt at Bingo! She got a little Bingo game, complete with one of those little spinning cages, at her birthday party in the park today. She got lots of other stuff too, and she's still in the process of exploring it all.

We had a blast at the park. Willow and I went over early to stake a claim at a couple of picnic tables, and I was struck by how Spring-like the day was, especially considering the grayness and downpour of the past week. It even briefly hailed on me a couple of days ago. Today though, the uncut grass was full of little Spring flowers, and the crows and hummingbirds competed for attention around us. The park was hopping with visitors, and we added to that number considerably as Willow's party guests showed up.

The kids all stuffed themselves with cake, ice cream, and soda before going home to more sugar-induced havoc-wreaking. I was surprised by how much cake disappeared. Less to tempt me.

Time to go hang out with my girl now. Maybe next time I'll win at Bingo.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Willow (after eating a large bowl of noodles): "I didn't know that I could fit that many noodles in my body!"

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The rain is still falling. I've just finished some tea and I'm listening to I-tunes on shuffle. I'm not working tonight, so I'll be sure to be rested for another day of teaching sixth graders tomorrow. So far, the week is going really well. I've just got to find the time to finish the assignments that need finishing.

I'm looking forward to the next few days.

Listening to: Manilla Road "Throne of Lies"

Monday, March 02, 2009

March already! I probably could have told that without looking at the calendar. March always seems like the rainiest month of the year, and this one is no exception. We are two for two so far, with the rain pelting the roof as I type. The wind is strong enough to cause high-profile vehicles to veer dangerously on the freeways, and the sky is churning with dark clouds. I love it!

I'm busy this week. I've taken over the 6th grade classroom for the time being, which means my organizational skills are being put to the test. Today went okay, with things more or less falling into place, sometimes with the help of the kids. The kids, having been students in this class since Autumn, know the routines and are always quick to point out steps I've forgotten. Some people might find that obnoxious, but I find it genuinely helpful. We're all there to help each other, and I'm having fun getting to know the kids even better.

I've definitely got to step up the pace when it comes to grading/correcting papers. I'm slow.

There's other stuff going on in the sidelines too. I find myself happily distracted.

And still the rain falls. I wonder if this will be another March like the one a few years ago when it rained every day. As long as it doesn't rain on Willow's upcoming birthday party, I don't care. In fact, I would welcome it.