Monday, May 31, 2010

Books, Books, Books

Books are just everywhere in this house. It's kind of out of control, but I no longer worry about it. I'm pretty sure that books are one area of my life that will just always be cluttered, and it's going to have to be OK. There are bookshelves in every room, books on tables, counters and in stacks. We have hundreds of our own books, borrow dozens of library books every month, we have books borrowed from friends, books, books, everywhere books.

I find it interesting how many times people have said to me... "Oh, I (we) don't have time to read." Of course, just like anything else, it's one of those priority things. I sometimes say "I don't have time to exercise" but in reality, it's just that I don't make time for it, and my thighs are showing the evidence.

I am sure that TV, computers, and video games are big distractions that are keeping people from books. It's pretty hard for a book to keep up with the sensory stimulation. All of these things have their merits too, and we enjoy them all, but I still love books. Compared with television, a book requires the effort of actually reading, instead of just watching, and I imagine a lot of people just are too tired to deal with that. There is even talk of the hand held reading devices replacing books, which to me, would just never be the same.

I'm very thankful for the few years when my kids were tiny, we lived off the electrical grid up in the mountains. It was definitely a different way of life than your average American kid. Mine never had the option of a TV being on all day. TV was a couple of times a week max endeavor when we fired up the generator to do laundry and timed it with Sesame Street. Although we've been fully powered for years now, we still don't use the television daily. Whenever I hear of a good new show, and I think about checking it out, I think about how many other things I'd rather be doing with my life. We only get a few local channels anyway, so in most cases, I couldn't watch the show anyway unless I wanted to start paying for TV, which is something I philosophically can't bring myself to do. If I'm paying for it, I'd feel I needed to actually use it more, and I really am not that interested in that. The computer is already sucking enough time that I could be spending doing other, more productive things with- like creating art, planting something, visiting a friend, or that I could be using to read a good book.

It's a shame how many kids don't even like to read though, and have never learned to enjoy books (or have had the potential to love books squelched with forced early reading intervention programs.) I read a study by the National Reading Council that said American 4th graders now have a higher reading level than in years past, but by the time they are teens and young adults, fewer than ever read for pleasure. Reading comprehension of young adults has also dropped quite a bit in recent decades. So, what exactly is the benefit in making kids learn to read at a young age if they don't end up liking it, rarely do it by choice, and don't end up that good at it in the end?

My kids have been exposed to lots of books from infancy. They learned to read in their own time, and know the pleasure of a good story. Personally, I love that books are cuddley. I may use my laptop in bed, but it is not the same coziness as I get with a book. I don't connect with my kids over the computer the same way I do snuggled up on the couch reading them a story.

I love experiencing the emotions that a good story can evoke in me as a reader; from smiling and laughter to sadness and even tears. My children and I have read or listened to the entire Harry Potter series together. After following the characters for years, we had grown very attached to some of them. In the final book, we found ourselves literally on the edge of our seats every time it looked like one of our favorite characters might not make it. I actually stayed up late reading ahead of my children just to see what would happen next. The kids were cheering for our side during battles, and laughing out loud at the Weasley twins pranks.

My little boy says he appreciates a good story with action and suspense. He is just passing through the difficult stage of being an early reader who finds the stories at his reading level not very interesting. When you have had the pleasure of hearing stories like Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea all of your life, the ability to read Dick and Jane is not exactly exciting. He is just breaking into chapter books and enjoyed reading Tarzan of the Apes with me. He does see the ability to gain new information as an important reason to read well, but there is a definite difference between what he wants to learn, and information that is being force fed to him. Reading to learn more about Pokemon is important to him, so he works harder on it. Like most children, he is sharp enough to know when he is being spoon fed a moral, and rolls his eyes at obvious “lessons” or stories with a “and the moral of the story is...” type of ending. I very regularly see themes from books pop into both of my children's play time. The Little House on the Prairie series had them churning butter and washing laundry in the creek. The Boy With the Bronze Ax had him building stone tools and buildings.

My girl child is an avid reader who devours books in the way that many children consume junk food. She and I share many books together. Last year, she read the Percy Jackson series among others. This series by Rick Riordan is full of Greek mythology, and we both learned a lot while being caught up in the story. She says that in a good book she “becomes the main character.” Whether the character is a boy or a girl, she “is sword fighting with them” in her imagination. She also enjoys being able to “do a lot of things you can't do in real life.”

A nine year old friend of ours, who also loves reading, says she loves when “it seems like the characters come out of the book and really talk to her.” I love that imagination, and I also love the fact that we know children who choose a book shop as their favorite store in town, and would read all summer regardless of the reading program the library offers.

We all enjoy those fantasy worlds that literature can take us to. Learning something along the way is a bonus, but the children I know do not appreciate simplified moralistic stories, or dumbed down tales. No one wants to be told what to think, but lots of people seem to enjoy the thinking this entertainment leads to.

We're always looking for new books to add to our reading lists, so I'd love to hear what your your family members' favorite books have been. Or whether or not you even enjoy books? Now, we're off to the next book sale at our library....

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Savoring Spring

It seems like the end of the school year, and Memorial Day approaching have most people thinking about summer. I know it will be here soon, and am looking forward to all the hot weather fun summer brings, but at the moment, I am savoring spring. In the same way that I can't bring myself to focus on Christmas in October, even if the stores are decorated for it before Halloween, I also am focusing more on enjoying what's left of this season that's in front of me now before I'm ready to move on to the next one.

There's just something about the carefree feeling of spring that brings out my inner school skipping self, and has made me want to play hooky for as long as I can remember. How can we be inside- whether in my office, or our house, when the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming? This beautiful weather was made for us to enjoy, so I'm trying to make sure we get out and enjoy it while it lasts.
It's amazing what a difference a little sunshine can make in one's mental state too. After the dark cold winter, a little sunshine on my face is like a shot of something yummy, with no negative side effects (well, except wrinkles and potential carcinomas, but man, it feels really nice.) I don't know how people in Alaska or Iceland make it through the winter months year after year.We've had a lot of late rain and unseasonably cold days this year, which has made the sunshine even more appreciated.

Pollen allergies have tried to put a bit of a damper on our spirits, but we decided we'd play now anyway while the weather is nice, even if we have to pay later with itchy eyes and runny noses.

The grass in our pastures in taller than it has been in years, which my goats are thrilled about, and so am I because that means less hay we'll have to buy this summer. It also means less frolicking romps through the meadows because it's rattlesnake season, and it's nice to be able to see where you're stepping. We've had up close encounters in the past, and I personally prefer to avoid them.

We've had a few late frosts, and random thunderstorms as well, but fortunately, with most of that thunder also came rain, which we really needed. Our local lakes are fuller than I can remember them being in a long time, which is a really nice way to head into summer.

Spring, and all it's new beginnings really bring out my optimism on a number of levels.  It has the kids and I inspired to work in the yard again finding all the amazing things that have grown and thrived despite some degree of seasonal neglect and extremes in temperatures and water levels. I love discovering what plants are hardy around here, because they are the ones I deal best with. Finicky, temperamental, sensitive and needy things don't tend to do as well under my care. I do like to nurture things to some degree, but I'm a bigger fan of low maintenance. It's a quality I appreciate in all things- plants, animals and humans alike. Slight imperfections are appreciated as well, and I have no problem seeing the beauty of a rose, even if it has a little insect damage.

Speaking of hardiness, one of my favorite spring sights is the lone flower busting through a crack in the sidewalk in downtown. I've seen it over and over, in numerous concrete jungles, and it always makes me smile. I know, some people call them weeds, and will probably be there with a can of poison to stop that unruly growth soon, but personally, I appreciate the persistence of nature. It reminds me that there are things out of our control, so lightening up might not be a bad idea, and more importantly, that even in the ugliest situations, beauty can sprout.

Clouds just rolled in with cold wind, and it started to rain. I guess it looks like we'll be enjoying this spring day in front of the fire playing board games. I'm glad we celebrated the more spring like days while they lasted. What are you all doing to enjoy the last days of the season?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dinosaurs, Art and Broken Trolleys in Balboa Park

Balboa Park is one place I love to visit whenever I am in San Diego. The buildings sport fabulous architecture, there are gorgeous plants and trees everywhere, and enough museums, art galleries, shops and open spaces for picnics and playing that we could probably spend a couple of days there.
I never have a couple of days to spare though, but we did just spend a lovely afternoon there while visiting family on our learning adventure in Southern California.
While it took my father a painfully long time to get away from the laptop and cell phone and into the car so we could actually go, my children did get to witness first hand where their mother inherited her genetic pattern of chronic lateness from.
Finally, we arrived, and started off exploring a village full of artists with sculptors, wood carvers, jewelers, painters, photographers and textile artists. Some were working on site. Others just had their work for sale, but it was like a cool little museum in itself.

Unfortunately, the botanical building was closed the day we were there. It houses a wonderful collection of orchids that always makes me wish I didn't kill expensive plants in the way that I do. We did enjoy the lily ponds, and the Timken Art Museum. The lovely display of Russian iconic art on display perfectly fit into our recent learning spree about Russia. We'd just finished reading the fifth book in The 39 Clues series, in which the characters adventurous clue hunting takes them all over Russia, and had been gobbling up Russian culture and history for a few weeks prior to our trip. It's wonderful when opportunities that seem so perfect for what we've been doing just drop into life like that. Unbelievably, the Timken is also free. It's small, but does have a wonderful collection that includes Rembrandt.
Next, we took the free trolley ride through the park. Our driver was one of those friendly type who gives a little talking tour of the sites and events as you go around, even helping a slightly confused elderly passenger find her car. As soon as we were pulling into our final stop, we heard a loud an frightening "thunk" sound. The metallic crunch made me a little nervous that our trolley had run over a wheelchair or a stroller or something, and the poor driver looked a little nervous too. We all hopped out and saw that we had experienced another technical malfunction (and wondered if this was going to be a pattern on our public rides after our Disneyland trip.) Thankfully, we hadn't squished or even bumped into anyone. It looked to me like the trolley had lost a wheel, but my husband said that actually something or other with a ball bearing or a wheel bearing or something like that had broken. (Mechanic speak usually sounds like wuuh wuuuh wuuh waaah - sort of like the teachers on Charlie Brown to me, but I think our Boy Child caught something out of it.) In any case, we weren't going to be driving any further on the trolley that day, but we were already at our stop anyway, so the timing was actually not bad.

The afternoon was winding down, and so was our time to catch any more museums before they closed for the day, so we hurried over to the Natural History Museum. It's another that belongs to the science museum association, so we got free admission with our membership cards rather than the $10 to $14 door price. They had an amazing exhibit on dinosaurs going. We only had about an hour before they closed and kicked us out, but could have easily spent a couple hours exploring this great exhibit of fossils, replicas, and interactive displays. It was a very worthwhile stop indeed, and we learned a ton.

When we returned to visit relatives later that evening, I got a few more inquiries on whether or not we were doing any homeschooling on our trip. Of course, we're homeschooling all the time- the world is our classroom, but I know, this is a hard concept for most people to grasp. Schools can take field trips and have fun learning occasionally, we just tend to do the fun stuff an awful lot. Nevertheless, it seems to be working. The kids came home jazzed about dinosaurs, not because I had planned it, or it was on the standards, but because we came across a really cool display of them, and they got to explore it.
 It was another great day of life learning in action.

Does anyone have any other San Diego or Balboa Park must see places / things? I'd love to hear about them, since I know we'll be be back again.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Flower Fields

Carlsbad, California is a formerly quaint little beach town in northern San Diego, which unfortunately has exploded in the last few years and is now home to probably 7 Starbucks and countless houses that all look exactly the same. But, I still love Carlsbad because it is also still the home of some wonderfully beautiful scenery, and some really cool people- including some of my favorite relatives- plus, the town just has a good feel to it. There are glorious beaches, some cute old beach homes that haven't yet been mowed down to put up condos, and a surprising amount of farmland that hasn't been cemented in yet either.
The most famous farm is the flower fields. If you drive by during the right time in spring, you'll be wowed by over 50 acres of fabulous blooms all lined up in rainbow stripes.

It really is quite a glorious site- one I haven't seen in years, and my kids didn't really remember ever seeing since our last few visits have been at other times of the year. This year, we lucked out and our visit timed perfectly into sunshine and blooms, and I'm thinking they'll remember it. The main crop at the flower fields is ranunculus, but the gardens also include miniature roses, sweet pea and anemone. Years ago, you could just take a stroll through the rows anytime, but like everything else, that has changed too, and now it is a big tourist attraction with wagon ride and educational tours that costs in the range $10 a pop to get in.

Despite my nostalgia about the days when the flower fields were free to roam, I'm glad that they've found a way to keep their farm going by successfully combining agriculture and tourism. They're also bringing something a whole lot prettier to the world than another soy field or a cattle lot.

We weren't feeling up for a tour, but did stop to admire the views from a walkway on the hillside street above. I suppose I could have gotten all educational about it and created a unit study on the flowers grown there, their history, the horticultural hot points, imports and exports etc, but none of that really appealed to me at the time. I just wanted to appreciate the beauty of the flowers with my kids. So we did.

We did end up having a very philosophical talk about politics and economics though. Seeing all the farm workers prompted a discussion about immigration, legal and otherwise, and low paying agricultural jobs that not many people really want, but are really important that keeping things like farms going. This led to talking about consumerism, cheap labor and political backlash looking at several sides of the issues. I love the organic way learning just happens, and it was especially poetic that it happened on  farm- and a great looking farm at that.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

GRR.... California Adventure

I mentioned in an earlier post on our most recent vacation / learning adventure) that we are not exactly gated community kind of people. Well, we are also not exactly Disney people either. I'll admit that their princess style story lines have gotten slightly better over the years with less of the weak "Oh, please save the day so we can live happily ever after" type female characters, but still, my kids aren't exactly growing up watching all their movies and dreaming about being a princess.
We aren't big theme park people either, as large crowds and long lines tend to annoy me, especially since I've had kids. I had been to Disneyland a number of times in my pre-child life while going to college in Southern California, and it always amused me how many wanky, cranky, tired children were throwing fits at "the Happiest Place on Earth" while their frustrated parents who had just spent a fortune drug them by the arm to go on yet another ride hissing "We're having fun here whether you like or not, so stop your crying right this minute and get in that darn giant teacup!"
But, I don't want my natural cynicism of things to mean that my children never get to experience these foundations of American culture, so I took them to the original Disneyland once a few years ago. We had a whole lot of fun that day, although none of us wanted to take on the multi-day, multi-park, breakfast with the characters Disney vacation marathon that costs as much as college tuition and some people feel is what the Disneyland experience is all about. One day, one park was about all I could do.

This year though, I thought Disney did an incredible thing  with the "Give a Day, Get a Day" program. Volunteers could give a day of service to an approved charity, and in exchange, get a voucher for a 1 day pass at a Disney theme park. It's a great situation where everyone involved wins- Disney gets a tax write off, a million people get to spend a day in a park that would normally cost them about $75 a pop, and the charities get a whole lot of volunteer help that they probably wouldn't have otherwise. I think three months into the promotion, they had already given out a million tickets .
Well, this was a great opportunity for our family. I'm a big fan of both giving back to the community, and free fun. So, we signed up, spent a morning giving away food at our local homeless mission and got a chance to experience Disneyland again. The food give away was an experience in itself which deserves it own post, and I'll have to write about it later.

For our theme park, this time we wanted to try out the California Adventure Park next door to the original Disneyland. My kids are totally into roller coasters, so we checked out the website to find the best rides and attractions ahead of time. There was no way to avoid being at the park for one of the "High School Musical" parades, but we always enjoy new things to make fun of, so that was fine.  Unfortunately, a few things that looked fun online were closed when we got there, but we all agreed that "California Screamin" was one of, if not the best roller coaster we've been on. It was smooth (as opposed to the ones that jerk your neck and spine in rough ways and opposing directions) and had lots of crazy spins, turns and loops. It was super fun, especially the rapid take off. Our other favorite was the water raft ride "Grizzly River Rapids" (also known as GRR, which ended up being quite appropriate later that day) Since it was fairly hot, getting wet was a blessing we happily appreciated. By the end of the day though, our appreciation of refreshing wetness waned, but I'll get to that later.

Every ride had an important safety sign to let people know that unbuckling your seat belt and trying to jump out of something traveling at high speeds and going upside down was a bad idea. No reading necessary for this important message. They also had a friendly recording playing that had a super sales guy voice and reminded in multiple languages "Parents, please watch your children."

My homeschooling mom mode kicked in at some point, and we had to check out the educational opportunities like the 5 minute Mission Tortilla Factory experience where you could learn about the history of tortillas and corn and watch them being made. We got a tasty tortilla hot off the press at the end. We probably should have stopped by there before buying $50 worth of miniature taco salads for lunch, but oh well.
We also did the sourdough bread bakery, and sampled some of the the most delicious, warm, chewy sourdough bread I've ever encountered. Our delight was spoiled though when my husband noticed the sample server was fondling the door handle (which is I'm sure one of top 10 germiest surfaces in the world) with his gloved hand, and reaching back into the bag to give unsuspecting people samples. I made the children spit / throw their samples out, and they were starting to sadly protest, until I pointed out that the server was now running his gloved fingers through his hair and then dialing his cell phone. At that point, we were all both disappointed and disgusted. We were really enjoying our bread up until that point, and then it not only ruined my sample, but also made me think about all the other food I had eaten that had been prepared by strangers that day. How could he not know that the gloves were supposed to be keeping the samples sanitary, and that by fondling every germ covered surface in reach he was defeating the whole purpose of the gloves?!?

Earlier that morning, I had laughed and said that the handy hand washing tips provided in every bathroom were one of the stupidest things I ever saw, because what idiot knows how to read, but not how to wash their hands. Well, Mr. Grubby Fingers and his bread samples helped me realize that maybe they need to add something on these signs about the fact that your hands, or hygienic gloves for that matter, are no longer clean once you start touching filthy things. Maybe picture directions would help too. So, on top of our little factory and baking lessons, we also got hygiene, food safety and common respect lessons as well. We truly are learning all the time.

Anyway, despite the fondling bread boy, one thing I have to say about Disney is that they really emphasize the service with a smile attitude with their employees. I didn't see anyone who worked for the park scowling- from the Princesses in the parade to the guy driving the shuttle bus to the parking lot, those people all had the friendly act down. That is a refreshing change from the attitudes you get with a lot of service people who don't rely on tips. All of those smiling faces were contagious, and really helped the mood when shuttles were late, and other annoyances happened.

We ended our Disneyland Day with what was kind of a big annoyance, but it was hard to get too mad with all those toothy grinned employees saying they were sorry for any inconvenience. We had less than an hour before the park closed, and really wanted to squeeze in a couple more rides, but we got stuck behind this musical Bug's Life parade full of singing, dancing, back flipping people with the most insanely over caffeinated huge smiles of all for about 20 minutes. It was a little scary for toddlers and me too. Just when we thought we could cross, one of the security people told us we had to wait. She had the Disney smile too, but she also had a look in her eye like "Don't even think about it lady." I thought she'd probably jump me if I tried running across between floats, and since seeing your parent be tackled to the ground by a smiling security guard at Disneyland may just cause emotional scarring, I waited it out.
When we were finally released to get past our mandatory entertainment, we ran like linebackers through the crowd to the Grizzly Rapids. There was hardly a line and we thought we were in luck. Despite the lack of line, the boarding seemed to take forever. When we got in and started floating, my son commented that he thought we were moving awfully slow. I thought it was just his perception because he knew we were running out of time, but soon we bumped into a stopped raft. A few minutes later, another raft bumped up behind us, and then another. We were right before a big drop- the thrill of the ride, and wondered why the employee wasn't opening the lever to let our rafts go.

Well, then she announced the "unexpected technical difficulty" and asked that we remain seated and buckled while they drained the ride so we we could be evacuated! We were wet, in the shade, and one of the kids really needed to use the restroom. We were good sports and waited- of course we had no choice on waiting, but we did choose the good sport part. My poor kid had to hold on for at least 20 minutes with the sound of water sloshing down drains the entire time, but thankfully made it. The interesting part was that we got to see the "Cast Members Only" behind the scenes view during our emergency exit.

We went under the man made mountain, and saw all the not so pretty gears and rusty parts and things that make the rides run. By the time we got out of there, the park was closed, so we were out of luck on taking one more spin on the roller coaster. My Boy Child was sure that the rusty parts were responsible for the breakdown, but apparently, there had been a power failure, and several other rides, including our beloved roller coaster, had stopped too. Surely it would have been more alarming to be stuck on a ride 100 feet in the air, and it probably would have ruined my admiration for the ride and given me new phobias, so it was probably best we got stuck where we did.

We laughed about our Disney dreams being dashed, made sad pathetic faces, and thought maybe they would give the kids a balloon or a sucker or at least a sticker for our troubles. They gave us big smiles and apologies, and pointed to the exit.
Regardless, we had a great time on this leg of our California Adventure.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Aquarium of the Pacific

Last year, my son wrote this lovely poem called "Ocean"

Old as the Earth
Clear blue Water
Every day you're different
And so many fish
Never stopping.

It was a runner up in the California Coastal Commission  art and science contest, and he was awarded four free tickets to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. He was one proud little boy, with one happy big sister. My Girl Child  has had a long standing love of the ocean and it's creatures, so she was probably as excited as he was. She currently hopes to become a marine biologist someday, and of course we want to nurture that enthusiasm, so we get her to the ocean as often as possible (not to mention that the ocean washes away all sorts of life stresses, and in general, makes all of us all around happier people.)

We decided to incorporate a trip to this aquarium on our Southern California Family Learning Adventure. Unfortunately, when arranging and rearranging dates to incorporate visits with as many family members as possible, we didn't realize we would be going to the aquarium on Childrens' Day, which meant there were about 12 million people there.

I normally prefer to visit places like this mid week, preferably on days they are not hosting large numbers of classroom field trips so we can actually enjoy and learn without all the loudness and chaos. We did enjoy ourselves, and we did learn quite a few things, but we couldn't spend as much time at each exhibit or explore as much as we would have liked. The most crowded exhibit was interestingly enough on "Overpopulation of the Human World." We had to bail mid display on several portions when other visitors with Tubercular sounding coughs started hacking nearby. I have a thing about not inhaling air with potentially diseased droplets- I'm just funny that way.

Anyway, the shark tanks were a very cool feature. They had over a hundred sharks you could pet, along with several beautiful rays (who had their stingers removed- they assured me it was a quick and easy process, but the rays weren't offering any comment.) Most of these touch tanks were outside so I didn't feel quite as distressed about the air sharing in the crowds. The rays had wonderfully smooth skin, very different than the sharks, and were for the most part very friendly creatures, as though they enjoyed the attention. Many of the sharks stayed on the darker side of the tanks and slept, but we did get to pet quite a few who swam by. Two little sharks kept swimming by my son and they would roll over on their backs putting their bellies up like a dog when he pet them.

He, of course thought that this was very cool, and that he had a magic touch with sharks. Apparently, some people do not have a magic touch with the sharks, or know how to touch them nicely at all. The aquarium had these informative signs all over the place, to help people who might think it's a good idea to grab or scratch a shark, or to stick their fingers in its' mouth realize that in fact, those are not good ideas at all, but a good way to get bitten.

In the walk-through-aviary, they had these more direct signs that told people outright that the lorikeets do bite. I liked them so much, I'm thinking about making one just like it for my gate. I found it ironic though that they were selling nectar for $3 outside the entrance to the aviary so that people could feed these biting birds. One poor little girl was holding her cup of nectar out and had it stolen by a cranky little bird that was all hopped up on sugar. I thought her father was going to try to get it back, but when the bird thief gave him a threatening look and hissed with it's nut cracking beak, he opted to cut his losses. Many of the birds looked like they had come down from their sugar high- all overfed and lazy, hanging around slack beaked on branches. I could just imagine those birds on a couch with a soda in one hand and a remote in the other.
I think the Overpopulation exhibit was the one I learned the most in- I didn't realize how quickly our world has grown, especially in the last 50 years, and Southern California is certainly a place where you can feel the results of that growth. If it had been less crowded, perhaps we could have stayed and learned even more. But despite the overpopulation, between the beauty of the jelly fish exhibits and the excitement of petting sharks, we had a good day, learned a few things, and added to our appreciation of the wonders of the sea.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tar Pits

Right in the midst of downtown L.A., with big high rise buildings all around on a very busy street, is an incredible piece of the very, very distant past. Since the 1970's, scientists have been pulling pieces of history from a bunch of goo in the ground at the La Brea Tar Pits, and the things they've dug up are pretty impressive.

This stop on our Southern California Learning Adventure (also known as family vacation) is one I would definitely recommend.

The tar pits themselves are actually a rather stinky lake with a few statues of the sorts of animals that got stuck there, and some pretty landscaping, but the George C. Page museum on site is where all the results of decades of scientist and volunteer labor are on display. It houses an amazing number of specimens that were pulled up from the site over the years, and they're still digging every summer. This spot has probably been on of the richest sources of prehistoric animal fossils in the world.
There is an entire wall of dire wolf skulls, several complete mastadon skeletons, giant sloths, giant bison, American lions, and lots and lots of saber tooth cats. It's just crazy to imagine that all those creatures were once walking on what are now the streets of L.A. My kids loved seeing not only the skeletons, but the models and paintings of what scientists think it might have looked like then in the very spot we were standing.

There are no dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits; these prehistoric creatures came well after the dinosaurs were long gone, but many of these species met the same fate of extinction.

We learned that massive entrapment in the tar was probably a relatively uncommon fate, but that every decade or so, the sticky goo would be covered with enough leaves and debris that some poor animal would walk over it, and manage to get stuck. Their cries might attract members of their herd or family (if they were herd animals) and they would also become trapped. The communal cries would attract predators who would also get stuck, followed by scavengers who would join the party. They say the tar didn't suck them under, it just stuck them there until something came along and got them, or they either dehydrated or starved. Pretty depressing for the poor animals involved, but fascinating at the same time because the bones were so well preserved in all that tar, it gives a lot of information about those animals, and their lives.

Many of the saber tooth cats had broken and infected saber teeth in their lives, and many of the dire wolves had broken bones that had healed, they speculate from fights.

The humongous time line along one wall gives an good visual image of how small our time is in the scheme of things. Tar still bubbles up in random places along the paths outside the museum, and there are scientists that you can see working on cleaning and sorting the findings on the inside. According to the informative movie, the tar is not toxic to human skin, but it doesn't smell or look like something that would exactly be good for you.While I think volunteering in a lot of museums would be fun as well as educational, cleaning tarry old fragile things is probably not something my clan would be that good at.

Still, it was a great learning experience, and gives us a whole new perspective on the history of Los Angeles.

There are a bunch of other interesting looking museums along the same street- an architecture one, a huge art one, an automobile one- a family could spend a lot of time there, but we only had a few hours, so we limited ourselves to the museum at the tar pits. It also happens to be an affiliate in the ASTC association of science museums- another plug for membership with your local science museum- with the benefits of getting into museums all over, it more than pays for itself, and really enhances travels and learning on the road. In fact, we all agreed that this science stop alone was worth the membership for us.

I'd love to hear about amazing museums other people know of in their areas, as we're really enjoying this learning on the road. We hope to do as much as possible whenever we have the chance, and are always looking for destinations to add to our wish list of places to go.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gated Leisure

We are just not gated community people. We're not exactly rule breaking rebels without a cause, but as relaxed semi- unschoolers we try not to have a lot of pointless rules. We live in the country, with some space between ourselves and our neighbors, and plenty of privacy to do what we want, but we do have friends and family who like the suburban subdivision lifestyle- CC&Rs and all, it suits them just fine. My very sweet aunt offered us the use of her home in a very suburban subdivision while we were heading to southern California, and it was a great chance for our family to learn about rules. My aunt was out of town herself, so unfortunately we didn't get to see her, nor my uncle, but we were happy to have a place to stay to break up our trip, and relax before we hit the insanity of Los Angeles and Disneyland.
The place was in a gated community with "Leisure" in the name, but I sense that the majority of folks living there are a lot more into their rules than leisure. Who knows, maybe all the rules help them to relax, but they tend to make me feel like I'm about to get into trouble any minute.
There was a guard at the entrance to ask 50 questions, which must be answered correctly in order to open the gates to the village. Once in, the lawns are all manicured and perfect. I only saw 2 or 3 people on the streets; none were under 60 years old, and none of them smiled. My kids did the big friendly waves anyway, because that's how they are. We saw a few gray haired heads peeking out windows at us, but no children anywhere, which led me to think this may be a seniors community. 
My band of hillbilly hoodlums immediately wanted to run across those lovely green lawns and do cartwheels, but I had the distinct feeling that such a display of unruliness and joy would be frowned upon. In fact, I think children themselves may not have been approved of, and mine especially with all their unencumbered laughing out loud might just ruin the calm order that was there. It was a good chance to learn about different subcultures and talk about following rules in the place you are, even if they aren't the rules at home.
We were very thankful to have the lovely condo to relax and stay in, but I knew that my kids' leisure was of a different pace, and they are easier to live with if they can let loose. So, I took them to the closest beach to get a little of that healthy kid energy out and have some fun. 

They threw rocks....

They climbed cliffs................

We had a lovely picnic............

And I read and worked on perfecting my lounge act. It was wonderfully relaxing and free of rules.

After we had our fill of beach, we found a neighborhood of charming old homes that was gate free, with nice paved sidewalks in which we could roller skate without worry.........

Husband is a sailor, and must always stop at harbors. So before heading back to our Leisure Spot, he wanted to walk amongst the boats dreaming. We skated along happily...........

Until we came upon this........

The rules seem to be everywhere, and somehow, we seem to be breaking (or at least stretching) them on a fairly regular basis.

I later learned that my aunt and uncle are the token Latinos in the gated community, and so perhaps the neighbors were watching us more closely because of the curiosity. This made me giggle because my aunt is a wonderfully zany woman who lives life to the fullest, and is not at all quiet with her love and happiness. My cousin told me that on her last visit to her mother, they rescued a perfectly good lamp and chair from the curbside trash in the Leisurely community. This display of crazy Colombians dumpster diving probably gave the neighbors plenty to talk about for weeks.

The nice thing about a community such as this is that it is amazingly quiet at night, which cannot be said about many other neighborhoods in a city of the same size. There was no blasting music, loud talkers or cars driving by late around there. We slept deliciously, and left feeling well rested and ready for hitting the bigger and louder cities that were next on our trip.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Years ago, I used to think that the city of Oakland was a big, scary, high crime mecca and all around dangerous place. I'm not sure exactly why I thought that- maybe due to the fact that I had a window shattered out of my car and my jacket stolen while I was attending a concert there once, and the cold, foggy ride home left an imprint on me.
In any case, I really had no idea that Oakland has a rather adorable side with historic houses full of wonderful architectural details. It also has trails, parks and way more hillside forests than I would have imagined were that close to the city.  

My family and I spent a lovely night and day there on our latest installment in hands on learning adventures via road trip. We visited a cousin that I haven't seen in years, and his wife that I had never met. My cousin was as funny as I remember, his wife was fabulous, and we all stayed up late laughing at silly stories. In the morning, we took a walk around their cute little neighborhood pocket, which was full of homes and yards with character- perfect for my girl who has been studying both architecture and gardening.

In preparation for the trip, I wanted to remind my kids of a few dangers of big cities. They're rural dwellers, but they're fairly well traveled. Still, as a mom, I do the reminder thing semi often. I think they took me a little too seriously though, as when we got off the freeway late at night on a dark street with graffiti, one of them said, "Shhh, be quiet, and don't look at anyone. They could have a gun!" I told them there were probably more guns in our hillbilly neighborhood at home, and that most people in the world (including the city) are mostly good. City people just aren't used to the friendly "Hi there!" from smiling strangers that we tend to throw out, and that's why they look at us oddly, and that of course, wherever there are more people, there are more opportunities for criminals, so naturally, you have to be more careful. I think (and hope) that they get the difference between being safe and being fearful- you can enjoy life safely, but it's hard to enjoy anything fearfully. The kids were surprised by how quickly neighborhoods went from not so good to very good (in looks anyway) and were glad we stopped in a good one (as was I.)

As life learners, we go to museums just about everywhere we go, so while in Oakland, we visited the Chabot Space and Science Museum. It's one of the many museums that we can get into FREE with our membership to our local science museum, and it was definitely worth the stop. There was all sorts of space travel and astronaut paraphernalia including some groovy astronaut outfits.

Husbands' favorite exhibit was the Russian space capsule- they also had a model of the capsule that sent the first dog into space- the poor thing never
made it home though, and the quarters didn't look all that cozy. I wonder if she was medicated as I would think that sailing away from earth at high speeds in a tiny plastic and metal box had to be a pretty stressful experience for a dog that had no idea what in the heck was going on.
Anyway...Boy Childs' favorite part was the "Beyond Blastoff" exhibit where he got to try out astronauts weight lifting and exercise equipment. .Girl Child liked all the hands on exhibits and the movie "Tales of the Mayan Skies." I myself was a little sleepy and had to fight napping in the dark theater with the lovely background music and soothing narrators voice.
We were all amazed by the space toilets and recycled water systems which are quite the fancy setup. I never realized that in space they have to recycle every drop of water, including sweat and urine. I can understand that hauling quantities of water would be unrealistic, but still I have trouble with the idea that this processed and recycled water is "cleaner than tap water in many cities." Reason #12,472 why I am probably not a good candidate for space travel- I have an aversion to drinking processed body fluids

Outside, we were treated to three huge telescopes- like big enough to require their own buildings with roll away rooftops, and clear enough skies to see Jupiter during the day. They have free star watching parties on Friday and Saturday evenings, but unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to catch one on this trip.
We would've liked to also explore the surrounding forested park area around the hilltop museum, but we had to hit the road, so that's on the list for next time. We bought some planet sticker and game books for the car ride, and got going.
So, now that I know there are plenty of reasons to stop on that side of the bay, I guess I won't always just race over the Bay Bridge and head into San Francisco. I'm very much looking forward to going back to Oakland again when I have more time to explore what a fun city it is. The kids are too- especially now that they know they don't have to avoid all speech or eye contact while we're there.