Sunday, June 20, 2010

Old Shasta

California history is one of those things that I can't imagine having any worries that my kids are not learning enough about.

In fact, I can't really picture them not picking up on a great deal of the history just by the fact that they live in the state, and well, we go places and explore things.

Northern California still has a lot of wild west, gold rush type places that are easy to explore for free or on the cheap. 

 Like the cute little town of Old Shasta along Highway 299. It's tiny, and the place you could really drive by without thinking much about it, but we decided to stop there for a stroll along the wooden sidewalks.

Apparently, the town was once the hub of Shasta county, until the railroad bypassed it and went through the town Redding instead (which of course, then became the county seat.)

Now, it's a row of very cool crumbled brick buildings.  There's a museum in the old courthouse, and the gallows which actually had at least one public hanging of a bank robber. (They have a picture of the event, and his jeans with bullet holes and all from the attempted getaway.) There's also an old fashioned brick oven bakery and a blacksmith shop which are open at certain times complete with folks dressed in historical garb demonstrating what life used to be like.

Mainly, there are lots of unsafe structures to explore, and which my boy child naturally wanted to climb all over. My Girl Child looked like she was thinking that it might actually be a fun idea too, and they were both a little disappointed that I said no. I figured those remnants have withstood the last hundred years of fire, rain, earthquakes and storms, and it would be really embarrassing to have my children be the ones that knocked the historical site down in the end. Not to mention that broken bones and hospital visits tend to ruin a perfectly good outing. I know, I know....I'm such a stick in the mud.

Thankfully, there was plenty to check out around the buildings without actually climbing on them, so the kids still had a nice time, despite the fact that I spoiled their plan of balance beam walking like Ninjas on a one hundred year old crumbling brick wall.
After exploring a bit, we had a lovely picnic of cheese, crackers, fruit and Nutella on a big sunny lawn in front of a beautiful replica of a huge barn that burned down at some point in the past. Chocolate covered fruit does help ease all kinds of disappointments. They may think I'm cautious, but at least I carry good snacks.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Recycled Crayons

A few years ago, my kids got this electric "crayon making" machine, which was a very nice thought, but never came out of the box. The idea of making crayons was neat, and I assumed we would melt down old crayon stubs to make new ones. The kit however, came with a bunch of perfectly good crayons to melt and pour into new crayon molds. That seemed like a waste of energy and time to me. It didn't even suggest making swirl crayons or anything- just taking something that was already usable, and using up a bunch of time and effort to make the exact same thing. We're not fans of busy work in our homeschool or our lives- there are enough real things to do in life- so the box got buried under some of those other things.

I came across it recently, and we all decided to pass it on to someone else who might actually use it. But, we still liked the idea of making crayons, and we had a jar full of old, busted stubs that were eager for their new lives. We also had a little muffin tin that had been part of a play kitchen set leftover from my childrens' younger days which looked like the perfect alternative crayon mold, and we figured that our oven would work just fine for melting.
I remember being a child, and so badly wanting an "easy bake oven" which was heavily advertised on TV in the late 1970's. I never got one, but was very disappointed when I actually saw one in real life. It was just an overpriced plastic box that used a light bulb to cook with. Why not just let your kid cook with a real oven? I mean, I don't think it was at all about safety because people didn't really seem to focus on safety in the 1970's in the same way they do now. Kids bounced around in the back of the car with no seat belts while adultts smoked in the front, and it doesn't seem like anyone thought a thing about it. Besides, theoretically, a kid could easily burn down the house with an easy bake oven as well as a real one. In fact, I think my mom may have used that argument as to why I didn't get one, along with the fact that it was stupid. In hindsight, she was right, but I was disappointed nonetheless.

Anyway, my point was that I wanted my own kids to know how to use a real oven, and they do. I don't think it ever would have occurred to them to buy a plastic machine that made obnoxious humming noise in its' attempts to produce low hear, whether for making cupcakes or crayons, especially when they could just turn the real oven on.

So, we melted a few batches, and the end result was these cute little crayon rounds. Since the broken bits we started with included crayons with wide range of age and quality, the finished product is a bit of mix too. They all look pretty neat, but some have waxy colorless bits swirled in that don't leave any color when you try to draw with them on paper. Oh well, at least they look pretty, even if they don't function all that well for the intended purpose. Maybe we should remelt them and add wicks to turn them into tiny tea light candles, or maybe call them magical play muffins and give them to a young friend to play with.
Any other ideas as to what to do with these cute little crayons that don't draw?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tadpole Trauma

Every year about this time, we do a massive tadpole rescue operation. The creek that borders our property flows seasonally- it goes from raging in the winter to mostly dry with the exception of a few puddles in the summer. We are down there a lot in the spring admiring all the new life, and while we catch and observe them for a few minutes, we don't take them from their home.
I've had other kids think I'm a big meanie for making them leave tadpoles in their creek home, but I figure if it has enough water to sustain them, that's where they should be- squiggling free. But, at some point when the rains stop for the season, you pretty much know that the tadpoles who still have tails but no legs are not likely to finish developing in time to hop away before the watery home dries up altogether.
I'm a big softy when it comes to animals, especially young ones, and the thought of dried up tadpoles disturbs me more than captive ones. So for the last few years, each spring when there is not much chance they'll make it otherwise, we head out with buckets and retrieve as many as we can. We have a big aquarium that we set up on our front porch for just this purpose. It has rocks and plants from the creek, and is open on the top with branches to help them climb / hop out to freedom when they're ready.
In years past, we've also had water skimmers make the habitat their home, as well as a few mosquito larvae (I catch and feed the mosquito larvae to chickens- I have no mercy or soft spot for them.)

This year, we had a horrid new bug stop by to eat at the habitat. It was a back swimmer, a true bug with a piercing mouth that is used both to suck plant juices, and to inject digestive juices into prey (such as tadpoles.) These nasty creatures can both fly and swim (they swim upside down, hence the name.) We had a handful get in our human swimming pool last year- they use their hideous mouth to bite humans too and it hurts, probably because of the digestive juices, which is just really creepy to think about.
Well, I was out observing my cute little tadpoles, and the tiny little frogs in our porch habitat, when I saw a most traumatizing site. One of those evil back swimmers was under water, upside down- it had it's disgusting mouth latched onto a cute little frog and was pulling it under! It was awful! I think I probably screamed something like "Oh my gosh you evil demon creature- what are you doing?!?" and quickly grabbed a nearby cup that one of my children had left on the porch. I scooped up the attacker and his victim, who were firmly attached, and yelled for my children. I'm not sure that I really thought through why on earth they should witness this disturbing scene, but they heard me and came running. We all hollered about the brutality of nature for a minute, and then tried to save the poor little frog, but sadly, it was too late for him. Nevertheless, we promptly smashed the awful back swimmer before he could find another victim or reproduce any more of his terrible kind. Again, no soft spot here.

Later the same day, we had another interesting encounter with nature. My Boy Child was scooping cupfuls of our habitat water and checking out what was in it up close when he came across another rather ugly insect near the bottom. I almost judged it based on it's ugliness, but then I thought it looked a little familiar, like it was possibly a dragonfly nymph. We looked it up in the Handbook of Nature Study, and sure enough, it was a little dragonfly in the making. Now, for another dilemma...apparently this little fellow is also a voracious predator too. Its one thing to know that he's ugly as sin right now, but will someday be a beautiful dragonfly, and it's another to know that he too is probably going to eat a bunch of our tadpoles along the way.

We kept him in a cup for a few hours while we decided. First, we read a bunch. On the plus side, we all enjoy the sight of dragonflies gracefully skimming through the air on summer evenings, and once they take wing, they eat other flying insects like mosquitoes by the dozen. They also eat mosquito larvae in the water while in the nymph stage which is another bonus. But, they aren't particular diners, so there's a good chance he'd also eat some of our our little legless frogs to be as well. They can also take years to get to the flight stage, and there was no way I'm keeping this tank habitat up for years. We looked for another body of water that might support him- preferably one that was full of mosquito larvae. Unbelievably, we couldn't find anyplace that looked like he could live there.

None of us felt right about dumping him, and since we hadn't seen him in the act of killing as we had with evil back swimmer, we certainly didn't feel he deserved a direct death sentence. We didn't really like the idea of him munching our tadpoles, but in the end, we decided that we'd take the risk. We did have about 12 million tadpoles in the tank, so a few might be sacrificial ones for our dragonfly. One nice thing is that dragonfly nymphs are bottom dwellers, so we wouldn't need to look at his ugliness or the carnage of his feeding.

Well, maybe a week later, I was out observing again, and I saw this little guy hiding in the grass. Our little nymph had just completed his transformation to his new dragonfly form- his wings weren't even dry yet, and his empty nymph shell was still right there next to him. It was very neat for the kids to see. We spotted another empty nymph shell in the grass, and later, found another nymph in the water. Apparently, we had more than one dragonfly, which was very cool. We also still have 12 million tadpoles, so we don't feel bad about the possibility that a few were snacked on either.
We're starting to get more and more little frogs every day. I have a feeling it's going to be a noisy summer around here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Thrift Store Madness

I just had a rather surreal thrift shop experience- the kind of thing that made me feel like there was a hidden camera somewhere, and people everywhere where laughing at my ridiculous situation. I already have a wavering relationship with thrift stores. Some days, I find an amazing deal on a vintage purse or bargain book and I love them. Other days, I see only overpriced, musty smelling junk that I hesitate to touch, and leave with the desire to wash my hands immediately.

Well, there is one awesome little thrift shop in my area that rarely gives me that feeling of needing a shower because everything in it is pretty darn clean and usually in really good condition. It's run by a group of elderly church ladies, is only open once a month, and not at all during the summer, but it's usually well worth it to stop in if I'm in town that day because they have the smoking hot deals. I am almost always amazed at the work these ladies must do to sort through the junk and organize things. Some of the stuff even looks like it's been folded and pressed. Even the idea of someone ironing a pillowcase makes me think of some sweet old time days that were long gone before I came into the world. A trip to this particular shop is usually a very pleasant experience. In years past, I've purchased a beautiful burgundy wool trench coat there for less than $10, and my daughter found some gorgeous embroidered vintage gloves for $2. I'm a sucker for a bargain, and usually love this place, but yesterday was a different story.

Yesterday, they were having their last sale of the season, and so I headed over for the last bit of my lunch break from the office. I rummaged around, but none of the clothing, household items or accessories really caught my eye. I had used up most of my break, but I hate to leave empty handed, so I thought I'd get a couple of remotely interesting books. The sign said that kids books were 10 cents, other paperbacks were 25 cents and hardbacks were 50 cents. It's hard to go wrong there. I picked out a kids book on card games, a kids novel about some kids who find a magic map, and a novel for myself. At the check out station, a lady I hadn't seen before was bagging the items and calling out the prices to the cashier in a very official way.

"O.K. Three books, $1.50,"  she told her.
"Oh, I thought kid books were 10 cents?" I asked. It really didn't matter, as it was a charity and all. I was just curious.
"You're saying you only want to pay 30 cents for these 3 books?" she asked in a rather loud and appalled voice.
"No, I mean I'll buy them anyway. The sign just said kids books were 10 cents." I mumbled feeling a tad embarrassed at the way she said that.
"I don't think these are kids books" she says in a huff flipping through them.
"Um, it really doesn't matter, but two of them are kid books." She's looking skeptical, so I explain. "Well, usually a book on card games for adults wouldn't have pictures of a smiling 8 year old holding giant playing cards on every page, and this novel about kids, well, it's written for kids."
"So, you're saying you only want to pay 30 cents for these?!" She was kind of shouting and starting to sound like the soup Nazi from Seinfeld.
"No, it's fine, I can pay $1.50," I say, but she's glaring at me, so I explain "I was actually only saying two of them are kids books anyway- the one with the kid playing cards on the cover, and the one about the kids with the magic map. Those are pretty much kid books- the other one is a paperback which I thought said 25 cents."

Why I was trying to explain this, I don't know. I just wanted to buy the books and go on my way. Why she wouldn't listen to what I was trying to tell her, and was instead looking at me like I was trying to pull a major scam over a couple bucks at a rummage sale, I don't know either, but for some reason, I felt I should defend my honor.
The cashier was looking at both of us like she had witnessed this kind of ugly price war display before, and wasn't looking forward to another episode. She asked "OK, so what are we doing?"
I started to tell her again to just sell me the stupid books and take my stinking $1.50 because I really need to get back to work when Mrs. Overcharge grabs them and says "Well, I have to show these to my supervisor and see if they were put in the wrong place by mistake."
Seriously? I can't believe she is still acting like they aren't kids books- as if adult books usually have main characters that are little kids who fight evil magicians... as if adult card books need to explain that a King is worth more than a 9 either!
I said I'd buy them for $1.50, even though I have no idea where she got that price, but she just has to try to prove me wrong. I can't believe she thinks I am actually trying to scam them out pocket change. I mean, I know I didn't iron my shirt that morning, but I don't look that shabby. And I really can't believe there is a line forming and she has taken off with my books, like I have all day to deal with this. I didn't even really want the books, and I was being trapped in a dramatic altercation over them. The cashier is looking at me in a very uncomfortable way. I like to think she was on my side, but didn't want to cross the Price Checker.
"Just go ahead and ring those people up," I say, not wanting everyone else to have to wait on this nonsense. I walk over to where Old Grumpy Butt is talking rapid fire to the boss, and I overhear her saying in a shocked tone "and she only wants to pay 30 cents for these!"
I'm mortified. This old lady, who seems to have a bit of trouble hearing, understanding and adding, is portraying me as a villain. I am so embarrassed. I hate to talk smack about my elders, but she was clearly nuts, or having a very difficult senior moment at the very least.
For one thing I said I'd pay the lousy $1.50, and for another thing, the correct pricing would have been 45 cents, not 30 cents (2 KID BOOKS at 10 cents each, and one paperback at 25) I never said they were ALL kid books, and I never said I only wanted to pay 30 cents.
The manager is looking very confused at what in the heck her over zealous volunteer was talking about, and by this time, there were like 6 more people in line at the register. I know that every transaction will take nearly five minutes, because speed and efficiency is not really possible in this crowd. I am totally going to be late by now, and Crazy Lady is clutching the books like I'd grab them and run at any minute.
"You know, it's OK, I actually have to go back to work now. I don't need the books. It really wasn't that big of a deal. I was just saying that those two are actually childrens books."
So, I left- embarrassed and empty handed. I was also a bit confused myself. I can't believe I just had that ridiculous and illogical exchange. It's very frustrating to not be heard or believed. Of course it was just a couple of books and a bit of change, but it was also the point. This lady wouldn't or couldn't listen to anything I was trying to get across, nor would she just let me buy the books without a scene.
I probably should have just said "You're right. Those are adult books," even though they clearly were not... "and I'd be happy to pay whatever price you decide to make up for them- I'm sure those price signs were just a suggestion anyway." See I can't even pretend to do it without sarcasm, but I don't know if even a completely sarcasm free apology would have helped because she seemed to be on a mission to make me suffer. Besides, biting my tongue is not my strong point. It's not often that I feel like throwing a cuss word at someone older than my grandma, but this was one of those times. Thankfully, I resisted the urge.
Hopefully, by the time they open the shop back up in the fall, she will have moved on to another volunteer committee, or at least stopped being near the register to harass customers. I feel like she has marked me in her mind as a trouble making criminal, but hopefully, she'll lose my face in her short term memory. I hate to think of her spoiling all my future excursions there.
I told this story to a friend, and she knew exactly who I was talking about because apparently, she had seen her action as well. My friend is just nicer than me, and didn't open her mouth in the first place. At least I can take solace in knowing I wasn't her only victim.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

BeesWax Sculpting

Just about everyone has played with clay in some form or another- or at least I would hope so. Some get to use real kiln dried clay at some point in their lives, but most most get to play with Play Doh as a toddler at the very least. But, have you ever sculpted with beeswax? This stuff is really fun.

I came across it in a Waldorf homeschooling catalog years ago, and it reminded me of the wax around those little Baby Belle soft cheese wedges. I used to smash them up and sculpt with them as a child, and my own children have carried on the tradition.

Well, I am all about the recycling when it comes to crafty projects, and we do enjoy cheese and all. But, even we don't eat enough cheese to go very far in collecting wax to make a sculpture larger than an inch or so. Besides, I need variety, I can't just feed my family Baby Belle. Most of the cheese we eat doesn't have a rind except Brie, the edible rind of which just doesn't make for a lasting piece of art.

So, we got a box of the Stockmar modeling beeswax. It came in 15 lovely pastel colors, so not only could we make larger sculptures, but they were also no longer limited to the red of cheese wax.

This stuff is hard as a rock right out of the box, so you might want to put it in a sunny place to soften it up. Of course, not too sunny of a place, or you'll have a rainbow puddle on your hands. After letting it warm near the stove for a bit, we began to play. I was surprised at how hard it still was, but after kneading and rolling it in our hands for a few minutes, it began to become more pliable. It actually has a really neat feel to it once it softens up, very different than clay, with more of an oil, but very inviting and workable.

My kids often do handcrafts while I'm reading aloud, and the beeswax was very conducive to this. They loved working with it, and came up with some nice new artwork. It can't go in our sunny window shelf where we display a lot of sculptures- in fact, the skateboarding model my son made of himself started to slant a bit after spending a warm afternoon in the kitchen, and I'm a little nervous as to how it will make it through the hot summer anywhere in this house- but, we'll find a shady place and hope for the best. I still think it's a fun and worthwhile project in itself, and a great way to keep hands busy while listening.