Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Frog A Day...

I feel like my home is being invaded by frogs. I don't know if it's from all the late rain, or what, but we have frogs everywhere, and I mean everywhere, these days. I step out on the porch, and a frog hops out of the dogs water dish. I trim some dead blooms off a rose bush, and a frog jumps on my foot. I walk down to the chicken coop in the dark, and a toad gives me a heart attack shuffling in the grass and sounding like a snake.

But, the frogs and toads outside are something we're fairly used to. We've been rescuing tadpoles for years- when the creek and puddles down the hill from us are drying up and you know that all the little guys with no legs are not going to make it unless they get more water, we try to make sure they're moist long enough to get legs at least. So most summers we have a good number of frogs living in the plants outside our house. It's as dry as can be around here, and living in our drought tolerant bushes that hardly ever get watered anyway is their only chance at any moisture at all for quite a ways. Since a frogs survival depends on water (they take in water and some oxygen through their skin) I wonder what the the ones who hatched, grew and hopped off into the woods do when everything dries up for the season. Maybe they bury themselves in the mud or something, because at some point, there is absolutely no water left at their hatching place down the hill.

In any case, as curious as I am about those frogs, I am more curious as to why on earth I have so many frogs up here this year. Maybe we were over zealous with the tadpole rescue efforts, because this year, the frogs haven't just been outside our house. We've been finding them inside, and not just occasionally either. We're pretty much finding at least a frog a day inside- one day, we found three of them inside the house. It's beginning to feel like a Biblical plague. They've been in the houseplants, in the windows, and the doorway. I unknowingly touched one on a light switch in the dark the other night, and the unexpected gooey squishy feeling made me jump up and scream, and generally freak out. It also probably added to the silver highlights in my hair. I found one in the shower yesterday, and one in an empty juice pitcher in my kitchen sink this morning. Yes, that was gross, and I'm not sure the fate of that pitcher. I may have to downgrade it to vase, as I think I may always see the image of the frog staring at me in it. As I was up late reading last night, one hopped across the rug. My husband just found one in his shoe- when he put it on! I don't think the frog appreciated that. My son tried to catch one in the living room the other day, but it was too quick and jumped behind the couch. The poor thing was immediately and completely coated in a dog hairball. It looked very uncomfortable for the poor thing, but at least he was easier to catch.

If I'm going to have frogs invading my home, I guess I should be glad that they are generally cute little frogs, only about the size of a quarter as opposed to big ugly things. But still, they're a lot cuter when they're outside. I enjoy photographing frogs outside, but since they tend to hop off frantically when confronted by flashing clicking things, I am sticking with just trying to catch them inside, so I can release them back outside. I'm afraid if they get stuck in here, they'll end up drying out behind some furniture, and I'll find mummified little froglets the next time I move the furniture. I already found one dried up in a glass bowl in a sunny place, and it was a bit sad, as well as very creepy looking. We haven't decided whether or not to check it out under the microscope yet.

Someone mentioned to me that many people eat frogs, but despite the fact that I'm sure they taste just like chicken and all, I just don't think that I'm that resourceful. Besides these frogs aren't really large enough in my opinion to bother cooking up. I figured I would at least try to be a good homeschooling mom though, and turn this frog invasion into a learning opportunity in any case. We found lots of interesting facts at this website- for example, who knew that some frogs actually lay their eggs in dry areas and keep them wet with urine? Or that some frogs begin the molting process by eating the skin around their mouths, and then pulling the rest of the skin off over their head and eating it? These are the kind of gross and weird facts that I'll bet my kids will love. We may never know what is behind this summer of frogs, but maybe we'll learn a thing or two through it. I'm pretty sure my husband learned to shake his shoes out before he sticks his foot in anyway.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mission San Miguel

Every 4th grader in the state of California is supposed to study California History, and most end up doing a big project on the California missions, and making a huge mission model that their parents will be forced to store in the garage while it collects dust for years. My family tends more towards spiral learning in practical ways. Some things just keep resurfacing at different times and years, and we learn more about them as we go along. California History is one of those things. As a homeschooling family that loves life learning, how could we just study our own backyard once, especially if we find it interesting? Besides, we tie learning into our travels, and if a trip comes up while a child is in in the wrong grade, I'm quite certain they are still learning, and that it is just as valid (if not more so) than what they would get from a textbook in the right grade.

 The Missions, of course, had a big influence on the development of California, and so we've tried to visit a  few- whether any of our kids were in 4th grade or not. My Girl Child has been on an architecture kick lately, and her last trip to see where the classic mission style architecture began in our state was several years ago. My husband, who rarely ever wants to stop on a road trip, but prefers to drive straight for endless hours, actually proposed that we stop by Mission San Miguel while we were driving through central California. The kids and I love to stop and explore just about anything, and we jumped on the chance for a free excursion.

San Miguel seemed a lot more low key than the popular Mission Carmel, but was still in pretty good shape for being over 200 years old. Walking through the low ceiling buildings, it was easy to imagine living with mice and birds nesting in the straw above your heads. Brick ovens were built out in the courtyard so as not to heat the buildings in the summer, but I still would not have wanted to be in charge of baking bread there in July. The simple gardens seem to fit into the landscape, and I was inspired by the way they worked with the local conditions using drought tolerant plants and local rocks to forms paths. You can see that people worked more with what nature intended and would allow before they had all the water they could use coming out of their garden hose. It's incredible to think of the amount of hard labor that went into the construction of these complexes, especially at a time before power tools or hardware stores.
The Missions themselves are a pretty controversial topic in California, and if you delve in very far at all, they can be a pretty heavy subject. I try not to go too deeply into the details of tragedies and illness, loss of life and culture, and otherwise very unpleasant and large events with my kids while my they are young, but I don't want to totally gloss them over either. It's a balance, and the line is always changing as they are growing and maturing. I also try not to skew things one way or the other with their young impressionable minds, but to learn what we can about all sides. While the results weren't always pleasant, it's something to fathom the faith that leads people across dangerous oceans into strange and wild lands to share their beliefs. Of course, like anyplace humans with an agenda are involved, the methods seemed to have varied from loving to brutal, but again, I'm trying to focus on the more positive intentions, both for the psyches of my children and myself.

 The graveyards at the missions always stick in my mind though. The first time we walked through a Mission graveyard, my Girl Child, who is a very deep thinking analytical person, noticed right away the large number of Indian graves, and began asking questions. She is also a walking spell checker, who has found spelling and grammatical errors everywhere from student workbooks to big name cereal boxes. This sign, at the San Miguel Mission, really bothered her. She questioned first why and how so many Indians had died, and remembered we had talked about diseases and immunity in the past. Then, she questioned why and how no one had bothered with the fact that the word "Indian" was misspelled on the third to last line of the sign, and was shocked and appalled that it had not been replaced. She felt that typos were embarrassing and bad enough in any public venue, but when referring to the remains of over 2000 people who had died, the misspelling was even worse.

My Boy Child, of course, wished he could climb into the crumbling lofts, or walk along the cool adobe walls, but of course, I didn't let him. Although he already knew that California had once been part of Mexico, reading through booklets in the museum on the history of the mission brought up some questions and discussion. The concept of changing governments and borders is a bit strange when you come from the relative stability we have as modern Americans.
I'm glad we made the stop at this mission, and I'm sure we'll stop at more in our travels around the state. I love seeing bits of the past in real life. I was able to speed by the mission model kits in the gift shop quickly enough that I escaped the request to buy and build one. Maybe we'll make one someday anyway, but if we do, I'm not sure the giant cardboard kit is the route I want to go. I know I don't need any more useless stuff collecting dust in my garage, that's for sure. Maybe we'll make something big enough to house a chicken, or at least sturdy enough to leave outside in the garden for critters to inhabit. I think a little mission style building would fit in nicely in the landscape around our home.
I'd love to hear how other folks incorporate their state history? What are the highlights and "must take" field trips in your state or area?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer Days

No matter the fact that I live in an area that gets oppressively hot in the summer (so hot that your car temperature reaches a million degrees and has the potential of melting your brain within seconds of turning off the a/c, lip gloss turns to liquid in your purse, clothing fades if left on the clothesline more than a few hours, and sun loving plants like tomatoes actually get sunburned) it is still a season I love.

The excessive heat in my neck of the woods can sometimes turn my entire family into a bunch of cranky beasts, but I am glad we have enough heat to swim, raft, play and lounge in the water- enough heat to know it's summer. I've lived in places with cold foggy summers, and somehow, I never did feel that needing a sweatshirt in July was right.

Anyway, I'm a big fan of lounging and playing in any season, but it somehow seems more expected and socially acceptable in the summer because everyone else is doing it too. Being able to do all that lounging and playing while splashing in water just makes it all the better when the temperatures soar. Fortunately, we have fairly easy access to ponds, lakes, and pools. All that water play improves everybody's mood immensely, and my kids should practically have gills by September. They have taught themselves a number of fancy new swimming moves, and although I don't think any of them would be officially recognized in a swim meet, they are sure having fun.

People ask my kids all the time if they are happy to be out of school, but since they've never been in school, and we don't exactly recreate a "schooly" scene at home, they have no reference point of the summer sabbatical in that sense. They are pretty much learning all the time, and tend to find fun and interesting things to learn about and do year round, even in summer. They recently met a kid at a science camp who told them he "didn't like to learn and would not do it during the summer." We laughed about that for quite a bit, although really it is pretty sad. The poor guy was maybe 10 years old, and already he was convinced that learning was boring and something you only did if you had to. Somewhere in his short life, the natural desire to explore the world and learn new things was squelched.

We find that the long days of summer give us even more time to explore places around us. Of course, the parks and trails we love to visit are often more crowded because kids are out of school and people are taking vacations. We'll brave the crowds for a few things that are season specific, but for others, we'll just wait until fall.

Baseball and barbecues have also been staples of our summer this year. I don't actually play baseball, as I have a residual fear of being smacked in the head with a ball, but I do enjoy watching my kids play, and eating barbecued food while I'm watching, if at all possible. My kids have been on formal teams with uniforms and coaches, but a few weeks ago, they played an informal game in the mountains, with players aged 3 to 65, and wildlife on the field, and it was definitely one of my favorite games to witness. It's a little hard to spot in the dusk light of this picture, but there's a baby deer standing in the batting line up and three geese honking next to the pitcher. That's not exactly something you see every day, but it was the essence of relaxing summer fun- people of all ages playing, eating, cheering, chatting and basically having a good time in a beautiful setting- with a few interesting animals thrown in the mix. A teenager with Cerebral Palsy hit a home run and the crowd went wild. I'm so glad my kids get to enjoy times like these with good people- it's just plain good for the soul.

I'm already hearing store ads about back to school sales, and parents talking about fall registrations for their kids, while I'm still thinking about hiking and camping and swimming while we can. Once again, I'm thankful we're homeschooling so my family can enjoy this summer fun and easy living a little longer. We're blessed indeed.

What are you doing to enjoy the rest of the summer season?

Sunday, July 11, 2010


The human spirit is something that never ceases to amaze me. Maybe it's the state of the nation, maybe it's the economy, or maybe it's just the age range and point I'm at in life, but in the last few years, I've seen several of my friends go through some very tough times. And, I can only marvel at the grace they've shown in the midst of things.
Some of the things are stressful of course in the moment, like getting your purse stolen with who knows what credit cards and financial information in it, or having a kid get in trouble and labeled at school, or having your car break down on a monthly basis. They can certainly cause chaos for the time being, but they aren't the end of the world.

Then, there are the really big things that are beyond stressful. There are things like losing your home when the housing market crashes and your spouse loses their job, or losing your spouse altogether to divorce. They aren't the end of the world either, but seeing people I care about go through these things is scary. The reality that really lousy things don't just happen to other people- they also happen to people we know, very good people- and of course, they could happen to us too- it's not a comforting thought. Knowing that sometimes teens who had awesome mothers still can have serious problems and do stupid things is pretty unsettling, as is knowing that hardworking and responsible people can lose all they've worked for in a recession. I really don't like the fact that even when you try to do all the right things, it doesn't always work out.

While these hard times make me see that none of us is invincible, they also show me that I am blessed to know some incredibly strong women. I'm in awe at the inner resources of one friend as she weaves a new life with her kids- leaving behind her home of 20 years and her unfaithful spouse who didn't deserve her. My heart aches when I talk with other friends as they find drug treatment programs and eating disorder specialists for their nearly grown children. I can't even imagine the pain of watching a child go through this. I have nothing to offer but prayers and hugs. I don't discount the value of those- I just wish I could do something concrete to fix things.
But, seeing the courage and grace that these ladies have is nothing short of inspiring. I wonder how they do it. I certainly don't feel that I hold up as well when the going gets tough. I may make a semi decent public appearance, but stress gets to me- it effects my ability to eat, to sleep, to be a good wife, mother and friend. When my stomach and every other muscle in my body is in knots, I just don't feel like smiling or laughing or listening. I feel more like crawling in a hole or vomiting. I complain, whine, and vent repeatedly. I clench my jaw, grate my teeth, flare my nostrils and furrow my brow. But, smiling, laughing and listening are probably more of the things I actually need most at those times.

As one friend told me the other day though, what choice do we have but to hold up? You can let things ruin you, or you can keep going. No, it's not always easy to put one foot in front of the other, and sometimes you do just need to cry and wonder "why me?" But if you get stuck in that place, then you're missing out on what you have left of life.

When I recently heard that the 9 year old son of some old friends who we haven't seen in years is undergoing treatment for cancer, I wanted to cry. It also puts a lot in perspective- losing things doesn't really matter in the end- it's people that are important.

As I chatted with my friend, who is handling some pretty stressful life events herself in a most admirable way, she said that of course she has moments when she can't believe what is happening, but she tries to keep thinking that someday the problems of today would be in  the past- that at some point, they'd be looking back on it. Maybe they wouldn't exactly look back and laugh, but at least the current crisis would be over.

At some point, our whole lives are something we'll be looking back on. Whether we're feeling like today is good or bad, as of tomorrow, it will be gone. So, on my stressful days, I'm telling myself to buck up buttercup, not let the crazies get me down, and all that good stuff. I am blessed to be surrounded by wonderful people and beautiful sights that are wonderful salve for a broken spirit if I let them be. I may not get through tough times gracefully, but I will get through them. I know the healing power of good friends and good laughs- not to mention chocolate- and I'm reminding myself daily to enjoy them.

So, what helps you through the stressful times?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hat Creek Hiking

After a sluggish winter of not nearly enough exercise, I have been feeling more than ready to get moving this summer. My dear husband has taken up running, and while he is reaping the benefits of getting in shape and feeling great, I don't really see myself following in those footsteps. He has kindly encouraged me to come along, but I am pretty sure that would be a disaster. I have absolutely no desire to run. I rarely if ever do it unless something scary is chasing me. Walking however, I like. Hiking is something I enjoy as well, and my kids are at a great stage to hike along with me.

Luckily for us, the hills of Northern California are filled with wonderful hiking opportunities. Sometimes, we take the dogs, and sometimes we don't, but I am always on the lookout for dog friendly hiking adventures.

I was feeling a little like a neglectful dog owner recently, so I decided we needed to take our two canines on our next mountain hike. We chose to explore the Hat Creek area between Lassen National Park and Burney Falls. We didn't really have a clear plan, other than we wouldn't be hitting the main parks this trip. National Parks tend not to allow dogs on any trails, so that wouldn't really work with my hiking plan. I also tend to avoid potential crowds even more when I have my dogs because their friendly lunch stealing and shaking off all over people ends up being embarrassing and annoying.

I am not a fisher woman, but apparently, the Hat Creek area is big stuff with the fishing crowd. The creek itself is frigid, but my big beastly dog did not mind in the least. In fact, he seemed to relish in it. The air temperatures are probably 10 degrees cooler than in the nearby valleys, which can be a big plus in the oppressive heat of summer. We stopped at a cute little visitor center, and found out that in addition to cave hikes and lava flows (both of which would be really bad news for dogs foot pads,) there was also a nice trail that followed the creek out of a campground for a few miles.  It was perfect for us.

It was relatively flat with only a few rolling hills. Most of the trail was dappled in shade, and cushioned with pine needles, which are especially nice for my big dog who is a notorious tender foot. Best of all, I don't think I saw any poison oak the whole time. The dogs had a blast sniffing all the new scents, and attempting to chase chipmunks. The kids and I enjoyed the serenity and beauty of tall trees, flowing water and wildlife.

I did see one interesting sign, encouraging visitors not to touch the wildlife as there had been confirmed cases of plague in wild animals in the area in recent years. Plague!?! Plague!?!  How on earth can there be plague in the United States in the year 2010? It's like something out of the 1600's or something. I wanted to take a picture of the sign, but my camera batteries died.

Well, I decided not to let a little thing like the possibility of catching the plague dampen my lovely hike with my family. I wasn't planning on playing with wild rodents anyway, and I'd be sure to keep my dogs on the leash so they didn't. Since my dear husband wasn't along for this particular hike, we didn't have to have the discussion where he insinuates that I am over controlling by keeping the dogs from running loose. I was actually rather surprised at how non-freaked I became about the whole thing myself. I only did a tiny bit of research on plague in North America when I got home, but after our amoeba incident, I made a conscious choice not to allow myself to get carried away with it. I'm sometimes a little paranoid about things I read, but come on, plague?

Anyway, other than that little bit of strangeness, it was a gorgeous day. At the visitor center, we had also picked up some brochures on local trees and birds of the area, so while we stopped for our typical chocolate, fruit and cheese picnic, we also did a little nature study and tried to spot and identify what we could (keeping a safe distance from all potential plague carrying animals, of course.)

A few years ago, a fire went through the area, and there were still plenty of scarred hillsides. But, it wasn't totally devastated as I've seen other fire ravished areas be, and there was still plenty of beautiful green life to enjoy. We want to go back up to visit again, next time without dogs, so we can explore the Subway Cave,and some of the other non- dog friendly lava rock trails in the area. We left for home inspired to take more hikes, go camping, and enjoy the gorgeousness of the great outdoors as much as we can this summer.

I always love hearing about other fun destinations for hiking, especially dog friendly ones. Where are you hiking this summer?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

I love celebrations of all kinds, and the 4th of July festivities that commemorate our freedom with BBQ and fireworks are a summer favorite. I'm not normally a fan of big crowded events, and tend to shy away from lakes and campgrounds on holiday weekends when the loud and sloppy party crowd is out in full force, but we did want to see some colorful and pretty explosions this year. We decided to try out a small towns 3rd of July celebration and fireworks show that wasn't too far away, thinking that would be a charming and nostalgic kind of thing.
First of all, we needed to pick up a few things for the next day, like a watermelon and salad fixings, and we knew nothing would be open after the show. Well, the nearest store to the fireworks set off point was a Super Walmart, so for the sake of time, we stopped there. I'm not a big fan of the shopping experience I get at a Super Walmart, but I was determined not to be judgmental about the excessively short shorts or colorful vocabulary that were abundant. We got our melon, cucumber and carrots and got out in no time. We noticed the dirt lot across the street was packed with cars and lawn chairs, but I told dear husband that I was sure that there must be another spot we could watch the show besides the Walmart parking lot. I've had a number of instances lately that really make my life look more hillbilly-ish than I care for (like friends laughing at my having a tiny working TV stacked on top of a larger broken TV in my living room because dear husband "forgot" to take the broken appliance to the the recycle center, but that's another story.) At this point, I really just wanted to get a better view of the show, so I suggested we find another parking spot.
Well, we got a view of a show all right.
We drove through a few sketchy hoods, that were a tad on the scary side, but finally found a spot to park alongside the main road in a long line of other cars. The show started late, but we were excited when the local yokel politician finally quit talking, and the girl quit singing "The Star Spangled Banner," and at long last, the sky started to light up.
Just a few minutes into it though, the people standing a few cars in front of us began moving into the road, blocking traffic and waving. In seconds a police car stops with lights blinking, and we hear someone say that a woman is passing out. The officer brings a lady right up to the vehicle in front of us and starts questioning her about how long since she's had a drink, how many Vicadin she's taken, when she last ate or slept. We're really trying to watch the fireworks, but they are kind of right in our peripheral vision and it's a little distracting. The police lights flashing in our faces are kind of diminishing the spectacular effect of the show. A man behind us with his toddler did a great job of making the police lights seem to be just part of the show for his young innocent kid, but mine are old enough to figure out what's going on. The  lady is kind of weaving around and unable to complete most of the tests, but she gave it her all on the breathalizer, which I suspect she failed miserably on.

It wasn't a surprise that she ended up in handcuffs, and while I really wasn't thrilled at my kids witnessing her arrest (this is exactly why we don't watch much in the way of TV,) the worst part was that there were kids in her car with her too. When I heard someone call "Mom?" from near her car my heart just sunk.
It really put a damper on my celebration of freedom thinking that this woman will most likely be spending the holiday in jail, while there is a good chance those kids will be in the care of Child Protective Services for the weekend at least. What a sad thing for those kids to remember the rest of their lives. I can only hope that the intoxicated woman wasn't the driver, but just under the influence in public. Maybe there was another safe adult in the family, someone the kids know and could go with rather than spend the weekend in a strange foster home. Mostly I am glad that no one was hurt, that she wasn't able to drive that night and put peoples' lives at risk, and that she didn't make a big scene about the arrest. I hope those kids are in a safe place, and that they are resilient, because that's really got to be a lousy memory- the year mom got arrested at the freedom festival.
Besides the up close and personal live reality show, we found out the reason the fireworks started so late was due to high winds and fire danger. It was also the reason they cut the show short and had no grand finale to speak of. We drove home trying to feel celebratory, but it was a bit phony.
Today, I think we'll do a quiet family celebration, and avoid the drama of the general public. Despite the fact that I wish my kids could just stay innocent in their happy little bubble rather than see some other kids mother intoxicated and getting arrested, I know that we have much to be thankful for- we are after all free- and many, many people in the world are not. We can express our opinions (even though I wish some people, like the politician last night, would stop talking,) we can wear what we want (even though I really wish some people would not choose to wear the unsightly things they do) and we have countless rights and blessings that so much of the world will never, ever know.
The unpleasant experience did give us a good chance to talk about how the legal justice system works in our country, and in others, as the kids had a few questions. There we go, learning all the time again.
I'd love to hear how other people handle it when their kids have unplanned eye opening experiences like this.
I also hope everyone else has a happy, safe (and drama free) 4th of July. How are you celebrating?

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

When first picking up The Invention of Hugo Cabret at the library, I didn't know what to think. I was assigned the book for a Children's Literature Class, and frankly, I was a little alarmed at the thickness it, wondering how we were going to finish that many pages in the time allotted.

The Caldecott Medal, of course, was an indicator that the book will typically be a good one, and it was. The trouble with reading a book for a literature class though, is that it tends to be dissected and over analyzed to death before the class is done with it.While it's nice to have a discussion about themes and patterns, at some point, I just like to enjoy the book. Despite my annoyance with the overkill of literary analysis for my class, this was a book my family and I did enjoy.

Upon opening it, I was surprised at the large number of illustrations (as well as a bit relieved.) I don't think I have ever seen such a thick book with so many pictures. I didn't really know what genre to put it in. It's too wordy to be a picture book, and I usually associated graphic novels with Pokemon, or other big headed cartoon style books. This was a real story, full of action, adventure, mystery and interesting characters and places, it just also happens to have a ton of really awesome drawings.

While the story is fiction, there are a couple of historical elements that a homeschooling mama naturally expands on. The character of Georges Melies was based on a real person- a French filmmaker from the earliest days of cinema, and the guy was really cutting edge in his time. We were able to find a bunch of Melies films at the library, and had a fun mini marathon of his old black and white films. It's hard to believe how far cinema and special effects have come.

The automaton in the story is inspired by a real and incredible machine made in the early 1800's by Henri Maillardet. It's sort of like a mechanical robot that can perform certain tasks. This one is a rustic looking bunch of nuts and bolts that actually write out poems in a very fancy script and draw pictures. I have such respect for the amazing minds that can come with ideas like these. We were also able to find video of Maillardet's automaton online, and see it in action after it's reconstruction. How on earth someone ever looks at a pile of screws and comes up with putting something like that together, I don't understand, but wow!

The drawings in the book though, with their intricate details, were really what set the book apart. Selznick uses an interesting technique-tackling a scene or sequence of events from different perspectives. He takes various angles of the same scene from afar, and moves in to close ups, looks at the scene from above, below, behind and in front. The incredible illustrations enhanced the story, and the level of detail more than made up for the lack of color. The black and white at the end photos added to the old time feel of the story.

With it's hefty size, it may not look like a bit of light reading, but we found it an interesting, fun paced book. It's well worth checking out for both the pictures and the story.

What books are you all reading this summer?