Monday, August 30, 2010

Not a Chicken

This is the sight I see out my kitchen window as I make my morning coffee. It's Miss Tequila Puffy Cheeks trying to find a way in to join her family for breakfast.
I love this chicken dearly, but she just can't seem to accept the fact that she is a chicken. Maybe that is what endears her to me. It certainly isn't the fact that she refuses to go in the coop with the other chickens, and instead hangs out on the porch napping in the dogs beds, or that she peers in the windows, startling me when I look out, or that she tries to come in the house if we leave a door open. She definitely has more personality than any other chicken I've had, and I've had a LOT of chickens in the last 5 years.
When I come home from a long day in town, I'm greeted at the end of the driveway by two happy dogs, but as soon as I pull in front of the house, I have another fan- Miss Tequila runs full speed at me with what I imagine is a smile on her beak. If you've never seen a chicken run, the stance is similar to the way dinosaurs run in movies, with the head tilted forward aerodynamically. She comes at me with amazing speed, and then stops right in front of me as I open the car door and looks up making a low cluck until I stop and pay attention to her. If I try to just walk by, she'll keep running in front of me until I stop. It's hard to read a chicken, because their faces aren't exactly expressive, but she has a pretty intense way of staring into your eyes like she's trying to hypnotize you into giving her extra grain. She also does a lot with body language, and I'm pretty sure that if she had more of a tail, she would wag it.

Besides the tail, one difference between Miss Tequila and the dogs is that the dogs usually save their super excitement towards me for when I get home, or they hear me say the word "walk" or when I have food. Miss Tequila runs up to me with an adoring look just about every time I walk out the door. And when I don't walk out, half the time I can see her looking in at me someplace.

Another big difference between the dogs and this chicken who doesn't think she's a chicken, is that she isn't potty trained. That is not at all endearing of course because as you may well imagine, a chicken on the front porch means chicken poop on the front porch. We've all learned to look carefully before we step, but we've still had a number of accidents. A particularly tragic incident involved Boy Child dribbling his brand new basketball. He was not at all impressed, and had a chicken loathing moment, but he got over it. I realize that there is such a thing as a chicken diaper, and I am actually probably crafty enough to make some, but I've already done my cloth diaper washing days with young humans. I can't seem to muster the enthusiasm for repeating it with a bird. I just rely on the hose, frequently.

We've tried training her to go to the coop with the rest of the chickens, carrying her down there daily. While she seems to enjoy being picked up, as soon as we round the corner near the coop, her entire body stiffens. Sometimes she tries to escape, and other times she just hides her head in a nest box as soon as we put her in, as if she can't bear to look at us or those other chickens. But, no matter how many times I put her in the coop, she never, ever goes there on her own, nor does she stay once the door is opened.

My husband is not as sympathetic nor as bonded with animals as I am and suggests turning the BBQ on and roasting her when she hops onto it as a perch, or literally serving chicken for lunch when she tries to join us at a picnic. He sees her as being stupid for not going in the chicken coop, but I see it as a sign of intelligence. I mean, who would want to hang out in there? I was telling a friend about this chicken who thinks she's a part of the family, and they put a terrible thought in my head. What if reincarnation were real, and Miss Tequila was a former human trapped in a chicken body, and now I keep locking her in a filthy coop? So, I quit trying to force her into socializing with chickens. I do shoo her off the porch, but otherwise I just let her hang out where she pleases.

Of course, I do get pretty frustrated myself when I find her relaxing on my rocker on the porch, but not exactly angry enough to eat her. I'll just have to make sure to keep looking before I step or sit while I'm enjoying the affection from my favorite feathered friend.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Houseboating, but not like Huck Finn

After our recent little raft trip down the Sacramento River, my kids and I were all in Huckleberry Finn mode, and ready for more free floating water fun. We could hardly believe our good fortune a few days later when one of our awesome and friendly neighbors invited us to go spend a couple of days on a houseboat with them on Lake Shasta. We did a big happy dance, well, all except dear husband who had to work, but kids and I were jumping around for joy because we weren't about to miss out on that fun. And, if you're wondering how fun houseboats are- they are very, very fun. In fact, I can totally imagine living on one for months (except for a few small problems like my 4 goats and 20 chickens, and the fact that a houseboat is not very likely be in my budget any time in the near future.) Despite obstacles and odds, a girl can still dream, right?

Lake Shasta is a man made lake, created for both energy production and water storage, but it's recreation value is huge in this hot part of the country. Drought in recent years lowered the lake substantially and the muddy, rocky shorelines really reduced it's appeal. Since a lot of tourism dollars are dependent on the lake, draining it to irrigate golf courses and farms in the lower half of the state is a controversial topic. This year however, late spring rains filled the lake to the highest level in decades, and it was simply beautiful during our visit.

We made the trip with some other neighbor friends in their big truck which we all loaded with food, supplies, and people ready for a big adventure. Our friendly hosts had been out on the lake for a few days before us, and they met us at a launch ramp in a ski boat. These people are not only super nice, they also have super cool toys. We took the short boat ride to our fabulous, private little camping cove where our floating weekend home was waiting. After checking out our lodging and all the cool little spaces it had, the kids couldn't wait to go tubing and were really trying hard to restrain themselves from begging. Instead, boy child dropped what I imagine he thought were subtle hints until he roused the adults into taking them out.

Next, we all had to try wake boarding, myself included. Our hostess gave us lessons and made it look totally easy, smiling and waving and holding the rope leisurely with one hand. I wouldn't be surprised it she could do triple back flips, but didn't want to make us feel bad. I gave it 3 tries and held the rope with a death grip because it felt like my arms were going to be pulled out of their sockets. I never managed to stand up, but I got a very thorough and uncomfortable nasal flushing. On day two, Boy Child was able to stand on the wake board, and was quite proud of himself. Girl Child and I decided that we prefer tubing because it allows you to sit while having your fun. However, it too can have it's downside. After quite a bit of tube fun, Girl Child was involved in a rather spectacular multi-tube crash. Her hair somehow flew wildly out of her French braids and she got some very painful looking rope burns in her armpit. I asked if I could get a picture of her wounds, but she refused.

After that, we were in the mood for food and a quiet and mellow paddle. Kayaks are a wonderful way to explore on water. They are stable and quiet, and easy to maneuver into shallow and small spaces. We watched a beautiful eagle soar overhead and a family of geese on the shore. We also found dozens of fish and a really strange looking, dead snake floating in the water. On my list of homeschooling items, I think kayaks would be a fabulous addition to our nature studies.

In reality, while we started out thinking about living on a houseboat like Huck Finn, our trip was actually nothing like it. We were totally pampered. We lounged in cozy chairs. We ate large quantities of tasty food like roasted chile peppers that were stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. We sipped ice cold beverages, and we talked whole a lot more than Huck and Jim did.
We did however go to sleep on the rooftop under the stars and wake up to beautiful sunrise views like Huck, but I won't use a page to describe the sunrise like Twain did. My wake up included fruit and chocolate and coffee, and I don't think Huck had that. I did find that our days on the boat flew by, or as Twain put it, "I reckon I might say they swum by; they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely." It was great wrap up summer kind of trip, even though we are no where near ready to say goodbye to the season. As a homeschooling family that is pretty much learning all the time, we don't put much stock in the official school calendar, but still, fall does have a different flow. It starts to feel more bustling and busy as we head into winter, and we're in no rush for that. We'll be hanging on to the lazy lounging days of summer as long as we can.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bricks and Brains

Sculpture by Nathan Sawaya
Last year, when we first learned about an artist named Nathan Sawaya who created life sized masterpieces entirely out of Lego bricks, we were immediately interested. We were fortunate enough to meet him during a museum demonstration, and I think I was as impressed as my children. First of all, his art is amazing. Second of all, he seemed like a very nice guy when he was talking to the kids.

Apparently, he had been a corporate lawyer in New York, and he gave it up to follow his art. Now, some people would frown upon a grown man deciding to let go of a lucrative career in law to play with Legos all day, but I personally thought it was a wonderful example of living life in a way that makes you happy. And, it seems to be working out pretty well for him. My Boy Child was very inspired to even imagine that such a career was a possibility. It sure makes growing up sound more fun and exciting than a job in a suit!

Art by Nathan Sawaya

We bought Sawaya's book Art of the Brick, so we could be inspired more at home, and because I wanted to support the idea of following your dreams even if it seems risky to the rest of the world. I probably never would have given thought to conveying feelings and struggles or making statements with Legos, but he has certainly managed to do just that. In talking with Nathan, we learned that he is more than a tad more organized with his Legos than we are though. He has drawers separated by color, shape and size, while we have a huge mixed up bin. Obviously, he buys in bulk too, since he uses thousands of pieces in his sculptures and they are glued down as he goes. I requested that my kids use the camera to preserve their sculptures. For one thing, the glue Mr. Sawaya was using was really stinky and probably not very good for young brain cells, and for another, we don't have the customers, display space or budget to handle large scale productions at this time, unless we re-use the pieces. His exhibit and book did get some very large scale productions going when we got home.

A Lego Duck by my Boy Child
As an eclectic homeschooling family, we're quite a bit more flexible with what we consider valuable educationally than some people are. To me, if a person is interested, engaged and learning- it's educational. Since building with Legos uses problem solving and creative skills, it qualifies in my book. Apparently, the folks at Lego seem to agree, and are marketing products specifically to the education market. At first I thought we were just way ahead of our time- we've been using Legos in our homeschool for years, but I guess the Lego Education Academy has been around since 1980! I had no idea there were educational experts out there to back up the validity of our creative building. Part of me wants to giggle, and the other part wants to roll my eyes, but I guess mostly, I am glad that it will open up the door for lots of other kids to try some fun school projects, and that many teachers will be getting interesting ideas of ways to tie Legos into those standards they are bound to.

Favorite Chicken inspects Lego Duck
A few months ago I signed up for Lego Smart Challenges, and was sent a kit of 20 bricks. It hasn't been easy keeping those 20 bricks out of our mainstream mixed up Lego population, but we've done it. The reason is because we've been getting sent emails with challenges to make with those specific bricks. I let the kids take turns, and they time each other and photograph the results. It's interesting to see how differently the solutions from two different kids can turn out using the same materials for the same problem.

Blind Replica of a one eyed robot by my Girl Child

One particularly cool challenge involved one person making a sculpture, and committing it to memory before taking it apart. We also took a picture for future reference. Then, sitting back to back to back with the other person, the original builder tries to explain how to recreate the piece, and the new sculptor tries to follow the directions. This little exercise was a challenge on several levels- planning and building, memorizing, explaining clearly, listening, and following directions.

The Skyscraper by my Boy Child
We also found a bunch more educational Lego activities online, where we can use a lot more bricks, and spend a lot more time. The projects that require moving parts seem to really get them thinking. All of the challenges have been great if I have a little bit of work to do, and need some uninterrupted time because the kids seem to be pretty focused and self sufficient at them. Plus, they're having fun and using their brains.

We'd be doing lots more brick building / brain building projects this year anyway, but now that I know I have an authorized stamp of approval on it as an educational activity, maybe I'll mention that to all the grumblers who condemn the way we combine learning and fun- "Kids need to learn to work hard, that learning and life isn't always fun, blah, blah, blah.."

My kids of course do work hard on lots of things in life, and while I know that no one can enjoy everything they have to do, I do hope my kids are able to have a good time with most of what they do. I'd rather encourage them to live and enjoy life than just endure it. These same people will probably also tell me that having kids who are inspired by the possibility of being a Lego artist is a bad idea because "it's not very likely that your kids will be able to do that when they grow up." Well, it's not very likely that I'll someday be a Picasso or a Mozart, but I'm still inspired by them.
Do you have other fun ideas, activities and people that inspire your family? I'd love to hear about them...
And for some Lego activities you might like to try, check these out.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Slow Water Float Trip

My Boy Child has been interested in going river rafting for quite some time now. He was, of course, imaging a white water adventure with Class 5 rapids, because that is the crazy sort of kid he is. I am not sure if there is an actual official age limit on insane rapids, but I sort of implied there might be. Although I'm fairly sure we'll be doing a fast river run at some point, I thought it might be wise to start on something a bit more mellow before my children hit the white water.

So, when a group we know told me they were taking a day trip down the Sacramento River, and invited us along, I told them that we were all over the chance. The Sacramento River is just a wee little mountain creek / river thing above Lake Shasta, but below Shasta Dam, it is a wide and flowing mass of really cold water. And, I do mean really, really cold. The water comes from the bottom of the lake so it is more than a might bit brisk. But, that worked out fine, as the air temperature was in the high 90's. I wouldn't recommend submerging in the frigid water, but for splashing and water fights, it was fun and refreshing. The pace of the river was also leisurely and relaxed, with only a few semi-fast moving sections to keep you paying attention- perfect for taking a bunch of kids down a river.

Before we even put the rental raft in, we were treated to a dismal and monotone safety talk by a very bored and fairly grumpy young man who told us at least 15 things that could cause us to die during our trip. It went something like "If you take off your life jacket and fall in the water, you'll probably get hypothermia and die... There's a big log in the middle of the river, and if you don't steer around it, you'll probably flip your raft over and die... If you hit one of the bridges when you go under them, you'll probably tear a hole in your raft and die..." I think he also had a few possible scenarios where we wouldn't actually die, but we might just end up paralyzed. We did our best to follow his safety suggestions, but truth be told, it was a little hard not to laugh at his lack of anything that resembled happiness or fun. Come on buddy- we were going river rafting- it was supposed to be a fun trip! We couldn't figure out what caused his gruff unpleasantness, or what he disliked about his job, but we decided it was probably better that he was at least just renting rafts rather than spreading his non-cheerfulness at a summer camp, or in customer service at some other venue. We were also glad it was a non- guided trip, so we wouldn't spend our entire afternoon being lectured on ways we could die.

In any case, we did keep our life vests on, and we managed to avoid the tree in the river and smashing into bridges. We didn't flip the rafts, and best of all, no one died. We did have a small problem when we tried to get ahead of the other raft in our group and hide in a cove in order to attack them with water cannons as they rounded the bend. We failed miserably at making it into the first few coves because our team paddling skills were not very advanced, and the coves happened to be at one of the few faster flowing sections of water. Then, when we finally got over into a cove, we underestimated how close the branches would be to our heads, and we sort of briefly got tangled up in tree branches and blackberry bushes. Thankfully, we didn't pop the raft and die.

But, we did run into a bazillion HUGE orb spiders in those bushes. It was like something out of a scary movie, only it wasn't dark. We got wrapped in the webs and, several spiders boarded the boat. We kept finding them as we floated downstream, and had to send them for swims. Although they are apparently non toxic to humans, they are just too freaky to share a small boat with. I tried my best to at least fling them as close as I could to the side of the river, but we weren't good enough paddlers, or calm enough with huge scary spiders up close to take them all the way to shore again. I felt slightly bad that they may or may not be good swimmers, but at least they would be fish food and there really were lots of them.

We were able to harvest a few tasty and fresh ripe blackberries, although most were hidden behind thick spider webs, and none of us wanted to reach past the glaring occupants. We were also treated to some fabulous views of nature and the fancy riverfront homes.

One big home we floated past had a friendly little sign facing the river that said "Warning- We DO NOT call 911."  Nice. Apparently, had we gotten into any of those situations we were warned about, those people wanted us to know that we'd better get ourselves out of the trouble, because they were not going to be of any help. We wondered what they would say if we did need help? "Too bad for you! It's not my problem you're drowning! Maybe, next time, you should listen to the raft rental guy...if you don't die." Who knows, maybe they were related to him. Our whole boat had a good laugh at their shared bad attitudes anyway.

It took us a couple of hours to reach our destination. We had plenty of time to observe fish, birds and nests, plants and trees along the river, as well as to have several water fights with our rival boat. All that sunshine and water naturally made us hungry, so we laid in the shade along the river bank at the end our trip eating snacks while waiting for the raft company to send the bus to take us and our gear back to our cars. The driver was a chatty fellow who actually seemed to like his job and his customers, and told us all about some local birds and other wildlife. His happiness was refreshing, and a nice finish to a very peaceful day. We saw a completely different side of the river and much more of its beauty while floating leisurely down it in a boat instead of driving past it on the highway at 65 miles an hour.

My husband has been talking about taking a several day raft / camp trip sometime, and now the kids are even more excited about the idea. I have a feeling we'll be reading Huck Finn again soon, and that more water adventures will be in our future.

Any ideas or suggestions for kid friendly water fun?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Burney Falls

On a recent weekend, we were sick of the heat, and had fallen behind on pool maintenance, making our pool an odd shade that did not appeal to me for swimming. While we dosed it with chemicals and waited for the color to magically move into the blue scale, we decided to take a little road trip up into the mountains to cool off. We headed to Burney Falls State Park in the Cascade region of north eastern California.

Burney Falls  may not be one of the biggest waterfalls in the state, but it is definitely a sight worth seeing. The park and falls are named after Samuel Burney, a pioneer who settled in the area in the 1800s. Burneys' descendants later saved the area from development by buying the land, and giving it to the state as a gift in the 1920s. I am always thankful for the people who came long before my time, but had the foresight to see things they wanted preserved for future generations. I am also thankful they had the resources to pull it off.

The first time I took my kids to Burney Falls, they were probably between 3 and 5 years old, and I was so proud of them for hiking the entire loop trail to the falls. It seemed like quite a feat for such little legs. Like all kids, they grow like weeds, and when we went back a few years later, they blazed through the same trail in no time as if there were nothing to it. This time we went, the usual trail was closed, which at first annoyed me as I thought that was the only way to get to the falls, but instead, we discovered a few other trails I never knew existed. We hiked along beautiful Lake Briton, and a scenic creek, which are both fed by the falls, past some very rocky and very dusty hillsides, and through some lovely mountain forest made up of mixed age trees.

The trail was easy, and the scenery was fabulous. The park itself was rather crowded I thought, especially for being in the middle of nowhere, but the trails themselves didn't seem overly packed at least.

The trail led to the base of the 129 foot falls, where we briefly considered taking a swim, then after dipping our dusty toes, we decided that we are not freezing cold, snow melt, mountain type swimmers after all.

We were starving by the time we got back to where we started, so we had a picnic lunch on the beach at Lake Briton. It was ridiculously packed with people, and although the water there might have been more appealing temperature wise, I am easily grossed out by the thought of submerging in water with way too many people in too small an area, especially since many of them were small children without swim diapers. So, we just ate, and tried to discourage the overfed, overweight squirrels and chipmunks from trying to steal our meal. They looked as though they were more used to Cheetos than fruit and salad anyway, and they weren't exactly speedy in their attempted thefts. But, we did have to make sure to watch our food and our ankles as they were definitely eyeballing us and chattering at us in angry tones.

Oh- and I should mention, there were more plague warning signs. They weren't quite as dire as the ones I saw a while back in Hat Creek, but this time I did get a picture. The rodents at Burney Falls looked like they were more likely to suffer from heart disease or diabetes from their human junk food diets than plaque though, but nevertheless, I had no desire to have them scamper across my table.

After lunch we picked up Junior Ranger packets and went for another hike. Portions of the Pacific Coast Trail pass through the park, and along some of the trails we hiked.

The view from above the falls gives a different view of the beauty of the site. The trail led us to the spring that feeds the fabulous waterfalls, and we were amazed that a practically dry creek bed can lead into such a massive amount of water. Apparently, over 100 million gallons per day goes over the side of the hill. We sat in awe for a while, imagining what we would do with 1/1000th of that amount of water at our parched and dry little homestead.  

Unfortunately, the visitor center closed before we finished our hikes and got back there, so the kids weren't able to finish their Junior Ranger packs and get their badges. But, I'm sure we can make it up to Burney Falls again sometime. They have a Pioneer Heritage Day in the fall that sounds fun, so maybe they can wrap it up then.

That night, I chatted with dear husband about how much fun our kids are right now. They are ages where they can keep up on hikes, and are interested in nature, history, science, and time with their family. Life is good, indeed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Well, well, well...water troubles.

We've been thinking a lot about water at our house these days. I think most people in America can take water for granted, and they have no reason to think how lucky they are. I don't just mean clean water- there is plenty of pollution in waterways, and a lot of city tap water tastes similar to a swimming pool- but when you can just turn on a tap, and it never runs out, you don't really need to put a lot thought into it. You hop in the shower, you wash your laundry and water your plants and there's always plenty of water. It just keeps coming. Even if you have a high water bill, or an ethical conviction and you take steps to reduce water use, there is still the blessing of knowing the water is there if you need or want it. All you have to do is turn a handle.

Of course people in undeveloped countries often don't have access to water, but it's not something I ever really thought about for myself personally, at least not while I'm at my home in the US. Now though, I do think about water a lot, especially at this time of year. Living out of town with a well for our water source, we've had to face the reality that there is not always plenty of water. In fact, we've had our well stop pumping because we were actually out of water more than once. The worst instance was a few years ago when our neighborhood had been evacuated due to a threatening wildfire, and a neighbor had left a sprinkler running on his roof for days. When we returned home, neither of us had any water for some time. Apparently, even when you have your own wells, if the underground source is shared and it gets used by someone else, you're out of luck too. This has happened other times when people move nearby and think that they are going to be able to have sprawling green lawns or keep their fish ponds full all summer. Everyone who has lived here for any amount of time knows those things aren't going to happen, but for those new to it, there's a bit of denial. Eventually it sinks in though, usually after several expensive visits from the well driller and the water hauling truck.

Of course, the water has come back, although slowly and not in large quantities, but the only casualties were some plants. When people hear that we ran out of water, they are always so amazed because it seems unthinkable that such a thing could happen. Yes, it's pretty inconvenient to find out you've used up your water, but I still know that I'm lucky. No one is going to die because we're out of water, well except for maybe a few plants. We just have to hop in the car, and we can buy a few gallons to drink or go to a family members house to shower or wash clothes. We don't have to hike for miles, or drink dirty water that an ox bathed in and that will make us ill, so by world standards, having a few flowers die isn't really such a big deal.

I think I was pretty respectful of resources before I ever knew what having a well in a really dry area could mean, but turning a pipe on and having nothing come out, and then knowing that you can't do anything but wait for however long it takes to come back, has made me even more conscious and cautious about how much water we use. We've had to make choices, and let go of certain things- like my idea of a summer garden. There will also be no slip n' slide in my childrens' future, nor will they be playing in sprinklers at home. It's a little frustrating to see sprinklers running off down the sidewalk and into the gutter in town, or water shooting away over fields in the mid afternoon sun and evaporating 1/3 of the water that comes out. The people who turned on the water probably don't even know it's being wasted, or have any idea that it's even a problem.

Looking on the positive side, it's given us plenty of real life opportunity and desire to learn more about water usage and conservation. We've learned about gray water systems, rainwater collection and drought tolerant landscapes, and we've been able to implement some of the things we've learned into our lives. It's also made us think a lot about all the people in the world who will lose much more than their summer gardens because they don't have enough water, and what we can do about it. Knowing that there are mothers who will lose their children because they don't have any clean water makes me incredibly thankful to have the access to water that I do, even if it does run out now and then.

According to Charity: Water , "One billion people on our planet lack access to safe, clean drinking water. That's one in eight of us. 80% of all disease is attributable to the lack of water and basic sanitation. Unsafe water claims more lives each year than war." Charity: Water is a project dedicated to building freshwater wells in Africa. I came across it through the Art of Non Conformity blog, and thought it a worthy project to support and spread the word about.

I assume most people reading this have plenty of water, and I'm glad for that. Even if it is just as easy as the turn of a knob, I hope you'll think about the precious resource water is, and not let it go to waste. We truly are blessed to have it. And, if you're so inclined, maybe you'll want to find a water project to support, or check out the one listed above that helps some of those people in the world who aren't as lucky.