Friday, March 30, 2012

Tea Time

A young homeschooling friend recently had an assignment for his online Literature class that wasn't the easiest thing for an 11 year old boy. He had to throw a tea party. Not the political kind, but after reading and discussing "Little Women" he had to host an authentic Victorian tea party.

That's not exactly every boy's dream assignment, but fortunately for the young fellow, he knew some willing kids who would participate, which meant arriving in costume and character, and trying their best to use suitable manners. Girl Child had been studying the Civil war, so this all went along with things in our little homeschool quite splendidly.

I had not read the book "Little Women" in years, and my kids hadn't read it at all. We didn't have time to reread it before the party, so we resorted to borrowing the movie from the library. Unfortunately, it was the 1994 version, which was I'm sorry to say, just painful, and didn't make the best impression of it for my Boy Child.

Nevertheless, my kids are good sports and we attempted to rummage up costumes. My Boy Child was the hardest as he doesn't really do "dress clothes" but we at least found an old button up shirt from some past performance and paired it with black jeans and a vest. The skater shoes weren't exactly authentic Victorian vintage, but were the best we could do.

The day of the party came and the guests all looked lovely. The food was elegant, and their manners were impressive. They even showed some restraint with the sugar cubes in their tea without being asked (or at least they seemed to.)

Tea was followed by croquet. At this point I wondered when the manners would slack to modern times, but they maintained fairly well for the most part (although one mallet handle get broken, no people or animals were injured in the making of the tea party.)

I was quite proud of the young fellow who put it all together, and even made figgy pudding to serve.

Most of all, I'm proud to know such an assorted group of kids who haven't been crammed into a one size fits all mold and are still open to having fun while learning and trying new things.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring Extravaganza

What could be more fun than a rain soaked and activity filled weekend with an eclectic batch of homeschoolers from all over the state of California? Well...less rain would've helped, but despite the weather, my family had a great time in the Bay Area at the Homeschool Association of California Spring Extravaganza last weekend.

We've been to campouts and conferences with folks from this group in the past, and always had a great time. This event was not too far from home, at a Boy scout Campground in some really steep hills in Berkeley, and super affordable, so we jumped on the chance to go.  When we signed up for a camp spot in February, we were having fabulous near 70 degree sunny days. By the time the actual event arrived in late March, it was 40 degrees and pouring rain.

Luckily, we weren't the only crazy campers. A few other families, who are much hardier at camping life than me were there when we arrived. I'm fine with a tent, as long as it's dry, Oh- and I hate being cold too but thankfully, we had tarps, a surdy tent and really warm bags.

Even better, there was a lodge building, and although it had signs everywhere telling us we couldn't sleep in it, there was nothing saying we couldn't hang out a goof off until 2 AM. We arrived on Friday late afternoon, and were able to get our tent set up under the redwoods before it started raining. Our fellow campers attempted building a fire, but it was still just too cold, which prompted us to escape into the warmth of the lodge. It was great that the group of about 8 kids got to connect on a smaller scale before everyone else arrived.

The next day, the actual extravaganza took place. It was an all day event with a little something for everyone. Boy Child enjoyed the foam weapon battle while Girl Child and her BFF enjoyed making custom flip flops and the clothing swap-o-rama (participants bring clothes they no longer want and pick out others, which can be altered and turned into new things with the sewing machines, trims, paints and other things on sight.)

We all made Franstuffies (no longer loved stuffed animals are separated into parts and reassembled into new mix and match creations.) I'm glad that the dismantling was done ahead of time, or I may have found it disturbing, but instead, we all found it fun.

The evening was a dance and although the kids hadn't wanted to go ahead of time, they changed their minds and wanted to spend more time with their new friends. The event ended and was cleaned up by 11pm, and most of the people left for home or hotels. The campers stayed (and hung out in the lodge until the wee hours again) while the kids taught each other dance moves and played hysterical and entertaining games including ultimate ninja, a strange version of duck, duck, goose, wheelbarrow races. I bummed free wifi.

Even though it rained solid for over 36 hours, our tent didn't leak. Thankfully, it let up again in the morning while we packed up. We were exhausted and muddy and the drive home took longer than usual since I drank the worlds largest Dr Pepper to stay awake and kept having to hit rest stops.

The kids slept till almost 11 yesterday, and are already asking when we can do it again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kicking Up Something New (which sort of looked like a seizure)

Somewhere in my random blog browsing yesterday, I read something suggesting purposely trying to do some sort of new and different thing every single day- preferably something you're nervous about. I can't remember all the reasons behind the idea, or where I found it, but I do recall something about stretching, learning, keeping out of a rut, finding bravery and strength...stuff like that.

I realized that I'm always trying to get my kids to do new things, but rarely do it myself. "Go on kids...try it... you never know if you'll like it.." But since I'm not just a homeschooling mom, but a part of a Life Learning family, I should be growing too, right? (in ways other than actual waist circumference.)

I do love a challenge (although only if it's self imposed- outside challenges frustrate and annoy me) and this one even goes with my word of the year-  "Explore." I may not be in for every day, but I'd be on the look out for new things to try.

So, when I saw that the gym where my Boy Child wanted to play basketball that afternoon was offering a new class that's kind of dancing meets kickboxing (only no one actually hits you) I thought, "This sounds fun, right?"

Well, like so much in life, the ideal and the reality are far, far apart. I'm many things, but an athlete....well.....that's not so much one of them. Still, I realize that exercise helps my mood as well as my backside, plus, I figured since I'm also attempting this "No Bitterness for Lent" thing, I really could stand to blow off some energy with this Turbo Kicking.

The trouble was that it was hard to blow off steam when the punches and kicks are choreographed to really fast music, and left me flailing to keep up. No matter what the song said, I did not have the moves like Jagger. I imagined I'd be sort of Billy Banks-ish (not as in a muscley African American man, but as in all fancy with the boxing moves "double time."

Since for some reason, perhaps to torture the customers, they line the walls of places like this with mirrors, I could see just how bad things actually looked. It was a bit like someone having a seizure. I was sweaty and breathing hard and flapping my arms and legs around in all directions. I wondered if anyone would offer medical treatment, and the the teacher would have to whisper,"No, she's not epileptic, I think that's just how she dances."

Fortunately, I was not the only one having trouble keeping up. Much of the class seemed to be struggling, and I took comfort in that. The teacher would shout off rapid fire directions "Right punch, left hook, kick right front, kick left back, knee, squat....." By the time my brain registered what she said, she was on to something else. I may have actually been slack jawed with confusion.

I'm not a big fan of perspiring and I was sweating like the lady on Flash Dance, but naturally, I looked nothing like her either. I decided to quit looking in the mirror and just focus. That was almost a tragic mistake as my mad kickboxing skills nearly whacked a classmate in the face. I'm fairly sure she felt the wind off my flying foot, but luckily, no contact was made and she seemed so preoccupied with her own struggle to keep up, she didn't really even notice how close she had been to a broken nose.

I'm proud to say that I did the whole class except the cool down at the end. I only had to skip out a few minutes early, not because I was exhausted and quitting, but  because I had to get my Girl Child to her dance class...honestly.

This morning, I can definitely feel that I used my body in ways that I normally don't, but it's a good feeling. Despite my lack of natural finesse, I had a good time and will certainly try it again. Not today on my list of things to try is Pilates.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Trashy Art- Washed Ashore

I'm the first to admit that plastic is an incredibly useful material. I'm extremely glad that we have it to wrap products in so they aren't all exposed and covered in filth, and really can't imagine life without it- but the saturation of plastic everywhere I turn is also a major pet peeve of mine. I mean why does the cashier at the grocery store try to put my bag of potatoes into another bag? They're already in a bag for goodness sakes!

It really drives me nuts to see plastic bags that fly out of the can on trash day, because I know that unfortunately, a lot of them wind up in the ocean.

I've found all sorts of interesting plastic trash, much of it from far away places while beach combing with my kids.  We try to pick up what we can and make sure it makes it to a garbage can, but an artist is Oregon is doing much cooler things with the trash on the shores of her native beaches. She's using it to create some pretty spectacular art.

A few months back, my kids and I went to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California where we got to learn about all sorts of things, including ocean garbage. As you can imagine, the plastic that ends up in the ocean is often a bummer for the critters that make their homes there. Sometimes they swallow it, and sometimes they get entangled in it, and it rarely works out well for the animal. 

These folks do some wonderful rescue and rehabilitation work with marine birds and animals. Over the years, this group has treated over 17,000 animals including seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and other species- many of which are threatened or endangered, and many of which are sick or dying from something having to do with plastic. My Girl Child is very interested in Marine Biology and it was very inspirational as well as educational for her to learn about the work being done. 

While there we got to see the very cool art work of Angela Pozzi. The huge sculptures of ocean creatures in her Washed Ashore exhibit were made exclusively from plastics picked up on the beaches of Oregon, and they are amazing. Her team of volunteers picked up 3.5 tons of plastic garbage from a 20 mile stretch of beach and churned out 18 gigantic sculptures from it. The woman certainly has vision and her giant fish, seal, jellyfish, and starfish all make quite a visual statement. It's now on a global tour, and is quite worth checking out if it comes anywhere near you. If not, the website is also interesting.

If you happen to be on the Oregon Coast, Pozzi's group even does trash art workshops. How fun would that be? It all makes me want to go home and make some trash art myself, but I haven't quite got the vision (although I do have all kinds of junk around here that could probably qualify as trash.)

 A few years ago, we had a "Mad Toy Laboratory" party which was kind of along those lines, but on a smaller scale. We took old and unloved plastic kid toys, dismantled them, and with hot glue guns created new artwork. We had sculptures with Barbie heads and muscle man arms sticking out of the side of race cars among other things. We also learned that hot glue really is hot, and several children went home with burns.

Does anyone have any fun ideas for trashy art type projects for Earth Day this year? I'd love to hear about them. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ready To Fly

I was thankful for the break in the rain as I loaded my old Volvo station wagon and headed south towards the desert. My mind was heavy with questions about relationships, my job, my future. The car was packed to the roof with enough food for a small nation, and barely enough room for my two kids and a tent. 

I drove without a real agenda, with only a general idea of places we wanted to see. I had no idea where we would stay, only that we would travel along a very vague circular route through the southwest, and that we would not be coming back for more than a month. The trip was a lot like my life- without any clear plan as to where I was going. I just needed to journey in a different direction to see what was out there. So, I drove.

I drove, and drove. I drove for weeks. I can't say how many miles because the odometer in my old car had stopped working long ago. But this trip wasn't about the car, even though we lived out of it and slept in it more than once. It wasn't about counting miles either, even though we covered many thousands. This trip was about exploring and being free. Enjoying the journey was as important to the experience as any destination. We stopped for everything from Wild West theme shows to giant statues of road runners made out of garbage. I rarely drove more than a few hours in a day, and spent a few days discovering each place before moving on. As I drove, we talked. We talked about everything from the splendid sights all around to our dreams and goals for the future. No one asked "Are we there yet?" because we rarely knew where there was.

We watched the landscape constantly change, and oohed and aahed over the scenery. There was a daily chorus of "wow" from every seat as we became enamored with all that is out there. But, it wasn't all about beauty and wonder either. Navigating strange cities and countrysides, and setting up camp in a new place every few days was a lot of work. We were like pioneers, growing more competent in our skills all the time.

At night, we were at home and cozy in our tent, playing cards and reading stories aloud by lamp light and talking even more in the dark. As we laughed at silly jokes and bickered over who ate the last cookie, I was so glad to be able to spend this time with these kids.

I was asked more than once what possesses a 39 year old woman with a college education and a seemingly stable life to head into the the unknown for 5 weeks of sleeping on an air mattress. Sometimes the questioners were people who admired the spirit of adventure, and just as often, it was by someone who questioned both the sanity and the safety of a woman alone on the road with children. I never really had a clear answer for any of them. I could only say that I wanted to see the world with my kids, and hotels every night were not in the budget.

Before I set off, there was a big part of me that thought this trip would give me time to contemplate all the things in my life that were slowly sucking away at my soul. I imagined staring out at the desert, pondering life and finding direction. It turned out that it wasn't that kind of trip. 

Traveling without an itinerary does have the advantage of allowing spontaneity, but when children are involved, it requires a lot more thinking. If you are the only adult in charge, you not only have to find the way from point A to point B, but you also kind of have to make sure that they have a safe place to sleep each night and food to eat each day. It helps if that food is more than cookies and chips too, hence the overloaded Volvo. 

When you are busy packing up your nylon fabric home into your car and making choices about where to move next several times each week, the journey becomes one that is more about external exploration than internal. Children also tend to make noise, which in turn makes quiet contemplation rather difficult. But, somehow, without any conscious effort or realization, the internal work happened too. 

As I marveled at the giant 200 year old Saguaros and miles of sparkling White Sands, the seeds were being planted in my subconscious. Sitting in a 700 year old sacred Kiva at Bandelier and gazing over the marvelous Arches of rock, something sprouted in my heart. As I stared up in awe at the imposing cliffs of Zion and down in amazement at the pointed spires of Bryce Canyon, the seeds grew. By the time I watched the sun set over Death Valley, I somehow knew deep in my soul that I would be alright. We all would.

There was no logical plan or magical clear answers to any of the things I was supposed to be pondering, only a calm confidence that the same wonderful world that featured this incredible variety of magnificence, had fabulous things in store for me as well... if I would just give them the time and space to be. The rivers, the mountains, and the deserts- they all took time. No one forced the Grand Canyon or rushed the redwoods. Every place we went was different and marvelous in it's own way. They had grown, changed and evolved over time. To be honest, some of that process looked rather painful, but the results were just as they should be. The things didn't belong were eliminated, and they became their own unique wonders.

I came home not knowing exactly what my future would bring, but convinced that I needed to eliminate the things that didn't belong in my life. Change might be scary, but unlike the mountains, I don't have millions of years to grow into what I want to be. I have one short lifetime to find my unique beauty in. 

We came back feeling in love with the world. I was inspired to keep going and seeing more, traveling more with my children. We are planning to hit the road again in a few months, this time heading north. The trip that started it all also ended up inspiring me to do more things the naysayers would fret over. I cut my hours at my job and eliminated the most draining components. Of course that also eliminated a huge portion of my income, but it opened up a well of time and energy for other creative endeavors. I feel as free and endangered as the Condors nesting over the Colorado River- hatched in captivity and released into the wilds. I am spreading my wings and ready to fly. 

****This essay appeared on the Dave's Travel Corner website.