Saturday, October 28, 2006

Hunting for Knowledge

Yesterday both of my girls had scheduled field trips to separate destinations. My husband accompanied our youngest and her class to the pumpkin patch for hayrides and cider and Halloween stories. I went with our elementary-school-age daughter on a mushroom hunting expedition to a local wooded park. One of her teachers is a mycologist (mushroom expert) and has been teaching the kids how to identify fungi. While the vast majority of these pre-adolescents would never deign to actually eat a mushroom, they have been eagerly anticipating this opportunity to don gloves and dig them out of the ground.

These children have spent weeks learning the anatomy of mushrooms and bringing specimens in to class to share. More than once, we have spotted some unusual mushrooms growing in our neighborhood and come back later to collect them only to find that some overzealous neighbor has mowed them down. Curses!

On Friday, 24 students and 12 adults clambered onto a school bus; sack lunches, non-latex gloves and paper bags in hand, to make the half hour trip to the state park where we would go a-hunting. Once there, we fanned out on the dozen or so trails, two children for each adult, and began searching. The day was a foggy, blustery one and after about 15 minutes we were wishing we had worn at least one extra layer between our shirts and windbreakers. We carefully selected long sticks to use as tools to push aside the damp leaves. Girls and boys alike sent squeals careening off the trees each time they located a mushroom.

The first little white parasol my daughter found was carefully extracted from the leaf litter and she shouted, “I got the mycelium! Look!” She held up the mushroom to display the root-like tendrils hanging down.

“Oh, cool!” It took a while for me to get in to the routine of looking down for little camouflaged fungi. Some of them had stems no wider than a pin, but by the time we had been hunting for an hour or so, we had collected over a dozen different varieties of mushrooms and our bags were over halfway full.

As we returned to the meeting area and the children reverently placed their treasures onto the white butcher paper that covered the picnic table, I was astonished. Together we had collected hundreds and hundreds of mushrooms. The solemn quiet was occasionally punctuated by an excited identification. Chanterelle! Look, it’s a puffball! Turkey tail!

These children were so elated to have surpassed their own expectations. They showed me how to carefully tear a mushroom in half to identify special characteristics. They pointed out the poisonous ones and cautioned me to wash my hands carefully before eating. They knew which ones had been found under trees, growing on tree trunks, and which we had found in the grass. The class favorite seemed to be one called an inky cap whose gills and cap start to disintegrate and leak a black “inky” substance that coats their hands upon maturing.

I must admit, I was originally unsure of how the dissection and identification of mushrooms was helping my daughter in school, but I left that field trip convinced of one thing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the specific subject matter is. So long as the teacher is knowledgeable and passionate about the topic and is willing to allow the children to have some hands-on experience, they will find it exciting. These children displayed such ownership and pride at their accomplishments. I am sure that they will retain the intimate knowledge of fungi that they have learned. More importantly, however, I believe that they have learned that they are capable of delving into subjects they never before found interesting and discovering a world of possibilities.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Polished Rocks, Part Two

I broke this essay up rather unceremoniously simply due to its size. Sorry that this part starts so abruptly...

The three girls spent some portion of every day examining their finds, washing them off, and building structures with them on the pool deck. To the untrained eye, it might seem as though their standards were very low, but in fact, they were somewhat particular, looking primarily for rocks of unusual shape or smoothness and coveting especially those with sparkles.

The weather turned rainy the second week, and we spent more time inside the cabins cooking and playing board games. It was then that I had occasion to notice that the polish on my pinky toes was completely gone and the other toes were beginning to chip. This didn’t really bother me as it would have followed the same progression at home, and I certainly wasn’t about to use my limited Spanish to attempt to purchase nail polish remover in Patagonia.

The rest of the trip was fantastic, and the girls bid a tearful “Spanglish” good-bye to their new Argentinean friend. They were each allowed to bring three r-r-r-rocks home with them and each has earned a special place in their treasures at home. The week that we have been home has been filled with laundry, sorting photographs from the trip, and showing off our souvenirs to friends and family. We arrived home on Thanksgiving Day, unaccustomed to the wintry temperatures and completely unprepared for the impending holiday shopping season. Is it any wonder I just haven’t found the time to scrub my toe paint off yet?

Because of my propensity to just let my polish gradually wear off, it occurred to me this morning to wonder where all of those little polish bits end up. Certainly, a good percentage of them are washed down my shower drain into my septic tank. I imagine opening the tank one day to have it pumped and gazing down at a glittering rainbow of shiny sediment. I’m certain that nail polish is one of the items on the list of things NOT to put down the septic tank (along with eggshells, coffee grounds, and melon rinds) because it will never biodegrade, but I have a fantasy that it somehow makes its way into the environment in a more positive way. I am sure that I left miniscule shards of color on several beaches in Patagonia and some undoubtedly sank to the bottom of the pool as well. Perhaps it will bypass the filter and wash into the groundwater there. Maybe some of the pieces will be accidentally ingested by rainbow trout and incorporated into their shimmery scales or pooped out to fuse with the rocks at the bottom of the lake. Other bits might be run over by trucks and ground into the rocks on the road and eventually, hundreds or thousands of years from now, other children will be playing with the rocks and will discover some special ones with purple flecks in them. Maybe I am doing future generations of children a world of good by letting my toenail polish create those mysterious little glittery bits that will intrigue and engage them in play for days. My children used rocks to forge a friendship with another child with whom they needed a way to communicate. Those treasures will remain forever, like the rocks with a hint of something special on the tops of their dressers.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Polished Rocks, Part One

I wrote this piece last year and haven't posted it for several reasons. I've decided to break it up into parts and share it here in hopes of getting some feedback from my friends, blogmirers, and fellow writers. Have at it (but go gentle on me....)

Six weeks ago my girlfriend and I escaped from our houses for an afternoon pedicure. Because our birthdays are two days apart and we both have two small children, this was our treat to each other. We spent a blissful hour and a half getting our feet washed (I don’t care how clean you are, that’s not a job I want to do for a stranger, but I’m damn glad someone was willing to do it for me), buffed, polished, and massaged. Finally, our toes were painted and each big toenail was expertly adorned with a handpainted orchid. My daughters (3 and 5) were very impressed and promptly requested flowers on their toes, too. Never mind that I can barely stay in the lines when I paint their miniscule toenails, now I have to be able to paint recognizable objects on them, too?

This morning in the shower, I looked at my once shiny, beautiful toes and saw that approximately 60% of the orchid remains on both big toes, but the rest of the polish has gradually been rubbed away. This is the problem with having one’s toes painted, as far as I’m concerned. Not only do I not have time to spend removing the old polish and reapplying new polish to my own toes, the particular tang of the polish remover (you know it – in fact, I’m willing to bet the mere suggestion of it has your nostrils shrinking back) is so vile that I can hardly stand to use it. The beauty of having my toes painted in the winter, of course, is that I am rarely without shoes and can hide the gradual peeling, chipping, and flaking of my nails until the polish is gone. I will admit I glean some small amount of satisfaction at not having used some toxic chemical to remove the paint as well, although if I hadn’t used the toxic polish in the first place I suppose I could have done the planet an even bigger favor.

Summertime poses an altogether different problem since my toes are almost always bare, but I usually get around that by applying lighter hues in the beginning of the summer. That way, when they start to chip, I can simply cover them with a darker color to cover up the chips. By the end of August, I generally have 4-6 coats of ever-darkening polish on my toes that will take a half hour to remove (not to mention a good deal of vigorous rubbing), but at least my toes have looked pretty all summer in sandals.

Three weeks after my birthday pedicure, my husband and I took our children to Argentina for three weeks. We left Seattle on November 4th and arrived in Buenos Aires on a sunny, late-spring day. We gleefully packed shorts, sandals and swimming suits and left behind the gray, rainy days of fall in the Pacific Northwest. We spent our days in the swimming pool, taking boat tours on the lake, playing at the beach, and going for long walks in the forest. My toes looked fantastic for the first week. Every time I caught a glimpse of those gorgeous orchids peeking out of my sandal, I said a quiet, “Happy Birthday!" to myself.

We joined friends in Argentina who had a five year old daughter and were looking forward to watching the girls interact. Candela speaks no English and our girls’ mastery of the Spanish language mainly consists of colors, counting to twenty, and “hola”, but it took only one day for the three of them to devise a way to communicate with each other. One game they invented involved Eve, my oldest daughter, choosing an object and saying to Candela, “Como se dice en EspaƱol?” Candela would teach them the name in Spanish and they would teach her how to say it in English. We, the adults, were of course impressed with the cleverness of our offspring and loved listening to them try to pronounce the new words correctly.

This game came about at some cabins in Patagonia where we were staying. A wide gravel path ran between our cabin and the swimming pool. My girls love rocks. Not shiny, polished agates, but regular, garden-variety rocks. They collect rocks at the beach, around our neighborhood, and frequently steal them from landscaping beds and walkways in various places we find ourselves. I borrowed some plastic bowls from the cabin so they could more easily collect their treasures and it was then that Erin held up a rock and asked Candela how to say it in Spanish. I could listen to Candela say “r-r-r-r-rock” all day long. It was completely innocent and natural for her and I had to walk away, lest my laughter offend her.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Who's Going to Clean That Up?

It’s a little bit like a pile of dog poop in the autumn grass. All around it is sunshine and glistening dewdrops, spider webs encrusted in shimmering jewels, birds calling to each other from treetops in shades of orange and red and yellow. The grass has recovered from the hot summer and has its lush emerald luster back, but smack in the middle is a steaming, smelly mound of shit. It needs to be cleaned up soon, although neither of us is likely to step in it. We are both painfully aware of the stain in our midst and give it a wide berth. Occasionally, one of us ventures forth to inspect it. Is it still there or has someone else performed an act of mercy and made it disappear?

I, for one, am determined to leave it there for a while. So long as we can avoid it, it will be fine. It is not likely to get worse. It can’t grow on its own, nor will it mold or fester or rot. Even after it has been acknowledged, it will dry out and be easier to pick up from the grass.

Do you remember the first close friend you made as an adult? As a kid, anything seemed possible and making mistakes was inevitable – not even worthy of worrying about forgiveness from a friend. As an adult, though, we are expected to be responsible and diligent, hardworking and realistic. I met my dearest “grown-up” friend as a new mother. It was perhaps the most frightening and trying time for me to have any kind of self-confidence and I was both intimidated and drawn to her self-assurance and composure as a new mother herself. Our daughters were born a few weeks apart and our husbands both worked for the same company. We attended classes at the hospital together and soon made play-dates a weekly occurrence. After nearly seven years of friendship, I still cannot make a cup of tea taste as good as she can, nor do I have her ability to remain unruffled in the face of whatever new phase my eldest is entering. I feel completely welcome in her home and she is one of the few women I will allow into my house when the floors are covered in dog hair and the laundry hasn’t been done in several days. We empty each other’s dishwashers and are referred to by each other’s children as their “second mom”.

She has saved me from boredom, taking myself too seriously, and severe depression. She stocked my fridge with milk, bread, salads, macaroni and cheese and butter on the day we returned from seven weeks in Europe, knowing that the last thing I would want to do was run to the store that first morning back. Our children consider each other siblings and have known each other their entire lives. I miss her terribly when more than three or four days go by without even a phone visit.

We have established yearly rituals together and our birthdays are within a few days of each other. We have met and love each other’s parents and have shared secrets we wouldn’t tell anyone else. Our daughters have bathed together, slept together and concocted some absolutely unimaginable schemes together. We have forged a bond that will transcend illness, sadness and stress.

She is my first line of defense when I feel myself sinking into the depths of despair. When she needs me, I would drop almost everything to come to her aid. I love her children as my own and have spent some of my most enjoyable moments giggling with her youngest child.

But someone has shit on my front lawn. Circumstances beyond her control may force her to move her family overseas and while I agree that her life would be simpler and, perhaps, significantly better overall, I can’t even stand to talk about the possibility.

I cannot imagine raising my children without her insight and practical point of view. Holidays will not be the same without the eager faces of the children I’ve watched grow up, hunting for Easter eggs in my yard and sitting on Santa’s lap. I will miss the effortlessness of this relationship – picking up the phone to share a hilarious anecdote or ask if I can pick anything up for her at Trader Joe’s. This noble spirit that came into my life just when I needed her and helped me become a better mother and a better person has raised herself above the status of a girlfriend. She is my sister and my confidante. I wish for peace and happiness, fulfillment and joy for her family. I also wish teleportation was an option…

Friday, October 13, 2006

Meet & Greet

We've met. You can officially say we've been introduced. The first month or two of the school year is one big meet-and-greet. I don't mean getting to know the teachers, my kids' classmates or even their parents. I'm talking about what happens after the two-week incubation period. That's when my kids have already picked up all the various bacteria and viruses that lurk in the homes of their friends and have mysteriously been transferred to every surface in their classroom. Okay, it's not that mysterious. How many six and seven year olds actually wash their hands every time they are done in the bathroom? Sneezing into their sleeves? C'mon, now. Most of them still pick their noses at least once a day.

Every year, approximately two weeks into the new school calendar, that's when it hits home. My husband and I wake up with sinuses stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, throats like sandpaper, and no end in sight. Until we've exhausted every possible combination and permutation of each individual virus from each of our kids' classmates' houses, we'll be popping cold medicine and running the vaporizer like prohibition's coming.

It just can't be helped. Maybe next year, we'll host a gala for the kids earlier in the year and encourage hugging and kissing. I'll remove all traces of antibacterial soap and Kleenex from the house and let everyone breathe on everybody else. Maybe we'll start two weeks before the first day of school so we can get this all over with sooner.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Making Lemonade

At a recent playdate, my four-year-old inquired of her friend, "What are you drawing?"
He replied, "I'm making a picture for you. It's a picture of your Daddy."
"Well, draw him laying down," was her immediate response. I laughed, my husband cringed. He doesn't want to be known as the infirm parent, the one who lies around and watches TV all day long.

The girls have recently informed him that he is watching way too much TV. He is current on all the college and professional football games and statistics. We have rented DVDs of past HBO series shows such as 'Oz' and 'Rome'. The other day I came home from the store and caught him flipping through the channels only to stop at a professional dart championship. The contest was being held in the UK and the prize for first place was 100,000 pounds. That's nearly a quarter of a million dollars! For throwing sharp objects at a bullseye on the wall! There was an entire audience of spectators, complete with individual cheering sections and homemade signs. After a minute, I realized I was standing still, eyes focused in on the score projected in the little box at the bottom of the screen. I shook my head and asked, not really expecting him to know the answer, how many games they were playing. "Best of 25," Bubba replied, not moving a muscle to shift his eyeballs in my direction.

"Daddy, I wish you didn't have an ouchie tummy and didn't have any surgery and could play with me right now." Lola hung over the arm of the couch, hovering over her Daddy's forehead.
"I know, sweetie. Me too. But we can play a game or color or something on the couch."
"No, I mean I want you to get down on the floor and play with me like Mommy can."
"Oh, I get it. But for now, Mommy's fun to play with on the floor, too."
"Yeah, except for the mean part she's just like you."

Lola and I are having a tough time. She is a very physical, high energy, push-it-past-the-limit kind of kid who thinks that bugging and picking at people is hilarious. Normally, I can find it within myself to see things from her perspective and laugh as I try to get her to tone it down a little. Not right now. With the acute crisis over, things have settled in to a state of grey. I'm tired. My routine is off and I'm torn between caring for kids and my partner and trying to find a way to get back to where we were. I bark at the kids quicker than I used to.  I'm more anal about the housekeeping and that means they have to be, too. The weather is changing and the mornings are darker. The dog is restless because he doesn't get out enough when it's rainy. I want comfort food - warm stew and casseroles and things that take lots of time and care to prepare. I feel grey, too.

"Is there any mail for meeee?" comes the slightly pathetic inquiry from the back seat as I close the mailbox.
"Yup, you got a new magazine today," I twist my shoulder to hand it back to her, knowing she'll never be able to wait the half block drive into the garage from here.
"Yahoo! Will you read it to me when we get inside? Pleeeeze, Mommy?"
"Sure I will, sweetie."

Thank god for new distractions. We spent the afternoon making Hedgehog Biscuits (those qualify as comfort food, by the way. They're warm and fresh baked and smell yeasty and fabulous) together and laughed at the black dog sitting beneath the counter getting sprinkles of flour all over him and licking them off. We read about owls that stay awake in the day and live in burrows in the grass and invented a new bedtime game that lets Bubba and me sit on the couch while the girls run around the house scavenging for unique objects. We take turns asking silly questions to discern the nature of the thing hiding behind their backs and they feel terribly clever when they stump us.

Life is good.
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