Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Mouse and the Princess

The theme evolved over the day through various iterations, some that involved costumes, some just tap shoes, some water play on the back deck. Warm day, fun play... they didn't even want to go to a special storytelling event at the library. Instead, we stayed home and read several books and then did art, crafts, and lots of math - all outside - until the inventive play took over. In my role as interrupting photographer they tolerated me only briefly, but in the play I did get "guest spots" in which K fed me my lines, telling me what to say to "the princess" or helping said princess to find "the mouse" when she "escaped."
Fun stuff, great day, wonderful girls.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rainforest Animals at the Library

Four fascinating rainforest animals, two interested girls, lots of fun.
We learned about the four levels of the rainforest: forest floor, understory, emergent, and canopy. We saw a macaw from the emergent layer and learned that despite its bright colors, in the rainforest it is camouflaged amongst the flowers. They eat fruit, nuts, and berries and make a mess - their droppings are an important part of the ecosystem.

Then, a sloth! So cute. This type has two toes in the front, three in the back and spends its life upside-down. A blue-green algae lives in its hair and attracts lots of bugs and moths - it is a mini-ecosystem unto itself when living in the wild. (I couldn't help thinking that a bug-free life as a "rescue" animal might be its preference!) Harpy eagles and sig snakes are predators, but it protects itself by poufing out its fur and then charging and slashing at its predators. Hard to imagine, as it was moving so slowly today....

Next, a kinkajou. We speculated in advance when we saw the description of the presentation as to whether this would be a mammal, reptile, or bird, but K guessed correctly that it was a mammal, cute as a button, too. They are related to raccoons, eat honey and fruit, and (like bears) have fur that protects them from bee stings when they forage for honey.

Last but not least, an anteater, "lesser anteater" (tamandua) to be exact (pictured below). They have 17-inch long tongues and are nocturnal, eating 9,000 bugs a night! The one we saw was trying hard to find some on the redwood floor, which was entertaining.

Random fact: There is a scientific difference between hair and fur (hair is thinner).
Thanks, Wildlife Associates!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Garden Update

As I noted previously (March), no Mill Valley school would be complete without a garden. However, after working on ours, the true value lies not in the obvious (learning how things grow), but in the work that goes into it.

This is my first attempt at a garden and I am clear with the girls that I am just learning how to do it. (I have - rather rudely! - been told that I am "a terrible gardner!") It has had successes and failures, plants that are thriving and others that never even emerged. It is still imperfect, a work in progress. I am happy with it, but to the degree it has succeeded, it has done so through very hard work - bit by bit, piece by piece, reclaiming overgrown and unproductive chaos with few tools other than my tired muscles and determination.

Yet really, the same applies to life - that worth appreciating is inevitably gained through hard work far more so than innate talent, knowledge already acquired, or material possessions recieved. And in that message - the value of hard work and the satisfaction it provides - lies the true lesson in not only this particular project, but in much of what we do.

Roses from "A Secret Garden" book club now blooming again.
Saint Francis (below) presiding over an abundant crop of alyssum and various herbs.
Strawberries plants are pictured above; the ones that have ripened have all mysteriously disappeared as soon as they are red - possibly a nighttime visitor? We did share one amongst the four of us, our only "crop" to date, though corn, cauliflower, beans, squash, pumpkin, watermelon, and tomato plants are also thriving. (OK, "thriving" is a relative term. In the context of my very UN-green thumb, "thriving" means they ain't dead yet and there is still hope....)

Ornithologist-Led Walk at the Baylands

Another awesome walk today, very rich. As John Muir said, "in every walk with nature, one receives far more than [she] seeks."

We learned about rookeries, which are colonies of breeding birds and we got close-up views of rookeries of Black-Crowned Night Herons, with a few Snowy Egrets. We also saw Cliff Swallow rookeries. In this photo, the girls are looking at Cliff Swallows nesting.

Here are the birds we saw, including a few of my notes:
Canada Goose
Mallard, males and females, one with four babies in tow
Ruddy Duck (with its breeding season-only blue bill)
American Coot
Killdeer (sometimes says its own name)
American Avocet (brown, white, orange, standing on one leg)
Black-necked Stilt (long black necks, red legs)
Ring-billed Gull
Western Gull
Forester's Tern
Rock Dove (aka Pigeon)
Mourning Dove
Black Phoebe (flycatcher)
Barn Swallow
Northern Mockingbird
Song Sparrow (Gabriana mistook this for a chickadee, which we saw last week)
Red-Winged Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
Double-crested Cormorant (putting on a splendid sunning display)
Domestic Moscovy
Lesser Scaup (male and female together)
White-tailed Kite (type of hawk; seeing them is a positive indicator for the environment, as they used to be less common)
Willet (black and white wings)
Black Crowned Night Heron (my favorite of the day, tied with the Ruddy Duck)
Snowy Egret (black legs, yellow feet, juvenilles look unkempt)
American White Pelicans

Oh! And before we even left home: a crow, a California towhee, quail, a wild turkey with chick and the sounds of a peacock!

Amanda told us about the amazing mating display of the Ruddy Duck. Here's some cool footage of its mating display that Jacki found, complete with its almost-unrealistically bright blue beak (a color it gets just for mating season, changing from a grey/brown):

Also, the Cliff Swallows built some beautiful nests out of the Baylands mud.

Other random notes:
I asked about how easy it is to identify male and female birds, in general. She said that for some types it is clear, but for others they are virtually identical. In the birds where they are identical, this is usually because they share nesting duties. Where they vary, the uglier of the couple stays on the nest, acting as camoflauge.

When birds perch, they don't use their muscles; instead, they rely upon a tendon that goes through their bones.

Thanks again to our very knowledgeable and patient bird guide, Amanda. Also to Jacki, who not only organized, but also wrote most of this post! :-)

Spotted in a tree: an absolute favorite of mine!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

DeYoung Museum's Family Day

Free! Docent tour (quick and abbreviated) and making art at the DeYoung; our trip allowed a sneak peak at the new Impressionist Exhibit, too. Amazingly, it wasn't very crowded at all....

This was one of the pieces of art that combined human and animal parts; that the docents showed the kids these and suggested that they could be used as inspiration for the kids to make their own unique creations. K didn't choose animal parts, though; hers was "a person who looks like an ice cream cone." Certainly less cynical and menacing than this one!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sugarloaf Girls Club June Get Together

Amongst the redwoods of San Mateo county. Gorgeous; a perfect day of exploring, finding feathers, imagining unicorns, sipping from Sticky Monkey flowers, and more.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Art and Geometry Workshop

Very interesting day; a lot learned.

Bradford Hanson-Smith was our instructor; this video introduces his theory about teaching art and geometry:

He starts by asking, "how would you describe a circle?" Should be simple, right? But we quickly discovered that most definitions rely on what we've been taught, not what we observe. He questions how "most mathematicians" describe a circle, saying "my experience is different. There is a lot that a circle offers experientially that gives us an understanding that we don't get when we just know a formula." He also notes that "a sphere is the only form that is inherently whole... so much of mathmatics can be demonstrated [simply and easily] through the folds of a circle, which is one of the benefits of folding circles, rather than talking about abstract concepts."

An informative day that left us eager to learn yet more. So glad we got to attend! Thanks to Jacki and Aileen for setting it up.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

John Taylor Gatto

Provocative, excessively harsh at times, yet interesting:

John Taylor Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. In 1991, he wrote a letter announcing his retirement, titled I Quit, I Think, to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, saying that he no longer wished to "hurt kids to make a living." He then began a public speaking and writing career, and has received several awards from libertarian organizations, including the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Excellence in Advancement of Educational Freedom in 1997. One professor of education has called his books "scathing" and "one-sided and hyperbolic, [but] not inaccurate."


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My fairy princess

A princess? A fairy? She slept in the dress (not the tiara or wings, though). Too cute for words. Sweet and smart, too! :-)

Ornithologist-Led Walk

Beautiful, fun day; as always, it was great learning with friends outdoors. Thanks to Jacki for organizing and Ornithologist Amanda for the expertise!

Birds spotted: California Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Red-tailed Hawk, Western Scrub Jay, Turkey Vulture, Western Meadowlark, Western Bluebird, Dark-eyed Junco, Western Kingbird, Common Raven, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Cooper's Hawk, Spotted Towhee.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Celebrating the First Day of Summer with... Poison Hemlock?

We had the first of our regular summer hikes today with friends and learned more than we expected about a dangerous poison when a casual passerby accosted one of the kids, scaring the heck out of her, because the large flowery branch she was playing camouflage with was in fact hemlock, which is extremely poisonous. It is especially dangerous because it looks like harmless Queen Anne's lace; see my photo of a hemlock bush and an internet close up of QAL.

Our poison-carrier's mom did some post-hike research and "found that both hemlock and Queen Anne's Lace are members of the carrot family. Queen Anne's Lace is actually another name for Wild Carrot. You can eat the root like a carrot, when the plant is very young. You can differentiate it from Hemlock by a few distinctive features. First is height. QAL is shorter, reaching up to 4 feet, while Hemlock is 4-7', which is definitely true of the plants we saw. Second, the QAL has a purplish flower in the center (see pic) to attract bees, but also giving it its name, since the purple flower is said to be a drop of Queen Anne's blood from where she pricked her finger while making the lace."

More things we discussed/spotted and resources for more information/follow up:

Lichen: When you see lichen, you know you have good, clean air. All lichens are algae and fungus living togther and they fall into three categories: crustose (crusty), foliose (leafy),and; fruticose (shrubby). More at:

Hemlock: Interesting synopsis about hemlock, including its use in Socrates' death, at:

Ferns: Katherine had remembered from a hike last week that ferns were remarkable in that they are one of the only plants that has no flower; instead, it has spores. This was therefore interesting....

"Not possessing flowers, ferns reproduce with spores, which are so small you can hardly see them with the naked eye. They are like grains of dust. In many fern species spores are produced in tiny, curious, spotlike items referred to technically as sori (pronounced SOR-eye, singular sorus, pronounced SOR-us). Most non-specialists refer to sori as fruitdots. At the left you see sori on the undersides of pinnae of the Western Sword-Fern, Polystichum munitum. Notice that each sorus is composed of dozens of tiny, spherical items. The spherical things are not spores, but rather stalked, baglike sporangia (singular sporangium) which themselves contain several spores. When the sporangia are mature they'll burst, release their spores into the wind, and the spores will be carried to a new location where, if environmental conditions are just right, they'll germinate to form fern prothalli, from which eventually new ferns will emerge."

Important knowledge gained, but the key was having fun, which occurred in abundance. Below, three of the kids are using a bug box to examine a very large bee with a magnifing glass. The final photo is of Katherine having a blast in a jungle gym... ahem! I mean a fantastically fun and gorgeous buckeye tree.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day to Two Great Dads

We just got back from camping in Tahoe with my parents and the joy of the trip is an apt tribute to why the two most important fathers in my life (my Dad and Charles) are so important.

My Dad is the quintessential Gemini. I don't bother much with the signs, but I do know a dual personality when I see one. He even uses two different first names, depending on whom he is talking with. I remember when I was a teen, going running with him in the morning then changing for school and walking with him to his bus stop while I continued on. When I did this, I'd think, "he's two completely different people." Work Dad and Family Dad, I suppose. This is important only because I love, respect, and admire so much about him; perhaps it takes two (or more) completely different personalities to capture all that makes him great.

As a parent, he is a great role model. I remember his endless patience with me. Once when I was very young, I woke up afraid, having heard sirens in the night. He must have been bleary with exhaustion, but he inserted a lesson that both informed and reassured, "it's probably just some kids who were playing with matches and now the firefighters are going to help." Or when I woke up afraid of being kidnapped (this was the era of the zebra killer in San Francisco and at five, I was terrified of these serial killings), he carefully and logically explained how difficult it would be to enter our secure home - again despite the fact that this was the middle of the night and he probably would have preferred to stay in bed.

Despite his busy schedule, he was always present: swim meets, carpools, cross country races, school meetings. Since I've been an adult, he's always been supportive, even when he clearly thought I was nuts. When I told him about my plans to quit my job and travel to all seven continents by myself, he said emphatically, "I THINK THAT IS A VERY DUMB IDEA!" But when I continued with my plans, he never wavered in his support and he and Mom even joined me in Buenos Aires, parts of Patagonia, and Antarctica.

He is wise, interesting, flexible, and patient. He's always challenged me by arguing the opposite position on everything under the sun; the only exceptions I've seen are his unwavering beliefs about abortion and God. This example of life-long learning grounded in faith informs much of what I am and most value. I could write full books of stories about the things that make him great; I love him deeply and admire him endlessly.

As for Charles, well, his greatness as a father is really something that only the girls can express; I know and admire him as a co-parent, but they know him in the unique role of Dad. What I do know is what I tell them: that I waited a long time before I found the man who I thought was good enough in every way to be their Dad. His love for them is fierce, an emotion that is pronounced in everything that he does. He is protective and yet challenging; he wants the absolute best for them, yet defines it appropriately in ways that are grounded in faith, family, love, and wise knowledge. He throws his fierce love for them into action, embracing the activities that fit his interests (history, politics, and sports) and yet also participating in those that are less up his alley (dance, camping, nature study). He shares some of my Dad's best qualities, too: he loves to play with them, thus affirming for them the essential knowledge that they are people worth being with. Like my Dad, he respects their opinions and supports their blossoming interests.

Two awesome men, well worth honoring and modeling. I could say so much more and hope that over time I have. I love you both very much!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Camping in Beautiful Tahoe

Beautiful Tahoe! The girls hiked, played, swam, then played some more. It was fun to spend several days in a row with my parents, hiking, walking, cooking, and just hanging out.

It was VERY cold at night; even Ike needed a cover. He got so cozy that he didn't even stir when a bear came into camp repeatedly on our first night; Sherpani was brave and alert and made up for Ike's silence.

Playing chess on Dad's computer; she couldn't remember the fried liver attack, but ended up getting sabotaged by a sneaky rook anyway. Next time!

A girl and her dog (and her Dad's huge shoes!)

Mom and Dad pose with the beautiful Tahoe mountainside as backdrop.

The explorers pose. They were in search of a possible bear's cave and though it turned out not to be as expected, they met their goal nonetheless by reaching the spot in question.

Playing in the snow. Yes, snow in June; fun!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bear in a Tree! Tahoe

The first photo is a close up - see the open mouth! (It is the the shadows, so look closely.) The second shows how high the bear had climbed relative to the electrical pole next to the tree (and why the shadows were unavoidable). It was on its way down as I approached. When Charles let the girls join me I backed off, thinking a little caution was in order. The bear skedaddled off in the opposite direction when it did come down, fortunately.

We also had a bear in camp the first night of our stay: at least three times I woke to loud noises, shouts intended to scare it away, and barks from Sherpani. (Ike was either too scared to bark, completely oblivious, or waiting for me to protect him.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Learn to Find Love in the World

Growing up, my parents had this posted in our house, right behind a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. These days, we regularly watch groups of children being herded around, too often being spoken to rudely or condescendingly by the adults who - inexplicably - have chosen careers in which they interact with kids. In such situations, there is a clear priority on obedience to rules designed necessarily to facilitate group processes. Observing this and reflecting on the paradigm that informs it, I found myself considering the effect of such an environment on individual development and its long term consequences in terms of the cultural norms that we use to define success.

For me, the reflection represents a good reminder of a primary goal, to help our children "learn to find love in the world." As Catholics, to find love means to find God and so with that quest comes a manifestation of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in all elements of life.

Children Learn What They Live (1969)

If a child lives with criticism, She learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, She learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, She learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, She learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance, She learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, She learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise, She learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, She learns justice.
If a child lives with security, She learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, She learns to like himself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, She learns to find love in the world.

Yes, I changed the gender. But otherwise, I found this as is at:

Best Friends

We stopped just for an emergency bathroom break on our way home from Spanish class, but couldn't resist the photo op. When I said, "put your arms around each other," Katherine spontaneously shouted, "best friends!" and I got these.
My heart overflows....

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Audubon Canyon Nature Hike

We learned so much! For me, the nesting Great Egrets were the most impressive: I never knew that they rested in tree tops like so many chickens (see many white birds at top of tree at center of photo below). There was a Great Blue Heron nesting among them, too. It looked impressive from below and above even with the naked eye, but the Audubon Center had an established look out deck with powerful scopes trained on the nests and the close up views of these beautiful birds squawking and feeding their chicks in their nests was incredible. (Gabriana took off with the big kids, saying "Mommy, we'll see you at the top!")

From scopes to magnifying glasses, it was also interesting to look down. One of these cliff swallow chicks had fallen to its death and the docents used its decomposing body to discuss the process of decomposition in the cycle of forest life. We also learned that cliff swallows arrive together at the canyon all on the very same day and that they do an amazing amount of work to build their mud nests, flying to the mud flats with a speck of mud on their beaks, then repeating the process 1,000 times.

Looking at small things is always interesting and we had lots of opportunities to do so, from this cucumber beetle to banana slugs, lichen, and even frass (insect poop).

One of the last things that we did was to catch newts, examine them, then release them. Note the bright red underbelly of the one in Gabriana's hand! The experience became extra memorable when Gabriana fell off the boardwalk and into the pond; thanks to Jacki's super-mom reflexes, she only got wet on one leg to her hips. Thanks, Jacki!

At the pond, we also saw awesome looking dragonflies and damselflies; the red ones were depositing eggs, the male and female flying in tandem. A great book piqued our interest in dragonflies, Laurence Pringle's "Dragon in the Sky." BTW, the scummy-looking stuff on the surface of the pond is actually a type of fern, which, we learned, is one of the only plants without a flower (it has spores instead).

More notes:

When you see lichen, you know you have good, clean air. All lichens are algae and fungus living togther and they fall into three categories: crustose (crusty), foliose (leafy),and; fruticose (shrubby). More at:

Orinthologists are starting to study bird sounds with sound tracking; this has helped them learn not only that birds communicate about the presence and even size of observed predators, but that there are overlapping communication patterns between bird species as they share this relevant information.

Morning glory flowers act as beds for insects, closing up to keep them cozy overnight.

Most breeds of birds (Great Egrets are an example) show no observable difference between males and females. We also relearned that banana slugs aren't male or female (hermaphrodillic) and that they have four eyes.

Wood rats are matriarchal; the nest, which is on the ground, is passed from mother to daughter and grows in size from generation to generation. Males live elsewhere - in a nearby nest, usually in a tree.

King Alfred's cakes: fungus on dead or dying trees, so named after a fable in which King Alfred was supposed to be watching his dinner cook and instead was planning his next war, resulting in burnt cakes.

Douglas fir trees can be identified by their cones, which look, in Native American lore, like a tiny mouse has jumped inside with just legs and arms hanging out. As one story goes, the mice were eating too many acorns and were punished by being confined to the pinecone. Other versions found include:

We saw a Dawn Redwood tree! "Dawn redwoods once blanketed the entire Northern Hemisphere and were thought to have been extinct for millions of years until their rediscovery in 1941 by a Chinese forester in a remote corner of the Sichuan (at the time, Szechuan) Province in south-central China. Somehow, a little over one thousand trees had survived for millennia in a region that ironically is not even Metasequoia’s ideal environment! How then, did it survive in the Shui-sha Valley when it perished elsewhere? That is one of the great modern silvicultural mysteries. " More at: Most interestingly (to me), they are deciduous - I never imagined a redwood that lost its needles annually!

Whew! And that was just a slim taste of all that we saw and learned on this great day. Thanks, EB for organizing; thanks Audubon Canyon and especially Marge for the perfect tour: entertaining, interesting, and never in-the-least-bit condescending. (A needed acecdote to a tour elsewhere a couple of weeks ago in which the docents undermined an otherwise good program by using fake names such as "Sponge Bob" to identify sea creatures. Ugh!)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Picnic at the Audubon Center

It felt like the first day of summer vacation. This is the first week in which all of our "school year" classes are over or on summer schedule, and yet the schedule of various summer events hasn't quite started yet.

We retreated with joy to our "secret garden" at the Audubon Center in Tiburon, where we were joined by a pair of scrub jays under a canopy of plum trees. We watched with fascination as one bird picked up old plum shells and buried them carefully a few feet behind our benches.

Later on the beach, we spotted a huge pelican floating by. Learning more about shells and rocks went on the summer agenda. Thanks to a borrowed "Explorer Backpack," we learned that pill bugs and sow bugs are both isopods, ten legged critters, new info for all of us...