Monday, August 31, 2009

Still Life

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
-T.S. Eliot The Waste Land

It is amazing what the camera can see. Watching Clementine with my naked eyes, I had the fleeting impression of an arc of water. But here you can see a frozen spiral, as perfect as the spiral of a sea shell.

Greta had a go. Her water horns and spikes of hair were invisible to my naked eye.

Later, we tried other things.

Big rocks.
A skipped stone.

I wonder what we miss as chemicals migrate their way across our synapses.

Oliver Sacks talked with a Parkinson's victim after he had been "frozen" for several hours. Sacks showed his patient a photo of himself and asked why he had held his arm out, frozen, for so long. The bewildered patient said he wasn't frozen, he was wiping his nose.

The next time the man was "frozen" Sacks set up a camera and took photos of the him at one-minute intervals over two hours. When these stills were assembled into a time-lapse film the man could be seen smoothly bringing his hand up to wipe his nose. He had no sense that this had taken him any longer than usual. The man could wipe his nose 12 times and call it a day.

How fast his life must pass.

And how long our lives would seem if we were fast enough to see drops of water going over the falls or the iridescent beating wings of dragonflies.

On the river I am always confronted by my mortality. It is not just the bleached crayfish legs.
Or the huge trees, trees that welcomed Spanish missionaries and 49ers, trees that have lived three times as long as I can hope to, felled by the river.

It is the flow of the river itself, relentless and neverending.

The American is no longer a natural river. The Chili Bar dam controls the south fork, the Oxbow dam the middle fork, and the Clementine dam the North Fork. But we can never completely control the river.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget.
-T.S. Eliot The Dry Salvages

The American may be a tame river, and yet, the remains of bridges, the undercut banks surmounted by trees awaiting their fates, remind me always of what I would choose to forget.

The flows on the American are brought up each day for the pleasure of boaters like us. But if we dawdle too long skipping stones or picking berries, the water will slip away from us, leaving us a bony river to bump and drag our way along. A reminder that time will get away from us.

I don't usually take my camera kayaking. The river is also destroyer of electronic devices. But this time I pack my camera in the dry bag, wrapped in a towel. I will not let the river carry away all our memories.

Of little feet.
Getting bigger.

Of skipping smooth stones and soaking hot heads.

I put away my camera and we get back on the river. The air is so hot that the herbs are giving up their spicy aromatic oils to the air. It is like a dry sauna. The water is deliciously cold. Greta, sitting in the front of the boat, holds up her hands with excitement and recognition.

"Mom," she whispers. "This is where we landed."

I don't think I have mentioned here before that Greta is an alien. It used to be her job to carry water from Pluto to put out the sun every night.

Evelyn has discovered that cottonwood bark makes good cordage. Whenever she isn't paddling she is making string. Clementine is sailing her crocs by the boat.

I am sieving moments out of the river of time and preserving them so one day I can spiral back and re-examine them, spiral back to the 100 degree day when the air was spiced with eucalyptus and fennel, when the spotted fawn lifted its dainty hooves in the shallows, when Clementine stuck her head in the river and tossed her hair.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Point

On our way to Berkeley's Jewel in the Sierras we'd passed a sign that said:

Point of Historical Interest

I wanted to see the point, so on our way back I hung a hard left when I saw the sign. We did not immediately see the point, but we saw a sign for the state trout hatchery. It said Open to the Public.

I didn't know what to expect. What we found was an empty parking lot, four long ditches full of trout, and this.
It was scorching hot. There was not another soul in sight. It was sort of like coming upon a pay phone in the middle of the desert. We dug out our dimes and began feeding the fish.

After a few minutes this truck rolled along and assured us we were not overfeeding the trout.
There were little fellows and big ones.
Afterwards we kept looking for the Point of Historical Interest. I kept saying, "We're missing the point!" and "I still don't see the point!" The kids groaned at me.

Finally we found the point. Moccasin Power House. Part of the Hetch Hetchy water system that quenches San Francisco's thirst. The Hetch Hetchy valley is said to have rivaled Yosemite in beauty before it was flooded. So we saw the point.

The girls found this a pointless detour.
They enjoyed the fish, though.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The City of Berkeley's Best Kept Secret is a Three-Hour Drive Away

Berkeley Tuolumne Camp is a parents' paradise in a breathtaking setting.
Each cabin boasts a big deck, so take your pick: A bed under the stars...

...or inside the cozy cabin.

Don't worry about lugging: Strapping young guys known as Mait Dogs lug all your luggage from the car to the cabin.

Entertaining the kids? Taken care of. Here's Ev taking in the treasure trove of possibilities before signing up for macrame, pottery, archery, talent show, hiking, et cetera.

If nothing appeals there's always just playing and having the run of the 14-acre wooded oasis.
For preschoolers there's Kiddie Kamp. Three sessions per day of crafts and stories and a children/staff ratio to die for.

Greta never wanted to leave.

Bells announce the three fantastically delicious meals each day. Ok, I'm lying. The meals were not fantastically delicious. And I'm going to stop trying to use all of the 10 Tiredest and Cheesiest Phrases in Travel Writing even if this is a sun-dappled must-see vacation destination. (That's eight out of ten!)

Really, this place was so awesome I'm as gooey as the cheddar on our tacos about it.

The food was fine camp food and the kids bolted in at the bell so hungry they bolted everything and bolted out to play again. It took them four days to realize that dessert was served every night. They'd never stuck around long enough to get it.

Coffee was available all day. I was actually biting my nails about this before I got there. What if I'm up at 6:30? Will I have to wait for breakfast at 8am for coffee?? I needn't have worried. At Berkeley's jewel in the Sierras (that's 9!) they get the coffee thing.

And there's even cereal and pbjs for kids who don't like the meals. And a store where you can open a tab and the kids can saunter up and order one popsicle or box of nerds each day.

This oasis near Yosemite boasts luxury resort touches (sorry!), but also a bona fide camping experience complete with obligatory big bugs in the bathroom.

Ev and Clem immediately identified this exotic lady as a parasitic wasp. (I had to resort to calling a wasp exotic, but I got all 10. I guess I was lying that I was going to stop. But now I'm done.)

Anyway, that long "stinger" is a zinc-tipped ovipositor for laying eggs in the larvae of tree beetles. She was 5 inches long from tip of antennae to end of ovipositor. (For more info watch Life in the Undergrowth.)

There was a Talent Show and Bingo Night.
Here are Ev and friend Sasha stage fighting.
There was swimming at the swimming hole and jumping off Beaverhead Rock.

All of which gave me plenty of time to work at my desk in the woods. And I did not work on cheesy travel writing. See my manuscript on the desk? And there was coffee aplenty to fuel the work. And no internet connection to distract me from my work. The only activity that really tempted me was ping pong but I couldn't find anyone to play with. So I got a lot of writing done.
It was like the Writers Retreat I have often dreamed of, except that when I was done writing I got to play with the kids and hike to waterfalls. And help them save a baby bat.

This near paradise lacked: Mike, cappuccinos, a good bed. I'll bring a better bed next time. And maybe my espresso machine. And Mike if he promises not to talk me into playing ping pong instead of writing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

All Four Love

We've been away camping for most of a week. We spent part of it at an earthly paradise called Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp. More about that later when the van is unpacked.

Clem brought along her Wreck This Journal journal.

She enjoyed burning it...
tearing it...

...making tongue paintings after eating jolly ranchers and otherwise indulging herself in the mildly transgressive invitation to deface a book every way imaginable.

Actually, I am not sure she got the transgressive nature of the book. It was just a fun activity book.

She was startled to find a "spit your coffee on this page" page. I had to explain that this was actually a book for grownups. That it was supposed to help free their creativity to treat a book this way. After she threw the book from a high place she said she had a hard time imagining a grownup doing that.

I was flipping through her journal and I came across this transgressive invitation and her response.

She caught me snapping a photo.
Clem: Why are you taking a picture of that page?
Me: I liked your four-letter word.
Clem: Oh. It was the only one I could think of.

Imagine a world--a world of traffic jams, computer glitches, lost keys, telephone solicitors--where the only four letter word people could think of was love.

Go on. Imagine. I'll wait.

I asked Mike to imagine such a world and he said it would be @#*&-ing boring.

Greta (who is 4) also doesn't have trouble thinking of four letter words. After cooler water spilled in her car seat she stamped her foot and said, "The darn and the heck!"

Where could this angel hear things like that?

Heck and darn, it must be from me. I gave up all my other four letter words for love.

Friday, August 14, 2009


A friend and I took our 6 kids on a ferry trip and an octopus wrapped its tentacles around the children's heads. Entirely true. Read on.

And it was not the only monster to snare us.
We started off at Jack London Square. The ferry to San Francisco takes you right past the Port of Oakland where huge cranes drag cocooned cargo off ships like praying mantises snatching caterpillars.

Our destination was the Maritime National Historic Park. Yes. I am still stuck on the history thing. Trying to turn over all the stones right here.

Greta tried out her muscle against Rosie's.
First stop, a submarine, the U.S.S. Pampanito.
You can actually spend a night on this sub...but I'll pass. P.U. it still smells like 75 guys are living there for 80 days at a time without seeing the light of day...or a shower. Even though there was a shower. The Underwood typewriter was the only thing that really called to me.

Next stop Hyde Street Pier which has several historic ships. Even the bathroom has maritime facts like: sailors' time honored dislike of inside toilets and preference for answering the call of nature by hanging off the bowsprit remains a major cause of drowning at sea.

The Balclutha is packed with the cargo it used to carry and other engaging exhibits. I was a sucker for the old canned fruit labels and the story of California's second gold rush (exporting wheat).

This is when a monster ensnared me. Everyone was tired, my friend suggested we go home. But I couldn't stop--we had to do it all.

We fortified ourselves with the obligatory bowls of clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls and swam through the crowds to the Aquarium of the Bay.

I love the Aquarium of the Bay. It used to be a Tourist Trap called Shark Attack! You can still see a chewed up surfboard in the first room. But it was bought by a non-profit and hey, admission is half off if you have a membership with a reciprocal zoo or aquarium.

My favorite thing is the top right photo below. They've put a window in a skate egg so you can see the developing skates inside. The little skates have yolk sacs attached to their bellies. Greta loved the pink anemone decorated crab at top left.

Everything was going swimmingly...well, the kids were obviously tired and trying to stop the moving walkway by gripping the railings and pressing their feet against it...but still, things were going pretty well octopus engulfed our children.

The octopus tank has a tunnel beneath it with a glass bubble. As the kids were looking the octopus came out of hiding and wrapped itself around the bubble. Greta was a little alarmed, then thrilled. Clementine saw the octopus's beak. A lady next to me oohed and aahed and said it was a once in a lifetime experience. Well, it was pretty great.

After that we had to go see the sea lions. Yes, even after the octopus released the kids I was still ensnared by a drive to do it all. Well, not really. I would have taken pirates up on the offer of a ride. But we had some time to kill before the ferry left anyway.

The ferry ride home was at least 10 times long as the one there, ok, maybe just 10 minutes longer. It had an extra stop. But it felt like forever.

To keep the kids from running all around the ship (because they'd already been reprimanded 3 times) we played 20 questions on things we had seen that day.
Greta did the skate in the egg sac, Ephraim, the torpedoes on the submarine, Evelyn, the bay, Yasha, a big paddle wheel, Clem the chowder.

Yep. We had seen a lot. Too much for one day.
Note to self: Know when to call it quits.
It'll still be there.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Fish Story

Naturally it was right at bedtime when Greta came running to us saying, "Evelyn's guppy has given birth! There's babies in the tank!"

The big guppies ate most of the babies, but two are now in the breeding net, safe from their hungry parents.
I am amazed at their tiny transparent fins.

And huge eyes.
This is not two, it is one looking at its reflection.
Can you see it in this jar? It is the little thing on the left near the bottom.
We wonder if they'll grow up to look like their mother:

Or their father:

Evelyn plans to breed them for traits she'll select. She got a 50 gallon tank for her birthday from her aunt and uncle and grandparents. Which is large enough that one guy claims to have kept more than 17,000 guppies in such a tank.

That doesn't seem quite humane, so thank goodness the parents eat so many of the babies.

In other Evelyn news...a long time ago the kids entered the Doodle4Googler contest. Evelyn was a finalist and got a Nintendo DS and what is much more exciting, her own logo printed on a shirt.
Here she is sporting the logo she designed. The theme was "What I Want for the World."
"I want the world to get bigger. My doodle shows people leaving earth to colonize other planets. We need to go to other planets so that we have enough room to expand while preserving and even restoring habitat for the animals that we have been pushing out of their homes."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gold Mine

It was Jan. 24 1848. One worker wrote in his diary, "This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald, first discovered by James Martial, the boss of the mill."

I don't know about you, but I have a weakness for the days before spelling standardization. Mettle and goald add a glimmer of richness to the story. Even Marshall's name wasn't a matter for standard spelling. And why should it be? I've never understood why my 8th grade teachers objected to me spelling my name Psiouxsan. They soon found it wasn't a battle worth fighting. Unlike the miners. They kept digging and panning and hoping, though few struck it rich.

The museum at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park makes much of the horrible conditions endured by the miners who flocked to the American River. Scorching heat...frigid water....

which is exactly why we come here. The scorching heat, 100F last weekend, makes the frigid water feel pleasant... we paddle the South Fork of the American River.

The kids have their own ideas about why we go.

High on their list are the blackberries. We eddy out and gorge on them many times during the 4.5 miles of class II whitewater. But there is also the one lane bridge that connects the campground to the heart of Marshall Gold Discovery Park.

The kids cram their pockets with a few dollars and cross the bridge to another time. They pan for gold, lick $1 ice cream, suck 5 cent candies, watch sparks fly at the hot as heck Blacksmith's Shop, and pretend to grind corn on a rock bluff overlooking bark dwellings.
(Go ahead, click on it!)

Stray kittens at the campsite added to the excitement. We can't have them at home (achoo!) so the girls thought it was heaven to put out dishes of milk for the scrawny beasts.

We arrived home late Sunday night and turned around the next morning to drive to Monterey. We usually go there to see the aquarium and this time was no different.

I love these barnacles attached to a glass buoy.

But because we are on a history bender we caught the 10:30am tour of historic Monterey.

Where we learned that when James Marshall spotted that nugget of goald California was not yet a state.

It had been less than two years since Commodore John Drake Sloat ran the American flag up this pole in Monterey claiming a territory 3 times the size of present day California for the United States.
The flag was a 28-star version.

28 Star Flag

When the United States staked its claim to California there were a few thousand non-native people here and half a million head of cattle.

For a time before the U.S. claimed California every single item imported to California passed through the Custom House in Monterey.
The lentils and beans and desks and tea kettles and soap came in...

...and the cow hides went out. See them stacked in the back there?
And what do you suppose they were used for?
Well, yes, but not the kind that held up the pants of rancheros.

Big strapping belts like this...

...that turned the wheels of Europe's Industrial Revolution.
Of course, Monterey was not untouched by James Marshall's eureka moment. When word spread American soldiers, the sailors in the ports, the rancheros, basically everybody of sound body, ran for them thar hills with gold in 'em.
One Monterey resident griped that there wasn't a bowl left in Monterey to wash your hands in. They all headed northeast as gold pans.

Monterey's abandoned homes were bought or leased by whalers...
A kettle for melting whale blubber....

The bricks give you an idea of its size.
Whale bones lie about all around in Monterey. This sidewalk is even made of them...
..made of whale vertebrae cut into diamonds.

One of the things I like best about learning history is how it brings place names to life. I always wondered what was up with Placer County and Placerville. What is up with it is placer mining.
And I never stopped to wonder why we have a Portola valley.
But I feel so happy to know. It makes me feel connected to the past. It makes my everyday life richer to think about the people who were here before.

Sigh. History is such a gold mine.