Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Third Day of School

Wow--it's been sticky and hot in Las Vegas! By 8:50, out on playground duty, I was already feeling the sweat trickle down the side of my face. It felt like Maryland on a bad summer day. We'll all be very happy to return to our "dry heat." But, we've already settled into a sense of routine with the fourth grade. The students adjusted quickly to the classroom rotation. In fact, I had one fellow tell me, as we walked to the crosswalk together, "It makes the day go by quickly when you change teachers."

And, I received a great compliment today: someone told me that their brother was right! Mrs. [Earthsignmama] is the funnest fourth grade teacher! (We'll work on that grammar....) Thanks! It's funny, too, because they've done a lot of work in my room in just three days. And I haven't skimped on the rules at all. In fact, these first few weeks, I'm extra hard on the rules, just so no one gets any ideas about what they can get away with.

After the traffic patrol, I went back to the classroom, picked up my purse, and drove up to a contract ratification meeting for the teacher's union. We listened to a question and answer session with the negotiating team, cast our votes, and I finally got home--eleven hours after I left home this morning. Sigh. Soooo sweaty, firmly stuck to my skin.

I peeled it all off, and jumped into the pool.'s even better than the shower, because in the pool, gravity is rescinded. My feet don't hurt. They don't have to do anything but flap along at the end of my legs. Awwwwwwww...KitKat lolled on the lawn and watched me cavort about, sighing loudly. I turned on the hot tub, and went inside to eat.

CoolGuy left for Maryland on Monday, so I've been home alone. I've eaten leftovers all week. I come home, feed the cat, get into the pool, go in and eat, go out to the hot tub, go back inside and crawl into bed. Maybe it's good to be home alone this week. I'm too tired to be sociable.

Tomorrow, we saddle up and ride out again. Hopefully, the humidity will be lower, and this year's monsoon season will end soon. Really anticipating the return of dry....

Monday, August 26, 2013

Another First Day In the Rear View Mirror

Survived it again! The First Day of School! And I left the building at 5:00, too. I knew that I needed to buy milk, and pick up drinking water and then I was going to lie on the couch, and possibly not get back up till morning. But, instead I fed the KittyCat and myself, and then soaked in the hot tub to sooth my aching feet and legs. Nothing new there---aching feet and legs---that is always a feature of the first day of school.

This year, in vivid contrast to last year, we fourth grade teachers each only have 23 students, so far. WOW! That is so terrific!! We had 26 on our rosters, but only 23 have appeared. Even if we end up with the 26, that still beats last year's 32! It is absolutely amazing what a difference it makes without those extra bodies in the room. There is no way to tell if there is going to be any stand-out hoodlums this year, but there certainly is a lot of really nice children.

But, the most striking part of this day was the weather. There has been a big tropical storm churning its way north along the Baja Penninsula, sending moisture and clouds all the way into our dry desert city. On Friday, it was 106 degrees, with the whisperings of higher humidity. Sunday, big rainstorms dumped on the western side of the Las Vegas valley, creating flash floods, blocking some streets and pushing little mudslides down the hilly areas. We got a few sprinkles over here on the far eastern slope. But this morning, it was only 78 degrees, with 66% humidity. It felt like San Diego out there. The air was silky smooth and soft on my skin. It wasn't uncomfortable at all, like on Friday or Saturday, with the humidity and the temperature high enough to feel bad. It was extremely pleasant to be outside, in fact.

That is, until enough smatterings of raindrops convinced the principal to call off outside recess because of the look of the weather radar. She really can't afford to have a couple of hundred kids playing outside if a drenching storm suddenly rolls over to our side of town. So, that was unfortunate for all of us. We're hoping that tomorrow will be a little more normal for this time of year. But not too normal. That would mean the temperatures would be over 100.

Tonight, when I was out soaking, I noticed that most of the clouds are gone, (it was solid gray overcast all day) and the stars were coming out. The weather report says it'll get up into the 90's tomorrow, and the rest of the week. The tropical storm has calmed down; now there is just a large swath of rain moving up through Arizona and heading into Colorado. But, I really enjoyed that little Southern Cali day we had here. Not too warm, a little moist---all that was missing was the scent of the ocean.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Payoff

All week school parking lots have been crowded with teacher's cars. All over the city, we have been busily unpacking the closets, loading up the bookcases, and stapling paper on the bulletin boards. We didn't have to be back, officially, until Wednesday. But many of us have dropped by a couple of weeks ago to pick up our keys and start the flurry of activity that can completely absorb 12 hours of your day if you don't watch out. Even Coolguy gets into the act with me by setting up my computers and organizing the tangle of wires and plugs so that my students can go on-line and practice their typing skills and do research.  He even cheerfully helped our two new Kindergarten teachers by using his wrenching skills to lower their student tables. The custodian was completely swamped and I knew CoolGuy could have it done in less than an hour. He's on their list of Awesome Dudes.

School starts on Monday, but we had open house Friday from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M. That is when parents and children can come in and meet their teachers and find their homerooms. My students always ask where they have to sit because they don't see name tags on the desks. I reply that they get to choose their own seat the first week. Then, I point out to the parents how that allows me to figure out what the seating arrangement really needs to be, by separating people who are too great of friends and can't get a grip on the chatting...

One former student from last year dropped in to say hi, and he was accompanied by his older brother who was in my fourth grade six years ago. Now the older brother is going into his sophomore year of high school. We see one another fairly often because he walks over to the school to walk his younger brother home most days, and I'm the crossing guard. So, we've maintained a relationship. Plus, these brothers were both eager students who were witty and polite, so it's easy to stay friends.

I asked how he was doing, and he said fine, and then added something that I didn't expect. He said, "I really liked your class, [Mrs. Earthsignmama] because it was always so fun and interesting. I really learned a lot and got good at writing. My freshman English teacher last year wasn't very good, and I kept thinking that I wished you could come over and show her how to do it."  Wow! That was delightful to hear!

Just that morning, in a staff meeting, our principal had asked us to think of a great teacher we could recall from our school years. Then, we were to tell our table mates why that person was a standout and how they made us feel. Her point was that we have so much power in the lives of our students. We need to always remember that and be someone from whom they can feel love and acceptance, and then they'll be more likely to listen and learn.

So here was my former student standing there, not twenty or forty years later, but just a few years, telling me that I was someone who had meant something in his life and that my efforts had been appreciated and accepted. It is a great way to start out my eighteenth year of teaching 4th grade.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Top of the Pass

Whenever our family has traveled to visit the Grandmas there is an obligatory photo. No, not with the relatives we've driven so far to spend time with, but on a particular rock, at the top of the pass. As one drives into the beautiful valley where both CoolGuy and I were born and raised, the first glimpse can be taken from a pull-out on the flat part where the highway department has made almost a parking lot to enable that view. It can be used to check your brakes before starting down the steep incline as you head north, or south. But most of us use it to stop and gape at the remarkable view of the mountains and the valley they surround.

I always like to pull off the highway up there and look around. The mountains on the east side are as familiar and dear as my own parents were all those years we came "home" to visit. Unlike humans, though, the mountains never age or die. They're still there, evoking an emotion I can barely articulate, but is manifested by an involuntary sigh of relief whenever I stand there looking at them. I haven't lived there in more than forty years, but something about their very existence makes me feel safe, secure and at ease. 

For years, I thought I was weird because of this reaction when I see that view up on the summit. But then, I read the story of another man's first sight there, and realized that perhaps my response wasn't too far off. He told of growing up in the eastern United States, finishing college, and then later moving to California where he met a woman whose home town was in our valley. They developed a relationship and finally, she brought him home to visit her elderly parents. In his recounting, he was skeptical of the description of her Wyoming childhood home, and frankly, thought she was just experiencing the effects of nostalgia. They climbed the winding narrow highway on the south end of the summit, passing beaver ponds and stands of aspen trees. They eventually reached the top, and she stopped the car because he demanded it. He stepped out and looked at the scene spread out before him and was stunned. He described it as better than she had described. It was like Shangri La to him. He couldn't believe that something that lovely could be a real place. They ended up moving there and starting a business. He is a professional musician, so he finds ways to perform and occasionally teaches others. But his reaction to that view from the top really impressed me. Hmmm...I'm not alone.

Now, about those photos. We've often stopped and taken one with the kids. Some summers, we took them with grandchildren! And it was amusing, because one of the features of the photo op is that, over the years, there is usually someone not too delighted to be posing there.  So, below are a series of photos from the many, many stops at the Rock at the Top of the Pass.

 July 1991
(One son was already in Wyoming.)
 July 1991
July 1992
August 2004
  May 2006
 March 2007
August 2008
Sometimes, it's just not what someone wants to do.
Your cooperation is not required...just your presence.

Summer 2013


Friday, August 16, 2013

Mojave Serenity

When people go to the desert, they see this:

Long vistas of desolation...

Sparse plant life scattered among the rocks and sand. Virtually no animal life at all.
However, if you go to the desert at night, prepared to be there, it is a whole different world. When we arrived in Tecopa on Sunday night, the sky was still blue, although the sun had set. The glow from behind the western mountains faded gently, but steadily. We took our belongings into our room, and then came out to watch the stars appear one by one, then thousands in a rush as the sunset was finally extinguished. The quarter moon was nearing the edge of the sky and by 11:00 P.M. it, too, was no longer visible leaving behind the black dome that glittered more brilliantly than the Strip we'd left behind us.
I hadn't seen the Milky Way in such a long time that I'd forgotten that it almost looks like a series of clouds arching across the roof of the world. We could pick out entire constellations and tell the different planets because of the colors blinking at us from outer space. We watched a satellite zooming eastward, a tiny steady bright light traveling in an arc across the sky. The Big Dipper was so brilliant and hung so low it nearly touched the northern horizon.
It was so quiet. We spoke to each other in soft voices. We could not hear traffic or insects. After we ate our dinner, we walked over to the mineral spring/hot tub building that was part of our complex. CoolGuy used his red-light flashlight to illuminate the gravel road because my feet don't navigate rough surfaces too well. We slipped into the silky warm mineral water. Since the water comes from a spring, there isn't a pump, so even this experience was still and quiet. After about 20 minutes, we decided to drive out to a public pool along Furnace Creek Road about  a mile from the buildings.
Amazingly, it was more quiet than out there. This time we were far enough away from the compounds that we couldn't hear the swamp coolers. It was a perfectly still night, not even a whisper of breeze. Someone, long ago, poured a cement tub with steps and a hand rail so that one of the springs would have a defined pool. There are a couple of palm trees growing on the western side of the pool and someone has parked a very comfy sofa along the edge under the palms. We were all alone, so we disrobed and climbed into the warm pool under the stars. Warm water, total silence, and billions of stars. Periodically a  shooting star would flash overhead. Soon, two bats joined us, swooping just over our heads to snatch the little flying things that were attracted to the water. As we'd driven up to the pool, a kangaroo rat ran across the road in front of us. So, with the bats and the bugs, it was rather lively out there. Totally silent, but lively.
We watched the sky for another half hour, then climbed out and dried off and dressed. It seemed so noisy when we turned on the truck motor, and the headlights were spectacularly bright. We slowly drove along the gravel ruts and returned to the highway. It was just a half mile to the driveway of the compound. When we parked in front of our cabin, we spread out sleeping bags in the truck bed, and laid there watching as a few more meteors flashed across the sky. We realized that we were nodding off, so finally around 2:00 A.M. we surrendered and went in to the comfy bed.
The next morning, it was back to the harsh, barren world of desert rock and small prickly plants. The sun was glaring down, the temperature was creeping upward and once again, I began to feel small and vulnerable. We happily got into our air conditioned modern vehicle and pondered the stamina of those people who, 200 years ago, first trudged through this area, mapping the Old Spanish Trail for which the highway was named. We drove along at 60 mph and marveled at their determination as they rode their horses and packed their supplies on mules over yet another range of mountains that only led them into yet another barren alkali valley floor. Apparently, there are enough small springs spaced within 20 to 30 miles on the path they pursued that they finally made it over the final range of mountains that led them into the Los Angeles basin.
But, next time you are driving southwest toward the ocean, I recommend taking a break. Spend a night in the desert at one of the many oasis outposts like Tecopa or China Ranch. To appreciate the fragile beauty and subtle wonders of the desert, you'll need to be far away from the noises and illumination of civilization, so it isn't enough to just get out of your car in say...Baker. Go way out in the far reaches of the desolation, so that you can hear the quiet and see every star. Sit still and appreciate the wonders of serenity.  Night in the desert is soothing and calm. I recommend it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Not A Promise, But a Pretty Good Time

About ten years ago in the summer, I was driving from Maryland to the West to visit family, and as we crossed eastern Utah there was a sign along the highway. It was one of those triangular yellow caution signs and it had a silhouette of a large bird with wings outstretched, and the words, "Caution: bald eagles on road." Well, needless to say, I was thrilled and kept my eyes peeled for them. Eventually, there was a rest stop where we pulled in to "rest" and then I asked the woman who was at an information booth there about the eagles. I complained that I didn't see any, and she laughed. "I hear that complaint often---it isn't a promise, it's a caution." It seemed that in the winter, there is a fair amount of roadkill along that hilly stretch and the eagles come to scavenge some dinner. Because of the limited views, vehicles would come upon a group unexpectedly and there were a series of collisions with the big birds as they were hunkered over the carcasses. No one wants to kill a bald eagle, because they are protected and the national symbol. Also, they are quite large and could cause some damage to a smaller car, not to mention the possibility of a wreck as the driver tries to avoid the collision in a panic. Hence....the warning signs.

Well, I experienced another "not a promise" event this week as we traveled out to the desert to watch the meteor shower. We decided to head west toward Death Valley to find the dark night sky. There is a small town (well...that's a stretch--there are a few buildings) called Tecopa with a natural hot springs and cozy cabins you can rent. We've stayed there before. The mineral springs are very lovely, and in the winter, the place is filled with tourists (mostly geezers) who come from many nations to soak. It is also very, very dark at night. We arrived after dark. We set up our chairs in the courtyard and looked at the sky. It was stunning! I forget how many stars are up there because in the city (especially this one) most of the night sky is obscured by the lights from below. We saw the Milky Way and several constellations: Scorpio, Perseus and naturally, the Big Dipper. We could even find the Little Dipper. By midnight a few shooting stars had begun. We saw several long-tailed meteorites strike a glowing path across the sky. But, despite our staying up till nearly 2:00 A.M. we didn't experience the meteor "shower" that was heralded.

Another part of our journey toward the desert wasteland was this sign:

To get out of Las Vegas driving west, you pass through a National Recreation Area called Red Rocks. It is a marvel of nature, just over the hill from the Marvel of Hedonism. It is also, allegedly,  home to wild burros. Hence, the caution sign. They randomly roam all over and are known to cross the road in their leisurely amble. However, in my many trips out to this beautiful natural site, I've never seen a wild burro. I'd love to see wild burros!  In fitting tribute to our "almost" meteor shower, I actually saw one wild burro on this journey! I almost missed him, but there he was, all alone, grazing about halfway up the hill as we rounded a curve.

I guess, the moral to my story is to realize that life is filled with "not a promise" events. However, you should still enjoy the journey and find things to delight in, nevertheless. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the quiet.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Supervisor

There isn't a thing that is done around here without  proper supervision. The supervisor's latest job was on Friday afternoon when CoolGuy mowed the lawn.

I came out to dig weeds from the garden bed, so that I could just toss them onto the lawn and they could be chopped up into the lawn mower bag, then added to the composter.

Who else was out there -- supervising?  Of course you know...

CoolGuy pointed out that she was checking the height and density standards and making sure that he'd cut it to the correct specifications. Also she was testing the moisture content and seeing if the soil was adequately aerated. There's a lot of pressure around here for nearly every routine chore because of the intense level of monitoring we receive. Believe me, we pay attention to detail. 

Sunday, August 04, 2013


I blame Ron Johnson. Or, maybe he should get the credit...This week I did some mending. Doesn't that sound quaint? CoolGuy came into our room to see me seated in the rocking chair, needle and thread in hand, stitching up the holes in one of my long skirts. (I accidentally rolled over it with my desk chair at school and tried to pull up the skirt without realizing it was trapped.) He looked at me for a second and said, "What are you doing?" And we both cracked up when I replied, "Why mending, of course!"

It's only hilarious because it seemed so pioneery or so grandmotherly. I used to "mend" all the time when we were first married and when the children were little. But the binge I got on this week was quite epic. Why is it Ron Johnson's fault? He's the one who made it so hard to buy shirts for CoolGuy. When J.C. Penney hired him to be the CEO in November 2011, his genius idea was to revamp the whole operation. He did away with "sales" and touted everything to be at every-day-discounts, but, duh...people shop for sales. Then, he also eliminated several lines of clothing that the store had sold forever, and put in some new lines to appeal to the hip kids. I didn't mind the lack of sales, so much. But I really minded being unable to buy the brand and style of shirts that CoolGuy has worn for a really long time. Just more proof that we're so not hip... Anyway, since I could no longer just walk in and pick out a couple of new shirts from the rack, CoolGuy's shirts were beginning to look a bit worn.

He has simple needs: two front pockets (one for his phone, one for his glasses and pens); no button down collars; 100% cotton; short sleeves. Seems simple, huh? But I couldn't buy them any more at Penney's. They'd discontinued those shirts by the maker from whom I'd been buying them for about fifteen years. Then, a couple of months ago, CoolGuy went on-line and discovered that he could still buy the long-sleeved version, by the same maker. And they were on sale! He bought three new shirts and the plan was for me to take them to my friend, the good seamstress, and pay her to turn them into short sleeved shirts.

Well, as I sat there mending my skirt, I got rather enthused about mending other things. I replaced the missing buttons on some shirts. I re-hemmed a pair of pants. Then, I got out my ancient sewing machine and sewed the torn belt loop back onto a pair of my jeans. Which led to patching my favorite pair of motorcycle jeans. Which then led to CoolGuy's pile of worn shirts. Really, the worst part of them all was the shabby collars. So, I promptly plucked out the stitches holding the collar to the neck band and turned the collar over and sewed it back on. Five times, on five shirts. And I repaired a torn sleeve on his denim shirt with a patch so clever that I'm sure my own mother---the best jeans fixer in the world---was nodding with a smile up there in heaven.

I was on fire! So, I got out those new shirts, and cut off those sleeves and pressed and hemmed them into new short sleeved shirts myself! So, now CoolGuy has a closet lined with eight newly renovated shirts that he can wear, and I don't have to worry about whether or not the new CEO of J.C. Penney is ever going to bring back our favorite brands. And, I have a pleasant (practically unseemly) sense of accomplishment about all the newly repaired clothing I have in my home. It almost seems like I'm a young mother again, thrifty and clever and industrious. It'll pass, I'm sure. I still haven't tackled the icky refrigerator, but I'd better get on it. Only two more weeks till I go back to thinking about 4th grade 24/7.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Reunion Round-up

Since most of my "audience" is related to me, I trust I am not boring you with family reunion stories. It's just that we had a very nice one this summer (most of the credit goes to my youngest sister and her husband) and there were several parts of it that I enjoyed.

First, we'd really planned to hold it at a nearby community park. However, because we also had a number of other BIG EVENTS pending for this summer, we ended up not booking the park, even though we thought we had...So, we had the party at my sister's house. It's a ridiculously awesome home. It was built by her late husband, who was a very fine carpenter. It's actually made of logs, but it would not be appropriate to describe it as a "cabin." It has three stories, and is practically a museum of taxidermy. It is really lovely, and the yard around it is equally lovely, so when we were "stuck" having the reunion there, it wasn't actually a problem.

It also gave us an extra little punctuation to the whole day, because my sister and her husband have also signed up on a website called AirBnB. When you open the site, it lists all the places where you can get accommodations: Paris, Buenos Aires, Boston, Miami, etc. etc. They live in Smoot. It is basically a ZIP code. There is a small store/post office and many people live on farms there. But, that day, in the early afternoon, two young men from Southern California rode their motorcycles into the driveway, and arrived to stay in her basement for the night. They were on the way to visit Jackson Hole and Yellowstone Park. She'd told them in an email conversation that she was hosting a family party that day, and that she might only have a space on the floor for sleeping bags...did they really want to stay? Oh, yes, that was fine by them. No problem. Actually, there are very few other places to stay in that area for about a hundred miles. So, the two pleasant fellows got plates, piled them with fried chicken, potluck salads, and filled their cups with homemade root beer and found a cool spot under the shade trees and watched the interesting spectacle of a traditional family reunion. One of my other sisters remarked later that it was entirely appropriate to have them there, because it was a rare summer day when my mother didn't end up setting another place or two at the dinner table (served at 1:00P.M.) for either wandering strangers in need, or relatives who'd strategically dropped by just in time.

Another part of the reunion that was especially enjoyable was the horse riding. There were four or five horses saddled, and they were in continuous use for hours. One of my nephew is married to a serious Wyoming girl. My sister jokes that her dowry was four hunting dogs, two rifles and a horse--it was a match made in  heaven for her son. But she graciously spent most of her day supervising all the little city relatives who were really thrilled to be able to ride a horse. I walked around the pasture several times leading one of them while my seven year old grandson was perched on the saddle. Other people would ride with their tiny one or, an older child with a little equine experience would ride with a smaller sibling or cousin. There was a line up for at least two hours of mostly girls, waiting for their turn. In fact, there were more than a few tears over having to give up their turn because someone else had been waiting patiently for quite a while. It was adorable. But one of the most adorable participants was the just-turned five year old daughter of my nephew whose own horse was being used for this adventure. This little doll was dressed in her jeans, pink cowgirl boots and --- wait for it --- spurs. She is a pro, really! She barrel races on this big old draft horse, so she had great skill and was the expert at giving rides to her many excited relatives.

This photo gives you a better perspective of how adorable these boots were:

This is my boot and leg standing next to them. She is a born-to-it Wyoming cowgirl.
There were other fine things that made the day so great. For instance,  my brother-in-law went out into the field next to the yard, and pitched a bucket of tennis balls to every single little cousin who wanted to try and hit homers. The rest of the cousins were the fielders.

Then, a group of the big kids from the Second Crop went over to that park we ended up not booking and had a real softball game to indulge their competitive needs. These were the parents of the little ones you see in these photos.
There was a whole series of games based on the Minute-to-Win It format--picking up Tic Tacs with tweezers, balancing dice on tongue depressor, tossing tennis balls into a bucket balanced on a partner's head. It was hilarious! Names were drawn from a container and the match ups were divine.
I could have just spent most of my time watching the tiniest family members (we had seven babies born since our last meet up!) Five of these little folks were in attendance, and they were all attracted to a flower bed that was filled with pea-sized gravel alongside the steps to the deck. There's a lot of entertainment in watching someone who has just learned to walk pick up hands full of rocks and throw them as hard as he can. Over and over. And, sitting there with a plastic spoon and a cup, scooping up rocks and dumping them back out, is all a kid needs to do on nice summer day.
As much as the girls were attracted to the horses, the boys of the corresponding ages were drawn to the four wheelers. Driving! There was a continual stream of kids with a very brave parent as a passenger wheeling up and down the gravel road into the canyon past my sister's house. I realize that in my family, we were fine with horses until the little brothers got old enough to lobby for dirt bikes. Something about the wheels and the motors are irresistible for boys. I still love horses. But, hey, I'm a girl, right?
In conclusion...I thnk that one reason this reunion was so much fun was that we were all "home" again--in the place where we First Croppers were all born and raised. We were enjoying simple pleasures: marshmallows around the campfire, riding horses, eating the food we all remembered from our mother's table. We had a chance to just talk and the kids could play all kinds of things: trampoline, swingset, board games. It was amazingly casual for the attendees. We all pitched in and helped with the food and the set up and clean up, and (I think my sister felt a little overwhelmed...) but everyone who came had a really great time and felt a little closer to one another at the end. And that was the whole point when we set out to have this annual event seven years ago. We decided then,at the conclusion of our mother's funeral, that we should honor our parents by keeping family ties knit together by choice and not by chance. It's been working so far, and I hope we can continue for years to come.