Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Photos part 2

I feel so lucky to live where there is so much wildlife.  Our woods and the lake is teeming this time of year.

We found this dragonfly nymph shell by the dock where we take our daily walks.

Here is an adult in our garden.

I found this little mantis on the caladium.

This baby eastern box turtle was just sitting there at the bottom of the hill.  It had just hatched out and is completely on its own.  

I can strike out at just about any time and find cool animals making there ways in the world.  Ahhh, summer.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Photos part 1

A while ago, my friend Chris began a photo blog using ordinary pictures from life.  I liked the idea.  You can get a steady stream of observations out there from every day experiences.  No muss, not much fuss.  Also, you can leave a lot of the interpretation up to the viewer.  I thought I might try my hand at it for a while - mixed in with other longer ramblings about politics, teacher life, poetry, memoir, and, hopefully, more acts of fiction.

If you want to see real photographs, taken by talented photographers on a regular basis, check out An Instant Out of Time and The Daily Grind.  These folks will school you about great photography.  My posts will be nothing like theirs.  Just little snaps of a life.

Here are a few recent pics from the phone camera.

No offense, and I hope that this doesn't give too much away about my character, but does this make you want to jump improperly?  And what gives with the quotes?  Was this from someone's famous speech or something?

Just a little shot with my Duck Bros.  We met at a Bass Pro Shop.  We pretty much see eye-to-eye on everything.

Here are three little takes on the same bumper/window sticker genre.

OK, Mom, Dad, 5 kids.  Probably 4 boys.  They kept trying until they had a little girl.  Score!  Bless Mom's heart.  Very Christian.  Wants the world to know.

Mom, Dad.  My friend Chris suggested that the older kid probably died.  One surviving child.  A dog and a cat.

May favorite of the genre.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Two of the Very Best Teachers

I met Maurice Sendak, or rather his books, when I was about 19.   I was doing a teaching internship in the classroom of Daniel Baron, who would become one of most important mentors, along with being a good friend.  I did a stint in a four-year-old classroom with Daniel. 

It was at a point in my life where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  I didn’t want to continue on my course of study for nursing.  I made a bunch of money working in the steel mill in the summertime, I was thinking of just taking some time out, taking a year off to explore my options.  After all, my dad worked in the mill and it turned out to be a good career for him.  He and my mom – on a school teacher’s salary – raised 7 kids.  Maybe the mill wasn’t such a bad thing. 

I was talking to my university advisor at the time, Mary Nessler, and she suggested that I take an internship in an early childhood classroom.  But not just any classroom.  She would check to see if Daniel had an opening in his class.  He did.  It saved me. 

It wasn’t just what Daniel did with kids that made me love teaching, it was who he was with children.  He was careful, loving, gentle, emotional, kind.  He let kids be kids.  And he invited me into his world of rich, joyful teaching and learning.  We were friends right from the start.  When he saw something cool that a child had done, he immediately shared it with me.  When there was something funny, he’d look over their heads at me and share a secret smile. 

When I made some blunder or had underestimated the kids by talking down to them, he asked a well-placed question or simply gave me things to think about.  He taught me the difference between convergent questions (ones in which I was seeking a single specific answer) and divergent ones (questions with opportunities to think broadly and creatively).  He took the time to nurture his students – and I include myself in that number.  Because he assumed, way before I did, that I was to become a teacher. 

And he read books, and books, and books to the children.  He taught me the power of reading to and with kids.  He showed me how to lay the foundation for literacy by loving books and characters and authors right out loud.  I guess I wasn’t aware of the power of books written for little children until I fell in with Daniel. 

It was in his class of four year olds that I first heard and fell in love with Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (which would later become my first real present for my crush Heidi Mills).  Daniel invited us to laugh at the antics of The Cat In The Hat and that crazy Sam I Am from Green Eggs and Ham.   He invited us to enjoy the rich, fun language of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and many others by The Good Doctor. 

But two books became my favorites while listening to Daniel read.  There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak became staples in my early childhood classrooms for many years.  When Daniel roared his terrible roars and gnashed his terrible teeth when reading Wild Things I was as captivated as the kids.  When he helped the kids sort out reality and fantasy and helped them to understand that it’s OK and even fun to be a little bit scared in the stories we read because we know they are not real – he gave me a lesson that lives with me today as I read books aloud to children and I share in literature study with other important books. 

Daniel and I shared cards and letters for a while, but then, for the reasons (read excuses) that many of us have…  busy lives, more responsibilities, too much time has passed, etc., etc., etc.  We stopped corresponding years ago.  But the lessons I learned in that long ago and far away early childhood classroom at Hoosier Courts Preschool still linger.  What a blessing that my councilor made sure that I was placed with Daniel. 

You know how crossing the path of one person can alter your life?  I’ll bet that is true for almost all of us.  A teacher, a lover, a childhood friend, a minister, an author, a neighbor.  There are people in all of our lives who move us into a different direction, nudge us toward (or away from) something very important.  Heidi Mills is the obvious one for me.  Who knows where I’d be…

But Daniel was one of those people too. 

On a related note, Heidi came across this little interview with Maurice Sendak on Facebook and shared it with me.  I loved this man.  A Kiss for Little Bear, Chicken Soup With Rice, In the Night Kitchen, Let’s Be Enemies, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, What Do You Say Dear? and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are were some of my most important teaching resources when I taught very littles.    

Give yourself a treat.  Watch and listen.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mother's Nature's Son 2

One thing about being known as the animal guy at school, a title I'm not sure I deserve, is that people bring in all kinds of things and ask you to identify them... or if you WANT THEM.  A few years ago, during the last week of school, one of my future second grade students came up to me with his hand cupped around a piece of tissue.  "Here," he said shyly.  He opened his palm and there was a tiny, dead, male, ruby throated hummingbird.

"Wow.  Where did you get that?"

"We found it in our garage.  It was in the window."

"Thanks for sharing that with me," I said.  "That is beautiful!"  It really did brighten my day.  I mean, how many times do you get to look at one of these beautiful animals so close?  Brandon walked away.  Maybe he looked a little disappointed.

The next day he came up to me again.  "Here.  This is for you," he said.  Ah.  A present.

"I tell you what, I have a mesh bag.  Why don't we bury it in the garden outside our window.  Next fall, when you are in second grade, we'll dig it up and see if we can reassemble the skeleton."  And that's just what we did.  It took awhile, the bones were incredibly tiny, but we glued down all the bones we could find and it looked beautiful.  It is still hanging in my classroom four years later.

At the end of this last school year, one of the instructional aides asked me if I wanted a bat.  Actually, she just dropped in with it, hanging upside down in a little bug habitat.  Turns out she found it rather traumatized after a tremendous hail storm the night before.  Of course we took it for the day and watched it carefully.  It was very still all day long.  We thought it was dead, but toward the end of the school day, we saw it stretch its wings out, one after the other, papery thin and delicate.  So, it looked like it was going to live.  I took it out to the same garden where we buried the hummer and opened the lid to the enclosure.  The next day when we came back to school it was gone.  I hope it made it.

Every year in that garden, I plant fennel and parsley to attract black swallowtail and spicebush butterflies.  It never fails.  Every year we get to witness the miracle of metamorphosis first hand.  Sometimes we even get to see the adult female light on the parsley, curve her abdomen up to the underside of the leaf and lay a tiny yellow egg.  We gather eggs and miniature larvae and bring them into the classroom where we can watch them eat, and molt, and poop, and molt and then climb to the top of their enclosure, hang upside down, attach themselves with a tiny button of silk and shed their final skin revealing a small brown or green chrysalis.  We watch breathlessly as they emerge from their chrysalises with wet and crumpled wings.  They pump their swollen abdomens to fill their wings with fluid.  After a while it hardens and they are ready to take off.  While I have seen this happen dozens of times in my life as a teacher of young kids, it never ceases to amaze me, never ceases to remind me of how beautiful life is.

Where we live there are many turtles.  In the lake, near our home, there are yellow bellied sliders and spiny soft shell turtles.  We routinely find them in the road and stop for a turtle rescue, picking them up and carrying them across the road in the direction they seemed to be going.  But my favorites are the eastern box turtles.  I used to have one for a classroom pet.  For well over 20 years, Angelo trundled around a big 30 gallon tank, my instructional aide for teaching about reptiles and animals in general.  I wrote about him a couple times.  After a while I released him into the wilds of our wooded neighborhood.  He still comes around a few times a year and when we spy him, often munching on the peaches that fall to the ground from our little fruit tree, we pick him up and marvel at his health and beauty.

He is a handsome one.  While I have never seen him mating (like the shameless two below) I hope he has sired many little ones of his own.

One morning in early June while driving to work, I saw a figure in the road up ahead.  The speed limit is 45 mph at this stretch and it was coming up fast.  I pulled over and found an injured barred owl with one wing hanging limply.  I got a little pillow from my car and was approaching it to move it off the road until I could figure out what else to do with it.  It wasn't going without a fight.  As I came closer it clacked its beak at me furiously.  I could see that it was badly injured and after coaxing it to the grassy area at the roadside, it just laid down and looked up at the sky.  While I watched it seemed to relax and breathed more slowly.  Finally it stopped breathing as the breeze from the cars ruffled its feathers.

There are many kinds of lizards near our place.  We had very few where I grew up in the midwest.   We have green and brown anoles, who constantly walk back and forth across our back fence and strut their stuff looking for a mate.  The males are super territorial and will fight violently to win over the heart of a female.  When the males see each other, they extend this pinkish red dewlap from under their chin and bob up and down.  It looks comical to me, this posturing and threatening, but it is serious business to them.  Here is a little skink that is very comfortable moving in and out of our garage.

When I was planting some flowers the other day, I dug up some tiny leathery eggs.  They seemed fine, so I put them in a little flower pot on the front porch and sprinkled them with water every day.  And watched.  After several days, I spied a tiny head poking out of a hole in the ground.  Reaching my hand in, I picked up the tiniest little lizard I have ever seen.

Still, I had no idea how that little reptile could have possibly fit into that minuscule egg which was only about half an inch long.  The little ground skink looks much nicer on a leaf in the garden where I released it.

There is one more animal worth mentioning before I wrap this up.  Under Heidi's office window there is a nest of cardinals.  We have seen the mama and the daddy coming in and out with food.  And when they do, you wouldn't believe the racket.  I am afraid that they are attracting predators with all the hunger noises they make.  I guess they know what they are doing.  I looked just a few minutes ago.  They are still there, a little larger and a little more filled out than this picture.  At this point they are the kind of cute than only a mother (and father) could love.

On a related subject, I am reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  I found this gem.  Now THAT girl could write.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mother Nature's Son

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” 

Yesterday, when I was coiling the hose up, I saw this little black spider.  It was one of those sightings that, in the middle of the busy school year, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to really notice.  But I hunkered down and watched.  For one thing it was superfast.  I mean, if it was the size of a human it could have run 50 miles per hour.  Maybe a hundred.  It ran, stopped, ran, stopped.  I took out my phone and snapped a picture while it was still.  

Just  a plain little spider.  But a wonder.

There are wonders of nature all around, right?  It is one of the best things about living in the forest.  There are amazing creatures if you look down, that's for sure.  They aren't the ospreys or the foxes, they aren't the obvious, showy ones that you enjoy from a distance like the deer or the raccoons.  But they are an important part of the whole.

Speaking of spiders, I came upon this mama wolf spider out behind our place with her brood on her back.  Fascinating.  It was crawling with babies who didn't think it was time to be on their own yet.  Probably three inches from leg to leg, She leaped off the fence as I approached with my phonecam.  When she did, many of her little ones bounced off into a life of their own.   Ready or not.

The cicadas are coming out now.  Our dog Mallie scared one up the other day and it startled me as it flew by my face buzzing loudly.  You hear them in the trees, sounding for a mate.  But they'd better hurry.  They can live a long time as larvae, but as adults they pretty much only have one purpose.  Mate.  Then they become part of the rest of the natural world, being recycled into some other animal, grateful for the nourishment.

We have three bluebird boxes around the yard.  We have had mixed luck attracting the birds.  Last year we had a nesting pair in the front, we could see the parents coming to feed from our bedroom.   It was pretty joyous.  How wonderful to help bring a little brood into the world.  Then one day I spied a black snake with its head sticking out.  Uh oh.  I didn't hold out much hope for the little ones.  I was right.  They were gone.  When I opened the box the snake was curled up in the nest.  I had no idea so much snake could fit into such a small space.  I know, I know.  Nature is what nature is.  Snakes have to eat too.  I've got no problem with that.  Still...

This year I greased up the pole.  No black snake was going to get them this time.  Let them find their own meals.  I wasn't going to furnish baby bluebirds if I could help it.  Early this June we saw a pair scoping out the box, bringing pinestraw.  In and out.  In and out.  There were four babies.  We got the chance to peek in from time to time to watch them develop.  Then we saw them at the hole, taking a tentative look at their new world.  While I never saw them actually leave the nest, I'm confident that at least some of them made it.  No snake entre this time.  

I check the boxes pretty regular.  Sometimes we have an unexpected guest.  I saw this little flying squirrel making itself as small as possible when I opened the door.  I have never seen these guys at night around there, they are small and stealthy and, like phantoms or fairies, just don't like to be noticed by us big folk.  I felt like an intruder as I hooked the door shut again and snuck away as softly as possible.  It hasn't been back since.  But it is always welcome.

I know a lot of people who simply hate snakes.  All snakes.  The very thought of a snake makes them quiver.  Grown-ups who should know better.  Once a few years back I saw some young adults near our boat ramp burning a snake alive, torching it with a spray paint can and a lighter.  Why?  Because it was a snake.  No other reason.

Me?  I love snakes.  Not in a stupid way.  I don't want to pick up every snake I see.  I respect venomous ones and keep a thoughtful distance.  I am always intrigued.  But not ignorant.  Here is a black racer I saw in the yard across the road from us.  It reared up as I took my phone camera out, pulling back and making itself look big and tough.  I kept a respectful distance but took a few pictures.  When its bluff didn't work, it streaked off in a shiny blur of blueblack scales.  

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Special Delivery

When my son Devin was just a squirt, he was figuring out the difference between male and female (the TERMS - he was having a hard time keeping them straight).  He would use the words in context and then kind of look at me to see if he had them right.  “That female is wearing a scarf,” he would remark casually as we were driving down the road.  “That is a male cardinal,” he would observe looking out the window at the bright red bird.

It so happened that our letter carrier was a young woman.  She was always friendly and outgoing with Devin as almost everyone was.  He was a pretty engaging child.  One day as we were out walking in the summer and we saw the postal jeep approaching, he took off running toward her shouting, “Look daddy, it’s the mail female!”

Remember when going to the mailbox was a pleasure?  Probably not if you are under about 35.  But back in the day, mail was often used for written correspondence.  Hard to believe, I know, but the US MAIL was the way we communicated when we were long distance from a loved one (a term probably unfamiliar to you thirty-five-and-unders).  Rather than spend a few bucks on a long-distance call, we would often pick up a pen and paper and write down our thoughts, carefully crafting our words, making the effort to record our sentiments clearly and concisely.  A hand written letter was a work of art for some of us.  I remember getting letters from my mom all throughout my life.  I treasure those artifacts.

She would often go on about the weather, what birds she had spotted, what was happening in the lives of old family friends.  She would write eloquently about the changing seasons, what books she had read lately, perhaps a recipe she had tried.  It was just life, you know.  And I would have to open an envelope that she had licked shut, after she had written my address on it, after finding a stamp and walking it out to the mailbox and putting the flag up.  And I was left with a piece of paper in my hand with her neat, tight cursive on it.  Something she had touched.  Something she had breathed life into. 

It is a sweet gift to receive a letter.  While we are used to receiving bills and notifications, ads and announcements, a letter is something altogether different.  It is a little piece of who you are, what you are thinking, events that shape your current self.  It is deeply personal; there is not another one like it in all the world.  It is like a fingerprint.  It is something that starts as a blank piece of paper, an empty vessel waiting to be filled up with news and emotions, little glimpses into who we are and what is important to us. 

Sure, it would be so much easier and much more immediate to email, or text, or Facebook, or tweet.  And it is nice to hear someone’s voice on the phone – although even phone conversations are becoming more rare. 

Facetime is cool.  Once while I was painting a room in our home, I heard a voice from my pocket calling my name…  “Tim?  Tim!”  It was my nephew Mike.  I had never even used Facetime before, had no idea it was even on my newfangled phone.  Turns out I had butt-facetimed him.  After wiping the paint from my hands, we had a long face-to-face chat.  It was cool.  Like Dick Tracy with his two-way wrist radio or something.

But none of these things equals the effort of writing a letter to a loved one.  How are you doing? Never sounds so sincere when you are in conversation, right?  It comes off as a single time-filling word…  How-you-doin’?  Or Hi-how-are-ya?  And the response is equally vacant.  Fineyou?  But it is not the same with a letter.  Dear Mom and Dad means something entirely different than the often hollow ‘Sup? 

The best letters are often written sort stream of consciousness style.  You sit and think of nothing and let what comes, come.  It doesn’t have to be lyrical, just you.  You can turn from something funny to something tragic…  We had to put old Sasha to sleep.  She was a good old pal.  I remember the way she loved the kids when they were all puppies together…  I opened the bluebird house the other day and saw a tiny little flying squirrel crammed into the corner, making himself as small as he possibly could, his big eyes bulging with fright…  It sure was hard to say goodbye to my third graders as they left the classroom on that last day of school.  A part of me went with them.  The older I get the harder it is to say farewell to my young friends…  You won’t believe how great Heidi’s new book is.  Seems like that brain tumor left her even more brilliant than she was before…  

These are all things I would have written to my mom if she were around.  And she would have appreciated them.  And she would have written back in her own time.  And there would be this thread of conversation out there, this ongoing connection over time, a delayed exchange of ideas and feelings that made coming home and going to the mailbox something to look forward to.

My old mom was the last one to write letters to me.   Sometimes we would speak on the phone after she had written one and before it arrived in our mailbox.  I don’t want to talk about that,” she would say from time to time, “You’ll read that when you get my letter.”  And I waited the two or three days to open that envelope that she had licked shut and read those precious words that she had put on that page her very self.  And when I was finished reading that letter, I would most likely read it again.  And maybe again.  And maybe I’d share a few well-chosen words with Heidi before stashing it away in my rubber-banded stack, waiting for a day, years later, when I would return to that stack and reread those precious thoughts.  

And those words would bring me back to a place and time like nothing else ever could.  Who says you can't go home again?