Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Book Talk

So Riley loves this book series, The Ranger's Apprentice. It's well written, exciting and perfect for Riley. He's been devouring each book as it has come out.

Maybe I should explain that I have a lifelong habit of buying books that I like. It may be a bad habit, it depends on your perspective; some people disgustedly ask me why we don't use the local library more. I guess the fact is that I love having lots of books, I love being able to go back to them, I like re-reading them, many of them become old friends. I find a house full of books homey and comforting. It's like being surrounded by very intelligent friends with tons of cool ideas.
I have always encouraged my guys to like books too, to read a lot and they have a ton of their own books (to the point where their bedroom is overflowing with them). I have in the past frequently bought them books I thought they'd like, and even if they don't turn out to be interested right then, they usually rediscover them later and read them then.
It's been a common enough thing that if I were to say to one of them, "I got you something today", they'd ask, "is it a book?" first, (with varying degrees of enthusiasm). So they're very used to having their own books. They are probably too used to having lots of books, to the point where they don't realize that having lots of their own books is really a privilege. Riley at least is in the habit of hauling whatever book he's reading back and forth to school with him, we frequently read together at bedtime, books are always available.

In the past 6 months Fremont has lost all of its bookstores except Half Price Books, and there are no other bookstores within an easy reasonable distance, so buying books as a casual habit is being cut short. (This is probably a good thing in terms of saving money, at least.) So when I was out in Half Moon Bay a week or so ago and had a bit of time to spend I went book browsing in some of the bookstores there on Main Street. It's lucky that the independent bookstores there are still surviving, at least for now, though I was told business is difficult. I found the 10th book of Ranger's Apprentice and I had to get it for Riley. I gave it to him later and he was very happy, since he'd been waiting for this one. And he'd been carrying it to school while he's been reading it.

So the other day we were taking Casey to gymnastics and he gasped from the back seat "Riley, what have you done to your book?!!" It came out that Riley had written words in ink on the bottom (the cut edges of the pages) of his new Ranger's Apprentice book,  some obscenities. I couldn't believe it. After we dropped Casey off, I parked, took the book and looked at it and proceeded to completely lose my cool. "Why would you do something like this? What were you thinking??" And he had no good answer. There was no good answer for me, of course. He mumbled something rather incoherent (and this kid is very rarely incoherent) about wanting to mark it as his, nobody else's. When asked why he wouldn't just write his name in the book rather than writing stupid obscenities that any yob could have written, he admitted that he simply hadn't been thinking, he was irritated and bored at school and just did it without thinking. I shouted at him. I yelled mean things. I grounded him. I did not handle it well at all.

Next day, after needing considerable time to cool off as well as time to talk with Paul, find out what had been happening at school that might have affected him and time to think about it all, I sat him down after school and pulled out the abused Ranger's Apprentice book and a big black marker. I also had this book handy:
This book is The Anatomy and Construction Of the Human Figure, by Charles Earl Bradbury. (There's a new reprint of this book out from Dover Books now). It's a fantastic book for anyone wanting to learn how to draw humans. It's a great book. This particular book is one of my most prized books ever. So I sat him down and showed him this book, with its beaten up pink cloth cover, no spine, and the names on the frontispiece:
This book belonged to my dad, bought in Missouri when he was in art school in 1949. He gave this book to me in 1989, when I was in art school. He loved this book and he held onto it through all of his troubled life until he gifted it to me. I explained all of this to Riley as he looked through it with wide eyes. I asked him how old that made the book and without any hesitation he said, "Well, 62 years, but maybe older because who knows how long it was on the shelf for?" 62 years is forever to a 10 year old. I talked to him about how I loved books, they were like friends to me, and how when he'd scribbled bad words on his book, it was like a slap in the face to me, since I'd gotten him that book specially, I knew he wanted to have it and read it so much.

I picked up his Ranger's Apprentice book and said, "This is a really nice hardbound book, and I know you like these books. It could last at least as long as my dad's book. You might not have this in 62 years, but someone else might have found it and want to read it as much as you did. Do you want them to have this book with these words scribbled on it in 62 years?" He looked at me quickly and his eyes were big and full of tears (though he'd hate for anyone to know that). I showed him the flat side of the big black marker and showed him how to black out the words on the edge. He was really very nice the rest of the day. But he's still grounded.
Luckily he's got plenty of books to read while he's grounded, and a silly cat to keep him company.

Monday, May 16, 2011

California History
Last Friday was one of the boys' rites of passage through 4th grade in the California school system: a field trip to the local Mission. Fourth graders are required to do an extensive report on one of the California Missions. Riley reported on Mission Santa Ines (near Santa Barbara), Casey got Mission La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima (down in Solvang). And their classes went on a field trip to Mission San Jose, which is just up the road from our house. I've been to the Mission before, but never had a tour and never got to go into the church and the attached graveyard, so I took lots of pictures (of course!).
Fountain in the Mediterranean-style garden
 The Mission is maintained and run by the local Catholic Parish Council, I believe, and the Mission itself was restored as accurately as possible in the '80's to its original state using period materials and methods. It's a lovely place, really. The church is very active and they still have Catholic services in the Mission Church every Sunday and on special occasions.
Inside the church it's dark and cool; the walls are made with adobe bricks built about 4 feet thick so it stays warm in winter and cool in summer.
 The walls are whitewashed and the inside of the walls are carefully painted. It's an impressive amount of work. Lots of gold and decorations up at the alter.
This Mission, of all the California Missions, is said to be the most carefully, lovingly restored to its original state, using period materials and methods. You can see it in things like the rafters in the church, where you can see the individual chisel marks in the beams.
Hand-hewn timbers form the roof rafters

So the kids were shown a movie about the history of the Missions, especially this one, and given a guided tour through the museum and the church and grounds. They were themselves, of course, rowdy, unthinking much of the time, but the history of the place did seem to catch a few of them; some of the historical pieces caused that sort of 'wow, somebody made this 200 years ago' sort of feeling for them. These were some of my favorites:
Saddle with wooden cantle, inlay work and leather tooling
Ohlone tribal style basket
The Museum did have some history of the native tribes in the area, but seemed to gloss over just what happened to them; there were some displays of Ohlone cultural bits, and a few pictures like this one:
Ohlone woman and abalone shell jewelry

She looks like a good person, doesn't she? I did a search for the Ohlone tribes, to see if there are any active tribes now; the internet shows efforts to trace back lineage from the original Mission baptismal records, but any descendants seem to come from only three or four families or individuals. Some of them have been trying to revive their original language and some of their customs, but the tribe as a cultural entity disappeared during the mission years and the secularization into rancheras that followed, and any remaining traces of the tribes were scattered in the later 1800's and early 1900's with the US Government's BLM and their brutal policies towards the tribes.
California has one of the very worst records in the US for the way Indian tribes were treated; even tribes who were given land grants later had them rescinded with no voice and no recourse. The available books tend to be very careful in their wording, like this line from one of the kids' books about the Missions: "It is probable that the civil rights of the Indians were violated." Yeah. Any Indians left after all the devastation of the diseases brought by the Europeans who could still be identified as Indian were left without land, homeless, with nowhere to go, and facing extensive discrimination. I tend to think that surviving individuals probably assimilated themselves into the prevailing culture and hid their Indian heritage for self preservation or to protect their children from further discrimination. Economically and legally speaking, it's clear that the tribes as cultural entities were literally wiped away.  Some of their original genes survive in some scattered families, and some of those few who have investigated their family histories have made some efforts to rediscover their heritage.
Reading some of the dry historical writing about what happened to them is appalling, horrifying when you realize what's really being said. The books for the kids try to make it all a bit gentler, but kids like Riley see through it. The Spanish came here to colonize with a two-pronged attack of military and religious forces. Mission complexes were first built with defensible quadrangles and the administration of the Missions was integrated with the military forces. The Missions were founded all along the length of California to colonize, establish firm holdings and take over the land from the natives. Really. And they certainly succeeded in that. The Indians lost their land, their culture, their heritage, everything.
Statue of Father Junipero Serra
I was taught as a kid in school here in California that the Missions were beautiful remnants of California's colorful past, that Father Junipero Serra was sort of the father of California; he is treated rather as some sort of peaceful hero, having gone all along California and established all these beautiful Missions. I found myself studying this statue of him in this quiet garden at Mission San Jose. It shows a rather small man, but he has a firm, stern look about him. I don't know how accurate the representation is, but Father Serra himself must have been driven, determined, and he probably believed with his entire being that he was doing God's work, civilizing the Indians and giving them the proper culture and showing them the one true way to God. I wonder if he ever doubted his path?
 The graveyard at the Mission is behind walls and the public isn't generally allowed entry. There are uncounted, unmarked graves of Indians, there are numerous fragile marked graves there as well, so we were told to stay on the path and not stray. One of the girls was holding her breath as she ventured out into the graveyard, then dashing back to the door of the church for new breaths. I asked her what she was doing, and she said her family had a tradition of holding your breath when you went into a graveyard. Odd, I thought. Do you expect that the dead will snatch your life away through your breath? Or is it that the dead don't breathe, and if you don't either, they won't know you're there? What would they think if they knew you were there?
The little symbol over the door indicates a graveyard for those who cannot read
I wandered among the graves and took some pictures and reached for inner quiet, then felt outwards. Quiet, despite the kids' voices, yet with a feeling of multitudes of people having been there over the years, dead or alive. I found it all made me sad.
 I felt no spiritual lift when I was in the church, though it is pretty and very interesting. It has a feeling of age and reverence, but its history makes me mourn all that has been lost, and angry at the way humans keep treating each other. So many unmarked graves under the privileged, marked graves.

Monday, May 09, 2011

A grand day out.
No, we didn't build a spaceship and go to the moon looking for cheese. ;)

We did go to Santa Cruz for the day, and went to one of their local music shops, The Starving Musician, where we tried out various guitars, keyboards and drum sets and sticks and oh yeah, I found 2 more Lee Oskar Harmonicas that I haven't been able to find before: a Bb and an F, to help round out my collection of harmonicas in all different keys. The Bb in particular sounds really bright and fresh; Paul borrowed a capo and a dreadnought sized Taylor to play and we tried them all out. Casey meanwhile was trying out keyboards, playing some of his latest piano pieces, and he sounded pretty good. Riley tried out some guitars, including a resonator guitar which he loved, then some electronic drum kits as well as different sticks on a regular drum kit, and he came away with a set of 'stealth rods', which are like regular hot rod drumsticks but nylon with wood handles. Fun time for all of us. And then we went for a drive and bits of walking up on the cliffs above Santa Cruz.
From the Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz
Cold and windy, with alternating clouds and sun. It'll get hot enough plenty soon, so we were kind of enjoying the last of the cold and windy weather. We ended up over at the Boardwalk, which was running and active, but not nearly as crowded as it'll be this summer. The boys went on a number of thrill rides, the best being the Giant Dipper, of course. There was the Lazer Maze, where you run, roll and climb through a changing maze of laser lights to the theme music from Mission Impossible. (Casey was the best, and his gymnastics rolls between lasers was pretty impressive to watch. That kid is ready to be on the Impossible Missions Team.) All three of the boys ended up on the bumper cars.
Blurry with Too Much Bumper Action To Capture
After that we went and found some dinner at The Crepe Place over on Soquel, and finished off our dinner by sharing a bananarama crepe (Crepe, Nutella, bananas and other fruit and topped with Vanilla Bean ice cream- yummm...).

And eventually, far too sated, we drove home at sunset with spectacular clouds all pink with golden edges, and listened to Mich and Marilisa's album, Abseiling For Beginners. Riley commented that they were amazingly good singers, and he is so right.Just hearing their voices made me miss them terribly!

So, a grand day out for this mom.
Cormorants on Natural Bridges

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Back into the groove
Last week was Spring Break. The quicker last week fades into memory the better as far as I am concerned; it consisted of a lot of barfing by various family members, lots of computer games and lots of episodes of Robin Hood on Netflix. Must say the Sheriff of Nottingham had a grand old time chewing up the scenery on that show. I found, though, that too much watching it made the boys tend to launch into battles of one sort or another and I ended up setting a moratorium on too much TV. There usually isn't much time to watch any shows on the tv, so it isn't usually a problem; getting to watch at all is a treat. Anyway, they had both said they just wanted to 'louse around' (Riley's term) during the break and take it easy, so we did, though there were still music lessons and track practices and gymnastics and... Well, not as much just lousing around as we might have liked. Anyway, this week the boys are back in school. 
Riley and Casey
Good start, too; Riley was awarded the Student of the Day in his class, which has NEVER happened to him before. He received a non-working Donkey watch as a prize, which he later discovered was a McDonald's Happy Meal toy. He then went off in a fit of revulsion and ran soapy water on it, since he believes that anything to do with McDonald's is Pure Unadulterated Evil. He came to this belief on his own, mind you, we did not try to instill such beliefs in him. Poor Donkey watch never stood a chance but has at least been relegated to the recycle bin. I would have been more appalled by this wanton destruction of toys if the prize had been a working watch or perhaps a little more worthy of some respect. The bald fact is that I would have eventually put the thing in the recycle bin myself and he saved me the later hassle. We had a talk about the attitude, though.

The final crazed school event before Spring Break was the big band concert for the end of the school year (though it's still a long way from the end of the school year). Riley has been playing percussion in the After School Band, which is a one hour a week band session run by one teacher. Yeah, about 30 kids, all different band instruments, one beleaguered teacher. One hour trying to get all those kids, all those instruments, pulled together enough to play a simple song or two. Just about as chaotic and crazed as it sounds, from what I've seen. It's a program solely funded by parents and volunteers and donations, and is in jeopardy of being cut due to lack of funds. (Who's surprised?)
Riley on big bass drum
Anyway, the Big Band Concert was in the evening at the local high school; it was a struggle to get Riley to even consider wearing his special band t-shirt, and then once we arrived we discovered that the kids were supposed to wear a white dress shirt and black pants. Oops. Last minute desperate phone call to dad, who brought a white shirt and saved face for Riley, who did not know or remember this little sartorial detail. But he made it in time and went and joined a bunch of other percussionists in the back of the big auditorium at the high school. So the band concert featured each level of band from beginners (who were really appallingly bad) up through the high school kids (who were surprisingly good). I really suspect that the kids that stick with it and are decent musicians by high school get additional lessons funded by parents; it seems unlikely that the kids who only ever get the After School Band lessons ever get very far, because honestly the teacher doesn't have enough time and resources to really teach all of those kids how to play their various instruments competently. Considering how little time and actual instruction they get, it's amazing the beginning kids performed as well as they did. 

After School Band is actually the only exposure to making music some of the kids have, aside from parent volunteers or some of the more musically inclined teachers, since no music of any sort is funded or covered in regular public school. The teachers try to do some singing, at least in the younger grades, but there are limits to what they can do. Paul goes in one day a week and does music with all of the fourth graders, and he has done this for each year the boys have been in school, so the kids in our boys' grade have all been getting some regular music each week, but that's rare in the schools. Paul has them learn and sing lots of songs, sing multiple parts on some, he's had them co-write songs and various other adventures in music. The latest project is to get all of the fourth graders to learn and sing 2 songs for the school's end-of-year Talent Show, with Casey accompanying one song on piano. Casey's having to learn the whole accompanying piano part and then learning to play it with the singers, which we all know is an entirely different can of worms from just playing the piano on your own. The whole endeavor is ambitious, with several solo singing parts for various kids. It should be fun.
Casey trying pianos back in 2008- He looks so little here!
It makes me glad that we can give our boys music lessons, actually. Casey's been taking piano lessons now for over 3 years, and Riley started guitar lessons this year and loves it so far. They have both been known to get frustrated with hard lessons, but overall they really do seem to enjoy making music and getting them to practice isn't a hardship. And one boy will ask me to listen to this one song he's learning because it's a really cool sounding sort of song, or the other will play a bunch of different chords and try putting them together in combinations and get into a groove and then ask me if his song made me feel the way it made him feel, sort of mournful but happy at the same time. And I get this odd little thrill of recognition that they really do get the essence of the music, with the feelings it causes. Hope that it just gets easier for them to slip into that space with music as they improve in their playing abilities.