Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Player

I admit that I asked for this photo. I virtually begged to take this photo.

See, starting in 4th grade, I was a band girl. I played the flute. I was never particularly gifted or talented or even motivated. Frankly, I was never very good at it. But I loved it because it provided me with an instant social circle and a sense of belonging that I wouldn't otherwise have had.

Nowadays, at least in our school district, kids don't get to pick an instrument until 5th grade. That means it was Smunch's turn. Late last Spring, the 4th graders got to try out all the instruments to see which one they might like. I couldn't have been more surprised when Smunch came home and said he thought he might like to try the cello.

The cello?

There's no precedent in my family for playing the cello. I played flute, my sister played clarinet, my dad played piano and flute. My mom played the radio, sometimes. I'm not aware of anyone on the other side of Smunch's family having a musical bone in their body. But cello? My baseball kid wants to learn how to play the cello? O.K. I've always liked the cello. Strings just weren't an option when I was in elementary school.

Over the summer and as recently as last week, he waffled a little on the cello. He thought maybe he'd forgo instrumental music altogether and join the chorus. I felt like he was about to chicken out, but he didn't. On Friday, he announced that he was officially going to play the cello.

So, last weekend, I called around and secured my little boy his very first 1/2-sized cello. I'm so thrilled and so proud of him for sticking to his guns on this one. I don't really care if he sticks with it long term. I'm just thrilled that he already loves it...even though he can't play a thing!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

First Day 2012

It's hard to believe she's in third grade all of a sudden. And even harder yet to imagine that he's a fifth grader. Where has the time gone?

I don't know why I ask because I know exactly where much of it goes. The last weeks of summer were full of trips to nature camp for Mam, including her first overnight. Smunch and I played a full 36 holes of mini-golf in her absence...capped by Smunch successfully shooting for a free game (with my ball after shanking it with his own)at the 19th (which was really our 37th) hole.

And I took them both to the water slides in San Jose where we spent the better part of the day having a whole lot of fun and never visiting those towels that were saving us a space on the lawn.

We went for frozen yogurt...several times...we spent time with friends, we cleaned out the studio, which is now unrecognizable after the disaster the kids and their cousins made out there last month. I sold several outgrown kid toys...a sand and water table, a train table, the kiddie pool... I patched two punctured bike tires, replaced the entire innards of the master bathroom toilet, cut down the branches that were knocking down the back fence, and hemmed two pair of baseball pants that were a good six inches too long, but were required for Smunch's travel team. I bought a new vacuum event far more exciting to me than I really want to admit.

And now, the kids are back in school and their limited time at home is filled with homework, soccer practice, baseball practice, orthodontist appointments (now for both), speech therapy and the race to get finished with dinner before bedtime.

What does that mean? It means this year will be over before I know it and that a few minutes from now, I'll be sending Smunch off to his last year of elementary school (which is 6th grade in our district).

When my kids were little and people told me, "Oh, they grown so fast!" I knew what they meant, but I still felt like days moved by so terribly slowly.

It's only now that I'm really beginning to understand.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Little Redemption

Despite how it may seem lately, my blog isn't all about hiking, camping, critters and beautiful sunsets. Sometimes, it's about baseball.

We haven't made it out to see our beloved San Francisco Giants much this summer. Back in June, my dad joined us for a trip to Oakland to see an interleague game between the Giants and A's. Matt Cain was pitching. It was fun, even though the Coliseum is a pretty dreary place in general. It was a good game. Cain was just coming off his perfect game, pitched against the Astros on June 13th...a game I missed entirely because I was kayaking in Wyoming.
The Giants led for the entire game, but only by one run and ended up losing on the very last pitch when the rookie catcher the A's had just called up hit one out of the park for a two-run walk-off homer. Hard to feel bad about that.

Once we were back from San Diego and all our outdoor adventures, Smunch and I found a single weekday when we could both make it to an afternoon game. As luck would have it, Mam was invited for a playdate that day. Couldn't have worked out better! Well, wait..maybe it could have.

Aunt Karen, Spencer! and Lucas! were visiting. We'd had another grand time with them, but they were leaving that morning and it's our tradition to go out for breakfast before they hit the road. No one wanted to miss that. So, Smunch and I took the later train up to San Francisco and in the end, we missed the top of the first inning. Barry Zito was pitching...always a dubious luck of the draw if you're looking to see the Giants win.
Once upon a time, Zito was a fantastic pitcher for the Oakland A's. He even won a Cy Young award before he was traded to San Francisco. Since then, his monstrous, multi-year contract has become a joke among fans, even though I hear he still has the occasional brilliant curveball of yore.We made our train (something Smunch is always overly concerned about) and had a nice ride to the city.
As Smunch and I stood outside the park, waiting in line to get in, the local radio broadcast boomed over Willie Mays Plaza. "And on to the bottom of the first. Mets lead it, four to nothing." Ugh.I'd spent real money on the tickets and they were great, but I still had to wonder why we were waiting in line to get into a game our team was already certain to lose. Turns out the season ticket holders who sold us their tickets were sitting right next to us in our great seats. They were very nice. They apologized for taking our money.

We left in the 8th inning, but the Giants fate was already sealed. They were losing 9-1 and that ended up being the final score. I guess it might've been one thing if we'd gotten to see the Mets' star knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey, pitching. I've never seen a knuckleballer. And although I'm not particularly sure I could tell a knuckleball from a curveball from a slider, at least I could've said I saw him.
Smunch wouldn't have gone for that. He doesn't like to go to games where he feels like the team is going to lose. I would've had to have the company of a fellow knuckleball appreciator. (Turns out that although the Giants had a four game series against the Mets, R.A. Dickey never actually pitched at AT&T this year.)

So, you can imagine how thrilled Smunch was to find out that we had tickets to the game which Barry Zito was the starting pitcher...again. He was NOT. And he's got a negative streak about 100 miles wide for these things. So he had to be reminded that the money was spent, that he gets to spend the day at the ballpark and that we're going to have fun no matter what.

This time, I had to find a babysitter for Mam. It's rarely worth the hassle of taking her to a baseball game. Fortunately, her favorite babysitters (twins who always come together) were available. Again we took the train, although this time we were careful to get there before the Giants started losing to the Colorado Rockies.

In fact, the top of the first went remarkably well and the Giants scored...three the bottom of the inning. But Zito was still pitching. By the fourth inning, the score was tied, the Giants scored one more to go ahead in the fifth and in the sixth they finally turned the game over to reliever George Kontos, who promptly coughed up the lead. It was 6-5.

Round about the bottom of the 7th, I started wondering if we should leave early to catch the express train home. But it turns out that the Giants still have a knack for torture, even if it hasn't reached the epic levels of 2010. In the bottom of the 8th, they loaded the bases for their All-Star catcher, Buster Posey.
Posey hadn't gotten much to hit all day and had hit a single and walked three times. He fouled off pitch after pitch, until, with a full count, he hit a long fly ball. It didn't make it out of the park, but it was enough for the guy on third base to score. And up came Hunter Pence.Hunter Pence has been with the Giants for less than two weeks. He was their big acquisition at the trade deadline and the Giants traded beloved outfielder Nate Scheirholtz to the Phillies to get this guy. He'd been in a slump since coming to San Francisco. He hadn't hit a single home run as a Giant. "Come on, Pence," I said. "Now's the time to hit it out of here. It's been long enough."

I know he didn't hear me. The sell-out crowd was roaring. There's nothing quite like the sound 40,000 fans make when the new guy hits a 3-run homer to go ahead in the bottom of the 8th. I know. I heard it.
The top of the 9th came and went without any drama. Sidewinding Javier Lopez struck out one. Sergio Romo got the other two.

It wasn't one of Mr. Zito's finer outings, but it was possibly one of the best and most fun games I've ever seen and I think Smunch learned a little something about his own negativity. Even when there's evidence to suggest the outcome won't be great, there's always hope that things will surpass your wildest expectations.

Welcome to San Francisco, Hunter Pence.

Postscript: Turns out, this was the first of 10 11 games in a row that the SF Giants would win behind Barry Zito on their way to the 2012 National League West Championship. Nice job, Mr. Zito. Perhaps that curveball's still there and there's some redemption for you after all.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Giant Rattlesnake of Kings Canyon

Now there's a more attention-grabbing title for a blog post, right?
Our last day of camping and it seemed like we'd exhausted the relatively child-friendly options for hiking in least the options on our side of this year's nasty piece of road construction. Instead of braving the wait to get through to the south, we drove north and opted for a hike in Kings Canyon National Park instead. It mystifies me as to why Kings Canyon and Sequoia are considered separate national parks, but that brings my national park count up to five for the year, so I'm not complaining.

It was just one big hike for our third day. We packed lunch..which we left in the car, due to poor judgement rather than forgetfulness. And we set out towards the General Grant grove. For one of the very first times, Smunch actually expressed a desire to do something in particular...and it so happened that he really wanted to see the General Grant tree. No matter that we'd seen plenty of giant sequoias already. Some of those had names too. He wanted to see this one. And I was game because I'm just so psyched to get any sort of guidance about what he wants to do.

Although the throngs of tourists and inescapable cigarette smoke were driving me crazy, we had a pretty nice little detour through the trees and then set off toward the trailhead we'd intended to take. No sooner had we hit the trail than we were on our own again. And we soon came across a really distressed ground squirrel chirping up a storm from a branch on the bank next to the trail. It took me more than a minute. How long does it take you?
If you've been following my blog lately, you've seen a couple pictures of the little tiny rattlesnakes I've run across in my Bay Area adventures. This one was nothing like them. It was easily the biggest rattlesnake I've ever seen. Of course, I don't spend a lot of time in the desert, so perhaps I'm easily impressed. But this thing had 13 segments to its rattle. It was easily over five feet long and as thick as one of Mam's scrawny little arms. And it was clearly after something...which I have to guess was this squirrel's nest.
It was a full-on nature documentary playing out in real time. The snake coiled to strike at the squirrel and struck once. It wasn't clear how successful it had been. The squirrel kept on chirping, but moved a little deliberately after that. The snake was not-so-mysteriously distracted by a flying object or two and the squirrel got away as the snake rattled and coiled. I know, of course, that predators have pretty tough lives. And ground squirrels are about a dime a dozen. We almost certainly shouldn't have interfered. And I suspect that once we left, the squirrel nest was fair game regardless.This was easily the highlight of the trip for the kids. They're still talking about the giant rattlesnake they saw on their summer vacation. It's too bad it came so early in this hike because we still had a long way to go and there was nothing nearly so dramatic for the rest of the trip!
We hiked to an overlook of Sequoia Lake.
We stopped at Ella Falls for a snack and tried out some wild thimbleberries...seedy and not altogether worth the effort.
We took a little detour to Viola Falls, which looked like it would've been nice for a swim, had I only worn my swimsuit. The trail was a little busy for skinny dipping and I wasn't entirely up for a real fully-clothed swim.
And then we walked up and up and up and up...
until we were back at the King's Canyon visitor's center, where we ate our hot sandwiches (which had been in a cooler, but it didn't make much difference), got cold drinks...and I bought Smunch a killer rattlesnake T-shirt...and headed back for Sequoia. It was already dinnertime, but having had a super late lunch, we opted to go watch the sunset from Beetle Rock and have a super late dinner as well. Hard to regret that decision. There may have been better places from which to watch the sunset, but I can't imagine a sunset any prettier than this. As sunsets go, it was pretty awesome.

I've seen more impressive photos of sunsets, but I don't know that I've experienced many to rival this one. And despite wrapping up with s'mores sometime around 11 o'clock (and likely filling the role of the noisy campground neighbors for our new, very quiet neighbors nextdoor), I don't think I could have come up with a more perfect end to a great camping trip.

Sequoia National Park - Day 2

Well, that was a rousing and creative title, wasn't it? It's funny to look back on our little camping trip and realize how much we really did. As usual, I reflect on it and marvel at how I managed to push my children to the brink of their abilities...their mental abilities if not their physical ones. It's no great wonder they get so frustrated with me. My parents never made me do stuff like this at eight or ten. I'm pretty sure.
But the kids seemed a little jealous of my evening trip to Moro Rock. I told them it was no big deal. There's a parking lot right at the bottom of the stairs. It probably took me no more than 20 minutes to get up there. They wanted to go. So, as soon as the morning pancakes were cleaned up, we headed right back to where I'd been the night before.
It looked a lot different in the morning light, actually. You could even see the glaciers on the mountains of the Great Western Divide.
Even with the kids, it was a pretty quick trip. I thought we'd do that, then go back to the campsite for lunch, but it was far from lunchtime by the time we got back to the bottom. We opted instead for a nice little flat hike around another meadow.
It was a lovely meadow, but I don't even remember what motivated me to stop at this particular spot. It was such a great stop though! There were more butterflies.
There were more big, beautiful trees.
There were some cool black and gold-colored moths.
There were more beautiful flowers.
There was a giant sequoia devouring a large boulder.
And just when it seemed like we'd had a nice walk, but it was all the same ol' same ol' impossibly beautiful stuff, we ran across this guy:
who we dubbed "itchy bear" because he sat there scratching his belly for probably 10 minutes without a whole lot of concern about the people gawking at him. It was easily the best bear sighting of the trip.

We did finally make it back to the campsite for lunch. And after lunch, we set out on the trail out of the campground to the nearby waterfall, Tokopah Falls. It was hot, but it was a really nice hike through the rocky forest with beautiful views of the Sentinal rock above us.

It got rockier as we got towards the falls...and hotter hiking around on the granite.
Tokopah Falls often looks like this:
At least that's what I glean from the internet. It looked nothing like that on our visit. The sign warning us of certain deadly peril if we passed it was laughable.
But the view from the falls down the valley was nice.
And despite being more than a little green in many spots, the water was still cool and I thought a shower was probably in order (fully clothed as I might've been).
The kids refused to get under the falls, giant torrent as it was and despite the fact that Mam had hiked the whole way in her swimsuit, but at least they cooled their heels for a bit.
By the time we headed back, it was easily time for dinner already. We stopped along the trail for a little snack in the shade and we were treated to a close up visit from a curious buck.
At the same time, Smunch spotted another little critter on a downed tree on the other side of the trail. "Is that a marmot, Mom?"
He'd never seen a marmot. I'd told him only that they look like great big guinea pigs. So, you can imagine that my inner naturalist was beaming with pride.
Another long and lovely day. At least our noisy campground neighbors were gone. We all slept well that night!

Third Time's a Charm

I haven't felt a whole lot like blogging over the past month or so, but if I put it off for any longer, I might well miss out on writing about one of our best trips of the summer. For three years now, I have booked a campsite at Sequoia National Park. Yet, last week was the first time I'd ever been. Back in 2010, Smunch was selected for a travel all-star team that played right when we were supposed to be camping - we went to Lassen in August instead. In 2011, the park called in June and told me there was too much snow and our reservations had to be cancelled. We went to Prairie Creek Redwoods instead. But 2012 was the year we finally made it.
I always have high hopes of writing a single post to describe a camping trip and somehow that's never quite enough. There are always far too many photos to share and too many stories to tell. This time around, we hiked to several waterfalls, toured a big cave, climbed a rocky dome, watched an awesome sunset, got wet in the river (it was a tad low to actually swim)and saw all kinds of wildlife, including several bears, lots of deer, a marmot, a pine marten and a big ol' rattlesnake.

We arrived on Sunday and got the tents up just in time for a nice little thundershower. It was hot, humid and sticky that day. Aside from setting up camp, we didn't do much besides visit some of the most touristy of the big trees...

and play in the river. And that was enough. We got tickets to go to Crystal Cave in the morning.

I hadn't really given it a lot of thought, but the kids had never been to a cave before. It was an obvious "thing to do", but I was really glad we did. The kids were mesmerized during our tour, where they learned all about stalagtites, stalagmites, curtains and cave bacon. They even got to see their first-ever bear on our drive to the cave trailhead.

(This bear wouldn't look so much like a little mammal if it hadn't been walking by a giant sequoia at the time!)

It was a hike down to the cave, but we arrived so early, that we actually joined an earlier tour and made it down to the mouth of the cave just a few minutes before the tour began.

The hike back up the canyon from the cave made for a couple of whiney kids. It's relatively steep and it was lunchtime. Thank goodness they'd enjoyed the cave so much. I can't imagine how they would have put up with me taking a bunch of time to appreciate all the waterfalls on the way up otherwise!
We made it though and had some lunch in the parking lot before heading back towards the campground. We took an afternoon hike around some meadows. We made it up to a point called "Eagle View" where we finally got to see some of the amazing views the park has to offer. This first one includes Moro Rock, which figures in this trip a few times.
This one is Castle Rocks. If I'd been on a more adventurous sort of trip, with taller companions, this would have been a fun peak to explore!
We headed back down, around more meadows. The tiger lilies were blooming, which means I took a lot of flower pictures.
Pictures never really did these pretty meadows justice though. They were full of wildflowers and butterflies and surrounded by huge trees.
Just as the kids were getting particularly impatient, we passed Tharp's log, one of many fallen trees that were once used as summer homes or lodging of some sort. At least it was curious enough to warrant some attention.
By the time we got back to our campsite, Smunch was looking a little like this:
So, I fixed dinner and we made some ice cream.

I was feeling a little frustrated with parenthood about then and decided that although the kids had no interest in climbing to the top of Moro Rock (not a particularly difficult task with the 300-something stairs they've installed), so I opted for a quiet little journey to the top of the rock to watch the sunset.

As far as I was concerned. This was just the way to end a long day. The mountains of the Great Western Divide lit up beautifully and well, Central Valley smog always makes for a stunning sunset!

Sanity restored.