Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Poomish Halloween

Poom and I spent a quiet evening being orange together.  After an afternoon surrounded by partying, sugar-loaded, costume-wearing 4th graders, not such a bad way to ease out of Halloween.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Moonlight Sonata

Here at Frogpond, we continue upon our long, slow drift towards autumn.  The temperatures are still averaging about ten degrees above normal (near 80 today), but it's gradually inching downwards.  Thursday there's a thirty percent chance of rain.  Our 4th and 5th graders will be going on a field trip that day to see a play in Modesto -- I'm thinking that this should increase the probability of rain astronomically.  Perhaps I'll also wash the car the day before.  And hang out laundry.  And give the garden a good soak with the hose.  I might even try prayer under an oak tree.  Rain!

Last night I was repeatedly awakened by the full moon's light shining in on my face through the sliding glass doors.  After midnight, the moon was joined by a chorus of coyotes having a howl-fest.  The three boy-cats on the bed woke up.  Arby zipped under the bed, Poom tucked in closer to my feet, while Max crept up and settled into my arms.  And there we lay, as the coyotes sang and the moon shone brightly upon us all.

For some reason, I was sleepy-eyed all day.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy and, of course, Olives

Back east, all hell is breaking loose with Hurricane Sandy.  Here, on the west coast -- a balmy autumn afternoon.  It's disconcerting having to somehow digest all of the divergent information that comes streaming in.  In the end, I'm somehow wishing like crazy for lots of rain and wet weather here where it's so dry, even as I'm hoping that the storm back east subsides.  Hard not to be a bit schizophrenic these days.

The olives are done.  Sort of.  Out in the crocks, they taste perfect.  We thought we'd put one batch of them in jars with fresh brine solution.  Big mistake -- they're now horribly salty.  I'm crossing my fingers that soaking them in plain water will desalinize them. 

How ironic that when we finally get them tasting absolutely delicious, we'd put in the extra effort to make them inedible once again.

Never give up!  Never surrender!  Charge!!!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Harvest Festival

Last evening was our school's annual Harvest Festival.  It's one of our big fund-raisers of the year -- it's mostly a kind of kids' carnival, with things like face-painting, games, a haunted house and pumpkin raffle.  There's also first-class Mexican food and a country music band.  Our Parents' Club puts a lot of work into this event, but I must admit that in 4 years I've never once attended.  I feel (and rightly so, I think) that I put in more than enough time in many other activities.

However, this year I'm teaching a daily half-hour block of instruction to the 4th grade English Learners and had the idea of having my students gain confidence by manning their own table at the Festival.  So I taught them how to make colorful tissue paper flowers and we've been a flower-making workshop for the past two weeks.  They made banners, learned how to greet a customer and get them to buy a flower (not such a hard task when you're an adorable kid with a bright smile!).  Excitement has been riding high among my 16 Hispanic and Portuguese students.  Mostly, they don't see themselves as movers and shakers in the school community.  However, when all the other kids saw what they were doing, they became the envy of their peers.  I didn't mind a bit -- I figured it was at last their turn to ride the crest of the wave!

Last night was the big night.  Flower selling started slow, but as the evening progressed, more and more people came to buy and it was a wonder to see how skillful the students were becoming at selling their wares.  Sue and I moved back to sit on the bleachers so the kids could manage everything on their very own.  And they did!  They grew more and more sure of themselves as the evening progressed and completely took control of making sales, smiling, collecting money, counting change and thanking customers.  Some of their moms had been in the kitchen, helping with the cooking of the Mexican food.  Some came out to take pictures of their children standing behind the table, selling flowers.  The children beamed.  The parents beamed.  The teachers beamed.  Lots of beaming going on!

We sold out of flowers before the evening was half over.  The students and I have a special cheer that we do after each class period, where we put our hands together and then shout as we raise up our arms.  We did that last night in the middle of the multi-purpose room.  Being their teacher is a lot of fun! 

I drove home tired, but very,very happy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Re-Lyed Olives

Ahh, that's more like it.  The brown liquid is the bitter compounds that the lye has removed from the olives.  I rinsed and bit into one this afternoon -- just a bit of bitterness (and a soapy, lye taste).  We've now drained out the lye water and the olives are now leaching out the lye in water baths.  Wo far, so good.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Olive Answers

Today Bruce bought a new can of lye and started over again.  It became quickly obvious that the first can of lye was old and no longer on its game -- the new stuff reacted strongly with the warm water and bubbled and released heat.  The first can of lye did very little reacting.  Who knew that lye had a shelf life?

So now the two crocks of olives are back in a lye solution.  We'll check them before we go to bed and again in the morning.  I'm feeling confident at this point that it was indeed the lye that was the problem.  Now I just hope that we can get these olives back on track.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Olive Making Woes

The olives have me worried.  I sorted through every one of them and washed them with thoroughly with lots of water.  While I was doing this, Bruce mixed up the lye solution in the kitchen.

We filled two crocks half full of fresh water, added the olives and then mixed in the lye solution.

The olives were so plump and beautiful. It seemed that nothing could go wrong. I think we were overly confident...

Now, two days later and after changing the water four times, they look like this.  I took this picture in the dark, but you can see that the fruit is all blotchy.  It just doesn't look right.  Even worse, the olives don't appear to have taken in the lye as they should -- it seems that there's either too much or not enough.  I can't figure out which.

I cut one open and tasted it and I think that it's more bitter than the untreated, fresh from the tree fruit was. 

I'm hoping that that by tomorrow afternoon a transformation will have occurred.  Gilbert and Gloria's olives were as mild and buttery as ripe avocados.  I thought we followed their recipe exactly.  Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.


Last Friday, the temperature at Yosemite (4,000 ft. level) was 78 degrees, with just enough breeze to set the leaves shimmering in the sunlight.  Today, the forecast is for snow showers and a high of 41 degrees.  What a difference three days can make at this time of year. 

The first storm of the season rolled in on Sunday night.  Here, we didn't get much rain out of it (a little over a tenth of an inch), but it did wash off a lot of the last six months of dust.  In preparation for the change in weather, this weekend I picked most of our pomegranates...

...and probably the last harvest of tomatoes.

The most fun crop picked was the olives.  Bruce and I went over to my teacher-friend Gloria's house on Saturday where I picked green olives for about two hours.  Up a ladder, laughing and talking with everyone, while plinking fat green olives into a bucket -- bliss!  Afterwards we sat in the garden for a lunch of sourdough bread, egg salad, homemade olives and grapes.  Such a day!

Gloria and her husband, Gilbert, live even further out than we do.  Every day Gloria drives to school from beyond the tiny town of Hickman, which is south of us about 30 miles as the crow flies.  Out in the rolling grasslands, they live in an old two-story ranch house that's been in the family for generations.  Gilbert used to run cattle and Gloria (besides teaching) until recently had a thriving side-business selling eggs and flowers at the local farmer's market.  They're gradually slowing things down, as time passes.  Gloria plans to retire next year...or the year after that.  She still travels to France every summer and teaches English after school to Hispanic women.  That's how Gloria is.  We've been friends and teachers together for over twenty years.  Without knowing it, Gloria has been my inspiration and changed how I live my life.  She's a do-er and is utterly fearless when it comes to launching into projects, helping people or enjoying herself.  Me -- I've always tended to hang back and doubt myself.  It took several decades of absorbing lessons, watching how Gloria lives her life, but these past few years I've finally become more fearless myself.  I suppose that battling cancer helped with this process, but it definitely helped having her as a role model.  Isn't that what friends are for?

Now, the olives are in crocks, slowly leaching out their bitterness.  More on that next time.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


We took our 4th graders for our Yosemite fieldtrip this past Friday.  It was a perfect, early autumn day, no students threw up on the windy trip up the mountain, no one got lost, and the ranger presentation was fabulous.  The students were thrilled because the Valley animals were out in force -- deer were strolling about everywhere, bushy-tailed squirrels were busy burying acorns and the jays and ravens swooped and begged for food.

Best of all, I saw my very first out-of-zoo bear.  I always seem to just miss them -- I will wander into groups of excited people on the path who tell me that, not thirty seconds before, a mother bear and her two cubs went by.  This seems horribly unfair, as I know for a fact that I'd appreciate seeing them far more than any of them ever would.  I'm just saying.

The bear is the brown blob to the left of the tree
But on Friday my luck finally changed.  The ranger who had given us the presentation came running after us as we started trekking across the meadow.  She told us that there was a bear in a nearby tree and she wanted us to see it.  So we enthusiastically went trotting after her, only to discover that the bear had scooted down the tree and taken off.  Ranger Sharon was very apologetic, and I was in the midst of telling her that I was used to this and, honestly, it was really exciting to almost see a bear -- when she narrowed her eyes at a group of people looking at something off the trail.  It was the bear.  He was a young bear, snuffling and shambling at the base of a large oak tree.  He looked up at it a few times, and then, suddenly, he was bounding swiftly up the trunk I managed to click only two pictures before he disappeared in the upper branches.  That didn't matter -- I'd seen my first bear that wasn't caged or enclosed. 
Yogi scootin' up the tree!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Long Journey of the Coop

To refresh memories, here is the Craig's List coop we brought home last Saturday.  It took four strong men to muscle it into the back of the trailer.  On the diagonal, thank you very much.

It looks like I know what I'm doing, but all I did was move the knob to raise the bucket

Unloading it was a bit more of an adventure and accomplished by: one largish Bruce, one smallish me, an orange cat, an orange kubota tractor, four beers, and a garden cart.  We only had to move it about 200 yards -- with the Herculean effort it took, it felt more like 200 miles.  Or, perhaps, to the moon.

Max was there giving support during the entire operation
The Kubota did a great job of lifting the coop out of the trailer...

The problem was that the gate was narrow and the fenceposts high -- one miscalculation, and the Kubota could easily take down the fence.  So we went on to plan B.  We went low tech and brought in our our old garden cart and loaded the coop onto that.  Amazingly, we were able to do this successfully.

Our only mishap was at the very end, the garden cart tipped over on the slope and the coop fell off and crushed the old dog house.  Oops. 
When we actually got it wheeled into the pen, the celebration was dignified, but mighty
Then Max took a well deserved nap...
...and the ducks had a bath

Monday, October 15, 2012


Just when I thought school was getting all-consuming, it got even more all consuming-er.  Lesson planning, emails to parents, correcting papers, organizing our Yosemite field trip, teaching my English Learner class how to make tissue paper flowers to sell at the Harvest Festival, assessments, more grading, more emails, more lesson planning... It's crazy.  In my attempt to be an effective teaching and do everything I'm supposed to do for my students, I've lost my perspective and inner balance.  Somehow it's come to pass that I now feel guilt and worry when my home life intrudes on my school work.  On a Friday evening.  Or a Saturday morning, with the sun shining and all of Frogpond waiting for me.  As I said, it's crazy.

So, this last weekend, in an attempt to break away from this endless work cycle, I drove up to Sacramento with Bruce to pick up a used chicken coop that I'd seen on Craig's List.  We need a raccoon-proof shelter for the ducks in the dog run so that we don't have to herd them across the yard and into the barn every night.  This coop, while not fancy, was the right size and price.  Best of all, it looked very much like the one Bruce had in his head to build -- except this one was already done.  So off we went in the jeep, pulling the utility trailer behind us. 

When we got to Brego from the Ukraine's place, the coop was behind the house and exactly what we were looking for.  Except for the extra 1/4" width that made it impossible to wedge into the trailer.  Brego from Ukraine and Bruce from Frogpond did their best to muscle it in anyway -- one of them said hopefully that maybe the trailer would stretch a bit.  Not surprisingly, it didn't.  Bruce suggested taking the back wall of the coop off.  This worried me because once it was disassembled I wasn't sure it would ever get put back together again square and true.

It seemed to me that the thing might be slid into the trailer on the diagonal, resting on one bottom edge leaning on the trailer side.  Bruce didn't say anything and Brego politely listened before patiently explaining why this wouldn't be possible.  I politely listened back and then hesitantly said that I might be wrong, but it sure seemed like my diagonal ideacould work.  Brego's grown son then showed up and the three men studied the problem together.  I again mentioned my idea.  The men had little response. 

Then Brego's friend from down the street arrived.  He was one of those full-of-confidence men who think quickly and then act on their ideas.  His idea was to slide the coop into the trailer on the diagonal.  The other three men turned to look at me where I stood in the trailer like a rather scruffy queen.  "So," I said, "A man has the same idea."  Everyone agreed that this was indeed the case.

Then the four men, with much huffing and puffing and straining of mighty muscles, slid that coop, on the diagonal, right into the back of the trailer. 

To their credit, they were good sports. 
"I thought it might work," I said humbly. 
"You were right,"  Brego from Ukraine agreed.
"First time all week," I said.
"You were right as recently as that?" asked friend from down the street.

And that was when I had the biggest and best laugh I've had in a very long time.  It felt remarkably good.

Shortly, you will learn how Bruce, one orange cat, a Kubota tractor, our ancient garden cart, and I managed to move this bazillion pound (at least) coop from the tractor to the dog run.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


We've definitely turned the corner from summer into autumn.  At last the weather has slid solidly into the 70's with only an occasional spike into the 80's.  When I drive to school in the mornings, wavering lines of geese cross over the road in front of me.  The pomegranates and olives are ripe and the tupelo leaves are beginning to turn orange and red. But, never satisfied, I'm now waiting for that first blessed rain of the season.  It'll be awhile.

My school is surrounded by almond orchards.  This sounds like a lovely thing to have on the other side of the fence from a playground, but at this time of year the nuts are harvested.  Getting them off the trees involves machines that are pressed against the trunks of the trees that shake loose the nuts so that they all fall to the ground at once.  Unfortunately, this process also shakes loose vast clouds of dust.  A brown haze of the stuff sweeps over the playground and across the parking lot.  This afternoon I thought I was getting sick, I was coughing so much.  Finally I figured out that this was only because I was breathing in so much filth from the orchards.  Once again, I was wishing I lived in an area that had summer rain -- at least enough to occasionally wash the dust off the leaves of the trees.  When I got in my car to leave this afternoon, there was such a thick layer on the windshield that I had to turn on the wipers in order to clear a space for me to see out.  The dust billowed off in impressive clouds behind me as I drove off. 

Rain...I'm so ready.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Murphy's Romance

Meet Isabella.  This afternoon, daughter Liz, her boyfriend Kiitch and 6 month old Isabella came for lunch.  Kiitch loves to hunt ducks, and Isabella is a Wire-Haired Griffon, known for their retrieving ability.

All of this is no doubt true -- but the one fact that comes blazing to the forefront is that this is one seriously adorable dog. 

She is has a reserved personality, but is also very sweet.  Murphy (who's never had much use for any dog that's come visiting us at Frogpond) fell instantly head-over-heels in love with her.  Kiitch threw an orange float for all the dogs down at the pond, and Murphy was in heaven strutting his stuff and showing her how a real dog fetched.  Isabella just smiled happily through her bangs and followed along.

Back at the house, Murph showed her where all the best smells on the lawn were.

Then, gentleman that he is, Murphy proceeded to share all of them her.  She proved to be an enthusiastic and energetic sniffer in her own right, which, I'm sure, endeared her even more to her new beau.

Young love...

Our boy's got it bad.

Friday, October 5, 2012

More Duck Dinners

Four more of our sturdy young drakes took up residence in our refrigerator today.  After a few days there, they'll move on to join the chickens that are in the freezer in the garage.  These drakes came from the oldest of our last three broods of ducklings.  We've become meticulous about culling out the males when they reach about three pounds and sending them to slaughter.  Bruce handles all of it -- catching and caging them, driving them to the processing plant and bringing the carcasses home again.  I just lay low and try not to think about it too much. 

Duck does taste good, though.

Bruce also brought in one chicken that had the misfortune to turn into a rooster instead of a hen.  We saw problems ahead with him and Captain Jack, our banty rooster, so off he went too. 

Last of all, he brought down to school two pretty young ducks to give to a former student who was down to one lone drake (which we'd also given him).  It was nice to be able to send at least some of the ducks off to a new home.

So our poultry population is slowly being whittled down.  Seven down -- about 30 to go.  Sigh...

A life ruled by rodents...

Whatever has been scrambling around up in the ceiling of Sue's classroom has at last died.  We know this because of the familiar and awful smell that has moved one room over -- from mine to hers.  Her sliver of good fortune is that the rodent decomposing inside her wall is obviously much smaller than the one that died in mine -- the odor is less intense.  We first noticed the smell on Monday, and by today the smell is almost bearable.

The other rodent-centered bit of news is that the Van Allen School 4th graders will be going on our Yosemite field trip, despite the efforts of a rodent called the white-footed mouse.  They carry a fatal virus called Hantavirus that erupted there this past spring.  It's an extremely rare disease -- of the many thousands of visitors who came to the park last summer,  nine people who stayed in the tent cabins contracted it.  Three died.  Our principal thoroughly checked into the situation to make sure that the park was safe for 4th graders.  When someone from the Federal Government's Center for Disease Control officially told him that we'd be in no danger (from Hantavirus, at any rate) he gave us the all clear to go.

Half Dome
Bruce and I drove up there this past weekend to scope things out.  Everything at Yosemite is very dry at this time of year -- especially so after so little little rain last winter.  But it's still very beautiful there and I'm happy that we get to take the students there this year.
Mirror Lake (minus the water)

While there, we saw lots of people.  No mice, though.