Monday, January 28, 2013

Costa Rica

We spent the past week in Costa Rica. For some time now, we’ve wanted the boys to have a chance to hear Spanish spoken outside the classroom. After doing some research we decided Costa Rica would be our best bet, factoring in all the variables at play for us. We spent the week in the Arenal region near La Fortuna, based on Trip Advisor’s recommendation for family travel in Central America (we stayed here).

As we left the airport in San Jose, we passed a block where the street level windows were all protected by bars. Behind one of them a little dog wagged its tail madly, and a woman walking down the street stuck her hand through the bars to pet him. As soon as we left the city, roadside stands selling strawberries and fresh cheese cropped up every half mile or so. The road we traveled wound past terraced coffee plantations, fields of sugarcane, pineapple plantations. Vultures alone and in pairs circled over every field.

Tiempo means both weather and time.

The place where we stayed has a cow, chickens, and pigs.  Every morning, Abbott helped with the milking while Cal collected the eggs that would later become our breakfast. The restaurant was open to the air on one side, and we watched all manner of birds as we ate our meals. It was paradise. With breakfast, we were served some combination of starfruit, papaya, melon, guava and pineapple, to eat and in juices; the starfruit and papaya were grown on the property.  Our morning coffee was Costa Rican. After my first cup I said, ‘Bueno!’ – and our server corrected me, ‘Muy bueno!’

We spent a day with a local farmer and his family, and I saw my first Costa Rican lemons. They reminded me of miniature melons on the outside. They're more globular and more similar to an orange than are American lemons. Together we made chimichurri for lunch, and empanadas filled with guava jelly and caramel for an afternoon snack. Abbott and Cal played with the farmer's daughters, who happened to be their exact ages. They rode ponies and played cards and hide and seek.

Every day we saw sloths.

We learned Costa Rica’s national bird is an ordinary robin, chosen because it can be found everywhere throughout the country, and because of its beautiful song.

Our first full day in the region we visited the Arenal Hanging Bridges with a guide. It was an incredible opportunity to observe and learn about the intricate life of a jungle; the symbiotic relationships, the plants’ efforts at maximizing their sunlight via such measures as ‘walking,’ above-ground roots. We swam in hot springs at the end of the day.

There were endless lines of leaf-cutter ants everywhere. I got used to seeing their movement in my peripheral vision; started seeing it with my eyes closed.

We traveled by horseback through the rainforest and past fields of bulls and dairy cows. Our guide, Enrique, pointed out that cattle grazing and deforestation go hand in hand. Enrique had a little dog that ran alongside us; he found an armadillo. Apparently, they can’t see or hear very well, so they’re easy to catch. Enrique picked it up; the poor animal growled and trembled until he let him go. We rode to a waterfall. While we changed into our swimming suits, Enrique cut up a pineapple for us to share, using a giant leaf as his cutting board. We swam, then sat on sun-warmed rocks in the water and took it all in as we ate chicken salad sandwiches. Not another soul was in sight. At the end of the day, we encountered a few Costa Rican children swinging Tarzan-style on vines, and they invited the boys to join in.

We spent a day floating down the Cano Negro, watching Jesus Christ lizards walk on water, spider and howler and white faced capuchin monkeys in the trees, basilisks and turtles on the banks, bats in the trees and, as everywhere else, paradisical birds everywhere.

me and a baby white faced capuchin at the ASIS Wild Animal Rescue Center

In the evenings, we sat in the last of the light as we ate, listening to the bird songs stop and the cicadas start up. We walked back to our cabin in the thick humidity, and read in hammocks on our porch before going inside to bed. We fell asleep listening to the cicadas, and awoke to bird songs.

Monday, January 14, 2013

January 14

Fifth grade was a year of firsts for me. I had my earliest glimmers of fashion awareness; I begged my mother to buy me a pair of Jordache jeans. I became aware of body odor after my mother told me I needed to wash my coat because it smelled. I started taking an interest in boys, though I vehemently denied it to my friends when they asked. I was still enough of a kid to play in the snow for its own sake, and I’d sometimes enact various romantic scenes, pretending I was Meg from A Wrinkle in Time walking in the woods with Calvin, or Princess Leia, escaping with Han Solo. I had my first boyfriend that year. His name was Sam. He had red hair and a wicked smile; he was the class clown, and he was adorable. I’d liked him for some time, when one day, to my surprise and delight, he slipped me a note: “Will you go with me? Yes or No.” I circled yes, then shyly dropped the note back on his desk, without making eye contact. The next day, however, before we even had a chance to hold hands, he found me on the playground and muttered, hurriedly, “Dump it all in dirt,” to my confusion and sorrow. Whenever I’ve asked Abbott if his classmates are starting to like each other in a romantic sense or become boyfriend and girlfriend, he wrinkles his nose and says, “I don’t think so.”

I spent all day Friday at school. I chaperoned Abbott’s fifth grade class on a field trip to the Museum of Flight. Abbott, at almost 10 ½, is the youngest by far; had he been born a few weeks later he’d be a fourth grader right now. Some of his peers will be turning twelve soon. It was my first opportunity in some time to see them all together. Some of the children are still fairly entrenched in childhood; some, moving on to the self-consciousness of adolescence. The girls all seemed to be wearing a variation of the same outfit. In the restroom, I observed a couple of them planted in front of the mirror, smoothing their hair, scrutinizing their own reflections as they moved this way and that. As we sat eating in the museum’s lunch room, the boys and the girls clustered together, for the most part, though with some intermingling – one of Abbott’s best friends is a girl – and some banter back and forth between groups as they ate their sandwiches and apples and their thermoses of soup.

The whole school has been studying civil rights this month, broadly, and learning about Martin Luther King, Jr.; watching video footage from his speeches and learning about the Children’s March (incredible video). Abbott and his classmates individually made a list of 20 rights they have, then went back through their lists and thought more critically about which were rights, which were privileges. They also made a list of things that could be fixed in the world. They made posters expressing those rights and things to fix – “Soles for all Souls”, “Everyone Needs Medical Care – even people who can’t afford it” – “Everyone Has the Right to Learn.” After we returned from the Museum of Flight, we marched with their signs in a school-organized event. The second graders joined in, wearing T-shirts they’d decorated with salient points from Martin Luther King’s speeches.

I don’t remember having discussions at school about civil rights when I was a kid. I did learn about Rosa Parks, and I knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was, and what he stood for. At home, I listened to my parents tell stories about their childhood in the Jim Crow south. They were in high school when the schools integrated, peacefully, in their town. We lived in my grandparents’ town in Texas for a short time in my early childhood, in the 1970s. There was still a ‘black’ and a ‘white’ church of the denomination my family attended, and my parents chose for us to attend the ‘black’ church.

As we walked I thought about our individual and collective liberties, and our privilege, and the challenges of youth and adolescence. Some held their signs high, with energy and pride; a few showed signs of discomfort or embarrassment; many just seemed happy to have the extra time outside. I’m thankful to the school for giving the kids practice thinking through what they believe, and an exercise in standing up for those beliefs, even if in a small way. I want my boys to live out their lives with humility; with the knowledge that none of us is fully responsible for our fortunes, or our tragedies.

PS – Every year, our school has an Experience Book Project. The Book Project invites families to choose one or more of the following selections to explore together. This year’s theme is “Portraits of Perseverance and Resilience.” Below is a list of the books, and summaries about them, excerpted from the school newsletter.

The Hallelujah Flight (Phil Bildner) During the Great Depression, the ace black pilot James Banning decided to fly from coast to coast to serve as an inspiration to people everywhere. So with a little ingenuity and a whole lot of heart, he fixed up the dilapidated OXX6 Eagle Rock plane with his co-pilot and mechanic, Thomas Allen, earning them the derisive nickname, “The Flying Hobos.” But with the help of friends and family along the way who signed their names on the wings of the plane in exchange for food, fuel and supplies, Banning and Allen made it through treacherous weather and overcame ruthless prejudice to receive a heroes’ welcome upon landing in New York on October 9, 1932. Further reading – Amelia Earhart: More than a Flier (Patricia Lakin)

The Sound of Colors (Jimmy Liao) In this breathtaking, evocative book, a young blind girl travels from one subway station to another while her imagination takes her to impossibly wonderful places. She swims with the dolphins and sunbathes on a whale’s back; flies through the air with the birds and travels to the station at the end of the world. Poetic text is paired with haunting and beautiful watercolor paintings in this incredible book that explores themes of overcoming a disability and the power of the imagination. The Sound of Colors is a magical book that will take readers on a journey unlike anything they've ever experienced before. Further reading – Stephan Hawking: Understanding the Universe (Gail Sakurai), Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures (George Sullivan)

Crow Boy (Taro Yashima) In a small Japanese village, Chibi, the main character, is an outcast at school because he is different from the other children. Day after day, Chibi is faced with feelings of isolation and rejection. This memorable story presents the reader with a situation that all children experience at some time in their life and illustrates that a child's potential can be fulfilled when we consider all of their interests and needs. Further reading – Thank you, Mr. Falker (Patricia Palacco)

GRADES 3 to 5
Wonder (R.J. Palacio) August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder, now a New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan) Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico—she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances—Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Isabel Wilkerson)
In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves. Further reading – The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Ayana Mathis)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Katherine Boo) Katherine Boo spent three years among the residents of the Annawadi slum, a sprawling, cockeyed settlement of more than 300 tin-roof huts and shacks in the shadow of Mumbai’s International Airport. From within this “sumpy plug of slum” Boo unearths stories both tragic and poignant—about residents’ efforts to raise families, earn a living, or simply survive. These unforgettable characters all nurture far-fetched dreams of a better life.

  1. Think about the feelings and experiences of the characters. Do any experiences or feelings remind you of a time in your own life?
  2. What are some of the challenges that the character(s) had to overcome?
  3. How did the characters exhibit perseverance and/or resilience? What other virtues did they show?
  4. Can you think of a time when you have persevered or exhibited resilience? Share the story.
  5. What kind of support or understanding were the characters able to find? How was this important in order for them to accomplish the goals or achievements?
  6. What do you think the characters and/or the community gained because of the experience?
  7. If you could be in the story, what new or existing role would you play? 

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Our Christmas tree sits on the curb, ready for tomorrow’s yard waste truck. Yesterday Alexi and the boys watched USA win the World Junior Hockey Championship while I packed away the last of the holiday decorations. Our snow gear is back on its shelf in the garage. I took a second pass through our pile of holiday cards and letters as I ate lunch today, studying each one with a leisure I didn’t have as they came in. There were lengthy typed letters, some embellished with computer graphics, that included details about family vacations, lost teeth, geography bees and injured dogs. There were photos of the children of our childhood friends; of the boys’ long-ago preschool classmates, some almost unrecognizable to us now, some the same as ever. So many photos and stories of a multitude of lives entwined with ours, near and distant. We’re getting ourselves in order, inside and out, for the resumption of our individual lives tomorrow: school for the boys, work for Alexi, tasks at home for me.

New Years Eve, at the end of an afternoon of packing and organizing and preparing to leave town, as the sun set, Alexi opened a bottle of champagne for us; I opened a bottle of sparkling cider for the boys. The four of us ate dinner in stages, starting with small, clean-tasting Kusshi oysters at the kitchen counter until Alexi’s hand ached from the opening. We moved on to king crab legs at the dining room table, picking the succulent meat out of the shells. I put artichokes on to steam, and it took longer than I remembered it should. We ate them last, sitting on the floor around the coffee table as we watched a movie, pulling off the leaves and dipping them in melted butter before stripping them of their tender meat with our teeth. The ease of the evening combined with the exquisite flavors gave it a celebratory air.

New Year’s morning, not too early, we drove to the mountains. We snacked on clementines; the boys played Minecraft. When we arrived at our hotel, I checked in as Alexi took the boys to play in a patch of snow alongside the parking lot. The three of them were alight with unparalleled joy: pelting snowballs, fleeing; cackling, wrestling, cavorting. They do everything in the snow with an abandon that never ceases to amaze me. I have never lived with abandon.

My senses go on hyperdrive in a new climate. There is always an initial shock to the cold. The snow crunched under our boots. There were icicles on every surface that could form them. The fir trees were encrusted with frost. The initial tedium to the layering and the bundling with every trip in and out quickly transitioned to habit. The day ended with making s'mores - marshmallows take forever to roast when it’s 15 degrees outside - then soaking in a hot tub surrounded by snow. Alexi read from one of the Harry Potter books until the boys fell asleep. Years ago, traveling to and from the same mountains, Alexi read aloud to me from the same book as I drove. It was a surprise and a pleasure to find the snow still there when we woke.

They each want Alexi to read with them at bedtime; compete for him all the time. But in the middle of the night, when they can't find the light switch in the unfamiliar hotel bathroom they come to me. When they're sick and they’re tired it’s me they ask for. The trip was not perfect. Cal woke up with a stomachache, which turned into a full-blown stomach flu. I spent the day in our room with him while Alexi and Abbott skied and skated; he, piteously sick; I, looking out at the ice and snow as I read and offered comfort. The following day, I woke up sick, and the next night, back at home, Abbott and Alexi followed suit. Still, we were all very glad for the time away. The trip has added to our memory bank of family time in the snow. It’s always good getting away, and it’s always good coming home.

Epiphany Sunday is almost over. Our house feels empty where the tree once stood, yet more light gets in. The Seahawks have won. Downton Abbey will premiere in a short while. I’m ready for this year and all it holds.