Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 3 of 4

When we went by the Ahwahnee Hotel to catch the shuttle. Jenna explained that it was a historic building and the ‘grandest’ hotel in Yosemite. “Do they serve acorns at the Ahwahnee Hotel?” Mathilda asked. “They should serve acorn mush so that the visitors who come here can try the foods that Indians ate.” Jenna said no. Mathilda was astonished. “Well they should!” Acorn mush had been on her mind since Grandmother Rock.

Before Spider Cave, Jenna took us to Grandmother Rock to practice climbing. Grandmother Rock is over 10 feet high. There’s a rule that kids are not to climb on anything taller than themselves, except under adult supervision.

This exercise would also be a preview of how the kids would handle Spider Cave. There was usually at least one kid in each group, who was not up for the challenge of climbing in the dark. No kid would be pushed to do something they didn’t feel ready for.

Everyone climbed up Grandmother Rock, some with a little boost of the foot from Jenna. The entire group spread out quite comfortably on the expansive, relatively flat top. There were grinding holes of various depths and diameters in the center, which Jenna explained that the Ahwahneechee women used to use to grind acorn and other plants they gathered for food. The depths indicated that the holes had been used for thousands of year. Perhaps different holes correlated to different foods.

“Now to get down, you have two options,” Jenna grinned. “You either slide down the other side of the rock, or you can climb down the same way you came up.” Most of the kids, starting with the most fearless, slid down. There was a hollow at the footfall, scooped out over time by the landing of countless feet. It had filled with water from the previous week’s rain. Most kids simply landed feet-first in the puddle. One or two kids opted to climb down instead. Now only Wayland and I were left at the top.
“Adults! Adults! Adults!” the kids screamed. There’s nothing like seeing grown-ups attempt what kids do naturally. Wayland slid down first, and landed with a 9.0 finish. “Yay!” they cheered him.
As I scooted into position, I saw that it was going to be hard to land without getting my shoes wet. That little worry made me nervous, and I hesitated for longer than I wanted to. “Here goes nothing!” I pushed my self, and landed with a small splash. During this distraction, Sonny and some of the other boys had climbed up Grandmother Rock again on their own.
“I was going to ask if anyone wanted to climb up again, they could. But you guys beat me to it.” Jenna said, mildly surprised. All of the kids went for an encore; even Phillip, who was not the smallest, but the most timid. It seemed as if our kids would all be going into the Spider Cave, and Wayland would be waiting outside by himself. In fact, most kids said afterwards that they had more fun at Grandmother Rock than Spider Cave.


In the afternoon, we walked from Lower Yosemite Falls, where we had lunched and made our way to the Yosemite Visitor Center Museum. We had arrived way in advance for Julia Parker’s story-telling time. So we walked around the outside exhibits, to check out the miniature model dioramas, and read the interpretive signs. The best part was when the kids could step inside the Miwok bark huts and take pictures of each other. Still, they were listless, restless, and acting up. “It’s funny how you can tell they’re low on energy,” Jenna commented. When we had dragged out as much time as we could outdoors, we went inside the museum. We were a little apprehensive; hopefully the 5th-graders would behave when during Julia’s session.

Julia Parker is nominally an NPS employee, but more than that, she is a living institution. She is an Ahwahneechee woman, whose ancestors lived in Yosemite Valley, which they called Ahwahnee. She’s old, with long salt and pepper hair. She tells stories, demonstrates and talks about Indian culture and history with museum visitors. Everyone is in awe of her and treats her with utmost respect. Her male counterpart is Ben. She and Ben appear on alternate afternoons at the museum to talk to students and groups. (Last year, our trail group was at the museum on a “Julia” day, so I’ve never met Ben.)

Julia settled in on her perch at museum, a raised platform with basket-making materials, traditional tools, and incongruously, a 1970’s beige push-button phone. The kids gathered around her, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.


Spirit walk in the meadow under El Capitan (Each person walked alone in their own space/silence)

Since we had spent most of the previous day in the meadow under El Capitan, Julia told an Indian story about El Capitan. A mama bear had two cubs who fell asleep on top of a rock. The rock grew so tall overnight, the top couldn’t be seen. Mama bear panicked, not knowing where her cubs where. She put out an APB to all the animals to help her find her lost cubs. They figured out the cubs were on top of the rock, but each animal who tried to reach the cubs failed. Finally a puny inch worm crawled zig-zag up the face of El Capitan and reached the cubs. The timing of the story was very apt; less than two months ago, two climbers had successfully free-climbed their way to the top of El Capitan.

Having spent all day in the sun, doing so much exercise, most of the kids dozed off soon after they sat inside the cool, dim museum, lulled by Julia’s serene, almost monotone voice. I hoped Julia wasn’t offended; that she was used to that with so many school groups visiting her. At least the kids were quiet, and not disruptive while she spoke. I felt drowsy too.

At length, Julia’s tale ended and she asked “Do you have any questions? It can be about the story, or anything about the Indians in general.”
There was a a pause. I dreaded the thud of silence, awkward when no one has any questions after a long presentation.

Surprisingly, the kids perked up and peppered away with questions, mostly from Doug, Sonny, Josh, Anne. There were a lot of food questions, since the we had just seen the grinding holes in Grandmother Rock. Most of the boys’ questions were about ‘manly’ things like hunting, arrows, etc. Julia answered some, but deflected many as “that’s man’s talk.” She may have been capable of answering; but it seemed more like a cultural practice to segregate certain topics by gender roles. If you asked an Ahwahneechee man about making acorn mush, perhaps he might defer to women as the authorities on that topic.

Naturally, the boys wanted to meet Ben; Josh even asked if they could come back to the museum the next day! Even the kids who hadn’t asked Julia anything wanted to come back to the museum and meet Ben. I was impressed that the kids found the museum interesting and wanted to go back. Even though it’s small, and we had spent very little time inside, they were quite interested in the exhibits.

We escorted our kids out the museum, and assembled on the large open plaza in front. The adults were relieved, job well done: we’d managed to avoid any behavior mishaps in our trail group for the day. Jenna brought out plain animal crackers for the afternoon snack and we would have a ‘toast’, to ensure everyone to drank some water.

Josh said “I don’t want to drink any water. I’m not thirsty.”
“You need to get your bottle out to toast.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Come on, everyone is ready.”
“Josh, get out your water bottle now.” I glared at him from across the circle.
“No I don’t want to!”
We volleyed back and forth a few times. It’s unusual for Lincoln students to be so stubborn. Say what you will about stereotypes, but most of them fit the Chinese archetype of being 聽話 obedient.
By now, the rest of the kids and adults were watching our exchange in silence. I didn’t want to hold up the rest of the group from toasting, and waste their time, so I got up and took
Josh aside.
“Look, even if you don’t want to drink, you should take out your water bottle, and take a sip.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Even if you don’t feel thirsty, you need to drink some water, otherwise you’ll get dehydrated. We’ve been out and about all day.”
“I don’t want to drink any water.”
“Well at least pretend to take a sip of water. [28] When you’re in a group, and every one else is taking out their bottle of water, you need to participate. It’s about having respect for your group.”

“No, I’m not thirsty.”
“You need to drink to stay hydrated!” Oh my god, I was turning into my dad.

When I was a kid, what I most hated was when my dad nagged me ad nauseum about something I already knew: “Don’t read in such dim light, or your eyes will go bad. Don’t read slouching in bed, otherwise your eyes will go bad.” (I didn’t think about how he might be tired of saying it all the time.) As much as the repetitiveness, it was the know-it-all tone that bugged me, “I know better than you, so I’m teaching you.” [29] I knew he was right, but the kid in me was defiant — I wanted to annoy him in return for annoying me in the first place!

“Josh, drink some water. Your body needs the water it’s lost.”
“Water makes me barf.”

It was a good thing I was too angry with him, otherwise I would have lost it by bursting into laughter. The bloody-minded, ridiculous things kids say just to be contrary. We shot mental daggers from our eyes at each other unblinkingly, like cheesy special effects from a Shaw Brothers flick.

“Look, this not just about the water. This is about respect for your group. You are part of this group, and you’ve gotta have respect for the others in the group. By not getting out your water bottle to drink, and spending all this time arguing about it, you are disrespecting the others in the group. What if this had been yesterday, right before we went to Spider Cave? What if we were wasting time having this same argument then? There wouldn’t have been time to go through Spider Cave twice, we’d only have been able to go through once. How would you have felt about that? You would have missed out, all of you would have missed out on the extra fun?Drink some water now!”
“I don’t want to.”
I sighed. This was getting nowhere, so I cut my losses and tried a different tactic.

“Josh, you’re a smart kid. I’ve already explained to why you need to drink water to stay hydrated. But I know I don’t really need to repeat it, because I know you’re a smart kid, you understand what I’m saying. I’m just reminding you.’
“I’m not smart!”
“How can you not be smart? You’ve made it to fifth grade! You’re here at science camp! You’ve made it this far. You’re certainly not dumb!”

This was ludicrous — kids always 認叻! What silly kid would proclaim himself dumb to the adult he was arguing with. Josh really was stubborn 硬頸!

We walked back into the circle. [30]

“IT’S TOO BAD WE DIDN”T GET TO GO BACK TO THE MUSEUM TO SEE BEN,” Mathilda told me. She had a lot of questions she wanted to ask.
“Well, maybe you could write him a letter and ask your questions. We could get his address from Jenna, or send it to him at the museum. Or if you have email, you could probably email him.”
“He doesn’t have email!” Mathilda declared, surprised at my cIuelessness. “How could Indians have email?” I think she had the conflated the notion that Ben was probably as old as Julia, and since they were such experts about Indian traditions, they must be living the traditional way as well, so it would be incongruous for them to have email.

In the interlude between the end of the Yosemite Falls Trail hike and dinner at Yosemite Lodge, Wayland and I decided to let the kids play in the plaza in front of Yosemite Lodge. It was too late to go to the museum. It wasn’t worth shuttling back to Curry Camp to wash-up for 5 minutes, and turn right around to shuttle back to Yosemite Lodge for dinner.

Led by the charismatic Doug, the kids elected to play “Wax at the Museum,” which seemed to be a variation of “Tag.” Doug was one fifth-grader who was smarter than most adults. He was curious, articulate, attentive, and poised, but still came across as a personable ten-year old. I kept half-thinking “what is he doing here, shouldn’t he be in college already?” [31]

Wayland and I kept a casual eye on the kids, calling out “Freeze!” whenever any lodge guests or hospitality workers (including a man in kitchen whites, with a matching white rose tucked coquettishly behind his ear) were walking through the plaza area. The kids would freeze in place and let the adults pass through in peace. From where we were sitting, you could see into the Yosemite Lodge lounge, where ESPN was on a large screen TV. The TV was jarring, surreal reminder that the world marched on outside our science camp bubble.

Timothy, who had been the first one tagged, was leap-running from bench to bench. “Look, I’m doing parkour!”
I called him over. “Stop that. Sit down here for a little time out.” It was a half-hearted admonishment. The plank benches were laid out in an enticingly parallel configuration, with just the right spacing. I would want to run on them too, if I were a ten-year old.
Timothy sat down on a bench behind us. Sonny who had now been tagged out, came over by him, and they started horsing around. I turned forward again, focusing on the larger group of kids still in play.

The second round of “Wax at the Museum” started. Only Timothy was still sitting on the bench behind me. He was crying quietly, immobile, but for periodic involuntary gulps.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“What happened?”
He didn’t say anything. I was puzzled, but only mildly concerned. It had been a strenuous and exciting day. Perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea to let the kids play ‘Wax at the Museum’ after the long hike — it got them wound up. Maybe Timothy needed some quiet time on his own, until dinner might be just enough.
When the dining hall doors opened, we were the first trail group to go in and queue for food. Timothy hung back, keeping to himself, still crying, uncharacteristically silent – his usual mode is cocky bravado. I stood at the end of the line with him, asking him what was wrong, what had happened. He didn’t say anything, responding with only crying gulps. Alarm finally dawned on me — crying this prolonged was serious.

I gently led him outside. There was a Badger Pass two-seater ski lift chair parked in front of the dining hall. We sat down.

“What happened? Did someone do something to hurt you? Did someone say something that really hurt your feelings?” Was it something I had done? What could I do to make it better? Did someone say something about someone else? Did he want to talk to Mr. Fong?

He still didn’t say anything. Sometimes he nodded, sometimes he bobbed his head, but mostly it was the hiccuping reflexes of crying.

I tried everything I could think of to get him to talk. Timothy was getting goose pimples on his arms from the chilly air, so I went to get his jacket. I made him drink some water. I gave him a gummy bear (I was holding the leftover stash from Jenna,) but he simply gripped it in his hand.

Some people will go into an unstoppable rant when they are upset, telling you everything: who, what, how, why, twice, thrice. Listening to them takes patience, but at least you know what is going on. This was so much worse. Timothy was holding it in so resolutely — in the face of muteness, I had nothing to work with. I was making it worse by muddling around. I couldn’t figure out if I should keep repeating the questions at him until he talked; or just sit there in silent sympathy with him, and wait until he was ready. I’d dealt with lots of crazy co-workers and work situations before, but nothing as nerve-wracking as this.

All options exhausted, I started crying too. I was sad that he was so sad. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find out what was the problem. I was helpless in making him feel better. Most of all I was terrified that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and screwing things up.

In my desperation I shared a story with Timothy which I rarely told anyone: someone had said something that deeply hurt me when I was a child. I hoped by telling him about my story, he would to tell me his hurt in return. But he still cried in deafening silence. [32]

Mr. Fong came out of the dining hall — his group had gone in to dinner, as had many others during our roost on the ski lift chair. I briefly explained the situation. I’d struck out; now it was his turn at bat.

That night’s dinner theme was “Oriental.” I got some minestrone soup — fortunately they hadn’t tried to make it ‘hot-and-sour’ — and slumped into an open seat. I was glad not to be hungry; and forego gloppy chow mein and sesame chicken.

Mom wasn’t at the dinner table either. It had turned out to be a bad night for her as well, more spectacularly so — one of the girls in her trail group had fell and hit her head, sustaining a possible concussion. Mom was holed up in our cabin watching over the resting girl. Mr. MacLeod had arranged for to-go dinner boxes to be packed up and taken over to them.

Mom’s words “I would have flunked her, if I were the principal,” ricocheted in my head. I had absolutely flunked chaperone-hood, but still I wished my mom was at the table so I could discuss Timothy with her, even if it was a relative tempest in a teacup, compared to what she had on her plate.

Mr. Fong was gone for a really long time, but eventually I saw him, Timothy . . . and Sonny talking in the far corner of the dining hall. Sonny?! I racked my brains, had they been doing anything so egregious that could have upset Timothy so strongly? . . . and how on earth had I not noticed anything!?

Timothy took a tray and went to the food line. Mr. Fong came back and resumed eating his by-now cold dinner.
“Is Timothy OK? What was the problem?” I asked.
“Well, apparently they were playing and Sonny said Timothy couldn’t play because he was on a time out, and Timothy said he could and they beat each other up. Timothy claims Sonny put him in chokehold, and Sonny claims he didn’t, he merely punched him lightly in the arm. But neither are willing to back down from their side of the story, so . . .” he shrugged.

I had a nagging, sinking feeling that I must have part of the problem. Perhaps Timothy hadn’t wanted to tell me because he felt I had done him some wrong?

“It’s all right.” Mr. Fong took it all in stride — it was all in day’s work for him. “We had some wrinkles in our group today too.”

I ended up telling Mom about the incident weeks later. “Just so you know for next time,” she advised me, “you should ask the kid’s buddy, or the other kid that was involved, or even the other kids who were around. They would definitely tell you if you asked.” I wish I had known, it would have saved a lot of trouble. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that to begin with!

Hanging around 5th graders inevitably made me think back to when I was their age, reviving long dormant memories. My fifth grade year had been marked by a singular incident. Hanging around the Lincoln School contingent made me think about the what-ifs — in a parallel universe, I might have gone to Lincoln for grade school. What then would I be like today? [33] How much would we have in common, that could-have-been me and the me I am now?

There were several journaling exercises during the activities. Jenna would write leading questions on her mini-whiteboard: What did I like most about Yosemite? What was most memorable? What did I see? hear? smell? touch? Most kids would write about the more lofty aspects, like the sound of Yosemite Falls, gripping the stone surfaces when climbing Spider Cave, the sight of of Half Dome. If they had been honest, they would have written something like this:

What I liked most: There were sticks and rocks everywhere.
Most memorable: Crushing rocks with my bare hands.
I saw: The shiny crystals inside the rock that I broke open
I heard: The banging of rocks I pounded together.
I touched: The rough grainy bark of the sticks I gripped.
I smelled: Ground-up dry rock dust.

Just like the one-time principal of their school [34], most of the boys in our trail group were obsessed with sticks and stones. When you’re walking miles and miles in Yosemite each day, with sticks and stones are strewn all over the place, resistance to temptation is futile.

The kids would pick up fallen branches to use as walking sticks “We have to walk sooooo much I’m tired. I need this stick to help me walk!” Occasionally they’d wave them around as swords, which drew immediate rebukes from the chaperones.

Just as frequently, the kids would pick up rocks and stones along the way, Mostly, they’d bang or scratch them together. Most of the time they knew better than to throw them, except whenever we were next to a creek.

Yosemite Swing Bridge beach

The beach at Swinging Bridge. Lots of rocks.

Whenever and wherever we were sitting down, the kids would start fiddling around with whatever was in reach: dirt, sand, dried leaves, pine needles, and rocks on the ground, building and destroying little piles. It was what was at hand in the outdoor classroom. Their hands needed to fidget with something, even as they were listening with their ears. The kids may have looked inattentive, but they were sponging up some of it. Liam impressed Jenna by knowing that the name of the Indians was Ahwahneechee – he hadn’t looked up from the rocks he was preoccupied with. (He’d heard it the night before at Naturalist Dave’s bear talk.)

Being the responsible chaperones we purported to be, we nagged constantly at the boys to drop the sticks or rocks that they were just as constantly picking up. I started made bad jokes to relieve the tedium [35] of repetition: “Timothy, drop that rock so it can stay here with its friends.” “Sonny, I’ve taken away enough sticks from you to build a Miwok bark hut”.

“Do I need to really need to sound like a broken record and tell you to drop that stick?” I nagged at one kid. Then to soften it into a teachable moment, I added “Do you even know where the expression comes from? Back in the day when we had vinyl records; if the record got messed up at a certain point in the song, it would repeat itself.” [36]

Sometimes we gave up and temporarily turned a blind eye to what they picked up, until they did something dangerous, like waving a stick around high. “Drop that!” — we didn’t want any eyes poked out. One girl in another trail group had sustained an eye injury from a rock accidentally bouncing into her eye when the kids were skipping stones.

The kids weren’t above gaming us either. “But Mr. Wayland said I could have a stick,” when I told one boy to drop the stick. Or “How come you’re not telling Adrian to stop playing with rocks, but you won’t let me?”

Who’s kidding whom? It’s more fun when it’s forbidden — if we had given carte blanche to the kids with sticks and stones, they would quickly become bored with them.

The Pollyanna in me was glad (but trying not to show it) that the kids liked playing with sticks and stones. I didn’t think it was all bad. After all, wasn’t that the point of bringing them to Yosemite — to experience the great outdoors up close and personal, and derive their own amusements directly from nature? You hear about kids nowadays who only know how to ‘play’ with manufactured toys, that they can’t combat boredom on their own. [37] , [38] It’s refreshing and reassuring to see it’s not entirely true. Left to their own devices in Yosemite, they can entertain themselves just fine — with a little help from Minecraft.

The highlight of the Yosemite Falls Trail hike was OMG Point, a bit past Columbia Rock, accessed by a short spur trail. Since the platform behind the safety railing at OMG Point was so small, Jenna would take 4-5 kids at a time to view the stupendous panorama stretching from Yosemite Falls to Half Dome, gorgeously clear on this bright blue-sky golden-sunny day. In the meantime, the the rest of the trail group had to wait on the main trunk trail.


Columbia Rock, on the Yosemite Falls Trail

Jenna had assigned a little journaling exercise for the kids who were with her at OMG Point. Some kids finished the assignment quickly. Since we were parked about a thousand feet above the valley floor, on a narrow mountain trail, there was very little space for the kids to run about and play that was within sight of the chaperones. Naturally they started to pick up rocks and stones and bang them together, trying to make fire caveman-style, pulverize the granite into powder, scratch graffiti onto the rock faces of the trail walls, or even fossick for ore. And even though we’d been very strict while hiking up about kids not picking up rocks, because dropping them downhill could injure hikers below us, at this point, it seemed under or beyond our control.

I weakly tried to salvage teachable moments out of rock-play. “You know, you could also start a fire if you had a magnifying glass, and directed sunlight through it.” “Notice how one rock will leave a scratch mark on the other, but not the other way around? There’s something called Mohr’s scale of hardness. . .” The kids sensibly tuned me out and contentedly played on their own.

“I’m looking for rocks with valuable metal and take them back with me and sell them,” said Timothy. “Well, you can’t take anything from a national park, not even rocks or sticks. You have to leave them here. Otherwise one day there’d be none left.” (I often repeat this to my own mother, who really likes beach-combing for interesting rocks to take them home.)

The kids pounded rocks with gusto. It was very satisfying when a rock broke open into two, revealing its interior. Most of the rocks in Yosemite Valley are granite, which is relatively brittle. The boys showed me their crushed rocks.
“Is this diamond? It’s sparkly.”
“No it’s quartz.”
Some rocks had specks of reddish-brown. “Well that could be iron,” I speculated. (Oh why oh why hadn’t I paid more attention to earth science class in 9th grade?)
“What’s iron used for?”
“Hmm…. cast iron frying pans? Woks?” [39]

“How much is this worth?” Josh demanded.
“Well that depends on the price of iron right now, which we could look up when we get back to school.” (Or an internet connection.) Hastily, I did a mental back-of-the-envelope calculation.
“Hmm, maybe that’s worth ten cents.”
“Only ten cents!” said Josh doubtfully. “Nooo . . . it’s gotta be worth more than that. Like $20!”
He eyed me suspiciously. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to trick me into leaving all these rocks here, by making me think they’re worthless, because you said we’re not supposed to take rocks home.” With an exaggerated flourish, he surreptitiously stuffed a few rocks to weigh down his backpack.

I found it a bit odd that they seemed so fixated on the resource value of the rocks. But I’d also been overhearing the kids talking about an online game they played that involved warlords and accumulating resources (Later I found out it was Minecraft). It started to make sense. The concept of mining-based wealth had carried over from the virtual world into the real world, where they could actually lay their hands on ore.

BACK TO POST [28] I mentally cringed as I said this. I was a hypocritical adult to preach to him about conformity, doing things you didn’t want to do, so you could fit in with the others. That’s 180 degrees from my personal philosophy

Of course I did just that. On our way back to Oakland, our bus stopped at Carl’s Junior in Oakdale for dinner. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t find anything on the menu appealing. But I ordered a hamburger and ate half: to be polite; to forestall any fuss of “why aren’t you eating anything? you should eat something”; and to avoid appearing snobby “I don’t like fast-food.” The kids were excited to be eating at a fast-food chain. It’s OK occasionally, and this would be appropriately one of those occasions.

Almost all the kids also picked up the nutritional information pamphlets that chains are required to provide. I thought it was because they wanted a souvenir from Carl’s Junior. It turns out that Ms. Fong was teaching her class about nutrition and the poor quality of industrial food; she showed them the “Super-Size Me” movie and had them read Michael Pollan and “Fast-Food Nation.” “Start them young, and for some of them, it’s really made them change their eating habits. You know, some 5th grade girls already have their periods, because of the hormones in meat make them mature sooner!” she said. The kids were taking the pamphlets because they wanted a real-life example to apply to what they’d been learning.

BACK TO POST [29] Tell me something new already. Even today, I am easily irritated by people repeating things I’ve heard before or already know. The line from “Wall Street”, when Gordon Gecko says, “Come on pal, tell me something I don’t know, it’s my birthday. Surprise me.” — could have been mine.

BACK TO POST [30] The next day, I was pointedly focused on Josh to drink whenever we had a water break. He seemed resigned to my proddings with good grace.

BACK TO POST [31] Doug tried to pick up Chinese phrases from the rest of the kids. The twins, with a slightly malicious streak, would speak Cantonese in front of Doug, but refused to translate for him.
“What’s 芝士菠蘿 …” Doug asked me. I couldn’t figure out the rest of the phrase he was phoneticizing. “It’s cheese pineapple . . . the rest is some phrase I don’t know. It’s a bun you get in Chinese bakeries, but there’s no actual pineapple in it.” The twins refused to repeat the entire phrase, so it was probably something cheeky.

I had already startled the twins once, when I heard them say 死八婆. “Watch the language!” I warned them. I get sneaky little kicks out of surprising people who don’t think I understand anything but English!

BACK TO POST [32] Later I would feel a bit foolish for having told him the story. Kids either remember everything you tell them, or nothing. I crossed my fingers for the latter.

BACK TO POST [33] In yet another parallel universe, I would have gone K through 12th grade entirely in El Cerrito. I did go to El Cerrito HS for the last two years of high school, where my best friend Christina. . . was a Chinese-American girl who had gone from K through 12th grade in El Cerrito. I always marveled that she was my karmic doppelgänger: what I might have become. On Christina’s part, she would have missed out on some unconventional outings if she hadn’t been friends with the me I was. She’s currently a 5th grade teacher.

BACK TO POST [34] I go hiking a lot with my mom. As we start off from the trail head, she’ll start looking for downed branches that would make good walking sticks — even if she’s got a retractable hiking stick. Half the time she’ll forget her hiking stick at home — on purpose, I suspect. It’s her fixation, this perpetual quest for the perfect walking stick. She finds one and picks it up, but still keeps her eyes peeled in case she spots a better one. The old will be tossed out, to be replaced by the new, in quick succession. For her, it’s the best part of hiking.

She likes it even better when we hike along beaches or rocky creeks — she loves looking for rocks. “Look at how pretty this one is! And see this one, the shape is just like a gourd,” — she has to show off every single one of them to someone. When I go hiking with my mom, I always have to slow down and periodically look back, checking that I haven’t lost her.

Mom used to take the rocks she collected home with her (I think half of Moonstone Beach ended up around her fireplace and mantelpiece, after a road-trip down Highway 1). As an enlightened spoil-sport, I’ve been reminding her that she’s not supposed to take any thing away from the parks and beaches. “If you bring all those rocks, they’ll weigh down my car and ruin my fuel efficiency!”

So, she’s been good about leaving rocks back in place, although she’ll half-grumble at me preemptively. “OK, OK, I’m just looking. I’m not taking anything because I know you’ll scold me.” She’ll carry her finds for a few miles: simply owning them for the duration of the hike is enough to satisfy her acquisitiveness.

BACK TO POST [35] My cousin Tim (there’s a real Tim!) and I were traveling in India, where pushy street vendors were constantly harassing us. Tim got very tired of it, and developed a counter-attack. “No, I don’t want to buy your postcards, but how about I’ll sell you this for 5 rupees instead?” He’d hold up a soda bottle cap or rock he’d picked up from the ground in front of the vendor’s face. Most of them would be surprised enough that they’d back off. We’d have a moment’s peace until the next vendor approached us.

BACK TO POST [36] I wonder what idiom parents said to their kids, before the days of Edison and victrolas? Do today’s kids even know what a compact disc is?

BACK TO POST [37] My other conspiracy theory is that toy marketing has stifled kids’ imaginations. Recently, I was talking to my five-year old nephew about his cherry-picker truck made of Lego. “You could make a Lego cherry tree, and then use your truck to pick the cherries on the top branches,” I suggested
“I can’t make a Lego cherry tree,” he replied solemnly.
“Is that because you don’t have enough Lego parts to make a cherry tree, or because there’s not a Lego cherry tree set?”
He thought for a moment, “Because there’s no set. I can only make things in Lego sets.”
Damn you, Lego! You’ve completely betrayed your original philosophy of stimulating children’s creativity. You’re boxing-in the minds of today’s children with your boxed sets. I’m buying my nephew a Barbie doll for Christmas.

BACK TO POST [38] And like many adults, the kid would often review photos on their digital cameras, the only electronic gadget they were allowed to bring.

BACK TO POST [39] Afterwards I thought of a better smart-aleck reply: “For ironing clothes.” Esprit d’escalier!

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