Sow There! Just another edgy day in the neighborhood, Nov. 20, 2020

Some of the best discoveries are those that cannot be easily identified, such as a scratch on a fence that looks like an ancient cave drawing. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
November 20, 2020 at 3:35 a.m.

When you’re not paying attention to the cycles of nature, fall creeps up quickly. Just a week ago I was wearing plastic Croc sandals while hauling my tub of teacher stuff to my Zoom classroom. A few days later I tracked down Jeff the school fix-it guy to learn how to toggle the thermostat in my distance learning cave.

After Halloween, I picked so many ripe cherry tomatoes that I filled the dehydrator with six racks of gooey goodness. Three days later, the tomato plants had toppled over in a gray, melted mass.

Luckily, the change from mild to cold has fleetingly beautiful moments. I wish I could say the same for the transition of my hair from blonde to gray.

Veterans Day was a rare respite mid-week. Most weekends I’ve been visiting my dad in Calavares County, so there hasn’t been much time to spend with friends or check out the state of decay in my garden raised bed.

LaDona called with an excuse to traipse around the neighborhood, which was once our ritual when we were both trapped at home in the early stages of the pandemic – before Zoom teaching and Zoom planning and Google Classroom grading.

My erratic gardening friend had found a map with the trees of our neighborhood, marked with 18 must-see locations. Its fall! What fun!

I learned some things about my nearby trees, including what a ginkgo tree looks like before it turns brilliant yellow. You just don’t look closely at a ginkgo tree until it’s so beautiful it stops you in your tracks.

Trees in the Avenues are looking their best these days. They may be best viewed by walking slowly while contemplating our navel. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

Indeed, I knew how to identify the common sycamore tree; it is tall and has splotchy bark. The map also helped us identify red oak (now in full redness) and other “plantus obscurous.” Mostly, we learned that some of the trees in my neighborhood are really, really large. We learned this, map in hand, trying to find a tree that was hidden in plain view and towering directly above us.

The map was the Chico Avenues Street Tree Walking Tour. LaDona found it online, and used it as an excuse to lure me outdoors.

Last summer, we walked down almost every alley in our neighborhood, but never with the intention of identifying the trees. The Chico Avenues Street Tree Walking Tour map (download a pdf at https://bit.ly/36U6RUf), is courtesy of the city of Chico, the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association and the Chamber of Commerce. We paused and squinted and deciphered to make sure we were at the correct roots and branches. That’s the point, of course, to learn a thing or two.

However, right now I need to spend more of my free time contemplating the lint in my navel.

I was edgy that day. I wanted to talk to my friend about personal gossip, pour out my troubles and elevate my heart rate. After half a dozen trees, I ended up being annoyed and nearly ruined our rare time together.

Love it or learn it

I recall a day in 2013 when I tracked down the guide “Wildflowers of Table Mountain” by Albin Bills. What fun! With the wildflower guide, I would learn so much about the tidy tips and eggs and saucers and shooting stars, and other plant names I probably now have mixed up and jumbled. The point of visiting Table Mountain in the spring is to feel as alive as the tiny things growing from the ground and to reach your arms as wide as the sky.

With that amazing wildflower book in my hand, I spent most of my time peering at the book balanced on my knees.

That’s how I felt recently walking with my pamphlet through my familiar neighborhood.

Is it good to learn a thing or two? You bet. Are there times when you want to gossip and enjoy a friend? Yes indeed.

We did identify some trees. Then we put the pamphlet away and discovered scratches on a fence that looked like a silhouette of a wolf and a splotch of paint that may or may not have been the outline of a dolphin. We also managed to solve a few of our problems and giggle like girls.

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Sow There! When rain knocks on your door — clean out the gutters, 11-13-20

Agapanthus in full bloom are a summer treat, for humans and butterflies. The cool season is a good time to divide plants trapped in containers. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
November 13, 2020 at 3:35 a.m.

We had our first spit of rain. Finally.

I left my school at dusk, driving west into the last bit of light. A cloud had opened, just for me, to allow the sun to wink goodbye to the day. I could see the veil in the sky, where rain or snow was suspended in the air over the distant hillside. The westward mountains wore a dusting of white, which would be gone by the time I looked the next day.

The first rain, as with that shard of light meant just for me, can be fleeting.

Distant snow is a warning to squirrels and humans to get prepared for the more substantial rains to come.

Rain gutter warning

Hurry. Don’t wait.

If you don’t risk your life at the edge of the roof now you will have a gunky, even more perilous job to do when it’s truly sweater weather.

A winsome new friend sent me a selfie recently. He was on the top of his roof, wearing a wide grin and feeling triumphant. He had just discovered that if you clean out the rain gutters when the leaves are still dry, you can use a leaf-blower.

This certainly beats waiting until the water soaks the leaves from the previous season. After the first hard rain, the gunk in your rain gutters resembles something you would find when you open the pea trap under the kitchen sink.

Home improvement stores sell a number of gadgets that will help clean gutters. I’ve tried the plastic scoop, shaped perfectly for this unwanted job. You can also buy gloves and buckets and even a high-pressure nozzle for your hose.

I watched the helpful video from Home Depot, at youtube.com/watch?v=IX-pv3cH6Y4. If I purchased all the products suggested, I could spend hundreds of dollars and work on my rain gutters from now until Valentine’s Day. It would be so much easier if a nice college student knocked on your door. Preferably he or she would have a bucket and a ladder in the back of a pickup truck, and the knock would arrive right after the first drizzle.

 

We’re in a pandemic, so my fantasy rain-gutter cleaner would also wear a mask.

I could pay this fictitious helper for a decade, rather than stock up on do-it-yourself supplies.

I did learn a cool trick from the big-box store video: After you think you have thoroughly degunked the rain gutters, run the hose down the metal shoot. If the water flows unevenly, there could be a clog in the downspout. Of course, the big-box store sells the perfect hose nozzle for the task. They also sell plastic mesh to keep the gunk from clogging the downspout.

Sowing after rain

I’m hopeful we’ll get some real rain soon. That’s when I know to put grass seed in the bald spots in the lawn. I also press poppy seeds into the cracks in the pavement of my driveway, or simply toss the seeds out the window while I’m driving along the freeway. In this weather, we can also plant spinach, kale and maybe lettuce (if it isn’t too late). I plant seeds and then forget about them until New Year’s or beyond.

The wet season is also a good time to plant perennials, according to Sunset Magazine’s November checklist, which can be found at https://bit.ly/2GUxH5A. Last spring I snipped some jasmine from my neighbor’s hedge and placed the sprigs in pots. They survived the summer, miraculously, and are ready to go into the ground.

I also like to divide potted plants in the fall. The agapanthus, for example, are pushing the limits of their 10-gallon containers.

Those folks at Sunset Magazine must not consider hobbies other than gardening. The November to-do list includes cleaning all the leaves and fallen fruit under fruit trees and spraying leaves for things like peach leaf curl and brown rot.

Penn State Extension, https://bit.ly/35n9uOG,  suggests dividing iris plants in late summer. However, I usually wait until the ground is soft from rain. Iris plants are so hardy you can afford to lose a few and you’ll still have dozens to spare when you divide the iris clump five years from now. Penn State notes we need to let the plants establish themselves for four to six weeks before the “hard freeze,” which usually doesn’t hit us hard.

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Sow There! Unseasonable tomatoes and green Halloween boyfriends, 11-6-2020

My “new boyfriend” had a great time on Halloween waiting for a handful of trick-or-treaters. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
November 6, 2020 at 3:35 a.m.

It’s official. I have too many tomatoes. So far I have dried two full loads of tomatoes in my dehydrator. It’s the cherries that are plaguing me now. Those plants I wrote about in mid-summer, the oversized cherry tomatoes, are producing so many rosy red fruit I could open a roadside fruit stand.

This year is so wacko that even the tomatoes don’t know tomato season is over.

No rain and 80-degree weather. I wish I had not packed my swimming suit in the “summer clothes” box I store in the back of my closet during the off-seasons.

In a normal year, I would be picking green tomatoes and taking them inside to turn moldy on my kitchen counter. However, each time I peek at the tomato plants, I end up bringing a huge bowl of red rubies into the house.

We held a silly Halloween bash at Dad’s house last weekend. I brought down two huge plastic baskets of tomatoes, some of which were thankfully snatched by my “new sister.” Now that batch of goodness can grow moldy in her refrigerator instead of mine.

I might dry a new batch in the dehydrator. However, I think I have already offloaded dried tomatoes to most people I know.

Recently I had a date with a new guy. He invited me over for dinner, and I brought dried tomatoes and raisins. He acted pleased, but I saw them on his kitchen counter when he cooked for me again the next week. For our third date (I think I like him!) I offered to bring a fresh batch of tomatoes, but he declined. I guess you can only eat pico de gallo so many days in a row.

Bring us some rain! Bring us some normal. Make the hills green. Bring the cold to make the tomato plants turn to gray mush.

Halloween treats

The Hacking Halloween was a huge success. My folks live in a rural town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. My dad’s neighbors have become wise to the stress of children walking up and down hills. The families dress up their kiddoes and drive to nice neighborhoods where the roads are flat.

This meant the number of trick-or-treaters was about as plentiful as guests at a coronavirus backyard party.

Somehow I managed to strike a coquettish pose while donning the Halloween alien mask. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

Yet, did that stop the fun? Heck no.

My step-mom had some time during the pandemic to plan for some outrageous holiday decorations. She bought not one, but two 7-foot blow-up green aliens. When my sister and I arrive for a visit, we have a green “boyfriend” spread out in our guestrooms.

The “boyfriends” were used last weekend as props for the home decoration. Lynda, my step-mom, also provided green alien masks that flashed radiantly. We filled bags with candy for a total of 12 children who were the recipients of our generosity.

Of course, we didn’t want a bunch of people knocking on the door — coronavirus and all.

Instead, we found a way to drop the bags of candy over the back fence, which is on a slope overlooking the street below.

Twelve children, aliens, weird lights, and alien masks — maybe that is the true spirit of Halloween. Oh yes, and an overabundance of family fun.

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Sow There! Safe, sane and nearly silent Halloween, 10-31-20

Candy for Halloween. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
October 30, 2020 at 3:30 a.m.

Halloween hasn’t felt “normal” in quite some time. We can all play that game where we remember what it was like in our youth, and soon remember that everything has changed. When I was 10 years old my parents would let me race around the neighborhood begging for candy until the neighbors stopped answering their doorbells. One year I was out on the streets so long, I came home and changed costumes so I could hit the same households a second time.

However, even in my youth there were scary stories about people putting razor blades in candy.

At my house, my mother would “check” all the candy before we were allowed to eat it. This meant that many of her favorite chocolates were added to the pile of questionable and confiscated treats, many of which found their way to the drawer beside her bed.

In my early 30s, my best friend Bonnie and I tried to pass along the fun of trick-or-treating to her son. We lived in the Avenues in Chico, where there are very few street lights and even fewer sidewalks. The children dressed up in their store-bought ninja outfits, but they soon learned that not many people opened their doors when a small hand rapped on the door. We walked clear down to the college district hoping the candy was flowing. This was a mistake because the opening of a door sometimes was accompanied by a waft of smoke, and back in those days that kind of smoke was still illegal.

Our young ninjas soon whined about all the walking. They knew mom would buy all the candy they wanted. Plus, they had an XBox waiting at home.

However, schools can still be a lot of fun on Halloween. My mom made me an Alice in Wonderland Costume when I was in my mid-20s. I’ve worn this costume for Halloween at least half a dozen times, and once for “dress as your favorite literary character” day. I’m guessing I’ll wear it at least a few more times before my hair turns gray. I also have a costume for Ursula, the bad witch in “The Little Mermaid.” The lady who ran the thrift store where the costume was purchased said the large expanse of purple velveteen was once used for a musical theater production. To make myself rotund, I strap all of my bed pillows around my waist with belts.

These days I am teaching Seventh Grade distance learning, feeling like a hermit in my classroom. If I had students I would have tiny pumpkins decorating the bookshelves, and hold a raffle with tickets students earned through good behavior.

Yet, I’m working gate duty this week, so I’ll see the costume parade when I check children for face masks and remind them to use hand sanitizer as they enter the school grounds.

The lovely fifth grade teachers offered to lend me a 1950s poodle skirt so I can take part in their throw-back dress-up trio. I might even play some Elvis music and teach my seventh graders the Zoom version of the twist. They can laugh all they want. I’m only a 2-inch rectangle on their screen so they would need to squint to notice me make a wrong move.

I was touched the other fifth grade teachers thought of me. Maybe I can wear gloves and toss Hershey’s kisses at some of my former fifth grade students as they parade past my door wearing face paint and action figure costumes. I wish I had thought ahead, I could have given them dehydrated tomatoes.

And then there is Dia de los Muertos, which personally still hits a little close to home. My last night with the Handsome Woodsman was spent wandering around the Chico Mall, where merchants were hosting a safe and sane indoor treat night for costumed cuties. His car crash was Nov. 1.

There are a lot of things that won’t be the same this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. We can count Halloween traditions among them. However, this hasn’t halted the overstock of individually-wrapped chocolates at the big-box stores. An oversupply of candy is likely a tradition that will outlive us all.

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Sow There! A journey with a ‘new sister’, Oct 23, 2020

A bear in the dry grass was a big attraction in Yosemite Valley, drawing more clicks from cameras than the broken Yosemite Falls. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
October 23, 2020 at 3:35 a.m.

Last weekend I made the overly-anticipated journey to Yosemite with my dad and “new sister.” I had the postcard image of the granite-framed valley in my brain. The last time I visited the park was in April 2015, when all was green and deer grazed in the meadows.

Our recent family adventure was amazing because we were trapped in a car for three hours each way. Dad recited family history and we sang songs in terrible harmony. However, the Yosemite Valley itself was less awe-inspiring than the trips of my memory. I had forgotten that Yosemite Falls can actually run dry.

As we approached the place where the mist of snowmelt often makes the walkway slippery, we soon learned the walk would be pleasant but dry.

The Merced “River” in Yosemite Valley. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

“Has somebody called the ranger to let them know the waterfall is out of order?” Dad joked to passersby.

We didn’t see deer, but there was quite a fuss over two bears that were crouching in dry grass, hiding from hundreds of tourists taking photos with long lenses. We figured the bears would wait out the crowds and wander away at dusk to raid campsites.

I mentioned that the travelers included my dad and my “new sister.”

It’s been a year since Tania joined the family, which is enough time for me to confirm that her presence in our lives is truly a gift.

Sister origins

This story begins in the mid 1970s, when I was about six years old. Back then, we didn’t have high-tech fertility clinics, surrogate motherhood or invitro fertilization. My mother heard about some folks who were donating to a clinic that helped women get pregnant.

She asked my Dad if he wanted to help out. Dad is handsome and smart and fulfilled whatever other criteria the clinic folks had in mind. Our pastor from our church even donated, and good intentions were shared by all.

Even as a teen, I knew about my dad’s donation of the gift of life. However, no one ever knew for certain if there was a child, or children, that resulted.

Our family has always wondered, of course. There were times when strangers would approach me in public and ask if they knew me from high school. Sometimes I would joke “No, but my father donated to a fertility clinic in the ’70s. Maybe you went to high school with my sister.”

And then it happened. Members of my family decided to spit into plastic vials and send off more genetics to companies including Ancestry.com and 23andme.

It was fun to confirm I’m a mongrel American, and of course, we wildly speculated if we might find a new family member.

A cousin saw her first: a match on my paternal side.

You can imagine the text chatter that ensued.

Dad hesitated exactly two seconds before shooting off an email to our newly-found kin.

“I was imaging trying to muster my best James Earl Jones voice and starting a conversation with “… Tania, you are my daughter … Lol.”

Yes, that’s what he wrote. Soon, she was invited for a visit with our rather loud and perhaps overly-excited family. She gets points for bravery. She showed up, alone, and was soon encircled by the Hacking clan.

I don’t think there were balloons on the driveway, but we definitely made it a party. This was a little more than a year ago, and several family weekends have followed.

Of course, when Tania mailed her saliva to the genealogy company, she also knew she might soon meet some new people.

I must admit, I did have a flash of jealousy when I heard the news. My dad is definitely “my guy,” and part of me didn’t want to share. Yet, I’m not competing for time on Daddy’s lap these days. A new sister in middle age is a gift indeed. Also, this time I get to be the “older sister.”

My little sister is amazing. She is also a teacher — at a school for the arts in the Bay Area.

She graduated from U.C. Berkeley and for years she has been a professional piano player for musical theater. The only downfall is that she can actually sing, which makes our family warbling in the car a bit of an embarrassment.

We do not look similar. I inherited my fair coloring from my mother. However, she looks a lot like my Auntie Pat.

I have only spent physical time with her half a dozen times over the past year. However, I made an effort to keep our friendship growing. We both had downtime during the pandemic. I would call and begin awkward conversations while I walked in my neighborhood. We’re both women, teachers, and have human strengths and frailties. I can honestly say that we’ve bonded.

Even if Yosemite was not what I had expected last weekend, spending a day in the car with my dad and my “new sister” was an unexpected high point of an otherwise disappointing 2020.

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Sow There! Time again for a change of focus, Oct. 16, 2020

Hyacinths bloom after about 10 weeks.
October 16, 2020 at 3:35 a.m.

It happened again.

The day-to-day I thought I knew was turned upside down.

The first week of October, I told my fifth graders that we would soon be together in our classroom. I know I was a bit giddy with expectation, wondering what we would look like “in real life,” and how our voices would sound when muffled through fabric masks. Oh, the things we could and would do when we were not muted, tiny boxes on a computer screen!

Then the district needed me to continue teaching online, in seventh grade.

The kids cried over Zoom. I cried over Zoom.

Over the weekend I ate mounds of chocolate, filling that hole in my heart.

Yep. Just another adjustment that is made in the name of a pandemic.

The majority of students at my school returned to campus Monday. I’ll remain in my classroom, performing the “Miss Hacking” video show for students who will continue learning online and need to adjust to new programming.

On that first new day, lunch rolled around for the students who were excited to be back in a brick-and-mortar classroom. I stood at my desk and watched my fifth graders parade toward the cafeteria. The windows of the classroom are tinted, so they didn’t see me struggling to see if I spotted “my kids” behind their fabric masks.

They’re just a few doors away, but it did not seem appropriate to visit. I would feel like an ex-wife or a former bandmate, interfering with their new lives with their soon-to-be beloved new teachers. A few have sought me out, and we stood at my classroom door, hugging by curling our hands into the shape of a heart.

Some things can partially fill a void, such as several bags of hyacinth bulbs. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

The switch hit me hard, probably because in this isolation of pandemic, those kids were the central focus of my life. I also don’t like when losses in life come suddenly. It felt like we had something special, had built a strong foundation despite the pandemic. We literally found common denominators.

At least we finished the novel we started reading the first day of school.

Undoubtedly, I will soon fall in love with my new seventh grade Zoom children, all 65 of them in two sections of Language Arts and History. They’re still kids, only taller and a bit wiser. After one week, they must already have learned their teacher is a goofball.

Another upside, and of course there is always an upside, is that I will have more distance from the possibility of getting the coronavirus. This means I will be able to visit my parents.

To celebrate this new confinement/assignment, I’m visiting Dad this weekend and he scored that entrance pass to the Yosemite Valley.

The wither of autumn weather

As always, when life gets busy, my plants suffer. I remembered to mow the lawn before the grass was too tall to manage with the electric mower. Even though the weather has been warm, the days are shorter, which means less stress for those plants that deserve more than relentless sunshine. When I went to water recently, I can see that several plants have died.

Early August is the time to buy too many bags of bulbs at Costco. I spent a bundle and will have plenty of hyacinths and daffodil bulbs to fill the containers holding brown stems and leaves.

It’s funny how we can be superstitious about the loss of plants.

My friend Antonio and I chatted recently about the greenery in my classroom. He said he had a plant once, which he had received from a girlfriend. She warned him that if they broke up, the plant would die.

They broke up. The plant died. He attributed this to the loss of his love.

My thought was that when she wasn’t around, the plant stopped receiving water.

Years ago, another friend received a lovely plant from a beau she had just jilted. She didn’t want anything more to do with him, and I was given the plant.

Every year, when that plant bloomed on my windowsill, I knew that the beau still carried a torch for my friend. Sure enough, he found a happy mate and the plant died.

Last February, I received a Daphne Odora from a man for whom I had a wild crush. He’s moved on to other adventures, but I really hope the plant will stick around.

I brought two hyacinth bulbs to my classroom, and roots are growing into the water of the specialty vases I use to force bulbs indoors. I had hoped my fifth graders would be there when they bloomed in about 10 weeks.

Maybe that’s the way for teachers and gardeners. When you spend a lot of time nurturing children or plants, then life happens and it’s time for change … there’s something new and beautiful to put into focus.

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Sow There! Quiet corners, near and far, Oct. 9, 2020

PUBLISHED: October 9, 2020 at 3:30 a.m. | UPDATED: October 9, 2020 at 1:26 p.m.

Yosemite has always been a special place for our family. When I talked to my dad about a visit to Calavares County, he said he would try his luck to get a day-pass for the park. We went dozens of times in my childhood. I am happy to say I have visited in every season.

Just the idea of Yosemite helped ease the tightness in more forehead as I drove to my classroom the day after making “maybe plans” with Dad.

For some reason, I decided to share this moment with my students. I found a picture of the valley and talked of the granite walls that encircle the campgrounds and walking trails.

“The rocks make it feel cool, even in summer. You can almost feel the trees breathing all around you. It’s quiet, and yet you can hear the echoes of people who are camping.

“Let’s take a minute and think about a place where you feel safe and happy. Imagine you’re there right now.”

One boy must have missed the intro.

“Why is it so quiet in here,” he said, referring to our “Zoom room.”

When the children were asked to talk about their “happy places,” their voices were hushed and there was a pronounced pause between one share and the next.

Just the thought of Yosemite, and maybe planting a “happy place thought” in my children’s minds, made things run more smoothly that day. In stressful moments I remembered that kindness is my No. 1 job.

Yet, the ache to visit Yosemite did not go away. I wanted just a few minutes to be in proximity to the place where we camped and walked, where I drew in my journal, where we sat as a family as cold water flowed continuously from a crack in a granite wall.

It was only later that I realized I needed a reset.

Dad did not have luck. Someone else scored the coveted day-passes to Yosemite.

As a consolation, we packed snacks, piled into his Mustang, put the convertible top down and headed up a mountain.

We reached the 8,500-foot summit and found ourselves on the dry side of the Sierra Nevada incline. Aspen trees are turning yellow and we found the perfect little spot to eat sandwiches in Hope Valley.

The cold water flowed in a small creek, continuously, as we sat separate but together in our own thoughts, each of us talking to God about this and that. This was no Yosemite, but I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

A day with my dad, a sandwich and just enough quiet to drown out life’s noise will likely carry me through a few more bumpy moments.

Share your garden

Of course, we don’t need to travel long distances to find that cold water we might be craving.

Several weeks ago a new friend named Betty Ann invited me to tour her garden. She’s a friend of a very good friend.  It was a Friday, so I didn’t need to worry about teaching fractions the next morning.

One of the things I love about other people’s gardens is that you get to walk through the world they have created. If a garden feels right, you can smell the accumulation of quiet moments. In Betty Ann’s case, it’s also a fun place. You could almost see the shadow of her then-absent grandchildren racing through the towering hollyhock plants. One corner included a metal display with pots pan pans, where the children banged “musical instruments.” She said the children will race through the bushes, and she keeps them trimmed at just the right height so the plants remain magical.

She also painted the trunks of each fruit tree a different color, which she said looks even more amazing when the leaves are bare. I don’t know Betty Ann well, but spending an hour in her peaceful place was what I needed that Friday night. I’m quite certain I could have fallen asleep at her picnic table and she would have brought me warm coffee in the morning.

The best thing about visiting someone else’s garden is that you can enjoy the moment without feeling like you need to pick up a spade and dig out some Bermuda grass.

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Sow There! And then we saw an orange sky, 10-2-2020

The first smoky sky has led to many weeks of a red sun. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
October 2, 2020 

Some experiences simply leave scars.

Science may have created ways to remove tattoos or melt away stretch marks. Yet, trauma is like a broken bone. You may feel totally healed, but then you ache on days when it’s about to rain.

I was in my classroom, alone, on the day the sky was orange. This was the first day of what would be many weeks with smoke-filled skies. My children were in their bedrooms or living rooms, preparing for our day in Zoomland. Their teacher was in a quiet room at the school.

When something is just not right, you can “feel it.”

“Go to the window and look at the sky,” I instructed my students. “When you come back to the computer, tell me one adjective to describe what you see.”

We made an eerie list, with words including “smoky,” “orange,” “dark” and “zombie apocalypse.” (That’s two words, but I let it slide).

When adjectives are floating in the air, it somehow feels better to put those words on a page, which is likely the reason poetry was invented.

That night, I still felt unsettled. I didn’t know that the state would be burning for weeks. I just knew things still did not “feel right.”

I put my students’ words in a Google slide and added a snapshot of the dusty tangerine of a sun that I saw rising above the barn across from the school.

The next day I gave a dramatic reading of “our poem.” I’m still not certain if the chat that followed was to allow the children to express their feelings, or for me to verbalize mine. We looked online at the Cal Fire incident report to see how near or far the flame icons were from our varied locations.

The kids were 8 years old during those fires of 2018. Last month, they still remembered the smell of the air and the ashes on their front lawns. Most knew people who had lost their homes. Some children had houseguests, folks displaced from fires. My students also knew the orange sky on this recent day did not “feel right.”

I’m one of those people who often doesn’t think about the enormity of a situation until the crisis of the moment has come and gone. How can you “think” in that moment, when you’re holding your breath, when all energy is needed to put one foot in front of the other?

Pandemic?

One foot in front of the other. I’ll breathe when it’s over.

Uterine cancer? Talk to me after the surgery.

Lost my job? Talk to me after I eat two gallons of ice cream.

These days I’m driving half an hour each way to my teaching job. Things like personal reflection come easily when you’re looking at a 10-mile stretch of Highway 99, with cows and dry grass on either side of the road.

I have two choices for my commute, Highway 32, which is longer, or Highway 99.

I’ve given this a lot of thought. The quick route takes me along the stretch of road where the Handsome Woodsman died in a head-on collision Nov. 1, 2016. Each time I pass Meridian Road, I say hello or nod a smile in his direction.

After many daily drives, I have added up enough quick glances to get a good view of the exact place where I had previously diverted my eyes.

Did the tree survive? What was the exact trajectory of his vehicle after impact? Did he see the car coming? He had left me a voicemail that day while driving. How many times did his heart beat from the time his thumb pressed “end call” and the moment he died?

I thought this route along Highway 99, would be unbearable. Like most things in life, it is not. I thought I might panic when I saw the headlights of cars traveling south as I headed north. I have not.

The fires, a pandemic, online teaching and fires again.

Some things leave scars, but most of the time we keep moving forward.

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Sow There! Say hello to children and crow’s feet, Sept. 25, 2020

September 25, 2020

One day soon, maybe very soon, I will have the addition of children in my classroom. I admire everyone who has been doing their best under these circumstances, and some days I’m even pretty darn proud of myself. The biggest kudos should go to the children, who somehow understand that all of these adults are trying their best.

The statistics of the county where I work will dictate exactly when we return to class. However, I need to prepare and turn my video studio back into a classroom.

Zoom is great for meetings and family “parties” during the pandemic, but I have not yet mastered techniques to avoid online clunkiness. “Wait just a sec,” and “hold onto that thought,” are common transitional phrases as I click from document camera to screen share, then ask the children to squint into their Chromebooks.

Yet, Zoom does have some funny moments worth sharing

The beautiful button

For starters, I was starting to think maybe I had aged gracefully.

Early in the “Miss Hacking Show,” I discovered the button that says “touch up my appearance.” You betchya, I went for the magic button. Just one click and my complexion was smooth and the worry line on my forehead looked like someone has added spackle to my brow. All those “smile” lines were also gone (I don’t mind the crow’s feet, it’s a testament to how much I have laughed during this life).

One day I was washing my face in the comfort of my own bathroom. I looked tired and splotchy, and frankly years older than I thought appropriate for how I felt inside.

Then the truth settled in. I have been looking at myself each day in my classroom, through my “touch up my appearance lens,” which makes me glow as if the camera was coated with a Vaseline veneer.

I turned off the “beautiful button” now that my children will be returning soon. I don’t want them to accuse me of false advertising.

I’m the first to admit that some of the clunkiness in my classroom is due to operator error. If I was a whiz at technology I would be living in the Silicon Valley, driving a Tesla and wearing a T-shirt with a Google logo.

One day I was helping a few children in a breakout room during the snack break. I have two computers so I can monitor students while chatting privately with a small group.

I encourage the children to talk via Zoom during breaks, because they need time to socialize and, frankly, I enjoy seeing them have a chance to be kids.

It was time to start the lesson so I rang my sweet little bell, signaling that class had resumed.

The children kept chattering.

“Class-class,” I said in a cheerful, teacher tone.

More chatter.

It was time for math. Were they ignoring me?

“Class-class.”

More chatter.

Now I started to get a bit perturbed. I’m the teacher. They’re supposed to listen to the bell, listen to my cheery “class-class” and dial in for learn mode.

This went on, uncomfortably.

Had something happened while we were on break? Had they conspired to ignore me? Had I lost all control of my classroom? When is Thanksgiving break?

I used the first threat that came to my mind.

“For every minute we spend talking, you’re going to lose one minute of lunch recess.”

This, of course, is a ridiculous threat, because “recess” means my students can walk around their bedrooms or living rooms.

In any case, my lame threat did nothing to stop the chatter in the room.

After a few more panicked heartbeats, one of the children saw that my lips moving.

“Miss Hacking, I think you’re on mute,” the kind child reported.

Now I know that when I return to my main Zoom room from a breakout room, my microphone is automatically muted.

“Class-class,” I said in my cheery teacher voice.

“Yes-Yes,” they replied in some semblance of unison.

That’s right. My class is filled with helpful students and we’re all muddling through this together.

It feels like we all know each other rather well. Yet, like meeting a pen pal for the first time, there is so much more we will learn when we are together.

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Sow There! Plants to love and those to forget, Sept. 11, 2020

Zinnia blooms fade, but are still lovely and full of potential. The seeds can be scattered with hope that some will sprout next year.

September 11, 2020 at 3:33 a.m.

Despite the heat, despite my reticence to water during the heat, some things are surviving and even thriving in the yard. The star of the garden this year is the tomato plant that found its way to a happy home along the cyclone fence.

This tomato happens to be the love child of the tomatoes I grew with my third-grade class two years ago. We planted seeds in January 2019, and the seedlings grew slowly through the cold months, protected in a greenhouse. I remember the day last summer when I picked an overly ripe, very large cherry tomato and tossed it toward the fence?

It was a fleeting wish, but I hoped some of those seeds would grow.

I discovered the seedling when it was already about six inches tall, and yanked at the nearby weeds that were trying to block out the sun.

As our tomato plant grew, I inevitably thought of those third graders, who are now fifth graders, and thought that our day of planting seeds had a lasting impact on my life.

This plant not only grew, it thrived. I strapped it to the cyclone fence with some green garden tape. It grew through the fence. Now that I’m harvesting tomatoes, I have to exit my yard to grab the overly-large cherry tomatoes before they are snagged by a passerby.

At first, I thought this particular plant had achieved greatness because it is an important symbol of my love for my first class of children. That’s true of course.

Another factor is that this tomato plant is actually in the ground.

Potted plants, stunted growth

Years ago, I stopped planting tomatoes in the ground because gophers are a big problem in my neighborhood. Gophers are especially attracted to soft, moist soil. This results in underground devastation of anything you water regularly.

When the Handsome Woodsman was working on our garden, he created a raised bed with a black plastic truck bed liner filled with soil. One side is higher to allow drainage.

This works well to keep the gophers in frustration. However, the soil is only about 2 ½ feet deep. In the hot sun, the soil is also probably about as warm as the planet Mars.

I get plenty of tomatoes, but my plants don’t thrive in any way that would create envy among my neighbors.

My third-grade volunteer tomato plant has no boundary issues. It has grown to its lush glory because it was given everything that it needed. For some reason, the gophers did not choose to gobble it.

Time for reflection

The end of the growing season is a good time to think about plants that have done well, and those that could easily be forgotten because they are dead.

I planted zinnias along the fence line and remembered why they are such a summer favorite. Zinnia seeds are easy to harvest. Simply allow the flowers to dry on the plants, then clip off the brown blooms. If I toss the flowers and make a wish, maybe I’ll get more surprises next year.

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