For Whom the Bell Tolls

My first task, after we are told where we are moving next, is to look up the city and surrounding areas on Trip Advisor. I know that this particular review platform is not as relevant as it once was and maybe I would be better served by reinstalling my Yelp app, but it’s habit now and old habits die especially hard around me. So, when I typed in “Things to Do”, number one was the Korean Bell. It sounded…disappointing. I kind of wanted a world-renown art museum or maybe an epic science center. But what I got was…a bell.

It turned out to be so much more.

20180606_143329The Korean Bell was a gift from the people of the Republic of Korea to the Americans on July 4, 1976. It was and continues to be a symbol of friendship and trust between the two nations. It also happens to be a fantastic place to fly a kite. Or have a picnic. Or do a little yoga. There is always a breeze and the view of the Pacific from the bell is really unparalleled.

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The Korean Bell also tends to pop up in the most unexpected places…like a Hyundai commercial…and the basketball court adjacent can be found in Viagra commercials. Once you take a solid look around the hidden hamlets of Los Angeles county, they immediately become more conspicuous on the television, too. In fact, that is probably one of most enjoyable aspects of living here. TV and movies no longer seem like products of some far-away landscape…I know that craggy coastline, I’ve hiked her beaches at low tide. I recognize that stretch of highway, I traveled it to Blue’s parcor class every week. It’s not just a peek at the wizard behind his red, brocaded curtain. It’s sitting down and having a kombucha and a korean bbq taco with him. For 24 months.

And look for the bell in that Wednesday night replay of The Usual Suspects on TNT. You might just be surprised.

The Places Where We Gather

Ever since I finished my undergraduate degree, after a college transfer and about 8 years of stops and starts, I really hate leaving something unfinished. Even if it takes a minute, I want to finish what I started. So, yes it is practically the end of January, but I’m finishing this month of SoCal gratitude starting now…

20180528_100811The USS Iowa is a gem in our little town. During World War II, it carried President Roosevelt across the Atlantic to a meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. She has served in numerous campaigns and wars and has now come to permanent rest in Berth 87 at the Port of L.A. We had been here all of 3 weeks when we decided to attend the Memorial Day ceremony held next to the ship every year. A somber moment, observed by local residents next to a piece of history that has seen its fair share of fallen servicemembers. Since then, we’ve toured the USS Iowa and next month we will participate in a Cub Scout camp-out on the ship, where we will eat in the mess hall and sleep in the quarters below deck. For us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For people around here, it’s an everyday sight…but still a constant reminder that freedom is not free.

Keeping Dry

18 November

I am grateful to be an athletic supporter. 

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I have never had any desire to learn how to surf. Besides the fact that the Pacific Ocean is considerably colder than the Atlantic, even during our summer (which occurs in October instead of August), there are sharks in that water. And surfers have to be very careful about draping themselves over a board waiting for a wave, lest they resemble something like dinner to a shark on the hunt. Also, I don’t swim very well. I can mostly save from myself from drowning (which was put to the test one summer before college graduation), but I tend to not seek out wild water situations.

Because of this, I have never tried to teach Blue how to surf. Or swim. I leave that to the experts. I think he would probably master it more quickly than I expect, but the idea of sitting in sand while he practices just sounds itchy. Twenty years of vacationing in South Carolina and it took 18 months of living in Southern California to realize that I really hate sand when it is part of life indefinitely. 

But it’s great fun to watch the surfers do their thing. And they are a determined sort. Like golfers. They will float on that board for hours, just waiting on their perfect wave. And, if you enjoy photographing them like I do, it often feels like you are out there bobbing with them. Because once they spring into action, so must you.

Neal and I have been watching Lost L.A. on the SoCal PBS channel on our Roku. That show alone has done wonders for giving me a sense of what we’ve missed by arriving 50 years too late and what is still here, waiting to be discovered by someone willing to open a door, scratch beneath the surface, journey to the middle of the desert. On one episode, the host explains the relationship Los Angelinos have with the environment. And you can’t talk about nature in L.A. without discussing the Santa Ana winds. Apparently, these hot gusts from the Santa Ana Canyon create epic surfing conditions, causing the waves to rise up and stay up, instead of being crushed by breezes coming inland off the ocean. I fear I may have missed my chance to photograph surfers on the ride of their lives since Santa Ana winds have most likely subsided until next year. But if one kicks up, this time I’ll be ready!

Not in Kansas Anymore

17 November

I am grateful for diversity. 

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OK this picture is meant to be rather tongue-in-cheek because Ensenada is located in Baja California. If California is still in the name, did you really even leave? But I use this photo because it’s the only one I have to represent the idea that I’m beginning to embrace other cultures besides the ones I’m most comfortable with (which basically only includes the culture of white girls from southeastern U.S.).

When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona for about 10 minutes in 2001, I worked for a gentleman who, among other business ventures, owned a Mexican restaurant. I was his bookkeeper and the slew of illegal immigrants that staffed the kitchen used to call me La Princessa. I’m convinced it was a term of endearment. I also worked as a cocktail waitress at a bar/nightclub nicknamed The Zoo. We had “Latino Night” every week and, when the patrons asked for “la cerveza”, I, knowing zero Spanish despite living in Arizona, gave everyone a Corona. Because I used to drink Corona like water as a freshman in college and I knew that right there on the bottle it says, “la cerveza”. I was a disastrous cocktail waitress (and my tips reflected that), but it was especially awful on Latino Night. I had much better luck with the NAU frat boys on Dime Beer Wednesdays. But that’s a story for never.

The point is, until living in Southern California, I had largely viewed other cultures, and specifically the Hispanic culture, as one to coexist with, but not necessarily to mingle with. I could tolerate it, but I did not necessarily celebrate it. I’m going to get skewered for saying this, but this blog is known for its authenticity so here goes…until 18 months ago, I thought all Mexican food tasted the same, Dia de Los Muertos was creepy, Mexican blankets were silly souvenirs from your Spring Break at South Padre, Mariachi bands were annoying, and not understanding the language was a valid reason for pretending like the Hispanic culture (and its people) were just a phase in U.S. history. Like horchata or kimchi. (However, never once have I chanted “build the wall” and I believe that DACA babies have just as much a right to be here as I do.)

NOW…before y’all start commenting really awful things about what a narrow-minded ho-bag I am, hear me out.

I have lived in Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. And Flagstaff, AZ for about 3 months until 9/11 sent me running home to all that was familiar and safe. I have not lived anywhere that has challenged me to accept another culture not only because it co-existed with mine, but because it was the majority and I was not. Stay-at-home white moms are all the rage in pretty much everywhere we’ve been stationed since 2010. I knew how to fall in step with downtown Richmond, Virginia and the Power and Light District in Kansas City. I discovered my place among the Amish and I ordered sweet tea and fried chicken with the best of ’em in Georgia. But here, I avoided the taco trucks because…well…all Mexican food tastes the same, right? And I was annoyed that there are 2 country music stations on the radio, 1 pop rock, 1 hard rock, and the rest are Spanish-speaking channels. Also, I didn’t speak the language. I once said to Mom after we had been here for about 6 months, “This is the closest you can get to living in another country without actually leaving the U.S.” And, I wasn’t wrong, but I was voicing it as a complaint. I should have been praising that observation.

Something happened to me in Ensenada. I allowed myself to become immersed in their culture for a few hours. Yes, I took shots of homemade tequila in the back of one guy’s store until I spent entirely too much dinero on Talavera serving bowls, but there was something else. The Hispanic culture isn’t garish, it is colorful. The people aren’t loud, they are expressive and warm. And, for the love of all that is good and holy about guacamole, not all Mexican food tastes the same. Tumbleweed and Chi Chis should be sued for what they did to this white girl’s palette. Dia de Los Muertos is a beautiful tradition that embraces death and invites us to draw nearer to those who have gone before us. Mexican blankets are the perfect protection between your bum and the desert floor, especially if you are waiting for the sun to set.

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I still don’t love Mariachi bands, but I think that has something to do with my disdain for brass instruments. I barely tolerate the trombone, but I have never been a fan of the trumpet.

The truth is, the Spaniards came up from Mexico and moved into California, establishing the mission system all the way up the coast. The only people who pre-date them are the tribes like the Tvonga people in the Los Angeles area. So, yes, I do actually think that blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls are the minority in these parts, but that’s OK. It has opened my mind and broadened my experience. And I’ve even learned some Spanish along the way. It did not occur to me until recently how deeply I’m going to miss the rich tapestry of heritage that makes up Southern California. A person can live here a lifetime and not fully comprehend the hundreds of cultures that endure, side-by-side, and primarily peacefully. But just by being exposed to them, it has made me a better person.

Motivated to Move

12 November

I am grateful for fun, unexpected moments in the course of a normal day. 

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I am almost a serf (my initial thought was to put “slave” but that seems hyperbolic considering the actual life of a slave) to my bucket lists. When we get a new assignment, I spend hours and hours on Trulia looking for a house and on Pinterest, looking for things to do. Heaven help us should the assignment ever change mid-move (which has happened to people we know personally). I am not bored easily, but with a high-energy seven year old in the house, I feel a certain level of pressure to keep active during the waking hours. Sometimes that means playing in the dirt until the sun goes down, but sometimes it calls for a grander plan. So, I like to have several options at the ready for when we just need to get out of the house. This has not been a problem in Southern California. The bigger issue is narrowing it down. Beach or mountains. Hollywood or Joshua Tree. Biking or hiking. Museums or playgrounds. Music or silence. OK, I’m not exactly sure where you can go for complete silence around here. We once pulled into a very remote section of Sequoia National Park to have a picnic and someone actually drove by, looking for their own picnic spot. So, music or…traffic, I suppose. As a person who can be frozen into inaction by too many choices, it has been a challenge to just pick something. And then sometimes what’s on my bucket list from a Pinterest post from 2010 has closed or renovated into something completely different than it was before.

Such is the case with Clifton’s Cafeteria, which used to be an actual cafeteria housed in a room filled with taxidermied animals. Think: Blue Boar Cafeteria and the Rainforest Cafe have a baby. With a dash of L.A. tossed in at the last second. How could we not go? Unfortunately, apparently they shuttered a couple of years ago and just recently reopened sans food and with a pricey drink menu. As tempting as it is, I can’t serve my child a Manhattan for lunch just so I can check this place out. So, we ended up at Good Stuff Restaurant on Hermosa Beach. I mean…on Hermosa Beach. You step out of the dining area and onto sand. We watched volleyball players setting and spiking under a smog-cloaked sun and wondered who are these people on the beach at lunch on a Wednesday? And then, when our bellies were full of fish tacos, we walked the Hermosa Beach pier.

Hermosa Beach is the proud home of surfing, which came as a surprise to me because I’ve lived here for almost 2 years thinking surfing was born in Huntington Beach. The pier’s boardwalk incorporates a surfing walk of fame with inlaid plaques on both sides of the walkway. No surfers to be found last Thursday, though, as the tide was on its way out and the waves laid down lazily across the shore. But plenty of folks fished at the end of the pier and an abundance of birds looked for a snack dangling at the end of someone’s line. I was cautiously approaching this feathered friend, snapping away on my cell phone, when Blue made a sudden movement that caused him to splay his wings and take off. I caught the shot and then turned sharply to scold Blue for nearly ruining my picture. He looked at me and beamed. “Did you get it? I did that so you could get the action shot.” He was so proud of himself that I couldn’t quite bring myself to criticize him for scaring the wildlife. He knows better, but sometimes his instinct for the shot overrides everything else. We’ll work on that, but in the meantime, I do love an action photo.

Good Golly, Grunion

10 November

I am grateful for the grunion. 

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When we found out we were being stationed in Southern California, a fellow Army wife in our unit in Pennsylvania exclaimed, “You HAVE to go to the grunion run!” It sounded a little like a salmon run which, thanks to the Kratt brothers, is officially on my bucket list. So, I added “Grunion Run” to my notepad and then promptly forgot about it.

Our first grunion run was something of a bust. Just like everything else around here, everybody and their brother showed up so it meant Blue didn’t get to hatch a grunion because they ran out of eggs. And then we lost the group on our way out to the beach and ended up not seeing a single grunion in the wild. Grunion only come ashore in the spring and fall, during a full moon, an hour or 2 after the high tide…which in child-speak is basically “way past my bedtime, Mommy.” So, at around 10:30 PM, we gave up and went home.

For our second grunion run, we attended as members of our local aquarium. There were about 40 other people with plenty of eggs to go around. Blue and I hatched grunion and then followed the aquarium staff to the beach, which was nowhere close to where we ended up last time. At around 9:30, the grunion began to arrive…en masse.

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The females washed up, dug their holes and waited for a male to fertilize their eggs before leaping back out and catching the next wave out to sea. You really had to be careful where you stepped. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not believe such a thing existed. Apparently, some people catch and eat grunion…although it seems like it would be a lot of work for not much pay-off, but people are probably used to that mentality around here. I don’t have any desire to eat one, but it certainly was awesome to watch them mate and get whisked away again. Creating babies between the waves…talk about your 10 second contribution. But I guess that’s all it takes.

Dangling off the map

8 November

I am grateful for this view, in any weather, during any season. 

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The base housing office has a website which features a cul-de-sac of houses with ocean views. Like “I’m just gonna toss this salad and watch for whales from my kitchen window” kind of ocean views. I desperately hoped to get one of those houses. We didn’t get an ocean view. We got a view of the Von’s sign and one of the many LAFD fire departments directly across the road. Between us and them is a busy stretch of road where people like to test the upper limit of their speedometers and see how much noise they can make while doing it. We don’t have ocean breezes, we have sirens.

But I can walk across the street, down the ocean path…less than a block away…and look at this. It’s not quite as great as looking at it from my bedroom window, but maybe I’m not supposed to have that. I believe in the grand scheme and I have always felt like we were offered this house for a reason. Even though we had to evict a gang of mice living in the garage and we have termites that pop up in unexpected places every few months…we are supposed to be in this house, with the perfect hill for finding lizards and the wide flat yard large enough for a trampoline and a Derby party at the same time. And whenever we want, we can walk across the street and see the ocean, reflecting the sunset with Catalina Island peeking through when she feels like it. I don’t love the beach. Blue and I both hate sand. But being able to walk from our house to a place where we can see it from up on the hill…watch it ebb and flow into eternity, that’s something special. Water as far as the eye can see. That has a way of making you feel like a very small fish in this very cold ocean.

Orange is the New Happy

6 November

I am grateful for beauty that springs eternal…or at least until the Instagrammers destroy it. 

The greatest irony about a “super bloom” in Southern California is that it springs from an unusually wet winter…which, in large part, is due to how many wildfires we’ve had the previous autumn. The fall of 2018 brought the disastrous Camp Fire in the north while we were experiencing hazy, orange sunsets from smoke blowing down the coast from the Woolsey Fire in Malibu. Driving through Zuma Beach one afternoon this summer, we saw the burned-out shells of multi-million dollar homes dotting an otherwise pristine neighborhood. Blowing embers are funny things. I always wonder if it’s Karma or just plain bad luck that makes them take flight and light where they do.

And I think it’s interesting that California’s state flower, the Golden Poppy, looks like a field on fire when it’s in full bloom. The orange flames licking at the coast gave rise to acres and acres of new, orange life inland. It’s not enough to forget the devastation of the year before, especially for those who lost families and homes, but it does soften the blow a tiny bit.

It’s illegal to pick a California Poppy. It’s also illegal to step on, sit on, or otherwise trample it, which is probably why Californians lost their ever-lovin’ minds last spring when scores of Instagramming social media influencers took to the fields with their floppy hats, big sunglasses, and jumpsuits. They sprawled out on a bed of flowers, picked them and then stuck them in their teeth, their hair, between their boobs, between their…well…never mind. They destroyed nature in an effort to prove that they were capable of being one with it. Thank goodness they were in the minority, although their destruction was magnified by their drive for more likes. On the whole, visitors stayed on the paths, refrained from picking them like weeds, and respected the fact that once a California Poppy is plucked, it could take generations for it to grow back in the wild.

Two weeks ago, we had 330 wildfires in 24 hours. I couldn’t believe that statistic but the local news said it, so it must be true. Fueled by a significant Santa Ana wind event and seriously low humidity (producing some pretty impressive lizard legs on everyone), anything that sparked was in danger of becoming a raging inferno. And that will probably lead to another unusually wet winter this year. Just right for one more super bloom before we go. I think I’ll leave my Instagram account at home.

What’s Trapped in Tar

5 November

I am grateful for a place where the Ice Age comes to life. 

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Let’s be honest…when I tell visitors that I’m taking them to the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown L.A., the response is usually an amusing mix of confusion and anticipated boredom. Branding does not seem to be the museum’s strong suit. Perhaps I should start selling it as, “A day spent exploring the current excavation sites, filled with the bones of saber tooth tigers and giant sloths.” That sounds like we might run into Indiana Jones, or at least Catherine Zeta-Jones, at any given moment.

The La Brea (“bray-uh”) Tar Pits were just a check-the-box item at first. It was on every single Pinterest L.A. bucket list so it had to be something, right? But as soon as you step through the gates, you can smell it. It smells like every interstate construction site between Cincinnati and the Smoky Mountains. Orange cones, speckled black, dot the grass. These mark the places where tar is actively bubbling up…presumably so social media influencers don’t accidentally drop a Jimmy Choo in a puddle of goo. The tar lake at the front of the property, which is bordered by Wilshire Boulevard (considered the “symbolic spine of L.A.”), is constantly burping air bubbles that have escaped. The woolly mammoths trapped in the tar lake might be fake, but the gas exchange going on under the surface is definitely real. Walking around the excavation sites is free, but if you really want to be wow’d, pay the museum admission. The Ice Age animals that were dug up outside have been reassembled inside and they. are. massive. Like no kids’ movie featuring Denis Leary and Ray Romano can prepare you for. Mammoths, ground sloths, an entire wall of saber tooth tiger skulls.

And, really, the Tar Pits are kind of an allegory for L.A. herself. The siren song of something wonderful (water on a hot day, an extra part in Modern Family…whatever) draws you to downtown L.A. You drink from that watering hole (of fame). Suddenly, your weight shifts, your feet sink, you are stuck. You struggle. You sink deeper. You are drowning and no one is coming to help. Here comes someone. No, wait. That’s someone who has been waiting for you…waiting for you to come here and die so that they can eat you. OK…maybe that just took a weird turn. But you’re stuck here in this awful place with no way to escape and things are looking pretty grim. The only twist of Karma is that the predator ends up getting stuck, as well. Looks like you’re going down together. And that is the story of the La Brea Tar Pits. And roughly half of Skid Row.

And now we are all marveling at your bones and paying $14 each for the pleasure.

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Although as a homeschool mom, it’s just really cool to see something so abstract as saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths being extracted from the ground on a daily basis. It teaches Blue that the world has not run out of discoveries. He just needs to put on his safety goggles and go find them.

What I Now Know.

I am a Virgo who was raised by a Virgo. If you know anything about astrology, you know that results in an adult who is wound fairly tightly. I give Neal a lot of credit for marrying me anyway. But I think he also saw some potential for loosening, especially when I got pregnant. I didn’t see it. I had grand plans for this child. Mozart before birth, no TV for 3 years, wood toys, cloth diapering and homemade baby food. Nothing that needed batteries. I didn’t even buy a swing because it seemed so unnecessary. A month in, I was at Target with my best friend buying a swing, a package of diapers, and the latest V-Tech (not to knock any of these things…it was just not in my vision because I was raising something like Tarzan mixed with a Scandanavian love child). I did eventually go back to cloth diapering, but only because the “experts” said that cloth diapers made it easier to potty train. That’s a load of poo in a plastic diaper. That child outgrew his cloth diapers, it took so long. And that’s saying something because each diaper had like 14 different levels of snaps. But 3 years later, there I was…back at Target buying diapers and cursing the load of laundry I had done everyday for 36 months.

I say all of this because something somewhat revealing happened to me last month. I half-assed Halloween. Remember the year I had 3 different costumes? Or the year I made mummy hotdogs? Or the year the whole family dressed as characters from the Peanuts strip? None of that happened this year. In fact, this is what happened this year:

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A Hobby Lobby, half-off, find from 2 years ago that I still haven’t gotten around to finishing painting. And it hung in our hallway for a month like this. Maybe it looks intentional. Or maybe it looks like I’ve stopped caring, in my daily yoga pants, sports bra, messy bun, and worn-out Birkenstocks. Maybe this sign says, “Hey, at least the family was fed a homecooked meal almost every night, the sheets were washed weekly, and Blue has learned how to add double digits in his head.” Or maybe it says, “Nothing to see here. She thought she could…but then she quit.” And the thing is, whichever signal it’s sending, I didn’t give it more than a passing thought for more than 30 seconds for all of October. It is what it is and this is the season we’re in. The season of hiding food wrappers behind the couch, and squeezing in workouts during an episode of Wild Kratts, and fighting about the need to be educated instead of just agreeing with the 7 year old that he already knows it all. There are priorities and, right now, this sign was not one of them. I’m not even a little bit sorry.

I know that this blog (and my other one, Behind the Garage Door) have not been a priority, either. Instead of writing posts and then boosting them on blog author Facebook pages, I’m on Pinterest downloading math worksheets and trying to find Youtube videos with a catchy melody and an easy way to explain multiplication. And at night, all I want to do is finish Ken Burns’ new docuseries, Country Music. By the time we get through it, it won’t be new anymore. We’ll probably have a new Ken Burns docuseries to catch up on. I have 8 years of photos on my laptop, made worse by how many pictures I take of the same shot on my cell phone. I have a running commentary of blog posts that live in my head and never quite make it out the door and onto the page. That’s probably the worst. Right now, Blue is re-watching The Spy Who Lived Next Door and practicing yo-yo tricks and if I was a better mom, I would be playing a board game with him or making pancakes with blueberry eyes. But I want…I need…to get some of this out. Not for you, but for me. Anyway, he isn’t complaining…yet.

One more thing. We are in our final months of L.A. living and I’m not even a little bit sad. It has been hard to write here because I try to keep this a positive space, but this duty station has brought out the worst in me. Me…an Army spouse who has been called a “chameleon” more than once. I just could not change my colors enough to fit in or love it here. I’m not even sure I like it. I tolerate it. But most days, I have not tolerated it very well and Neal has probably caught the worst of my frustration. My only saving grace has been my friends, this neighborhood, this family that lets me vent and then gives me wine.

But this L.A. life is not for me. Maybe it once was, back in the 70’s. When you didn’t have to pay $20 to park at the beach or smell weed seeping from every corner or constantly worry that your curious child was going to pick up a meth pipe. But I am not leaving L.A. better than I found it and L.A. has not changed me for the better. I’m more suspicious, jaded, angry. And we’ve paid through the nose to feel that way. We are still waiting on the assignment list to come out, but I’ve never been so eager to see what our next adventure is. To leave L.A. in the dust, taking only photos and friendships with me.

I recently got called out by a friend here for being so negative about this duty station. She said I’m going to miss this place. She said I’m going to look back with fond memories and recall adventures with Blue as he gets older. And I don’t doubt there’s some truth to that. I probably needed that fairly harsh scolding because it will stick in my head and I will hear her voice over the next few months. Every time I begin to complain about the 110 or the drug addicts roaming like zombies down Gaffey, I will hear her say, “There is more to it than this and that’s the part you’ll miss. It’s not all bad.”

So, to that point, I’ve decided to blog my SoCal gratitude for the next 26 days. Filed under: The Virgo Loosens Up a Bit, I’m already a day late. But I’m used to playing catch-up so for yesterday and today:

1 November

I am grateful for negative tides.

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Negative tides are a result of the moon and the tilt of the earth (or something like that) and they only happen during daylight hours in the late fall. We caught one last week and were able to see my first bat star in the wild. More to come in November and we’ll be on the lookout for octopuses and sea stars. But the best part is that we can be at the beach in about 4 minutes. Of everything we have experienced in California, this has to be in the top 5.

2 November

I am grateful for our little military family Cub Scout Pack.

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(I’m also grateful for Mr. M’s new Samsung that can take pictures practically in the dark.)

This was during the first night of our fall campout last weekend in an area of SoCal that I was sure was going to catch fire any second. But the most exciting thing that happened all weekend was the pack of coyotes that howled their way past our campsite when half of the boys woke up needing to pee. The port-a-potties were not that close. We weren’t sure if this Pack was going to happen this year, just because everyone is busy and the pot of volunteers changes, literally, every year. Such is life with a military-only Pack. But we pulled it together and I couldn’t be more pleased. Neal and I, as Cubmaster and Committee Chair, are having a blast and we are solidly backed-up by gung-ho parents who only ask, “How can we help you next.” I am going to miss this.