Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Voiced & Spoke

The first class last night went really well, so I'm quite glad I get to take it. The instructor is fun and likeable, and seems very student-focused in terms of paying attention to what we all want to get out of the class. So I think it will all be good. Last night was mostly introductions, overviews, and some basic vocal relaxation and warmup stuff (including a quick lesson on the proper way to clear one's throat). Tonight I went back to campus to pick up the course reader and read the first part that we were assigned. (It's a small reader, so there's not going to be a lot of reading.) It had an introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet, and it was pretty interesting to see all the sounds in English classified based on how the sound is produced, and each given their own symbol. And some of it surprised me. It would never have occurred to me, for instance, that we pronounce the th's differently in thigh and thine, but I can hear it once I pay attention. I'm still trying to figure out the difference between the a's in pat and pass, though.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Voice & Speech

After considering my class choices for this quarter, I had pretty much sold myself on Drama 35: Voice & Speech. Unfortunately, when I went to register a few weeks ago, it was already full, so I had to go on the waiting list. I had pretty much given up on it when I got a call today saying that a spot had opened up and I could have it. Yay! The first class is tonight, 7-9.

Friday, September 24, 2004


I had a dentist appointment yesterday. In the parking lot.

Onsite Dental is a dental service that goes around to various companies on different days providing dental services for employees. They've got a big trailer completely set up to do all sorts of dental work. It's amazing. I hadn't been to the dentist for a while, so they gave me X-rays first, then a cleaning. One of my old sealants had come out a while ago too, so they even filled that in for me. I think this is immensely cool. I'm really bad about going to the dentist, but when it's just down the stairs and out the door, it's easy to go get a check-up once in a while.

Another neat thing that recently came up: on-site oil changes. I'm definitely taking fRed there once his next 3,000 miles roll around.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Dani was at the library again tonight, so I was helping her with her (first grade) homework, as I often do, to keep her out of her mother's hair. It was mostly reading and spelling, but I thought some of the assignments were rather odd.

First was reading. Dani had a short story that she was using for "fluency practice." The way this works is, I time her for one minute while she reads as much of the story as she can. Then she counts the words and writes it down on a form that I sign to prove that she actually did it. Then she does it again, three times a day. The form had three days worth of this already on it, all with the same story. How useful is this, really? Granted, her word count per minute doubled over those practice sessions, but I think mostly because she was practicing being fast, not fluent. She knew the story well enough by this point that she could just slur everything together in one minute-long mush of mispronunciations and flat intonation. A very strange sort of exercise, I thought.

The spelling part of the homework involved "spelling triangles." Each of the vocabulary words had to be spelled out in a triangle, with the first letter on one line, the first two letters on the line below it, then the first three, etc., forming a triangle. This sort of practice kind of makes sense to me, but I don't really like it. I guess it can help with going through the words piece by piece, and figuring out the phonics of each letter, but my brain really wants to divide the words up by syllables first, or even into letter combinations, like "ch" or whatever. The letter by letter string just seems so fragmented. Maybe this is because of my speed-reading mentality of absorbing things in units rather than sequentially.

I wish I could remember how I learned to read and spell (though I think I got the latter mostly from the former). It seems like it's the sort of thing that would be really interesting to study. Not only how we learn it, but how it's been taught in different ways over the years.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Why I'm Not Doing WCS Tonight

This was a rather busy weekend I just had. On Friday night, I was DJing with Maya at FNW, and that really went pretty well. We had a good selection of music, with lots of favorites, plus some new stuff that hasn't been played before. In addition to Museum of Idiots, we played Tiger Rag as a one step, People Change (Rockapella) as a two step, and Brave Combo's Chopin waltz in C minor. Quite fun. I danced rather less than usual, but it wasn't too bad, since I was splitting the DJing with Maya.

On Saturday, Miriam and I went to Sacramento for Neal and Michelle's wedding, which also included us setting up and taking down their chuppah as well as doing a reading from The Song of Songs as part of the ceremony. In the evening there was a dance (mostly swing) and some performances (mostly dance, some music). It was fun and I got some good swing practice, but staying out late and then driving back from Sacramento made for a long day.

Yesterday we heard Klez-X at an afternoon house concert. Then there was Arsenic and Old Lace at the Stanford Theater. Both were quite enjoyable, but at the end of a sleep deprived weekend, sitting for two hours in a dark theater pretty much zonked me out.

Today I am very sleepy, so I'm staying home.

Friday, September 17, 2004

A Short History of Nearly Everything

After finishing A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, I feel like "nearly everything" is much closer to "practically nothing" than I ever expected. Don't get me wrong -- this is a fantastic book. But more than anything else it rubbed in the fact that our vast collection of knowledge is really just a tiny tiny part of everything there is to know. That's very humbling, though it's also exciting to know that there's so much left to discover out there.

Another thing that was struck me a lot was the extreme tenuousness of human existence, and how much we are at the mercy of the Earth and the Universe. For instance, a meteor several miles wide could be hurtling through space towards us and we would have no clue about it until at most a few months ahead of time, and then only if someone was lucky enough to be looking exactly in the right spot at the right time. More likely, we'd notice it when it entered our atmosphere, about one second before it crashed into the Earth with devastating effects.

Then there's Yellowstone, which is considered an active supervolcano. One of its eruptions a couple million years ago was large enough to bury the country in about 20-60 feet of ash. Its major eruptions average about one every 600,000 years. The last one was 630,000 years ago. Not the sort of thing one really wants to dwell on, in either sense of the word.

Of course, not everything in this book was quite so scary. Some of it was simply fascinating. I am, of course, referring to slime molds. These things are amazing. Check it out:
When times are good, [slime molds] exist as one-celled individuals, much like amoebas. But when conditions grow tough, they crawl to a central gathering place and become, almost miraculously, a slug. The slug is not a thing of beauty and it doesn't go terribly far—usually just from the bottom of a pile of leaf litter to the top, where it is in a slightly more exposed position—but for millions of years this may well have been the niftiest trick in the universe.

And it doesn't stop there. Having hauled itself up to a more favorable locale, the slime mold transforms itself yet again, taking on the form of a plant. By some curious orderly process the cells reconfigure, like the members of a tiny marching band, to make a stalk atop of which forms a bulb known as a fruiting body. Inside the fruiting body are millions of spores that, at the appropriate moment, are released to the wind to blow away and become single-celled organisms that can start the process again.
So it's as if these things are going around transforming from single cells to animals to plants. How cool is that?

Overall, the book was an absolute delight, and I'm especially glad I got it as an audio book. Bill Bryson has a very enjoyable writing style that has very distinct similarities to Douglas Adams (an effect heightened by the narrator's British accent). I literally laughed out loud at numerous points throughout the book. The narrator is Richard Matthews, who is undoubtedly my favorite narrator yet encountered. (See my earlier comments on The Piano Tuner.) So anyway, read it or listen to it. It's awesome.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

An Optional Appellation

The East Bay Friday Night Waltz is coming up in a few days, and it turns out that I am co-DJing this time around. It's really Maya's gig, but I volunteered to help pick out and arrange the tunes. This gives me a chance to try and squeeze in a lot of music I've been wanting to dance to for a while. (It's not all making it into the final revisions of the set list, but really, if I just get to waltz to Museum of Idiots, I'll be happy.)

What amuses me most so far about DJing is the notice on the website, and in the reminder emails for the dance. Maya's full name is listed normally, but I'm just "Graham." It's like I'm famous enough not to need a last name or something. Goodness. Or else whoever wrote it up just doesn't know my last name. But I don't think any other Graham's are going to be jumping in to take my place, so it's all okay.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Michael Crichton's Travels

Travels is a book that has been recommended to me for a while (thanks Case!) and I finally got around to reading it before and during my Costa Rica trip. This is by the same Michael Crichton that wrote Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, etc. but this book is more autobiographical than fictional. It was extremely different from what I expected, but I think I ended up loving it even more because of that. Which is, of course, why I should remember not to put too much weight on expectations.

The book doesn't even begin with much traveling. The first 80 pages or so are all about going through med school. (Did you even know he was a doctor? I sure didn't.) I figured I was going to get bored and just slog through that part, but it turned out to be fascinating. The chapter called "A Day at the BLI" was about different women's experiences in the delivery room, and packed more punch per page than anything I had read in a while. It was also interesting to read about how he views our responsibility towards our own health, and how we affect it by our mental and emotional states, as well as our physical states.

After med school, he gets to the actual traveling part of the book, which tends to be pretty adventure-oriented travel: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, scuba diving with sharks, crossing a landslide in Pakistan, etc. But after a bit, you realize that there's more going on than just scooting around the world. There's a lot of self-observation happening, too, particularly regarding relationships with the various women going through his life at these times.

Also as the book progresses, he starts exploring different types of experiences as well. When staying in London, he visits the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain nearly every day, evaluating the different psychics there and trying to determine the validity of the phenomena he observes. Later, he goes to meditation conferences, and energy work sessions, and learns to see auras. Some of this material is more fascinating to me than the stuff that I expected the book to be about. I particularly recommend the chapter on "Cactus Teachings." The postscript to the book is the text of a talk (never delivered) to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, about why he believes there is some validity to certain psychic phenomena.

I've already got Mom and Lacey lined up for borrowing my copy of the book. It's definitely going on the "highly-recommended" list.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Arenal and La Fortuna

For our last excursion, we all went on an overnight trip to La Fortuna, to see Volcán Arenal. The top is often covered with clouds, but we could actually see a lot of it when we got there. And the next morning it was perfectly clear, which is pretty unusual, I think. It's still an active volcano. You can't see the lava during the day time, because of the sunlight, but at night you can see flashes or streams of bright red heading down the mountain in the distance, or bouncing sparks as boulders tumble and collide.

The volcano itself is off limits of course, but the park surrounding it has some great hiking trails. The variety of terrain there is really interesting. We started off in an open, brushy sort of area, with sandy soil, and then it switched to forest. After that were the lava fields with lots of great rocks to clamber over, and then more forest. And that was just in about an hour of hiking. I would have liked to come back for a full day there to explore it more thoroughly. On the way back, we were caught in the rain and got rather soaked before we made it back to shelter. But that was about the only time on the whole trip that happened. For the most part, the raining happened when we were on buses, or inside, or only had to go a short way with our umbrellas. Pretty lucky for the rainy season of a tropical country, I'd say.

The next morning we wanted to go see a butterfly garden. Our guidebooks only listed some that were too far away, considering we had a bus to catch that afternoon, but we had seen signs for something that might be closer. Asking around town, we were pointed in the opposite direction of the signs (maybe they were decoys), where we found Eco Centro Danaus a few km down the road. Danaus is the Latin name for monarch butterflies, and they do raise butterflies there, but the whole thing is a beautiful little ecological preserve with lots of other animals and plants. When we got there, a batch of people were just leaving, and we were given a private tour for just the three of us.

The caterpillars of some of the butterflies there were amazing, being three or four inches long and looking like little dinosaurs. Some of the cocoons were interesting too, like the ones that seemed to be made out of gold. And the butterflies were beautiful. Some were large enough that you could hear their wings flapping as they went by, like birds. Among the non-butterfly critters we saw were sloths and poison dart frogs (both of which we'd seen before), a bat sleeping under a leaf, a boa constrictor, and some poisonous snakes (including a fer-de-lance). The dangerous ones were in enclosures, of course. There were some great plants there, too. Our guide pulled a few leaves off a tree and had us smell them. We couldn't quite place the smell, but as soon as we chewed a bit of the stem we recognized cinnamon. I could have munched that all day. Luckily we had it before the píper leaf, which is an anesthetic and turned our tongues numb with just a little taste. All in all, it was a very cool little tour.

After that, we headed back to San Pedro so I could get packed up and ready to leave the next day. Lacey's still down there, though, and presumably still having fun.


Quena has all her classes on Mondays through Wednesdays, so Lacey and I decided to use that time to take a short trip on our own and we headed to Montezuma. As far as the actual traveling involved, this was by far the most excruciating destination, with a route that went taxi - bus - taxi - ferry - bus. The first bus was 2.5 hours. The second taxi was unexpected, since the guidebooks had implied that the ferry was right by the bus station, which is wasn't. The last bus was an hour and a half over bumpy, twisty, hilly jungle roads, in small seats with piles of people crammed in the aisle. But we made it in the end.

We stayed at the Hotel Lucy, which was almost shut down a few years ago for being built too close to the beach. The water is literally just a few yards from the back porch. We were also a short walk away from the main intersection of town, where all the tourist shops and restaurants and other hotels are, so that was nice.

Just down the street from us was the first of a set of three waterfalls. (A bunch more were farther off in the other direction, and usually reached by horseback tours.) We only got pictures of the first one, since after that we went back for bathing suits and left the cameras behind, since we couldn't tell how wet we were going to get on the way to the others. The second and third waterfalls were the more vertical, picturesque kind, and took about half an hour of hiking and wading to get to. It was fun to swim in the pool below the falls and reach the point where I was swimming as hard as I could but being kept perfectly in place by the current.

For the one full day that we were there, we went on a day trip to Isla Tortuga, named for its turtle-like shape. Unfortunately, I never could find a decent map of it to see exactly how turtle like it really is. We started out by snorkeling around some rocks off the coast of the island. The visibility was really bad -- on the surface you could pretty much only see murky greenness. But as soon as you dive down a little bit, there are tons of fish all over the place. We saw angelfish, and damselfish, and colorful wrasses, and trigger fish (reminding me of the humuhumus in Hawaii), and we could swim right in the middle of a whole school of short-tailed grunts (great name, huh?). I even found a pufferfish, but didn't get him to puff.

After the snorkeling, we had a seafood barbecue lunch on the beach and time to explore the island, or just hang out on the beach. Lacey and I headed for a trail that lead up a forested hill to the top of the island. It was a great hike -- steep enough to feel energetic, but not so difficult that we couldn't do it in sandals and bathing suits. And there were some beautiful views of the island and the ocean along the way. Midway up, we saw what looked like the main trail heading back down, but also a smaller one heading farther up. So we continued on up, of course. The trail got steeper and a bit less well defined in some places, but it took us all the way to the very top. We actually did the whole climb twice: once before and once after lunch. I much prefer that kind of thing to just lounging around on the beach (though taking another snorkeling dive might have been fun, too).

On the way back from Isla Tortuga in the motorboat, we saw a couple of whales, humpbacks I think. It looked like a mother and calf but we weren't able to get very close to them. Then the dolphins showed up, though, and that was great. They were perfectly happy to just bounce along in the wake of the boat so we got some fun views of them, though it was hard to take good pictures.

Leaving Montezuma was as big an ordeal as getting there, and took a bit longer. But we had a day afterwards to rest up at Quena's place before we all went to Arenal.


The first weekend we were in Costa Rica, Quena's exchange student program was doing a group trip to Tortuguero, and Lacey and I got to go along. Tortuguero is on the northern Caribbean coast, where sea turtles go to lay their eggs every year. The tiny, one-street village of Tortuguero itself is completely supported by tourism, which is good because that keeps them from killing endangered animals for a living. The only way to get there is by boat along the Pacuare River, or by plane. We went by boat and stayed at the Mawamba Lodge.

This was the part of Costa Rica that reminded me most of Peru. There was a lot of rain-forest around, and we went on several boat rides and hikes to see all sorts of animals. Lacey got this great shot of a monkey by aiming her camera through her binoculars. Pretty impressive. We also saw a bunch of birds, some basilisks and iguanas, and we even got a caiman within a few feet of our boat.

Photos of the sea turtles aren't allowed, so Idin kindly posed for us with an egg, attempting to shuffle sand over it with his feet. The actual tours to see the turtles were at night, which is when they come out of the sea to lay their eggs. You're only supposed to go see a turtle when it is actually in the process of laying the eggs, since if you disturb them when they're just coming out, or at some other stage, they'll take off again. So you have to sit in small groups with your guide, while other guides carefully check out the beach to see where the nesting turtles are. Then they radio back and tell the groups where to go.

Our group waited about 45 minutes before we got a call. The turtle was a fair bit down the beach and already laying her eggs. So we took off on a 20-minute power walk along a trail that paralleled the beach, and got there just in time to miss the eggs and see the turtle laboriously piling sand over them with her flippers. She was about three or four feet across, and there was clearly immense strength in her flippers, slow though they were out of water. We started walking back along the beach then, and saw ahead of us another turtle hauling itself up the beach to find a nesting spot. We waited a few minutes and then walked very carefully around it, giving it as much space as we could. Still farther on, a guide that we passed found us another turtle. This one was still laying her eggs, so we could go right up to her, since they don't seem to notice anything at that stage. Our guide actually pulled back one of her back flippers and shone a flashlight down so we could see the eggs popping out, looking like ping pong balls. Once she started covering them with sand, we left her alone and headed back to the lodge. It was a remarkably successful turtle-outing, especially considering that some of the other groups didn't get to see any.

There were some tree frogs that lived near the pool at the lodge, and a guy there would would find them and let people hold them. The frog we found was asleep, and looked like a solid green pod stuck to a leaf. Then its eyes opened and bulged out, surprisingly huge and red. As it unfolded its legs, it revealed the blue and orange on its sides and legs, and stalked all over our hands and shoulders. When Lacey was holding it, it looked over at me, then suddenly took a flying leap of three feet or so, directly at me, landing squarely on my chest and sticking to my shirt. Surprised the heck out of me, especially since I couldn't tell where it was aiming for when it was flying at me. Very amusing.

One evening, there was a band playing at the lodge, and I was very surprised to see the lead singer playing a banjo. Especially since it looked like a five-string banjo with one string removed. I went up and talked to him later (in clumsy Spanish) and that's indeed what it was. He also pointed out that the Caribbean coast has a mix of different musical influences, including African, so I guess it makes sense that a banjo would show up. It's just not the context I'm used to seeing it in at all.

Also, on the evening after the turtle watching, some of the EAP kids taught us some basic cumbia dance steps. It's like Latin swing, and surprisingly bouncy. I may need to write a separate post about it, though unfortunately I didn't learn as much of it as I would have liked.

Quena's House, San Pedro, and San Jose

The way I'm going to be writing up the Costa Rica trip is organized by the different places we went. So most of it will be chronological, except this part, since we stayed with Quena and her extended host family in San Pedro (near San Jose, the capital) in between all our other excursions. Between family, exchange students, and visitors, there were 11 people staying there, including Lacey and me. It was practically like a dorm or something. Most people were going in and out at different times, though, and everyone was really nice, so it never got too overwhelming.

There was one evening where we managed to collect nearly everybody in the house for dinner and could barely squeeze in around the table. Then afterwards, someone put on some music and we all started dancing in the living room. Lots of salsa and merengue -- I really wish I knew Latin dances better. But I faked a lot of stuff and had fun (I also managed to squeeze in a few Lindy Hops and West Coasts with Lacey and Quena). I like being a dancer. It's a good way to relate to new people, even if you're totally winging it. We never made it out to an actual dance somewhere, unfortunately, but that evening with everybody at home was really nice.

We tried to go to the Children's Museum in San Jose one afternoon, but found that we had arrived just in time for it to close. It's in a building that used to be a prison, and is now done up to look kind of like a castle. The Galeria Nacional is also there, so we went and looked through that. I really hope that wasn't the main repository of art for all of Costa Rica, because there wasn't a whole lot to it. There were some paintings I liked, though, and it was interesting walking through old prison cells to look at them.

We got to visit the Universidad, where Quena is taking classes. The mascot there is the Girasol -- a sunflower -- which I think is just a great mascot. (This coming from someone whose college mascot was a tree, of course.) We found a free show that the theater group there was doing that afternoon, so we went and watched it. A couple of the acts, though, were made up of nonsensical text that the students had to interpret dramatically somehow, so that was really strange to deal with in Spanish, at least for me.

Speaking of Spanish, it's been way too long since I took any classes in it. I was generally okay on the amount of stuff I could understand, as long as people were speaking clearly and not too fast. (Though the bus driver yelling at me for standing in the wrong place was completely incomprehensible.) But speaking was really difficult for me. It doesn't help that I don't talk a whole lot normally. Adding in the fact that I had to translate everything before I said it pretty much ground me to a halt a lot of the time. I think I was getting a tad better by the end, but I could really have used a lot more practice. Still, I got by. Mostly with the help of Lacey and Quena, of course.

Here's a picture of Julie, the silly little dog. The first evening I was there, I picked her up. She immediately put her hind legs in my hand, stood up as tall as she could, wedged her head under my jaw, and just stayed there. Very odd. She would also bark like crazy whenever anyone came up to the door. She was fun to play with, though.

Coming up: Tortuguero, Montezuma, and Volcán Arenal. All photos are here.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

I'm Back

All safe and sound. By a happy coincidence, I ran into Eric S. coming back from Connecticut, on my flight from Dallas to San Jose. We found his roommate, coming back from New York, once we arrived in SJC, and we all took a cab back home, since Caltrain was done for the night and since they live a block and a half from me. Very convenient. That taxi driver seemed positively sedated compared to some of the Tico drivers we rode with (and dodged) over the last 10 days. I had a fun time in Costa Rica, but it's definitely good to be back home again. I'm going to bed now, and pictures and stuff will happen tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Still Here

We didn't actually go dancing the evening after the last entry, since we had to get up very early the next morning to go to Tortuguero. That was a fun trip, with lots of rainforests and rivers and sea turtles. Plus, some people taught us basic cumbia steps, so if we do eventually go dancing, I'll at least recognize it. We got back from that on Sunday. Quena has classes on Mondays through Wednesdays, so Lacey and I went to Montezuma on our own for the last few days, for things like snorkeling and seeing waterfalls. We just got back from that this evening. Next will probably be a trip to Volcán Arenal.