Category Archives: Geocaching

From the Heart

A Cyrenian coin from the 6th century B.C., with a silphium seed imprinted in it. KURT BATY/FAIR USEThis past week brought us Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year, and . . . Heart-Lung Day! I’m teaching at a new elementary school with Science from Scientists, an educational non-profit that brings hands-on science education to schools for grades 3-8. This was only my second time at this school and I was working with a new teaching partner. The school teachers wanted us to do two heart-related activities with the students, “Heart Health,” a lesson with blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, and “Heart Dissection,” which is what it sounds like: dissecting a preserved sheep heart. I’m a biologist, so people might reasonably think that I enjoy dissections. They can be an excellent way to learn anatomy. And yet . . .

In high school Biology class, dissection was traumatic for me. The smell made me sick to my stomach, and I was squeamish about the visuals and the texture. I watched as my lab partner struggled with the bulk of the work, and tried to participate by writing our names on the specimen’s identifying tag. A “friend” told me later that my lab partner had been annoyed and complained during the next class period about how little I had done and how I’d written my own name first, and larger, on the tag, even though she’d done all the work.

I was ashamed of my behavior but couldn’t do anything about it. The teacher, whom I otherwise loved and admired, made light of it and laughed. At that time in my life, many things felt out of control. I was ambushed by waves of performance anxiety about things that other people seemed to be able to do just fine. There were some narrow avenues of things that I was good at and that didn’t make me feel this way, and I concentrated on those and let others go. I let a lot of things go due to anxiety and shame, including public speaking and solo violin performance.

Because she’s new I gave my co-teacher a choice of which lesson she wanted to lead. She admitted to being squeamish herself and picked the Heart Health lesson, leaving me with the dissection. In this job, I had assisted with it once before and it went okay, so maybe leading this dissection was another chance for me to conquer some old demons. I didn’t view it that way at first–at first I was dreading it, procrastinating preparing because my old companion, the anxiety, was rearing its ugly head. My logical brain reminded me that procrastination would just make everything worse, but even that knowledge wasn’t enough to get me going.

What finally did was realizing that it was “just” anxiety, and I’d seen it before. Sure, anxiety can be pretty debilitating, but it is also something that I’ve been able to cope with in other situations by taking small concrete steps to support myself. I’ve learned, for example, to keep my hands warm during anxious violin playing situations by wearing fingerless gloves. That makes a tangible difference in how I feel, and how I sound, which leads to a virtuous feedback loop: I feel better, and then I play better.

Anxiety is also something that can be supported and worked through if other people are understanding about it. The education field has come a long way since my Biology teacher laughed and graded students on participation. Now we encourage participation but we explicitly allow students to sit back and observe if they are squeamish. We tell them that the sheep hearts come from animals that are being slaughtered anyway, for food, so we are using specimens that would go to waste otherwise. We let students leave the room if they don’t feel well. And we don’t grade them or judge them on the dissection; it’s a learning experience. What if I’d had that kind of support? Would my attitude towards dissection have been different?

So I made a list of all the things that made me anxious about this experience. The smell came to mind first. I read on the internet that Carolina Biological Supply now has something to preserve specimens called “Carolina’s Perfect Solution®,” which is supposed to be non-toxic and not require excessive ventilation. And I’ve used it before, last year: sure, it still smells a little funky, but it doesn’t bring to mind the maw of hell. I know I can handle it.Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 11.51.46 AM

Another anxiety provoker was diagrams like this one, which make my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact that I’ve seen any number of blue and red diagrams with lots of labels at various levels of detail, I still can’t remember which vessel is the aorta, which one is the pulmonary trunk, and which one is the superior vena cava.

I went online and looked for some other diagrams. My favorite was this poster, available from Etsy, by artist Rachel Ignotofsky. It reminded me of another resource I saw in school and loved: the movie Hemo the Magnificent, directed by Frank Capra. Beethoven’s Eroica opens that 1957 movie, and Hemo, representing blood, talks and has a face. Smiling faces and all, the poster still has too much information for my class, but this is background information, the point being to make myself feel less anxious about the material, and it accomplished that.

Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky
Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky

Finally, I read the lesson plan slowly and just sat with it, and my feelings, for a while. I put on some relaxing music and listened while I was reading and sitting. As I listened, read, and sat, I told myself it was okay to be anxious. Wouldn’t that be normal for leading a complicated lesson for the first time at a new school? Wouldn’t that be expected, given my history with dissection? Wouldn’t that help me be more empathetic with any students who had misgivings?

I can do this.

The class didn’t go perfectly. Some kids were indeed bothered by the smell and put their sweatshirts over their noses and mouths to block it out. Most of them also didn’t remember the difference between the aorta, the pulmonary trunk, and the superior vena cava. At least one student said “this is awesome,” though. And a parent I saw as I was leaving called out to me, “my daughter loved that heart thing you guys did today!” I even had fun myself; I watched and observed all the different approaches the students brought to the activity, I marveled that you could stick your finger all the way through the aorta into the left ventricle and feel its elasticity and see its thick muscular wall. I felt my own heart steadily beating.

IMG_2540On the way home I drove a little ways to find my geocache for the day in a birdhouse. I had the Telemann viola concerto playing on the car’s sound system, as I do every day now. The day was warm, sunny, even though the winter sun was low in the sky, and I was struck again by how beautiful and joyful the piece is in its simplicity.

I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get it all together technically. I’m memorizing it, I’m cleaning up the intonation, I’m using the metronome, I’m getting used to the Baroque bow, I’m fiddling with the bowings. I’m recording it every day and posting these recordings to the 100 Day practice challenge on Facebook. I’m trying to keep the weird faces and swaying to a minimum. The time will come, though, when all this will be a prelude to the main event. The time will come when I will have to play from the heart.

I can do this.

Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop
Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop

Thursday Doors: Fantastic Beasts Found in Redwood City

These doors aren’t the usual fare that you can open and walk through, but they are still doors.

I started teaching at a new school last week, in Redwood City. Afterwards I went to find a geocache in a park nearby, Stulsaft Park. On the map the cache looked close to the road, but it turned out I had to meander quite a lot through past a playground and through some back trails before I got to the cache zone. On the way, I found a few painted boxes. There were pretty nature scenes painted on their doors:

It turns out that these in the park were not the only painted box doors in this city. There’s also this little lady:


And the Dragon Theater, a community theater specializing in contemporary plays for adults.

Exciting, courageous, and rare!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by adding your post to the link over at Norm 2.0’s blog!

10316 Days

On Monday I saw a Facebook meme that said the Berlin Wall has now been gone for as many days as it stood: 10,316, to be exact. Fact-checking, I found this article. It’s true: Berlin Wall anniversary: Landmark date in Germany as symbol of division has now been down as long as it was up, by Jon Stone in the Independent.

At the Bus Stop, West Berlin, June 1983
At the Bus Stop, West Berlin, June 1983

In 1983, I lived in West Berlin for 8 months. I graduated from high school at age 16 and took a gap year before going to college. My father, a Chemistry professor, did a sabbatical at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, and our family went with him.

Paradoxically for a city surrounded by a wall, I was afforded a lot of freedom in Berlin. I took public transportation anywhere and everywhere using a student pass. I rode my bike. Every week I would go alone to my violin lesson on both the bus and the subway. My violin teacher, an American expat married to a German, lived in an apartment near the wall. She sometimes crossed into East Berlin to buy sheet music cheaply. My copy of the Brahms violin sonata #1 is an old Edition Peters, bought on one of those trips. When my teacher gave it to me, I handled it gingerly, like it might be radioactive.

The only time I ever crossed into East Berlin myself back then was on a carefully guided tour for American tourists, which we were.  After crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, we drove down Unter den Linden, toured a museum with a bust of Nefertiti, and visited a memorial to fallen soldiers.

We were shown a lot of the wall, too. Across the wall and no-man’s land, you could see this futuristic silver ball, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). Built from 1965-1969 and 365 meters tall (at the time), it was visible from many parts of West Berlin. Particularly as I rode my bike around the city, it was a landmark I kept in my mind’s eye. Like my Eastern copy of Brahms, it seemed extra-foreign and a little sinister.

Berlin Wall from the West, looking across no-man’s land. Fernsehturm in the distance. May 1983

Living there at that time and playing music there influenced what I’ve wanted to write about as an adult. One of my stories at the Clarion West writers’ workshop, “Sunrise on West Lake,” was fantasy about a musician who escaped from a repressive society.

In 1997 I married my husband, who was born and raised in (then West) Germany. We’ve been back many times to visit his friends and family, but only once to Berlin, in 1998.

We could visit the Brandenburg gate from the other side (and it’s a lot cleaner looking!)

Checkpoint Charlie was also no longer recognizable.

Checkpoint Charlie, 15 years later, May 1998

Construction was everywhere in Berlin back then in the first heady years after the wall came down, and it’s still going on. Pieces of the wall were dismantled and sent around the world as memorials. We have such a piece right here in Mountain View CA. It’s next to the Public Library, and someone made a virtual geocache out of it. I decided that the anniversary would be a good day to find that cache, which is called “Wir Lieben Dich” for obvious reasons.

To find this virtual cache, you had to answer a question about the area around the cache, and have your picture taken with the pieces of the wall. I ran into a fellow cacher at the library, and she happily took my picture.

A piece of the Berlin Wall outside the Mountain View Public Library

As we rightly celebrate the wall’s demise, we also remember those who died trying to cross it:

Checkpoint Charlie, 1983
Checkpoint Charlie, 1983

And the victims of the Nazis:

Plotzensee Memorial to the victims of Hitler's Dictatorship
Plotzensee Memorial to the victims of Hitler’s Dictatorship (May 1983)

No more walls.


Thursday Doors: Roadkill

I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t a particularly pretty door. But it also doesn’t deserve this fate!


We found this stuff by the side of the road while looking for a geocache. This area needs some CITO (Cache In, Trash Out) but we weren’t equipped to carry the stuff away. (And we did find the cache. It was in the field behind the fence, hidden in a thicket of trees).

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by adding your post to the link over at Norm 2.0’s blog!


Thursday Doors: Chickens and More

DonkeyI am still doing my geocaching streak, and today’s find, called Donkey Cache, took me to an interesting area that I never knew existed in the Barron Park neighborhood of Palo Alto. To get to the cache, I had to walk through Cornelis Bol park, which is named for a Stanford professor who owned donkeys and lived in the area in the mid-20th century.


On my way back to my car, I got a little sidetracked and found myself near a shed. I said to myself, “I wonder if there’s a Thursday door around here somewhere that I can photograph.” Indeed there was.

This was a funny little area with buildings that I didn’t understand at first.


If you look closely, you can see a chicken in the background, through the door to his coop. A couple of these doors seem to go nowhere in particular.


They certainly aren’t keeping the chickens out (or in).


A little farther along the road there was another structure, with the door closed and chicken statues in front:


What I am struck most by in these photographs is the drab weather. It’s neither raining nor sunny. Not what you think of when you say “California,” or “January.”

It’s also quite remarkable that this land is still so free and undeveloped, here in the Bay Area where housing is at a premium and prices have reached extreme levels. Cornelis Bol appears to have wanted it that way.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American eastern time) at Norm 2.0’s blog here.


Three Thousand Finds

I found my 3000th geocache today. Geocaching is where the name of this blog comes from; I started it around the time I found my 1000th geocache. Back then I was behind in logging and wasn’t keeping very careful track in the first place. I had taken over the account that we made for my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop, renamed it, and was catching up the caches I had found before I had my own account. So I didn’t know exactly when it happened. I still like the idea of geocaching as metaphor, of looking for something according to the instructions and then finding something else, maybe something more.  Continue reading Three Thousand Finds


Thursday Doors: Tallac Historic Site

Usually when people think about Lake Tahoe they think skiing. And that was true for us too this year around Christmas time. But on the way home we wanted to find some geocaches in the area, and that took us to some other places that skiers might not know about. For this week’s Thursday doors, I am showing my pictures from one such place, the Tallac Historic SiteContinue reading Thursday Doors: Tallac Historic Site


Thursday Doors: Steve Jobs’ Garage

Earlier in the year I started a series of blogs about the “Geekiest Hot Spots” in Silicon Valley, with the first one being the HP Garage in Palo Alto–where two Stanford students, David Packard and Bill Hewlett, started building the audio oscillators that would be the foundation of Hewlett-Packard. That garage is informally known as “The Birthplace of Silicon Valley.” Continue reading Thursday Doors: Steve Jobs’ Garage


Mundane Monday: Madrone

This is a time of year in the United States that people like to complain about the light. Basically, there isn’t enough of it. I sympathize: I have a devil of a time getting up in the morning when it’s dark outside. But what light there is, and the angle in which it falls on the landscape, can create startlingly beautiful images.  Continue reading Mundane Monday: Madrone


Mundane Monday: Newt

It’s finally raining in California, and that brings out all kinds of creepy crawlies, like this newt we spied in the woods while looking for a geocache. Continue reading Mundane Monday: Newt