Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Guest Post: Childhood Summer Vacation

As mentioned last week, today we are hosting Joie as part of the 20SB blog swap. This is her post. 
When I think of childhood vacations, I come up blank. This is not because my family didn’t take any. We went regularly to Yellowstone National Park (my mother still keeps a picture on the mantle from one of those trips as her favourite picture of all her children), occasionally dragging along a relative or two. We went to Disneyland and stayed in my grandfather’s empty apartment while he was out of town on business. There were beaches and zoos and the BEST STEAK EVER (Basque food is delicious) and the obligatory trips to Monterey Bay Aquarium (which is most awesome). I do remember these things vaguely, but all I really get is flashes of image that if I concentrate on any one of them too long, they disappear. So, as one might imagine, this topic has been something of a struggle for me.
And then, I remembered.
Just outside San Francisco is a museum called the Exploratorium. And when I think of childhood vacation, that’s one of the few places I truly remember. First, because the Exploratorium is HUGE. I’m talking ginormous and a half HUGE. I adored going there as a child. There was something about walking into a building and feeling no bigger than an ant that just resonated in my tiny being. I loved the feeling of being small and insignificant, and yet knowing that the entire building was there in purpose to entertain me (Well, paying customers, but that’s what I was - didn’t the world revolve around you when you were a kid? It sure did me!). It took me many, many years to realize that feeling I was experiencing, the feeling that felt so right, was the hallmark of acquiring knowledge. Socrates said it best: “Wisdom begins in wonder.”
I guess the reason the Exploratorium made such an impression on me was because I was an arts fanatic (an intuitive) in a family of scientists (logicians). Thankfully, my parents were as encouraging with my natural predilections as they were my siblings’. However, I always felt behind, even isolated when it came to the logics.  No matter how encouraging my parents were with my educational strengths, it’s hard not to feel behind when your younger brother (by two years) is in the same level of maths as you. And science? What a joke! I was the kid who screwed up the acid/base experiment.
But the Exploratorium isn’t just a place of science. It’s a place of discovery; it’s a place of play. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a place of child-paced learning. I entered this building of seemingly limitless space and choices with the power to choose where to go and what to study.  My parents were encouraging, but the Exploratorium was inviting. I think it’s because the Exploratorium is, at heart, as much an artistic museum as it is a scientific one. To engage children in discovery, it must be appealing on a sensory level as well as intellectual. The Exploratorium not only gave me the opportunity to explore, it beckoned me.

Of course, I had to go to the music displays. If there’s one thing my family has always shared and will always share, it’s music. My dad likes to joke that he must have raised his four children right. After all, we all sing a different vocal part, making us a natural quartet. Seeing the science of music was a revelation. And I also learned that my pitch was consistently a half-pitch under. Years later, that’s still something I struggle with and it was the Exploratorium that helped me identify the issue and know to watch for it.
One of the other lasting images in my mind is ice crystals under a microscope.  You could wash a backlit piece of glass placed atop dry ice with one of the spray wands you might find on a sink or showerhead. The excess would run off and the thin layer of water left behind would quickly freeze. Sometimes it would happen so quickly that you only caught the last of the process under the microscope. And then I would do it again. There was something perfect about those crystals that I had no control over. Just watching and finding patterns in the randomness was enough.
Of course, there were bubbles. There is nothing so wonderfully scientific and whimsical as bubbles. I learned about surface tension, the color spectrum, how light bends, about convex and concave surfaces, all while waving a giant bubble wand and producing bubbles as big as me.  I giggled in delight as a patient docent explained why I was able to make bubbles while waving the wand at a medium speed, but why I couldn’t at too high or low a speed.
I even got to watch as a presenter dissected a cow eyeball. I still remember her splitting open the eye to the center and passing around the lens. It was sticky and squishy and everything a child could want to play with. And it used to be inside a COW!  I was thrilled! I was the last to touch it, and as such, I was allowed to roll it between my fingers until it was so dirty and bedraggled as to be unrecognizable in both shape and color (or lack thereof). While I got my fingers covered in cow lens sack, the dissector explained how our eyes were different, how cows had 320° of vision, while humans had only 140° to 180° vision and why the placement of our eyes made such a difference. 
One of the last stops is the biggest hurricane in a bottle I have ever, and will ever, see. The sense of the incredible that I felt as I came in was summed very neatly in the bottle. So much power and force, created and trapped inside a bottle. If anything went wrong, if anything was just off, it seemed it would explode. And that’s what was happening inside my brain! Knowledge and wonder were mixing and building into something powerful and wonderful and potentially explosive. The feeling was indescribable.

When I was 16, we went again.  If anything, I felt even smaller than those childhood visits. I was old enough to know that that awestruck moment at entry was the birth of a desire for knowledge.  And I was determined to gobble it up. And then, I went to the same displays and same activities that I went to as a small child. I saw some new ones, but I gravitated to those that had strong memories attached to them. That wonder, that child-like awe, came back in full force to a jaded sixteen year-old and allowed me to open up once more. I ran around like an idiot. I watched the ice form and re-form.  I touched the plasma ball. I giggled. I sang. I danced in place, looking into a glass ball filled with water, studying how the water warped images. I waited in line for bubbles. I found that wisdom, but only because I felt that wonder. -- Joie
So, what was your favourite childhood summer vacation? See mine on  Joie's blog today. 
Also, on Friday I was hosted by Dan from Into Geek - check out my post on strange events at the Summer Olympics. Busy busy. 

Hope you are all as excited as us for Jemily's 1st story in The Agony and the Ex-tacy blog series. Coming to your computer screens on Friday! x Precious


  1. I am taking my nieces there this summer, and I hope they love it as much as you did and do. I now live in Northern California, but I grew up in Southern California. We didn't have an Exploratorium, but it didn't matter because my great love was the Natural History Museum.

    1. Fun! Hope they enjoy it.
      I also loved going to the Natural History Museum growing up. x Precious


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