Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Three Hours in the Park

Except for trips to the California Academy of Sciences and a boat ride around Stow Lake, as well as a recent visit to the M.H. de Young Museum, I have never explored the Golden Gate Park. With Monday's warm weather, a reminder of the fast approaching summer, I decided it would be the perfect day to go on an adventure in the third most visited city park in America. The only problem was that I could only spend 3 hours there, luckily I had a car.

With its ordinary name, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is anything but. It spans 1,017 acres from the California coast to Haight, a 4-mile drive inland. Larger than New York's Central Park, it is a state all on its own. Lakes, hills, islands, meadows, gardens, and views, the park provides visitors with lots of space. There are many sights and activities to do in the park, such as: touring a museum, bird watching, statue hunting, fly-fishing, and even swing dancing.

I entered the park from Fulton Street and decided to go wherever the road took me. My first stop was the Children's Playground, established in 1887, which was under construction. New equipment has replaced those of the olden days; a green triangular climbing-thing towered beside a purple and green jungle gym complete with a glider, slides, and bridges. Opposite the playground is a restored 1912 originally carved Herschell-Spillman carrousel that is free for children under 5 and .50 cents for 6 to 12 year olds ($1.50 for adults).

An old building adjacent to the carrousel is the historic Sharon building (now an Art Studio) where children and adults can take classes in ceramics, jewelry, watercolor, and drawing. Also in this section were lawns for lawn bowling and a wide grassy area where children played soccer and, in the distance, crowds gathered around a group of men playing bongos.

From there, my next stop was in front of the National AIDS Memorial Grove. Stones with carved names of those who died of AIDS or were affected by it trim the path. Inconspicuous seating areas are hidden among the trees and bushes. Developed in 1991, the 7-acre Grove has 6 sections. The most prominent being an area where the Redwood trees encircle boulders making an alcove. It was a magical and serene place where the trees protected the area from the heat of the sun. Further down the path was a meadow where sprawled out couples lay embracing each other.

My next stop was Stow Lake which serves as the park's principal reservoir. It is the largest lake in the park where paddleboats and rowboats can be rented. A path curves its way around the lake where turtles come up for air at the water's edge and fluffy goslings sleep, with their parents in close watch. On one bench, a pink ceramic mother figure sits, facing the island, watching the ripples of the lake and the sun sparkled leaves. Somewhere along the path, there is a stone bridge leading to an island in the middle of Stow Lake.

Strawberry Hill is a 428 feet high, naturally formed island. An path circles upward around the hill, a 15+ hike up to the top, providing a 360 degree view of the park and San Francisco - well, somewhat, through the trees. I read about this hill before and I got the impression that the view at the top would be breathtakingly magnificent. I suppose it would have been if they chopped all the tree tops off, but it was still worth the trek up because of what could be seen (the view of the Pacific Ocean, St. Ignatius Church, and the Golden Gate Bridge), as well as the lush foliage and trees you see along the way.

At one side of the island there is an artificial waterfall with stairs beside it so visitors could have a closer look. At the bottom of the hill, close to the waterfall is a small Chinese Pavillion. It was a nice relaxing walk next to the waterfall but the stairs were steep. After this long hike and walk around the island my 3 hours was almost up. As I was driving around trying to find an exit out of the park I stumbled across the Buffalo Paddock where herds of brown, brawny Bison stood eating grass. I've been wanting to see them for the longest time, so it was really exciting to watch them not move for 5 minutes. It was a perfect ending in my 3 hour adventure. (And I still haven't even seen half of the park!)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Stress less, even if for a few hours.

"Do you have white hair?"

"Are you a man?"

These were some of the questions two students asked each other at the Health Promotion and Services' biannual Stress Less Day event on Monday at USF's McLaren Complex. Though these questions could make any young female uncomfortable (maybe even stressed), the query solicited more giggles than tears. You see, the girls were playing Guess Who?, one of a slew of games that were provided for students at the stress free event.

At another table, three students were deep in concentration as they took turns tapping their way out of a 54 wooden block pile-up. With legs shaking, junior Stephanie Chan said, "This event is effective, though some of the games are a little stressful, like this one. But it's pretty relaxing." Her friends tell her it's her turn and she contemplates out loud what move to employ next - a crucial decision because, by this time, the Jenga tower rests on one block. Squeals of delight can be heard as her woodpecker-like taps turn out to be a success.

Other games at the event included: Connect Four, Twister, Checkers and Dominoes. The eight tables in the conference room also had scissors and construction paper, crayons and coloring pages, as well as muticolored Play-Doh. But the best part of the event (aside from the free massages by a licensed masseuse) was the free food. Students stacked their plates with vegetarian sandwich wraps, vegetables (carrots, peppers, broccoli, celery...), fruits (grapes, watermelon, strawberries...), cheese, cookies, crackers, bread, yogurt, and an assortment of muffins. Tea, coffee, and juices were provided for beverages.

Laughter and the buzz of conversation filled the room accompanied by smooth mid-tempo music as students ate and played games. Senior Mai Vang, who works for Health Promotion and Services, helped with planning the event. She said the goal of Stress Less Day was for students to reduce stress before finals and build a community with each other. Vang explains that it is a proven fact that family life is not the major cause of bad grades. "The number one reason students do poorly in school is because of stress. Stress affects students' grades the most," she said.

Sophomore Paola Vu, who was eating with friends, was ecstatic about the event. "This is so great! I haven't seen something this amazing in this building in so long," she said, "it's well timed, with people stressing out about finals." Valarie Duran, a senior, said, "I think this event is important because a lot of people have many things on their mind. It's a good time to forget about the things you have to do."

As I sat there observing my surroundings, what seemed like a daunting task of writing about an event turned into something uplifting. For a couple of hours, I, along with others, forgot about deadlines and papers. I laughed with the three friends when their wooden tower finally collapsed. I caught up with a classmate I hadn't seen since last semester. And I happily chowed down on some free grub. For a moment, I was a kid again, with no worries or stress, contented with my Play-Doh.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Alma Mater

For some, high school is not a fond memory. It is a place they want to forget, a time they pretend never happened. And who can blame them? High school, for most people, was awkward. It was the time of braces, funky "fashion" trends, and cliques. It was a place where popularity was more important than being smart and competition wasn't just about who ran faster. For me, it was all those things and much more. And, unlike some who don't want to remember, I treasure the good (and bad) moments and experiences I had. I think an important factor in making or breaking a high school experience is the high school itself. When my high school friends and I get together, we almost always visit our old stomping grounds and reminisce about the good times. To us, school was a home away from home; it was a community that was our second family.

Sitting atop a hill in Burlingame and spanning approximately 40 acres is Mercy High School. It is a private, Catholic, all-girls school run by the Sisters of Mercy. Aside from the usual high school facilities, Mercy also has a care home for retired nuns, a chapel inside a retreat apartment, a labyrinth, scenic walking paths, a fish pond, and a forest. One of the major things that sets this high school apart from others is the fact that it's on an estate and the main school building was previously a mansion. Katrina Sevilla, a 2001 alum, said, "It was interesting going to school in a was a rare experience. It was cool hearing rumors about ghosts and places that were off limits to students; it gave the school its own character and mysterious feel."

The rose red bricked tudor mansion was completed in 1914, after two years of construction, for a wealthy shipping heir named Frederick Kohl and his bride, Elisabeth. The grand estate included 63 rooms, a tennis court, a green house, a rose garden, a large carriage house, and a 150,000 gallon reservoir. In the short two years the couple lived in the mansion, they threw lavish parties exclusive to the elite. In 1916, they left the estate, leaving their servants to maintain the property.

Three years after Frederick's death, in 1924, the Kohl Estate was sold to the Sisters of Mercy for $230,000. It became a convent for 7 years until 1931, when it became Mercy High School. During this time, the Sisters of Mercy added a wing of four classrooms to the mansion and later, another wing with 13 classrooms. While most classes are held in the main building, math and science classes are taught in Russell Hall, a building located a 5-minute walk down the hill.

The college preparatory school's maximum enrollment is 500, although currently they have 470 students. Their student/teacher ratio is 12:1; because of this, faculty and students are better able to communicate and meet one-on-one. I remember the faculty and staff at Mercy as being warm and welcoming; they nurtured us to grow and learn while also becoming a part of our extended family. "Because my year only started out with about 100 students, I felt like I was more in a sisterhood than just another high school student. The teachers all knew the students and vice versa, that created a feeling of being part of a community," Sevilla said.

Upon my recent visit to Mercy, I couldn't help but remember the four wonderful (sometimes grueling) years I spent there. Many years have passed since then and though a lot has changed, everything is still familiar. Walking among the fragrant multicolored roses in the rose garden, I saw myself sitting on the hot brick paths and sharing my dreams and aspirations with a classmate. Passing by the empty front steps of the mansion, I remembered how I met one of my closest friends. For four years of my life, this place was where I shared laughter, tears, ambitions, and frustration. It was a second home and family that helped me through the awkwardness of being a teen and taught me to embrace myself. It is a place and time I will never forget and will always treasure.