Monday, December 27, 2010

Intertwined Tales.

I first read "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin when I was living in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama). The series of novels was avidly passed around our group of graduate students, initiated by the one gay man amongst us, a man who just happened to be called Michael, like Michael Tolliver, a hero of the novels, who remarks in one of them that half of the gay men in the world seem to be named Michael. The stories, with their mixture of madcap adventure, bizarre coincidences, and poignant dialogue all set against a San Francisco that fairly glittered out of the pages, were a breath of fresh air to us, slaving over our lab benches in the dreary Midlands winter.

Three years later, when I was myself boarding a plane to San Francisco with my worldly possessions packed into two suitcases I had those books etched into my mind. I had them in my suitcase too, come to think of it. It hadn't escaped my literary imagination that I was twenty five years old, the same age as Mary Ann Singleton, one of the stories central characters was when she took a two week vacation to the city and decided, on a whim to stay. As it turned out I went to San Francisco on a two year visiting academic visa and fifteen years later I am still here. I lasted longer than Mary Ann, come to think of it.

People tell me I was brave for taking a job in a city, indeed a country where I didn't know a single soul, setting out there alone to embrace whatever befell me. I brush it off, remarking that there are five flights back to London every day, I wasn't exactly on a one way ticket to nowhere. There was more to my confidence though. I knew, somehow, that San Francisco would suit me. My only experience of the city was through those books, but the characters resonated so strongly with me, their experiences seemed so authentic, that I felt that I already knew how the city would feel. I was right too. This was 1996, not 1976, but the essential essence of San Francisco, as I'd imbibed it in Maupin's books, was still there waiting for me.

That essence was not just the blue skies, dense fog, the tumultuous hills, or the mix of glass towers, pink stucco and shingles. It was the people.  San Francisco is best known, of course for the way it embraces gays and lesbians, but that is just the most obvious manifestation of a deeper attitude. There is something in the water here that lets you be who you are, and accept other people for who they are. We are long haired computer geeks, corpulent belly dancers, lesbian plumbers, bisexual teachers, gay accountants, childless cat lovers, rehabilitated alcoholics devoted to pitbull rescue, single mums by sperm donor, foster parents to disadvantaged kids. We're ordinary English girls who love science, literature, skin tight clothes, red wine, and blogging. We're comfortable in our own skins, and we don't expect everyone else to fit any particular mold.

I found my home in a six unit building in Duboce triangle. We were a bunch of twenty somethings, from all over the USA, with me as the token European. We were white, black, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, lesbian, or at various levels of working out exactly what and who we were attracted to. We looked like a GAP commercial. This was no doubt enhanced by the fact that several of the gang worked for GAP corporation at the time, and were generous with their corporate discount. We threw great parties. We went to all the coolest bars. We gathered in each other's living rooms around giant take out pizzas or moo shoo vegetables to to watch Seinfeld, Friends, Melrose Place, Buffy and Party of Five. We went on terrible dates. We got horribly drunk and helped each other home. Belatedly. sometime around the turn of the century, we grew up and moved apart, much like the characters in the books.

Maupin released a new book in the series this winter. Coincidentally, the first books are being made into a musical, to be premiered this summer, where else, here in San Francisco. I just booked tickets for Geekydaddy and I and several of our dear San Francisco circa 1998 friends; our 'logical family', as Mr. Maupin would say, and I can't wait to see it, my favorite stories embellished by my favorite art form, musical theatre, what could be better?!

Geekydaddy bought the book, "Mary Ann in Autumn" for me this Christmas and I am waiting for the perfect uninteruptable moment to crack it open. In anticipation, I have just re read the entire series for what must be the hundredth time.  I was reminded again that the now so familiar and beloved streets and locations described in the tales were once just a fairytale to me, San Francisco being as far from Birmingham as the lost city of Atlantis.

Is their anything better than reading that first page of a much anticipated novel? Now that I've got this post off my chest, I think I am ready to dive in.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Year of the Great School Hunt

As the year draws to an end I am hit with the realization that next year we will send our firstborn off to "real school". At the forefront of my mind every waking moment these days is one burning question. Where will we send Geekygirl to Kindergarten next fall?

There are more than seventy elementary schools in San Francisco and anyone can apply to any of them, irrespective of where they live.  Some schools are vastly more popular than others. Predictably, these have a student body that score highly on the state standardized tests, and a PTA that raises several hundred thousands of dollars a year to cushion the impact of budget cuts and pay for class size reduction and enrichment programs. At the other end of the scale there are schools that have been taken over by the state  in order to rectify failing performance on the standardized tests. There are lots of schools that fall in between,  and on the whole schools in the city seem to have been steadily improving over the past five years, from an admittedly rather low starting point. Even so, many San Francisco parents find their liberal sensitivities running up against the realities of the public school system and flee to the highly competitive and horrifically expensive private sector, or flee the city entirely.

Apparently "San Francisco Unified School District is the top performing large urban school district in the state of California and one of the top performing urban districts in the country", which is rather like being, as was an old co-worker of mine, the best 400m runner in the Philippines, but still, it is somewhat reassuring given all the negative messages we get about the state of California's education system.
The student body of San Francisco is very ethnically and economically diverse. Approximately 25% Hispanic, 30% Chinese, 10% African American and 20% white, with the remainder representing people from South East Asia, India, Japan and the South Pacific. In common with many other large urban areas,  we have a high percentage of kids qualify for a free school lunch. The very high scoring schools, of which there are about eight, get hundreds, even a thousand applications for the thirty or forty slots they have for incoming kindergartners. Some schools get almost no applications, the families who live near to the school simply show up when school starts without bothering to apply.

Until this year the San Francisco Unified School district had perhaps one of the most complex admissions procedures ever devised. Families listed seven of the more than seventy elementary schools on their application form, a form that required answering detailed questions about the educational background of the parents, languages spoken at home and whether they were on any form of public assistance, among other things. In the event that a particular school had more applicants than places a complex algorithm called the "Diversity Index", based on the answers to these questions, was applied by computer. Or possibly a bunch of school administrators got drunk and threw darts into the applications. If you want your head to start spinning read a little of the document below.

Though well intentioned, the two main problems with the system were that most of the low income people it was intended to help didn't even fill out the forms, and that many middle class people who had a lovely school right beside their house but didn't have a hope of getting into it got very annoyed. To put it bluntly, in any society some people have more choice than others, and many San Francisco families would simply "play the lottery", applying only to two or three of the "top" public schools, then send their children to private school if they were not one of the lucky "winners".

An unintended result of the system was that schools became separated from the communities they were located within. Middle class families left the city in droves and since families with the option to choose private school or to move away simply refused to attend the schools they were assigned to by the diversity algorithm, the schools still remained polarized between the high achieving middle class dominated and the low achieving low income dominated. It worked only in one direction. Motivated poor families could get their kids into high performing schools, but the system couldn't force other people to accept an assignment to a poor performing school.

Recently, though, the tide has started to change. Groups of parents banded together and decided to send their kids to their nearby yet under performing schools, with remarkable results. These parents were motivated by research that suggests that children of engaged and educated parents do well in any school setting, and that the "API' score, the California standardized test, tells one more about the socio-economic make up of the student body than the quality of the teaching.  Indeed when I plotted API against % of kids on a  free school lunch for the schools we are looking at I noticed a near perfect correlation between these two sets of data.

Without any change in teaching strategy, or in the teaching staff, the test scores of these schools started to rise along with the increase in the percentage of middle class kids, and the culture of parental involvement with schooling that they brought with them. Some schools became victims of their own success, they become so popular that they too became increasingly difficult to get into. These success stories have inspired more and more grassroots efforts though, and our schools are getting better for it.

For the class entering in 2011 they have completely revamped the placement system, and given each school an attendance area, but we still have a 'parent choice.' Now we can apply to as many schools as we want, but the tiebreaker is decided without the diversity index algorithm. First prioity will go to siblings of current students, second to families living in areas of the city that had the lowest test scores on last years standardized test, and third to those who live in the schools designated attendance area. Families will be assigned to their attendance area school, or if that is full, to the nearest school with open places, if they do not get into any of the schools they apply for.

Applications are due February 15th.  I have generated a monstrous spreadsheet with information about at least 15 schools in 24 columns. We have toured nine  (eight public/state and one private), my boss becoming ever more incredulous as I take yet another morning off work. By tour nine I fibbed, saying I had a dentist appointment. I probably should have removed the sticker bearing my name and "Grattan School Tour" from my jacket on returning to the office had I expected the lie to fly though.  A group of fellow parents and I have formed a casual collective to share school reviews, discuss options, and more often than not, drink and panic. If it hadn't already been done, I might have started a blog about it!

Is anyone else going into the new year with this level of school related stress, or is this unique to San Franciscans? Remind me again why I love this city......

Silent Sunday: Waiting

Silent Sunday

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

the sugar plum fairy

The Nutcracker Ballet is an American Christmas tradition, one that was started by the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. In a combined fit of "getting into the holiday spirit"  and "we must take advantage of living in the city" I bought tickets when they first went on sale back in October. With the production looming, I checked the website for the time and location, not only discovered that the production is staged at the very lovely "War Memorial Opera House" and not at the Ballet itself, which saved me a panic attack on arriving at the wrong location, but I also noted the statement "Any child, who can quietly sit in their own seat and happily observe a two-hour performance without questions or talking, is welcome at San Francisco Ballet. To ensure an enjoyable and relaxed experience for everyone, SF Ballet recommends that children be at least 5 years-old to attend Nutcracker"

Since Geekygirl and Geekyboy are almost five and almost three, respectively I felt a knot of anxiety forming. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea. I took the kids to the playground with a friend to run off some energy on the morning of the performance, but my anxiety was only heightened when my friend informed me that her little girl, also only 4, had been coached by her grandparents to tell the ballet ushers that she was five, since they were under the impression that under fives would be banished from the theatre.

We set off anyway with our underage companions. The children, prepped for several nights now with a lovely story book describing the plot of the ballet, and having enjoyed several evenings of dancing round the living room to the music, looked adorable and were full of anticipation. Geekydaddy and I also dressed for the occasion, and it felt so lovely to be all gussied up, in the glossy crowd of excited children and parents. There were plenty of under fives, so we didn't need to teach the children to fib. Of course, as seems to be the case in almost any major city, the fanciest theaters are steps away from the sketchiest neighbourhoods. We were faced with  puddles of human urine in the alley where we parked the car, and smiled shamefacedly at homeless people as we walked up the guilded steps. Ah San Francisco, city of contrasts.

The performance was magical. I'm glad we had read the storybook, mind you, as I'm not a ballet buff myself, so it helped me to understand what was going on. Geekygirl, ever the authority once she has even a scrap of knowledge on a subject, kindly, confidently and maybe a tad too loudly, explained to me what was happening. Geekyboy, kneeling on his plush seat was enraptured by the music and the dancing. However every five minutes he loudly whispered to me "Mummy. Is that the sugar plum fairy? Mummy. When is the sugar plum fairy coming?". Mindful of the age advice, I tried to keep him quiet out of consideration for the childless folk in the row in front, but when the lights came up for the interval they remarked on how sweet he was and how they used to bring their own, long grown up, kids to see this ballet. People can be so kind.

Here's a clip from the show (I didn't film it)

Still, during the second half Geekyboy wanted to dance along with the performers in the aisles, which I felt was pushing the tolerance of the more mature audience members so Geekydaddy extracted him. Geekydaddy wasn't all that impressed by it. He was reminded of the spoof scene in the movie "top secret", where the female dancer balances on the unfeasably large 'package' of the male in very tight tights! Geekygirl remained entranced though, and watched the entire performance through to its beautiful finale.

Now, every evening when we get home from preschool, Geekyboy wants to be the sugar plum fairy. Here he is in his sisters fairy dress, isn't he precious? I've taken a video too, to preserve these moments for posterity and to show to him when he's a linebacker on the football team. Or the lead in the all male version of swan lake.

Monday, December 20, 2010

my city, my heart.

I took this picture while walking my dog early one morning. When I look out at the city my heart always pounds just a little harder than usual.  Can you fall in love with a city? Is it just the beauty of the place, or is it more? The mindset of those of us who live here? A way of being that just happens to be part of this perfect jumble of architecture and nature?

I love this city. I fell in love in this city. I fell in love with a man who loves this city as much as I do.
My heart will always belong in San Francisco.

A post for the gallery. The theme was "Love"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Silent Sunday: Cupcakes

A photo for Silent Sunday at MochaBeanieMamma

Silent Sunday

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Last Christmas

This is a post for Josie's writing workshop at Sleep is For the Weak. I chose prompt 4. Become the ghost of Christmas past – share a story from a childhood Christmas.

My Christmases past all seem to distill themselves into 1984. The year that Band Aid went to Christmas number one, Last Christmas by Wham came second, and I was fourteen. Maybe it is because these songs endured so well that I am so often transported back to that time during the Christmas season.

I had started a new school that year, and I bought my new friends a wall calender of the Band Aid group as a present. I had rushed to Woolworths to buy the single the minute it was pressed, and actually have a very early edition of it that lacks the group photo on the back. I watched the video again today to enhance the nostalgia, and instead of the warm fuzzy feeling I expected, instead I noted for the first time how few women were involved. If such an effort happened today it would surely have far more female artists. I was struck by how times have changed, and how long ago 1984 really was. On the other hand if it was made today many fewer of the men would be wearing full make up. Whatever happened to the concept of eyeliner for men becoming mainstream?

I forget now exactly when my sister and I were deemed old enough to attend midnight mass on Christmas eve, but I'm guessing that by 1984 we did. I was never a particularly religious kid, but I loved singing. My sister and I would get lightheaded trying to sing "Gloria in excelsis deo" without taking a breath, or attempting the soprano harmonies for the "sing choirs of Angels" verse of "oh come all ye faithful". Furthur into the decade we would hit the pubs before mass, no doubt enhancing our vocal skills.

Though old enough to have a little sip of baileys after mass in 1984, I was still young enough to hang up my stocking. When I say stocking I mean an actual sock. No custom made velvet sock shaped bags entered our home, Father Christmas stuffed gifts (always starting  with a satsuma orange deep in the toe) into a woolly 'over the knee sock'. Do you remember those impractical items? For some reason we were not allowed to wear tights with out school uniforms, so we wore long socks held up with an elastic band around the thigh, the chilled and blotchy upper portion of which was displayed between one's hitched up school skirt and the top of the sock. I hear parents today dispairing of their teen daughters clothing, but really parents, do you remember how we used to dress in the early 1980s? New clothes featured heavily in our Christmas gifts from our teen years onwards. I remember a soft jumbo corduroy pencil skirt in black that I wore with a fushia printed black jumper, and a pair of winkle picker toed black suede stilletos. Lovely!

My mum and dad still live in the home where we grew up, but since living in America these past fifteen (really, how can it be fifteen)? years I have been home for the season precisely once. It is a time of year when I wish that I could just pop back for the day. I would show my kids the remaining tree ornaments that have survived from my youth, the ones we would carefully unwrap with excitement year after year, arguing over who got to put the long, delicate pink one on the tree, while we played a mixed Christmas tape, recorded from the top 40. I'm wondering now if my mum's carefully made starfall decorations, the ones with threads of foil stars handing from a cane circle that hung from the light fixtures in colours that perfectly matched the purple, turquoise, silver, red and gold carpets we had back in the 1980s, are still around in any form. Bringing out these ornaments was the mark of the beginning of the season, they gave the house such a festive feel and we always felt so sad when the house was returned to its ordinary unsparkly form on January 6th.

Mum and dad's home contains the ghosts of so many wonderful Christmases past. One day I will take the whole family home to share my childhood memories with them. On Christmas morning (after breakfast of course) we will let Grandad lead the way into the closed living room. He will carefully open the door while the children gather behind. They will be so excited, trying to peak, just slightly worried that Father Christmas may have forgotten them this year, and just when they can barely contain their anticipation he will throw open the door and shout "he's been"!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a moment to breathe

Today we got a day off work. Well, our department had a holiday outing in the late morning, so after a couple of hours in the office we headed over to "the palace of the legion of honor', an art museum in the city to look at the "japanesque" exhibit, featuring works on loan from the d'Orsay in Paris. What a treat, to wander around a gallery admiring intricate woodprints form centuries ago.

After a civilized lunch the rest of the day was our own. I decided to pop over to the little British Grocery store that lurks behind Safeway, next to the city pound. The basement of a small house, it is one room that stocks everything the expat Brit needs, from baked beans to marmite to double deckers, hobnobs, lucozade and robinson's barley water. Of course at Christmas it also has mince pies, pud and birds custard. We have a potluck party at the office on Thursday, so I thought I'd treat them to some Mr Kiplings mince pies, my oven being broken, I have a perfect excuse not to attempt to bake any myself.

I then went to the post office to mail my gifts to family in England. The queue was winding out of the door into the somehow festively drizzly street, but since I was, remarkably, in no hurry, I quite enjoyed my wait. There was a camaraderie in the disparate crowd, united by the need to send gifts to loves ones far away. I saw packages addressed to Brazil, to Paris, to Beijing. Maybe I was under the influence of my recently dowloaded Glee Christmas album, but as I stood there I pictured people all over the world opening gifts, knowing someone here in San Francisco was thinking of them, was prepared to stand in the rain for half an hour to make sure that gift made it to its destination.

Christmas can take a working mum to breaking point. When life is a carefully balanced house of cards the extra demands of the season can feel overwhelming. Even a supposedly pleasant thing like a holiday party invitation becomes simply more items on the to do list; book babysitter, buy tights with industrial supportty top so that party dress fits, get hair done....

I'm almost there though. I've reached the point where I can listen to my holiday music in the car without it bringing on feelings of panic. The cards have almost all been posted, the gifts almost all purchased. Just the daycare party and the work white elephant potluck to go, and maybe I can even relax.

How about you. Are you ready?

I'll leave you with my new favourite Christmas song of the moment; Mercedes from Glee singing "Angels we have heard on high".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

picture perfect

A few weeks back, on a wonderful trip out to Chicago I was chatting with fellow bloggers Nappy Valley Mum, Iota, Nicola, ExpatMum and Califlorna about Christmas cards, and a question came up. "do you make one of those 'American' photo cards of your family, and if so, what do your British friends think of it? Is it considered horribly naff?" I confess that I do make such a holiday card. I posted about last years here. It had not, until that moment of conversation, ever occurred to me that this was an American phenomenon, or that it might be considered tacky and narcissistic.

I personally love to receive such cards, or a school photo enclosed in a card, or a even a round robin letter (especially those unintentionally amusing ones!).  Kids grow so fast and we live so far away from friends and family. Thinking back over the years, I realized that I was an early adopter of the concept. Long before there were multitudes of online photo companies offering competing card designs, and before we even had kids, I turned a photo of Geekydog in the snow into a holiday note card using the then brand new "Snapfish" web store.

This year we had a November snowstorm up in Tahoe. Perfect for getting cute seasonal pictures of the children for the annual card, I thought. I was thwarted however by Geekyboys distaste for being outside in it. Thirty minutes of snow play later I had a reel of lovely shots of Geekygirl, and this single sorry picture of geekyboy!

The following weekend, with a little puruasion and some sledding, he adjusted to the snow and I managed to get a couple of decent shots. Then, that same evening, overtired and amped up, Geekyboy slipped in the bathroom and blacked his eye on the side of the tub. Once I realized that he was OK, just very bruised up, my first thought was "Thank goodness I got one decent picture for the card before he looked like a battered child"

Here is a preview of the card I made this year, with the help of the 'tinyprints' website. I put quite a bit of time into selecting the photos and choosing the card, and I have to say I'm quite pleased with the result.

Do you make cards like this? I'd love to do an informal survey!

PS, this is not a sponsored post but I do know someone who works for tinyprints, and I was very happy with their product.