Sunday, December 27, 2009

The cat who (almost) ruined Christmas.

On December 23rd Geekdaddy and I got home from work nice and early. He was in charge of the Trader Joes grocery bulk run, I was in charge of picking up the expensive sundries at Whole Foods. While the children ran around filled with excitement we packed the car. We have a Subaru Outback wagon, a decent sized vehicle, especially with the added roof pod, but now that we have two kids I finally understand the point of those ginormous "Ford Exxon Valdez Excursion" SUV's. We were headed up to Tahoe for Christmas and New Year, ten full days off work to spend with the family and the animals. We intended to pack our two cats, our dog, the kids and clothing and groceries for the duration into the trusty old wagon. By 8pm we were ready to hit the road, but we were missing one of our feline family members.

Our kitty cats have been with the family longer than I have. They are 12 years old, The orange one is a homebody who has not ventured much beyond our backyard since sustaining a nasty bite on the tail when he was a kitten. His silver brother is a roamer, but usually comes home at 5.30pm on the dot for dinner. However, that evening, as we waited and waited for him, car packed, everything ready to go, he failed to show his furry face. The kids wild excitement turned to misery as we explained to them that they would have to go to bed, as we needed to wait for the cat, but that we would lift them, sleeping, into the car once he was home, and that they would probably still wake up in Tahoe. They did very well with this change of plan, I was expecting tears and wailing.  I was close to tears and wailing myself though as 11.00pm came and went.

We decided to put ourselves to bed too, resigned to the fact that the damn cat was probably not going to return. He has gone for days on end in the past, so we feared that he had decided to take another walkabout. The presents were already in Tahoe, lack of car space meant we had taken Santa's bounty up the previous weekend, so having Christmas at home instead was not an option. But our remaining options; finding someone to take care of the cat at such short notice, if he even came home, or leaving him at large for ten days were both difficult to contemplate. I tossed and turned, unable to sleep.

Then, at 11.45 we heard the jingle of a bell and our roaming kitty leapt in through the window! Thanks goodness we hadn't been able to sleep or we may have missed him. We locked down the house to keep him in, set our alarm for 4.30am, and at that ungodly hour, finally got on the road. This cat is preparing us for the kids teenage years.

We arrived with the whole day of Christmas eve ahead of us, the reprieve from disaster had filled me with energy and I knuckled down, with Geekygirls help, to decorating the tree, making mince pies, preparing the Danish dessert "rice a'lamande" and icing the Christmas cake all with my Christmas playlist blasting unashamedly. ('The Wiggles' do a really good version of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer). The Geekyfamily are still in the process of establishing our own holiday traditions. Geekydaddy grew up with Danish traditions; dinner and gifts on Christmas eve, the piece de resistance of dinner being the rice pudding dessert. I have made this for him every Christmas since we have been together, and this has become an intrinsic part of our Christmas. I confess I far prefer it to the British pud. With our kids  this is about the only Danish thing we have maintained, apart frm the delicate ornaments my mother in law gave me for our tree. We are perpetuating the Father Christmas/Santa Claus myth, this being the first year Geekygirl really got excited about it.

Stockings were hung, the first slice of Christmas cake was left out for Santa, along with a couple of carrots and a glass of wine (Geekgirl's suggestion, we asked her what she though Santa would like to drink, and the smart girl suggested a glass of red!) and the excited kids were herded to bed. Geekygirl was overtired from the early morning, and  anxious about the day to come. I think she was genuinely worried that she hadn't been good enough for Santa (and the point is debatable!), so ended up with three time outs before bedtime for calling Mummy a 'poo poo head'. But sleep finally won, and after the seventieth "I'm not tired" her head at last hit the pillow.

This was the point at which I realized that one critical item had been left behind. Every Saturday when we shop at Trader Joes, Geekygirl had been reminding me that Santa should bring her one of the bags of gold foil covered chocolate coins that hang by the till. Geekydaddy had picked some up weeks ago, and hidden them in our kitchen. And there they still were, 150 miles away, in San Francisco.

I was so angry with myself. What kind of mother forgets a much desired item from Santa's list? It isn't as if Geekygirl had even asked for many things, her list read "Chocolate money, Ariel costume, little Aurora doll, and a 'my little pony'". For all I knew, the chocolate money may have been the most important thing from her point of view, though I, considering it more of a sundry stocking filler, had not packed it with the other gifts. Still, I arranged the remembered items, and soon the tree and fireplace were swamped with gifts, from Santa, from relatives, and from Geekydaddy and I (some presents come from mum and dad, the way our family did Christmas presents growing up, causing me to figure out at a precocious age that Father Christmas and Mummy had the same handwriting. Santa used block capitals on Geekygirls gifts to be on the safe side, and used different gift wrap). I toyed with the idea of writing a note from Santa apologizing for the missing money, explaining that he had brought Chocolate buttons instead, thankfully I did have some of these handy, but Geekydaddy smartly vetoed this, figuring that with all the other gifts she wouldn't notice. He was right, thank goodness.

Christmas morning arrived, at about 6.30am, which is basically when we get up anyway with these lark-like little ones. Our bedrooms here in the cabin are loft style, so we peeped down into the living area, and sure enough, Santa had been! "I saw a tiny flash of light last night" Geekygirl informed me "So I think I saw the reindeer"  The frenzy of unwrapping began. Geekyboy picked up on his sisters enthusiasm, though I think she "helped" open most of his presents for him, and for the animals too.

Geekyboy is of the age where I get to choose all his gifts for him, and we decided that he needed one of those wooden train sets, and some Thomas trains. I had intended to get one for Geekygirl at some point (we strive for gender equity in the toy box), but her desire for all things princess kicked in early. Santa did sensibly buy her a train and some carriages though, since he correctly predicted that the train set would be a popular gift with both children. The requested Aurora doll was one of these three inch high plastic dollies that come with changeable clothes. I had picked up one of these (Belle) as a bribe sticker chart present back when she was barely three, without realizing the changeable dresses are made of latex. Now, you may not be aware of the fetish, but there are adult women who dress in exotic latex gowns. I can't look at Belle in her yellow sparkling rubbery gown without thinking of how much my friend Cynthia would love one in adult size, and I find the little rubbery outfits vaguely unsettling.

But, Santa was asked to add to the collection, so I picked up Aurora. I recalled while in the store that Geekyboy is also rather fond of princesses. In fact he was able to correctly identify and name the Jasmine, A'roo-rah, Cinda-ella and Snow White figurines before he could identify his colours. He often brings me Jasmine in her latex pallazzo pants and says to me "Mummy, Jasmine pants off!" and I can't help but giggle.

Geekyboy also has a penchant for Ariel, so with slight hesitation I picked up the little mermaid doll for his stocking. I examined my own prejudices as I stood in line; I thought it was important that I buy trains for my daughter, but felt slightly odd about buying princesses for my son! We progressive parents tend to focus on "de pinkifying" our daughters, worried about the anti feminist message, but perhaps we have it all wrong, maybe we should be pinkifying our sons instead!

We packed a lot into the day, managed a cross country ski since the skies were blue and the snow crisp and fresh, with the kids napping in their sleds. I was very proud of our dinner; chestnut stuffed trout, sprouts with balsamic reduction, and crispy roast potatoes, followed by the Danish dessert. Then we watched one of their gifts, the DVD of Raymond Briggs 'the snowman". Geekygirl was captivated "they are flying over the whole world" she exclaimed. "Big Whale Splash" said Geekyboy. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was bawling like a baby at the end. Not just because the snowman melts, but because the film is so beautiful, and because it reminded me of the UK home.

Christmas always makes me homesick. In the fourteen years I have lived over here I have not once been home for Christmas, despite the fact that the Christmases of my childhood were universally wonderful. My parents still live in the house we grew up in, packed with warm memories, and celebrate every year with my brother and sister and their families, who live much closer than I do. Our Christmas lunch would last for hours, we would sit down at about three in the afternoon, and would still be at the table at 10.00pm, playing "taboo" after rather too many glasses of wine. At some point between courses we would start the round of phone calls. My mum is one of eight, my dad one of four, and everyone had to be called and thanked, the phone passed around the table along with the wine and port. These days I'm the one on the other end of the phone.

The advent of Skype has brough my family closer though, our kids got to chat with their cousins and their grandparents.  Through facebook and twitter I have entered the living rooms and admired the Christmas trees, joyful children's faces, and amusing anecdotes of so many friends, and the distance doesn't seem so great.  Merry Christmas and happy New Year to you all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

anti water baby

Geekyboy used to be a true water baby. He didn't object to his bathtub even in the earliest days, and as he grew older he positively delighted in the water. One of his earliest phrases was "water 'plash 'plash",  and whenever we walk back from one of our local hilltop parks, he sees the bay in the distance and says "Ocean, water, splash!" He would play happily in any body of water. Including on one occasion in a puddle of dog urine, though that is perhaps left unmentioned.

But last week he developed a sudden fear of the bath. I know this is the classic age for fears to set in (Geekyboy is 22 months old at the moment), so it was bound to be something, but I was surprised at the swift about turn in his attitude to water. In retrospect I think I started it. Last week he had a mild tummy bug. I noticed the ominous note at daycare "Your child may have been exposed to viral gastroenteritis", and the massive washing of toys that the poor teachers had to do on top of their usual tasks. Sure enough, when I went to check on the kids before going to bed one night last week, I found my sweet boy face down in a mess of regurgitated hot dogs and cheese chunks. He must have been sick in his sleep, always a scary prospect, but after a flash of fear, I could see he was breathing deeply and seemed not to notice the smell and mess he was lying in. I noted while cleaning up that he doesn't seem to chew his food, as it looked much like it had on his plate at dinner time!

I had to wake the poor boy, and plunge him into the tub to shower him off. It being almost midnight, and hosing down vomitty kids not being one of my favourite tasks, I was maybe not as gentle as I could have been. After that abrupt and soggy awakening his water fear arose. Geekydaddy bathed him the next night, and made the mistake of turning on the handheld shower to make extra bubbles. Thinking he was going to be sprayed down again, a slippery, soapy geekyboy leapt from the tub like a greased piglet, Geekydaddy just grabbed him in time, he almost fell headfirst from the tub onto the tiled floor. I had no idea he was even able to get out of the tub of his own volition, but I guess fear is a powerful motivator.

 The next evening I announced as I usually do "five minutes until tubtime", and Geekyboy, instead of coming to help me turn the taps on and add the bubbles, stood stock still with the saddest, most scared look on his little face. Geekyboy has wonderfully expressive features, and his downturned mouth is almost comical in its cartoonlike depiction of sadness. "NO Tub. Tub 'cary". he announced. I tried to placate him but he was emphatic in his denial.

When the tub was ready I called the kids again, and Geekyboy slunk in, like a lamb to the slaughter, face the picture of misery. I have started to realize, that unlike his sister who is the very definition of oppositional, Geekboy likes to oblige us. I was touched that even though his every bone was crying out not to be put in that tub, he did as he was asked. "Ready tub", he said, in a sad resigned tone I would not have thought that a child of his young age was capable of, steeling himself for the inevitable. I popped him in gently, where he knelt, holding on to the side, rigid with fear, and gave him a quick lick and polish, then pulled him out into his fluffy towel. His sister, avoiding the potential for a screaming tub companion, decided to wait until he was out before taking her own bath.

By the end of a week of this I needed to enlist her help. Bathtime, after all, used to be one of the most fun parts of the evening. Also, while the kids splash and play, I read the editorials in the New York Times while simultaneously singing songs about ducks and frogs and bubbles, and I had missed out on all the past weeks news analysis. I asked Geekygirl to join her brother. She distracted him by giving him bubbly epaulets and blowing them off his shoulders. She helped him bath his duckies, and made bubble soup for them both to eat. And lo and behold Geekyboy started to get into it. Soon he was splashing, playing and eating bubbles just like he used to! I think our bout of hydrophobia has passed. At least until I have to wash his hair again!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's beginning to feel a bit like Christmas

As Thanksgiving rolled into Christmas, the nagging to do list I carry with me everywhere, in my iphone and in my brain, threatened to become overwhelming. I don't mean to be a complainer, but since being given new responsibility at work (which was much desired, be careful what you wish for!) a role that has me managing eight people, on top of my responsibilities as the mother of two small children, a dog and two cats, I feel I am barely able to do even a half arsed job at any of it most of the time. Managing, parenting, critical scientific thinking (which is apparently what I'm paid for, God help my employer) were exhausting me. Christmas just felt like one more list of uncompletable tasks.

Geekydaddy is no help at all, as he would gladly forget about Christmas. As a pragmatic atheist he has has no time for the excess, the spending and the waste associated with the Holiday. Every year he suggests we erect a "festivus pole" like George's family on Seinfeld, instead of a tree. I suspend my athiesm for the holiday, because I have a nostalgia for the Christmas story generated by years of school nativity plays and church manger scenes, a love of Christmas Carols, and really I have nothing against the baby Jesus. To me he represents the promise all children hold.

But a small miracle seems to have happened. The Christmas spirit has crept up on me. Maybe its the wintery weather; gloom, drizzle and pouring rain  that would do Britain proud. Maybe it is because I have a pile of wrapped presents in the basement, I have mailed my cards and my gifts to the UK only one day past the latest garunteed posting date, I have Christmas crackers from the British store, where I also found black treacle (for my cake, its baking still being on the to do list), and jars of mincemeat (for the mince pies, ditto). The house even looks festive. I hadn't planned on decorating here at home because we will go up to Tahoe for the Christmas and New Years break, and we will get a Christmas tree up there. But on one of my many morning trips to Target, chipping away at the shopping in 20 minute chunks stolen from my commute, I picked up some fake tree garland and grabbed a rather sweet ornamental snowman and a couple of boxes of lights (low energy LED to keep my Scrooge happy).

Geekygirl had been exclaiming in delight at other decorated houses, and I secretly shared her pleasure. I wanted lights too! When I opened the ones I had purchased I realized they were neon blue (the same colour as the box they came in, that should have been a clue!), and arranged in a flexible tube. I lacked the energy to return them, so I put them over the fireplace along with the garland. I'm not sure whether my mantle is celebrating Christmas, Hannukah or is disguised as a bar from a provincial nightclub circa 1987, but the kids like it!

What really tipped the balance, though, was our family trip to a Holiday concert at the Symphony hall. Yes, we took an almost four year old and and almost two year old to the symphony and survived. San Francisco has a wonderful symphony orchestra, and in the brief window of wealth Geekydaddy and I enjoyed after leaving crappy academic jobs for more lucrative ones and before saddling ourselves with two kids and two mortgages, we had season tickets. I recalled going for drinks before our concert one evening in December, just as a family concert was ending. Children and parents, dressed for the occasion,  milling around and chattering excitedly about the music they had heard. I noticed in particular one family with a beautiful auburn haired little girl, resplendent in red velvet, tulle and ribbons, and a tiny boy in a miniature suit, both skipping along between their mother and father, and I hoped that one day I would be that mum, introducing my city born children to this sophisticated world.

So taking the kids to the Symphony for the first time was a big deal. It could have gone very badly, since there was sugar cookie decorating with our neighbour that morning (for decorating read eating), but amazingly the kids managed to nap despite gorging on frosting, awoke just in time to get dressed and to get out of the house (though not in time for me to win the negotiation on what should be worn), in time for us to get nearby parking (an unbelievable $40.00, someone's making a buck off Christmas), and even to look at the decorated trees in the Symphony hall before the performance. Geekygirl was transfixed by the music. The drums were so loud, the strings so pure, each instrument easily distinguished and clearly visible from our seats. The orchestra played pieces from the nutcracker suite, then the featured performance of "Peter and the Wolf",  (a sanitized version where nothing dies, thanks goodness), followed by a rousing holiday sing along of "Rudolph the red nosed reindeer," "We wish you a Merry Christmas" and "Jingle Bells". Geekyboy managed half an hour of rapt attention, then wanted to play with the seats, so Geekydaddy extracted him to run about outside for the rest of the show.

But for a few minutes there, as both kids got lost in the music, I was able to lose myself  too, and I felt tears spring to my eyes at the perfection of our little family and this wonderful shared experience.

Maybe next year I can even win the outfit negotiation, and  get Geekygirl into a red velvet dress, instead of a unseasonal short sleeved pink cotton jersey one, picked up wrinkled and almost clean from out of the dirty laundry. Now that really would be perfect!

Here she is, pretty in pink by the pink tree, city hall glittering behind.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I love the cable car

I did it, I just finished writing all of our Christmas cards. They may even get to their destinations before Christmas at this rate, If I remember to buy stamps and post them on time!

I used to select classy, secular holiday cards to send out to my friends and family, but since becoming a parent, and with the advent of "Snapfish" and their ilk, I have for the past three years sent a holiday card created from a picture of the children. One year we got a freak snow in Tahoe in September, which allowed me to create  a lovely card of baby Geekygirl in the snow in time for the holiday post, but this year we were not so lucky. Instead this year our family photo turned card is a classic San Francisco pose of the Geekyfamily riding the cable car.

I didn't put any forethought into this, since planned photographs usually turn out terribly. What happened was that a few weeks ago the kids were watching their Saturday morning allotment of DVD's, and for some reason Geekygirl had chosen an old "teletubbies' episode to watch. The scene displayed by Tinky Winky's tummy, was of kids riding the cable car, right here in San Francisco. "Mummy, can I ride a cable car?" Geekygirl asked. I realized that our little born and bred San Franciscan had in fact never ridden on one. How ridiculous that she should be sitting here watching them on a British import DVD, I thought, and replied "You can darling. We'll go today".

We stood for about half an hour in the line winding its way in front of the GAP flagship store, then boarded our car. The children were fascinated by the noise and crowds and the lurching, jerking speed of the little wooden car with its jaunty bell. We rode out to Fisherman's Wharf on the Mason/Powell line, which goes right past the hotel where Geekydaddy and I got married. It was bright and blustery down at the wharf, the bay azure, the sky perfectly blue. A postcard day. We saw the sea lions (Geekyboy now thinks he can speak sea lion), walked along the wharf and had some burgers and shakes then headed back again on the Hyde/Powell line, which goes right past Geekydaddy's old apartment, the one he lived in when we first met. The cars were filled with tourists, so we chatted to them, I love to welcome people to our city, and I took a few pictures for folk. As we sat on an empty car at the end of the line I was inspired to grab a passing tourist to return the favor, and this rare snap of us all together has found great use as our San Francisco themed holiday card!

What we intended as a fun trip for the kids turned into a trip down memory lane for Geekydaddy and I. Flying up and down those hills with our enthralled children, our minds were both in the moment, and back in other moments in time. We fell in love with the city all over again. And our thoughts were perfectly echoed by Geekygirl, who, nose against the glass, reflected "I love the cable car".

I"m not much of a photographer, but was rather pleased with this iphone snap.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

economic downturn hits home.

Next week is going to be a tough one. Our daycare/preschool is having to lay off some teachers. With the terrible state of the economy, the center is not fully enrolled, and we have more teachers than can be supported by the student fees. The center is run by a charity, the YMCA, and supported by the city too, but even so, funds are low and it is crunch time. Staff have been on 7 hr days for a while now to save money.

I'm on the parent steering committee for the school, and we found out about these plans just before Thanksgiving. The intention was for the layoff of four teachers to happen last week, on November 30th. The director called all parents individually to let them know, but for human recourse/liability reasons the teachers did not know. This seemed like an odd communication policy, but still we were glad to be informed in advance.  The steering committee rallied the parents and wrote an eloquent proposal to try and keep at least two of the positions by putting together an action team to increase enrollment. You see all of our teachers are wonderful, our kids love them. They work as a team to design and execute a great curriculum. It will be such a loss if any of them are let go. The YMCA director gave us a weeks grace to hear our concerns, but in the end it has made no difference.

The center is wonderful, but we feel underadvertized. They used to have a coporate partnership with a large biotech company, but what with this company opening its own on site care facility, and the contraction in the economy, the long waiting list of kids they have enjoyed for years dried up.  I got on the wait list with both of mine when I was about 4 months pregnant, and just squeaked them in when my maternity leave was up. They have never really had to market the place before. The website is very dull, and the emphasis is on daycare, which they do really well, rather than preschool, which they also do well, but it seems to float under the radar and not atrract parents seeking preschool, often a different set than those seeking group care for infants, since many people use a nanny for the early years then look for preschool when their children turn two or three.

The parent comittee met with the branch YMCA director on Thursday night, and she let us know that the layoffs had to proceed as planned this coming week. We are all rather angry that we didn't get more notice about the severity of the situation, as we feel that we could have turned things around. She has two kids in the center herself, so she is invested in keeping up the quality of teaching and care,  and she did help us realize that they had already put quite a lot of effort into increasing enrollment, and that maybe the environment was tougher than we realized. We had ideas that she didn't though, so she committed to working with us to promote the center to a broader community.

We are all on tenderhooks as to who will be dismissed. It seems the preschool will be hardest hit. California state ratios for 3yr olds are 1 teacher to 12 kids, and that is the ratio that our center is supposed to be staffed for, though it has rarely been that high. Our preschool is mixed age, three to five and a half. At the moment there are 30 kids and 5 teachers, divided into a class of 18 with three teachers and a class of 12 with two. This is a wonderfully low ratio which allows them to work with groups of 6 kids divided by age and ability. They plan on taking it back to 1:12.  We're worried that this will impact the teachers ability to work individually with the children, and will also be a lot of stress on the teachers. Ther are some spirited kids in the class (mine included), and they really benefit from the low staff to student ratio.

It is also going to break my daughters heart to lose any of her teachers, she loves them all so much, hugs them hello and goodbye every day. Teacher D. has taught her how to count in Spanish, teacher A. is teaching her to read short words already because she is so interested in reading and teacher G. knows how to diffuse her tantrums. Change is hard for Geekygirl, and it upsets me that she will be losing some of these very important people in her life. Geekyboy too is very tighly bonded to his beloved carers, and Geekydaddy and I value these people very highly. They take care of our children. I don't want them to dissappear from our lives. I hope that we can stay in touch, and plan on doing my utmost to help them find new jobs (and I hope that perhaps they will be able to babysit for us now, the center has a policy of not asking teachers to babysit!)

I suppose we have to live with it and move on. Times are hard for everyone. I'm heading up the marketing committee, and my first task is to gussy up the website. If you look at the current one it doesn't tell you much. You wouldn't look at this and know for example that we have:

A modern, light facility with large outdoor play yard
A highly credentialed staff and a history of good staff retention
An active parent community
Preschool for children who are not yet toilet trained
Enrichment programs like "tumble bus gymnastics" and "soccer shots" (and maybe also language programs, this is planned)
A lending library
A diverse student body and teaching staff
A video system so you can watch your kids remotely while you work.

 We're going to add this type of information, and pictures, examples of curriculum and activities, parent testimonials and teacher biographies. If you have a moment to let me know what you would like to see if your were looking for a preschool or daycare for your child, that would be very useful feedback. This is  a fantastic place for a child to learn grow, whether you are a full time working parent, or an at home parent who wants their child in a preschool, and we want to be able to showcase it. Maybe we will be able to bring back some of our beloved teachers, and bring more kids into our little family.

I'm hoping the future will be brighter, but I am not looking forward to next week.