Sunday, March 27, 2011

Silent Sunday

Silent Sunday

Thursday, March 24, 2011


a post for the gallery
March 18th was an itchy day for San Francisco parents. It was the day the school assignment letters were mailed out. Geekydaddy and I had filled out our form a month before, and we made an important decision. I explained the school assignment policy in a previous post (if you are suffering from insomnia do got and read it now, it will knock you right out), but in a nutshell priority for a school, in the event it was over requested, goes to siblings, then those living a predesignated "low test score area", then those living in the neighborhood of the school, then everyone else. By virtue of our address, which is close to a large housing project, we had one of these low test score area "golden tickets" but we decided not to use it.

I call it a golden ticket because every year 50% of applicants to San Francisco elementary schools list the same 14 schools. There are 70 schools to choose from. We rant and moan about the system, but the problem is one of supply and demand. There are only about 14 schools that most middle class parents even consider applying for, the ones with the top API scores, and not everyone who wants them can get into them. The problem is how to make the rest of the schools attractive to people like us. It isn't location, there is an elementary school located smack in the middle of our very desirable neighbourhood, but it has never attracted the people who live here. Middle class families like schools that have a reasonable representation of people like us. Since API score correlates directly with socioecomic status, and with the educational level of the parents, the best way to get a schools API score up is to get middle class families to attend. It is a chicken egg kind of situation. Turnarounds have happened at several schools in the city already though, so we are confident that it can be done with our school.

With this in mind, we picked one of our local schools. This school is already on the up and up, though it came from a pretty low starting point and is a long way from making into the haloed 14. It has two tracks, a regular English speaking one, referred to as "General Education". and a Spanish Immersion program. 

The immersion program means that the day is taught 90% in Spanish in Kindergarten, with English being introduced more and more as the students approach 5th grade. The class is made up of a mixture of native Spanish, bilingual and native English speaking children. The Spanish speaking kids get the opportunity to learn in their own language, gaining a broader education than if they had to get fully fluent in English first, and the English speaking kids become bilingual in Spanish, with the many benefits that offers. The immersion programs are popular with the middle class, and the addition of one to this school has dramatically increased the proportion of highly educated families enrolled there. A school that had no PTA four years ago now has a very strong one.

We decided that the Spanish program wasn't for us, but we wanted our daughter to attend the local school. The general education program has historically been shunned by the higher income and paler skinned portion of our neighborhood. We decided to change that this year.  We like the teachers and the school principal, and we love the community spirit of the school. We believe that our daughter will do well there, and also that by sending her there we are doing good by our community. We committed to sending Geekygirl, and a few like minded neighbors joined us.

When we opened the letter we saw that we had indeed been offered our place at the school.

A neighbour, also in the low test score zone, got a coveted place at Clarendon Elementary. Clarendon is the cream of San Francisco elementary schools, with a PTA budget of $400,000 a year and is invariably the most desired school in the city. This year it got 1797 requests for its 80 spots. When I heard this I considered whether I had any regrets. Maybe we too could have got into Clarendon. 

I can't find a grain of regret anywhere, though. I'm excited that our daughter will be going to a school in her community. A place she is already familiar with since we often attend fundraisers there. A place where she will be in school with kids who she has known since she was a baby, and where she will mix with children of different races and backgrounds. I know that Geekydaddy and I will be digging into our pockets and into our time to support the school. But I can't think of anything I would rather do with either money or time than to work together with other parents to improve the educational opportunities for all our children.

And I can't believe that we have a daughter old enough to start Kindergarten!

This is supposed to be a picture post, so here is a scene from the brand new mural on the wall of the school. Isn't it lovely?

If you want more information about San Francisco schools check out school board member Rachel Norton's blog

And for an interesting article about race, socioeconomics and test scores check out Bob Herbert's Editorial in yesterdays NYT

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Momma guilt

Just when I think I have my working mummy guilt under control, something happens that makes me realize that it is always there, just under the surface.

Last week I checked my calender for the week ahead, and noticed that a long scheduled dentist appointment for the kids now fell on a day that I was supposed to be in all day management training.

"I'll have to reschedule" was my first thought. This particular pediatric dental office, with its TV above the chair and big chest of toys to take home after a successful visit, is heavily used and very difficult to get an appointment with, too. Just before I picked up the phone I had an afterthought. Maybe Geekydaddy could take the kids. I checked and he could, but instead of feeling satisfied that I had successfully sorted out a scheduling conflict I felt conflicted. Guilty that I wasn't the one taking them to the dentist. Surprised that I had almost not even considered asking my husband to do it.

It is such an irrational feeling. When two parents work it makes sense for them to take turns with appointments and staying home when the kids are sick. Geekydaddy is perfectly amenable to sharing, the guilt is all internal. Where does it come from, this message that "good mummy's take their kids to the doctors/dentist/hairdresser"? I know that Geekydaddy, though he was quite happy to take the kids to their appointment, would have not have felt a whet of guilt had he been the one with a clashing work commitment.

As it happened the kids had a very successful visit to the dentist, but, like a knife twisting in the already deep stab of guilt, Geekygirl was found to have a small cavity.

At least my calender is clear next week, so I will be able to go with her for her first filling, and the fact that Geekydaddy took them to this first visit means that I do not look like a "slacker mum" at work for taking of two Tuesday mornings in a row.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

After reading "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"..

by Peggy Orenstein, I found my thoughts rambling through all sorts of questions about gender and identity. Like a good book should, this one got me thinking. I have a particular interest because it isn't just my daughter that Cinderella has eaten, it is my son too. Geekyboy, pictured here with just his toes showing to protect his identity from posterity, loves to wear dresses and play with fairies.

The book is about the "girly girl" mass market culture, and how it grabs hold of our little girls during the preschool years and fills them with the dubious message that being pink and frilly and beautiful is what defines them, leading them into their tween and teen years with the overriding message that being 'hot' is the way to become valued. It is a great read, and I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the authors observations and conclusions. I also found that the book raised a lot of questions.

Why, for instance have we become so comfortable as a society with traditionally 'male' roles and behaviours for women, but not with traditionally female roles and behaviours for men? Indeed even when you look at us left coast feminist types so filled with pride in our girls when they are break gender stereotypes and eschew frills for jeans and dolls for trains, we are much less comfortable when our little boys want to wear dresses and play house with Barbies. Celebrity watching society thinks it is a little odd, but within the realm of normal that superstar preschooler Shiloh Jolie Pitt dresses in lumberjack trousers and truck emblazoned sweaters, but just imagine the furor in the gossip magazines if one of the boys in the family was regularly photographed in a tutu and tights? The same lack of logic applies to toys. Hands up anyone with sons but no daughters who has actually bought their little boy a Disney princess doll, a 'my little pony' or a tiara.  Hands up those of you who have girls but no boys who have nonetheless bought a train set, a toy tool bench or a meccano construction crane?

When considering whether toy preference, and other behaviours like these are hard wired by gender, or shaped by the whims of society Orenstein raises asks "As long as we don't consider the behaviours and interests of one sex as inferior to the other's who cares".

The trouble is that as a society we do consider feminine behaviour to be inferior. When girls play with "boys toys" and dress like little boys we think "future engineer, future doctor, future strong woman who cares more about her work than her appearance, who doesn't get pushed around by men".

When boys wear dresses and play with pink ponies and the cute little hairbrushes that come with them we, and I mean the collective "we", not me personally,  think "future gay aspiring fashion designer destined for tortured life of misunderstanding". We don't think "Future great father and caring husband, future nurse or teacher, poet laureate, director of a charity or tireless advocate for the homeless".  Just take a look at the controversy created by this blog "raising my rainbow" written by a mum raising a  'femininely inclined' little boy, for more examples of our double standards. I hasten to add that I will be delighted and proud if my son becomes a gay fashion designer, by the way. I just don't think that his preference for "littlest pet shop animals' over superheros and monster trucks is an indicator of his future sexual orientation.

Though they are pushed relentlessly onto our daughters, these traits of femininity; the nurturing, the obsession with pinky colours and sparkly textures, the seeking of that "happy ever after" in a relationship, they are at the same time not considered valuable. They are seen as weaknesses, often by women as well as by men. When observed in our male kids that view is only amplified.

I agree with the author in that placing so much emphasis on appearance, allowing beauty to become so irrevocably entwined with self esteem is unhealthy for either sex. That subject deserves a blog post all of its own, as its an issue I find hard to examine dispassionately. You would think that as a Ph.D scientist with a serious intellectual career I would be sanguine about my own looks, but that is not so, I am pathetically shallow about my own appearance and worry about how I will avoid projecting this onto the kids.

Obsession with looks not withstanding, perhaps we should take a step back when we think about gender and our children, and think about changing the roles prescribed by society for both girls and boys. I think the world of the future will need men and women, straight and gay, who have been encouraged to develop both their emotional and their practical sides, who have an eye for beauty, who have developed compassion, and who take pleasure in clothing and cooking as well as trains and building. Adults of both sexes who grew up longing for a life partner to live happily ever after with. The Cinderella dream is one of being swept out of a life of drudgery by nothing more than ones natural charms. It is just a fantasy, and we all need to lapse into fantasy occasionally, even grown up women and men. Maybe the problem isn't that we encourage our little girls to embrace the fallacy of the dreamy life partner swooping in and handing them their "happily ever after", but that we deny this comforting fantasy to our little boys.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Silent Sunday: big snow

click here for more Silent Sunday
Silent Sunday

Friday, March 18, 2011

The "green"eaology of a relationship

 Picture courtesy of this site

One night in bar we traced out the connections between our group of friends. Someone probably still has the cocktail napkin that we used to connect the dots. We realized that for several of us there was a single event from which all of our romantic relationships had sprouted. Our 'big bang'. So to speak. It was the evening of St Patrick's day, 1995. A crowd of likely lads, one of whom was Geekydaddy, just graduated out of various Stanford masters programs and newly resident in San Francisco were out on the town. I will use pseudonyms here to protect identities, so lets call the protagonists "Shane" and "Wendall". Buoyed with the confidence only green beer can give, young Shane caught they eye of a pretty young woman. Lets call her "Julie". Julie was also newly arrived in the city, along with her lovely high school friend "Alice". Shane put the moves on Julie, and Wendall, acting as wing man, swooped in on Alice. Right there in that moment, in a divey bar on Polk St, a social network was born.

Wendall and Alice became a couple, one of those couples who anchor a group of friends together. Alice's internet start up crowd (these were the frothy days of the dot com boom), Julie's fashion  industry crowd and Shane and Wendall's oddball bunch of engineering graduates formed a close circle of friends who whiled away the late 1990's in bars and restaurants, at movies, house parties and in ski cabins. Remember those days? Back when we used disposable film cameras to take pictures of our antics, and only the most sophisticated of us sent them to 'snapfish' to be turned into electronic files to email around? Back when "the real world" on MTV was the only reality show.

Alice and Wendall were the keystone of the group, while everyone else lusted and dated, hooked up and broke up against the backdrop of the San Francisco technology bubble. Can't you just see the photo montage flying past you now? Add a sound track by "Big Head Hootie Matthews and the Traveling Crows" and you will have a perfect picture flashback.

Meanwhile, across town, a young research scientist, lets call her Geekymummy, though she was a long way from being a mummy at this point in time, was also gallivanting about the city from pub to party with her own gang of friends. Her crowd included a young man from the lab next door who we can call "Dennis". Dennis had recently returned from a stint in the peace core in Fiji, where he had met another chap, lets call him "Mick". Mick was California born and bred, and had a high school friend also rather confusingly called Julie, lets make her Julie II, who worked at the very same internet start up that Alice was employed by. This Julie was part of that social network brought into being by the 'St. Patrick's day liason'. I hope you are still following. Maybe I should have scanned a copy of that cocktail napkin.

Julie II had a birthday party in 1998, a large, raucous affair in her Mission district apartment filled with her friends and acquaintances. The network formed by Shane and Julie's hook up and nurtured by Wendall and Alice's relationship were there. The group bound by Dennis and Mick's peace core experience were there too. Two orbits finally collided. Geekydaddy and I met and our history began. We didn't know it, but our trajectories had started moving towards each other on that fateful St Patrick's night. If Shane hadn't hit on Julie in that bar the chances are that Geekydaddy and I would not have both ended up at that party three years later.  Ours is not the only story that began that St. Patrick's night. There are now at least four marriages and seven children who owe their existence to that brief encounter, each with their own unique story.  All from an encounter that happened in a bar who's motto is 'Have a good time tonight! Don’t worry about tomorrow!"

It has been a while since I have partied on St. Patrick's day, but I'm sure somewhere in the city last night another couple hooked up for the first time.  Maybe they will even remember it. Maybe thanks to their encounter, other peoples relationships are already being written, and new children are twinkling on the horizon.

Happy St Patrick's Day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prayer Tree

This tree is part of the Meji Shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto shrine devoted to the spirits of the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The wooden plaques surrounding the tree contain prayers from visitors, written in thick black ink in many different languages. The vast predominance of those I could read prayed simply for peace in the world.

I visited Japan for business, just a week before the devastating tsunami and earthquake. I am so very grateful that I was safely back in San Francisco with my family before it happened.   Had the fault slipped just a few days earlier I could have been stranded on the freezing streets of Tokyo, armed only with my four words of Japanese (Hello, Excuse me, Thankyou and Beer). I'm sure I would have been fine, I know that the lovely people of Tokyo would have taken care of me, but it could have been a very anxious time for me, and for Geekydaddy and the kids back here with no way of knowing if I was OK.

I'm also, rather selfishly, glad that I got to go. Had this happened before my much anticipated trip I would not yet have visited this incredible part of the world.

Living here on another faulty part of the earth's crust, us Californians feel a kinship with those in Japan, and a collective fear that something similar could, indeed probably will, happen here in our lifetimes. The earth seems to have been awfully angry recently. I really should get that emergency kit prepared.

I didn't add a prayer to the tree when I took this photo, though I felt very contemplative as I wandered around the beautiful shrine. When I go back to Japan I will return to that tree and add a prayer that all those who were lost, or who lost someone they loved will find peace. And I'll pray that the earth stays quiet for a while.

if you want to donate to Japan this is a good resource for identifying the most effective charities. I donated to 'doctors without borders'.

This was a post for "the gallery". The prompt was trees.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Silent Sunday: Thankyou

Silent Sunday


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- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, March 12, 2011

All mothers should be executives....

....for one very simple reason. International business class travel. No one appreciates it like a mother does.

Most execs I know complain about having to fly for business, they groan about the jet lag, about the inconvenience of being away from the comforts of home and office, about airplane food, security lines and lack of space for carry on luggage.

Mothers see it differently. I should point out that I am not an executive, I'm a mere middle manager, but I had accumulated enough frequent flier miles to get myself upgraded to the business class cabin on the return flight during my last trip.

I stretched out in my little pod under a feather soft duvet. The noise cancellation headphones created a private world, which I filled with "The Kings Speech" on my personal LCD screen. I was served warm towels, hot food and crisp cold white wine. Perhaps just a little too much wine, which is what started my flight of fancy.

No one interrupted my reverie to ask me to guess what kind of animal they were pretending to be. Nobody needed me to untangle three precious home made necklaces that had engaged in an intricate bondage marriage at the bottom of the dress up box. Not one of the people around me suddenly erupted into hand to hand warfare, there was no one thumping anybody else while trying to take their toys. Even if there had been, it would not have been my responsibility to intervene. I wasn't staring at a pile of mail on the table that needed to be sorted, I wasn't feeling guilty about sitting down and relaxing when I could have been folding laundry. Disconnected from the internet I couldn't even check my to do lists or my twitter feed.

The only decision I needed to make over the next ten hours was was whether to read my novel before watching my movie, or to watch the movie first and then curl up with the book. I suppose I could have done some actual work, considering this was a business trip, but the generous wine pouring put pay to that idea.

The constant stream of mild anxiety that constantly churns in the middle of my mind,  which prioritizes and reprioritizes the way I am utilizing every waking moment of my time, was silenced. It was slightly disorienting. There was no point in thinking "Should I be checking when the first gymnastics class of the session starts, writing minutes for the parent steering committee meeting, looking up the latest publications of a new scientific advisory board member on PubMed or checking our inventory of diapers, shampoo and medications while making my Target shopping list?" 

I lay back in my pod, closed off from the world and all my worries. Maybe the airlines could offer a business class service just for mothers. We needn't actually go anywhere, even, just up and around for a few hours and back to where we took off from. Or maybe I should install one of these cosy little cabanas in my basement, and just hide in there every now and again.

This post wasn't sponsored by an airline, but if any of the major carriers want to offer me unlimited business class travel I will happily take it up!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Gallery: Japan

This week's gallery asked for a post based on a single word of our choice.

The Gallery is a weekly photo prompt, do go over and check out all the other wonderful entries.

I picked the word "Japan", since I was looking for an excuse to share photos from my recent trip. Thanks Tara for such a flexible idea.

Mt Fuji from my hotel in Yokohama

I had always thought I would travel more. In my youth I did the standard interailing round Europe. I went a little further afield to visit a friend who worked in Cairo, and of course I ended up living and working here in San Francisco, but I had not really intended to stop here. San Francisco was supposed to be the launch of a life lived in stages in every country of the world. Real life got in the way, so here is where I have remained for fifteen years.

Last week though my company sent me to Japan for a few days. I had forgotten how much I love to travel. I soaked it up. The challenge and the satisfaction of negotiating the Tokyo metro system all alone. The gamble of ordering a completely random item for lunch based upon a picture in a menu written entirely in Japanese. It was exhilarating. I love new places because they remind me of how similar we all are in the world. Tokyo is like London and New York but yet at the same time so different and so unique. Surrounded by symbols that were incomprehensible to me, but yet familiar and meaningful to everyone around me was a thought provoking experience. Written language is so powerful, without it I felt disconnected from the city in a way I didn't in Paris or Barcelona, or other cities where at least the symbols of the language, if not the words themselves, are familiar. Is this how our preschoolers feel as they try to learn to read?

This is supposed to be a picture post, so I will let my pictures tell the rest of the story:
little girl in hello kitty face mask; I'd never get my kids to keep one of these on, hello kitty themed or not

Tokyo from the Asakusa view hotel

Asakusa at night 

 Sensoji Temple, Asakua

 More Senoji Temple Views

Shinjuku (by the red light district). I wonder what these say?!

 Early Cherry Blossoms in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑)

Over at Pond Parleys Mike reminded us of this wonderful quot, which rang so true for me on the trip.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime".
– Mark Twain

Sunday, March 6, 2011

undomestic goddess

Geekygirl was given a box of "hama beads" as a birthday gift. For those unfamiliar, as I was, these are little plastic cylindrical beads that you use to make a pattern on a shaped, spiked frame. They can then be melted together using an iron to make a two dimensional plastic ornament. They are Danish in origin and Geekdaddy recognized them instantly from his youth. He loved them.

They make a wonderful rainy day activity, and we have had a lot of those this winter and spring. Geekygirl pulled the box out a couple of weekends ago and busily removed all of the contents. She looked at the back of box then over to me, seeming worried "Mummy, we can't do it. We need to buy one of these". I inspected the contents and the instructions, ready to be annoyed that a critical component had not been supplied with the kit,  but everything seemed to be there so I assured her that we had all that we needed; the beads, the frames, and the ironing paper.

"No, Mummy, but we need one of those irony things" she insisted, pointing at the picture of the iron.

Apparently, my daughter, in her five years of life, has never seen anyone in our house use an iron. This is actually not all that surprising because I have hardly ironed anything since she was born. When two people work full time and have two kids, something has got to give. For us it was ironing. We quit.

The first time Geekygirl saw a play iron in a pretend kitchen she had no idea what it was a facsimile of, but since then, thanks to books and television, she is at least aware that some people use a heated metal device to smooth wrinkles from clothing. In our house, instead of ironing we wear a lot of cotton jersey and have a healthy relationship with the dry cleaners.

I found our iron buried underneath a pile of wrinkled shirts in a plastic basket in the basement. The shirts were gap circa 1994. Items that I haven't worn since becoming a mother and had forgotten that I even owned. Fortunately the iron still functioned, so I was able to use it's hot smooth power to put the finishing touch to Geekygirl's carefully constructed masterpiece. I'm in no hurry to rebuild my relationship with the appliance, so that is probably all it will ever be used for from now on.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Shinjuku in the rain

A Silent Sunday post

Silent Sunday

pop over to mocha beanie mummy for more silent sunday