Monday, June 28, 2010

The Secret Garden

Our neighbors John and Gwen Callan have a second (third? fourth?) home in Napa and Saturday was their annual Secret Garden Party. We just love this event.

My childhood friend Bryan Denman grew up in Orinda, on a compound comprised of his immediate family's house, his grandmother's house, and his aunt and uncle's house. The land between the houses was a big meadow, which is still there. For the longest time my favorite holiday was Bryan's birthday. His mom would have a huge family dinner and we'd sit outside. Bonnie has long stopped throwing her son family birthday dinners but I still think of those July nights with a big dumb smile on my face.

The Secret Garden Party reminds me of Bryan's birthday, and it's about the same time of year.

The house itself is sweet; our neighbor is a gifted interior designer and when you walk inside you are hit with the overwhelming urge to grab a book and curl up on a couch. The couple's Pacific Grove house was featured in Cottage Style a few years back. The wife's studio is in a separate building and there is also a garage and workshop on the property. This being Napa, there are the requisite vineyards with roses at the ends of the rows.

The Secret Garden is perhaps an acre, a maze of pathways and David Austin roses and lavender and flowers I can't name and trellises and statuary and fountains and stepping stones and vignettes of cornflower blue wooden furniture. It's a mindblowing explosion of color when in full bloom.

Elsewhere on the grounds are a vegetable garden with raised beds. There were beans growing up a trellis and a serious amount of tomato plants; let's hope our neighbor cans or knows people who do! There was corn and spinach and lettuce and raspberries, too.

The chicken coop looks like it was designed by an architect. I'm not kidding. Those hens have no idea how the rest of their brethren live.

There is a multi-level treehouse for the grandkids, a small play structure and also some swings on random trees around the property. We've gone to this party for three or four years and the number of people bringing their kids grows larger each year. This year there was a Ben and Jerry's ice cream kiosk for all to enjoy. The 30 or so children there went wild. The adults did, too. It's a good thing the kids had so much room to run around and burn off all that sugar.

It was a perfect 82F in Napa and we were sad to leave and make the 45-minute drive home. Really, I just wanted to put a blanket on the lawn and take a nap. It was that idyllic of an afternoon.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tired of Tyvek

I can walk on scaffolding three stories high. I can use a heavy duty staple gun safely. I can add wrapping a duplex in Tyvek to my resume.

What an amazing experience! I have long wanted to do Habitat for Humanity. And this week I got to! There were about 50 volunteers at Kinsell Commons near the Oakland Airport; some of us installed windows, some of us wrapped exteriors in Tyvek, some of us built interior walls.

Kinsell Commons is an interesting place. It's a LEED Neighborhood Pilot Development Project with 14 homes built around a common area. There are solar panels on the roofs. Eighty percent of the building waste is recyclable. I had no idea how much waste there was in building until I was on an active construction site. And these are really cute homes -- places you and I would want to live in except for the industrial, in-transition neighborhood with the adjacent train tracks.

Habitat for Humanity East Bay is a fabulous organization. These houses are provided to qualifying low-income families with a 30-year, interest-free mortgage. The homeowners are required to put in sweat equity by spending 500 hours volunteering with Habitat. They also take classes to learn how to take care of their homes.

The only paid tradespeople in the construction of these homes are the electricians and the plumbers. Everything else is done by volunteers. How would you feel about living in a house constructed by volunteers Joe, Dick and Harry? Before I did this I wouldn't have felt so safe in there. But after seeing the training they gave us and the care every volunteer put in to doing their individual task, I'd say I'd be happy to. As Dave pointed out, these homes still have to pass code, regardless of who hammered in the nails.

And about those scaffolds. It was nerve-wracking to get up on those. I hung on to the rail for the first hour and took teeny tiny steps on the planks. Slowly I got used to it. Do you have any idea how dirty construction sites are? I knew it would be dirty but I had no idea that I'd be covered head to toe in grime at the end of the day.

I was so exhausted after my day of volunteering that I was asleep by 9pm and slept 9 hours straight. I can't wait to do this again.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A morning in the office with Mommy

Liberty has wanted to come to work with me for a long time. I mostly work from home but that wasn't what she had in mind: she wanted to come to my client site.

She finally wore me down.

She dressed up in an outfit I deemed appropriate and matching; Rosa did her hair in an elaborate French braid. She brought my personal laptop and earphones to keep herself entertained. She also brought her fashion sketch book in case she tired of playing Moshi Monsters or watching movies.

Here's what she did during my three hours of back-to-back conference calls:
  1. She discussed work with my colleague. She told him that I do the same thing at home, albeit in my pajamas. She asked him if he works at night, too, and if his daughters mind. He said yes and yes.
  2. She got Cheetos out of the vending machine.
  3. She went to the bathroom twice.
  4. She got water from the break room.
  5. She went to the restaurant in the next building and bought a hamburger for lunch. The cashier thought she was so cute that she gave her a bag of Haribo in exchange for a hug.
  6. She played Moshi Monsters.
  7. She sketched four outfits for me.
  8. She looked for Tyker and Tracy, who are friends of Dave's but neither was in the office.
  9. She called her friend Hannah.
  10. She called her father.
She was an absolute angel for four hours and then we left. Wish granted.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It's not like a grocery store.

Paris and I volunteered at a food pantry today. I expected something akin to the Costco shopping experience: a small, albeit well-stocked, warehouse where patrons gather what they need then skip the checkout part.

It's not exactly like that.

The pantry is four small rooms in a church: a reception area, the pantry, a storage room for government-provided food and a storage room for community and restaurant donations. Patrons enter the reception area two at a time for confidentiality. The greeter reviews their paperwork to see what they are eligible for. Then the greeter / customer service agent goes to the pantry to retrieve their food products for the two-week period. It's generally a Basic Bag, some frozen chicken and a bag of fresh fruit and vegetables. Apparently the government dictates the contents. Who knew?! And then it's all logged in the computer.

Paris and I assembled more than a hundred Basic Bags today -- two cans of tuna, one bag of pasta, one bag of rice, one can of soup, one can of corn, one can of mixed vegetables, one can of applesauce and one can of beans. And then we did some paperwork. And then we broke 50 lb bags of potatoes, like the one you see above, into 2 lb bags.

The volunteers there could not have been nicer and we had fun while doing it. But it was an eye opener to me.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


A chavurah is a small group of like-minded Jews who assemble to share communal experiences such as lifecycle events and Jewish learning.

When my family moved to Anchorage in 1983, we joined a chavurah. They became our extended family during The Alaska Years because visits from blood relatives were few and far between.

It was an eclectic group because Alaska is an odd place for Jews; it's just not an easy place to be Jewish. The closest Kosher butcher is in Seattle. And Jewish holidays begin and end at sunset which is tricky when there are just 90 minutes of daylight in the winter and 90 minutes of darkness in the summer. And so my parents' closest friends became a group lawyers, oil industry executives, and teachers who fled the Lower 48.

Have you noticed that as people grow up they ground themselves by becoming more religious? I find comfort in Judaism now, and I never gave it much thought until I became a parent. A few years ago Dave and I joined a chavurah through our synagogue. The families were nice enough but there wasn't enough commonality to bind us together.

I have great memories of those years and of those people. Each seemed larger than life. Grace gave me an incredible lemon cheesecake recipe. Sandy and my father served on a volunteer board together for 20+ years. I am still mad about the trip they took to Deer Valley, Utah, on my 21st birthday when I was away at a college. Fran and Cheryl Bremson moved to San Francisco shortly after we returned to the Bay and we still see them from time to time. Roxanne-With-The-Purple-Hair. Jim, who ran the US Customs Office in Anchorage. Do you think that ever came in useful?!

Sandy Gibbs passed away this weekend, quite suddenly. He and my father were friends for 27 years. Anita and my mother were friends for 27 years. My parents are beside themselves. I am shaken to the core.

Sandy was about as unAlaskan as they come. I am quite certain he never shopped for his clothes in-state. Their home was pure Colfax and Fowler. They weren't outdoorsy. They were New York Jews who simply lived and worked in Anchorage. Anita cross stitched our children gorgeous pieces when they were born. And they sent signed Marianne Wieland embossed serigraphs, like the one pictured above. Marianne Wieland is my favorite Alaskan artist.

The midnight sun shines less brightly now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Would you like some truffles with that?

Truffles seem to be everywhere these days. A year ago I bought salt with truffles. It's really good. Then Neeracha brought me salt with truffles from the Dordogne. It's even better; the salt is saltier and the truffle chunks are bigger.

Dave and I went to the Wood Tavern in Rockridge on our anniversary and truffled fries were on the menu. We sat at the bar and the woman next to me mentioned that the restaurant she works at also does truffled fries and she prefers theirs to the ones at Wood Tavern.

Saturday night Dave and I had dinner at 5A5 in the city and Neeracha and Sean joined us, much to my surprise and delight. We had truffled fries, truffled mashed potatoes and her salad had goat cheese with truffles. I like truffles but I'm done for a while.

5A5 is a good spot in the financial district. It features a5 Wagyu beef, Kobe beef and Angus steak. We started with a few rounds of hamachi, salmon and A5 shooters. Dave had tako salad, which he really enjoyed, and I had the wedge, whose best part was the chunks of bacon, which also appeared in the mashed potatoes. We all had steak -- my filet was perfect. Sean, Neeracha and Dave seemed to enjoy theirs, too, based on what was (not) left on the plate.

I had the too-rich chocolate peanut butter cake for dessert and Sean and Neeracha ate the doughnuts flavored with matcha tea and served with a kumquat marmalade.

The restaurant can't decide if it's a restaurant or a lounge but I liked the bathrooms -- dark wood and European style with shared toilets and a central bank of faucets.

My MIL was kind enough to keep the kids overnight so Dave and I headed back to to the Ritz-Carlton where I closed my eyes and awoke 12 hours later to a view of Coit Tower. Life is good.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Little Brown Pen

I've fallen in love with this photographer!

Some random blog led me to Nichole Robertson's beautiful art. She and husband Evan used to live in Paris and now they're in New York but travel often to Paris.

I've got four of her prints here ready to be framed. There is just something magical about her eye, and I especially love the way she groups them in colors. She calls them color series. These pictures give me the feeling of being in Paris, of breathing in the street smells, and I can almost hear the background chatter I can barely understand.

We give collectibles as birthday presents in our family and Sydney, our niece, receives black and white photographs. I chose Nichole's Tuileries chairs for her this year, a place we've been together.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Race to Nowhere

This movie is disturbing. And compelling.

I expected it to be. After all, it's a documentary on the pressures our students and teachers face in the achievement obsessed public and private school system.

The film features high school students across the country and shows how they become burned out, stressed out, depressed and unprepared for college and life beyond that. And if you think it's limited to affluent communities, think again. The children of single parent, inner city environments are just as pressured: it's their way out of the ghetto and without those scholarships and grades, they're looking at the same life mom has.

One student tells us, "Everyone has ADD now so Adderoll is easy to get." These kids use stimulants to plow through the long homework hours required with an AP course load and to be able to compete with the other kids. After all, it takes a 4.35 weighted GPA to get into Cal these days. And there's more.

A child goes to school until 3pm each day. Then they go to their extracurricular sport practice. They arrive home at 7pm, scarf down a quick dinner, shower and sit down for six hours' worth of homework, one hour for every class period.

Several months ago a friend, whose daughter is in high school, remarked jokingly that all their disposable income now goes to tutors. I thought about this long and hard when she said it.

Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, teaching has been all about "teaching to the test." Children rising through our school system learn how to memorize information and spit it out for a test yet not be critical thinkers. Yet critical thinking is a life skill.

If students don't perform well then that reflects on the teacher. The school loses money and the teacher may ultimately lose his or her job. The impact of this pressure? Teachers looking the other way when students cheat. Did you know that there are more than eight documented ways for a student to cheat?

One student tells us that the worst question you can ask your child is "And?" You're in four AP classes. And? You're on Pom. And? You play violin in the school orchestra. And? You collected 2500 Books for the Barios this summer. And? It's never enough.

Do we expect our kids to be Superheroes?

Vicki Abeles, a local parent and attorney, put together this acclaimed film when a high-achieving, high-functioning 13-year-old in her community committed suicide after failing a math test. Her own middle schooler was showing signs of burnout and opens the movie by saying, "I can't remember when the last time I had a chance to just go out in the backyard and run around."

How do we define success in our schools? Is it by GPA? Is it by being class president? Is it by captaining the varsity lacrosse team? Where's the happiness metric?

Fortunately Abeles offers solutions. I will be giving this a lot more thought. And carving out more downtime for our children.