January 2, 2006

Daddy, Are We Going To Move Again?

Yes, Nathaniel, I’m sorry to tell you, but we’re moving again. (But then again maybe I’m not so sorry, because we’re doing it for you!)

Where do I begin this story? It’s long, and a bit convoluted, so maybe the best place to start is at some random beginning, say, exactly one year ago today.

A year ago we were still living outside of London. And on that second day of 2005, Rachel and I were drinking a glass of wine, trying to decide whether to stay in Leatherhead (outside of London), or move back down to Cornwall. For a variety of reasons…house, schools, peace and quiet (ahhhh)…we chose Cornwall.

Fast forward to July, 2005. The Cornwall house we were staying in was built in the 1860’s, purchased by Rachel’s father in the 1960’s, and given to his children – Rachel, her sister Kate, and brother Jonathan – upon his death seven years ago. They rent it during the summer to pay for the upkeep and the taxes, and so we had to be out for most of July and all of August. We considered renting a caravan and living in the bottom garden, but Rachel really wanted to spend some time in the U.S., and so we decided to move back to San Francisco for the summer.

We’d taken what had turned out to be an extended two year sabbatical, and while we hadn’t run out of money, there’d been a lot more coming out of the bank account than going in, and so I decided to look for a job, preferably one that would let me work remotely, i.e. in Cornwall. During an early 2005 trip back to San Francisco for some meetings related to Web Photos Pro I met with a company who was interested in having me do a photo product for them, and so I returned in mid-April to help design the product. They seemed pleased with the design document, and we started negotiations on a long term contract, one that would, I hoped, allow us to return to Cornwall.

While I was back in the U.S. on that April trip, I stopped by a friend who lived on a houseboat, and went to an open house on the next dock over. To make a long story just a little bit shorter, we decided to put some money back in the US housing market, and bought that houseboat. We figured we’d use it for the summer, fix it up a bit, and then rent it when we left. (The best part about buying the houseboat is that we did it all via phone and the internet. Yep, the whole thing. Our agent, Paul Bergeron, sent us PDFs via email, we printed them, signed them, and faxed them back. The only thing we had to do in person was show up for the close of escrow, which we did the day after we landed. A fantastically easy process, thanks to Paul, the lender, and our escrow officer.)

And that’s when the first bump in the road appeared. Just after we closed on the houseboat, the company I’d been consulting with decided to lose a cool $100 million in their 2nd quarter, and they cancelled the project. “Wow” I thought, “that sure puts a damper on on things doesn’t it?” After getting ourselves unpacked, I got in touch with old friends, and found that two had new startups. After a couple of interviews I took a job at one of the startups, in San Mateo, and while it doesn’t have anything to do with photos (unfortunately), it’s interesting work, with nice people, including some old friends from Apple.

So, we’re back in the U.S. We live on a houseboat. I have a job at a startup. And then September rolls around, and it’s time to put Nathaniel in school. And here’s where the part of the story entitled “why we’re moving” really begins.

It’s funny, but when we started our trip, and this “A Year In Cornwall” blog, Nathaniel had just turned four, and Sebastian was a babe in arms at three months, and schools weren’t even in the equation of what we were going to do, and where we going to live. But then we put Nathaniel in the little local Cornwall school – St. Minver – so that he (and we) would have some friends. And then we moved up to London and he attended two different schools: first, New Lodge, a private school in Dorking ("public school” to those reading this in the UK) where he wore a tie a jacket to reception (kindergarden to those reading this in the US) – cute beyond belief – and then to the sweet local church school, St. Michael’s in Mickleham, which was just as delightful.

Now it may seem that I’ve gotten off the track here, onto schools, but one of the things we learned from those three schools, is that a school is most definitely defined by the headmaster/headmistress (principal for those of you in the US). How the head meets you that very first time. Whether they take time to show you around, or are “too busy” to give you more than a couple of minutes. How proud they are to introduce you to everyone you walk by. All of these things are a good indicator of how well they run the school, and treat those within it – teachers and students alike. Nick Lane at St. Minver is a great case in point…he spent 45 minutes with us that first time, showed us every classroom, introduced us to everyone who walked by, asked anyone who wanted to talk with him if he couldn’t meet with them later, and showed a level of enthusiasm and excitement for his job that we found later bubbled over onto the teachers and children in equal measure.

But back to Sausalito and schools. It’s common knowledge that Sausalito has some of the lowest scores in the state. This is primarily because most of the kids are from Marin City, snuggled against the hillside between Sausalito and Mill Valley, home to a lot of poor folks who live in the projects ("Council estates” to those of you reading this in the UK). And this is where I cringe a bit because it’s also common knowledge that there’s a lot of “white flight” going on in Sausalito, and all the rich folks either move out of Sausalito when it comes time to send their kids to school, or they send them to private school. Unfortunate, but true.

So with that in mind, and the fact that I grew up going to public schoolsl (US public, not UK public), we looked around. We looked at the local public schools. We looked at private schools. We weighed the cost of sending one, and then two (once Sebastian comes of age), to private school. And then I did the math. Let’s see…$12,000 a year…that’s a $250,000 mortage. $24,000 a year…that’s a $500,000 mortgage. Hmmm, maybe it’s time to look a little closer at the local schools.

So after a lot of discussion and a couple of teary sessions, we decided to send Nathaniel to the local charter school. Turns out it’s a very nice school. They have a nice new building, a new playground, and the class sizes are small – just 18 in first grade (though with 4 boys and 14 girls it’s a little bit lopsided). So we took the plunge and placed Nathaniel there. And I’m happy to report that he’s done very well. He has a fantastic first grade teacher in Ms. Lurie. The children are mostly well behaved by US standards (which are, unfortunately, a bit lower than UK standards). He’s learning to read and do math by leaps and bounds. And they have some fun extras in his classroom, like naturalists from the nearby conservation center, yoga twice a month, and music once a week. But that’s where it seems to stop. There’s no sense of where the school is going next, how it’s going to improve, how it’s going to find more room as it grows, and most importantly how it’s going to attract the Sausalito children who currently go to private school.

I called my aunt Cayo the other day. She’s lives on Cape Cod, is in her 70’s, and spent 35 years teaching high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I told her about our problem, and mentioned that we weren’t sure whether we should get involved, or simply move. Maybe one of us should run for school board I said. Maybe we should be meeting with the headmistress regularly. Maybe we should be, well, I don’t know what. Cayo’s unexpected response was “If good leadership isn’t in place already, you’ll spend the rest of his elementary school time trying to make that happen, when you could be spending time making a good situation better. You should move.”

Sound advice we decided. And so with some of that unspent private school fees burning a hole in our pocket we found ourselves a very nice house above Tam High school in Mill Valley. It’s not our forever house, but it’s got good bones, has been nicely finished, and best of all – given my penchant for projects – has a couple of things that can be upgraded in the future, but don’t need to be right away.

We’re both excited and nervous about the move. Nervous that it’s a big step up financially. Excited that we’ll have room for the kids to run around, for Rosie to join us (she’s still in Cornwall…but that’s another story), enough extra room for friends and families to come stay with us (please do!), and best of all we’ll be able to send Nathaniel to Mill Valley schools, which are purported to be some of the best in the state.

Well, gotta go now, because I’ve got a couple of bathrooms to redo before we put this houseboat on the market. And if you know anyone who wants a really nice two-bedroom houseboat, let us know.

Happy New Year all!

Love from Frank and Rachel

Posted by: Frank @ 7:04 am — Filed under: Comments (2)

September 21, 2005

Daddy, I Love Really Biking With You

We’ve been back for about two months now, and far from settling down, the number of things on my todo list seems to not only be increasing, but also accelerating. New job. Old job. New friends. Old friends. Rachel. The boys.

I’ve found it particularly hard to get much exercise lately. I know I should be getting up at 6am and running or biking, but I’ve never been much of a morning person. And with the 2 hour round-trip commute to San Mateo, I’m finding it hard to get any exercise at the back end of the day either. Of course having the boys yell “Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!” doesn’t make it any easier to turn right around and say “bye, see you in half an hour” right after I’ve walked through the door. So I’ve been looking for a way to kill two birds with one stone…get some exercise, and hang out with the kids at the same time.

I’ve recently hit on two different ways to do it, both of which involve Nathaniel and a bicycle. (Unfortunately Sebastian is a little young to do either of these, though he is absolutely sure that I am wrong, letting me know at the top of his lungs!)

The first involves a “trail-a-bike” that I got from Frank Flynn, a co-worker from Wired, who coincidentally is at the same startup I’ve recently joined. It’s a third wheel that hangs off the seat post, letting Nathaniel pedal behind me. He loves it, both because he feels like he’s helping, and because he can keep up with me (joined at the seat as we are). It takes a bit of getting used, what with the extra weight and the side-to-side motion hanging out there behind me. And while it isn’t really much of a workout for me, it’s fun having him behind me, pumping his little legs to make us go faster.

The second involves me running, and Nathaniel riding his Spiderman bicycle next to me on the bike path that runs between our house and the dog park in Mill Valley. We’ve done this three times now, and each time he gets a little faster and a little less wiggly-all-over-the-road. So much so that I’m a little worried that it won’t be long before I’m unable to keep up with him. We had a great time chatting away last time…ok, he was doing most of the chatting away and I was doing a lot of grunting in reply. But we stopped at the dog park to have a rest. And then we played on a slide on the way home. We even stopped by the bay to look at the sandbar (more a mudbar really), that we have to watch out for when we take out the Whaler or the Laser.

But what made it all worthwhile, all the lack of exercise, all the frustration of getting him to stay up with me, was when we got back. He looked up at me, helmet slightly askew, and said “Daddy, I really love biking with you.”

Thanks Nathaniel…I really love biking with you too.

Posted by: Frank @ 7:39 am — Filed under: Comments (0)

February 12, 2005

Questions About Cornwall Life

One of the things I love about writing a blog are the comments and emails I get. I’m always amazed by people who have found this blog for some unexpected reason. Not so unexpectedly I’ve received a number of emails since the US election, from people asking about moving to England. And the other day I received this email from someone thinking of moving from Ireland to Cornwall. Here is her email and my response back to her:

Just stumbled across your website and found it really interesting re your move to Cornwall.
I used to live in the UK till I was 13 and then my parents took me to Australia to live where I lived for the last 19 years so I used to be a Brit (well, still am really!). Anyway, my husband is Irish and Feb last year we moved to Ireland to live. I like it here but prefer to live back in the UK and have many fond memories of Cornwall from my holidays there as a child. My husband is about 60% convinced by me that it would be nice to live there but we obviously need to plan/think about it some more as we are starting to get set up in Ireland.
My question to you is: I’ve heard that the Cornish community is a bit insular and that it’s hard to meet people - is this true? I know it helps if you have children and we have just had a baby so that would help but he isn’t anywhere near school age. Also, I’m curious re meeting people our own age (we are both 33 this year) as I’ve found this a bit of a problem where we live in Ireland (everybody seems to be either under 13 or over 50!) - how is Cornwall for this? Also, are there any areas in Cornwall you would recommend/not recommend to live? In Australia we lived near an artsy community that was into health shops and easy living etc.. and I’ve always thought of Cornwall as that sort of place.
Any advice you can give me would be great.


Hi Stephanie,

Let’s just say it’s not like California where everyone wanted to know where you were from, what you did, and did you want to take a hike next weekend. No, it’s quite a bit more insular.

We had an unfortunate experience when we first moved down where we invited a Cornish couple over for dinner, and the response was a very clear “no thank you". But since then we have made some good friends, and we’ve made them through our son’s school. They’ve been almost exclusively transplants like ourselves who have moved down from London looking for a different lifestyle. Nathaniel’s five, and I can’t imagine how we would have met anyone if he hadn’t been at a school where we dropped him off in the classroom, and waited outside with the other parents in the afternoon. If he’d been in high school for example, it would have been much harder to meet anyone.

If we’d been near Truro or Penzance or St. Ives, we might have met people through going to the theater or music, but there isn’t much of that near us here, unless you play the violin or guitar and sit in on music nights at places like The Trewarmett Inn up near Tintagel. I got involved with the St. Minver Parish Plan planning group, but had to drop out when we moved up to Leatherhead (though now that we’re back down I will get involved again).

In terms of easy living and health food shops, you might find some of that in the larger cities – again Truro, Penzance, St. Ives. There is one health food shop in Wadebridge, and a couple of funky-ish cafes in Bodmin, but I wouldn’t characterize either of them as centers of easy living. In the villages you’re lucky to have a Spar or a CostCutter (neither of which is known for its health food selection or alternative lifestyle patrons), and maybe a local farmer who sells seasonal vegetables.

Rachel got involved with a group interested in starting a Waldorf school in Cornwall, but the parents were so spread out they couldn’t agree on where it could be built so that most of them wouldn’t have to drive 40 minutes each way (amongst other issues). And I keep threatening to play my violin more, but haven’t had the chance since we’ve been back down.

I don’t mean to turn you off of Cornwall, because it is an amazing place. But for those considering being here fulltime – who aren’t retired and looking for nothing more than peace and quiet – a lot of internal fortitude is required to wait out the gray days of winter until the flowers of spring arrive, followed by the warm winds of summer.

All the best with your decision,
– Frank

Posted by: Frank @ 12:29 pm — Filed under: Comments (47)

January 7, 2005

Status Update: January 7, 2005

(This is a cross-post from my Web Photos Pro website.)

As the deadline for releasing Web Photos Pro gets nearer, events are conspiring to keep the final release date yet another “two weeks away".

What’s happening now you might ask? Well, first I’m in the middle of converting the Web Photos Pro website to a new design (you can get a sneak peak here) – and it’s taking longer than I’d expected. I’m using Wordpress, which is great, but I’m having to hack it to get things like user quotes to appear on the right side of the home page, but categories to appear on the right side of the inside pages. I’ve also got some database work to do in order to automatically send out demo keys, and license keys to people who buy the product.

All that’s going fine, but I haven’t had much time to work on the upgrade because…we’re moving! In fact we’re moving so far from civilization that I’ll be stuck with a net connection that’s slower than than the one…well, since I can’t remember when. That’s right, just as crunch time approaches we’re moving from a place with broadband (DSL to you Yanks), to a place where I’ll be lucky to get 44K over a modem!

Which means that instead of upgrading the website I’m packing boxes, and doing all of the hundreds of things that have to be done before we leave on Sunday.

Where are we going? Back down to Cornwall! You may or may not know that I have a weblog called A Year In Cornwall. It might be more properly called “An Interrupted Year In Cornwall", as last April we had to move out of Cornwall and up to Leatherhead, a suburb of London (about 45 minutes south by train). During that time I’ve been turning what started out as a hobby – writing a program to make it easier to get my photos onto the web – into a full fledged product.

That process has been harder than I’d expected. One problem is that I keep feeling like I can’t release the product because it isn’t quite good enough. Then there’s the website to build, the documentation to write, the support forum to set up, the support questions to answer, never mind figuring out how to sell the product, and oh yes, finding time to do a little coding on the product.

So here it is, January 7, and where I’d hoped to release on January 2, and then on January 9, I’m afraid the release date is going to get set back yet again. How long you (and my wife Rachel) might be wondering. Let’s see, we’re moving on Sunday the 9th, it’ll take at least 2 days to get everything set up down there, at least a week of work to finish the new site and database programming, test, upload, retest…hmmm, sounds like about two more weeks.

All in all, I think we’ll see final somewhere before the end of January.

Until then, stay well.

– Frank

Posted by: Frank @ 10:23 pm — Filed under: Comments (0)

October 26, 2004

Year 1: An Emotional Rollercoaster

We finished dinner on Sunday evening, the 24th of October, and I turned on the telly (as they call it here in the UK). The kids were down (finally), and Rachel and I wanted a few minutes of mindlessness before I returned to coding. I checked out the four channels that we can get here – ITV1, BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 – and as there was nothing more interesting on, sat down to watch the National Teaching Awards. For each winner they had a 4-5 minute video vignette, followed by a second video showing a surprise award presentation in front of the whole school. The teacher was then brought up on stage to receive the award and say a few words. A bit like the Oscar’s – nicely choreographed, funny MC, well known presenters, everyone in tuxes and suits. Lovely.

I was amazed by how emotional I felt watching it. During each of the vignettes I found my eyes watering a bit (ok, sometimes more than a bit), and when I would look over at Rachel we would both laugh at the fact that it was happening to the two of us at the same time.

I went upstairs afterwards and checked on the two boys before sitting down to do some more programming. Nathaniel was asleep with his arm around doggy, and I leaned over to kiss him and told him that Mommy and Daddy loved him very much. I then looked in on Sebastian. His crib has been in our bedroom for the past three weeks because he just can’t seem to shake a long-standing cough that he got some five weeks ago now. He was breathing more easily than usual, binky firmly in mouth, and he looked so vulnerable lying there face up. I stroked his hair gently, tucked his covers up a bit, and whispered that Mummy and Daddy loved him very much too.

I sat down to code, but couldn’t find a way to get started. To waste a couple of minutes I checked out some web sites and came across a piece on Discourse.net which pointed to Sarah McLachlan’s new video, World On Fire. I like Sarah McLachlan, so I watched the video, and quickly found my eyes watering again.

Not ten minutes later I received an email from an old friend, Karin S, who lives just up the hill from our old house in Sausalito. She wrote:

Well, a Year in Cornwall has turned into longer – are you there indefinitely? What are your plans? How are you supporting yourselves? Are you still considering France and retreat centers? Have you fallen in love with England?

We miss you here on the Ridge. Thinking of you and hoping you have a great bday.

I really enjoy your blog and your writing and photos–thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences so eloquently. And I love seeing the boys from afar. I wish I had the technical savvy to do the same, but can’t even get over my new techno-phobia these days to put up a website myself.

Love to you and Rachel and Nathaniel and Sebastian. Keep in touch.

What a nice coincidence. All evening, as we’d watched the teaching awards, I’d been staring at a picture on the mantelpiece of Rachel and me that was taken five years ago in Sausalito. It’s a lovely photo that was taken in our house there, and though you don’t see the house at all, it had been dredging up memories all evening. We completely rebuilt that house, in the process pouring our hearts and our sweat into making it a wonderful place to live, to have friends over for dinners and conversation, and in the end making it our home. But we sold our home in Sausalito, and a year ago we left everything to see if we could create a new life.

I started to reply to Karin, but I couldn’t find the words with my fingers, just like two months ago when Julie had written and I hadn’t been able to find the words to respond to her either. And so to distract myself some more, I picked up an old coffee cup and took it downstairs to put by the sink. I walked into the darkened living room, looked at the picture of Rachel and me, and once again found the tears running down my face.

What was going on I wondered? Why was I feeling so emotional this evening? Did I want to be a teacher? Did I want to go to Africa? Did I want to return to Sausalito? Did I miss our friends and family? Did I miss my father who passed away exactly five years ago, on my 43rd birthday?

At that point it seemed all a bit much, so I gave up trying to understand what was going on, went upstairs, crawled in to bed, snuggled up with Rachel, and fell asleep.

It’s the 26th today, two days later, and I’ve had some time to think about what was going on. The short answer is that in one evening I had gone on a mini-version of the larger emotional rollercoaster that we’ve been on for just over a year now.

Back in California there’s a roller coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk called the Big Dipper, and it has to be one of the world’s great roller coasters. It’s made of redwood (really), and while it doesn’t have any of the fancy high-tech loop-de-loops of the newest roller coasters, I love it, and I’ve never seen anyone who wasn’t grinning from ear to ear as they got off. Whenever I ride the Big Dipper I always buy three tickets, so that as soon as the first ride finishes I can get right back on again, and then one more time – because only after three rides do I feel replete.

This first year has had its shares of ups and downs and tight corners, just like the Big Dipper. But they’ve been good highs and lows and corners, because out of it I believe that Rachel and I have become closer, and our marriage stronger. And so while our friends and family would probably prefer we didn’t do it, I think that like with the Big Dipper we’re going to get back on this ride again. And see what comes of next year. And probably the year after.

And only then will we know if these changes we’re making have made our life replete as well.

p.s. Karin and Julie, I promise to write soon to tell you where we’re going next. As soon as I figure it out.

Posted by: Frank @ 5:20 pm — Filed under: Comments (2)