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)

October 12, 2005

Things I Like About England - II

I love the fact that England has people who can, and do, write like this.

Just one great quote amongst many:

For one thing, the whole trope about a grateful nation looking to our political class to serve as our models of moral excellence is clearly a complete dead-end. We know this, because the last Tory administration gave it a try, and it ended up with us all having to read about the sex-life of David Mellor over breakfast. No party which contributes to such gastronomical stresses can possibly have popular appeal.

Fantastic!

Posted by: Frank @ 5:25 pm — Filed under: Comments (6)

October 9, 2005

Why Is The Status Quo OK?

Tonight I was reading an interview with Randall Robinson , and something resonated in it for me. Randall Robinson is an African American, raised in Richmond, Virginia, who has moved to St. Kitts, where his wife is from. He’s written a book called Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land.

I’m not black, I’m not underprivileged, and I’ve never been the target of racism, or even taunts any worse than kids in grade school yodelling my last name, but there was something in what he said in the interview that made me nod “yes, yes, yes".

While I agreed with his assessment of Bush, Powell, Rice, and their ilk, it was two things that happened today with Nathaniel that triggered a deeper resonance.

The first happened at Trader Joe’s this morning. Rachel took Sebastian to Berkeley, and Nathaniel and I went to Trader Joe’s. We had our usual early morning shop (early morning is the only time to go to Trader Joe’s around here, trust me) – he climbs on the front of the cart, I push him around, he asks for everything sugary and shiny, and I let him have one thing that he really really wants (today it was a pint of chocolate milk). But what was different about today was that half a dozen times I heard him say “what the…", quite loudly, and in a tone of voice that made me sure he was about to say “what the f-ck?!". Where did he get that from I wondered?

The second thing that’s been happening is “like". “Daddy, can I like get a chocolate milk?". Grrrrrrr. I stopped to explain (yet again) that “like” can be used to say things such as “I like you", or “something is like something else", but we will not be having valley girl talk in our house thank you very much.

What was it about these two things that caused me to resonate with Randall Robinson’s interview? I think it’s knowing that neither of these would be happening if we were still in Cornwall (never mind the fact that he would still have his English accent…which he has been forced to give up for self preservation, i.e. to stop the other kids asking why he talks funny).

Here’s Randall Robinson:

We also have a daughter who was eleven at the time. We wanted her to have a normal, fun adolescence, and it was just undoable. When we lived here [the US] and went to a shopping center or someplace, we’d tell our daughter, do not get out of our line of sight. Now she’s in a place [St. Kitt’s] where she can walk around at night and we don’t even have to think about that sort of thing.

That’s right. It’s not really about Nathaniel saying “what the f-ck?!” or “like", it’s about the larger issue of growing up in America. Growing up where we have to drive him the 1/2 mile to school. Growing up where we can’t let him play down the end of the dock because of the bums who hang out at the liquor store. Growing up where the divide between the haves in Sausalito and the have-nots in Marin City has created a school district where most (90%?) of the white parents in Sausalito with children Nathaniel’s age send their kids to private school.

But it’s bigger than that even. Here’s Randall Robinson again:

I got a chance to be in a society [St. Kitt’s] where the barriers between classes – social and economic – are not insuperable, where money is not everything all the time. Americans have been manipulated into a space by those who profit from the arrangements of that system. People feel a conscious disease – a dis-ease or an unease – but I don’t think they know what causes it. We’ve been taught in America that big is best. That’s why people have to believe that they must live in the greatest country in the world, which is absolutely idiotic.

If this were the 70’s, I would be yelling “right on Randall".

How is it, I sometimes ask Rachel, that we [Americans] have been so manipulated that the majority believe that the status quo is ok? Why is it ok that we do not provide basic health care for all of our citizens? Why is it ok that we have the largest prison population in the world? Why is it ok that politics has become a matter of style over substance?

I’m not sure what the answers are, or what I can do about it, but I do know that if things do not start moving the other direction in my lifetime, I wonder what kind of America my children and their children will live in.

(Note: ok, maybe I’m being too pessimistic, maybe all is not lost)

Posted by: Frank @ 5:20 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)

September 8, 2005

Things I Like About England - I

The press.

I love the newspapers and TV news in England.

There’s a paper for every viewpoint. From the Guardian and Independent on the left, to the Times in the middle, and the Daily Mail on the right,

There’s also real reporting in England. Reporters ask hard questions. They don’t wait for 10 Downing Street announcements before reporting on an issue. And if a politician doesn’t answer a question they ask it again. And again. And again. Imagine that happening in the US.

One day in particular stands out for me. It was the day after the Hutton report had come out (the Hutton inquiry, for those of you who don’t know, looked into the circumstances regarding weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly’s death, and whether the BBC’s claim that the weapons of mass destruction dossier put out by 10 Downing Street had been “sexed up” had been a factor in his death).

And so it was that on the day after the inquiry, January 29, 2004, I went to purchase a paper at our local newstand. What greeted me was the Independent with a blank front page, and the single word “Whitewash?” in the center of the paper.

Imagine the New York Times becoming so indignant about the New Orleans tragedy that it printed a paper with a blank front page with just the word “Resign.” on it.

Imagine.

Posted by: Frank @ 6:28 am — Filed under: Comments (2)