Jul 27 2015

Coyote Hills Hullabaloo



This weekend our scout group hosted a campout for fifty people, including campers from three different regional BPSA groups: the 23rd Oaklanders, the 31st River Valley out of Sacramento, and the 4th Surf City up from Santa Cruz. It was the first time our kids had gotten to see BPSA scouts from other groups—wearing the same uniform, but with different-colored neckers. The big highlight of the weekend for me was watching how quickly the kids from different groups gelled and made friendships. Sam told me once that his best memories from his Boy Scout days were from the big Jamborees, and I feel pretty good about giving the kids in our group that same experience.

We had a great campfire with marshmallows and songs and skits. We had really fun hikes, amazing views, and delicious food—the Timberwolves made us fresh donuts in the morning and they were the best I’ve ever had.


I’m not blogging any of the big group shots because different families have different levels of sensitivity around photo sharing, but it was really awesome to watch three girls studiously building a big campfire or a bunch of older kids taking over the dinner prep jobs. I was also super proud because the dad of one of our families had never been camping before. And he’s African American, so from one of the demographics that’s really under-represented in national parks and outdoor groups (for reasons that become very obvious once you start looking at the shameful history of discrimination on public lands and in the scouting movement). He said it was “much more fun than I expected” and by the end of the weekend he was talking about shopping for a bigger tent! So, that felt pretty good.

We started the Oaklanders just because we wanted our sons to have a traditional scouting experience in an inclusive environment, but after running this group for a year I have realized that the potential impact is actually much greater than just a nice extracurricular for some middle class kids. There are other outdoor-focused youth groups that do great work, but because we are all-volunteer we are able to keep our costs much lower. BPSA scouting really is uniquely accessible, and because of that I think it has the potential to affect whole communities in a broader way. I have started to think that our little group can really contribute something to Oakland. This is not just for my own kids anymore—it feels like it could truly be something bigger.

Sam took this picture, and captioned it “His and Hers”:

his and hers

So I guess this is, like, our thing now? I married a Boy Scout. Sam married a Girl Scout. Now we are both Rover Scouts in the BPSA and so help me, I truly mean it when I hold up those three fingers and promise (on my honor, to do my best) to render service to my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Scout Law.

Jul 5 2014

An Oakland Civics Lesson, in Honor of Independence Day

Oakland Police Department says:

REMINDER: Stay Safe During Holiday Celebrations: Avoid Illegal Fireworks and Celebratory Gunfire

The Oakland Police Department and Fire Department are working together to plan for a safe 4th of July in the City of Oakland.

Oakland’s Police Chief Sean Whent and Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed want you to celebrate Independence Day safely and would like to remind everyone of the dangers and penalties associated with celebratory firearm discharges and the use of illegal fireworks. Setting off fireworks and shooting guns possess a great risk for injury and even death. As such, they have no place in our City.

As a part of our commitment to public safety, quality of life and vitality in our communities, OPD is focused on stopping illegal gun use. During the holiday the Department will be increasing staffing and deploying patrol officers to specific areas of the City that have the highest amount of gunshot and firework activity as indicated by ShotSpotter activation and data collection from last year.

Officers will arrest anyone caught discharging a firearm. Officers will additionally be enforcing illegal fireworks and focus on prevention and education.

Oakland says:


Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

(I took this picture—actually a composite of a few different pictures—from my back steps. No need to travel to see a light show! Neighbors got that covered. There was plenty of “celebratory gunfire” too, although that wasn’t as pretty.)

Jan 3 2014

A Nice Piece

Sumiko Saulson, who covers the local art scene, did a very nice little profile on me for Examiner.com. Sumiko does a great job highlighting our neighborhood artists and makers, and I really enjoy following her posts.

Sep 9 2013


On my walk home today I was thinking about the nature of politeness in different social contexts.

In a crowded urban environment, ignoring other people is generally the polite thing to do. There’s so little real privacy, but people extend each other the illusion of privacy, and that helps. You travel through crowded sidewalks and trains in your own little imaginary bubble. And generally the only people who try to pierce the bubble are catcallers, panhandlers, pamphleteers and the like: people whose social advances are an unwelcome imposition.

Of course you acknowledge people who you have real business with, and over time you build up a friendly rapport with the folks at the shops and cafés you frequent. Also your neighbors, which in a true urban core means the apartment-dwellers whose units border yours. The term might extend to everyone on your hallway: it almost certainly doesn’t encompass the entire building. But in general, in public spaces, you respect the imaginary bubbles.

This leads to really interesting effects like the phenomenon of familiar strangers: people you see every day but never speak to. I think it’s also something that feeds into the famous reputation of New Yorkers for rudeness. (Those who visit large cities but aren’t familiar with urban social norms could easily find the we’re-all-politely-ignoring-you thing to be offputting, distant, and cold.)

Oakland is not dense enough for this rule to come into effect. Polite sidewalk interaction in my neighborhood requires a “hello” at minimum, with “how ya doin'” greatly preferred. (Note that there’s no question mark at the end, because it’s a statement, not a question. It is perfectly OK to answer with a matching “How ya doin’.”)

I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to this new norm when we first moved here. There’s an older gentleman who’s usually sitting out on his porch when we walk by after school, and I found myself walking on the other side of the street just because the psychic effort of exchanging a few meaningless pleasantries with a stranger every afternoon felt like a burden. It didn’t work, though. He just hollered across the street: “How ya doin’!”

Today on my walk home from picking up Davy, that gentleman was not on his porch. I wondered where he was—on vacation? Running an errand? I hope he’s not ill. I kind of missed him. On the other hand, there were a couple of people standing around a few houses down, folks I hadn’t seen before. “Good afternoon!” I waved across the street. “How ya doin!”

Apr 18 2013

Children’s Fairyland


So I’ve lived in Oakland for three years now and somehow just this week managed to visit Children’s Fairyland? Built in 1950, Children’s Fairyland was the first “themed” amusement park in the U.S., the first designed specifically for children, and one of the direct inspirations for Disneyland. According to Wikipedia, it also features “the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States.”


It’s a delightful little park. Its vintage character has been faithfully preserved, and its small scale combined with a slightly shabby veneer and the vague weirdness of last-century design makes the whole place immensely charming. Mostly it consists of stationary playsets built to various fairy-tale themes: favorites on our trip included Alice’s rabbit hole, Captain Hook’s pirate ship, and the “fairy music farm.”





The music farm I thought was particularly wonderful. It’s this echoey tunnel built around a pretty courtyard and fitted with various kinds of instruments—percussion, string, wind—that the kids can play with. All the noise echoes together and creates a really interesting soundscape. I thought it was great design.


Another big hit was the “Jolly Trolly”:



We bought a year-long family pass so we’ll definitely be back. This place is a treasure!


Nov 28 2012


Everybody who lives in the Bay Area needs to know about this right now: you can finally, finally, finally get a proper bagel, at Beauty’s Bagel Shop on Telegraph.

I really can’t overstate how monumental this is. When we first visited Beauty’s I teared up eating a bagel.

You see, the bagels around here are shit. They’re soft, breadlike substances—buns with a hole punched in the middle. This is a known fact, and everybody in the Bay Area is heartily sick of hearing East Coast transplants complaining about the bagels. When I first moved here twelve years ago and didn’t know that it was such a cliché, I remember telling my boss that I’d had a string of really rotten bagels and did he know where I could find a decent one? He looked at me scornfully and said, “You’re in California now. Eat croissants.”

But it took me a long time to give up on bagels. I just didn’t believe that in a city with such fantastic food it could really be impossible to find a passable bagel. I stood in line for hours at all the little delis around town. Some San Franciscans swear by Katz Bagels, some by House of Bagels: these bagels, like all the others, are a cruel mockery of the form. Some people said it had to do with the water.

And maybe my twelve years of privation can explain why I nearly wept when Beauty’s served me a bagel. A lovely, dense, chewy bagel. It’s been so long. Bagels, precious bagels, never leave me again.

Oct 17 2012

Mi Pueblo In Peril

This just sucks all around:

Mi Pueblo, a Latino supermarket chain with humble roots, faces the prospect of a mass layoff, a boycott and a federal investigation — all because of questions about its employees’ legal status and right to work in the U.S.

The Northern California grocery chain imports and produces a full spectrum of foods from Mexico. Its 21 stores, and counting, pop up in urban food deserts that stores like Safeway don’t touch.


We love Mi Pueblo. It’s the nearest grocery store to our house, and I wrote about how happy we are to have it in our neighborhood. It is absolutely, definitely, POSITIVELY serving a big demographic and a vital need in our area.

At first blush this story like a straightforward, fuck-our-immigration-policy sucks story, nicely and neatly fitting into an existing liberal thought-box. But because this is the Bay Area we get an extra little piece of insanity that also reflects poorly on left-wing orthodoxy. There’s a union that’s actually calling for a boycott of Mi Pueblo…because they have been forced to follow the law.

It’s ironic for Mi Pueblo to defend itself from charges of betraying employees and siding with the federal government. The company was founded by Juvenal Chavez, a former janitor who came to the U.S. from Mexico without legal documents.

Now the grocery chain faces a boycott from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5.

So there you have it. A mid-size local business, serving a HUGE local need, is under threat both from a bullying union and from anti-immigrant federal policy. And all I really know is that this is going to make my life so much worse.

Jul 15 2012

Donut Time


There’s a lot of wonderful vintage signage around our neighborhood, though most of it is faded and cracked and attached to some boarded-up storefront. The neon never lights up any more and the clock has long since stopped. It’s always five minutes to Donut Time.

Feb 13 2012

At the Zoo

We got to see Nanita and Marqueño over the weekend, so we bundled ourselves off to the zoo. I am not in this picture because I was the one taking it:


Robin was really into the elephants, the otters, and the parrots (although he was disappointed that they didn’t talk). Davy reacted most strongly to the tigers. He tried his hardest to fling himself into the tiger enclosure, shouting to them joyfully and reaching out, bucking against the people who were holding him. When we put him down, he tried to climb the fence. The rest of us thought Davy should not be thrown to the tigers, and so we cruelly strapped him into his stroller and wheeled him away. He never quite recovered from the betrayal.

Robin had a lot of fun in the kids’ section of the zoo, petting the goats and climbing on the statuary:


They have a really clever little installation near the giant tortoise habitat, which is just cast models of empty tortoise shells that the kids can climb through. Both Robin and Davy loved playing at being tortoises. Here’s Robin peering out from inside the shell:


And Sam got a good picture of one of the real tortoises, ambling along. They have a strange presence about them, gawky and yet weirdly majestic; I have no idea how old this one is, but because of the wrinkles and the slow, deliberate movements they all give the impression of great age, and immense wisdom. They’re probably dumb as stones, I dunno.


The night after our trip, I dreamed about tortoises that had the ability to float. They drifted up effortlessly into the sky, as if their shells were balloons. Only I was taking care of a baby tortoise that couldn’t quite float properly yet, so I tied a string around it before coaxing it to go up and join its herd. And then I just sat there, holding on to the string, watching my baby tortoise as it grazed with the others among the clouds. When I woke up I remembered the feeling of serenity and the striking image of the floating tortoises; it wasn’t until just now, typing up this post, that I realized the dream must’ve had to do with Robin in the shell. Of course that’s what every mother wants—to see their babies soar, but also to keep one end of that string. Embarrassingly literal, really! But it was still a nice dream.

Feb 28 2011

At the Library

So I want to tell you about our local branch library. It’s wonderful. It was closed for remodeling when we first moved in:

library (closed)

But now it is open! Yay! Let’s all go to the library!

library steps

(If you wonder why Sam is hauling what appear to be—and are—two very heavy grocery bags, it’s because they’re full of comic books to donate. If you wonder what Robin has on top of his head, hold on, you’ll see it better in a minute.)

Built in 1916 with a Carnegie grant, the library is a gracious, serene Classical Revival building (look at those marble steps!) with some Craftsman touches inside. Check out these skylights:

ceiling detail

The reading areas are sunlit and peaceful, fitted with old-fashioned bookshelves, tables, and chairs, and splendid wooden paneling:

shady nook

Here and there they have carved benches set in the walls. Here’s a picture of Robin looking goofy on one of the benches (yes, that’s quite a hat he has):


Every Thursday morning they have toddler storytime at the library, which I’ve been trying to attend faithfully, although last week we didn’t go as it’s a longish walk and it was rainy. But Robin loves it. The children’s librarian, Adina, is one of those delightful people who seems to brim with cheerful energy. She knows all her regulars by name, and when we poked our head in for the first time she was quick to take Robin under her wing. She’s got the kids’ book section categorized, partly in the expected age-range groupings, but also partly by interest—so there’s a “dinosaur” shelf and a “things that go” shelf, where fiction and non-fiction books for readers of different levels are mixed in together. So within just a few minutes she was handing Robin as many train books as he could hold.

I felt a kinship with Adina almost immediately. She’s a library person. I have spent a lot of time working or volunteering in libraries: I can quickly recognize library people, and I like them very much. “This library,” I told her, “is amazing.” I really was blown away. I hadn’t expected it to be anywhere near this nice. It’s the nicest library I’ve seen in ten years. It’s vastly superior for our purposes to the San Francisco Main Library—they have fewer books of course, but with interlibrary loan you can get any book you want. And they provide something that the San Francisco Main Library does not: a calm and beautiful space that’s inspiring for children.

I mean, when we lived in downtown San Francisco we rarely went to the library because it was ugly and depressing, with scowling security guards and metal detectors at every door, and homeless people bathing in the restroom sinks. I just ordered books from Amazon instead. But this library is a treat to visit—it’s not simply a place to get books, it’s a place for Robin to spend a delighted half-hour playing and exploring, while I chat with the librarians or just bask in the sunlit serenity.

Modern libraries are torn in two different directions: there’s the old mission, that of serving as a sort of communal temple to the mind, and there’s a new mission of providing Internet access to the homeless. The second mission is important too, but I wonder if it’s wise to try and combine the two functions in one facility. Places that are set up to provide services to the homeless aren’t usually great spaces for kids. It’s obvious to me only now—from being in a library that executes the old function and does it well—how much can be, and has been, lost.

“What do you need?” I asked Adina, after I’d had a few minutes of just being staggered to find such a treasure in a place where I’d almost forgotten to look.

“Well,” she said, “there’s the Friends of the Library…”

“Yes, yes, obviously,” I said, somewhat impatiently. I already knew we’d be joining the Friends of the Library, just as I already knew this library would be imperiled—all libraries always are. “But what do you need? Any specific materials? Periodical subscriptions? Infrastructure?”

And then there was a little gleam in her eye. “Circulation,” she said, with an intensity answering my own. “We need circulation. The city allocates funds based on usage, and we’re coming up short. Check things out. Here, take more books. There’s no late fee on the children’s materials.”

“How many can we check out at a time?”


“I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you right, it sounded like you said–”

Forty. You can have forty items checked out at a time, and please do, we have DVDs too—I would be just delighted if every visitor went home with forty things every time they came.”

“Well,” I said. “All righty then. We’ll start over in this corner here, how does that sound?”

So that is how we embarked on a new mission, that of reading every book in the library, forty at a time (although to be honest we don’t take forty things every time, because I have to carry them home). But we do try to go every week, and check out as many books as we can keep track of. Robin practically sings all the way there: “Going to the library! Going to the library!”

And what a nice library it is.