Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The princess, the king and the flower: a story by Louise, 4.5 years old

Once upon a time there was a princess named Isabelle. She had no prince because she wanted to marry somebody. The next day, she saw a flower under her garden. She didn't pick it up because she didn't know who the flower was. The flower wanted to speak but she didn't know the princess' name.

"It's me, Bella, OK flower?" said the princess.

The next other day, the princess saw the sky getting grey so she thought that lightning is coming on. She ran away and went to her castle to tell the king about the storm. But the king said:

"There's no storm, it's just going to rain."

The next morning, she saw a little baby standing outside of her door because she wanted to marry him. There was sunshine coming out of the clouds. The king said:

"Are those silly hearts? because I don't know what they are."

The princess said:

"Wait, those are the clouds."

The king said:

"No, no, no. Those are not the clouds and you have got to go in the castle."

The princess answered:

"You're wrong, King, so I'm going out and you're staying in!"

The flower said:

"I've been waiting for you every day."

The princess offered the flower to go in the sky and find her little fairies.

"I'm putting the king in the jail!" she said.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

Three and a half hours east of San Francisco lies what used to be the world's biggest hydraulic mining operation. Until 1884, that is.

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
comprises the 600-feet canyons excabated by the gold ming operation, as well as a genuine ghost town complete with ghost if you ask Debbie the ranger. Until last week, the park was on the infamous list of 47 state parks to be closed in 2008 by Governor Schwarzenegger. It now seems they are temporarily out of danger


For Memorial Day Weekend, I organized a big family camping trip at the group campsite, gathering three dozens of my friends and my two girls. The weather could have been better (it rained a lot and was cold) but just getting the kids out there felt great.

Saturday's rains drew us to the hamlet of North Bloomfield where we took a ranger-led tour of the ghost town, and did some gold panning under pine trees.

As the afternoon went by, the rain showed no sigh of giving up but we nonetheless welcomed new campers at the site who set up camp and joined in the crazy wet weather. At last, the weather dried up.

The kids got all excited and ran around like they'd been locked up all day. Besides stealing each others' bicycles and playing tag, they enjoyed the ritual of marshmallow roasting (if not burning) by the camp fire, playing light sabers with glow sticks and listening to bedtime stories in the open air.

Our friend Rosssana particularly treated the children to a retelling of Yoshi's Feast, a Japanese tale of broiling eels and stingy neighbors.

Us adults got our share of fun with happy hour by the makeshift kitchen under the tarps and gourmet meals prepared by our Dutch, American or Italian friends, depending on the time of day.

Late at night when stars were hiding behind the clouds and rain stopped falling, we were treated to an improvised mandolin folk concert by Danny Lloyd, lead singer and composer of Hybridkid, the San Francisco indie rock band. From John Lennon to Michelle Shocked, our evening by the fire was a musical one.

When the sun shone on Sunday morning, a bunch of us set off enthusiastically on a (supposedly) 2.7 mile-long hike to the Diggins (the mine).

Taking Slaughterhouse Trail from the campground, we hiked downhill quite a bit before hitting the valley floor and crossing it from side to side. It felt weird to walk by abandoned pipes, probably formerly used by miners and left to rust in the hills after mining got discontinued.

As the hike progressed, some young'uns got hungry and the skies darkened. Right when we stopped for lunch, a big mass of black clouds steadily made its menacing way towards us. We didn't linger and took off, finishing under the rain a walk that felt closer to 4.5 miles and four hours. To their credit, the children walked great and strong.

Malakoff Diggins is a slice of California's past worth visiting and it wetted my appetite for quirky ghost towns in the hills.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Going Green with Families at the Noe Valley Library Branch

"If you had to concentrate on one tip for the environment, what would you advise?" asked a woman at the back of the room.

"Rid your home of plastic," answered Jennifer Caldwell, founder and executive director of Hope to Action, a nationwide non-profit dedicated to empowering women to bring in environmental practices in their lives.

"And walk to school if you can," added Susan Silber of the Low Carbon Diet program.

This morning, the Noe Valley Library Branch hosted a program on helping families going green featuring Leslie Crawford, an environmental writer who tags herself as eco-anxiety ridden, Susan Silber and Jennifer Caldwell. The program was sponsored by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

On this picture, from left to right: Susan Silber, Leslie Crawford, Jennifer Caldwell and Shawn Rosenmoss, senior environmental specialist at SF Environment and founder of the Compacters eco-group.

Ms Caldwell started Hope to Action, an online tool meant to help women take action in their lives by giving them practical recommendations such as replacing incadescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs or by starting an EcoSalon, the green version of Tupperware reunions!

You invite a bunch of friends to join you at an EcoSalon by email, you each get a list of guidelines to protect the environment, you create your ownn Yahoo! Group if you wish and you follow each other's progress. The best part is, it's free! Free to join, to get the list of all resources, get the guidelines and get the monthly newsletter. Pretty neat if you ask me.

Ms Silber emphasized the transportation side of fighting global warming as transportation accounts for 50% of greenhouse gases. She focused on Safe Routes to School, a citizen-driven initiative to have children walk to school with parents, and on environmental education, a field that's been her career for 18 years. Amongst the many questions were two interesting ones.

- Idling cars when dropping off and picking up children at schools: did you know that if you plan to stay longer than 10 seconds on the spot, it's better to cut off the gas and start your engine again when you're ready to go?

- How to get the message across to your friends and family without being viewed as an eco-Nazi: step back and offer suggestions rather than judgemental opinions. When it comes to changing life habits, people quickly get defensive.

On the way out, I picked up a canvas tote bag by SF Environment and used it minutes later to carry my groceries. There, I've started.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Eco-friendly Bedding & Clothes for Children

As part of my first assignment for, the family website of the City of San Francisco, I wrote an article on eco-friendly bedding and clothes for children. In researching it, I was blown away by the amount of chemicals we're surrounded by in seemingly innocent places: the mattress we sleep on, the couch we sit on, the pillow we rest on, the no-wrinkle shirt we love so much, the pajamas that keep our little ones snug.

It's PVC here, polyurethane there, PBDEs over there, phthalates for the lucky ones and the list goes on.

What's worse, there's no real way to avoid all these invisible particles to poison your air unless you decide a major overhaul of your furniture and you break the piggy bank. Read the article and look for the magic potion.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

Gold panning, pioneer fiddlers, freezing waters in the American River and rolling green hills: that's what the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park offers in spring. We spent the weekend in the South Lake Tahoe area with our friends Matt and Beatrix, and their two children Ian and Camila. After a day around Lake Tahoe, we decided to explore warmer grounds by driving back to the Bay Area through Eldorado County. I had Placerville in my mind as a gold digging town so we headed there first and had lunch at the Cozmic Cafe, a funky "carrots and tofu" eatery on the premises of a former gold mine. The setting may be exotic, but the food was so-so and soon we were on our way.

Coloma is only seven miles away yet the roads are so windy over there that our girls had time to start wailing "My tummy is hurting". Slow down, look out the windows, another curve, we were there.

Coloma is literally where the Gold Rush began. In 1848, a man named James Marshall found a gold nugget in the American River while working on a sawmill. News spread to San Francisco, a barrel of gold nuggets was sent parading to Washington DC, and the Gold Rush kicked in.

A visit to 2008 Coloma is like a step back in time. Park under a scorching sun or in the welcome shade of a tree and start strolling down dusty Main Street and its wooden boardwalks.

As a historic park, the city has preserved fascinating exhibits such as a blacksmith shop, a gun shop, a jail and other Gold Rush paraphernalia.

Our main stop was by the gun shop where for a modest fee, we could pan for gold in raised wooden boxes filled with sand, gravel, garnets, fool's gold and real gold flakes. The truth is, we didn't really strike it rich and neither did Matt and Beatriz.

But the children had loads of fun (panning for Louise and Ian, mudcakes and picking up rocks for Iris and Camila) and there was an Old West quatuor behind us jazzing up the place with their fiddles, guitars and banjos.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Slide Ranch

Slide Ranch is an educational farm with sweeping ocean visdtas north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The views are breathtaking, the salty air invigorating and the goats polite. Being on GGNRA land, Slide Ranch is therefore open to the public all year long and you don't neeed to wait for a family program to join the fun. I didn't know that and signed for one of their family day which ended up as a great success.

Unlike Leslie Helakoski's sheep Woolbur who doesn't like to "shear his wool", Slide Ranch's goats and sheeps are very civilized. As soon as we got there by mid-morning, the girls joined a short line to milk a goat. How fun is that? Ask the preschoolers. "Eeeuw, it's wetty," I heard from my four-year old. Well kiddo, that's farm life.

Fortunately she got the hang of it and got some good old milking done. It reminded me of my cow milking experience in New Zealand as a child, after which I got a beautifully blue milking certificate. My usually-bold two-year-old watched in disbelief whispering she was scared.

Own next station was a group circle in which we were given three basic instructions for the day: - try something new - eat something new - get dirty

Obediently, we proceeded to the henhouse to ... catch some hens! Yay for Cedric who has a knack for catching fowls under the wings and whispering them sweet words while waiting for little girls to pet their feathers.

Visiting the hen house and seeing all these happy chickens made me think of Kate DiCamillo's upcoming picture book Louise The Adventures of a Chicken. These animals really have a sweet life: eat grain, run a bit, sleep, lay eggs, eat more grain. While our Louise (not the chicken) managed to hold two chickens in her arms, Iris played the shy toddler from afar.

By then, my girls' stomachs were calling for food so we came back to the pasture and there, saw that a Slide Ranch teacher was showing how to card wool. "Want to make wool bracelets?" she called to my girls. In two seconds, they were sitting on a blanket on the grass, carding wool that we spinned by hand. The result was quite beautiful and earthy really.

They were both very proud of their wool bracelets and held on to them the whole day. After that activity, they were starving and feasted on their favorite picnic items: canned sardines in oil, bread, carrots, dried apricots and dates and an apple.

The best was yet to come as we headed back to the farmhouse to make some bread. Yes, all the children got to try their hand at adding cups of flour, mixing, kneading and shaping individual rolls of bread. That was pretty neat. Awaiting instructions, the children nicely got together round a table.

As one of the oldest read the recipe, the teacher got every one to pitch in. When the kneading was done the teacher called "Who wants to pick some fresh herbs from the garden to add to their bread?" A swarm of children ran to the herb garden, coming back with rosemary, thyme and even lavender.

The long baking wait started (40 minutes in the oven) and to keep ourselves busy, we visited the vegetable garden. I wish mine looked as nice. Swiss chard, onions, future zucchinis, red leaf lettuces, strawberries, raspberries, garlic, rhubarb were just some of the beautiful patches we came across.

The bread came out surprisingly nice and our girls literally devoured theirs. We almost didn't get a tasting bite. This was the end of our day at Slide Ranch and a beautiful one. Did the girls enjoy it? Yesterday morning driving to school, I heard a little voce behind me: "Can we go to the farm today?"