Saturday, November 28, 2009

Follow me on the San Francisco Examiner

Green news! This week, I started writing for the San Francisco Examiner as one of their green parenting specialists. Check out my Examiner page here. My first article covered sustainable fish sticks, a topic I had no idea depleted the oceans until now. In the next few weeks, I intend to concentrate on holiday topics so if you want to share green parenting tips, classes, or events, I'm all ears!

In the future, I'll love hearing about green schools efforts, teachers who make a difference or simple tips that can improve our carbon footprint. If you want to keep abreast of green news in the Bay Area, get on my page, subscribe to my article feed and it'll come by email pretty smoothly.

Back later for Frog Mom postings, covering a Bay Area family's traditions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Festive Holidays in Period Costume

Nothing spells holidays and cheer like a Victorian postcard. To me, Victorians incarnate the essence of the holidays as we know them: snow, skaters, carolers, evergreens, plum puddings and a red plump Santa. Before the Victorians, religion and nature took over decorum and the year’s end holidays were celebrated - with as much good cheer and reveling - through a seasonal and nature magnifying glass. The winter solstice was sometimes as important as Christmas, and certainly more than the new year.

Yes, there's a lot to love about them all and fortunately, Northern California offers a cornucopia of holiday events in period costumes, covering from the Renaissance through the early 1900s. You want an early 19th century Bavarian feast with songs and dance? You got it. A Victorian tree with family ornaments in an 1886 Queen Anne house? You got it. A Renaissance black-tie banquet with singers from the San Francisco Opera? Done. That's why I like the holidays so much. They inspire great events that mix history and other cultures with a healthy dose of music and theatricals, leaving aside the commercial shiny plastic eyesores of the season. Here is my short list, in reverse chronological order, taking you from the Belle Epoque to the dark ages...

1901: Christmas at Sea
For one day on Saturday December 12, San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier historic ships celebrate a 1901 Christmas. Last year we went and loved listening to the Dogwatch Nautical band aboard the Eureka ferryboat. The kids made early 1900s crafts, then everybody ran out because Santa was arriving by boat. Ah, the joyous chaos of children hanging to the handrail to catch a glimpse of the red man. After Santa came inside, the children neatly lined up to tell him their wishes and receive a candy cane. It was great. The part I haven't seen yet but that I'm looking forward to see this year, starts at 6pm. At 6pm, costumed ship crew, passengers and San Franciscans come out of the dark and tell you stories of a bygone era on the three ships, all during a lamplit tour. Dress warmly, the night is cold!

1880s: The Great Dickens Fair
If you have never been to the Great Dickens Fair at San Francisco's Cow Palace, it is the place to elbow Tiny Tim and Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past in a microcosm of recreated London's Victorian streets. It starts the Friday after Thanksgiving and goes on every weekend until Christmas. With 600 costumed performers, men, women and children, the Dickens Fair is like no other event. It truly transports you to this faraway chestnut-scented London, with its street jugglers, man-powered carousel, and lively dances. We never miss Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance at the Imperial Music Hall, an action charged 60-minute rendition of the famous musical. And we also never miss a Punch & Judy puppet show.

1886: Haas Lilienthal House Museum
There is a Victorian house museum in San Francisco. Only one. It was built in 1886, housed 3 generations of the same family, and is now open to the public in Pacific Heights. On Sunday December 6, the holiday open house will include the 13-foot high Christmas tree with the Haas family ornaments in the front parlor, the train set in the basement (running with holiday lights for the occasion) and holiday decor throughout.

1850s: Columbia Lamplight Tour
In Northern California, a Gold Rush event seems de rigueur and Columbia is my absolute favorite Gold Rush town. Columbia State Historic Park is a town in the Sierra foothills that has been entirely frozen in time as a park - with period storefronts, book shops, hotels, dirt roads, small alleyways and saloons. On Friday December 4th and Saturday December 5th, costumed volunteers will take you through a magical evening through the city by lamp light. If you enjoy a change of scenery, go for it. Columbia faces drastic budget cuts each year and this event doubles as a fundraiser.

1800s: The Christmas Revels
Last year's Christmas show by the California Revels included an English manor as a stage for a winter solstice celebration; a story called "The King & The Fool" told at bedtime by a father to his children; knights and dragons; and old Wessex carols. Our children laughed and hid behind their hands. It was great. This year, the setting is Germanic and will take you on a little journey to early nineteenth-century Bavaria and the surrounding regions at Yuletide to explore the roots of modern Christmas with song, laughter and children. Come on, it isn't far! It's in Oakland across from the Oakland Museum. Spend the day at Children's Fairyland, dine at the Lake Chalet across from the Scottish Rite Center and see the California Revels at night fall.

1700s: The Bracebrice Dinner
A Yosemite tradition since 1927, the Bracebridge Dinner transforms the cathedral-style dining room at the historic Ahwanee Hotel into a Renaissance English manoir where a yuletide story is about to unfold. If you go, don't miss the caroling by the piano in the huge lounges with walk-in fireplaces. Yes, walk-in. Kids can grab a hot chocolate at the bar and adults can roam around with drinks, all while singing in unison. Truly a great experience, if you can afford it. I guess the San Francisco Opera singers, the outstanding decor, the remote location and the starred menu explain the price tag.

Beyond 1700s, you won't find anything in Northern California. At least I don't know of a medieval Christmas, a Miwok winter celebration or a Roman solstice feast. But if you know other fun events, feel free to share in the comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Piccheti Ranch Open Space Preserve & Winery

Looking for cherry blossoms in November as is irrelevant as looking for meat on a vegetarian menu. It's just not there. And yet last Sunday when I took my family to Picchetti Ranch near Cupertino in the Silicon Valley, I was intent on examining each single tree of the orchard to find a cherry tree.

Why the nonsense? I recently suggested an article on Bay Area places that would remind families of the landscapes of the movie Where the Wild Things Are, and my editor at SFKids was enthusiastic. One of the scenes has Max twirl in a forest of delicate pink cherry blossoms swirling in the wind. Now, I had a problem and no immediate solution.

Apart from Brentwood, the cherry-picking town, I didn't know many places with cherry orchards in the Bay Area. I sent a half dozen emails around to nature-related places, asking for forests with cherry trees. Might as well have asked for the moon. However, I did receive this from Jane Huber at Bay Area Hiker: "Can't think of one. Cherry trees are pretty uncommon. There are a few plum trees mixed through woods in places like Edgewood County Park. There might be cherry trees at Picchetti Ridge Open Space Preserve, but not mixed through a forest."

I looked up Picchetti Ranch. It was in Cupertino and there was a winery on site. Aha. Two reasons to drive down then. We packed a picnic lunch and hit the road.

However unlikely the idea of a winery in the Silicon Valley sounds, there are actually quite a few, but Picchetti Winery has an edge over most: the 1892 winery complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and there are hiking trails starting right outside the tasting room. Frankly, that's a winning combination.

Right on the parking lot, I saw a gorgeous Fuyu persimmon tree loaded with pale orange fruit. I dared not hope that the orchards would be so accessible. We proceeded to the winery complex with our picnic. What a lovely red-and-white brick building the tasting room is. It's just really charming. Once filled with redwood storage tanks and oak casks for aging and storing wine, the inside features a strong cellar smell, a long bar and strings of white lights on the exposed ceiling, giving it a very festive look.

Outside on the lawn, we easily spotted a picnic table by the creek. The winery provides a public picnic area with 10 tables every day from 11am to 5pm. Fittingly given the location, we saw someone bring back a glass of red wine from the tasting room. In less than a minute, my husband got up and came back with a glass of Zinfandel. The "glass of wine for the picnic" thing is so well organized that there is a small wicker basket outside the tasting room to return dirty wine glasses.

Picnic only lasts so long and our girls soon got antsy. Since we were there for the orchards, we started hiking the short (1 mile) orchard loop. Jane mentions plum, apricot, and pear trees in Bay Area Hiker's description of the trails there. I would be lying if I said I positively identified cherry trees. I know vaguely what they look like and I don't think I saw one, but then, poison oak obliging, I mostly stayed on the trail. That said, the hike is very easy, wide, and makes for a relaxing post-lunch walk. For more challenge, I suggest the Zinfandel Trail.

An hour and many photo stops later, we were back at the starting point. No we didn't see the cherry trees I came to see - but we saw gorgeous black oaks, some arching their sturdy branches over the path, and we discovered a local winery inside a historic building. To me, that's a pretty fine day.