For two weeks at the end of December our kids are off from school, and during this time we always try to stay home with them and act like tourists in San Francisco. A couple of years back we realized that millions of people vacation in San Francisco, so why not us? Instead of fighting crowds at the airport and stores, we now spend the winter break that San Francisco Unified School District offers visiting the sights of the city as defined by our kids. Sometimes that’s Crissy Field and sometimes that’s Rainbow Grocery; sometimes we watch ferries come and go at the Ferry Building and sometimes we visit the dollar stores of Japantown (where more often than not, we run into our son’s classmates and senseis, which always sends the kids into paroxysms of excitement). Our daughter likes the Academy of Sciences and the Conservatory of Flowers; our son likes the Exploratorium and Muir Woods. And everyone else is out shopping, so there are rarely serious crowds.
Swinging two weeks of full days with our kids can be tricky even during the holidays. However one of the mixed blessings of life in an academic medical center is the ability to work any 50 hours of the week I choose. Sure, I have two grants due at the beginning of 2012, but no one cares if I burn the candle at both ends by piling hours of work into the evening and wee hours after the kids are asleep. In the service of preserving a tradition we’ve come to love, that’s exactly what I’m doing. In a rare and unfortunate turn of events Matt’s end of the year schedule is crammed as well. As a result we spent last week switching off unavoidable appointments during our daughter’s naps. It is exhausting but worth the effort.
Luckily for us, our son wanted to go to half-day camp in the afternoons last week rather than stay home and play very quietly while his sister naps, which is what he did last year. A couple of years ago we sent him to afternoon acrobat camp, and that was cool, but it seemed a little over-programmed given that we prefer to put the “break” in winter break. On the suggestion of another Rosa Parks parent–and such recommendations have not failed us yet–this year we sent him to Kids OutDoor Club instead, which basically dumps kids into a field at Golden Gate Park and lets them run around outside (supervised) until they fall over. They stay outside in any weather short of concussion-quality hail, dreaming up and following personalized nature hikes, climbing trees, and building forts out of sticks. We call it nature camp. My personal feeling is that our kids already spend too little time outside and too much time following other people’s schedules (a situation that has improved somewhat with regular bike commuting), so this all sounded fantastic. And nature camp lived up to its offbeat promise. At the end of the week my son pronounced it the best camp ever.
We’ve been working on getting over our hesitation to ride as a family after dark, so bringing him home from nature camp by bike seemed like an easy transition. Golden Gate Park is flat and has bike lanes on nearly every paved surface. Parts of JFK Drive have both a (poorly marked) bike lane painted in the street and a (poorly marked) bike lane on the sidewalk right alongside, which I find simultaneously belt-and-suspenders amusing and vaguely annoying. Also, nature camp is close enough to home that we could walk back if necessary. It would be a really long and exhausting walk, true, but it’s feasible.
So on Day 1 of nature camp after our daughter woke up from her nap we loaded up the bikes and headed toward the park. On the way there, stopped at a light, we noticed the martial arts studio where both Matt and the kids take lessons had a class in full swing. My daughter saw her teacher and started waving wildly to her. Now the owner of the studio is an outstanding instructor and that’s why we go, but understandably she runs a pretty tight ship, given that the kids squirm like eels and have all the self-discipline of a litter of newborn puppies. I realized she must never have seen us on our bikes before, because she ran over to the window and waved back wildly at us, grinning as ridiculously as we were. It is not a side of her that we get to see very often.
It is a mystery to me that there are cyclists in this city who don’t stop at red lights. Half the fun stuff happens when we’re stopped.
Although I thought nature camp was a place we might see another family on bicycles, this was not, alas, the case. Thus far our son’s school is the only place where hauling our kids on the bike is viewed as unremarkable, probably because any mode of transit, short of maybe a hot-air balloon, is unremarkable when compared to the triple tandem that our PTA president uses to bring his kids to school.
So on this first day when we rolled up to pick up our son at nature camp we got the usual skeptical looks and mutters about safety from other parents in their cars that make me say that family biking is still a ghetto. But the world is changing because there are now people who call that cutting-edge. One of them is the director of nature camp, who came over to tell us that we were the coolest, picking up our son on our bikes. This is a man who pretty much defines hardcore as far as I’m concerned, who has spent nearly every day of the last six years outside, on the wrong side of the fog line, wrangling dozens of kids and coaches in either the after-school program or in holiday and summer camps. And he thinks WE’RE cool?
We rode home after dark that evening with our kids singing nonsense songs as we went, and it was like flying.