Tag Archives: Christmas

Santacon and an Urban Arrow

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown's Ross Alley

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown’s Ross Alley

Our kids get the same present every birthday: an “All About Me” day, where they get to pick exactly what we do all day (within reason—we had to veto any activity that involves a plane flight).  Typically that ends up involving a lot of visits to places like ice cream shops, but they’re getting more creative over time. Our son recently turned 8, and last Saturday was his day. He wanted to go to Chinatown to visit the fortune cookie factory, to the Ferry Building for lunch and chocolates, and to spend the evening at Acrosports on the trampolines. No problem, kiddo.

The weekends before Christmas are always a challenging time to get around San Francisco, as there is a huge influx of shopping traffic. Something that never, ever gets old about commuting by bicycle: never having to care about how many other people are headed to the same place we’re going. So it didn’t matter that much that we’d forgotten that December 14th was also Santacon. We only realized when we’d gotten most of the way downtown and started seeing Santas drifting out onto the streets, even around 9am, which is an impressively early start for people who are planning to be up all night drinking.

So we went to Chinatown and the fortune cookie factory, which was far more interesting for our kids than I would have guessed. Probably the endless handouts of flat fortune cookies that were too stiff to fold didn’t hurt. Walking through Chinatown is a trip, because it is not that big and so packed with people that it is difficult to stay on the sidewalk, and yet we were, as usual, the only white people visible in any direction, not to mention the only people speaking English. A few blocks over, we crossed the street and presto—North Beach, and the signs in the windows were suddenly in the Roman alphabet and said things like “Sicilian salami” and “Espresso.” Our son wanted to top off his post-breakfast fortune cookie snack with a pre-lunch cannoli, so, okay, fine, there is no shortage of Italian bakeries in North Beach. From there we threaded back to Matt’s office for a bathroom break (carefully navigating around the North Beach strip clubs) and to lunch (and more dessert) at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was even more packed than Chinatown.

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

After a post-lunch stop at the Sue Bierman Park children’s playground, we packed up and headed home over Nob Hill. Where we found: Santacon, in force. After lunch the Santas were all up and ready to party, and for much of our trip the sidewalks and streets were filled with them. I heard later from people who attempted to drive downtown on Saturday that the streets were immobilized for cars. A few blocks of this and my son asked, “So do Santas really like bars?” And I said, “These ones do.” There were Santas filling the streets all the way into Japantown and the Western Addition. They liked our bike.

Our new neighbors' new holiday display

Our new neighbors’ new holiday display

On the way back home we stopped by our new condo to see our new neighbors’ Christmas display, which rivals their awe-inspiring Halloween display. And right as we stopped, a woman next door to them wheeled out: AN URBAN ARROW! OMFG! The Urban Arrow I spotted at the Golden Gate Park tree lighting belongs to a family five doors over from our new home!

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

Based on what the mom told me, it could well the only Urban Arrow in the entire Bay Area. Apparently Rolling Orange in New York, the only US importer, gets only a dozen of these bikes each year, and most of them are pre-sold well in advance of their arrival. When our neighbors started looking for theirs there was only one bike in the shipment not already pre-sold, and they bought it. First impressions: no question, that bike is really, really big. It makes our Bullitt look like a Brompton. And the kids’ box is tricked out like an airport lounge. The neighbors have three kids, and that morning they also had things to do, so I couldn’t quiz the mom as mercilessly as I would have liked about her bike but I consoled myself: in a few months, we’ll be seeing them almost every day. Then on Sunday I learned that some of our other neighbors bought a Bullitt. We’re moving to the street of box bikes, whoo hoo!

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Christmas tree by bike, again

Another December means another trip to get a Christmas tree by bike. So far we have failed to match the experience of carrying a tree by bike that we had in the first year, which was laughably easy. Last year the tree fit in the bike just fine, but Matt dropped the Bullitt and lost one of the support struts holding up the rain canopy, which left the kids miserably cold until we got the new part. That meant the post-tree hauling experience was less than fun.

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

So this year we switched back to the MinUte because I was paranoid about losing a support strut again, even assuming that we removed the canopy in the garage. It turns out that a midtail is great for a smaller tree, but a 7-foot tree with attached stand is a bit beyond the scope of our bike. Matt rode for part of the trip and walked the bike for part of it. The tree was firmly attached with bungees, but so back-heavy that the bike wanted to do wheelies. Maybe it would work if we were heavier riders. Next year, it’s back to the Bullitt (with an extremely careful removal of the canopy and full parts inventory before departure).

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

However we did resurrect last year’s tradition of me riding the kids home on the Brompton. This was a bigger challenge than last year given that I’m not as strong as I used to be. For the last hill my son jumped off and walked with the tree-bike, so I was only carrying my daughter. Ultimately I made it up a decent hill on an unassisted bike with my daughter, who is now pushing 45 pounds, in the front seat. Not bad.

Although I tend to think bringing a tree home by bike is nothing special when I see all the cargo biking families who’ve posted pictures of themselves doing the same thing, it is evidently still pretty avant-garde here in San Francisco, because the lot manager recognized us from previous years. He did report that some families bring their tree home on scooters. And although our hauling strategy has not yet been perfected, it still beats waiting for one of the hotly contested spots in the parking lot and vacuuming a gazillion pine needles out of the car, an experience which historically made us reluctant to buy a tree at all. It is a big deal that we’ve now had some kind of tree three years in a row, as we’re (a) technically a Jewish family and (b) pretty lazy about the whole getting-stuff aspect of the holidays (my kids typically score socks for Christmas). In my defense, though, I always take the two weeks of school holidays off and spend gobs of time with the kids.

We need happi coats if we're going to join the mochi pounding crew.

We need happi coats if we’re going to join the mochi pounding crew.

On Sunday we went to our daughter’s preschool for a winter concert and mochitsuki, which was a bit early for a mochitsuki but pretty incredible nonetheless. Watching a pile of sushi rice turn into a gelatinous mass of delicious mochi is one of those have-to-see-it-to-believe-it experiences, plus we got to eat the mochi. My only complaint about the experience is that the bike parking around Japantown is pretty substandard. But evidently the car parking situation was worse, as a bunch of families arrived late.

P.S. A zero-waste Christmas extra: my gift wrapping strategy. We are pretty mellow about the present-aspect of Christmas, but there are some gifts under the tree. One year my son even got a bike (the bike was left unwrapped).  But most gifts are wrapped in fabric. Thanks to our exposure to Japanese culture, I picked up a few furoshiki in Japantown years ago to wrap gifts, and I reuse them every year. (For furoshiki wrapping techniques, ask the internet, which is almost as eager to teach people how to use furoshiki as it is to teach people how to wear scarves.) When I run out of furoshiki—I didn’t buy a lot because they are kind of pricey for something I use few times a year—I wrap gifts in my scarves or in our flour sack dish towels, which are free because we already own them. I know, know, dish towels: classy! But they are big and square and hey, white is a Christmas color. For larger gifts, I’ll use a pillowcase. And for huge presents, well, we have sheets and a fabric shower curtain. A watercolor pencil will write on fabric and come out in the wash, allowing the lazy wrapper to skip not only wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, but a gift tag as well. Some people make their own furoshiki, or pick up square scarves while thrifting, but ever since I had the dish-towel insight I just can’t bring myself to make the effort.

The tree at home and decorated

The tree at home and decorated

Presents for other people typically go out in a glass jar that would otherwise have been recycled, a flour sack dish towel that I wouldn’t be traumatized to never see again (they’re cheap), or some of my kids’ artwork (always my first choice, but not always available in appropriate sizes).

Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, Kona, San Francisco, zero waste

The Christmas bike: Jamis Laser 20”

Our son liked his old balance bike so much that he was reluctant to share it with his sister, even as he outgrew it and she grew into it. Until recently we had not considered getting him another bike, as larger-sized bicycles came with pedals, which he had never really shown much interest in using. His initial attraction to renting a kid’s bike in Copenhagen was immediately overtaken by the fun of riding on the back of our bikes. We assumed that he’d come around to riding his own bike eventually, but estimated that that interest would build over the course of a year or two. That didn’t concern us much given that both logistically and traffic-wise it’s unrealistic for him to ride on his own to school and back. We were surprised but pleased when after a few months of riding with us he said he wanted a “big kid” bike with pedals.

We didn’t take our son’s interest in a new bike very seriously at first, but as time passed, he became increasingly insistent that a bike was what he wanted for Christmas. I’m not sure where he learned that a bicycle was a traditional Christmas gift, but fair enough, it was. When we mentioned at one point that there is a bicycle summer camp in San Francisco, where kids can both learn to ride and take day trips across the Golden Gate Bridge, to cooking classes at the Ferry Building, through city parks, and to the zoo, his desire for a bike reached a fever pitch: he wanted a bike, and he wanted to learn to ride it in time for Wheel Kids summer camp.

Although buying so many bikes in a few months was starting to feel ridiculous, we also felt like it would be crazy to miss the opportunity to get our son riding when he was so motivated. And he correctly pointed out that he was now the only person in the family without his own bicycle. So onward: another bicycle. The selection of children’s bicycles is almost as confusing as the selection of adult bicycles, but mercifully, there are many fewer models available and they are cheaper. Our son, a very tall six-year-old, seemed the right size for a bike with 20” wheels, which would probably last him until middle school.  We hardly needed the advice to avoid big-box store kids’ bikes, as there are no such stores in San Francisco. Once again my brother-in-law offered advice that could get us to a decent ride. He recommended Wheels of Justice Cyclery, a Bay Area shop specializing in children’s bikes that not only had the coolest name ever but offered a buyback program, where any bicycle purchased from them could be returned anytime and 50% of the price would be taken off the next bicycle. The idea behind it was to help parents resist the temptation to save money by buying a bike that was too big and that scared kids off of riding for good.

The downside of Wheels of Justice is that they are located in Oakland. Getting there involves a brutal drive that promised to send our kids, no fans of driving anyway, into complete meltdowns. We weren’t absolutely sure about the appropriate size of bicycle and knew we wanted to bring our son for a fitting. So despite our fears, we packed both kids into the car one evening a couple of weeks before Christmas for a trip to what we said was a surprise destination. Our daughter screamed bloody murder for the entire half hour it took us to get off the Bay Bridge and into Montclair. By the time we parked the car, I wanted to kill my brother-in-law for sending us across the Bay. Mercifully, our son passed out cold about five minutes into our daughter’s screaming fit. Less mercifully, we had to wake him up on arrival, at which point we had two howling kids to wrangle. Fortunately Montclair has a frozen yogurt shop, which we carried them into, ordering each an extra large cup. By the time they’d finished eating, they had mellowed to the point that they were only in very bad moods. Onward to Wheels of Justice!

To my surprise, our son had not made the connection between his desire for a bicycle and this trip, and was completely gobsmacked when we arrived at a bicycle shop. His mood immediately ratcheted up to delighted. Our daughter spotted some bikes with streamers and perked up as well. Living up to their promise, Wheels of Justice primarily stocked kids’ bikes, and given that it was the Christmas season, there were a lot of them on the floor. There were also a lot of people buying kids’ bikes; unlike our other bicycles, this was clearly not going to be a purchase heavily discounted from list price. The selection of bikes ranged pretty widely, from simple single-speeds to geared mountain bikes with suspension forks (which I still think of as the thingy that holds the front wheel on the bike that looks like it has springs inside). Thanks to the Wheel Kids site (and once again vetted by my brother-in-law, who has in a few total hours over the last five years spared us many bad decisions) we knew what we wanted as a first bike: a single-speed bike with coaster brakes and a hand brake for the rear wheel (not the front wheel because gripping a front wheel brake too hard could send a kid over the handlebars). Happily, this is also the cheapest kind of decent kids’ bike.

Classic Christmas morning photo

It took a while to find someone to help us as the shop was slammed, but Matt was happy to cruise the selection of commuter gloves while the kids climbed on and off various bikes. When someone in the shop was finally free he confirmed that we wanted a 20” bike after popping our son on and off a couple of bikes, and told us that given what we wanted there were two options: a Jamis Laser or a COBO. They could build us a COBO in the next week that we could reserve and drive back to pick up, or sell us a Laser that night. The guy at the shop didn’t see much difference between the bikes except that they thought the Laser had a nicer paint job. Remembering the drive we’d had already, we bought the Laser.

Our son, who is a model of patience and discretion among six-year-olds, accepted that this was the last he would see of his bike until Christmas, and even pretended on occasion over the next two weeks that he didn’t know he’d be getting one. His first ride was on Christmas Day, and he needed one of us to hold the back of his jacket the whole time. His second ride was a couple of days later, and by the end of that ride, he was riding on his own. Admittedly his strategy for finishing a ride still involves riding headlong directly at one of us and yelling, “Grab my bike! I need to stop now!”

The Jamis Laser has some weaknesses, but I’m not sure that there is much we could buy that is better. Our son is familiar with our bikes, and immediately noticed the lack of fenders, lights, and a bell. He has argued that these are gaps that compromise safety and function and would like these accessories added to his bike as soon as possible. (Of course, he is six years old, and thus I suspect that he would cheerfully accessorize with anything and everything up to and including streamers on the handlebars.) I’m not sure that we can add fenders to the bike (we asked, and the verdict was that it is unlikely), but the rest is easy enough; however I feel like the bell at least should come standard. Our son also wondered why his bike didn’t come with a U-lock, as it has not escaped him that we lock up our own bikes even within the already double-locked building garage (I myself have often wondered the same thing about my own bike). Finally, we all find this bike to be pretty heavy for a child. Our son is strong for his age but lifting the bike is real work for him; this was a big disappointment after the ultralight balance bike.

We were surprised and delighted to see one of his 1st grade classmates, a friend since the first day of kindergarten, riding the exact same bicycle, right down to the color, on New Year’s Day. His parents don’t bike commute to school, so we didn’t realize they even had bikes, but like us, they were out for a family ride on Sunday in Golden Gate Park: one parent had a child seat for their daughter, the other carried her balance bike, and their son rode alongside on his Laser. Seeing our friends out like us on bikes, and our kids’ matching bicycles, pretty much made our day. What can I say? We’re cheap dates.

Girl on Schwinn

In defense of the Laser, there is a lot of crap out there people expect kids to ride. Other than an amazing old Schwinn one girl was riding, our son’s bike was the most functional bicycle we saw in the parade of new Christmas bikes in Golden Gate Park over the last week of the year. The awesome Schwinn was, according to the rider’s grandmother, 35 years old and her mother’s bike before her, stored  in the garage (under a bag of lawn fertilizer…) awaiting a new generation all those decades. That bike did have fenders, as well as huge sweeping handlebars and a kickstand and a full chainguard. The Laser, to its credit, also has a kickstand and a chainguard. The Schwinn did not have a hand brake, and that is a strong point in the Laser’s favor, because the only way that poor girl could stop the bike quickly was to reverse the pedals, at which point she would fall right off the bike. (I suspect it would be easy to add a hand brake.) Both bikes weigh a ton considering that they are meant for children. The absence of hand brakes was epidemic among other kids’ bikes we saw, many of which seemed to rattle aggressively even after they stopped moving. Based on their lack of major brand labels I assume that these bikes were purchased at Target or Walmart. Although I understand the temptation, because those bikes are cheap and because employees at Target/Walmart typically don’t treat kids like they are radioactive, I’m glad we went to a real bike shop (and I’m particularly glad it was kid-friendly). Despite my annoyance about what’s missing from the Laser, it is clear that we could have done much worse.

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Filed under family biking, reviews, San Francisco

SFBC 2011 Holiday Lights Ride

Thus far we have been very reluctant to ride our bikes at night with the kids. Because we are even more outside the mainstream than the average parent carrying kids on a bicycle, who is already, let’s face it, way more than two standard deviations away from any American’s definition of mainstream, we didn’t really pick up riding at all until late fall, heading into winter. Although this is a good way to get great deals on bicycles, and we’re grateful for that, I’m sure that this transition would have been easier if it stayed light later and if we didn’t have to spend time before each ride wrapping the kids up against the wind. That doesn’t really take any longer than putting them in a car seat, but it’s unfamiliar.

My daughter manages to make this look cute

Over time we’ve gotten increasingly comfortable on solo rides, to the point that I was riding home through Golden Gate Park at 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings after my Japanese class, which given that I have good lights no longer seems particularly remarkable to me, but did raise some eyebrows at work when it came up at one point. I have many colleagues who live in the suburbs. (An unexpected bonus of my bicycle commute is that I no longer have to hear daily paeans to the environmental superiority of the Toyota Prius, the bridge-crossing commuter’s vehicle of choice. Granted, I got tired of that because I am envious; a Prius is way cooler than a minivan. For that matter a Yugo is cooler than a minivan.) However when heading out with the kids after 4pm we’ve pretty much stuck with driving. Lately we’ve been feeling ready to expand our range.

As a kick-starter to nighttime riding, and because our son loves riding on the bike and staying up late, we decided to go out on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Holiday Lights Ride. It seemed like a fun seasonal thing to do now that we’ve mostly given up presents (excepting a couple for the small, long since wrapped). Leaving the house, the kids were already hopped up, especially because they saw that I was carrying several dozen lollipops in the hopes that the unfamiliar sugar rush would keep them awake. We knew that it was going to be a windy ride so in our usual last-minute scuffle I ended up using an emergency Mylar blanket as our daughter’s wind break, which I attached to her seat with a binder clip. Classy! Of course SFBC reps took a photo of this travesty.

I was pretty sure that the ride would start late but we were nervous and thus some of the first people to arrive. And at first the crowd looked pretty scraggly, frankly, made up solely of the kind of hardcore long-time city riders who always made me think that two-wheeled commuting was the exclusive domain of single, childless bike shop mechanics with serious tattoos and dreadlocks who have spent decades carefully curating rust colonies on bicycles that are older than I am. Nice guys, but we never seemed to have much in common. But although we were the first family to show up we were by no means the last. Before we left the Panhandle we’d met a dad with a Yepp mini on the front, another dad with a Yepp maxi on the back, some kids on their own bikes, a dad riding a tandem with his teenage daughter, and a mom and dad riding a tandem with a babyseat on the top tube between them, which was unquestionably the most awesome family bicycle I’ve ever seen. (If I had any hope of being competent enough to take pictures while riding I would post the dozen photos I wanted to take of this family.) Later on we even saw the rarest and most elusive family bicycle setup ever to roam these gritty urban streets: a bicycle trailer. On this particular ride, even I would have been willing to put my kids in a trailer; when you’re riding with 100 other people, traffic and the width of the bike lanes aren’t really issues.

We loved this ride. Every time we go out like this we end up remembering that we’ve forgotten once again how much we love this city. Sure, it was weird to hit a four-way stop as a crowd and figure out how many bicycles should go through the intersection for every turn between cars, and we got spread out pretty quickly due to traffic lights; this wasn’t Critical Mass.  But in addition to being around more family bikes than I’ve ever seen before, there were at least two bicycles set up as rolling speakers blasting holiday tunes, and SFBC volunteers marked all the turns by squatting the intersections and pounding away on what sounded suspiciously like cowbells. Nobody was in much of a hurry, and it quickly became apparent that this event draws a lot of once-a-year riders, because for the first time ever Matt and I were actually passing people on the hills even with our kids on board. The first climb up to Alamo Square seemed pretty daunting, but by the time we hit Pacific Heights the company and the sights made hauling uphill mostly a non-issue. We’ve gotten to be stronger riders (we never had to walk) and the ride was so much fun we eventually stopped noticing the grades. Up, down, it’s all okay.

Of course we couldn’t stay until the end. Our daughter had been so hyped up by the prospect of going out late that she’d missed her nap, and about an hour in started protesting violently whenever anyone complimented her Mylar blanket. “I don’t WANT to have a shiny BLANKET!” she screamed, prompting tandem-dad to say, “What? I don’t see any shiny blanket.” From behind us another couple of voices piped up with, “Nope, no shiny blankets here!” “Nothing shiny at all that I can see!” She subsided with a suspicious glare but passed out a few minutes later, her head listing heavily from side to side as we rode. Pretty much everyone who passed us from then on took a photo of this and showed it to me at the next intersection, but we knew at that point we’d have to peel out early. When we got to Presidio Heights we turned back toward home. Ironically, after sleeping through most of that party on wheels, she woke up again on the dark and silent streets of Golden Gate Park.

Still pining for the wind in its needles

While we were waiting at the light at the bottom of the long hill that takes us home, a man on the sidewalk ran out to the corner. “I saw you guys going the other way a couple of hours ago when I was headed into to the restaurant and I thought you looked great!” he said. “And here you are again just as I’m leaving! How funny is that?”

Happy holidays!

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Filed under family biking, rides, San Francisco

Christmas tree by bike

Picking the best tree

I never realized until I began reading family bike blogs that there is a whole… thing about carrying home Christmas trees on bikes. Subculture? I’ll admit that it looked wildly cool to me. I am impressionable like that. Granted, Matt is Jewish, but it’s a California Jewishness, where significant proportions of his family haul in pine trees and call it good as long as they use a lot of blue ornaments. Our son identifies as Jewish but would probably have foresworn centuries of faith if that were necessary to get a tree. So we had a weekend morning and we got a tree.

The easy way to move a Christmas tree home by bike, for a given quantity of easy, seems to be to dump it into a box bike. We don’t have one of those. Neither do we have option #2, an Xtracycle Freeloader. However we do have a stubby cargo bike. And we have a lot of bungee cords. Problem? No problem! I proposed before we left that we bring the tree home on the bike and Matt looked at me like I was completely insane. I pointed out that last weekend we’d watched a tree fly off the top of an SUV on the freeway, landing in a shower of fragrant kindling, a sight that made quite an impression (as did watching the couple inside put their faces in their hands as they pulled over). Also the lot isn’t far from home; plenty close enough to walk; I told him if it were a bust he could bike home in less than five minutes and come back with the car. He rolled his eyes and agreed.

Lighter than a first grader!

I walked over with the kids and the stroller, Matt biked over, waiting for us at each intersection. When we got there, my son picked a 6’ tree in less than five minutes; in the next five minutes, two other people asked to buy it (our tree was the best one). After it was wrapped up, the guy working at the lot asked where our car was. We said we brought a bike, and it was sitting right there. He said, “That’s nice” and asked us where our car was. We clarified that we wanted to bring the tree home on the bike that was sitting right there. He looked at us like we were completely insane. Then he tried to stand the tree up on the back deck. Less than a minute later, we had laid it down and bungeed it to the back deck. It was surprisingly solid. “Well, this is a first for me,” said the Christmas tree lot guy, visibly impressed.

Matt biked home, we walked home. When we got back he’d unloaded it, walked it upstairs, and locked the bike in the garage. Easiest Christmas tree shopping expedition ever! No needles in the van to vacuum up, no fighting for parking at the lot entrance (people were already honking at each other when we arrived—happy holidays!) and no stress. Plus we got the usual strange looks from the neighbors. Awesome!

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Filed under cargo, family biking, San Francisco