Thursday, November 22, 2007


This morning, Alice, Ryan, Sam, and I loaded up in our station wagon and zipped across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin. We decided to get some exercise before the big turkey meal. It was a glorious day, and as we approached Mill Valley Alice squealed, "It looks so magical over here, Mama."

We drove up to the railroad grade on Mount Tam. Wearing a pink fairy costume and black patent leather shoes, Alice marched up the mountain. Ryan ended up carrying Sam most of the way. The kids collected rocks and pieces of colorful lichen. We talked about redwood trees and hawks. And we took in dazzling views of virtually the entire Bay Area.

After the hike, we stopped by Old Mill, a public elementary school, at the foot of Mount Tam. The kids climbed on sparkling new playground equipment. The yard was landscaped with Mexican sage, native grasses, and big, old sycamore trees. There was an outdoor amphitheater and a lovely courtyard with Japanese maples, their leaves bright oranges and reds. We peeked inside the gym with shiny hardwood floors, basketball hoops, and California Distinguished School banners.

I wondered, "Would I want to live over here?"

My husband, Ryan, would move in minute. His passion is cycling, and he rides his bike to Marin nearly every weekend. And I certainly have an appreciation for the outdoors.

But then I thought back to our family dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant on Geary the night before. The restaurant was filled with people speaking different languages, and Alice and Sam nibbled on seaweed, tofu, pickled sprouts. They cooked chicken on a barbecue in the middle of our table. I'm not ready to give that up, at least not yet.


  1. Here I go again.

    I was in Mill Valley today too, at Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and it WAS gorgeous. It's where I grew up and attended school myself (Tam High '71). My kids would love to live near Mama's Royal Cafe, and my daughter near the bead store on Locust near Miller -- both walking distance from their grandparents' house.

    When we were looking at houses (we bought in '88), there wasn't really a cost difference between a modest house in San Francisco and its rough equivalent in Mill Valley.

    The thought about the Korean restaurant is just what always hits me, though.

    When I attended Park School in Mill Valley K-6 (1959-65), there were two African-American students at the school -- the children of the first AA family to live within the Mill Valley city limits. I just looked at the Calif. Dept. of Ed demographics, and guess how many AA students attend Park School today -- two. Not much progress toward diversity there.

    My "Korean restaurant moments" have included the multicultural potluck that my kids' former SFUSD elementary school, Lakeshore, had and I think still has every year. Tables of different Asian foods (Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, South Asian); Mexican and Central/South American items; fried chicken and greens. The first time I walked into that event when my oldest was in K, I was about overcome with awe, not to mention hunger. My initial thought was that my friends in Mill Valley would eat their hearts out.

    In middle school the same sense has hit me when I've signed the permission slips for the ACT matinee field trips that the 8th-grade honors language arts/social studies class does five times during the year -- this is the class my son had three years ago and my daughter has now. The teacher has an arrangement for low-cost ACT tickets ($10-$12), and a small scholarship fund for students who can't afford it. Beforehand, the students study the play they'll be seeing at ACT. Then they walk half a block to catch the Muni Metro K car on Ocean, eat at a fast food downtown (I know, it's not organic locally grown sustainable etc.), see the play, take the K back to the school. They discuss and write about the play afterward. My daughter has been walking around singing music from "Sweeney Todd" (yup! it's gruesome!) for several weeks since that trip.

    Of course my friends' kids in Mill Valley schools are having many enriching experiences too. I went with one of my best friends to pick up her kid at Old Mill School a few years ago, though, and it was almost amusing. I've always been able to pick my blond kids right out on the playground, even at Lakeshore with 600 kids. Blonds definitely stood out. But all the kids at Old Mill looked just like mine.

    Also, the pressure to be perfect when you live in Mill Valley is relentless and ruthless, especially on women. That keeps me from having too many regrets, even today when I gazed at Mt. Tam against that clear, clear blue sky.

  2. I don't think this question would have come up for us if it was not kindergarten time. Wish you could have the best of both.

    Sometimes when I go over with my kids I have an "ahhhh" experience. I feel my body relax a bit and everything moves slower. It feels peaceful and calmer than the city. I don't know if I moved over if that would make me more mindful or eventually lead to a sense of isolation and boredom.

    For the same cost you get more house and yard. It would be nice to have more space and a backyard. I imagine my kids outside more, building forts, running, playing and being closer to nature.
    My husband loves the idea that all the kids in the neighborhood go to the same school. The schools are well funded, scores are high, and the campuses have trees and grass.

    But then the list of what I would miss about the city is so long, I wonder if I could really make the change.

  3. I grew up in Mill Valley, from age 7 in 1957, to 1971. It just is not the same as it was, of course, because of people like you moving there. Progess - from oldsmobiles to volvos to BMWs and noy SUVs polluting the fine formerly rural air...

    In 71 my parents split up and Mom and her new hubby moved to Novato. I just inherited their double-wide and am happy to be a homeowner in Marin finally (Thanks Mom!), and even happier that you are choosing to stay in SF where everything is so much better. Marin has too many yuppies already!

  4. Oh Kate, were you just baiting me to post a comment? Growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s I had many "Korean restaurant" moments, which I thoroughly appreciated. But now I live in Mill Valley and we STILL have Korean restaurant moments, all the time. Our favorite Korean BBQ is on Geary and it's just fifteen minutes from our house -- closer than from some parts of San Francisco. We are in the City all the time, so I do feel children can have the urban experience even if they don't live within city limits.
    However, it is absolutely true there are few to no African-American or Hispanic children in the classrooms of Mill Valley elementary schools. This can not be disputed. Classroom diversity is indeed something valuable that you lose when you move to Marin.

  5. Jennifer,

    How do you like the Mill Valley schools? Did you move over for the schools?

  6. To anonymous who grew up in Mill Valley starting in 1957:

    Kate is providing us with an amazing and extremely helpful blog. Why do you feel the need to insult her? How do you know she is a yuppie? Have you seen her tax returns? Do you know what kind of car she drives? No? Me neither. What I can tell is that she is a loving mom trying to make good decisions for her daughter while providing a free service to the community, one that has been a wonderful resource for many parents looking at K this year. Why make rude remarks such as being "even happier that you are choosing to stay in SF where everything is so much better." Kate did not say that everything was better in SF but rather that there are trade-offs, and that, for her, she's not sure she is ready to give up what the City has to offer. From what I've seen on this blog, Kate is a kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and generous person, someone any community is lucky to have as a member. I find it interesting that you have managed to read something so negative into her posts.

    We have had heated discussions about pros and cons re: various kindergarten topics on this blog. Most have remained respectful to those with differing opinions and have led to enlightening conversations. Not only was the end of your post not respectful but also it was a personal attack. Your post wasn't about kindergarten or even education in general. If you think Kate and/or the rest of us are loathesome yuppies, why do you read this blog? And fear not, I have no plans to move to Marin.

  7. Yes, Jennifer, please tell us about Mill Valley schools...

  8. If you are seriously considering Marin Day moving to Marin makes sense. Your children will be in Marin for most of the week anyway. You can always visit your favorite Korean restaurant on the weekends.

    Kids learn more about other cultures when they go to school in a diverse environment and make friends with all different types of kids, rich, poor, white, black, brown, etc. Visiting a restaurant filled with people, regardless of color or heritage, they don't know isn't the same thing.

  9. Any community would be lucky to have Kate as a member -- I have a secret hope that one of these years she will join me in Marin, though it seems increasingly unlikely. . .
    I have two children in the Mill Valley elementary schools, and we are very happy. The schools are good. They're not as amazing and creative as a great private like, say, a Marin Country Day. But we weren't looking for great, we were looking for good. And we got it.
    Schools were part of the equation when we moved from the outer Sunset six years ago, though they were not the deciding factor. Honestly, I think the deciding factor was sun.
    But getting back to schools, reading Kate's posts it sounds like there are some terrific public school options in San Francisco these days. Especially the immersion programs -- not available here. No languages offered at all in elementary school, which seems so wrong. My son was in a San Francisco daycare where they spoke Cantonese, and he could speak some Chinese when we moved him to preschool in Marin. Totally lost now. I think if there's one thing that makes me wistful about leaving the City it's having given up options like a Chinese immersion program.

  10. My fellow Mill Valley native does have a valid point that the town has changed drastically.

    It's so obvious that it's cliched to point out that the block of Miller Avenue that did contain the pharmacy, furniture store and workaday local clothing store, Mayer's, is now a warren of artsy galleries and boutiques, of course with a Fair Trade coffee store. The Book Depot used to be the actual Greyhound bus station. There's an upscale shopping mall on the corner of East Blithedale and Camino Alto that used to be the Purity supermarket, in a giant quonsett hut. The Food King is now the Marin Theatre Company (I think that's still the case), and the G&G Super became, of course, Whole Foods. It's all a bit like Disneyland, and a wonderful place to visit.

    In contrast to the other Mill Valley native, Kate, I personally urge you to stay in San Francisco and raise your kids in our wonderful and DIVERSE city!
    We want you here.

    My husband rides his bike across the bridge to Marin many weekends too, and takes the ferry back -- when you go from San Francisco you get to include the GG Bridge and the ferry!

    Also, when you live here you can put on a little cellulite or gain a couple of crow's feet without suffering shame and disgrace as would be the case in Marin.

    Oh, and one little fun off-topic anecdote. When I grew up, everyone totally believed and passed on the notion that Mt. Tamalpais was named after "Tamalpa," the "sleeping woman." A friend who's also an M.V. native and a local history buff tells me that legend was invented around the 1920s by a PR man working for the M.V. Chamber of Commerce.

  11. Clarifying -- I meant that in contrast to the Marinite who said "please don't live in my town," I'm saying you're urged to live in MY town.

  12. yes, for some reason people's blatant wealth is more disturbing to me as displayed in marin than it is here in SF. it's not rational, i know. i think it's because somehow i just expect a certain type of rich selfish prick to live in cities and people here are so unapologetic and, quite frankly, honest about it. i think marin affluence is a bit disingenuous. it's like, "no really, i'm middle class, just like you! we just happen to live in a $1.8m home with a herd of french-speaking koi and eat only locally grown organic hydroponic omega-3-fortified food that our twin el salvadoran nanny/masseuses pick up on their way into the gated meadow consortium." i guess i'm (idiotically) shocked when i see them cruising along the semirural byways in their giant climate-controlled SUVs with all the fixins'. there are plenty of big consumers of that ilk here in the city too.

    the funny part is, you can eke out quite a satisfactory urban life here even if you're not a natural urbanite (i'm not). SF is good that way. i get your points about the whole korean-food-moment thing (both sides). the thing about real cities is that they are, ultimately, anarchic entities that resist "quaint"-ification and design. they are messy. they are dirty. they can be ugly. they do not cooperate if your master plan is to Give Your Kids the Best of Everything. but at least they are REAL.

    i guess i have the same attitude about marin that mariners have about SF -- great to visit for the day. glad i am so close. nice hiking trails. a little sun once in a while ain't so bad. nice male asses in those midlife-crisis bike shorts. oh, and don't let the tree branch hit your ass on the way back to the bridge....

  13. I just read Caroline's (welcome back) and Kim's (Wow! Was I laughing hard when I read your post, I almost blew tea out my nose) posts, and just had to add my "two cents". If one reads Kate's "Marin" blog post, it's possible to get the impression that SF public schools are, by extrapolation, the exact opposite of Marin schools. In other words, they lack "sparkling new playground equipment" and yards "landscaped with Mexican sage, native grasses...", etc.., etc. My child will not start until next year, so I can't claim to know as much as Caroline. Nevertheless, I've gone been on a bunch of school tours already. Yes, many of SFUSD buildings are older. For example, West Portal had an engraving near to one of its doors that indicates that it was built in the 1920's. Nevertheless, I find that a number of the buildings are still quite beautiful and SPOTLESS. I was really impressed with Lawton, Sunset, and Francis Scott Key and how clean each school was kept. Jefferson and Sunset also had brand new or new play structures that looked so good, I wanted to climb on them. West Portal had landscape architect drawings posted on its fences showing plans for a big campus "greening" project, and if the plans are any indication, it's going to be beautiful. The family and I visited the Miraloma rummage sale a couple of weeks ago (The baked goods for sale were awesome, by the way!), and it looked as if they were in the midst of planting a beautiful garden (if I'm not mistaken) on one side of their building. We also found the Alice Fong Yu and Diane Feinstein campuses to have a number of beautiful modern buildings. I also liked the architecture of FSK. A bunch of the schools we visited had views of the Pacific Ocean (admittedly, only when the fog was missing, but hey, it's the Bay Area!). Really, the schools are quite nice. Not much different from the suburban schools I attended in So. California in terms of layout, cleanliness, and beautiful student work on the walls. I honestly don't think, from a facilities standpoint, things are as dire and unappealing as one might extrapolate from Kate's "Marin" post.

  14. P.S.--I apologize for the typos in the preceding post. I was trying to clean the kitchen up after dinner while typing, and it's almost bath time. I hopefully got the point across to other nervous, first-time public school parents like us that the schools are fine!

  15. Here in the Bay Area, everywhere to live is so wonderful. Marin is wonderful. San Francisco is wonderful. The East Bay and Penninsula have wonderful neighborhoods and exceptional schools (Kate, ever think about Rockridge? Schools there rock.)

    I think that you pick the place to live that makes your life the simplest. As to me, I would like my job, my home and my school to be all within a 15 minute drive. That's why I crossed MCDS and other non-SF schools off my list - I can't handle the inconvenience.

    But everyone and every family is different. Perhaps what you are seeing, Kate, is that there are so many great choices! I hear actually that many people who send their kids to MCDS end up moving there because they can't handle the commute, bus notwithstanding. So if you think this is something you may want to do, maybe that's a good option for you.

    Hopefully you will get all your top choices. Personally, I think you deserve that, given the public service you are providing with this exceptional blog.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Kate! And Caroline, Kim and all the other anonymouses, even the not-as-nice-ones, for helping me through this process and helping me see all the great options out there.

  16. Can I just be a tiny bit snarky and still appreciate Kate and her blog? Please?
    Something about this post rubbed me the wrong way. Apologies in advance to Kate, who may not have meant what I am ascribing to her, but: geez. If you want shiny wood floors and CA Distinguished Schools banners (lotsa those in SF, too, btw) and landscaped gardens, well then by all means move to Marin. It seems like sometimes you get your head turned by some of the more superficial aspects of touring and forget to see what is really important: are the kids happy? Are the teachers holding their interest? Is the principal effective? Is the environment nurturing? All of those things are possible, even without the shiny wood floors and the landscaped gardens.

  17. Kate,

    I am so appreciative you put opened the Marin discussion. I know so many people who pose that question to themselves when looking at all the kindergarten options.
    Some of the responses have a defensive tone but I think when you consider Marin and Marin schools it is not a criticism of SF schools. So, I hope nobody responds with, good, go.
    Your childs school experience, school community, and lifestyle will be different than an urban experience. More possibility of riding bikes on your street and having neighbor go to the same school. Not as likely to be the only one from your preschool not going to private.
    For those who have never considered "Marin?" or think SF public schools offer all that Marin do, its one less choice to make. I feel lucky to have so many great choices but it is difficult to make such big decisions.
    Kate, glad to hear it crossed your mind too.

  18. i think we can slot this discussion under the broader category of "is san francisco overrated, especially by san franciscans." to that, i would say, ultimately, no. sure, we turn a blind eye to a lot of stuff here. but, for me, it's not the food (good though it may be) or the skyline or the cultural amenities or public transport or what have you -- it's the people. i am AMAZED at how i continue, year after year, to make dozens of new friends worth having. amazing, wonderful friends -- interesting people who choose to live here because they want to be with other people who want to live a curious, noncomplacent life. i have not lived anywhere else where making friends with people of like mind is so easy as an adult. life here doesn't revolve exclusively around children, and that is part of it (and, coincidentally, good for the children, too, i suspect, so they don't become horrid little tyrants). and people here tend to be walkers, less isolated in their own nuclear families and more open to small lively interactions with others. after a day in marin -- where my parents are living temporarily in an apartment, incidentally, so i go a lot -- i am always distracted by the pretty for a while. but there's a feeling of relief and welcoming when i cross the bridge, back into the fog. there IS something special and unreproducible here -- that's why people rail against it so much. it's the folks. where else could a 30something like myself become friends with a man in his 60s at the local cafe, see her own girlfriends sans kids all the time and get support from other self-employed artist-moms in trying to muddle through the work/family/art challenges? it's unique. there is something about suburban and especially suburban/affluent lifestyles that isolates people, especially women, into their nuclear families -- and not in a good way. you get more frightened, more self-involved and more conservative as time passes. i know, because i grew up in one and i saw what it did to my mom's generation.

    if this sounds self-congratulatory, i plead guilty. lash me with an appropriately al dente squid-ink-dyed soba noodle now!

  19. I feel compelled to jump in here as a native San Franciscan though this has nothing to do with schools. (Sorry Kate.) Do you think, Kim, that we all feel oppressed by the environments in which we grew up? San Francisco is wonderful and unique and I'm there almost every day. (Do people really "rail" against it? Who?) But I see it and experience it totally differently -- am acutely aware of its affluence, of the social pressures, of the need to look a certain way. Much more so than I am in Marin. Perhaps it's because SF shaped me and my anxieties and will never be the clean slate on which I can write my own story.
    When I moved to Marin it was like, whew, free at last!
    Women don't turn into isolated, self-involved Stepfords when they move a few miles north. There are Stepfords in Marin and Lord knows there are Stepfords in San Francisco. I guess my point is, everyone has to find her own place and the factors are complicated and personal. (My suburban children may be "horrid little tyrants" but I do know a couple of nice ones.)

  20. Seriously. There are a ton of Stepford Wives here in so-called Diverse San Francisco. And most of them send their kids to school at private schools, with the favorites being the single-sex school, and the oh-so-tony MCDS.

    This conversation bothers me a little because it seems to define the options as San Francisco or Marin. Most people whom I know who leave the City go to the East Bay. Otherwise, they go to the Penninsula, e.g. San Mateo or Burlingame, if not more south.

    Marin seems to bring up so many issues in people because it has the appearance of the place where white people escape if they can't take the City. Maybe that is accurate, I don't know. I don't like bridges, personally!

  21. I personally have never pictured Marin as a place "white people go if they can't take the city". I thought of it as a place people go because they like it or they can't afford housing and /or school in the city. I think with a couple of kids its alot easier for the affluent to stay in SF and make it work.

  22. Totally anecdotally, the families I know who have left for cost reasons have headed to the East Bay. El Cerrito or Richmond (and then they really stress about the schools), Concord, or the Berkeley flats or Fruitvale in Oakland--tough choices since admission to the schools in Oakland is based on real estate, and prices for homes in the "good" school neighborhoods are prohibitive; these are working class (though striving to be middle class) and mostly Latino families, not folks with resources to buy into any high-performing districts. A lot of them would have stayed in SF with its many good public and parochial school choices but got Ellis Acted or TIC'ed out of the Mission during the last boom and its aftershocks.

  23. What a great discussion. We were a minority family moving here from NYC. The beauty and lifestyle of Marin appealed to me in many ways - and lucky for us money was not the issue - but my spouse pointed out how lilly white it was. We are both professionals and were used to being in a room full of white folk and would have been fine. However there was no way we wanted our kids being the only 'coloreds' in an otherwise homogeneous school and eventually dating environment.
    We are now in SF and if we move schools it will be south down the peninsula or east across the bay. Marin is simply not an option for us until the kids are in college.

  24. So, amongst its many powers, Korean Barbecue has the power to enhance our children's education as well. Soju is also very enlightening, I might add.

  25. I'm convinced kimchi is what has special educational properties.
    Where can one get good kimchi in mill valley?