Everyday magic

Every now and then I despair of this country we’ve chosen to live in. On days when we have to pay for a visit to a doctor, or yet another gunman deprives families of the lives of their loved ones, or Donald Trump spouts even more repulsive sexist and fascist bigotry, I wonder if we made the right choice.

But most days, there’s magic here. Looking out of our window is like taking a permanent vacation. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge never gets old. And on Wednesdays, Troy arrives to teach the children piano.

The kids were about to declare war on piano lessons, but, just in the nick of time, we found Troy. He’s a gentle man, with cowboy boots and a waterfall of long, dark, curly hair that many women would kill for. He teaches improvisation by ear and the children love it. The house is filled with jazz, blues, and songwriting.

It’s a far cry from their stiff, exam-oriented instrument lessons in Britain, and the sound of their playing is one of the many reasons we’re happy to be here.

Here’s a taste of our Wednesday afternoons.

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Happy camper. Literally.

Happy camper

Gabriella is in LA for two Berklee summer camps. Berklee is a top music college in the country, and one that she’s applying to for her university degree.

The first week was a songwriting camp. Gabriella loved it. She spent all day learning about songwriting, writing her own songs, performing them, listening to alum songwriters who’ve made it, and getting to know her future peers in the industry. But, even better than that, at the end of the week she was offered a scholarship for Berklee’s 5-week summer programme next year. The scholarships were given to just a handful of the 60 students attending the camp, to show that Berklee really, really, really wants them to apply to the college.

Gabriella’s chuffed.  Justifiably.

IMG_3166 Berklee scholarship

The scholars with some of the Berklee teachers

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Stupid, stupid, stupid gun laws

Six months ago, Nicole’s 20-year-old daughter, Ronique, was shot and killed. This is Nicole, on the right of the photo, marching against gun violence today.

IMG_4809 Nicole

Nicole’s poster shows pictures of her beautiful daughter. Also shown in this photo are her youngest daughter and her niece.

Ronique was in a car with two young men, when a car pulled alongside theirs and took deliberate aim at someone in the car – probably the driver. The two men escaped unhurt, but Ronique died instantly.

This is Anne.


IMG_4819 Anne

Anne’s orange badge says “SURVIVOR”, not because she survived a gunshot, but because she survived the grief of losing her son to a gunshot. He died ten years ago at the age of 18. He was in someone else’s house and saw a gun on a counter. Larking around in front of his mates, he picked up the gun and put it to his head. He didn’t know that the trigger was set light because the owner’s fingers weren’t strong enough to pull it at normal tension. The gun blew Anne’s son’s head off.

Anne worries about her son’s friends, who witnessed the accident. She thinks they feel guilty, but she doesn’t hold them responsible. She blames this country’s stupid gun laws.

Marching across the Golden Gate Bridge on National Gun Violence Awareness Day

Marching across the Golden Gate Bridge on National Gun Violence Awareness Day

People in America are astounded when we tell them that there are hardly any guns in Britain. The only ones I’ve seen are those used to hunt grouse and pheasants, and policemen carry truncheons instead of guns. When my British nephews were given guns at Christmas, they were just toys. There’s no danger that the boys will grow up wielding guns in anger, because there aren’t any to wield. But here in America, when other mothers ask if your young children would like to come over to play, you have to ask if there are any guns in the house. And the answer, “Yes, but they’re locked away safely” doesn’t wash. Every year, 17,000 children are shot because a gun isn’t locked away safely enough. That’s 48 every day.

More guns mean more murders, more suicides and more accidents. The gun laws here are stupid.

Wearing orange, a bold colour worn by hunters to protect them from being shot. #WearOrange

Wearing orange, a bold colour worn by hunters to protect them from being shot. #WearOrange

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Little oddities in America

We’ve been here so long that some of the things I found weird when we first arrived have become normal.  Light switches, for example.  They’re upside down!

The light is off. Not on, as a Brit might expect.

When the switch looks like this, the light is off. Not on, as a Brit might expect.

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Unexpectedly huge arrivals

There have been some unusual visitors to San Francisco in the last few months. Last autumn, for the first time ever, a Great White shark was recorded attacking a seal. It’s one thing to know, logically, that these sharks swim around the bay, but it’s quite another to have visual evidence of it. Fortunately, I read a reassuring article that said the chances of a swimmer being attacked by a shark are 1 in 738 million beach visits.

Some other, gentler, visitors have arrived in the last couple of weeks. Humpback whales have followed food into the bay, to the surprise of many a local kite surfer. Max – who has The Best Commute Ever – was lucky enough to see a whale breach while on the ferry to school this week.

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Top of the class

School happens differently here, as I’ve said before. The subjects are different, the term times are different, and the vacations are different. But one of the most striking differences is the way that performance is measured. In Britain, it’s done through GCSEs at the age of 16 and A-levels at 18. The syllabus for each subject takes two years and the examinations cover all two years’ worth of data. The exams are marked by a national board and take two months to be returned.

Here, performance is measured every term and the tests are called Finals (not to be confused with the exams taken by British university students at the end of their three or four years of study). Students might be tested through exams, or essays, or some other type of project, but whatever it is, the Final will reflect the work the student has done that term. Kids take a maximum of 5 core subjects per term, of which possibly half will be tested through an exam. A student can’t progress from one term to the next unless she does well enough in the previous term. The Final is marked by the student’s teacher, and the grades from Finals are returned within a matter of days. It’s a much faster turnaround than in Britain.

One of the downsides to this approach is that the marking is subjective. Within a school, the standard is fairly consistent, but there are potentially huge differences between schools. In addition, every term’s Finals matter; there’s no opportunity to go and find yourself for a term, then come back and catch up. And, finally, students feel as if they’re being examined all the time.

On the other hand, an upside is that each term’s work is built on a tested, solid foundation. If you can’t move on until you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency in a subject, there’s limited room for holes in your learning. But the main upside is that there’s only ever a term’s worth of information to learn for an exam. And many subjects require essays instead of exams.

Having been through the British system and learnt two years’ worth of information for exams in 11 subjects all at the same time, I can say with some certainty that the British system sucks. Gabriella might think she’s worse off because she’s examined every term, but she’s wrong. I’d far rather have had more, smaller exams than suffer through the ridiculous amount of learning required for A-levels. I’m pretty sure I learnt enough to be able to pass the exams, but not enough to retain anything useful. It was a pointless exercise that proved only that I could remember data for a few days. Whereas Gabriella actually owns the information she’s learnt.

In this subject, the American system goes to the top of the class.

Yep. I felt that way about exams too.

Yep. I felt that way about exams.

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Cowboy manifesto

Work hard, get callouses on your hands

Work hard, get callouses on your hands. And muscles, apparently.

I find country music fascinating. I hadn’t heard any before Spring Break last year, when we went on a road trip through the Deep South. I didn’t even know that it wasn’t really called Country and Western music. I was uninformed.

(At least, I’d assumed I was. However, I was able to sing along with Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler and Dolly Parton’s Jolene, which suggests that one or other of my parents sang those songs when I was exceedingly small, and I buried the information deep in my subconscious.)

Anyway, what I find fascinating about country music is that the songs provide a collective thesis on how to live; more so than any other genre of music I’ve heard. And since country music is the most popular genre of music in America, a lot of people are hearing that manifesto.

Patriotism runs high in the south

Patriotism runs high in the south

As far as I can tell from my limited experience of the music, this is the way country folk are supposed to be: they should live simply, off the land (“What most people call a redneck / Ain’t nothin’ but a workin’ man / And he makes his livin’ / By the sweat of his brow / And the callouses on his hands”, from The Charlie Daniels Band’s What This World Needs Is A Few More Rednecks) and eschew city materialism. They should

And so does Christianity

And so does Christianity

be God-fearing church-goers and flag-waving patriots (“I’m full of American pride / I keep a bible on my table / I got a flag out on my lawn”, from The Charlie Daniels band again, “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse”, from Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee, and “Well, Cassie O’Grady was no Southern lady, despite all the media hype / They all loved to make her out like a sweet little devout / All American cheerleader type”, from Carrie Underwood’s Choctaw County Affair).

Oh, and they should drive pickup trucks and wear boots and hats too (“Trickin’ my truck like a Cadillac / Crankin’ it up in my cowboy hat”, from Chris Cagle’s Got My Country On, and “Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear”, from Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee).

Getting hay in their hair

Getting hay in their hair?

The men seem to have a specific expectation of their women too. They want a lady, but the lady should also be happy to get her hands dirty on the farm (“All it’s missing is a pretty thing / Let there be cowgirls for every cowboy / Make them strong as any man” from Chris Cagle’s, Let There Be Cowgirls. And, “A southern girl’s mama probably taught her how a lady should act / But a southern girl’s probably got a barn somewhere reared out back / She’ll get a little hay in her hair, her tires in the mud / She’s been caught in the rain, and washed in the blood” from Tim McGraw’s Southern Girl).

Lookin' pretty on the bed of the truck. Is there any other way?

Lookin’ pretty on the bed of the truck. (Is there any other way to sit on a pickup truck?)

However, while the menfolk rest at the end of the working day, the women don’t get a break. When she’s not working in the fields, a country girl provides the entertainment for the men. She should look pretty sitting on the back of a truck, shake her money-maker regularly (“Yeah, the girls ‘round here, they all deserve a whistle / Shakin’ that sugar, sweet as Dixie crystal”, from Blake Shelton’s Boys ‘Round Here, and “Shake it for the young bucks sittin’ in the honky-tonks / For the rednecks rockin’ ‘til the break of dawn / For the DJ spinnin’ that country song / Come on, come on, come on”, from Luke Bryan’s Country Girl (Shake It For Me)), and pass out beers.

To clarify, this isn’t the sung view of a singer’s idea for himself, but the singer’s idea of the general requirements of a country girl. I’m talking about the songs that say “a country girl should be…”, not the songs that say “I’d like a girl who’s…”. It’s not exactly a feminist’s ideal image.

Pickup trucks and cowboy boots. That's what it's all about.

Pickup trucks and cowboy boots. That’s what it’s all about.

The women seem to be quiet when it comes to the subject of what they want from a man, but there is one fabulous song that complains about men’s expectations of the women. Maddie and Tae have written a blinder of a ditty about the objectification of women in country songs (“Bein’ the girl in a country song / How in the world did it go so wrong? / Like all we’re good for / Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend (nothing more) / We used to get a little respect / Now we’re lucky if we even get / To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along / And be the girl in a country song”, from Maddie and Tae’s Girl in a Country Song). The video’s pretty darn brilliant too.

I like the ideals of a simple life, but I’m not a fan of the chauvinism. That being the case, and given my feminist leanings, I find it disconcerting that I can’t help but sing along when I hear a country song now. For some inexplicable reason, I’m hooked. I suppose I’d better shake my moneymaker and fetch my man a beer.

If you’d like to hear the songs referenced, click here to access a Spotify playlist. And watch Maddie and Tae’s fabulous, sterotype-reversing video.

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