Margot Merrill on modern parenthood and the writing life

1May/127

Your rose, your thorn, and your bud

My friend Tyler's buddy asks his kids this question every night: "What are your rose, your thorn, and your bud?"

Your rose is the happiest moment of the day. The thorn, the worst part of your day: what's bothering you or keeping you back. And your bud is what you're excited about learning or doing next.

Roses have been on my mind lately. When I'm trying to calm down I visualize being in one. A giant red rose. I curl in the center like a baby, a yellow pollen blanket under me. The petals unfurl around me.

Love, that's what a rose means. In that visualization I do, it means self-love. Self-love. I didn't know I needed it, but apparently it's what I'm supposed to be learning. Have I mentioned I hate learning? I've come to recognize that my wires are crossed. Learning = failing. I'm working hard to change this belief, and to be kinder to myself as I grow. (How do you do that self-love thing? Did you always just...love yourself unconditionally? Is it learned? Does it come and go?)

I had a rose-related breakthrough recently when a wise woman who knows me well said: "You don't have to constantly be exceptional, Margot."

"Yes I do!" I shouted. And then I laughed a little and explained, "So I can keep torturing myself for failing!"

She, much older and calmer than I, said: "Lower your expectations. Especially of yourself."

It was a revolting idea.

"But I want to create! Beautiful things!" I said. "And change the world! Make it better! Help people! And be a great parent! And–"

"It's not realistic, or kind to yourself, to think you have to be phenomenal all the time," she said. "To create, you need down time. Time when you're just normal old you. You need time to gestate."

Then I thought of a rose, and why it's exceptional: it's not always blooming. The bush hibernates. It makes rose hips from faded flowers. Its roots stretch into the cold deep earth to bring up nutrients. The leaves do their photosynthesis thing.

shhhh, we're working on something good inside over here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And when things are ready, it blooms.

Ah. That feels good. Pretty exceptional, huh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I feel like I'm coming out of a dark winter. So grateful to see the late-Spring sun. I have to move past being mad at myself for breaking down. I know this whole process–my recent crash, and evolving identity, and awkward inner growth is leading to something. More roses. I'm sure of it.

I haven't yet instated the rose/thorn/bud routine with my family. I'll have to add it to my list of to-do's. If you're inspired, and you actually have dinner with your family regularly, please do it and lmk how it goes.

Heart,
Margot

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4Jan/120

Thankful

There are so many moments of beauty and joy in our days. Small moments with the kids. Their eyes. Their stories. Hugs.

It's crazy beautiful. Alejandro and Story Jane, my husband, our life...I feel blessed. "The stars shone on you," said our caregiver the other day. It's true. I feel it, and want to share.

Thankful for every moment, and for you.

Margot

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30Dec/112

the Holiday bawl

I bawled on Christmas Eve day. It was a hearty, completely-losing-it weepfest. It felt pretty good to cry as I fought to finish the handmade cherry pie. As my daughter didn't take her afternoon nap. As a half-hour's drive away my husband, 4-year old son, and in-laws awaited me, and the baby girl, and dessert. I'd worked till 11:00 the night before. Oh yes, woe!

I was wallowing in woes. Most of my own making.

Earlier in the day I'd had good friends visit–Jen and Karissa. We drank coffee and sat outside in the sunlight as I tried to rapidly decompress. I kept looking for my holiday spirit. I welcomed it, but hadn't given myself any time. Jen, one of my oldest friends, juggled baby Story and cleaned up our kitchen. Karissa rolled out my rock-hard crumbly pie dough. She's like that. You can hand Karissa a tortured lump of "pate brisee" or a crying newborn baby, or ask her to hang a picture in your house, and she's got it. We talked about the hard knocks of 2011. I tried to tell them how much I appreciated seeing them.

I got messy after they left. I cried because year-old Story Jane wouldn't sleep, and I needed her to. (Sleep is my parental Achilles heel.) I was crying because I felt alone. And because I was remembering past holidays–Christmases of my childhood–and got swept away in the hope and disappointment. (Santa. Right. Happiness forever. Right.)  I kept crying and looking at my daughter watching me cry from her high chair. I hated that I wasn't together. And that despite Jen and Karissa's help, the pie wasn't together, much less baked.

So why didn't I just go buy a goddamn pie? Or arrive without dessert?

Humbled by this question, I have to admit I needed a good breakdown. I bawled for more than two hours, and then I felt better. I was still snuffling, but calm as at last I drove, with the pie and the baby intact, to Rafael's family's house. I was to arrive with puffy eyes and a fresh cherry pie with a small heart cut in the center of the top crust. The cherry goo had sloshed in transit and the pie looked just like I felt: an achy bleeding heart.

No matter–I walked in and it was the holidays. Raf's mom offered me a glass of wine and I sat down with Story and got a thousand hugs from a very happy Alejandro. I'd arrived. Not on time, not perfect, but present.

I'm learning that's the most I should expect and strive for. To be present. I'm still squirreling my way around it, but it feels so good when I'm there.

And note to self: it's probably best to avoid such drama in the future. Next year I'll take a couple of days off before Christmas. And maybe just buy a damn dessert.

Hold me to it.

Love you,

Margot

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3Aug/110

A Dream

I'm trying to get to the east bay. In run-down SF I borrow my mom's old white Honda. I find it in a parking lot parked behind another car. I have to explain to the parking attendant that I didn't know we couldn't park there. (Those spaces reserved for someone else.)

I promise that next time, I will park upstairs. Now that I know. I get in the car, which is new to me. The dashboard is covered in rubber. The seats are covered too, in cloth. I picture my mom caring for this used car. Wrapping up its cracks. Driving from the lot, I understand I've underestimated the time. I thought it was plentiful but it was based on having my own car, my usual routine.

I decide it would be faster to ride a bike. I get on it and start towards the bay bridge. I am biking as fast as I can. I am smoking, too. I realize this when i see a tower of ash on a cigarette in my hand on the handlebars. I take a deep drag of its nastiness. In the same moment- this is under an overpass, like on Division by Bryant - I realize there's no way to bike across the bridge.

Now I am trying to figure out the nearest BART station. I'm depressed. I realize when I get there, to the other side of the bay, I'll have so far still to go on the bike. It's impossible. I'm impossibly late. I pull over on the bike, still smoking that nasty stick, a disappointment, to study a map.

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6Jan/110

Glorious Failures

The following is reprinted with permission from When I Was There, an anthology of life at U.C. Berkeley from the '60s till now.

The super conservative former college…the café I opened at age twenty in San Antonio (“Can I get a taco with that latté?”)…the pot fragrance company…all of these glorious failures prepared me.

When I arrived at last at U.C. Berkeley, limping towards the finish line of my undergraduate education, I knew what I was getting into: an ambitious, unadulterated, sweat-and-study-groups-required, liberal arts education. An education. After two years in the real world, it sounded delicious.

My road to Berkeley had chugged from Colorado to the heart of Texas before streaking across the continent heading West. The ocean, I prayed as I drove, leaving behind in San Antonio the small college that wasn’t liberal or arty, and the café that wasn’t the coffeehouse I’d intended. Cal. Cal. Cal. I whispered. My mantra meant both the university and the state of California, where oranges grew and ideas originated.

I owed U.C. Berkeley to my Denver-based dad–I’d just pulled a switcheroo on him. After I left Texas, he told me he’d help pay for a state school. He wanted me to move to Boulder, from which he’d graduated as an electrical engineer. When I announced my immediate plans to disembark for the Bay Area to try for U.C. Berkeley, he tried to bite his tongue. There was just one extenuating circumstance: my psychotic and long-red-haired ex-boyfriend. Oh, yes, him.

I didn’t tell my dad I was also heading to California to help the (not yet) ex start a pot fragrance company. You can laugh now, since I can. But then, I really did believe it could work. Crazier things have happened, right? You know: a department-store-sold, high-end, natural unisex fragrance which smelled sweet and floral and herby and just a tad like kind bud?

You’d buy some if really sexy famous people wore it, right? Okay, okay, we were smoking it… and I digress. But back then, driving to California, I was crystal clear about my vision of the future. I thought: I’m going to help this guy make a million bucks and while we’re workin’ on it I’m gonna graduate from the best school I can possibly imagine in which to study political science!

As it turns out, we didn’t make a million bucks selling pot perfume. I had no control over the pot fragrance company, for which I held the position of indentured servant. But I did learn a lot about how—and how not—to run a small business. In addition to a pile of credit card debt, at least I came out on the other side with a ton of skills including “desktop publishing.” And in the midst of all of those humiliating-at-the-time life lessons about business, I reminded myself that I could at least control my destiny related to college.

I visited the campus, and fell more in love with it than ever. Professors at Cal had written the books we read in the classes at my former school! I visited the library. My God! how I wanted to sit at one of those little desks way back in the stacks, with a sweet little light, and look through piles of books. I collected the information I needed to apply as an in-state student. I worked as a temp for a year, paid my taxes, slaved for the ex in my “free” time, and painstakingly applied to U.C. Berkeley. I didn’t get in.

On a Thursday afternoon I left my long-time temp position in San Francisco and went to sit in the Cal admissions office. “But I’m going to graduate from here,” I said to the kind woman who finally saw me. “I just have to get in.”

“Take English 1B,” she replied. I’m sure it was more complicated, but that’s how it played out. I took English 1B at City College in San Francisco. Then, Glory Be, they let me in! I arrived for my first day of classes, a twenty-two year old junior with the freshman jitters.

You can’t imagine how idyllic life was as a Political Science major in 1995. Outside, I caught the scent of eucalyptus trees. Inside the older buildings: the scent of Xeroxed course guides and well-worn wooden furniture. I almost didn’t want to tell my dad how beautiful and freeing it was—I wanted him to be 100% sure I was (for once) putting his money to good use: doing the serious work of a student. I’ve been in real business, motherfuckers, I wanted to hiss at the lost student souls who wandered by complaining. This whole studying life is awesome! I was sitting out on the lawn in the Berkeley sun reading theories on history, economics, social studies, human psychology… Political Science as taught by the best! And right in front of my eyes, people from all walks of life were going in so many different directions! Discussing things like the physiological impact of stringed instruments!

I wrote my thesis on why the War on Drugs continues despite its failures. My professors pressed me, unlike the wild-haired ex-boyfriend, to consider every angle and to provide statistics to back up my theories. It was a much better way than a fragrance company to examine what I saw as a political phenomenon with widespread social and financial implications.

I was welcomed into study groups of smart, competitive students. I met my friends and partners in academic crime in their apartments, the International house, a sorority house (my first time in one!), and innumerable cafés. I don’t know if they wanted me because I actually asked questions in class, or took really good notes, or if it was my intoxicating scent, but I was happy. I knew I’d found my place.

______

When I Was There

http://www.amazon.com/When-Was-There-Berkeley-1960-2010/dp/057805616X/

Please buy a copy if you'd like to support me and other local writers. Give it to a high school student or another Cal alumni. And/or use it as inspiration for your own piece about college...or about the time you could've spent in college, but chose not to! I always love to hear a good humiliating story. :)

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12Sep/102

Money Changes Everything: the Bay Bridge Carpool Toll

On July 1, hefty toll increases went into effect for many Bay Area bridges. On the Bay Bridge, which connects the East Bay to San Francisco, in the carpool lane the toll increased from "free" to $2.50 per car. For non-carpoolers, the toll is now a whopping $6 during peak commuting hours. The carpool lane still requires (3) passengers per car, or (2) in a two-seater, only now it also requires a FasTrak device to automatically deduct the $2.50 toll from the driver's account.

It's been two and a half months, but there's still a debate raging about how the $2.50 carpool lane fee should be handled between those who participate in the gloriously un-organized Casual Carpool system. I'd first written about Casual Carpool back in April - here's my summary of what it is and why it works.

My biggest gripe about the toll is that it changed one of the best things about Casual Carpool: it was free to ride in the carpool lane. And now it's not. Whether–and how– this cost should be shared between drivers and passengers is the issue. A dollar has become the amount of money in question. (Rounded up from .83 cents if all (3) parties in each car split the $2.50 toll.) But what used to be a silent and neutral ride is now marred by the need to discuss, of all things, money. And how each of us feels about potentially exchanging a dollar. Inevitably, people feel compelled to talk about it: why they'll take the dollar, or why they won't, or why they didn't offer it up in the first place. There are strong feelings all around. And let me tell you, there's nothing more polarizing than talking about money first thing in the morning.

As a driver, I'd decided before the toll went into effect that I didn't want money from passengers. To me, it's about getting into the city faster (the carpool lane saves about 15 minutes), and not paying the full $6 for the toll (saving $3.50 each morning). Both factors make it worth my while. I just didn't like the idea of money being exchanged. I have to drive on certain days, and that's all I want to do: drive into the city, and do so quickly and quietly.

Of course, many drivers feel differently. In fact, some feel that passengers who don't offer to contribute are being incredibly rude and presumptuous: you expect a free ride from me? There's been jokes about letting people off at Treasure Island if they don't cough up a buck. One man, driving a sleek newer Mercedes I might add, said that the time saved was his primary motivator–but that passengers were just "freeloaders" if they didn't contribute.

I'm more frequently a passenger. And as a passenger, I'm happy to pay $1. A dollar is a ridiculously cheap way to get into the city–and it's super convenient for me. (The BART train is $3.50 one way, and takes me about 45 minutes to get to work. The carpool involves a short walk and then about 25 minutes in the back of a stranger's car.) That said, the rare times I don't have a dollar, I won't run to the store before I get in line for the carpool. I'll usually just let the driver know that I would like to contribute but don't have change this morning, so will need to do it the next time I see them.

The social norms of this transaction are still evolving. When the new toll first went into effect, there was a paper sign taped up at the Claremont Ave stop which read: "Passengers should offer $1 to drivers." But the next day, the sign was gone. In early July, some drivers even requested the money when people got into the car: "Can each of you contribute a dollar?" That was awkward, especially when someone didn't have it, or only had a twenty.

"Should drivers carry change?" someone asked. "And by exchanging a dollar," one particularly legalistic passenger opined, "Does that mean that you are our driver-for-hire? How does that affect your insurance?" Oof! Again: awkward!

The most elegant solution for drivers who wanted the passengers to contribute seemed to be a sign:

Toll Contributions Cheerfully Accepted

one driver's sign expressing his p.o.v.

The driver of that car put the dollar I handed him into a drawer in his dashboard without further ado. It was a pleasant, and thankfully wordless, exchange.

Throughout the month of July, and in early August too, the new standard seemed to be: Passengers should each offer the driver $1, preferably right when you get in the car, or just as you're being dropped off.

Some drivers like myself didn't accept the offered dollars: "I do it because it's faster, and there were plenty of you in line," one female driver said. "And I'm already saving money by picking you up." But many did accept the money, and still do, gratefully.

And yet–as of this writing in mid September, it seems that not all passengers are offering it up. When I've asked others how often passengers are offering, people have said it's been about 50/50. So the message may be going back to drivers: pick us up to save the $3.50, and the time, but don't count on our cash.

Will there be fewer drivers if cash isn't consistently offered? Or fewer passengers if the dollar is required? We'll see how the increase affects the overall carpool spirit, and the Bay bridge traffic, in the long term. This added tension doesn't look good for either.  A month after it went into effect, Bay Bridge traffic was actually down 30%. That's good for the environment, but probably not generating the revenues they'd expected by slapping more fees onto all lanes of the Bay Bridge. To encourage more carpooling, which has worked in everyone's favor for more than three decades, I think the carpool toll should be eliminated.

I yearn for the simpler days when we weren't all talking about, and exchanging, money in the mutually beneficent system known as Casual Carpool.

I know, I know: fat chance. Money changes everything.

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12Jul/101

Going Back

My sister and I spent at least a couple of weeks every summer at Grindstone Lake in Minnesota. We gorged ourselves on sugared cereals, cherries and grapes, Saltine crackers and shiny American cheese. We fished from the dock, catching the little “sunnies” and walleye. Hooking them and letting them go. We took the canoe out, usually sticking close to “our” side of the lake. We argued less than we usually did. Sometimes we paddled across the lake to catalog the other cabins, or to crash someone else’s float: a wooden deck atop four creaking and rusting oil barrels. We’d tie the canoe up to it and jump in, then sun ourselves on the rough wooden planks, wary “they” might come home and look out to see someone’s kids–not their own–playing on their family’s float.

We’d return to the cabin with wet bathing suit butts. (“Close the screen door! No sitting on the couch in a wet suit!” Our grandpa Al, who moved from his chair in the living room only for fishing or golf, frequently had to re-remind us of The Rules.) We'd go out in the mosquito- and taxidermy-infested garage to the big white freezer. Dig out another big Ziplock bag of ginger cookies our grandma Ruth had made, and bring them into the small kitchen with its avocado-green appliances and the wooden table around which we’d drink milk, eat more and more cookies, and play cards. Maybe later we’d watch the Price is Right, guessing how much a can of tomato soup or a washer-dryer set cost, and willing the poor fools to pick the door with the car or RV behind it.

The lake: in the early morning, a quiet and gray light upon it, the water was glassy and cool, waiting for the heat. By late morning the sun would be shining brightly, the orange day lilies by its side were moist and open, and the water sparkling and inviting us to wade. We’d find clams the size of our hands, and organize them into families, only occasionally killing them by leaving them on the dock too long. We’d swim out past the drop-off, where the sandy ground under our feet suddenly leapt into darkness, and the water turned ice cold and black. Turn around quick! Get back to the warmer water! We didn’t want the big fish our grandpa and uncles caught in the middle of the lake to catch one of us.

Twilight: the pink and purple hues of sunset, the cooling-back-down again, the buzz of insects coming out to get us. The spraying and re-spraying of Outdoor-scented, DEET-laden Off over our already bitten arms, legs, and feet. The rinsing-out of bathing suits. Perhaps a little walk to check for newly ripened raspberries by the mailbox? An early dinner inside prepared by our grandmom and aunts. White rolls with butter, some frozen corn or mashed potatoes, also with plenty of butter. (Though more likely it was margarine.) Ham or freshly-caught fish dipped in egg, flour, salt and pepper, then fried. More cookies for dessert.

It was crazy to arrive back at the lake now, at age 37, with my own two-and-a-half year old son, and a baby in my belly. Though my grandparents have passed away, the cabin is still well-used on weekends and maintained by my aunt Sue and uncle Freddie. It's frequently visited by my cousins Abbey, Kyle, Matt, and Tia. It was as open to me as it’s always been. And while there was a new TV and couch in the living room, the swirly green-and-blue wall-to-wall carpet, which has hid decades of cookie crumbs and lake drips, remained intact. Alejandro and I slept in my grandparents' room, which I’d never done before, since one or both of them was always there. But everything else looked, felt, and smelled the same as it had when I was little. There were even ginger cookies in the freezer, thanks to Sue.

I felt loved.

I’d forgotten what family feels like, my family, my mom’s family. Ali and I were accepted, whoever we were. I didn’t have to try to be anyone. In my modern life, in my pursuit of independence and identity, I’d forgotten what that was like! My uncle Loren and my aunts–Sinde, Sue, and Sondra–all engaged Ali, drew him out, laughed with me at his funny little phrases. My cousin Abran took him fishing, gave him his very own bucket of night crawlers. (Which as we all know in Minnesota, is truly a sign of love.)

And all I had to do for a week was to care for Alejandro–which wasn’t half as hard as it is here, when I’m working and constantly running around–and to show him the small things I remembered: the dock, the clams, the constant need for life jackets and bug spray.

He was completely happy, himself, and like me, surrounded by love and the gorgeous quiet green beauty of the lake. At night the baby moved in my belly as I lay in my grandparents’ bed next to my sleeping boy, and I knew I was blessed.

I saw my cousin Abbey get married on Saturday. She looked radiant and gorgeous. I watched her new husband put his arms around her as they danced. Everyone said they are right for one another. Having held Abbey as a baby, I felt even more blessed to have witnessed one more circle completed, as it should be, in Minnesota. Our grandparents would have been so proud.

Going back was exactly what I needed. I’ll never forget this week, this suspended moment in time.

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25May/109

The passage of time, the passage of Minos

He isn't dead yet. My cat. My friend and constant, meow-y companion of seventeen years. But It is upon us. His kidneys don't work. He don't work. I am, amid all else we're doing, injecting him with H20 once a day. And pushing down meds for his thyroid, meds to increase appetite, meds to help "bind phosphorous" or something like that. It's pretty awful.

He's old. 84 in people years. A once-giantly fat cat, he's now 7 pounds. He's deaf. Senile and prone to demented meowing for hours at night. You'd think we'd just let him go, huh? I am, I am...just working up to it. You see, this cat, in addition to being a fabulous being–anyone who's met him will attest to that–is my young adult life. He's me, way back before I was a producer, a college graduate, a writer, a wife, a mother. Minos has simply always been there.

Visiting Margot meant sitting on my couch and hanging out with Minos. "Us," before "us" was Rafael and I, or Raf-Ali-and-I, was Minos and I. And you. Our friends and family, who love him too. There are cats, and then there's Minos. I know the difference–I've had both. I called him a bear-bat-monkey-cat. You called him fat. He hung out like one of the guys. He hung out like one of us.

Now he's just hanging on, and so am I.

I think of Minos as a tiny kitten who was delivered to me, sight unseen, to my first apartment in San Antonio, Texas. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I couldn't even legally drink. He was a ball of black fuzz in the palm of my hand, fearless, his legs draped through my fingers as I held him up. When I decided to open a cafe instead of go back to school, Minos met me in the yard after every long day. My friend Jen's jaw dropped the first time she met him, because he jumped down from a tree onto the hood of my car after we pulled in the driveway. "Hellooooooo!" He meowed triumphantly. "This is my cat." I said proudly. He was so cool.

He was always a whore for people and food, but I let him roam free, and he always came back to me. To that first apartment in Texas. Then Jen's place in Denver, where he stayed while I moved to San Francisco. Then, all of the apartments in S.F.: Cole and Carl, Kearny and Chestnut, Funston and Irving, 15th and Ramona. He's even stuck with me through the last two-plus years, through the birth of our son, two moves in the East Bay, and my resulting identity crisis.

Minos found a new lease on life each time each time we moved. But here we are, in the best home of all of those places, and it’s the end of the line.

Not bad, you’ll tell me. He had a happy life! It’s time!

I know all of that. I feel it in my bones: it’s time. I ain’t got enough to give him anymore, you see. Not like he ever got too much of a say in what I did over the last seventeen years. There was partying in my house, and crying, and lots of friends, and weekends he was left alone with his mentally deficient cat sister Mellie, and some missed meals and medicine. There was much yelling back and forth between us: “MEOoooooow!”

“Shut up Minos!” The yelling at him only stopped being fun when he went deaf.

This has been my life, up to now. Or next week, or the following. Or whenever he actually dies, or I decide to stop hydrating him with an IV because I can no longer fucking take doing it every night.

With Minos’ inevitable passing, I'm pushed off the mesa of my young adult life. I think I spent the last two years hiking up a new mountain called middle age. I’m a mother. It's so humbling.

Hold on - could I please refer to this next chunk of my life that I’m facing, terrified, as “young middle age?” Because you can’t quite call me middle-aged now, can you? Is 37 middle-aged? At age 16 I would’ve said “Duh. Definitely.” At 28 I would’ve said, “Naw, middle-aged is when you’re in your forties and fifties.” I’m creeping up there, friends, and want to keep putting it off.

I always thought that the trick to getting old without getting miserable was: to retain the gut-knowledge that a great life is possible, even to be expected, and worth fighting for. Oh yeah–and to keep havin' fun, yah brah! Of course, we ask ourselves: what does “a great life” mean? It keeps changing. I keep changing. Do you remember how many times you’ve heard someone say, or said yourself, “It was the best thing I ever did”? That statement usually comes after they’ve done something they thought tremendously risky. They changed something. They changed themselves. I think it’s what we’re all supposed to be doing.

But God, I hate all the time spent swimming in the muck of the past, sorting it out, before you can actually start evolving. And that's where I am, with Minos's inevitable passing: sorting it out. Swimming in the dark again. I'm looking through all of those messy memories, where Minos was my one constant (my familiar, I used to think) and preparing to put them to bed, like him.

There will be a new chapter, a new outlook on my "young middle age," and new lives in our children. But there will never be another Minos, or a me, or a you, like we were then.

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14Apr/105

Riding with Strangers

Pretty much every weekday morning, I get into a stranger's car. We don't talk as we drive across the Bay Bridge. I focus on my iPhone, get caught up on personal emails. Or I stare out the window, watching the giant cargo ships going to and from China and who knows where. I see Alcatraz and Angel islands off to my right, and the deep red of Golden Gate bridge to the northwest. Ahead of us: our San Francisco. The sun glints off those familiar buildings which pop magically through the clouds.

I could be in a Lexus, a beemer, an American mini van, an ancient Toyota hatchback. I could be in the backseat of a coffee-infused couple driving to work. Or in the front seat with another stranger in back. Or squeezed in tight between two others in the back of a luxury hybrid SUV. (If lots of people are waiting for rides, one of us might venture to ask the driver: "Can you take three of us?" They almost always do.)

I know how weird this sounds to those who don't commute to San Francisco. It's called Casual Carpool, and it's pretty unique and amazing. There are spots all over the East Bay where one can wait to be picked up, and to pick up passengers. We all get dropped off at the same location in SF, just off the Bay bridge, which happens to be 2 blocks from my office.

The rules:

  • No talking, unless the driver initiates a conversation.
  • Listen to NPR. Or nothing. I think this is to avoid music choices causing major a.m. friction. Crappy house music, anyone?
  • Drive cautiously and courteously.
  • Passengers have the right of silent refusal. If you're a woman and a man in a two-seater or a creepy van pulls up, you can just step back and let someone else take that spot.  No explanation needed.

Here's why I think it works:

  • It saves time. For a driver, it means cutting 20 minutes of sitting in stop-and-go traffic as you wait to go through the toll plaza.
  • It's free/cheaper. For now the carpool lane is free. As of July 1 the carpool lane will be $2.50 versus $6.00 for regular commuters during rush hour. (Ouch!!) But I don't think it will reduce the casual carpool pool by much. It's still a significant reduction in cost for those who have to drive.
  • It's not personal. The general "no talking" rule means that you don't have to chit chat. I've found the majority of rides to be silent except for a "hello" and a "thank you" at the end. So amazingly, you still get your personal time in the morning.
  • Community, and safety in numbers. It's not just me in a stranger's car. Usually it's me and another stranger in a stranger's car! The magic number 3 really does change the dynamic. Plus, people have been commuting this way for over a decade, and know one another, who drives what cars, etc. We're all in it together.
  • It's mutually beneficial. Really, that's what it comes down to for everyone involved.

What's interesting, of course, is when people don't follow the rules exactly. I've been serenaded with classical and country music–the latter made less repulsive since it was introduced as the soundtrack from Crazy Heart. One day several of us talked about our weirdest carpool experiences. The female driver said: "When a guy had just, I mean literally just smoked a bowl in the car before he picked us up. I was like, hey, smoke it at home, man!"

I asked, "So how was his driving?"

She said, "He actually drove fine. I just really wish he'd smoked that bowl at home." It was the lack of tact that galled her.

The other passenger that morning contributed this story: he'd been out of town and parked his car under a ginko tree for a week. Apparently, ginko trees really stink. (Who'd of thunk?) So his car, he told us, smelled like puke. A woman got in the front seat, took one whiff, and said "I can't ride in here." She got out, and this well-dressed man was humiliated. "It's ginko!!" he wanted to yell after her. A man got in the car and didn't say a word about the smell. Until they were almost across the bridge, when the passenger asked:

"Hey, did you eat some blue cheese in here?"

"It's ginko!!!"

I myself break the rules when I pick up carpoolers with Ali. Having a two-year-old in the car changes everything–you simply can't be that formal. And after 15 minutes of politely listening to Michael Krasny's (insightful) blabbing on NPR, Alejandro starts demanding HIS music. I apologize and ask the passengers' permission. Not like they really have a choice. Their asses are already peppered with cracker crumbs and their feet and laptops are a half-inch deep in crumbs as well. They don't have much to lose. (They could have always stepped politely out of line, too, when they saw who'd they'd be sitting next to!) So we all sing the Pollywog in a Bog song together. Out of courtesy, I try not to repeat it more than twice.

Every morning is somethin' different. That's one of the best parts of riding with strangers.

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6Mar/101

Oh, Yeah. The Power of a Vision.

On the train on the way home last night, I had one of those moments where my heart swelled with gratitude and I gulped and tears came to my eyes. I'd done it again: envisioned something, worked on it, and then: bam. Got it. It's almost frightening. I'm not talking about getting an "it" really. Not "I envisioned my perfect luxury car, and went out and bought it on credit, yay!" I'm talking about big life goals, big picture kinda dreaming: how to have a happy life?

It's not like I've figured everything out. I get massively depressed sometimes. Awful stuff happens, and the world can seem a chaotic and angry place. But when it's up to me, I can't accept being miserable for long. After wallowing in self-abusive misery for a while, I start asking myself what would make me happier? If I'm super stuck–so stuck I think everything is crap and so am I–I'll ask for help in figuring it out.* Three examples of how it’s worked out when I've invested in defining a vision for a happier life:

#1
At age 29** I recognized I wanted to write the book, no matter how freaky-deaky scared I was to try. Some of my crippling fears before I turned this corner: Most simply put, I was an idiot. The words wouldn't come, and if they did, they'd be utter crap. If I looked inside myself, I'd fall into an abyss. Or worse, find nothing there. My dream of who I should be would be cracked, and to fill the void I'd have to accept working in a laundromat for money and doing something extreme, like hang gliding, for sport.

I took a dorky class based on a book called Creating a Life Worth Living (I already have one! I wanted to scream to the book's author. But for some reason, I was there.) Some of the exercises included writing down activities that made you happy, and how you could look at your time in different ways, to do more of the good stuff. I envisioned my ideal day job, and my future life as a novelist.

At age 30 I started writing the novel (in pieces, a grain of sand at a time), and a billion years later (I'm not really that old), I work at a great place and I'm standing here saying I'm a writer.

#2
Over a year ago, at our old pad in the heart of the Mission, Rafael and I jotted down what we'd want if we moved. In pencil, on a little white square: "Extra room. Space. Light. Backyard. Good school. Easy public transit. Ali can ride a bike." We stuck it up on our fridge with a Guinness glass-shaped magnet, amid some sticky photos and never-used coupons.

The last time I had that contracting-and-expanding feeling of good fortune–other than last night I mean–was when R. told me they'd excepted the offer on this house in Rockridge. I was on an odd little hill in Potrero Hill in S.F., standing outside our car, which was of course parked at a psychotic angle. The sun was shining and I was on top of the hill talking to Raf on the phone, staring at a mailbox, thinking mother fucker, I am so fortunate.

So here we are–granted, a kinda painful year after we decided to move. In this beautiful place. It's even better than we could have imagined. The light more light; the weather softer; the neighborhood friendlier; the whole lifestyle more relaxed; and fruit trees everywhere...We both appreciate being here and are so freaking grateful every day.

I have to ask myself: well, how did we get here? (Talking Heads: the days go by / water flowing under ground...) I think the results of our move had something to do with the broad brush strokes on that piece of paper on the fridge. We weren't studying it, but it was at eye level, and it reminded us what we wanted. It was a vision, a loose outline with lots of positive intention.

#3
Lastly, the more recent event. My awe-inspired moment of gratitude on the train was surprisingly work-related. I found out I'll be able to move from my producer role at Hot Studio to bridge two fields I'm passionate and curious about: Brand Strategy and Content Strategy. I'll get to focus on language, and its integration into our strategies and designs. I'm not going into details about the job here. The point is, this is a significant transition, a way out of something I've long known I'm over. It's the light at the end of the tunnel of a "doing the same job forever, because you've no big complaints and you need money" track.

In a large part this change is happening because Maria, the owner of Hot–imagine her Staten Island accent, and her hands opening a space on the wood table into which I could put an idea–said: "Margot, just tell me what you want to do." With her encouragement and help from my immediate boss and my career-coach sister, I did it. I drafted a vision for a new role, with a plan for getting there. It's mutually advantageous, the approach is approved, and I can just see it all working.

Now for the transition part. Oh boy. Not quite as fun as the beginning and end of the process (the crystallization of a vision and then the shocking granting of your wishes.) But oh so necessary. Oh yes. Learning. Adjusting. Waiting.

Everyday life. It's what we do in between the moments of despair and the ones where we feel like everything's so beautiful we could burst.

* I'm the child of a psychotherapist and an electrical engineer, if that gives you any idea of my polarities.

** The transition from one's  late 20's  to early 30's is a crucial one for the characters in Richland. <weird trance music> Check out the astrological phenomenon called Saturn Returns.

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