Margot Merrill on modern parenthood and the writing life


Yes. Facebook.

You may have seen it on Facebook. You know. I work there now!




It's been hard to parse the events of the last six months. But I want to.

So. How did it happen?  In March, Hot Studio, the design firm where I'd worked for the last six years, was acquired by Facebook. I'd expected an eventual acquisition by some larger company. I wanted it for Maria. As the badass company founder she was, she deserved it. Still, it came as a surprise. There may have been rumors, but that's not the same as sitting in rows of white chairs in a company-wide meeting listening to your long-term leader spell it out.

It was shocking, the bigness of it. Facebook! In Menlo Park! And Hot would close!

We didn't know what would happen to everyone. It was a hard time, the unwinding of Hot. The splitting up of family.

But I got an offer to work in the Content Strategy group at Facebook. And I said yes please.

And now every weekday morning I pull off the Dumbarton Bridge in my vanpool (more about that later), onto 1 Hacker Way, and go to work.

What is it like? My electronic badge beeps me in. As a n00b (new person) on my first week, I felt I was staring up into the underbelly of a vast spaceship. Around me, I saw a diverse group of talented people, and a different world. What's it like?

  • There's graffiti and posters and color-splashed walls
  • Light streaming in
  • Art everywhere
  • Open desks and more desks and more
  • Vending machines with electronics (headphones, power adapters, mice, etc.)
  • Snacks and more snacks and lovely nonalcoholic drinks
  • Hundreds of esoterically-named conference rooms (e.g. "Puff the Magic Drag and Drop")
  • Plants inside and out
  • Foxes!
  • Bikes to ride (they are quicker - and give you an unexpected sense of joy)
  • Free food! Rich food. Healthy food. Fresh and varied. (Low blood sugar is never an issue.)

People move around me, hustling from building to building in the sunny interior courtyard. They're developers and designers and people with MBAs. Content Strategists like myself. Good sharp people who help with all of the details.

So many brains in one place! Lots of data, numbers, metrics. People with strong opinions. An intensity of purpose. Strong charisma. It's optimism and realism, combined in a way I've never seen before.

There's also a surprising humility at Facebook. A willingness to examine problems. An understanding, among everyone I know, that the perks aren't ubiquitous. It's a privilege. So we work very hard. We work to make Facebook a great experience for everyone who uses it. If that were easy, we'd be done already. But it's not easy. That's why we're there.

After I get home in that same vanpool, I see Rafael and Alejandro and Story. Our beautiful family. Before I walk in the door, I stop on the porch and take a deep breath. I tell myself, "Steady, lady. Steady." I want to leave work behind, but I'm still excitedly solving problems with my co-workers in my head. I take another deep breath. I admire the late sunlight streaming over the hill in front of our house. I calm down.

I walk into eight streams of information coming at me through the three people I love and the many devices in our home.

"Mommy's home!!!" It's a lovely chaos of hugging and kissing and sharing of toys and drawings and video game news updates. Then everything needs to be done.

I'm not good at everything. I'm still me. I'm still learning balance, and about how to be the very best mom I can be, and a caring wife, and about creative fulfillment, and this new job. (I'll take a another deep breath now. Ahhhhh. Okay. Whew.)

But I'm where I'm meant to be. At work I feel like I can do what I'm best at: Writing. Connecting. Communicating. Being of service. Making stuff.

And at home I can just be with the kids, which is all we need.

Thank you for being here, and for knowing all sides.

- Margot


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.


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.