Margot Merrill on modern parenthood and the writing life


A Break. It does…

...I'm not going to finish that headline. But I will tell you I've recently had three trips away. And I'm diggity-dogged happy to be home.

My sis and I visited our mom up in Sebastopol for her 70th bday. We buried ourselves in cedar, and did as we pleased. I got a nice family-full.

Then I flew to Austin to represent the Fernandez-ez at a good friend's wedding. There I was surrounded by people who've loved us long time. I thought of the early days of R and I, and got my friend-full.

Then, the "break" of a modern parent's dreams: a 3-day conference in one city followed by a day-long client workshop in another! Yeah. Dreamy. But I had my own hotel room. A chance to see my dad and stepmom. (Pack it in, baby.) But most importantly: a few days to think big, meet people, and pass out in neutral-town when done.

Then, best of all, home! And my guy and babies! Blessed be. That's what I'm talking about. Gorgeous moments when I'm just holding them, and I'm so happy I could cry. They missed me, and I can't get enough of them.

So I'm home, and happy, and ready to hang for the summer and beyond. You know what they say about breaks.




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.


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:

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.

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.

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.


Nighttime in Rockridge Country

It’s dark out here in Rockridge Country. I walked home from the Bart one night after we’d just moved to Oakland. It was 9:10 pm. I walked down a street–I don’t know, Lawton? I’d heard about frequent muggings of Rockridge commuters, but having just left night-buzzing San Francisco, I wasn’t thinking it was late, or that it would be that dark.

The only sound was that of my breath, and the legs of my corduroys rubbing together as I walked. Two reminders, I told myself, that it was good we now lived further away from Tartine. And I could still walk! I’d had two beers and then taken Bart and damned if I wouldn’t walk, just to prove I could. But I was unnerved by being alone on the street. The road itself was black; no headlights, no one else traveling at what seemed to me to be a perfectly fine hour to be coming home or going out. Didn’t they believe in streetlights? What kind of country was I in, in which night was actually…dark?!?

That’s Rockridge Country, ma’am. Oaktown, Cali-forn-i-a.

The Subarus and Hondas parked in crushed-eco-gravel driveways glittered in the–what was that?–ah yes: moonlight. The perfect brown bungalows were dark, dozing off. Soft lights gleamed here and there from windows carved out of the bark of the square-ish Craftman homes. In the dim light I spotted $300 tricycles and brightly-colored sport sets strewn about the front yards. I was confused. In San Francisco, we had no front yards, so it wasn’t even an option to leave a trike out all night to get thugged by a drunk hipster, bum, or neighbor. Never mind the contrast of all these riches against the reality of Oakland’s 18% poverty rate. So who lived inside those darn cute houses?

Families. I thought. Dear God, it’s really true! That’s why everyone’s going to bed or already asleep! It horrified me because I wanted to be better than the tame and lame parents I imagined inside the cozy houses I hurried past. Never mind that I myself was excited to be in bed by 10:45. I wanted to be cool enough, superhuman and rich enough, to have stayed in San Francisco. Even though SF was no longer working for me, for us, for Alejandro.

Of course, what I really wanted was to feel comfortable in this weird new land: to understand it. To be enveloped, rather than ostracized, by the neighborhood's warmth and richness. It is idyllic, it is isolating–for now–and it's also just beautiful. My own little patch of country, eight blocks from Bart. That’s about as country as I get.

But I'll keep this desk lamp burning, to remind the one weary traveler who passes by our new house that he or she is not the only one awake in Rockridge tonight.