Monday, August 04, 2014

Sticker club letters are an act of aggression

After exploding letters and tax audit notifications, a STICKER CLUB letter may be the worst thing you can find in your mailbox.

Therefore, I implore you to review this STICKER CLUB safety checklist before opening mail addressed to your child:

(1) Is the letter from a child who has never written your child before?

(2) Do you detect a subtle guilt-laden aspect to the mother's handwriting on the letter?

(3) Is the envelope suspiciously thin, with just one photocopied disaster of a STICKER CLUB letter inside, rather than the usual kid-folded marker-laden kid-to-kid missive?

If the letter you are holding meets any of this criteria, I encourage you to recycle it immediately without opening it. End the cycle with YOU and do not risk perpetuating this horror upon other mothers in the community.

"But Erica," you say, "My kid LOVES stickers and would have so much fun getting and sending stickers in the mail!"

WELL AWESOME. Have your kid write, address and stamp letters to his/her GRANDPARENTS, and other people related to them, and ask for stickers. That is the ONLY OPTION you have for morally obtaining stickers through the mail.

And, you ask, "What's the harm in just reading the letter?"

Do you like having white hot lights of GUILT beamed directly into your eyes? Because the STICKER CLUB letter typically contains this verbiage: "If you can't mail this letter to six of your friends, please let my mother know as it would be unfair to the children who have participated so far."

So if you read the letter, you are immediately in the position of having to contact this mother and confess that you hate children.

Everything about the STICKER CLUB stinks.

First, it's not a club. You don't get to shimmy up a ladder into a treehouse and goof off with stickers and your friends all afternoon.

It's a TACKY CHAIN LETTER, with a "this is for the kids" smear of guilt on top of it.

Consider yourselves warned, dear new mothers. The mailbox can be a dangerous place.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The summer of extractions


We have just learned that Chebbles needs to have her tonsils removed. After talking with three ENT's, her speech therapist and pediatrician, the verdict is unanimous: those honkers have got to come out.

We've wondered why she felt tired every morning when she woke up, and why she's had comparatively less energy than she did when she was younger. The pediatrician feels strongly that it's the tonsils interrupting her sleep with apnea, and making it hard for her to breathe in the pool.

So after Girl Scout camp next month, we will take our baby to the Children's Hospital surgery center for this outpatient procedure.

I was delighted to learn that there will be no shots or IV's for her (while she's awake). Her biggest decision will be which flavor she wants in her gas mask -- she is vacillating between cherry and orange. And which smoothie she wants afterwards.

When I offered Chebbles that I could make her my special "Yo Mama" smoothies for the two weeks after the procedure, both she AND the pediatrician rejected this notion in favor of retail smoothies. Note: invest in JMBA.


One neat thing about our property is the massive, century-old Monterey Pine at the end of the driveway. It greets visitors as though to say, "Good luck getting down the driveway!"

That tree is very old, and not in a good way. I've now had four arborists sit me down and tell me that "it's time" for the big fella to be put out to pasture, i.e., to be firewood and mulch for the entire neighborhood.

One of these kind men even used the word "circle of life" with me as I grieved over my dying Monterey Pine. And two branches of that tree are lurking dangerously over my neighbor's backyard, with ominous cracks forming.

Getting quotes for the giant tree's removal has been a strange experience. One man assured me it would cost more than $9K to remove it. Three of them gave me a $6K estimate, and one lone tree-lopper said he could bring it in for under $4K.

I told the last guy, who was Mexican and wanted $6K for the job, about the guy with the $4K estimate and he stood next to the tree, puzzled, and then asked at long last, "Is he ... Mexican?"

"No he's.... not?" I said, desperately hoping he would elaborate. Why would a Mexican tree trimmer suspect another tree trimmer with a scandalously low estimate of being Mexican?

He shook his head and finally left without explaining whether being a Mexican tree trimmer was a positive or negative thing.


I had the pleasure of having dinner at Airbnb headquarters on Monday (and I must say it was delicious! French Farrow, Herbed Chicken and Amber Ale!?). At this dinner, Airbnb executives gave a talk about their efforts to legalize short-term rentals in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But I don't see how they're going to do it. Short-term rentals are illegal in the whole state of California, so San Francisco can rest comfortably on that precedent for years to come. It seems to be the case that, like my child's tonsils and the massive pine, the home sharing economy is fizzling to death.

So, onward and upward! We will move into the fall with lots of firewood to age, mulch to spread, fewer obstructive organs in our throat and one fewer way to travel. I can't help but think that this rainbow of expense, trouble and pain will have a wonderful pot of gold at the end. We just can't see it quite yet.

I do notice, when an old tree comes down, that there is usually a stunted tree near its fallen compatriot who rallies impressively toward the sunshine afterwards. Let that be us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How I met my girls

This one is dedicated to my pregnant friends, as they look forward to the births of their own gorgeous babies.


How I met my girls

Chebbles was born at 10:03am on a sunny September morning. I had gone into labor 36 hours before, and I gave birth with no epidural because I was fairly obsessed with Ina May Gaskin.

Every time I closed my eyes during labor with Chebbles I saw pink -- I could see her pink cheeks in my mind, and her pink smile -- I had a very specific vision of my girl as she was born. And when I opened my eyes in the last stages of labor, I saw pink everywhere -- the entire sky of the Diablo Valley was bright pink as the sun rose that morning.

As I pushed for the millionth time that morning, I asked if there was any alternative to my pushing any more. Suddenly the idea of forceps or suction, which seemed abhorrent before, was a brilliant solution.

Nevertheless, I was able to do it on my own power, and once I pushed those last few times, I saw what I thought was a joke baby emerge from between my legs. I thought perhaps that the doctors would bring in a comically enormous doll to trick women in labor...  I had anticipated a little miniature baby, and, as it turned out, I had an eight pound, seven ounce honker. That joke baby was mine!

And once Chebbles and I looked into each other's eyes, I could see that she was also my dream baby -- just as pink as the morning sky. We had thought of calling her Aurora, and it would have been very appropriate. She looked steadily into my eyes as though assessing me. It felt like she was saying, "Yes, well, I see. This is the mother. This may be acceptable."


Gigi's birth was a very, very different story.

Remember in the movie "Poltergeist," when JoBeth Williams has to go into the glowing closet of death with a rope tied to her in order to rescue her daughter Carol Ann? Then they end up together in a bathtub, having been reborn through the ether?

Then you pretty much get the "how I met you" story of Gigi and me. Everyone almost died and I lost all my mascara, resulting in more Sissy Spacek post-birth photos.

If you truly dare to follow the soundtrack and screenplay from that insane rainy day in February when all my birth plans went fluttering out the window, and I learned that morphine makes me see dead people with urgent messages for the living (Hola, Poltergeist!) it is here.

I expressly forbid anyone pregnant from reading it, unless you sign this waiver stating that you know how extremely rare womb infections are, and that there is statistically no way it would happen to you because you know me.


Finally, Birdy's birth was a party, my friends. Because I had her exactly 15 months after Gigi, a VBAC wasn't in the cards.

Frank Sinatra was pumped over the operating room speakers, I never went into labor at all. The spinal block felt like I was stepping into the most comfortable hot tub ever, and she was out in seven minutes.

OK, I confess, it was seven creepy minutes, but there was no pain and she was only briefly interrupted from her nap. She came out, nursed a little, then settled back into her nap, like, "Oh, that was strange."

Unlike my previous two babies, I had the distinct feeling I had met Birdy before. She and I looked at each other from our hospital beds and I said, "Whoa, we're in love! We always have been!" and she fell right to sleep. I walked her around the hospital in her little plastic bassinet, the Berkeley spring sunshine falling on her cheeks and I just swooned. I kept telling people, in my haze, "We're in love. I am in love."

Certainly I love all of my children, it's just that I didn't recognize my first two girls' enchanting faces like this.


And in this way, I met each of my girls. I had three dramatically different births, and got to wear mascara for exactly none of them (redheads unite! this is not fair!). And now? It seems like just yesterday and a million years ago at the same time.

I love being a mom.

(Photo from 2011 by Timothy Archibald)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Group buys send me to the theater

I was tortured by the "On Broadway" station on SiriusXM. They play beautiful songs from shows that are touring -- that want at least $100 for a decent seat.

I was tortured, that is, until I discovered the beauty of THE GROUP BUY.

If I can find 19 other people to go to a show with me, I can scam cheap tickets, at least $20 less than retail.

The other benefit, I have learned, is that the tickets you get with a group buy are better than the normal seats you buy at retail. The retail seats are just the leftovers after the group buyers have had their way with the seating charts. And now, that's me!

Luckily I belong to a spunky local chorus called the Berkeley Broadway Singers, theater lovers all. When I stood up at a rehearsal and announced a group buy for "Peter and the Starcatchers" and
suddenly I had 19 friends to buy tickets with me!

Logistically it has been annoying. I have to collect people's money, and their seating druthers, then track down the people who haven't paid me. I have to pay for the whole block ahead of time, then frantically deposit checks before the credit card bill comes through while carefully distributing tickets to the right people. BUT, for example, it was freaking awesome to go see "Peter and the Starcatchers" surrounded by friends, at a steep discount.

I just did another group buy for "Once," but I carelessly bought far more tickets than I needed, and was stuck hawking them on Craigslist in the weeks prior to the show. It worked out because everyone likes cheaper-than-retail seats with a great view, so I made some new Craigslist friends in the process. But it was nervewracking for a few weeks there.

I am currently scurrying around to get commitments for "Pippin" now too, and I found out that the SF Ballet will manage group buys for me, so a whole herd of us are going to The Nutcracker.

There is an unexpected side benefit to all of this group buy activity, other than carpools and cheap tickets. Sometimes when I am in a theater, packed with other people, I find that some of them think too loud and give off annoying vibes.

I'm not just talking about the obvious texters and chatty people who are annoying -- it's that once people are packed next to me in a darkened theater, I find it hard to tune out some of their mental energies. And if it's friendly people I know surrounding me, I can better handle that level of psychic buzz emanating from the crowd.

So if you're local, join the fun of our next group buy!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Billy Joel

I've only just realized how much Billy Joel's songs are engrained into my very being.

Our satellite radio, SiriusXM, is featuring a 24-hour-a-day Billy Joel station. I can't listen to enough of it, and I've been amazed to discover that I remember almost every single lyric -- songs I haven't heard for twenty years I can now perform (for my children, in my kitchen, with a wooden spoon microphone) down to every last nuance.

From the age of 10, I listened to Billy Joel most of my waking hours, popping tape after tape into my "boom box" while I was in the shower or getting ready for school, in my car, in my room, anywhere.

I would regularly wear out his tapes and I would have to save up and drive to the record store to replace it. The replacement tapes always sounded so rich and wonderful compared to the tapes I'd worn out.

My mother had the entire "Piano Man" album and I would look at that spooky picture of Billy Joel while listening to the scandalous "Captain Jack" or "Travellin' Prayer" -- "Piano Man" wasn't even my favorite of those songs. The rich piano sounds and Billy Joel's voice resonated so deeply with me, I tracked down the sheet music (I have never been able to learn music by ear) and memorized everything I could on my own piano, singing my heart out all the while.

My first memory of listening to Billy Joel was a tape I had of "Cold Spring Harbor." This was the first version of "Cold Spring Harbor" in which Billy Joel sounds slightly like a Chipmunk (a remastered version with his real voice was released in the mid-80's, but with some untoward changes).

Soon I discovered all of the rest of the albums he had released when I was growing up (My favorites were "Songs in the Attic" and "52nd Street"), and I collected all of them, wearing them down, wearing out my friends' patience, learning every lyric to every song. By high school I was waiting in line for Billy Joel concert tickets at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, and losing my mind when he took the stage.

I knew every lyric, every key change, and memorized every small musical variant within the songs, comparing the live versions when I could find them, and dissecting the meaning of lyrics. When I wrote my first real journal, for a teacher in 10th grade, I featured large swaths of Billy Joel lyrics as inspiration for my writing.

I covered the bathroom walls in my father's house with the names of every Billy Joel song ever written, including the ones from his terrible old duo "Attila." (Love that meat locker photo!) 

My favorite song is "Summer, Highland Falls" (
-- this is also Billy Joel's favorite song, so I may have been unduly influenced by my subscription to the "Root Beer Rag," the fanzine about my favorite singer. I read every word of that fanzine, and scoured it for information about his USSR tour, the changes he made with his band, and the details of his suicide attempt (he explained, for example, that drinking all that furniture polish just made him shine chairs when he farted). He spoke frankly in the "Root Beer Rag" and I dearly wish I'd kept my copies of it as I can't find much of it online anywhere other than here:

Hearing this SiriusXM Billy Joel station has been a salve to my soul. I hadn't known that I was wounded until I heard these songs and felt the positive effects of his music, which is incredibly enjoyable, emotional and medicinal for me -- just as it was when I was 10 years old.

When I saw Billy Joel at the Palace in Auburn, MI in 1990, I had a wonderful seat overlooking the stage from the first balcony, facing his face as he sang so many of my favorite songs.

I knew the words to everything, of course, even the most obscure tune that he trotted out. "Zanzibar" or "Falling of the Rain"? No problem. I already had the lyrics to "We Didn't Start the Fire" down pat as well.

Near the end of the concert, he stopped playing the piano for a moment and pointed directly at me, nodding his head and smiling wide. I got it. I got him. It was a huge highlight for me, that acknowledgment.

On an interview aired on the SiriusXM station, he was asked about "We Didn't Start the Fire" and he explained that the lyrics were hard even for HIM to remember during performances. And he said that during concerts he would find someone in the audience who knew all of the words so he could follow their mouth and be sure that he was on track.

I'm glad to know that, if pressed into service now in 2014, I could still provide that assistance to my favorite singer of all time.

Finally, a marvelous demo I'd never heard until it was aired on SiriusXM. So many great things to say about this -- his notes in the midst of the song, how many other songs sound similar, and the chords. Whew. Thank you, Billy Joel, for providing the soundtrack to a tough time in my life. I'm moved yet again.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

My annual Lenten reminder

"Nobody gets the moose,” I growled, pulling the toddler roughly from a rocking stuffed moose she had commandeered from my daughter.

I snatched the moose and put it up on a table, far away from their reach.

Moments before, this girl had shoved my daughter from atop the moose, knocking my girl's head on the sharp bricks protuding from the nearby fireplace.

I was very angry, and it showed. After removing the moose, I hugged my daughter and checked her head for bleeding while silently condemning the other child who seemed smug.

“They don’t know what they’re doing at this age,” the other mother told me from across the room.

“Like hell they don’t,” I thought bitterly.


I have gone over this old memory so many times that it’s become a very smooth pebble in my pocket. I had enjoyed a wonderful friendship with the other child’s mom, and after the moose incident it began to fall apart.

I have spent too many hours in the intervening years puzzling over WHY

Did this other mother see some out-of-control person in me, losing her temper when children were simply playing and “not knowing what they’re doing?”

That other mother distanced herself from me over the next few weeks, eventually not calling at all anymore. It shouldn’t have been as much of a problem as it was, but I hadn’t gone to the trouble of making any back-up friends when I had kids. She was my main friend. Between her and the other four women in our playgroup, that was it for me.

She had called me the night after I took the moose away from our children.

“Are we OK?” she asked.

I was perplexed. I hadn’t given the incident another thought since my daughter stopped crying, but to her the Moose Incident seemed to be a big deal. Had she heard my evil thoughts about her daughter?

Then over the next few months she stopped communicating at all with me.


Soon afterwards, there seemed to have been some kind of agreement that I was no longer a part of our playgroup -- they reorganized without me. One of the other women closed a door directly in my face walking into preschool and made no attempt to hide her disdain when in my presence.

That madness was exactly seven years ago. I remember the approach of Easter, I sat in playgrounds by myself, feeling hollowed out by loneliness. I thought I had the best mom-friends a woman could possibly hope for and they all simultaneously dumped me.

It broke my heart. And yes, it allowed for what would eventually become the REAL best mom-friends a woman could hope for. (Shout out to my soul sisters...)

And I have written repeatedly about the playgroup that dumped me, and sat ruminating about it for silly amounts of time. I have spotted one or another woman from that group, particularly the mother of the moose-girl, and I felt like a giant awkward ass, sweating and running away.

It’s this time of year that kicks me most in the gut. And so I vow to be a good friend.

This doesn’t mean I’m never going to rip a moose from underneath another toddler, or that I won’t think evil thoughts about kids who hurt my kids (daily).

It means that I’m going to be about mom-love. I’m going to reach out to the lonely mom in the park and give her the love she needs, immediately and without judgement. Because I have been hollowed out by women who treated me horribly. There is no “crime” that could justify their behavior. I hereby renew my vow to be the one with the casserole, the one with reassurance, love the mom-sisters.

And it is what I teach my daughters now: Be gentle with one another, don’t break hearts, life is brutiful and it’s a rotten thing to cast a friend aside. This painful time of year is my reminder to love the sisters and share the moose.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In which we cross the line into public school

Tomorrow is Gigi's first day of kindergarten.

It looks wildly different from Chebbles' first day of kindergarten.

On Chebbles' first day of kindergarten, we sat her in front of an advanced video of Khan Academy math and videotaped her while she watched it. She didn't understand the topic, but we snickered with glee... it was the first day of kindergarten -- homeschool-style!

Kindergarten generally looked like this for us: Chebbles and I would sit together at the kitchen counter after her sisters went down for their naps, and we would first tackle a series of math problems, then some handwriting and grammar, then after a trampoline break we would run back inside, or sit on the hammock, and read history and science together.

It was cozy. Only occasionally would she resist a lesson, and she would soon get back on track, particularly if I gave her a little snack for brain food.

And you know what? Kindergarten was awesome like that. She learned so much, so quickly, and she still had plenty of time to read her books and play. But eventually both she and I were starting to feel a little lonely.

I found some homeschool groups, and made some connections, but homeschooling people like us were difficult to find, and none of them were local. We were homeschooling because Chebbles is very gifted, and the local school was not prepared to take her on, in my opinion, as they had 31 kids and one teacher in the kindergarten classroom.

We were not homeschooling because we were Christian and we were not homeschooling because we were idealists. It was a default choice for a kid who turned 5 in September yet was reading very advanced material.

We tried to send Chebbles to public school for the second half of first grade, but it was not a success for our wildly asynchronous child. When she wanted to read something other than the Berenstain Bears, she was restricted from more complex literature -- super-frustrating for all of us as she began to regress in her main subjects and start to get really bored and sad at school -- so I went back to homeschooling.

Second grade at home was a grind for both of us, leading me to sign her up for a lot of classes and outsource the maximum amount of classwork I could. She became more resistant to my teaching and I started getting bored with homeschooling. We were an increasingly combustible combination when the time came to actually show she was working (which she commonly wasn't).

We'll see how third grade goes for Chebbles, now that her lessons are mostly in others' hands (thank you, Quantum Camp Microschool), but Gigi?

Gigi is starting public kindergarten tomorrow. And I may be completely deluded but I think it's a really good idea. She even has the same teacher that Chebbles had in first grade, and I also think that will be a really good match!

Today I took her to "Welcome Day" where we signed up for various programs (Spanish!) and met more of the parents and kids at our local school. The whole thing suddenly seems like such a good idea. Gigi is such a different kid than her sister. She's bright, but she's not reading. She loves playing with numbers, but doesn't really "get" how they come together. (She is particularly vexed by the idea that 99 cents is less than one dollar. I mean, REALLY, how can that be?)

Gigi will be heading into a classroom that is filled with kids a lot like her. We are lucky in that we live in a neighborhood where the demographic is basically a lot of kids who are much like our G. And a teacher who sails on a very even keel is exactly what our middle girl needs.

And you know what Gigi doesn't need? A bored/stressed-out mother trying to muster enthusiasm for teaching D'Nealian handwriting again.

I am having further fantasies that I can put both Chebbles AND Birdy in public school with Gigi next year. I have this vision in which I walk them all down to the bus stop at 7:15 in the morning and then they all get on it.

Then what!? I will probably go home and take a five hour bath the first day, with a cocktail and a stack of Sunday New York Times Magazines.

And then in the ensuing days I will write short stories and nonfiction. Because Alice Munro just officially retired, North America needs a new mom writing short stories between loads of laundry. Then perhaps I will consult for companies who need public relations, or edit something fascinating. Some activity that involves other grown-ups, perhaps?

So often during my homeschooling career, people would say, "Oh, public school is just state-sponsored day care."

And I would totally agree.

And now I'm thinking, waaaaait a minute. The state sponsors day care? Why am I not taking advantage of this?

I am ready to do something a little different with my life next year, when a few hours of childlessness might stretch before me. I am ready to stop gestating babies, and possibly to stop micromanaging their education. I am not saying I would abdicate their entire education to the State of California, but I am saying I am ready for the State of California to start helping with the load.

And I felt so strident about homeschooling several years ago, with my five-year-old genius and her sleeping sisters. But my babies have grown up, and all of them know how to roll their eyes, and it's time for all of us to do something a little different.