(Non) Chick Lit

car reading

I never post reviews on websites. Sure, I’ve joined online communities like Goodreads, Audible or Amazon. I read and value what other people say, I’ve made purchases based on what strangers with likeminded tastes have recommended.

But there are two books that so profoundly impacted me this month that I have to write them up.

A Little Background:

A benefit of moving to Los Angeles, (a hidden benefit, or you might say a backhanded benefit): audio books in the car. Not surprisingly, I spend much more time in the car than I did in San Francisco. Oodles. When I drive the boys to school in the morning, the drive time can vary from 17 minutes to 35 minutes. Doesn’t seem like much but that’s almost a 20 minute variant! Who knows what this depends on – right when you think you have it figured out it changes on you: holidays, school in session, accidents, road work, or the way the wind blows. During that drive time we have started listening to Harry Potter in the car. This is great for a couple of reasons. First, the boys don’t complain about being in the car. Instead they get so completely lost in the world of wizards and muggles that they barely even register the passing homeless tent cities or feel the sedentary motion of sitting in gridlock. Also, they don’t get scared. We read the first two books at home, at night right before bed. They are scary! The first one had a scene that spooked me to the core (ahem, I’m 41), and I’ve heard they continue to increase in scariness. In sum, listening to audio books can guarantee fewer nightmares.

But back to me and my books. These two that I fell in love with are total opposites … yet, not. I realize I’m a feminist to my core and I love women writers and narratives about women (and women musicians and singers for that matter). The first book is Yes Please by Amy Poehler and the second is My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

Yes Please

Poehler is famous. Big time. She spent years on Saturday Night Live and most recently wrapped the primetime series Parks and Recreation. What’s fascinating about her though is her story. Amy (yes, we go by first names) describes to us readers/listeners about growing up in Boston with an accent that wouldn’t go away, about her family dynamics, and about the successes and failures that vaulted her to fame.

Yes Please

But she also talked to me confidentially. Really, just to me, not to the thousands of other fans who bought her book or downloaded her audio version. Just me. She told me about a regret she had playing a mentally challenged woman on Saturday Night Live, who later she had a correspondence with after many years of guilt and regret. She brought me to tears when she told me about her love for her two sons, and about the secret to time traveling, and about a post-divorce trip to Haiti. Her writing is eloquent yet accessible. As I drove down the boulevards in East Los she would create simple metaphors to illustrate her point, or remind me to get rid of that little self-shaming, critical voice inside our heads. A bonus to the audio version is Amy reads the book, but also has guest readers like Kathleen Turner, Carol Burnett and her parents.

My Brilliant Friend

The second book couldn’t be more unlike Amy’s wry memoir in style, yet touched me in a similar way. Elena Ferrante (if that’s even her real name) is a famous recluse who gives few interviews. She has written a strong handful of books, one being tied together as a series aptly named The Neapolitan Series:


As I write this I am one third through the second novel. The first novel, My Brilliant Friend, rang my bell. This book was published in September of 2012 — where have I been and how could I have been living my life for three years without having experienced Ferrante’s prose?

But it’s not just the prose of course; it’s the storyline. It’s the setting (Naples), it’s the characters (poor town, two best girlfriends), it’s the conflict (domestic violence, life choices) and it’s the unraveling and raveling of all of this interacting through time.

I constantly wonder about the author. It even isn’t clear who the brilliant friend is. But it’s about girls, impending womanhood, fears and thrills. I can’t stop listening (you’ll often find me parked in my driveway long after arriving home.) Hillary Huber reads the audio version and she has such subtle nuances to her voice, all melted together in a soft purr of dictation.

The most difficult aspect to listening to books in the car is that I’m unable to underline. The sentences these women wrote would elevate me from myself, but then they float away and I can’t perseverate on the prose. With Ferrante, it’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to purchase a tangible book so that I can soak in the writing with my eyes, not only my ears.
Photo Credit: MlleMiracle via Compfight cc

(Non) Chick Lit

So Go Downtown…

“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares”

Downtown, Petula Clark

Sunday has become our day to explore our new biome (fun diction credit: my 8-year-old son’s vocabulary word last week). Our urban biome, that is, and yesterday specifically it was to explore downtown Los Angeles.

The five of us spent the first part of the day lazily around the house, and left for downtown around 4pm. At that time of day, the freeways were jam packed – not at a standstill, but crawling thickly like metallic slugs. I wondered where everyone was headed on a Sunday afternoon; there was no Lakers game or convention. Out for a Sunday drive I suppose.

We took the Olympic exit and wound around to Chick Hearn Street (once Siri directed him, my husband clucked “the Chicken!”) We parked and crossed the street to the unassuming Grammy Museum on Flowers Street.

The museum is open late by museum standards (6:30pm on a Sunday) and it was well attended yet not crowded. Super interactive; cool exhibits with headphones and touch pads that relay mini music lessons related to the history and events of the time period. There’s a room with instruments to play, exhibits on Tupak Shakur, Ravi Shenkar and the Supremes…and of course the Taylor Swift Experience. There’s almost an entire floor dedicated to Swift, the young musical phenom and now cultural icon. Our three-year-old daughter had fun dancing on the light up cubes to the video “Shake it Off!” and I foresaw my future life with a teenage girl.

After the museum we walked two blocks to treat ourselves to a fancy family dinner at The Palm. My husband and I had skipped lunch to afford the calories we planned to consume.

The maître de was so kind, taking our littlest by the hand and letting her pick out our booth. He comped us a plate of homemade chips, which satiated our museum-ed-out and starving boys. For the kids, they ordered a plate of butter pasta and chicken strips (not so creative) and for us we started with sharing their “Gigi” salad, and I had the swordfish and my husband had the New York Strip. Naively, I ordered a side of Three Cheese Potatoes Au Gratin, which was large enough (and designated for, apparently) the entire family. We finished off the hugely satisfying meal with key lime pie, donuts and chocolate cake! Wha? Then we rolled home to bed. And promptly got up this morning for a 5-mile run (um, yeah right).

On the 2-block walk back to the car in the crepuscular light, a breeze blew between the tall buildings with their flashing video screens. We walked by LA Live and I was surprised to see so many out on the sidewalks, or eating al fresco at the restaurants.

Cranes and construction sites were on every corner, building high-rise condos for the influx of Angelenos moving to the increasingly hip downtown. I don’t want to move there, but I’m glad to live so close. I miss the city of San Francisco, the feeling of condensed buildings and pedestrians and good music, food and drinks offered from long-standing venues. Downtown LA will be my newly adopted downtown, fulfilling my need to feel the heart beat of a thriving metropolis.

Our first day venturing out in downtown together was more that of a tourist’s sip than a unique taste test. But it was a baby step and I look forward to a deeper exploration of all that it has to offer.


Photo Credit: shehan365 via Compfight cc

So Go Downtown…

Los Angeles – the Wild Life

Griffith Park
Griffith Park

While we were still living in San Francisco, but in escrow with a house in Los Angeles for our upcoming relocation, my husband visited our new house with a friend. He only wanted to drive by and show his friend our pending slice of LA when he noticed news vans parked all along our street. A helicopter hovered overhead. He and his friend decided a young, tortured actress must have offed herself in her home and so started scouring the Internet for news about our street. That’s where he learned about P22.

There was a mountain lion, or cougar, in the crawl space beneath the house across the street from us. Right- it was not under our house, phew, but still across the street is miles closer than we want to be to that kind of animal (especially with three kids, one being three years old). More on him later.

You can imagine how nervous this all made me. We were leaving the Bay Area with mixed emotions, and what I would miss most (after friends) would be the natural beauty of Northern California. Yes, we lived in the city proper but you could easily drive 15 min any direction to get the quiet Redwoods on Mt. Tam, or a fog-laden beach at Half Moon Bay, or the deliciously sunny and warm climate of the East Bay.

We weren’t moving to the beachy side of Los Angeles, with its long stretches of sand and palm trees and coastal canyons. We were moving to East Los, and my preconceived notion allowed me only to project concrete, suffocating heat, and freeways.

But I was wrong. We live near one of the largest urban parks in North America, Griffith Park. I’ve only known it in the summer, when it’s dusty and the foliage is parched. But apparently the park gets very green (please, rain.) In our backyard we have hummingbirds and dragonflies, woodpeckers and Blue Jays. We have a vast amount of lizards, and I’ve seen one beautifully alien-esque Praying Mantis.

afternoon walk

The wildlife continues to get larger and more thrillingly scary. Neighbors have warned us about rattlesnakes in our backyard. When our kids go out to their playstructure, we’ve been instructed to take a stick and go verify it’s reptilian-free. This morning I went for a walk in the park and was a little startled to read a sign warning me of rattlers.

And there’s the coyotes; its population in the park alive and well. I’ve heard many stories of coyotes attacking small dogs, even a woman walking with her stroller, and not always at dusk or night. I’ve seen only one coyote in the three months I’ve lived here. I was driving up our street right before dusk and there he was, trotting down the sidewalk as though he had a bus to catch, not looking particularly shaggy or underfed. Definitely not having any qualms about trotting through a human neighborhood. Late at night, every single night, there’s 60 seconds of howling. It starts with one or two and escalates until it sounds like the hills are chock full of werewolves. I’ve grown to love it, while safely tucked in my bed with children behind locked doors, but I don’t know if I would feel the same if I encountered one out in the open.

This brings us back to P22, the largest predator (besides us humans) in the area. He’s a beautiful mountain lion, tagged P22 by researchers and scientists who are monitoring his life. He is a local celebrity, even featured in National Geographic, and his trek to Griffith Park is astounding. P22 was born in the Santa Monica mountains, and he traveled about 20 miles toward downtown LA looking for a soul mate. He crossed not one but two major, eight-lane freeways. He ended up in Griffith Park, and continues to live there. Back in April at our neighbors house, after hours of being “hazed” with beanbags (and other humane methods),  the relatively docile cat finally left on his own the following morning.

Los Angeles has pleasantly surprised me with its natural side. It is dangerous and wild, both probably appropriate metaphors for its human side, too. But I’m ready to tentatively welcome it, and say goodbye for now to its tamer cohort known as Northern California.

Los Angeles – the Wild Life

The Au Pair Chronicles

au pair: noun, a young person (usually a young woman) from a foreign country who lives with a family and helps to care for children and do housework in return for the opportunity to learn the family’s language – merriam-webster.com

November 2013 – Exhausted. That’s what I remember. It was when my husband was traveling weekly, I had a newborn and two boys under seven, and I was teaching part time that my husband and I opted to dive into the world of au pairs. Soon thereafter, we were picking up our new housemate at the airport with a single suitcase and a stuffed bear. Jet lagged from a long flight from Poland, it was our young au pair’s first time on an airplane, first time in the US, and all of this with a single year of college English on her tongue.


Our au pair, whom I’ll call Poppins, was from a university town in Poland and flew almost six thousand miles to San Francisco in January of 2014. She and our family signed a contract for 12 months through an agency called Au Pair Care. Although some people have coordinated an au pair from another country on their own, it’s a seamless process (and, ahem, did I mention legal?) to use the services of an agency. It is not, I repeat, not, cheap. However, it’s important to know that it is still cheaper than the price of a full time nanny.

The low down on the cost: Here’s a great breakdown on Au Pair Care’s website about the cost of an au pair. After the agency fees, we end up paying Poppins about $5/hour for three children, for up to 43 hours per week.

I think most people in need of full time childcare would go for this option with the exception of one tiny thing: you must have an extra bedroom. Poppins has told me a few (slightly horrific) stories about windowless rooms and makeshift basements. But most agencies require a home “inspection” before a contract is signed.

I do not think having an au pair is a sign of affluence, although often I’m embarrassed when mentioning it in conversation (I resort – sheepishly – to calling her a babysitter). I’ve come to understand that having an au pair is akin to living in a small village where the oldest child takes on the responsibility of being a third parent.

Poppins was 23 when she arrived. 23 is at that delicate age when one is an adult yet only recently finished their teenage years. Some au pairs are as young as 18, and maturity levels definitely vary. Here’s the thing, you can’t not want an extra child. Or maybe an extra dependent is better diction. Over the course of the year I helped Poppins sign up for English classes by driving to the local community college and applying in person, I took her to get emergency dental work, I watched her get her heart broken by an American boy, I’ve helped her buy her first iPhone, and I’ve taken her to the DMV for her drivers test(s).

au pair

With that being said, it’s amusing to have a young twenty-something in the house again. It’s always fun to see her get glammed up for a night at the clubs. Poppins is respectful about coming home quietly (many au pairs are given curfews, we chose not to), is never (obviously) hungover when we need her early on a weekend morning, and she pitches in with household chores even when she’s not on the clock.The kids treat her like a big sister/auntie and they relish the fact that someone will get down on the floor and play. We feel lucky since rematches are common. A rematch is when the host family and the au pair have agreed to go their separate ways before the term of the contract is over. For some this means moving to another city. But if an au pair cannot find another family to match with, she/he will have to go back to their home country.

Lastly, the international exposure broadened our family’s experience. We are all exposed to another language (which has huge benefits), culture, history, food and lifestyle. My middle son laughs so hard when Poppins slathers her pizza with ketchup, my daughter just stares when she microwaves her bowl of honey nut cheerios and milk, and my oldest son has convinced her to become a Cholula hot sauce fanatic. They have learned Polish tongue twisters, I’ve learned about her father who commutes weekly to Germany to drive a taxi, and she now loves the newfound delicacy of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

With all of this being sad, when it’s time for Poppins to return home we won’t opt to sign with another au pair. Our daughter will be heading to school and we won’t need as much help going forward. But someday we hope to make a family trip to Poland, and visit Poppins when she has her own brood to watch over.

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The Au Pair Chronicles

Reflecting on My Experience with the Writing Club

Two years ago I launched The Writing Club, a creative writing program for kids. My students ranged as young as second grade up to fifth grade, boys and girls, and from public and private schools in San Francisco. I came away from it feeling great about helping those kids who were tentative about writing, those who needed a confidence booster, and conversely those who loved to write and wanted to spend more time storytelling than the traditional school day offered.


My decision to launch my own private writing “club” came after I spent two years teaching with the San Francisco based after-school program, “Take My Word for It!” The program would join an elementary school’s after-school program and offer a 10-week creative writing class, mixed ages, for one hour per week. The class would expose students to poetry, prose, and literary craft elements like personification, onomatopoeia, figures (metaphor, analogies, etc) and more.

After teaching the “TMWFI” program’s curriculum, and understanding how to teach the lessons, I decided I could create my own curriculum and offer it “off campus.” In the summer of 2013 I conceived of the 10-week lesson plan, marketed the classes, and filled two sessions of 12-15 students each. Every Tuesday I transformed my dining room into a classroom, and on Fridays I worked out of my friend’s art studio.

After the fall of 2013, I offered winter classes, and then spring of 2014. We created club names for ourselves and a secret club handshake. I often created a theme for the course. For example, one session’s theme used San Francisco as our muse. We studied images of the fog and tried our hand at mystery writing, we wrote Beat poetry and performed it with a mic and beret, and we wrote odes to famous San Francisco landmarks. I created a “Dead Word Wall” where the kids would have to offer a synonym for an overused word (a dead word, like “said”). We also created “invords” or invented words by piecing together words and making up the definition. I posted their writing on Facebook.

Two years later, I had in total taught over 50 children.

It was thrilling to watch the changes. Some students would delve in and write pages and pages, and you could see that the weekly inspiration further enabled their innate passion. Other students, those who struggled, would open up and grow more confident, and I often had gracious feedback from parents. They could see the changes in their child’s attitude toward writing. At school at the parent-teacher conferences, the student’s teacher would note the change in the student’s writing. Parents often thanked me, and to have that kind of influence over a child’s growth and learning was surprising and wholly satisfying.

Writing is an important skill that crosses over and supports other subjects and brain function. Throughout the child’s academic journey, the ability to communicate through writing is invaluable. But I also focused on the child’s ability to let go of judgment and criticism and to be ok with whatever words spill out on the page. To not be embarrassed and to try his/her best to shake off that feeling of vulnerability. To be confident in their own voice and ideas, and use writing as an outlet for emotions, dreams and fears. To start by putting pen to paper…and let go.

Reflecting on My Experience with the Writing Club

Hello Los Angeles

In June our family relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We were in San Francisco, actually inside the city itself, not on the perimeter, not the Area, not NorCal. But the city itself. For 15 years.

Now we are settled in Eastern Los Angeles, in the village of Los Feliz (yes, it’s a village).

Initial impressions of LA:

  • Hot. Like an oven. Oppressively so. This morning it was 90 degrees by 9am. Is this the standard temp for early September? Will it break? I’m not even going to ask about rain.
  • Lizards. Dozens of the little freaks scurrying around, startling me when they jump in the ivy. Geckos, I think. Some the size of my hand, many the size of my index finger. But I’ll take them over rats any day.
  • Homeless. Back in SF, we had and have tons of homeless, vagrants, lost kids, druggies and a lot of mentally ill. Here they make great encampments, stretches of tents and mattresses and torn clothing to create shantytowns in the shade of the many concrete overpasses. Signers and those who walk in the middle of the street abound.
  • Fashion. LA got style. San Francisco not so much. LA fashion is avant-garde, loud, exciting.
  • Driving. And driving more. Now I consult travel times and traffic patterns and the Waze app before I so much as pick up my keys. Distance and traffic can have more influence on where I go to dinner than cuisine or reputation.
  • Industry. Most everyone has something to do with the Entertainment industry. Scriptwriters and directors and independent projects are discussion topics. But even us plain-ol’ entertainment consumers are seriously up on our celebrity knowledge.
  • Spanish. Duh. But seriously the concentration of Spanish speakers is immense, and pleasing to the ear if I do say so. In California it has become the norm, but in most of the country English is the only language consistently heard and read. Vamanos.

More to come as the weeks roll by…

Hello Los Angeles