No It All Gift Guide 2016

Let’s face it, we’ve all noticed the marked parallels between Santa Claus and the other omnipotent, omnipresent bearded man up north.  He sees you when you’re sleeping?  He knows when you’re awake?  Surrounded by a group of devout followers… and everything captured carefully in an enormous book.  If you don’t follow his rules and do exactly as he says… straight to a toy-free inferno full of coal, and not the mythical clean kind, mind you.

Jake has always been a bit of a skeptic.  But this year, he’s become exceedingly more brazen and unabashed.  Fortunately his interest in video games has kept him just barely in check.  Though he did tell me he used Google Earth to scan the entire North Pole and did not see any signs of Santa’s house.  Good thing is, not believing in Santa Claus is the fastest route to Christmas morning disappointment.  And given how tired I am from this year of moving, Jake better be careful I don’t just approve Santa’s pending PTO request.

Now listen up Santa’s helpers!  Most of these ideas have already been placed in Santa’s warehouse, or carefully doled-out to relatelves.  Please contact your local representative should you have an inquiry for the big man upstairs.

This year’s gift guide is a little simpler than in years past.  Ages 5 and 7 are definitely dawning on a new era of interest in sports and electronics and Pokémon t-shirts.  Sticking with last year’s categories, a few ideas for those looking for a bit of curated inspiration.

And now, the 2016 No It All Gift Guide for Boys (Ages 5-7):


Nintendo 3DS XL:This year, on more than one occasion, I’ve been told “I want an Xbox360 or nothing.”  Imagine the dramatic, slow-motion whipping of the hair and matching furrowed brow.  I’m doing my best to casually weave-in stories of how I got my first video game console when I was THIRTEEN, after losing my house to a thunderous shaking of the earth, no doubt caused by an angry Santa Claus.  James had the brilliant idea of easing into this video game obsession with something we can still easily rip from the grasp of the furrowed brow, and place on a high shelf, out of reach.  Cue the Nintendo 3DS XL.  According to a few surreptitious hours of 5am internet research (I still haven’t adjusted to the time change… and am reluctantly missing those hours on Caltrain), Nintendo apparently still has the decided lead in handheld gaming.  Seems that Gameboy thing really gave them a leg up.  Nintendo doesn’t appear to currently possess the brand recognition and cache on the 2016 second grade playground as Xbox or Playstation.  Good thing for them, 1990 Santa is still infallibly loyal to the Mario Brothers… Mario Mario and Luigi Mario.

Battleship: Looking to assert total Y Camp domination?  Look no further.

Boogie Boards: According to Maestra Irion, Nate refuses to sing with enthusiasm in kindergarten.  Probably because he sings with an unrelenting vengeance at home.  Lately he’s been singing this song that includes the line “boogie par’ abajo.”  Which I gather is Spanglish for “the twist.”  In any case… Yes it’s November.  Yes the boys go into the ocean up to their necks every weekend.  Yes I think they’d love to boogie par’ abajo on their very own boogie boards.


Stick-lets: Given we’ve recently moved to a place with more sticks than the Blair Witch, these look to be just the ticket for hours of outdoorsy fort-building, video-game-free fun.  Send them out with these plastic doohickies and an old sheet and tell them not to come back until they’ve built something better than Minecraft.

Insulated lunch bags: Everyone is walking around with the blue insulated lunch satchel from Target.  Everyone.  Despite the fun of your water bottle immediately plummeting through the achilles heel of this bag’s mesh side holder, and the thrill of opening one’s lunchbox at home, only to discover unfamiliar sandwich baggies of someone else’s half-eaten cast-offs, it’s time for a change.  These insulated bags, from a company based in Santa Cruz, may just pass the “cool” test… Santa recommends the “shredder” or “shark camo” designs.

Old-fashioned pencil sharpener: Have you heard the joke about the pencil?  Never mind… it’s pointless.  Ha!  Jake really got me with that one while we were in line for the Polar Express this weekend.  In any case, we generally find all of our homework pencils are as dull as today’s newspaper funnies.  This one has the added benefit of being able to screw it to the wall so you can actually find it.

Ninja erasers: Is your living room full of mini ninjas practicing their Kempo five-point blocking system?  Get it?  Five-point?!  Tough crowd…  The perfect complement to the sharpener above.


Nerf N-Strike Elite Vision Gear: Someday I hope to one day meet a Nerf product manager and learn first-hand the process by which they develop the names for their line of foam weaponry and munitions.  And given the proliferation of the arms race, one can never have too much protective eyewear.  I’ve taken to wearing it religiously on weekends and anytime I’m not sleeping.  It’s especially helpful when we invite friends over to fight.  I mean play.  Just this afternoon, Kai was clearly handicapped by having to wear the suffocating Clone Halloween helmet as protection.  Meanwhile, I don’t think Nate felt as menacing as he wanted in his swim goggles.

“Cool” pajamas: You may be trying to overlook the fact that the little people in your life are wearing thread-bare capris to bed.  These may be the one time worth a Hanna Andersson splurge.  High quality Star Wars nightwear… quite possibly the only time when “cute Clone” is not an oxymoron.

Elastic headlamps: I know, I know… another guide with a flashlight recommendation?  The perfect stocking stuffer… you’ll see.

KEENS: I am a firm believer that money spent on little boys shoes, other than Keens, might as well be burned for warmth.  We once spent our hard earned “plata” on a pair of light-up Captain America shoes based on an enthusiastic, but ill-informed recommendation from a dad at swimming lessons… only to have them transform, with superhuman speed, into garbageski.  Knowing how to tie shoelaces is so overrated… bungee corded, indestructible shoes with toes like tractor tires?  Super.  Unfortunately Zappos delivered these in less than 24 hours and they’ve been put to immediate use.

Crocs: Crocs may be the Birkenstocks or the Tevas of tomorrow, but let’s get one thing straight.  They are cheap, they are plentiful, and they are one of the best things that ever happened to us.  Fast, sock free and virtually indestructible– they’re great for all kinds of tootsies, from fat, little, square toddler feet, to the bony talons of primary schoolers.


The Book Elf is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.  He is currently neck deep in a multi-year change management initiative, transitioning several small and somewhat resistant youngsters to the magnificent and magical world of…   Reading to Oneself!  You may have sworn, in your teenage years that you’d never be caught dead anywhere near that comic store near Zoccoli’s.  Chalk it up to teen angst and march your fanny in there.

Graphic Novels: The graphic novel section is a treasure trove of reading incentives including the captivating picture book biography series on everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Lucille Ball.  Another great find is Hilo, an age-appropriate series authored by an original 1993 Real World San Francisco cast member.  Teen you would surely approve.

Please give my best to Santa, and let him know, Jake’s looking for him…

Call It a Night

I’ll never forget the 2012 lead-up to the presidential election.  We were on my sabbatical up in Ashland, Oregon, half listening to the presidential debate on TV.  We didn’t think the boys were paying attention until Jake asked with sincere interest, “Are they talking about weapons again?”  What I thought would sound like grown-up Charlie Brown gibberish to a little three-year-old was clear as a bell… probably cementing his budding interest in Weapons of Minor Destruction right then and there in that VRBO living room.

Years later, Jake still finds politics and daily news riveting.  He requests it every morning on the way to school.  He knows all about Trump’s plan to build a huge wall.  He’s familiar with his grabbing of women’s private parts.  His friends have been discussing the election at length on the playground.  And he’s been firmly in “Harry Clinton’s” camp for months.

This election season has made quite an impression on the boys, even though I’ve stayed very far away from it.  I’m not sure if its been the media circus or the negative campaign ads (they’re excited not to have to hear the messages from Donald Cheese Leg anymore… aka Dawn Ortiz-Legg).  My hunch is that it was actually one kindergarten substitute teacher who convinced Nate’s entire class that, and I quote, “Donald Trump is evil.”  I’ve tried to explain that very few people are truly evil, taking a more temperate approach to addressing the sensitive and emotionally charged arena of politics.

What I can say is that I am deeply grateful that my children have witnessed an African-American man and a woman in the only two presidential elections of their lives and have seen all loving couples with the ability to marry the one they love.  Their realities of what is possible have been broadened and deepened far beyond what I observed in my childhood, and for this progress and possibility, I am thankful.

It’s a historical night tonight and as an uncanny reminder, James’ Apple watch reminded us, “It’s time to take a breath.”

Blair Witch

I spent my childhood in the mountains.  Some years, we would get one group of trick-or-treaters that my dad most certainly scheduled.  I can neither confirm nor deny that my mom passed out candy collected the previous Halloween.  And to Granddad’s credit, he would load us up into the green VW camper bus and drive us around the mountains from house to house.  It took a long, long time jumping in and out of that sliding door and trooping up driveways while our neighbors foraged through their pantries looking for something suitable.

So then I grew-up and moved to town… and straight to Halloween Heaven.  We moved-in in October and fortunately, a neighbor casually came by to warn us about Halloween.  “Has anybody warned you about Halloween?”  750+ trick-or-treaters later and we were sufficiently warned…

Then we decided to act on our years and years of planning and moved… back to a mountaintop.  Jacob’s very first and possibly only objection: “What about Halloween?”

James certainly does not need a compelling reason to purchase a vintage VW van… fortunately, we heard through the grapevine that our neighborhood celebrates with an evening potluck and trick-or-treating hayride through the canyon.

We’re now recovering from three back-to-back nights of Halloween carousing… it started with a fantastic Halloween carnival at Henry and Ollie’s house, followed by an invite only evening of costume cacophony at the Country Club with Evan and Dillon, leading-up to the much anticipated hay ride driven by a dinosaur.

This year’s hay ride was apparently the largest haul of children in its thirty year history.  I tried to keep up with the tractor but finally realized I hadn’t worn the right footwear and returned to the parents-only fire pit.  Fortunately the black ninja dragon slayer and the helmet-less clone made it back alive… and did not return 12-feet up in the bucket of the tractor.

All in all, our social cup runneth over.  We may be the only house in the neighborhood with Halloween decorations, but that just makes our DANGER tape and spider webs that much more impressive.  This weekend James and I also took a daring hike around or entire property, primarily along a precipitously unofficial deer trail.  Just down from the tree house James exclaims, “What is that?”

I see some sort of tall box in the woods– is it a safe?  A telephone booth?  Let’s hope we aren’t about to solve any unsolved missing college coed cases.  James cautiously approaches the unidentified grounded object and… it is… an outhouse.  Straight out of Blair Witch.

How scarily fitting.

The Blair Witch Outhouse


I’m not sure how many waves of fashion popularity fluorescence factually claims, but at the risk of aging myself, I’m pretty sure I’ve witnessed three of the four.  In elementary school, my little brother was quite the proud porter of neon, head to toe.  At the time, I certainly appreciated the form of fluorescence, but the function?  I did not yet appreciate the true value of colors that rarely exist in nature.

But now, now we are a loud and proud Day-Glo family.  A few years ago, Jake and Nate received some brightly phosphorescent active wear which fit the then current definition of pre-kinder cool.  It didn’t take me long to realize how genius these little matching athleisure suits were.  The boys could be hundreds of yards away across a beach, a field, an amusement park and I could spot them in an instant.  No longer did I find myself welling with that bit of panic one feels when one hasn’t seen their child for a half hour within the Happy Hollow Redwood Lookout.  I had a new plan… and it was working.

Patagonia is currently running a campaign that promotes letting children learn and take risks.  I find this concept and the sentiment and history behind it fascinating to think about… that said I am not going to let my children balance along cliff ledges as they model $80 puffer jackets.  I do however, think that the resurgence of fluorescence has allowed us to give the boys longer reigns to roam.

I’ve also noticed another interesting side-effect.  Both Jake and Nate have really settled into school and filled their friendship coffers.  I’ve been especially surprised how we seem to end up on school grounds and no matter where we are, their friends appear out of the woodwork, almost knocking them down with their enthusiasm.  Meanwhile I don’t even see them coming.  One moment we’re alone, and the next moment, Nate is sheepishly under a pile of loyal fans.  And then it dawned on me.  Just like me, these little compatriots can see us coming from miles away.  Across a playground of primary colors, Jake and Nate are like two little buoys, bobbing along for their friends to literally grab hold of.

Two weekends ago we were at Nate’s soccer game– we’re the Yellow Jackets with our traditional black and gold striped uniforms.  We were playing a team sporting the latest in neon yellow jerseys.  James leans over to me conspiratorially and says, “They should call themselves the Highlighters.”  Ha!  We both laugh at his clever wit.

Tweet!  The CoachRef blows his whistle for the throw-in and yells, “Highlighters’ ball.”


Season 3

When I was five my mom tricked me into playing soccer.  She told me my best friend Zoe was playing.  Apparently Zoe’s mom told her I was playing… and a few weeks later we were the only two girls on a green team called Rational Moving.

Those first games were rough— I’m told I would just hide my face as the bunch ball swarm buzzed through me.  I don’t remember not liking it.  But I don’t remember liking it either.  At some point things must have changed because I think I’ve been playing soccer ever since.

So of course I signed Jake up for soccer when he was only 18-months-old.  He liked it.  He dribbled around the house and ran around the field.  He was expected to know colors and directions and body parts.  He didn’t speak English.

Then when he was five I signed him up for a poorly organized AYSO league that combined practice and games into an hour on Saturdays.  There was no team name.  There were torrents of tears and meltdowns and all he cared about was the trophy.  The following year I signed him up for soccer again in the PAL league.  It had a weekly practice and a Saturday game with real refs and goals with goalies.  I distinctly remember many episodes of a certain someone crying irrationally and yelling “strong words” at me to the tune of, “I HATE soccer!  Why did you sign me up?  I HATE ALL sports!  I never want to play sports again for the rest of my life!”  Yes, the athlete in me died a little.

But then my friend Kristen told me heartily, “Give it until Season 3.  There’s something about when they get three seasons under their belt— it’ll change.”

I trusted her wisdom and prayed she would be right.  I mean really, what else are we going to do with two high-energy, strong-willed boys for the next 11-13 years besides scheduling them chock-a-block into various sports to exhaust them so fully that they can’t even muster a strong word that begins with “h”?

And now it’s Season 3 for Jake on the Goalbreakers (Jake’s suggestion), and Season 2 for Nate on the Yellow Jackets (he was really gunning for the Fireball Phoenixes).  When I cheer, “Go Green!” Jake corrects me, “It’s teal Mom.  We’re teal.”  Like, duh… Teal is infamously more menacing.

Jake is a changed human being.  He wants to go to practice.  He can’t wait for his games.  He plays soccer voluntarily at recess.  He asks us to take him down to the school on weekends so we can kick the ball around.  Say whuuuut?

At his first game he scored his first two goals and saved two others.  He’s transformed from the kid who never touched the ball, to the kid with a great block and a powerful kick.  Fortunately, Nate’s been a proponent since Season 1.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t do the Fred Flintstone gearing-up run that he used to do in defense as someone was coming toward him… I’m kicking myself for never capturing it on tape.

In any case, our Saturdays are so much fun now.  We’ve transitioned from Irrational Immobility… to Rational Moving.

All Ears

Earlier this week, Nate and I were on our way up the hill while Jake finished-up soccer practice.  As we’re rounding the bend by the apple orchard, Nate asks from the backseat, “How come Grandma’s almost death?”

“What?!” I ask taken aback.  “Grandma’s not almost death!  Why would you say that?”

“That means her ears don’t work that well.”

“Oh.”  Grandma’s gonna love that one…

This evening I spent a good twenty minutes entering the 30 school holidays and 12 minimum days into my calendar.  After deciphering the standard cryptic school calendar… gray with dots are holidays, horizontal stripes are holidays, cross-hatches are holidays, I asked, “Jake, did they test your hearing at school last week?”

“Eh?  Eh?”

Apparently Jake’s almost death, too.

Hot Lava

The first week we moved up to our house there was a heat wave… and boy was it hot.  We were baking.  Suffocating.  Sweating amidst our moving boxes and our PODS.  I admit, we were worried.  Had we just moved somewhere with an unbearable climate?  Would it be like this all summer?  Would we have to move back to Los Osos indefinitely?

But then it cooled down and the weather was breathtakingly perfect and we figured it was just a hot spell.  Though we now had undeniable proof that our architect’s advice against air conditioning was baloney.  Hot, sticky, melted baloney.  Plus there’s that thing called climate change.  We all need air conditioning.

Months passed and there was only one bad weekend.  We seem to have heat waves only when James’ siblings visit.

But then there was last week.  Last week made the first week in our house feel like a brisk winter’s day.  Last week was sweltering.  It was so hot James warned us all, “Grannies die in this heat.”

“OK, Gramps.”

This time the thermometers proved we weren’t just wimpy coastal transplants… on Tuesday, San Luis Obispo was the hottest place in the nation at 108 degrees.  Hotter than Las Vegas.  Hotter than Death Valley.  It was Hot Lava.

And speaking of Hot Lava, it deeply saddens me to report that the hottest day on record was also the day we found poor little Hot Lava… sleeping with the fishes.  He crawled down behind his favorite rocks and took his last little guppy breath.

Hot Lava lived a long, fulfilling life, reaching the wise old age of three.  October third would have been his third birthday.  I will miss him and all those heart-to-heart conversations we had during those early days in Los Osos.

It’s been a rough week, keep a close eye on your grannies… and your goldfish.

Cobra Kai

When my brother was little he was obsessed with wanting to learn karate.  For the record, I was not in favor of him attaining any additional ways of physically attacking me… his cowboy boots were weapon enough.  And after some interminable level of whining and begging, we dropped him off at his first karate class.

An hour or two later and he was ready to quit.  “All we do is stretch.  It’s too much stretching.”  And so his belts remained elastic.

In the last few months, Jacob has also reached “karate age.”  It appears to be a gene that activates at age 7.  He’s been talking about wanting to take karate… I’m sure the submersion in Pokémon hasn’t helped.  I admit I’ve been dragging my feet… do we really need additional instruction and encouragement in the art of punching and kicking one’s closest blood relations?

As luck would have it, our old swim club was called AVAC (pronounced A-vac) and our new swim club is called ABAC (pronounced A-back).  ABAC is actually the sister club to La Madrona, my childhood swim club.  All of this incestuous swim club context is simply to note that ABAC offers free Kempo classes twice a week.

For those of us new to the world of Mixed Martial Arts, Wikipedia describes Kempo as “a martial art characterized by the use of quick hand strikes in rapid succession taught by a red-bearded Sensei Gary.”  I’ve never met a Sensei not named Gary.

Sensei Gary runs a very disciplined barre studio turned dojo.  He is a firm believer in zero tolerance and effectively uses physical consequences as a means of mental control.  He expects a respectful and convincing, “Jacob Sir!” with the proper level of martial arts oomph.  His ability to corral 8 little boys via push-ups and mountain-climbers is impressive.

Now before the boys attended their first Kempo class, I did my best to set expectations… “Don’t be surprised if there is a lot of stretching.  You probably won’t get to kick or hit anything.  You may just do some exercises and stretching.  Remember the story I told you about when Uncle Geoff took karate?”

“Yeah, yeah Mom.  We still want to go.”

That was weeks ago.  The boys came home all hopped-up on Kempo, having had the opportunity to “spar” under Sensei’s watchful tutelage.

I ask hopefully, “How much stretching did you do?  Was there lots of stretching??”

“Uh, no.  Not really any stretching.”

I was really counting on more stretching Sensei Gary.

Lake Lowpez

I married a cowboy hat-wearing pick-up truck driver from the Central Valley.  And James married an environmentally conscious tree-hugger from Santa Cruz.  So of course this has led to many years of friendly ribbing, especially when it comes to Papa and me.  Fortunately, Papa can dish it out, but he can also take it.

Now Jake and Nate have spent their entire lives hearing about the drought.  They’ve barely experienced rain.  They know about conserving water and native plants and Energy Stars.  As coastal California kids, they’re well-versed in reusable bags and parking lots shaded by solar panels and the composting complexities of worm bins.  They’ve never washed a car in the yard.

So of course they’ve heard me questioning why acres of sprinklers are running at high noon.  They’ve seen me fishing tin cans out of the trash and transferring them to the recycling bin.  And they’ve clearly picked-up on me cringing as Papa leaves the sink tap blasting at full capacity as he putters around the kitchen.

A few weeks ago, as we drove away from our camping trip at Lake Lopez, Nate gazed out across the immense dried-up body of water and asked in wonder, “Do you think that’s because of Papa?”

Oh I can’t wait to tell Papa about this one…


During the last weekend of August we ventured out to the campground at Lopez Lake for a two-day, fun-filled outdoor cousin adventure.  “Lake” Lopez is a bit of a misnomer.  The drought has reduced it down to a brush-filled canyon.  Jake and Nate know quite a bit about droughts and water conservation and native plantings given we really haven’t had much rain in their entire lifetimes.

Needless to say, the first night in the campground was rough.  We ended-up tent camping at Blue Jay, which is primarily for recreational vehicles.  Friday night is party night.  All of our neighbors had a rip-roaring good time till the wee hours, playing corn hole, proudly putting up their Trump signs, and flying their Confederate flags (OK, to be fair, flag, but really?)… Let’s not forget I have not been interested in going anywhere near tent camping since the Great Bear Debacle of two-thousand-and-ten.

Devon and Bryan came Saturday, after we’d spent several hours braving the frigid waterslides of Mustang Water Park.  There were hours of tent wrestling and tag and throwing flammable dishware in the fire.  An adventurous weekend of s’mores and potato chips and Scruffy.  A few pitfalls, as little unsuspecting boys appear to be drawn to RV sewer hook-ups, but all and all, a great success.

One of the most memorable parts of Lopez Lake was the plentiful wildlife.  We saw hundreds of dear, flocks of turkeys, woodpeckers and even a little family of raccoons— the mom and her five babies lined-up along a tree as though posing for a calendar.

On Saturday morning Nate and I were quietly enjoying our breakfast when a young buck came into our campsite.  He took a look directly into the boys’ yellow tent and then proceeded to make his way over to our picnic table.  He came closer and closer, until he was looking directly at Nate and me from the opposite side of the table.  That’s when I decide this young buck is gettin’ a little too big for his britches and I give him a good, “Go’on, go’on!”

He scampers out of our site and then, I’m not making this up, sways his rear-end from side to side in a very deliberate, exaggerated way.

I turn to Nate and Nate turns to me and I say, “What just happened?”

And Nate says, giggling in disbelief, “I think he just shook his bum bum at us!”

“Just shook his bum bum at us,” I repeat.  “That’s exactly what he just did.”