The Incredible Birthday Gift

As you may know, my sister Alli designed and printed our wedding invitations a couple of years ago, and since then Andrew and I have been telling her that she’s going to be the next big thing.  While we may be slightly biased, I do think it’s undeniable that Alli has amazing talents that produce beautiful, visually yummy designs.

It turns out she’s been working on an alphabet book for Griffin for the past eight months, and it arrived in the mail two days ago.  If my socks could have been knocked off literally, they would have shot straight across the room.  She got it “published” through Shutterfly, so it’s a real, hardcover book, and it could not be more beautiful.  It’s so beautiful, in fact, that I’m not letting Griffin touch it.  He can only look at it from a distance until his proclivity for eating books subsides.  I wish I could post the whole book, but until it’s really published (and I seriously think it could be!) I’ll share a few of my favorite pages from The Incredible Edible Alphabet by Alli Stocco.

My Super Duper Birthday

Sarah is amazing.  She organized the most incredible birthday extravaganza that anyone could hope for.  And it was a complete and total surprise.

My birthday is the 21st and I had talked to Sarah months ago about not doing anything big — I couldn’t imagine organizing a big birthday party on top of everything else we’re doing this spring.  At some point she suggested we could do a barbecue some time in May, after my thesis is done and the house is on the market.  Sounded like a great plan, and I proceeded with life, forgetting about my birthday entirely.

Then on Monday I got an innocuous email from my brother, Anthony, who was in town for work (he comes for a week of meetings every few months):

Hey guys,

I'm in town this week until Sunday. I thought it would
be cool to meet up on Saturday if any of you are free.
Maybe lunch and a movie? Clash of the Titans might be
fun.... What do you think?


Now that I have reread it, it is a bit suspicious (especially if you know Anthony well).  But at the time, I just thought, “cool, glad Anthony’s in town for a few extra days, I’d love to go see a bad movie!”

The week was the usual maelstrom of school, thesis writing, house prepping, cover letter writing, and parenting, so it all went by in a blur.  But I wasn’t suspicious at all.

Saturday morning I meet up with Anthony, Tyler and Ed, and we start walking to the farmer’s market where we were going to have lunch and then catch the flick at the Grand Lake theater across the street.  As we near the farmer’s market, Anthony turns to me and says, “I’m sorry, Andrew, but we are not going to see Clash of the Titans.”  He hands me a blue card:


Inside the card was a poetic introduction followed by the first clue:

Introduction to the challenge
Clue #1

The solution, of course, is Cancun in Berkeley, which not only has my favorite burrito but is also a place of Great Significance (to me, anyway).  Cassidy’s sister, Margot, recommended the place to me before I moved to Oakland.  When Kevin Muñoz and I arrived in 1996, we started meeting there for lunch every Wednesday, continuing the weekly lunch tradition we had had at the Oberlin computing center.  Over the years, it became a rendezvous for anyone who was available at lunch time on Wednesdays… sometimes just a few of us, sometimes a dozen or more.

In short, it was the perfect first stop on my birthday hunt.

I won’t post all the clues here, but let’s just say that Sarah did her research, including many places near and dear to my heart over the fourteen years I’ve lived here.  Highlights included the grimy piano bar where Sarah and I had our first date (the clue had blown off into a puddle of urine), and the spot in the Oakland Rose Garden where we became engaged (the clue was, fortunately, still tacked to the tree next to which I nervously issued my proposal).

My stunned arrival

But wait, as brilliant and surprising as this whole memory hunt was, it was only a distraction from the real surprise.  Unbeknownst to me, Sarah had been planning this whole thing for months and had invited people from all aspects of my life to a surprise party in the back yard of the house.  They had gathered there at 3:30, expecting my arrival around 4.  Guests included friends from high school, college, my teaching program, the middle school I work at, and Griffin’s birthing group!

While we were on our hunt, they gathered and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  In my ignorance, I was taking my sweet time working my way through the hunt.  (I thought this was pretty much the best birthday ever, so I wanted to savor it!)  In order to get some exercise, I even decided to walk between a number of the final clues!  Sarah and my guides engaged in some frantic behind-the-scenes text messaging to remove a stop or two from the hunt, so I eventually got the final clue that led us to the back yard.

As I came around the corner, expecting to see Sarah and Griffin and maybe Dave and Nancy (probably working hard on the garden in preparation for our upcoming open house), I was greeted by a rousing “SURPRISE!” from a crowd of guests, most of whom I haven’t seen in months!

Some of the wonderful (and patient!) guests
Straight from the Merritt Bakery (one of the stops on our hunt, no less), a fabulous cake... with two working light sabers!

It was a fantastic way to end a fantastic day.  I am in awe of Sarah… pulling this off in a year with nothing going on would have been a major feat.  But this spring has been INSANE.  It boggles my mind.  (I am not the only one who feels this way either… the most common things I heard from the guests, besides birthday greetings, were compliments for Sarah’s masterful planning.)

The day was also a reminder of what we are leaving behind with this upcoming move.  Seeing everybody at the party brought home to me the amazing community we have here.  It’s a hard thing, moving somewhere new.  I appreciate so much that Sarah recognizes the roots I’ve put down here, and honored that connection with this beautiful celebration.  It was, truly, a super duper birthday.

Minnesota Progress

A lot has happened in the past four days:

  • On Wednesday we flew to Minnesota, duly documented via iPhone.
  • On Thursday morning I met with the principal of the St. Paul Open School.
  • Then we had lunch with Maddy and Zoe and I visited Laura Jeffrey Academy, an all-girls middle school in St. Paul.  I toured the school with some prospective parents and then had a great meeting with the educational director (their equivalent of a principal).
  • Somehow in the midst of all this Sarah and I drove around various neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis to start thinking about where we might want to live.
  • On Thursday evening we celebrated Griffin’s first birthday in Courtland with a whole passel of Stocco family friends.  It was fun and festive, and the cake was delicious.
  • Friday morning began with a somewhat strange meeting with the principal of a progressive charter school in Minneapolis.  Sarah and I participated in their “morning meeting” and then chatted briefly (and awkwardly) with the principal who basically said he doesn’t have any job openings and has no ideas about where one should look for teaching jobs.  Weird.
  • Then we raced over to Crosswinds Middle School in Woodbury (east of St. Paul) and met with a friend of a friend who has been teaching there for a bunch of years.  She was great and introduced us to her principal who was similarly great.
  • The sum of all the meetings was that budget cuts will make the job search very challenging. On the bright side, I got many useful tips on how to best market myself and where to focus my efforts most productively.  At this point I’m focusing on charter schools and will start checking out possible private school options.
  • On Friday afternoon Sarah and I met with a realtor and started looking at houses and exploring various neighborhoods in St. Paul.  Our first foray was a bit underwhelming (but things got better later).
  • On our drive back to Courtland that evening we realized that we were utterly exhausted.  We called the realtor to reschedule our Saturday tour to Sunday morning.
  • Saturday was our spring break!  We had a leisurely breakfast, napped, took long hot baths, and walked to the local park where Griffin loved the slide.  (First time he has ever been really into it — he just kept diving down this one, head first!  Pictures will be forthcoming.)  I also wrote thank you cards to the various people I had met with during the week.
  • This morning (seriously, I can’t believe this was today) we raced back up to the Cities to meet with our realtor.  Today’s tour focused mostly on Minneapolis and was much more positive.  We saw a fabulous house in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood and a couple of other cool contenders in Southwest and near Lake Nokomis.
  • Then a picnic lunch by the lake with Pam and Jeff who had just picked up uncle Bob at the airport.  Fun in the sun, and great to overlap with Bob for an hour.
  • Then back to the airport to fly back to SFO.  Griffin had a harder time on this flight.  He’s got a molar coming in and was tired but couldn’t fall into a comfortable sleep.  Still, he handled it pretty well and is a pro at airplane bathroom diaper changes.
  • When Ed picked us up at the BART station he handed us a bag with three English muffins from our favorite bakery.  He figured we might not have breakfast organized for tomorrow.  Is that not the sweetest thing?

Whew.  We would never have been able to get this much done if Pam and Jeff and Alli hadn’t handled Griffin during most of our trips to the Cities.  It was a win-win for everybody: we got a lot done and Griffin got to bond with his grandparents and auntie!

Here’s what Griffin thought about all of this on the BART ride home:

Worn out after house hunting and job hunting and birthday partying... what a spring break!

I can’t believe I have to work tomorrow!

Happy Birthday Griffin!

We tried to get a cake from the bakery in Minneapolis that made Sarah's first birthday cake but it had closed long ago. However, this one was made in the same spirit, with clowns, balloons, and two coke bottles from the original cake!
Griffin doesn't quite know what it is, but he's pretty sure he wants to touch it.
Whoa, that's sweet! (Probably more sugar tonight than in his whole first year...)
I could get into this...
Sticky gooey fun!
In the end, not nearly as messy as we had expected. He didn't even put his hands in his hair. Older and wiser already!


Had a great flight! Griffin was squirmy but generally polite.  (And who isn’t squirmy when they have to sit in a tiny seat in a noisy tube packed with strangers?)

( I probably could have skipped these posts, but I am addicted to my new phone. Love the wordpress app!)

Lots of must have items at the Sky Mall.
He miraculously fell asleep right before the beverage cart came by, so we could actually get something without him tossing it all over us. Slept for about an hour.
Mom is so great!

There's a whole cool world under the seats!

Monday Accomplishments

Today was a very productive day.  A selection of our activities:

  • Reorganized all the bookshelves so that they are both orderly and attractive.  (Sarah has taught me many things… you don’t have to just put books on bookshelves… you can stack some books horizontally to break things up visually… you can intersperse photos and art objects… it’s rad.)
  • Packed ten boxes and stacked them in the shed along with two empty bookcases
  • Rearranged the bedroom now that it lacks a bookcase to make it look more open
  • Contacted the principal of a charter school in Minneapolis and scheduled a meeting with him on Friday.  (He definitely doesn’t have a job for me, but gotta start building the network somewhere.)
  • Walked down to lakeshore and bought an iPhone!  It’s a very welcome birthday present from my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!)  We’ve resisted the “smart phone” phenomenon for years now, not wanting to pay the added monthly expense.  But with the chaos of the move coming up, the ability to have internet access in the car while driving around the Twin Cities seemed well worth the expense.  Of course I don’t have time to play with my new toy, but I’m sure it will be extremely useful in MN this week.
  • Cleaned up the kitchen to make it look like the counters are not usually completely covered with clutter.
  • And, of course, we changed diapers and did all the usual parenting stuff… but I must admit that Griffin has been very generous at allowing us to pack and accomplish things while he toddles around the mess.
  • Now we’re about to head into Berkeley for a date: Patty Griffin at Zellerbach Hall!  Sarah put this on the calendar months ago, but she called it “Special Date Night” and wouldn’t tell me anything more.  I just found out what it is.  What a great way to end a day!
Two reorganized shelves
Some of our reorganized shelves

Moving Madness

We haven’t been posting on here as much recently for two reasons.  First, Sarah has been working full time, so she doesn’t have nap-times to post.  Second, we are up to our ears in preparations for our summer move to Minnesota.  When we actually think about the entire list of things that have to happen we tend to freak out.  One step at a time has become our mantra… stop, breathe, just one step.  🙂

Some things we’ve been up to recently:

  • Got the house repainted last fall.  Glad we thought to do that early.
  • Painters are coming tomorrow to touch up some things and do some odd projects we hadn’t predicted in the fall.
  • Gardening team is trying to make it look like we’ve been spending our weekends weeding for the past five years.  (Good luck…)
  • Packing… while we’re not quite up to Dave and Nancy’s level (they have packed two gigantic crates!), we are very proud of the growing stacks of boxes in the shed filled with clothes and books and kitchen supplies that we won’t be using again until we’re in the Twin Cities.
  • Found a new tax accountant because we found out that our previous guy, who I’ve been using for six years, is in jail for mail fraud.  Yep.  He was in the news.
  • I have completed my résumé with lots of valuable help from Jeff (who used to be a career counselor).  Also two different cover letter templates that should be flexible enough to work for many potential job openings.  And this weekend I typed up electronic applications for both Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts.  (Not that they have any job openings at the moment, but everything is uploaded and ready for review in case anything opens up.)
  • I’ve contacted a principal in Saint Paul who I will meet with on Thursday to discuss possible openings at his school and other schools.
  • Did I mention that we’re going to Minnesota on Wednesday through Sunday?  (It’s our spring break… and we get to spend Griffin’s birthday with Grandma Pam and Grandpa Jeff and Aunt Alli!)
  • We are in touch with a real estate agent in Saint Paul who we’re meeting on Thursday and Friday.  She’s compiling lists of houses and neighborhoods that we might be interested in.
  • We’ve changed all the doorknobs and hinges in our apartment so that it doesn’t look so 90s (at the advice of our local real estate agent.)
  • Been mowing the lawn every week at the command of the aforementioned gardening team.  (Usually I try to get to it a few times a year.)
  • We’ve been enjoying Griffin’s increasing abilities to walk across vast amounts of space.  And the parallel ability to hurt himself more rapidly than ever.  (He’s got a cool pirate-like scrape from his forehead to his upper lip thanks to an aggressive cardboard box.)
  • Investigating what to do about our leaking water heater.
  • Oh, lest I forget, I have a master’s thesis to write.  Met with my advisor Tuesday morning.  Took Wednesday off and was very productive.  Aiming for a rough draft in my advisor’s hands by April 28.

So, in short, we’re moving to Minnesota.  Somehow between now and then we will sell this house, buy a new house, finish my thesis, get a job, finish packing, hire movers, and drive across country to the great state of Minnesota.

One.  Step.  At.  A.  Time.