Joys of Insomnia: A Late-Night Conversation with a Tween


My house is not a happy sleep place. Sooner or later, someone is destined to rouse me, so I can no longer doze off before the first two or three late-night interruptions. This makes it impossible to relax, read a book, sleep, or participate enthusiastically in conjugal relations. Mostly I just lie there and worry about who will be first to appear bleary-eyed at my bedside.

Last night, it was Miss Twelve. My light was still on low and I was holding a book open, imagining myself being able to concentrate on the words.

Miss Twelve looked at me expectantly. What follows is our conversation, verbatim:

Me: S’up?

Miss 12: What?

Me: S’up?

Miss 12: What?

Me: What’s up?

Miss 12: What?


Miss 12: What?

Me: Can’t sleep?

Miss 12: What?


Miss 12: What?

Me: Do you need something?

Miss 12: What?


Miss 12: I can’t sleep.

Me: You can’t sleep and you are DEAF.

Miss 12: What?


Miss 12: I can’t hear you. I’m wearing ear plugs (removes ear plugs).


Miss 12: I was too lazy to take them out.

Me: (silence)

Miss 12: Anyway. I can’t sleep, so I took some melatonin. Good night.

Ridiculous as it was, the interchange was mercifully brief, and did not require me to get up and rub a back, procure ibuprofen, review for the state capitals test, fluff pillows, discuss the fall of the Roman Empire, fetch an icepack, listen to friend issues, or massage feet–all of which have happened in the past few weeks. Instead, I had plenty of time to worry about the next nighttime visitor.

Today’s Pop Quiz


It’s a quick quiz. Just one question:

1. Let’s say your mom has been fighting a stupid virus for five weeks now. But instead of lying in bed quaffing Dayquil, she rallied and took you to the beach. She and her pounding sinus headache ran around playing games with you. After that, she took you out for the most amazing ice cream OF YOUR LIFE. Then, while you showered and sat on your butt watching TV, she made a tasty dinner comprised of: mashed potato patties, salmon burgers with lightly curried ketchup (your favorite), cucumber slices with a drizzle of cilantro oil, and even a %*($!! sprig of parsley. When you see your plate, the correct response is:

A) What? Where’s the bruschetta? Weren’t you going to make bruschetta tonight?


B) Thank you.

Dear *sshole Neighbor

Congratulations! You discovered my tipping point.
Congratulations! You discovered my tipping point.

Dear Asshole Neighbor,

I’m in a bit of a funk. I know you don’t care, but I’m telling you anyway. After the letter I received from city public works today, I thought we should get better acquainted.

I got laryngitis right in time for my college reunion, so I got to stand around drinking seltzer, smiling and nodding like an idiot, while everyone else had the time of their lives. Then I got much, much worse.

I was dismally ill through the entirety of my family’s big awesome vacation to Hawaii, including one memorable day at the Kaiser Permanente clinic there, because that’s fun. I enjoyed reading last September’s Better Homes and Gardens cover to cover as well as a thoughtful booklet about advance health care directives. That was such an informative way to squander a day in paradise.

I flew home and was sick some more. A month later, despite giving up coffee, alcohol, talking, sleeping, and–especially today–joy, I’m still sick.

A couple of hours ago, I had another visit with my doctor. He assures me that I will probably be feeling better by the end of July…which will be right after a big family trip across country to visit my mother. Here’s hoping the recovery comes before my husband abandons his hacking, sleepless wife.

No big deal, right? Just a pesky virus. Things could obviously be much worse.

Did I mention that my big, fabulous book deal just disintegrated? No?

Well. My big, fabulous book deal just disintegrated. Maybe it’s for the best, you may be thinking. After all, the publisher had a penchant for the playful caveman font. Still.

Add to this the fact that my best friend is apparently breaking up with me…via email. Ouch.

But instead of crying in a heap about my broken heart and broken dreams, or going to bed in order to finally, actually, maybe start feeling better, I have been copyediting and photo editing and cleaning out the closets, taking small people to the eye doctor and dentist and piano lessons, and grocery shopping and saying goodbye to friends who are moving 3,000 miles away, and labeling every goddamn pair of my kids’ underpants with a Sharpie for camp.

Imagine my surprise then, when I was reminded–after living in this house for almost eleven years–that I happened to forget to bring my garbage cans in. Once. I left them out there for one day.

AND YOU TOOK A PICTURE AND SENT IT TO THE GODDAMN CITY so they would start harassing me.


Have you nothing better to do?

I’m sorry you were so overwhelmed by the incredible monstrosity of my tidy row of bins that you were completely unable to walk over and knock on the door like a reasonable human being and were instead forced to take a photo and print it out and mail it to the goddamn city.

Guess what? I’m going to sneak over there today to cough on your mail. And maybe lick your door knob.


The Curse of the P word

by Susan Messina via the Huffington Post.

Lately I’ve been experiencing a bout of nostalgia for simpler times. What happened to the good old days, filled with low expectations and mindless worksheets? I’m all for a robust education, but must we continually challenge the school community…right up until the very last day? Bring on the busywork!

I wonder how many times I’ve heard myself say, “I can’t handle my kids’ homework load.” I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I also know what broke me. The P word.

For me, the word PROJECT now sparks shortness of breath and a creeping despondency.

PROJECT means late nights, endless trips to craft stores, and insomnia for all. Honestly, providing comfort in the middle of the night is not my forté. I’m tired and cranky, too, short stuff.

PROJECT means trying not to have an anxiety attack while your child wields a box cutter in an unorthodox manner. That’s right. It’s actually scarier and waaaaaaaay more frustrating and time consuming to nag your child until she gets it done than to just whip something up yourself. Same goes for research papers, by the way.

It means stepping in blobs of clay, glue, and acrylic paint before tracking them into the living room rug–with no one to yell at but yourself.

PROJECT means not finishing the grant I have due because I am scouring a three-county area in search of blue tri-board, two-foot balsa wood planks, or tiny bells.

It means a tarp thrown over your dining table for 8 days while you sit on the floor with your plate in your lap. Or forgetting dinner altogether the night before everything is due.

It means explaining the concept of scale for the one billionth time while trying not to let the last straw show in your voice or demeanor.

When Miss 12 was in fourth grade, she embarked on the quintessential MISSION PROJECT. Four weeks later, after ruining three and a half weekends in a row and nearly ruining my marriage–not to mention having to completely ignore my other kid for twenty-seven days straight–I dropped her at school with her plywood/sugar cube/cardboard/fake plant baby. That’s when I found out that half the families had simply purchased mission kits online! Of course, kits were expressly forbidden in the teacher’s directions, but WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME THEY WERE DOING THAT ANYWAY? We could have distressed that cookie-cutter mission enough to look homemade, believe me. I didn’t go to art school for nothing.


I’m not sure what my kids have learned in the past few years, but I developed a conditioned response to PR#J@CTs: a craving for Xanax when I hear the word.

My secret fantasy: locking me and my Netflix account in my bedroom between the hours of 3:30 and 10:30 pm, Sunday through Thursday. Too late now. Maybe next year.

Addendum: Before I get any backlash, I should spell out my disclaimers. I’m all for project-based learning. I’m just…tired. It’s been a long, tough year on the homework front. It’s exhausting to have to be sitting on both my kids to yank out giant project after giant project. Sometimes, the phrase “independent work” sounds like music to my ears. And I’m not sure the project always gets at the learning one would hope. A couple days before her mission project was due, I turned to my daughter and asked, “So what is a mission?” AND SHE COULDN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION.

In addition, I think kids need time to absorb everything from the day, unwind a little, and develop other, less academic skills and interests: gymnastics, piano, drums, swimming, or just (gasp) building relationships with their peers. They need time to do what they want to do, explore their own creative realms. Please.

A Shout out to The-Bomb-dot-com and all the Small Stuff that Saved Me

Where I didn't go.  Photo credit: National Geographic.
Pictured above: where I *didn’t* go. Photo from National Geographic.

Recently I spent 25 hours trying to get somewhere–and it wasn’t to Bora Bora, either. Flying from San Francisco to South Dakota shouldn’t be hard.

But it was.

On what I hoped would be the last leg of my ridiculously interminable journey, I found myself thinking about the saying:

“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s ALL small stuff.”

While I understand the spirit of this aphorism, let’s be real. Some stuff is big.

The previous two times I had made this journey were for my father’s death and funeral. Both times I got hopelessly stuck in Denver, succumbing to anxiety attacks that were likely suffered by airline employees and passengers in a four-gate radius. Apologies all around. I wasn’t aware it was possible to feel grief-stricken and humiliated and helpless, all while standing in line, praying that someone could help me see my father one last time.

A couple of weeks ago, I was headed to a memorial event on the near anniversary of his death. I was excited to go, to see my mother and brother, and especially to revel in my dad’s memory and legacy at the college where he had worked for decades. But I grew increasingly anxious as the date of departure approached. Though no urns or gaping holes awaited me on the other end this time, the path was already loaded. And I carried a little hole with me.

How strange it would be to see my mom standing there to greet me, without the stooped kindness of my shrinking father at her side. Despite nearly 365 days without him, it can still feel so fresh, so foreign, in the midst of the most mundane of tasks. In an email, say, where the invisible “and Dad” looms next to my “Dear Mom” like a phantom limb.

So I was a soggy mess from the trip’s inception.

I now officially despise United Airlines for the constant delays, itinerary changes, and last minute flight cancelations, which made all three of these trips unbearable. And a thousand demerits to the Denver airport for making every single passenger and crew member—domestic and international–crawl through one clogged security portal. Upon arriving at 5:52 am on a Saturday morning, there were nearly 800 people ahead of me, with only three agents to review passports and boarding passes. No wonder the folks in Colorado have legalized marijuana. Anxiety attacks must be a dime a dozen there.

Lest you are wondering, “Why can’t this woman book herself a direct flight?” let me assure you: none exist.

But. There were a thousand tiny kindnesses along the way. And it was the very lovely, very small stuff that made it possible to weather a combination of emotional free fall crossed with an airline’s egregious ineptitude.

Thank you to the stranger in first class who stowed his bag in the flight crew closet so my suitcase could come on the plane. Because of your gracious offer, I had pajamas and a toothbrush for my surprise deportation that night. You’d be surprised what a difference that made.

Thanks to the perky mother of eleven who sat next to me on one of many (wrong! stupid! delayed!) flights to Denver. We sat hopelessly upright in the last row, cheek to cheek with the lavatories. Too anxious to read or sleep, I was grateful for her easy flow of conversation. We swapped travel horror stories, discussed the drought, my dad, her son’s recent car accident, and her tiny grandmother, four rows up.

She revealed a few of her management secrets for the eight kids still left at home. She showed me photos of her twenty-year-old son, cautiously slurping cheerios from a bowl balanced on a cardboard box because of the halo he now wore for his broken neck. This woman could somehow see the humor in this, while honoring the fact that he was lucky to be alive. I was in awe.

She also reminded me that the 6’7″ man in the window seat needed my aisle seat more than I did. Since I am claustrophobic and poorly engineered—my thirst and metabolism unmatched by the puny size of my bladder–I don’t easily surrender the aisle seat. But watching the graceful, generous way she looked out for everyone in her wake, she made me want to do the same.

Thanks to the customer service agent who got me the last hotel voucher of the day.

Thanks to the Delta agent, who made a conspiratorial disparaging comment about United, and proceeded to clean up a lot of the mess they had put me in.

Thanks to my spouse back home, for calling the overbooked DoubleTree Hotel, arguing my case, and securing a room for the six hours I had between airport stints.

Three hours after being bumped unceremoniously from my itinerary yet again, I limped through the hotel lobby toward the face behind the counter. When I said, “I think my husband might have spoken to you…” she leaned across the counter and smiled. “Your husband spoke to ‘The-Bomb-dot-com.'” Then she handed me a room key and two warm cookies.

After a good cry, I laid on the bed listening to the slurp and sizzle of the coffee maker brewing a bag of chamomile tea. It was the best sound ever. Even though there were only four hours to sleep, and lots more flights and assholes and anxiety to follow the next day, I suddenly knew I was going to make it.

It’s not that I think my travel woes are worse than everyone else’s. I know people who’ve been stuck in Denver for four days, and I know people who didn’t make it home to say their last goodbyes. In some ways I’ve been lucky. It was just a hard day, and a lot of little things made it better. I’m grateful.

With the exception of my husband, I don’t know the names of any of the people who made sure I ended up in the right city eventually, and chances are, our paths will not cross again. What I hope to do is look out for distressed travelers along my way, and return a few favors to the karmic universe.

For future reference, though, I should probably arm myself with Ativan before entering the middle of the country. And maybe a paper bag, just in case.

Chicken Soup for the Goddamn Carpool

Illustration by Cece Bell (via
Full disclosure: my soul does not want chicken soup. My soul wants some time by the lake, listening to the loons; it wants to sit and watch the stars swing across the night sky. And maybe a tuna melt, though since it’s 5:40 pm, that might not be my soul talking. (illustration by Cece Bell)

To be honest, I’ve never read a chicken soup book; I can’t get past the cloying font on the covers. But I could see how a volume dedicated to the carpool driver might be useful. Gratitude is definitely not the focus of my consciousness while driving a carful of kids from here to eternity.

It’s not usually the kids that give me an aneurysm, though. The main problem with the carpool is the driving.

And the traffic.

And the idiots.

It’s the construction detours and backups.

It’s the sitting, the endless sitting.

It’s the feeling that my life is passing me by while I lurch from red light to red light.

It’s the premonition that if and when I finally arrive, a posse of hormonally-agitated tweens will roll their eyes and say welcoming things such as, “what took you so long?”

It’s the fact that, after ninety minutes in my gas-guzzling butt-breaker, I am unable to exit the vehicle without hoisting myself up with the car door. Apparently I have developed some sort of Saturday night palsy of the left hip. No doubt AARP is lurking in the shadows, waiting to enroll an early-adopter.

And…did I mention the sitting?

I am thankful that the carpool exists, of course. Otherwise I would be doing three times the driving. In fact, since it’s physically impossible to be two places at one time, one or both of my kids would be standing around unchaperoned on a curb somewhere. I am therefore forever indebted to those lovely parents who have teamed with me.

A carpool is a beautiful and delicate balance, thrown easily by one member making a team, or being cast in a play, or needing a retainer, or feverish. Do not sit next to me or my kids if you have a cold. You could screw up the logistics of my parenting life for the next two weeks, and my carpool buddies wouldn’t thank you, either.

I do try to combat my bad-itude. I bring snacks, a special ergonomic back pillow, and loud music of the passengers’ choosing. I’ve developed an audiobook habit for the solo runs, which helps mask the fact that I waste a shocking proportion of my waking hours behind the wheel–only to arrive exactly where I began.

Despite all of that…I f#%@ing hate it. I do.

I’m not alone, either. Carpool driving is on the shit list of parents everywhere, right next to stomach viruses, fundraising, and lunchroom duty. We are ripe for some spiritual guidance. So where is our chicken soup book?

There are 250 soup books. No lie. They have editions specifically targeting:

  • dieters
  • golfers
  • parents of twins
  • hockey lovers, and
  • country music listeners.


There are fourteen different soup books about the wisdom we can gain from our furry friends. There is even one volume mysteriously entitled, “O, Canada.”

Surely the size and desperation of the group keening for some carpool inspiration warrants the 251st book.

Bring on the soup, people.


How to Refinish a Dining Room Table in 43 Easy Steps

©2008 Beret Olsen
©2008 Beret Olsen

Once upon a time, we had a lovely dining room table.

Then, we had a couple of kids.

They stuck their gooey hands all over it. They spilled Campbell’s chicken soup and milk and Elmer’s glue. They pressed into its shiny top with crayons and their fat pencils, carving lurching letters and smiley faces and names and dates and numbers. Granted, there was a piece of paper between the lead point and the table below, but still.

The finish wore off here and there in large, sticky, unappetizing patches. These I pretended not to notice for as long as humanly possible.

Eventually, the kids grew older–old enough to dream of our table from days of yore. For your edification, I here include a glimpse into our household refinishing process.

How to Refinish a Table in 43 Easy Steps:

  1. Think about doing this project for a couple of years.
  2. Realize that the table project would be preferable to fixing a leaky basement or cleaning out the garage.
  3. Drag the gigantic table outside and sand it down to the bare wood.
  4. Drag it back inside.
  5. Think about finding some stain.
  6. Eat sitting on the floor at the coffee table for several weeks.
  7. Apply water-based stain.
  8. Gasp at its hideous appearance.
  9. Sulk.
  10. Drag it outside to sand down again.
  11. Do some research.
  12. Buy a lovely espresso-colored oil-based stain.
  13. Apply.
  14. Be disappointed in its overall rough and uneven appearance.
  15. Sand it down.
  16. Do more research.
  17. Use mineral spirits in an attempt to remove the former wax finish, which has apparently sequestered deep into the grain.
  18. Sand more.
  19. Stain again.
  20. And again.
  21. And again.
  22. Decide you can live with the mottled appearance. Decide to call this “character” or “visual interest” rather than “egregious error.”
  23. Apply a high-end polyurethane and cross fingers.
  24. Watch it bubble up like a fourth grade science project.
  25. Consider weeping.
  26. Sand the crap out of it.
  27. Add a little stain to hide the worst of the bare patches.
  28. Reapply poly.
  29. Watch it bubble.
  30. Pick out hairs and try not to weep.
  31. Sand more.
  32. Poly more.
  33. Pick out hairs.
  34. Lower expectations further.
  35. Apply fourth and final coat of poly and pray.
  36. Be pleasantly surprised.
  37. Go out for a celebratory glass of wine.
  38. Receive phone call from spouse: fat, hairy, horrible cat has been meandering around on the final, tacky coat of poly.

  39. Consider “doctoring” kitty’s food.
  40. Order another glass of wine instead. And cheese.
  41. Arrive home and view carnage. Worse than imagined.
  42. Sulk.
  43. Realize it’s time to repeat the whole fun-filled cycle.

My mother arrives in a couple of days. I wonder if she will prefer eating on the floor or standing over the kitchen counter?