I’m not lurking; I’m finding my zen

The view from another, more photogenic, San Francisco hill.
The view from another, more photogenic, San Francisco hill.

As I may have mentioned before, I do a boatload of driving.

In fact, I drive up and over one particular hill at least six times every day. Let’s not explore the reasons why. Suffice it to say that having two children in schools on opposite ends of the city can make a person do ridiculous things.

Over the past six months, I’ve developed a habit of pulling over and parking at the top of the hill. Maybe I’d feel a little embarrassed if it didn’t feel so dad-gum therapeutic.

It’s not the most spectacular view of San Francisco, but the sky is constantly changing there–like moods. I am always surprised by what I see.

Sometimes the clouds split and a ribbon of light rips across the horizon.

Sometimes I can see it raining one place, sunny in another.

And sometimes–like this morning–the hill is adrift in fog and I see nothing at all. I always look for a while anyway.

I might comb my hair or clean out my purse. I might eat breakfast, read a few pages, or listen to the inane commentary of morning talk shows.

Often I close my eyes and take ten breaths.

The neighbors must wonder about me–though I have taken to setting my alarm for seven minutes, so I don’t wallow indefinitely–but for that tiny envelope of time, there is nothing but the sky and me. It is strangely satisfying.





Well, this is awkward.


I am not the sort of person who walks into a party and makes four new friends and a business connection. I’m the sort who drops her canapé and says something congenial, but a little off. What’s worse, I intermittently pause for an eternity. You might give up and wander off, in search of someone who can speak English.

It’s true, I didn’t get that Rhodes Scholarship, but there’s a lot going on between the ears. I’m probably thinking about how your new hair color is flattering–or should I pretend I didn’t notice?–and how I can’t remember if I saw you at the lecture last month. Have I mentioned that provocative article I read? Or were you the one who told me about it in the first place? And aren’t our kids about the same age? I’m thinking your daughter’s name starts with an “M,” and is like Maria, but definitely not Maria.

“So…how are you?” I might venture at last.

The weird thing is, once I warm up and get over myself, I usually have fun–which is why I still try now and then.

A few years ago, my daughter switched schools, and I was invited to a cocktail party for grade level parents. I knew no one, and was therefore at a complete loss for what to wear and how to comport myself–even more than usual. I didn’t even know the woman hosting the event. Imagine that awkward moment while I teetered on the front steps, wondering if I was staring at the person who sent out the evite. “Is this–? Are you–?” I tried.

Luckily, she was. And she was very kind, but after bringing me in and supplying me with a beverage, I was on my own in a sea of people who knew each other well. It was terribly uncomfortable. I hung to the side, wondering whom to approach, what to say, and whether I looked a little too schlumpy for such a schmancy gathering. How would I break the ice–or even melt it a little?

Then, something magical happened. Another mom entered, garnering a hearty reception. Let’s call her Ellen. Ellen was three sheets to the wind. While our little cohort had been murmuring politely around the grand piano, grazing the artful caterers’ spread, and sipping gin and tonics, St. Patrick’s Day had apparently packed quite a punch in the outside world. Ellen had a spray of tiny freckles, a charming smile, and a bewilderingly complicated entourage of past and present significant others. And Ellen was wearing green sparkly fishnets topped with the tiniest pair of black lace hot pants. I swear. She drank more, laughed a lot, and spoke with a naked honesty that both charmed and astonished everyone in her wake. Suddenly, it didn’t matter what I was wearing or what I was saying. No matter what I might do, Ellen had already outdone me…and she was clearly welcome. I was free to flounder happily.

I was only a part of that particular school community for a year, but every day I was thankful for Ellen and her hot pants.

Now, in a couple of weeks I will join tens of thousands of others for a conference in Washington, DC.

I have gone through the closet repeatedly, wondering what I could wear that’s warm and comfortable, makes me look confident, happy, and successful, and yet seems well-grounded and completely effortless? I have reached out to a few people I know will be there, done a little reading, and–while on my way to pick up carpool–practiced responding to the question, “what do you do?” since the answer is neither simple nor brief.

But mostly, I’m wishing Ellen would be there.



Why Some People Call Me Elaine

Image credit:
Image credit: Eric Loeffler

Though my name came from a Norwegian immigrant who lost her mind on the prairies, that wasn’t why it caused me discomfort as a child.

At summer’s end, I would brace myself for the inevitable embarrassment known as roll call. Most people butchered my name and expected me to be a boy—but none more than my new teachers.

Time has passed and, from the other side of the desk, I’ve grown to appreciate having such an uncommon moniker. Still, imagine my relief when–asked my name by a semi-bored barista–I suddenly realized I could say ANYTHING AT ALL.


Image from http://www.smithsonianmag.com
Image from http://www.smithsonianmag.com


  • Clowns
  • The dentist
  • The basement
  • The dark
  • Getting lost
  • Getting lost in a dark basement full of dentists dressed like clowns
  • Escalators
  • The principal
  • Being a disappointment to my parents
  • Drowning
  • Caves
  • Mean girls
  • The Shining—never, ever read Stephen King books in grade school
  • Being tickled until I wet my pants
  • Juvie


  • Jury duty
  • The mortgage
  • The Internal Revenue Service
  • Airport security
  • Serious illness
  • Insomnia
  • Mammograms
  • Hand guns
  • College tuition for my kids
  • Ignorance
  • Colonoscopies
  • Being a disappointment to myself
  • Termites
  • Alzheimer’s
  • The basement
  • The dentist
  • Clowns

Somehow stuck at 90 words today, but this note makes it 100.


I realize that was a total copout, but a) I’m human, and b) tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. I need to spend a little more time cooking, cleaning, and being grateful instead of tearing my hair out over ten words.


Citizen Tony

From http://www.peoples.ru
Al Pacino in Scarface, from http://www.peoples.ru. Looks like he could use a little smiling practice.


My friend Tony—né René–watched Scarface the night before his citizenship test. When asked, “What is your name?” he answered, “To-ny. Tony Montana,” spoken like Al Pacino. “She didn’t laugh,” he told me. “She wrote it down.”

Tony was famous for swabbing the Principal’s weepy back sores in a bathroom stall–just so he could recount the story later; for weaseling a trip to Disneyland from the school district; and for rehearsing his photo face in the closet at work.

“It’s hard to get the smile right,” he explained. “You have to practice or your school portraits look stupid.”


©2011 Beret Olsen
©2011 Beret Olsen–Not Piranha. I couldn’t make myself photograph a frozen fish.


Yesterday I found one of our goldfish in the freezer, nestled between the breakfast sausages and a pint of mocha ice cream. She lay awaiting proper burial: a tiny coffin, a moment of silence, a cozy hole in the yard.

But Piranha has been stuck in purgatory for two or three weeks now, while her surviving compatriot circles the tank and gives me the stink eye.

I briefly consider her stiff corpse–recalling her five-year sentence of dry fish flakes and fake plants–before tossing her regretfully into the compost bin. Here’s hoping she doesn’t haunt me for too long.

Through the Window

Photo credit: S. Carter
Photo credit: S. Carter. So yeah, this isn’t the window. It’s not open, and might not open at all. It doesn’t make sense with the text, but I figured the wrong image was better than no image at all.


I waited until everyone filed to the backyard for the party before locking the door and pulling it closed behind me. Suppressing a bubble of laughter, I picked at my potato salad, waiting for someone to need a fork, a drink, the bathroom.

Instead of a laugh, I got a teetering, terrified trip up an extension ladder to the roof, where I climbed through my sister’s bedroom window–the only one ajar.

Descending the stairs as squeamishly as I had mounted the ladder, I unlocked the door for my mother and a spanking–stinging more for its publicity than pain.