The Curse of the P word

from
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.

mission

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’s 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. Having 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 Slate.com).
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.

cover_art_31973

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.

    from hotmeme.net
    from hotmeme.com
  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?

On the importance of taking a walk now and then

 

©2015 Beret Olsen
©2015 Beret Olsen

Recently, I have been wallowing in a little pocket of crankiness that seemed bottomless. Such moods often dog me at this time of year; though I live far from the cold and snow, I’ve always chalked it up to seasonal affective disorder. I thought the only cure was longer days. Or Hawaii.

Then I found myself with two healthy kids–at the same time–and no freelance work for the day. So, after excavating two and a half months of neglected mail, I decided to take a short walk to clear my head.

What I saw so humbled me. How many days have drifted by without proper reverence?

©2015 Beret Olsen. So, yeah. I know it's all blown out. All I had was my cell phone. It will have to do as an approximation of awesomeness.
All I had was my cell phone, so these images will have to do as an approximation of the awesomeness I witnessed. Can you see those mossy stairs up to the left? Those led to a good dose of sun and attitude adjustment.
©2015 Beret Olsen
©2015 Beret Olsen

photo-84

 

 

Embracing the Whole Half-Empty Glass

©2015 Beret Olsen
I realize this is a jar, and not a glass; the important thing is that it’s half empty.                                                                      ©2015 Beret Olsen

I’ve been telling myself some lies.

  1. Things will settle down after the holidays.
  2. I will relax after I finish this project.
  3. There will be time for that tomorrow.
  4. This obstacle/leak/parenting gig/bad hair day is only temporary.
  5. As soon as I…
  • finish my degree
  • get a job
  • have a kid
  • turn 30 (or more)

…my path in life will be apparent.

NEW, EXCITING PLAN:  EMBRACE THE WHOLE HALF-EMPTY GLASS! I am going to jump right into the deep end with my eyes wide open this year.

Guess what? Things are not settling down now that the holidays are over, but that’s OK. I survived the holidays, so I’ll survive this crazy patch as well. Unless I don’t, in which case, I won’t care.

There’s always more that needs doing, even after finishing every item on the To Do list. The point is to relax now and then along the way or I never will. Even ten deep breaths between meeting a deadline and driving the carpool can make a difference. A yoga teacher explained to me the importance of corpse pose at the end of a practice. One of her students consistently neglected the five minutes of rest and relaxation because he was in such a hurry to get to his next commitment. One day, he raced to his car, buckled his seatbelt, had a heart attack, and died.

Apologies. That was an extreme example. Maybe I’ll think about bread instead of the dead guy. How after you pound and knead the bejesus out of it, you have to let it rest so it can rise and do it’s bread thing. You don’t wait until the bread is finished to let it rest. That’s too late.

Newsflash: there’s never more time tomorrow than there was today. In fact, unless you’re on some transatlantic flight, every day consists of 24 hours. If you’ve got to do something, just do it. Or rest. Do the task or rest. I’ve wasted so much time and energy on the in between stuff–mainly worrying. What a waste.

If I’m thinking, “someone else will do that,” that is a clear indication to me that I need to do it myself or choose not to care if it gets done. Anything else is a recipe for frustration and resentment. Unless my kids should be doing said task. Then I should probably nag them so they don’t grow up to be insufferable bums.

Speaking of which, parenting IS forever, but not every second of forever. I can’t tell you how many people have told me to savor this time–even the annoying parts–because soon the kid will move out and forget to call home, just like I did. That may well be the case, but as a mere mortal, I can’t possibly savor every moment. My kids are old enough to know not to stick a fork in the socket when I’m not watching, so I should probably try to have life now and then. At least, this is what I’m trying to tell myself. We’ll see how it goes.

This isn’t a phase. This is life. The journey doesn’t start after the degree/milestone/enlightenment. This IS the journey. I don’t need to worry about finding the path because I’m on it. As for the obstacles, they’re always there. It’s time for me to put on my hiking boots and tackle a few. And it wouldn’t hurt to enjoy the view while I’m climbing over.

Nothing spreads Christmas blessings like two-day shipping

Despite my whining, Miss Nine completely impressed me by pulling off the hot cocoa candles. With a little assistance...
Despite my whining, Miss Nine did impress me by successfully making the hot cocoa candles. With a little assistance, of course…

True gifts come from the heart and the hand, not the store. What a blessing that my kids have internalized such an important message.

Now. Could we just buy their teachers some gift cards and be done with it?

No, ma’am. My kids have watched unlimited DIY videos to prepare a Christmas cornucopia for all of their loved ones: fudge, lavender sachets, hot cocoa candles, soap, butter mints, rejuvenating foot scrub, and pop-up greeting cards made out of last year’s holiday card crop. I wish I were exaggerating.

Our house looks like Santa’s workshop crossed with a tsunami, though fortunately no one dares cross our threshold to see it. Why? Fear of the plague. Just yesterday, I met a friend for a coffee so I could briefly reacquaint myself with the outside world. She flinched and let out a yelp when I went in for a hug…and I’m not even the sick one in the family at the moment. For the record, I’d have done the same had our roles been reversed.

“This is fun, right?” the spouse asked me last night as he stirred condensed milk into melted chocolate with one hand, and lined pans in foil with the other. I was melting crayons with Crisco and trying mold to soy wax into faux marshmallows. Sure. Fun in a boot camp sort of way.

“Chop, chop, people!” I yelled. “Santa’s elves go off duty at 9 pm!” Not likely. The last time we got the lights out by nine was back in decorative gourd season.

Work? Email? Christmas cards? Nah.

Homework? Practicing? Who has time for that when we are busy helping our children be thoughtful? Meanwhile, our ornaments are still in boxes at the foot of the tree. We’ll be lucky to have 36 hours with the decorations up.

Sadly, we’ve managed to forget some very important folks along the way: music teachers, the sitter, plus the teacher who left three days early for winter vacation. There are probably plenty of others we’ve missed, too. How could we work this hard and still seem so thoughtless and Scrooge-y? No matter. I refuse to return to the craft store before 2015, and I’m pretty sure Santa already took me off his list for my holiday bad-itude, anyway.

Meanwhile, there have been so many store runs and late nights for the kids’ handmade extravaganza that I have had neither the time nor the energy left to figure out my own gifting plan.

Ho, ho, ho.

Amazon it is.