What’s missing at your house

*NOT MY HOUSE* from kiweescleaning.com
from kiweescleaning.com

I noticed something at your place:  a lot of things are missing.

Specifically, where do you keep:

*stuff that is broken and needs fixing?

*the item that is the wrong size, and must be exchanged?

*the sweater you just removed, but might need in five minutes?

*the glass/plate/spoon someone just used?

*that package that needs to get to UPS ASAP?

*the referral slip to take the kid to the orthodontist?

*the papers that need to be filled out and returned to school with your kid tomorrow?

*the empty bottle of Advil/detergent/deodorant/milk that is on the counter to remind you to buy more?

*your kid’s diorama project that is half-finished and due on Friday?

*the laundry that is clean and waiting to be folded?

*the dishes that are clean and sitting in the rack?

*the dish rack!

*the clothes that are waiting to go to the cleaners?

*the clothes that are too small for your kid, but might fit your friend’s kid–and you’re not sure when you’ll see them next?

*the items that someone left at your house last weekend?

*the gigantic art projects your kids bring home and want to display?

*the clothes that need a button/patch/hem job?

*the gift certificate that you have to remember to use before it expires?

*the library books that you meant to return yesterday?

Seriously, where do you put all of this stuff? The toaster? The coffee maker? Why is there nothing on your counter or in the hall or on the stairs? Why–when I open your coat closet to hang up my coat–does nothing attack me?




Why the %@$!! is baby crying? Coping with the gray area


My oldest brother built a tree house nestled in the power lines, about twenty-five feet off the ground. It had glass windows, plus who knows what other amenities; I never went up there to see. By the time I was old enough to climb trees, his fort wasn’t in the best of shape anymore. Also, I was kind of a chicken.

But I would gaze up at it, and wonder how in the world our mother could watch her boy shimmy up that tree with hands full of nails and saws and glass. There he was, teetering outside her authority, outside her ability to keep him safe.

“How did you know he would be OK?” I asked her once, long before having kids of my own.

She thought for a while before answering.

“Being a parent is hard,” she said finally.

This was my first glimpse into the gray area of parenting, but it was years before I figured out that most of parenting is spent meandering around in the unknown.

There is a game called “Why is Baby Crying?” which consists of a set of dice printed with phrases like “dirty diaper” “sleepy,” and “hungry.” I didn’t understand the premise at all–let alone the humor of it–until I was holding my own wailing newborn, wondering what in the world was wrong.

“Why is she crying?” I asked my mother, since I had tried everything I could think to soothe her. My mom had had four kids, after all, and we were alive and well. She must know something.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Now what?

Maybe the dice should have said “I don’t know” on every side, or offered suggestions that frazzled, sleep-deprived parents might neglect to try. You know, such as:  “put baby down and take a deep breath,” or “have a glass of wine,” or, even better, “find a friend to watch the tiny tyrant for an hour.” There is no secret path around the gray area, just a few tools to clutch while you fumble through there.

Now that my kids are eight and ten, I’ve learned to tolerate some of the gray area with a little less anxiety. However, if I had the chance to sit someone down who KNEW ALL OF THE ANSWERS–someone like Dr. Spock was supposed to be–I would have a few questions.

Here are a few that have crossed my mind lately–feel free to add yours in the comments section.

*How do you know when to head to the emergency room, and when to say “walk it off?”

*How do you balance everyone’s needs so that your kids feel safe and loved, and you don’t lose your cool, identity, relationship, or mind?

*How do you quickly restore domestic harmony when your spouse gives your child three or four times the recommended dosage of Milk of Magnesia?

*What’s the nicest possible way to explain to your child that her favorite jacket and uncombed hair make her look like a homeless person?

*How do you guide your kids to make better decisions without them noticing and becoming resentful?

*What’s the best way to survive a child’s birthday party with a hangover?

*How do you keep your sense of humor when you get a flat tire, the brakes go out, the hot water heater spontaneously combusts, and you get a parking ticket all in the same weekend?

*How can you warn your kids about the dangers of the world without terrifying them or–worse–getting them excited to flirt with disaster?

And, last but not least:

*If child #1 has a fever of 104, has been crying and moaning for hours, but finally gets to sleep, and then her older sister leans over and vomits all over her bed, do you wake her up and change the sheets, or wait until morning?

What am I doing here?

From www.images.sodahead.com
From http://www.images.sodahead.com

I don’t remember why I started a blog.

I don’t even really know why I need to write. I just know that when I don’t, I get cranky.

When I do write, I feel fabulous–whether I end up posting or not. So why don’t I simply dump my thoughts in a journal and stick it on the shelf? Continue reading What am I doing here?

Dacryocystorhinostomy: When Youtube is a Terrible Invention

When I was twenty, my tear duct closed, which only happens to infants, the elderly, and me. No one could figure it out.

Tears leaked continuously down my right cheek, except when I walked across campus that winter, and my eye froze shut. There were many other downsides, and only one up that I can recall. I sought assistance from my microeconomics professor that semester, and he was unbelievably kind to me. And patient. And helpful. It wasn’t until after I left his office that I realized he must have thought I was weeping through class every day. Lord knows I felt like doing so.

Treatment began with “wait,”and “warm compresses,” followed by eyedrops and ointments. Incidentally, being able to smear ointment in my eye came in handy for the twelve times I got pinkeye from my students and children.

But when those ointments did nothing, they tried three unsuccessful rounds of irrigation—that is, stabbing a gigantic syringe into the opening, cranking the needle around parallel with my eyeball, and flooding it with saline.

It is terrifying to see a three-inch needle come straight at your eye—but I was not allowed to blink or flinch, as that might not end well.

Finally, surgery was scheduled.

I asked how long it would take.

Answer: about fifteen to twenty minutes, but they allow 90 minutes in case they hit a nearby artery while drilling a hole in the nose, in which case it could take upwards of 45 minutes to control the blood flow.

I’m all for honesty and disclosure and all that, but I really didn’t want to hear the whole story. Let’s leave out the part about when you might seriously botch it and I am spurting blood uncontrollably for an hour.

I could tell you a lot more about the surgery and the aftermath, about how I was severely bruised, with black stitches under my eye, and everyone was afraid to ask me what had happened. Or how they sewed a red rubber tube into my nose so it didn’t scar shut. Or how the stitches were too loose and the tube would dangle out the end of my nose…and how I did not get great tips during that period of time.

I had a lot more to add, actually, but I then googled dacryocystorhinostomy to check my spelling and discovered that I could watch the procedure on youtube. Why, oh why would I want to look? Though I managed to watch while they cut into the eye socket, I freaked out 20 seconds in, because DID YOU KNOW THEY PRY INCISIONS OPEN WITH OYSTER FORKS??

As I said, I don’t want to know the whole story.

By now, you would think I would remember not to go looking for it.

Toire wa doko desuka?

A mini-post in honor of NaBloPoMo:  National Blog Posting Month.

NaNoWriMo is clearly out of my league this year, but I’m determined to use the energy surrounding the event to squeeze a little writing out of my keyboard on a daily basis.


Before traveling to Japan last summer, my ten-year-old taught me six phrases:

Toire wa doko desuka? Where’s the bathroom?

Sumimasen. Sorry/excuse me.

Arigato gozaimashita. Thank you so much.

Gochiso-sama deshita! It has been a feast.

Ohaiyo gozaimasu/konnichiwa/konbanwa. Good morning/good day/good evening.

O-kanjo o onigai shimasu. May I please have the check?

But if I had to boil it down to the bare essentials, the top three would have done the job.

While in Tokyo, we had lunch with my brother’s in-laws, wandering afterward to Meiji Jingu, where he was married many years ago. Together, we pleasantly whiled away three hours, pointing, gesturing, smiling, looking at photos, exchanging gifts. It is astonishing how few words can communicate so much.

I suppose we couldn’t discuss the fine points of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, but I couldn’t do that in any language. I’m not advocating for monolingualism–so much of our history and culture is embedded in our words and silences. I am merely pointing out that speaking is not the same as communicating, and listening goes deeper than hearing words.



The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

FYI:  This post is not really about the book.

I read it, though. I even saw the movie. I acted all impressed, and I suppose I thought I was. Despite all the raving, however, and despite Milan Kundera’s remarkable portrait of Czech society during a Seminal Historical Period, the story I read was about one man’s shameless infidelity and his meek and accommodating wife.

What I love is the title. Whatever the author meant by it, those five words distill the magic and misery of being a grown up: the unbearable lightness of being.

Every time that phrase surfaces, I imagine shifting, amorphous shapes, rendered almost completely unintelligible due to some blinding backlighting. It’s as if I am emerging from Plato’s cave for the very first time, or–rather less grandly–as if I am staring into the setting sun through a filthy windshield. No matter how hard I try to focus or shield my eyes, I cannot make out what I am hurtling toward.

No one says it out loud, but everyone seems to believe that eventually we’ll know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what it all means. We’ll feel Grown Up, and life will feel defined. It’s a grand fallacy we buy, and oh, how alluring.

By my early twenties, I was already itching to feel grown, to know who and what I was becoming. I needed to figure it all out, because I wasn’t handling the gray area very well.

Here’s the problem: it’s all gray area. It’s all undefined, and not just when we’re 23.

When things seem to be black and white, it’s a cognitive short cut, a decision to see the world that way. While we may not determine our material circumstances, we do create our interpretations of them, and forge theories about ourselves and our lives. We need to believe things are clearly defined now and then in order to plow ahead with enthusiasm.

I once had a long talk with my sister about marriage. I wanted to know how she knew it was the right decision; how she knew that this was the right guy. She admitted that there was no such thing as 100% certainty, but once you married, you no longer had to continually ask yourself: is this the right person? You started from the idea that it was, and figured out how to handle whatever was coming your way from that vantage point.

Of course perspectives evolve and change, but if we don’t adopt one, we can’t focus in any direction. We lose traction and go nowhere at all. Contrary to how it may appear, choosing a direction isn’t limiting, it’s what makes movement possible. When I allow myself to wallow in the gray area, I limit myself. When I wonder, “Am I really a writer?” I waste a lot of time and energy on this question, instead of simply saying, “I am writing. How can I continue in this direction?”

In the interest of full disclosure, my sister got a divorce. Still, I don’t think that negates the power of what she was saying. Picking a direction only means that we are more likely to get somewhere, it doesn’t guarantee that we will.

September 11, 2001 is an extreme example. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the collective mood had adjusted accordingly. Moments later, when the sky was engulfed in a fog, when it was raining detritus, and fear swallowed the streets, people could not process what was happening. Part of the shock was having to acknowledge the gray area, the great unknown that is life. On that deceptively sunny day, people thought they could see where they were going; they believed that they were headed to work, when actually they were passing through a portal to hell.

This is not a message of doom and gloom, however. Thankfully, we are not always teetering on the brink of an abyss. We just don’t know exactly where we are going. We can’t control other people and events. To be honest, we can’t even control our own actions sometimes. The best we can do is to figure out what and who give us joy, what values and issues are important to us, and how we can contribute to make the world a better place. Then, we can surround ourselves with those people, work on those projects, and head in that direction. But we need to do this while being open to uncertainty. We need to be flexible enough to learn from our mistakes and the changing world around us.

The good news is, when the cracks become visible, when our current perspective is shattered, we can sift through the pieces to make a new place from which to stand, a new perspective that is just as true. It just takes a while to make a new map and start to trust the road.

A friend called me one night not long ago, completely agitated, to ask me, “Who are all those people, smiling and walking down the street like they know what they’re doing?”

Those people are you and I, my friend, on a day when things seem clear.

Five Ways to Procrastinate More Productively

From: http://thewritersadvice.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/procrastination.jpg
From: http://thewritersadvice.com/2012/04/…which just so happens to have some advice on avoiding procrastination altogether.

It occurs to me that I have become pretty adept at procrastination. Maybe I should write a few how-tos.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she responded enthusiastically:

“Ooh! Contemplate the cat. Play Age of Empires. Watch the Biggest Loser finale over two days, in 5 minute increments; sob hysterically, and pretend it’s allergies.”

“No, no,” I said. “I mean how to procrastinate productively.”

“Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” she wondered. A reasonable question, but I think not.

Here’s how I discovered the vast potential of my avoidance strategies: I foolishly promised someone I would read Proust, so that we could engage in some Heady Discourse. I didn’t promise to read all 4,211 pages, mind you; not all seven volumes. Just the first one:  Swann’s Way.

I bought the thing in hardcover by accident, and it was just so crazy big, so heavy-looking and heavy-feeling, that I could not coax myself to get past the first ten pages. It did, however, make me feel terribly guilty sitting there, so I started to tackle other, less intimidating material I had been meaning to read for ages. I simply used my guilt to read a whole host of other books while Proust lay on my bedside table, chiding me.

That’s the secret, really. Just think of a task that you would mind only slightly less than what you are supposed to be doing, and do that instead. If you mind it a lot less, chances are it’s not a particularly productive choice.

To illustrate, here are five useful things I have done while busy not-writing this post:

  1. I cleaned out the refrigerator. If I had had a big research project due, I probably could have made myself take everything out and sanitize that sucker. This time, I merely went through it shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, and did a little wipe down. All it needs now is a new box of Arm & Hammer.
  2. I got rid of fifty things. I thought that would take a lot longer than it did. It is actually not that hard to purge 50 things, depending on how you are counting. The added bonus is that purging feels great. I’d even dump Swann’s Way, but without a literary moral compass sitting on the shelves, I’d probably devolve and peruse People magazine every night. Best to save the trashy magazines for dental appointments only.
  3. I wrote a letter by hand to a couple of people I have been neglecting. Far-away family member? Check. Estranged former roommate? Check. Boy, did that feel cathartic. Plus, people enjoy snail mail. When is the last time you received anything hand-written besides a thank you note? If you even get those! Incidentally, if I owe you one, I apologize. I probably tidied my desk instead.
  4. I got some exercise. Taking care of my body has totally taken a back seat to almost everything else, but the truth is, I need to start looking after this thing. Apparently, I’m not going to wake up in tip-top shape without making some sort of effort. Thanks to my To-Do list, I’ve been up a mountain twice this week, plus done a little yoga. Now I am sleeping better as a little added benefit–except when I wake up and worry about what I have left undone.
  5. I have cracked down on my mail pile. I paid my bills. I located and actually used a couple of gift certificates.  In general, those tend to wind up in the trash a year or two after they expire, so that felt particularly satisfying. I’m going to have an awesome new lunch box, and my kid will get to take an art class, all because I did not want to do what I was supposed to be doing.

But let’s say you really need to make yourself face down some heinous task—one so emotionally draining, or terrifying, or just so darn huge it seems absolutely insurmountable from this side of the to-do list.

In that case, I recommend reading Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. That will take a day or two, and really inspire you in the process.

What are you supposed to do today? Taxes? Schedule a root canal? Perhaps you could clean out a closet or two instead, and even squeeze in a trip to Goodwill.

My Sincere Gratitude + (special bonus!) My Dribble Cup of Fear

@a long, long time ago   Beret Olsen
@2003   Beret Olsen

I have no idea how it happened.

Somehow a lovely story wrangler named Michelle stumbled across my essay about sleeping in the hallway.

I find myself wondering: what are the odds? And I marvel a little at the sheer luck of it. I must have posted my essay on the right day, at the right time, on a topic she found interesting. I must have put just the right tags on it.

But what has been truly astonishing was that all of a sudden a whole community of writers appeared, and I realized that we are not on our own out here in cyberspace at all. I feel immense gratitude that you have taken the time to read my words and relate them to your own lives, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading your work as well.

Thank you.

Unfortunately, the inevitable has happened: I got stage fright. I am TERRIFIED to write anything at all.  I’m not typing away in a room by myself anymore, because now I know I am not alone. Someone might see if I have a crap day or make a poor word choice. Someone might judge my grammar errors as harshly as I would theirs. Mostly kidding.

Perhaps most paralyzing of all is the thought that I might not be able to write something worthwhile again before you all lose interest and wander off. Shoot, what if I never write something I like as well again?

Fortunately, someone showed me this quote from John Steinbeck when he was beginning to write The Grapes of Wrath:

“I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now,” he said. “That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages—ten of you—you are the dribble cup—you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. I have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.”

I include this quote not because I am putting myself in his league, but because fear and writing seem to go hand in hand for many of us, no matter who we are, or what we have previously accomplished. But THAT IS NOT AN EXCUSE TO STOP. Imagine if Steinbeck had caved to his self-doubt and neglected to finish his novel. What a loss.

Thankfully, we don’t have to write The Grapes; that’s already been done. But we DO have something to say and a remarkably friendly forum in which to say it.

Well, it looks like I just wrote a whole post about not being able to write a post. Hope that is out of my system, now; that I can ‘burn these pages’ and move on to other topics. Come to think of it, you might be hoping the same thing. Now go write something awesome.

Why I drive like Mr. Magoo, and how that might help me finish my book before I’m dead

**An apology to those of you who accidentally got this yesterday. I guess I blog a little like Mr. Magoo, too.

I was recently explaining to a friend why I have trouble getting much writing done.

I described the runway approach I use to build momentum: collecting my thoughts…exercising to clear my head…I need a full stomach, a glass of water, and my phone nearby, set to vibrate. I like my work area to be clean and organized. In fact, it’s best if the whole house is clean and organized, the bills paid, meal planning done, and groceries in the fridge, so there’s no lingering ‘to do’ list hanging over my head.

I wish I were exaggerating.

I need a writing soundtrack. Headphones are best, with familiar music rambling like an old friend inside my head. I like to drift in and out of a song without it snagging my attention.

Once I actually sit down and face the computer, I usually need to write a healthy chunk of crap before I can access the good stuff. Then, after the initial spew, I need about three or four solid hours of uninterrupted time to make any measurable progress.

As I was describing this process, it suddenly struck me how absurd it all was. Sure, who wouldn’t write best under those circumstances? The problem is that they occur simultaneously maybe once a year; the remainder of the time, I just wish I were seriously writing. I might squeeze out a blog post now and then, but when is The Book going to happen?

Here’s my revelation:  I simply can’t wait for the stars to align to produce the perfect writing conditions; if I do, I won’t finish my book until long after I’m dead.

I need to write now, regardless of the circumstances (or, for that matter, the litany of mental obstacles listed previously).

And I’ll bet it’s possible.

After all, I drive best when I’m well-rested, well-fed, and alone in the car, listening to my favorite music. But, I don’t wait to go places until I meet all of the aforementioned conditions. If I need to be somewhere, I go. If I need to get my loved ones around, I do. I take small people to school and to the doctor and the dentist. I fill up with gas and get a few things for dinner. Maybe I parked in the sun so I have to hold the steering wheel with some slightly used tissues I found under the seat. Maybe the playdate gets carsick and I can’t find a plastic bag. No matter. If I need to drive, I drive. Never mind that I have to crank Today’s Hits in order for my two lovely children to refrain from bickering or throwing something at the driver. Shoot, I even have to drive when there is bickering and throwing. I have to drive when people are crying or asking questions like ‘what is god?’ I have to drive when I’m in a bad mood, when I’m sick, and when I’ve been so busy that I’ve forgotten to eat a meal or two. When I need to be somewhere, I go–no matter what is happening in and around me. It might not be graceful. I might careen a bit like Mr. Magoo, but I can get there.

IT’S THE SAME WITH WRITING OR MAKING ART OR PARENTING OR HAVING IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS OR ANYTHING AT ALL. If we wait for the perfect set of circumstances, we will miss our opportunity completely. End of story.

On ignorance and indecision

I had a particularly eloquent and inspiring sociology professor in college who said once, “You get the governance you deserve.”  He mentioned this after a presidential election that had had a particularly sobering result–at least, from the perspective of many of his students.  His comment really stumped me.

It wasn’t until many years later, standing in a voting booth, that I began to see some wisdom in his words.  I perused an endless list of state and local propositions about which I knew next to nothing, and realized the ignorance and power I held simultaneously.  People like me should not be making decisions, I realized, and it was time to do something about it.

I voted on the few issues and offices with which I was actually familiar, and turned my voting sheets in to a friendly volunteer.  He started to chase me down the sidewalk.  “You forgot a couple of pages,” he called out.  “Wouldn’t you like to finish?”  I was ridiculously embarrassed, but assured him that I had meant to leave it incomplete.  I guess that’s what happens when you vote in a neighbor’s garage.

The following year, the voting salon was born.   I may have hosted it first, but credit goes to dear friends who tweaked it, and now, organize and host it.  The structure is simple:  One person hosts, one person divvies up the ballot measures amongst the attendees several days in advance, and everyone with kids leaves them at home.  Each person researches the two or three assigned propositions, and comes prepared to explain them, as well as the arguments for and against.

Discussion and friendly heckling ensue, aided by whatever supporting materials we have brought:  fliers, articles, interviews, or laptops to research more during discussion.  We are always interested to find out who got the proposition on the ballot, and who is funding the arguments for and against, but rarely do we have the time to figure it all out until we are piled in a living room together.   Sometimes it is only during discussion that I realize a ballot measure with good intentions may be too sloppy or misguided to have the desired impact, or worse, a measure designed to read a particular way may have the opposite intent.

Our specialties range from art to business to public housing to teaching to health policy to law to digital media, and though we don’t always agree, discussion has remained civilized over the years.  Perhaps that is due to the tasty snacks, a little levity, and moderate use of adult beverages.  In any event, I always leave much better prepared for election day to roll around, and thankful for the chance to gather and talk about local issues that we have the power and responsibility to address.