Skipping

one hand sm
©2014 Beret Olsen

I asked you once, twice, maybe a hundred times to teach me how to skip stones because—like the stick shift and softball and butterfly stroke—I never seemed to master the stance and feel, the order and ease with which you unfurl your hand and let it fly, each and every time erecting a bridge from here to halfway across the Pacific, yet no matter how patiently you loop your arms behind me and coach my grip, swinging my limbs just so, my stones fall from the sky like rocks.

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Outside Lands 2017

© 2017 Beret Olsen

Nestled between a bout of off-season flu and an eight-day existential crisis, the scheduling gods aligned for one foggy day of freedom. I decided to spend it weaving amongst the clumps of rancid porta-potties and artisanal taco trucks we call a music festival.

Defying all common sense, I brought my 12-year-old along for the ride. My stomach bucked and bobbed along the snaking entrance lines, wondering at my foolishness. At last propelled through the narrow nozzle of security, my bladder was already at maximum capacity, my bag dragging at one shoulder to counterbalance forty pounds of water and snacks. Must. Not. Complain. My job was to have a friggin’ awesome time, and to make sure it was contagious. Otherwise, why were we here?

As expected, the park was chock full of twenty-nine-year-olds—the “new nineteen!”— popping molly and strolling in white spa robes, or dressed as Super Mario, or waving totems plastered with Bill Murray’s face. I looked at my own ensemble of ripped jeans, Vans, and flannel. What a bunch of overgrown children, I thought, eyeing my sensitive child anxiously and forcing a weak smile.

But Miss Twelve grabbed my hand and plowed into great clouds of marijuana, into 50,000 fans abuzz with bass and adrenaline, bumping and dragging me until the warm bodies became an impenetrable wall. There in the epicenter, one could sing along at full volume, shout and laugh and pogo with abandon, all without attracting attention or judgement. So we did.

At one point, half a dozen strangers hoisted a man in a wheelchair over their heads. He sang too, arms afloat, head thrown back, silhouetted by a blanket of bright fog. The crowd was delirious.

From punk-hip hop to jungle house to indie folk, throngs throbbed and bore us six miles back and forth through the urban forest, laced and lit with a thousand colored lights. Bare limbs stretched like Dementors’ arms, now bright pink, now glowing green. Spotlights pierced the fog, rays of rock band sun, and music shuddered through the shadows to reach our ringing ears, even as we stood in line for $6 gluten-free cupcakes. And for eight hours straight, there was no middle school drama, no teenage drinking, no job search, no overdue bills.

On the bus home, Miss Twelve asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if Outside Lands was every day?”

“No,” I said. But we’ll be back next year.

K. Flay, as viewed from the epicenter.

Don’t feed the behemoth twice.

fat elsie

I’ve had cats for most of my life–all short-haired, lithe creatures with dignity and self-control. I scoffed at other, substandard cats: the ones who binged and barfed, destroyed the furniture, and peed in the corner.

Then came Elsie.

At first she played endless games of fetch and slept on my neck like a tiny scarf. Such charm! Such genius! Once again, I felt pretty smug. Elsie had long hair, which which she deposited generously, and she developed odd habits that made me question her IQ–why would a black cat sleep on the floor right beside my bed, even after being stepped on thirty or forty nights in a row? I’m half-blind with a miniature bladder, and she’s nearly invisible in the dark. Think, cat, think! But then she’d bring her toys and purr in my ear, and all doubt would subside.

Now that her fetch days are over, however, I struggle to entice her with catnip mice, yarn, or even the laser pointer–a toy supposedly irresistible to our feline friends. If I’m lucky, Elsie will drag herself half a yard across the living room rug before flopping in a heap. She still sprawls on my head at night, though, kneading and purring, while dumping her ass-end on the spouse’s pillow. This explains his difficulty sleeping and my recent trips to the chiropractor.

“When did you trade your adorable cat for a giant mop?” a friend asked. A reasonable question, but I don’t really know. It must have happened infinitesimally slowly, in the midst of the chaos and clutter of daily life. We did nothing different with this one: topping up the kibble, checking the litter, letting her in and out ad nauseum. Isn’t that all you need to do with cats?

Recently, I woke in terror as an intruder ascended the stairs. “Calm down,” my bleary-eyed spouse advised. “I set the alarm; no one’s in the house.” Unconvinced, I went to investigate, but all I could find in the shaky circle of my flashlight was my beloved fur turkey. What was happening here? It took half an hour to get my heart rate down and admit that my cat made the stairs creak. Considering Carl Sandburg’s poetic line: “the fog comes on little cat feet,” it was time to do something about my corpulent pal. As a Bay Area resident, I’ve seen the fog roll in a bazillion times, and it never makes a ruckus.

Since Elsie’s unable to reach around her belly to groom herself properly, she has also developed a case of back dandruff and a small mat near her tail. I’ve tried to help. I now own a variety of supposedly life-changing tools—all with names like “The Furminator” and “The Unhairing”–but the only brushing Elsie will tolerate without retribution is on her cheeks. This doesn’t solve any of her developing issues, but man, oh man, are her sideburns soft and sleek.

As her mat grew and multiplied, I began to consider professional grooming services, which felt like some sort of personal failure. After all, I cut my kids’ hair—always have—and only recently graduated from Supercuts myself. How could I drop that kind of cash on a cat, especially since they’re supposed to groom themselves?

To make matters worse, the cat carrier scares the crap out of Elsie. Literally. Ever tried to remove diarrhea from the long fur of a pissy cat? I wasn’t about to shell out for a kitty day spa, only to arrive home with a fecal-crusted ball of claws. Not only did I need a groomer, then, I needed one to magically appear at my doorstep. Too ashamed to ask for recommendations, I rooted around on Yelp.

Apparently magic entails a lot of paperwork. After filling out four pages of disclaimers and waivers–basically assuring the legal team that I would pay for every scratch and tear my pet might inflict–I started to panic. Elsie’s not a fan of strangers, or being held, or grooming, or anything besides eating and hopping on my head in the middle of the night. But what choice did I have? So I continued. I answered all sorts of logistical questions and personal queries and checked a litany of boxes: dry shampoo, thank you very much. I’ve seen what a terror my cat is when she gets wet. Yes, yes. A thorough brushing. Nail clipping. Booty buzz. Extra fees for mats. Dang. This was adding up like a weekend in Napa.

Nine days later, help arrived in what looked like a Frito-Lay truck. Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha was friendly and fierce, with big, brawny arms. Immediately at ease, I handed Elsie over. “Please remove your cat’s claws from my flesh,” Agatha said calmly. She was so calm, in fact, that I thought I had misheard. Next, we reenacted an episode of the Three Stooges before prying my pal off because–let’s face it–Elsie has four paws, and I’ve only got two hands. She proceeded to glue herself to the exam table like a starfish. “Ah,” said Agatha. “The pancake defense.”

Agatha took this moment of paralysis to lecture extensively about reading food labels and calculating the proper caloric content for a cat of this stature. “Even an extra ¼ cup of kibble a day could have caused this,” she said sternly, pointing to Elsie’s swollen torso. She introduced me to the concept of “puzzle feeders,” devices designed to make my cat exercise in order to get her food, and gave me a pep talk about pet health and happiness. She advised me to start setting aside $2,000 for a deep dental cleaning when Elsie turns 10.

Swell.

Then she went to work. Agatha was not a pushover like me; she gave Elsie a brushing to remember. “I call it ‘making kittens,” Agatha explained, “because there’s a ball of fur big enough to make another cat.” This was no exaggeration. “Look at all that fur you won’t have to eat today,” she said to an aggrieved Elsie, as the hairy mountain continued to grow. She brushed with the fur and against it. She hauled the cat up and brushed her belly, her legs, her tail, her hindquarters. “You need to check her lady parts frequently for foxtails,” she advised.

I’m pretty sure I’ll repress that advice—just like the vet’s recommendation to brush my cat’s teeth.

Agatha clipped claws, removed all mats, and shaved the butt of my yowling cat, even managing to fasten a purple bow-tie around her neck. Elsie looked great—maybe even a few pounds lighter—but she was mad as hell.

I tipped Agatha extremely well. I couldn’t have made kittens without losing a limb.

These days I’m brushing Elsie more regularly–on more than just the cheeks–as well as feeding her more conscientiously. She’s still quite large, but I’m not worried. I’ve got Agatha’s number, so help is just a paycheck away.

Elsie dish sm
We don’t want to accidentally feed the behemoth twice.

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.

***

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R.I.P.

©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.

City Mouse

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

I like to boast a little about my rustic roots:

How I swept mouse poop out of the cupboards every June, painted the house, and picked rocks out of the yard.

How the power went out with every summer storm; how we heated the kitchen with a cast iron wood stove.

But one night last summer, I scratched my pajama’d leg and caught an unexpected handful of something.

Pants immediately at my ankles, I only briefly saw the great spider before it disappeared.

I lay awake long into the night, at last admitting I was more of a city girl.

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?