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.


Photo Challenge: Branches

©2014 Beret Olsen
My favorite dead tree, with Mt. Diablo in the distance.                           ©2014 Beret Olsen


©2014 Beret Olsen
That’s Mt. Tam there in the setting sun.                                                     ©2014 Beret Olsen


All of these photos came from walks up Mt. Davidson. Thanks to nuvofelt for issuing weekly photography challenges.

Representing for the Grown-Ups

Me and a few people I don’t know.  from

Once I stumbled across Phoenix’s “Lizstomania,” the song went into impossibly heavy rotation. Were it not for an occasional, palate-cleansing round of “Today’s Hits,” my kids would have defected to your house long ago.

Not only did I love the song–and all their other songs, for that matter–I was charmed by its reference to music history, to Berlin and Paris in the 1840s.

Just in case I’m not the only one who had to look up the title:

“Lisztomania was characterized by a hysterical reaction to Liszt and his concerts.[2][3] Liszt’s playing was reported to raise the mood of the audience to a level of mystical ecstasy.[3] Admirers of Liszt would swarm over him, fighting over his handkerchiefs and gloves.[3] Fans would wear his portrait on brooches and cameos.[2][4] Women would try to get locks of his hair, and whenever he broke a piano string, admirers would try to obtain it in order to make a bracelet.[4] Some female admirers would even carry glass phials into which they poured his coffee dregs.[2] –the benevolent geniuses at Wikipedia

I must have caught a mutation of the bug myself. Since then, I became obsessed to see Phoenix live, which is odd since I haven’t gone to see live music, for quite some time. For nearly two years they refused to cooperate–touring little, then touring anywhere but San Francisco. I may have even sent a few messages to their band manager in protest. Why were they avoiding my fair city? How could I snag their hankies if they insisted on hanging out in Europe all the time? That’s so French.

And then, a wee miracle. A friend offered me a ticket to Outside Lands, and I jumped on it without thinking.

After all, it was a single ticket. I was going to a humongous music festival:

a) By myself, and

b) As a grown-up.

I got a little nervous. What was I doing?

The spouse offered to drop me near the entrance. How long did I want to stay? Let’s see. How many trips to a porta-potty was I willing to endure?

Answer: two. And after giving birth twice, that means four hours, tops.

When I got to the festival grounds, I consulted the schedule, feeling old, wondering who the 39 other bands were. To buy myself a minute of think time, I wandered over to get an id bracelet. The security guard took one look at my driver’s license and blurted, “oh, my god!”

Dang. I am old.

He tried to smooth things over, like it was no big deal, but it was too late. The youth of America were staring at me, perhaps figuring the odds that I might know their parents.

I tried to blend into the crowd, meandering toward Jurassic Five. I guess they were making some sort of comeback on the music scene as well. I stepped politely over a number of glazed-eyed tokers and their hairy friends. Lurching twenty-year-olds grabbed the arms and shoulders of strangers nearby or, when they missed, fell face first into a carpet of crushed keg cups.

Along the way, I made peace with my age. It’s ok to be past the age of white crocheted pants over black undergarments. Or bear hats, fox tails, bad beards, and ginormous fake flowers dangling like hippie antennae.

Well, maybe I could still rock a bear hat.

And it was a relief not to have to find anyone in particular. In a crowd of 60,000, finding a friend entails spearing stuffed animals on ten-foot poles or clutching Hello Kitty balloon bouquets like overgrown toddlers, cursing vehemently at AT&T and Verizon in equal parts.

I felt like an anthropologist, watching the herds ebb and flow around crowd surf misfires.

As the music grew louder, though, the crowd ceased to exist. Jurassic Five were awesome, and I stood, transfixed.

When they finished, I stayed and walked against the crowd, filling in the empty pockets closer and closer to the stage as they opened in front of me. I itched for the center of the action, whichever band was up next. What is the point of listening to live music from the comfort of a seat, miles from the performers and their die-hard fans? How is that different to listening to Pandora at home? I mean, other than the sewage truck and the other 59,999 people between you and the performers. I like to be close enough that the drum and bass override my heart beat.

Then, by some divine intervention, Karen O sashayed out in her shiny, shiny suit.

from latimesphoto.files
from latimesphoto.files

I almost went home after her band played. If I start practicing now, I thought, maybe I could be a rock star before I kick the bucket.

In a delirious happy daze, I finally found my way to the other end of the festival, where Phoenix were about to take the stage. Since I was solo, I plowed into the tight fist of people, smiling sheepishly, apologizing profusely, thinking I could eventually make it to the very front. “Excuse me,” I said to a woman’s neck. She turned and accidentally gave me an Eskimo kiss. “Exactly where do you think I can go?” she asked, not unkindly. She was right. At that point it was literally impossible to move closer. Or get out, for that matter. I tried not to think about it.

I could barely see the stage or even the screen for a while, thanks to an extremely tall man next to me. He was the only grumpy person out of tens of thousands.

“Why aren’t your arms up?” an incredulous teenager asked him. “I guarantee you’d have the highest hands in the whole crowd.” Still, tall man stubbornly abstained.

Meanwhile, a few people to my right, a supremely enthusiastic fan gushed uncontrollably. “Oh man!” “Yeah!” He pumped his fist each time they played a first chord. “This song, too?!”

Smoke and more smoke and fog of all sorts poured out of machines and skies and people, climbing up the spotlights like animated streamers.

Now I remember: it is an extremely pleasant feeling to be in a big mob of people singing big happy songs. That’s something Pandora can’t give you.

Low points were few:

Initial lost feeling

Porta potties

Wondering if I would be crushed.

High points:

Well, everything else.

Plus, since the event took place in Golden Gate Park, city ordinance dictated that the festival shut down at 9:55 p.m. Perfect for mature music enthusiasts.

Since that day in August, my Lizstomania has mutated. Now it’s the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s station that makes my kids roll their eyes. Perhaps I should hold a vigil for their next visit.

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.

Question: Has The Sierra Club been infiltrated by demented idiots?

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed to find out the answer was no.

It’s not that I was keen to skewer the Sierra Club; rather, I was excited to post my irate rantings.

A week or so ago, I read an article blasting a plan set forth by local environmental groups that would supposedly destroy the urban forests of San Francisco.  I wrote a delightfully incendiary post forthwith.  I love to write when I am enraged, and I was quite pleased with the piece, despite its somewhat bombastic tone.

Then, a couple of level-headed folks suggested I seek other sources to double-check my facts before posting.  I suppose I should be grateful.

Said plan had been somewhat fictionalized and largely misconstrued by the author of the article.  Mt. Davidson is not, as I thought, on the chopping block of demented idiots.

Beyond a general concern for the planet, I have a selfish interest in the upkeep of our city’s forests:  I head up Mt. Davidson several times a week.  In fact, it is one of the great joys of living in the stupid fog zone.  Minutes from my door I can be in the forest, at the foot of it, completely oblivious to everything except trees and forget-me-nots.  It is lush, teeming with birds, and from the top, one can see for miles.  Such a walk is perfect for clearing the head, for remembering that in spite of the madness of everyday life, we are just wee beings on this incredible planet.  It makes me think about that painting by Caspar David Friedrich:  Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Actually, when I picture this painting in my head, the artist’s self-portrait is on a much smaller scale.


Of course I am relieved that evil infiltrators are not, in fact, masquerading as environmentalists while plotting to clear cut this mount.  I would be seriously aggrieved to lose my weekly constitution.  I’ll just have to find something else to make me mad as hell and inspire an engaging post.

What I have learned from the Tenderloin

Having two children and a husband who travels frequently, I don’t get out much.  The other day, I looked at where I was and what I was doing and had a complete conniption.  I turned to the woman next to me and demanded, “When and how did I turn into a f*cking soccer mom?!”  She may have laughed weakly before changing the subject to PTA memos, or box top collections, or some other topic to fuel my identity crisis.  Thank god one of the soccer dads started bringing comfortable chairs and adult beverages to practice.  That has really made my descent into personal hell more tolerable.

In light of this realization, I have been making a concerted effort to get out into the wide world once in a while.  A few days ago, that brought me to the Tenderloin.  There are definitely a few things to be learned from the seedy parts of San Francisco.

1.  Do not tell a gigantic, inebriated man that his Rottweiler is cute.

Though I’ve always assumed that, luckily I didn’t have to be the one to test the theory out. I did have to cross the street, however.  What a ruckus.

2.  The Tenderloin is a good place to be invisible.

I saw a man hobbling horribly on a crutch suddenly tuck it under his arm and ride off on a bicycle.  No one batted an eye.  If that sort of behavior passes under the radar, I imagine no one would notice if you fixed your bra-strap, or took care of that annoying crusty bit flapping around your left nostril.  Hell, you could have a whole garden variety melt-down there, and you’d blend right in.  It’s cheaper than therapy.

3.  Fancy shmancy organic-type Whole Paycheck markets are just as ridiculously expensive in economically under-resourced parts of town.

While I am thankful to find something besides del Taco for my snack emergencies, how do these places stay in business?  Where are the tasty food trucks?  The tamale lady? Happy hour?  That’s right.  Not here.  Might be time to head to Tu Lan.  Definitely don’t use the bathroom, but the food is tasty and cheap, and if I remember correctly, Julia Child used to slum it here when she wasn’t partying in her limo.  I’ve heard some stories.

4.  Seedy parts of town foster creativity.

I saw the most pathetically amusing and/or revolting painting of my entire life hanging in a place of prominence in a loin-y gallery.  Imagine a tiny, cluttered venue–art crammed into every cranny–devoting an entire wall to one enormous canvas.  Mostly it is a giant color field of oil paint, with a shit-brown lump at the bottom, and a little white unicorn in the the center.  I think the unicorn was crying; I might have made that part up, though.  At the top, in swirly, girly hand lettering, it says:  “I’ll never find true love…” followed by a very melancholic curlicue.  That thing is burned on my retinas.  It was awesome.  I dare you to find something like that at 49 Geary.

5.  In dire times, the first thing to go are your dreams for the future.

For some reason, I decided it would be cool to look at people’s old funky stuff.  I meandered into some pawn shops.  Have you noticed?  All of the pawn shops are clustered around the courthouse.  I had never thought about that before.  And guess what people hock to get out of jail?  Musical instruments and engagement rings.  Almost exclusively.  It is deeply depressing.  Why not get rid of…I don’t know…some technological gadget? A Blackberry?  The wii?  Or a TV?  Why not guns?  Get rid of that thing!  It didn’t help you out this time, did it?  And where you’re going, they’ll probably take it away at check-in. But no.  Love and music.

I suppose there are a lot of other lessons to be learned out there, but right now, I need to get some healthy snacks together for practice today.  And a big jug of wine.

Looking for the Cure

It’s pretty sad that I am already experiencing writer’s block a mere 3 days into the Post-a-Day Challenge.  Luckily, I happened upon this nugget of wisdom as I was fishing for inspiration on other folks’ blogs:  “Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.  Just write poorly.  Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.” -Seth Godin

While Godin does have a point, I’m not completely convinced it’s necessary to write poorly in public–and I have a hunch that my readers might have some reservations as well.  Consequently, I will take this moment to write a bunch of crap in my little notebook instead.  You’re welcome.