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?


Before the avocado linoleum was replaced, our kitchen table sprang from it on one hefty leg, like a flattened tree. We gathered round in our designated seats, though I can’t recall how or when they had been assigned. My mother sat closest to the fridge for handy mid-meal retrievals, with my sister and me to her left. Next was my father, followed by my two brothers, their backs to the window, completing the circle. I didn’t envy them; it was often chilly on that side, and accompanied by a view of the sink and the dirty pots on the stove. From my position, I could watch the flakes fall, or the morning glories creep up the strings that dangled over the window–our homegrown awning.

In the absence of some or all of the others, the seating plan still applied. My mother and I often leaned our elbows on the creaky oak to talk about books or logistics or ideas, one eye scanning the backyard.

Mid-conversation, it was not unusual for her to yelp and leap from her chair, grab pots and lids, and run outside, clanging like crazy.

After a minute or so, she would return to her seat, contrite and subdued, but the moment was gone, our thoughts dispersed.

I learned not to take this personally.

Her beef was not with me, but the squirrels who continually ransacked the bird feeder, leaving the cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees to forage elsewhere. No one pitied the greedy blue jays, at whom my mother clucked disapprovingly. They got any scraps the rodents left behind.

My mother greased the pole of the feeder, then sprinkled birdseed on the ground, either as a peace offering or to make the squirrels too fat and lazy to attempt the slippery pole. Nevertheless, the fuzzy little gluttons somehow always managed to shimmy up to the feeder.

Now that I am grown, I have a feeder out for the hummingbirds, but it hangs near the house, pole-less, in just the right spot to torment the cat. The squirrels and I co-exist quite amiably.

And yet, I see myself behaving like my mother, minus the pots and pans.

Half-listening to my girls, I am hyperaware of any unusual activity just past the membrane of our home-space. I’m there, but not fully; I’m coiled to spring.


why is it so very hard to be in a single moment,

instead of watching vigilantly

for squirrels,

or not-squirrels

on the periphery of our daily lives.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Object

©2014 Beret Olsen

©2014 Beret Olsen

I grew up in the Midwest, as far as possible from any ocean.

I might have withered in the parched heat of the Plains, but my family headed East for the summers, where a day without a dip in the lake bordered on shameful.

Still, as close as we were, we seldom made it to the seashore, but if and when we did…

I wandered along the water line, icy water creeping unexpectedly underfoot,

The undertow sucking sand from beneath me;

Greedy surf clearing the shore of footprints, emptying the mind of everything but the present.

I looked for shells with perfect holes bored in their bellies from countless trips across the sea floor.

I looked for bits of seaweed, and crabs, and little fish trapped in tide pools.

But what I gathered and hid in my pockets were the stones which had been worn smooth by the relentless drive of the tides,

From being tossed and raked across the beach,



Brutally made,

But honed and solid,

Warm in my hand,

Ready to skip.

It reminds me through the long winter chill

That the elements conspire to make us beautiful and strong.

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.

How Benedict Cumberbatch kept me up all night

Benedict Cumberbatch is on the right. His sidekick, Martin Freeman's name has never kept me up at night.  Image from www.i.dailymail.co.uk.

Benedict Cumberbatch is on the left. On the right is Watson, a.k.a. Martin Freeman, whose name has never led to any late-night musings. Image from http://www.i.dailymail.co.uk.

Over the years, I’ve had so many good reasons for insomnia. Indeed, there are endless possibilities for an important late night worry.

Last night was not one of them.

I’d stayed up later than usual watching the season premiere of Sherlock. It was a bit of a nail-biter–or would have been, if I did that sort of thing. Instead, I squeezed the spouse’s leg and ate chocolate. Not surprisingly, I was a little amped up when the show finally finished, but even then, I might have managed a decent sleep if I hadn’t started thinking about the Benedict Cumberbatch name generator.

Have you tried it? There’s not much to it. All you do is push the make name button and it produces a random pair of ‘words’ with the same lilting poetic meter as Benedict Cumberbatch’s name. Many of the combinations are moderately amusing–(c.f., “Snozzlebert Toodlesnoot” and “Muffintop Wafflesmack”)–but my first hit was:

“Blubberbutt Snugglesnatch.”

That was it for me, really.

For hours I lay in bed, trying to be still. I did not want to wake the spouse or worse, get booted from the warm bed. Just when I would start to feel a bit sleepy, though, a new combination would form in my head, and I would have to record it for posterity. Smug but wide awake once more, I would sift through the contents of my brain, looking for the next most hilarious thing. I bet I spent half an hour bemoaning the fact that “dingleberry” was four syllables.

I thought I was ridiculously clever, even after I gave up on two-word combos and started jotting down any old three-syllable word. By light of day, I can assure you that none struck me as funny as it did in the middle of the night. Still, I have included an excerpt from my notes in the hopes that you might be inspired to leave your suggestions in the comments. No doubt I’ll need something entertaining to read at 2 am some night soon.

Burlybutt Nancypants

Mumblebuns Cumbercrap

Cozyshack Snagglepatch

Knickerbock Weeniewart

Crappyass Cumberbuns

Cuddleknob Poodleboob

Now, if only I had the energy and focus to do what I was supposed to be doing.

Strange bedfellows: Renaissance painting and indie music

A few months ago, I wrote a post responding to a video which I failed to embed properly. Apologies. I suppose it was inevitable that Zero to Hero would challenge me to figure out that mess. I went back and fixed the problem–I think.

For my month of blog fine-tuning–c.f.,  Zero to Hero–I’m supposed to write something which includes embedded media. In honor of this occasion, I have decided to share something that has snagged in the corner of my brain. It is not the usual Bad Parenting fare.

I’m being haunted by a music video.

I find the song mesmerizing. The lyrics are just inscrutable enough to tantalize my imagination. The melody is intoxicating, and the mix is perfect–complicated, well-balanced. What is bugging me is the video itself. I’m still trying to figure out what they were thinking.
The set and arrangement of characters were modeled after what is perhaps Raphael’s best-known painting, a fresco he did at the Vatican called The School of Athens.

School of Athens, from wikipedia.

School of Athens, from wikipedia.

This painting supposedly includes “every great Greek philosopher,” which means everyone from Socrates and Plato to Euclid and Pythagoras. I don’t know any contemporary Greek philosophers, but it doesn’t matter:  the painting was done in the 16th century, so I’m off the hook.

School of Athens was part of a series that was supposed to illustrate a progression from reason (Western philosophy) to revelation (Christianity), and to show how they worked  together–an idea that has been lost in these days of intelligent design vs. evolution.

But what characters has alt-J put in their video? These are not meant to be philosophers. And why did alt-J choose to put this particular cast in dialogue with art history and religion? After a very un-scientific search, the best I could find was an off-hand comment about wanting to set contemporary figures from a “lower socio-economic status” into Raphael’s famous work. Fine. But these are not “poor people,” per se; these are stereotypes from gangster culture:  the liquor in a paper bag, throwing dice, ferocious dogs, big earrings, wife beater t-shirts, heavy chains, spandex dresses. I look at pictures of members of the band and wonder:  what are these pasty white guys trying to say? Are they trying to offer commentary on class and culture? Or simply show off their liberal arts degrees from Leeds?

The lyrics have not helped illuminate this conundrum:

“Three guns and one goes off
One’s empty, one’s not quick enough
One burn, one red, one grin
Search the graves while the camera spins

Chunks of you will sink down to seals
Blubber rich in mourning, they’ll nosh you up
Yes, they’ll nosh the love away but it’s fair to say
You will still haunt me”

The video makes no sense to me, and borders on offensive. If this is what they think poverty looks like, I find it terribly condescending. Kind of like when Miley pops in a grill and acts out her impression of African Americans. Awkward, at best, but likely much, much worse.

At the same time, I can’t stop listening to the song or watching the video in question, so who am I to judge?


p.s. I did find out where they got the band name. Press alt-J on your keyboard and you’ll get ∆:  the triangle that appears in their video and as their logo. Triangles are their favorite shape.