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 kids.

They stuck their gooey hands all over it. They spilled soup and milk and 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 an 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.

  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




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.

Groundhog Day

I had the great pleasure of hanging out with a particularly hilarious friend over Thanksgiving.

After I had asked him how he was doing, and what was new, he embarked on a soliloquy about every Monday morning at work–where he is not only the boss, but “the elder.”

“It’s like f*cking Groundhog Day every Monday. All these guys in their twenties asking me, ‘Hey, how was your weekend?’ Maybe next time I’ll tell them:

‘OH MY GOD, it was INCREDIBLE. I can’t even BEGIN to tell you about it–in fact, I SHOULDN’T. It would make you feel SO JEALOUS, man. It was OVER THE TOP. EPIC. TRULY.'”

I wish I could better convey his delivery. I laughed until I was a little teary.

If you’re under thirty and/or do not have kids, you may want to bury your head in the sand rather than continue reading.

It’s not like being a grown up or a parent is so awful, it’s just that this question “how was your weekend?” isn’t the right one to ask anymore.

How was my weekend?

Let’s see. I schlepped to Target and Michaels along with every other person on the planet–searching for the blue tri-board Miss Nine needs for her Blizzard project and presentation. There has evidently been a run on blue tri-board. (You will use white and you will not complain, small person.)  I laid awake one night worrying about one friend’s health and another’s imploding marriage. I tried to find a sitter so I might attend a holiday party. When that didn’t work, I tried offering time and a half. I sat on my kids until they acquiesced to homework, and then continually refocused them. It took three times more time than necessary to do the work–plus a lot of complaining. After the recycling bin handle broke, I swept broken glass off two flights of stairs in the rain.

I didn’t sleep in. I didn’t lie on the couch reading or listening to the rain. I didn’t stay out all night and go out for breakfast. Actually, that last one sounds awful, anyway.

There were fabulous moments. I was surrounded by people I love. I saw friends. I did some yoga. I laughed a lot. I devoured way more than my quota of deliciousness. I even went out one evening UNCHAPERONED. It really was a lovely weekend.

It’s just different, you know? Weekends do not equal time off.

I’m hoping someone out there will think of a more appropriate question for Monday mornings, something that twenty-two-year-olds can ask their elders without rubbing them the wrong way.




Shaniqua 1


Not her real name, but let’s say it was.

Shaniqua was what we teachers called a hard head—a stubborn, angry child. Her hands curled into fists without thought of consequences. She was tough and short, with chubby cheeks and an occasional toothy grin–an odd mix of Mack truck and teddy bear.

A little unkempt, she always stood out in a sea of school uniforms. Her white blouse was dingy, untucked on one side, and her navy pants were short enough to be last year’s pair. Her hair was not in meticulous cornrows like the other girls’. Brushed tightly against her scalp, it had been scraped into a tiny paintbrush of a ponytail.

Everyday I had my third graders write for fifteen minutes in their journals, but Shaniqua would not write. She despised writing. This frustrated me to no end. I provided prompts. And story starters. And incentives. I encouraged. I waited.

One day, I peeped over her shoulder and was surprised to see half a page of her strange, unformed scrawl. Thrilled, I bent closer to read:

“Today I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really bored.”

I was not getting through.

I tried to talk with her about the importance of her stories. She must have some truly amazing ones. And given the signals she was sending, she likely had some troubling ones as well.

“You have important things to say,” I told her. “We all want to hear.”

Still, she stubbornly resisted.

But one morning late in the school year, Shaniqua came into the room before the bell, flushed and breathless. Though this was strictly forbidden, I happily waived the consequences when she handed me a fistful of letters she had written to her classmates—one for each. I was overwhelmed. I was so proud and excited for her. SHANIQUA HAD WRITTEN TWENTY-SEVEN LETTERS.

I hugged her, and wrote “Shaniqua’s letters” on the daily schedule, just after recess.

“We will pass them out,” I told her, “and we will spend class time celebrating your beautiful writing.” She beamed and ran back outside as the bell rang for line up while I stowed her priceless bounty in my desk drawer for safekeeping.

During recess, ny curiosity peaked; I pulled them out, gingerly opening the first one.

“Andrea, why you think you all that?” she had written. “You NOT.”

I opened another. And another. Turns out, she did have something to say. She had something to say to everyone, but we couldn’t pass out her letters. I wonder if I still have them somewhere, in a box in the garage.


A few weeks later, there was a school assembly.

Imagine trying to keep 28 third graders silent and respectful for 90 minutes. Then, when they hear the recess bell ringing, still they must sit attentively–despite being unable to hear or see properly. Most kids try their best, many struggle, and some give up. I wouldn’t mind throwing in the towel myself, sometimes, but I’m pretty sure that’s not acceptable.

Not surprisingly, Shaniqua was having a tough time. She fussed, made annoying peeping sounds, and poked the students in the row in front of her. She leaned back and forth, purposely moving her head into everyone else’s way. She kicked chairs and booed one of the acts. I complimented the students on either side of her. I laid my hand on her shoulder and whispered in her ear. I gave fierce looks. I administered check marks on the behavior chart on my clipboard. Teachers and administrators were looking sternly in our direction. What to do? If I took her out of the auditorium, who would watch the other 27? What to do?

“Shaniqua!” I whispered fiercely. “Pull it together!”

She glowered and continued to poke and annoy.

“Shall I send you to the office?” We both knew this was an empty threat since no one was there to keep an eye on her. “What can we do with you?”

Then, for some reason, I said something I’d never, ever imagined myself saying. “You are acting like a little kid! Do you need to sit in my lap?” My tone was awful, patronizing, and I was ashamed the moment I let the words leave my lips. But there was no way to retract them.

Shaniqua stared at me for a long moment, then crept over and heaved onto my lap.

I had to turn away so the others would not see my eyes fill with tears. She was a little kid–of course she was–and her hard head had not yet frozen her heart.

She rested her little hair paintbrush on my shoulder.