facing the slope

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“Ames,” says my brother Danny, somewhere near the windy top of Killington. “I want you to ski this black diamond with moguls. I’ll show you how to do it. You’ll be fine.”

You want to me to ski a black diamond with moguls, I repeat back. You’ll show me how to do it. I’ll be fine.

“You’ll be fine.”


It’s around 3:30 Saturday afternoon, we’ve been skiing all day on sucky icy lumpy conditions, and I’m wrecked. Every joint and muscle and piece of bone in my body hurts, including the tips of my pinkies. A few hours earlier I wiped out trying to turn on a lump of wet, ungroomed crap passing for snow, so I’m not in the best shape for any kind of black diamond, be it accessorized with moguls or not.

But Danny’s insistent. And he’s smiling. And he’s my brother. And I haven’t died so far today, so I’m on a streak of good fortune. Continue reading

to do or not to do a not-to-do list

Each and every day, I make a list. Much of this covers basic shit likely to land on anyone’s list: go shopping, pay bills, call friends, make doctors’ appointments, blah biddy blah biddy blah. Some of this is more specific and idiosyncratic: Most people’s lists don’t include a reminder to re-work the fingerings on “Georgia on My Mind” in time for a violin lesson, for example.

The lists are long. Since Chris died, they’ve gotten longer, as the carefully delegated jobs defining every marriage went kablooey with his suicide, dumping piles of exciting new shit on me and me alone. Car shit: mine. Lawn care and pruning shit: shit: mine. Fixing-shit-around-the-house shit: mine.

At first, I made these lists with fullest, proudest, perfectest, stupidest confidence that I would scratch off all or most of the items on them. I did not. This realization, over time, began to depress me until I had a minor (really, really, minor) epiphany and understood that these itemized scraps of paper I labor over each morning are not, in fact, to-do lists. Instead they are not-to-do-lists: lists that I am confident I will ignore. Writing them each day with this fullest, proudest, perfectest confidence liberates me, because I no longer have to feel crappy about my failures to do everything — or even anything — there itemized.

This is all part of my constant effort to lower the bar, which also includes my nightly moral checklist (did I kill anyone?); my most common parental directive (“don’t break your neck”); and my radically enlightened philosophy of housecleaning. Early on in my efforts at F.S.O., I recognized that most of the S. I felt compelled to F.O. wasn’t as pressing as I first thought; if I never figured out an easy way to unroll and haul and wrangle the area rugs into place every winter, which Chris always did and Chris always loved and mattered so dearly to Chris, that was okay. I was allowed to keep them unrolled and unhauled. I was allowed to keep the floors bare year-round. I was allowed to not-do whatever I needed to not-do to get by.

At some point, I may decide to evade my chores without bothering to enumerate them. If I’m all about lowering the bar, and make no mistake, I am, just ask my children, then why devise a list at all? Why not just wake up every day saying, “Screw it. I don’t care what I forget. I’ll forget EVERYTHING! Take that, burdens and responsibilities and self-appointed tasks! Take that, day!”

I’ll tell you why: because it gives me a sense of control. If I scribble “Buy mop heads” and “practice Schradieck” and “call Aunt Charlotte” in Sharpie on the back of a balled-up Stewart’s receipt, then I have, first of all, a wafer-thin but nonetheless improved chance of actually accomplishing these things. But more than that, I have one small whit of power during one small moment over one small particle of my life. For the 38 seconds it takes me to compile my not-to-do-list, I have a sense of order.

Until, sometime around lunchtime, when I lose it — and then, in search of that same sense of order, I make another.

the expanding universe

This Christmas, as usual, my kids and I joined Chris’s family for a day of eating and laughing followed by yet more eating and yet more laughing, with breaks in between for energetic gift-giving and weak passes at digestion. While he was alive, I considered them the best in-laws anyone could ask for: caring, attentive, generous, never intrusive, always warm. After he died, they conveyed to me, in gestures and words, that my husband’s death was not an end to my bond with his family. In the midst of all that hurt, I was profoundly grateful to realize that I hadn’t lost them, too.

My universe can’t shrink any more than it has to. I want it to expand. And strangely, despite all the losses, it continues to. This is how it functions. This is its inclination, flinging outward from a central moment — the Big Bang, or the moment of creation, or whatever you want to call the giant cosmic spewing that kicked it (and us) into gear.

I happen to believe that a Someone set it off, but even if I didn’t, I’d still take comfort in the knowledge that, no matter what interplanetary flotsam we encounter, we’re forever moving forward. Even when our lives contract so grievously after a loss, they’re still expanding. Even when we seem to have derailed entirely, skidding off toward some forbidding landscape, we’re still going somewhere. Old relationships deepen and change. New friendships form. New family arrives in unexpected and miraculous ways.

It was Chris who remarked, “Amy, for someone whose family is dead, you have a lot of relatives.” He made this remark about 15 years ago, but I’ve recalled it often these past two, whenever I found myself in the welcoming embrace of his siblings, their spouses, their sons. Soon we’ll be seeing my extended and splendiferous non-blood family, the loved ones I acquired as a kid. How my universe expanded when I met them. How it expanded again when I married Chris.

And now, two of his nephews — my nephews — are getting married. I would say their fiancees are about to become members of the family, but they already are. They’re already eating and laughing and gift-giving. It was some of their food I went on to digest last night; if baked s’more cookies and lemon bars can’t seal the deal, nothing will. As the universe expands, so does my stomach.

flightless nylon mona lisa

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What am I thinking?

One benefit of having an iPhone is being able to take high-quality pictures of inanimate objects. One benefit of having an iPhone and children together in the same place at the same time is that the children, no matter their ages and maturity levels, and no matter whether they own iPhones themselves — which is analogous to the number of boots they possess when they want to borrow mom’s, even if they already own enough to have shod the Napoleonic army at Smolensk — will seize the iPhone and start snapping high-quality pictures of inanimate objects. This is especially true when you aren’t paying very close attention. And it’s especially truer when the inanimate object at issue is an inflatable light-up penguin.

We adopted this little fella from Home Depot last week. We were there buying a Christmas tree, and before you object that Home Depot is kind of a sad place to buy a Christmas tree, I will reassure you that we were and remain totally at peace with this. We started going there by default the first Christmas after Chris died — when, honestly, just buying a tree at all was a major triumph — and by now, at our third Christmas without him, it’s become a kind of tradition. Part of that tradition is making additional impulse purchases that make no sense at the time or later on, after we’ve had some occasion to reflect. Last year we bought big glittery plastic orbs packaged and touted as ornaments only to get home and realize that they didn’t have any hooks, loops or other specialized doohickeys with which to hang them from the tree. They were literally just big glittery plastic orbs.

So this year, after selecting a tree, my three kids went off on their hunting-gathering expedition through Home Depot and returned with the above creature, having trapped and hauled him in from the electrified-Christmas-baubles aisle designed to vacuum-suck fat wads of parental money from unfortified pockets. With a wide smile, my oldest presented this to me and asked, “Mom! Mom! Can we buy this! Mom!”  And I replied, Sure! Ha ha! How adorable! Seriously! Wow!

And it is. Wow. Seriously. So adorable. I am not being ironic. Its serious adorability is intended to be displayed outside, but apparently we lack the proper outdoor plugs, so instead we display it indoors whenever we’re feeling merry or just want to amuse ourselves by looking at it (him? her?) and listening to it (her? him?) whir. During a recent jam session with my neighborhood band, it (he? she?) whirred thusly beside us through five hours of ka-chung ka-chung ka-chunging on “Psycho Killer” reimagined with dulcimer and ukes.

It was only much later in the evening that I looked at my phone and remembered that my children had, several days earlier, snapped seven pictures of the thing. Seven. In each, it presents its enigmatic smiley-face to the world like some flightless nylon Mona Lisa.

I am not asking you to name it; I am not planning a new poll and some subsequent futile exercise in the democratic process. Instead, I am asking you to tell me this: WHAT IS IT THINKING? Is it thinking, “I am penguin. Hear me whir.” Or maybe: “If I purse my beak like this, I could post my selfie to Facebook. If only I owned an iPhone! And, like, hands.” Or even: “I shall hold you in my thrall with my fixed gaze and fartly humming!” Or is it thinking, “I am a messenger of joy. Happy Everything!”

I’m going with the last one. Because it is. Seriously. So. Adorable.

so this lady walks up at a traffic light, and. . .

It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning, and I find myself — for reasons not worth explaining right now — driving east down Madison Avenue in Albany. I’m approaching a green light at the intersection with Ontario when a woman walks up to me, waving.

I slow down. Roll down the window. Assess her quickly. She’s 60, maybe a little older, in a knit cap and ratty parka. She’s weeping.

“Please, ma’am. Please.”

Watch out, I say. It’s a green light. Cars are behind me.

“Please. I’ve been homeless. Please, ma’am.”

OK. OK. Give me a sec. I’ll pull over.

“Please pull over. Please.”

Yes, I say. Yes. I’m pulling over.

And so, nicking through the last second of green, I pull over and grub around in my bag for a bill larger than a one. It is now 6:16, and the coffee I poured down my throat 20 minutes earlier has not kicked in. Continue reading


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Heading into the attic storage room to rummage around for Christmas ornaments, I noticed this sign hanging above the door. My late husband and I salvaged it from an old vacuum-cleaner box at my mother’s house after she died, and we had it framed. It was too retro not to save, and too cute, and reminded us too much of my mother’s approach to housecleaning, which was not to do any. 

I always notice this sign, because I’m always heading into the attic storage room to rummage around for something or other, be it a pair of hockey skates or a DVD of William Shatner’s “Alexander the Great” TV-movie that he made in 1964, when he was really young and really hot and I was 1 year old and not yet infatuated with him. I am no longer, but I still possess weird Shatneriana and ephemera.

I possess many things, weird and not. I wish I didn’t. I don’t actually like things; they weigh on me like an obligation, requiring regular maintenance and necessary organizational skills that, unlike my things, I do not possess. Chris was good at owning things, knew what to do with them, how to take care of them, where to store them, how to retrieve them, how to use them, how to put them back afterward. I suspect he was always like that, but an early career in carpentry and construction honed his ability to retain and organize objects. His basement workshop was a miracle of tool-coordinating feng shui, and after he died it was months before I could bring myself to disrupt their order and give some of them away.

I have no such order to disrupt. When I write, my mind is organized, but that’s about it, folks. In all other contexts and all other ways, I’m a slob. Not a major one: no greasy pizza boxes anywhere. Just a minor one. And a recovering slob: 20 years of marriage to a neatnik brought me some self-awareness of my own chaotic and confused inclinations and, even more important, taught me to be vigilant in combating them. I work at it. Sort of. Kinda depends on your definition of “work.” If it means keeping the public parts of the house more or less passable and the private ones private, that’s me. But if, by “work,” you mean “vacuuming the curtains” or “scouring out the grot with a nail file,” or “polishing the silverware with my tongue,” then, umm, no. I don’t do that. But I do sweep and clean dishes occasionally.

Since Chris died, I’ve managed to purge a lot of things. Not just his things; all things. I need fewer of them, because I’m a terrible and neglectful caretaker, and because I have so little time to spend on anything that doesn’t matter. Things don’t. I’m reminded of my mother, whose life changed and time shrank after my father — who was 56 when I was born — began to go senile, forcing her to care for him and her children while earning a paycheck. At the end of the day, she never had much stuff left in her for cleaning: I never saw her scouring out the grot with a nail file, either. She did her best, and her best included a laissez-faire attitude that allowed her scrappy younger child to throw baseballs against the house and, in the process, shatter every other window on the first floor. “It’s only a thing,” she’d say, and then cover the broken glass with a sheet of plywood.

Touch no dirt. Breathe no dirt. See no dirt. The way I gauge it, I can achieve these three exalted states of being by applying myself full-time to household scrubbing. Or I can do as my mother did and just make do — picking at this stack of clutter, straightening that one, sweeping away the dirt as it accrues. I clear out the cobwebs. I haul things to the curb. Onward.

term of the day: “shit magnet”

SHIT MAGNET (noun) ˈshit ˈmag-nət. One who attracts shit, any kind of shit, be it death, woe, romantic break-ups, legal tangles, financial or medical catastrophe, accidentally lighting your hair on fire or other grave misfortune, especially any that results in the production and propulsion of large amounts of snot. Synonyms: punching bag; hopeless wreck; gnasher of teeth. Origin: Randy.

Yes, this is Randy’s term. He gets the credit. He reminded me of it in his response to my post about getting swiped and subsequently swooped-upon by the TSA, and I’ve been meaning to give it a full airing. In case you’re wondering who Randy is, and you should be, he’s a kind, funny man, and he’s my brother, and he’s been that way for a couple of decades now. My brother, that is. Not kind and funny; he’s been that way since birth, at least I assume so, because I didn’t actually cross paths with him until I was, like, 14, and he was, like, 13. His dad was headmaster of Wykeham Rise, that itsy-bitsy arts school where my mom taught music.

Randy and I met one afternoon when he was out in the  Wykeham parking lot, kicking the soccer ball around, and he said Hey, and I said Hey, and he said Do you play soccer, and I said Guess so, and he kicked the ball to me and I kicked it back and the freaking thing slammed straight into the Latin teacher’s car so hard that it made a dent in the door. Thank heavens it popped straight back, although the Latin teacher, a diminutive Hungarian eccentric we called Doc, was the worst and most oblivious driver of all time and probably wouldn’t have noticed a dent in his car the size of, you know, the car.

So began my friendship with Randy, who went on to utter phrases of startling pithiness and discernment well beyond Do you play soccer. I will probably quote him again sometime. Several years back he coined the phrase above, hypothesizing that some people exert a fecal attraction more powerfully than others.

My own sense is that everyone’s a shit magnet of one sort or another; it’s just that not everyone talks about it. Seriously: do you know anyone who hasn’t been dealt some monumentally awful hand at some point? Maybe several points? Even that jerk who cut me off in traffic the other day, prompting spasms in my middle finger, is likely carrying around his own sack of pain. And if he isn’t, he will someday. The shit flies in all directions, just not at the same time. 

We take our turns as shit magnets, I believe. I’ve had mine. Randy’s had his. Someone else is next. Tell me, then, that this isn’t the most fitting synonym of all: human being.

snow angels and the theory of northern cities

Moses, an  Albany resident, striking snow from a rock.

Moses, Albany snow angel.

This morning, I poked my head outside to look for the papers — the print version, or what I like to call the paper papers — and found a snow angel clearing my sidewalk. Snow angels are neighbors with snow blowers, or maybe just a strong back and a shovel. However they’re equipped, they’re a force of good on the planet, especially this part of the planet, especially when Madre Nature, feeling generous, dumps a blanket of fluffy hexagonal crystals more or less overnight.

I smiled and thanked the snow angel and ducked back inside, paper paper-less. About 15 minutes later I ducked back out again in search of these same old-school information circulators only to discover that a second snow angel had shoveled off my front steps. In another half an hour or so I went outside myself and started digging out my cars and driveway, joining my fellow smiling digger-outers engaged in the cold, bright industry of clearing off vehicles and steps and sidewalks and sundry after a storm. It wasn’t long before a third snow angel showed up and helped. I smiled and thanked him. He smiled back. Everybody happy.

Northeasterners in particular love to complain about winter. We love to complain about summer, too. The truth of the matter is, we love to complain about everything, including the fact that we complain so much. But winter kvetching is special, because the frigid agonies of the post-storm shovelrama bring with them a certain amount of joy — a joy that goes beyond our stupidly mocking moral superiority (I’ll admit it) over Continue reading

the fish has a name! sort of.

You've got to be kidding me.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Before I announce the long-anticipated results of the First and Last Annual Name My Goldfish Competition of 2013, I would like to note that my kitchen is apparently not the steaming incubator of democratic spirit that I assumed it to be. I had approached my kids with this pet-nomer undertaking before floating it on the blog, and they agreed in principle, but the realpolitik proved thornier than anticipated; as we learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is easier said than done. When they heard the results, they rebeled.

But a deal is a deal. A poll is a poll. A dumbass idea is a dumbass idea. And so, with no more ado, if any of this qualifies as ado, the winner of our thunderously important exercise is: “Sushi.”

For this my kids and I have no one to blame but ourselves, as the four of us selected it as a finalist despite the fact that it is, truly, vicious bordering on abusive: How is naming a pet after a foodstuff derived from its flesh any less cruel than not naming it at all? It’s like deciding to call a pony “horse meat.”

But the people have spoken. A tiny number of people with an especially morbid sense of humor, but all the same. They are people. And they have spoken. Now, whether this means we actually call the poor creature “sushi” is a matter only history, and my children, can decide.

the tsa ’n me (or you)

It starts with the hand-swipe. You know when that young man with the glasses asks you to reach out, palms up, so he can check for chemicals and you smile and say yes, okay, sure thing, ha ha ha, thanks for keeping us safe? And hold up your palms as directed? There. It starts there.

A few beats later, a small clutch of TSA agents swoops politely but firmly over and explains that they found some shit on your hands. They don’t actually call it “shit,” but that’s what they mean, and that’s what you hear, and immediately you question that innocent floral hand-soap you used that morning, or the face-cream, or that fudge you nibbled in the kitchen in the wee small hours before you left for the airport.

Quickly the swooping agents communicate with other swooping agents, and soon they’re picking through your luggage one sloppily packed undergarment at a time, looking for yet more shit, swiping everything with a plug: your iPhone, your brand-new Acer laptop, your GPS.

Meanwhile, two of your offspring have been herded over from the non-terrorist-threat portion of the airport to sit and observe your hilarious good fun with the TSA. You take three steps forward to converse with the fruit of your loins when a fresh new swooper swoops over, telling you, the shit-swiped mother from Albany, to back off in a manner that suggests the fate of the free world depends upon it. Continue reading