this is not a bucket list

There are places I want to go, things I want to do, before I die. Not that I plan on dying anytime soon; that’s not on the agenda. But it’ll happen someday, I suspect. And before it does, I would like to visit Russia. And Asia. Africa, too. I would like to see the pyramids. I would like to hike the Appalachian trail and all 46 Adirondack High Peaks. I want to study French, brush up on my German, go back-country skiing at Tuckerman’s Ravine with my brother Danny, take a swing at ballroom dancing, clean up my string crossings on the violin and learn to play jazz so well that it oozes out my pores. I want to take a class in auto mechanics.

I’d like to re-read all the Faulkner I read in college, just to see if I admire it as much and understand it more. I need to consume Joseph Conrad to correct the failings of my youth; my late father loved him, and I’ve long regretted never sitting with him at the kitchen table and discussing his favorite books. Too late for that, now. And too late to learn Neapolitan, Daddy’s first language, because it’s one of those tongues you learn as a kid or not at all — and I didn’t.

But that’s okay. And the other stuff I never got around to and never will: that’s okay, too. A lot of my dreams, like memorizing chromatic scales or learning to fix my brakes, are perfectly doable. Why, I could do them now. I probably should do them now. But it’s likely I’ll get around to doing them eventually, assuming I don’t dip my toe into the wrong Albany intersection and croak next week. But the rest of it, the things I might not do and places I might not visit — that’s all right. I don’t care, because I’ll wind up doing other things instead. It’s not as though, excuse me, either I accomplish all these prearranged tasks or my life is a pathetic waste; life will unfold, events will occur, locations will be visited, in a manner neither defined nor predicted by me. And thank God for that. I’m terrible at planning things. I’m much better at winging it.

And by winging it, I open myself to unpremeditated miracles: the person I didn’t plan on meeting, the place I didn’t plan on going, the experience I didn’t plan on having. This fruitful spontaneity is the single greatest joy in being alive, because it allows for the intrusion of a divine and cosmic happenstance; we can set our goals and cover our bases and hatch our schemes and work like hell to realize them, but in the end, it’s the shit we can’t predict that blows our minds. Have you ever been pregnant? You, or someone you’re married to? Then you know what it’s like to have a baby. You spend nine months readying for a tiny, threshing, drooling stranger, and then, boom: the most beautiful and singular person in the world propels from the dark and arrives in your arms, and you’ve known that child for 10,000 years. Could you have predicted that? Could you have scribbled it on a bucket list?

So no bucket lists for me, folks. If I can, I’ll visit Russia. If I can’t, I’ll live until I drop. And then it won’t matter anyway.

UPDATE: win yer own copy of my book!


fso arcs - cropped

UPDATE: The contest is now closed, and we have our winners. The mushy mystical powers of have selected three. They’ve all been contacted. Unless they change their minds, and tell me to beat myself about the head with my own book, I’ll be shipping their copies out to them posthaste. To all three I say: Congratulations! Or possibly: Condolences! God only knows how badly they’ll be traumatized by reading it.

And to everyone who kicked in a comment I say: Thank you! What marvelously scatological suggestions, one and all. I’m grateful to have so many fellow travelers on the path of F.S.O.


OK, guess what! The Advance Reader Copies of Figuring Shit Out (due for release Oct. 7) have arrived, and I’d like to give away a few in my first faint stab at promoting my own book. I am not good at promoting my own things. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not good at owning things in general. Maybe in some past life I was a Byzantine monk who lived in the desert and ate sand.

Anyways. So. My book. It concerns my husband’s suicide and the life my kids and managed to live in its wake —  the first year or so, in all its tears, snot and moments of blessed levity. The subtitle is Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival. The length is short. Very short. About 200 pages. Small pages. You could read the whole thing, maybe twice, on a plane to Oxnard, even though I have never heard of anyone flying to Oxnard (I checked; it has an airport). I only used Oxnard as an example because the word sounds like some kind of weird soup or geographic formation (“the glacial oxnard can be found in the outwash of sandy topography occupied by monks”).

Another thing to recommend my memoir: I make an idiot out of myself. I really really do. In fact, I make such an idiot out of myself that anyone who wants to read this book must sign a legally binding form promising not to look at me funny or stop talking to me entirely afterwards, whether you do your perusing at home, at the beach or on the plane to Oxnard. I want to be sure you understand this. It’s important, because I don’t want anyone to stop talking to me, even people whose conversation I don’t actually enjoy, although it’s possible I might begin to regret that someday. I chose to make an idiot out of myself; it was an act of empowerment. So be with me. Talk to me. Please.

With that in mind, if you want a chance to win an an early, uncorrected ARC of Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival, answer this question in the comments below: What should I title the sequel? Of course, this assumes I’m going write a sequel, and I hope I don’t, because I’m greatly looking forward to a tragedy-free life from this point on. A boring few decades for me, folks! NO MORE MEMOIR FODDER FROM THIS POINT ON! HURRAY! But in the event I do write some deadly dull follow-up, my son suggested We Get Rid of It For A Reason as a title, which I rather like.

What do you think? What would you call it? Comment below by 5 p.m. Wednesday. I will NOT be judging these responses on their literary merit; instead, I’ll assign numbers based on the order of posting and then use to pick three winners.

Answer away!

gotta hand it to me

I write shit on my paw. Left one. Reminders. To-do lists, when I don’t trust whatever pathetic crumpled scrap I’m bound to lose. I have written shit on my paw for as long as I can remember, and for this I blame my late mother, because she wrote shit on her paw the whole time I knew her and presumably decades before. When I was too small to write shit on my paw myself, I remember Mama writing it on hers, although she did so with much neater and more artful Depression-era-perfecto handwriting than I ever managed with my late-late-late-Boomer indecipherable dying-chicken scratch.

When I was a kid, fretful adults suggested I might get “ink poisoning” through my skin, and even then I knew enough about dermatology and simple animal biology to realize that skin wasn’t actually that porous or we would all bloat into giant, flesh-colored, distantly hominid-shaped water balloons each and every time we took a bath or walked through a sprinkler or something. So I tended to discount this as a possibility.

Most days, the real estate between my thumb and index finger is littered with such quotidian directives as: SHOP and CLEAN (which I ignore) and GO TO BANK (which I can’t afford to ignore), as well as reminders to CALL THIS PERSON and CALL THAT PERSON and PAY THIS BILL and PAY THAT BILL, plus the more all-encompassing, borderline-hysterical PAY BILLS!!!!! (with an implied, unstated DUMBASS!!!!!). Occasionally I scribble something down that’s a bit too vague or telegrammatic to be truly helpful, such as the urgent SHIFT!! I penned on my hand one afternoon last week. I’d intended it as a reminder to sign up for a weekend news rotation at work, but all I could do, the morning after, was to stare at it blankly and ask: What what? Which gear?

The idea behind all this auto-graphical list-making is to help me remember things I forget, which is a challenging and also somewhat hilarious prospect, because I forget EVERYTHING. I am not exaggerating. If my hand were big enough to accommodate all the shit I might lose track of on a daily basis, I would have no room on my body for anything else. Think about that for a minute. No, wait. Don’t.

the lullaby

I had a moment, last night, of feeling cradled.

It happened at Albany High. My daughter Jeanne is a senior there and sings in assorted ensembles. I was in the auditorium for the third and last of the school’s year-capping spring concerts when choir director Brendan Hoffman — “Hoff,” as the kids affectionately call him — asked everyone in the wings to move into the middle. Just one song, he promised. The students are going to surround you. Then everyone can move back.

I dutifully dislodged and parked myself in the center. As promised, the kids lined up around us. There were 80 or so of them, of every background, bent, ethnicity — the world sprawled beautifully across their faces. Hoff stood in the aisle, poised at that moment of rapt inaction before the hands snapped into motion and the music began.

And then he moved. And then they sang: Eric Whitacre’s “Allelulia,” a gorgeous piece that repeats and distends the one word, over and over and over, with layers of ecstatic harmony and solos spiked with airy dissonance. It isn’t an easy thing by any stretch. But it’s exquisite.

And we in the audience sat there, awed. It wasn’t just the song that awed us, or the enduring power of art, or the gift of an inspiring teacher — or even the miracle, and that is not too strong a word, of a publicly funded music program that feeds so many kids.

There was something else going on. Something maybe we felt but didn’t quite pinpoint, not till later. I know it didn’t hit me until late last night as I was lying in bed, my brain skittering fitfully through the day. I realized belatedly that we in the crowd — the proud parents of girls and boys so lately become women and men — had been serenaded by our own babies. Circling us in that big hall, embracing us in song, their young, strong voices hushed and held us as our own long-ago voices had once hushed and held them with lullabies.

We were cradled, in that middle strip of auditorium, by our own children. They gave us a song, a thing of beauty, a timeless snatch of enveloping love and joy. From the moment of birth, every parent anticipates a day when the tables are turned, when the son becomes the father, when the daughter spoons pudding into her mother’s soft and pliant mouth. That day will come, whether I’m aware of its arrival or not. What I never expected was last night’s gift, this sense of being soothed and nurtured by the child to whom I sang at bedtime not so long ago.

Maybe this is the power of art, after all: music that gives and gives, moments that stretch and stretch, children who grow up and sing to their parents, transformed.

oh, why not

I’m pulling into the Price Chopper on Madison Avenue, right? And it’s Saturday evening, right? And I’m just planning to bolt inside, buy a couple bags of Empire apples (accept no substitutes, my friends) and a few other critical items, right? And then head home to the chillenz. So there I am, nosing the car into the P-Chopper lot, when I see this guy crossing in front of me on the sidewalk: heavy-set, maybe 60-65, with a labored gait and distracted expression, wearing a baggy black t-shirt that shrieks one word, billion-point type, all caps:


I am so startled by this question that I almost roll down the window and shout after him: WHY WHAT, SIR? Something prevents me from doing this. Maybe I’m in a hurry; maybe I’m not in a mood to engage with strangers; maybe it’s the look on his face of intense interior dialogue, which suggests he’s got enough on his plate without some weirdo random lady grilling him about his choice of frock. But I instantly regret not asking him, because he and his loudly inquisitive t-shirt haunt me into the supermarket, down the produce aisle, past the cans of crushed tomatoes and all the way into the bakery.

What’s he asking, exactly? Is he positing some philosophical conundrum? WHY ARE WE HERE? Is he pondering imponderables sages have pondered since the dawn of time, such as WHY DO MEN SPIT IN PUBLIC? and WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE? Or is he challenging the souls with whom he crosses paths to question their own beliefs, choices, preferences, foibles, prejudices? WHY do you believe it’s okay to run red lights? WHY do you insist on eating marmalade when everyone else considers it slimy and noxious? WHY do you care so much about celebrity break-ups? Most importantly, WHY is there a booger dangling from your nose?

The funniest thing about this t-shirt, aside from the dead-serious expression of the fellow wearing it, is that I had decided I was all done with WHYs. I was so totally over ’em. Having grappled with the damned squirmy things for the last few years, I had decided — by the time I put the quadrillionth obsessive “final and I mean that (ha ha ha)” edit on my book — that we’re well and truly better off without the suckers, at least when they’re not challenging the behavior of certain elected officials. (WHY can’t Congress get its shit together?)

As a way of coping in the aftermath of life events, WHYs get us nowhere. They keep us stuck in the past. They only spin the wheels inside our aching squeaky crania, keeping our minds fretful and inward-oriented when re-orienting outward is our best salvation. True, we can sit barefoot in our kitchens, sobbing pathetically into our marmalade, but we’re always better off heading outside and talking to strangers — even the distracted ones loping past Price Chopper in cotton loungewear.

And then we’ll be tempted to ask: WHY are you wearing that meddlesome t-shirt? I only wish I had.

situational determinism

I am not good at owning things. In truth I am terrible at it. My late husband: he was good at it. No sooner did an object come into his possession than he found the ideal place to store it AND actually stored it there AND put it back after each and every time he used it.

This was true of every ever-loving thing he ever owned, from socks (YES, SOCKS) to the Sawzall, and I always knew that about him, and I especially knew it from the moment during our first date when I laid eyes on the trunk space of his ’85 Corolla, but I knew it even better after he died and I started Using Things and Then Tragically Failing to Put Them Back Where They Belonged. Once that happens, once the tragedy sets in and the things begin to accrue into large-scale crap formations, let me tell you something: they never, ever go back. Instead they just sit there, adrift in the universe, taking up room in the wrong spot.

When Chris first visited me at my parents’ home in Connecticut, he observed heterogeneous piles of things in peculiar disparate locations and asked, as was his wont, about each one. “Amy?” he’d query. “Why is there a giant saucepan sitting on the porch filled with moldy cat food?” And I’d reply, I SERIOUSLY HAVE NO IDEA. And he’d ask, “Well, shouldn’t we clean it up?” And I’d say, NO, PROBABLY NOT. And he’d ask, “Well, why not?” And I’d reply, BECAUSE MY MOM WOULD HAVE A BABY, when in fact my mother had long since lost interest in and facility for such an enterprise.

At this information Chris’s brow would crinkle with sad perplexity and he would walk away, only to return later when no one was around, often in the dark of night in a skin-tight cat suit, on a stealth mission to clean up and normalize the porch. And my mom would quietly have a baby. Out of earshot of Chris. Because she knew how much I loved him. But to me, she’d heave a sigh and say something about the Saucepan Being Out There For a Reason or, if he had gone ahead and reorganized the kitchen pantry, she’d add something about Not Being Able to Find Anything Any Longer. The pantry! Which always looked like a 14-megaton bomb had detonated in a pasta factory!

Chris was so impressed by my parents’ attitude toward the house and all its contents that he invented an entire school of philosophy to explain it: Situational Determinism. This is not to be confused with Situational Determinism in economics, which Google tells me has something to do with some guy named Lastis (didn’t I almost fail economics in college? and why the hell did I take it, anyway?). Unlike the Stoics (as if), the Platonists (please) and the hairy German pessimists (though there’s a giant saucepan on the porch for them, too), Situational Determinists maintain that if Something exists in a certain State, it exists because it exists in that State, and it will continue to exist in that State because it already exists in that State. So the saucepan sits on the porch because the saucepan sits on the porch, and so we may conclude that the saucepan will always sit on the porch.

Occasionally I sense within myself the dangerous stirrings of a Situational Determinist. A stack of crap amasses in some corner of some room, and soon enough I fail to see it. Soon enough it exists because it exists, and therefore it will always exist, and therefore I am screwed. My only hope is to not own crap to begin with — and to get rid of as much of it, on a regular basis, as I can. Some of it I give away; some of it I bag and move to the curb on trash night, trusting that the garbage collectors, at least, will see it and whisk it away. Good thing they’re not Situational Determinists, or public hygiene would suffer. Someone should give them a raise.