I had a little epiphany the other day. Someone was chit-chatting casually with my son, and in the course of this casual chit-chat asked him if Mom was “handy.” He confirmed that indeed Mom is.  When I heard this, I was tickled pink. I was BEYOND tickled pink. I was tickled rose sunsets and bubblegum-flamingos-in-pointe-shoes. I was tickled despite the fact that my late husband, who had worked in carpentry and construction for many years before switching to journalism, HATED HATED HATED the word “handy,” considering it an infantile reduction of his skills.

But I don’t deceive myself. I have no skills. When it comes to repairing things, jury-rigging things, piecing things together and persuading things to fit and function inside my house, I am exercising neither art nor aptitude. Instead I am exercising my inborn propensity for Repairman Avoidance. I am being the stubborn white-haired lady who might not believe she can fix a damn thing but is damn well going to try, anyway.

When the basement trap clogged and overflowed with toilet unmentionables, and I couldn’t reach the Sewage Dude immediately, I went down with a shovel and started to dig out. It was late at night, and it was disgusting. But you know what? As I shoveled and gagged and shoveled and gagged and shoveled and gagged and gagged, I felt a crazed pride welling within me, as in: Yee-haw! I am one sick motha! I can shovel shit! Yes, I can!

The next day, Sewage Dude arrived. Standing by as his finished the job, I engaged him in casual chit-chat.

Me: Soooooo. . . ummm. . . when my husband died, I wrote a book about it afterward called Figuring Shit Out.

Sewage Dude: Really.

Me: Yeah. And this would have been a great chapter.

(Sewage Dude laughs.)

Afterward, it occurred to me that shoveling shit was something my mother would have done — and might have done, for all I know. I think a lot about Mama, a tough, wise, loving lady whose stick-to-it-iveness carried the family after Daddy lost his short-term memory. Exercising her own inborn propensity for Repairman Avoidance, she fixed furniture, plumbing, windows. She painted the downstairs. She built a shower upstairs. When the cushions died, she took apart the living-room sofa and rebuilt it as a simple wood settee. She repaired things, jury-rigged things, pieced things together and persuaded things to fit and function inside her  house.

I’d always admired this about her, but I’d always assumed her handiness was innate, not acquired. I assumed it was something she’d brought to her marriage that I didn’t bring to mine. But when my son called me handy, the revelation finally hit me: I was just like Mama! Mama was just like me! She hadn’t started out with a hammer in one small fist and a paint can in the other. Life had turned her into a jury-rigger and handy-woman, a stubborn white-haired lady who did what she could to patch things together. She she became what she needed to become. She fixed what broke. She figured shit out, and showed me the way.




the sun, when it comes

sun pic

I was feeling a little glumpy. My late husband coined that word, a cross between “grumpy” and “gloomy,” and it captures my mood as I hauled bags of disgusting wet crap out of my recently flooded basement

I had crawled inside my belly button and, not liking what I found there, crawled back out and started whining to God about the tempests that have periodically swamped my realm. I got a little pissy about it, wondering whether my life would, in fact, unfold in a non-stop parade of literal and figurative shit-storms (which reminds me of “shit magnet,” my brother’s apt coinage.)


As I said. Pissy. And God, as it turned out, had something to say in response.

But I didn’t realize this. Not at first. All I knew was that I needed a walk. Emerging glumpily into the daylight with a final bag o’ crap, I looked at the sky, blinked at the sun and set off for a hoof around my chipper little neighborhood. I’d been walking for 40 minutes or so when I saw a man — a stocky fellow — step to the edge of the sidewalk about half a block ahead.

As I walked up, he regarded me closely. He said something I couldn’t understand, contorting his transparent, gentle face with some obvious effort. He looked worried. He lacked a few teeth. Maybe he had some other deficit, too.

Hello!, I said.

“I wanted to give you enough room,” he explained, taking another step to the side.

Oh, thank you! But that’s not necessary — I don’t need a lot of room.

“But I just wanted to give you more room.”

Well, thank you, sir. You’re very kind. Have a nice day!

“I don’t know if I can. That depends on the weather,” he said, looking worried again.

It’s sunny today. That helps, right?

“But I don’t know what the weather will be. When it’s windy, that makes it colder. It just happens. I can’t do anything about it.”

That’s true. But at least it isn’t windy now. Just a slight breeze.

“But yesterday — yesterday was cold. And it was windy. That made it colder. We just can’t tell what weather will happen. We don’t know if it will be cold. ”

You’re right.

“It’s not up to us. It’s up to Mother Nature. We can’t really know what we’re going to get. Mother Nature does that.”

You’re right.

“We can’t do anything about the weather. It just comes.”

You’re. So. Right. It’s not up to us. It just comes.

I looked at this dear man — this sweet, simple, wise stranger issuing necessary truths — and I recognized God’s rejoinder to my glumpiness. No, I can’t predict or control the storms that come my way. It’s not my business to know when they’re coming. It’s not my business to even ask, and it’s certainly not my business to complain about it.

All I can do is accept what happens. Cope and clean up. Look to the sky and rejoice at the sun, when it comes.

Amen to that, and to strangers.






life’s rich pageant

Remember that time the temperature plunged to -1,000,000 and my pipes froze and sprang a leak and I swore and swore and swore? I remember that, too. It happened — ooooh, let’s see, now — less than two weeks ago. The leak’s been fixed. Yay Hurray! Happy ending!

BUT GUESS WHAT.  Today I’ve been dealing with a flooded toilet AND a flooded basement, and when I say “flooded basement” I mean up to my floppy soppy ankles. As I type this, The Mighty Sump Dump is doing its job while bowls and buckets and laundry baskets and other plasticky vessels and shit are floating around my cellar like abandoned dreams in a sad Scandinavian arthouse movie. plunger

But I’m not complaining. No way! I’ve only sworn once so far! I know how lucky I am to own this house o’ mine, just as I know how lucky I am to traverse a life that’s been chock full of oh-so-interesting triumphs and disasters. This is all part of the daily thrill of being alive. Just the other day I was thinking, “Wow, I’m only 52, and already I’ve done a lot of living!” It hit me: If I died tomorrow, and I so hope I don’t, I’ll have led a rich and interesting life.

And I have. I’ve loved like crazy, given birth three times, watched my children grow, traveled bunches, read books, written three, played soccer, played Dvorak, sung Bach, worked as a journalist for 34 years (holy old farts!), MET SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS, been assaulted by turkeys and assorted South American creaturesfallen hard, gotten up, felt the sublime, laughed like hell AND undergone minimally invasive cardiac surgery for a wacky heart condition that I’ll write about some other time, but don’t worry, I’m fine. Plus! I got to have a colonoscopy when I turned 50, which is something my dear late sister Lucy never got to experience. That was quite a trip. Everything was.

Even the painful stuff has been a blessing, in its way. Even the failures, the flooded basements, the floating receptacles of crap. Even the broken bits inside me, the wild furies of fear and human weakness. Even the losses — everything that cracks me open and lets in the light and warmth. I feel. I live. Can’t do one without the other.

A coworker reminded me, today, of that bit in “A Shot in the Dark” where Clouseau falls into the fountain and emerges sopping wet. The sexpot maid played by Elke Sommer tells him he should change his clothes or catch his death of pneumonia. He replies: “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know?”

As I drove home to deal with the basement, I thought about this. And I realized: My life is a “Pink Panther” movie! AND I AM JACQUES CLOUSEAU! Minus the accent and the mustache. He was the embodiment of slapstick catastrophe, whether smashing a priceless Steinway (“not anymore”) or vacuuming a woman’s boobs. And he coped. He fumbled forward and figured shit out.

So here I am. My basement is flooded. My bathroom’s a mess, or it was until I mopped it with bleach. My whole damn house is a mess. My whole damn self is a mess.

But I’ll live, I guess. I have already.

and lo, i swore

Some pipes in the back room froze last night when the temperature dropped to a million below. This morning, I started thawing ’em out with heaters and a hair dryer. But that blew a circuit, and lo, I swore.

Then I started thawing ’em out again. Then the circuit blew again, and lo, I swore. pipes

Then the washing machine drained into a clogged sink, spilling all over the basement floor, and as I reached in to unclog it I knocked over a bottle of laundry detergent with a tragically loose cap, and that slopped sticky blue gunk all over the sink cover and down the sides and onto the floor, and lo, I swore.

Then I cleaned it up and went back to thawing out the pipes, but then the circuit blew again, requiring me to flip it back on again, and lo, I swore. Then, when the pipes finally thawed, they poured forth multiple cascading leaks all over the basement crawlspace, and I and my flashlight regarded this with pain and consternation, and lo, I swore.

Then I wondered if I could live the rest of the winter without water in the back room, and I decided I could not, and lo, I swore and swore.

Then the four horsemen of the apocalypse arrived, and fire rained down from heaven, and a plague of locusts coursed through the basement, and there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth, and then my body was sucked up by aliens and transported to the planet Zorggnon, but when they found nothing of interest they transported it back and I landed, in the basement, with leaky pipes and faulty wiring. And lo, I swore.

i shred, therefore I am

My first great achievement this past weekend: moving the piano. YES, PEOPLE. I MOVED THE PIANO. ALL BY MYSELF. I figured that shit out, friends! True, it wasn’t a concert grand or anything, just a snappy Japanese upright. But it was A PIANO. And I MOVED IT. All the way from the back room of the house into the dining room — through three whole doors! That sound you hear is me patting myself on the back while yelping sadly in pain. My muscles aren’t what they used to be. But still. They managed.shreds

My second great achievement this weekend: shredding the old bills and crap larding up my file cabinets in the aforementioned back room of the house. This I had been avoiding assiduously and, dare I say, passionately in the four years since my husband died.

At first, my logic in avoiding it was: Well, I’ll need those old bills and crap at some point, because Chris just died, and you never know. A year later the logic had morphed to: Well, those old bills and crap can wait, and anyway, Chris just died, and you still never know. Two years later the logic had morphed to: Well, Chris just died, and the old bills and crap are taking up all the room in the file cabinet, but they can wait, and I’ll just put the new bills and crap in crazy stacks and drawers all over the house. Three years later the logic had morphed to: I have no time for this shit, but I’d better buy a shredder, anyway. Finally, four years into it, with the shredder waiting patiently in a box beside the file cabinet, the logic had morphed to: BLOODY HELL! I HAVE NO ROOM LEFT ANYWHERE FOR ALL THE NEW BILLS AND CRAP COMING INTO THE HOUSE! PASS THE SHREDDER!

And so, dear friends, I found myself shredding ALL sorts of nifty-keen utility bills and telephone bills and bank statements and health-insurance receipts and ancient orthodontic reports and flimsy yellow repair records — for cars I no longer own — and similar such ephemera, some of it dating back to the mid-2000s. I shredded and shredded and shredded. I felt like I was cleaning out not just the files but my own psychic space.

And as I did, I found myself in the grip of all sorts of competing emotions: relief that I’d finally gotten around to this onerous, long-delayed task; amazement at the fettuccine-like ribbons of paper amassing in box after box; exhaustion, and a touch of fear, at the thought of ever letting the files get this bad again; sadness at the realization that I was shredding little pieces of my years with Chris, no matter how mundane; hope for the future; and happiness at the room I was making in the files, my house, my life.

With all of these emotions whirring and grinding around (really, they made more noise than the shredder), I began to cry. Just a bit. Not mucus and saline everywhere, just a few easily expunged dribbles. But grief is weird. Even when you know full well that you aren’t over it, that you’ll never be over it, that the whole IDEA of being over it is a total crock, that all you can ever manage is to keep living, keep loving, stay grateful and shred as necessary — even then, it’ll catch you by surprise.

I didn’t know I had it in me to weep over office equipment. But I did know enough to know that pain and hope can co-exist in the same heart at the same time, and that the holy mess of our little human undertakings can lead to a kind of awe. What a shredded tangle I am half the time! And yet I’m still here. That’s not nothing. That, AND I MOVED THE PIANO. ALL BY MYSELF.


FullSizeRender (1)Everything I own is broken. I am not exaggerating. When I say everything I own is broken, I mean EVERYTHING I OWN IS BROKEN, including the eternally clogged drain, the blitzed-out light over the upstairs toilet and the malfunctioning Dwight Schrute bobblehead that wouldn’t actually bobble, just flop sadly over in existential despair, until I wadded up paper and crammed it into his head. So I guess it technically isn’t broken any longer.

But my cars. Holy shit. You know how I hate them suckers, right? How they just break down uninvited, get into accidents for the heck of it and poop out muffler insulation that resembles cheapo wigs? Well, let it be known that that’s been happening again. In a big way. A big, big way. Involving THE IMPENETRABLE KAFKAESQUE NETHER-ZONE OF INSURANCE-COMPANY CONVERSATIONS.

Plus I just paid, like, a million dollars to replace every last bit of one entire Honda after it threatened to kill me on the drive to work. I’m serious. I brought it in immediately to the nearest possible shop, and now it’s like a whoooole new vehicle. You know that Richard Scarry book where Mr. Frumble takes his pickle car in for repairs and it comes back a hot dog, or something? This is like that. Exactly. I swear.

Also, my dryer broke. And my piano needs fixing. I could go on (NO! NO! NO! howl all six of my readers) but won’t, mainly because it’s an endless list, and I could be here all night, and I still need to exercise and shower and practice the violin and watch the first “X-Files” movie with my son. But also because, well, isn’t this how it works, this complicated gizmo of life? There are too many moving parts to it, too much occasion for cosmic chance. At some point — at most points, actually — it’s sure to break down.

So am I. I’m broken, too. I don’t just mean the mess in my knees or the ever-increasing hyperopia of my eyeballs. I mean I’m broken inside, but I don’t know who isn’t. As a person of faith, I believe we’re born with a sense of order, a yearning for perfection, that amounts, I think, to a kind of metaphysical homing signal. On some level we KNOW things are better somewhere else, more seamless and loving and less prone to breakdown, and we try like crazy to replicate that here.

Of course we can’t. Of course we can’t stop trying, either. That’s what plumbers are for.

into the crawlspace


Lately I’ve been trying to organize the attic. Emphasize “trying.” As I’ve said before, and I will say again, I am NOT the world’s neatest and most organized person, but my heart is in the right place, even if my flannel sheets and table settings are not.

In the attic, everything is even less organized than in the rest of the house, principally because I feel more empowered to be a slob there, but also because so many people have died and left me boxes and boxes and boxes of things that I have then proceeded to cram into shadowy recesses and ignore and/or contemplate and/or weep over as the mood struck. No matter how hard I try to catalog and winnow down these boxes and boxes and boxes, there always remain yet MORE boxes and boxes and boxes, which seem to reproduce and spread all over the attic floor like mating horseshoe crabs or some asexually reproducing giant fungus.

This past weekend, I began to combat the fungus. I started by squeezing my body into a horrific nasty dusty crawlspace along eaves that my late husband devised for the storage of fans in the off-season, fan boxes in the on-season, and which I had lately used to shove bags of Christmas wrapping and bins of all sorts of old and vaguely disturbing shit, including a broken electronic keyboard and my now-grown-up daughters’ naked weirdo Barbies. You know about naked weirdo Barbies, right? That’s what happens to Barbie dolls after being played with for years and years and then, through no fault of their own, suddenly abandoned: they shed all their clothes in grief and congregate in clear plastic containers for yet more years and years of silent mortification. They are the Byzantine hermits of plastic playthings.

Also shoved into that horrific nasty dusty crawlspace were several massive pieces of luggage dating from the Eisenhower Administration, probably earlier, perhaps dating to the nation’s genesis (or at least the genesis of Naugahyde), each individual piece filled with roughly four tons of my mother’s, father’s and sister’s papers. Because I, too, am a Byzantine hermit bent on mortifcation, I crawled inside, scraping my bare kneecaps as I went, and then crawled back outside, again scraping my bare kneecaps as I went, hauling each 8,000-pound bag with a mix of stubbornness and delusional conviction that I was actually accomplishing something. I scraped my kneecaps again in pursuit of the empty fan boxes, which I then crushed swiftly and mercilessly. Yay for me. I was cleaning! I was organizing! I was proud!

After dragging all the pulverized cardboard and weirdo naked Barbies to the curb on garbage night, ignoring the all the blood and pus oozing from my saintly lower limbs, I then amused myself by opening up each four-ton piece of luggage and weeping a little over some of the contents before closing it and shoving it back into the crawlspace. I then amused myself further by hauling 16 boxes of my late husband’s papers and books from the main attic storage room, weeping a little over those, too, and then shoving them into the hole with my parents’ and sister’s stuff, scraping my kneecaps as I went.

So now every piece of paper collected by my late loved ones — Mama, Daddy, Lucy, Chris — is collected in that one handy (if horrific nasty dusty) attic crawlspace along the bookshelves. I like that they’re all together there, holding fort in a corner of my house. (JUST FOR GOD’S SAKE, NO ONE ELSE DIE, OKAY?) Someday I’ll go through it all. Someday I’ll organize it. Someday I’ll make sense of everything in my life, all of the boxes, all of the luggage, all of the vaguely disturbing shit. After my kneecaps recover.



at a loss

glasses - sideways
Someday, loooong after I die and the house is emptied of its occupants and most its crap, archaeologists and/or real estate agents and/or intergalactic alien explorers with seven eyes and 18 tentacles will find piles and piles of reading glasses.

I lose these 1.50-power babies allllllll the time. Losing them has become such a familiar part of owning them that I regularly purchase them in bundles; I buy cheapo glasses at pharmacies, department stores, dollar stores (where one finds the cheapo-est), every freaking place they’re sold. Why, if vending machines spat out cut-rate spectacles, I’d buy them there, too. I buy them even when I already have a stack of ready-to-go reading glasses in the kitchen, because I know, sooner rather than later, I WILL LOSE THEM ALL.

Occasionally I relocate prodigal glasses; when that happens, I celebrate their return by dressing them in fine robes and slaughtering the fatted calf. Why, just tonight, I found a missing pair on my head. Last week I found two missing pairs on my head simultaneously — wow, what a find! A couple months ago, while cleaning the car, itself an occurrence as rare and miraculous as ball lightning or a lint formation in the shape of the El Greco Pietà, I stumbled across three whole pairs! Holy shit! And they weren’t even broken!”Someday,” said my perspicacious and observant son over dinner, “We’re going to find 50 pairs of glasses in this house.”

I lose other things, too. Pencils. Pens. Socks, of course — just one at a time. Gloves, also one at a time. Earrings. Tylenol. When I have glasses, my ability to read more than three sentences at night before falling asleep. Hair ties. Printer cartridges. Boxes of raisins. Bags of clementines (twice). Once, in the fridge, I lost a half gallon of 2-percent milk. Christmas wrapping paper. Knit hats, but never the ugly ones that no one wears. Spoons: one spring we lost so many we almost ran out, prompting my late husband to develop a Theory of Random Spoon Migration that involved house guests accidentally ferrying steel cutlery home in their pockets or nostrils or something.

When my kids were little they lost pacifiers, although I actually think they took a much more active role in binky-dispersal than they ever copped to. One of them, I won’t say which, had a habit of tossing the damn things out of the crib during nap time, then howling in outrage until mommy or daddy fetched it. Mommy and daddy always did. Mommy and daddy didn’t object until the day that daddy, leaning into a corner to retrieve the abandoned infant-suck implement, asked: “How’d that get there?” And the kid said, firmly: “The hand did it.”

I loved that response: what a great way to shirk responsibility for any action! I’m surprised Dick Cheney didn’t use that one when he shot the guy bird-hunting! The possibilities are endless, aren’t they? Napoleon on invading Russia: “The feet did it.” Miley Cyrus on twerking: “The butt did it.” Any public figure anywhere who says anything moronic about global climate change or sexual assault or Ebola or the president’s daughters: “The mouth did it.”

So when I lose my reading glasses, I know exactly what to say. The head did it.

thank the lord for chrome

Fire. I can see it reflected in the coffee maker.

I’m in the kitchen, cooking burgers for me and the young man of the house, when I venture to the other side to toast the rolls. It’s a long and taxing journey to the toaster, but I survive on rainwater and half a box of stale Ritz.

That’s when I see it, this flash of light against the gaudy chrome trim on the Mr. Coffee 12-cup automatic drip machine I just bought off Amazon.

I turn around. I see the fire in the pan; the flames are shooting up. And then I do something really strange. I don’t panic.

Instead, I stand there for a moment, quietly assessing. The flames haven’t yet reached anything flammable. So far, the fire is contained to the pan.

I ask myself what set it off. I answer: the fat. Some dollop must have spat out and up and down, hit the burner, shot back up and ignited the pan.

I see a dish rag sitting on the counter, and I ask myself whether the flames are in danger of reaching it. I answer: Nope. Not yet. Though they’re starting to get a little close. Isn’t that interesting.

I see a puddle of grease on the stove, and I ask myself whether the fire will hit it, burst toward the dish rag and cause a holy hellish conflagration. I answer: Hmmm. I think not.

This level-headed autonomic Q&A occurs over about two-thirds of a second, maybe a second and a half. I’m intrigued by my chilly detachment, but I’m always intrigued when I fail to panic. I’ve done it before, this not-panicking accompanied by a quick, rational breakdown of risks and options, and I find it more than a little curious. It’s as though, in moments of crisis, I am overcome by some heretofore uncharacteristic trait, like a sudden fluency in Urdu or an amazing new capacity for foreign car repair.

See, I am not a rational sort of person. I am instead a gut-first sort of person. An emotional sort of person. A Neapolitan sort of person. A loud and vibrating sort of person prone to slushy over-dramatizing. Hellooooo, arias! “This is why the Italians invented opera,” Mama always said, often citing as bona fides the fact that she married one and gave birth to two more.

But I am not singing Verdi at the moment. No. Instead I am thinking about the fire extinguisher.

I ask myself whether I should fetch it posthaste and promptly squirt the shit out of it. I answer: No, I not yet. Then I ask myself whether I should smother the flames with rags in the closet. I answer: Don’t be a bonehead, that would just make matters worse.

Finally, I ask myself just how I should begin to contain this unexpected combustive phenomenon before it gets any bigger and consumes the kitchen.

And then it hits me, and I answer: JUST TURN OFF THE DAMNED BURNER, GIRLFRIEND. And then I add, for emphasis: DUH.

I reach over and turn it off. Then I stand there about five feet away, doing nothing, waiting half a minute while the fire at my stove patiently burns itself out. When it does, I wipe the fat off the stove, drain the pan, then resume cooking supper.

My son and I eat. I don’t tell him about the gobs of flaming fat. But he swears up and down that it’s the best burger he’s ever eaten, bar none. “Better than Five Guys,” he declares.

A happy boy. No house on fire. Score two for mom.

garbage night blues

Once again, it’s garbage night on my street. Garbage night! Hurray! By the sound of it, you’d assume it’s a holiday with a bonfire of some sort, like maybe a Wiccan fertility rite or, assuming we’re all in Latvia, Walpurgisnacht (after the 8th-century Saint Walpurga, though it’s hard to believe her mama named her that).

But tonight isn’t a holiday, alas. There are no pagans rubbing themselves with oil outside my window. And once again, I’m shocked by both the swiftness of garbage night’s arrival and the bafflement of my own response: As in: It’s Monday again?! Already? No way, mister! Why, surely it was just yesterday that I dragged my cracked blue recycling bin and stinky gray garbage can to the curb.

But alas, no one kids. The gods of urban garbage collection have whizzed through the week so quickly that I barely registered its passing. This has been happening to me more and more, this loss of whole weeks. Why, two days ago I failed to file a time sheet at work, because my memory of already filing one was fresh as a daisy. Yup. It only took two editors to observe and explain otherwise; apparently my memory was so stale it had begun to grow mold, although they didn’t put it that way, and no one mentioned the horrifying slab of antique pizza that I once found in my refrigerator.

Speaking of things in my kitchen, I’ve also noticed that time has been racing along at my sink with celerity, and doesn’t that sound like a vegetable? I am not going to post a photo of this phenomenon, but tonight, as is often the case, I stood there wondering what exactly happened to create this towering stack of dishes. Surely my kids and I didn’t actually eat on all of them. Something, maybe an evil overlord, must have reached into the past and transported yesterday’s grubby china into the present. That, or the clock itself is obviously up to some mischief, something beyond the mass hypnosis that led us all to set our clocks ahead one hour despite the fact that everyone agrees it’s a really dumbass idea. And the older I get, the dumbassier it seems.

I stood at the sink long enough to ask these and/or similar things of myself, but not too long, because I was holding my breath from fear of exhaling and causing my towering pillar of crockery to topple and crush me. Also, had I stood there any longer, I might actually have unloaded the clean dishes from the dishwasher and re-loaded it with dirty ones.

Instead, I walked away. I had take out the garbage, after all.