it’s only wafer thin

no mints for me.

no mints for me.

Some moments, on some days, what I find most baffling in life is exactly what I love about Monty Python: It’s all so surreal, all so reductio ad absurdum, with all its stuff and nonsense taken to the wildest logical extremes.

I often think of that restaurant sketch in “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life” — when the humongous Mr. Creosote, having gorged and puked through several courses, is approached by a waiter, aka John Cleese, bearing an after-dinner mint. Mr. Creosote grumbles “no.” The waiter insists: “Eet’s only wahffer-theen.”

The scene ends with Mr. Creosote, aka Terry Jones in an inflating fat suit, exploding his voluminous undigested stomach contents around the restaurant while the waiter bolts for cover.

This is life, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m always one wahffer-theen stressor away from egesta-heaving overcapacity and detonation. Time gets eaten up by work, by my children’s needs, by the scratching and pecking and blogging I do in my “off” hours (ummm…), by calls to the cable guy, by trips to doctor, by making dinner and tidying up (and by “tidying up” I mean “flinging dirty dishes into the sink from across the room, to hell with it if they break”), by paying bills and juggling whatever other sharp objects and obligations rain down upon me in a frenzied whirlwind.

Like, for instance. Anytime any offspring of mine brings home a form for me to fill out and/or sign and/or append with lengthy vaccination records, I know that three things will happen. One, I will panic and say, sometimes inwardly, sometimes aloud, OH CRAP OH CRAP OH CRAP, followed by I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS RIGHT NOW, I’M FIXING THE @#!$%!! DOORKNOBS, followed by STICK IT OVER THERE ON THE TABLE, NEXT TO THE HORSE (and by “horse” I mean “cross-legged equine salt-and-pepper holder purchased at the Schaghticoke Fair”). Two, I will then postpone the filling-out and signing and vaccination-appending of this form until the last stupid minute, i.e., right when we’re all trying to get out the door in the morning. And three, I will spill coffee on it.

But, you know. It goes. The forms find their way to school. I find time to gas with friends, squawk on the violin or watch old episodes of “X-Files” with my son. (We loved that one about the self-elongating mutant who crawls through air ducts and eviscerates people!)

So the whirlwind carries me and all of us day to night to day, and then another night and another day, and somehow, employing some everyday magic of motherly prestidigitation, I and my offpsring make it through the week without exploding. And if anything else falls onto my plate, it’s only wafer thin.

don’t you take that tone with me

photo (18)


So over the weekend I was cleaning out my fridge — BEFORE it started to smell like a landfill — and found, way, way, way at the back, hiding out like a poor, lost, fuzzy child, or maybe a fugitive from justice who’s been on the lam from Albany County Sheriff deputies for 87 years, the above advanced mold formation.

And when I say “advanced,” I mean it probably talks. In all likelihood it holds a Ph.D in some obscure academic discipline, like the history of peanut farming or Indoeuropean ethnohistoriographic geomorphology. If I asked it how long it had been in the fridge, it would respond, “Umm, twelve weeks, maybe?” and then add, “No, no, more like six months, it was before I grew the beard” before snapping, “Why the hell do YOU care, anyway? It’s kind of late to ask!” I would then turn defensive, saying I’ve only owned this particular fridge since late November, so Professor Snotty Fungus couldn’t be more than six weeks old, seven tops, at which point the mold would roll its eyes and say, “Whatever.”

At first, after liberating this sentient being from the back of my fridge, I wondered what form it had taken in its larval stage — i.e., when it might have been defined as “food.” I tried staring at it really close, but not too close, 1) because I’m far-sighted, and as I bent over my reading glasses slid down my nose into the fuzzy part, which, by the way, was wet; and 2) because it kind of scared me.

Then I recognized it. Do you? If you don’t, I don’t blame you; it looks more like Rip Van Winkle’s deformed lost twin, the one that got half-absorbed into the placenta before being born, than something that might in an earlier era have been consumed by anything other the occupant of John Hurt’s chest in “Alien.” Speaking of aliens, it rather resembles those flying neural boogers that sting Spock in the back in that old episode of “Star Trek,” doesn’t it?

Otherwise, I’m not going to say what it is. If you’re not too grossed out to give it a close look, you can guess.

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.


photo (12)

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.