When Sharks Aren’t the Only Scary Things at the Beach

Dun. Dun.

Dun. Dun.

This is what happens when one of your worst fears is realized, which – come to think of it – seems to happen to me a lot.

I got down to the beach late Sunday morning to spend the final day of the long holiday weekend with my toes dug in the sand and talking with friends. I arrived to find a fair number of beachgoers standing along the shoreline looking out at the ocean and was informed by a pal that swimmers had been cleared from the water because a fin had been spotted. If you’ve been watching the news, you know of the recent attacks off the North Carolina coast and alleged sightings up and down the coastline so here at the Jersey Shore, we are on high alert for anything triangular popping up out of the water.

Fo me, the ocean hasn’t been the same since the midnight screening of “Jaws” I went to the summer I turned 9 in 1975. I was shocked my mom said “yes” not only to something so late but so scary. What I mostly remember is being simultaneously scared out of my mind by that giant rubber shark gobbling up that little kid on the raft while finding Richard Dreyfuss strangely adorable. I should have realized then that smart and funny would always trump good looks for me.

Sharks have also figured into a lot of my recurring dream topics – which include riding on a subway, losing my teeth and rushing through an airport trying to catch a flight – so I am extra attuned to them. I know those fuckers are out there.

So I had to muster a lot of courage a number of years ago when I signed up to compete in a sprint triathlon and participated in weekly ocean swims as part of the training leading up to the September race. In this instance, I am using the word “swim,” at least for me, loosely because the method I used to get through the quarter-mile course was less freestyle and more doggie paddle. There was no fucking way I was putting my face in the cold, dark water. As other swimmers crawled through the salty Atlantic alongside me, their rubber-clad heads rhythmically turning up for air, I propelled myself forward using the “pick a cherry, put in the basket” sidestroke, my head high above the water and eyes darting around for signs of menacing fins. I figured if an attack was imminent, I wanted to see it coming.

As it so happens, I never did see a fish, much less a shark, and those 7 a.m. ocean swims have now become treasured memories. I loved pedaling away from my house in the early morning light and arriving on the sand to find the ocean and sky stretched out before me. I loved the camaraderie of the 20 or 30 women standing around adjusting suits and goggles and encouraging each other for the swim ahead. And while I never really loved the swims themselves, there are few better feelings for a mother with young children than biking down a road on an early July morning with nothing but your towel and goggles in a backpack, the salt water prickling your skin as it dried and knowing what you just did. There is a lot to be said for doing things that scare the shit out of you and it was a lesson that prepared me for much more challenging obstacles not that far down the road.

So I joined the rest of the onlookers standing along the surf yesterday and watched two lifeguards in kayaks bobbing along the ocean swells as a fin occasionally popped up not far from them. At one point, one of the guards used his oar to seemingly shoo the creature away.

“What the fuck is he doing?” I asked my pal standing and staring with me. “Are we all going to stand here and watch that idiot lose an arm?”

It wasn’t long before one of the kayakers returned to shore and news traveled down the beach that the fin in question belonged not to a shark but a giant sunfish flopping around the waves and all of us gawkers slowly dispersed.

“I knew it,” I said to my pal after we’d returned to our towels. I ran my hand along my back and discovered as we were talking that the hook to my bathing suit top seemed dangerously askew.

“Holy shit,” I said as my girlfriend adjusted the metal clip, “talk about a sighting.

“That would have been more terrifying than a shark,” I said and we laughed and continued making jokes about my top flying open on the beach and the horror that would ensue.

And here’s where things get really scary.

Not much later, I got up out of my beach chair to grab something from my beach bag and as I bent over, felt the clasp on my top give way and my girls start to break free.

One of my other recurring dreams is being out in public and discovering that I have somehow forgotten to put on my pants. Or that I’m topless. Whether it’s the top or the bottom that’s missing, I am horrified at finding myself so exposed in front of others.

Luckily, as my top exploded open, I had the good sense to immediately put my hands to my chest and hit the sand as if I’d been shot. Unfortunately, I screamed – or somehow indicated my extreme alarm – because one of the dads sitting in our circle, thinking I was being attacked by a bee, gallantly got up to offer his assistance. I can’t imagine what went through his head as he jumped up to help and saw me scurry past and land in front of one of the moms in our group and start yelling for help. What he must have thought when he saw my back, and hopefully not much more, exposed and our friend holding the ends of my suit in her hands.

Eventually, we got me put back together. The men in our group drifted casually off to look at the ocean and I got my top back on, which was no easy feat as the liner was coming out of the top and my girls, who breastfed four babies and really took it for the family team, needed some help getting settled back in.

Later, after my girlfriend ensured that the clasp was secure, I took off my cover up but refused to get up out of my chair to walk around. I wasn’t taking any chances. I even got someone to hand me snacks out of my bag so I wouldn’t risk a repeat of my earlier performance.

There was a time where I would have had a really hard time getting over something like this. I would have repeated it over and over in my head and felt increasingly bad about myself. The shame. What people must have thought. I’ve always had a good sense of humor about a lot of things but not always about myself.

But by the end of yesterday, we were all laughing about my exploding top and I probably laughed most of all. In the end, the incident did not attract a crowd of pointing onlookers and no one tried swatting me away with an oar.

The great thing about getting older is that you really get a lot of opportunities to face your fears, whether it’s of sharks or being alone or flashing your boobs on a crowded beach.

You find out that you can survive just about anything.

I still cringe thinking about what that dad really saw before I hit the sand but figure it at least made up for the sunfish.

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The Price of Freedom


Celebrating a different kind of freedom.

I don’t really love the 4th of July. I feel like it’s the summer version of New Years Eve. There’s like some weird pressure to have come up with fabulous plans to celebrate our nation’s independence, when all I really want to do is power wash my pool deck and read a book.

There’s also a cloud that hangs over all the barbecues and fireworks for me, kind of the way the new movie “Inside Out” shows how happy core memories can be colored by sadness. 

I found out my parents were getting a divorce on July 5, 1978, a month shy of my 12th birthday, and it marked the beginning of a long period of feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me. It took a long time for me to find solid ground. 

And then about 30 years later, this happened (originally posted here last year).

My ex-husband and I finally and completely called it quits on our marriage on July 4, 2009. Afterwards, even though he was the one who pushed me off the steep cliff of indecision, he sent me a text wishing me a “Happy Independence Day.” And while that was kind of snarky thing to write, it was also kind of true.

I was finally free.

We had initially separated about seven months earlier and then agreed we would go to counseling together and try to find a way to make things work. But honestly, I don’t think I ever really thought that was going to happen. Neither of us ever got what we needed from the other.

And I keep going back to the notion of things we want versus things that we need. Because even though I initially wanted to stay married and keep our family intact at all costs, a divorce was the one thing I really needed.

I remember standing in the foyer of our house after he’d rushed over early that July 4 morning to confront me about something that had happened the night before. Something pretty stupid and not something you’d end your almost 18-year marriage over. But we were at the end stage where you didn’t really need much to snuff out whatever life was left in the relationship. It was like the bad fall that beats cancer to the punch.

As we stood there by the front door and he asked me if I was sure I wanted to end things, I remember thinking about how good his arms looked. He was wearing a sleeveless grey workout top and his biceps looked pretty great after months of living on his own during our separation and working out twice a day. It was hot out and he was kind of worked up from the heat and the situation and his tanned arms kind of glistened from the exertion of it all and I stood and admired how good he looked and thought how much I’d miss those biceps.

And then I looked into those beautiful blue eyes of his – the ones I looked into that rainy day all those years ago when we said “I do” and the ones I kissed, between and over his perfect brows countless times – and told him that, yes, our marriage was over.

And he walked out the door.

At the time, I didn’t even shed a tear. I was more terrified than sad about the rapid turn of events. It would take at least another year and countless hours on my therapist’s couch to really start feeling the sadness of what happened. To start burrowing a tunnel through the fortress I had built around my heart.

But over time, I’ve learned that the takeaway from my marriage is that being a part of a relationship shouldn’t cost you anything. Sure, you might have to barter and trade for certain things – you need to be willing to compromise – but you shouldn’t have to pony up, like, your dignity or self-respect just to be a part of a couple. That is a steep price to pay just so that you don’t have to be alone.

This revelation came in handy recently when I found myself seeing somebody who just couldn’t give me what I needed and my options were to go along with it but feel yucky about myself, or cut bait.

And because I can no longer compromise what I need out of a relationship or the way I have to be treated, I had to cool things off. We didn’t totally close the door, but we’re taking a break.

But I’m just not willing to sacrifice the freedom I’ve tasted to be a part of a couple. I’ve worked too hard trying to be true to who I am for that shizz.

I still miss the barbecues and fireworks we shared as a family and of course, those really nice biceps, but not how much it all cost me. I really want to be in a relationship – I know that now – but not at any price.

Freedom is too expensive to waste.


Ben & Jen Are Getting a Divorce. WTH?

This is me after I heard the news.

This is me after I heard the news.

The kids had dinner at their dad’s last night and I have to say, that’s one of the few upsides of divorce. I love that at least one night a week I don’t have to come up with an answer to “What’s for dinner?”

It’s also the one night a week I don’t have to struggle with not eating something, like the pasta I’m serving with the chicken meatballs or the udon noodles that go with the stir fry. I make something just for me.

So I opted for my usual single lady dinner – poached egg, faro and arugula – along with a glass of crisp Sancerre and sat down to eat at my island and thumb through a magazine while an NBC Nightly News story about Misty Copeland played in the background.

I must not have been paying attention because all of a sudden I heard the aggressive intro to Extra — you know, that daily TV show that celebrates all things Bieber and Kardashian — and was stopped in my tracks as I got up to switch the channel.

There was a time I watched Extra, along with its identical sister show Access Hollywood (which immediately follows), almost every night. I’d forget to turn on Jeopardy, which makes me feel less bad about having the TV on in the kitchen, and instead get sucked into celebrity gossip.

Don’t get me wrong: I love celebrity news as much as the next guy – I’ve subscribed to People and Entertainment Weekly for years. But I’m starting to feel bad about it. It’s bad karma feeding off famous people’s problems. And sometimes I worry that I know way more about Caitlyn Jenner than ISIS.

So I’m turning around to get up and switch on Jeopardy when I hear Mario Lopez break the news: Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck are getting a divorce.


I actually screamed that alone in my kitchen.

And I mean, I don’t know those guys or anything about their marriage but they at least appeared to have it all together. Of course, I know that that’s total bullshit. Some of us try very hard to make everything at least appear all bright and shiny on the outside. You never really knows what’s going on in anyone’s marriage.

I think what’s so disheartening is that if those two – who conceivably have access to all the babysitting help and marriage professionals and everything that might help keep a couple together – can’t figure out a way to make it work, then the rest of us are fucked.

I was so riled up I actually tweeted Mario Lopez regarding my distress.

I really want to believe in marriage but am starting to think maybe it’s impossible to spend decades with the same person. Or maybe it’s just that men and women are wired completely different. Maybe we should just stick to our own kind.

Coincidentally, the topic of marriage came up while I was sitting with a couple of girlfriends on the beach yesterday while our sons rode wave after wave on their boogie boards in the cold June ocean.

I was telling my friends – who are all a couple of years younger than me with younger children, to boot – that they were in such difficult places in their marriages. They’ve been with their husbands for almost two decades, have kids in or near their teenaged years, and it’s like their relationships are big ticking time bombs.

“You’ve just gotta get through it,” I counseled.

Then my very funny friend, who can get pretty sassy sometimes, says, “And then what?”

And there I paused. She stared.

“And then maybe everything will be okay?” I answered, giving my shoulders a shrug.

“It better fucking be,” she roared, “or I’m gonna have to write about it on that little blog of yours.”

We laughed for a while and then started talking about our kids or whatever else it is that a bunch of 40-something-year-old women talk about when sitting in a circle on the sand on a lovely summer afternoon.

But I don’t envy them. For as much as I write about not being a part of a couple, I know it’s a lot of fucking work. It requires a lot of energy to sustain a relationship. Maybe there’s something to be said for doing whatever the hell I want – I mean, within reason – and not having to answer to anyone.

The good news is that I woke up this morning to discover that Mario, too, shares in my sorrow over Jen and Ben’s split.

And my tweet got 68 favorites which impressed even my never-impressed 22yo son.

And my tweet got 68 favorites which impressed even my never-impressed 22yo son.

And I never thought I’d say this, but now I am TOTALLY rooting for Brad and Angie. #whoknew

The Third Wheel

Learning how to be enough.

On Saturday night I went to a super-fun party in my small New Jersey town and danced like there was no tomorrow.

The luau-themed affair was a fundraiser for our school district’s parent-teacher organization and it was held under a big white tent on somebody’s beautiful front lawn where very cute waiters passed precious hors d’oeuvres and bartenders filled our glasses from big pitchers of sweet mojitos.

I wore my very-favorite Forever 21 party dress, the one I picked up on a trip to San Francisco with my sisters maybe eight years ago – back when you could still find a gem or two at the now-ubiquitous mall store – and even though it’s made of acetate and cost about $20, it somehow makes me feel pretty whenever I slip it on.

The organizers had hired a fun local band and my gal pals and I jumped around to Hall & Oates and Journey songs on the packed dance floor late into the humid June night. And of the almost 300-and-something mommies and daddies crowded under the tent and singing along to songs from the 80s, I was probably the only one to have purchased just a single ticket for the event.

There are days that go by that I never even think about being single. The thought never crosses my mind. My life is full of my four children and lovely friends and books and writing and hiking and food shopping and juggling this whole shebang of a life and sometimes I’m really surprised when something reminds me that I’m divorced. Sometimes it really catches me off guard.

But Saturday night I really felt my singleness, but want to make it clear that it’s not because anyone made me feel that way. It’s just because it’s my own shit. My own internal hot button that gets pushed when I feel the absence of a plus-one. I feel the humiliation that comes from thinking anyone might be feeling sorry for me. That my aloneness is somehow kinda sad. I hate to think that husbands think of me as their wives’ perpetually-single friend who’s now become their problem.

Because right now I’d much rather be in my own company – which I kind of enjoy – rather than make any kind of compromise just to be a part of a pair. I mean, I’ve written about this before.

I came home from my nephew’s fourth birthday party earlier on Saturday – which had a superhero theme and the highlight was getting to snuggle somebody’s three-week-old baby – and realized I had nobody to go to the luau with. I had not made plans to attach myself as a third wheel to one of my couple friends. I laid down on my bed and struggled to decide which was the sadder scenario: inviting myself to go with friends or arriving by myself. I can’t tell you the wave of sadness that I felt and considered bagging the whole thing except my daughter had given me wavy party hair earlier and I hated to see that, and the $65 ticket, go to waste.

But when you are not a part of a couple, you’re also not included in a lot of couple-driven stuff. It’s not that you’re excluded; coupled folks just don’t think to include you. I have wonderful friends who have scooped me up and wrapped me into a lot of their fun but the trouble probably is that they’re all married.

And really, how am I ever going to meet available men if all I do is married-people stuff?

The feeling sorry for myself part lasted about 30-seconds. I got a little teary eyed and then realized how ridiculous I was being and picked up my phone and started texting friends and in no time a car pulled up and I squeezed in with some of my favorite couples as their seventh wheel. Once we got to the party, the men gravitated towards other men and women did the same and by the end of the night we were all standing around another couple’s kitchen and laughing over cocktails and pretzels and I had long stopped feeling sorry for myself and my single status.

Because let’s face it: we want to be part of a couple and then we are involved with someone and then we wished we were alone and then we’re finally alone again and then we start thinking it might be better to be a part of a couple. It’s crazy.

We’re never fucking happy. Nothing is perfect.

There are wonderful things about being alone – full power over the remote control is just one thing that comes to mind – and there’s lots of good stuff about being part of a twosome – like you never have to arrive solo at a party or sit alone at a bar.

Maybe it’s just a matter of enjoying where you are in the process and for me, it’s knowing that right now, I am enough. And maybe, just maybe, I should just stop thinking and dance.

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How Not to Be a Jerk

thejerkI can’t say I was really happy yesterday morning when I got in my cold car around 7:30 to drive an hour and 45 minutes north to go skiing.

In fact, when I saw my girlfriend later that morning on line to take the gondola up to the top of the mountain, I told her that the only thing that could make the day any better was if there was going to be some kind of math involved. “Are we doing any word problems later?” I joked as we inched our way up to the front of the endless line.

My 12-year-old son, on the other hand, was practically giddy.

I heard him hop right out of bed when his alarm went off at 6:30 and then he poked his head inside my room to see if I was getting up.

“A few more minutes, buddy,” I told him, probably not in my cheeriest voice.

When I finally lumbered downstairs 15 minutes later for coffee, he was sitting on a stool at our island eating the toast slathered with peanut butter that he’d made himself and already dressed in warm layers for his day on the slopes. The night before, while I sat on the couch and watched “How to Get Away With Murder” and pretended the following day wasn’t happening, he was busy packing up all his ski gear in a backpack and laying out his clothes for the next day. He even put my skis and boots in the back of our SUV.

I am a reluctant skier. I came to the sport later in life and never found it very natural to strap sticks to the bottom of my feet and shoot down a mountain. It ain’t right.

But my ex-husband was passionate about the sport and back in the day, I really wanted to be the kind of girlfriend who was up for anything. You know, the Cool Girl. The one who, according to Amazing Amy in Gone Girl, “is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”

But I don’t think I ever totally fooled him. For one thing, I’m a scaredy cat and not a really good sport. I’m sure I didn’t make things easy. But God bless him, he was patient with me. He helped me put  my boots on and carried my skis and poles around. He followed me down the mountain and reminded me to bend my knees, lean forward and not swing my arms around. In fact, to this day, I still hear his voice in my head as I make my way down a mountain and adjust accordingly.

When our kids were old enough to hit the slopes, he’d get them all ready for a day in ski school – stuffing little bodies clad in pajamas and turtlenecks (this was before all the fancy long johns came along) into bibbed snow pants and putting all the right socks and boots and gloves on all of those little hands and feet – and wrangle them over to their lessons. Then later, he’d take them out himself, showing them the proper way to get on and off a chairlift and skiing backwards down the mountain as they followed behind, their little skis making a “pizza slice” as they plowed their way through the snow.

A couple of times he even took the older three kids away for the long President’s Weekend to ski with his sister and her kids while I stayed home – secretly relieved – to take care of our little guy. While I sat on the couch, watching movie after movie and drinking red wine, they mastered moguls and learned to ski through wooded glades and by the time I got back out on the slopes with them a few years later, found myself once again the slowest and most remedial skier in the pack.

So when my marriage was finally ending, I joked that at least I’d never have to ski again. “It’s the silver lining,” I’d like to tell people.

Except my kids missed it. While I saw it as one giant, expensive hassle that resulted in staring down a steep, icy slope with frozen toes, they grew up thinking that nothing could be more fun. And because we’d taken them away on a bunch of ski trips over the years, they also associated it with cozy nights sitting on the floor with their cousins playing Spit and Rummy and splashing around an indoor pool.

While I was going through my divorce, my girlfriend offered me her condo in Stratton, VT for a weekend to take the kids skiing and I saw it as an opportunity to prove to myself that I could do things like that by myself, even though I still had a 6-year-old to manage. The trip started badly when I discovered, after I’d gone and rented all four of them equipment from a local ski place, that our fairly new SUV didn’t have the proper bars on top to clip on our old ski rack. I’d have to shove them inside along with all our bags and helmets and groceries I’d bought for the long weekend.

And that’s when I sat down and started to cry in the family room with my daughters looking on. But in the first of what would be many times when the kids would rally around me, the girls assured me we’d be able to fit everything inside our truck and even though we were probably pretty squished on the five-hour drive north that Thursday night, not one kid complained.

We were up bright-and-early the next morning to catch the 8:15 shuttle from the condo complex to the mountain, standing outside with all of our bags and equipment in the freezing January air, when after a while, one of the maintenance guys drove by and told us that the shuttle did not run on weekdays. So we shoved everything back into our truck and headed over to the mountain and when we pulled into the lot, saw that the shuttle bus was loading passengers to take them to the lodge.

We made a mad scramble to get all the skis and poles, helmets and bags out and over to the shuttle and I ushered all of the kids up the steps and into the back. It was the kind of bus that I imagined was also used to shuttle migrant workers around to jobs, with a big, open back where passengers stood and held onto poles.

The kids and I pushed our way into the bus that was mostly filled with silver-haired retirees, who were probably taking advantage of the smaller crowds and cheaper pricing of weekday skiing. I ordered all of the kids to hold onto something and started counting heads.

One was missing.

“Where’s Nick?” I shouted, and the three older kids just stared back at me.

“He’s over here,” came an unfamiliar voice from the back of the bus, very near the opening where I could barely make out trees rushing by as we headed towards the mountain. And then I saw my 6-year-old standing really close to that gaping opening.

“Can you grab him?” I yelled to the nice woman who’d alerted me to his whereabouts and she yanked him away from the opening and held him by the shoulders until we pulled up to the ski lodge.

I bought lift tickets and clipped them to everyone’s ski jackets, wrapping the long sticker onto the wire and thinking how easy it had looked when the kids’ dad had put our tickets on us all those years. The little guy went to ski school and the other kids and I spent the day going up and down the mountain.

But in the end, it wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. Something was missing. And maybe it was the expense of it all or that teenagers had no interest in going anywhere with just me, but we never went again.

I’ve gone a couple of times with girlfriends since then and took my youngest to learn how to snowboard at a place about two hours from here, and I waited in the lodge while he took a lesson with some friends.

But he’s been dying to do it again. And it’s not enough that his dad is taking him away for a weekend to ski this month. He needed to go skiing with me.

So when a couple of families in town were heading to a mountain in New Jersey to ski on Sunday, he was all over it. Initially I said I’d take him but just hang around the lodge while he skied with his buddies because A: I don’t really need to ski and B: I’m not the richest cat right now. I’d rather spend that $65 on a manicure and a pedicure or when the kids and I go to Hong Kong next month.

“Why don’t you see if Dad wants to go skiing with you, dude?” I suggested.

But he looked at me with those big blue eyes of his and said, “But Mom, it can be our thing.”

“I’ve never even seen you ski,” he added.


I mean, who around here even wants to do anything with me any more? Pretty much nobody. And soon, this kid won’t want to either, as evidenced by his actions last summer. 

And for as much as I complain about skiing, there’s really no better family activity. Nothing beats having a teenager trapped next to you on a chairlift on a long ride up a mountain or laughing over dinner at night on who fell during what run or who was the last to the bottom of the trail (usually me).

So that is how I found myself on Sunday standing on a line akin to one you’d find waiting for Space Mountain on Good Friday to rent the kid a snowboard for the day. We stored our bags in lockers and made our way outside and I marveled for not the first time at how easy my ex had made all of it look. And after a rocky first run that found my son on his butt more than standing upright on his board, he quickly found his rhythm and we had a great day. Even though he had two buddies to fool around in the terrain park and see who could catch the most air, he also wanted his mom as part of the pack.

After one run we stopped at the bottom to take some pictures of our group with our phones and I asked my friends if they’d take one of my son and me. As we stood with our arms around each other’s waist and our helmets touching, he said, “I really like seeing you ski, Mom,” and I cursed myself for being such a dick earlier that day. For even considering not doing something that would bring him so much joy.

Sometimes, it pays not to be a ... errr ... jerk.

Sometimes, it pays not to be a … errr … jerk.

It’s like those old MasterCard commercials, in which I’d tally up the costs of our ski day – the lift tickets, equipment rental, $4 slices of pizza, my lost beauty sleep – and then tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the end result was truly priceless.

(And look, there was even some math involved.)

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How I Learned to Shovel Snow

70538-11805-103536-1-dudley-do-rightI’ve spent most of my life being capable. Adaptable. Resilient.

I’ve never really been one of those damsel-in-distress-types. But sometimes, I’d really like to slip into that role. I’d really like some Dudley Do-Right to come galloping to my rescue and, like, fix my running toilet or figure out how to move my router.

But because I don’t really come off as needy, I’m generally left to fend for myself. The upside to this is that it means that folks assume I am on top of things. The downside is that I’m outside shoveling snow and trying to start generators with all the husbands while the wives sit inside and watch Kelly and Michael.

And when I was married, I didn’t have to worry about things like snow and generators either. I live in a part of the world where people toe a fairly traditional gender line. Most of the dads go to work in offices and the moms stay home with the kids. Men do the manly things like mow lawns and get rid of dead things that show up in and around their yards and women make dinner and mail out Christmas cards (although I recently met a guy who actually took on that job each year when he was married and I am fascinated by that). Before my husband moved out, I never even touched a snow shovel.

Now I get to be in charge of everything. The lawn. The Christmas cards. Dead things. When I was married, I couldn’t even handle the feel of a dead bunny that weighted down the end of the net I was trying to scoop it out of the pool with. It took me about 20 minutes to stop carrying on and lift the thing out of the water and into the waiting plastic Target bag and then even more time to psych myself up to carry the bag to the trash can in the garage.

Now I’m an expert at removing stuff that ends up dead somewhere in my yard. A few years ago, I even helped my neighbor Susan get rid of some weird dead bat that appeared at the base of the pine tree in her front yard. I went to my house and fetched one of the hundreds of plastic sleeves I store under my kitchen sink that my newspaper is delivered in each day – it’s one of those items I feel compelled to hoard, like shopping bags and shoe boxes (you never know) – and marched back to Susan’s to pick up the bat carcass. I slipped my hand inside the blue plastic bag and picked the bat up off the ground and then pulled the bag back over my hand so that its body fell to the bottom of the bag, which I tied off and handed to Susan to throw into one of her trash cans.

“Tell Michael I said, ‘You’re welcome,’” I told her, since I had just done his job for him.

But my two younger kids and I are staying with Michael and Susan over spring break at their new digs in Hong Kong so I guess the Universe has more than repaid me for helping a brother out and getting rid of the dead bat so that he didn’t have to.

But really, I’m okay with being stuck with the dude jobs around here. Number one, it’s a small price to pay for not having to put up with someone’s shenanigans just because they’re good snow shovelers and number two, it puts my life in more of the Free to Be, You and Me alignment that always appealed to me as a kid.

But it’s still a work in progress.

We woke up this morning to discover that the BLIZZARD OF 2015, the storm that was predicted to dump three feet of snow on my yard that had me out yesterday combing the stores for “D” batteries and loading up on water (I have serious Sandy PTSD), was pretty much a dud. I’m a terrible eyeballer of measurements, but it’s safe to say that we didn’t even get one foot of snow, much less three. But it still needs to be managed. We will still need to get out there and clear the driveway and path to the front door like good citizens.

But I’m sitting here in my bed waiting to see when my neighbor Bill starts to shovel. I use him as my snow removal barometer since he seems to be really on top of this kind of thing. I usually look out our front windows after storms to monitor his activity. I mean, he even owns a snow blower, which is a clear signal that he takes his snow removal very seriously. Until I hear that motor, I know I can remain here tucked under my covers and enjoying the lazy morning like all the other mommies.

My girlfriend across the street – you know, Punky’s mom – texted a little while ago to ask if my little guy would help her teenaged son shovel the driveway of some of our neighbors who are well past the shoveling stage of their lives.

I had also mentioned to my son as he put on his boots that he should also shovel the driveway of the elderly couple next door to us and told him that I would be out in a bit so we could get going on our own driveway.

“What,” he squeaked. “I don’t want to have to shovel three driveways.”

“You’re a dude,” I told him. “Get used to it.”

“That’s so sexist,” the little 12-year-old reminded me and I was like, “Poop.”

So, maybe he’ll live more in a world where men send out Christmas cards and make dinners and women go outside and shovel snow.

Which is where this damsel is headed right now.

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Getting a head start on my future career.

Here’s another exciting fun fact I learned about myself the other day, something I think we can add to the list of interesting tidbits we already know about me, which include my oft-noted thin ankles (dudes, it’s the only naturally small part of my body) and that I am a skilled armpit farter (truly, another gift).

It turns out, ladies and gentlemen, that I also happen to be a dislocated worker.

Who knew?

I learned this nifty item about myself while filing our annual college aid applications this week. You know, those onerous forms that ask questions cooked up by the government like: what was the net worth of my business/investment farms and whether I’d received any free/reduced priced lunches the previous year.

So, I was plowing through the questions – a daunting task for any English major who’s adept at commas and spelling but struggles with counting – and then comes Question #84 on the FAFSA form: Is parent a dislocated worker?


I never really paid attention to that term when filling out the FAFSA before. I guess I thought it was asking me if I was, like, a migrant worker or perhaps a foreign national in need of special working papers. But that was back when I had a job and knew I was a lot of things at that time (overworked, undercompensated), but not dislocated. But unlike other years when I’ve jumped through all those financial aid hoops while working full time, this year I’m doing so unemployed.

And thus, it seems, dislocated.

The kind people at FAFSA describe a “dislocated worker” as such: “a displaced homemaker. A displaced homemaker is generally a person who previously provided unpaid services to the family (for example: a stay-at-home mom or dad), is no longer supported by the spouse, is unemployed or underemployed, and is having trouble finding or upgrading employment.” 

I have never had my whole life summed up so succinctly in one sentence.

I’m actually moving towards my one-year anniversary of being dislocated. I had been worrying about a layoff at the beginning of last year but when the axe finally fell via a conference call in January, I mostly just felt relieved that I didn’t have to worry about late night meetings a few nights a week and working on the weekends. And most importantly, that perhaps I’d stop leaving my little guy in the wrong place at the wrong time because I had so many balls flying through the air. The kid was getting really tired of that. 

And overall, it’s been a really nice year of dislocation. I’ve been much less distracted. I’ve gone back to cooking real meals (which include ingredients like faro and beets) and not just ordering takeout a few nights a week (although in the perfect world I’d eat pizza every day). And I can’t remember the last time my eye twitched from stress. 

But most importantly, I think I’m giving the kids a lot less of a reason to discuss abandonment issues with a therapist someday. I’m around a lot more nowadays now that I’m underemployed and can be found on my couch most nights watching TV with a kid (“Fixer Upper” last night, yo, which we are obsessed with) or trying to read a book without falling asleep. I’ve scaled back from relying so heavily on the older kids to prepare meals and drive their little brother around. And maybe that’s good or maybe it’s not such a terrible thing for kids to help out around the house but for a while there, I really depended on them to keep this puppy of a family running while I was out playing Brenda Starr.

I was happy to reclaim the role of the mom in the house (a position that my 17yo daughter often tries to assume). And it’s a job I know well. For 18 years that was my primary function around here as a stay-at-home mom. The first time around, no one really valued what I did behind the scenes while they were off doing the real work. Folks took it for granted when they found clean towels in the linen closet or their favorite chocolate chip muffins in the pantry. Or that they could pick up and go golfing all day and someone would be around to watch the kids and make dinner.

Talk about feeling displaced.

But this second go-round as a full-time mom, I do feel a little more appreciated. And I appreciate it a lot more now, too. I appreciate the flexibility I’ve had over the last year, where I can pick up and go emergency bra shopping with a daughter at 1:00 on a Wednesday afternoon or spend the day sitting on the beach with my 11-year old and watch him ride wave-after-wave in on his boogie board. And when he asks if I can take him and a buddy to go kick a soccer ball around on some turf field in the next town, I don’t mind sitting in my car in the parking lot knitting and listening to NPR while they try to score goals off each other under a late December afternoon sky.

I’m happy to help a brother out.

I used to feel bad about being a stay-at-home-mom. I felt like I wasn’t living up to my potential. Or that I was just being lazy.

Being a mom takes years of practice.

Being a mom takes years of practice.

But now I know that there is no easy answer for moms. Working full-time can be hard but rewarding and the same can be said for staying home. Finding something flexible that lets you balance raising your kids while nurturing your brain, that there is the tricky part. And this doesn’t even take into account the generating an income part of the equation.

I applied for a loan this week from my local bank to help pay for some home repairs that need to be addressed pronto, regardless of how much money is in my checking account. My sinking pool deck does not give a shit whether or not I can afford keeping the pool from collapsing. I chatted with the bank guy on the phone and gave him all my details and explained that up until last January I had been employed as a news editor.

“Cool,” he gushed.

Then he emailed me some of the paperwork I needed to sign and I noticed that in the space under “current employer” he’d typed: homemaker.


But unlike a few years ago, when I’d see that title on my tax return and feel kind of ashamed about the path I’d chosen in life, this time I shook my head and laughed.

I’ve been called worse.

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2b7be76c0edd4051bcfaed75a8929a7aIn the mental photo album I keep tucked deep within the cracks and crevices of my ever-failing memory, lay the snapshots of certain key moments of my life. They’re the ones I pull out to study in the middle of the night or while driving alone in my car. The ones that I can’t forget.

Unlike the stacks of albums and shoeboxes I have brimming with over 20 years of memories – little ones holding up Easter baskets filled with colorful plastic eggs or smiling in front of Cinderella’s castle – my mental snapshots are a mix of more authentic occurrences. They are the moments that weren’t staged to document our happiness. They’re the real deal.

There’s me, sitting in Newark Airport early in the morning after my 1990 wedding — long after the official wedding photographer had gone home — with a big smile on my face each time I remembered I was finally married to the guy I had chased and loved for so long. There I am again, weeping with relief a dozen years later when an ultrasound revealed the sex of my fourth child—a boy – which I knew would help soften the blow of that pregnancy for my husband. And another instant, this time me standing next to my soon-to-be-ex in a drab county courtroom reciting the names and birth dates of our four children before a judge and thinking how it ended much as it had begun: the two of us standing side-by-side and saying a bunch of words.

There are more happy moments: Lying next to my husband and listening to raindrops softly falling on our tent in the middle of the woods and thinking there was no place on Earth I’d rather be at that moment than lying atop that air mattress. Sitting beside my oldest son on a chairlift making its slow ascent to the top of the mountain and hearing nothing but the silence of the icy trees and snowflakes swirling around us and the sound of his teenaged voice really talking to me without the distractions of Twitter and YouTube. Or rocking in a glider at 2 a.m. with an infant curled like a kitten on my chest, his tiny head tucked under my chin while his tiny back rose and fell beneath my hand as he slept.

There’s a song that comes towards the end of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (which is now a new movie that I saw the other day) that cleverly observes how life is the slow, steady grind of work and husbands and wives and family and children and doing what you’re supposed to be doing. But every so often there is a flash, an instant that stands out from all the other instants and a moment we file away to be remembered later.

Oh. If life were made of moments,

Even now and then a bad one!

But if life were only moments,

Then you’d never know you had one.

Sung by the Baker’s Wife in “Moments in the Woods”

My therapist is hot for this idea, too. She likes to tell me — after I’ve sat on her loveseat and complained about yucky things in my life — that the bad stuff lets us see how good the good can be. And as much as I wouldn’t mind a life filled with rainbows and unicorns 24/7, I kind of get her point.

A few years ago I was driving home from a dinner out with my four children to celebrate my oldest girl’s high school graduation when she plugged her iPhone into the car stereo and the song “Landslide” began to play. It was the Glee version of the Fleetwood Mac song, and as Gwyneth Paltrow began to sing all four of my children started to sign with her. Like, even my oldest son who is neither a joiner nor a singer. I began to sing as well and as we sailed through the dark towards home, we sang about time making you bolder and children getting older.

“And I’m getting older, too,” we sang, and I couldn’t help feeling that for a second, everything — our whole lives — had been working towards that moment in the car and singing that song. Like we were in a movie or something. “Landslide” is a song about making changes and you could feel the energy in our car and how – despite the divorce and our struggles trying to stabilize in its aftermath – we were all connected. It was pretty epic.

And since then, we’ve kind of considered “Landslide” our unofficial family song. I even wasted tons of space on my iPhone recently recording Stevie Nicks twirling onstage and singing it when I saw Fleetwood Mac in concert in October.

So on Christmas, after all their own loot had been unwrapped, the kids took turns giving me their presents. I got legit moonshine — procured from one of my oldest son’s southern fraternity brothers — replete with what I initially feared might be testicles floating within that I was later assured were in fact peaches; and a t-shirt from my oldest daughter that read, “Trust me, I’m a writer” (which is funny because nobody about whom I write trusts my writing in the least). And my little guy gave me hat and gloves I had bought for myself at the JCrew outlet that I gave to him to give me, which I kind of thought was better than anything he was going to find for me when he shopped at the Five Below on Christmas Eve. Like, I do not need a “Fault in Our Stars” poster.

But the gift that made me cry – and apparently the children go into Christmas morning with the goal of making their mom weep – was from my youngest daughter who used the lyrics from “Landslide” to create a paper tree from which she had dangled five hearts bearing all of our names.




She explained the framed picture was something she had come across on Pinterest and I don’t know if she’s actually finished writing her college essays or even sent in all of her applications for next year yet, but man, if she put this much time into those endeavors she’d be going to Harvard. I’m just saying.

So now there’s a new moment in that mental shoebox crammed with 48 years-worth of memories stashed away in my crickety brain. Somewhere lodged beneath the snapshots of the babies and the terrible fights and the ride when all five of our voices sang out in our car on a warm spring night is me, unwrapping a gift that reminded me that not even a landslide could bring us down.

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How to Market Your Family

This is an updated version of something I wrote last year cursing this annual insanity.

1-1It started the day after Thanksgiving last year, the annual marketing campaign going on in homes across the country that gives new meaning to the term Black Friday.

Inside my mailbox on that day, along with 20 pounds of Pottery Barn catalogs and Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, sat the first holiday card of the season.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

I think the special delivery vexed me for two reasons. First, it was a reminder that I needed to get my act together to accomplish a great many things in the ensuing weeks before Christmas, which included dealing with all the Christmas tchotchkes crammed into about a dozen boxes in my basement and the stupid Elf on a Shelf.

Secondly, that card signaled that I needed to plan how I would be marketing my own family this holiday season because that, let’s be honest, is what it’s all about.


I want you, along with my college roommate and cousin in Connecticut, to see just how attractive, smart, accomplished and well-traveled we are, via a 4 X 6 card.

It’s like the paper-version of Facebook.

But don’t get me wrong: I drank the Christmas card Kool-Aid years ago and have spent a lot of time, money and patience creating the annual “aren’t-we-something” campaign. I am the ultimate Mad Mom.

Parents nowadays have no idea what it was like producing a card back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and before digital cameras were de rigeur. When I, and every mom within a 10-mile radius, had to bring my roll of film (actual film) to the CVS to be developed, and then wait a few days in hopes that at least one of the 24 shots would be a winner. I prayed for that one frame where all eyes would be open, looking straight at the camera and not rolled up in small heads in disgust.

Then I had to get 100 copies made of that one tolerable photo and then stuff said photos into cards, that needed to be signed and maybe a bow needed to be tied, and then stuffed into envelopes, licked and addressed, stamped and mailed.

I’m not saying you young moms have it easy, but seriously, you have it so freaking easy.

Nowadays, you just scroll through a photo gallery and upload a variety of images to an adorable card that’s personalized and ready to be mailed when the shipment arrives on your doorstep.

It’s fucking magic.

I thought I could make a clean break from sending holiday cards when my husband moved out in December 2008. It was such a terrible time and I figured I’d have to be some kind of marketing genius to generate a card that said, “Look how happy we are.”

So I just kind of knocked it off my mental check-list of holiday tasks for that year until one of the kids asked about it.

“I’m thinking we’re not gonna send one this year,” I told my oldest daughter.

“Wait, what? You’re not doing a card?” she asked. “It’s our tradition.”

The other kids sitting in the kitchen nodded in agreement and I realized that the stupid card had become about more than how others see our family. It had become about how we see ourselves, too.

And sending out a card that year signaled to the kids that life would still go on, even after their dad moved out. There would still be cards, wrapping paper and Christmas for them all.

Just like everyone else.

I decided to bang my cards out earlier than usual last year to take advantage of all the Cyber Monday sales. I checked a couple of sites for the best deals and instructed the older kids to send me photos of themselves to use since we didn’t have any great shots of all of us together.

I struggled, as I have these last few years, with how to personalize the card since the kids and I have different last names. Hyphenating the two seemed weird and just using the kids’ name, the one I had used for 20 years, didn’t seem right either.

So I finally settled on sending love to all our friends and family last Christmas from “4 Walsacks and a Byrnes.” Awkward, perhaps, but it just felt more right than the other options.

I think the end-result, while far from perfect, said, “We’re doing okay.”

I tried to get out of doing cards again this year. I’m not really feeling like a millionaire and thought that that $200 could be better spent on, like, one of the many new iPhone 6s Santa is expected to bring down our chimney this year.

So I casually floated the idea at dinner one night last week while ladling some soup into bowls but my 17yo daughter was having none of it.

“Now we’re going to seem even less together,” she said in only that way a teenage daughter can say to remind you of what a failure you’ve turned out to be as a mother. Like, a constant disappointment.

But it also reminded me that no matter how long your parents have been divorced, you really need to feel like you’re just like everybody else. You want people to know that it wasn’t the end of the world. That you’re doing okay.

So I dutifully combed through the last 12 months in my iPhoto to find some decent shots and then scrolled through TinyPrints to find a card that had the smallest number of photo boxes and a saying that didn’t seem too bullshitty. No “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Love and Joy” for us. I’d actually like a job at a greeting card company so I could help come up with content for those of us who hate pretending. What about a “We’re Doing the Best We Can” card or one that says “Hope and Pray”?

Now, those are sentiments I can get behind.

I settled on “Merry Christmas” in the end and the box of all 100 of them is already sitting on my kitchen island, waiting for me to get off Facebook and mail them to everyone on our list.

But the box also sends a signal to my kids that everything really is okay. We might have different last names now and a dad who lives in the next town, but we’re still a family.

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend $200.

Give yourself the gift of Amy. Don’t worry, I’m not jumping out of a box Christmas morning. But you can sign up to get all my posts sent directly to your inbox. Just plug your email into the “receive new post in your inbox.” Oh, p.s., it’s free.

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Free Falling

For a long time, I resisted change. It made me nervous.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I totally wanted things to change. Or better yet, I knew that they really had to. I just didn’t know quite how to go about it.

Check that. That’s a lie. I knew exactly what needed to be done. I just didn’t have the balls to do it.

So for what, at the time, seemed like an eternity, I kind of teetered at the edge of a big cliff of indecision. Because there were a lot of things I really liked about my life. I got the family that I really wanted, the multitude of children. I loved our house with the pool and our big golden retriever. We lived in a nice town with great schools where I got to help make pilgrim costumes out of brown paper shopping bags for the Thanksgiving feast in second grade and hot-glued pennies onto a baseball hat to celebrate the 100th day of school. There were dinner parties and tennis lessons and piles of presents for Christmas.

On the outside, it was all so fucking perfect.

But inside – I probably don’t need to tell you – it was a different story. There was sadness and regret. Anger and resentment. People doing shit they probably shouldn’t have been doing along with people not doing the things that probably really needed to be done.

But we suffered in silence. Literally. The silent treatment was an often-used tool for conflict non-resolution around here. Because what were the options? I mean, I guess I had a pretty good idea what they were, but they were big and scary and things that other people did, but not me.

But then, as luck would have it – although I did not think of it as very lucky at the time – a series of events occurred that gave me the kind of push I needed to make the leap into the unknown.

I said I wanted a divorce and things began to unspool.

Not long after that, I took my four children north to stay at our friends’ place in Vermont for a few days. The kids swam at a local waterfall and we ate sticky cinnamon buns at our favorite farmer’s market. We made the windy drive up Mount Equinox and passed monks walking along the side in flowing white robes and arrived at the top to find it shrouded in a thick layer of fog obscuring our view. The kids swam at night in the condo complex’s indoor pool, running along the tiled deck before diving in while I sank into the steamy water of the hot tub, letting the bubbles swirl around my neck as I considered the Pandora’s Box I had just unlocked. All of the shit that I had unleashed.

One day we drove over to the quarry in nearby Dorset and dove off the big blocks of marble into the icy green water below. The swimming hole is bordered on a few sides by cliffs of varying heights, which the more intrepid visitors leap from into the 60-foot deep pool. We ate our sandwiches and watched people of all ages – parents, teens, kids – stand at the top and contemplate the fall while others shouted words of encouragement from the comfort of their picnic blankets below.

Some recklessly flipped backwards off the 20-foot cliff like it was nothing while others sheepishly made their way back to the bottom on foot.

“The girls should do it together,” announced my oldest daughter and the three of us picked our way up the dirt path that led to the top of the cliff and looked down.

Now, what some of you might have already surmised, things look a lot less threatening when viewed from a distance. When considered in theory. But when you’re standing with your feet dangerously close to the edge of a cliff and there’s nothing between you and some really dark, cold water but 20 feet of air, you start to lose your nerve. Well, that’s if you’re like me. I started to rethink my earlier bravery and weighed the embarrassment of retreating down to my blanket in defeat versus falling into a protruding ledge of marble on my plummet down or hitting the water at a bad angle. There were a million things that could go wrong.

“Don’t overthink it!” yelled one of the parents standing below who watched me move close to the edge and then back away.

“I’m really nervous,” I told the girls.

We debated whether we should jump at the count of “three” or the word “go” while my oldest son stood below and shouted for us to hurry up, tired of having to wait for us to jump and so he could take our picture as I had instructed.

I stood at the top of the cliff with my daughters standing on either side of me and thought about all the things I’d never done because I was afraid. I thought about how I never wanted them to see me timid again. How I wanted to show them what it looked like when you do something that scares the living shit out of you.

And then I heard my older daughter say, “Go,” and the three of us leapt off the side. We flew together through the air and plunged hard into the cold, dark water and then kicked our way back up to the surface. We bobbed in the water for a bit and languished in our bravery. Our badass-ness. Then we swam to the ladder laughing and pulling ourselves up to stretch out on our towels and bask in the hot August sun.

And much like the more allegorical jump I’d made a few months earlier, leaping into the pool of divorce, my dive off the steep marble cliff taught me to have faith in the unknown. It showed me how flying through the air, either real or metaphorical, was sometimes the only way to really live.

Taking the leap, 2009.

Taking the leap, 2009. Credit: Max Walsack.

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