For many years, the back page of Real Simple featured an excerpt from a book, an inspirational quote, or some final words of wisdom. In 2002-ish, when I was working as a senior editor there, we ran this:
How you been?
Busy. How’s work?
How was your week?
You name the question, busy is the answer. Yes, yes, I know, we are all terribly busy doing terribly important things. But I think more often than not, busy is simply the most acceptable knee-jerk response.
Certainly there are more interesting, more original and more accurate ways to answer the question “How are you?” I’m hungry for a burrito; I’m envious of my best friend; I’m frustrated by everything that’s broken in my house; I’m itchy.
Yet busy stands alone as the easiest way of summarizing all that you do and all that you are. “I am busy” is the short way of saying — implying — “My time is filled, my phone does not stop ringing and you (therefore) should think well of me.”
Have people always been this busy? Did cave men think they were busy, too? (“This week is crazy — I’ve got about 10 caves to draw on. Can I meet you by the fire next week?”)
I have a hunch that there is a direct correlation between the advent of coffee bars and the increase in busy-ness. Look at us. We’re all pros now at hailing cabs/making Xeroxes/carpooling/performing surgery with a to-go cup in hand. We’re skittering about like hyperactive gerbils, high not just on caffeine, but on caffeine’s luscious byproduct, productivity. Ah, the joy of doing, accomplishing, crossing off.
As kids, our stock answer to most every question (“What did you do at school today?” “What’s new?”) was, “Nothing.” In our country’s history there have been exactly seven kids who responded with a statement other than “nothing,” and three of those were named Hanson. Then, somewhere on the way to adulthood, we each took a 180-degree turn. We cashed in our “nothing” for “busy.”
I’m starting to think that, like youth, the word nothing is wasted on the young. Maybe we should try re-introducing it into our grown-up vernacular. Nothing. I say it a few times and I can feel myself becoming more quiet, decaffeinated, Zen-ish. Nothing. Now I’m picturing emptiness, a white blanket, a couple ducks gliding on a still pond. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. How did we get so far away from it?
It was my introduction to the writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who died yesterday from ovarian cancer at the age of 51. She had three kids and a husband of 26 years. Many of you were familiar with her childrens’ picture books (Little Pea, OK, Spoon, Duck! Rabbit!) which came along a little after my kids aged out of that genre. Millions more of you were first introduced to her last week when, on her death bed, she wrote a dating profile for her husband, Jason, in the New York Times‘ Modern Love column, “You Might Want to Marry My Husband.“ It’s hard to read, but you must.
Soon after I read “Busy,” I made a point to read the memoir from which it was excerpted, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. It’s a memoir of her life in alphabetical order, but it’s really a catalog of her worldview — her generous, optimistic, completely oddball worldview that you can’t help but fall in love with. I want to share a few examples:
LOVE – If you really love someone, you want to know what they ate for lunch or dinner without you. Hi, sweetie, how was your day, what did you have for lunch? Or if your mate was out of town on business: How was your trip, did the meeting go well, what did you do for dinner? Jason will stumble home in the wee hours from a bachelor party, and as he crawls into bed I’ll pry myself from sleep long enough to mumble, how was the party, how was the restaurant beforehand? The meal that has no bearing on the relationship appears to be breakfast. I can love you and not know that when you were in Cincinnati last Wednesday you had yogurt and a bagel.
BIRTHDAY – When I was a kid, my mom always made sure my brother and sisters and I woke up to birthday signs and her famous Krouse Klown drawing. I tried instating the Rosenthal Rabbit for my own kids, but it fizzled out because in my mind it never felt as special or as important as Krouse Klown; it felt fraudulent and satirical. For as many [of my own birthdays] as I can remember, my mom has presented me with a poem, a tender,rhyming summary of my life up to that point, and it is these gifts of verse written in her lovely Ann Krouse script that are the centerpiece of each birthday.
BUTTERSCOTCH – I love butterscotch but rarely think to seek it out.
PALINDROME – I am overly enamored with the palindrome: Won Ton, Not Now.
PIE – There are a few gestures kinder than a friend baking you a pie. (SEE ALSO: Woman Across the Hall.)
RAINY DAY – A rainy day comes as a relief. Rain is your pass to stay inside, to retreat. It’s cozy and safe, hanging out on this side of the gray. But then the sun comes out in the afternoon, and there’s disappointment, even fear, because the world will now resume, and it expects your participation. People will get dressed and leave their houses and go places and do things. Stepping out into the big, whirling, jarringly sunny world — a world that just a few minutes ago was so confined and still and understated, and refreshingly gloomy — seems overwhelming.
RETURNING TO LIFE AFTER BEING DEAD – When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look – the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so…endearing.
SOUP – A good soup attracts chairs. This is an African proverb. I can hear the shuffling and squeaking on the wood floor, the gathering ’round. This, from just five well-chosen words.
She was a lover of words — the way they sounded, the physical way they fit together. She made a career of finding happiness and a life philosophy in the random, the absurd, the sophomoric. Encyclopedia also includes things like charts that show the progression of going from a good mood to a bad mood; yearbook signatures that summarize high school; tables titled “Things That Confused Me for Way too Long” (As a kid she thought grown-ups were saying ten-year, not tenure); illustrations that show what she might look in a “Wanted” poster. She was the master of flipping conventions upside down. Think about writing a dating profile for your husband for after you are gone. And ending with an empty space where he can start a new love story. Think about how generous and clear-headed and loving and funny that is.
I don’t know what exactly this is all adding up to today. I wish I could be more philosophical about her treatise on “Nothing.” (Are we paying attention? Should her death be a critical reminder for all of us to aspire to more Nothing?) Except to say that I’m so deeply sad to hear that she’s gone. When I read that Modern Love essay, I had no idea she was dying. And though I had the briefest of relationships with her when I tried to assign her something as an editor, my only legitimate connection to her is from reading — and remembering — her words as I go about my day, flipping a light switch, baking a pie for someone, asking my husband what he had for lunch. I guess I just want to make sure as many people as possible do the same.
Here is her official website.
Here is her obituary.
Here, again, is “You Might Want to Marry My Husband.”
Here is Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.
Here is her newest memoir, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, written before her diagnosis.
Fans of her childrens’ books, please leave your recommendations in the comment field.
P.S. What have you been putting off doing/starting/creating? I mean seriously, what are we all waiting for? Start it today. Start it now. In her honor.