dark matter rocks

I love dark energy. Love it. Dark matter, too. I have no idea what they are, but it’d be weird if I did, because no one does, not even all those crazy-smart astrophysicists who hypothesize their existence. All anyone knows is, dark energy in all likelihood accounts for about 68 percent of the universe (68 percent! that’s a passing grade in some places!), and dark matter takes up 27 percent, leaving plain ol’ ordinary matter, the mundane, run-of-the-mill, observable, occasionally stinky crap, to take up a mere 5 percent. I won’t even venture a guess on how much of that 5 percent is found in McDonald’s value meals. A lot.

I’ve been Catholic for 24 years. Been a Christian for 30 or so. Believed in God for almost 40. Before that, following the lead of my atheistic father and agnostic mother, I believed only in the goodness of humanity and the largeness of creation. But I tell you what: those beliefs remain the essence of my faith. As frustrated as I am by my failure to see the future, as sidelined as I am by my tendency to fret, I’m relieved to know that I don’t actually know a thing. It’s a gift to realize the full scope of what I can’t see with my squinty eyes and hear with my whistling ears and grasp with my pointy head: at least 95 percent of all existence. That’s a shitload of stuff I won’t ever understand. Thank God! There’s more to life than value meals!

We can all agree on this point, right? Whether we believe in a deity or dark matter?

Me, I’m down with both. I don’t believe that science and faith are incompatible. Faith, to me, is not an obeisance to the known but an acknowledgment of the unknown, an abandonment to it, an against-all-odds conviction that a limitless Unseen lurks and envelops us. In describing the universe and its mysteries, scientists delve into that Unseen and assign it properties, laws, shape.

I assign it character, too. I assign it love. I can’t see it, but I’m sure it’s there.

why we moon

When my sister Lucy and I were little, around 6 and 3 or thereabouts, we used to moon people. I have no idea where the inspiration for this came from, but we got it from somewhere (this was, after all, the late 1960s), and we exercised this vaguely inspired right to moon on our front lawn in New Preston, Conn., for all the world to see. Or maybe not all the world; maybe just passing cars.

At the time I never wondered what the drivers and passengers of these vehicles might have thought, tooling around Lake Waramaug on their leisurely summer drives, approaching this fairly standard-looking white colonial with its fairly standard-looking lawn. Or it might have been standard-looking, had my parents mowed the bottom half of it — they kept the grass high to prevent their darling children from rolling their tricycles into the road, so it looked perpetually unshaved, like Yasser Arafat, Josh Groban or a goat — and had these same parents prevented these same darling children from bending over and dropping trou for unsuspecting tourists.

But they didn’t know, and they didn’t prevent us, and so we had our fun. It consisted of this:

Lucy: Let’s go outside!
Me: Okay!

Lucy: Let’s wait for cars!
Me: Okay!

(A car rounds the bend)
Lucy: Let’s drop our pants and shake our butts!
Me: Okay!

(Dropping our pants and shaking our butts)
Lucy: Ha ha ha ha ha!
Me: Ha ha ha ha ha!

Sometimes, for even more fun, we would perform this dropping of the pants and shaking of the butts while chanting DAY, D-D-DAY, D-D-DAY, and don’t ask why because I don’t remember.

At this point, cough cough, I would like to assure people that I have not mooned anyone since, neither in Connecticut nor Albany nor anywhere else I’ve lived, on any other lawn, be it standard- or non-standard-looking, mowed or unmowed. I do wonder, however, whether my urge to write memoirs and blog about personal matters — such as, for instance, my childhood de-pantsing habits — themselves classify as a sort of mooning, a way of saying, LOOKIE HERE, PEOPLE! I HAVE ALL SORTS OF HIGHLY PERSONAL BID-NESS TO SHOW YOU!! I DARE YOU TO LOOK!

So, really, I can roll my eyes all I want at instances of dumbass celebrity mooning (Justin Bieber instagrammed his lustrous pop-god tushy just a few days ago), but I’m not sure that what I’m doing is all that different. To moon is to show your hidden self to the world — to seek attention, tempt rejection, find acceptance, and maybe engage in a little defensive mockery, just in case. Because you never know, until you stick it out and shake it, how your rear will be received.

Day, D-D-Day, D-D-Day.

accidental beauties


If you live in Albany, did you catch the sky at sunset tonight? It was all cotton candy magnificence. I saw it by accident through the upstairs bathroom window, and it caught me at just the right moment: I’d been fretting about something over which I have no control, which is, of course, the nature and boundless asininity of fretting. One never frets over the distressingly few things over which one has control, such as whether or not to floss before bedtime. (“Aggghhhh! I wish I knew! The suspense is killing me! Crap crap crap!”) Instead one frets over the infinite number of things outside our own personal agency. If we have no authority or power to act — and if we forget, for some long moment, that surrender is our only real and rational option — we brood.

I was brooding earlier tonight. But then I glimpsed the sunset, and the cloud of fuss suddenly lifted, whiffed away by those ribbons of pink and blue.

A similar lightening of spirit had occurred over the weekend, as I tooled through light whorls of snow along the Petersburg Pass to Williamstown. Once again, I was stewing. Once again, it concerned a matter over which I have no control. But then, mid-fret, I came around that glorious, mountainous, rising curve that swings into the Berkshires with an abruptness that always shocks me; I’ve driven that road a thousand times, and still, that morning, it caught me unawares. And I stopped fretting. Not only that: I felt like a boob for having fretted at all. Why should I chafe over little nothings, when the world can throw such beauties in my midst? They rise out of nowhere with the force and largeness of truth.

That’s what matters. Not that niggling, nagging stuff. And when the awful shit lands, the real shit, worrying won’t fix that, either.

Sometimes, flipping through the bible at night, my thumb lands on a passage from Matthew that addresses the boobishness of worry: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Ummm, no. Definitely not. That there is one apt rhetorical question, Jesus. And yet I do it. I worry. I did it again in the bathroom tonight, right there at the sink, just by the floss — which actually might add an hour to my life. But then I looked over and saw the sky, and I opened the window, and I snapped a picture, and I smiled. No more fretting. For now.

princess schroeder golightly


Like many other people, I took the “Star Wars” personality test floating around Facebook recently. And lo, it appears that I’m Princess Leia.

I find this result beautifully affirming (I am bold and unwavering! I have a sharp, diplomatic mind!) when I’m not grabbing my ears to reach for the baked goods (I have sticky buns attached to my head!). Who doesn’t want to be told she’s the heroine of an archetypal if badly written space saga?

Then I recalled that I had also taken the Peanuts personality test and learned that I’m Schroeder: artsy and aloof. This plunged me into a flurry of self-doubt — good God! Am I coldly analytical and standoffish, hunched over a piano in a quest for perfection?! — until I remembered I don’t actually play the piano.

And then I recalled that I had also taken Book Week Scotland’s personality quiz, which, ta da!, informed me that I am, in fact, Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” No shit. Finally! Affirmation from the wise forces of Facebook that I am bubbly, gamine, party-animalistic and a just little bit tragic, especially when you take into account my long and pathetic string of sugar daddies. I’m not sure who they are, or where I’ve hidden them all these years, and whether they’re still interested in me now that I’m 50.

But what I really want to know is: Wouldn’t Princess Leia kick Holly’s ass? And Schroeder’s? I think so. Both of them at once, while simultaneously whipping all the men in the galaxy, and most of the ewoks, into shape. She didn’t need a sugar daddy. Okay, so she wanted Han pretty badly, and he was sort of a jerk about it, but you always knew she could and would kick his ass, too.

In other news, the Myers-Briggs test says I’m an ENFJ (extraversion, intuition, feeling, judgment). Some other test I can’t remember told me I’m an “ambivert,” i.e., some hybrid creature between an introvert and an extrovert, but to me that sounds like a sexual preference or an abstruse geometric concept rather than a personality type.

If Princess Leia took that test, she’d be slotted as an extrovert. So would Holly. As for Schroeder, he’d be an introvert. He’d never stoop so low to take the “Star Wars” test, but if he did, he’d be Obi-Wan; if he took the literary quiz, he’d be Sherlock Holmes (or, if he’s in a dour mood, Raskolnikov); if Princess Leia took the book quiz, she’d be Jane Eyre; if she took the Peanuts test, she’d be Lucy; if Holly took the Peanuts test, she’d be Sally; if she took the “Star Wars” test, she’d be Luke. And Leia would still kick her ass.

i grok ‘bouleversant’

I have a new word. I love new words! I love old words too, especially the ones I’ve been using since my saggy-diaper days (“eat,” “poop,” “clap” — love those). But few things make me happier than stumbling across some hitherto-unfamiliar-to-me linguistic nugget, and this is a good one: “bouleversant,” a French adjective with no direct translation but a whole load of meaning that I’ll get to in a minute. And my brother Randy didn’t even coin this one. Instead, “bouleversant” comes to me from John, an erudite and personable young man I met at the Al Ham Birthday Party, 2014 Edition.

You’ll be wondering what the Al Ham Birthday Party is. Or maybe you won’t be; if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton College I really wouldn’t give a damn about it, but I did go there, and I do have many warm memories of the place, and so I care enough about Alexander Hamilton’s annual Albany-area shindig to attend it every other year or so with my friend Jane. We graduated five years apart.

Jane and I started attending these little fetes about 10 or so years ago, back when we were, let’s see, roughly a decade younger than we are now and thus fell into that cozy alumni mid-range between the really young and really old farts. We were moderate farts. But this year, the pair of us realized that we had in fact become much older farts than most everyone else noshing on crabcakes at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room.

My method of coping was to pigeon-hole John, a history major who aced the Al Ham birthday quiz and, it turned out, hadn’t yet graduated. He was beyond doubt the youngest fart there. We chatted about campus life, and some wacky Hamilton lingo from the 80s (“tool” meant not an A-hole but a hard-grinding, carrel-dwelling denizen of the library), and his love of and facility with French.

Somehow — I don’t remember how, as my fartness is more advanced than it once was — that aforementioned word came up in conversation. John defined it as intensely beautiful, intensely emotional, intensely sad; from what I gather, something classifies as “bouleversant” if it wipes you out, leaving you spent but transformed. He offered “Schindler’s List” as an example of one such film.

I grok this word. I can’t pronounce it, and I’d have a hard time sneaking it past editors (whaddaya mean, I can’t use indefinable words in a foreign language?!), but it captures the paradoxically beautiful whammy of life at its most extreme. How often great art hurts; how often I dissolve into a puddle at the Barber Adagio, and that’s as it should be. There’s no point in listening if I’m not, right?

on foresight and flying: a rant

I HATE not knowing things. Hate it. Hatehatehatehate. And yet I know I can’t know more than I already know, or I’d lose my mind, and I know that can’t happen, because I gotta hang on to that thing no matter what.

This is what I can’t stand about not knowing: NOT KNOWING. “More will be revealed,” say folks in A.A., but to me this aphorism begs the question: about what, exactly? YOU WANT TO GET SPECIFIC, PEOPLE? I find myself repeating the line myself, over and over and over, barking out a truism designed to drive everyone nuts. And yet, on hearing it, we all cross our arms and nod not-knowingly, saying, AHHHH, YESSSSS, THAT’S SO WIZZZZZZE. And it is indeed WIZZZZZZZE. I am so so super-glad I never knew most of the shit that’s happened to me before it happened, especially the really bad shit; and the worse the shit, the more relieved I’ve been about not-knowing it.

That said, I’ve always been impatient. I’ve always wanted to grab exclusive sneak-peaks into the future, especially any future involving exam results, Christmas gift contents and cute boys. Although, if I had my pick of godly Marvel superpowers, I’d probably choose flying over foresight. It’s what I do when I find myself in a dream: I realize, Hey! Yay! Excellent! I’m not awake, so I can fly! and then I just flip open a window and bomb around the sky in my pajamas. Flying PLUS foresight would be really cool, because then I’d know exactly which direction to head in for the most exciting Christmas gifts and cutest boys. Whenever I have another lucid dream, I’ll have to give that a whirl.

This not knowing: It makes me feel like a kid again, a dizzy one wearing a blindfold whose purported caring friends and purported loving parents have spun her around and around and around and then pointed her in the wrong direction, saying, “Go ahead and pin the tail! Ha ha ha! There’s the donkey! Ha ha ha!” knowing damn well the poor wee thing will never find the donkey in that state. Ignorance is such an essential part of the human condition that we make a game out of it at our children’s birthday parties. At least we used to in the 70s. But we were so much more sadistic then.

So I’m in the dark. You’re in the dark. Everyone’s in the dark. We wander around in the pitch black, blind as bats without the aid of echolocation, following each other’s voices, bumping into each other’s butts, chasing after pin-pricks of light in the distance. And somehow we get from point A to point B and point B to point C, although we have no idea how far up the alphabet we’re supposed to progress. And which alphabet? What if I’ve been using the wrong one? What if it’s, like, cyrillic?

I guess that’s why they call it faith. I guess that’s why we’re here. So I guess I’ll just have to keep groping blindly along, crashing into whatever butts I meet en route to wherever I’m going. A girl can hope.

a fresh layer of joy

photo (21)

the awesome wedding cake topper (designed by the awesome bride)

Last night, on what would have been Chris’s 58th birthday, our youngest nephew married his sweetheart. They made their promises, swapped their rings, danced to a Randy Newman song under swirling disco lights, laughed and kissed and beamed before a ballroom full of people awed by love.

A fresh blanket of joy now lies across a date so thickly layered with gratitude and grief. I thank heaven Chris was born. I wish to that same heaven he hadn’t died. It’s that simple. That complicated. But a new thickness now overlays the older, crustier strata, and it’s softer than the others. It warms me. Watching my nephew and his new wife work the room, flushed from love and dancing, reminded me — all of us, at this and every wedding — that yes, life surprises and prevails, and no, we’re not delusional to believe in it. We’re only human.

Or would you prefer a more edible metaphor? Layers of creamy wedding goodness, a sweet fluff of bliss to top them all? Oh, why not. I’ll bite. Pass the cake.

let’s talk about mental illness, really

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

On the horn with Madeleine recently, she asked me: “Mom, did you read Nicholas Kristof?” This is a question that she often asks and always makes me happy. That my 20-year-old daughter reads The New York Times and keeps such close tabs on her favorite columnists warms the cockles of my newswoman’s heart, whatever the heck cockles are. (And are they normally that cold?)

Turned out Kristof’s column a couple Sundays back raised an issue that cuts close to home for us. He called on the news media to stop neglecting mental illness — to address it honestly, compassionately and comprehensively, looking at real people who struggle with depression or eating disorders or suicidality or P.T.S.D., rather than weighing in with generalizations after the latest mass shooting. “All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues,” he wrote, “but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out.”

No one likes to talk about mental illness. The thought alone unsettles, embarrasses, terrifies. After my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma and six months undergoing pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. — which worked — and I spent those same six months not answering the unspoken questions of everyone at school. One kid who dared mention my daddy’s stay in a psych hospital got promptly shushed by a teacher. And I remember thinking, more or less, “What the fuh?” The message was clear: This type of illness, with this type of hospital stay, is not to be discussed.

Bullshit. We need to talk about it. It hits people.

My father recovered from his depression and went on to live another 18 years — no psych meds, no recurrence, though the coma probably hastened his dementia. My sister and husband weren’t as lucky. I’ve now written about all three of them (two in my last memoir, one in my next one), so I’ve obviously overcome any lingering reluctance to discuss suicide in a public forum.

It’s all out there; I’m all in. I don’t have much choice in the matter. Because, face it, if I decided I couldn’t talk about the people in my life who’ve been affected by mental illness, I WOULD HAVE VERY FEW THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.

As a people, 21st-century Americans are open to discussing so many things: our sex lives, our hoarding, our fights against life-threatening ailments. But when we try to discuss this brand of fight and this brand of ailment, our jaws lock. We can’t go there — not because it’s all too alien. Because it’s all too familiar. Because too many of us have cried quietly in bed ourselves, or have heard a loved one’s weeping.

There’s no cause for shame in mental illness, no cause to feel isolated. We only think we’re alone because we’re so tight-lipped, so scared. Every time I’ve lost a beloved someone to suicide, people have emerged from the shadows to confess that they had, too.

How can we combat this scourge if we don’t face the darkness squarely? How better to nurture and bulwark our own peace of mind than to name the insanity, call it out, give it form, understand it, find its weakness, see its depths? How better to stay sane and alive ourselves — which are, in the end, one and the same thing?

So let’s talk about it. Really. And let’s start now.

hello, and swasti astu

Here I am, in the trashbag aisle of the supermarket, when a 60ish guy with a muss of a beard brushes past and mutters it. “How ya doin’.”

I glance over. His left arm is clutching tupperware to his chest like a baby. Hanging from his left arm, a six-pack of coke.

He isn’t even looking at me, so I don’t respond. That would be senseless. That’s not part of his plan. He seriously doesn’t give a shit how I’m doin’.

I push my cart to the dairy case, toss in generic Greek yogurt and half-and-half. Then I push it into a checkout line and pull up to a woman with six-inch hoops hanging from her face. I’m temporarily mesmerized by them, wondering why on earth I don’t wear earrings that big, when she mutters it, too.

“How ya doin’.”

She isn’t looking at me, either. She gives about as much of a shit as the guy in the Hefty aisle. But I do my part.

Fine, I say. How ya doin’.

She still isn’t looking, but she does her part, too.


Well. Phew. Good thing we took care of this hollow but somehow gravely significant ort of social etiquette. But on the walk through the lot back to my car, rolling my yogurts along the tarmac, I wonder why we do it. And I wonder whether it wouldn’t be nice to do away with “How ya doin’s” — and all of its variations, from “How are you” to “What’s shakin'” — unless we actually mean it. Unless we actually want to hear a true response.

It wouldn’t be easy, given the habit-forming business of having mouthed “how are you” about 13 katroollion times since birth, or at any rate since we all started dumbly parroting everything we heard. It also wouldn’t be easy to process the answers we might get: “Thanks, my hemorrhoids flared up this morning, but they’re a little better now” or “Glad you asked! Last night I sucked face with the handsomest guy!” or “Actually, I was just bawling my eyes out in the bathroom; are my cheeks stained?”

Because, seriously, what if we’re not all fine? What if our worlds just came crashing down around our heads in little painful shards? I was discussing this with someone whose world had, in fact, recently imploded, and I was apologizing for the dumbassedly reflexive way I had opened our conversation with “how are you?” Is there anything more trivializing?

So I propose we come up with some viable alternative. I’ve tried “What’s going on?,” but that one feels brassy and belligerent. (Like, what do you think I’ve got goin’ on, man? And you got a problem with it?) “What’s up?” is too cutesy. “What’s happening!” is too late-1970s sitcom with canned yuks and bell bottoms. “How goes it” is a bit too brusque, and not much of an improvement over “how are you.” As for the previously noted “What’s shakin’,” the last time I deployed it on someone, the person looked at me as though I had just opened my mouth and spat out a giraffe.

My father Louis, a passionate amateur linguist, had a phrase he often used when he bumped into people on his daily constitutionals: “Swasti astu.” It means “bless you” or “peace be with you” in Balinese, and I think it’s dandy. I might start using it myself.

Anyone have any better ideas?

this too shall pass

This weekend, I got a stomach bug. I will not go into any great detail, as I prefer not to offend the tender sensibilities of those I offended with last week’s horrifying mold photo, and if you suspect I’m going to find endless (and endlessly lame) excuses to link to it from future posts, you are correct.

But the stomach bug. Not the worst I ever got, but bad enough. What struck me, early on, was that old familiar sense of abandoning myself to the fates — that what-the-hell, here-we-go, whoop-dee-do resignation as I accepted the fact that I’d be flat-out miserable for the next 8 to 24 hours. And I was. Again: no great detail.

But here’s the kicker: I knew that I wouldn’t be miserable forever. I regarded this stroke of bad luck as finite, and in a flash, I recognized spasmodic abominable gastrointestinal distress as the perfect metaphor for life’s periodic grips of pain. They sneak up and slam us flat and maybe render us useless (or weak and dehydrated and headachy, with that awful, scraping burn at the back of the throat), but we know from that first stab in the gut that they won’t last forever. Maybe they’ll ease off, dupe us into thinking they’ve left, and then come back a few hours later with a fresh dump of agony. But then that’s over, too, and we awake in the morning with a clear head and an irrational swell of optimism. Life is good, right? Fantastic. Primo. Except when it ain’t.

Everything’s finite. Everything cycles in and out. Good and bad, clean health and illness, joys and sorrows: they all come and go, obeying some unfathomable but relentless clock that won’t let us live with anything for long, whether it’s a welcome anything or an unwelcome anything. Stomach bugs seize us and leave (sometimes at our children’s athletic events, no great detail), but so do bouts of wonder. So often we’re clenched by blessings — embraced by a child, caressed by a lover — in moments that feel eternal but end all too soon.

This weekend’s virus didn’t quite feel eternal, although certain moments in certain places hold a certain accursed fixedness in my imagination, and here’s where I really want to explain to that woman in the UAlbany restroom Saturday morning that I really wasn’t drunk. No great detail. But even in the most abysmal throes, I kept reminding myself that I’d feel better eventually, whether “eventually” meant later that day or, as it turned out, Annie’s bottom-dollar-betting tomorrow.

I’m sure I’ll get hit with another stomach bug someday. And when I do, I’m sure it will involve 8 to 24 hours of flat-out misery. But right now, typing these words, all is well. My kids are happy and accounted for; my bills are paid; my house is warm; my stomach is at peace, even downright euphoric with relief, and so am I. It’s just a moment. It will pass. But for now it’s a gift, and I’ll take it.