believe it or not

I had an interesting conversation with an atheist the other night. Where, when, who, what circumstances: doesn’t matter. What matters was the shared conclusion we drew concerning the nature of and extent of the human capacity to believe. Which, again, boils down to: doesn’t matter. I believe it doesn’t matter. She believes it doesn’t matter. What anyone believes only matters to the extent that it affects how we treat one another in this convoluted, sometimes painful, often beautiful, always-taxing world we live in.

I believe in all sorts of things. She does not. But I also believe that what she doesn’t believe doesn’t affect my beliefs one whit, nor do they prevent her from being a decent and loving person.

She believes that many believers don’t believe everything they’re supposed to believe. And I believe that she’s correct. I don’t always believe everything I’m supposed to believe. Sometimes I’m incapable of believing. But I believe anyway, because the struggle itself is a form and expression of belief. I believe, yes, but I also realize that sometimes I can’t. This realization is itself belief.

Let me explain myself.

I didn’t always believe. I was once an atheist, too. My late parents were initially non-believers, my father devoutly so. I grew up believing only in the miraculous vastness of humankind and the need to drill down deep inside one’s core for moral guidance. Jesus was a good man, my mother said. She believed that. We all did. We believed his message of love, of serving the poor. But that son of God business? Dying into eternal life, blah blah blah? I didn’t go there.

Even when I began to believe, I understood that my own belief can never depend on my credulity: i.e., my faith can’t be pegged on whether This Actually Happened or That Actually Didn’t. So if I can’t wrap my head around, say, transubstantiation, I don’t sweat it, because no one can wrap their heads around transubstantiation. Our heads aren’t big enough to wrap around transubstantiation. Wouldn’t it be strange if they were?

Part of what I believe is that my brain is too limited, too small, too confined by this pressing and solid world, to grasp the things that span beyond it. That’s a major element of my faith, this belief in my own cramped capacity for belief. I believe that I’m more than the neural squishiness within my cranium. I believe that I’m not well-equipped to comprehend, much less believe, the infinite and complex wonder that is the unseen Other. I believe that I’m incapable of true belief, and that’s the basis for my belief.

And whether I or anyone believes that a piece of baked good literally morphs into the body of Christ doesn’t affect how I carry that chunk of God into the world. Because I believe I should be carrying it anyway.

And if I’m not? Then everything else I believe just doesn’t matter.

in defense of daydreaming

One morning, while munching on toast with Nutella, I found myself chewing on something else: reports that psychiatrists are now zeroing in on a new way to categorize, diagnose and (possibly) further medicate children. Specifically, daydreaming children. Because, this was news to me, these very children apparently suffer from something called “sluggish cognitive tempo.”

As I am not myself the speediest of thinkers, this took me a while to process. Sluggishness set in post-haste. But once my lollygagging intellect helpfully kicked into gear, my first response was:

Crap! No? Really?

My second response was: Of course! Why not! Let’s just medicate people right out of the womb! Psych diagnoses for EVERYBODY! HURRAH!

Finally, the plodding lump of soft tissue known as my brain noted the pairing of “sluggish” and “tempo,” which suggests a sheet-music designation for agonizingly slow symphonic music. As in: Adagio, Largo, Lento, Larghissimo and Sluggish. Can’t you just hear Toscanini’s angry direction to the woodwinds on this one? “Oboes! Stupidos! Slower, slower! That passage is tempo sluggishimo!”

As I (slowly) read more about this, I (slowly) became more confused. “They’re the daydreamy ones,” explains an expert-ish-y person to The New York Times, “the ones with work that’s not turned in, leaving names off of papers or skipping questions, things like that, that impinge on grades or performance. So anything we can do to understand what’s going on with these kids is a good thing.”

Wow. Great. You want to know what’s going on? SO ASK THEM. Ask “these kids” what they’re thinking about, where they are, when they’re daydreaming. Because I’m here to tell you they’re somewhere. What looks like nowhere to everybody else is actually a place of rich and idiosyncratic cognition; I say this as a person who’s spent 50 years in a semi-permanent space-out, elbow on desk, chin on hand, drool snaking down the side of my mouth. But the time spent in that airless, drooling vacuum isn’t all bad.

Slow thinking isn’t wrong thinking, ineffective thinking or counter-productive thinking. It’s oblique and improvisational thinking — thinking that goes on a cavernous detour and then returns into the daylight with some newfound chunk of understanding (often accompanied by a hypoxic gasping for air). It’s mental spelunking.

I do this all the time and always have. I tune out; sometimes I tune out so far that people are forced to wave their arms and bleat AMY AMY AMY AMY AMY or MOM MOM MOM MOM MOM until I blink awake, muttering a slurred Whaaaaaaaapplllll? And I have a tape delay: Sometimes I need a second or two for things to register. My mom used to call this “coming in slow freight.” She also used to say, “Sometimes it takes a while for the stone to reach the bottom of the well.” What’s more, she often said “people’s ears keep growing throughout their lives,” and maybe she was right (when I’m 90, will my lobes be slapping against my thighs?), although this has nothing to do with cognition.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is this: my first-gear cognition hasn’t ruined my life. True, I spaced on my GRE’s, ignoring an entire page of bubble questions, but I didn’t need them to apply to J-school, anyway. Columbia took me anyway. I made deadlines anyway. Life unfolded anyway. And now and then, in the midst of my mental meandering, I go somewhere interesting or useful. I stumble across some revelatory nugget of truth that helps me out, or inspires me to write, or pushes me forward. But this landscape can’t be traveled quickly. It takes time, and that’s okay.

twenty-one signs of spring

no appendages were harmed in the making of this photo

no appendages were harmed in the making of this photo

We all have our signs of spring. For some, it’s the rhythmic tattoo of woodpeckers. For others, the first peeking violet of crocuses. For many, it’s allergies. Still others: the heady whiff of driveway sealant.

Me, I have pale skin and leftovers as my go-to vernal signifiers. Also, how’s this for springtime observances? I just put away my snow shovel.

Yes! And no, I’m not afraid! Some may fear that I’ve just jinxed this recent spell of perfect weather, just as I ruined the last spell of perfect weather by (gasp) wearing shorts. Northerners are nothing if not superstitious about our seasonal pagan rituals, which stop just shy of human sacrifice. Which, I realize, I may well be inviting upon myself. I’m not sure what violence my neighbors will wreak upon me if it snows again: Drape me by my pinkies from the bell tower of Albany City Hall while the carillon plays “Michelle”? If so, that would be tragic. It would, however, prevent me from wearing shorts again in the future.

But hope springs. . . and springs. . . and springs. I’m not worried about the snow shovel. I’m feeling pretty confident that this is it, O People of the Rock Salt. Today, at last, spring is upon us. Here’s how I know:

1. Leftover ham. I hadn’t realized this, but the chunk of pink, salty flesh I purchased for Easter was enough to feed everyone I know, and, as previously discussed, I know every last person in Albany short of Governor Andy. But only 15 people sat down to dinner in my house. So there is enough left over in my fridge for the remaining 96,985 residents.

2. My wet basement, which floods and smells like joy.

3. No more footless pantyhose. Bet you haven’t heard this one before. In the winter I snip the feet and wear them as long underwear. Great idea, huh? You’ll be relieved to know I’ve now stopped doing that. You read it here first.

4. The ice cream truck. I’ve always welcomed this as a harbinger of happiness and warmth, even when my kids were small and its clanging music-box iteration of “Für Elise” ROUSED THEM FROM THEIR AFTERNOON NAPS and THEY WOKE DEMANDING SPONGEBOB POPSICLES. The thing came down my street on Sunday. Yup. Just what kids need on Easter: YET. MORE. SUGAR.

5. Circulation. It returns to my limbs! How amazing! Thanks to an uptick in the temperature, I no longer lose bloodflow in my smallest, most vulnerable appendages, a not-uncommon phenomenon that often requires me to run them under hot water or, if no sink is available, bite them. (Do I do this with my toes as well as my fingers? You may ask, but I refrain to answer, preferring to maintain an air of mystery.)

6. Leftover ham.

7. Hatless sleeping. No, wait. That’s a lie. The hat comes off in June. And yes, I sleep with a hat. What can I say. I’m weird.

8. Shorts. I mentioned these above, but only in the context of Ways in Which I’ve Screwed Up Spring For Every Single Person in Upstate New York. Still, I do it. I wear them. I wore them again before Easter. I wriggled my lower body into this truncated cotton legwear despite the possibility of causing a wintry meteorological event of pseudo-biblical proportions. And despite. . .

9. . . . my blinding white legs. A related sign: the mobs of passersby, cruelly and totally blinded, their hands before their faces, their corneas seared to crispy wafers, their mouths howling in pain and horror at my approach.

10. In yet more appendage-related news: stubbed toes from lurching around barefoot. As a kid, I broke them with such frequency that a friend diagnosed my condition as “ame-foot-hurt-itis.” Now I just stub the shit out of them. Passersby howl in pain and horror at the sight of those, too.

11. Leftover double-liters of crap-generic soda that no one drinks, at Easter dinner or any other time.

12. Leftover desserts that I consume for breakfast.

13. Did I mention leftover ham?

14. The scent of dead leaves.

15. Scratched, stinging forearms from pruning the bushes that gnarl the perimeter of my teensy but shrubbery-packed front and back yards.

16. The scent of defrosted dog doo-doo.

17. The whine of buzz saws. Not mine. Other people’s. Considering the wounds I incur just by pruning and walking barefoot, I wouldn’t trust myself with one of those things.

18. Rowers on the Hudson.

19. In yet more shorts- and appendage-related news: cyclists in clinging bolts of shiny black spandex.

20. Children.

  • The infants born over the winter who appear, bundled in strollers, their moist, open faces shifting from thrilled curiosity (what a big world!) to shuddering worry (what a big world!) and back again;
  • The toddlers who bolt outside naked to pee. This doesn’t happen every year, and I don’t always witness it when it does (I did this year), but it is as sure a sign of spring as the cadence of the phoebe;
  • The older kids, notably taller after long months of hibernation, who emerge to play basketball at the hoop in front of my house. They say “hi” with lower voices, their faces more defined, their bearings more mature.

Kids growing up: what better and lovelier evidence of spring can we ever hope for? And finally. . .

21. Leftover ham.

the broken one

Every year around this time, those of us who try to walk the path first walked by a rabbi from Nazareth are faced, again and always, with the oxymoronic wounded God that we all follow.

By definition Jesus was divine. By definition he was human. And because he was human, he had to break; he had to die; God had to do what we all do. And before he died, he did what we all do: he agonized.

Most people regard Easter as the holiday that sets Christians apart from others. If we remove the miraculous conception, Christmas is easy to comprehend: A baby is born! Yay hurray! Bring on the chocolate Santas! But Easter? A man, put away to rot inside a tomb, waking and rising and walking again among his friends? That’s a whole lot of supernatural stuffy-stuff to swallow, and yet I swallow it each and every time I receive Communion.

But I think of Easter as the great and unifying narrative arc that speaks to our grubby mortal essence. Imagine a God who chooses to die in sympathy with the entirety of humankind: What would that mean? It would mean a birth, and a life, and tears, and a wound, and a death, but it would also mean something more. He is God, after all; the bar is set rather high. And what means more in the wake of death than life?

I don’t believe that Jesus came to save the lucky few who see and worship him as I do. I believe he came and saved everyone, past or present, from well before his time to long after ours. I believe that we’re always saved, always broken, always doomed to die and yet always touched by the divine. I believe that God’s Now is forever, and that if, as Paul wrote, “Christ died for the ungodly,” then that means every last blooming one of us, from devout believers to utter atheists with every conceivable subset and gradation in between.

Who isn’t broken? Who’s not ungodly? Who isn’t pained by life and its burdens? This brokenness is one big reason I converted and one big reason I still believe: because I am sloppy mess! And so I follow the one who gets my sloppy-messiness and feels my pain. The dude lived it.

So tonight the kids and I head off to the Holy Thursday Mass —
the evocation of Jesus’ Last Supper, which was, quite possibly, a Seder on the opening night of Passover. Do this, he’ll say, and break the bread. Tomorrow he’ll die on the cross with a gash in his side. On Easter, he’ll rise.

And then he’ll start all over again, and we will, too.

of ‘of mice and men’

I’m slouched down in seat K 17 at the Longacre Theatre in Manhattan, valiantly fighting off sleep deprivation (I’ve been up since 3:30 a.m.), when “Of Mice and Men” does something altogether ghastly. It ends the usual way.


And I’m like, REALLY, MR. STEINBECK? Are you SERIOUS about this? Did you have to do this AGAIN? I suffer from this same inflamed well-up of outrage every time I submit myself to “Tosca” (I hate your guts, Puccini!) and “West Side Story” (Bernstein and Shakespeare can both go to hell!) and “Les Misérables” (Victor Hugo sucks silver candlesticks!), and I know it’s irrational, but since when is there anything rational about theater-going? Or book-reading? Or movie-watching? Or, for that matter, sitting around a cave with our hunter-gatherer buddies, listening to the hairy old storyteller with the dirty fingernails and the creepy face-tat spin that long, tragic yarn about mastodons — the one that ends with the entire tribe getting trampled and gored? I don’t know about you, but every single time I hear that one, I’m always secretingly hoping it’ll end some other way. (Does the brave young spearthrower HAVE to get eviscerated?)

But we do this. We submit ourselves to fictional tragedy on a regular basis. I’m not sure why. It’s not like we suffer from any particular dearth of it in our real lives. These aren’t wish-fulfillment fantasies: “Oh, I’ll never be impaled by a mastodon tusk in real life! So now’s my chance!” Or maybe they are; maybe, by participating in regular doses of trauma-by-literary-proxy, we’re witnessing the worst of life from the safety of our cushy velvet seats.

The one I’ve been sitting in is over-priced: I bought the tickets from an online resale joint as a belated 18th-birthday present for my daughter Jeanne, who is a devoted if self-aware (and therefore somewhat ironic) James Franco fan. Franco plays George — one of the itinerant ranch workers who act out the depressingly depressing Steinbeckian vision that is “Mice” — and he’s good. The other main character, the one whose behavior proves so instrumental to all that depressingly depressing depression, is the large, limited Lennie, played by the normally Irish and gangly Chris O’Dowd. He’s also normally hilarious. Here he is not. Here he is a figure of terrible power and heartbreaking powerlessness, and I wouldn’t call him gangly, either. Why, he isn’t even Irish.

He is, however, amazing. So amazing that my first thought at the play’s conclusion, right after NO NO NO NOT AGAIN and THAT JERK STEINBECK MUST BE KIDDING is that someone ought to hand O’Dowd a Tony. Immediately. At curtain call. Just run right up to him, shove it into his fists and then back off, allowing a mass of screaming admirers to fall upon him with little glad cries. “Thank you for depressing the hell out of us so beautifully!” they should yell. “Thank you for bringing this doomed character to life, just so we could watch and be reminded, once again, of the hopeless and aimless misery of human existence and the heartless cruelty of Steinbeck!!”

Sadly, that doesn’t happen.

Afterward, my daughter and I join the large and expanding horde of Franco-worshippers at the stage door, most of them much less ironic than she is. We wait and wait and wait, Jeanne hoping for a selfie with him in the background, me hoping for a picture of Jeanne with him in the background. While we wait, O’Dowd comes out and works the horde, signing autographs and shaking hands. I can’t hear anything from my spot across the street, so I can’t say for sure whether anyone is thanking him for crushing their spirits.

An inquisitive Franco nudnik pipes up behind me.

NUDNIK: Who’s he?!
ME: It’s Chris O’Dowd.
NUDNIK: But who is he?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. He’s in the play. He’s fantastic.
NUDNIK: But, like, who is he?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. Irish guy.
NUDNIK: And he’s. . . who?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. He’s in “Of Mice and Men.” He was in “Bridesmaids”. . . ?
NUDNIK: But he’s, umm, who?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. Normally he’s funny. In “Of Mice and Men” he isn’t. But he’s terrific, just great.
NUDNIK: Who is he?
ME: Shut the HELL UP, Franco Nudnik! I hate you almost as much as I hate Steinbeck!

I don’t say that last part. But I kind of wish I had.

O’Dowd moves around the crowd and then heads down the street, away from us, so I don’t get a chance to thank him for making me miserable.


nerd for life

cup o' shat

cup o’ shat

I was 13 when I fell in love with “Star Trek” and its studly captain, James T. Kirk. This is a true fact. This is also a known fact, as I’ve written about it before. Among the truest, factiest things I’ve written about it is something most people would go to their graves without revealing: namely, that I had a dream about William Shatner the morning before my mother died in 1994. In it, I recited her obituary to him. Yes! Fact-o-licious! Depressing and cringe-inducing, but also kind of funny, right? You have to admit you’re laughing; I am.

Anyway, the Shatner revelation is sort of fitting, as my mother cared approximately zilch what other people thought of her, and she once predicted that I’d reach a stage in life when the same was true of me. I was around 15 when she made this insightful prognostication, so you can just imagine how I received it. As I recall, I moaned out long, ballooning vowel sounds along the lines of MooooOOOOOOOooooooOOOOOm, followed by eyerolls so dramatic that mama had to yank them back with a crowbar.

How right she was about me. How little I care, these days. And how I would love to deliver this news to my former self. Imagine if I could just sail back in time to the late 1970s and drop in unannounced on Teen Amy (sounds like a horror film, doesn’t it?) as she pores over her “Star Trek” novels and drips saliva all over her hot-hot-hot Shatner pictures. I’d say, HEY KID, LOOSEN UP, and MAMA’S RIGHT, YOU WON’T GIVE A SNOT and LOOK AT HOW GRAY YOU’LL BE AT 50. I might also add, SHATNER MORPHS INTO A REALLY ODD DUCK AS HE GETS OLDER, but this might traumatize the poor pubescent lass. Besides, the same could be said of me.

And now that I think of it, being a Trekkie and a Shatnerphile was good preparation for life. It gave me a chance to define myself early on; it gave me a sense of myself, a secret inner understanding that became less and less secret over time.

At first I was just a nerd. Then I was a self-aware nerd, a nerd willing to admit as much to herself in the quiet of her cluttered bedroom. Then I became a nerd who bonded with fellow Trekkies. Finally, after talking about Tribbles or Klingons or Spock pinches in larger groups and not liquefying from embarrassment or public opprobrium, I became a nerd who didn’t much care what other people thought of her nerd-dom. If not a proud nerd, then an open nerd. A nerd without apologies. A nerd for life.

And one more thing: Mama had a crush on Shatner, too.

i guess i’m feeling a little bitter

the last damn hunk of ice in albany, new york is on my lawn

this had better be the end of it

My Dearest, Dearest Winter,

Now that you’re standing at the doorway with your bags in hand, saying your drawn-out goodbyes with that smug final glance over your shoulder, I just have to say it:

Good riddance.

I know, I’m being rude. But you and I have shared strong words before. And don’t you dare tell me your feelings are hurt, because I know better. You and your chilly, unsympathetic nature! You with your ice-coated sidewalks (do you not care who slips?) and skyrocketing heating bills! You shredded my wallet, man. Thanks to you, I stopped feeding my children so I could pay National Grid; are you aware they haven’t eaten since late October? NO? OK. Slight exaggeration. I actually fed them dinner tonight: perogies with sour cream and sauteed vegetables. But DO YOU CARE, Mr. Frosty the Snow “Man”? I think not. And yes, I just impugned your masculinity.

For the record, I am STILL a quote-unquote “four-season kind of gal,” and proud of it. I’m just not a quote-unquote “glutton for punishment”; a girl knows when she’s quote-unquote “had enough.” I don’t complain when it comes to normal winters, and I don’t care if I’m suggesting there’s something just a little bit abnormal about you. Because you, sir, are a freak.

A decent, self-respecting winter provides five things: opportunities to sled, skate and ski, especially with our brothers; a lovely white coating to hide unscooped lumps of dog shit dotting the streets; an excuse to sit inside and flab out while eating chocolate-covered pretzels and watching old episodes of “The Office”; a delightful, we’re-in-it-together grass-roots neighborliness and community building when snow falls and temperatures plummet; and a chance to feel morally superior to everyone who lives in warmer climes with lesser winters.

Of course, one cares not for moral superiority when one has lost all circulation in one’s toes and fingers. And I’ll tell you a secret about the permafrosty dog poop: Once winter ends, it’s all still there. Still sitting pretty (or whatever) as though nothing ever happened. The least you could do is take it with you when you leave. I’m sure there’s room in your suitcase.

What’s that you say? You say I’ll feel differently four months from now, when it’s 98 degrees out and 100 percent humidity and my eyelids are melting off my face? You say I’ll find myself yearning for your cool embrace, your chilly virility, your icy mien? That I’ll fling myself at you the way I always do, oohing and ahhing at your first soft draping over an earth that’s brown with autumn? That I’ll blush anew with my fondness for you?

Maybe I’ll love you again someday. But I’m done with you now, that’s for sure. So shut up. Get out of here. Hustle your XXXXL snow pants out of here, and don’t come back until you know how to treat a lady.

But wait — you dropped a mitten.

two moments, one sister

Odd, how memories are linked. Even the most disparate ones, removed by time and distinct in feeling, can conjoin in the strangest ways.

Consider these two: one brutal, one loving.

My sister Lucy and I were driving along a winding Connecticut road late one night, early one summer, en route to visiting our parents. I don’t remember when it was exactly, sometime after her first suicide attempt. 1989, maybe? 1990?

I was at the wheel of my old Toyota Tercel. Good car. Ugly car. We were blabbing, probably about men, which was normal for us. I had a crush on a guy named Ian. It was around 11:30 or midnight.

And then up ahead, blitzing toward us from around a curve, came a small coupe chased by a police cruiser.

Oh my God, I said to Lucy. I hate high-speed chases. Too often they end with some innocent passerby getting killed.

We started chatting about this. I started telling her about the statistics I’d read on the subject, the news stories I’d written about crashes. But I only started, because less than a minute later, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw that same little coupe screaming up behind us from the opposite direction. The chase had turned around and backtracked.

I looked ahead and saw a blind curve.

That’s when the coupe passed us straight over the double yellow line and into the blindness, and as it did, a second car whipped around the curve from the other direction, and again I said, Oh, my God, and I pulled onto the shoulder, and the cars screamed head-on into each other, launching upward, upward, the smashed metal firing sparks into the night. And they sounded like a bomb.

The oncoming car rocketed through the black and crashed behind us.

The other, the coupe, took its time. It hung in the air forever. When it landed, the ball of steel rolled toward us, still sparking, and for a split second of ghostly calm I watched and wondered if it would crush us. It finally came to a halt about 15 feet ahead, spraying the windshield with shattered glass.

The cops arrived. Then the ambulance. Then the barefoot woman running down the road, yelling, “My husband! My husband!” Then more cops. Lucy and I spoke to the new ones, who separated us and took our stories, then compared their notes and returned looking ashen.

Turned out the first cops had been called off the chase but kept going anyway. The young guy in the sports coupe had been drinking. They had his plate. But they wanted to nail him that night, driving those double-yellow roads in the blackness.

The innocent passerby died.

Months later we spoke to an investigator on the defense team of the sports coupe driver, who’d had too much to drink. He survived. But not whole. Not with the cognitive ability to stand trial.

I think about that night, sometimes. I once got bumped from jury duty on a case with a high-speed chase; I had to confess my bias. That’s the deadliest trauma I’ve ever witnessed firsthand, and I’ve wondered since about people at war who see so much. The terrible and pyrotechnic vision replays in the same slow motion as it did a quarter century ago.

Yet what I remember most, after the accident itself and that poor, distraught, shoeless woman running through the night, was the conversation I had with Lucy as we drove away.

“Ame,” she said.

It happened so fast, I said.

“We didn’t die.”

No, I said. No, we didn’t.

“I guess it’s not my time,” she said. “I guess I’m supposed to live a little while longer.”

Yeah. You are. You will.

And she did, for a little while. Long enough to see me get married. Long enough to be my maid of honor.

Long enough to sit beside me at the altar, reach for my hand in a moment of quiet and squeeze it with love.

I have no more violent memory than that head-on collision. I have no sweeter memory of my sister than her gentle touch at my wedding. But I can’t remember the former without remembering the latter, because she couldn’t have held my hand if she hadn’t survived.

The extra time with her was a gift. That moment at the altar was a gift. It hangs in eternity, too.