out of control

My brother Danny and I were chatting about abandonment over the weekend. Yup! We were! And wasn’t that fun! No, we weren’t discussing the trauma of being dumped in a back alley with greasy hair and a torn Whitesnake t-shirt with nothing to eat but stale Ritz; I’m happy to say that kind of abandonment hasn’t happened to either of us. Phew. That’s a relief. No, we were gabbing about how little control we have over anything that happens to us on This Spinning Ball of Mud and Wal-Marts where, for just wee bit, we seem to reside. What little authority we have over big things, little things, in-betweeny things. Try as we might to understand and affect the arcs of these things, the universe and all its merry occupants are mostly beyond our ken and jurisdiction.

Danny remarked that everyone wants to control the world, but the idea that anyone can is “delusional.” He finds more inner peace, he said, with accepting people as they are than trying to sway them. And trust me, my brother is one persuasive fellow (said she, recalling her near-butt experience on a psycho-twisted icy black diamond that she skied at his suggestion). He’s persuasive even on the subject of not trying to persuade.

So, what choice did I have, I agreed with him. But I would have anyway. Because really, what influence do I have over any of the fundamental interactions that rule the cosmos? Weak force? Nuclear? Gravity? Electromagnetism? That’d be awesome to control! If I could control that, I could wrap myself and everyone I love in protective force fields like the ones they had on “Star Trek.” Then all that bad shit would bounce off their personal deflector-bubbles and splat into the Romulans instead.

The “Star Trek” analogy hit me, as “Star Trek” often analogies do, after eight seconds of deliberation. After another eight seconds of deliberation, which I performed just so I can appear to be a deeply reflective person chewing on a giant garlicky pickle, I concluded that there are, in fact, a grand total of four things over which I have control:

1) Nothing;
2) Nothing;
3) How I respond to everything that happens to me; and
4) Nothing.

Sometimes Numbers 1, 2 and 4 involve the stuff of sweetness and light. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes they involve the stinky and the dark. Jobs being scored, babies being born: Good stuff. Layoffs and deaths: Crap stuff. Danny’s right; we can’t control any of the people, forces and things inside our worlds.

But no matter what the sweetness-to-stink quotient of such nothings and everythings, Number 3 is vitally important in the aftermath. If hunger happens to me, I respond to it by putting wasabi peas into my mouth (or not). If love happens to me, I respond to it by giving my whole heart back (or not). If injustice happens to me or someone else, I respond to it by speaking truth to power (or not).

The tricky part lies in its figuring-out, in the mystifying calculus occasioned by all that happens to us. That’s where the posture of abandonment makes the least sense and yet requires the most of us — because, and this is the part I can’t stand, we must abandon ourselves to the powerful likelihood that we’ll make the wrong decision. We could screw up. We could put the wrong things in our mouths; love the wrong person or not love the right one enough; say the wrong thing or go mute at the wrong time.

I don’t know about any of you, but this scares the shit out of me: I hate making asinine and off-the-mark decisions. I hate making a boob out of myself, whether my boobishness is minor or monumental. And yet the universe is pretty darned insistent that I take that chance on a regular basis, or what’s the point? Are we just going to flop over in the face of Numbers 1, 2 and 4? Do nothing? Lie prostrate, planking ourselves before the gathered cosmic forces of all that we can’t control?

The toughest and most important form of abandonment to master is that one that says: I could be an ass. I probably AM an ass. I might do the wrong thing. I might make the wrong choice. And then, what the hell, I make it anyway.

don’t kick this

What a strange thing, to be alive. To be conscious and yet unknowing. To shove forward into the formless dark believing light must lie somewhere ahead, cloaked and scattered by obstacles that absorb our attention and sap our faith.

But shove forward we do, not out of virtue or spit or strength but something primal and undeniable, something that resists all reason and every hard-won past experience that tells us we shouldn’t. Habit. We live out of habit. And thank God that we do, because habit puts us to bed each night, habit wakes us to the sun each day, habit has us flossing and toiling and driving on the right to avoid collision and doing all that we do because we’ve always done it, we’ve always flossed and toiled and driven on the right, and our worlds only function if we do it. Even in the thick of impossible pain.

Habit got me and my kids through the first 24 hours after my husband’s death. It got us through the first week, then the first month, then the first year. It’s gotten us all the way through two years and eight months (almost), and it’ll get us through the next year and the next year and every year thereafter. It gets. It goes. We move. And as we move, only if we move, milling along through force of habit, we run across strange new joys. Habit can yield miracles, if we let it.

Because hoping and loving are habits, too. Often we do it and feel like fools. Hope for the wrong thing, love the wrong person at the wrong time, feel like a boob. KICK THOSE HABITS, the Ego barks at the Id. And don’t we all want to? Don’t we all wish we could? But then the drop-kicked habit yields another kind of pain, the ingrown agony of never loving, never hoping, never living. Better to love and risk being wrong. Better to hope as a rebuke to despair, as a veiny middle finger pitched into the darkness. Better to live out of habit, because only the habit can bring us to light.

good morning, grandma

I had ten minutes to kill last night. I was sitting in my car, waiting to pick up my daughter and ferry her to an event downtown, and I was, as the Brits say, knackered. Why they say this, I don’t know. But I was short on sleep. My eyeballs sagged and squished and spilled out of my sockets with fatigue; ugly sight. Not wanting to scare anybody, I dropped down the car seat, lowered down my eyelids and tried to doze.

I was maybe two minutes into this endeavor when I heard a flock of kids walk past, flapping their lips about nothing of interest to me. But apparently I was of interest to them. Apparently the sight of a snoozing, hoary-headed 50-year-old lady-thing reclining in an electric-blue Honda was too much for this group of proximate man-lings, who felt compelled to express their interest with the aid of an ancient and useful term that I’ve been trying to keep off of this blog. (I want you to know I made no such valiant efforts at self-censorship when writing my batshitty little book, or, more recently, when I burned my elbow cooking this evening. And sorry, I am not going to attempt to explain how One might burn One’s elbow cooking, though it’s safe to say it demands the flexibility of a world-class gymnast. But you’ll just have to imagine that for yourself.)

So the bevy of boys whooshed past my car. I sensed their presence. I smelled their testosterone. I heard their voices, though I cared not what they said. Until they started saying things about me. To me. Colorful, pithy things.

Things like: “Look! She’s sleeping!” (Which they’d obviously never witnessed before. No one they know EVER does that.)

And: “Ha ha ha!”

And: “Hey! Wake up!”

And again: “Ha ha ha!”

And finally: “Wake the (insert word or related Dutch cognate here) up, Grandma!”

With a conclusive: “HA HA HA!”

And then they walked away, leaving a cloud of testosterone behind them.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear on a few points. One: I am not anti-testosterone. If I were, WOULD I HAVE CHILDREN, PEOPLE? Second: I am not anti-teenager. I have a few of those myself, I’ve known many such creatures in the course of my life, and I once spent several years in very similar embryonic state, although I’m pretty sure I never tried to rouse a gray-haired lady from a power nap, with or without the forceful slang. Third: I am not anti-cursing, though I’m guessing I didn’t need to reassure you on that point.

Fourth: I really didn’t care. In the slightest. I wasn’t offended. In the slightest. I wasn’t sure why until it occurred to me that, hey, I might well be a grandma at this stage in the game. People are. But until that moment, until that pack of hormone-spritzing guy-lets strutted past my car, stating the obvious with a nice, fat, vulgar flourish, I hadn’t actually thought about it. I hadn’t considered grandmotherhood as something within reach.

Holy aging matriarchs! I could be one. I could have grandchildren, and I hope and pray I will — though not yet, no hurry, it’ll wait. But someday. And when I do, I’ll be sure to wake the eff up.

my parents in love

amazing mama and daddy
Every once in a while, yielding to some ideopathic spasm of curiosity or boredom, I drift into the attic storage room and pull something from a box. I have many boxes in there. Some have known contents: the Christmas stuff, the Easter stuff, the Halloween stuff, the unloved-toys-and-neglected-hand-me-downs stuff. Others are packed with mystery, decades old, never sorted, sitting and crumbling with patience. After I lost my parents and sister in the early ’90s, I became the archivist by default, amassing milk crates and suitcases of papers and photos that I’d always meant to organize and someday actually will. Once my kids are all grown. Once I have all that free time. Once.

In the meantime, I drift now and then into the storage room and pull something out — a folder, an envelop, a binder that smells of paste and cracking paper. Tonight I pulled out two taped-together pieces of cardboard with my sister Lucy’s handwriting on one side: “DO NOT THROW AWAY (Precious Contents).” The tape looked undisturbed; whatever lurked within hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.

I disturbed it. And there I found an artifact I hadn’t known existed: a contact sheet featuring black-and-white photos of my mother and father years before I entered the picture. Late ’50s sometime. It’s a stunning relic, and not just because my parents are stunning, too: lovely ash-blonde Jeanne smiling on the lawn in a low afternoon sun; shirtless Louis, 16 years her senior but ever the show-off, in his beefcake poses and high-waisted pants. It stuns because I see in their faces and their bodies, in the beam of her smile and the brashness of his stance, the sexy, electric charge of early love.

This was a gaping-mouth moment for me. Not that I hadn’t seen the current of love between them throughout my childhood. It never faded; it grew. But it changed as they changed as he changed. In the strange and draggy years following my father’s suicide attempt in 1974 and the nine-day coma that followed, he lost both his short-term memory and his ability to do much around the house beyond washing dishes and dishing out praise.

He never lost his ebullient personality, thank God, and he retained an interest in other people that allowed him — even at his most senile — to greet strangers as friends, including those he had forgotten were friends already. They were all the same to him. The constant was my mother, and she was, indeed, constant. Mama did all the driving, all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the planning and bill-paying and college-hauling, all the money-earning, all the tax-paying, all the years and years of caring for her once-brilliant, always idiosyncratic, beautiful, caring, damaged husband. And all this while continuing to practice and play the violin everywhere and anywhere she could.

What hits me, now that I’m a single mother, was how alone she was in so many ways and how faithfully and abidingly she loved him. She never abandoned him. I can’t imagine that she imagined abandoning him. Sometimes she got angry; often she got tired, slumping at the end of the day with a bag of gummi worms and a crossword puzzle before some silly episode of “Magnum: P.I.” (“That man is so handsome,” she’d say. “Your father was that handsome. Handsomer. Hoo-boy.”) Her own health wasn’t great, and I often thought she stayed alive and moving forward on the steam of everyday busy-ness.

And love. “Jeannie,” my dad would say, “I worship you,” and she’d wave him off with a “cut that out.” But then she’d get up and kiss him, go off and cook for him, snap on the radio and work at the stove as he sat at the table behind her. They listened to the news together, then ate together, then he did the dishes and she did the bills. It wasn’t shirtless or sexy or giddy or brash; it wasn’t flush with desire in the sunshine. But it was love.
mama and daddy older

in praise of wooden clogs

exploit this

exploit this

Yesterday on my lunch hour, I tootled downtown to observe the Ancient and All-Hallowed Photo-Op of the Dutch Street Scrubbing that’s acted out, year after year, to kick off Albany’s Tulip Festival. No, that is not the official name of this event. And I hadn’t attended one in ages, not since I dragged my own wee girls to watch the young ladies from Albany High don their billowy cotton dresses and their clonking, cuspate wooden clogs and mop, if that’s the word, a few feet of lower State Street in a chipper approximation of bygone Netherlandish practices.

My girls are no longer wee. Not to imply that they’re excessively large, either. But one of them, this year, was tapped to participate as a Dutch Scrubber, thus prompting my mid-day parental tootling.

Watching her, I felt proud. That’s my daughter wearing the clogs! Yay! How grown-up she is! How adorable, clutching her broom! Smiling with her classmates with the Capitol looming behind them, under rain clouds that spit and threaten a downpour! How happy she looks, scrubbing away! How competent! How at ease! How can I get her to do that at home!

I also wondered, as I often have over my 23 years here, why the city of Albany doesn’t better capitalize on its history. Or not “better.” Try “at all.” Depending on how and when you define and peg its genesis (at its 1686 charter? at its settlement in 1614? at Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609?), it’s either the oldest damned city in the country, the second-oldest damned city in the country, or one of the oldest damned cities in the country.

In any case, it is REALLY FREAKING OLD. Did you know that? I bet you didn’t know that. Even if you live here. And so I ask: Why do tourists have to drive elsewhere for historic reenactments of quaintly hoary quasi-educational rituals performed by young people in uncomfortable clothing? Why must we confine ourselves to the Ancient and All-Hallowed Photo-Op of the Dutch Street Scrubbing? Why not build a model Fort Orange? Why not hire a full-time phalanx of smiling gals in pointy wooden footwear to entertain busloads of downstate school children and their exhausted chaperones?

This is not my idea. Smart people have floated it off and on for some time now, but watching the Dutch Scrubbers yesterday reminded me that this fine, quirky city should be doing a much better job at owning and exploiting its fine, quirky history. I don’t know why it hesitates. Must have something to do with its congenital geographic inferiority complex: in short, Albany’s too close to New York City to think too highly of itself.

When the ceremonial scouring had come to a close, and the girls had stopped smiling, and all attendant media had gathered up their cameras and left, I went over and said goodbye to my own Dutch Scrubber.

You look beautiful, I said.

“Thanks,” she said.

Your face must hurt from all that smiling, I said.

“It does,” she said, but somehow she managed a grin.

Will you be scrubbing the kitchen floor like that? I asked.

“No,” she said. And her grin grew even wider.

to plunge is to live

fso coverLately I’ve been proofing and putting the final touches on my book, and it’s madness. I’m cracking up: fixating on punctuation, agonizing over details, doubting every choice.

Then again, writing a book is madness. If you’re not crazy when you set out to write it (Hey! I know what I’ll do with all my free time! I’ll sit on my fat ass and try to squirt cogent thoughts out my ears!), you’re crazy by the end. Because, as I’ve said before and will probably say a shitillion times more, you never really finish a book. You just stop writing it. It’s the hardest thing one could ever possibly do with one’s time, and that includes: running a marathon; running a business; running a political campaign; running a carnival midway; and running a country. Please note I have never done any of these things, so you might well accuse me of talking out my ass (were I not actually sitting on it at the moment).

What’s made all of this harder than usual is the fact that my book revisits a not-so-carefree period in my life: the first year or so following my husband’s suicide in the fall of 2011. In many ways I’m still grieving and always will be (closure is twelve kinds of bullshit, you know that?), but working, re-working and re-re-working the manuscript has forced me to go back there, down there, WAY, WAY down there, far inside the stinking, brackish sinkhole of snot-infested early mourning. Am I mixing metaphors yet? Not quite? OK, well howzabout I throw in a nice lobotomical reference: Whenever I do something with the book, even if that something is as small as adding a comma, I unscrew the access plates on my skull and spoon out my deepest wounds.

But it’s good. Yes! It’s all good. I’m grateful to be doing this. And yes, that’s batty. Just as you have to be crazy to decide to write a book, you have to be more than a little crazy to embark down that career path at the start (“Mommy! Mommy! When I grow up I want to specialize in a recondite, intensely isolating and time-consuming field with almost no hope for financial recompense!”). But once you’re there, once you’re hunched over a keyboard in some attic or basement, you know what? Writing is not a bad way to figure shit out. It equips you well for the process of long-term crap evaluation that takes up an awful lot of life. Sticking around in this perplexing mortal realm means having to sort through everything that happens while we’re here, and that’s true no matter what you do for a living.

As I writer, I just have a habit of putting it down in writing. And it helps. It helped after I lost my parents and sister during a short, awful run in the early ’90s. Writing “House of Holy Fools” allowed me to frame what happened to them, turn their stories into narrative with paradigms and some poetic sense. I saw them as beautiful and brilliant eccentrics; I saw myself as richer for having known them, more alive for having told their tales.

I’m richer for having known Chris. I’m more alive for having told this tale — his, mine, our children’s.

And so, in these last gasps of proofing and editing my small, strange memoir of grief and pushing forward, I grieve and push forward again. Again I comprehend all that I lost when my husband jumped to his death; again I mourn his passing; again I look up, into the light of this moment, this day, this belated but radiant spring, and thank God for the gift of being here. Grief won’t die, but hope won’t, either.

dry beefeater martini up dirty olives

This weekend, my dad is visiting from Vermont. This particular dad (I’ve had two since 1963) gives me regular blasts of shit for all sorts of things, such as: apologizing too much; offering to pay for dinner; and offering to pay for dinner while apologizing too much. When I do any of these things he laughs and/or tells me I’m a stupid jerk and/or makes floridly imaginative threats of a sort that don’t bear repeating, at least not right now.

He gave me an assignment before coming: “Choose a really nice restaurant for Friday night. A really expensive place. A place where you would never take the kids.” When I suggested I might help pay for this, he gave me shit.

And so I followed his orders. And so he’s here. And so it’s Friday night. And so we find ourselves at a high-end restaurant in downtown Albany that specializes in steak.

We walk in. We’re taken to a table (actually two tables pushed together, and if you think this is a superfluous and irrelevant detail, just wait) with a spotless white cloth and four spotless white napkins. For reasons we do not immediately comprehend, the waitress removes the white napkins and replaces them with black ones. The four of us sit: me, Dad, my son, my daughter Jeanne.

Gee, we say to each other. I wonder why she did that. Hmmmm. That’s so weird. Ha ha ha.

We’re brought menus, which light up upon opening and irradiate our faces like tiny airport runways. This entertains us greatly. My kids and I have never before witnessed illuminated cartes du jour. No, we don’t get out much.

Drinks arrive: for me, red wine; for Dad, a DRY BEEFEATER MARTINI UP DIRTY OLIVES. That is an exact quotation. I am not martini-literate, and I have no idea where to insert the punctuation in such a drink. All I know is, he is quite particular about his DRY BEEFEATER MARTINI UP DIRTY OLIVES, and I do nothing to question the classification of this concoction or disturb him in the imbibing thereof.

Then I do something exciting. I pick up my wine glass, take a sip and set it down again gently. Except I do not set it down again gently. Instead I set it down with violent results upon the mismatched tectonic fault line between the two pushed-to-together tables. The wine glass falls. It spills its glorious red contents onto the heretofore spotless white cloth.




And then Dad, wanting to make me feel better, hands me his DRY BEEFEATER MARTINI UP DIRTY OLIVES and says: “Here, have a sip.”

And I say: thanks!

And I take a sip. And once again I do something exciting. I place the DRY BEEFEATER MARTINI UP DIRTY OLIVES on the same mismatched tectonic fault line where I placed the glass of wine approximately 18 seconds before.

And it does the same thing. It spills.

Again I say: OH NO! I’M SO SORRY!



Only everything is louder: my OH NO’s and I’M SORRY’s, their HAHAHAHAHAHAHAS. Jeanne is laughing so hard, with such forcible heaving, that she seems to be endangering the structural integrity of her head; cracks are forming along her temples.

A waiter bustles over. I apologize to him. Our waitress bustles over. I apologize to her. Two other young men bustle over. I apologize to them. The waitress returns; I apologize again to her. In short, I apologize to everyone within and beyond reach of apologizing or, as Dad puts it, “about 3,000 people.”

Most of all, I apologize to Dad for ruining his DRY BEEFEATER MARTINI UP DIRTY OLIVES, but he is far too amused by the spillage, the sight of Jeanne’s impending head rupture and the spectacle of Rampant-Ass Amy Apologizing to feel the pain of separation from his most excellent and favored drink.

Anyway, replacement libations arrive in short order. I offer to pay for them. He gives me shit. We sip them calmly, keeping them far removed from the problematic tectonic schism so inconveniently placed near my right forearm.

That’s when we notice something: the reason for the black napkins. One of the bustling young men had grabbed one such napkin and spread it over the spilled alcohol, effectively covering the bleeding wine stain.

Hmmm, we say.

We look around at other diners. Everyone else has white napkins. Everyone else, that is, but the one other table with a youngish kid.


We were profiled. The black napkins are obviously rapid-response spill-cleaning apparatus for diners with children. Waiters see a party come in with a kid, they swap out the white napkins for black ones, figuring that particular group of diners has a much higher likelihood of klutzing out and knocking over drinks.

And our dinner party did indeed. But not because of my son. Because of me.

Let this be a lesson to you: If you run a restaurant, and you see me coming, remove everything from the table. EVERYTHING. Napkins, tablecloth, glasses, dishes, food, drinks: all of it. Bring me my meal in a pillowcase, then take me out the back kitchen entrance into the parking lot and pour it over my head.

And if my Dad is with me, just be sure to get him a DRY BEEFEATER MARTINI UP DIRTY OLIVES. He won’t let me pay for it, but I’m pretty sure he’ll give me a sip.