the rain before the rainbow

This is not going to be long. It’s not going to be profound. It’s not going to contain any original ideas. Indeed, if you squint just a li’l bit through a telescope, you’ll spy clichés. Maybe you won’t even have to squint a li’l bit. Maybe you won’t even need a telescope. My guess is the clichés are there, spy-able as a moon in full shining-pie phase. And you won’t even need to open your eyes to see them.

But what the heck. I love myself a big blobby cornball cliche now and then. And rainbows are beautiful, are they not? I spied THE most beautiful one EVER just north of Keene Valley in the Adirondacks while driving home from a visit with my aunt and uncle. It wasn’t a double, but it didn’t have to be; it was a perfect, single arc of color straight out of central casting. (PRODUCER: Get me a rainbow! Photogenic! Juicy, nice curves on her, but not too fat! LACKEY: Right away, boss!)

I knew it was coming. Tooling along Route 73 through sporadic sheets of wet stuff, I had remarked to my son: It’s raining. The sun is coming out. So, like, there’ll be a rainbow.

And the good lad nodded. He knows prophetic maternal wisdom when he hears it. I’m sure he was awed when, only a few seconds later, we looked left and spied the aforementioned refractive arch hugging a mountain. I pulled over and we tumbled out, oohing and wowing and ahhing. I snapped the obligatory pictures, oohed some more, wowed and ahhed some more, and could barely pull away again for the drive to Albany. Even as we did, it started to fade.

And I wondered, as we noodled our way home from the High Peaks, why rainbows matter so much to us — beyond the obvious facts that they’re pretty, and ephemeral, and suggest a magic span to a brighter place. Judy Garland had something to say about that. Kermit, too. But maybe we’ve been missing the point about rainbows. Maybe they’re less symbols of hope for some gossamer, dreamy, pot o’ gold future than tokens of the present — reminders that Now, for all its pressing duties and complications, has beauty enough to astonish and occupy us, if only we let it.

One other thought hit me as I was driving home, and it’s an even bigger, blobbier, cornballier cliché: No rainbows without rain first! No sirree! But as clichés go it’s a good one, at least for me, because I’m constantly chewing on this particular philosophical pickle of living — the one that INSISTS on darkness yielding to light, death to life, loss to love and drab October showers to kaleidoscopic crescents across a roiling gray sky. They’re not omens of the future. They’re emblems of the present and gifts of a past which, still unfolding, still surprising, doles out beauty.

FATMUPS and the power of the cupcake

A couple months ago, one of my offspring (names have been removed to protect the guilty) confessed to eating too many cupcakes. The exact worry involved nutrition. “Cupcakes aren’t healthy enough. I should be eating healthier,” this person with DNA similar to mine said recently.

After discussing cupcake consumption with Said Descendant, as well as all the other, more nutritious foods being consumed regularly to offset the uptick in baked goods, I issued some brilliant maternal reassurance along the lines of “the cupcakes won’t kill you.” Then, in an effort to clarify this point, I repeated one of my Favorite All-Time Made-Up Principles, or FATMUPs, which amount to my system of rationalizing more or less everything in my life. The FATMUP governing housework, for instance: Sweep the floor when it crunches. The FATMUP governing cars: Buy a new one BEFORE a wheel falls off. (This is a long-held FATMUP of mine. Yup. Learned it from my mama. Yup. Baby-blue 1981 Chrysler K-car. Piece of shit. Yup. Right rear wheel. Clunk. Route 203, New Milford, Connecticut. Just like that. Yup.)

The FATMUP governing cupcakes, and all other forms of gustatory happiness in need of constant and hardcore rationalization, is one of my favorites. Simply put: Some foods have spiritual value. Some foods have nutritional value. Some have both. And some have neither, although these don’t merit FATMUP coverage and I have no idea, really, why such foods exist at all in our earthly realm. (Hello, God? This is Amy. What’s the reason for microwaveable breakfast sausage? Houseflies I can understand. And knee design. But why Jimmy Dean?)

Cupcakes, needless to say, have great spiritual value, containing the banked-up, baked-up, super-amazing power to make us happy, at least until we get high on glucose and then crash in an exhausted, sobbing heap 20 minutes later. Quinoa has great nutritional value, and while I am pro-quinoa, don’t you DARE suggest it has any kind of spiritual value comparable to a cupcake’s, because we both know it doesn’t. Some foods do, however, boast spiritual and nutritional value both: fresh blueberries, for instance. Roasted garlic. Dark chocolate, and don’t you DARE suggest it doesn’t have any kind of nutritional value whatsoever, because we both know it does. (Hello? Antioxidants?)

Which reminds me, I have a FATMUP governing dark chocolate specifically: Eat it while writing. And there’s a corollary: Eat it while not writing. My father owned two sets of pants, one pre-book, one post-book, because he always pounded away at his ding-a-licious manual typewriter with a stack of Hershey’s bars at his elbow. I don’t do manual typewriters. Or stacks of Hershey’s. I do a bar or so every few days, and it’s always the bitter stuff, 60 percent at least. Also, unlike my father, I have no need for two sets of clothes, BECAUSE I’M NEVER NOT EATING CHOCOLATE, SO WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT.

But seriously, folks. We shouldn’t belittle the import and impact of minor joys, because it’s often the minor joys that keep us going. The major joys are awesome: the ecstasy of romance, the miracle of birth, the parental love that fills and fills and fills us. But let us not diminish the power of the cupcake. Small things that bring us pleasure can help us make it to the big ones.

In his recent profile of the philanthropist Heinrich Medicus, my colleague Paul Grondahl wrote my favorite sentence all year: “He credits his happiness and longevity to wine and chocolate.” Go, Heinrich.

Sounds like a FATMUP to live by.

the rule of swedish farmers

“Just be human.”

I love this. It’s my new motto. I want to to put it on a bumper sticker. I want to go viral with it. I want to found a church on it. I want to become obsessed with it, shout it from the rooftops, have dreams about it and mutter it while sleepwalking through the streets of Albany.

A Swedish farmer said it twice in “Healing Homes,” Daniel Mackler’s documentary look at an alternative program in Gothenburg, Sweden, for people with psychosis. It played in Boston over the weekend, and this one line flattened and wowed me.

The folks being treated in this program haven’t responded to traditional methods. In it, they receive intensive psychotherapy (no drugs) and live on farms with compassionate Swedish host families. And guess what. They do better.

Which makes sense. Most of us, no matter the cause and severity of our distress, would do better on farms with compassionate Swedish host families. (Sometimes I think I could use a few saintly Swedes my life.) And all of us always do better heeding their urgent, plainspoken, breathtaking directive: Just be human. Just be present to others. Just love.

I’ve been dwelling on this since coming home from Beantown and Mad In America’s International Film Festival, which unspooled oodles of movies documenting the travails and triumphs of people inside and outside the boundaries of traditional, meds-driven psychiatry. The problems addressed and alternatives floated during the weekend were many, and complicated, and often profoundly hopeful, and I can’t go into all of them now. (If you’re interested, click away at

But the take-away was easy enough — as easy as anything can be when we talk about people in the grip of depression, psychosis and other calamitous ruptures of mental health and happiness. Two basic, powerful lessons emerged. The first, described above, is the Rule of Swedish Farmers. The second is related: Everyone, no matter where anyone’s mind sits on the spectrum of normal to abnormal, ordered to disordered, can benefit from telling their story. Because only in the telling can any of us turn trauma into narrative. Only in the telling can we claim and overcome what brings us pain. Only in the telling can we confide our pain to others and, in that single, simple, astonishing act of trust, be human together.

How viciously hard life can be — for all of us. Thank God we don’t all get clocked with death and disease and disaster simultaneously, because then there’d be no one around to carry us when it’s our turn to limp in pain. I speak as one who was borne by others during the months after my husband’s death. More people were human to me than I can ever thank, or count, and all I can do is pray that I’ll do the same for someone else who needs a lift. Even Jesus needed help with the cross, right? What if Simon of Cyrene had refused? (“Sorry, Lord. My sciatica flared up last night, and I have a corn on my toe.”)

But he didn’t. He was human to the man who was human to everyone. So sometimes we’re the ones in pain, and sometimes we aren’t. When it’s our turn to carry, all we can do is make like a Swedish farmer.

warning: read before reading

fso cover
Now that my wacky book has been sort of kind of maybe apparently published (the official pub date is Oct. 21, but I’ve heard reports of its thudding arrival on doorsteps), I want to share a few guidelines for reading it that you should know going in. Some of these guidelines are the same paranoid and obsessive directives I’ve been repeating ad nausinfinitum to friends and family. Others I’m making up right now, pretending as though I’ve put great, brain-crunching thought into them. But all of them are important.

The first guideline: NO ONE HAS TO READ THIS BOOK. I will not take offense if you don’t. If you’re my pal and you don’t read it, you’ll still be my pal. If you’re my dental hygienist and you don’t read it, you’ll still be my dental hygienist. If you know someone who knows someone who knows me and you don’t read it, you’ll still know someone who knows someone who knows me. And if you don’t know me at all? But you’re thinking you ought to read it the way you ought to have a colonoscopy when you turn 50? Well, you ought to go ahead and have a colonoscopy before you read my book. The point being, THERE IS NO OBLIGATION WHATSOEVER TO READ THIS BOOK, BE IT MORAL, SOCIAL OR ENDOSCOPIC.

Second, if you do know me personally and you do choose to read the book, YOU MUST PROMISE TO KEEP TALKING TO ME AFTERWARD. Because, you know, I embarrass the shit out of myself in a couple of chapters. I’ve actually considered drawing up a legally binding contract on this point –- as in, “I, the undersigned, vow to maintain communication with the author of [Figuring Shit Out] even if some of the sentiments and personal revelations contained in [Figuring Shit Out]prompt me to spit and choke violently on my roasted garlic hummus.”

Third, speaking of sudden gag reflexes in response to aforementioned book, YOU ARE ALLOWED TO LAUGH AT MUCH OF THE WEIRDNESS DESCRIBED THEREIN, and you mustn’t feel guilty about it. In a related corollary, IF YOU DON’T LAUGH AT SAID WEIRDNESS, YOU MUSTN’T FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THAT, EITHER. I’m fine with any response to anything anyone reads anywhere in the book; consider yourself now empowered to laugh, weep, roll your eyes, snort in disdain, howl in abject terror or grind your teeth to small, powdery nubs. Seriously. Just so long as YOU PROMISE TO KEEP TALKING TO ME AFTERWARD, we’re good.

Finally, REST ASSURED, AS YOU READ IT, THAT MY KIDS AND I ARE OKAY. In fact, we are more than OKAY. Life is ekshually pretty darned wonderful at the moment. It still has its dips, it still has its turns, it still has those moments when I’m folding laundry in the basement and my tear ducts suddenly discharge saline and my schnozz discharges snot, and soon I’m wearing flowery rubber rainboots and plashing through a flood of my own salty outwash. Three years after my husband’s suicide, it hits me sometimes. But even when it does, I am more than all right. The moment ends. And life is huge. My kids and I are still here, and we’re still loving and laughing, and that’s what counts. I’ll be just fine, SO LONG AS YOU KEEP TALKING TO ME .

please hello good morning thank you

He was 30, maybe – a young man but not that young, with clipped brown hair and neat khaki shorts and an air of stony purpose about him. He was walking east on New Scotland Avenue. I was hoofing west, happy to run a few errands on foot despite the spit of rain on a gray Saturday morning.

As we passed, I eyeballed him just as I eyeball every stranger when I’m walking around the neighborhood: with curiosity. Was he a law student? A young professional freshly arrived? A neighbor who’s lived here forever but keeps to himself?

Hello!, I said, locking eyes with him briefly before he glanced away.

He said nothing.

I studied his blank, cleanly shaven mug, wondering if he’d even heard me. I think he did; I was plenty loud. It’s possible he was preoccupied. It’s possible he’s as prone to spacing out as I am. It’s also possible he’s stone deaf. Or –- I hate to say it, but this has the highest probability — he simply chose to ignore me. Maybe he’s shy. Maybe he’s distraught over something. Maybe his turtle just died. Or his hastas. Or maybe, and again I hate to say it, he’s just not one for friendly bits of badinage with random unknown sidewalk denizens out running errands.

I shrugged it off, because who cares, right? His problem. Plenty of other folks to greet on a stroll down New Scotland. With some I swapped Hellos, with some Good mornings, with others How are you?’s –though I still have my cranky little issues with that last one. (WHY do we ask that question IF WE DON’T EXPECT AN ANSWER?). Most of us, I think, enjoy swapping pleasantries with folks we’ve never seen before and might never ever ever see again, because even these tiniest, most inconsequential and superficial-slash-insincere of social interactions bind us to one another and help us feel connected.

Opposite St. Peter’s Hospital, I passed an older woman at a bus stop in a long black dress. She gave the warmest smile I’d seen all day, her lovely face radiant and caring. I said hello. She said hello back. And for that mighty micro-moment of miraculous human synergy, we mattered to each other, related to each other, made the world a warmer place.

About 10 minutes later, with most of my errands finished, I started hoofing back east along New Scotland. I passed that same woman at the same bus stop. She gave me the same warm smile. We felt the same fleeting jazz of connectedness. And on my right, I saw him: a big guy standing on the curb, his stance wide, his round face fleshy and welcoming.

He grinned at me.

“PLEASE have a good day,” he implored, flinging out his big arms to embrace the drizzle or the moment or (if I’d been any closer) me.

And you too, I said.

“Thank you!” he replied. And I knew he meant it, just as I knew he meant the please -– beseeching me politely to have a good day as though it mattered to him. As though, if I didn’t have a good day, it might somehow ruin his.

I had one. I hope he did to, too. And the woman who smiled. And the man who didn’t? Maybe, if I see him tomorrow, he’ll say hi back.