i am albany

Attention, All Ye Annoyed Albanians! It is time for us to stand up and be heard! Now, at this moment of widespread political spazzing, with Mr. All-Powerful Lugubrious Speaker Man arrested on federal corruption charges and EVERY JOURNALIST EVERYWHERE BUT HERE using “Albany” as an all-purpose synonym for “corruption” as though anyone with a foot in this fine city must somehow, simply by association, be double-dealing dirtballs with all 10 fingers and all 10 toes in at least 20 pies!

NOW, dear people, is the propitious point in time when we must rebel and say: “WAIIIIIT A MINUTE. I live in Albany, too, and I’m not venal! I’m not making alleged shitloads of money hand-over-fist in alleged convoluted business deals that no one can allegedly understand!”

For me, Albany is a place not of money-grubbing politicos but a haven for honest, generous, agreeably quirky and unpretentious folk whose worst crime is they might be a little scruffy at weekend social events. The most egregious scofflaws I encounter regularly are the drivers, AND YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE, who blow red lights as though A) no one actually sees them, B) it isn’t actually illegal, stupid and dangerous and C) children don’t actually live here. But maybe some or all of these same scofflaws are also being investigated by U.S. Attorneys for making alleged shitloads of money in alleged schemes. It’s possible.

Otherwise, the Albany I know is synonymous with decent and unostentatious. It’s synonymous with chill, both in weather and in attitude. It’s synonymous with diverse, open, nonjudgmental; maybe The Paper of Record should start using “Albany” as shorthand for “two-mom families at school concerts” or “who cares what anyone does in the bedroom, so long as they shovel their sidewalk.” It’s synonymous with “Stewart’s ice cream and cawfee” and “warm cider donuts” and “shockingly fine eating establishments in neighborhoods where people from the suburbs would rather not park.” It’s synonymous with “skiing at the golf course” and “skating at the Plaza” and “tight, friendly, walkable neighborhoods with sunsets over peaked roofs in winter.” It’s synonymous with “lots of Dutch names you’re probably mispronouncing” and “William Kennedy is OURS, ALL OURS, BACK OFF” and “we’re not nearly as dorky as downstaters assume, and by the way, WE’RE MUCH CLOSER TO NEW YORK CITY THAN BUFFALO, CHECK THE MAP.”

It’s synonymous with colleges, hospitals, cultural institutions, more history than anyone truly comprehends, more arts and music than anyone knows how to consume. It’s synonymous with people who say exactly what they think, especially when you need it most but would rather not hear it, and these same people will give you their right arm in the process if you need that, too. It’s synonymous with affordable, liveable, do-able, close to nature, close to other, bigger cities — and close to the modest thumping heart of everyone who lives here. It’s synonymous with everyday. It’s synonymous with home.

I am Albany. You are, too. So say it with me, people: I am Albany! I am Albany!

More than that other guy, for sure.

no shelly in sight

no shelly in sight

not gary numan

I hate cars. Do you know that? You do now. I HATE CARS.

I hate them firstly because they’re necessary (can’t live with ‘em, can’t . . . forget it), secondly because they fill up with crap, thirdly because I resent what they’ve done to our sadly dissociated American culture, fourthly because people who aren’t otherwise total dickheads behave like total dickheads behind the wheel, fifthly because they fill up with yet more crap, sixthly because most of them still require a shitload of gas and still spit out a shitload of toxins that have slow-poached the Earth to the consistency of flan, seventhly because they require constant frickin’ maintenance, eighthly because the crap-up-filling never ends, and ninthly because with or without the maintenance, THEY BREAK DOWN. At the worst times. Why, I’ve had the experience of breaking down on BOTH Thanksgiving AND Christmas, and let me tell you, it’s a blast.

Also, tenthly: people crash into you uninvited! Yes, they do! You can be the bestest driver in the world, with the fastest reflexes and the coolest disposition and 12 compound eyes ringing your head, and still, some random human can rear end you at a stoplight while all of your babies are strapped in the back.

That happened to me when my kids were small. I was driving a ridiculously old and extravagantly dorky minivan of the old Butt Ugly Variety, the kind you’d see from a distance and have to shield your eyes, so ghastly was the vision.

That was probably the reason why the driver behind me failed to see the traffic light change to red and, instead of stopping, slammed the bejeezus out of my Butt Ugly butt. Remember my fourthly, above? That people who aren’t otherwise total dickheads become thus in cars? That was me. I thus became a total dickhead of the Mad Mama subtype, pulling over and spilling out and running up to the offending driver, spitting flames and howling WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?! and MY THREE KIDS ARE IN THAT VAN! and THEY MIGHT HAVE BEEN HURT! and THEY MIGHT HAVE BEEN KILLED! AND! AND! AND! until, finally, I noticed the driver’s youth, the sweetness of her eyes and the sheets of tears spilling out of them. And suddenly I felt like all the up-filled crap on the floor of my Butt Ugly van.

Filled with regret, I stopped.

I’m sorry, I said. I shouldn’t have yelled like that. I was just scared. My children are fine. I’m sorry.

I asked her if anyone was coming to help. She nodded, still crying. Her father was on his way. When he arrived, I told him what happened and apologized to him, too. He went to her. She cried more. The crappiness of my emotions knew no bounds. Poor kid, I’d traumatized her. To this day she probably remembers me as the Batshit Dickhead Mama in the Butt Ugly minivan who tore her a new one on Central Ave. I remember myself the same way.

I hate cars.


mama and lucy
The other morning, while driving to work, I twirled the radio dial over to WMHT just as the announcer was cueing up the honeyed opening allegretto to César Franck’s A major sonata for violin and piano. I yelped quietly with thrilled anticipation. Yes. Yes. I turned up the volume. Gripped the steering wheel a little harder. Leaned toward the speaker. And there they came, those first, quietly inquisitive chords on the piano. That lovely, lilting answer on the violin. The dialogue that followed between the two instruments and their players (Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell) was performed with an exquisite and subtle joy that made me weep.

The Franck Sonata is one of those pieces that always prod my tear ducts into action. The last movement of the Sibelius Fifth is another. The Ode to Joy. The Moldau. A bunch more. But the Franck is special for me, because I first heard it one winter sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, when my brilliant violinist-mom and just-as-brilliant pianist-sister started prepping for a recital together in the summer to follow.

It took place one breezy summer day in a barn-like hall in Litchfield County, Conn. They split the program between solo works — Beethoven for Lucy, Bach for Mama — and a duet. The Franck. It was the one piece that Lucy hadn’t memorized, so I had been recruited to turn pages. This was the only time I ever appeared on stage in any capacity with either of them, and the experience was transporting. I was terrified of screwing up. How could I not be?

And I did screw up, just once, early on: I was late on a turn, and Lucy had to reach up and whip the page herself in a blur of sudden motion. But my blunder didn’t stop them. They kept playing as though music were the only thing that mattered, lighting that allegretto and the movements that followed with a fierceness and a delicacy that carved out beauty from the air. And as those lush and liquid motifs spilled around us, the music overcame not just my fear but my ego, too, arousing within me a sense of art as something larger, more layered with meaning, more perfect than its most imperfect parts.

That performance of the Franck was the most beautiful work of art I’ve ever played a role in, no matter my feeble contributions. It still is. Nothing I’ve written comes anywhere close to it. It was the moment when I first spied the divine and felt myself a part of it, no matter my human fears and shortcomings. This is the gift of all great art.

So of course I never forgot that afternoon on stage with my mother and sister, two of the most profound musicians I’ve ever known and heard. And of course I’ve often pictured them together in Some Otherworldly Place on Some Otherworldly Plane drinking Otherworldly Tea, shooting it through their Otherworldly Noses as they cracked each other up with Otherworldly Awful Puns. Maybe, sometimes, they join in on Otherworldly Music with Otherworldly Instruments.

But until Monday morning, tooling along in tears as Denk and Bell became Lucy and Mama through the magic of radio, I had not imagined them playing the Franck in heaven. I think they must be. I think they have been all along. I think they were that day onstage in that distant Connecticut summer, when I screwed up, and they kept playing, and art transformed us all.

vita nuova

vita  nuova page 1

After my father tried to kill himself with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma, attached to a snarl of tubes as his body and his brain flushed out the toxins. Then he spent six months in pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., where his mind and his spirit did their best to purge despair.

I remember visiting the place with Mama and my sister Lucy. The grounds were lovely and collegiate and lousy with overfed squirrels who ran right up to us and boldly demanded snacks. We would visit once a week, if memory serves, walking the grounds with my father, curling up on his bed with him (“Drink him up, girls”) and meeting fellow patients who called him Lou and smiled with thanks as he gave them candy. He always gave everyone candy; Daddy’s magic pockets were full of peppermints and crystal blues and doodads, rubber bands and paper clips and stamps.

One young man there truly loved him, gave him a copy of an Elton John album that my father never listened to (he was more of a Beethoven and Tin Pan Alley man) but I did. I remember huddling over a little blue record player, the kind that closed with a buckle, and listening to “Your Song” until the words entered my pores and then my bloodstream and finally my heart. I can’t hear that song now without thinking of Daddy, his time at the Institute, or the pale, sweet boy who gave him this record with the aching ballad of love and blue eyes (or green). I still have it somewhere. I’m not sure where.

I have other reminders of those days. The little ceramic rabbit he made in art, for one. For another: every memory of my father that followed his hospital stay. Because he came home. The talk therapy stuck. He was always a little strange after that, and the coma, combined with some other form of dementia, did a number on his short-term memory. But he never attempted suicide again. He lived another 18 years, dying at age 85 from heart failure after a fall.

Just tonight, digging through an attic drawer in search of a working pen, I found something else: Some of the notes Daddy made during those six months in Hartford. What caught my eye in particular were four small, pulpy sheets torn from a pad and covered with his idiosyncratic (to say the least), borderline-illegible handwriting. But it’s legible enough, this time. And it’s profound: a beautiful, powerful statement of life and hope from a man who had given up on both. Its title, I’m guessing, is an homage to Dante’s “La Vita Nuova” (“The New Life”), not surprising for an author who pored over the classics, worshiped the written word, worked his tongue at 16 languages and translated “The Divine Comedy” out of sheer love of poetry.

I cherish this little scribbled document — this determined scrabble of light and gratitude in the wake of terrible pain. It says all anyone has to say about the will and the need to keep moving and loving with purpose. I’m glad he lived to say it. I thank him for it. I love him for it. It gave him new life, and it gave me my father. It’s my Vita Nuova, too.

Vita Nuova
-To be grateful for every breath.
-To be interested in everything concerning and absorbing humanity.
-To be doing something or other, preferably constructive and progressive in development — but to be immersed.
-To learn to concentrate for longer and longer periods and perhaps always a little more fruitfully.
-To value every moment with my dear ones as a precious jewel, unique and irreplaceable.
-To be of help, in small or large matters, whenever possible among my fellows in other settings and gatherings.
-To get back, with new glasses — badly needed — to reading — linguistics, etc., anything, even murder mysteries, for puzzles and relaxation.
-Perhaps to plan a book about word origins, backgrounds and relationships.
-To be grateful for today — to dwell happily on the thoughts of tomorrow, and placidly on the problems of yesterday.
-To learn from my mistakes, particularly the MISTAKE, and know such impulsive, undermined behavior is completely buried in the past and beyond repetition.
-To be ever grateful for the love others bear me and return it with warmth and pride.
-TO LIVE! And to help others live more fully.