I had never been to Yosemite before. Have you? No? Go before you die. I’m serious. I have actually never said that to anyone before: “. . . go there/do this/read that before you die.” It’s presumptuous, behaving as though MY life is somehow vastly more stimulating, action-packed and brimming with profundity than anyone else’s. It ain’t, unless you count eating Nutella off your index finger an electrifying life-changer in the extreme.

But Yosemite. The first day on my first visit, I hiked into Mariposa Grove with my kids and their Pop-Pop and, standing there amid the giant sequoias, wowed and gasped oh my Godded and holy shitted before enormous living things that sprang into being sometime before the birth of Christ. Standing there with them, I felt tiny and young and transient but not insignificant, not worthless, not pointless, simply awed in the presence of something so much greater and older than myself. They seemed wise. They seemed to know all, or at any rate more, reaching into a sky that felt suddenly vaster despite the thickening mist that shrouded their topmost branches.

At a tiny stand of sequoia seedlings, a sign explained that they were due to mature around the year 4,000. Again I wowed and gasped and oh my Godded and holy shitted, understanding my own lifetime as something far less than a moment. And again I felt not diminished but swollen with awe — at the weight of time, the breadth of the cosmos, the miracle of creation and the gift we’re given in simply being able to appreciate it. What if God and the universe had given us beauty but denied us the capacity to see it? What if we were blind to the sublime? If we stood at the foot of a giant sequoia and saw nothing to merit a wow? I couldn’t imagine it. I was already struck with wonder, filled with gratitude and oh my Godding like a prayer book.

And I hadn’t even seen the mountains yet.

what’s wrong with upstate

image What’s wrong with upstate? Nothing’s wrong with upstate. I’ve lived in upstate New York for 29 of my 51 years. Four (minus summers) were spent in Clinton, Oneida County. One was spent in Canton, way, wayyy, WAYYYYY up in St. Lawrence County at the Canadian border. A solid 24 years running have been spent here in the the City of Albany, County of Albany, 150 miles north of New York City.

Which leads me to my second question: What’s wrong with “upstate”? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with “upstate.” It’s inexact. Certain downstate media monoliths too frequently use “upstate” to describe any town anywhere north of Westchester. They often do so without using any other clarifying geographical marker — a county, a land form, general compass point — that would A) provide the reader with detailed info, thus assisting comprehension, and B) help define the place in question as, you know, A PLACE. Because, let’s be honest, the word “upstate” does not designate place. It designates non-place, a cartographic negative understood and defined only by what it isn’t, as in: “Not the New York Metropolitan Area.”

I’m realizing, as I write this, that this screed of mine falls into a general category of upstate-downstate kvetching in which I periodically indulge, most recently when I crabbed about the habitual media usage of “Albany” as a synonym for “heinously corrupt state government.” 

But having lived in the Empire State for more than half my life, I am constantly awed by the diversity of its landscape, backstory, people. There are so many mountains to hike, history to unearth, pockets to be discovered, fun to be had. To reduce it to That One Admittedly Awesome Place and then Everything Else diminishes the scope and wonder of all of it. Yes, downstate is down. Upstate is up. But to flip Gertrude Stein on her head, and who knew she was so gymnastic, there’s a lot of here here.  May as well identify it.

keep your pants on

In casual conversation not long ago, the subject of tomboys came up. I confessed to being one as a kid, and I cringed. Because I hate that word. It’s simplistic and unfair to children of every stripe and sex, as though being rough-and-tumble and running around in divided legwear somehow defines boyness and outright negates girlness. (Not girliness, another word I hate.)

But I’m using it because that’s what everyone called me back then — to others and to my face, not cruelly but matter-of-factly, the way entomologists might identify a really hairy subspecies of caterpillar — and because there is no other term to describe what and who I was relative to the shellacked, starchy model of femininity that had held sway for decades.

In the 1960s, little girls wore dresses. They just did. From birth. And they had long hair. Perfectly combed, accessorized with pink barrettes. From birth. In addition, girls did not play baseball. Or run around barefoot through the woods, breaking their toes. Or collect Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, racing them them down the looping plastic track straight across the living room floor while their parents carefully dodged them. Instead, girls collected dolls and sat on their bedroom floors in their plaid cotton skirts, playing with them. Not me. Instead I owned just one, a Barbie, who sat neglected on a shelf for most of her short, sad, plasticky life until I grabbed a pair of paper scissors and cut her hair to a jagged bob — same as I’d done to myself, not long before.

I never understood the term “tomboy” because I never wanted to be a boy, and I never saw my own, beautiful mother — with her short hair, sinewy arms and stick-to-it-ive disposition — as any less of a woman for being adventurous and tough. It made her MORE of a woman as I understood women to be: capable, adaptable and real, with dirt under their fingernails and salt on their brow and unstoppable spunk in the face of difficulty. “Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow,” she used to say, with perfect irony, because she and I both sweated buckets.

“Earthy” was Mama’s highest praise for anyone, and that’s what she was, always digging down and building things from the ground up, always articulating the truth and nothing but, always handling any and all crises with humor and fortitude. She often went barefoot. She usually wore pants. She wasn’t a tomboy; she was a hot-shit kick-ass Jeanne-Woman, female and proud, happy to have put her procreative plumbing to use in the most traditional and joyous ways. “Aren’t you glad you’re a girl?” she asked after my oldest was born — the only one of my children she ever met in the flesh, having died only eight months later. All I could say was yes. Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes.

I always did. I just didn’t like being a girl who wore dresses and couldn’t play ball. I liked the freedom of pants. I liked the way I they protected me from bearing my undies to the world, which never struck me as all that difficult or radical a concept, and I never understood why so many people had trouble with it.

Now that I’m older and fonder of skirts and dresses, I still don’t understand it. To me this is an issue apart from the recent, important and heightened sensitivity to transgender people, which is a long time coming — and God bless Bruce Jenner for his stunning and dauntless candor. But what Bruce wears matters a whole lot less than how Bruce feels. It isn’t the heels in his closet that make him a woman, and he was no less a woman inside when he was competing in the Olympics. He was simply a world-class athlete, muscular and spring-wound and fleet, and he would have been no matter where his gender compass pointed or what sort of clothing he wore.

I leave you with the words of Pope Nicholas I, who had this to say about women in breeches. “For whether you or your women wear or do not wear trousers,” he wrote, “neither impedes your salvation nor leads to any increase of your virtue.”

He said said this more than 1,100 years ago. And he didn’t call anyone a tomboy.

mama dancing

Jeanne-Woman, circa 1990


rebel streak

SO SUMMER IS FINALLY HERE, PEOPLE! Pardon me for yelling, but I’m excited. Truly excited. Even though it’s only May 8, which is not technically summer. And even though spring lasted, like, five minutes or something. BUT I’M NOT COMPLAINING. Even though I’m complaining. I AM SERIOUSLY NOT COMPLAINING. After a winter that lasted, hrrrrrm, eight years or so, I am so traumatized by cold and so distrustful of the warmth that I still haven’t removed the snow shovel from the porch. Still!

Summer. Ahhhh. And Mother’s Day around the bend! I love it. In Albany that means the annual Tulip Festival and all those bulbous, buxom lily relatives that pop out overnight in Washington Park for a sweet breath or two before losing their heads and standing there, sad and decapitated, in the encroaching heat of June.

The other day, I visited the park with my old friend Steve and his mom Karen, a new friend whom I seem to have known forever. We strolled past beds of tulips named Oxford and Ice Cream and Sensual Touch, their silken blooms exploding in yellows and purples and reds that sang for attention. And as we walked, they took on noisy and vivid personalities — like cheerleaders in short skirts and brightly colored pom-poms. Some were perky. Some, clad in lace-trimmed petals, looked crisp and Victorian. Others seemed a little tawdry and déclassé in their overexposed bordello-orange. A few, overshadowed by taller rivals, looked slightly defeated. Others were YELLING SO LOUDLY THEY RISKED GETTING HOARSE. Like me, above.

But one tiny rebel yelled the loudest. In a crowd of purply-and-white-striped classics with graceful, pointed crowns, a single, defiant flower stood out with a mutant yellow streak that howled: I AM HERE! I AM DIFFERENT! I AM PROUD! It was so bold, so brave, so beautiful on its scape in a stand of two-tone brethren, I felt a shiver of awe in its presence. GO, LITTLE TULIP!, I wanted to shout but didn’t, mainly because my friends were nearby, and so were lots of tulip-strolling strangers, and anyway, I’m not THAT weird. Almost. But not quite.

Then again, maybe I should have — in the spirit of rebel tulips everywhere. All of us have a brightly mutinous mutant streak somewhere within us, don’t we? It’s the bold stripe of rebellion that makes us different, letting us sing in a voice that carries beyond the chorus. I AM TULIP! HEAR ME ROAR! And while we’re at it, let’s shout this, too: THANK GOD WINTER IS FINALLY OVER.


My son and I were hoofing north through SoHo, basking in the too-hot-but-we’re-not-complaining sunshine in this belated spring, when a guy in dreadlocks swiftly derailed me.

“Mama! Mama!” he said, sidling up beside me and sliding a CD into my hands with a smile. “Do you like reggae? This is reggae.”

Then, in quick, excited, liquid tones that didn’t allow for much in the way of interruption, he explained that:

A) He had just recorded this CD!
B) It was a beautiful CD!
C) Since I like reggae, he really wanted me to have it!
D) But if I wanted, I could choose to pay him for it! Any amount!
E) He’s from Jamaica, Mama!
F) Yes, he’s from Jamaica, Mama!
G) Specifically, Kingston! Had I ever been there?
H) But I should go! Kingston is beautiful! Reggae is beautiful!
I) His friend over here, he made a CD, too, a rap mix-tape!
J) I could have that, too! Yes, Mama!
K) If I gave him $20, he and his friend could split it down the middle, $10 each!
L) But I shouldn’t worry about those smaller bills I was fumbling with!
M) Really, Mama, no need to hand him ANYTHING but that $20! Just look at that $20! That $20 is perfect!
N) Have a wonderful day, Mama! Thank you!

And Mama walked away laughing, two CDs heavier and twenty bucks lighter. God bless you!, I shouted back at the guy.

“Mom,” my actual son said, stuffing the CDs into my backpack, “he played you like a violin. He played you like staccato. You were so played.” He continued in this gently joking instrumental vein a while longer.

I know I know, I said. But I knew I was being played, I enjoyed the way he played me, I was in on it. So that makes it okay. It was masterful. He was brilliant. He was charming. What a salesman. I was wholly aware and entertained.

“But he played you.”

Yeah. But in a way, we were sharing a moment together, I said. For that moment we weren’t strangers.

Like a violin.”

Later, on the train home to Albany, I pulled the CDs out of the backpack and took a closer look at them.

Stripped along the bottom of one was this subtitle: SUCKAS NEVA PLAY ME.

All I could do was laugh.

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