Thank you for a funky time…

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So, yeah. Prince died.

I was getting a pedicure when I started seeing the initial news on Twitter.  I tweeted something to the effect of “This better not be true.”  I mean – Bowie, then Patty Duke, and now Prince?  Are all the awesome people just going to vacate the premises this year?

So while the nail technician was scrubbing away at my cloven hooves (mind – this was the first pedi I’d gotten since last September) with the cheese grater thing, and I’m trying to control the impulse to kick as she’s doing so, I’m following along.

Someone died at Paisley Park.

It’s probably Prince, but it might not be.

Didn’t they have to land his plane somewhere in Illinois a few days ago?

We still don’t know if it’s Prince.

Well, yeah, it’s Prince.

I’ll tell you – this one hurt.  They all hurt in some way.  But some of them will hit you in a deep place you’ve buried under time and experience and responsibilities.  I was 13 when I became aware of Prince.  And 13 is a wide open wound, it is.

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Me at 13. Dig if you will the collar.

I was fortunate in that as terrible as that age was for me in myriad ways, the artists I was exposed to were kind of strange angels for me, promising – in their appearance and output – a future where I might be able to express myself without fear of being bullied into silence, which had been my experience up to that point.  They represented a riot of color and sound and brazenness that I wanted so desperately for myself.  David Bowie.  Annie Lennox.  Boy George.  Cyndi Lauper.  And Prince.

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Oh, boy.  Prince.  My prior musical crushes inspired innocuous daydreams of holding hands and shy glances, of someone seeing in me what I couldn’t see in myself.  But Prince inspired…well…stirrings.  He was campy, yes, but utterly filthy.  This was pure sex wrapped in a purple doily.  My God.

More importantly, though, Prince had women on the stage with him.  And they weren’t idly writhing around like oiled up, glistening props.  Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman were full participants in the sound, and I understood implicitly that there was respectful collaboration going on there.  I soon wound up having more of a crush on Wendy than on Prince himself.  And THAT was something that I didn’t quite know how to unpack at that age.

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Wendy Melvoin.  Have mercy.

I listened to “1999” and “Purple Rain” forwards and backwards (and in the case of the latter, I listened to it quite literally backwards, manually spinning the record counter-clockwise to decipher the message at the end of “Darling Nikki.” It’s: “Hello, how are you?  I’m fine, because I know that the Lord is coming soon.  Coming, coming soon.”  In case anyone was wondering.).

The whole thing was mindblowing.  It made me think differently about music, musicianship, performance, and appearance.  And how can I get into how it made me think about gender and sexuality?  In hindsight, here was pure theatre.  Every song a story, set to music more complicated and dense than anything I’d heard before.  It made me appreciate production.  That drum sound!  The hollow popping peppered throughout his stuff in the 80s. That’s the Linn LM-1.  I became more interested in what instruments could do, and how an artist can create sounds that are unmistakably their own.  That’s only a fraction of his legacy.

I wrote about meeting Peter Murphy just days before finding out that Prince was gone.  In the previous entry, I mentioned how Bowie’s passing influenced my decision to spend the extra for the personal contact with an artist I admired.  I don’t know that I was more than a tweedy blip on Murphy’s radar, but I can say I met him.  I can say I looked him in the eye, hugged him, and THANKED him.  I wrote that I should not ignore opportunities like that if I have the means to make them happen.  I don’t know that I ever would have met Prince, but now that’s simply not a possibility anymore.  All I can do is lay down my gratitude here, in words that are barely adequate.

Thank you for a funky time.

“Gymtimidation”

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In an effort to mitigate the depressive episode I’ve been in for a while (and to try and take off a few pounds if I can), I’ve committed myself to going to the gym every other day.  Nothing excessive; I’m hardly a gym rat, and I have to start with small, realistic goals here.

I go with Coombsie.  In the morning.  Pre-dawn.  It’s really the only time that fits for us and our schedules.  This is dreadful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I am an angry beastie in the morning.  When I wake up and get out of bed, I usually have to go sit on the couch for at least 10 minutes, contemplating the horror of being awake.  Then it takes me two cups of coffee before I can even handle putting on my makeup and getting dressed.  It is a process for me, “waking up.”  It is not that way for Coombsie.  He is relentlessly, unpleasantly cheerful.

To manage this “every other day” thing, I absolutely have to have my sneakers and my gym clothes at the foot of the bed.  If they are in the dryer, that is too much effort.  If they are in a drawer 10 feet away from the bed, that is also too much effort.

Once I am dressed, I sit on the couch with my iPhone, my Kindle, and my headphones, because I also will not go to the gym if I don’t have these totems with me.  I need music to blunt the savagery of being up this early.  I need words to keep me from obsessing over how many calories I’m burning.

In the car, Coombsie makes small talk.  To himself.  Because he knows I’m not listening.

We arrive at our local Planet Fitness, where allegedly one can work out sans Judgement and with no fear of being “Gymtimidated.”  Indeed, at Planet Fitness, “you belong!”  I mutter terrible things about where I’d like Planet Fitness to “belong” while Coombsie bounds across the dark parking lot like a Labrador puppy, yelping “DUDEBROGUY!” while giving the thumbs-up to imaginary dudebroguys.  The only thing that would make me happy, besides being back in bed, would be a sinkhole developing out of nowhere and taking the Planet Fitness down into its gravelly depths.  “You Belong,” indeed.

Once I’m there, though, and fully resigned to my fate, it’s….just as fucking terrible.  IT’S STILL DARK OUTSIDE.  I heave myself onto an elliptical machine facing the bank of television sets.  I can watch old-ass episodes of “Charmed,” the local news, ESPN…pretty much everything except what I’d LIKE to watch, which would be my cats slumbering peacefully at my feet WHILE I’M STILL IN BED.

Fuckthisshitfuckthisshitfuckthisshit.

I glance over at Coombsie, who’s already several minutes into his workout, and happily watching an old-ass episode of “Charmed.”  There is no way I can convince him to take me back home.  So I put on my headphones and prepare to grunt and lurch while simultaneously listening to my Pandora station and attempting to retain what I’m reading.

When I’m not reading utter trash (and Kindles are FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC for that sort of thing, because then nobody can see that I’m reading true crime), I’m currently shoring up my theological expertise, which I abandoned – oh – probably  shortly after I graduated college and stopped studying religion for fun, because drinking my weight in skunky Rolling Rocks and engaging in “experimental theatre” became more interesting.  And that was all rather liturgical in a boozy, rancid sort of way, if I really try and remember it.  Anyway, I’ve plowed through all three of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s books, which were really good, and now I’m on to a couple of books that she recommended:  The Year Of Living Biblically, and Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time.  The latter has been promising so far; I’m hoping it won’t fall flat the way Rabbi Jesus did, because I really had to force myself to finish reading that mess of fantastical speculative…um…mess.  “Historical Jesus” and the synoptic gospels were subjects I got really into as an undergrad.  Historical Jesus & The Synoptic Gospels would be a good band name.  Christ, I’m delirious.

So I’m reading about Historical Jesus, and listening to Alien Sex Fiend, and I’m still so pissed about being here at stupid o’clock that I don’t even think to be amused by this.

I watch the sun rise over the new police station they’re building right across the street.  I wonder if, when construction is completed, there will be a coterie of hunky cops among our sweaty ranks here.  Probably.  As it stands, the Dawn Patrol here at Planet Fitness is mostly people like me and Coombsie, getting that cardio in before going to work.  There’s a woman who is always here well before we arrive, and puts in at least 90 minutes.  She works out with a ferocity that I think I might have had, at some point, between the Skunky Rolling Rock Theatre years and when I moved to this town to help take care of Coombsie’s mother.  There were a couple of years where I was pretty fit.  How did I do that?  Can I do it again?  I don’t know.  I’m in my forties, I’m fighting this depression like it’s my job, and at this point I really kind of have to settle for “pretty good.”  On all fronts.

I finish up, and go sit in the giant yellow hand chair, and contemplate the horror of not only being awake, but having been awake since before dawn, AND having worked out.  Who am I?

I’m still working that out.

The Tale Of The Pantsless Clown

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I was hanging out with my sister yesterday, as part of my weekend-long birthday festivities, when my nieces and nephew started clamoring to hear Stories About When We Were Kids™.

And perhaps this wasn’t the best story to tell, but I automatically launched into The Tale Of The Pantsless Clown.

It was around ’78-’79. I was eight, and Tina was six. At the time, we lived on Samoset Avenue in Hull. My mother had choir practice down the street at Saint Ann’s, and figured that Tina and I could manage for a couple of hours by ourselves without burning down the house. By today’s parenting standards, this would have been enough to have us placed in state custody. All I can tell you is that, hey, it was the Seventies. We ate terrible food laced with at least a soupçon of Red #5 on the daily, played completely unsupervised for hours on end in abandoned buildings, and had very questionable television watching habits.

I don’t know where our dad was. Probably away on a business trip. Our older brother was thousands of miles away on an exchange student program in Málaga, where he’d send postcards lamenting the preponderance of bad disco. All I know is that we were instructed to go inside once the streetlights came on, and that perhaps there’d be McDonalds in our future if we managed not to cause serious harm to ourselves or to the furniture.

We amused ourselves with the neighborhood kids, being mindful to glance up at the streetlights now and again. For some reason, the easygoing chatter of children turned very dark, and before long, we were being regaled with the story of a clown in a van. A clown that was naked from the waist down, only you wouldn’t know that until he beckoned you to come closer as he proferred….I don’t know….candy or a puppy or something. And you’d be so shocked at this pantsless clown that you wouldn’t even scream as he snatched you and tossed you into the back of his van.

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As Tina and I grappled with the horror of this, the streetlights started coming on. And our friends were called in to enter their respective, safe, parented homes. Being all of two years older, I knew that I was responsible for Tina, who was perched in a tight little ball on the edge of the sidewalk, sobbing. I placed my hand comfortingly on Tina’s shoulder. “C’mon – we should go inside now.”

She looked up at me, huge blue-green eyes round with terror. “But…butbutbut…what if THE CLOWN IS WAITING FOR US IN THE HOUSE?!”

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This hadn’t occurred to me. I mean, Jesus, we were total clownbait, weren’t we? Desperately, I tried to suss out my options. Run to a neighbor’s house? No, I was acutely conscious of not interrupting dinner. Stay where we were? No – the thing was to keep moving.

“Get up. We’re going to Saint Ann’s.”

We ran all the way up Samoset Avenue, crying hysterically, checking over our shoulders for headlights that appeared vaguely hostile. Like they’d be attached to a van driven by a pantsless clown. And we arrived at the church shivering and scared witless. I managed to pull open the huge mahogany door and was immediately hit with the smell of incense and floor polish. The sound of the organ and the choir, my mother’s pristine soprano ringing to the rafters, abruptly stopped and I heard: “Betty – aren’t those your girls?”

My mother raced down the front aisle, her brick-red polyester pantsuit fwisk-fwisk-fwisking as she approached us, face pinched in maternal concern. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong? What happened?”

Tina and I exploded in a cacophonous din of explanatory wailing:
“There’s this clown….”
“…in a big black car…”
“NO, a WHITE VAN…”
“…and he’s not wearing anything…”
“HE HAS NO PANTS ON.”
“…and he’s really mean and he puts kids in the van…”
“…and he…”
“HE HAS NO PANTS ON.”
“We WANTED to go inside like you SAID.”
“BUT THE CLOWN IS INSIDE THE HOUSE, MA.”

My mother looked at me, then looked at my sister, then looked back at me. “JESUS H. CHRIST,” she muttered, then directed us into a pew, where we sat quietly ashamed until practice was over.

There was no McDonalds for dinner.

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The Box Of Terrifying Journals

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Yeah, so….it looks like I won’t be writing for The Flounce anymore.  I won’t get into the details other than to say that stuff went down over there, enough so I don’t feel it’s the right forum for my writing.  And so we’re back to writing about Alzheimer’s, and caregiving, here.

We’ve hired the Geriatric Care Manager (GCM), and boy – she got to work immediately.  She’s speaking to our lawyer, and to Kevin, to figure out where we’re at financially.  She gave my mother-in-law what’s called the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE).  How did she do?  Put it this way:  her neurologist gave her the MMSE last year and she scored TWO out of thirty.  This time around?  The GCM gave up after the first few questions.

She is significantly, if not severely, impaired.  She doesn’t know what day it is.  She doesn’t know my name.  And yet this morning she made her bed, as she does every morning, hospital corners and all.  This is just absolutely the most messed-up disease ever.

The GCM feels that it’s time to put her into Assisted Living.  We are not superheroes.  Her needs have far surpassed what we’re able to provide.  She needs to be somewhere with constant supervision, and the kind of stimulation that only professionals can provide.  We have done our best, for over 3 1/2 years.  We’re exhausted, and that’s even with help.

I was in the basement last night, searching for a paper I’d written in graduate school about Marilynne Robinson (specifically, Emily Dickinson’s influence on her writing, and on Housekeeping in particular).  I’d promised to look for it and send a copy to Megan Phelps-Roper, who’s been devouring Robinson’s work lately.  I didn’t find it.  I think it may have been lost in our last move.

I did, however, find The Box Of Terrifying Journals.

Now, most everyone knows that I don’t shy away from the sometimes-very-embarrassing moments in my past.  I’ve gotten onstage and read my high school diaries in front of total strangers countless times now.  But The Box Of Terrifying Journals does not cover that period of my life.  The Box Of Terrifying Journals spans the years between 1992 and 1996, which were my early-to-mid-twenties.  The period during which I was in graduate school, writing papers like the one I was now trying to find for my friend.

It’s very…interesting…to revisit that age, when one is in one’s forties and navigating a fairly brutal and emotionally devastating family crisis.  I flipped through the pages, scanning the scarily huge scrawling and strange little cartoons, and felt a combination of affection and exasperation with myself at that age.  It’s the way I feel whenever I read something on Thought Catalog.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  “Bless your heart, but, oh, honey, no.”

During those years, I was constantly writing, constantly agonizing over musicians, and taking myself just a wee bit too seriously.

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Oy fucking vey.

I remember FEELING things so very, very deeply.  I remember feeling outraged and entitled and possessed of a preternatural wisdom.  I remember that my biggest problems involved boys (the aforementioned musicians), and that I would never get over The Great Heartbreak of losing one boy in particular.  I fueled myself on that grief, on the energy that comes about when someone’s disappearance renders them even more conspicuous and extraordinary.

Should I say it?  I am jealous of myself at that age.  Even though I was clearly exhibiting symptoms of the mental illness and addiction that would overtake me at the beginning of my thirties, I am envious of that girl’s energy.  I wish I had her “problems.”  My God, I’d kill to pour so much gusto into bad poetry about bad boyfriends.  I wish I still had that much faith in my powers.

Some of it was pretty clever, too.

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Theft

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I’ve been robbed several times.

It’s a sickening feeling, having things taken from you. Knowing that someone feels, for whatever reason, that he or she deserves your belongings, no matter how hard you worked for them or how much they mean to you. If I were more “Zen,” I would understand that I don’t need stuff, and I would learn how not to be so attached to it.

I’ve had my wallet stolen, my purse snatched, my home broken into. I’ve gone to the trouble, each time, of making phone calls, having things replaced, taking on insurance in the event that it happens again.

But what do you do when you are in a position where you are being robbed, every day? You can’t move away from it, and there’s no insurance in the world that will cover the loss, and no phone calls you can make to replace what’s been stolen.

And the thief? Can’t be stopped.

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Looks like Panettone, doesn’t it? My friend Ben pointed out the resemblance the other day. And I laughed. Laughed at the idea of a Milanese dessert cake inside of my mother-in-law’s head. But it’s a picture of amyloid plaques. These ARE inside my mother-in-law’s head, and they are thieves. In the last 3 1/2 years, they’ve stolen her ability to write her name, read a book, drive a car, make herself a cup of coffee. They’ve stolen her recollection of our names, of how to crochet a blanket, of how to use a fork. They’ve stolen her common sense: she doesn’t know that she’s not supposed to put her underwear on OVER her pants, or put crumbled up cookies in the cat’s food bowl, or stash her mail in the dishwasher.

Caregivers live with this knowledge that we are being robbed, every single day, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. And it’s not just us, obviously. The children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors and former coworkers….they’re all being robbed. My mother-in-law is being robbed, although it gets to a point where she doesn’t seem to mind as much as we do. She seems to cheerfully accept each loss as it disappears, for the most part, until something fires through the plaques and protein tangles, and she remembers that she used to be able to do things on her own, without constant supervision. The fact that she has to have someone with her all day, every day, upsets her during those moments. And she wants an explanation that makes sense to her. She wants to negotiate. And we deny her those things. She’s being robbed AND refused.

Every morning, when we go upstairs to her apartment, we wonder what’s going to be missing. She hides things, puts them in places that make sense only to her, at that moment. The dustpan will be in the stove, or the dishwashing liquid in the cupboard with the peanut butter. She puts heirlooms and antiques out with the trash. We’ve learned to intercept these objects before they hit the curb.

But it’s not just things that I worry about as I head up the stairs. The other day she’d gotten her hair done. I sat across from her at her kitchen table as she ate her lunch, and thought – for a split second – that I could talk to her about her plans for the yard. She looked so much like the mother-in-law I’d known, that I fully expected her to talk about border plants, and soil, and seeds. But she looked at me, puzzled, and said, “You know, nobody told me that my mother died.”

I remember how I felt each time I’d been robbed. Violated, frightened, annoyed, angry, determined to not let it happen again. I feel some combination of these things all the time now, more or less, only determination has been replaced by helplessness. I can’t stop it from happening. I can’t stop her from being robbed. This illness will continue to rob her, and rob her, until she is unable to do anything for herself.

But we can keep things as familiar as possible, for as long as we are able to. We can keep her photo albums out and available. We can keep her diaries on our bookshelves, keep the little crocheted blankets and hats she started before she forgot how to finish them. We can keep the things she intended to give to her granddaughters. I will stay attached to it all. I have to.

Never Break The Chain

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Chain…keeps us together
– Fleetwood Mac

Not too long ago, my nephew and two of my nieces were in the city, visiting the Gardner. As it’s a brief trolley ride down the street from my office, I arranged to meet them and their mother (my sister) for lunch…at UNO’s.

Now, I’m not going to lie and say that I’m one of those clean-eating/Whole30/Paleo/raw milk/only shop-around-the-perimeter-of-the-grocery-store types, because I absolutely am not. Mainly because I do believe that there is some Better Living Through Chemistry, principally in the form of Birthday Cake Oreos and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, even as I completely comprehend that my neocortex is being manipulated, by a whole bunch of stuff I can’t pronounce, into wanting more and more of this crap. But, seriously – have you had one of those Birthday Cake Oreos? Those things are frigging delicious.

But generally speaking, I eat pretty healthily, and when I do get lunch somewhere in the neighborhood, it’s typically sushi, Pho, or Persian. All from locally-owned-and-operated joints. But I figured that my nieces and nephew were not up to having their palates challenged that day, so UNO’s it was.

Next time I go there, I think I’ll just ask for a brick of lard and a salt lick, and save them the trouble of preparing my meal. Lord, the BLOAT. Heinous. I came back to the office and loudly announced that the next time I mentioned that I was going to eat at a chain restaurant, I was to be forcibly prevented from leaving the building. (Everyone kind of grunted, but it’s been busy around here lately so I’ll assume that someone will follow through, eventually.)

The truth of the matter is that I’m getting older, and I simply can’t eat like a 22-year-old stoner anymore. There was a time when I could toke up, eat a family-sized bag of Doritos while watching Ren & Stimpy, and be the none the worse for wear the next morning. THOSE DAYS ARE OVER.

This was going to be a post about how awful chain restaurants are. How every dish on their menu is a virtual Sodium Bomb, even the stuff with the little carrot icon or whatever denoting its appropriateness for them what are watching their figures. I was going to decry the décor of these places (you’re made to feel like you’re eating in someone’s barn, full of distressed Radio Flyer wagons and framed photos of Elvis and/or hockey players). I was really going to be an utter shit about the whole thing, until I sat down and realized how much these places are a part of my personal history.

I think back to my childhood, when the BIGGEST TREAT IN THE WORLD was when my dad took me to Ground Round, which in the 70s was known for having peanut shells all over the floor, sundaes served in tiny little plastic Red Sox hats, and a “treasure chest” full of cheap toys by the register. And while I don’t think this particular chain features these things anymore, I have to say that whenever I pass one, my inner 7-year-old goes APESHIT.

As I got older, family outings were at The 99. Merlot-colored leatherette booths under faux-Tiffany lamps. I knew that I could order the same thing, every time, and it would come out the same way, every time, and this was enormously comforting to me as an adolescent, when everything in my immediate orbit was fraught with uncertainty. I was bullied at school, there were myriad troubles at home, but my burger always arrived cooked exactly the way I wanted it, accompanied by just the right amount of scalding hot steak fries.

By the time I reached high school, the place to go was Bickford’s. I have no idea why. As chains went, Bickford’s was sort of a low-rent Denny’s (I’ll get into my relationship with that place later), but it was open late, and grumpily accommodated a table full of obnoxious, smarty-pants high schoolers such as myself and my friends, where we’d invariably leave a huge mess of dog-eared sugar packets and soggy straw wrappers. The morning after my senior prom? I was at Bickford’s. I didn’t actually GO to my prom, but I knew – somehow – that being at Bickford’s at 5:30 the next morning was going to make me feel better about the whole thing, and it did.

I distinctly remember the big deal that was the first Chili’s in the area. My friend Jude got a job there our senior year in high school. The night before it opened, every staff member was allowed to bring two guests to experience the Chili’s, um, experience. Jude brought me and Raziel. It should be noted that Raziel and I were deep into our Robert-Smith-meets-Lene-Lovich style of dressing at the time. We ordered fajitas (so exotic!) and enjoyed being stared at by Jude’s coworkers and their families.

I went to college in Florida. Central Florida. Pasco County. Not a Bickford’s to be had. But I quickly found friends who shared my penchant for spending ridiculous amounts of time in these places, and the Bickford’s equivalent in those days, and in that area, was the Village Inn in Dade City. I picked up a nasty pie-and-coffee habit there. God, I loved the Village Inn.

But I was not faithful, alas. My senior year in college I began a disastrous affair with the Denny’s on State Road 52 in San Antonio, Florida. I was in a production of The Odd Couple (the one that Neil Simon reconfigured for the ladies), and me and my bitches would hit the Denny’s EVERY SINGLE NIGHT after rehearsal. Always – I got the same thing: grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, fries, and a side of guacamole. And shit tons of coffee.

I won’t even get into my sordid history with the Waffle House.

I came back to the Boston area for graduate school. I mostly avoided these places because I didn’t want all my new, intellectual, flannel-clad friends to think I was tacky and uninformed, gustatorially-speaking. But occasionally I’d cave and wind up drinking at the bar in UNO’s after work (the very same UNO’s I was at a few weeks ago). Should I admit it? Kevin and I had our first kiss at that UNO’s. Oh god oh god oh god.

So, you see? I can’t hate on these places. I try not to eat at them, but I can’t hate on them. So many nights spent in them, giggling and crying and discussing. I am a product of my times, and of my environment. They dot the landscape of my psyche, their glowing signs rising high above the interstates of my very soul, late at night, when nothing else is open.

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Oh, Christmas Tree

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I posted a picture of my Christmas tree on Facebook last night.

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My friend Vikki responded: “Oh, you’re a white lights person.

I could FEEL the disapproval with every keystroke. I told Vikki I was fully prepared to defend my choice, and throw down, as it were. And while she admitted that my tree is beautiful, she expressed disappointment, because she thought I was “one of us.”

Listen, admitting that I prefer white lights on my Christmas tree is NOT EASY for me. I am the only one of my siblings who does this. It is perplexing to them.

My complicated relationship with white lights began somewhere around 1980-81, when my family moved from one quaint South Shore town to another. Hull and Hingham are right next to each other, geographically, but from a sociological and cultural standpoint, moving from Hull to Hingham was akin to relocating to Neft Dashlari, or Mars, or Cleveland. I mean, it was an adjustment.

There are a lot of insane things about growing up in Hingham. I could write a whole book about growing up in Hingham (and I kind of am, at present). But one of the most insane things about Hingham? The unwritten, unspoken agreement that you do not do colored lights at Christmas, ever. At all.

Okay, MAYBE in the neighborhoods that nobody paid much attention to (like ours, which was practically in WEYMOUTH, for God’s sake), one could get away with a strand or two of multi-colored lights on one’s shrubs. But in most areas, and particularly on Main Street, it was understood that come the holidays, your home was to be decorated thus:

• An evergreen wreath on the front door. NO PLASTIC.
• A red ribbon on said wreath. NOTHING ELSE.
• An electric candle in any window facing the street. One candle per window, WHITE BULBS ONLY.
• If your tree is viewable from the street, the lights on that tree are WHITE.
• Absolutely no colored lights on the bushes. Actually, you really shouldn’t have ANY lights on the bushes.
• And, certainly, it should go without saying that nothing inflatable goes in your yard, ever.

Really. If you don’t believe me, take a trip down Main Street in mid-December and see for yourself.

There was something absolutely soul-sucking about this, every time we took Main Street en route to the Hanover Mall. I’d sit in the backseat and feel terrorized by this display of conformity. As a teenager, those little white lights represented everything I hated about living there.

And, yet…..I had to admit that I preferred them.

Believe me when I say that I would rather have admitted to just about anything than liking little white lights. I believed that white lights absolutely meant that I was a giant snob. For several years I used red, green and white lights on my tree. But I simply couldn’t keep up the façade.

In all other respects I am the Queen of Trash. If it is tacky, mismatched, unloved, or on the rack in the back of the store, I champion it. I believe in casseroles topped with potato chips, Cool Whip, and two-liter bottles of orange soda. Honey Boo Boo is my spirit animal. I cheer when we drive by a house that is so bedecked in flashing lights it can be viewed from space.

But, yes, Virginia. When it comes to my Christmas tree I am “a white lights person.”

Can’t we all get along?

a house in place of a home

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I had my quarterly appointment with my psych nurse yesterday. In case some of you have never had the privilege of visiting a psych nurse, here’s what happens: I read back issues of VOGUE in the waiting room until she calls me in, we talk about whether or not my current regimen of meds are working, how many milligrams over the course of how many hours I should be taking said meds, and if they should be tweaked in any way so they’re at “therapeutic levels” and I’m functioning normally (and we’ve all – me, the nurse, and my therapist – more or less decided that this means “somewhat irritable but able to get things done without acting out inappropriately or charging thousands of dollars on shoes and lipstick”).

If you’re interested – we’re holding steady, we had our prescriptions refilled for the usual pills at the usual dosage, and we’ll see her again in March.

What we didn’t talk about is the fact that my childhood home got torn down.

I mean, I don’t talk to her about stuff like that. That’s for my therapist, and for the internet.

So, yeah. The house. I was on my way home from doing a little Christmas shopping on Saturday, when I got a message from a friend of mine who grew up in the same neighborhood. He was there visiting his parents, and decided to take a stroll up the street to see my old house.

A little history: we moved there in 1980, when I was in the fifth grade. My folks sold it around 2006, after they had permanently relocated to Florida. The last time I was physically in the house was detailed in this entry from my old site. So – do the math – 25 years, pretty much. There were celebrations acknowledging 2 confirmations, 2 high school graduations, 3 college graduations, a couple of graduate school commencements, 3 weddings, and a handful of christenings in and around that house.

We were not rich, despite the assumptions many make about people who live in that particular town. We weren’t able to make too many significant “improvements” to it over the years. There was new siding, a new closet in the master bedroom, the floors downstairs were redone. But my family has always been….homey, let’s say. Or better still: not given to ostentatious displays of whatever “wealth” we had. My folks were more about meaningful road trips and education than recessed lighting and giant window treatments. The money we had went into those things, and so our house stayed in a perpetual state of “lived in.” “Redecorating” meant moving the furniture around so that it faced the television at varying angles.

It was an ersatz “Colonial” cobbled together around a pre-existing cottage that, back in the 40s, was someone’s vacation home. When you opened the closet in the kitchen, you could see the old wood siding from the original structure. Its odd construction created some problems. My sister’s bedroom, in the far back corner of the house, was heated sporadically at best. In the winter, she just piled on extra blankets. The floorboards in my room groaned alarmingly at the slightest pressure of my feet. I learned to avoid the “groan-y spots” en route to my bed or closet. The ceilings were ridiculously low, posing a constant challenge for my 6’4″ father. Because it had originally been a cottage, the rooms were small, too small to contain the sheer amount of LIVING we did there. But there were lovely, cool things about it. It had a big, magnificent fireplace in the front room, with a mantle on which we displayed my Uncle Willie’s shillelagh, which had come over with him from Ireland. On the second floor, there were four bedrooms, the largest of which belonged to my brother. The back wall, inexplicably, was a mural of a pre-explosion Mount St. Helens. I don’t think we bothered to get rid of it until around 1992.

McColgans inhabited that house for 25 years, some of which were difficult. But a lot of them were pretty great. When I think back to the defining moments which made me who I am, the crushes and the decisions and the discussions, nearly all of them took place under that roof.

In 2007, someone finally bought it. Fairly extensive renovations were made to the inside, so many that I could only barely recognize certain rooms when I went online to look at it after it went up for sale again several months ago. My bedroom had been painted a violent lime green, which horrified me, and I joked repeatedly to my friends on Facebook: “BUY MY OLD HOUSE AND PLEASE REPAINT THIS ROOM FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY I AM BEGGING YOU.”

Someone bought it. And that someone decided to tear it down.

My friend had to do a double, then a triple, take. There was no house.

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I won’t lie. I full-on SOBBED inconsolably for about a half-hour.

A big empty lot. A couple standing off to the side, perhaps the new owners, surveying it all. Talking excitedly about the big ol’ prefab house that’s going to go up. The house was too small for them, probably. Too tacky. Too lived in. It wasn’t worth salvaging what was lovely about it. Tear it down. Cart it away.

I feel….rootless. Robbed. I hadn’t set foot in that house for seven years, hadn’t LIVED there in almost 20. But it’s gone, and I’m struggling with the words to describe just WHY this hurts so much.

I can’t even drive by it and say hello. It’s gone. The fireplace, the old siding in the back of the kitchen closet, all of it. Gone.

I’ve never been shy about speaking pretty bluntly and honestly about my adolescent and teen years. They were not great, for a lot of reasons. I’m sure people wonder why I bother revisiting them over and over and over again. What can I say? I’m a fan of my teenaged self. She was a fighter. She lived in that house, and now that house is gone, except in photographs and memories.

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It feels like a death.

I called my sister, who was similarly shaken. We discussed telling our parents. We basically came to the conclusion that they were going to be rather sanguine and “Zen” about it all. They are not as attached to places as my sister and I are. We have always been painfully psychically sensitive to the absorbed energy and the “ghosts” of a place that’s seen a lot of life come in and out of its doors. We feel that energy, we see those ghosts, and we somehow believe that the dwellings themselves teem with as much spirit as its inhabitants. We’ve always been a little “other” in that regard.

And we were right. While my father did lament the demise of the fireplace, my mother was unruffled. “Bricks and mortar,” she said, “Life goes on, and you make new memories.”

I get that. But I’m still SAD, damn it.

So I sat on my couch, sniveling and feeling good and sorry for myself, when Kevin said, “I know. I know how you feel.”

I looked at him, puzzled. We are living in the house in which he grew up, the house that’s been in his family since before WWII.

“DO you?”

He stared at me, hard. “My childhood memories get taken away every day.”

Then I understood. He is losing his mother, slowly and insidiously. A little bit gets destroyed every day, when she can’t remember how to use a knife, when we have to keep her from throwing away family heirlooms that she now views as “junk,” when she can’t remember Kevin’s name.

Bricks and mortar.

A friend of mine summed it up thus: “It’s a shame when someone destroys a home in order to build a house.” But even as I (sort of) jokingly refer to this unknown couple as THE DESTROYERS, I think, “Well, how could they have known?” On paper, I suppose it made more sense for them to raze the existing structure. I’m enough of a logic junkie (thanks, Dad) to recognize the bottom line.

But my heart only recognizes one thing: they tore down my home.

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“Luck” of the “Irish”

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I was emailing back and forth with an ex of mine recently (I am, in fact, friends with a couple of these fellows, despite the fact that they, by and large, had every reason to completely cut me adrift). I’m not even sure what prompted the “conversation” (probably an invitation to see a show), but at some point I mentioned the series of seemingly miraculous interventions that enabled me to survive my twenties without, you know, dying. And he said something like: “us micks are made of strong stuff.”

I have mixed feelings about that.

I was brought up in an “Irish Catholic” household. In terms of my heritage, I have been taught to identify chiefly as coming from “Irish” stock (and on paper, that would be hard to dispute: I am the product of a McColgan married to a Flaherty, who in turn wouldn’t have come about if a Flaherty hadn’t been married to a Coyle). Going back another couple of generations yields the surnames Daley and Dorsey.

Now, I must needs confess that German and Dutch are also in my personal mix (Wirth on my mother’s side; Janse on my father’s). And yet not much fuss was ever made about that; we were, at turns, “Irish Catholic,” “Boston Irish,” and the sneering “Two Toilet Irish,” when my family moved from the city proper to a suburb south of Boston (an area known as the “Irish Riviera”) and eventually obtained a house with two bathrooms.

Culturally, we’re taught that as “Irish,” we are supposed to be loyal, hot-headed, creative. And, apparently, drunk.

To boot, we’re also supposed to be able to endure that heady mix of temper and perpetual intoxication. Hence, my ex giving me a verbal chuck-on-the-chin by telling me that I lived to tell about my decade-long bout of self-destructive behavior because I am genetically predisposed to survival, as much as I am also genetically predisposed to alcoholism.

Drinking is the arguable birthright of anyone coming into the world with even an infinitesimal fraction of “Irish blood.” You’re expected to drink, and to fight, because the history of colonialism, poverty, starvation, and persecution has embedded itself into your cultural DNA. But on the flip side, you’re not supposed to talk about it if it becomes a problem. Stoicism. Shame.

Even when I was still drinking, I avoided St. Patrick’s Day revelry. Even as I began to feel the cold, damp grip of my addiction preparing to yank me into the depths of hopelessness and desperation, I was unwilling to participate in the ritual of deliberate public inebriation, trimmed with shamrocks. I suspected, even as I drank alone at home, that perpetuating that stereotype was none too smart. It certainly wasn’t anything that I held dear, at the end, when I’d lie in bed at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking about dying. I wasn’t thinking so much of suicide as I was realizing that if I just, well, died somehow, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

And yet I get it. On the surface, it’s funny. I still joke about it. A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook not too long ago, of a bunch of girls in green tshirts passed out in various improbable positions above the caption “IRISH YOGA.” She tagged me and my friend Niamh (born in Ireland, not a “plastic paddy” like myself) and asked, “So is this accurate?” And I scanned the picture and made note of a partially finished pint of Guinness and replied, “An unfinished drink on the dresser? Hardly.”

But then I think, “Aren’t I still willingly contributing to the stereotype by joking about it?” I joke about it, in part, because this is something else I’ve been programmed to do. The Irish joke about terrible things, casting our misfortune in a darkly humorous light, because that’s the way, isn’t it? Example – my father is a twin. He survived birth while his twin did not. Nobody really talks about this, other than to tell this joke (typically at wakes): “Sure, Johnny was a twin. Ma had a boy and a turd. The boy died.” My friendship with Niamh, as long and as deep as it is, is peppered with insults. Tinker. Knacker. Scrubber. It’s how we communicate. We see nothing disrespectful about it.

And so I struggle with this idea that I am supposed to be these things, that I am supposed to accept that I am these things because of genetics and culture and the counties where my Nana and Pa were born. I survived my alcoholism for the very same reason I became an alcoholic? I don’t know.

As Americans of Irish descent, we cling to these ideas of who we are, I think, because we fear a lack of identity. We wear the Aran sweaters and affix the reproductions of vintage Guinness advertisements to our walls and tell jokes on ourselves. And a lot of us drink. And a lot of us drink too much. Some of us survive that slow and steady poisoning of our bodies and spirits. But some of us don’t.

I let it go at the time, the comment about being made of strong stuff. I don’t know that I am. I’m not strong. I’m lucky. Luck of the Irish? Jury’s still out.

Some Thoughts On Drinking

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I was born “alcoholic.” I was born hard-wired to develop a physical dependence on alcohol. There are people who question that. The “disease model” of alcoholism is constantly debated. Me, I just know. The natural solipsism of infancy (feed me, hold me, change me) is something we’re supposed to shed, as we grow more cognizant and are taught compassion and empathy. I’m not saying that I wasn’t taught these things; I just suspect that, unlike my siblings (who are not alcoholics), I was born with a significant disadvantage: being unable to adequately build up the cerebral matter around the amygdala, or the “lizard brain,” which really only wants to be fed, and to feel safe. It’s a theory that I’ve sort of pulled out of my ass, really, because I’m not even what you’d call an armchair neurologist. It’s just the only thing that makes sense to me, given my predilection to pursue “satiety” in all its forms.

———–

I once went through one of my diaries from the early 80s, when I was working on a project that involved reading from these diaries, and came across this sentence: “I’m so scared that I’m going to become an alcoholic.”

I was absolutely against drinking when I started college. The night I decided it wasn’t so bad after all, I wound up nearly poisoning myself, vomiting all over my room until the others on my floor dragged me out and left me in the hallway while they cleaned my bedding, my desk, my books…I remember nothing about any of this. The only thing I remember is opening my door, about an hour or so prior, and seeing my friend Dan.

“DAAAAAAN! What’re you DOIN’ HERE?”
“Um. You invited me to play Pictionary.”
“OHMYGOD. I DID?!”

I had a matinee performance of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” the next day. I was in the molar-rattling throes of Baby’s First Hangover when my friend, who was playing Lucy, looked at me and, alarmed, said, “Jesus, Lees…you look like SHIT. What’s the matter with you?”

“I think I have a hangover.”

Her look of concern immediately disappeared as she turned back to her makeup mirror and adjusted the collar of her little blue dress. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Big deal. So do I.”

———

I was a binge drinker all through college. A weekend here and there. I didn’t think much of it. We all did it. We’d work hard in rehearsals and in performances and we studied and wrote and generally Got Shit Done. I was chosen several times to compete at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I wrote plays. I had a column in the college newspaper. Alcoholism didn’t even cross my mind. After all, I didn’t drink every day.

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Here’s what I tell people in regards to my alcoholism: “Genetics loaded the gun; environment pulled the trigger.” This is not to say that I blame any one person, place, or set of circumstances for the loss of control and the slow, insidious descent into full-blown, active alcoholism. But a line was crossed, and I can pinpoint the period in which I flipped the “fuck it switch” and began the process of decline. The perfect storm.

Shall I tell it? I was 24 years old. I was at the height of my powers, creatively speaking. I was writing volumes of stuff, some of it pretty good, good enough to land me a spot in a graduate writing program known to be quite competitive. I grasped that I was talented enough to be there, but I was overwhelmed by what I considered to be far greater talent around me. I felt like a 3-year-old, just mastering the art of getting my chubby fist around a crayon, while everyone else was writing at lightning speed, words spilling from their pens and word processors that were nothing short of brilliant. I’d sit in workshops and feel my face heat up with embarrassment. What was I doing there?

I was also starting to realize that something was not quite right with me, mentally. I was experiencing terrifying bouts of anger. Shrieking, yowling, completely irrational rage. When I wasn’t angry, I was terrified. And sometimes I’d go off and do really, really stupid things. I was racking up credit card debt, and dashing off haughty, indignant notes to any creditor who dared send me notice that I was delinquent in paying off that debt. I began to – how can I say this? – enjoy these swings, believing them to be proof of my artistic temperament.

Further still – I’d experienced my first real, crushing heartbreak. The one I loved was leaving me, embarking on a new life 3,000 miles away, yet I chose to stay around until he left. And he let me. The kinder thing would have been to completely cut me off, but I clung determinedly to him, to us, until the very second he climbed into his rented U-Haul and drove away. And so I’d go to his apartment after having some story or poem of mine picked apart by my classmates, watch as his stuff disappeared into boxes, listen to him excitedly talk about how everything was “coming together,” and drink. In classes I’d try furiously to pay attention, try to control the hammering of my heart that was trying to keep up with both grief and responsibility, and I’d pour out the door in a pain puddle onto Tremont Street and roll into the nearest bar.

I’m a talentless hack. I’m losing my mind. People move clear across the country to get away from me. Fuck it. Drink.

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In hindsight, that relationship absolutely would’ve fallen apart anyway. My drinking would have ruined it. I know this.

If it hadn’t been the stress and sadness of 1994 that drove me to pursue artificial relief, it would have been something else. Another year. Another series of losses. My growing mental health issues. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have had to stop drinking, or die, eventually. But as it stands – this was the year that my alcoholism tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to dance. And I stayed on the dance floor with it for the next 8 years.

———–

Most of my friends have stopped congratulating me on my “willpower” whenever I reach another anniversary. They’re still happy for me, but I think I’ve managed to get them to sort of understand that sobriety, for me, has nothing to do with willpower. I think it’s pretty well-established that willpower is not something that I possess in spades. Turning down a drink, ignoring the wine list, walking past – and not into – a liquor store…I do these things automatically, because I’ve been trained to. People I trusted told me I could do these things, and I let their voices be my own.

It’s also the one situation in which I allow fear to drive the bus. I am terrified of what will happen to me if I pick up again. I am scared of not being able to stop. I am quite afraid of going through those first completely hellish months of sobriety again.

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And this reminds me of times when I’ve tried to describe the obsession to someone who can pay the check, put on his or her coat, and walk out the door when there’s still a quarter of a glass of beer on the table. You know – a “normal” drinker (I do not fucking understand those people). What is like to need something so badly that you are willing to completely desert common sense and decent behavior to have it? Imagine having a mosquito bite. It itches – a steady, pinching itch that doesn’t go away. You know that if you scratch it, you’ll have maybe a second or two of relief, but it’ll start this whole cycle of trying to ignore it, giving in, scratching, making it worse. But the second or two of relief trumps everything else. That’s the closest I can come to describing what happens to me when I drink.

And I’m fortunate that most of the people in my life actually DO want to try to understand. I’m grateful for that. Too many people don’t. I suppose because judgment is easier than comprehension.

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A question comes up sometimes in my recovery work: if science came up with a “cure” for alcoholism, a pill that would make me “drink normally,” would I take it? Honestly? Probably not, because I have absolutely no desire to “drink normally.”

One thing that I’ve always been grateful for is the fact that I can walk down Newbury Street on a summer evening, past all these little outdoor places where people are drinking Fauvist-hued beverages, and have absolutely no yearning for that kind of shit. When I think about drinking, when I imagine myself giving in and rejoining my alcoholism on that dance floor, I think about drinking as much as I can get my hands on. I think about having one hand on the next bottle before I’ve finished the first. I think about drinking until I do not feel anything: no sadness, no joy, no attraction. Oblivion is always the goal. “If anything,” I once said to another sober friend of mine, “I’d rather that science create a way for me to drink the way I want to without any consequences.”

But then that’s not really living. We quit drinking because the consequences heap one on top of the other until we’re trapped, until it becomes too painful, and we get what’s called “the gift of desperation.” Quitting drinking is signing up to get your life back, warts and all. If I were able to drink without consequences, I wouldn’t have much of anything else, either. My job. My home. My husband. My family. My band. My friends. You get the idea. I have learned to prefer reality to oblivion.