What William Kennedy gave me on his 90th birthday

Tuesday night I was lucky enough to join an already in progress festive event down at Cafe Capriccio. Gathered together to celebrate Albany’s literary native son William Kennedy’s birthday were dozens of family members, friends and colleagues. I arrived as speakers began to share their thoughts, memories and best wishes and it was remarkable. The evening’s host, New York State Writers Institute director, Paul Grondahl, invited those present to share their own words in Bill’s honor and for a brief second I considered accepting the offer. It probably would have taken 2 more glasses of wine to get me to speak publicly, but the thoughts that were prompted can just as easily be shared here.

Albany has a modern literary tradition thanks to William Kennedy. His characters populate the streets and the imagination of a city which has been maligned and misrepresented for decades, if not centuries. The stories he has told portray a city filled with residents, frequently Irish American, living hardscrabble lives, corrupt, violent and often tragically funny. The struggles of his characters are familiar and universal, yet because they take place in Albany, N.Y., they are our stories. We own them, just like William Kennedy belongs to us, and despite the less than stellar reputations possessed by so many of his characters, we embrace them.

Because of William Kennedy, and his vision in founding the New York State Writer’s Institute, acclaimed authors have visited our area and shared their craft with audiences at no cost to attendees.  As an undergraduate, I was thrilled to listen to Allen Ginsberg and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work. More recently, an in-depth symposium focused on telling the truth in a post-truth era brought heavyweight journalists to our area for a weekend of timely and interesting events.  None of these experiences would have been available without the NYSWI and we as a city are indebted to Bill Kennedy for the opportunities to hear and learn from literary luminaries and embattled professional journalists.

The third gift I received that night was less tangible than the others and I don’t know if I have the words to describe it. The best I can come up with is it was a combined sense of pride, belonging and possibility. As the child of an Irishman I never met, I’ve sought out Irish culture and traditions for as long as I can remember. Witnessing a roomful of people singing a rousing chorus of Molly Malone (and joining in!) fed my soul as delightfully as Jim Rua’s always-prepared-with-love meals feed my belly. The thrill and privilege of being present at such an incredibly special event is something I will never forget. While I don’t imagine ever writing a book, the fact that Ironweed wasn’t published until Bill Kennedy was 55, and that I was present at his 90th birthday party, reminds me that just about anything is possible.

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Guess I’ll have to buy it now

Cars aren’t all that important to me and all I want is to be able count on one to get me from Point A to Point B. I can’t imagine myself ever buying a brand new one because of both the expense and the stress I would feel about preserving the car’s brand newness. I much prefer something that might have a ding or two and some well maintained miles.

My current car is a twelve-year-old Volvo wagon that I bought after my previous Volvo wagon was totaled when I was rear ended at a stop light. I remember calling it my princess car when I first got it because it was such a pretty shade of grey and so very clean. I’ve loved that car (and she has provided me and my family with more than a 100,000 safe miles) but I’ve been thinking that it might be time for something new after almost a decade together.

When I considered what I want in a “new” car the items highest on my wish list are fewer miles and a standard transmission. With this in mind I called my guy, Dave at Precision, and asked him to be on the lookout for a car that I might like. Imagine my delight in learning that he happened to have something on the lot that exactly met my requirements. I arranged to drive it this past weekend to see how it felt.

Beyond the transmission, the car is identical to what I already own – same year, same model. This wagon has a cream colored interior (opposed to the black interior I now have) which would work really well with Jeter’s fur and the car is very clean having had only one previous owner and all maintenance performed by the same shop I’ve used for almost 20 years. There are 30,000 fewer miles on this wagon which equals about 2.5 years of driving in my world, an appealing consideration.

The decision to keep what I have or make a change has been difficult. Right now I own a car that I have carefully maintained and I haven’t had a car payment in more than 4 years. My car has the odd ding, but is essentially clean and I imagine it would continue to provide me with reliable service for years to come. But, the opportunity to buy a standard shift Volvo is pretty rare and the weekend has reminded me that I really do enjoy the physical act of driving, which is kind of funny when you consider the current move to driverless vehicles.

I’ve laid out the dilemma to a number of friends whom I consider to be practical car people and most are of the opinion that I should trade my car in, pay the difference in value/price in cash (which I have on hand), and get myself the car that I want to drive for the 5 years or so.

I was truly conflicted about the decision until Saturday afternoon when I was leaving for work and was met by my new neighbor outside. It seems she had left a post it note on the car because she had hit the front bumper when she was driving on our narrow street. There now is a little scrape (that my neighbor will have addressed) which has caused me to conclude that the important parts of the car are really on the inside – the transmission, the single owner maintained engine and the dog friendly interior and all of those are an improvement over what I currently own.  I just may be starting the year with a new car!

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What if none of this makes a difference?

D768FE3C-75A1-413D-854F-1F21D01F49EC.jpegAfter my shower the other night I faced my shelf of moisturizers considering which one (or 2) to use. Did my face feel tight from the water which I can’t help but set to a temperature which I know is too hot? Should I use the intensive night time mask or the nitamins? Must I avoid that area on my chin where I recently had a spot or should I treat that area with a lighter formula? How about my T-zone that tends to be borderline oily? Would toner help?

As I pondered the embarrassing array of lotions and creams and the condition of my skin I was struck by a thought – what if none of it really makes a difference?

Do you ever consider the ingredients contained in your beauty products? I don’t have a chemistry degree so much of it is a foreign language to me, but I know I’d be more comfortable if I actually could read the label with some degree of comprehension. Is slathering my face with chemicals really going to improve my chances of aging gracefully or would I have been better off not introducing my one and only face to a plethora of foreign substances?

I started moisturizing, probably with Avon products, when I was in middle school. I was seriously into fashion and subscribed to Mademoiselle and Glamour and completely bought in to the beauty culture. As I look back with 35 years of skincare experience, I’m left to wonder how my skin would appear had I not ever used commercial moisturizers. Would the lines on my face be the same? More pronounced or less?

I guess I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but undoubtedly I would have minimized my exposure to chemical substances, my expenses and the amount of time I spend pondering which formula to use.

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What’s new

As a person who considers the first day of the month or week as a clean slate waiting to be filled with my best intentions, you’d think that I’d be all over New Year’s resolutions, but you’d be wrong. Maybe it’s my basic lack of interest in doing what everyone else does. I really don’t like being a cliché, you know? Of course, I do consider how I might improve my navigation through life and a new year certainly provides an excellent opportunity to implement changes. Here’s what I’ve come up with for 2018:

  • Amex for groceries. I know people who pay all their bills with credit cards for the purpose of earning rewards and I’m going to dip my big toe into that pool of potential points. I always pay my balance in full, but have to admit that it feels weird to purchase necessities with a credit card. I’m curious to see how much more quickly I can earn rewards and think it makes sense to try this for a full year as an experiment.
  • I’ve got some new cities in my sights for 2018 and I really couldn’t be more excited. What can you share with me about Rome, Salzburg, Vienna and Prague?
  • Decluttering and simplifying my living space. Do I really need all of the clothing I own? If I’m not using it, do I really need to keep? It seems like life would be more pleasant without as much stuff – contrary to what many believe but an idea I’m hoping to embrace. Maybe this book will help? (Thanks, Lori!)14014A1A-874A-45AD-AE62-CFEE34BD58F4
  • Increasing contributions to my 403B. As a teacher, I’m fortunate to have a clearly defined salary schedule and I appreciate that. Since I’m in the last 10 years of my career it’s time to start upping my contributions to my retirement account. I don’t imagine myself completely giving up working before I’m 60, but I need to make hay while the sun shines and that means socking away as much as I can while I’m still earning a good income.
  • Yoga at least once a week. Mentally, physically and spiritually I need it. And really – how often can one address all of those areas in one place in 75 minutes?

What’s on your list for the new year?

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But, Daddy, I want to cross country ski TODAY!

Christmas Day was pretty stunning this year with that gorgeous fresh snow. Once the boys were on their way, I grabbed the dog and my skis and headed to Muni for my first ski of the season. Conditions were decent and I went straight out past the driving range towards a wooded trail I like. After a few hundred yards something weird starting happening with my left ski. My foot kept coming loose and the binding just wasn’t cooperating. I ended up taking both skis off, tossing them over my shoulder and simply enjoying the walk.

After I got home I looked closely at the skis and realized that one of the bindings was missing a piece. No worries, until I could it repaired I could use skis that belonged to the Lilly boys. Jeter and I got back out to the golf course the next day. Imagine my annoyance surprise when I realized that these skis also had a malfunctioning binding. The good news that day was that I discovered the problem before I attempted to ski. I put the skis back in the car and, again, we took a walk.

A local ski shop suggested I check out LL Bean for replacement bindings and I headed there bright and early the 27th. I got lucky and was assisted by a super knowledgeable salesperson. I didn’t catch his name but he really knew his stuff and he was more helpful than any other ski salesperson I’ve worked with in the past. The replacement bindings he had available were clearly not great quality and he offered to mount bindings that I might buy somewhere else. Unfortunately, the nearest locations to purchase the NNN bindings I needed was more than a 30 minute drive and I wanted to ski NOW.

The salesman and I talked about the life expectancy of a pair of cross country skis and the cost of new boots, which I needed. My boots had been splitting at the seams for the past three years and I had tossed them at the end of last year’s season. The boys’ boots were about a size and a half too big, but I had planned to make them work until I had a chance to replace my own. Impulsively, I asked how much it would cost to put me in a completely new set of skis…

Twenty-five minutes (and $360) later I walked out of LL Bean with a completely new ski package. The shopping experience was great and I love my skis. This equipment is exactly what I’ve been looking for in terms of ski length and width for the kind of skiing I do on mostly ungroomed trails and Jeter and I have been tearing up the golf course every chance we’ve had since. Maybe we’ll see you there!

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When did I become too posh for the Delaware Ave Price Chopper?

As a student, newly arrived in Albany, my grocery shopping was limited to whatever I could carry. I didn’t have a car, nor did I really buy anything that I couldn’t eat with a spoon which meant my shopping list typically revolved around cereal, yogurt and ice cream – all of which could be had from the nearby Price Chopper.

Time passed and eventually there was a car in my driveway in the street in front of my home and my horizons expanded. There was the new Hannaford up on Central Avenue, followed by the renovated uptown Price Chopper and finally the husband who did the grocery shopping which effectively ended my explorations of the local grocery store scene. Until the divorce, of course.

Since then, I’ve hunted and gathered primarily at suburban grocery stores, usually Price Chopper with the occasional foray to Shop Rite. Generally, the Slingerlands PC location has been my choice. What can I say? I think they have the best bagels.

Last night, though, I couldn’t justify driving out to Slingerlands to get the few items on my list. Especially since I was already down Lark Street way on an errand. So I pulled in the Delaware Avenue Price Chopper lot, parked my car and grabbed a cart. The cart, by the way, surprisingly came without the quarter deposit I had anticipated.

The produce aisle immediately beckoned. On my list: strawberries, brussels sprouts and mushrooms, all sale items. Of the three only the sprouts were available. In place of the anticipated fruits and vegetables were empty bins and signs informing shoppers that due to weather conditions produce was unavailable. I immediately wondered if the Price Choppers in Slingerlands and Glenmont would have the same signs posted. I got some brussels sprouts and organic black berries, which oddly were priced lower than the “regular” blackberries and moved on.

The aisles in this store are narrower than those in the suburban stores and I repeatedly encountered the same folks during my weaving up and down and around. There were some colorful people, including a man who bore a distinct resemblance to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character. Disappointingly he never emitted a pirate-like “aargh,” but each time our paths crossed the aroma of cigarette smoke clinging to his clothing and his cart filled with beer, told a story of its own.

The paper towels that were on sale were also unavailable, the shelf empty. I picked an alternate brand and moved past the end cap that emitted a smell that reminded me of scented candles burning. Not unpleasant, just kind of weird. I made my way to the checkout area where I was met by a friendly fellow who was hoping for some assistance in purchasing a “bag of chicken.” His alcoholic breath made me skeptical of his request, but in retrospect I wish I had offered to add his desired item to my own order.

Check out was otherwise uneventful and my cashier, like every other employee I observed, was pleasant and efficient.

The overall experience was positive, but it definitely left me wondering. Do all of the stores receive the same level of restocking or do the suburban stores get preferential treatment? Do my shopping habits mean I am guilty of white flight? And – where do you shop and why?

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Seventeen things I learned in 2017

  • Never regret money spent traveling.
  • I’m not a good boss and have no interest in ever owning a business again.
  • That being said, I did learn how to do payroll and use Quickbooks.
  • The Hudson Valley has no shortage of adorable and fun places for quick getaways.
  • For every $1000 spent on a cosmetic household improvement there will be $3000 spent on necessary home repairs.
  • Running a half marathon in single digit temperatures is possible and even a little fun.
  • Solo travel is indulgent – and exhilarating.
  • U2 live still delivers.
  • Although I love being home, spending time outdoors makes me happy in an entirely different way.
  • Donald Trump is an even worse President than I had ever imagined.
  • Jeter loves a vacation just as much as any of us and the ‘new” house we rented last summer in Wellfleet was ideal for the whole family.
  • Making granola is super easy and it tastes far better than store bought.
  • There’s a lot of good television these days – think Stranger Things, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and This is Us. The jury is still out on Black Mirror.
  • Cookie swaps are best enjoyed retrospectively. Having 8 or 9 dozen cookies is great, but the stress of baking 9 dozen cookies and packaging them beautifully robs the joy from holiday baking.
  • An afternoon ski on New Year’s Eve with your Lunar bitches, your dog and an airplane sized bottle of limencello is a perfect way to spend the year’s last daylight hours.
  • Giving up the scale and eating another cookie might be my best new holiday tradition. I plan to repeat it next year for a full 12 Days of Christmas.
  • Bourbon sours with her favorite fella on December 31st can make a girl forget about Times Square, fireworks and the ball dropping.

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