the xanax diary

love, loss, healing and humor (in no particular order)

About a Blizzard…or Two

The Northeast has been brutalized by snow since the start of winter. Last weekend, it was our turn in the Midwest. It snowed here in Chicago, leaving us with an average of about 20 inches of wet, drifting snow. To be honest, I was kind of looking forward to it…since it was really our first of the season. And because my Chow Kallie loves to play in the snow.

As we walked Sunday night, surrounded in all directions by white, I got lost…in another blizzard; one I wrote about four years ago. It was early in my blogging life–when I was writing about anything other than Ken’s second cancer diagnosis in as many years. It was undeniably a part of my denial process.

We got more snow in 2011. Over 30 inches, I believe. And I couldn’t enjoy it like I can today. Ken was hurting and was about to begin chemo and radiation again. His right shoulder had seized up. Back then, I figured it might have been damage from a fall he’d taken, and would require some physical therapy. Now, I’m pretty sure it was cancer.

We had a doctor’s appointment the morning after the blizzard. Exactly four years ago today, actually. And our car was hopelessly buried off the alley that hadn’t been plowed–and would never be plowed. It was hopeless. Ken, however, was not. So we called a cab. But when he arrived he wouldn’t come down our street because it was…well…impassable. I didn’t have such a zen attitude at the time. I remember being furious. Ken was in a wheelchair for the most part–because of pain issues. And I didn’t know how we could possibly be able to get to the appointment. Most of the city was still shut down.

In true “Ken-do” fashion, he grabbed his crutches while i brought the chair, and we began to navigate down the unplowed sidewalk. The average snow depth was 2 feet. I was so worried he’d fall. And that I wouldn’t be close enough to help. It was one of many days during that time I recall knowing I was being pushed to my limits as a caregiver. And just had to keep pushing. It was also one of the lessons I began to learn: don’t worry about how we’ll get to the doctor’s office, just worry about how we’ll get to the end of the block.

Don’t worry too far ahead. It never helps.

Then we experienced what we termed an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment.” A woman on our block I’d never seen before ran over to us from across the street and introduced herself as Ashley. She surmised we were trying to get the cab waiting on the corner. She yelled to another man down the block–by name. Sam. A firefighter, she told us. They knew each other and without much adieu, they got in front of us and began shoveling a path as we moved down the sidewalk. Gleefully and purposefully. It was a heartening. And I’ll never forget it. Or them. Or the the gifts they gave me. Reminded me of. Hope. Kindness. Selflessness.

If only I could have embraced those traits on the trip home. Which was worse. We couldn’t get anywhere near the corner from where we’d been picked up. Due to idiots who shouldn’t have been on the road. (And I cursed each and every single one of them–to their faces–out as I helped Ken navigate back to our abode.) He was trying to calm me down. Typical for him. To see me distressed and do what he could to abate it.

It was one of our last great adventures together. We talked about it many times. And laughed. And laughed. And he never failed to get a kick of out the language I used on the last leg of our journey home.

When I returned from my trip down a snowy memory lane the other day, Kallie and I kept walking and playing. I didn’t dread the snow. And I know I know how lucky I am to be able to say that.


A Spot of Tea


When I’m feeling a little under the weather, I drink hot tea. I don’t really like it under any other circumstances. I remember my mom drinking a lot of it when I was growing up. And still does. For me, back then it was mostly a warm, dark vehicle for tons of white table sugar.

I’m lucky. I don’t get sick very often. Sometimes, even before I realize my throat is getting scratchy or I’m sounding a bit nasally, I seek out the little “Colonial” (as I call it) tea cup and saucer. I have two of each. They were Ken’s, though I berate myself for not knowing their genesis.

I panicked for a split second the other day. When I realized I wanted tea. (Also cluing me in that I wasn’t feeling great.) I couldn’t remember where the cups were. Still packed away? Did I donate them in my hellacious urge to purge before moving last year? Would I do that?!

Then I thought for a moment, and had a pretty good idea where they were. And I was right. I made myself a cup and carried the steaming beverage by the saucer to the coffee table and bundled up on the sofa with Kallie nearby.

There is comfort in those two cups. More than anything herbal Lemon Zinger can provide. An emotional salve imbued with the sweetest of memories. I can so easily picture Ken, sitting and sipping tea out of these cups. It was his preferred tea receptacle, too. I mean, they ARE tea cups, afterall.

The cups are dainty, fragile and stained. A lattice of cracks in the glaze decorate the bottoms and sides of each cup uniquely–yet confirming they are a pair. That they belong together.

Ken’s hands were large. spider-like. Yet skilled. Capable of minute and dainty motions when called for. Like when he would sip tea, holding the tiny handle of the cup, pinkie out. Sometimes, overexaggerating the gesture for my benefit. And sometimes–when I would spy him out of the corner of my eye–he did not–just enjoying the ritual that he’d created for its own sake.

As I still do. (Though my pinkie will not stick out no matter how hard I try.)

Dear Universe #2

Dear Universe,

It’s been a while since my last letter. I was thinking about you the other day; trying to understand the mixed-bag-that-is-you as I sometimes attempt to do.

You’re so unpredictable and formidable, and sometimes so cruel. Being kind-of-a-bitch is your thing. I get it, though I must admit I struggle with accepting you as you are. I want to change you. I would bet most people you know want to change you. Take a hint? In fact, you’re becoming quite the cliché.  Aren’t you even a little embarrassed about that? Something you might really want to spend some time thinking about. Just a suggestion.

I know our relationship has had its ups and downs, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care. We have a connection I can’t escape. Who can? You’ve reminded me over and over that I am “not the boss of you” literally 403 quadrillion times since forever ago. Again, I get it.

Have you ever considered rebranding? Like getting a cosmic makeover? Yes, you have a pretty well-known reputation, but it’s based on things like randomness and chaos and surrender. Wouldn’t it be fun to change it up and be known as “fun-loving” and “peace-mongering” and “generous”? Who knows? Maybe you could even score a date. I hear Mother Nature is single again. (And based on her record of late, she really needs to get laid.)

Just something to think about. From a friend.

Speaking of our relationship, don’t think I haven’t noticed how inequitable it has been over the years. I adapt to your whims. I maneuver through the twisted gauntlet you lay before me. And yet you seem unaffected by even my grandest of intentions. I have often wondered if you’re doing it on purpose. A punishment.

But when all is said and done, I know it’s just your nature. And I should expect no more or less. Since you don’t have feelings I know it isn’t intentionally to hurt me. In fact, if you had feelings, my rages against you would have ground them into a fine paste by now. Then where would we be? What good would a blubbering and broken universe be? (Though I have long fantasized about it.)

To be reminded what a jerk you are, is to also consider all the goodness you’ve shepherded into my path. I have as much to be grateful for–thanks to you–as I have lost because of your seemingly reckless behavior.

Shame on me for letting it be easier to recall the ills you’ve hurled at me rather than being grateful for the balmy goodness I have basked in.

You can be real a dick, for sure. But I still wish you well, and know that our journey together is as eternal as…well…you.

Awkweird Dating Tales

One of the cruelest ironies of dating is that you really can’t talk about the politics of dating with a person you’re on a date with—yet he is the one person who (theoretically) understands most closely what you’re feeling in that moment. But, ultimately, it would be like sharing your cards or detailing your “tells” with your opponents at a poker table. It simply isn’t done…by me, anyway.

But as a dater—someone who believes love is possible for me again—it’s a hazard of the practice. Dates are like interviews–as a recent date pointed out (and shouldn’t have.) We all know they’re interviews. It can literally go without saying. And should.

“I know immediately,” my date said about knowing if a date feels “right.” “I have a good feeling about this,” he continued smugly, talking about our date.

This date?!

I had a feeling about it too. A dissimilar one. (Which, of course, I didn’t share.) We both knew something immediately. Unfortunately, we knew two very different things.

This date was extremely painful. The further we got into it, the more he told me how handsome I was. (Yes, everyone loves to hear it, but once does the trick. More than once is “awkweird”.) And the more I wanted to desperately figure out where the fire alarm was located so I could set it off on the way the bathroom and then sneak out during the chaos. (In his defense, who wouldn’t be attracted to such maturity?)

He kept finding and verbalizing our similarities. (I said I was introverted. He lied and said he was too. No one who talks as much as he did could possibly be introverted.) And saying how well we’d get along. I kept thinking, “We’d get along better if our burgers would arrive and this date could end.“

Oh. The high fives. Every time I said something funny or witty, he would toss his head back, burst into laughter, then hold his hand in the air for a high five. Funny and witty is my jam. So, there were a lot of high fives. A lot. (And I’ll admit many of them were not deserved.) More awkweirdness.

He’d already broached the subject of kissing at dinner after disclosing he was a “social smoker.” (Deal breaker on its own.) I asked if he needed to step outside to have a cigarette. (Fuel for a date-ending fire.) He replied something like “one has to weigh the options in case there is a kiss at the end of a first date.”

Ugh. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

When he offered me the breath strip, I almost didn’t take it. To send a message. But I took it, thinking he was accelerating exponentially and without regard for signs clearly lit on the side of the road straight into a brick wall of awkweirdness. And part of me wanted to watch it happen.

He insisted on giving me a ride home which meant the date was to continue for a potentially awkward 10 minutes more. It lasted a little longer when he missed a turn onto my street. Then upon finding my building, wide-eyed in the darkness, I wondered why he was backing into a parking spot. I mean, how could you NOT tell from the very quiet ride home that this date was already over? I’m not that good of an actor, I’ve been told (by one of my Second City improv instructors, no less.)

He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to me.

What?! Are we on the same date?!

I smiled awkweirdly and said plainly, “there will be no kiss.” He, of course, understood with incredible unfettered eagerness.

“I’ll leave the ball in your court,” he said.

At dinner, I’d unintentionally revealed that I found it annoying that someone would contact you after a date to tell you they didn’t think you were a good match. (This has happened to me.) To me, not contacting the person after the date said the same thing with less effort or fuss.

He agreed wholeheartedly.


Farewell 2014…I’ll miss you!

I published my previous post without thinking that I still wanted to write about 2014. But I’m a sucker for the statistical fireworks show puts on for me.

So, we’re a few days into 2015. I rang in the new year in bed. Not because of any tragic reason—though I am a those who subscribe to leaving amateur night to amateurs. To be honest, I was kind of sad to see 2014 go. It was a good year; one fraught with exciting firsts for me.

Becoming a homeowner was the biggest event (financially and emotionally) for me. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time, signing a stack of papers for two hours–all pretty much promising the same thing: pay my mortgage or suffer the consequences.

It was a double-edged sword as I moved out of the home Ken and I shared for five years, then I alone for almost three. It was a place filled with so many fun memories, and the obvious sad ones. But the good far outweighed the bad. It was also the place I began my new journey anew (and figuring out how Ken still fit into it). It was the place to which I brought a 9 lb. Kallie home, and it was a place surrounded by the first yard she frolicked in.

It was my home for eight years–longer than any other as an adult–and though I know it’s been completely gutted and renovated, it’s frozen in time for me. It will always be the apartment withe orange and yellow kitchen that Ken and I painted together with the back yard lush with angel trumpets, sunflowers, and the purple blooming hosta.

Sitting in our back yard after the AIDS walk in 2007 with my friend Mark's then-puppy Rocco.

Sitting in our back yard after the AIDS walk in 2007 with my friend Mark’s then-puppy Rocco.

As for the future, I love my little purchased home, nestled just two blocks from the old rented one.

Another fun first was returning to camping, something Ken introduced me to when we first met. A friend and I went to Door County in Northern Wisconsin last summer. It was a beautiful backdrop for something I wasn’t sure would ever happen again. And I loved every minute of it. There will definitely be more camping trips this summer.

2014 marked the first time since a 1983 trip to Mexico with my family that I left the borders of our nation. In August I went to Montreal for a long weekend. The city itself was charming and seemingly European to my starry Midwestern eyes. It was a great introduction to traveling for someone who prefers familiarity and home.

Mexico. 1983. Mr. Personality is on the left.

Mexico. 1983. Mr. Personality is on the left.

2014. Montreal.

Montreal. 2014.

So, 2014 was a good year. And 2015 is filled with hope and promise. Hopefully, there will be more exciting firsts ahead. But I’d gladly settle for some decent seconds.

2014 in review

Starting this blog 4 years ago to write about all the things I was feeling saved my sanity. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments…to date. And though I didn’t break any records writing this year, it didn’t stop the stats helper monkeys from preparing a 2014 annual report for me.

Bring on 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

My Favorite Part of the Day


There seems to be a point in the day by which everything is measured. Sometimes it’s anticipation of a stressful meeting at work or excited anticipation of a special event. But those are the exceptions. A creature of habit–desired habit, needed habit–there is a baseline in my day which is essential, it seems, to maintain order, balance, sanity. It’s the point in the day when I know I can relax, kick off my shoes (emotionally speaking), let my hair down (figuratively, of course) and hoard a little peace that may have been missing my (work) day.

Like many of my fellow Chicagoans, I take the L to work most every day. I used to love taking it. Then stopped needing to. So on the infrequent trips to the office, I drove. Now I love it again. I read, write, watch a movie or even nap (it’s a skill). Zoning out on the train is the perfect way to shake off a busy day and prepare to transition into an evening at home.

As I stood on the platform in the loop the other day, looking forward to my favorite part of the day (which I’ll get to, I promise), I realized I stood on this platform thousands of times throughout my employment in the loop–beginning in 1998. Many of those times, my favorite part of the day was something quite different. When I was younger, I hurried to meet friends after work up in the neighborhood. Or was excited to get home and get the weekend started. Years later, I was tired and longed to get home to Ken and Q. Then after his death, just wanting to get home and close the door behind me. To disconnect form the outside world.

What’s currently my favorite part of the day? Coming home to this face on the sofa, greeting me with sleepy eyes:


I should qualify that coming home is my favorite part of evening. The morning is usually started off on the right foot with this:

Kallie slithers into my warm imprint as soon as I get up. And is usually ready to play.

Kallie squirms into my warm imprint as soon as I get up. And then challenges me to do something about it.

But in spite of the Ken, Quantum, Kallie (say that tree times fast) and whatever I might look forward to in the future, I wonder if my favorite part of the day is right there on that platform, eagerly anticipating…whatever I have in store for me at home.

And appreciating it in the present.

The Rituals of Christmas

It seems this time of year holiday traditions are somehow more romantic. The Christmas traditions I shared with Ken are still very important to me. We really delighted in the season. Ken had a childlike giddiness that was infectious. It was impossible to be a Grinch at Christmastime with him around. For me, Christmas continues to be magical. It’s my first Christmas in my new place, and I’m looking forward to bringing some old traditions here and making new ones, as well.

First on the list is to decide where to put the pink Christmas tree.

New Tradition: decorate the mantle with Hermey!

New Tradition: decorate the mantle with Hermey!

The Christmas cards I’ve sent since 2011 have been store-bought, but during the prior decade, Ken and I designed and executed construction of our cards–from concept to creation. (See photo gallery below.) Brainstorming usually began sometime in the midst of summer over cocktails on our patio or in our back yard where it morphed and changed from one thing to another before being finalized sometime in November. Actual construction would begin on the weekend of Thanksgiving. Someday, I’ll have the spark to create my own cards again. Someday.

I have so many memories of Christmas with Ken. Some mundane. Some supreme. But one of my favorites is below. It’s from our 2007 card (which was a DVD) and shows “outtakes” from our video shoot. We’d originally planned a talk show format, but couldn’t work it out. This was funnier.

I’m grateful to be in a place where watching this brings me the joy of the season, and the joy of being with Ken.

Mom’s Classic Halloween Poem

Every year my mom sends us kids and her grandkids this Halloween poem she made up when I as just a kid (so around 40+ years this poem has been around). I remember we had an assignment in third grade to write a Halloween poem, so I saved the time for TV watching and handed hers in instead. (Sorry, Miss Gick!)

This wasn’t a terrifying poem, but Mom recited it with such conviction that you couldn’t help but wonder what her coven designation was–as she was most certainly speaking from experience. Although at the part where the cackle begins is when she’d tickle me silly. Enjoy.

Happy Halloween!















Dear Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers


TO: Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers
CC: Oscar Goldman, Director, Office of Scientific Intelligence, Dr. Rudy Wells

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

You might not remember me, but we worked together for a while back in the 70s (see photo). Though I wasn’t quite as well known as you two were, I held my own in areas specific to espionage, Big Foot hunting and Fembot control.

I was the youngest agent in Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) history, if you’ll recall. Yes, my friend-and-sometimes-co-agent Chris was the same age, but I was 3 months younger. And he didn’t last very long in the Agency before shipping out after third grade to an “unknown assignment.” Without him, I was on my own.

You probably won’t remember any of our adventures together. I’m sure you had your fill with other young agents at the time, though none possessing my acute abilities in running in slow motion and making a wide array of bionic sound effects–from bionic limbs activating for super speed or strength or my right bionic eye zooming in on a target across the playground to the trill of my bionic ear filtering whispers throughout the lunch room. My skills were mad. And I can’t blame you for being just a little bit jealous.

It was a simple time back then, eh? We were heroes. The good guys. Doing work for a good and just government, using our abilities and gifts to the detriment of only those who would do us harm. Sure there was the occasional double agent–hell, sometimes it was even us! But it was for the best. We were always on the side of right. And there was never any doubt about it.

Sure, we all had unlimited expense accounts, government-funded sports cars and A-list wardrobes, but for cryin’ out loud, we were in constant and unending danger! It was the least our country could do for us. We could go to sleep in our horse stable lofts in Ojai one night, and be shipped off to East Berlin the next morning (remember when there were two Berlins??!)

I wonder if you miss those days as much as I do. Running around in bell bottoms and knits, hanging out at Callahan’s desk outside Oscar’s office while he finished a call with “Mr. Secretary,” cross stitching or creating macramé while Steve wailed and played the guitar with that sad mustache he tried for a while. Good times, my friends. Good goddamn times.

Wouldn’t it be fun for the three of us to get together sometime for cocktails and catch up? We could throw a few cars around and teach some cocky deserving misanthropes (e.g. Starbucks line cutters or people on the train who don’t give up their seat for the elderly) a lesson or two in kindness with some slowmo badass moves.

I would love to see you two again and rehash old times. Living in a world filled with so much gray, makes me long for the times of childhood-colored black and white. Sure, it may have been a more naive time. Or maybe the world was the same as it is now, just presented differently. No email. No 24 hour news cycle. No computers—except for the one Oscar would reference upon occasion. (Did you guys ever know what he was talking about?)

Drop me a line sometime and let me know.

Watch your back,

Agent Stempkowski

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