not at all scared

i agree, bill wants her to run

but they didn’t even mention obama

On my lunchtime constitutional today, the non-scariest thing happened: four birds of prey circled over my head. I repeat, this was a non-scary event. Totally. Yup. Because I’m not superstitious, and I DID NOT REGARD THIS AS AN OMEN OF DEATH, even though this particular avian foursome resembled vultures looking for carrion. And I was the closest thing nearby that remotely qualified. And they were eyeballing me hungrily, I could just tell. And as they were eyeballing me hungrily, I heard one of them rasp to the other, “What do you think, bro? Too old and stringy? Metallic aftertaste?”

Still, even as I heard this, I DID NOT FREAK OUT. I just squinted mightily and eyeballed them right back, although I’d just eaten yogurt and a banana back at my desk and wasn’t all that hungry, so I doubt I looked convincing. Probably the mighty squinting and faux-ravenous eyeballing just made me look older and stringier and thus less appetizing, because the four of them soon lost interest and landed on the peaked roof of a nearby church, where they then cooled their heels (do they have heels?) while discussing politics (do they have politics?).

BIRD ONE: What do you think? Is Hillary running?
BIRD TWO: Get a real question.
BIRD THREE: Dudes, look. That weirdo white-haired lady. She’s still there.
BIRD FOUR: I still say she looks a little fibrous.

They didn’t stay long. I expect they ran out of things to say to each other, or they lost interest in me, or they wanted to check out that new Japanese restaurant on Wolf Road. But they soon flapped off, leaving me with my pathetic squint and my craned neck and my TOTALLY NON-SUPERSTITIOUS NON-FREAKOUT in response to this symbolically loaded quartet of doom soaring above me. I didn’t really take it as a sign. I didn’t really believe I was about to drop dead on the short walk back to work. But yes, OK, I’ll admit it, I was a wee bit spooked. I’m not sure why I was wee bit spooked. Am I afraid of death? Raptors? Steepled church roofs? Speculation on the 2016 presidential campaign? Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, read too much Poe, heard too many yarns around campfires real and imagined. Maybe I’m still a child, and I just want to be scared.

Mostly, I was rapt by the raptors — by their beauty and majesty, by their circling grace and august silhouettes against the lightly tufted late-September sky. What I loved most, in watching them, was what I always love most about Nature: It doesn’t need us. It doesn’t care. It carries on without us, cutting through air and land and water with grace and selfless purpose, and if we’re lucky, we cross paths. In that sense, my lunchtime companions were indeed an omen. A good one.

wait, what?

i wrote this? seriously?

no way. way! no way. way!

Yesterday, a large cardboard box weighing somewhere around eight tons dropped on my porch. It was addressed to me, and so, after hiring a crane to move it into my living room, I opened it. And there they were: Dozens of books with the word “shit” in the title (OH NO, THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION IS AT HAND) and my name under it. This was a surprise. I was like, I wrote a book? And then I was like, I must have written a book, because I know of no one else named Amy Biancolli in this house. And finally I was like, HOLY BANANAS FLAMBE, which, by the way, I have never eaten, I GUESS I WROTE A BOOK.

This happens to me on a regular basis. Not the book-writing; that’s only occurred three times in my life, unless you count that awful roman-a-dreck that I wrote in my mid-twenties and started to use as scrap paper until I confessed this to William Kennedy, whose response was a shocked and horrified OH NO NO NO AMY, DON’T DO THAT, at which point I stopped. I don’t mean I stopped talking to William Kennedy, who is a very nice man in addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. I mean I stopped using my misbegotten fiction manuscript as scrap and crammed what’s left of it into a drawer somewhere.

No, this is what happens to me on a regular basis: I disconnect from things that I’ve “done” and “accomplished,” perhaps because the whole concept of “doing” and “accomplishing” things is still so foreign to me, even at the age of 51. Especially at the age of 51, at which point any sense of authoring my own life has flown out the proverbial patio doors. You know that epic Talking Heads song, right? “Once in a Lifetime”? The one where David Byrne wobbles his voice ominously: And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile! . . . And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?

That’s me. Minus the large automobile. (Instead, You may find yourself behind the wheel of a Japanese compact with a janky, taped-on fender!) I often regard the events and blessings of my life as Things That Just Sort of Happened to Me, forgetting, for a moment, that maybe I might have had something to do with making them happen. (Examples 1-3: my children.) Sometimes, looking around my home, I think, HOLY CRAP! I OWN A HOUSE!, and this remains true almost 21 years after living in it. I see my byline in the Times Union and think, HOLY CRAP! I WRITE FOR A NEWSPAPER!, which, given the nature of the industry, is even more surprising now than it was 32 years ago.

This sense of disconnect — this suspicion that I’m not quite the author of my own life, just an actor who responds to outside agents and forces, ducking stinky tomatoes, juggling large feral cats– is even stronger and stranger in the face of tragedy, bringing out the darkly nutcase surrealism of extreme loss. As in: HOLY CRAP! I’M WEARING BLACK AT MY HUSBAND’S FUNERAL! THIS MAKES ME A WIDOW! (There is no more freakishly disembodying revelation, take it from me.)

So the eight tons of booky-wookys that touched down at my house seem to have been written by me, and they seem poised for publication in a few short weeksThe memoir wasn’t my idea, not really. I only wrote it because my friend Bob wouldn’t leave me alone until I did; it’s HIS fault, NOT mine, understand? In a way he’s as much the author as I am. So maybe when he sees it, he’ll howl, in a Byrne-like fit of existential New Wave noodling: Am I right? Am I wrong? …. My God! What have I done!

dead letter office

The weirdest goddamn thing happened to me last week. I mean, weird goddamn things are always happening to me (such as: getting latex-gloved by the TSA), but this was the goddamn weirdest in a while.

An envelope arrived addressed to Chris. That was only a little odd; on a 1-10 scale of goddamn weirdness, it registered somewhere around a 5. I’m used to getting mail addressed to my late husband, but most of it belongs in one of three categories: 1) fundraising queries of the sort that involve adorably personalized labels; 2) letters from old friends who hadn’t yet heard he died, which often bring me to tears; and 3) promotions from car dealerships, which always annoy me (about a 7 on the 1-10 scale of goddamn annoyance) but don’t technically piss me off, except for that one time some smart-ass salesperson hand-wrote and addressed a promotional faux missive to my dead spouse that I mistook for Dead Letter Category No. 2 and, as such, brought me to tears before I realized I’d been had. And so I got pissed off, a 10+ on the relevant scale, and then I tore someone’s voicemail a new one.

The latest Dead Letter to plop on my porch was a bill for $15.16 — what’s left, after insurance, of the charge for an orthopedic office visit and knee X-ray performed in August. This August. On Chris. Who hadn’t visited a doctor of any kind, as far as I was aware, for a whole three years. But there it was, addressed to him, and no one else’s name was anywhere on it.

My first thought was, I kid you not: WTF? Chris is alive?

My second thought was: He had a knee X-ray?

My third thought was: WTF?

My fourth: He has a knee?

My fifth, and I am still kidding you not, was: SO WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME HE’S NOT DEAD?

Yes. I had these thoughts. No. They make no sense. But I had them. I’m really really serious. Of course, all of them zapped through the Clanging Campbell’s Mushroom Soup Can Known As Amy’s Head in roughly .0000017 seconds, and it wasn’t long after that, maybe another .0000026 seconds, that I collected myself, recognized the temporary breach in my sanity and accepted, again, that my husband leapt to his end in late September, 2011.

Then I sighed, and I thought: Yep. That really happened.

The mind is a piece of work, isn’t it? Mine is, anyway. Mine sometimes noodles along in its own reality, all la-de-dah like, following a path disconnected from the actual world with its actual rules outside my actual Mushroom Soup. It’s possible — and here, reaching wildly for an explanation, I slap right up against pseudo-Freudian psychobabble — that the horror of some traumas, including the suicide of a loved one, is so entirely Other and Wacky and Wrong that our brains never manage to adjust. It’s possible this is true of all loss. It’s possible, in every case, after every death, that some eensy sliver of the ever-rebellious mind simply refuses to go there.

Turned out the X-ray bill, while addressed to Chris, was actually for my daughter. I have no idea how her father got his name on it, as the insurance was mine; it’s possible he brought her there years ago for something else, and his name was etched into the system as the responsible party. I’d forgotten she’d visited the orthopedist for her knee before hoofing off to college this fall. I’d known about it. It just spilled out of the Soup Can somehow.

In any case, that’s one mystery solved. The other mystery, the bigger mystery, the neuro-psycho-spiritual-sci-fi-scenario that momentarily altered my reality and made me think, for just a split hair of a nanosecond, that my husband’s aching joints hadn’t been cremated with the rest of him: that remains a puzzle.

what a head case

My brother Randy has a saying: “Everyone’s a head case. It’s just a matter of degrees.”

Now, before I delver further into this, I want to remind you, in case you forgot, that Randy’s the guy who coined the term “shit magnet.” By this he means the sort of thing and/or ferret and/or person who attracts serial traumatic crapola like flies to a corpse, not that I’ve witnessed such a thing first hand. But don’t you just love morbid imagery? I do. Because I, dear friends, am a shit magnet. Then again, so is everyone else. I know of not a single human being in the 18 ozoollion in the history of the planet who squeaked through life unscathed. And if you reply, “Girlfriend, do you have up-close-and-personal knowledge of all 18 ozoollion people in the history of the planet?,” I will just have to shut you up with a flat-out lie and say, UH-HUH, AND THEY WERE JUST TEXTING ME LAST NIGHT, BEE-AHHTCH.

But I digress (what else is new). Back to Randy’s theory of universal calibrated head-casedness. I believe he is absolutely correct, for three incontrovertible reasons. One: I’m a head case. (Say it! I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!) Two: Everything Randy says is correct, at least about soccer, and I’m convinced that this is somehow related. If you know Randy, you will know that he’s prone to wise and pithy aphorisms that sound irrefutable because they probably are. And no, my saying this HAS NOTHING TO DO with the way he strong-armed me into a legally binding agreement to quote him only if I give him 80 percent of the profits (see left).randy text

Reason Three: Entropy. We have no choice! Everyone’s a head case because the universe is a head case. Because things fall apart. Unzip. Unspool. Go to weeds. Fly outward. Lose their center. Crack up. So long as we have the energy, the grit, the pluck, the luck, we can keep ourselves together and hang onto a semblance of control. But keeping disorder at bay is hard work, baby. As anyone who has ever seen my house will confirm, the threat of disorder lurks in very corner, in every opened yogurt container, in every gathering dust bunny.

At the moment, my house isn’t half bad. Neither is my head. Sitting in my attic, clacking out these words, I’m as orderly as I ever am. I am mold- and dust-free, although I’m glad to report that I don’t smell like furniture polish. But whatever sense I’ve made of my own thoughts and my own life, whatever wee success I’ve had in figuring myself out, comes down to this: I’m a mess. I don’t expect myself to be anything other than a mess. However serene and fulfilled and rational I am in this sliver of time called now, I know that emotional and mental disarray are only as far off as the next bucket of shit. And knowing this — being okay with knowing this — is my best hope for keeping sane. That, and loving people. And exercise. And gratitude. And chocolate.

We needn’t be diagnosed or hospitalized or pigeon-holed or pathologized to admit out loud that it’s a crazy-making thing, this being alive. Isn’t it? Come on. How could it NOT be? It’s absolutely batshit, what we do each day: Waking, getting out of bed, toeing into the dank unknown as though we have a bloody clue what we’re doing. As though we’re not fighting off insecurity and fear every waking moment. As though we’re not expelling snot into our pillows on a semi-regular basis. As though we’re not relieved, at the end of the day, to just collapse in a heap and say, I ONLY SCREWED UP A LITTLE TODAY. And in other news, I’M NOT DEAD.

Of course, beauty waits around the bend. Joy creeps in. Love, sudden and surging, overwhelms. But the waiting beauty, the creeping joy, the surging love are as beyond our control as any of the psycho-twisting obstacles that trip and crack us up. Right now, praise God, I’m awash in all three; my life makes some sense to me; my universe is ordered, as is my mind. Sort of. I guess. A little. For now. And so I’m a head case, all the same.

fart it out

shameless plug

this, too, is a shameless plug

I was wondering again, the other day, what made me want to be a writer. I often wonder about this. The fact that I have a memoir coming out in a few weeks (SHAMELESS PLUG WITH LINK RIGHTY HERE) might have something to do with this, or it would if I never ever ever otherwise thought about this shit. But the fact is, I think about this shit constantly. As in: WHY do I write for a living? I ask this question because writing is REALLY HARD. And IT REALLY DOESN’T PAY THAT WELL. And THERE REALLY ARE OTHER CAREERS I MIGHT HAVE PURSUED INSTEAD, although I can’t seem to come up with any at the moment. (Ummm, “Star Trek” convention planner? Thumb contortionist? Professional klutz? — “Oh, hey, did I just trip and accidentally shatter your priceless Ming vase? You’re welcome. That’ll be $79.99 plus tax, please. And yes, I take all major credit cards.”)

As a gainfully employed newspaper lass, I am reminded of this zany decision of mine to become a writer every time I fire up a computer and try to piece together a few words in the wild hope of expressing a cogent thought, which SOMETIMES ACTUALLY HAPPENS, although not as often as I’d like and not always the one I intend. A wise and worldly professor of mine, although can’t recall which one (I said wise and worldly, not memorable), once noted that a writer has to expel a whole lot of junk to produce those rarest and most beautiful nuggets of shining literary greatness. And I think this is true. I know this is true, because, as any humble scribe will tell you, those nuggets are a hard time comin’. You think coal wants to turn into diamonds? It hurts.

So when an irked Times Union reader noted, last week, that I had “farted out” a couple of grafs in a hurry, I had to laugh. A) Because he was absolutely correct. And B) Because he had just given me an awesome new way to describe what I do for a living. Yes! I fart shit out! Exactly! Thank you, Mr. Perspicacious Snark-A-Lot! This is not to be confused with figuring shit out, although I’ve been known to fart out plenty of shit in the often laborious process of figuring. But they do not always go side-by-side: one can fart out a stinking verbal nimbus that contains no redeeming and nutritious figured-out content whatsoever. The toxic vapor could kill you. I’m serious. Back away.

But I do it. Of course I do it! What choice do I have! The urge to fart out copy is deeply ingrained within me, emitting painful gases on the verge of sudden and hair-singeing cataclysmic detonation.  Better out than in, my people, at least for me. Anyhow, my father was a writer (ANOTHER SHAMELESS PLUG WITH LINK RIGHTY HERE), not that this is a simple matter of genetic programming, of nature in cahoots with nurture to produce some dynastic journalistic army of clones. (Cue clacking robotic voice: I. Write. Because. My Daddy. Wrote. ZZZZeerrrrrrrrr.) It’s more a matter of need. I need to make sense of this life. I need to peer at it, shove my nose in it, sense its meaning, find some way to comprehend it and channel into something else.

Ultimately the urge to write — any urge to create — is the urge to keep moving, to push outward and upward with our minds while our hindquarters sit tight for hours or years at a stretch. Lovely paradox, that. But it’s all forward motion, this compulsive farting-out of words on a page, and it’s as much an expression of hope as any plans we make or dreams we secretly nurture.

This is why finishing a book (or a play, or a poem, or a sentence) matters less than starting it. It’s the moment of inception, and that first, optimistic waggle of the fingers, that reboots our faith in the future. You could write that book. You see yourself writing that book. Once you sit and compose the opening sentence, you are writing that book: the present indicative takes hold, and you’re on your way. It doesn’t matter which pains drag your down, which worries sag your spirit, which doubts nag and nibble at your confidence. The act of creation pitches us forward. It’s happening, baby. Fart it out. I farted out mine.

lucky me

me and luce

Last week, I got to have a colonoscopy. Not had to. Got to.

I am not going to describe the procedure itself in any great detail. First, because even I get tired of discussing That End of Things, no matter the name of this damned blog. And second, because the ins and outs of it don’t matter much, except for that part where I got clocked by narcotics and woke up in a hospital gown feeling like an escapee from the Summer of Love.

What matters: I got to have a colonoscopy.  It was a privilege. I turned 50 last year, and that was a privilege, too. Hitting that mark, and having that procedure, were two milestones my sister missed by 19 years.

I’ve written about Lucy before, and I will again. I can’t not write about her. She was one of the most brilliant, beautiful and caring people I’ve ever known, a diminutive spark plug of a woman with enormous violet-blue eyes and a giant frizz of black hair that bounced and boinged theatrically whenever she played the piano. And could she play. Her Chopin was peerless. Her Brahms was a thrumming romantic force. Her Bach, exquisite and clear. I have a few old cassette tapes of her at the piano, but among the things I miss most — even now, 22 years after she committed suicide — is hearing her crank away the afternoon at the Mason & Hamlin in our parents’ living room.

She’s with me, though. I believe that. Even if I didn’t believe it in a spiritual sense, I would still feel her presence beside me — because I knew, right from the beginning, that I needed to live for the both of us. For all of my childhood and most of my life, my older sister hit every milestone ahead of me; she graduated high school and college ahead of me, had a serious boyfriend ahead of me, had her heart broken ahead of me, turned 30 ahead of me. I expected to trail her forever.

But then her life stopped at 31, and I found myself, at 28, venturing forward alone. But I wasn’t, really. Because every blast of sun and rain I’ve weathered in life, every joy and pain, has been weathered for Lucy, too.

She died without a gray hair on her head, so I’ve gone silver for the both of us. She died without getting pregnant and giving birth and raising children, so I raised my three for the both of us. She died without knowing how it felt to stare down fresh wrinkles in the mirror, so I’ve stared mine down for the both of us. She died without feeling the creep of osteoarthritis in her lower back, so I’ve wolfed back Tylenol for the both of us.

I got to bury our parents. I got to turn 40. I got to feel great love and the loss that followed. I got to watch my kids grow up and up and up, and away and away and away. Last month, I got to pay tuition to two private universities, moving the money around online, watching it whoosh silently from my account to theirs. Last week, I got to fight back tears as I hugged my younger daughter on her move-in day. Tomorrow I get to fight back tears and hug again when I send my older daughter to her semester abroad.

I get to cry. I get to feel. I get to laugh with my friends. I get to eat too much, sleep too little, crab about my knees and wonder about the future. I get to love again. I get to live some more.

And so, as I prepped for my colonoscopy last week, I kept checking myself every time I felt the urge to gripe about the awful food and dreadful laxatives and horrid sea of Gatorade on which I drifted like some sad and bloated whale, high on electrolytes. Lucy didn’t get that far; if she had, she would have made it there three years before me. Instead, I made it for the both of us.

I got to.