humanity in a snowstorm

I have to admit it: I love snowstorms. I was thinking about this today while driving through one such not-quite-cataclysmic weather event, because of course when I’m behind the wheel I HATE HATE HATE snowstorms. Driving to work I hated them less than I did driving home, because there were fewer jerkheads on the road this morning than their were in mid-afternoon. Actually, I only counted one outright jerkhead, a guy who passed me into oncoming traffic and put all of our lives at risk. Thanks, pal.

But everyone else I encountered today supported all my many reasons for loving snowstorms. How so? Well, aside from being pretty and fetching in the most charming, Christmas-cardiest sense, and aside from giving both Young People and Older People with Remaining Knee Cartilage joy in the form of skiing and/or sledding and/or debilitating neck injuries, snowstorms also equalize everything and everyone in sight. They are the great leveler of humanity. It DOESN’T MATTER where you live, what you do for a living, how old you are, which gender you most closely identify with, which gender you most closely snuggle with, how often and neatly you clip your nose hairs, what color your skin and/or pancreas is, which name you call God in prayer and which candidate you voted for in the last election.

All that matters is the snow. You get stuck in it? Someone pushes you out. Someone else gets stuck in it? You help push them out. You don’t roll down your window, shout, “HEY, DUMBASS, DID YOU VOTE FOR TRUMP OR CLINTON IN NOVEMBER?” and then decide whether to assist them based on their answer. I’ve expounded before on the Theory of Northern Cities, i.e., my conviction that snow-plagued residents judge their neighbors less on their private lives than on their public habits in shoveling (or not) their sidewalks after a storm. But I chewed on this a little more than usual today, and not only because THE kindest young man with THE widest smile driving THE biggest snow plow pulled up next to me in the parking lot at work and offered to plow a path out to the street.

I thought about it because I’ve been haunted, lately, by all the partisan vitriol spewing from all sides around the internet and the country. People pretending refugees aren’t people. People talking about “other people’s babies.” People saying certain people will get what they deserve if they lose their health insurance, even if they die. People judging people. People dehumanizing and demonizing people. People forgetting that people are people, screwy and complicated and oblivious to their own hypocrisies —  and trying to get to work and back, even in a storm.

On the drive home, I passed one car after another in distress: buried, spun out, wedged in a snowbank, spinning its wheels, looking aimless and bereft in the middle of an intersection. But the drivers weren’t bereft. Every single one of them was surrounded by helpers. People digging, people pushing, people attaching rope from one car to another to haul that sucker out. I rolled down my window repeatedly to offer aid, but no one needed it, not until the woman standing on the side of the road — she really did look bereft — accepted a ride to a bus stop a mile away. Her name was Vivian. She worked at a nearby hotel. We talked about this weird March blizzard and wondered how many inches we’d get. I told her I was grateful for my snow tires. I think she was, too.

I know nothing else about that woman — not how she voted, not how she prays, not whom she loves. It’s a safe bet no one knew anything about anyone else they helped on the road today, either.  And it’s a safe bet no one cared.

woman walks into a sandwich shop

sad-smiley-bread

Someday last week, somewhere in the mid-Hudson Valley, I had a bizarre exchange with a total stranger. This happens to me on occasion. You’d think, by now, I’d be used to it.

But this last time was different.  This last time haunted me: the woman, her meltdown, the two young men in the shop with us that day.

She was somehow so vulnerable in the extremis of her pain, somehow so broken in her rage. The fellow who accompanied her called her by name in his efforts to calm her, but I won’t repeat it here. I won’t identify the sandwich shop where the incident took place, and I won’t specify the locale. It happened. It truly happened. Let’s leave it at that.

It happened when I walked in to buy two subs. The shop was empty except for one employee, a young man with brown skin, a gentle manner and a light accent of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. I gave him my order: Two sandwiches, please. Turkey, bacon, lettuce, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, ranch.

As he assembled them, the young woman in question entered with her companion. The employee spoke with them, took their order, then turned back to me to finish and ring me up.

“I’m really thirsty,” the young woman declared with sudden urgency. “Can I have a cup?”

He looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“A cup,” she said. “A cup. A cup.”

“A cup? What kind of a — ”

“A CUP,” she repeated. “A CUP? Do you know what A CUP is? Have you never heard of A CUP?”

Saying nothing, he reached for a large paper soda cup.

“Are you the only person working here today? Is anyone else here?”

Still saying nothing, he handed her the cup. This failed to placate her. She started shouting.

“I said, IS ANYONE ELSE WORKING HERE TODAY, OR IS IT JUST YOU? Are you alone here? Are you IT? Is NO ONE ELSE HERE?”

That’s when I said: Hey. Hey. Give the guy a break. He just didn’t know what kind of cup you wanted.

Startled to hear from an outsider, she shot me a glance filled with acid.

She said: Mind your own business!

I said: If you’re rude to someone in front of me, it is my business. This is a public place. The guy just works here. Leave him alone.

She said: You’re not my mother! My mother is dead! Mind your own business!

What I should have said: I’m sorry your mother is gone, but you still have no right to treat this guy badly.

What I actually said: I have a dead mother, too. And my dead mother taught me to speak up when I hear someone being treated with disrespect.

Immediately I recognized this as a mistake. I should not have countered her Dead Mother with my Dead Mother, as Dead Mothers, once invoked, have a way of ramping up any conversation. And it did indeed ramp up. The young woman went completely ballistic, flailing her arms, shouting, spewing F-word upon F-word upon F-word while I howled CALM DOWN CALM DOWN CALM DOWN and made repeated “time-out” gestures like some ineffectual and somewhat desperate hockey referee.

I thought: Shit! What did I do?! She’s totally lost it!

I thought: Shit! How can I stop this?!

Then I thought: Shit! What IS it with me and total strangers!?!

Meanwhile, the young man with her —  friend, boyfriend or brother, I have no idea — looked pained and exhausted, as though he’d been through this way too many times before. He spoke her name tenderly, knowingly, urging her to leave. “Let’s go. Come on, let’s go, let’s go,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy.

But she kept at it. More flailing and shouting. More F-words.  I don’t recall the exact substance of her complaints, but the gist of it was unhinged, toxic outrage at being judged — by the world, by anyone, by me. I had no right. How dare I. She didn’t need this. Who was I to say. Et cetera.

Only when she slammed the paper soda cup onto the floor did I realize it was filled with ice. For a split second, the four of us — we two ladies, the employee, the friend — paused and stared as the scattered cubes shushed across the floor. Then the young fellow took the woman by the arm, uttered one more urgent “come on,” and they were gone.

That’s when another woman entered the store. “What happened?,” she asked, picking up the cup. We told her. She asked if I was all right. Yes, I said, and we all looked down at my shaking hands.

“Do you want me to call the police?” asked the employee.

No, I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, I said. I thought: That would ruin her day and maybe her life. And she didn’t hurt me. She didn’t even touch me. She only swore and fell apart.

I regarded the young sandwich-builder before me. He was utterly poised, calm and quiet. Not a peep from him throughout the whole ordeal. Not a flash of anger.

I said: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

I said: I didn’t mean to create such a scene — to do this to you in your workplace. I only meant to tell her she shouldn’t be rude to you.

Again I said: I’m so sorry.

He shook his head. “I work here, so I couldn’t really say anything. It’s my job,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy for him, too. I wondered how often customers were rude to him for indiscernible reasons, and how often he stifled the urge to talk back.

Then he shot me a look of quiet bafflement and sorrow. “Some people,” he said, shaking his head once more. “Some people just don’t respect their elders.”

At that I almost burst out laughing. The kid was talking about me. I was an elder. Of course! The white-haired lady assailed with F-bombs by the obstreperous youngster!  In his country and culture of origin, such a scene would be unthinkable and appalling — far worse than the woman’s rudeness to him was her rudeness to me, at least in this young man’s view.

I wanted to hug him. Instead I asked his name. I said thank you, goodbye and God bless you. And I left with my turkey sandwiches.

Afterward, I replayed the episode over and over in my mind. I wondered what had motivated the woman’s short fuse and incivility. Was it the man’s race? His (presumed) religion or immigration status? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe I was, too. Maybe this woman had had an absolutely, positively shitty day. Maybe she’d been fired from her job, ditched by her boyfriend or — who knows —  ripped to a million little pieces by a total stranger in public. Maybe her mother had, in fact, just died.

I don’t know. But I know she isn’t having an easy time of things, whoever she is, and I also know her name. I know the sandwich man’s name. In a strange way I can’t quite understand, much less explain, I feel a bond with them both, having shared a moment of plain, painful, unfiltered humanity that was stripped of all protective layers. In that one volatile moment, we were naked together. Defenseless. And in our defenselessness lay an odd sort of intimacy.

Sometimes I think this is the challenge and calling of life: to witness each other at our worst, and to do our best regardless.

So I feel close to those people that day. I always will.  Once total strangers, they’re known to me now.  They mean something. They matter. I can’t shake them off, I don’t expect to shake them off, and I won’t try.

But I am never, ever, ever setting foot in that sandwich shop again.

 

stab that valentine

broken_heart_2Tonight I address the masses of people who will not be receiving roses and chocolates from their hotties on Valentine’s Day. Nor will they be giving roses and chocolates to their hotties on Valentine’s Day. Why? Because they resist commercialized holidays as a matter of principle? Because they HATE HATE HATE roses and chocolate? Because they’d rather celebrate the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia? Why, no. Because they happen to be hottie-deprived this Valentine’s Day.

To each such person I say: YOU ARE NOT ALONE IN YOUR DEPRIVATION.

I have a few other things to say, too.

First: YOU DO NOT SUCK. Nope. You don’t. This hottie-less state in which you find yourself is NOT your fault, it does NOT mean you’re a loser, it does NOT mean the universe is out to get you, and it does NOT mean you’ll be wholly and permanently hottie-deprived for the next 30 to 80 years. It just means you’re not shopping at CVS for stupid-ass cards.

Second: YOU CAN PURCHASE (AND THEN EAT) YOUR OWN SUPPLY OF CHOCOLATE. I do this all the the time. It is very, very easy. Trust me on this one.

Third: YOU CAN (AND PROBABLY SHOULD) AVOID FACEBOOK ON VALENTINE’S DAY. That way, you won’t have to swear at all the couples who post adorable photos of themselves. But if you do go on Facebook, and if you do swear at all those couples, the good news is: They won’t hear you! I promise! Trust me on this one, too!

Fourth: YOU DON’T ACTUALLY WANT ROSES. No, really. You don’t. They’re sooooo overrated. They wilt and die after only a few days, for God’s sake, and they don’t smell THAT good. Plus, they have thorns.

Fifth: YOU HAVE A HEART. A big one. It’s a miracle inside your chest. It thumps and thumps and thumps, flushing blood to your most distant appendages and filling your essence with all that it means to be human.

Sixth: THAT SAID, WOULDN’T IT BE FUN TO STAB ALL THOSE STUPID-ASS CARDS AT CVS? It would. You know it would. The moment you saw the dreadfully cheesy piece of clip art attached to this post, you thought, Watch out, Hallmark aisle! I’m comin’ to getcha! Dwell on that thought for a moment, and let it fill you with power.

Seventh: “THE NOTEBOOK” WAS A TERRIBLE MOVIE. I’m just throwing that out there. Blecch.

Eighth: YOU LOVE. Your capacity to do so has not been diminished by your current lack o’ hottie. Maybe you’re not showering someone with those aforementioned stupid-ass cards this Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t mean that you have any less to give.

Ninth: YOU ARE LOVED. You are! I don’t even know you, and YOU ARE! By more people than you realize. Just by being present in this world. Just by being you. Just by living and barreling through life for as long as you have.

Tenth: YOU ARE FINE AND STRONG ALL BY YOURSELF. Whatever your struggle, wherever you’re headed, whoever haunts you from your past, you don’t need a hottie to affirm your goodness, your beauty or your place in the world. Maybe you’ll find one someday. But even if you don’t, you are a complete and functional human specimen unto yourself, awright?And always will be.

So shut up. Don’t argue with me. Just get through the day, stay off Facebook, give yourself some credit — and stab that valentine, baby. It’ll all be over soon.

it’s the best story pitch, the best, everyone thinks so

Press releases! As an arts writer for the Times Union, I get a million of them a day. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. I get 796,321 of them a day, of which I manage to read only 239,547, principally because 431,446 of them get quarantined and classified as spam. And so, inevitably, stuff gets missed. Whenever a publicist asks sheepishly if I mind being approached a second time with a reminder email or a phone call, I reply OH GOD YES PLEASE ALWAYS I BEG OF YOU THANK YOU BLESS YOU. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!, I always add, laughing. They laugh, too. But this is dead serious business, trying to get a journalist’s attention.

Thus it was with unchecked dread, pitched anxiety and no small sense of cosmic ironic payback that I composed a press release pimping myself out for interviews. The reason: A story I told for “The Moth” is being published in a new collection coming in March. Plenty of other (MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BIGGER) names are also included in the collection, including Tig Nataro, Louis CK and John Turturro, and any self-respecting reporter or editor in his or her right mind would naturally seek out an interview with any of those people before ringing up some random regional-arts-writer-cum-suicide-memoirist (AND WHAT A FUN COMBO THAT IS) based in Smalbany, New York.

But what the heck, right? Maybe I could drum up a few more sales for my book (INSERT SHAMELESS LINK TO ‘FIGURING SHIT OUT’ AMAZON PAGE RIGHTY HERE). I mean, maybe not;  the thing was published more than two years ago, which might as well be 2,000 in the literary cosmos. (“Hi, would you like a copy of my recent book? The Emperor Tiberius loved it!”) But, ya know. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

So here goes. With no further ado, I present my first-ever stab at a press release. (And, yes. I sent it.)

Greetings, journalist! I’m one, too, so I know how this works: The chance of your responding to a cold email hovers somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. The chance of your actually writing a story on the topic being pitched is roughly .08 percent. That said. . .  

 I’m an author and speaker on suicide loss. I’m also one of the 45 folks whose stories for “The Moth Radio Hour” were selected for a new collection coming March 21 from Crown ArchetypeThe Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown. The link: https://themoth.org/ooks/allthesewonders
 
My story, “The Weight of a Ring,” tells of my navigation through widowhood following the 2011 suicide of my husband, author Christopher D Ringwald. If you’re curious, and you have 11 minutes and 11 seconds to spare, it’s right here: https://themoth.org/stories/the-weight-of-a-ring
 
If you have a little more time on your hands (not too much more — it’s short), I’d be happy to send you a copy of my book, Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide and Survival, released in 2014 by Behler Publications. It tells of the rough year following Chris’s death, and it’s a fast, raw read, full of MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and plentiful foul language. That link: http://amzn.to/2kuY1qi.
 
And now, to reward you for making it this far, I present several more links: 
 
*My blog, which also features MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and occasional foul language: figuringshitout.net
 
*My TEDx talk, “You’re Still Here: Living After Suicide,” in which I repeatedly exhale loudly: http://bit.ly/2kvQ294.
 
*An interview with me in Widows & Widowers magazine, in which I discuss the term “shit magnet”: http://bit.ly/2eN7HpB
 
*My author’s bio: http://amzn.to/2k5yMdg
 
*Some links to my current work as an arts writer and columnist for the Times Union in Albany, NY: http://bit.ly/2jh2KXn
 
*Some links from my former life as a Hearst movie critic: http://bit.ly/2k6KgLp
 
*Finally, the Amazon page for my late husband, who wrote authoritative, erudite, poetic books on faith and addiction: http://amzn.to/2jzend3
 
Aaaaaand that’s about it. If you’re interested in my book, just let me know, and I’ll mail or email you one at warp speed. I am also available for interviews, be they short and sweet or long and prolix. I am capable of either.  
 
Thank you for reading my email to the end! We both survived! Good luck clearing the thickets of your inbox, and may you have a lovely day. 
 
Best regards,
 
Amy Biancolli 

 

 

fear, love and the jesus i follow

I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. No, this isn’t normal. Yes, I’m a churchgoing Catholic, but I am not that holy. Lately, however, I’ve been envisioning my Lord and savior slumped in the kitchen over his iPhone as he scrolls through the news: xenophobia, Islamophobia, fear of the immigrant, fear of the Other, loathing of all, so much of it fomented by those who call themselves Christian. And as he reads, he’s yanking at his hair and yelling, DIDN’T THEY LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAID?!?!

Backtrack a week or so to my participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where I met this guy holding a sign intended to bring people to Christ. We didn’t exchange names, so I’ll just call him The Evangelist. He was hefting a sign emblazoned with scripture: “Jesus Said ‘Unless A Man is Born Again He Can Not See the Kingdom of God.’ John 3:3.”

jesus-signHmmm, I thought. That won’t do. That won’t persuade anyone to leave their nets and follow Him. Not in this crowd.

So I went up to the guy.

ME: Hey, there.

THE EVANGELIST: Hello.

ME: I’m a Christian. A Catholic. And it’s good you’re here. But I gotta tell you, you won’t be making a lot of converts with that sign today.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: The translation. You should have used a different translation. One that doesn’t use the word “man.” Especially today. (Gesturing at the crowd.) Here. Now. At the Women’s March.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: I’m just saying you might want to find a Sharpie and scratch out the word “man.” Replace it with “person.” Or add “woman.” Or something. Because you’re at the WOMEN’S MARCH, right? Which is about including people, not leaving anyone out. And the translation you’re using leaves people out.

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

ME: No no no! I’m not offended! I’m trying to do you a favor. I told you, I’m a Christian. But the thing about Christ: His didn’t leave anyone out. His message was meant for everyone, right? Isn’t that the point? Everyone? So, look, if you can just find a Sharpie, and. . .

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

And that was that. I gave up.

Afterward, I wondered about these habits of exclusion, small and large — not just the one guy, with his one sign, but all the myriad ways that people of faith can wall off entire populations. When my fellow Christians do it,  it drives me bonkers. Jesus was really, really, REALLY clear about this: He came as a messenger, as a reconciler, as a literal, physical embodiment of God’s love — and he came for every last one of us broken people. We’re all broken. We’re all loved. We’re called to love each other in our brokenness. It’s that simple.

And yet this simple truth gets twisted in service to — what? Self-righteousness? Tribalism? Nationalism? Fear? Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Neither Jew nor Gentile. Nor Muslim. Nor refugee. Nor Mexican.  Nor anyone or anything else.

Or consider the parable of the good Samaritan, the stranger who came to the aid of a beaten traveler. Imagine how unlikely — outrageous — that story must have seemed when Jesus first told it. Samaritans and Jews did not get along. They did not chit-chat about football and kids over the backyard fence. In fact, they loathed one another. But that was exactly the point: human boundaries and prejudices don’t matter, in the end. Anyone who helps and carries another is a good neighbor. Jesus razed barriers. He didn’t build them.

I’m no theologian, and I’m certainly no saint. But the Jesus I follow calls me to love, not hate. To include, not exclude. To see the light in others, not deny it or ignore it or disparage it as darkness.

Jesus didn’t wall people off. Christians shouldn’t, either.

the roar of a million, marching

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Every now and then, like the roar of a massive land animal, the crowd erupted in a wave of sound. You could call it cheering, but that word fails to capture the magnitude of the effect, the choral layering of voices or the way it broke like surf across downtown Washington during the Million Women March.

The first time I heard the Roar erupting from the distance, I thought it was jets soaring through opaque gray skies. But then it swelled, surging forward, passing through this giant clot of bodies like the rhythmic rise-and-fall of an audience wave in a crowded arena.

Did 500,000 people congregate the streets of D.C. to rally and march? Less? More? A National Guardsman near the Washington Monument told me “more than a million” showed up. If you’re counting the Mall alone, the smaller number makes sense. But if you’re including the sum of humanity gathered on Independence Avenue and a spiraling, sprawling network of nearby streets, the larger numbers sound almost conservative. Let’s put it this way: If the Million Women March didn’t actually draw a million people, I can’t imagine what a million people looks like. img_1608

It wasn’t just crowded. Along Independence it was wall-to-wall pedestrian gridlock with no room to move, just arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks crammed up against one another with a spontaneous and unwanted intimacy (oooh, nice! an armpit in my face!) that most everyone tolerated with astonishing calm. Everyone, children included, seemed to realize we were all stuck together as one, so why fight it? There were no strangers in that crowd, a diverse mash of humanity from all points on every conceivable spectrum of age, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, gender.

That morning I’d taken a mobbed metro downtown alongside my sister-in-law, her husband, two of his sisters and one of their wives. I had hoped to connect later on with my oldest daughter and her pop-pop, but I bailed on both plans. Then, when I got separated from my clan, I bailed on trying to find them. I would not locate anyone in this thick and quivering mass of people.

Instead, I abandoned myself to the wisdom of the throng, inching along in whichever direction the people nearest me happened to move. Oh, the person ahead is moving west on Independence? So will I. Oh, we’re crossing 14th, now? Okay, whatever, that sounds good. The inching felt organic. It felt like the langorous twitches of a single colossal creature, or maybe a colony composed of many smaller organisms. I thought, this is what it feels like to be part of a coral reef. And as the ocean flowed around us, we bent to follow it.

Some people sat in trees. Some stood on garbage cans. Many hefted homemade signs emblazoned with creative and amusing slogans — anti-Trump, pro-woman, pro-immigrant, some of them employing profanity, quite a few of them sporting artful renderings of male as well as female anatomy. Among my favorites: “I FART IN YOUR GENERAL DIRECTION,” quoting Monty Python; “Women of Earth Unite,” which had a nice, sci-fi ring to it; “TRUMP EATS PIZZA WITH A FORK,” a damning accusation; and, even more damning for those of us who care about music, “TRUMP LIKES NICKELBACK.” Shudder. img_1643

The most striking poster I saw all day was the portrait of an orange-haired figure grabbing Lady Liberty’s crotch. The sweetest one stated, with fetching simplicity, “MY MOM IS MY HERO.” I told the young man that I liked his sign. “Thanks,” he replied. “I like my mom.”

It was that kind of day, marked with brief conversations (“I flew in from Seattle/Missouri/California!”), briefer admonitions (“watch out for the curb!”) and helping hands. Marchers assisted a woman having a panic attack in the crowd. On a metro platform that morning, a man collapsed — and was quickly attended by two nurses and a doctor, all three women in bright pink “pussy hats.”

16142854_1647466748597112_7802995905091003187_nFrom the time I first heard about the Million Women March, it seemed larger than politics. It seemed more than a sum of its many particulate issues and complaints against Donald Trump. As a mother of two daughters and a son, and as a human being who views the rights of one as the rights of all, I knew I had to be there. I had to get my body down to the masses assembling in D.C.

At some point in the midst of the morning rally along Independence, as speakers bleated out barely audible bits of rhetoric (“this is the upside of the downside,” I heard Steinem say, and that’s about it), word got out that the march itself had been officially canceled. Too many people. Now way for us to move toward the White House, because the entire way was already clogged. But the mass of bodies had other ideas. It marched anyway, the thick clutch of arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks finally giving a little, breathing a little, chanting a lot:

“We want a leader! Not a creepy tweeter!

“We’re women! We’re loud! We’re nasty! We’re proud!

“Show me what democracy looks like! / This is what democracy looks like!”

The mass wound its way toward the White House. But it didn’t stop there. It kept going, bleeding out into the artery of connecting streets. At the intersection of H Street and Vermont Ave I finally dropped, pooped, onto a concrete block and started chatting with a similarly knackered woman and her daughter. They were from Oregon, it turned out. We talked about the day, the thick crowds, the sense of a giant creature moving as one. The Roar. And as we chatted, I glance across the street and saw a statue of Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish general who helped defeat the British at the Battle of Saratoga.

Kosciusko. A foreigner who aided the American Revolution. It seemed apt.

So maybe the Million Women March drew a million people; maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was the start of a new revolution; maybe it wasn’t. But as a member of the swarm in Washington, as witness to a vast, variegated gaggle united in hope and human kinship, I will say this: It felt like history.
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how to say ‘i love you’

img_1424A childhood friend of mine dug this up in a stack of family papers: proof that even as kid, I had NOOOOO gift for subtlety whatsoever. It’s also proof that the couriers of the US Postal Service will not be swayed by snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor the blockish scrawl of a 6-year-old in love.

Aside from the minimal but emphatic punctuation (“I LOVE you and I hope you LOVE me Paul I hope you liked my note Amy Biancolli!“) what strikes me most about this note is its bluntness. I’ve always had the urge to blurt out exactly what’s on my mind, social etiquette and self-respect be damned. And when it comes to googly-eyed romantic proclamations, blurting has been the least of my issues.

Paul — and yes, he okayed this public exposure — was not quite the first in a long line of males that I admired and so informed. Number one was Alex, the kid whose paintbox I smeared in pre-K. THAT went over well. Next came Paul. Then, in 3rd grade, I got a crush on a boy and as a result felt it necessary to sucker-punch him on the playground, with unsatisfactory but predictable results.

For some years thereafter I adopted a more nuanced approach and expressed my desires by gazing dreamily at crushees from a distance, be it across an eighth grade science lab or the all-night reading room at the Hamilton College library. This approach bore no fruit whatsoever. Since then, I’ve declared undying love via snail mail, email, phone conversations and in stilted interpersonal tete-a-tetes that nauseate me with anxiety to this day, and I have enjoyed subsequent degrees of romantic success/soul-crushing failure as a result.

My late husband and I first swapped “I love you’s” on a darkened Northampton side street on one of the happiest nights of our lives. Then it became one of the most painful when Chris, giddy with joy, bent over with laughter and I bent over too, thinking I might kiss him on the top of his head but instead colliding with his face as he snapped suddenly upright. I am trying to remember if in fact I broke his nose. It’s possible I did. If so, the incident ranks up there with Playground Boy.

I am not sure what tack I’ll take the next time I fall in love. Probably I’ll go easy on the guy. Maybe I’ll write an eighteen-word letter and send it to his parents’ house. At the very least, I’ll try not to punch him in the stomach or mess with his paintbox, at any rate not before the first date. But say ‘I love you,’ then break his nose for emphasis? It’s been known to happen.

my mother’s bach

Lately I’ve been listening to Mama.

I mean her music. Specifically, her Bach: a performance of the Partita No. 2 in D minor from a 1984 concert in New Milford, Conn., preserved — sort of — on wobbly cassette. Very wobbly cassette. Give it a listen:

 

I dug it up for an upcoming podcast on pioneering female violinists being prepared by Elfenworks Productions. Asked for recordings of her, I set about unearthing some of the cleaner old tapes from the stash in my attic. They’re all from her little Connecticut concerts in the 1980s, and they’re hissy, fuzzy, incomplete. One of them — the Bach — awes me while it breaks my heart. The awe comes from her artistry and impact, from the immediacy and modernity of her playing, and from her stunning proximity in the room after all this time. She died in ’94 but lives in the fullness of her music, her voice on the violin as recognizable to me as her laughter or her speech. For the first 15 minutes or so, listening feels like visiting with her. Mama, I say aloud. Mama.

mama-poster

Check out the critic’s blurb at the top. Who’s that guy? Biancolli?

Then the heartbreak sets in. There, the final stretch of Bach’s towering masterwork, smack in the middle of the stunning, celebrated, intricate “Chaconne,” the tape begins to stretch and yaw and teeter. I howl NOOOOOOO and swear loudly in ways Mama would not approve. But I remember that recital. I remember that piece. I remember her poring over the urtext, its pages spread on the dining-room table, as she determined the precise bowings and fingerings and emphases to bring out Bach’s intent.

In performance, she didn’t pussyfoot around; she played with fire and spit and a brilliant, muscular fearlessness. She was a force. Her music was a revelation. It remains forceful and revelatory, even decades later and warped by sagging tape. The ravages of time and aging technology were not her fault,  just as the premature end to her career was not her fault. It was fate’s fault. Sexism’s fault. The fault of a million little things that might have gone her way, but didn’t.

The Dutch label that signed her to a contract folded shortly before releasing her first recording. Then she became a mother, a move that many women have paid for with their careers. She took a small break from her international tours — from her recitals at Carnegie Hall, from her solo stints with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy — to bring two little girls into the world. When she wanted to return to concertizing, she learned from Ormandy that the global stage had room for just one female violinist. Someone had taken her spot while she was away. Door shut. End of story.

But it wasn’t, really. Mama was never bitter: That’s simply how it was for women who set out as soloists. And she never stopped playing, never stopped reaching for the elusive musical ideal, instead bringing it to little rural audiences. She taught, worked at her music, grew with it, never lost an ounce of creative drive. The music meant no less to her than it had at the height of her career. It became no less in her hands.  What a vibrato she had. What a soaring tone. There was a power and a poetry to her work at the fiddle — and a personality behind it — that informed everything she played. She was both Romantic and Baroque, utterly expressive and yet utterly unsentimental. She never uttered a false word or played a false note — even in the wobbly heartbreak of that “Chaconne.”

I hear in Mama’s Bach all the strength and truth and love in my mother’s voice, all the authenticity and authority in it, the way her faced used to flush and her muscles used to knot and her small, strong, fleet, exquisitely careful hands revealed all that the music had to say.

I listen, and I miss her.

 

the ass of time

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Warning: The following post is even more potty-mouthed and -minded than usual, and I say that as the woman who writes for a blog called “Figuring Shit Out.” I’m not sure whether this ranks as more or less fecally fixated than my post about digging literal crap out of a hole in the basement, but either way, I want you to be prepared.

Some years are such lovely and charming visitors, and I’m sooooo sorry to see them go. Some years I’m like, “Yo hot stuff, why such a hurry to leave? Sit back and stay a while, mrrrroww.” Other years I barely notice the boring old thing has arrived before it’s gone. And still other years, fed up to the point of wide-eyed, wild-haired, fang-baring, nostril-flaring exasperation, I spit in its face and howl: GET THE EFF OUT OF MY HOUSE, YOU GIANT POOPY ASS.

As it happens, about a month ago I wrote a really, truly, phantasmagorically terrible year-end poem on this very rectal-specific, annus-as-anus theme. I did. I even read it aloud at a party. The whoooole thing. Yep. And most importantly, people kept talking to me afterward! Would you like me to quote said fanny-poem at length right here? You wouldn’t? Well, tough. My blog, babycakes. My. Blog.

I titled it “The Ass of Time.” No, I’m not kidding. It begins:

Twelve months ago — a little less — we watched the last year pass
A new one loomed as clean and bright as yonder baby’s ass. . .

What do you think so far? Isn’t that a lovely image? New Year = infant tuckus? No? I beg to diffah.

And so we leapt into the fray, our broadswords sharp and shiny,
Inspired by the infant year and its resplendent heiny.
We bravely trundled forward, hope aglow in our hearts —
We kept the faith in that baby, waving off the stench of its farts.

Okay, so I badly screwed up the meter on that one. Give me a pass. I told you it was terrible.

The year and its butt had other ideas — in November we gave up the faith —
Those gastrointestines had the last say, and took a big crap on the eighth.

In all seriousness, of which I am at times capable of feigning, I am at peace with the year about to leave us. For personal as well as political reasons, it wasn’t always easy. But it’s over! Over over over over over. No going back. No warping the space-time continuum to undo what was done and do what was undone. Minutes and weeks and months only progress in the one measly direction, THANKEE GOD. If they didn’t, and we had the capacity to rewind to some precise retro-moment and tinker away at the past, we’d be stuck in yesterday and blind to tomorrow. We would never ever ever come back, and if we did, the present would be nothing but a perpetually tweaked disappointment.

Besides, 2016 had plenty of upsides. Yes! Upsides! I count them on my fingers and toes and many tiny arm hairs. Top o’ the list: My three blessed offspring. My large, loving family. All the old friends who stood by me; all the new friends I met through gypsy jazz; all the jams I attended, all the solos I attempted, all the music that swirled and swung and plucked and scratched around me.

All the laughs I shared with coworkers under dim fluorescent light. All the sci-fi I watched with my son (“Stranger Things”!), cuddling our two crazy kittens. All the books I read that changed me: Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” All the trips I took. All the walks I walked in my chummy neighborhood. All the chit-chat I swapped at Stewart’s with guys named Al and Al.

All the meals around warm, happy tables with so many family members in so many places, so many of them who entered my life long after I was born.

And you know what? The time itself was a gift. Time always is. The time that passed means that I sucked in air and expelled it for another 12 months, and that’s a good thing. So I look back at the departing giant butt of 2016 and feel an awe at living, just living, nothing more than living, and at the chance to love that comes with being alive. Isn’t that all we have? The year gave me plentiful occasions to live and to love, and if — on some days, fighting some pain — I screwed up at one or both, it wasn’t for lack of trying. At least I didn’t shrink from the life or the love. At least I didn’t cede the trying, or the day.

On that note, as we bid the big backside adieu, I leave you with the last two stanzas of my craptacular bit of comic verse in rhyming iambic tetrameter. May it not ruin your mood, or your year.

So years will come, and years will go, but one thing’s sure to say:
A shitty year now nears its close, its end (two days) away.
A new one waits ahead of us, its tush sits on the horizon,
We tweet and text our gloom and dread, our overages aiding Verizon.

And all we have, in months ahead that pile into years
Is laughter, tunes and poesy to stave off snot and tears.
The fundament will soon depart, the year’s behind behind us.
This year’s ass is leaving soon. But next year’s sure will find us.

Happy 2017, y’all!

the-ass-of-time

words matter

I’ve been thinking a lot about words. Of course I always am, but lately I’ve been thinking about how devalued words are these days, how ignored and slighted and spat-upon. And I’ve decided that it’s a problem of acute market disequilibrium.

See, I took (and almost failed) exactly one economics course in college, and I remember exactly one significant concept: supply and demand! Yes! I learned that! The more stuff there is around to sell, THE LESS PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT. And if you really start to flood the market with the stuff? They’ll be willing to pay even less. They will laugh in your face at its wretched undesirability.  They will decide to buy little piles of beaver dung wrapped up as party favors instead. In other words, THEY WILL TOTALLY STOP GIVING A SHIT ABOUT YOUR STUFF. plunger

This is where we are with words. There’s a glut. They’re everywhere all around us all the time, and we bat at them like gnats. No one takes them seriously any longer in this post-truth, post-knowledge, post-learning, post-evidence, post-reality age. We are living in a new and strange dimension where facts are dismissed as beside the fact, where tweets blat and rage, where fake news gets shared reflexively while real news struggles for a hearing. Truths are now transient. Challenged, they shimmer into nothingness. They and the words that express them no longer matter as they once did.

This is what I have to say about that: Words matter. Words are real. Words have weight. Words spring from the mind, enter the world and linger there, changing us. Spoken, they alter the speaker and listener both. Written, they bridge miles of earth and understanding between writer and reader, building fortresses of imagination no less tangible for lacking mass. Words create and destroy. Words spark love, sow hate, stir resentment, inspire hope, instill fear. Words hold power, bearing the authority and currency of poets and prophets and God. In the beginning was the Word, yes? I read that somewhere. But what about the end? Where will words be then?

Words build nations. Sway nations. Fell them.

It’s words that got us into this crazy mess, and words will get us out. But ONLY IF WE TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY.  Only if we value them. Only if we stop treating them like some party-size bag of cheapo tortilla chips that we bought at Wal-Mart that day and then stuffed into The Cabinet of Neglect (which every kitchen has) and never thought of again, much less ate.

Just to prevent the punsters among us from going there first, no, I’m not suggesting that we eat our words. But I am suggesting that we treat them with a little more respect. Listen to them. Weigh them. Hold them for a moment in our palm and consider their heft. If they’re hollow and shallow and convey only lies, we discard them. If they bear truths – even unwanted truths, even the hardest and most painful to grasp – we must tighten our grip and carry them to safety. We owe it to them, and to ourselves.