weird and proud

On one of the online dating sites, i.e., those cyberspatial wastelands of Men Posing With Fish, Men Posing On Motorcycles and Men Posing with Fish On Motorcycles, the following question is asked of all willing participants:

Which would you rather be?

  • Normal
  • Weird

If you know anything about me, including anything I’ve said, written, conveyed with bizarre dance moves or otherwise expressed  in the past 53 years, you’ll know that I checked “Weird.” Not only did I check “Weird,” I wrote WHAT A WEIRD QUESTION as a footnote, because the way I see it, this is a well-duh issue. Everyone in their right mind should want to be weird.  I don’t trust people who don’t want to be weird. In fact, on the website in question, I automatically eliminate every man who checks “Normal.” I’m like, seriously, dude? What makes you think “Normal” is actually a thing? In my experience, there IS no normal. There ARE no normal people. There are only weird people who check “Weird” and weird people who check “Normal,” and I would MUCH MUCH MUCH rather spend time with self-aware weirdos than unwitting weirdos in denial.

I was reminded of this in Pittsburgh over the weekend, not because the city itself is divided into Weird and Normal camps (although most cities are) but because the airbnb my daughter had secured was decorated with such faux-Victorian flare, and outfitted so ornately with lace, dolls and “Gone With the Wind” cut-outs, that I instantly started to psychoanalyze its owner. I also instantly started to wonder whether we were trapped in some cheap horror movie of 1980s vintage, and I began running odds on which among our large group of travelers would be the first to die at the hands of a little Swiss manikin dressed in lederhosen.

DOOMED PERSON A: Did you hear that?

DOOMED PERSON B: Hear what?

DOOMED PERSON A: That high-pitched laugh coming from the bathroom! You must have heard it!

(High-pitched laugh comes from the bathroom.)

DOOMED PERSON C:  What do you mean, a high-pitched laugh coming from the bathroom?

(DOOMED PERSON C goes into the bathroom.)

DOOMED PERSON A: DON’T GO IN THERE, CHAD! STOP!

DOOMED PERSON C: AHHHHHHHHHH!!!

DOOMED PERSON A: OH, MY GOD! CHAD! CHAD!

But nothing like that actually happened (and no one named Chad was actually with us). The apartment was clean and commodious. It was well-stocked with snacks. Packets of ear plugs were laid out to combat the noise of a nearby rail line. Its aura was far less evil than good-natured in its obsessive kitsch, and as we settled in, I felt at ease. Its owner’s forthright eccentricity began to reassure me; there was an openness to it, an innocent joy about it, that made me suspect we belonged to the same extended tribe of colossal oddballs. I knew nothing about her beyond her fondness for Clark Gable and satin bedspreads, but she was familiar to me. She was kin. And I knew, just knew, that she wouldn’t check “Normal,” either.

the love that lucy taught me

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow night, on April 5, 1992, I lost my sister Lucy to suicide.  She was 31, I was 28, and I vowed forever after that I would live my life for two.

Twenty-five years ago on Thursday morning, I rose and learned the news. I never knew at what hour, exactly, she’d swallowed a mess of useless psych meds and curled up on her bed with a stuffed bear to wait. Probably it happened before midnight. I had returned late from a few days away, and I was feeling exhausted and nauseated and achy. But the answering machine was blinking that night, so I pressed “play.”

Two messages, both from Lucy. I hadn’t told her I’d be away. Those were the days before cell phones. She had no way of reaching me. No way of even knowing I was out of town.

In the first message, left around 8 p.m., she was desperate. Sobbing. Pleading with me to pick up. Ame Ame Ame Ame. Please. Please be there. Please. Ame Ame Ame.

Oh, my God, I said. Oh my God, oh my God.

And then the second message played. She left it, I think, around 10 p.m., and she sounded perfectly normal. Am fine now, Ame! Don’t worry about me. Everything’s okay. Sorry about the earlier call. No need to phone. Feeling much better. I love you!

So I went to bed. I didn’t try calling her back. Because she was okay, right?

The next morning, the phone rang early. I lay in bed and let the caller leave a message. A few minutes later, I listened to it: an old family friend asking me to call him as soon as I woke. It was important, he said. It had to do with Lucy, he said. Please call, he said.

I knew immediately that she was dead. I called my friend and got his son. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I asked him if Lucy had killed herself. “Yes,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” I told him I was sorry he had to bear the news. I said this because no one should ever have to bear that news. I thanked him, and hung up.

I thought of Lucy’s second message. She’d left it, I was sure, after resolving to die. She’d left it because she didn’t want me to try calling her back and then worry through the night. She wanted me to get a good night’s rest before learning my sister was dead. It was so caring of her. So typical. So Lucy.

I held my husband and called my mother. She told me Lucy had OD’d. And I said, Mama. Mama. Mama.

“Oh, honey,” Mama said. “The poor thing. She’s not suffering any longer.”

No. No, you’re right, Mama. She’s not. That’s true. She’s not.

“Poor, sweet Lucy.”

Poor, sweet Lucy.

She was the sweetest person. The bravest person. The smartest person. The wisest, the goofiest, the most credulous and curious and radiant — a small, beautiful, interesting, interested, fiercely true human being who played Chopin as though she knew him and greeted the world with wonder despite her pain.

Burdened with unyielding psychiatric problems, she had spent too many years of her life bouncing from psych hospital to psych hospital and useless meds to useless meds and wrong diagnosis to wrong diagnosis, settling finally on temporal lobe epilepsy with a complex array of psychological issues on the side. The upshot: She was suicidal. Pretty much all the time, she was suicidal. Even when she put on a sunny face for friends, she was suicidal. Even when she was busy talking me through my latest silly man-woe, she was suicidal. She was almost never not suicidal.

She had tried once before, swallowing earlier fistfuls of those useless meds and awaking from a coma with a renewed appetite for living. I’ve written about that before. I’ve written sundry other blog posts describing our sisterly adventures, like that time I damn-near died hiking with her on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and then that time we both damn-near died in a car crash. I also wrote about her in my first memoir, House of Holy Fools; it’s a safe bet I’ll be writing about her again. How can I not?

Even after 25 years, I miss her. I’m spilling a few tears as I write this, proof that you never really “get over” the death of a loved one, you just make your path through life around it. You take all that you learned from your absent treasure —  all that they showed you, all that they shared with you, all of the life and love between you — and you wrap it around your shoulders and chest like a blanket against the cold. That’s my Lucy. She warms me still. She shows me how to live and love and always will.

She lived the way we all should live: without fear, restraint, self-consciousness, selfishness, small-mindedness, duplicity, cruelty or guile. She loved the way we all should love: with her whole being. She faced this world the way we all should face it: squarely. She embraced it in its fullness despite her own mysterious torment, and she lived life as though she meant it, as though it mattered, as though it harbored miracles. It was never easy for her, but she stuck it out as long as she could with as much joy as she could. And when she couldn’t, just before dying, just because she couldn’t take a breath on this earth without loving, she made one last phone call so her kid sister could get some sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

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 

 

 

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 wrong pants

This morning, listening to my voicemail following a week off from work, I  found a message from an irate reader who was deeply ticked off by a Times Union reprint of a melancholic blog post I wrote after the election. Apparently it was too melancholic for her taste. Apparently I am too much of a crybaby and just need to get over it. And apparently she was concerned for my maturation and developmental welfare, because  she instructed me, loudly, to “PUT YOUR BIG-GIRL PANTS ON.” Yes, she said this phrase in all-caps. I’m also certain she hyphenated it, because otherwise she’d be telling me to put my big GIRL pants on, and she must know that I already own plenty of those.

In any case, I found her voicemail altogether amusing and entirely old news, because A) I am indeed a crybaby; B); I have a hard time getting over anything, and by anything I mean anything; and C) I DON’T OWN ANY BIG-GIRL PANTS AND NEVER HAVE, FRIENDS. Never will, either. NEVER EVER EVER.

I have always had a problem with pants. In short: I always owned THE WRONG ONES. This means I always wore THE WRONG ONES. My life is a long, sad narrative of bad trousers, misguided jeans, ill-fitting shorts, ludicrous crop pants and miserable, idiotic slacks.

You want proof? Sorry, I don’t have photos of my 1985 culottes. Or the striped purple elephant pants that I wore in a delusional state through most of high school. Or the mustard-colored highwaters that I wore to work for the longest time until I noticed a large bleach splotch on the crotch and realized, what’s more, THAT THEY WERE BUTT-UGLY.

I do, however, have a photo of the purple paisley harem pants that I wore when I met my purple-paisley-harem-pantslate husband’s family in 1990. It was Christmas.  I was madly in love with this Chris guy. I wanted to impress his parents and siblings, and so of course I showed up to meet them all in PURPLE PAISLEY HAREM PANTS. These were not big-girl pants. These were not medium-sized-girl pants. I would argue that they did not classify as tiny-girl pants, because even an infant would rip off her diaper and crap all over the things rather than let her idiot mama dress her that way in public. They were, in short, THE WRONG PANTS.

But being lovely, classy, gracious people, my future in-laws never said a peep about the egregious swaths of billowing polyester that cinched around my ankles and made my short, stubby legs look even shorter and stubbier. Not until I mentioned them years later. And they still didn’t say anything. But by then I had  moved on to yet new frontiers of pants stupidity, including the tragic pair of bell-bottomed jeans that I wore long past their expiration date and — even wronger —  the lamentable orange corduroys with the saggy ass and worn-out knees THAT I STILL OWN AND WEAR TO THIS DAY, occasionally over my blue leopard-print pajama bottoms, although not to work, and did I just admit to that in public?

And I haven’t even gotten to the lilac khakis I’ve been squeezing into the last couple of summers. Ooooh, I love those things. Those are seriously NOT big-girl pants. Nope. I won’t be pulling those on to appease any ticked-off readers, that’s for sure. They’ll never grow up. Neither will I.

 

 

 

trump-towering among them

IMG_4264

UPDATE:

I first published this post back in July, after the Republican National Convention. I’m re-publishing it now because I am struck even more by the parallels between Lewis’ vision and today. The idea of a frothing, autocratic demagogue with militias behind him is no mere fiction; the thought of a newly elected president muscling through a racist agenda, fomenting unrest and tossing his enemies behind bars is no mere phantasm. Can you imagine what Lewis would say, were he alive and watching this sick pageant before us? He’d be aghast.

And yet I keep recalling my mother’s words after the Soviet Union fell. “Democracy is messy,” she observed. “I don’t think the Russians realize how messy it is.” She had faith in that messiness. She believed devoutly in our ability, as a nation, to make mistakes and recover from them. The great gift of democracy is the authority it gives us to make those mistakes. It grants us the power to do the right thing, yes, but it also gives us the power to do the wrong thing, and it is in that power — to screw up, sometimes spectacularly — where we prove ourselves as Americans. The genius of this radically inclusive system,  and the never-ending terror of it, lie in our own fallibility and potential for electoral fiascoes. It lies in our humanity, in our brokenness, in our best intentions curbed by our worst impulses.

And it lies in our resilience. Our stubbornness. Our innate, star-spangled, mulish optimism, which pushes us onward and upward through the muck. Since when do Americans give up on anything? Since when do we give up on each other?

Below, then, is my original post from this past summer. Read it and vote. And remember: Whoever wins on Tuesday, and whatever holy chaos results, we damn well need to get through it together. The mess is ours. The mess is us. God bless America.

***

ORIGINAL POST:

“Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man . . . . But he was the Common Man twenty times magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

***

Buzz Windrip, in case you hadn’t met him, is the fascist demagogue in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satire “It Can’t Happen Here,” which pundits have sometimes invoked in the long months since Donald Drumpf first rose to prominence in this election, and then rose and rose again. It is not the world’s greatest novel, being overwritten, under-realized and saddled with way too much dated lingo for 21st-century eyeballs. Also, Buzz is not an exact fictional counterpart; for one thing, he runs as a Democrat.

But as the Republican National Convention concluded last week, I kept thinking about Lewis’s vision — and his characterization of a power-crazed, racist incendiary who runs for president with the support of a hoodwinked populace.

Windrip isn’t an Everyman, but he does a good job faking it for the disaffected, underserved, frustrated masses. He’s both one of them and a cut far above them, someone who claims the power and the wherewithal to make promises he has no intention of fulfilling: among them, a $5,000 guaranteed income. This is where the parallels with Drumpf pique and scare the bejesus out of me, because, just like Windrip, this cheap Narcissus has bamboozled his supporters into believing that he cares about them. He doesn’t. This is what he cares about: Donald Drumpf.

In “It Can’t Happen Here,” apologists and toadies fall into line, assuming Windrip will moderate once elected, but of course he doesn’t. He creates a militia. He tosses Supreme Court justices in prison. He takes over the media. He establishes concentration camps for dissenters. And so on. I am not saying any of that will happen if Drumpf is elected; I’m not saying we’re doomed to endure a real-world version of an 81-year-old novel. But we need to pay attention. We need to be vigilant about this democracy of ours. We need to tell ourselves it can happen here, or we’ll be lazy about ensuring that it won’t.