the things we share


On this day of American celebration, in this era of heart-wrenching division, I thought now would be a good time to assemble a list of Things We Share. This isn’t anything profound, nothing on the order of Dan Rather’s “What Unites Us” (which you should read, like, now). I’m not pretending to be a poet or philosopher or pundit or anything other than what I am: a citizen of this country, a resident of this planet and a compulsive scribbler of words who’s been trying like hell to make sense of who and what we are — what it even means to even be American in this distressed, discombobulating age.

So I asked myself: What can we agree on, these days? Anything? I came up with a few points of likely agreement. Please feel free to add more in the comments. Share, if you’re so disposed.  Let’s try to find consensus.

THE THINGS WE SHARE:

  1. We like holidays (most of the time).
  2. We like fireworks (all of the time).
  3. We like to laugh.
  4. We hate paying bills.
  5. We love our children and want what’s best for them, though sometimes they drive us nuts.
  6. We love our parents and siblings and spouses and friends, though sometimes they drive us nuts.
  7. We work hard and take our jobs seriously.
  8. We sometimes put in more hours than we’re paid for, but we do it because we need the paycheck and know the work is necessary and figure what the hell, it’ll come out in the wash.
  9. We wish the workweek were a little shorter and the weekend a little longer (but we still got paid the same).
  10. We like to eat when we’re hungry.
  11. We like to sleep when we’re tired.
  12. We love the beauty of a sunrise tinged with hope and a sunset tinged with sadness.
  13. We wish our bladders were just a little bigger.
  14. We like getting along with people but also kinda-sorta-maybe enjoy the occasional zing of a heated argument, but only if it ends quickly with no lasting rancor.
  15. We hate garbage night and wish it would go away (along with the garbage, too).
  16. We love taking showers — but not too hot,  and not too cold.
  17. We regard caffeine as the greatest organic compound in the arc of human history, at least at 6:53 a.m.
  18. We don’t like dental appointments, even when the dentist is a really nice guy.
    We have a hard time holding up our end of the conversation during dental appointments, even when the dentist is a really nice guy, and to be honest we get a little tired of staring at that poster of clouds on the ceiling.
  19. We hate trimming our toenails and wish someone would invent a gizmo that does it in our sleep and then disposes of the clippings without our knowledge.
  20. We prefer the smell of our own farts to anyone else’s.
  21. We worry more than we’d like to admit.
  22. We hurt more than we say.
  23. We feel lonelier in the dark than anyone realizes, no matter how proudly we strut or loudly we talk in the daylight.
  24. We hate pain.
  25. We fear death.
  26. We have faith in something larger than we are, be it God or life or love or art or entropy and the expanding universe.
  27. We want to be loved.
  28. We want to be held.
  29. When we hold a baby, we smile.
  30. When a loved one dies, we grieve.
  31. When someone asks us if we’re doing our best to live a good and decent life, we say yes.
  32. We don’t like to be judged.
  33. We don’t like to be insulted.
  34. We don’t like to be demonized as sub-human.
  35. We try hard.
  36. We stumble.
  37. We try hard again.
  38. We stumble again.
  39. We have dreams.
  40. At some point in our lives, some jerk suggested we didn’t have what it takes to achieve those dreams, and since then we have spent our every waking hour laboring to prove them wrong.
  41. We want to believe in humanity.
  42. We want to believe we matter.
  43. We want to believe our vote counts, our voice counts, we count.
  44. We want to believe in ourselves, even when we don’t believe in one another.
  45. We want to believe in America.

the ‘selfishness’ of suicide

In the whirlwind of comments on social media following the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, certain sowers of discord keep popping up:

  1. People who viciously attack those who die by their own hands as selfish;
  2. People who viciously attack those who die by their own hands as sinners bound for hell;
  3. People who do both.

I am not going to post screenshots of the tweets in question, because they piss me off and I don’t want to give them any more airtime. But take my word for it: They are glimpses into a foul, judgmental and unhinged cruelty of the worst sort. I’ve been tempted to chime in with a barrage of 280-character rejoinders taking each and every one to task, but the most I’ve done so far is to issue a few generic tweets on the nature of suicide and the need to respond with love.

As one who’s lost too many people to suicide, my husband and sister included, this whole conversation breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because my heart is already broken, because grief after a suicide never really fades, because the loss scatters and lingers like white noise in the background of all that I do and am. You needn’t tell me or any survivor how much devastation a suicide wreaks on the living. We know. We’re in it.

But to call my beloved husband or sister “selfish” for dying? No. Not selfish. Suicide is the result not of selfishness — not the aggrandizement or promotion of self — but its opposite. Their selves were crushed. They had lost their selves. That’s why they died: They felt not large but small, not powerful but diminished, reduced to a point so infinitesimal against the enveloping darkness that they couldn’t see any of the light around them, not even the people they loved. Perhaps, in their incomprehensible, illogical, blacker-than-black final moments, they felt they were relieving us of a burden.

I don’t and can’t and won’t ever believe they wanted to cause any of us pain; how could they? They were among the most loving and mindful people I’ve ever been graced to know. Not selfish. Not in life, not in death. Not in the afterlife, which I happen to believe in, and where I’m certain they’re not boiling for eternity in some nasty giant stockpot inside Dante’s inner rings. (Seriously, give me a break. My sister and husband both had extremely Catholic funeral masses, and I am pleased to report that the hand of God did not reach down through the church roof and smite us all. Though I admit that would have livened things up a bit.)

FACT: Those who die by suicide cause undeniable, immeasurable anguish among those left behind.

FACT: No one should do it. No one should kill themselves. If you’re thinking about it, don’t. You’re loved. You matter.

FACT: Those who do wind up killing themselves should not be disparaged as self-centered, contemptible, cowardly or evil.

FACT: They turn toward suicide because they hurt. In the process, they wind up hurting others. But all of that hurt is part of the same tragedy: their anguish, our anguish, the collective anguish of everyone who has ever walked through the mists of this life and stumbled.

As suicide rates climb, as more Americans struggle with depression and more of their loved ones struggle with grief, we must come to grips with the plague. It isn’t something that happens to other people; it’s something happens to us. Our spouses, our children, our siblings, our lovers, our best friends. Us.

It’s good we’re discussing it more openly now, because taboos get us absolutely nowhere. But as we talk, let’s not mock or vilify those who’ve died. We’re all in this together. We’re all part of the same crazy, beautiful, kaleidoscopic, often joyous, often agonizing, massively confusing existential soup. Pain is no stranger to any of us. Who hasn’t touched a finger to the darkness? Who isn’t prone to questioning this life?

And shouldn’t that inspire us to love?

 

 

 

the mentally ill and the madness of guns

With mass shootings the new normal these days — oh, who am I kidding, by now they’re the old normal — I’m starting to run out of things to write, much less say. In November I published a post grappling with the “thoughts and prayers” bromide issued by too many politicians in the wake of such killings, and with the same-old same-old being expressed following the horrors of Sante Fe, I wonder what I or anyone can possibly say that could change anything. But something has to be said. Because something has to change. Because this has got to stop.

So let’s take another tack, here. Let’s talk about mental illness, because even some people who support sane gun legislation and oppose the demoniac manipulations of the N.R.A. fall back on this idea that keeping guns out of hands “the mentally ill” will somehow magically solve this singular American hell of our own creation.

And guess what, everybody. It won’t.

Why? For starters, most mentally ill people aren’t violent. Some are: Between 3 and 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. Flipping that statistic on its head, it means that 95 to 97 percent of such acts are committed by people not defined as mentally ill. Which means, in other words, that most violent people are sane, a point so obvious it rarely gets stated amid all the rampant scapegoating, doublespeak and bass-ackwards emphasis on everything but the guns themselves.

We need gun control not because mentally ill people are prone to violence, but because PEOPLE ARE PRONE TO VIOLENCE. Period.

You want to talk about people with mental illness? Let’s talk about my sister Lucy, the most breathtakingly gentle soul who ever walked the planet. Or my husband Chris, whose only violent act in our 20 years of marriage was that time he knocked a fan to the floor when he woke late to catch a train. Or my father Louis, a pacifist who sparred as a young man but later swore it off, shunning the violence, and thereafter walked out on any film that threw a punch.

I’m more violent than they were. And I’m sane. Supposedly.

Lucy and Chris died by their own hands; my father tried to. In each case, their mental illness manifested itself not in anger at the world or in acts of pathological self-aggrandizement — because, let’s face it, that’s what mass killings are — but the opposite. They weren’t insensitive. They were too sensitive, feeling too much pain with too little hope for assuaging it. Most folks who struggle with psychiatric burdens suffer not from a cold insufficiency of feeling but a glut of the stuff, another obvious point that gets brushed aside in the casual and expedient demonization of the mentally ill.

But I get the logic. I do. As Americans and as human beings, we don’t want to be responsible for these killings. We want some Other to be responsible for the madness. We want Crazy People to be at fault. If, as it comes out, the latest mass murderer exhibited no warning signs, had not been treated for malady X or syndrome Y and wasn’t already diagnosed as mentally ill, the conversation inevitably shifts. The post-slaughter dialogue turns to How He Slipped Through the Cracks,  What Can Be Done To Improve Mental Healthcare and Who Might Have Identified Him as a Crazy Person But Tragically Didn’t.

The idea being: Okay, so maybe the shooter wasn’t labeled mentally ill, except of course he WAS mentally ill, because otherwise there wouldn’t be so many grieving parents and so many impotent politicos tweeting out condolences, right?

Following this logic, the solution is to A) identify all Crazy People everywhere, even the ones who haven’t yet been diagnosed as Crazy; B) make sure none of these Crazy People get access to guns; and C) make sure all Non-Crazy People have full and unfettered access to as many guns as possible. Because guns don’t kill Non-Crazy People. Crazy People do.

What garbage.

First, as I said above, most people with mental illness aren’t bent on killing anyone. Crazy acts are most often committed by Non-Crazy People, which makes the distinction between the two pretty damned worthless, don’t you think?

This also means, and I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, that the line between Crazy and Non-Crazy is much blurrier than you think. It’s a porous border, my friends, and there aren’t any ICE officers waiting to snatch you and send you on home. I say this not as a psychiatrist, which I definitely am not, but as a person who has lived a while and come away with the distinct impression of sanity/insanity as a fluid and relative state much influenced by stressors and circumstances. It isn’t binary; it isn’t off or on, one or the other; instead, it falls on a spectrum. To quote my brother Randy, “Everyone’s a head case. It’s just a matter of degrees.

And so, given the innate Craziness that rests within us all,  it is in our best interests as individuals and as a nation to make guns REALLY, REALLY HARD TO PURCHASE. I know this is a difficult point for some to swallow, but I don’t care. Watching children cry after their classmates die in a bloodbath is even more difficult to swallow, and I’m tired of it. It has to end. Somehow. Someday. Maybe now. What do you say?

to an unknown music lover

Look at what I stumbled across: a flyer reprinting one of my father’s columns for the long-gone New York World-Telegram.

This is one of those old family papers I periodically lose, then find again, then lose again, then find again. I had actually found it and uploaded it to Facebook several years back, but not in high enough quality to actually read. And it deserves to be read. I am wholly, ludicrously biased, but still: If you care about music, if you care about words, and if you care about words crafted in service to music, you should read it. It’s posted at bottom.

The piece is an ode to the humble but impassioned concertgoer, one who lives and breathes classical music and reveres its practitioners. Yes, “his”; Louis penned this gem 63 years ago, in an age when writing and conversation defaulted to the masculine, so let’s just assume he meant “person” when he wrote “man.” He served as the World-Telegram’s classical music critic for nearly 40 years, from 1928 until 1966, cranking out multiple reviews a night until the paper folded in the wake of the New York City newspaper strike.

He was 59 then. I was 2 1/2. I have no memories of visiting Daddy in the newsroom, accompanying Daddy to concerts or hearing Daddy vent in our Queens apartment at the end of a long day. My sister Lucy did. She once overheard him using “fuckin’” on the phone with a copy editor, and for a week thereafter – at least, in Mama’s version of events – the squirt deployed this powerful new term as a frequent qualifier in everyday conversation. E.g.: “Please pass the fuckin’ milk.” (My parents stifled the urge to spit out their coffee and correct her, and the word faded from her vocabulary.)

No vulgarities made it into this column, of course. My father’s paean to “the little man of music” reads like a prayer. It’s beautiful, simply wrought and poignant in its sincerity, describing a common listener of uncommon musical devotion.  I believe he was writing about himself.

“He is the man who often goes without an amenity or two for a seat at the opera”: that was young Louis, a kid from the tenements in Little Italy, scraping together the funds to feed his addiction. “He is a man of simple but profound spiritual needs without whom there would be no concert halls and no orchestras to fill them”: Daddy often characterized music (or, if he felt like getting specific, Beethoven) as the one true god he worshiped. And I believed him. He loved music as much or more than anyone else I’ve ever known, and he wrote his criticism, his columns and his many books from that place of love.

So here it is: “To an Unknown Music Lover.” Louis Biancolli, New York World-Telegram, 1955. I’ve uploaded the image in all its fulsome jpeggish ginormity, so if you have any trouble reading it, just click on it and then click to magnify it. If you have any trouble with that, please shoot me an email, and I’ll send it to you.

 

all part of the song

 In the six and a half years since my husband died, I’ve dwelt frequently on the yin-yang hugeness life —  the light paired with darkness, the concord flanked by discord, the joys of existence nesting quietly with its pains like two spooning lovers at sunrise.

But not long ago, I had a reminder. An epiphany, even. I needn’t explain what prompted it, exactly, or why and how it hit me. I will say the run-up involved some lingering hurt, less a major wound than a cascade of hazy memories and minor spasms that should have been negligible and normally would be.  But taken together, they assumed an accumulated weight that triggered painful reflection and dragged me down into a stinky little pit of navel-gazing, self-questioning and guilt.

I thought about everything. Things said. Things unsaid. Actions taken. Actions not taken. Failures to love. Failures to listen. Voices raised and heated. Voices muted and cold. Misunderstandings. Miscommunications. Chasms unbreachable, even by love.

Thinking, of course, is a pain in the ass. So is guilt. I’ve talked and written about it before, addressing Chris’s suicide in 2011, my sister Lucy’s suicide in 1992, my father’s attempt in 1974 and the inevitable, cognitive-affective pickle that afflicts survivors. We feel guilty. We know we didn’t actually cause our loved ones’ deaths, and we know it’s irrational to feel otherwise, but still, we feel guilty. That’s just how it works. When I stumbled across YouTube comments suggesting that indeed I must have driven Lucy and Chris to suicide, I both agreed with this assessment (of course I did, you assholes!) and recognized the absurdity of it (of course I didn’t, you assholes!).

But even in lesser ways and in smaller corners of my psyche, I struggle with guilt. I struggle with my own flaws, my sense of brokenness and my fears of alienating the people I love. But who doesn’t? If you don’t, I worry about you; it means you’re blind to your own blessed imperfections, and you’re missing the point of this realm we swim in. The most casually judgmental words ever aimed at me came from one so blind, and I remember thinking: You just don’t get it, do you? We’re not here to be right. We’re here to be human. To love, to screw up, to love some more, to screw up some more, to scream until we’re blue in the face, cry until we’re spent and forgive until we’re breathless: That’s pretty much the gist of it. Love, then love, then love.

This hit me once again as I was pondering the depths of my own navel. I heard, suddenly, a remark Chris made about our marriage and its occasional bumps: “It’s all part of the melody of us.” He was right. Music has its flights of ringing joy, its thundering strife and sadness, its accidentals, chromatic fugues and weirdly discordant turns.  So did we. We weren’t perfect. We had our arguments. But they didn’t stop our love; they were pieces of our love. They were all part of the truth between us, an intimacy that embraced the light and the dark in own humanity.

He might be gone, but the truth we shared isn’t. It was life. We clutched it fiercely.

It’s all part of the song.

weird scar update

So I found this in the “drafts” folder just now: an empty post titled “weird scar update.” And I have noooooo idea what it means. I’m serious. None. A few years back I came up with a headline for a blog post I never wrote.

I’ve written about my scars before, so, no, it isn’t all that unusual as topics go, not really, not on a blog with the word “shit” in the title, and not for someone as multifariously scarred as I am. It is perfectly normal for me to be telling you about my unsealed wounds both psychological and physical.

But still: “weird scar update.” What the hell was that? What did I mean? Was it a reference to my latest hangnail? A glass shard embedded on the bottom of my right foot? That time someone compared a conversation with me to sitting through the “Ring” cycle?

Again: no idea. I can’t say what I’d planned on writing about at the time. However, as fate and coinky-dinks would have it, I do have some exciting news to report on the skinned-knee front, having taken a rather gymnastic fall on the ice outside church recently. It was one of those whoopty-whoops feet-in-the-air vaults into space that Linus suffered at the hands of Lucy and, in my case, thankfully resolved not with a spinal injury but with a rough landing on all fours. As a memento, I now sport a pair of lingering, sangria-colored splotches just below my left kneecap.

I have no idea whether these scars will ever fade. I’m hoping, at least, that they’ll dial down to a nice shade of burgundy or hibiscus in time for bare-legs season, which I refuse to refer to as “spring” or “summer” given that the damned weather is still behaving like damned winter and I actually wore my damned down parka to work this morning, dammit.

To be honest, I kind of doubt they’ll ever disappear, or even diminish. Scars tend not to. But looking at them tonight, it hit me: those two wee splotches on my skin resemble EYEBALLS, people! Yes! Eyeballs! A little off-center, a little drunken and dorky, but open. Cheerful. Wide-eyed. Trusting. And so, being truly and unapologetically bizarre, aiming to fulfill the cryptic weirdo promise of this heretofore unwritten blog post, I grabbed a marker, drew a smile on my kneecap and added a dot for a nose. 

Dwelling on this artful portrait, which I did for approximately eighteen seconds before scrubbing it off, I pondered its resemblance to the Mona Lisa and other Renaissance masterworks. No, wait. That is a lie. I did no such thing, though surely the contrasts in light resemble chiaroscuro, do they not? Again I lie. They do not.

In conclusion, I would like to come up with some beautiful and insightful profundity with which to cap this ridiculous post, but I don’t think I have it in me. Maybe something about smiling through the pain of existence? Choosing hope over despair and faith in the aftermath of trauma? The importance of putting a happy face on the shit that flies our way, sending our asses to the sky and our knees to the sidewalk? The need to get up after a fall and keep at it, keep moving, keep swinging one scarred leg after another into the unseeable future? The transformative power of a Sharpie in reshaping our conceptions of ourselves?

And there you have it. Weird scar update. The end.

 

the beautiful human gumbo

So I got back my DNA kit results, and guess what, everybody! I’m a mutt!

I mean, I always knew I was a mutt. I always knew the paternal half of my DNA was southern Italian, the maternal half EnglishScottishGermanFrench (and as my mother always added, “Thank God for the French”). Except I’m not really. Not entirely. Nothing so tidy as half anything.

I am, as it turns out, exactly 76 percent of what I thought I was,  the unsurprising bits breaking down into 36 percent Southern Italian, 29 percent Western European, 7 percent Scottish-Welsh-Irish and 4 percent British. But my variegated ethnic muddle also includes another 24 percent of unanticipated factors: 6 percent Middle Eastern, 6 percent Iberian peninsula, 5 percent European Jewish, 4 percent South Asian and traces from the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and North Africa.

To which I say: HOW COOL IS THIS? Almost a quarter of me is previously unadvertised genetic material!

In truth, family lore already suggested some Jewish blood on the Biancolli side, so that didn’t surprise me — although I wonder about the DNA markers for “European Jewish.” What does that mean, exactly? Ashkenazic? And I’m fascinated by the Middle Eastern and South Asian components, which amount to a whole 10 percent of my genetic makeup. Not too shocking, given Southern Italy’s location at a giant crossroads and humanity’s tendency to schlep goods and people back and forth across bodies of water, pausing to make babies along the way.

I’ve only just started scratching the surface of these results. But already, noodling around the “DNA Matches” on Ancestry.com, I found relatives in Argentina. Argentina! Confirming yet more family lore on the Biancolli side! I hesitate to dive too deeply into specifics, which A) aren’t quite verified and B) are so convoluted I might lose consciousness trying to explain them, but C) involve great-grandparents who emigrated from Italy to Uruguay in the 19th century and D) also involve a great-grandfather who later bolted for Argentina.

Even minus the tangled South American subplot,  I’m faced with a genealogical narrative of stunning mystery, complexity and depth. How on earth am I going to unpack it all? My Middle Eastern heritage — what does that mean? My South Asian chunk — am I part Indian? Pakistani? And the Iberian business — could that be on my mother’s side? If so, to borrow one of her favorite turns of phrase, the news would have tickled her pink. In her heart of hearts she was Mediterranean.  She longed to hail from a land of sun. Not for nothing did she marry my father.

But for all the glorious genetic complications in these Ancestry.com results, the takeaway is a simple one. We’re connected. We’re related to parts of the world and pieces of history that we might not comprehend, but the connectedness alone is revelatory. Look at me. Not half Italian, as I’d always believed, but a little more than a third. The rest, it seems, is a beautifully confused gumbo of ingredients I may never understand.

So whatever you think you are, you probably aren’t. Not quite. You’re more. More of a rainbow. More representative of homo sapiens sapiens and its unconquerable itinerant spirit. More of a wanderer, an immigrant, a child of multiracial forebears. More connected with every other person on this planet. More a member of the refugee human race and less a member of any so-called race we use to classify, to separate, to oppress.

More beautiful. More mixed. More true. More mutt.

music = sex

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. But in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break it up into tidy, digestible chunks, toss in a few new chunks and then spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR
PART V: music = sex

When it came to her violin, Mama made one request. “Promise me you’ll play it when I’m gone,” she’d said. “That’s all I ask. It needs to be played to stay alive.” I promised, but I thought: I’ll never play it like you did, Mama. My mother was a concert violinist. The instrument was her other voice. She spoke with it, beautifully and profoundly, in a language I could never master.

After losing my childhood family in the early 90s, I felt at first that they had taken their music with them: Daddy’s Tin Pan Alley, Mama’s Bach, Lucy’s Brahms at the piano. I was wrong. They gave me the music I hold within, my love for it, my need for it, the way I wake in the night and then rise the next day thinking of it. It fills my whole self. In a sense, the music inside me is my family, a way to carry them with me. Whatever music comes from within, expressed with my hands and my voice, is an utterance of love and gratitude for all they gave me.

And yet, as a kid, I didn’t get it. My mother and sister seemed otherworldly, chasing musical perfection with a fixedness that awed and baffled me. I couldn’t comprehend practicing four hours a day; if someone had suggested I give it a try, I might have responded HA HA HA WHY DON’T I PUSH BOULDERS AROUND FOUR HOURS A DAY TOO. As much as I loved music, I’d never understood this dogged pursuit, and I never felt compelled to undertake it myself. Musicians always struck me as more than a little nutball in their assiduity and devotion. What happens to these people? What drugs are they on? How does this idée fixe take hold, and why is it eating their brains?

****

Then it ate mine.

On a walk after class one day at Django in June, I found myself thinking about sex. Yes, sex. Sex and music, those twin bastards, both of them insistent to the point of bossy. Certain activities command our undivided attention, shoving out room for anything and anyone else. Sex is one such pushy tyrant. Music is another.

Making music requires such intense concentration on so many different actions and details, firing off so many pistons in so many parts of the brain, that there isn’t enough real estate left for anything else. Like sex, music consumes the moment. Like sex, it’s a rapture. But unlike sex, it’s a sustained moment, a tantric rapture defined not by one decisive climax but by a long, rhythmic, lunging tango among enraptured people. It doesn’t matter who they are or what sort of music they’re playing: “Minor Swing,” a Dylan tune, Beethoven. They’re in a mutual state of bliss.

Being inside the music means being surrounded by something greater than myself, being a part of it. It’s not a glimpse into another world; it’s a communion with it. To play the second violin part on Dvořák’s “American” quartet or a sneaky harmony on “Swing Gitan” means conversing with your fellow musicians and the music itself. It means burrowing into something unspoken but true, ideal but unrealized, something that aims for the acme but still brings joy when it inevitably misses. We are human and flawed. The music is beyond us, residing in an unattainable plane. But still, we grasp for it — and in the grasping, we find our own kind of heaven.

Anything that takes me out of my noisy head is a gift. Anything that introduces me to new people in new places – that’s a gift, too. The beauty of music lies in its non-verbal conviction that we can mean something to each other, that we can rely on each other, that we can do so without ever uttering a word. However many wrong notes I hit, I can matter to someone else. They can matter to me, lifting me, prodding me, answering me and inspiring me to better. But the mattering doesn’t require us to talk.

It only requires us to play, and to listen.

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS
Click here to read PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)
Click here to read PART IV: IN PRAISE OF SECOND FIDDLE

in praise of soft targets

Turning schools into “hardened targets”: We heard about that this week. We talked about that this week. Someone prone to all-caps pronouncements, no need to say who, suggested putting guns in the hands of teachers, no need to say why. This debate consumes us all.

But as I cleaned the house on Saturday,  sweeping and scrubbing and repairing various mantelpiece items knocked to the floor by my cats, I started thinking about life as a pileup of damaged tchotchkes. (Doesn’t everybody? At least, everybody with cats?) I started thinking about brokenness. And vulnerability. And the phenomenon, the joy, the absolute necessity, of strolling through its bumpy contours as a soft target. I don’t care how much weaponry you strap to your thighs; if you think you can make it through without risking injury, you’re missing the point.

The point of living isn’t to harden yourself. The point isn’t to fortify the stronghold against some invasion. The point is the opposite. The point is to let people in. To put yourself at risk. To be welcoming and loving and curious and open. To be soft. This is the gist of living, the essence of courage that gets us out of bed and out the door and into the terrifying everyday. We face the world with fear suppressed by gumption, knowing it can knock us sideways but braving its elements anyway.

I was thinking about all this, and yes, it’s true, I think too much; that’s been established. I had started to think about Peter Capaldi’s departure from “Doctor Who” instead when there, amid all the cat-generated debris on my living room floor, I found this grinning snapshot of me ‘n  Mama Jeanne from sometime in the late 1970s. Judging from the dazzling mouthful of orthodontia, I was 14 or 15. My mother was 54 or 55 — around my age now. In those days she was busy teaching music, playing the violin, fixing every damn thing that broke in that blessed house, shepherding me and my sister through the horrors of adolescence and, through it all, caring for my father — who had no short-term memory whatsoever, probably due to his nine-day coma following a suicide attempt in ’74. She managed all this with wisdom, humor, fortitude, and pluck.

Mama was no wimp. You didn’t want to tick her off under any circumstances. But she was the ultimate soft target: putting herself out there with no restrictive armor, living and loving however she felt called to live and love, doing what had to be done. She needed to work; she worked. She needed to spend the last 18 years of her husband’s life tending to him while repeating everything she said over and over and over; she did. She surrendered herself to the many and uncatalogable hazards of loving, no matter what that commitment entailed. She didn’t harden herself. She opened herself, and in the process she became the strongest human being I’ve ever known.

Because softness is strength. Softness is mettle. Softness is the willingness to face danger and live in spite of it.

We’re born as soft targets. Cry at our mother’s breasts as soft targets. Climb on the bus as soft targets. Risk rejection as soft targets. Apply to college and try for jobs as soft targets. Fall in love as soft targets, knowing we might lose. Let our lovers inside us as soft targets, knowing they might leave.

We get pregnant as soft targets. Give birth as soft targets. Raise children as soft targets, knowing that every time they fall and weep and burn in fear, we will, too. Keep the faith as soft targets, whether the mystery we worship is humanity or God. Brave illness as soft targets. Bury our dear ones as soft targets. Laugh in the aftermath as soft targets, knowing that any moment we might collapse in tears.Wake to the next day as soft targets, and the next day, and the next.

Life is hard. Softness is the answer. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

spittin’ for the truth

“SPIT TO HERE,” it said, and so I did. I spat. I spat again. I spat in pursuit of a dream. I spat to know myself. I spat in the hopes of learning more about Me and My Ancestors and Where They Came From and What It All Means and Who The Heck Am I, Anyway? I spat because there’s only so much self-discovery you can glean  through extensive navel-gazing and online genealogy surfing,  although I have learned a few things, among them the cavernous depths of my navel and and likely traces of my paternal great-grandfather in Argentina.

No, he wasn’t Argentinian. He arrived there from Uruguay, but he wasn’t Uruguayan, either. He was Southern Italian. His wife, who remained in Uruguay and later left for the States with the kids, hailed from Italy, too. It’s a long story, ridiculously complicated — even without all the facts. But isn’t that true of every family tree? Isn’t everybody’s a tangled hodgepodge of the known and the unknown, the spoken and unspoken, the surmised, the passed down,  the gossiped about, the hinted at, the whispered, the feared?

Why did they leave Italy? There are theories. Why did he leave Uruguay? There are tales.

Mysteries and complexities abound. Truths untold turn into stories, then bend into myth over time. A dying matriarch might whisper a truth in her last breaths, or not. I know something about my heritage; I know that my father was Neapolitan, my mother EnglishScottishGermanFrench. But were they something else or more than that? Am I something else or more? Perhaps it’s a function of being older and sensing a limit to both my time on this planet and my understanding of things that are knowable. So few are. So many burning questions can’t be answered, not by anyone still living, that I desperately want to puzzle out and solve the handful that are.

I want to know.

And so, for Christmas, I asked my kids to get me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com. I delayed doing anything with it for the next month, not out of conflicted ancestral dread but from a lifelong tendency to misplace things in the process of trying to safeguard them (OH I DON’T WANT TO LOSE THIS SO I’LL JUST TUCK IT UP HERE ON THE DRESSER BEHIND THE CLOCK RADIO AND PRAYER BOOK AND COIN JAR AND X-FILES MUG AND RANDOM PILES OF PAPER AND SHIT). After stumbling across it I cracked it open and did all the required spitting, which took longer than anticipated, then sealed up the tube, packed it off in the enclosed box and walked it two blocks to the neighborhood mailbox, being careful not to dispatch it at the nearby trash bin where I once absentmindedly dropped off a month’s worth of bills.

It could take two months, maybe more, before I hear back on the results. And when they arrive, they could contain no new information. They could do nothing but confirm that I am what I always thought I was, plain ol’ ItalianEnglishScottishGermanFrench.

Or they may tell me something more or else. Something that clarifies my heritage while flipping the family’s history on its head. Either way, at least I’ll know.

Stay tuned.