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, 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 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. . . )

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

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 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.


life is huge

So, yesterday would have been my late husband’s 62nd birthday. Isn’t that strange? Also strange: Chris died at 55, and here I am, facing that double-nickel number in September. I remember the surrealism of turning 32 four years after my sister Lucy died at 31. It felt like a breach in the space-time continuum: This things are not supposed to happen. We are not supposed to be older than our older sisters. We are not supposed to lose the people we love, bury them, mourn them and miss them, yet keep on living and growing and laughing and loving and sprouting fresh-baked wrinkles on our faces, all while our absent dear ones remain fixed at the age they died. 

Except we are. Of course we are. How else are life and death supposed to function? When I had my first colonoscopy at age 50, I worked hard to celebrate it as a marker Lucy never reached. As positive spin goes, this was a stretch, I know. But I’m here. She’s not. And when I live with gratitude, I feel hers, too.

Last night, as I often do these days, I made music with friends: joyous, upbeat, swinging, infectious gypsy jazz. I’d spent the day engaged in the tasks at hand, working, chatting, laughing, always with Chris on my mind. I kept snatching glimpses at his photos, marveling at his handsome and impish mug, trying to picture him six years on. I kept wondering what he might think of me now — a little older, my hair a little whiter and longer, my language a little more profane. I kept thanking God and Chris for our 20 years of  marriage and the three astonishing children we brought into the world. I kept dwelling on all of his gifts — his constancy, decency, intellect, compassion, his deep and unswerving well of love. And I kept thinking, well, what if he’d never been born? Impossible to imagine.

And then, sawing away at my violin with my buddies, I pictured him there. Listen to this awesome music, I told him. Look at these awesome friends of mine. I’d become obsessed with jazz after his suicide. Took up lessons. Started playing gypsy swing two years ago. All of this happened without him. None of it might have happened had he not died, a head-exploding conundrum I won’t ever unpack, but it’s true. And as I made music last night, the joy of the moment and the memory of Chris twined into one continuous, light-dark, life-death, love-loss, yin-yang cause for gratitude. I was living, and he was gone, but that didn’t make the present any less miraculous. To the contrary: more so.

At the end of the night, as I loosened my bow and packed up my fiddle, I felt at peace. And I thought: Life is huge. Happy Birthday, honey.


happy new year, fellow klutzes

Happy 2018, everyone! To celebrate, and to reward you for having survived the monumentally weird alter-verse that was 2017, I here present a photo of me with frozen corn on my head from last night’s revelry.

Why am I wearing frozen corn on my head, you may ask. Well, you see, I smacked the bejeezus (which AutoCorrect just tried to render “Venezuelan”) out of it when I leaned over to chase one of my cats and instead rammed my skull into the corner of a kitchen cabinet. It was a bit after 11 p.m., and some neighborhood pals were over for a relaxed blast of music-making and modest tippling to mark the turn of the year. We’d just played a few tunes when I had my violent li’l run-in with the cabinet, which prompted me to yell AHHHHH or possibly RRRRRLLLLLLGGG or maybe HOLY (INSERT PROFANE QUALIFIER) SHIT, I honestly don’t remember which. But whatever I said, it was loud, principally because it hurt like hell but also because the impact on my scalp made a horrific crunching noise, something like that first spoonful of granola in the morning, which echoed through my braincase and told me that whatever I’d just done, it wasn’t good. I immediately started rubbing it, hard.

My friend Kathy, a physician’s assistant, raced to my side and asked me if I was bleeding. Lemme see, I said, and pulled down my hand to find it coated in blood. Fun times! Hurray! This dear friend immediately took me to the sink, washed out my wound and urged me to cap it with an ice pack. Opting for the frozen corn instead, I then posed for the obligatory glamorous photo in the expectation it will run in an upcoming issue of the American Medical Journal of Extremely Dumb-Ass Injuries.

They could easily devote a whole issue to me. I am a World-Class Dumb-Ass, a Virtuoso of Mishaps and a Peerless Klutz Par Excellence. The particular idiosyncrasy defining my klutziness is its pairing with exceptionally fast reflexes, which means that my recovery from accidents is almost as notable as the disaster-prone nature that got me there. As a soccer player in high school and college, I was equally adept at falling down and bouncing back up. As a so-called adult in lo, these many years since, I have distinguished myself by my capacity to knock over alcoholic beverages with startling grace and ease; I once wowed my dinner mates at a posh Chicago restaurant by smacking over a glass of wine and then, darting my hand across the table at superhuman speed, catching it before it spilled. I’m not kidding. I’m not even exaggerating. No, seriously, I’m not.

And just to be clear: These things never happen because I’m drinking heavily, because I never drink heavily, because my tolerance for alcohol doesn’t allow me to imbibe more a drink or two without falling asleep. In the run-up to the Cabinet Incident, I’d consumed half a bottle of Guinness. Alcohol has nothing to do with my klutziness. Not all those times I slammed my forehead into a different kitchen corner, prompting my late husband to pad it with a tennis ball that’s still in place, and not that time in 1989 when I whacked my head into the gorgon sculpture at a gift shop in Salem, Mass., prompting the Very Rational German Friend who was with me at the time to object thusly: BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND. HOW DID YOU DO THAT? DID YOU NOT SEE IT WHEN YOU LEANED OVER? SHOUDLN’T YOUR PERIPHERAL VISION HAVE PREVENTED YOU FROM HITTING IT?

I had no answer for him.

My whole life has been screwing up and recovering, falling down and getting up, knocking shit over and picking shit up, slamming my head and rubbing it hard, klutzing out mightily and then carrying the heck on, anyway. But isn’t that everyone’s life? I mean, minus the frozen vegetables. Last night, wearing the corn on my head under a cute knit hat with pom-poms, I snarfed back ibuprofen and returned to fiddling with my pals. At midnight we watched the ball drop, toasted each other, hugged each other and went back to playing. I spilled my champagne. I mean, OF COURSE I spilled my champagne. But it didn’t matter. It never matters. The falling is never what counts.

Like everyone else on this planet, I’ve had my bonks on the head. My husband’s suicide six years ago, and some losses and heartache since, left me a little wary of any future run-ins with the sharper corners of fate and human frailty. I don’t much like getting hurt. But here I am, facing another year with hope and love, and there I go into the breach  — buoyed by those who catch me when I fall, help me when I hurt and mop the blood off my scalp when I’m bleeding.  That’s all I ask of 2018, and all I ask of life.



the bleeping cold

It’s cold outside. Have you noticed? No? Well, let me tell you: IT’S BLEEPING COLD OUTSIDE. And living as we do in the Northeast, we must A) whine and moan about said bleeping cold while B) laughing and C) feeling damned self-righteous about our capacity to endure it. You know the routine.

YOU: It’s bleeping cold out, isn’t it!? Ha ha ha!

NEIGHBOR: Sure is! Brrrrrr! Ha ha ha!

YOU: We choose to live here! Ha ha ha!

NEIGHBOR: Yeah, we could be in Florida! Ha ha ha!

YOU: But here we are instead! In the bleeping cold! Ha ha ha!

NEIGHBOR: Ha ha ha!

Of course, all of us really do have the power to relocate. Every single one of us could up and move to some place where “winter” is defined as any fleeting meteorological state requiring the rolling down of sleeves or, when it gets truly nasty, the zipping up of fleeces. Again, we CHOOSE to live here. We CHOOSE to submit our digits and schnozzes to circulatory distress on a regular basis. We CHOOSE to encase our bodies in 18 layers of long underwear and sweaters and snuggies and down this and wool that and saran wrap and rolled carpets and garbage bags (clean) and dryer lint and mouse droppings and beard shavings from forest elves and anything else lying around that happens to possess magical properties of insulation.

We’re not that picky. Style is not our Number One Concern; rolled carpets, when properly worn, also protect the wearer during traffic collisions.  This is why every single woman who resides in the snow belt owns and wears a knee-length hooded black down parka, not because we like them, really, but because they prevent our arms and legs from going numb and provide the added charm of making us look like an invading regiment of Parka Clones from the Planet Nordstrom.

I neglected to provide this particular nugget of advice when speaking earlier this year with a newcomer at work from warmer climes. She had never experienced the bleeping cold before, so I laid out all proper coping mechanisms in the starkest possible terms.

ME: Wool socks.

HER: Oh, okay! Thanks! Wool socks!

ME :Wool socks.

HER: Ha, yes! Wool socks!

ME: Wool socks.

HER: Got it. Wool socks.

ME: Wool socks.

HER: (Smiles.)

I did not, at this point, regale her with my Theory of Northern Cities, which I’ve expounded upon previously on this blog and represents my positive spin on winter, shoveling after a major snow dump and its la-la-kumbaya effects on community spirit. I’m not talking up any of that happy-peppy shit right now, because right now it is roughly 8 million degrees below zero, and that’s Fahrenheit, babies. Right now I am feeling cold and aggrieved. Right now I am recalling the sound my car made this morning when I first turned the ignition, which reminded me of the peculiar and unsettling mewling noises emitted from a sick infant. Again you know the routine.

ME: (Turns key.)

CAR: Eeehhhmmmm.  Eeeehllll. Uhhhrrrr. Blurgfffh.

ME: Please turn on.

CAR: You’re kidding, right? (Cough. Cough. Spit.)

ME: I’m actually not.

CAR: (Spit. Spit. Cough.) It’s bleeping cold out.

ME: It is. Ha ha ha.

CAR: Right. Sorry, not laughing. And why aren’t we in Florida, exactly?






i got music, part iv: in praise of second fiddle

(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. . . )


“Second fiddle”: as a violinist, this idiom bugs the crap out of me. It always has. Discussing it recently with friends, I expressed no small umbrage at the phrase and its demoralizing message in a world that undervalues the dusky contribution of second violins. To play second fiddle is “to be less important or in a weaker position than someone else”: So sayeth the compilers of the Cambridge Dictionary, the jerks. (Yes,  yes, I know it’s not their fault — they’re only reporting on accepted usage. But after seeing their ridiculously cutesy example invoking some dingbat named Christina, I AM STILL GOING TO CALL THEM JERKS.)

All my life I’ve played second violin. In middle school orchestra I played second violin. In every community orchestra since I played second violin. In string quartets with friends I played second violin. Whenever someone nudged me to play first, for reasons I never entirely understood but took as profound if misguided expressions of kindness, I resisted. I didn’t want to. For starters, I liked second. I didn’t want to play first. The one exception was Dvořák’s “American” quartet, when my well-meaning chamber-music mates insisted I take first violin and I rewarded their generosity by filling their ears with the sounds of a dying squirrel.

See, this is the other problem: although I’ve played the violin for most of my life, I never actually worked at it. Not the way other people work at it. I never set aside, say, two hours or three or four or six to run through scales and arpeggios and etudes in pursuit of EXtreme-Ass Musicality (EXAM), chiefly because I was busy adhering to my preexisting policy of NO Practicing Ever (NOPE) compounded by a Sad and Pathetic Lack of Theory (SPLAT), but also because I knew without even trying that I would never actually attain said vaunted state. I knew EXAM was beyond my reach. I knew my mother had already attained it on the violin; my sister had already attained it at the piano. I knew what they sounded like. I knew I’d never get there. I knewknewknewknewknew. 

But this knowledge never stopped me from playing — and loving it. It only stopped me from expecting or pursuing perfection. And it never stopped me from hearing music everywhere, from feeling its thudding bass and slinking harmonies and wanting to join in. As a kid I heard entire orchestras in the engine of our ’72 Corolla. As a teenager I quit the violin for several years to play soccer and pick my nose, but I sang alto in the school choir and relished the low notes that scraped the underbelly, far below the sopranos. I never wanted to join them on top. “You’re a soprano with a big range,” one teacher after another told me, and I always wondered why no one ever characterized me as an alto with a big range.  I always said gee thanks but nope, uh-uh, no soprano parts for me. I prefer the dankest recesses of the woman’s range. I prefer grubbing around the bottom of the treble staff, the musty places where harmony gets built on the violin, because that’s where the music happens.

I like how alto feels in my chest. I like how it sounds. I would rather hear the melody soaring above and beyond me than use my own body to sing it myself. I would rather play the harmony in a second-violin part than go up into a nosebleed on the first, and I’ve always preferred it that way. Even if I’d practiced two hours a day or thee or four or six for decades and decades, I’d still want to live in the thrumming lower end of any given music.

I wonder about our American obsession with leadership, with rising to the tippety-top at every life-stage, with proving our power and expertise and authority and our status as Alpha-Human Hot-Shit Type-A Everythings in school and sport and vocation and avocation and avocado sales, which I only added to the list because I just noticed the startling similarity between those two words. But seriously: WHY DOES EVERYONE HAVE TO BE THE TOP AT EVERYTHING? Doesn’t Captain Kirk need Scotty in the bowels of the engine room? Don’t the owners of a building need someone in the sub-basement, tending the furnace? It’s the same with music. One solo voice can’t carry all of western harmony. If everyone sang soprano, we’d have no Bach choral works. If everyone played first violin, we’d have no Beethoven string quartets: the Grosse Fuge would be a little less Gross, and I’d be a little more heartbroken.

The revelation, for me, occurred with my entry into the world of jazz, where there is no First This and Second That, just Whoever Happens to Be Playing Something Interesting On Their Instrument at the Moment, Amigo. I’m one of two violins in my six-piece gypsy-jazz band, and we take turns at everything: melodies, solos, comping chords and harmonies underneath. Every single one of us plays at the upper, middle and lower ends of our instruments, although the bass player’s high end makes my low end sound like Dolly Parton on crack.

In some Django-style bands, one guitarist is permanently on rhythm, another permanently on lead, but there’s no innate hierarchy. Jazz is thrillingly democratic. Everyone grooves on harmony. Everyone spends time in that beautifully fertile underworld where music sparks to life. Everyone plays second fiddle, at least for a spell, and nobody diminishes that role when they do. Maybe that’s why I love it. Maybe that’s why, after all these many decades of NOPE and SPLAT, I’m actually, finally working at it. I’ve found my permanent musical home.

Anyway, who cares about the Cambridge Dictionary. Jerks.

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION


a few thoughts on bathroom signage


See this shapely two-dimensional lady at the left? I love her. I saw her hanging outside a women’s room at London’s Heathrow Airport, and I gotta say, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I loved her so much that I stood outside laughing and snapping photos until it occurred to me that I resembled some colossal weirdo with a fixation on A) public bathrooms B) women entering and emerging from public bathrooms or C) both, at which point it also occurred to me that I might get A) reported B) arrested or C) both. At which point I stopped. I was traveling to Ghana to visit my daughter, and I really, really wanted to get there without causing an international potty incident.

But you can see why I couldn’t help myself, right? This chick is wearing a DRESS. Never in my life have I been the sort of woman who wakes in the morning, says, “Ooohhhh yesss, I want to wear a super-complicated dress today,” although I have, in my adulthood, evolved into the sort of woman who wakes in the morning, periodically wiggles into a less-complicated skirt or dress and overall rather enjoys it. But I have never chosen to wear a dress that makes me resemble a large church bell.

As a toddler I wore dresses because I was a girl and that was reason enough for my parents to dress me in them, but once I was old enough to form and state preferences I formed and stated a preference for pants and shorts, thank you very much. This was also around the time I decided that black was my favorite color; don’t read too deeply into it. It’s enough to say I had robust opinions.

I liked pants. In the winter they were warm. In the summer they prevented fat-thigh rub. Any time of year they allowed me to run around and roll in the mud and kick soccer balls and throw baseballs do all those things that boys were expected to do in the late 1960s and early 1970s but girls, for SOME GODDAMNED UNKNOWN REASON PLEASE EXCUSE THE OUTBURST, were not. I never understood this. What did we lack, exactly? Muscles? Curiosity? Energy? Feet?

And look, it’s not because I wanted to be a boy.  As much as I liked the little fellers and got wild crushes on them, inspiring me to punch one specimen on the playground, I only ever wanted to be a girl.  I wasn’t lesbian or trans or gender-fluid or searching. I was a wee girl with a penchant for sports and rough-and-tumble play, and I had parents who let me be who I was. These days such letting and being is easier for everyone, kids and parents alike, and long gone are the days when neighbors would remark to my dad about his daughter’s arm (“wow, she throws like a boy!”).

So I laughed when I saw the sign outside the loo at Heathrow. Who was this bulbous dame? What sort of neo-Victorian undergarment poofed up her dress to such proportions? Was a window fan propped under her ass? Or — I shuddered at the thought — maybe she was actually shaped that way. Maybe she had no arms and no feet and no neck, and if you flipped her upside-down, maybe she looked like a two-pronged American wall plug.  She was just so retro, so enormous, so Donna Reed-Meets-Godzilla, and I so wish someone had made that movie, don’t you?

Whatever. I walked in and went about my womanly business, which did not involve undoing anything more convoluted than a pair of jeans. As I did I continued to giggle, which probably didn’t placate anyone already on the verge of calling the cops, and I wondered about the plight of bathroom-sign designers. Who wants THAT job? It can’t be easy these days, coming up with new ways to divide the bladder-emptying populace with greater sensitivity and fewer stereotypes.

Then I recalled the best public-privy signage I’ve ever seen anywhere: downstairs at Northampton’s Academy of Music, which designates a STALLS ONLY restroom on one side of a corridor, STALLS AND URINALS on the other. I was agog with admiration at their plainspoken economy. I did not have my phone handy, or I would have snapped plenty of hi-res pix at the risk at the risk of being arrested, believe me.

The signs said everything that needed to be said, which was very little. No mention of men and women, no classification according to sexual plumbing, no silhouettes of ladies in A-lines or broad-shouldered dudes with posture like Old Kingdom Egyptians. And, best of all, no armless woman dressed in a massive bar sink!

Though I have to admit, she grew on me.