i got music, part iii: i like my hands (and will not cut them off)

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS

PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Take a wild guess 

I woke and walked to class, my heart thudding away with nerves. In the little sunny room I set down my case, tightened my bow, resined it up and removed my violin – actually one of two I own.

The first is my mother’s. Mama was a concert violinist; it was made for her in 1962 by a Swiss-American luthier named Karl August Berger. It’s a world-class instrument, singing, ringing, golden-toned and bloody loud.

The second is my late father-in-law’s. Eugene was an amateur who studied – extremely weird coincidence – with the same teacher as my mother, Chester La Follette. Eugene’s fiddle is a 1928 German reproduction of a 1685 Francesco Ruggieri. It’s huskier than Mama’s violin, browner in tone, rougher around the edges, softer.

Not something I ever want to see.

I agonized over which one to bring to Django in June, spending an hour sequestered in my bedroom, playing bits of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” on both. I was unsure which sounded better with jazz. I was also unsure how I felt about playing my mother’s, which was so heavily burdened with memory. Playing it brought to life all the music she played on it, all the heights of Bach and depths of Brahms; the music I made on this same instrument could not compare and never would. They are lesser sounds. I am a lesser musician. So her violin has always cowed me a little, even now, 22 years after her death.

And yet I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s her.

I stared at the two violins on my bed, stricken with indecision. Only one thing for it.

MITCHELL!!! I hollered, summoning the genial 15-year-old with whom I happen to share a house and a large percentage of deoxyribonucleic acid. MITCHELL!! I NEED YOUR EARS!!

Mitchell hustled upstairs and listened. I didn’t tell him which violin was which. His keen powers of perception and succinct musical insights proved a godsend in my hour of need.

Me: Which violin should I bring to Django in June? This one? (Plays Mama’s violin). Or this one? (Plays Eugene’s).

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

Me: This one? (Play’s Mama’s violin). Or this one? (Plays Eugene’s)

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

Me: Which one?

Mitchell: That one.

Me: This one? (Plays Eugene’s.)

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

So here I am, Eugene’s axe on my lap, sitting in that little plastic folding chair in that little tidy building for a little morning violin class that serves to remind me, once again, that I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. I am brought face-to-face with the profundity of my inadequacy on this instrument. I peer inside and find a soul-sucking black hole where the music should be.

The extent of what I don’t know is truly breathtaking. I don’t know chords, of course. I don’t know their horizontal counterparts, arpeggios. I don’t know scales, modals, roots, diminished this, augmented that. In short, I don’t know squat or anything remotely resembling squat. And here in this wee classroom at Django in June, it shows.

Right now the great man is talking about arpeggios.

“Arpeggios are important, yes?” he asks rhetorically.

Yes.

“You all know arpeggios, yes?” has asks, again rhetorically.

No.

I know so little about arpeggios that he might as well be speaking Mandarin. Or Serbo-Croatian. Or some madeupsky gibberish designed by linguists moonlighting as sadists. Who knows the flipper-dee-whacknut arpeggio? The flitzen-burger scale with the diminished zoinkling? How about the major-minor-seventh-zipplepiffle chord with the diminished splark? Does anyone know that one? Oh! Everyone knows that one! Everyone plays it! Everyone LOVES diminished splarks!

He names more chords I don’t know, then plays them as arpeggios. The Q-minor Augmented Whoodle. The Major-Minor Z-chord with Cream Cheese Frosting. The Marginally Deficient Spleet.

He plays something else. Something I can’t identify and articulate in the language of theory. But something I can hear and translate, maybe, to my fingers.

“Who can improvise using only those notes?,” he asks, then plays them again.

I listen as one brave camper after another ad-libs several bars of decent, melodic, musically fitting improvisation, and I wonder if I have it in me to try. Probably I don’t, but that’s never stopped me from attempting anything else outside my capabilities: All my life, I’ve been the extroverted introvert who cowers in silence before making lots of noise. And if that noise resembles a squirrel, that’s okay, right? It won’t actually kill anyone? And no will shoot me?

Another student plays. Then another. And another.

“Good,” the great man says. “Anyone else want to try?”

I volunteer, then immediately regret it. I think: I must be crazy! I am crazy! Help! Help! Then I think: Someone’s going to shoot me. Cue funeral march.

Hands shaking, I lift the fiddle to my chin. The left hand snaps its fingers down. The right hand waggles the horse-haired stick. Together, they approximate pitch and loose a few sound waves into the air. And I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.

As anticipated, I hit wrong notes. But miracle of miracles, I also hit some right ones, and I make it through the rest of morning class. I do NOT collapse in tears. I do NOT run screaming across campus. I do NOT cut off my hands and burn my instrument, although really, if I decided to go that route, I’d have to burn my instrument first.

And I don’t want to. I like my fiddles. I like my hands. I like music. I want to play it. I want to play it better. I want to grow. I want to swing. I want to feel the thrill of being in the music, the joy of being present with friends, the wonder of being inside that mystical, metrical, syncopated pocket swirling around the two and the four in a four-beat measure.

I want to be here, learning. I don’t want to cut off my hands or do violence to violins of any sort, be it Eugene’s or Mama’s. And, you know, maybe that’s a start.

gratitude, and the gift of betsy

Last night, working on a kitten-and-roses jigsaw puzzle with my sister Betsy, I started telling her about all the music I’ve been making lately with my friends.

It’s her birthday weekend, and I hadn’t seen her in a while.  A lot to say. So I was blathering a little.

I had two gigs this week!, I said,  and then rattled on excitedly, being sure to speak in italics and cap every sentence with a highly emphatic exclamation point. We play gypsy jazz! It’s so much fun! We call ourselves Hot Tuesday! It’s me and these five great guys, and we played at a farmers’ market Saturday morning, and one of my bandmates sent me some videos! Wanna hear them?!

“Yes,” Betsy said, because she’s quite literally the kindest, sweetest and most generous person I know. She’s also the wisest.

Maybe you remember Betsy from a blog post I wrote last year about her, detailing both her utter wonderfulness as a human being and her unsurpassed love of Barry Manilow. (I still haven’t figured out a way for them to meet, so if anyone has any ideas, please shoot me an email.) Betsy is part of the large and marvelous extended family that I wasn’t actually born into. And she is, to quote her dad (belatedly mine, too), “awesome.”

No one is awesomer than Betsy, who happens to be developmentally disabled but also happens to be profoundly comprehending and insightful. I’d be a better and happier person if I had half of her capacity for joy, understanding of people and straight-up acceptance of life.

Take last night, for instance. Pulling up the band videos on my iPhone, I started apologizing for them in advance.

I have a hard time listening to myself play, I explained.

“Why?,” she asked.

Because I hear all of the mistakes I made. I keep thinking of all the different ways I might have played better, I said.

“Why? Nobody’s perfect.”

It’s just a little painful.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

I shouldn’t do that.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t do that. Just be grateful.”

At which point, gobsmacked with awe, I just shut the hell up for a minute. With her usual, plainspoken discernment, Betsy had nailed it. My reflexive self-criticism does nothing constructive — that I already knew. But I had never before seen it as a blindness to all the gifts around me, as a stubborn fixation on what I lack over what I have. And I have friends. Gigs. A love of jazz. A fiddle, and two hands to play it.

When I spoke again, all I could say was this: You’re right. I should just be grateful. And thank you, my sweet Betsy.

I cued up the videos and played her the snatches of music — “Sweet Sue” and “All of Me,” two bouncing early standards that we’d rendered with audible spryness. Betsy smiled. I smiled, too, fighting off a powerful urge to cry. All I could feel was gratitude: for all of the music in my life, for all of the friends I’ve made, for all of my family and all of the love.

Tonight is Betsy’s birthday party; she’s turning 51. Barry, at some point, will be celebrated, and it’s a safe bet purple will be involved. Cake will be eaten. Presents will be opened. But as you can see, Betsy herself is the gift.

mystery of the magic pockets

it seems mama had some magic pockets, too

A colleague asked, earlier today, whether I had any analgesics with me at work.  I wasn’t sure but thought so, explaining that my bag was, in fact, a Cavernous Vessel of Miscellaneous Crap, although I didn’t exactly use those words.

Instead I said something along the lines of: Ummmm, probably. Lemme take a look. I kind of have everything in here. You know. Just in case.

And as I clawed around in the bag’s vast sunken reaches, reaching past pens and reporter’s notebooks and band-aids and bacitracin and chocolate and moolah and moisturizer and hand sanitizer and CDs and thumb drives and nuts and cough drops and tights and spoons and earrings and cats, and yes, I’m joking about the cats, I told my co-worker about my father’s magic pockets.

I’ve written about them before. I‘ve written about him plenty, my late father Louis, a brilliant, eccentric, complicated and profoundly decent man with THE biggest heart and THE largest pants pockets of anyone who ever lived. He was born in 1907 — which means he was 56 when I was born, which also means he’d be 110 today, which totally blows my mind — and wore the smashingly high-waisted pants of a 1940s fella, the sort that buckled above his belly button and featured large, billowing pockets of voluminous capacity.

Whenever I needed or wanted something, I ran to my father with a Daddy Daddy Daddy! And whatever it was, he always, happily, miraculously had it on his person. “Well, let’s just check my magic pocket,” he’d say, then reach down, jangle around for few seconds and then haul up a gleaming pile o’ stuff topped with a Lego or a mint (no thumb drives in those days).

This isn’t exactly a repressed or traumatic memory. No trips to the shrink to parse my feelings about capacious paternal trousers. But until this morning, as I handed my coworker a bottle of generic ibuprofen retrieved from the depths, I had never fully realized that I’VE INHERITED THE MAGIC-POCKET GENE FROM MY FATHER. Oh my God, I’m Daddy!! I thought, flashing back to all those diaper bags I once packed with toys and tricycles and travel playpens and extra playmates for my children; to all those overstuffed backpacks filled with Every Possible Medical Supply and Every Possible Snack that I still bring on day trips with offspring; to all those winter-parka pockets crammed with extra hand warmers and extra mittens and extra money and extra skis.

Is it a pack-rat’s instinct? A Scout’s instinct? An expression of some need to control an uncontrollable universe? A throwback to my hunter-gatherer’s roots, illustrating a lingering atavistic urge to haul wild celery over the plains? Who knows? It’s a mystery.

But whatever it is, you could well argue that this same gene explains the hideous purple paisley harem pants I wore (IN PUBLIC, SHE NOTES) in the early 1990s, which, now that I think of it, did indeed have extremely commodious pockets. I’ve never been able to explain to myself or anyone else why I wore them. Now, thanks to my late-life revelation, I have my answer. I get to blame dad.

 

i got music, part ii: gypsy jazz and holy terrors

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION

Click here to read PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)

PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Still panicked. Maybe even a little more so than usual. No. A lot. 

I came late to gypsy jazz. It is a world unto itself, rich in myth and music, created more than 80 years ago by the original gypsy gods: guitarist Django Reinhardt, violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintette du Hot Club de France. For gypsy-jazz enthusiasts, that world still exists. It’s still 1930s Paris. Those who do not speak French wish they could speak French. Those without skinny mustaches wish they had skinny mustaches. Those who do not wear little straw fedoras wish they wore little straw fedoras.

As for me, I do not speak French. I wear no mustache, not any I will confess in public to having, and I seem to have missed the memo about fedoras. As a violinist and a woman, I’m part of a teensy-tiny pie slice compared with the frets-and-facial-hair demographic that prevails at Django in June: of the 240-odd campers and teachers, around 220 are men, and most of them play guitar. I am also distinguished by the sheer and awesome force of my ignorance. I know almost nothing, having only played (at) this music since February, when I decided it was the answer to everything — all of life’s woes, all of my messy, lingering grief over my husband’s suicide four and a half years before, all of my sundry psychosocial heartaches since then. Plus MENOPAUSE! Hurrah! Which I’m confident the men with little mustaches are not struggling with at the moment.

In short, I am a dilettante. I have only been at this a few months. I have no idea what I’m doing, by which I mean I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. I have not yet committed to memory all or indeed any of the 200-some-odd songs regarded as gypsy standards and bound with gold in the Holy Holy Django Fakebook, which everyone wears strapped to their foreheads like phylacteries. But not me. Not yet. When someone yells out, “Who wants to take the head on “Les Fenetres de Moscou?,” I do not tug sagaciously at my mustache, take a drag on my cig, yank gently on the brim of my fedora, and then rasp out, “Je vais. Oui. Bien sûr. Heh heh hehhh.” Instead I sit there panic-stricken, hyperventilating and silently praying in desperate, monosyllabic, all-caps English, PLEASE GOD NOT ME NO NOT ME PLEASE GOD NOOOOOO.

Still, I chose to be here. I CHOSE THIS. I belong. Crossing campus my first evening here, the Kool-Aid coursing through my veins, I passed clump after clump of happy amateurs pumping out Django ditties on the grass, and I knew that I had found my people. This is my dream realm: a place where everyone is as crazy for this music as I am. Where everyone is as madly, precipitously in love with it. Where playing it is all anyone wants to do, bathroom visits be damned. Where we all fall asleep with its melodies in our heads. Where we all wake in the night to its strains.

It eats my brain. It fills me with joy. It connects me to something greater than myself, and I marvel at the universe that bore it. When I play it, no matter how badly I play it, my heart skips and my knees bounce. After jamming with friends back home, I always drive home riding that gypsy high. When my friend John — guitar, goatee — first mentioned Django in June to me back in March, I thought it sounded like heaven, only closer, and with a much snappier soundtrack. Paradise for jazz nerds! Shangri-La for swing addicts! And it’s only 90-minute drive from Albany! It was meant to be. I had to go. I couldn’t go for the whole five days, being a frenzied single mom with a full-time job, but I couldn’t not go, either. So I opted for the half-camp option: two days and three nights of classes, concerts and jamming, plus three meals in the cafeteria, one dorm room, and one large fan. Its reputed purpose: to cool the room. Its real purpose was revealed late last night, several hours after my arrival.

“At Django in June, we jam constantly. All hours. It never stops,” John had said, and sure enough, there I was, cranking away on “Coquette” and “Blue Drag” in a Smith College common room ordinarily accustomed to Kanye West. John was there. Our friend Dave, too —

violin, goatee. A few strangers who quickly became friends in Django. I could barely contain my glee. I’m at Django in June!, I thought. I can do this! Yesss!

We kept going long past midnight, and I improvised on almost every song.

My left hand flailed. My right hand waggled. My whole body buzzed with giddiness and fear. Intense, chest-seizing fear. I’ve known this sensation in many contexts: on roller coasters; in incidents with dogs, monkeys, turkeys and other combative fauna; in the foaming whitewater of the Rio Pastaza in Ecuador; in witnessing a fatal head-on collision on a twisty Connecticut road; in that frozen moment, one that chills me to this day, when a paramedic stopped my careening heart with drugs in the hopes it would restart at a normal tempo.

And then there is the holy terror of improvising.

Improvising triggers the fight-or-flight response, all quaking muscles and rapid breaths: You could dangle me from a cliff by my pinkie toe, or you could tell me to improvise, and my glands would disgorge the same amount of adrenaline. Improvising is time to panic. Improvising is composing on the spot. Improvising is sticking within the sonic confines of a tune – the changes beneath it – and doing something else with it, something glorious and illuminating, something that expresses your deepest inner self while bringing out an unheard facet of the music. Maybe it’s always been in there, waiting silently to be discovered and brought to the light. Or maybe it’s cowering in fright. And maybe, if you screw up badly enough while attempting to play it, you’ll contort your face with shame and bleat SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY while everyone else throws sympathetic glances that say, We do not judge you, friend. But we grieve the dying squirrel.

This is how it works. For me. It works differently for an actual jazz musician who actually knows chords, but I am a classically trained amateur violinist, which means most chords are dead to me. C, G, D: okay. I can do those. As for the rest, I have only myself to blame. I have spent decades honing my Sad and Pathetic Lack of Theory (SPLAT), the effects exacerbated by a lifelong policy of NO Practicing Ever (NOPE). Between SPLAT and NOPE, I am lost.

It all begins when someone shoots me a glance. The glance is thrilling! The glance is terrifying! The glance says: Your turn to improvise, madame!

In reply, I throw back a blanched look of pure dread that asks: What? No? Me? Huh? Really? Now? Are you sure? You must be nodding at someone else, like maybe that hot Belgian over there.

But the glance is adamant. The glance says: Oui oui. Vous vous. Heh Heh.

Defeated, I glance back at the glancer. I gird my loins, which always helps. I lift my fiddle and bow. And I say to myself: Be brave, woman! You have nothing to lose but your self-respect and the respect of everyone here!

And so it begins. Training my ear on the sounds around me, I tell my fingers to play something — preferably something that agrees with the ka-chung-ka-chung-ka-chung of the gypsy rhythm guitar. But something. And something always comes out. Sometimes it sounds like a squirrel. Sometimes it sounds like jazz.

Jamming my first night here, it sounded like jazz. God knows how or why. But I left feeling pretty good about my playing, or at least not humiliated and despondent.

Then, walking back to my room, I heard the gods.

They were there outside my dorm: a clot of teachers in the courtyard, jamming away, their fingers flying at warp speed, their solos illuminating the true and wondrous nature of Django. These were virtuosi of worldwide renown, and their playing struck awe in my heart. Awe and intimidation. Awe, intimidation and the somewhat pathetic realization that I will never play like that, nevereverever, not even if I quit my job, attend music conservatory, learn Every Bleeping Chord Known to Humankind and grow a skinny mustache. I listened to them in this state of awe, intimidation and pathetic-ness until exhaustion tugged sharply and yanked me away. It was late. I needed to sleep.

At the dorm entrance, I bumped into a fellow female camper. We swapped hellos, good nights and a few words of shared amazement at the jamming gods nearby.

Aren’t they amazing?, I asked. They’re superhuman. Unreal. Fantastic. Holy wow!

She agreed, then shot me a knowing look. “This is the time of night,” she said, “when you want to cut off your hands and burn your instrument.”

I laughed. Ha ha! Of course! Cut off my hands and burn my instrument! Then I thought: Hmmm. Where can I find an axe and a torch this time of night? 

My room overlooks the courtyard. The gods kept playing until 4 a.m.

I drowned them out with my fan.

****

Click here to read PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF).

i got music, part i: my django obsession

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and 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 I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Panicked

***

I hit wrong notes.

It’s what I do, and let me tell you, I do it brilliantly. It’s my calling, my métier, both the hitting and the wrongness: For decades, I have slammed the misguided fingers of my left hand, a.k.a. the Flailer, onto taut steel wires while my right hand, a.k.a. the Steely Fist of Death, grips a long, light, horse-haired stick and waggles it strenuously across a curvy wooden box in optimistic attempts to approximate pitch and loose mellifluous sound waves into the air. It is in the nature of such actions that many of them fail. It is in the nature of me. Because I am an amateur. I do not play the violin. I play at the violin, a critical distinction once expressed to Fritz Kreisler by that humble amateur-fiddler-cum-fascist-dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Sadly, I’m not a fascist dictator, so I don’t have that to fall back on. Quiet, peasants! You will listen while I play! No matter that I sound like a dying squirrel! I don’t have much of anything to fall back on. When I play at the violin, I play at it for my own enjoyment, but I live in fear that my own enjoyment will cause those around me to writhe in agony and/or cringing sympathetic embarrassment. This fear has taken a marked upward turn since venturing into jazz, as the danger of hitting wrong notes expands exponentially with improvisation. You’d think the opposite. You’d think that improvising means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong! When it fact it means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong, unless you hit grievously incorrect notes out of sync with the chord changes, and then you’ll sound like a dying squirrel!

I’m fearing the squirrel right now, as I slouch in my little plastic folding chair in a little sunny room in a little tidy building on the Smith College campus in Northampton, Mass. I am surrounded by a class of fellow amateurs. They are able. Eager. Informed. I am inept. Terrified. Clueless.

Before us sits a man. A great man. A great, French-speaking man with a gentle manner and glorious facial hair. A man who can and does do anything on the fiddle. A man of voluminous knowledge and astonishing artistry. A man who knows nothing of the squirrel.

The man is here to teach us, and I am here to learn. For I have done a rash and hopeful thing. I have enrolled at Django in June, an annual camp for hardcore gypsy-jazz fanatics who, feeding an addiction for upbeat, retro-swinging, strangely chromatic tunefulness, bring their quirky guitars and skinny mustaches to a gathering that’s part festival, part music school, part 24/7 jazz saturnalia, part cult. I have joined the cult. I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

But at the moment, I am very, very afraid. The great man before me is a wizard of the gypsy fiddle and a god in this cosmos, someone whose YouTube videos have wowed me from afar. And I am about to make a boob of myself in his presence. A large boob. A large, quavering, anxiously perspiring boob who already feels inferior to every other violinist here.

“Play this,” he says, and plays a chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic. When I panic, I can’t do a damn thing. So I fake it.

“Play it again,” he says, and again plays the same chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic and fake it.

“Not everyone is playing it exactly right. Let’s play it again,” he says, and once again blitzes through the run.

This time, while everyone else is playing it, I do nothing. Not with my body, anyway. Inwardly, I am writhing on the floor with matted hair and gnashing teeth while blatting laryngeal moans of utter torment. And as I do, I’m thinking: I AM TERRIBLE AT THE VIOLIN. I AM THE TERRIBLEST VIOLINIST OF ALL TIME. HOW TERRIBLE AM I? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.

I’m terrible at fast running notes. My fingers function in extreme slo-mo. On a scale of 1-10, I rate around 3.

I’m terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. Terrible, terrible, terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. On this, I’m a 2. If I’m lucky. Probably a 1.

I’m terrible at sight reading. 5. On a good day, 6.

Above all, I’m terrible at being terrible, focusing on my terribleness to the detriment of things I do pretty well, or I might do pretty well, if only I paused in my reflexive self-flagellating to actually practice. But I don’t, because I’m terrible about practicing, too. From 1 to 10, I rate a 0. Less than 0. Let’s say -7.

IN A WORD, TERRIBLE.

“Play it again,” the great man says.

I howl silently, then panic and fake it.

holy moly

Growing up in an atheist-agnostic household, I learned that love, kindness and generosity were the only working gospels, and I learned that they do indeed work. But only if you choose to love, and you choose to be kind and giving,  and you choose to set aside judgment of others and bend to help when they’re down. I also learned that people of faith don’t exactly have a lock on these gospels, a truism demonstrated by generous atheists and ruthless believers since the dawn of the frontal lobe.

So, no, whenever we happen across some homeless pandhandler slumped against a wall, looking despairing and exhausted and famished,  we don’t need religion to tell us what to do: Love. Give. Don’t judge. Bend down to help. We don’t necessarily need God in those moments. But here’s what hit me the other day: God needs us.

Let me explain.

Rewind to late last week, when I happened across this fine piece of 1 Corinthians during my regular bedtime bible-flip:

This got me thinking. It got me thinking, because A) like 99.9999999999999 percent of the population, I struggle with self-acceptance; and B) “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam,” is one of my all-time favorite literary quotations, right up there with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?” (And do you suppose that’s the first time anyone has crammed Popeye, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into the same 68-word sentence?)

It got me thinking, too, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the problem of hate and discrimination — the tendency to demonize people, declare them sinners or define Them against Us. As though we weren’t all Us! As though we weren’t all Them! As though we weren’t all struggling with this beautiful but oh-so-pissy business of being alive and imperfect, frustrated with our own shortcomings and irked by the flaws of others.

I’m especially baffled by self-proclaimed Christians who do the demonizing. I wonder which bible they’ve been reading. Certainly not the one on MY night table, the one where Jesus tells us to feed the poor and help the stranger and not judge and not hate and sing kumbayah around a campfire while making daisy necklaces. There must be some other, Exxtreme Edition Bible where jujitsu Jeez-Us rips off his shirt to reveal his bleeding pecs and then instructs his disciples in the rules of Fight Club.

So I read that snippet from 1 Corinthians the other night, and I thought: hmmmm. I yam what I yam by the grace of God. God made me this way. God made you that way. God made everyone every which way, even the most annoying people in the most annoying ways, and if you believe in God, you gotta believe God did this for a reason — some divine reason we can never divine. Then I thought: Holy moly! Wait a sec. Maybe God made us all in this crazy patchwork of singular personalities and predilections and shortcomings because God needs us to be different! God needs you. God needs me. God needs us.  

God needs us to be our most essential selves. Our best selves. Our selves most engaged in life, most available and willing to pitch in. I was already chewing hard on this when, on Sunday, I heard a terrifically insightful homily on the Holy Trinity (Father Richard Vosko, St. Vincent de Paul, tip o’ the hat to both) and the importance of being present in moments when we’re called to help.

The Trinity is something that Catholics accept while quietly and simultaneously fearing that non-Catholics regard us as wacko polytheists slathering ourselves in oil under the full moon. But this time, the God-in-three-persons paradigm kicked me in the teeth (and in the best way!) as I realized, a mere 27 years after converting, that all three guises are present in us at every moment: the God who made us; the God who talks to us; the God who came here, suffered and showed us how to love.

So, okay, let’s say I run across some homeless panhandler on some hot summer morning. In that moment, Creator is present in the panhandler, in me, in the sunshine, in the air. The Holy Spirit is present in the still, small voice that says: That poor guy is hungry. Go buy him a sandwich. And as I hand him the sandwich, each of us is Jesus — the hurting and the helper, both. On some other occasion, he might bend to help me.

I yam what I yam. He is what he is. We are what we are. God needs us.

 

 

 

bleeding heads, bleeding hearts, bad satire

I’m not normally one to weigh in on pop-cultural paroxysms seizing the Twitterverse, even two days late. But I have to say it: Kathy Griffin’s “beheading” of Donald Trump was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. It was stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. It was sorely misguided. It gives the Trump opposition a seriously bad name, tainting his critics with the stage blood of a mock assassination that does nothing to advance the  causes of peace, justice and compassion that those on the left presumably support.

Yes, okay, she had a right to express her displeasure with a faux decapitation. Thank you, First Amendment, and God bless America. Yes, it’s the business of comedians to push boundaries, especially in times of profound national stress, and occasionally they push these boundaries so hard that they draw blood. Jim Carrey has since come to Griffin’s defense, saying it’s her job to “cross the line.” Larry King says that’s exactly the sort of comic she is –a line-crosser, a boundary-pusher, the sort who goes “over the edge a lot.”

Yeah, right, okay. Lines. Boundaries. Edginess. I get it. As I think I’ve established pretty well in past blog posts, I am nooooooooooooo fan of the apricot-haired infantile swellhead currently taking up too much space in the Oval Office and, sadly, our collective American consciousness. I am ALL in favor of ridiculing him, his tiny everythings (mind, heart, hands, kidneys, whatever) and his nattering band of sycophantic munchkins. Mockery! Yes! Satire! Yay! 

But I know my Jonathan Swift well enough to understand the creative and moral imperatives of political satire: To call out the horrors of a failed system with blackened, ridiculous overstatement. Swift challenged heartless British policies toward the starving with a “modest proposal” to sell and cook Irish babies “in a fricassee, or a ragout” — a ghastly piece of irony that he knew enough to publish anonymously. But the ghastliness was born of compassion. It didn’t target ACTUAL BABIES; it took aim instead at the ruthlessness of the system. Had Griffin taken a more Swiftian tack on Trump, his head would have stuck to his body and polished off a large plate of authentic-Mexican food. (NOTE HYPHEN PLACEMENT, WORD NERDS.)

Alas, she didn’t.

We need to do this properly. If we’re to oppose the man and his twisted reign for God knows how many months and years — and if we’re going to get through this AS A PEOPLE, which believe it or not, we are — we need to set some ground rules. Ready?

1. NO ASSASSINATION JOKES.

Do I really need to say it? Must I go into the whole we’re-either-fighting-for-democracy-or-we’re-not business? Do I have to point out that, hey, cracking jokes about killing the president is promoting violence and criminality and therefore A REALLY BAD and ANTI-DEMOCRATIC IDEA? That it’s, well, kinda breathtakingly hypocritical for a political wing that prides itself on being anti-gun, anti-capital punishment, anti-hatred, anti-bloodshed, anti-war? I guess I do.

2. NO BARRON JOKES.

Just no. He’s a kid. None of this is his fault. So shut up.

3. NO JOKES ABOUT LETTING THE TRUMP VOTERS DIE.

I’ve gotten into a few Facebook spitting matches on this subject and may get into a few more once I post this. I am, how shall I put this, deeply perplexed and apoplectic to the point of hemicranial agony by my fellow lefties who A) claim to support government programs helping the poor, B) oppose the right’s draconian efforts to dismantle them, C) feel particularly outraged by attempts to gut Obamacare, which could end up killing Americans with preexisting conditions, but D) ARE TOTALLY OKAY WITH THIS SCENARIO if the dead Americans in question voted for Trump. The logic being: Hey, you voted for him, pal. You pay the consequences. Death penalty for you!

Once again, the hypocrisy takes my breath away. Aren’t we supposed to be the bleeding hearts? Don’t we claim to be supportive of people in dire straits? Like putative “Christians” who hurt the poor and exclude the stranger, liberals who ditch compassion for cruelty in some childish hissy fit of nyah-nyah retribution are betraying their own ideals.

4. PLEASE, I KNOW THIS IS HARD, BUT NO BLANKET DEMONIZATIONS OF ENTIRE CLASSES OF PEOPLE.

This is an obvious but necessary corollary to Ground Rule Number 3. I just don’t see any point in lumping half the American populace, or even 34.76543 percent of it, into a trash bin of Worthless and Heinous Devil Spawn, because, look, not EVERYONE who disagrees with me or belongs to some other party or lives in some other, redder part of the country is THAT BAD. They’re not! I swear! I know some of them! I talk to them! They talk back! Using their indoor voices! They’ve even been known to do me a solid when I need a little help!

So here’s the thing: We either oppose facile, destructive generalizations, or we don’t. We either stand against violence and ignorance, or we don’t. We either stand for compassion and sensitivity, or we don’t. We either believe in a country that makes room for everyone, or we don’t. We either believe in a future for that country, or we don’t. We either behave like people who want to shape that future together — even if “together” is a distant and fantastical notion, at the moment — or we don’t.

We either have faith in our glorious democratic ideals and love them, work for them, push toward them, cross the divides between us and press on with each other, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we need to act as if we do, or there is no getting out of this at all.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

 

chutzpah in a traffic jam

So here I am, cranky and anxious at a clogged intersection, praying feverishly that A) the rattling old electric-blue jalopy I just sank more than three thousand bucks into doesn’t decide to lose a wheel or randomly explode or otherwise drop dead in the middle of Albany-Shaker Road; and B) that gridlock will let up just enough for me to inch through that lovely green light 500 feet ahead.

My windows are down. I’m blasting NPR. And suddenly, materializing like a vision from the ether of heavenly exhaust, this slammin’ hot German sedan rams its nose into stalled traffic from a nearby gas station, crosses two lanes choked with cars, zips blithely across mine and then whips a quick left into the throng. Just like that. No apology, no hesitation. Like Moses parting the Red Sea or Genghis Khan invading the Khwarazmian Empire, and no, that’s not hyperbole.

As this conquering force darts before me, I catch sight of the driver through his own open windows: Young guy, dark hair, little beard. An easy vehicular sass about him as he turns the wheel. Chutzpah embodied in a sleek black Benz.

The guy looks my way, throws me a smile and snaps me a quick wave. I respond by unhinging my jaw and cracking open my mouth into the largest, most cavernous and expressive oval of flabbergasted awe that I think I’ve ever unleashed on a fellow mortal.

It says: HOLY SHIT DID YOU JUST DO THAT?

It also says: ARE YOU, LIKE, THE WORLD’S BIGGEST ASSHOLE?

It then adds: IF SO, WHY DON’T I HATE YOU FOR IT?

Finally it says: IT MUST BE BECAUSE I KINDA SORTA ADMIRE YOU, BENZ-BOY.

I start laughing. I can’t help it. I like the guy. I keep laughing as the light turns a lovely green and we all start inching toward it, the little bearded scoundrel just ahead and beside me in a parallel lane.

And then, because I’m still laughing, because my windows are open, because his are, too, and because I’m a white-haired 53-year-old dame who doesn’t give a shit any longer what young men in Benzes think of me, I hit the gas, pull up beside him and shout while I’m passing:

YOU! HAVE! BALLS!

He laughs and gives me a thumb’s up, and we both go our merry ways. I make it through the intersection and down one road, and then another, and then another. My car doesn’t explode. My wheels don’t fall off. I’m safe at home, still chuckling and no longer cranky and anxious as I muse: Hmmm. Balls. Maybe I have some, too.

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 arms of love

Like most everyone else with a smartphone, I try to unglue myself from it periodically — mute the ringer, shut the whole thing off for a couple hours or maybe even leave the damned pernicious addictive isolating gizmo in the car for the day. When I revive or retrieve said DPAI gizmo after a sabbatical, I look down and inevitably find text messages. Many, many text messages. One day, in one thread alone, I found 148.

No. That wasn’t a typo. Yes. One thread, 148 messages. ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT. But it wasn’t just any thread. It was my extended Richardson family thread, and let me tell you, those babies are EPIC, full of personality and opinion and politics and joshing and photos and memes and videos and articles and emojis and all sorts of crack-me-up exchanges, with room for occasional stumbles and fumbles that resolve with love and humor. We talk about everything, and by everything I mean EVERY LAST THING, including things not normally discussed at length in family iPhone threads. Recently, the conversation veered from the smoke emitting from someone’s aged Civic to the banana pudding at a bakery on the Upper West Side to disco roller-skating and tube socks of the 1970s, and please don’t ask me to explain exactly how that happened.

Twelve people are on the thread these days, although that number’s been known to vary. Not everyone’s on it. If everyone were on it, I would check my phone after a few hours away and find not 148 messages but 1,480. This is a large clan. Each time I turn around, it’s larger, a chimeric formation of vital, interesting, profoundly decent and loving people. Some are related by blood. Some are related by marriage. And some, like me, are related by the miracle of blessed happenstance.

The Richardsons are my Family Part Two, the peeps who took over after I lost my Family Part One.  I sometimes (often) confuse people by referring to “my late father Louis” in one breath and “my dad Dan, who lives in Vermont” in another, at which point I can see little thought bubbles forming over their heads (WAIT WAIT WAIT AMY’S FATHER IS DEAD? ALIVE? DEAD? ALIVE? AND HE HAS TWO NAMES? WTF?) and I launch into a blathery genealogical disquisition explaining precisely how I came to have two fathers, one living and one gone; two mothers, both of them gone; an extra batch of truly awesome siblings; and a mass of similarly awesome satellite relatives whose exact relationships would require several more long, heaving Faulknerian sentences to explain in full.

I met the nuclear core of Richardsons 40 years ago this spring, when Dan was wrapping up his first year as headmaster at the wee girls’ arts school where my mother ran the music department. I was 13, an awkward nerd with dreadful bangs, clanging oral hardware and older parents always teetering on medical catastrophe. But Mama was wise. She saw and comprehended. Egged on by her, I fell in with this young and energetic brood: Dan and his wife, Pat. Jenny, their eccentric black lab. Their kids Danny, Randy, Betsy. Nils, their first add-on/bonus kid. They were clearly prone to such add-on/bonuses, picking up friends who became family through the mystical alchemy of time and love and laughter. Somehow, they wound up adopting people (plus dogs, but that’s another story), and I was lucky to be among the adoptees. When my childhood family died, that sealed it. “Consider my parents yours,” Danny wrote.

I’m always quoting that moment — in my writing, in my conversation, in my mind. It was so giving, so perceptive and complete. Isn’t that what family does? Give us precisely what we need precisely when we need it, whether a hug or a harsh correction? In this case I needed family itself, and so they gave of themselves. The gift alone was proof of its authenticity. It has proved itself, over and over, in all the years that followed, through the births of my children and the death of my husband and every spasm of life besides. Their arms stretched to embrace us, and we stretched back.

This past Easter weekend, a bundle of extended Richardsons gathered in Vermont for a wedding: Danny’s middle son, Cooper, and his beloved Olivia. We all laughed and ate and laughed and talked and laughed and danced and laughed, and somewhere between the eating and talking and dancing and laughing, we found a quiet moment to reflect with gratitude on what we shared as a family. There, sitting amid a Sunday feast at my brother Randy’s house, I marveled at the accidental genius that brought this group together, at the love exemplified by Dan and Pat as they opened their hearts to stragglers like me, at the love that still abides in that beautiful and ever-expanding assemblage of characters.

On Wednesday, I met Cooper and Olivia at that bakery on the Upper West Side. They were in Manhattan for a quick trip; so, as it turned out, was I. We ordered a mini banana cream pie, a kind of pudding ne plus ultra, and ate and laughed and talked and laughed and laughed. I texted photos of the empty pie dish and the happy couple to our fellow Richardsons, who erupted with joy in the thread.

Hugging the newlyweds goodbye, I thought: I could not have guessed, as a nerdy 13-year-old, that my life would expand to include these two beautiful young people. And so many others. So many arms of love.

This isn’t the family I was born into. That family, my Biancolli family, went on too soon to their glorious Elsewhere. But that loving family gave me this one before they left, and it’s a gift of endless proportions. It goes on and on and on and on, just like the text thread. Only longer. And better. And richer, with or without the pudding.