Those darn European kids

Here’s a political theory that my father would term cockamamie, but since I had it while gardening, it might be true. The theory is that the isolationist tendencies of the current (outgoing) administration, particularly of aging Boomers, have roots in what struck me as a concerted efforts of American elementary school teachers to make us resent European kids. 

Now, few of my teachers did this overtly, as in “Europe dragged us into two wars.” True, many might have lost loved ones in the war, but the campaign was more subtle. Here are some main points.

Posture: European kids used knapsacks (ie backpacks). These were uncool when I was in elementary school. You carried your books in your arms in front of you or on the side. European kids carried their books on their backs and hence had beautiful posture

Saturday school: European kids went to school on Saturday. Did they resent this? Oh no, they were only too happy to have one more day to conjugate Latin, charge ahead in mathematics and rack up new languages, in addition to learning the history of all the countries around them.

Respect: European kids respected their elders. Not like us. They never talked back. They shook hands, looked adults in the eye, and said please and thank you in their respective languages. They cheerfully helped with chores, getting up in the dark to help feed chickens, etc. They never asked for expensive toys and earnestly prepared to enter the family business.

Uniforms: European kids didn’t plague their parents to buy new clothes in the latest fashion. No, they donned wore uniforms and sensible shoes, only too grateful to be warm and dry. They took care of their clothes and never lost them.

Table manners: European kids had perfect table manners. They ate everything with a knife and fork. Chicken, fruit, fish. If they had popcorn, they would have used a knife and fork for that.

The classics: European kids didn’t waste their time and minds on animal books or young people’s series. Early on, apparently, our opposite numbers curled up in barely heated rooms, reading Crime and Punishment, The Divine Comedy, and King Lear late into the night.

Diet: European kids ate what was on their plates. They didn’t complain. They never assumed sweet desserts, but were content with a piece of fruit, a few nuts or bit of cheese. They didn’t drink Coke. They much preferred water. Hence they never had cavities. They did drink coffee, which made them short. But then, with fine posture, developed minds, perfect manners, and broad education, being short was no problem. Anyway, their houses were small.

Addendum, I did marry a European, who has fine posture, good manners, a broad education, drank coffee, but is tall. So my theory may in fact be cockamamie.

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Yes, I’m following you

I was 40 when I moved to Italy and determined to learn the language. First stop was a 6-week intensive, 20 hours per week. More work followed. No kidding, a big job. But there are little triumphs along the way. 

It’s magic! At a vegetable stand, asking for three peppers, two zucchinis, and a kilo of onions and getting exactly that!  Thrilling, really. 

Did you notice?The first correct use of a direct object pronoun in the past tense! It was at a ticket booth and my driving urge was to go back and ask the agent if she noticed and if she was impressed. Fortunately she was busy.

Walking without a wireI had a Swedish girlfriend in my Italian class and we talked English on the phone. Then one day we started in Italian. “Hey, I can’t do this,” I was thinking, and then, “But I ‘m doing it.” 

First play At the end of the 6-week intensive, with a lot of hand-holding, I wrote a tiny play called “The Land Without Preposition,” about a benighted kingdom whose father offered his daughter’s hand to the prince who could bring the best prepositions. 

The solace of Psalms I knew a few Psalms and we had an Italian bible, so I could read the few I knew and feel the pang of familiarity. The same shepherd, the same dancing, the same homesick songs by the River of Babylon, the same morning after a long night. 

Collecting useless words Such as defenestrazione, throwing someone out the window, usually to his/her death. It didn’t fit most casual conversations but nice to have it in case.  

After all that work On the subways, early on, I just tuned out the flow of talk I couldn’t understand. Then one day, by magic, I followed two girls’ talk. Here it is: Girl #1: “Yesterday, I saw a really cute skirt in the window. I tried it on and it looked terrible on me.” Girl #2: “I hate that.” After all that work . . . 

Blending in My father in law was razing his son on what seemed to be a family characteristic. “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I observed. Some clarification had to follow because Italian doesn’t have that expression so it seemed that I was inexplicably talking about trees. Later, though, my father in law slipped the expression into his lexicon: “As Americans say, ‘The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree’.”

Close but not in hand At first, you have whatever you’re reading and next to it, on top of it, is the dictionary, and next to that your ever-lengthening vocab list. Then, gradually, the dictionary is there, but on the table. 

Making it to midnight Dinners with friends never started before 8 and the strain of following the talk or wondering what was so funny yielded a raging headache by midnight. Until it didn’t. 

Because you’re a foreigner Later on, it was astonishing what normally reticent people would tell me, fears, concerns, hopes, “Because you’re a foreigner.” An outsider, maybe, and therefore safer. Or perhaps the difficult language of the heart meets the rough-edged second language and feels at home. 

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Lost wallet, moonshot

Recently, I noticed my husband’s wallet on the cutting board in the kitchen. This was clearly a one-off for someone who pretty much never loses, misplaces or forgets anything. How very odd.

But that event reminded me of another lost wallet experience, more traumatic. It was a Saturday morning when I was 11 and saw my father’s wallet in the kids’ bathroom toilet. I know what you’re thinking, but no. The toilet bowl was otherwise clean. I stared at it in horror, immediately divining the meaning. My father was leaving us, and leaving all signs of his identity behind. He’d used our bathroom to make his inescapable.

What had I done? I couldn’t think of anything terrible enough, but something must have driven an otherwise loving father to this desperate move. Thinking his departure was imminent, I started following him around the house to catch the last minutes of his presence. I assumed the wallet-sign was meant to be secret, and it seemed a betrayal to mention it.

Naturally, a trailing, anxious, silent 11-year old kid gets to be annoying. “Don’t you have any homework?” he finally asked. “It’s a nice day. Why don’t you go outside?” So it was true. He couldn’t stand the sight of me. Or he didn’t want to lose his nerve. Obviously, if somebody wants to leave you, there’s no point arguing. I retreated to my room, plunged in misery.

Hearing heavy footsteps back and forth in the house, I first assumed that (of course) my father was packing. I peeked my head out my bedroom door and saw both parents moving around, calling out, “Not here . . . not here either.” I asked what was going on. “We’re looking for your father’s wallet,” my mother told me.

“It’s in the toilet,” I said, pointing. “It’s been there all morning.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” they demanded in unison. “We’ve been looking all over.” Later I saw the contents of the wallet laid out on a towel to dry. So he wasn’t leaving.

The whole experience to me is an example of how the mind is like a moonshot. Make a small, initial error, and the mind keeps going in that direction. Logic fails. Reasonable responses never surface or get shot down. I could have, while trailing my father, asked why he was leaving us, or why he put the wallet in the toilet. I didn’t. The further obvious truth, that a leather wallet probably couldn’t be flushed away, if I’d thought of that, would be answered that “of course” he wanted the wallet to be a permanent sign of his dissatisfaction with us.

In full disclosure, unbeknownst to me, the marriage was in crisis, but in typical buttoned-up fashion, my parents had kept this fact between themselves and roughly patched up the problem. I may have sensed the strain. But the point remains. With so many missed moonshots, it’s almost pointless to ask ourselves: “Why didn’t I . . . ?” We just didn’t. Couldn’t. Except when we do.

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Chemist looks for trouble

My father loved problems. He looked for them in a good way. He was an organic chemist, doing process research in pharmaceuticals for Merck. He worked on the Sinemet, for Parkinsons, which he later took himself, on some of the chemotherapy treatments he later took, on anti-parasiticals, major antibiotics, on and on. He loved the challenge of his work and the satisfaction of doing good, saving lives, improving the quality of life for people he’d never know.

There was  appropriate liquid kept in the lab for celebrating victories. He and his colleagues would fill beakers and toast each other with one of their standards: “Man takes another step out of the primordial slime.” Or: “Science once again triumphs over ignorance and superstition.”

He did a lot of hiring, and  looked not only for people with stellar academic careers and superb references, but also those who looked for problems, loved problems. One question he asked (probably not PC these days) was about last names if the man (it was almost always a man in the 50’s to 80’s) had an unusual one. “Tell me about your last name,” he’d say, figuring that if a man wasn’t curious about his own name, he wasn’t curious enough to be a good chemist.

My father liked woodworking, especially making small puzzles out of wood. He’d keep them on his desk during the interview and see what happened. In one successful hire, a candidate was asked to describe his dissertation project, which was in fact brilliant. But in the midst of enthusiastic description, my father saw the candidate’s eye constantly move to the wooden puzzle until, unable to resist, the candidate reached for it, saying, “Excuse me, do you mind—” And he was hired on the spot. It was the appetite for problems, the joy in seeing and confronting them, that sold him.

That appetite for problems came in later, when Parkinsons slowly overtook my father. He confronted the progressive disease with equanimity and courage, breaking down its challenges into problems to be solved. Parkinsons is a moving target, of course, so one month’s solution may not work the next, but as he said, there were no end of problems. When he was more mobile, how to get to the middle school where he donated his time, how to write, how to use the computer, and later, how to get from the wheelchair to the toilet, how to carry plate, how to eat, how to confront death. How to triumph over ignorance and superstition with grace and faith.

 

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That dude, Othello

After years of protesting military interventions, life turns had me unexpectedly teaching literature and writing at a U.S. base outside Naples, Italy. It was my first up close encounter with soldiers, albeit in peacetime. I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

  • “I loved boot camp,” a young man told his astonished classmates. “Why not? Three squares a day, clean sheets, and nobody stuck my head in the toilet like my dad used to,” he finished quietly.
  • In a class of twenty, five had lost someone close to them to drugs, gangs, or random urban violence. “I’m safer in the military,” they said.
  • Taking a chance, I pushed a painfully shy seaman to read aloud his English 101 essay. In loving, aching detail, he described his brother’s hands before and after drug addiction wasted his life. In the stunned silence of the class reaction, the seaman turned to me and gasped, “They got it. I wrote it and they got it.” He was a big guy with tears in his eyes.
  • An incredibly talented young man who might have wrangled scholarships at any school explained why he enlisted. “My mom’s a prostitute, and she can’t keep doing that.”
  • A Gulf War veteran back from fighting Saddam Hussein dropped bullets of sweat on my grammar worksheet. “Relax. You know this,” I advised. “I don’t know, ma’am. It’s kinda scary.”

I had my doubts about Shakespeare, but Folger editions with facing page glossaries and clear scene summaries, my soldiers dove in.

  • On King Lear: “You know, if you retire, you can’t pretend to be chief anymore. Everyone knows that.”
  • On Macbeth: “You just know what’s going to happen, and it makes you sick to watch.”
  • Richard IIIengendered brisk discussion of leadership styles, just when Richard “lost it,” and how lack of loyalty to his men will bring down every leader. Richard should have taken a leadership class.
  • Then came Othello. I hadn’t anticipated how intensely my soldiers would take the story.

 “Hey, Miss Schoenewaldt, Iago’s the lieutenant, right? So why is he bringing down his own general?  Nobody will want him after that.”

“That dude, Othello, was great at sea, but he sure messed up on land.”

 “You gotta wonder if Othello ever heard of the C word, communication? He should have gotten Cassio and Desdemona together and just asked: ‘Yo, you guys balling or what?’”

For energy and passion, I’d take those conversations over grad school seminars any day.

Posted in Naples, Teaching Shakespeare, Teaching soldiers, WWWS

Savior drives a Cadillac

images-1Years ago, I was living in California and my father in New Jersey was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, likely to be fatal in four months. I flew home and my mother picked me up at Newark Airport. Befuddled and exhausted, she promptly got lost in a sketchy part of Newark, where we ran out of gas. Hospital visiting hours were almost over, but my mother had no useful idea besides: “Stay in the car!

I hadn’t flown all this way to miss visiting hours, so I jumped out to flag a passer-by and go for gas. “It’s not safe!” my mother screamed, yet more horrified when an old Cadillac screeched to a stop in front of us, and her worst nightmare, a tall, black man in a doo-rag, beckoned me to hop in. Her face in the rear view mirror was frozen in terror as he spun a 180 across traffic and peeled off.

I was absolutely certain this man would help, and reeled out my predicament: terminal diagnosis, no gas, visiting hours closing. “Don’t worry, honey,” he said, “there’s a station up ahead and I have a gas can.” I relaxed. Then he thanked me. He was on his way to evening Bible study, and hadn’t done his assignment for the week, which was to help a stranger. Here I was, a certifiable stranger, surely sent by a loving and patient God. He asked for my father’s name, carefully wrote it down, and said his group would pray for his healing.

We got the gas and roared back. By then a couple had stopped to hear my mother’s panicked account of her daughter driven off to a Fate Worse Than Death. We filled the car as the three of them watched in stunned silence. I thanked my savior, he thanked me and hurried off to church. I made it to visiting hours.

After five brutal months of chemotherapy, the cancer seemed beaten and my father was free to go. A slight recurrence a year later was stopped in its tracks. He continued regular checkups, building a pleasant relationship with his oncologist. Over and over, from across the country, I silently thanked my savior.

Six years later, the oncologist announced that, pleasurable as their meetings were, with cancer in full remission, there was no medical necessity to continue. In the press of the moment, I never asked my savior’s name, but I truly wish him well.

 

Posted in Cadillac, cancer remission, Just life, Newark, WWWS

’Twas the Night Before Christmas: Textual issues

I’m fine with flying reindeer delivering presents to every earthly child in one night. However, Mr. Clement C. Moore has imbedded some serious textual inconsistencies in “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

The reindeer and sleigh are clearly diminutive: “miniature sleight . . . eight tiny reindeer  . . . tiny hooves.” Let’s say mouse/squirrel size. However all extant illustrations show St. Nick as proportional. A portly man looks ridiculous pulled by little beasties in a miniature sleigh, not to mention flying reindeer abuse. Case in point: Cinderella’s steeds were normal-size horses pulling a normal-size coach. Even flying reindeer have to be up to the job.

What clatter? Our speaker refers to a “clatter” on the roof (which doesn’t wake Mama, perhaps because her kerchief stifles sound, but I digress). Would eight rooftop mice or squirrels make a “clatter”? No, more like a scamper. Poor word choice, Clement.

What does the speaker see? Our speaker refers to St. Nick as “a right jolly old elf,” and elves are typically small, maybe as small as our “tiny reindeer.” However, he doesn’t note that St. Nick is diminutive. The two characters, when shown together (eg our speaker spying from around a corner), are always of similar height (although not body mass).

Are these real toys? The toys are apparently normal size. If they come down the chimney tiny and zoom to normal size in the living room, wouldn’t our otherwise observant narrator share this magic?

Does St. Nick shape-shift? Suppose he’s tiny in transit and when going through chimney. However, when he’s about to ascend in our speaker’s full view, there is no note of size transformation. A poet of Mr. Moore’s talents could easily have written: “[St. Nick] turned his head with a jerk/And laying his finger aside of his nose/ Then zap! down to mouse-size the plump figure goes.”

What about Mama? What happens when she sees all that mess of “ashes and soot” in the living room? I’m not crazy about ashes and soot causing a “tarnish,” but that’s another article.

Who hears the exclamation? Let’s accept a size-shifting Santa. He’s normal size in the living room and miniature/tiny when aloft and flying “out of sight.” Would those tiny vocal chords produce “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night” at a volume that carries from the horizon? I think not.

I welcome your commentary.

 

 

 

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Recipe for a bestseller (says Robert Graves)

UnknownIn 1929, Robert Graves needed a best-seller to fund his plan of cutting out of England, buying a house in Majorca, and never having to work again in his life (aside from pumping out 120 books). In eleven weeks, he dashed off Good-bye to All That, a memoir of his years as an officer in World War 1. Instant bestseller (and never out of print). Graves and paramour are off to Majorca.

A few years later, he shared his recipe for success, which I just found and now share with you. His process (he says) was to deliberately mix in all the subjects that people like reading about. Some subjects may be less relevant/useful now, but you can pick and choose.

  • Food and drink . . . “I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down.”
  • Murders . . . “I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about.”
  • Ghosts . . . “one ghost story with a possible explanation and one without.”
  • Kings . . . and other people’s mothers.
  • E. Lawrence and the Prince of Wales
  • Poets and Prime Ministers
  • Foreign travel . . . “I hadn’t done much of this, but I made the most of what I had.”
  • Sport is essential.
  • Other subjects of interest . . . “school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, severe illnesses, suicides.
  • Battles . . . “the best bet of all.”

Easy, right? Have at it and let me know how it goes. There’s still room in Majorca.

 

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Flipping on Anna Karenina

In the summer when I was sixteen, I read great gobs of Anna Karenina with my feet over my head. I had been somberly informed that you retain information better if there is more blood in your brain. This seemed reasonable, so I lay in bed with my feet up against the wall. If the novel hadn’t been so fine, I might have been derailed by the fatigue of holding a big book up in the air for hours, but I actually don’t remember being troubled by this fact of reading gravity.

I can attest that in this singular case, the feet-in-the-air tactic worked. Despite the multiple names of myriad actors, the plot unfolded thrillingly and I remember, even now, how my bedroom room became Russian salons, private rooms in Moscow restaurants, birthing rooms, dachas, coaches, and the terrible final moment. With my brain full of blood, the scenes fixed themselves in memory cells.

Being 16, I was fervently convinced that the “point” of the novel was romantic love, that Anna was to be pitied, of course, but maybe, if Karenin had been more reasonable, not controlled by spiritualists, Anna and Vronsky would have been so happy, heroic in their sacrifice of respectability for passion. What a thrilling life they could have lived, not like the staid domestic peace of Levin and Kitty. And thus began my time of complex, exhausting, not-ending-happily relationships.

Some years later, I re-read Anna Karenina, sitting the regular way, and oh, the penny dropped. Or maybe it was just that I was older. Ah, Anna and Vronsky weren’t the point at all. My bad. It’s Levin and Kitty and the purposeful life (granted, an absurd reduction of magnificent novel). I’m happy to say this literary revelation joined changes in my own life and the love-as-pain model fell away.

But back to the feet-in-the-air reading tactic. It does work for retention. Now, with the coming of tablets, the weight of a book is no impediment. It could be, though, that all that blood created a more hot-headed reading. Or maybe it was just the fact of being sixteen.

 

 

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Perils of Childhood Reading

If you read a lot in private as a kid and listen to Big Issues on TV, life can get confusing, sometimes scary. Here are some examples.

An Id in Your Pocket? Slipped into the young people’s shelves of our public library was a Freudian biography of Louis Braille with mystifying references to an “id” that went everywhere with young Louis. Nobody seemed to comment on it or speak to it. Was it small, pocket-sized? Invisible? It constantly kept him from doing the right thing and he couldn’t seem to shake it. So it was clearly bad. Was it something only blind Frenchmen had or did everyone have one. If so, I might have one, or would have one. How would I know? Would it trip me up? You can see the problem.

Where’s the Ladder? Nancy Drew had two friends: Bess and George. George, confusingly, was female. In introducing them or, more generally, introducing two people, “Carolyn Keene” invariably noted that “the latter was . . . .” I read this as “the ladder.” Where did the ladder come from? Was it animated? Would it figure in the crime? Really strange.

Too many palaces I consistently read “place” as “palace.” This created problems in comprehension: where were the palaces in the Wild West, in Appalachia or colonial America?  And why, when the “palace/place” was further described, did it invariably seem so decidedly un-palatial, inhabited by non-royalty? Why couldn’t I see these many palaces?

When to argue, when to urge? I guess this is a case of mild dyslexia but the confusion either made conflict in a scene with none or had characters appearing wimpy in not standing their ground.

Coming soon to you. . . euthanasia My parents were fond of watching PBS talk shows on Big Issues. Once I walked in on a panel discussion of one such and was hastily told the topic wasn’t appropriate for children and I should “go read or something.” Of course I was curious and did go, but only as far as the hall. There I hid and listened.

Clearly this was a Big Issue. The panelists were very somber. The consequences of poor choices were irreversible and the risk of mistake high. Death was clearly involved. Finally I caught the name of the Big Issue: euthanasia. Except that I understood “Youth in Asia.” Now there were lots of youths in Asia. Too many, apparently, and this was a terrible problem. Apparently the solution was to kill them off. “Youth in Asia,” then, was code for “kill the kids.” The process should be painless and “experts” involved, but the goal was clearly death.

One of the panelists proposed implementing “Youth in Asia” here America. My stomach dropped. There were definitely lots of “youth in America.” I was part of the Baby Boom. We were too many and had to be culled.

At that point, one of my parents got up and I ran to my room, where I passed, as you can imagine, a sleepless night.

The next day, convinced I should know the worst and plan—move to Europe, perhaps—I eased up to my mother in the kitchen and asked what she thought of “Youth in Asia.”

“In the some circumstances, it’s the best thing,” she said.

“So . . . will it be happening in America?”

“Well, some people want that.”

Long pause before I ventured: “Do you?”

“Like I said, sometimes it’s the best thing.” The penny must have dropped and she turned to look at me. “Were you listening to the program last night?”

“Yes.”

“We told you. Some topics aren’t for children. Why don’t you go outside? It’s a beautiful day.”

I should go outside one last time before being . . . gotten rid of? I must have dawdled at the door, looking stricken. Maybe I cried, begged, or threatened to run away. In any case the confusion was resolved, along with a reminder that none of this would have happened if I had only followed instructions to “go read or something.” Except that, as noted above, reading creates its own confusions for the young mind.

I’m thinking I’m not the only one to be tripped up by too much secret reading.

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When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

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