Egyptian in Jersey

In my tucked-in corner of New Jersey, Mr. Massuda the French teacher was an exotic. He was Egyptian, and while to some students’ surprise, he didn’t walk sidewise or write on papyrus, he came trailing a romantic past. Born into “une famille riche” which we escalated to villas, hanging gardens and lavish barges on the Nile, the family suffered a calamitous reversal and he was reduced to selling postcards of the pyramids (he said or we thought).

Mr. Massuda’s troubles continued. He got to America but now had to teach high school. Also, Fate gave him “quatre filles,” four daughters, he said sadly, who wanted “everything,” his salary consumed by insatiable Egyptian princesses. In fact, we counted three shirts to his name, each worn for a week. By Friday they were pungent, with dark underarm stains. “The filles take all the soap,” we whispered behind his back.

Mr. Massuda adored French. With messianic zeal, he presented its purity, grace and perfection as a conscious construction of an enlightened few, like Notre Dame or the Chartes Cathedral. Grammar explanations were invariably preceded by “The French wanted . . . the French decided.”

His zeal and my cultural ignorance led to an after school trauma. It was spring and warm in the halls. On my way home, I was ruminating on a grammar point and saw Mr. Massuda standing sadly at his classroom doorway, perhaps oppressed by a new demand of the terrible filles.

When I stopped to ask my question he snapped to attention, stepping closer to explain. (Merci, you soap-stealing princesses) I stepped back. He stepped forward. “Comprenez vous?” he asked. “Oui, oui,” I understood, I said quickly. Mr. Massuda went on to elucidate. In gathering panic, I stepped back again, dodging the hurrying students. He followed, wanting proof that I grasped the exquisite logic behind this apparent irregularity.

By now I was against the lockers, metal doors cool on my heated palms. I dredged an example but he wanted another. As I floundered, he must have noticed my sweating. Was I “malade”? he asked anxiously. No, no not sick, just on the wrong side of a cultural gulf.

Years later, teaching composition, my text had an article on proxemics, the study of spatial separation that cultures naturally maintain. Some want more, some less. Arab cultures are on the “less” side. Light bulb! Mr. Massuda had misread me. Why is this poor girl backing away? Is the beauty of French eluding her? I must put her at ease and make her understand. I step closer.


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Posted in High school, Intercultural relations

Ambitions of a Protestant Saint

At age 9, I decided to be the first Protestant saint, which would catapult me into a new edition of A Child’s History of Heroes and Heroines. I knew this was a stretch. My Sunday school teachers had been quite clear that Protestantism doesn’t do saints.

There were other challenges. Saint Elizabeth’s first word was “Jesus.” Mine was “Daddy.” She spent her days bringing bread to peasants in their huts. My town had no peasant huts, and my allowance wouldn’t cover armloads of Wonder Bread.

Next, the matter of pain. Saint Joan of Arc in armor looked dashing, but she also pulled an arrow from her breast, shocking even “hardened soldiers.” Then the manner of her death. My father once helpfully advised that if you’re going to be burned at the stake, bribe the executioner to stoke the fire with green boughs so you die of smoke inhalation long before flames reach your toes. Still.

Besides good works like saving France or bringing bread to peasants, mortification of the flesh seemed essential for sainthood, but the options were unpleasant: stoning, stabbing, being pressed or pulled apart, fed to lions, standing for years on towers in the desert or carrying hot coals. I devised an achievable goal of sleeping all night with hands crossed on my chest. Even this I couldn’t do consistently.

That summer I went to church camp. There was much to like: bunk beds in cabins, reasonable food, swimming, hiking, nice girls and sort of ok boys. We made candles and lumpy lanyards for our parents. At the nightly campfire after the inevitable “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” we were challenged to spend one whole day acting like Jesus, a goal up there with standing on a pillar for years. Or . . . for the less ambitious, to concentrate on every phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, thinking of nothing but those words. However the distractions of stars, sparks flying upward and mosquitoes buzzing put even this modest challenge out of reach.

All was not lost. We were to make cedar cross necklaces. The cedar smell was intoxicating and I did well at the sanding. Male counselors did the skilled work of nailing the cedar sticks together and inserting metal eyes at the top. We proudly wore our crosses around camp. But . . . we were to wear them at home, at school, everywhere. They were big on our small chests, nearly 4”. Only nuns wore crosses that large and they, whispered my girlfriends, were “married to Jesus.” At an age in which even kissing had a yuck factor, this was not attractive.

So, bit by bit my ambitions for Protestant sainthood faltered. In the fall, a state-sponsored endeavor to match our skills and strengths with career options suggested that my limited social skills pointed to bee-keeping.

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Posted in imaginative child, Just life

A passion for problems

“The mark of a good scientist is enjoying problems,” my father maintained, “seeking them out.” This problem passion helped him build a distinguished career in chemical research, developing some of the drugs he used himself for cancer and Parkinsons.

Unfortunately the “on” switch for science didn’t have an “off” setting for parenting.

Cold War hysteria blazed when I was a kid. “Imagine living behind the Iron Curtain,” I mused, watching my father in his workshop solving cabinetry problems. Good thing we lived in New Jersey, but suppose we didn’t?

Ah, he’d had the same thought and helpfully shared a solution. Let’s say we lived in Romania and he was, again, a research chemist, valuable to the State. So he couldn’t leave. “But we’d find a way to get your mother and you kids out,” he assures me.


He was working on that. But moving right along, we’d escape to, say, West Germany.

“But I don’t speak German,” I remind him.

“You’d learn. Of course not as quickly as your little sister. She’d have no accent.”

Great. Already I’m behind a three year-old. “And you’d come later?” I ask anxiously.

“I hope so.”

I’m getting really upset, already missing him. “Suppose you can’t?”

“Well, then, after a reasonable time, your mother would remarry.”

This was horrible. There I am in West Germany, stumbling in German, missing my father, and there’s this Klaus that maybe I don’t even like pretending to be my father. Maybe he’s mean. And suppose my father does get out and find us, but mean Klaus doesn’t let us see him, keeps us locked up? Then what?

“Well, don’t worry, sweetheart,” my father says, driving a nail. “We’re in New Jersey.”

Right, as in don’t think about an elephant. Many sleepless nights ensue, flipping between my hypothetical horrible life with mean Klaus and the more likely troubles of my unknown opposite number in Romania, say Sofia. Poor, poor Sofia.

Moving on to adulthood, I sometimes find myself driving, inventing tragic or melodramatic scenes, even bringing myself to tears over these sad imaginings. I asked a therapist friend about this, suggesting that it’s the process of driving, the sort of trance you get in on a familiar route, that leads people to spinning hypothetical dramas.

“Not people, Pamela,” she said gently. “Just you.” Ah, well, I guess the fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

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Posted in Childhood fantasy, Cold War, imaginative child

What you can save in Uvita

We are staying near Uvita, on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. This morning I went to a little shop that has a couple samples of almost anything you could want. I noticed too late that the clerk was putting my groceries in a paper bag and held up my cloth one.

“Oh good, “ he said pleasantly in English, “save a trip.”

“Save a tree,” corrected the young woman at the register. “A tree.”

The affection with which she’d corrected him and the good humor with which he laughed and repeated “tree” set us off.

“Save a bird,” I said.

“Save flowers,” she added.

“Butterflies” were his contribution, to which in turn we added, bees, grass, fish, monkeys (she poked him affectionately at “monkey,” evidently a private joke} and finally snakes.

So saving all those things in my bag I paid and left happily. The bag, by the way, is from a Cirque du Soleil type youth circus in Cambodia which promotes itself as saving street children. You can save a lot with the right bag.

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Posted in WWWS

At 6, getting Lady Macbeth

When our granddaughter Silvia was six, the local Shakespeare company toured public libraries, having children enact scenes from Macbeth. As much curious how they’d do it as looking for Saturday morning entertainment, I took Silvia.

The troupe was clever. With some strips of cloth, a broomstick and a pot, they did the three witches with kids enthusiastically adding elements for the brew: Thumbtacks! Eyeballs! Dog poop! A happy boy playing Banquo’s host scampered around an improvised banquet table terrorizing uber-guilty Macbeth. With a few branches and improvised cloaks, they did Burnam Wood creeping up Dunsinane Hill.

Afterwards, as we went out to the car, Silvia wanted “the whole story.” She was an absolute glutton for stories. If I was taking her somewhere, she’d generously offer me “the whole time until we get to the car to think of a story for me.” Fortunately I knew the bones of Macbeth well enough.

So as I put her in the car seat and started off, I went through the witch prophecy, Macbeth’s letter to Lady M, his notion that they let time work its magic and make him king, her counter-proposal that they hurry fate along by offing Duncan and his reluctant agreement.

“Then,” I said, “he had second thoughts, because Duncan was a good king, and a guest, so Macbeth told his wife he didn’t want to kill Duncan. She got angry and called him a coward.”

“So he did it, right?” Silvia demanded from her car seat. “That line gets men every time.”

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A novel in a picture

The great Robert Capa took this photograph on August 23, 1944, titled “Listening to De Gaulle’s speech after the liberation of the city.” I keep it on my desk. The more you look, the more the image unfolds, could unfold to the 100,000 words of a typical novel. Here are my surmisings.

The man is the boy’s grandfather, the father perhaps dead or at least away. The boy isn’t small and the man not huge, so there’s heavy weight on his shoulders, borne willingly, not mentioned. The boy must see and hear De Gaulle, his future.

The man’s dress is old-style, country—the jacket, the collarless shirt, the hat, the moustache. But the boy’s modern dress, the new clothes and haircut all speak to some sacrifice, at least priorities. See the boy sitting straight and proud, hand on waist like a grownup, but what unself-conscious child-like tenderness and trust in the right hand cupped around the man’s face. He has grown up with this man, the foundation of his young life. And what perfect composition, how the both of the boy’s arms take our eye to the grandfather’s face.

Chartres was heavily bombed during World War II (the cathedral ordered bombed by the Allies, saved by an American officer who refused the order). The boy has seen more than any child should see, but the man has seen yet more. Perhaps he was in the Great War. I see the boy looking at De Gaulle, into the future, the grandfather’s gaze slightly away, perhaps into the past or reckoning the future’s cost. Note the bright, featureless sky, the light on the boy’s face, the delicate shading of the soft skin, and how darkness grows as the eye drops to the grandfather’s lined face, his dark jacket.

The woman to the right is perhaps the grandmother. She isn’t looking at De Gaulle and seems outside the . She has her own thoughts that darken her eyes and I can’t guess what they are. What do you think?




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Posted in Writing

Teaching Sex and Drugs in the 60’s

A person could pity school administrators in the late Sixties, trying to hold back short skirts, long hair, drug culture and Vietnam protest with rules and rulers. Rules to keep the crush youth culture in check and rulers to measure girls’ skirt lengths (fingertips to hem), boys’ sideburns (1/2” max) and hair-to-collar (1/2” min) and cleavage (zero).

But pity doesn’t excuse the rampant paternalism and steady insult to young people’s intelligence and natural curiosity.

Case in point, a required high school assembly to teach us about sex and drugs. Part 1 was a 16mm film, “The Road to Ruin.” We open on a nice, clean, studious girl we’ll call Margie coming home from school. But, the ponderous narrator tells us, “Margie’s mother . . . worked.” (Maybe the mother was also div……ced. Anyway, there was no dad around). Now my mother didn’t work and those in our white-collar enclave didn’t either. But my high school was regional and I felt for the many whose mothers had to work (or even, gasp, enjoyed it). These students were clearly close to the Road to Ruin (RTR).

Left alone after school, Margie neglects her homework (Step 1 of RTR) and soon finds the family liquor cabinet. She takes a drink (2) and likes it. The next day, it seems, “friends” are coming over to drink . . . and smoke cigarettes. Margie starts smoking (3). Presumably Margie’s mom never notices the debris. Then one friend offers her a “funny cigarette” (4) and suddenly she’s helplessly hooked on marijuana (5). Next, a “friend” offers her something better . . . in a needle. The first shot of heroin (6) is free. The next costs and soon Margie is stealing from mom (7). But the cost keeps rising and the scene turns murky. Now Margie (8) is out at night under a streetlight in a very short skirt (9). We know what she was looking for. And all because  . . . her mother worked.

The lights went on and the Expert asked us for questions. There were a few, with answers slavishly following the theme of the film, that the RTR is absolutely linear, rocket speed and invariable.

“What does LSD stand for?” asked a boy in my chemistry class. Knowing him slightly, I was sure it was a legitimate question.

The Expert came to the edge of the stage, looking down somberly. “Young man, it stands for Look Straight at Death. Next question.” This was infuriating. I didn’t know anyone who had taken psychedelics, but I’d seen a Life magazine article with a photograph of a young woman high on LSD, entranced by a light bulb. This was sort of interesting and she looked pretty healthy.

“Next question?”

Big silence. We had plenty of questions but nobody wanted to be insulted and everybody wanted out of the auditorium. It was left to Dickie to save us. Dickie the untouchable, star quarterback, son of the football coach and a big game coming up.

Dickie raised his hand. Oh, this would be good. “What is Spanish Fly?” he asked, wide All-American face shining innocent query. The Expert and Vice Principal froze. A twitter ran through the audience. Because we all knew The Story, invariably told by someone who knew someone who knew the boy’s cousin.

The boy had taken the girl parking and gave her Spanish Fly, the semi-legendary aphrodisiac. Nobody I knew had the slightest idea if it was a pill, shot, powder, went into Coca-Cola or came by needle. But we all knew the effect. The Girl was instantly revved to incandescent hotness, a volcano of libidinous desire. At which point The Boy . . . left her in the car “to get something.” Now why he’d do that on the brink of being insanely lucky, nobody knew, but we all knew what happened next. The poor girl, with no man to satisfy her and apparently possessed of remarkable gymnastic prowess, impaled herself on the gearshift. When The Boy came back, he found her . . . dead in a pool of blood.

Shunting the Expert aside, the Vice Principal took the microphone for the announcement we knew verbatim: “It’s too bad, students, that once again, the irresponsible and disrespectful one percent have to ruin things for the ninety-nine percent.  The assembly is over. Go back to your home rooms and discuss what happened.”

Gleefully ruined by the valiant Dickie, we poured out of the auditorium. My homeroom teacher had papers to grade, thank you very much. “Does anyone have anything to say?” she asked briskly. Nope, nobody did. “Then do your homework or talk quietly until the bell rings.” And we sort of did.

I had occasion later to learn what LSD meant and discover that it actually was pretty cool. Spanish Fly, though, really meant Look Straight at Death and was to be avoided at all costs.

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Posted in WWWS

On glimpsing darkness and light

When our granddaughter Silvia was nearly four, we were stopped in traffic near the local military cemetery, row on row of tombstones. “What are those white things?” she asked.

I said they marked where soldiers were buried. “All those are dead people?” Yes, I said. “From war?” Yes. Long pause from the car seat and then an anguished voice. “I didn’t know war was so bad.”

I realized with a jolt that she’d thought these two rolling knolls represented all the soldiers of all the wars that ever were around the world. I had to explain that actually, those were some of  the soldiers of part of our state who had died in some recent wars. “Oh,” and in that “oh” was the full horror we adults so rarely face. Perhaps only a child could see its depth. 

* * *

About that time, I picked up Silvia from pre-school. She came flying across the playground, sobbing as she crashed into my arms. Her friends wouldn’t play with her, “Not even Natalie and Evie!” her very best friends since they were toddlers together. “I didn’t do anything,” she cried. “Why won’t they play with me? They’re my best friends.” 

Her teacher, Miss Ollie, was nearby and promised to get to the bottom of this in the next day’s Circle Time. Meanwhile Silvia should try to relax and have a good rest of the day. But Circle Time was hours away and the shock and pain of man’s inhumanity to man, writ small, was just too great. 

I offered a trip to the public library, usually a hit and got a laconic “ok.” In the children’s section, Silvia couldn’t focus on choosing or even looking at book, constantly repeating “Why wouldn’t they play with me?” The unprovoked, inexplicable betrayal of those loved and trusted. The pain wouldn’t lift. Out of my pay grade, I decided to appeal to a higher authority, Miss Miller, the librarian. “Librarians know a lot,” I said. “Let’s go ask.” 

I sat Silvia on the counter where she poured out her woeful tale. Miss Miller, as flummoxed as I was, repeated the same salvo of “a mistake” and offered some  palliative gifts—a pencil topped by a little bear, a  bookmark, coloring book and tissue. Silvia wiped her eyes, tearfully thanked Miss Miller, and trudged back to the car with me. 

She was silent as I strapped her in her seat, but as I put the car in reverse a thoughtful voice stopped me. “I shouldn’t keep thinking such sad things. I know my friends love me. So it probably was a mistake.” 

Many times older than she, having easily spent the equivalent of her lifetime thinking “sad things” and not seeing love around me, I was filled with spiritual awe at the great, wise soul behind me. 

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Posted in Just life

When lies make you sputter

In the current super-heated medical-political world you hear lies that make you sputter. How can an apparently thinking person voice such thoughts? Doesn’t this nonsense stick coming out of the throat? Answering with facts just doesn’t matter.

All those years of study and experience based on the notion that if you research and marshal your facts and present them cogently you can make a difference, be convincing. Maybe not. That’s distressing, ground-of-being shaking. Does education not matter in the end?

Up against alternative facts, brings back two crystal memories of being about eight years old and gut-punched by “alternative facts.”

A babysitter who went to high school, and therefore seemed an adult, announced “Doctors predict that in fifty years we won’t have toes. That’s evolution.” I stoutly maintained that this was crazy. “Doctors say so,” she rejoined primly. It was like trying to argue a point in a language you don’t know, like Finnish. I did understand that “doctors” was too broad a term but I didn’t know the word for “evolutionary biologist.” I knew there was evolution and it was slow, but couldn’t come up with exactly how slow. I knew toes were important (wiggling, picking up stuff, walking) but “physiology” or “body mechanics” were beyond me. Bottom line, I was a kid and she was grown up. I felt helpless, reduced to sputtering, “You’re wrong.” I remember staying up to grill my father on The Matter of Toes, but the babysitter was long gone. I think he nixed her return. But still I remember that visceral sense of helplessness.

About that time I went after school to a girlfriend’s house. It seemed like a good enough time. I guess board games and cards, making a snack, riding bikes, playing with her dog. The usual stuff. No arguments. I went home, fully thinking we’d do this again, maybe at my house. No. The next day at school she said I couldn’t come back.  Ever. “Why not?” I asked. “My dog told me he doesn’t like people with dirty blond hair.” I was innocent enough to have run mentally through assorted logical fallacies with this statement. Dogs don’t speak. Dogs don’t see color. The dog gave every sign of “liking” me. My hair wasn’t dirty or even blond. Something told me not to argue. After all, I’d thought we had a good time but that was wrong. Still, the dog thing uttered so blandly, like infallible gospel, had won the day. Stopped me cold.

Lies are bigger now. COVID, democracy, global warming. Still there’s that gobsmacked feeling of impotence. Makes you want to curl your toes. Or wash your hair. Or get your dad to tell someone off. But he’s not here anymore and you feel alone.



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Posted in Just life, WWWS

Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

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

Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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