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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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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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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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

Golden Comfort Soup

I thought up this soup during a zoom church service, so the inspiration could be divine. It’s certainly delicious, easy, comforting, and welcomes many interpretations. I hope you find it inspiring. Serves 4-6.

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 onions, chopped

2-3 T oil or butter

1 can chickpeas (garbanzos), drained

1 C peeled, cubed butternut squash

water or broth

salt & pepper

Optionals: cumin, ginger, milk or cream, olive oil for drizzling, herbs for topping.

Saute the garlic and onions until wilted. Add the drained chickpeas and squash. Add enough water/broth to cover about 2 inches. I added salt and a dash of cumin. Simmer uncovered until the squash is very tender (10-15 minutes). Make a puree, either in a food processor or an immersion mixer. Return to heat. You may (I did) add a dash of milk or cream to taste. Adjust seasoning. Serve as is or fancied up with a drizzle of olive oil or herb toppings. Serve, enjoy, feel good. I’m sure it freezes well.

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Posted in Food, WWWS

The passion of fridges

When I was very small, we had a small refrigerator, and my mother often perched me on top so I’d be out from underfoot while she made dinner. It was high enough to give a good view and keep me from wiggling, but not so high that a fall would cause much damage.

It was from up there one evening that I saw my father come home. He was sad and holding a package of brownies I’d wanted for myself but had been made for my grandfather in the hospital.

“He thanks you,” my father told my mother, “but he can’t eat them.”

She put down her spoon and went to hold him. From my perch I realized with a cold start that a person could be too sick for brownies.

My grandfather died, and we got a slightly larger refrigerator, a Westinghouse. As the squiggly lines on the door evolved into letters I could read, it offered a new diversion. A picky eater, I couldn’t stay focused on spam, bratwurst, stew, kidney beans or canned spinach.  But “Westinghouse” picked out in metal letters on the door endlessly held my interest. Moving letters around, I made more words: west, thing, sit, sting, guest, those.And so on.

A little later, when I was maybe eight, nightmares revealed the dark side of refrigerators. Over and over, I’m standing in our yard on Dorian Road. Coming at me is a battalion of giant, metal-faced refrigerators. They have no wheels but grind slowly, implacably over the asphalt, coming at me like the Israelite  woman in the Ten Commandments who’s crushed between pyramid stones. Even now, I hear the grinding, muffled shriek on asphalt. I’m frozen in dream. The refrigerators pass Carol’s house, then two more houses, then the edge of Linda’s yard next to ours. They’ll come up on the grass and get me. Except they never did. Always in dreams, they stop at Linda’s house.

Odd how the mind is. However many times I had the dream and woke up terrified, it was the implacable menace, not the miraculous salvation that held me. Am I the only one?




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Louis Braille’s pocket ego

The summer I was nine, I lived mostly on biographies. I’d ride my bike to the Westfield, NJ public library and laboriously pick out the four books I was allowed. The Signature series featured a medallion with the Famous Person’s signature, even, amazingly, Jesus, the Buddha, and Genghis Khan. On the inside fly leaf, a winding path traced Famous Person’s life in a series of pen and ink vignettes, leading me to constant musing on the future vignettes of my life. The Landmark series lacked the vignettes but included more people.

Reading four books in less than a week, I ran through the age-appropriate offerings pretty quickly. Probably it was a shelving error that landed a Freudian biography of Louis Braille on the children’s shelves and I took it. I had a good vocabulary and a mother handy for big words. My problems started in Braille’s adolescence, when he began to be dominated by “id” and “ego.”

Embarrassed to ask for definitions of two such simple words, I was left with context. First, oddly, even sighted people never noticed Braille’s id and ego. Nobody said, “Bonjour Louis, how’s that id today?”

I concluded they were invisible and communicated with him by telepathy. Any choice launched a ferocious debate between these two while Louis awaited the outcome. Because they were always with him, the logical lodgings were his pockets, where they stayed unnoticed, like hamsters. I had a hamster, which is perhaps why that solution appealed. She didn’t communicate and stayed in her cage, but Braille lived a long time ago in France. Much was different then.

As Louis grew up and grew more famous, the ego had more to say, but was often quite helpful. I thought it peculiar that other famous people didn’t have ids and egos in their pockets, but as the Signature and Landmark biographies abundantly demonstrated, famous people were very different from each other and from us.

I hope I’m not the only one who built alternate worlds out of vocabulary problems. Anybody?

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Posted in Just life

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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