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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Why blind mice?

Years ago when we lived  in Italy I brought Italian friends a jack in the box for their daughter’s one year birthday. I’d gotten it at an American store, assuming this was a classic international toy. FYI, nope. 

Since the young celebrant was taking a nap, I demonstrated the box. When a waving, madly grinning clown burst out of the box, the parents looked at each other, not with delight.

“It seems a little—scary for a small child,” Gabriella said.

I had to admit that if you don’t know the concept, if you haven’t seen it all your life, a clown out of box isn’t what you expect.

“And what’s that tune?”

“Three blind mice. It’s a classic,” I added, although heard with fresh ears, the tune was a little frenetic. 

“Why are the mice blind?” Fabio asked.

This wasn’t going well. “I don’t know,” I said, “but there’s a little poem that goes with it.”

“About blind mice?”

“Well yes.” It’s true that blind, scurrying mice out of the soothing context of familiarity, were seeming a little disturbing, but I was in too far to stop. Gabriella, an ESL teacher, wanted to know the song.  So I related the blind mice chasing the sadistic, knife-wielding farmer’s wife, and the observer’s apparent delight in the gay scene.

“They’re blind but they’re chasing her?  How?” Gabriella asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe they smell her.” The whole mouse-wife thing was becoming a miniature horror film. “You don’t have to tell Cecilia the poem,” I offered.

“No,” Gabriella said firmly, “we won’t. Thank you for the present, though.” She looked at me curiously. “American children like this?”

“They do,” I said, asking myself the question on everyone’s mind: Why?

 

 
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Posted in Intercultural relations, WWWS

Wonder under the street

 

            A plain summer day when I was seven stretched out for my girlfriends and me. We were walking along Dorian Road in Metuchen, looking for adventure. Suddenly, there it was, like the mythical gold on American streets. I’m talking about storm sewers with a grating set in the asphalt and a broad opening cut into the curb. 

My revelation was that a skinny kid like me could slither down into the underground tunnel. My friends were a year older and bigger (maybe wiser?) and we quickly parsed the roles. I’d be the Columbus, the Magellan. Linda and Holly would guide me with their voices from grate to grate.

            I squeezed myself down into the closest I’d ever come to a new dimension, a parallel world beneath the crayon-green lawns, newly planted trees, and alternating split-levels and ranches of our post-war development. The cement tunnel was about a yard high with a rivulet of water languidly moving along, too narrow to be troublesome. Duck-walking, I followed Holly and Linda’s voices and a faint light to the next grating. Once there, ambition bloomed, and I started the longer passage up to Duncan’s house. 

            Nothing in my life had been so thrilling. Why use sidewalks and streets when a secret maze was so close at hand? I could go to school this way, surprise friends, and hide from my parents. It was, however, a solitary adventure and much duck-walking was tiring. Once I’d doubled back to Kathy’s house, I pulled myself out. 

            “You’re so brave,” Linda said. I thought that odd. “Brave” was for danger and sewer-walking was thrilling, just a bit hard on the leg muscles. I wished only that my friends could have come. “We’re too big,” Holly reminded me, “but tell us about it.”

            I did. Flushed with my friends’ admiration, I couldn’t wait to relate my adventure at dinner. This didn’t go well. Just after relating the inspiration that I could fit through the opening to the storm sewer and the heady confirmation that I didfit I felt my father’s chill blue gaze and heard the clink of his fork on the plate.

            “You’re saying you went into the storm sewer?”

            Didn’t he listen? “Yes, it was amazing. You can go everywhere . . .”

            Subterranean navigation was clearly not the issue. I must never, never, never do this again. I must never even think about doing something so dangerous and foolhardy. And now that unanswerable question so favored by adults—“What were you thinking?” Before I could answer, my father told me what I should have been thinking. “There are rats in sewers.”

            “I didn’t see any.”

            There were always rats in sewers, I was informed. Patently false, but I said nothing. Not to mention flash floods, sudden and potentially deadly. Did I understand this? 

            “The sky was blue. There wasn’t any rain.” 

            “Flash floods are unpredictable, hence the name.” He had me there. My father was a meteorologist during the war. All I could say, now nearly muttering, was that the sky was blue before and after my adventure. 

            “And there could be someone down there.”

            This much was insane. Linda and Holly were too big so how could a grownup fit in the sewer? I wasn’t old enough to realize that my father must have had Les Misérables in mind and confused 18thC Paris with 20thC Metuchen, New Jersey. 

            Back to the never.I must never, never do this again, not near the house, not anywhere, not ever. Did I understand? Did I promise? In the end I promised, not because I feared rats, flash floods or bad midget people. Adult reasoning was sometimes so opaque that all a child can do is bow to their greater power.

              Much later, having become a parent and then grandparent, I see the pity and the terror that adults can only warn—even assuming the warning is heeded—against dangers we can imagine. There is no way to predict or protect a child from the unimaginable.  

            “What were you thinking?” the adult demands.

            But the child wasn’t thinking, only experiencing, searching out the portals to the marvelous other worlds that could be right thereon the other side of a sewer grating. 

 

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Days of the glass-bottomed sea turtle

I was sick for more than a week when I was eight. I don’t remember the diagnosis. I only remember fever, racking waves of coughing, towels and pans for catching you-know-what and a vaporizer running constantly, infusing the sheets, my pajamas and stuffed animals, my books, the whole soggy, cough-filled room in a camphor haze of Vicks Vapor Rub. 

And Doctor Doolittle. I can appreciate why the books have been pulled from many libraries for belittling images of Africans, but they were my companions in those fevered days. I read three or four at a time. In one, the good doctor and his entourage toured the undersea in a glass-bottomed Victorian sitting room inside a giant, graciously accommodating sea turtle. She was of a certain age and had saved a nice young couple who didn’t make it on Noah’s Arc. I believe she brought them to South America. To read a little and lie back on the faintly damp sheets and dream of touring the ocean bottom in a glass-bottomed turtle, taking tea and cakes with well-mannered animals—it wasn’t a bad way to spend the day.

Probably it was a nervous time for my parents, with two smaller children to tend and keep healthy, but aside from the pain of coughing and other GI upsets, I relished the comfort of being cared for. My mother brought me bananas mashed in milk, applesauce, soft-boiled eggs, often ice cream. Every evening, I’d hear my father come home from work and ask, first thing, “How is she?” and my mother saying, “The same.” Then he’d come upstairs, find a space to sit on my cot littered with stuffed animals and books and we’d talk or he’d watch me cough.

The sickness slackened and I was moved outside to a hammock for the sun to dry me out, as my mother said. Then back to school. But it was a soft and magic time, carved out of normal life like a sitting room in a glass-bottomed sea turtle. 

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The vanishing decorated Spam

My grandparents raised their family during the Depression on a very small, intensely cultivated “farm” in Garden Villa. The name bespeaks opulence, but we are talking $800 soggy plots outside Houston. They didn’t go hungry but opulence there wasn’t. Another crimp on consumption was my grandparents’ iron practice of saving 10% of every dollar they made.

Which leads to the tale of the vanishing decorated Spam and its struggle for Italian renaissance. My grandparents kept chickens, a pig and a couple cows but sold all they could of the meat, eggs, and milk. Not much home-grown or store-bought meat made it to the table. Hence, Spam for moderately special occasions. My grandmother embellished the little brick with pineapple slices, maraschino cherries and whatever else could be stuck on with toothpicks or gelatin to make a brightly colored confection, a jewel of processed meat and canned fruit.

On this occasion, the decorated Spam was in its finished glory when the telephone rang in the living room. My grandmother answered the phone, returned to the kitchen and . . . the Spam was gone. You may be thinking Spam Thief, but no, there was a dog outside, keenly tuned for intruders. Highly motivated, the entire family of 5 searched the tiny house. No Spam, nowhere. No meat for dinner, with the overhanging nagging mystery (curse?) of the vanished Spam.

Weeks and weeks later, preparing for the rare occasion of guests, my grandmother opened the linen drawer by the telephone, and there was the patiently waiting decorated Spam. Apparently the drawer had been opened when she answered the phone. She’d absently set the Spam down, closed the drawer, and there it sat in splendid isolation but no longer edible even by the thrifty, waste-not-want-not family.

In the lean early years of my life, my mother often served Spam. Plain, fried or decorated, I couldn’t stand it. Part of my determination to grow out of “Pam” to “Pamela” was partly motivated by distancing myself from Spam.

Years later, in the Bay Area, I’d just met a charming Italian physicist I’d presently marry. We were talking about food and I expounded on the unredeemable badness of Spam. I thought I was convincing only to discover that I’d thrown down a gauntlet. Instead of the more intimate pleasures I had in mind, we walked down to a grocery store for Spam so Maurizio could prove it could be redeemed by Italian culinary arts.

We brought our little can home, he opened it carefully, said nothing about the smell, but set out to meticulously mince garlic, chop rosemary, slice the Spam with scientific precision, and sauté all in good olive oil until the slabs were nicely crusted. “See?” every action declared. “The Renaissance of Spam.”

Presentation counts. Hence, placemat, plate, napkin, knife, fork, Spam slab crowned with rosemary sprigs. The small piece delicately cut, appraising sniff, the thoughtful chew for the full bouquet of animal parts. The careful swallow. The distinctive aftertaste. “You’re right,” Maurizio said. “There’s nothing to be done.” Who wouldn’t love a man who’d dream the Impossible Dream, and accept the inevitable with easy grace?

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Pecans and cranberries find love

Here’s the cranberry pecan pie I made for my friend Roz who was so kind as to proof my last draft. When I lived in Italy, my less-sweet pecan pie triumphantly crossed cultures. “Will you have that American nut pie?” prospective guests asked. When my husband once had a surprise birthday party for me, there was such dismay to find no pecan pie (this being, duh, a surprise party) that we all set to work making pies.

Recently I’ve added cranberries, giving color and a refreshing tartness, besides offering a design option. Here’s my recipe adapted from Cook’s very fine The Best Recipe.And yes, it’s pretty much the best. 

1 prebaked pie shell

5 T butter, cut up

¾ C light brown sugar

3 eggs

½ tsp salt

¾ C light corn syrup

1 T rum (or vanilla extract for a sober version)

1 tsp grated lemon rind

2 C pecans, chopped and toasted (way better toasted)

¾ C cranberries

1. Prebake the pie crust. Best if it’s still warm when you fill it.

2. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F

3. Melt butter over hot water. Remove from heat and beat in the salt and brown sugar (be assiduous) until you have a uniform mass. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then corn syrup, rum (or vanilla) , and lemon rind.

4. Put the pan back over the hot water. Mix until shiny and hot. Stick your finger in or measure 130 degrees F if you’re more finicky.

5. Add toasted, chopped pecans. you can add all the cranberries (OR) save some for a design on the top. 

6. I strongly recommend putting the pie crust on a cookie sheet before filling to avoid messes and tears. Fill crust. Add design if you’re making one.

7. Bake at 275 for 45 minutes. Test that the top is soft like gelatin. If it seems too gooey, go another 5-10 minutes.

8. Cool before serving to set.

Note: It would be interesting to try dried cranberries, but you don’t get the color pop.

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

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