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Posts from the ‘Books’ Category

“The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” over at Medium – check it out!

The blog has lain fallow for a while, mostly because I have been writing some things offline. I also wanted the opportunity to use “has lain” in a sentence.

One of the things I’ve been working on: my essay, “The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” is now up in the Open Ticket collection over at Medium. Go there and read a tale of brigands, a baroness, library books, and things lost in translation. Go read it now! Please and thank you!



How my sister can navigate the modern world without having seen Anchorman I literally have no idea

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s 2013 and my sister still hasn’t seen Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Help me understand. Why? Why? I’m in a glass case of emotion! See, she wouldn’t even get that hilarious reference. She’d just stare into the distance, quizzically, as the modern world carries on without her.

She must be the only person in the 18-34…er…25-39 year-old demographic group that hasn’t seen this movie. Advertisers are carrying on with their profiling without her. TV shows are crafted based on data that does not apply to her. She’s just in the corner, pooping hammers all by herself while the rest of us cool people drink three fingers of Glenlivet with a little bit of pepper and some cheese, and play jazz flute. Cannonball!

Seriously, when she watches Progressive Insurance commercials they must just go straight over her head. Poor thing. Does she even know that’s Chris Parnell’s voice playing second banana to that weird Flo? And this is a person who works in Business. How are you supposed to work in Business without knowing this kind of thing? “You’re a poop. You’re a poop mouth.” No, I’m not being vulgar. I’m trying to illustrate, via this film reference you don’t get, how you’ve let me down, sis.

Look, I get it, lady. You work hard. You are tired after a long day of swimming with the sharks down in the big city, crunching numbers or running figures or whatever it is you do. I don’t know what you do. That’s not my problem. Get a can of Red Bull and stay awake long enough to watch this movie before the sequel comes out later this year and you’ll be twice as far behind the rest of the world. What if you go to one of your Business meals and someone asks you how San Diego got its name?  And you don’t know? There’s a deal gone straight down the drain. Because, when in Rome.

Maybe you’ll say to me, “Sure, I haven’t seen Anchorman, but there are many more seminal films I also haven’t seen. Why don’t I watch a few minutes of those? Say, Apocalypse Now, or A Clockwork Orange, or Citizen Kane, even? Or forget that: why don’t I read a book or whatnot?” True. But let’s face it: how’s it going with that copy of Homer’s Odyssey I saw you buy, in some fit of nostalgia over our sunny college required reading days of yore? Thought so.

Look, I know it seems like I am teasing you. But I know how you feel. Oft I have considered reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace but instead watched Arrested Development in its entirety for the fourth time (MAY 26!!!!!). You don’t have to be Dr Chim Richels to understand that everyone needs to relax sometimes. But I kid you not, I am getting around to that book. Soon. Soon-ish.

Think of all the pitfalls you face which the rest of us can avoid. Hey, it’s a Friday night, let’s pretend we are not at home wrangling young children into pajamas and cleaning rice off the ceiling, and we’ve actually left the house. “Let’s go get some margaritas!” you say. “OK!” How about this place, you suggest: Escupimos en su Alimento? Uh, sure, you go for it, the rest of us are going suit shopping.

Even Justin Bieber, that numbnuts, knows that milk was a bad choice. Even he would know that if you are confronted by a bear, you should just mention that you know Katow-jo, the bear’s cousin. Oh Baxter, you are a little gentleman. I’ll take you to foggy…where? Poor Baxter. That wise little Buddha covered in hair. You let him down.

While you’re at it, sure, go meet up with that public television news team without a trident. Or throw a burrito out of a moving car window. You were lucky you got away with it that one time, but if you just put down that US Weekly with Kim Kardashian’s butt on the cover that you are falling asleep on and see the movie, you’ll never do it again.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, without this Anchor-knowledge, how are you going to fill those lapses in conversation that inevitably come, when you’ve exhausted every topic, every angle, every aspect of love, and war, only to let the thread of your talk quietly drop? You shrug, and quietly say, “San Di-AH-go. German for a whale’s vagina.”  And you’re back on air.  As it were. This can go on for hours – through stalled subway cars, the lag between the last drink and the time to go, miles of highway. You’re only going to get so far with the dang Odyssey once everyone nods wildly at the only quote they can remember, that business with the “rosy-fingered dawn.” Which happens right at the beginning of the thing, if I recall correctly.

I don’t really know what I am trying to say here, sis. I don’t know if there is any larger meaning to all of this.  Probably not. All I know is that when you are a big sister, you must guide the younger ones. And my good advice?  Sixty percent of the time, it works…every time. My sweet Brick.

So please, see the movie. It’s on cable a hundred times a day. In fact, I have it perma-saved on my DVR just in case you come by and I can Clockwork Orange you and make you watch it. By the hammer of Thor! Again, that went straight over your head…

(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Damning with the wrong praise

English: Boy in front of jungle gym

It’s a jungle out there, kids. (Wikipedia)

Now, I am not usually someone who enjoys taking her husband’s advice. You know what I mean? Girl, I know you do. As a pediatrician, he often pretend-casually tosses me articles and books about child rearing that he comes across, full of what I am sure are good parenting practices. That I am meant to read stat. I know there is a lot of value in these bits he passes on, but part of me wants to say, yeah so? I’ve got a deal with them all day and then read a book about how I’m doing it all wrong after they go to sleep, when I can instead watch a TV show without any talking animals in it? I’m the mother; I know what’s best, right? And that’s the part of me usually gets to say what it wants.

“I think I know what I’m talking about here!” he says in a huff, when I blow off his reading tips. Harumph to you too.

Cover of "NurtureShock: New Thinking Abou...

Cover via Amazon

But I’ll admit that recently he gave me some reading material that I will take to heart (See? I do listen sometimes). In book called NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which I’ve promised to read in its entirety just after I read this stack of old Hello! magazines (And also! That DVR won’t empty itself!), there is a chapter called “The Inverse Power of Praise.” The gist: when you praise your child, like we all do, you should praise effort towards specific tasks, and not general ability. For example:

Not: “You finished that whole Lego Star Wars set all by yourself?? For ages 8+? And what are you, FIVE? You are so smart!!!!!!!! Exclamation point!”

Instead: “You put that Sarlacc together all by yourself? I am so proud that worked so hard at that and you did it!”

“The presumption is,” the book states, “that if a child believes he’s smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that the children do not sell their talents short.” And as Dr. Carol Dweck, who has pioneered much of this way of thinking, says, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game, look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” NurtureShock, as well as Dweck’s research, argues that if a child is constantly told he or she is smart (or, I extrapolate, a natural athlete or musician, say) he won’t risk the damage to his self-esteem by attempting something difficult or challenging, and failing.

The book also quotes NYU professor Judith Brook: “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise. It has to be based on a real thing.” So the praise, which we can’t help but give, is better directed toward specific goals. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding for failure.”

OK, that’s enough quoting. I think I’ve proved that I read it. Suffice it to say, it gave me pause.

I give C the third degree on the walk home from school every day, and I get some facts out of him, like what he did in gym or math, or some other bit of schoolroom arcana, but it’s hard to put it all together to get a full picture of his day. It’s a mystery, it’s omerta; it’s being five, I guess.

So besides the cryptic comments about “choice time” and “work board” and being the “lunch helper” and all of the other byzantine rituals of school he now holds dear (“I don’t tell anyone when I have to go the the bathroom, I just go!”), my best vantage point from which to observe C’s new life is on the playground after dismissal. I watch him and his friends dash back and forth, leaping and cutting swaths through the air, falling tragically to the ground, then touching black to regain their superpowers, or touching something blue to transfer them.

The hotspot on the playground, for all of the kindergartners at C’s school, is the monkey bars. It’s where it’s at. Daily I watch as six or seven of them clamor over each other, each trying desperately to achieve mastery of this six-foot row of rungs. They look like kiddie versions of the dancers in that old Paula Abdul video where they are all flinging themselves over some scaffolding. But it’s where their whole day boils down; you can see who’s agressive, who hangs back, hear what they really think. I heard a girl there call C “mean” because “he’s blond.” “But you’re blonde,” her mother said. Touche, mama. Or, nanny-nanny-poo-poo, which I am told is the thing to say in these situations, to you too.

Bavarian horticultural exhibition 2010 in Rose...

Now that’s a challenge! Monkey bars of wooden poles, 9 metres high at a German expo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But hey, she’s under stress. Have you, adults, ever tried crossing the monkey bars? It’s hard! I tried it recently and I couldn’t make it one rung without deep pain. But maybe that’s just me. I couldn’t do them when I was a kid either. Maybe its because my parents never praised my effort, just assuming that I would be awesome at them. No, I don’t think that’s it. I think they knew those Olympic dreams were never going to get off the ground.

Since the first day of school, C has been determined to make it all the way across the monkey bars. Every day I watch him wait his turn (“You’re only supposed to go across in one direction!”), and then take his first one-handed swing. For weeks he fell to the ground as he tried to get to the first rung. It didn’t seemed to bother him; he just kept doing it over and over again until his friends called him to some other business. And while C was at the monkey bars, little T was climbing the play structure steps gingerly, then more steadily, to the top of the slide, standing there, then turning around and stepping back down. No amount of cajoling could get him down the slide.

Then one day, T stood at the top of the slide, waited for me to look at him, and slid all the way down. I cheered and hollered. Then, he couldn’t be stopped. And while catching T at the bottom, moving him out of the way of a fifth grader that was coming barrelling down after, I looked over at the bars; C was swinging all the way across.

“Did you see me?” he said, hopping down and running over.

“I did! I did! That was amazing! Wait till we tell Daddy!” I went ape, as it were.

As we were walking home, over the sound of T’s devastated mewling at being torn away from him new favorite thing, I said to C, “Do you see what you did on the monkey bars? You couldn’t do it at first, and then you kept trying, and then you did it! Do you see what you can do when you practice? If there is something you want to do, keep trying…” I hammered the point home in as many ways as I could: you wanted to accomplish something, you made an effort, and you succeeded. Well done. He beamed.

I don’t want to be one of those parents who carries her child through life on a cushion of praise, hands outstretched constantly to break every (figurative) fall. I guess, aside from keeping them healthy, what I want most is to teach my boys not to fear challenges. To aim for goals, and rise to meet them. And to be able to cope, and pick themselves up when they, as they inevitably will sometimes, fail. If they can do that, I think, they will have the tools they need to be in control of their own success, and strive for lives as big and as broad as they want them to be, rather than take a safe, middling, path. They can put to use whatever attributes they might have: intelligence, athletic ability, Lego skills, rather than lean on perceived strengths, taking them for granted.

It feels a little strange to hold my tongue when I want to call one of them smart. “Sweet lord, you are a f***ing genius!” are not words you often hear in our house, unless I am saying them to myself when I’ve figured out how fit all the sippy cups in the cabinet without them all falling on my head. Instead, I try to replace that impulse with a wordier compliment about their efforts, and keep the kvelling in my head.

Hopefully, this philosophy will serve them well. We’ll see. Look, it’s worked for their dad! My not taking his advice? I just don’t want him to get a swelled head! That’s it! It’s not because I don’t want to read articles. No, I do it for you, dear!

A beginner’s guide to Anglophilia

The first bite of pasta and tomato sauce for an Italian-American baby is a momentous event. This is what they’ve been building toward since birth: getting past the milk and mush to a plate of macaroni. My Italian-American baby, C, had his first bite of the stuff at a wedding in a country house in England. And this was exactly how I wanted it to be: a perfect marriage of his inevitable upbringing, with a little bit of balm on the raging case of Anglophilia I’ve had since I was a teenager. Can we blame Morrissey? Maybe, I don’t remember when it started. But it remains.

So when our good friends were getting married in Devon, we popped onto a plane to Heathrow with a nine-month-old C. Along with a car seat, and case; stroller, and case; diapers, clothes, a bear and an extra bear. He squirmed and cried in a strange baby hammock given to us by Virgin Atlantic, which was hooked onto the bulkhead wall. People walked by and grimaced. But we made it. And it was all worth it when I pushed him out into his first bit of British air: the sandwich aisle inside the airport Marks and Spencer where I immediately ate a well-deserved egg and bacon sandwich. I swear I love England for those triangle sandwiches alone. They know exactly their worth; they’re not trying to be heroes.

On the way to Devon we stopped at Stonehenge so C could commune with representatives of his ancestry: German tourists. We had come dressed for our idea of English spring: cozy tea behind rain-fogged pub windows. But the sky in the Salisbury Plain was perfect blue, stretching on cloudlessly without end. C covered his eyes with his blanket, and I listened to the audiofuhrer, as the Germans call it.

Cheap sunglasses at bright Stonehenge.

In Devon before the wedding we stayed at a thatched cottage with friends. I mean, really. It was awesome. In the early morning, before everyone else was awake, I fed C Tesco-bought baby fruit from those little squeeze packs that we didn’t have in the US then. It was a wonder. I squeezed and looked past him at the sun coming up over sloping fields, and far-off forests that probably held fairy cottages and cairns. Or not – I couldn’t hike that far with a baby on my back. But even in more reachable places like the patio, the pub, the village church, or Tesco…oh please let me put in this Wordsworth quote – even though if you read the whole thing it doesn’t really fit: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!”

For the wedding, we dressed C in a seersucker suit and took pictures of him with a fascinator on his head. I wanted to wear one myself, but I knew I couldn’t; people from Long Island can’t wear feathers or insects on their heads and not look like they made far too much of an effort. Look here’s Kate Middleton laughing: ah heh heh ha! ha! ha! Oh, it’s all just too grand being you.

The England that I love, that I imagine, and that I see (or choose to see) when I get to go there, is something I can only peer at from outside a window. In fact, as someone said to me at breakfast the day after the wedding, as I tried to open a leaded window in the dining room of the impossibly beautiful Elizabethan estate that we were so lucky to stay in: “Careful, that window is older than America.” Duly noted.

Windows older than America.

I think that remark sums up what I find so beguiling about Englishness or what I, as an American, perceive as Englishness. First off, that was a quick, funny remark; it’s why I love British comedy television so much I’ll admit membership to New Hampshire Public Television’s Britwit Club. But it’s also emblematic of how the English, unlike we here, live in the shadow of a long history – a history that gives England a rich culture and community life: quaint Medieval villages around a green, gnarled hedgerows, listed homes, Iron Age remains by the layby, the local pub, a rich language for Americans to destroy…Ordnance Survey maps. Anthony Trollope. Only Fools and Horses. But with the legacy comes the stewardship of it: living up to its glories, facing up to its wrongs, keeping the best of it alive while trying to move forward. I don’t mean to dissect the entire English psyche here, and I don’t think that the person who made that joke to me was getting at some huge meaning, I am just saying that perhaps part of being English means sacrificing a little bit of yourself to maintain that history. Stiff upper lip and all that. Choosing to schvitz, say, rather than risk breaking the lovely old window. Unless you’re Kate Middleton. Then you can do whatever you want and people call you a duchess. No, I’m not jealous.

I think this is why in a lot of great English TV comedies (which is where I get many of my ideas about England, for better or for worse), there is such a strong sense of irony – the people in these shows aspire to better lives, higher things, more money or status, but those attempts are foolish, to be mocked. Look at Basil Fawlty trying to put on a “gourmet night” at his sad little seaside hotel. Look at Del Boy Trotter, who says, poignantly, “This time, next year, we’ll be millionaires!” but he never (quite) makes it out of Peckham. There’s the ridiculous Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet), Blackadder, David Brent, Edina Monsoon…on and on.

Meanwhile, in America, it’s all meritocracy, the sky’s the limit! The road stretches on forever! You can be anything you want to be, darn it! President? Astronaut? Go for it! It’s what we tell our kids, and look at the TV shows that are produced here for children. So few of the kids on them are typical; most of them are extraordinary. Look at Big Time Rush, Hannah Montana, iCarly, even Dora the Explorer: everyone’s a rock star of some kind or another (this is why I prefer Caillou). It’s an impossibly positive message, it’s the vastness of land and mind that this country is built on, which is great…but it’s annoying, isn’t it? Because, and I think the English know this, one in a million of us will make it to some higher eschelon, fame, fortune, whatever we determine to be outsized success, but most of us? Won’t. Which is fine. And in the face of that, you need to take comfort, more than comfort, pleasure, in everyday things: a cup of tea, a good joke, a well-done day of work in whatever it is that you do. We all have dreams, of course, we all want to be as good as we can be, and we should always try. The British themselves have achieved a bit of success over the years. And I’m not saying in London jigs of glee are being danced every day at elevenses. But look how happy they look on TV when someone brings them a cuppa! That’s nice.

Anyway, there’s got to be a halfway between the UK and USA in this way of thinking. That you can dream but not let the dreams overtake you. What’s halfway? The middle of the ocean? No, look at the Titanic. Canada? Have they got it figured out? I don’t know, ask Caillou.

So back to the kid. When C’s off being president of the United States of the Moon, how will be remember his dear old mother and her fondness for the English way of life? How will he build on those first experiences of British sun and pasta coursing through his little body in those tender years? After the wedding dinner (in England, do you call it a “wedding breakfast” even if it takes place at dinnertime?), he went up to his crib while we danced to Parklife in the old hall, the baby monitor straining to transmit through ancient stone. And then it was time to go home.

On the flight back to Boston, desperate to stop him crying so that we (and everyone aboard) could have a peaceful flight, we jettisoned the baby hammock, propped him up in his car seat, and turned on the seatback television. We discovered Pocoyo, and he watched a string of episodes whilst shoveling Virgin America pasta and tomato sauce into his face. Now that’s his first AND second bowls of pasta outside driving distance of Flatbush Avenue. But it worked. And he discovered a show that he loved, narrated by Stephen Fry.

Stephen Fry (left) as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie a...

Stephen Fry (left) as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster in the TV series Jeeves and Wooster. (Wikipedia)

Like the Italian language, I think it can only do him good to get the tones of Stephen Fry in his young ears. Pocoyo is a Spanish children’s show, narrated in translation by Fry. Against a white backdrop, Pocoyo and his animal friends (including Pato, the fussy duck) have a series of silly adventures. It’s sweet – a sort of whimsical Caillou, that Fry enhances with a gentle wit. It’s just fun, none of the characters have Grammys or their own talk shows. And when he is a little older (but not much), together we’ll read my favorite English author, P.G. Wodehouse, and watch Fry and the incredible Hugh Laurie portray Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. Why? That deserves its own blog post. To come. In the meantime, I know Fry’s voice can pull C out of a cranky mood, which I understand. It’s what I do to stop myself from crying sometimes. I turn to Fry, Laurie, to Wodehouse, and to the comforts of an imaginary England.

I like to think, maybe even in England, there is someone that might find some romance in the place that we live. I hope so. That would make me feel less like running away to run a post office in a small village in the Cotswolds. Maybe someone there wants to come see Mass. Ave., that looks so straight and dreary to me, full of nail salons, pizza parlors and CVS stores – and find some beauty in it. The streak of Paul Revere as he rode to Lexington, say, or the start of a western trail that blazes across a country, full of hope, without limits. I don’t know, maybe I can squint and see that myself. I’ll keep admiring those worn old colonial route markers that pop up along the way. I’ll drive out of my way to pass them, and pretend they’re Stonehenge.

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