I’ve got barns on my mind. I’m driving across Illinois on 88 West. This is corn country. On this bright sunny afternoon, there’s a lot of amber waving going on. The fields run from the edge of the road to the horizon. Amidst clusters of trees far into the countryside, barns. Farms with enough shade to keep a farm family cool in the middle of summer. It’s 130 miles to the Iowa border, where we’ll see more barns. Here we pass what seems like hundreds of them.
Raised in a one-stoplight farm town, I’m keen on barns. My paternal grandfather had a barn. My brother and I climbed up into the hay mow, we stood next to him when he sat beside a cow and milked it. He invited us to pull its udders. We inhaled the sweet scent of milk and hay and manure. A sensory overload like that gets imprinted on your memory, indelibly.
A few months ago I drove by my grandparents’ old farm. The house is gone. The barn is gone. The driveway, lined with tall leafy maple trees, is still there and leads to the back of the lot, where there is a junior barn. It’s red, which is a nice gesture. It’s a pole barn, a modern structure, more garage than barn. Behind it, at the edge of what used to be pasture for my grandfather’s six cows, is the back (and only) nine holes of The Ridge Golf Course. On their Facebook page these amenities are announced: “We offer a driving range and golfing with pull carts and gas carts. Cash and check only! Tentative ho.” I’m not sure about the “tentative ho,” what “ho” is coming, when it will get there. These days every town, even a small farm town like Breckenridge, needs a golf course.
In the 70’s I drove down US 23 to university and back, passing a couple barns that served as palettes. Around Fenton an art professor named Doug Tyler painted murals on the side of barns. One I remember was the image of Raphael’s Castiglione. I’m pretty sure on another barn there was a Mona Lisa. What I didn’t get then, but understand now, was that barns were evolving. By that I mean emptying. Georgia O’Keefe spent summers with her husband in upstate New York and, departing from her paintings of flowers, depicted barns. Ends of Barns these paintings are called. She saw something iconic in them. I wonder if she saw also their coming obsolescence.
A few summers ago we attended a wedding in northern Michigan, with a reception in a barn. Wedding barns, I guess, are becoming a thing. It was cold that night. The wind blew through the cracks in the siding. But you had to think, Of course, the ideal place for a party. We had a barn dance. It was a great party, a regular barn burner. When I was a kid I imagined some day I would have a roll in the hay, enjoy a barn tryst, which now seems fond and foolish. Hay is prickly and dusty. But that’s how barn life played into my imagination.
Crossing 88 West toward Iowa, we drive in the direction of a warm front. A hot front. When we stop in Des Moines it will be 95 degrees. Along 88 many of the barn roofs are white. I mean blinding bright white. In some cases whole barns are bright white, which I think must be part of a heat management retro-fitting of barns. There are red roofs, and silver and gray and green and brown. But the white roof is so pervasive,
I wonder if there’s a government program helping farmers preserve these structures, make a future for them. I don’t want to imagine farm country without barns. I wonder if Michigan barn roofs are going white like these are. Back home in a few weeks, we’ll have to have a little barn crawl, go barn hopping to see. Right now between Bay City and West Branch, the fields look just like those on this Illinois interstate. When we get home, we’ll have to drive up North and pay attention to barns.
This morning I was reminded of Marc Maron and JB Smoove’s wacky conversation about fiddling, on Maron’s WTF podcast.
I was outside early, like 5:00 a.m. I take short walks around the house at that time, lighting the way with a small flashlight, careful to stay on the sidewalk to keep my feet dry. It’s a simple, low-level thrill to stand outside in total darkness and look up at the sky. The flashlight probably makes me look sneaky. A neighbor looking out the window might mistake me for a prowler. But at that hour their houses are dark. I have the night all to myself. If need be, and if there’s a partial moon or less, or better yet no moon in the sky, I go to the edge of the driveway and pee in the bushes, feeling like a natural man.
This particular morning I was outside because, back inside the house, having my first cup of coffee, I’d heard the swishing sound of our sprinkling system going on. I don’t trust the system. It’s irrational not to, I know. I programmed it, I’ve tested it in broad daylight. It works. At 5:00 a.m. it starts on the front yard and works its way around the house, ten minutes on each station, three days a week. But out there, under the cover of darkness, I picture busted sprinkler heads and water squirting straight in the air, or heads designed to rotate that are stuck gushing water in one direction, an appalling waste of water, an irritating waste of money.
I went outside to investigate, sweeping across the front yard with my little light. All systems go. Next I entered the garage under the cover of darkness, lighting my way to the system control panel, opened the box and saw: station 6, two minutes of water remaining.
As always, I noticed the wi-fi icon, next to it LNK READY. An invitation to modern-modem man. I should fiddle with this thing, I thought to myself.
Fiddling, according to Maron and Smoove, is an artless, dicey, often doomed investigation that involves taking something apart. “You gotta separate fiddling around with it from fixing it,” Smoove notes. To which Maron adds, “If you’re not a professional fiddler, you’re going to have a mess, and you’ll have to have a fiddler put it back together.”
I wanted to fiddle with the irrigation system because I might want to control it with my phone. For that to happen, the control panel needs to shake hands with the wireless signal in our house, which will enable a second digital handshake, between the control panel with an app on my phone.
LNK READY. There it was. But was I ready?
Behind the knobs and display, I got to the guts of the system. Lots of wires. I do not love wires. Only a fool fiddles with electricity. I found red, green, yellow, orange, tan, and black wires. In the system’s little door, this invitation: “REMOTE accessory.”
All I needed was the Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module – 2nd Generation LNK WiFi – Compatible with All WiFi Controllers Including ESP-ME3, ESP-TM2, ESP-Me WiFi.
Sounded like fun. Fiddle-worthy? How hard could it be?
I have some experience with this stuff. I was an early adopter teaching writing with computers at the college. This was before Windows. At the time there was the pre-Mac Apple world of computing and there was the DOS world. Pre-Mac Apple got an early lock on the education market. In the division in which I taught, we had two Apple computers—for 36 full-time instructors and twice as many part-time.
In schools back then–this would have been the early 80’s–you would see one computer, usually an Apple, in the back of a classroom. It was a sign of progress and innovation, I think, enabling schools to boast: we’re thinking about the future: we have a computer in every classroom. The problem was what to do with it. Kids, more often kids than teachers, fiddled with the machines, figuring out how to have fun. It took decades for pedagogy to catch up with tech.
The operating systems of these early computers were primitive and code-dense. You had to tell the thing what to do. This was the pre-mouse period of pre-pull-down menu programs. Point and click had not been invented. You told a computer what to do with keystrokes. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on one of the college’s Apple 2GS computers. For every formatting decision I made—italic, bold, underline, bullets, enumerated list, indent, block, left or center justify—there was code you entered into the page, which, if you did it right, the system did not show when you printed your document on the slow, very noisy dot-matrix printer. (It took three hours and two print cartridges to print my dissertation.)
The wizards at the college, and the other early adopters, most of whom were in the business department, went DOS. I taught in one of their labs (there were three total at the time) full of inexpensive clones, DOS machines that my guru friend Micah knew inside out. “Let me show you something cool,” he would say. How to use DOS commands to copy files and move them from a floppy disk to the network, how to format text, how to manage files, create folders, move files between folders, how to delete files.
I fiddled around a lot, acquired enough working knowledge of DOS to be relatively competent and independent. One day fiddling around, I accidentally deleted all the programs, the operating system, and every file from the hard drive on my laptop. I’ll never forget the haunting void on the screen, a blinking DOS prompt (C:\) and nothing else there. Fiddle at your own risk.
A universe later, to control our irrigation system with my smart phone, I order the remote accessory I need on Amazon. It arrives the next day. I would rate my confidence level medium-high—I ought to be able to get this thing to work—but I’m careful opening the package and the box. You never know. I’ll fiddle with it. I’ll fiddle around for a couple days. If I can’t get it to work, I’ll put the accessory back in its box, back in its bag, and send it back to Amazon for a full refund. Feeling good about getting my money back. Feeling the annoyance and sting of a digital defeat.
Recently the Wall Street Journal took American universities to task. “Colleges Spend Like There’s No Tomorrow.” The Journal looked at financial statements at 50 state universities nation-wide and found that spending increased on average by 32 percent from 2002 to 2022. Is 32 percent a lot? A cursory look at city, state, and federal general funds would find a similar (if not greater) increase over 20 years. Do institutions spend like there’s no tomorrow? Much of this spending occurs because there will be a tomorrow, and institutions make plans, and expenditures, to be ready for it.
For example, as an early adopter of computer tech in the classroom, I was asked to attend a conference to learn more about this new thing at the time called the Internet. The academic VP was preparing for the future.
At this point, I think I was still dialing up AOL at home. At the college we now had mice in a few glitchy networked classrooms, pull-down menus, laser printers. And Micah.
Go, the academic VP said to me, and learn what you can.
What was the Internet? How did we get it? What would we do with it when we got it? It was coming. We needed to get ready for it. So I flew to Research Triangle in North Carolina, where I was handed a 700-page tome, everything you needed to know about the Internet and were afraid to ask. Sessions were presided over by geeky tech types who provided detailed, often tortured answers to these questions in vaguely English terms. Evidently I needed to know about BPS, Bitnet, FTP, Gopher, IRC, PPP, TCP/IP, Telnet, USENET, ethernet, LAN, WAIS, HTML, http. It was overwhelming. I slept two nights in a hotel, ate six meals, drank a few beers with a few other be-nighted instructors, and came home overwhelmed and confused.
Well? the academic VP said to me back at school.
This is going to take a while, I said, this Internet thing. We would need a whole team of fiddlers. And we would have to spend some money.
The package arrives on our porch around 8:00 p.m. The Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module is a little thing, about the size of a pad of butter. I figure it will be best to fiddle with setup in broad daylight.
Next day, in a couple hours, I get it to work. Kind of. The controller shakes hands with our wireless signal. I download the app that shakes hands with the controller. “Congratulations!” the app tells me. “You can now access this controller from anywhere in the world.” I’ll have to learn the app, its icons, its controls, its options. When I do, theoretically, in downtown Detroit or downtown anywhere, provided my phone works, I will be able to tell our sprinkling system to wake up and sprinkle or take the day off. That’s what I want. That’s what I think I want.
The following day, with rain in the forecast, I figure I will make some digital adjustments in the system program. Please don’t sprinkler in the rain. I open the Rain Bird app, tap on it, and see an error message. The app can’t connect, I should check my internet connection, possibly the wireless signal is weak, re-boot my phone, re-boot Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module. Get help.
Out in the garage that morning, I sit on an overturned Home Depot bucket with my laptop on my knees, fiddling with the control panel and the interface.
I might be able to fix it, to get it right, if I buy a range extender to make sure I have robust Internet service in the garage. That will be another thing to fiddle with. How hard do I want to work? And for what? What I have learned from the Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module, when the app is working, is that the control panel on the wall in the garage detects rain on its own and gets along perfectly well without interfacing with me.
I pack up Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module and send it back to Amazon.
It’s digital defeat. And I’m okay with that. It was fun fiddling. The day I return Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module, a package arrives in the mail with my Vital Fitness Tracker, which will count steps and calories burned, distance walked; monitor sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure. I download the app. I take a long walk (15454 steps!). I go to bed eager to see sleep data. The next morning this message appears on the app. “No sleep data. Did you wear the device to bed?”
Yes, I did. So, I guess I’ll have to fiddle with it.
An oodle sounds a lot like a Monty Python character. You can imagine John Cleese dressed up as a woman, saying, “Hello, my name is Ann Oodle. I am an expert on snakes.”
Funny thing about oodle. It’s one of those words in English that has no singular. Think trousers, butterfingers, hijinks, spartypants, gadzooks. I’ve got dibs on the tinsnips. But I never have a dib on anything, not even a tinsnip. And I’ll never see oodle.
In its normal plural form, oodles means a bunch, a lot, a great many, a ton. In the sentences I harvested from Facebook recently (thank you, generous friends) I saw oodles of poodles, oodles of noodles, oodles of oodles. My friend Kate Cunningham brought Kurt Vonnegut to my attention. This from his Breakfast of Champions: “I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm. Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm.”
Oodles of charm sounded strange to me (evidently it did not to Kurt Vonnegut). Dwayne Hoover has a lot of charm, tons of charm. But oodles?
We distinguish, whether we know it or not, between count nouns and mass nouns in English. Clothes vs dresses, for example. Lots of clothes. Not ten clothes.
But it seems like oodles swings both ways, works with nouns that have mass and nouns we count. Some countable samples harvested from Facebook: oodles of cucumbers, oodles of cuddles, oodles of responses, oodles of buttons, oodles of wrinkles, oodles of seats. All countable. Then these: oodles of melted chocolate, oodles of junk, oodles of fun, oodles of tolerance, oodles of patience. Oodles of charm. Nothing to count here.
Oodles is cute (I feel slightly embarrassed using it). Its origin is uncertain. It’s slangy, informal. Probably 19th century, possibly Texas or Tennessee. And it could be an offshoot of kit and caboodle.
Looking into its origins I stumbled upon a site where writers reflected on its use. One recalls: “I once used oodles in an essay in school and got points off because ‘it wasn’t a real word.’”
Ugh, English teachers, how do we survive the damage you do? Another writer: “Granny used to always say ‘I have oodles and gobs of work to do.’” Then there’s this: “Hollywood star Harrison Ford might be getting on in years, but he still has oodles of appeal.” The consensus among writers seemed to be that oodles is cool. One cheeky individual said, “You should definitely say oodles more. Preferably at academic conferences.”
Possible alternatives to oodles these writers endorsed: boatload, shipload, shitload, butt load, shit ton.
Gotta love gobs.
Maybe because oodles ends in -s, I want it attached to a count noun. “Oodles of appeal” just sounds off to me. But then gobs of appeal does not. Harrison Ford has gobs of appeal. And I’m okay with that. So this oodles thing, it’s not scientific. It’s personal.
Of the samples I collected, 55 percent linked oodles to a count noun; 45 percent to a mass noun. So maybe, just maybe, oodles more frequently precedes a count noun. If we really wanted to do science, it would take an ambitious research project to verify this count/mass thing, a survey of oodles use in English across the country, in the English speaking world. We would need a grant.
I woke up this morning thinking about Sleepwalker, Linda K. Sienkiewicz’s book of poems, considering what to say about it, wondering how to find the words sufficiently to honor it. This is a book about grief, about the unthinkable loss of a child who takes his life, about how to live with that. I had just finished reading a book about homes blown to smithereens by a hurricane. Lying in bed I pictured a house, her home, flying into the air, spinning about and coming apart, forgetting that was the image on the cover of her book. With each poem in this book, she drives a stake into the ground, holding the house in place, keeping it from flying apart.
There is heartbreak throughout, the chaos of emotion intricately presented. In a poem about shipwreck (“What Every Mother Hopes For”) a boy miraculously survives and comes home. In another poem, in an orgy of anger (“Gone: A Dream”) the boy leaves home, the mother watching from a second story window, wanting to protect him, to help him, “I want to jump from the window after him / but I’m tangled in the curtains.” Helplessness pervades the collection. In the title poem, “Sleepwalker,” the mother connects–”every night I give him a kiss / to wear on a chain around his neck”–while realizing the separation, a gulf she cannot cross–”I am on the other side of his journey.”
And the discovery, in “The Second Worst Thing,” rendered in agonizing minimal detail:
The police took your laptop
I don’t know what else
and then you
Along with heartbreak (a thud deep in a mother’s womb, as Sienkiewicz describes it), there is the endless return and re-examination, and there is no answer, no reply. There is only continuation. “Once you let go, the body takes over,” she writes. Nothing matters, and tomorrow comes too soon.
Love is an ache. In these marvelous poems, the reader aches with her.
No one, as far as I can tell, drinks milk in Italy.
Whenever I find myself standing in line at the supermarket, holding a liter of milk–latte parzialmente scremato, which I take to be fresh 2 percent–I’m the only one. I’ve never seen anyone buy milk. There’s a tiny little milk section over there in the dairy aisle, along with a variety of yogurts and butters and a gazillion different wet and semi-wet fresh cheeses. Not a lot of milk. And like gasoline, milk is sold by the liter, not by the gallon. (A gallon!) Some days there’s no fresh milk on the shelf at all. Unthinkable. Across from the cooler are cases of UHT milk. No need to refrigerate that milk. Store it in the closet, it lasts forever. And tastes terrible.
I don’t think the woman behind me in line, or the cashier once I get there, looks at me and thinks, Aw, this grandpa must be buying it for a grandchild at home. And I certainly don’t think they assume I’m going to drink it. They probably just think, He must be an American. Then I open my mouth and remove all doubt.
In hotel breakfasts in Italy you find little spoon-size packets of Nutella. On hard crust bread or on a slice of prepackaged crispy junior white bread they call toast, Nutella is a treat. For American guests, and for Europeans who supposedly like a morning comestible called mueslix (never seen it), you’ll find fresh milk. In 45 years of travel over there, I have never seen a European eat cereal of any kind. I always have some, and feel, I confess, conspicuously American and, frankly, quite juvenile in my tastes as I pour milk over my Raisin Bran and granola. (I draw the line at Fruit Loops.) I also pour a glass of milk to enjoy with bread and nutella.
When we get back to the US, one of the first things I eat is a piece of toast and peanut butter, with a glass of milk.
If you looked in our fridge, you’d think that we have a habit, that one or both of us is a milk-aholic. That we should seek help. My son-in-law looked in there once, after I had just come home from Costco, and said Wow, who drinks all that milk? Well, I do. Drinking it takes a while. Ultra pasteurized milk today will last up to a month in the fridge. Confession: it’s gone before a month is up.
Supposedly milk isn’t good for you. My brother, raised at the same kitchen table I was, quit milk a long time ago. As kids we drank milk with every meal. So did our father. I don’t do that anymore, but I don’t want a glass of water with a piece of toast and peanut butter.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states, “Milk and other dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the American diet, contributing to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have also linked dairy to an increased risk of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers.” Gee, I don’t want any of those things. But it’s not like I drink milk every day, I don’t skulk down in the basement or out to the garage and sneak a snort of milk to calm my nerves, I don’t keep a pint of it under the seat in the car, I don’t binge drink milk or go on a milk bender for days at a time. I’ve got things under control, I tell myself.
Google finds 179 slogans and taglines to sell milk. Some examples: It’s a natural (gently argumentative). It does a body good (playing the health card). Cows in wide pastures produce better tasting milk (appealing to the ethical consumer). Vast fields, make happier cows, and better tasting milk (bad punctuation). Experience the cream of the crop (oh, please). Creamy, dreamy dairy (poetry in a glass).
I like it. That’s all there is to it. Milk, please.
Once again Tizi and I were brought to a beautiful place by her cousin Arnoldo and his amazing wife Marisa. It was a visit to Grottamare and, close by, to Massignano,
where, with their garden club, a group of generous and friendly souls, we toured a citrus grove, a horticultural and architectural treasure dating back centuries, which is now being restored.
After the tour and wine tasting at the Iacopini estate, we drove into Grottamare. We had lunch next to the sea, then drove to the upper town and walked. It was a sunny day. The gods smiled upon us.
What I didn’t anticipate was discovering that Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed through and stopped in Grottamare, waylaid by a problem on the train. He is remembered by the town and celebrated for the poem he wrote. There it was, the poem on a plaque, and some guy standing in front of it telling us where the restaurant was.
Ferlinghetti captures the beauty and aura of the Grottamare. Photos hardly do it justice. The poem succeeds.
Turquoise sea off Grottamare, Grottamare with its sea caves echoing along the Adriatic. Echo of siren song still reaches me inside the silent train once more the lost voices calling undersea
Ah, but naturally all is illusion the fog still lies heavily in the olive trees Dawn is made by the clock and not by light which only exists in our minds
men and women sleep in their usual darkness Only the light asleep in their eyes gives any hint of the iridescent future of an incandescent destiny
Only far off beyond the far islands the sea sends back its turquoise answer
This week I’ve had a few occasions to reflect on the concept of risk. Earthquake, tornado, air travel, rental car.
Thursday Tizi and I went to the Bologna airport to pick up a car. At the rental car booth it always takes a while. There are documents to present, long phone calls to make (by the car rental rep, to whom I don’t know), explanations and payments, initialing and signing. This day when the guy at the Drivalia desk finally hands me the paperwork and the car key, he says, in English for my benefit, “It’s a Soobe.”
“Soobe,” he says again.
“You mean, like, Subaru?” What do I know.
He shakes his head, probably thinking, Why try? Moron.
I mean me moron. He realizes I’m not going to get it. And I know I’m not going to get it, because Soobe is not in my vocabulary or in my product knowledge.
Out in the rental lot Tizi and I hunt for the vehicle among hundreds of rental cars. We go looking for it in the Drivalia section. I tell Tizi we’re looking for a Soobe.
“A Soobe?” she says.
I tell her I have no idea.
Halfway there it occurs to me I forgot to ask what color it is. On a tag attached to the key is a license number. But come on. Modern car tech comes to the rescue. When I press the button on the key that is more than just a key, a car somewhere squeaks like a mouse. I re-squeak it several times, and there it is, our ride for the next twelve days.
Based on the squeak, I was expecting a small car. Usually our budget Italian rental resembles a large roller skate, with enough room for two people and a suitcase. This Soobe is the biggest car we’ve ever rented over here. It’s also the bluest car. It’s royal metallic luminescent burn-your-eyes blue. Okay, I think, hard to park but easy to find.
“This is it?” Tizi says.
“Yeah, but what is it?”
I walk around the car, looking for its name. Not a Fiat. Not an Opel. Not a VW. “It’s a dr,” I say.
My thoughts exactly.
Getting into a rental car, I always feel thrill and dread in equal measures. Thrill: Will it be new? Will it be sporty? Hey, a Lancia, cool. But dread? Will it be clean. Will we have a fender bender. One year in Chicago, I got into a rental car that smelled like a recently cleaned men’s room. We’re talking urinal cakes. But the big blue Soobe, we sense right away, is going to be okay. Smells good. Spacious. Comfortable seats.
I step on the brake, push the Start button. Nothing happens. Repeat the process, expect a different result. No go. Our seatbelts are fastened. We are prepared for take-off. Repeat the process. Same result. On the display, below the speedometer, these words scroll: Put your foot on the clutch, moron.
One of the disturbing stories in the news this week involved a Southwest Airlines pilot passing out in mid flight. I used to think the most disturbing message you could hear on a flight’s intercom system, after “kiss your ass goodbye,” was “Is there a doctor on board?” Not anymore. “Is there a pilot on board?” Would they have said that?
It’s a feel-good story. There was a pilot on board, a certified pilot from another airline. He got behind the wheel, and all systems were go. In this instance, go back. Back to the airport where the flight originated, to seek medical attention for the afflicted pilot.
Having just piloted the big blue hr Soobe from Bologna to San Marino, I pictured the certified pilot sitting down, looking at the instrument panel and thinking, “Okay, I don’t fly this particular model. But yeah, I can fly this plane.” Like me taking my place in the Soobe’s driver’s seat. Yeah, once I figure out how to start the engine, I can drive this car.
We’re five minutes down the road when I realize I need to adjust mirrors. How do I do that? Ten minutes down the road I want to adjust the heat. How do I do that in this high tech vehicle? Where’s the gizmo? And while we’re at it, just in case, where is the control for the wipers? Does a Soobe come with cruise control? What are all these buttons on the steering wheel for?
I touch a button in climate control for AC and a television screen lights up.
I can’t look. I want to look, but I can’t look. I’m flying the plane.
There is a time to familiarize yourself with these features, and it’s not when you’re merging with traffic on the tangenziale going 90 km per.
That night we attend a poetry reading. It’s a small room–it’s a poetry reading, after all–but all the seats are taken. A few minutes after the reading starts, I experience a faint jiggling sensation. It’s coming from the direction of my feet, and I think it could be seismic. A little more jiggle, then no more. Later on, the big guy sitting beside me begins to get restless–it’s a poetry reading, after all–and begins bouncing both legs in a nervous, rhythmic, theoretical gallop. And I think, Maybe the jiggle I felt wasn’t seismic.
Next morning I check. Yes, it was seismic.
Four years ago, we felt two earthquakes over here. They were more than a jiggle. One was on the scale of: I’m taking a shower but I don’t mind stepping outside. In our building stairwell, excited voices echoed, doors were flung open and closed as residents took to the street.
Shortly after we arrived here on this trip, four weeks ago, there was a little earthquake, more than a jiggle.
You can go online and check seismic activity in any part of the world. In some places, Detroit, for example, it’s an academic exercise, a curiosity. Two little earthquakes in the last two years. If you’re in Italy, I don’t advise checking, because this country is a hot spot. They don’t talk about “the big one” over here, the way they do in California, but you begin to wonder.
The site I consult for earthquake info over here is called Raspberry Shake. I appreciate the humor. The name calms the nerves, if only slightly. Here’s the news: “In the past 24 hours Italy had one quake of magnitude 2.6. There were also 55 quakes below magnitude 2.0, which people don’t normally feel.” Fifty-six earthquakes. In 24 hours.
At the poetry reading, it was a (very) minor earthquake. I’m putting my money on Mag 1.8, 22 km SW of Folignano, Provincia di Perugia.
How dangerous is it over here? What is the risk? Our daughter and her husband own an apartment down the coast in Pesaro, which is getting closer to seismic central. Fall, winter, and spring they rent the place. Their latest tenant, because of frequent jiggles, moved out recently, seeking a safer zone seismically speaking. Tolerance for risk varies. When it exceeds your limit, you act.
In the main, here as elsewhere, California, for example, I think people simply accept the risk. “It’s where we live.”
We’re lying in bed a few nights later. Tizi says she can’t sleep.
That’s never a problem for me. I tell her to try listing the fifty states of the union in alphabetical order. That tends to knock me out.
“There’s bad weather between Michigan and Florida, and those kids are on the road.” Our daughter and her two boys, she means.
I ask her: “How many M states do you think there are?”
“Lisa said they’re spending the night in Nashville.”
“There are eight M states,” I say. “In the M’s I think of them east to west. Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland . . . ”
“And I saw on the news, tornado possible.”
“Mississippi, Missouri . . .”
I saw the same weather forecast she saw: rain, heavy rain, torrential rain, unGodly rain; and tornado. They might have met up with those conditions in Nashville. Before we came to bed I saw a text message from her that was not reassuring. “Weather BAD. Hale. At least the car isn’t hydroplaning.” She’s crazy, our daughter. Don’t use the term “hydroplaning” in a text your mother might read.
Next day, late in the afternoon, we will see this headline: “The massacre at The Covenant School in Nashville . . . “
It’s an earthquake, a category 4 hurricane; an unspeakable unnatural disaster. Three nine-year-olds, three school personnel, shot dead. The assault weapons were legally purchased.
It’s where we live.
I drive through Rimini in our big blue dr, an SUV (the Italians, I’ve learned, say Soove). Day or night, it’s dangerous. Let me be clear: I am a danger to others.
Unlike back home, there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic here. People on foot, people on bicycles and scooters and motorcycles who take their lives in their hands slipping between, around, and past cars. And every 100 meters or so, there is a crosswalk. In the US, the crosswalk is a suggestion. Driver, would you consider stopping? People in cars think of themselves as primary. I’ll stop and let you cross if I feel like it. Here most pedestrians assume you will stop. You are supposed to stop. I’ve had to train myself. Stop. Night time is worst, in the rain. I could kill someone.
To lower the risk I pose to others, I scan the sidewalks, the crosswalks and gaps between bushes where an old lady on foot might step in front of me assuming I will stop. I’ve trained myself: don’t look at Soove’s tv screen, don’t try to do anything except watching, searching, to avoid hurting someone.
Next week we’ll fly home. Out over the Atlantic, traveling 500 mph at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the only thing I’ll worry about is will they run out of the chicken before they get to my seat. The real danger that day will be driving the Soove back to the airport.
When I was a kid in school, there were emergency procedures–mainly tornado drills. I think we also still practiced what to do in case of an A bomb. A few families in town had bomb shelters in the backyard. Mayhem was an abstraction. Today schools in the US have active shooter protocols. Every day is an earthquake. I’ve heard friends say when they go to a public place, they’ve learned to scan the area, with escape routes in mind.
We have a new server at Nud e Crud, one of our favorite restaurants in Rimini. Tizi and I form attachments to servers. Dido at Passatore, Valentina at Marianna, Luccio in San Gregorio, Sergio at La Rivetta. We’re more than consumers passing through, paying for a product and service. We’re regulars now. The food, the transaction, the reunion, is personal. We joke, we chat. The banter is light. My Italian is good enough, I can usually join in. The new guy at Nud e Crud is Antonio. He knows us now. We’re getting there. It’s starting to feel personal.
“Where’s he from?” I ask Tizi one day. Native speakers, people who are from here, can usually locate individuals by their accent. A couple days ago at the local bakery, she placed the pastry chef, guessing he was from the north. And she was right: Venice. Today she says, with confidence, that Antonio’s accent is Lazio, down by Rome.
I tell her I can’t understand a word he says. Which effectively places me on the sidelines: observer rather than participant.
This happens a lot.
A few days ago, a Sunday, was Father’s Day in Italy. We went out to eat with our niece, her husband, and his mother. Malardot, where we are usually served by Federica or Sabrina, was packed. There was a new guy serving tables, a new guy who, everyone decided based on his accent, was from either Spain or Central America. I couldn’t understand a word he said.
“They’re really busy today,” Tizi said. “Let me talk.”
“Don’t objectify yourself,” Arthur Brooks writes in The Atlantic Monthly. “Thinking of yourself as an observer is better for your happiness than obsessing over being observed.”
Brooks makes a distinction between I-self and me-self: I-self the observer, the eye; me-self the participant, the actor-talker-sharer-giver-receiver.
Me me me. Can’t you just be? Yes, but it takes practice.
In a recent two-night excursion, another challenge. And some practice.
We’re on the southern edge of Orvieto, entering the underground tour. There’s fifteen of us. Plus the guide. It’s a good time to take shelter, as the sky has darkened and light rain is in the forecast. When Tizi and I exchange a couple words, an Italian gentleman next to me turns and says, “British?” No, I say, American. Then, as I usually do, pointing at Tizi I add, “Not her. She’s from San Marino.” He and I exchange a few words in English. When I compliment him, he shifts to German and invites me to join him, then tells me he can also speak Czech. He’s happy to show off a little, and I get that, because I too am a show-off and will blithely inflict my Italian on anyone who will listen.
We duck our heads, entering the cave, and proceed single file down a series of steps, to assemble in front of a large illuminated map, where the tour will begin. Our guide is in her 40’s, dressed in a spiffy blue guide uniform, with long brown hair spilling over her shoulders. She launches into her presentation.
“Sorry,” Tizi whispers to me. “It’s in Italian.”
Why, yes it is. I tell her that’s okay. I’ll pick up what I can.
The guide has a lot to cover and, in the manner of professional guides over here, launches into a discourse that is practiced, fluent, and scholarly, full of proper names and dates, along with some technical jargon.
We’re in a cave. So she has a lot to say about rock.
We’re in a cave, which means there is an echo, which puts me at additional disadvantage. Anyone who is hearing challenged, as I am, will tell you that echo is not their friend. It creates an auditory blur.
Right now I’m getting, in the sketchiest terms, a few echoes of Etruscan history.
“You okay?” Tizi whispers again.
“You can tell me all about it later,” I say.
For the fun of it now, as a thought experiment, put yourself in a cold, damp, dimly lit space 100 feet underground. It’s a walking tour, but you’ll be standing for most of the hour, listening to a dense lecture in a language you barely understand. Wanna sit? You can’t do that. Wanna lean? Best not too. You might damage the rock, which I’ve managed to glean from our guide is called “tuffo.” It’s a porous, friable rock, ideal for what these Etruscans were up to back in 600 BC.
There was a time, I confess, I would have wanted to run out the place screaming rather than move through a one-hour tour with the fifteen, unable to follow the talk. But I hang in there, in observer mode. It’s passive listening. I understand this:
And I understand this:
We continue the tour, the guide talks a lot, I look around and try to take notice. Here’s a press. Here’s a large stone wheel that’s 2600 years old. How’d they get that down here? My multi-lingual friend, I notice, has brought a flashlight. Every few minutes he steps away from the group, lights up a small section of the wall, and examines it. What’s he looking at? Another guy separates from the group, goes into his own private grotto, and coughs. People wearing masks adjust them. Here’s a well 90 meters deep that the Etruscans, with hammers and chisels, dug to find water. You can stick your head in the well and say, “Hey!” It echoes back, an echo I don’t mind.
“Amazing,” Tizi says.
Brooks refers to the via negativa. Via negativa is not a street, although it could be. (One of our favorite streets in Bologna is Via Malcontenti.) It’s literally “the negative way,” how mindful negatives can become a positive. “Everyone,” Brooks explains, “has what psychologists call ‘negativity bias,’ a propensity to notice the details you dislike over those you like in any situation.” The via negativa is subtracting the negatives.
Like you’re stuck in a lecture underground and can’t understand hardly any of it. Forget yourself, if you can. Put the negatives out of mind. That way lies happiness.
Ten years ago, in the Blue Grotto on Capri, we needed the via negativa. It’s a tourist attraction, like a natural cathedral. And it’s amazing, like a cathedral. You get there by rowboat, which in low tide passes through a rocky archway. The rowboat is piloted by a local dude. Think gondola and gondalier. We were pretty geeked. Once we got inside the grotto, bobbing up and down on the rising and falling waves, we noticed 1) that it was crowded (picture a large parking lot with no stripes, a lot of cars randomly parked—floating—willy nilly), and 2) that our pilot had no patter, nothing to say. He floated next to another boat and yacked with the other pilot in dialect for about ten minutes. I understood when he said “lunch.” And that was it. Possibly Tizi understood more, but he showed no inclination to talk to us. That’s what we took away from the tour. We were there, it was beautiful, the boat guy didn’t talk.
This was me-self plural. Us-self. What about us?
After our tour of the underground in Orvieto we spend some time in the cathedral, the Duomo. In there, you’re supposed to forget yourself. You’re small, God is big. Really big. That’s the point: to put you in your place. You would think in a church it’s time to invoke the via positiva–how you get to God. But how positive is it? You have to die to get there.
And really, we’re still on the via negativa here. For one thing, it’s cold. Can you just ignore that? For another, there’s the whole pervasive atmosphere of the sacred, which can be oppressive. The Duomo is an art museum, but with an attitude. So put that out of mind. And even the art element, it’s all too much, way more than you can take in in an hour or an afternoon or a day (or a week or a month). So, if you have one, you go to your happy place in there. You’re on alert. Maybe you’re into pulpits or altars, maybe statuary, maybe angels and saints. My thing is feet. And hell. I pick an apostle and take pictures of his feet. Then I look for images of hell, which you can’t miss. In the Orvieto Duomo I’m richly rewarded with images of hell, and I am struck, perhaps for the first time, by the fact that everyone in hell is naked. Those who make it to heaven can bring a small carry-on, they’ve got clothes, but in the other place, you’re lucky to get there in your underwear.
This focus, on feet and on hell, has given me a reason to go into a church, any church, in Italy. I’m like my multi-lingual friend with his flashlight.
We saw Antonio yesterday in Nud e Crud. Tizi talked to him. I did not, other than to say bring me the club sandwich and a quarter liter of red wine. What on earth is a club sandwich doing on the menu? What’s up with that table over there, with the four businessmen? And that guy in the corner, vaping between courses, can he do that? The two women at the next table clink glasses when their drinks arrive. Antonio wanders among the tables, looking perplexed today, like it’s all more than he can take in. And it probably is. I know the feeling.
Three men stand in front of a billboard in Santarcangelo di Rimini. On the board are “manifesti,” broadsheets announcing the recent leave-taking of people or the anniversaries of their deaths, often with an indication of a mass that will be said for them. For each person there’s a color photo, how they wanted to be remembered or how their family wanted them to be remembered.
You see these boards in every town, and not just one board. Anywhere there’s a church you’ll see the boards and announcements. And in Italy, of course, there are a lot of churches. That means a lot of dead people, not in your face exactly, but not exactly off stage either. The Italians live with their dead.
A few days ago we were walking along the side of the Duomo in Rimini. I stopped to look. A half a dozen faces. How many years ago did this fine old man die? How old was this beautiful woman when she died? Here’s a nonna. I bet she was a good cook. You look and you start doing your death math. He’s gone three years; he was older than me. She lived to the age of 55. Wow, I’m way older than that now. The nonna was 80. But this guy, so well dressed, so obviously alive to the world when the photo was taken, was dead at 28. What happened?
The dead, pictured everywhere, are a grim attraction. You stop, look, and wonder.
Each time we come to Serravalle, we take a walk up to the cemetery. We visit Tizi’s relatives. The cemetery is a busy place. Quiet, holy. (The Italian for cemetery, cimitero, is also camposanto, holy field.) On the graves, on the covers of the tombs, are photos, the same photos that appear on the manifesti; with the photo, of course, are names and dates. The dead in the Serravalle cemetery date back to the 19th century. You see the transition, from old black and white photos then to color photos now. I’ve been coming here long enough, I recognize names of family friends and see faces of people I know. Or should I say knew? We visit Tizi’s grandparents, as well as a tomb where a lot of the family bones are collected. We bring flowers. The tombs get flowers. The bones get flowers.
Lately, down by her aunt and uncle’s graves, we find Mario, a guy from our building who was always sitting on a bench out front when we pulled up in our rental car. “Ben tornati,” he would say with a smile. And give us some tidbits about the weather, or the truffles, or some local gossip. Here’s Mario, we say now, gone at 78. We add him to our list of people to visit.
Here’s the town doctor who, when he came to our house when our then two-year-old daughter was sick, pried her mouth open with a soup spoon so he could see her throat. He’s gone. His twin sons are gone, younger than us by decades.
On our most recent visit, I stop in front of Gianetto (short for Giovanni), a great old guy who had a tabaccheria, news, and candy store on Serravalle’s one main street. He said whenever we walked in with our little kids, “You see this?” gesturing at all the candy, “this is all yours!” He was one of my father-in-law’s best friends. They belonged to a group they called The Twelve Apostles. They went out nights together for episodes of heroic eating. One night, when Gianetto was in the hospital, they actually snuck him out of the hospital for a dinner and then took him back to the hospital after dessert and grappa.
My tradition with respect to the dead is small town Midwest. Naturally there are decades of dead in town, but there’s not the same kind of public recognition and mourning.
Once a year my brother and I drive to visit our parents and a sizable field of Bailey relatives in Breckenridge. A 45-minute drive for him, 90 minutes for me. My maternal grandparents are a three-hour drive from Detroit. I haven’t been to that cemetery since they were buried there.
Yesterday in Civita di Bagnoregio, near the piazza where we parked our car, I saw a memorial for a soldier who died in Iraq, reminding me of how common war memorials are in Italy. There’s been a lot of war over here. In any city, in any small town, it’s not unusual to see a wall in a high foot-traffic area. On the wall are names and faces of the fallen. In Frontino recently there were two plaques, World War I and World War II, with names. It’s the everyday-ness of these observances that’s striking. Your grief, your gratitude, your awareness of your own mortality is present, is called to mind. Maybe that’s why a memorial like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., hits you like a tsunami. When you travel to see it, it’s a pilgrimage. When you get there, it’s a tidal wave of grief. Here the waves lap continuously at the shores of the living.
In casual conversation I’ve learned to say, “Sono ancora qui.” You see someone you know, you stop for a chat. When asked, How are you? You answer, “Sono ancora qui.” I’m still here.
Looking at those photos on the manifesti, I think, It ain’t me babe, it ain’t me I’m looking at. Sono ancora qui.
We arrive in San Marino on Ash Wednesday afternoon. To get here we’ve traveled all night and through most of this day. We unload bags, turn on the water, and raise the heat in the apartment. Tizi makes a bed. We pull sheets off a couple chairs so we have a seat in the morning. Early evening we go for a walk. First night here, it’s important to stay awake as long as we can. Down below the apartment, we walk the road that will take us to the tunnel that will take us to the cemetery. We’ll get there eventually. But not tonight.
A few minutes before 8:00 the church bells ring, calling the faithful to Ash Wednesday service. Tizi says, Let’s go. The smudge on the forehead is not part of my tradition, if I can be said to have a tradition, but I go.
We go. To the church where she was baptized.
For years on Ash Wednesday, when I was still teaching, on my way to work if I remembered I would stop for ashes at the Catholic church near our house. Students, my Arab students in particular, would notice the mark on my forehead, and I would take the opportunity to explain a little about Lent, about the forty days, and liken it to Ramadan, their period of fasting. “Why do you fast?” the American kids would ask the Arab kids during Ramadan. “To remember the poor,” they would say. I always had the impression that they were proud of their fast–they struggled with it, physically, you could see that–but they were invested in it. They were lifted up.
This night the church in Serravalle is full. The creaky old wood pews are full. Chairs have been set up next to them. People stand along the walls, waiting for ashes to go. An usher shows us to a couple chairs.
The service is long. There are readings and a long homily. Standing next to the organist, a nun sings into a microphone. She has a little girl voice. Coming in, I thought we would queue up, walk down the aisle, get the ashes, and hit the road. Not tonight. Tizi tunes into the liturgy, as she is able to do. I do not. It’s in Italian, after all, not my language of worship. I don’t know their hymns. And I don’t know yet, in any real sense, the experience of faith. I am not fluent in faith.
Every now and then, when she has to, she nudges me awake with her shoulder.
One year we were in Venice on Ash Wednesday and went to St. Mark’s for ashes. I was pretty geeked. I thought, Now these are going to be some premium ashes. Gimme the smudge.
It took a while. There were red caps at the altar. They had a lot to say. It was a service, but it felt like so much more than that at St. Mark’s, the great Byzantine temple with the mosaics and the undulating marble floor miraculously afloat on the swampy ground beneath it. You don’t mind waiting. You feel small, you feel a sense of awe, which is the whole point of such a place, the way you feel small and you feel awe standing at the ocean shore or at the edge of the Grand Canyon. So it was okay.
When we finally got up there that night in Venice, and I held out my head for the smudge, instead of making the sign of the cross on my forehead, the priest measured out and poured a quarter teaspoon of ashes on top of my head, in my hair, and sent me on my way.
I wanted to be a marked man in Venice. I know that’s ostentation, which is probably a sin. But still, it was a letdown. That night, if I was marked, it was just between me and God.
This first night that we’re back in San Marino, when it’s my turn for ashes in the church of Serravalle, it’s the same thing. On my head, in my hair.
Walking back to our seats, I see a few familiar faces. Hey, there’s Marina. Hi! And hey, there’s Checco and Lilliana. Hi, you guys. A small wave, I hope, is okay.
“So,” I whisper to Tizi, back in our seats, “now we fast.” She nods and smiles.
Fast like an Italian.
I know that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins–it’s worse, I think, than ostentation–but somehow the Italians sidestep that difficulty. They can do Lent and indulge at the same time. The bakery up the street, called La Baguette, more pasticiaria than bakery, calls to us, offers sweet delights. Last year as St. Joseph’s day approached–Italy’s Father’s Day on March 19– we discovered zeppole up at La Baguette. Picture a round pastry, a tawny hockey puck, a cream puff pumped full of light yellow pastry cream, dusted with powdered sugar, topped with a dark cherry. I wish they made them the size of a frisbee.
Within 24 hours of being marked with ashes, Tizi and I split a zeppole. We split one. This is our sacrifice, a gesture of the fast, having half a zeppole rather than a whole one.
“We really shouldn’t eat these things,” I say.
She takes a sip from her cappuccino. “Sure we should.”
“We could make zeppole our Lenten sacrifice.”
Another bite of zeppole, another sip. “That would be crazy.”
“Do you think Checco eats Zeppole during Lent?”
“Of course,” she says. “These are so good.”
I make a mental note: Ask Checco.
Checco (pronounced KEH-ko), short for Francesco, is a celebrated local poet. He writes, publishes, and performs in San Marino dialect. His project, his marvelous contribution to local culture, is preservation of the local language, as well as celebrating local traditions and experience. Before he performs a poem, reciting from memory, he reminds the audience of word origins and figures of speech, connecting them to daily life, to the rhythms of the seasons and work, to the nature of family life. His work is poetry. But it’s also history and anthropology. Along with a great sense of humor he has a fine ear and a great heart. At his readings I’ve seen him bring Tizi to tears. I listen politely, eagerly, but because it’s dialect, I understand next to nothing.
His house is on the route of one of our walks, up the hill behind our building. An uphill walk smacks of penance, so we go for it. On the gate in front of his house Checco attaches copies of poems he has printed, both in dialect and in Italian. I can sort of read the Italian.
Today, a Sunday, we’ve skipped church and walked. On the gate Checco has posted a poem that asks what God was up to when he created the world, “il cielo, il mare, la terra, l’aria, e gli astri, il sole, la luna, le stelle che sono cosí belle da vedere e contemplare.” A list, obviously, the heavens, the sea, the earth and the air, the sun and moon, and the stars–all so beautiful to see and to contemplate… “Mille generazioni! E si nasce e si muore da migliaiia di anni…” So many generations of us. We are born and we die, over thousands of years.
And what for?
You meet people of faith who just seem to have a vibe. With God, I mean. They don’t throw it in your face. They just have it. It’s like having an ear for music, or they’re good at math. In Checco’s case when he recites, you see a concentration of heart and mind that’s so human and so beautiful. To see him in church, to hear him talk about “il Signore,” you see he gets it.
My nephew, gone a decade now, was like that. He had the vibe. When I sat next to him in church, after communion he would come back to the pew and recite his prayers, aloud, praying for people he loved, his friends, his teachers, his family. You thought, well, if there’s a God, he’s inside Joey right now. As I listened, I thought, Pray for me too, Joey.
Checco writes, along with beauty “c’é dolore, le carestie, la fame, e la terre ogni tanto trema sotto i piedi!” There’s pain and suffering in the world, famine. Every so often the earth trembles beneath our feet.
Does it ever.
“You achieve,” Adam Gopnik writes in The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, “something that, if not exactly mastery, is at least an actual accomplishment, a happy patch, a bit of [mental] software that you had never had before.” Gopnik is talking about the ability to draw, developing his hand at painting, one of those skills that some of us–me, for example–say that we absolutely do not have. Knowing yourself is knowing what you think you lack, knowing that you are tone deaf, or art deaf, or math-less, or dance-less–you name it, there is a skill, an art, a capacity that eludes you. I wish I could ——– (fill in the blank). Gopnik celebrates “repetition and perseverance and a comical degree of commitment,” suggesting hopefully that breakthroughs are not out of reach.
“Having (fill in the blank) now, however poorly you install it, makes yours an expanded and extended mind and body, a significantly different self than the one you were assigned at birth.”
When I read this, I think of standing on the sidewalk outside the church in Serravalle that night, talking to Marina, talking to Checco and Lilliana, marveling at how in acquiring a second language, you acquire a second self, a persona that is constituted by the grammar and sounds and rhythms and gesticulations of the new language. I never thought of myself as good at languages. My last year as an undergraduate, I took some French and fell on my face. I could pass a grammar test (just barely), but my mouth was useless. I could not speak.
Standing in front of the church, or down at La Baguette, I have a happy patch that very much feels like a second self. I prattle, happily. I gesticulate. This learned fluency causes me to wonder about the mastery of mystery, if I might apply myself to that and become fluent in faith.