Friday, February 24, 2017

Dear LEO: New project? Maybe

Dear Leo,
Ten days before you were born, I wrote something on the back of an envelope that had been sitting on the side table in our bedroom.

“I can feel my brain changing. Is it permanent?”

I couldn’t know in that moment that the answer to the question was yes. Yes, in fact, Jeanne, your brain is changing and it’s a transformation that will alter everything from when you wake up to how you architect your days, and which will likely last forever. 

But it may not be what you're thinking, son. Or more than what you're thinking.

The thoughts I jotted down hinted at what you might call “creative writing,” though no one would probably have said as much if they happened upon the envelope. Plus, I simply never wrote for myself, never wrote anything outside of my job as a journalist at that time. 

Something was burning inside of me, dear Leo, but I didn’t know it was the need to be writing anything and everything, all the time. Or that this need, this vocation, would accompany me throughout maternity leave and the first years of your life so much so that I would come to see July 9, 2012 as the day you were born and the day my writing life was reborn. A twinned birth -- the two passions that saved me.

Indeed, writing would become an obsession during maternity leave when -- trust me -- I sometimes needed a break from the new love of my life! (That's you). Writing, in fact, anchored my first year as a working mom. It quickly became my escape; more than that: a necessity. If I had free time I wanted to write. A notebook became -- along with you! -- my constant companion. I wrote everywhere; in the car while snarled in traffic and when you were snoozing, in parking lots. I can even remember writing in church on Easter Sunday in the first year of motherhood. A tectonic shift was taking place. Until then, I'd always confined my writing life to my dayjob as a journalist.

But let's go back to that original thought -- that my brain was changing.

In the days before you were born, I often had prodigious amounts of energy. Although the word "prodigious," the way it conveys industry, hardly seems right – a form of mania was what I was feeling. I was almost possessed at times. One night, I jotted down this thought at 4 a.m.: “Look at the time! I have too much energy. I know it’s hard to believe that could ever be a curse but I find it to be just that. Perhaps because there does not appear to be an “off” switch! I have more energy than sense right now.”

This burst of energy and this sudden mania for writing only served to thicken the plot, since pregnancy is nothing short of an insane journey. (Just imagine, dear Leo, if you can, a creature kicking the inside of your stomach. Do you have that sensation in your head?)

But however you slice it, I will never not see the two things twinned, bound, married to each other. I owe my writing career to you because you awakened me from a deep creative slumber. Perhaps just a slumber in general, as if I were living my life with the flag at half-mast.

What in the heck am I talking about? Well, I’ll tell you all about it. But first, here’s that first entry, transcribed from the back of the envelope into a computer file:

June 30, 2012 (~ten days before Leo is born)

I can feel my brain changing. Is it permanent? Is it only because of the hormones or am I finally beginning to care only about what’s essential?

Is my brain improving?

My concentration is acute. I keep thinking of the phrase, ‘The rough places made smooth.’ It’s as though obstacles haven’t been so much surmounted as removed by the person who planted them in the first place (me). I feel as though the impossible is now slightly less so. 

Oh and one more thing: time moves more slowly. I busy myself in some activity, and when I look at the clock hardly any time has elapsed. Now how could that be?!

-30-

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

From the Archive: Falling in love with Italy

It rarely fails. Tell someone I used to live in Italy and the swooning commences.

And these days, right after the person I’m talking to swoons, he or she launches into tales about upcoming or recently-completed trips to Italy.

Americans are in love with Italy. And understandably so. It’s a country of such exquisite beauty – not hidden, not at certain times of the year or limited to one particular feature or area – that you’d have to be somewhat immune to human charms in general to resist.

As it turns out, we can map some of the reasons we all love Italy.

1. The country is actually organized.
Hard to believe, right? You tried ordering a coffee at a caffe in Italy during peak morning hours and felt as though you were at the running of the bulls. Or worse, you rented a car in Italy. Yikes!

But it’s organized around public transportation, and divided, for the traveler at least, into two neat spheres of interest: country and city. To be sure, Italians themselves often live in drab, modern apartment blocks in the suburbs. But visitors are able to move fairly quickly and easily on the public transport system between stunning cities and the gorgeous Italian countryside to take in the best in urban and rural life.

2. Rituals remain at the center of Italian life.
Italian life is still dictated by rituals, and delightfully so. There’s a time of the day, week, year or season to do something.

And many Italian rituals are ours for the taking. You can do your own evening passeggiata, strolling past shop windows and stopping to admire the view or chat with someone. You can browse the flower stalls at the market or order un’etto of prosciutto crudo (but don’t slice it too thin, please). You can learn when to order a cappuccino and when to limit yourself to an espresso.

Italians. The people who not only invented the phrase buon appetito, but also a specific corresponding response: grazie, altrettanto!


3. What a visual culture it is!
It’s a visual culture. They understood #travelpics and click-bait long before the Internet arrived. My recent trip to Florence and Rome left me astounded by the gorgeous flowers tucked into every crevice. Gelsomina spilling over the walls of the city, geraniums hanging in flower pots, and quite a few other plants I can’t even identify. I, too, have house plants and tend flowers on a veranda. But they look nothing like this.

And don’t get me started on shop windows. The Italians are geniuses at arranging shop windows (along with the prices, thank you very much). So well-organized are Italian shop windows that they lure even someone like me, a confirmed non-shopper, into all kinds of stores.

They still live life outdoors -- unlike most Americans.

4. Italians are born communicators -- and remain so.
During my visit, my Italian friends expressed the same concerns I have about our digital culture, and the cult of the devices we have in our pockets, or really in front of our faces all day and all night. But, I can see, even in just the short while I touched down in Italy, that if given the chance, Italians would still prefer to talk to people face to face. Why else would the Italian coffee bar exist? They can make coffee at home.

And thank God they don't because there's nothing more entertaining than watching them as they kvetch with the barista over the partita or politics!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

When Bell'Italia publishes your letter to the editor

I still can't believe my favorite travel magazine, Bell'Italia, published my little ol' letter to the editor!

The magazine celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, and I wrote in to say I was celebrating my 20th anniversary of reading the magazine.

And lest the editors doubt my sincerity, look here and here to see all the times I've gushed over the magazine!

In addition to being a supremely beautiful magazine, Bell'Italia is also incredibly useful. The articles contain fairly detailed itineraries for city walks, hikes, visits to wineries, etc. To anyone wanting to get an idea of where to go in Italy -- even if you don't read Italian -- order yourself a copy online or pick one up when you travel abroad. It's like the ultimate insider's guide -- instructions on visiting places in Italy but... FOR ITALIANS.

Thanks to a fellow Italophile, John of Alpharetta (an Atlanta suburb), for alerting me to the letter!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Archives: the cuisine of Puglia's Gargano peninsula


NOTE: I'm reposting entries from my time in Puglia -- one of the best trips I've ever taken.

Let's talk about food, shall we? Specifically the meals we had in the Gargano region of Puglia, in southern Italy.

Not trying to make anyone jealous -- in fact, maybe by posting these photos, we can tempt America into fully embracing Italian cuisine! (We are getting there, yes, but some more work still needs to be done)

The meal up top -- a simple but delightful bruschetta -- was on offer at a bar at a beach near Peschici. I posted the photo to show you its killer location, and to make a point: the Italians are eating spaghetti and bruschetta and drinking house wine and enjoying many other gastronomic marvels at their beaches while we Americans eat hot dogs on the boardwalk! What's up with that?!

It sure made for a wonderful day at the beach. Just because we were not near a great restaurant did not mean we had to suffer through some subpar beach food.


We managed to squeeze in one more restaurant listed in the Gambero Rosso guide. It was La Collinetta in Peschici (if you are keeping track, that's our fourth meal of the trip at a restaurant listed in the prestigious guide).

You see in the photo above I just had to order spaghetti alle vongole one more time. What's not to love? Tomatoes, clams and spaghetti cooked al dente.


What else? Oh right, Il Nostro Inviato had orecchiette, the classic Pugliese pasta dish that's almost always homemade (in this case it was al pomodoro). Sorry that the photo is not National Geographic quality. But you can almost about make out the name of the restaurant on the plate so there's a slight silver lining!


We also ordered calamari fritti, which were as always buoni buoni buoni! And I ate scampi alla griglia, which were also quite good.


It was not the best meal, and we felt slightly rushed. But it certainly was adequate. We of course also ordered a bottle of local wine: Primitivo Salento IGT Rosso 2005 Tenute San Marco. Excellent!

Can't beat Primitivo, which is beginning to appear on wine lists outside of New York and other large American cities.

And we finished the meal with limoncello made by the owner's wife.

Those are the food highlights of our time in Peschici. I will leave you with a photo of a very ordinary meal...which gives you an indication of how well we ate on the trip. Here was the lunch we enjoyed one day on our little patio at the Locanda della Castellana: local crusty bread, local tomatoes, prosciutto and mozzarella di bufala. Can you beat it? No you can't.



Grazie per averci seguito! Arrivederci!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Elena Ferrante's La Frantumaglia and wounds

I'm a big Elena Ferrante fan. In particular, I like two of her earlier novels -- The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter.

But the words of Ferrante that have captivated me the most aren’t, in fact, in her novels. It’s something she wrote about writing in the book La Frantumaglia, a collection of interviews and manuscript drafts curated by Ferrante’s publishers. There, the reclusive Italian author says what distinguishes The Days of Abandonment from other books she’s begun writing but abandoned is that it “put fingers in particular wounds of mine that were still infected.”

Wounds of mine that were still infected. I underlined the sentence, then bracketed the paragraph. In my journal, I found myself returning to those words, in the original Italian: ferite (wounds) ancora (still) infette (infected).

How does one write about the ferite ancora infette? How does one locate them?

You can read more about this at Asymptote Journal's Blog where my essay on Frantumaglia was published recently. Go here.




Friday, January 13, 2017

When you write a fan letter to a translator

I nearly called it a "love note," which may be an exaggeration, but after I returned from a conference on literary translation in Oakland last year, I found myself with a new habit on my hands, thanks to the books I'd spirited away from the conference. Namely, I found myself reading over and over a book of poetry by Eduardo Chirinos, which had been translated from the Spanish by G.J. Racz.

The Spanish is on one side, and the English translation on the other, and for fun (literary translation world fun!), I've been reading the Spanish version first and then marveling over the word choices the translator made (and also finding out in some cases what the poem really means, since I am not fluent in Spanish).

And since I was having such fun, and since I also felt like I had uncovered a new micro-hobby (is that a word?), I decided to write an email to the translator, to thank him for bringing this wonderful work of Spanish poetry to English-speakers like me. It's particularly important given that Chirinos died last year age 55. (Someone needs to keep his voice alive).

So what happens when you send a note like that to a translator?

This happens: Racz ("Gary"!) insists on sending me two other books of Chirinos poetry that he's translated.

When I return from my Christmas holidays up North, a little package of books is waiting for me -- like Santa had to come back because he forgot a gift.

Maybe I'm a bit TOO into the "small things," but honestly I am thrilled!

Send a translator a love note, and who knows what might happen? He or she just might send you another book.

(And a book for a book-lover is the paper equivalent of chocolate.)

Thank you thank you thank you, Gary.

And thanks also to the American Literary Translators Association for a lovely conference and for stocking the book room with so many wonderful titles.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The (Writing) Year in Review!


Last year, I discovered a piece by the writer Alexander Chee from 2014 in which he summed up his year in writing. A year in review, as it were, and I thought, oh I want to do that!

I'd never before written a post summing up the year. You manage what you measure, right? Well, for a long time, I didn’t want to know what I wasn’t achieving. 

Now I do.


So I took a look at the year Chee had written up -- it was quite a year; you can read about it here (he was an Amtrak writer-in-residence -- after he thought up the idea himself! -- and finished a novel, etc) -- and for some crazy idea, I wasn't discouraged. As I said last year, this ain't no Alexander Chee year (this year or last year). But there's no question that as a writer, I'm not where I was a year ago or two years ago. A mere five years ago, I wasn't even writing every day outside my job as a journalist.

And besides, taking stock of the year that's about to end isn't an exercise in comparing yourself with someone else. That won't work. And it isn't the point, is it?

So here are a few things that happened in my work life this year:

I had an essay published by, wait for it, The New York Times! Yes, the paper I read every morning religiously and which serves more or less as a personal bible (oddly enough, given my family's solid Catholic pedigree, it's the document even my parents quote the most often). Best of all, it was about Leo's words! You can read the essay about recording Leo for The New York Times here.

(I also published a news story about models with Down syndrome -- my first bylined news article in The New York Times, the paper I grew up reading -- ooh tingles).


Wednesday, December 07, 2016

From the Archives: Puglia in Tavola

I'm an inveterate book lover -- you probably are, too -- and I'm a sucker basically for all books, especially if they come with a simple but soulful packaging.

That means, even cook books, despite my well-known aversion to cooking (as I like to say -- to myself and now to you -- I have a man to do those things).

I think I only want to write this post because I've fallen in love with the cover of this book. Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover!


Thursday, December 01, 2016

From the Archives: Time for the Panettone

I've always thought about panettone at this time of the year, even back before you could find the little Italian Christmas loaves everywhere in America. And I'm reposting this essay -- about the ritual of going to buy a panettone in Florence -- from a few years back:

                      ********
I opened the panettone.

I wasn't going to. I bought it last week at the Whole Foods store on Ponce in Atlanta with the idea of bringing it somewhere as a special treat.

But then I thought, well, I would like a special treat. Right here, right now.

So I opened it, and still mulling over a long-awaited email I had received from a British friend this morning, I had a flashback to the days when I lived in Florence and I would buy a panettone to bring for Christmas dinner.

(Yes, a flashback to Florence -- what do you expect? Chalk it up to my living in Florence just after college. I think those early years of adulthood, no matter where you spend them, remain disproportionately impressed upon the brain, perhaps because it's then that we launch our own independent lives, with their own rhythms and routines, separate from Mommy and Daddy).

Specifically, I remembered going to order a homemade, artigianale panettone from a bakery on Borgo San Iacopo to bring to my British friend's family in Luxembourg.

They had invited me to spend Christmas with them that first year that I lived in Florence, and as I counted down the days until I boarded the overnight train from Santa Maria Novella station, I made the rounds of neighborhood stores to pick up treats and gifts.

I remember walking over to the bakery along the narrow, cobblestone streets on the other side of the Arno from the Duomo, and pausing a moment in front of the glass storefront.

You know the type -- either from movies or real-life.

It had a large front window through which you could see a display case full of Christmas delicacies and everyday pastries, I believe the baker had stuck his head out of the kitchen for a moment to share a laugh with the girl behind the counter, and condensation had formed on the window from the heat of the kitchen.

There was a clutch of older women, in their quilted jackets, identical grey, knee-length wool skirts, and sensible brown leather shoes, issuing with authoritative tones and gestures specific instructions about the items they wanted.

I felt simultaneously integrated and assimilated, fully in the stream of Italian life as I waited to place my order, and forever locked out -- I would never be like one of those women.

It all seemed so evocative of city or village life: the neighborhood bakery. Ever since, I've always wanted to live in neighborhoods that are anchored by a bakery, but alas it's not so easy in America.

And while I was cutting myself a piece of panettone this morning, I wondered why that chore had remained lodged deep inside my mind. Living in Italy, one would not find it unusual to buy a panettone.

But I think the idea of rushing around town, preparing for Christmas, crossing chores off your list -- it all constitutes such a fundamental activity that it almost seems like a scene out of Dickens.

Going to the neighborhood bakery and ordering a Christmas treat is as far as you can get from the suburban shopping mall or car traffic or the incessant intertwining of romance with the birth of Jesus (doesn't that seem a bit odd?).

And it was enough just to breathe in the scent of the panettone this morning to unearth this memory.

Now if you buy a panettone this Christmas, you won't remember the same thing, but you'll have the same sensation of enjoying a seasonal treat. And Lord knows, nothing is more Italian than eating a particular dish at a specific time of year -- and then not again until next year.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Leo Journal: "Dreaming about dreams"

Lost entry from the Leo journal:

Sept 23, 2016

My little genius bounds up the stairs at 7 a.m. yesterday, and while Mike steps into the shower, Leo and I cuddle on the bed, which spurs him to say: 

“I dreamed about dreams. What did you dream about?”

This one little sentence, for me, tells a long story. A beautiful and complex story. Not only is Leo smart enough to talk about dreams, and to either recognize the themes of his dreams or realize it’s tricky to suggest one could dream about dreams, but he’s also learned to ask other people their opinions. 

He wants to dialogue with others. He doesn’t simply want to talk about himself. 

Swooning.