Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A love letter to libraries masquerading as a news story (CNN)

Did you know librarians have worked as contact tracers during the pandemic? Me, neither. It's one of many wonderful things that librarians have done since the Covid crisis began, and I wrote about it for CNN.

Here's the article:


Sunday, June 13, 2021

Stealing Memories (for the Boston Globe)

I've been writing in my journal (and on the blog) a lot about my parents, and their declining health, and what we've lost by losing the simple ability to chit-chat. Who knew that chit-chat was at the heart of our relationship? Also the ability to make new memories.

Anyway, today I am writing about these things for the Boston Globe's Ideas section. The cracker-jack art department even made an amazing photo collage of three old photos I had photographed. You can see some of the collage in the screen shot I inserted here. The two color photos I found in my father's wallet. It felt like I was snooping around even though he was unable at the time to follow the nurse's instructions to take out his insurance card. We were out in the car last summer when I found them, waiting in the parking lot of a doctor's office. I might as well have found gold coins in there, given my reaction.

I think the piece might be behind a paywall but here's the link:


Tuesday, June 08, 2021

How I write regularly (Jeanne's tips)

I share with my writing students at Wesleyan a list of tips for those who want to write more often -- to keep writing as a regular practice. The students typically aren't undergrads, but part-time graduate students who have lives like the rest of us, and don't have the luxury of a daily cache of hours to dedicate to write.

And I thought these tips might be useful for folks as the summer approaches and some aspiring /former/could-be writers with children will have little people home more often (or even more often, given the remote pandemic schooling saga). You can write around little people -- shoot, you can write ABOUT little people -- but writing does require concentration and if your kid is like mine, he has a lifetime supply of questions written on a series of invisible post-it notes that he keeps pulling out of his pocket. So some tips might be handy.

(If you are an aspiring writer without children, the summer is a great time to try out some new writing habits because the world as a whole is a bit looser, and you'll probably have a vacation or a weekend getaway planned. Take a notebook on that ferry to Fire Island! Buy a diary or even a day planner and write "Vermont Journal" on the first page, then see what you're inspired to jot down.)

Note, this post is not about how to publish regularly or how to land a book contract or an agent.

Simply, how to find time to write, and how to appreciate the small writing opportunities that come your way.

OK, here goes.

First step. Do an inventory of your days and/or of a typical week. Where are there already pockets of time that you could use for writing? To my students, I might say, for example, you take your laundry to the laundromat. Could you write while you wait for your clothes to dry? Or maybe you take a child to sports practice. Could you carve out a few minutes to write on the sidelines, even if what you write is more akin to notes or lists? If these two examples don’t fit your life, that’s no problem – and beside the point. The point is, what time do you already have at your disposal that you can devote to writing without making any large changes in your schedule or your habits? That proverbial 'time to kill.' Kill it by writing!

Second step. Where are there moments in your day or your week when you could be writing but instead are doing something that doesn’t have a real return on investment and isn’t a required activity? Maybe mindlessly scrolling on your phone or watching TV? That’s not to say either activities are bad or to be avoided at all times. But could they be reduced? Only you can decide. You may have appointment TV watching that you use for your own personal sanity. That’s understandable. But are there any habits of marginal personal return – often consisting of passive consumption of some kind – that could be converted into writing time?

Third step. Could you wake up 30 minutes earlier? (Maybe not – but what if you could?) Could you stay at work 30 minutes longer and jot down some ideas? I’ve realized (all too late) that I am a natural early riser and so now I wake up most mornings, brew an Italian coffee and get to work. No one else is up and I am alone with my thoughts and my writing (see below for more on this trick).

Also: What about exchanging work with a friend once a month? Knowing you’re expected – and have the chance – to share writing should motivate you to put something down on paper.

Tools. Can you carry a notebook wherever you go? A small one. Slip it into your shirt pocket or a purse. What about stowing a journal in your car? Keep it on the passenger seat (if it’s free!) and open it up at a stop light or write for a few minutes when you arrive early to an appointment.

Tricks. What’s something you love doing? Going to coffee shops? Eating chocolate? Taking walks alone or with your dog? Could you combine that activity with writing? Make it an activity you do not have to be convinced to do – something you love to do. And bring along a writing implement and get to work. Similarly, is there a place where you feel inspired or at peace? Maybe a beloved hiking trail or even the dog park. Could you go there and write?

For more about keeping a notebook, take a look at this piece I wrote for Longreads.

Happy writing!


Monday, May 31, 2021

Lo dico al Corriere: Basta con gli anglicismi

Ecco la lettera che ho scritto a Aldo Cazzullo al Corriere della Sera, con lo scopo di far ricordare che l'Italiano fa parte del patrimonio del Paese.

Caro Aldo,

Sono diversi anni che le voglio scrivere a causa degli anglicismi che ormai si leggono in tanti titoli, e tanti articoli (sia sul Corriere che altrove), e che vengono usati come nomi di iniziative, norme, aziende, ecc., in Italia. Ed è una cosa che mi duole, io essendo una studentessa perenne della vostra lingua (la lingua di Dante).


Andai in Italia per la prima volta come studentessa universitaria e mi appassionai del paese e della lingua. Quell’anno si tenne il referendum sulla riforma elettorale, fra l'altro, e la mattina dopo, ricordo tuttora oggi il titolo su un giornale quando passai davanti all'edicola prima delle lezioni: “L’Italia è desta.” Notate bene, desta, non ‘awake.’

Può sembrare strano che una persona di madrelingua inglese come me se ne lamenta così forte, ma la vostra lingua mi ha incantato! E non solo. Pur avendo il privilegio di poter frequentare l'università, seguivo i miei studi a stento. Solamente quando approdai a Siena per studiare, trovai la mia vera passione. Oggi ci metto l'impegno di ritenere la padronanza della vostra lingua perché lavoro in modo saltuario come traduttrice letteraria, ed ho persino insegnato italiano qui in USA.


Quindi quando leggo un titolo con una frase come ‘over 40’ (incluso nel titolo per questo articolo in primo piano: o ‘flat tax’ (trovato qui: viene da piangere. Mi preoccupo che anche in quest’anno in cui gli italiani festeggiano i 700 anni dalla morte di Dante, sono in pochi a capire quanto sia una ricchezza la lingua che ci ha lasciato. Chiudo questa lettera con un’ultimo pensiero: quando do consigli agli amici americani che stanno per viaggiare in italia, gli dico di fare in modo di poter parlare un po’ d’italiano durante il viaggio. Perché per me una gita in Italia vale poco se uno non può godere la lingua italiana – preziosa quanto il Duomo di Firenze o il Colosseo a Roma.

Saluti cordiali,


Monday, May 24, 2021

What I've feared about post-pandemic life

I haven't feared returning to 'normal life.' I've feared not being able to return to normal life. 

I fear that I will recede even more from public life than before the pandemic, that I will decline even more invitations, that I will become someone who won't join any club that would have her, to paraphrase an old saying I heard growing up (an aspiration I was already fighting before we were put under by the pandemic anesthesiologist).

I fear I will talk to even fewer people. I will go out even less than I did before the pandemic. I'll end up shelving even more plans to walk around town or visit the museum or catch a movie by myself (well, maybe not that last one, since it is something I love and is by definition, not social).

To sum up, I fear the lessons -- and the habits -- of the past year have made an indelible impression upon me, permanently altering how I navigate the world.

To be sure, my hope is that I will go on a frenzy of visits and meetups and I've already thought about the places I'd like to visit -- Philadelphia, to see dear old friends; the Jersey Shore, to sit for hours listening to my aunts and uncles while I still can; and of course, eventually, to Italy to console my beloved Italian friends, one of whom likened the lockdown to being 'seppelliti in casa,' buried in your house.

But I see how the pandemic has conspired to etch an extremely small world for me, after motherhood  had -- for very good reasons -- already done the same (motherhood opened many doors, but logically closed others; it's been a minute since I've visited a disco, for starters. It's been a minute since I've considered a job that would require a lot of travel). 

Now a converted suburbanite (YIKES!) amid a global pandemic, I basically don't go anywhere other than Leo's school. 

We hike, yes, we do a lot of hiking. And it feels wonderful.

But that's it. Until we were vaccinated earlier this month, we rarely even walked into town. Because in town, there are people.

I am now old. When I return to Italy, I prepare at length for the long vacation days where I will walk endless distances over cobblestones, talk with long-lost friends, kvetch, window-shop, live outdoors. Chalk it up to a midlife awakening to the pleasures of being a partial introvert (probably very surprising to people I knew in other lives, but helpful for my writing efforts).

Similarly, I think I need to begin preparing now to live again, post-pandemic. But how? 

Small steps, I guess. I finally saw my old friend, Beth, last month, after a year-long hiatus and gorged on nearly four hours of glorious conversation. We met at a nature preserve in Massachusetts, halfway between our homes. I didn’t even have lunch – just a granola bar. The conversation was my lunch. The boys ran ahead and dammed creeks and climbed rocks and we just talked and talked. Leo was frequently waving sticks dangerously but I paid no attention until Beth helpfully alerted me. I was just lost in wonderful conversation!

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

'The Last Speakers' and the other yesterday

I've just read the most fascinating book about the scores of indigenous languages that are disappearing around the globe.

I've read about this before but not in a book-length treatment. The book is called The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages, by K. David Harrison, a Swarthmore professor and an explorer with the National Geographic Society. 

In it, the author frequently laments what will be lost when a particular language ceases to be spoken. As he and his partner-in-rescuing-languages put it, when a language is in danger of disappearing, a way of looking at the world is also at risk for becoming obsolete. Gone.

In some cases, he is talking about a language spoken by a handful of people. And it can be easy to think it's not that important.

But then he mentions particular phrases. Like the Tofa people  in Russia calling October not a single word like ottobre (Italian) or pazdziernik (Polish) but rather "the month of rounding up male reindeer."

To indulge a "Jerry Maguire" reference, he had me at rounding up reindeer (male or female). Because clearly that is quite distinct from how I think of October. When I say I like October, I am saying little more than a preference for a particular 31-day stretch of the year that happens to fall later on the calendar.

And I know what he means, simply by knowing Italian. Italians don't say 'the day before yesterday.' The phrase they use translates literally to 'the other yesterday' (ieri l'altro, colloquially or l'altro ieri).

Ditto 'the day after tomorrow.' In Italian, that's the other tomorrow, literally (domani l'altro, again, colloquially).

I also love the phrase "sa di fumo" or "sa di chiuso" where the verb for to know (sapere) takes on the connotation "smells like." In the first case, you might say "sa di fumo" if you enter a room that smells like smoke. But note: literally it means "it knows about smoke," or "it knows of smoke."

In many cases, Harrison's examples are much more expressive. To wit, 'roundup male reindeer month.' Other members of a language group he interviewed had months like "Moose month," "Green month," and "Bear month." That feels as though it has a touch of anthropology thrown in.

But that doesn't mean the quirky Italian linguistic curiosities don't delight or have merit. Why do they say, instead of the phrase about wanting to have your cake and eat it, 'have the bottle full and the wife (ALSO) drunk?' (Avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca).

I've always told people that the first two words I distinctly remember learning on the ground in Italy -- which is to say separate from my university studies before I was in country -- were the verb "scherzare" (to joke or to kid) and the noun "sciopero" (a labor strike). Talk about cultural immersion! The first word covers a key part of Italian life, probably even the Italian coping mechanism, and the second hints at how their society is set up, who's at the table, who wields some modicum of power, and how that dynamic plays out (i.e., when I lived in Florence, the bus was late a lot).

I've written about something similar before in the context of Leo's early forays into English. He would say "tomorrow's tomorrow," rather than the day after tomorrow, and the process of decoding his words reminded me of learning Italian.

Makes me wonder if I shouldn't have studied linguistics! Studying a foreign language, as I have, positions you at the edge of the field of linguistics -- but just the edge.

There is even a documentary called "The Linguists" about the work Professor Harrison and his team collecting interviews from elders whose languages are disappearing around the globe. Check out this trailer:

Saturday, May 15, 2021

He asks Twitter's best questions (for CNN)

What opening lyric of a song gives you the chills? What celebrity death hit you the hardest? What's something extremely strange you believed as a kid?Without saying the person’s name, who is your favorite musician? What film role was 100% perfectly cast? 

These are some of the questions that caught my eye when I first stumbled on Eric Alper's Twitter account. The Canadian music publicist and aficionado isn't looking to troll anyone, but rather tap into a sense of shared nostalgia.

So I wrote a mini-profile of him for CNN.

You can read the piece here:


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

To blog or not to blog (for Brevity)

I wrote a piece about whether writers should maintain a personal blog for the Brevity Nonfiction Blog, but I will confess I only know that I think blogging is time well-spent. Other writers may come to other conclusions! Indeed, even one writer I quote in the piece who does keep a personal blog doesn't necessarily recommend it.


"I will continue to blog because I have a blog. Because I like to track a particular activity – my Italian language engagement – through blogging and I take advantage of the platform to also publish writing about other interests. Essentially, when you come to my blog, you’re around my table. And while other people would serve you a meal there, I’d like to serve you my writing."

To read the rest, go here:

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Postcard from the vaccine dispensary

I won't give you an image that you can print but rather one you can perhaps feel: when I arrived at my vaccine appointment yesterday, I promptly began to tear up. 

I wasn't tired. I hadn't had a bad day. I suppose my hair looked like it always does and what of it? That wouldn't make me cry. No one yelled, bad news hadn't searched me out and found me yesterday. 

No, I am simply ready to live again. 

I am weeping over all the days I haven't been living. 

And that was the inspiration behind every tearful greeting of thanks I dispensed at the cavernous Oakdale Theater-turned-get-your-old-life-back-here station; to the door clerk who took my name, to the Hartford Healthcare official with her pink tweed jacket who checked my ID and gave me that precious vaccine card, to the nurse who gave me the shot -- he looked almost bewildered by my profuse thanks -- to the soldier on his phone who didn't happen to help me other than his simple presence helped me. 

My left shoulder is sore but not nearly as much as my spirit. Friends, let's live again (and H/T to George Bailey whose bit of dialogue from the second bridge scene is forever stuck in my head).


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Edith Bruck: "La lingua è la mia patria"

Edith Bruck has published a new memoir called Il pane perduto, and the 88-year-old survivor of Auschwitz is promoting the book through a series of talks. I was able to "attend" one at Biblioteca Villino Corsini and I took some notes on what she said. So much wisdom in the words of a woman who for over 70 years has had to not only live without her parents and her beloved brother but also live with the knowledge that they perished in the  Holocaust in the cruelest way. Our dead loved ones, she told the virtual audience, "vivono dentro di noi," they live inside of us, and "sono sempre con noi," they are always with us.

Of her experience entering Auschwitz at age 12, she says, “Ho vissuto qualcosa assolutamente inimmaginabile,” meaning, "I lived through something that is absolutely unimaginable." 

And forget forgetting it, obviously: "Non riesci mai a dimenticare," You never manage to forget it. (But the rest of us? We do manage to forget this horrific era of humanity again and again. This era, which is not even so far away from today).

So how to survive? How to survive more than 70 years?

“Ci rifiugiamo nella scrittura.”

We take refuge in writing, she says. Indeed, Italian is a "rifiugio" for her. Or put a different way, "Language is my country."

Bruck began writing in Italian in the 1950s, and her entire body of work is in Italian -- the language she chose to describe what she couldn't bring herself to describe in her native Hungarian (language is her country, she says).

It's no surprise, then, that she says we need "una lingua nuova" (a new language) and "nuove parole" (and new words) to describe Auschwitz.

Even now.

I have had the honor of translating some of Bruck's poetry and she has also given me permission to translate some of her short stories. And it is one small way that I never forget the Shoah. That I pay respect, and that I seek to learn and re-learn the lessons of that era. It's become a small personal project to learn as much as I can about the Holocaust and World War II.

I'll never be able to learn enough. Luckily. I have her new memoir -- which has made this grand old lady once again a finalist for the Premio Strega. Auguri, Edith!