Category : Personal


Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth.*

October 12 used to be a fun holiday. Christopher Columbus Day! Parades! A reason to celebrate in my Italian-American neighborhood.

Today, not so much.

Many years ago, before most towns, Berkeley, California changed the text for its parking meter holidays from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People Day.”

It’s been hard for me to adjust.

One of the first passages we had to memorize in Italian class as 6th graders was Cristoforo Colombo nacque a Genova nel mille quattrocento cinquanto due (his birthdate 1452, now disputed by a year or two). . . followed by accounts of his successful excursions and discoveries and feats of valor. No one ever mentioned his arrest for abuse of power, his presiding over a massive slave trade, or even that the Vikings may have gotten here before him.

A statue of Columbus stands outside St. Anthony’s Church in Revere, Massachusetts, where I was born (nacque in Revere nel mille novecento ??) My childhood friends and I always thought he was a saint, of equal stature with St. Anthony of Padua, who stood on the other side of the entrance.

In Revere, the tradition continues to this year, with a Columbus Day parade. If I can find a photo, I’ll add it! If you have one, please add it!

* Read the apocryphal story of Columbus breaking the egg.

My Dog is Friendly

First, a caveat: I didn’t do this research, nor did I sponsor it in any way. I’m really just passing it on.

The RAND study found no evidence that children from pet-owning families were better off in terms of their mental well-being or their physical health. (Click on the image to read the article.)

I could quit here, but this is only one of my points. The rest have to do with other myths:

1. Pets give children a chance to take responsibility caring for the animal.

Well, yes, but I’ve yet to see a kid actually assume responsibility for the animal more than ~5% of the time.  In one case, a cat owner I know left her cat with her mother when she went off to college, with instructions on what to do with it.

2. Pets provide unconditional love.

True, but how is that a good thing once you pass the age of 2? How does this teach a kid reciprocation, the idea that it’s as important to give as well as receive? And not just on the kid’s terms.

And I’m disturbed by memes claiming that pets are “part of the family” or even “more caring than people.” Do we really need that in today’s world? Shouldn’t we be sure every human is taken care of before we put pets out in front? Another study found that half of all American pet owners consider their pets as much a part of the family as any other person in the household. That study was 8 years old; I’ll bet the number is higher now.

3. Pets are loyal.

Only as long as you feed them.

I cringe when I see photos of small children, even infants next to an animal three or more times their weight. All it would take would be one innocent move by the child to aggravate the pet and there would be sorrow in that household. And yes, I’ve seen that happen—an unfair competition between an up-to-then beloved family doberman and a two-year-old. For another, more famous example, recall the story of the silverback gorilla and the toddler in the Cincinnati Zoo last year—even granting the gorilla’s best intentions of taking care of the child, the protective arm of a 400-lb animal can be lethal to the child. Who was to blame for this? I say: the zoo. Why do we have them? But maybe that’s another blog.

The solution: leave animals to other animals. Nature will take care of them. It’s hard to carry out this philosophy. Even though I don’t linger outside (that’s “their” domain), it’s difficult to avoid pets. It’s my theory that animals would prefer this. I know of 2 large dogs that are in cages all day while their owners work. One parent told me the dogs like the cages. Oh, and is the horse that’s sailing down the freeway also happy? In many ways, non pet owners are kinder to the animal kingdom.

When one is outside my local coffee shop for example, essentially taking up the whole sidewalk, I step off the curb and cut a wide swath around it, preferring a sideswipe from a vehicle to contact with a dog.

Often the owner senses the reason for my maneuver and says, “He’s very friendly.”

“That’s the problem,” I say.

I’m not sure the owner understands this — it’s not that I’m afraid of getting bitten by an animal (though, that too), I don’t want it to touch me. To nuzzle, to drool, to pee on me, or to run its fur anywhere near me. Who knows what normal reflex on my part will send the pet into untamed mode?

And now for a PET PEEVE. (groan) Why do authors feel the need to tell you what pets they have? You know what I mean: ” . . . lives in Vermont with her husband and large pit bull.” If this to keep aggressive fans away, I get it. But what about “lives in Iowa with his wife, two children, and a tiny purse dog?” Do they think we’ll like them better if they not only write excellent books, but also rub noses with the lesser species? Why not something like “lives in Brooklyn with his partner, with whom he shares a couch.” Oh, never mind.

I know I risk losing friends, but it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of that RAND study. And as always, I’m happy to hear counter arguments.

Male or Female?

Teaching an international student body in two online science courses, I often don’t know the gender of some of my students. At first this was disconcerting. How could I know how to respond to a posting if I didn’t know whether it came from a man or a woman?

Girl or Boy?

I’ve had students with first names such as Xjigme, Myint-San, Widya, Lieu, and many more that are unpronounceable and unidentifiable as to gender. I can only do so much to encourage them to post a photo. In the past, I’d study the postings to see if he or she would refer to a wife or husband. But that’s no longer a clue.

Many “American” names are gender-neutral also. Was the Sean I had last term a girl, like the actress Sean Young, or a guy, like the actor Sean Penn? How about Lee? Female Lee Harris or male Lee Marvin? What about Alex? Casey? And fuggedabout Chris and Dana.

Every year that I’ve taught these classes in cyberspace, there’s at least one student whose gender I never learn, not even as I assign the final grade.

The Implorer by Camille Claudel, sculptor (1856–1943)

I had my own name trauma when I was 5 or 6. My family was on a trip up by the East Coast Canadian border. Some French-ish guy named Camille had the nerve to tease me by claiming I had a man’s name. Wah! He ignored my cries and pointed out Camille Henry, Camille Saint-Saens, Camille Pissaro, Camille Corot. Too bad I wasn’t smart enough to match him with Camille Claudel, Camille Paglia, Camille Guaty, or Greta Garbo (OK, that was a fictional role, but still.)

Back to my class rosters, eventually, I realized that it shouldn’t matter whether I’m reading the postings or the quiz answers supplied by a man or a woman. How does it help to know the gender perspective of a person if the issue is nuclear power or gene therapy or bitcoins or the Higgs boson?

Maybe it doesn’t.


Another repost from LadyKillers — they do come up with the best topics!

One-off: done, made, or happening only once and not repeated.

Possibly the story of my life. Once I’ve “done” something, I don’t want to do it again. There are so many other things to do that first time.

This can be good, when it comes to a marriage, for example. But for other projects, results vary.

I blame my Gemini beginnings—by some readings, we’re “restless and distracted.” Not the kind of person who can do the same thing twice.

In my knitting days, this was borne out by the fact that if I wanted to make a pair of mittens, I had to do it with both mittens on the needles at the same time. Otherwise, there was a good chance the second would never get made. The same with socks. My best products were one-offs: ponchos (yes, it was the sixties); hats; scarves. Especially scarves, since I could quit whenever I wanted to.

My husband, an engineer whose favorite thing to do is something he’s already done over and over, says I’m not a finisher, thus compounding my one-off personality trait. (It’s also said that Geminis can’t do the same thing once.)

By contrast, the Cable Guy, as I call my husband (he who will not be named on social media), is an obsessive finisher. Case in point: We both do crossword/crostic puzzles. Once I know what the theme of the puzzle is and I know I could finish it, I’m done (see definition of One-off, above). The Cable Guy on the other hand, is not finished until he puts that final letter in place, even though he crinkles it up and tosses it away immediately after.

The same goes for jigsaw puzzles, even though—hello? the picture is on the cover!

The Cable Guy never tires of asking me, “Aren’t you going to finish that?”

“I’m done,” I say, but not every time.


Topic of the week: Who doesn’t multitask?

There are a few ways to do it.

1. How to multitask a movie.

For example, say you think you’ve earned a couple of hours for a movie. Before you sit down with a cup of coffee, you

• put in a load of clothes

• start a soup in the crock pot

• set the timer for a pan of hard boiled eggs

• make sure a pad of paper and pen are handy for notes for:

– to do list

– critique of movie for:

— blog

— writing class

• set timers for laundry, soup, eggs

• have pile of magazines handy for sorting

and during the movie

• watch for useful tips for:

– writing class or

– your next short story

• grab a dust cloth and clean up the small table next to you, including:

• pull the odds and ends container onto your lap and

– sort out the nailclippers from the vitamins, etc.

• whisk off the cloth and arrange a clean one on the table


relax with cold coffee during the last 10 minutes of the movie

Not an uplifting news segment

2. Watching the news.

It’s harder to multitask on your own while watching the news, because they do it for you. Here’s a typical screen from CNN.

In the one second that this frame is showing, I’m getting 15 pieces of information:

• the voice of the anchor woman

• an image of the guest

• audio from the guest

• the name and affiliation of the guest

• the time zone the guest is in

• the time zone the anchor is in

• separate image of the content of the interview, which includes:

– a video connected to the content

— ID of video provider

• a video and captions of separate news item (Irma in FL)

• a thick banner with a summary statement from the AMB

• a scroll along the bottom with information on donations

• a small box with Dow Jones info toggling with time

A few seconds later I saw

• a pop up with COMING SOON (documentary on Reagan)

• news of a royal pregnancy

3. Computer Multitasking

I have 2 monitors in front of me.

Monitor #1 has

• list of writing students and status of submissions

• record and schedule of blogs

• handy addresses/phone #s

• Word doc for science students needing attention

Monitor #2 has

• docs being worked on

• folders with open projects

• email open

• FB open (in case of emergency)

I’m exhausted just writing this. I’m going to relax and fold a pile of clothes while I stir the soup and finish a chapter for tomorrow’s book club.



Hoping for the best for all affected by the storms in Houston and other towns.

LABOR DAY WEEKEND COMING UP — put away your whites!

Digging a ditch, 1937. Joe Minichino could have been there.

Labor Day always reminds me of a talk I gave at a local business meeting. The group of about fifteen work at various jobs: banking, real estate, small business, and consulting are the ones I know of. It was a breakfast meeting at 7 in the morning, before most work days began.

I’d talked to them before and they were receptive as usual to my topics: the writing process, the state of publishing as I experience it. One woman in particular always asked when my classes were since “some day” she wants to write a book.

On this one particular day, people stayed around after my talk and then, one by one they left, uttering some variation of “I wish I were a writer, but I have to go to work now.”

Can you hear my groan?

To my parents, who had six or seven years of school between them, anyone who dressed up before they left the house in the morning was not really working. I understood that—and I’ve always been able to see the difference between my father’s kind of work—heavy construction labor—and my kind of work.

But I don’t expect to hear remarks like that from professionals. How can an educated person think it’s not some measure of work to write two books a year, for example, or even a half a book a year?

The last woman out the door of that meeting said, “Once I don’t have to work, I’m going to write a book, too.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.

Too wise**s?

Wardrobe Function

Madame X ready for the office

Guilty: I started this discussion on Facebook.

I used to think of myself as a feminist. Not the raving kind, but just doing my bit in small ways, especially in the classroom.

For example:

I read a study showing that science teachers, both male and female, treated girls and boys differently in subtle ways. When students entered the classroom, boys were more likely to be addressed with a challenge—

• Were you able to finish the analysis of yesterday’s lab?

• Did you figure out the answer to that last, tough problem?

Girls, on the other hand, would be greeted with—

• Is that a new sweater? Nice color.

• Are you feeling better after that bad cold?

I immediately examined my own tendencies and made changes.

In the office, as a supervisor in several contexts, similar observations led me to be sure I gave equal time at meetings to soft-voiced women, and treated their ideas with equal respect.

No one was going to accuse me of being sexist!

Until now.

I posted on FB a photo of a network anchor woman who was wearing her cleavage, front and center! It was clear that taping was involved and a wardrobe malfunction was one wrong, twisty movement away. She sat on a high stool in front of a glass desk, her thighs also featured.

She looked ready for a party, and I would have applauded the choice. But at her job, she was asking us to take her seriously, to accept her reporting.  The combination of “take me seriously” and “here’s my cleavage” doesn’t work for me.

Should women be able to wear anything they want, within the legal limit, anywhere? Of course. But shouldn’t they also be mindful of the message they send when they show up in something that distracts us into wondering: what’s keeping that shirt from popping one more button, or that breast adhesive from melting under the lights?

Need I point out that the male anchors and guests are covered top to bottom, only rarely exposing a bit of neck if they’re reporting from Hawaii.

Commenters on FB have suggested that the networks dictate the wardrobe, but I’ve never seen an article on that. Anyone have one to share? Or experience along those lines?

Other commenters have called me sexist, old-fashioned, and a few other unflattering names.

So, my private poll: cleavage/thighs while delivering serious news, Y or N?

Nature — at Arm’s Length

Here are two of my favorite paintings, from the permanent collection of the Met in NYC. I could sit in front of them for hours, and I have come close to doing that. They’re representative of countless other landscape paintings that I love, like those of Millet, Corot, Church, and Pissarro.

What’s so strange about that? Most of us relish the moments of meditation and pleasure we get from works of art. What I can’t figure out is this — if I were actually standing in one of these landscapes, I’d be freaking out. So why do I love them?

In Cezanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley” there’s grass everywhere, plants all around. I’m allergic to grass and I don’t like plants. Though I can’t see them, I’ll bet there are bugs everywhere, too. I doubt that there’s a coffee shop or a bookstore, or even a gas station within cell phone range. I doubt that AAA would be able to find me in case of a problem, and the nearest hospital — who knows how far away that is? I’d be hyperventilating after one minute.

Bierstadt’s “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” is even worse. The sun is strong. I don’t like sun, in general. And there are animals. Eeek! I’m afraid of one half of the animal kingdom and allergic to the other half. Besides, they tend to add organic matter and odors to an open area like this meadow (valley? grassy knoll?), both of which I would find unpleasant if I were to stand at the focal point of this painting. I’m cringing at the thought of what would be on the soles of my shoes. And still no Starbucks or even a family-owned bistro. Nor a convenience store to buy bathroom tissue — oh, right, there’s no bathroom.

My idea of roughing it on vacation: a couple of galleries at MOMA are closed, my theater seats are in the balcony, and late night room service takes more than fifteen minutes.

Thinking about this phenomenon — why I love paintings that depict scenes I’d go out of my way to avoid — it’s a lot like my relationship with fiction.

I love reading and watching movies about crime — the ensemble heist, the perfect murder, the “lovable” serial killer, like Dexter — but I don’t want it to touch me in real life.

There must be a name for this syndrome?

High on Public Speaking

Here’s another LadyKiller topic of a couple of weeks ago: Public Speaking. Apparently there are some people, some writers even, who fear it. Or hate it.

Not me.

My first public speaking gig was to my high school classmates, very few of whom I’d ever spoken to privately, and their families.

I was that quiet kid in the corner, the youngest in my class, with so many insecurities drummed into me by an overbearing mother that I should have turned into a serial killer.  By some quirk of fate, I was valedictorian that year — more exactly, I was one of the few kids who did homework, unwittingly fooling my teachers into thinking I was “smart,” and giving me A’s.

That’s me in the middle, looking confused. I blame the drug.

On graduation morning, I was sick with fear and told my mother I couldn’t do it — stand on the stage at the local theater and talk to hundreds of people. She was not about to let me off the hook. She herself had been pulled out of school at age 12 or 13, when her mother died. This was her moment and my life was on the line.

“I’ll fix you,” she said, and rubbed paregoric on my gums. In case you don’t know what paregoric is: briefly, an opiate, since then regulated as a controlled substance. I gave my speech, on the role of women in the future (I think my Italian teacher, an early feminist, wrote it). I remember the event as one of the most thrilling in my life. All those people listening to me (so what if they were a captive audience). Also, I was probably high.

Now, without the help of drugs, I still get the same high. I love public speaking in its many forms. Need a last-minute teacher or speaker for a class or an audience of 3 or 300? Give me a minute to prep, and I’m there.

Thanks, Ma.

Busy, busy

Do you know any busy people? Are you one of them?

Here’s my pet peeve (and by now you know it has nothing to do with physical pets): people who are busier than you, no matter what. They’re the people who can force you into exaggerating your own busyness just not to lose the busy battle. Or maybe I’m the only one who responds that way when someone tries to convince me that he’s the busiest person in the world (BPIW).

My father used to say: he’s the kind of guy, if you’ve got a bottle, he’s got a case.

I think that translates nicely into what I mean.

You can have 5 classes to teach, 4 deadlines to meet, and a marathon to run, but BIPW will best you every time. “I’m doing all that, AND I’m expected in New Zealand any minute,” he’ll say. To which I’m tempted to respond, “I just got back from there and I’m packing for Greenland.”

I never like myself when I get into that mode of claiming to be a BPIW. It makes me tense about my life and my projects. I’d rather take it easy and think how lucky I am to have many things to do, instead of trying to impress people with my to-do list. That’s what happened last week when a friend came for lunch and announced, “I can’t stay very long. I’m very busy.” No, I didn’t say, “Sorry to keep you from your busyness,” or whip out my own to-do list. But I wanted to.

I had a colleague once who was a BPIW and also a BMIW (busiest mother in the world.) If I came into the office with a new jacket, she’d moan about how she’d love a new jacket, but she had to feed her children. If I went to a movie, she’d complain that she hasn’t had time for a movie since her twins were born. The only way I got her to stop was to confront her with, “Gee, BMIW, you make me very happy I never had children. I’m so sorry you weren’t so lucky.”

Here’s a paraphrase of one of my favorite cartoons: God is on a cell phone, saying “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to be everywhere.”

Now, that’s busy.