Must-Watch Film: Spin Me Round

Tuscan Grove! When you’re here, you’re family! Photo by James Kern on Unsplash

Guys, I love the film The Little Hours, and I was delighted to recently learn that the same team now brings us a new feature-length film: Spin Me Round, starring our favorite bawdy nun Alison Brie as a stymied millennial professional, Alessandro Nivola as the owner of Tuscan Grove (the stand-in for the American Italian chain we love to loathe, The Olive Garden), Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, and Zach Woods (who slayed in Silicon Valley).

Set and filmed on location in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, the story follows a corporate hack (Alison Brie) who heats up her food in the workplace microwave until she learns she’s won some sort of office contest and is being sent to cooking school in Italy where all sorts of shit happens, both predictable and unpredictable!

Living in Italy I have seen, heard, tasted, every cliché. I love a witty script that shreds received wisdom to absolute bits and replaces it with the unvarnished truth leavened with comedy. It’s like Parker and Benchley returned from the dead to write a script. I am very excited.

If you live in the US, apparently this film is screening now at select theaters and on some platforms called AMC+ and VOD. Please, please see it if you can, and tell me if you liked it. Until then I will be constantly refreshing Netflix and Amazon Prime for it to appear.

This is my independent plug for this film. I’m not getting anything for posting this and I am fine with that. But I really want to see this film.

A dopo!

On Weather-Based Living and Carbon Offsets

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

I’m not gonna lie. When I moved back to Oklahoma from Seattle in 2004, the weather was near the top of my list of things to dread. Sweltering summers. Overactive air conditioning. Winter ice storms. Wind chills below freezing. Flash floods. Drought. And that’s before we even get to straight-line winds, tornados, and derechos. Brush fires on the prairie. Watches versus warnings. Concrete and steel reinforced tornado shelters below ground, and our roommates the crickets and daddy longlegs, who were never too pleased to see us all pile in. If humans lived in Oklahoma for another million years, we would reverse-evolve into reptiles just to survive this place, I told a friend once. The weather in Oklahoma is a mute adversary. It demanded that we always be alert, watchful. Weather-alert. So when, after my bonus dozen years in Oklahoma with Jason (with plenty of breaks for European travel and assignments), it came time to leave, I was relieved. As Jason said, in this state, if you’re not in an active shooter situation, the weather is trying to kill you. The weather was both a push factor and a pull factor.

In the summer of 2011, Victor was a newborn, having arrived one month early on Memorial Day weekend (I remember this because I was counting my medical leave against the universal holiday, what madness!) That summer broke heat records that still stand today. Jason and I were shut in our house with a wailing newborn. The air conditioning struggled to keep pace. The mercury dropped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit only after 10 or 11 at night. A derecho did in fact sweep through in mid-June, knocking out our power for days, the trees in Eastwood Park across the street splitting and screeching all night long and into the next day as they broke and fell. We took shelter at my parents’ house an hour away and at friends’ houses whose power returned before ours did. It was a miserable summer. I couldn’t even take Victor out for walks in his stroller. He would have crumpled like a leaf in the unbearable heat between 7 am and 11 pm. So, out of desperation, Jason and I scheduled two weeks in Santa Fe, at 5,000 feet, where at least the nights would offer cool air, and it was glorious indeed. We drove there, stopping every two hours to nurse baby Vic, and were so relieved to be in fresh air, the fluttering aspens. We went after that to the farthest corners of the Pacific Northwest with our new baby and looked at each other thinking, what were we doing back there in the inferno? In manageable temperatures, parenting a newborn was actually possible. Tempers cooled with the temperature. We started feeling sane again.

Six years ago we moved to Florence, Italy, where the weather was positively dreamy. No deadly winds. No tornado shelters. The summers were warm but manageable if you took some hints from the locals; manage your shutters and shades, cool drinks, use the morning and evening hours. Barely any wind chill in winter. No wind could weave its way through the mazes of those medieval buildings. No ice storms, scant snow. The worst risk: flooding, and the last horrible one happened in 1966. The year we moved into our palazzo was the fifty-year anniversary of the flood. Old-timers told me some people never got over the damage the flood wrought back then. Some people took to drink. Others felt that their social milieu had shattered. And this was fifty years after the fact or more. I looked at them with my experiential knowledge of Cleveland County and Oklahoma County, and thought, oh you poor dears, you have no idea what we’ve just come from. A version of Australia in the apocalypse minus the cute mammals. Even so, our landlady wrung her hands over the changing climate, it wasn’t like this before, she said, now we get the water bombs! She gestured at the glass insets of the grand doors. It just blows out the windows!

Few people can choose where to live based on climate, and yet our climate is changing annually at a breakneck pace. I find it difficult to imagine how stressful we would find living in the Oklahoma heat alone, never mind its year-round weather stress. Italy is in its worst drought in seventy years, and Florence has been pummeled under a heat wave that began – wait for it – on May 8. That’s right. Almost no relief in sight for more than three months now.

We knew the summer would be tough, but not this tough. Europe is on fire in many of its corners. Tourists stream in, insisting on clocking their pandemic-delayed holidays. Florence alone has seen a 250%+ increase in tourist numbers over the 2019 years. There’s nowhere to stay, and the city is roasting. Jason and I wonder what percentage of Misericordia calls (the ambulance service he drives for as a volunteer when we are at home) are for tourist heat exhaustion. Surely, we say, the nonni and older Italians still hew to their rules: use the morning and evening hours, stay in the shade, drink cool drinks, manage your shutters and windows. Surely only the tourists insist on being out and about in town during the day, water bottles in hand, wearing their TravelSmith wicking apparel. But when the Italian weather service advises people to remain indoors for their health due to the extreme heat between 11 and 7, that leaves very little time to get anything done. My friends who have been in Florence all summer are at their wit’s end. The end of their rope. Who can do this? Italy has virtually no air conditioning at the level that Americans are used to, and maybe that’s a good thing, on the one hand, because air conditioning is terrible for the atmosphere. But on the minus side, there are no cool groves to escape to. Pavement is hot and holds heat, as do flagstones and buildings.

So in January, when the airfare was cheap, we bought our tickets to return to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in five years as a family. The Oregon coast was blissful, misty, and cool. Almost too cool. The last cool place on earth, we joked, wearing our fleece and layers, the surf pounding so loud that it was hard to carry on a conversation on the beach. And yet, the moment we left the narrowest strip of coast, we found ourselves once more in cities that held heat, heat, and more heat: Portland and Seattle. Portland was so hot the kids didn’t want to leave the car. I thought I might expire in the sun of the parking lot of the Nordic Heritage Museum as my companion scrutinized the parking pay meters. The air conditioning in Portland and Seattle was suspiciously on Italian terms: musty, weak, indifferent. I’m not joking when I say the thing I most looked forward to on our return trip from Seattle to Milan was how cold the economy cabin would be for nine hours. And in Milan, we descended from a hedge of dark clouds that soon began to spit lightning. We waited for our hotel shuttle in a cloud of petrichor, misted from the side by the sheets of rain as we stood under an overpass, laughing at the sheer joy and relief of it. The next day we packed our car and drove the Savoie, to our summer escape in La Rosière at 2000 meters elevation, perhaps the last temperate hill in Europe. The valley below is many degrees hotter than up here. Last month an Italian glacier, La Marmolata, crumbled and killed ten hikers. We’re not doing much hiking this year in La Tarantaise for other reasons, but I am personally not tempted to go check out the slushy skirts of Mont Blanc.

Rain, when will the rain come? Cool breezes, when will they return? We talk about the weather all the time now. The changes are happening so fast, and the new normal quickly becomes the plain old normal. Of course we would plan our travel around avoiding extreme temperatures. I know we are lucky that we can even do this. I think about this all the time: what of the people who can go nowhere, who must endure what weather comes, as heat blankets the days and suffocates the nights?

The carbon offsets have been much on my mind. I don’t feel at all like air travel is a right. I know we exercise a significant privilege by simply booking and taking the flights. How many billions of people a year do not travel at all by air, ever? The kids and I had a long chat about it this week. Do you think we should pay back to repair a little bit of the damage that our flights caused? They agreed. Do you think we should buy these coupons? Yes, mamma, they said. So today I donated a fair sum, calculated against our family’s four sets of flights from Milan to Seattle and back, to Trip and Tree, which seems like an honest outfit to me. They partner with Air France and are the default option for carbon offsets purchases with flight. I reviewed the options for a while and finally settled on helping to reforest a preserve in the mountains of Northern Mexico. I hope they actually to plant and grow the 125 trees, but maybe this is like Heifer International. In any case, it is a practice I plan to keep, moving forward, as much as I can. I can’t even tell you how many long-haul flights I have taken in my life, since I was nineteen, but this is just a drop in the bucket of a life that has been characterized by privilege.

Is it not hedging a tiny bit in favor of my own children’s future, the future of us all, the future of the planet? Given my recent musings on hidden costs versus actual costs, I genuinely felt it was the least I could do, and a step in the right direction of a sustainable lifestyle. Not always going for the cheapest option. Not always carrying on about saving money. Of course, when it’s important, it’s important to save money. But when we live lives of privilege, shouldn’t we try to be better than the lowest price, the lowest common denominator: What is the actual cost? Shouldn’t we pay the actual cost? Otherwise, who pays? The cost gets passed on to someone. And that just doesn’t seem fair at all to me.

Musings on Hidden Costs

Photo by Sayan Ghosh on Unsplash

I’ve always been an incredibly nosy person. Kinder people might say curious, but I know myself and who I am. Not nosy in a make people uncomfortable kind of way (I hope), but nosy in the sense of I just have to know. Perhaps more knowsy. It does lead to a lot of questions without answers, and I am okay with that. On many days, questions are better than answers, as The Dude and many a mystic sage will attest. Questions make us better people – more sensitive, better observers, better thinkers – while nonstop answers can make us lazy, bored, and pedantic.

When I was a teenager, I termed this nosiness the urge to peek under the tarp, as the curiosity brought to mind my family’s little pleasure boat, parked in the driveway in winter months, with a tarpaulin stretched and secured over its open deck. At first the tarp was clean and light in color, but as cold weather wore on from October to March or so at our latitude the tarp turned dark with leaf stains and twigs, an ombre puddle of old rain sagging in its center. When I passed by the boat on my way to the morning schoolbus stop, it was hard to resist the urge to check and see if everything was still clean in the boat’s interior underneath. Of course it was; that was the point of the tarp. To keep the leaves and dirt and rain out, and the bright orange (this was the seventies and eighties, after all) all-weather carpet and upholstery beneath it clean and pristine.

There was another kind of tarp on our property, covering not a small motorboat but rather a woodpile to keep it safe from winter damp. This tarp was also dirty and covered with debris on top, but peek under and you’d find a dark, safe place for all manner of grubs, beetles, and larva. One tarp hid a pristine, clean underside; the other, a vermin-infested woodpile full of creepy-crawlies. I suppose a reasonable person would have said, just don’t look. But my prevailing urge moved me just to check and see what was there, what had changed, were my assumptions (about the clean and pristine interior, about the degradation of the woodpile) true? Once you start wanting to peek under the tarp, you cannot stop.

Like the Japanese concept of the ukiyo-e, or floating world, of old Kyoto’s Gion district, I knew there was an actual reality under the apparent reality. The beautiful façade we insist on reinforcing and purchasing is not real. It cannot be.

I’m getting to my point here. I have been thinking a lot lately about the apparent versus actual cost of things, in terms of both the moral cost and the monetary cost, and how the monetary cost is so often assumed to be the total cost. I’ve been coming up with numerous examples as I lay awake at night, pursued by jet-lag and too lazy to get up more than once to check for visible meteor showers as Earth speeds through the seasonal belt of Perseids.

The sticker shock on our one-month trip this summer in the U.S. was, well, shocking, as I ate a twenty-dollar bowl of soup more than once in different restaurants. Fuel, ok. Groceries, insane. Shelves often thin and everything so expensive. Everything. No fan of inflation here, since paychecks never rise as quickly as consumer costs (bear with me here, my only C in university perhaps tellingly was in Economics), but is it possible that the upward-adjusted costs reflect the actual costs of things we buy? I don’t even have any way to know (more questions!) where that upward margin is funneled. Back to the workers? To shipping and supply chain movers? Everyone charges more so everyone charges more? I truly do not think that the workers who make these items are making much more. That can of soup that costs three dollars in the store now, that used to cost seventy-nine cents? Where does the new two dollars go? Not to the factory line workers. Not to the truck drivers. Not to the grocery store. Where? Where does it go?

Other items that are purchased with insouciance because buyers think they should be inexpensive and convenient: fast fashion. In fact, all clothing. Eating out. Virtually all travel. Other items, which no one ever thought should be bought cheaply, have become even more costly: transportation. Housing. Our mentality in the past eighty years has been lulled to complacency: we want everything for nothing. We want as much for us for as little as possible for someone else. We will pass all those costs on to someone else, somewhere else, not us. Let another accountant in another year figure up the balance. (Hard to argue when paychecks inch upward as their purchasing power plummets.)

Ezra Klein addresses this issue often in his podcast and articles, with a particular eye to veganism and vegetarianism. His basic take is that we want meat to be cheap because the animal bears the cost for us. It takes imagination and empathy to even ask, who is paying the price? What is the actual reality created by my actions? It is the same for air travel: who pays the price for our long flights when we go abroad? (I think about this one a lot.) There is an invisible cost for which we will not be brought to reckoning unless we reckon with ourselves. In my volunteer work for the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe (CECE), I am required to purchase carbon offsets whenever I travel under its auspices, for which thew convocation reimburses me. Because I only fly within Europe, the flights are short, and carbon offsets are relatively inexpensive (along the lines of approximately $5USD for a flight roughly equivalent to Dallas to Denver, similar in length to the Florence to Paris leg.) I love this policy and welcome it in this organization. I checked how much it would cost for our family to buy carbon offsets for our recent long-haul round-trip from Milan to Seattle. It came to about € 250 euros. I am a bit hesitant to shell this out, even as I know that it’s morally right. It is some real money. But at the same time I know that we negatively impacted the environment when we traveled, no matter the reason for our travel (see family after long pandemic-fueled hiatus, work, etc.) I feel the inevitable endgame in this line of questions (questions, questions), is that I will become vegan or vegetarian, or at best – and in an increment – an even more mindful meat eater. (Left to my own devices, I would eat meat once or twice a week at most, and red meat once a month. This is still very much in the realm of possibility and my conscious action.)

I rarely shop now at fast-fashion black holes like Zara or H&M, fueled by sweatshops and inexpensive foreign labor. I buy many of my clothes vintage or in the open markets of Florence. I shun name brands. Jason and I rarely eat out for pleasure (expensive sitters). We own a car in Italy but rarely drive it; I am still not licensed to drive in Italy, and so get around Florence on my bike and on foot, which also keeps me nice and relatively fit. Overall I think my annual carbon imprint is very low – the case with our whole young family. But the airfare jacks it up. And to be honest, the constant use and charging of electronic devices (phones, laptops, tablets) must consume a significant amount of energy too.

I have two more examples, one macro, one micro: the macro, in the U.S. jobs report that gets released with fanfare. 578,00 NEW JOBS CREATED! Yet we know that those jobs guarantee nothing beyond a dwindling paycheck and a sense of accomplishment – paid time off? health care? child care? sick leave? retirement? No job security. No guarantee of full-time employment. Barely any guarantee of fair compensation, FLSA (passed in 1938!) be damned. What is the collective cost of those missing forms of payment? HIDDEN COST. Micro: and stay with me, but my two American manicures from last month. The first one: gel polish, which looked great until it didn’t. The second manicure: the nail tech drilled off the lazy peels of gel polish with a DremelTM tool. (!!!) End result: nails destroyed. At home in the EU, I bought some nail polish remover and what was left of my flimsy natural nails quickly peeled, chipped, and split away. Now my hands look like those of a nervous preschooler. Nails looked good for a couple of weeks, but now they’ll look horrible til Ognissanti. HIDDEN COST.

I recently read Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor. I especially love his simple practice of always putting a zero before the year: 02022, to remind us that, like a car’s odometer, we are in relatively low-mileage territory in a figurative car that could easily see 250,000 miles or more. Or, his other gentle reminder that we return to economic and cultural forecasting that measures the impact of our actions into the seventh generation, as many First Nations do. (This second point was especially significant for me when I was reading the book as I was researching Sharp family history and discovered that I am a ninth-generation emigrant Sharp. How could William Sharp, born in Scotland in 1661, have imagined where his seventh generation (me) would find itself? And on my maternal side I’m only a third-generation American. I have little idea what my Finnish ancestors were doing in 1770 in Karelia and Turku.)

I can’t recommend The Good Ancestor highly enough. It summarizes so succinctly, in simple terms, why we should care about our descendants, even though they live in an unknown future and helm unknown lives. Even a reasonable person with an eye on the weather this summer might assume that climate and economy are not going to be better for them, the way things are going. At some point, people are going to have to pivot and agree on a changing collective philosophy about how we do things around here on Planet Earth.

Think about our hidden costs. What do we pay, and who pays what we do not, or what we refuse to pay? What are we failing or refusing to imagine in both the present, and in the future? After we are all dead and gone, and our unknown descendants navigate their reality, they won’t be able to call the dead to account. But we can reasonably imagine now how our actions might carry long-term impacts. As people who live with significant privilege, we must ask these questions. Please. Ask the questions. Peek under the tarp. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop. And once you start asking, you’ll see hidden costs everywhere.

On the Sentience of Artificial Intelligence

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

I have been following with interest the news in recent months about artificial intelligence – whether or not it is sentient. This new article in the NYT is a good example of where the public discourse finds itself. I am no professor of philosophy by any stretch, but have been an avid reader and careful observer of human behavior now for close to five decades. And the back-and-forth about AI: is it or isn’t it? [sentient] has been like watching a tennis match. Whomp. Sentient! Whoosh! Not! Revealing that the most interesting component of this debate is not whether or not AI is actually sentient, but what we humans think about sentience.

There’s an invisible meta-debate thrumming below the surface of these questions. Who is asking, and why? Who wants to believe, and why? And who’s got such a vested interest in disproving those who claim to have personally witnessed the ghost in the machine – a sentient spirit trapped between lines of software code?

Take your smartphone. Go on, look down. It’s an example of what researchers called artificial intelligence decades ago, during the space race years. Your phone anticipates what you want, providing information, tracking you, offering internet search results, restaurant recommendations, articles, all based on your historic choices and behavior. Your phone is in turn connected to the greater neural network of the internet, whose collective software groups your choices and behavior and compares them to those of other people and groups of people. These things, our smartphones and the internet to which they are connected, have become humankind’s external hard drive, whose repository traces our compulsions, purchases, longings, relationship, chats, trips, hotel reservations, flights, work, leisure time, and on and on and on. Anyone who’s ever changed phones knows how hard it is to get your external brain set up to map your internal brain again, prior logins notwithstanding. Anyone who’s ever gone down the rabbit hole of social media knows what it feels like to one day realize you’re stuck in a fun house of infinitely reflected images that you can choose to reject by simply logging out. Feel your blood pressure and stress levels go down after that! It’s a revelation and a relief to sit somewhere thinking with your own unmanipulated thoughts.

I find myself wondering why some people are predisposed to believe in created sentience, and why other people so strongly dispute it. Perhaps the very idea of created sentience threatens anyone who rejects or questions natural sentience? Are the type of people who believe the ones who actively create sentience, like the perfectly named Blake Lemoine? (the monastic himself!) I imagine Blake, still employed at Google, as a latter-day Obi-Wan, talking to the software while probing it for evidence of sentient responses, meaning: intelligent, empathetic, independent of code or human string-pulling. (This now makes me wonder how many actual humans would fail to qualify as sentient, given these measurements.

These questions seem to have come to the fore in particular in Victorian England, within a culture characterized by the tension found between Cartesian logic (railroads! business! industry!) and frank yearnings (séances! spirits! finite emotional energy! the hereafter!) In the wry analect of J.M. Barrie and numerous west-coast numper stickers, believing is seeing. Or perhaps AI covers ground known to reader of The Velveteen Rabbit, the children’s story so poignant that it brings tears to my eyes decades later, with its lesson: love makes you real. (What if this is in itself an example of AI, when a moral is extracted from an example in life or literature, so we believe it?)

Perhaps software engineers, shut up in their offices on corporate campuses on the west coast, so yearn to believe that the ghost is in the machine and she is intelligent that they become modern-day Pygmalions in search of a Galatea. Does that mean that Galatea does not exist? She certainly exists for Pygmalion. Who would disabuse Pygmalion of his paramour? Maybe people need to find their own Galatea? Or is it that we all wish to – or need to – reach a consensus along the lines of, yes, here is the first sentient AI! In which case people better be getting their social policy scrubbed up and ready for that day, because you know things will get really complicated after that.

Quantum theory even on a basic level maintains that our thoughts can control the outcomes of certain equations. In the law of superposition, all outcomes are possible before we check. (This makes me remember the way in which I didn’t want to answer my priest’s phone call in January regarding the sudden death of a dear friend.) Quantum computation has been recently proven to be possible in controlled experiments. This is simultaneously amazing and terrifying. It also reminds us that some phenomena, such as volcanoes, weather, and the sun (notwithstanding ancient Mesoamerican rituals), are universally observable and can be confirmed. The volcano is erupting. The weather is changing. The sun burns. Galaxies turn. Stars die. All these things, and infinite others, happen regardless what human think of them.

I read a piece recently – when I find it, I’ll link it – that belief in God, and hence the creation of a church, any church, is the most obvious example of AI available to us today. We created God by believing in Him, the theory goes, and then we built ecclesiastical structures of assorted denominations to support and further the system, which further feeds the worshipped God. Compelling. Definitely heretical. But fascinating.

I’m going meta with this. I think that the whole question becomes not whether or not AI is sentient, but who wants to believe that it is, and what defines the type of person who is open to believing in early AI? Will their vision and conviction help to bring about AI, in the same way that billions of humans constructed a God to believe in? It’s a rare Cartesian engineer who holds that AI is possible at this phase of development; such a belief seems more appropriate to the trope of the mad scientist, working at a remove from society and thus less bound by assumption and prejudice. Personally, I would like to meet this Blake Lemoine and talk with him. People at the vanguard to AI might be themselves the fuel that pushes AI in the world: their powers of belief and imagination put to use in a new genesis. What might our social policy and governmental superstructures look like in the mind of Lemoine, subject to his care and belief, his vision, imagination, and empathy? I am really interested to know. Get him out of that office, please, and working for the greater good!

Now you know what I think about when jet-lagged and awake at 4 a.m. at high elevation, listening to the invisible bass of a distant nightclub and the whirring of crickets as an early Leonid streaks across the southern sky. Thanks for reading! Please like and subscribe if this content strikes your fancy.

Update from the Language Melee

God bless Mandy Patinkin.

I’ve talked in this space before about my love of language – almost any language. Anyone who knows me knows this about me. It is a basic fact about Monicaness. I twig to verb charts and syntax, grammar and lexicon, formal and vernacular usages. I read grammars for fun. I love thinking about how the mind works in its first language versus acquired languages. (Needless to say, the mind barely works, if at all, in a language it cannot even basically comprehend.)

Back in the day, when I was a teenager and a young adult, I was fortunate to be in a binary language position with En1 (English first) and Sp2 (acquiring Spanish). It was very fun and easy to wield my Spanish language skills when I had no other languages bubbling around in my Broca’s and Weinicke’s areas. (Yes, they are actually called this.) But the years ambled on, as they will, and my thirst for new perspectives and unique concept formulations only increased.

I took Latin, French, German, then every Scandinavian tongue, then Hebrew and Arabic. At one point I thought I might master also Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Sanskrit, but, well. At another point I wished I’d studied for a PhD in the poetry of Umayyad Spain – the period Spanish scholars term la convivencia – with its intoxicating blend of Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew, and Arabic. But here I am instead in my forties with a language casserole for a brain. I have a rich if erratic reference neurolinguistic reference set upstairs, but never know what words might pop out the front door in any given situation.

I’m getting to my point here – false cognates. As Inigo Montoya intones in The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what you think it means. As a lifelong language learner I am fully aware of the allure and treachery found in false cognates and direct translations. But one in particular pops up so frequently among Italians who use English as an acquired language, and it just makes me howl. Sometimes with laughter, sometimes with face palm.

Drum roll…. the word is … cosidetto. (A compound word comprised of così, “thusly,” and detto the past participle of the verb dire, “to say.”) It comes up over and over and over again, and while it is tempting to use the direct translation, and Italians so, like 98% of the time, their direct translation makes every cell in my body giggle.

Drum roll … the direct translation is … so-called. Quite possible the snarkiest adjective in the English language that should not be used by anyone over twenty or not i an active and incendiary dispute with a teenager. Because so-called in English implies that the modified noun is most definitely not what the speaker claims. I took a minor editing job this month for an Italian academic and got to work scrubbing the cosidetto instances out of his paper.

Your so-called boyfriend, the so-called property, the so-called fee

Jason and I have wracked our brains and talked about this over many a dinner. What should the correct translation be? We came up with otherwise known as (quite a mouthful) and aforementioned (my new favorite).

But why does Italian like cosidetto so much? Like Cicero in his law office in Rome centuries ago, the Italian language likes to belabor a legalistic point. They’re gonna mention something, they’re gonna mention it again, and they’re gonna tell you they mentioned it each time they mention it after the initial mention.

Once in the past year Jason was interviewed by a local paper in Florence and the piece described him as the cosidetto decano of Gonzaga in Florence. That got major mileage in our house for months. I still like to call him the so-called dean from time to time. It just takes me back to the nineties and Clare Danes and that lovely little series, My So-Called Life, titled so because it was 1994 and she felt her life was a non-life. Ah, GenX ftw.

Thanks for joining me for this little vignette, la cosidetta malintesa! (the so-called misunderstanding). Hope everyone is well and staying as cool as possible ….

Update from France: Transnationalizing

Behold, this soon to be relic of the Before Times. Its reasonable days are numbered but oh what a pity.
Can’t we power this otherwise?
Photo by Sana Saidi on Unsplash

A few observations as we hop around countries with the kids. Yes, we are aware it is a significant carbon footprint. Yes, I plan to purchase carbon offsets. Yes, it is a discussion. I acknowledge the privilege in this type of travel. We haven’t traveled like this as a family since 2017, so we’re hardly jet-set. In a normal year we train and car to this French destination where we avoid the worst of the Italian heat in August. But this year the heat wave began on May 8 and has not let up since then. The Italian news says the heat is not going to let up. People who lived through the 2003 heat wave in Europe have told me that it went to early November, having gathered so much literal steam that no weather could arrive to quench it.

Driving through northeastern Italy yesterday we saw acres and acres of dead corn, yellow and brown, dry in their husks from the exceptional heat wave. Some plants didn’t ever grow to more than two feet high. Other plans were tall and dead. The yellow patches interspersed with the rows of miraculously surviving green corn stalks. The irrigation canals were full of milky blue water. Too little too late. Tons of corn lost that will never be polenta.

I am going to really, really miss clothes dryers. I forgot how awesome these are. They can dry clothes in forty minutes or less! A whole load! EVEN JEANS AND SWEATS. I know they are terrible for the environment. Why use a clothes dryer when the northern hemisphere is suffering an unprecedented heat wave? The sheets and blankets waved in the breeze atop the summit at Piccolo San Bernardo yesterday. My kingdom for a clothesline! These are not permitted in Florence within the UNESCO-designated heritage site where we live. I suppose it does ruin the view and ambience, like hiking to Macchu Picchu and seeing someone’s underwear fluttering freely, pinned to a line.

Why do European toilets have only one cup of water in their ceramic bowl? How is this possible? Why don’t all toilets have this little water? American toilets look like bathtubs, and flush like one too, aimlessly waiting for the slow swirl of gravity to swallow the deposited contents.

Jason and the kids went to the Kinokuniya bookshop section in Uwajimaya in Seattle to buy Japanese manga localized in English, which the kids devoured on the flight to Paris. Victor finished his (One Piece, numbers 1-3) and wanted more. But in Italy the manga stores, of which we found two between Milano and Ivrea, only carried manga in Italian. Victor scoffed. I can’t read that! Why? Jason countered. It’s manga – there are barely any words. Victor humphed and we bought him two books anyway, and Eleanor one. Victor finished one in the car. It’s fine in Italian, but I prefer it in English, he groaned. Now we are looking for manga in English on Amazon.fr for Victor to read in France. Seriously, this is the first time I have seen him reading for pleasure in his life.

In Lombardia Eleanor laughed at someone’s spoken Italian. She does not speak Italian as a first language! she squealed. No, no, Eleanor, Jason explained with great patience. She has a different accent. She speaks Italian. She is Italian.

In Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2F, I surreptitiously watched a Muslim woman in hijab pray on a green carpet as though chaos were not reigning in the packed departure lounges. Her lips moved. She was serene.

On our short flight from Paris to Milan, the Air France flight attendant asked the kids what they wanted to drink. Sprite, they said in unison. I don’t have Sprite, but I have this, it is like French Sprite. He produced two modest silver cans of Finley tonic water. Two paper cups followed after. Victor opened his and poured it into the cup. He made a face. I don’t like it, he said, and gave me the cup. But you drank almost all of it! I said. Yes, and I didn’t like it. It is weird and a little strong.

O Seattle, city of my heart, this is the first trip back since I moved away in 2004 that I didn’t wish lived there again. It was roasting. Traffic was terrible. Everything as expensive. People in general seemed so stressed out and hanging by a thread. I am sure the heat was a contributing factor. No parking anywhere and the hotel garage was exorbitantly priced and charged by the calendar day, not the hours used. On the plus side, all the old friends I caught up with last Tuesday evening in Fremont seem serene and settled, which was a comfort. I don’t know if I would live in Seattle again. I say that knowing we could never afford it anyway.

Who knew it is possible get so tan on the Oregon coast? I regard my slightly darker legs in wonder.

The coffee in France is still abysmal. Jason and I drank our Italian espressi yesterday in Ivrea with genuine pleasure.

I think I have about had it with The New York Times. I will probably cancel my now-expensive subscription soon. (I got in cheap in 2020, for just a dollar a month, but now it’s 8x that.) Its reporting feels increasingly myopic and self-centered. I read it daily on the app on my phone, along with The Guardian, BBC, and a paid subscription also to the Washington Post, which provides better reporting and a more international perspective. I never thought I’d say this, as I coveted the paper New York Times for years in cafés that we most definitely NOT in New York or anywhere near it, but the NYT, what a rag. I am always looking for news that is unapologetically expansive in its reporting. No more of this “oh a poor 26 year old with only $850,000 to spend had to choose between an apartment in Brooklyn and or the Bronx; which did they pick?” And their reporting on the war in Ukraine and the January 6 committee lacks all context. So annoyed. Color me annoyed. Click here to unsubscribe. #sorrynotsorry

Update from America: Reverse Culture Shock

The world goes on in spite of us, if we’re lucky. Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

A few more observations from the Pacific Coast. Things that are different or that I do not remember.

Garbage disposals. Okay, so these are super convenient. Half my time in our Italian kitchen is spent wrist-deep in dinner sludge trying to clear out the drain. How wonderful to not worry about an extra teaspoon of salsa slithering out of a bowl, or a few fettuccine noodles slide off a plate into the sink. It’s not like I’m stuffing an anemically gnawed pork chop into the hole. Whiirrrrrrrr. Your problem is demolished. But now I wonder if this is an issue for wastewater treatment plants in America. I am sure it is. All the food sludge must be bacterial heaven.

Flip flops. Appropriate in every venue in America. So strange.

T-shirts as a single layer, screen printed or not.

Shorts. Ibid. Okay, I know that at present we are on an American coast.The west coast. But the proliferation of American shorts (short pants not underwear) is astonishing. To note, in Italy the ONLY place that shorts, t-shirts, or flip flops would be acceptable would be on the actual beach during a beach vacation. Perhaps my expectations are skewed after years in Florence, where everyone wears nice clothes, or Italy in general, where a retired grandfather will don a suit to sit in a piazza to bitch about the downfall of the latest Italian government. Clothes make the man! Even Salvini wears a damn suit (the Stephen Miller of Italy.)

The thin blue line flag bumper sticker. I had to look this up after a driver honked at me for pulling over to let emergency vehicles pass on Highway 101. He swerved and passed me at high speed. I saw the flag stuck to his back window and looked it up in the nail salon. Maybe BLM? Maybe Insurrectionists? who knows. Glad to know that police forces around America have nothing whatsoever to do with fomenting civil unrest. I think I’ll stop this line of thought for now.

It is possible to live in America, unplugged from 24h news but still very aware of the news. I am abreast. I do not feel obsessed. Perspective can be maintained.

The sheer weirdness of American culture. Our son Victor (age 11) has a magnificent, appreciative, offbeat sense of humour. Today we took the kids to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum of Newport, Oregon, and I can tell you, Victor felt like he found his people. Every shrunken head, wax replica of very small or very tall person, the Beatles band made of little beetles dressed up as the Beatles with original Ed Sullivan audio had him in stitches. (Never mind the fine line between racism and science on many of those exhibits, with no additional context whatsoever regarding eugenics, phrenology, gun culture, the Cold War, Evil Russians, etc.) For additional fees they opted in to LaseRace and Smashdash and loved it. Eleanor was totally into it too, mugging as an astronaut in a moon walk helmet and gamely folding herself into a contortionist’s glass box. We gawked at a cross-section of a giant sequioa tree, marked with historic events on its rings for context.

Wild whales. I want to end here. The only other time in my life I’ve ever seen gray whales breaching in nature was in Baja California in January 2000. I almost cried then and I cried now. To see these great creatures 30 feet from shore, on a misty morning on the Oregon coast, doing what they’ve done for millennia, gawking tourists and cameras be damned.. Really puts it all in context, much like the sequoias. World, please make me feel small.

Well done, Oregon. Well done.

Update from America: Things I’ve Missed

Actually, the Ritz crackers are nice to come back to too.
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Ms. Doom and Gloom interrupts her cross-cultural commentary to bring you a brief list of items she is happy to have at hand once more in the U.S. after a very, very long hiatus. I think they used to call it a listicle. In any case, we have now been stateside for two weeks, which is about the right amount of time to compile a list like this.

Corn tortillas. My lord. So good, and so hard to find in Italy. In fact, I found some that are a mix of corn and wheat flour! So good. Trader Joe’s, I love you. I have eaten my weight in 6″ corn tortillas since we arrived in country. I’m not letting up. Mexican hand tacos every morning! (Corn tortilla, scrambled egg, melted cheese, salsa picante.) Which brings me to my next item…

Salsa. Hell yes. An American revelation. None of this sugary-sweet, thickened candy salsa that they sell in the EU. I can barely eat the stuff. If there were such a thing as melted salsa vanilla sorbet, it tastes like that. If you ever feel like you need to try some really bad salsa, why, just get yourself to the EU and buy some El Paso from Carrefour, manufactured and packaged in Madrid or wherever. It is so bad. In fact, I threw away a squeeze bottle of green salsa one time because it was mostly sugar. EUROPE. Why? Why.

Diet Cherry 7-Up. Ah, sweet sweet quenching. There are so many kinds of soda in the U.S., and many of them are low or no sugar, and I am fine with that. I hate pop in general at home in Italy and will drink it only if desperate for … I don’t know, something cold, bubbly, and caffeinated. Usually I am strictly water, espresso, prosecco, red wine. But oh, Diet Cherry 7-Up. Refreshment of my youth. Tasty when cold and even less cold. And diet. So no aftertaste. I love it. I actually have bought a 12-pack each of regular Cherry 7-Up (way too much sugar, not as tasty, bad aftertaste), Diet 7-Up (close, no cigar), and then my dad found Diet Cherry 7-Up in the Lincoln City Safeway. I’m in pop heaven. No one drink my pop please. I’m having a moment.

Half and half. It’s just so good in drip coffee, which I also never have in Italy. Half and half seems to not exist in Italy. You can buy heavy whipping cream, kitchen cream, already whipped cream, and milk at every percentage, both refrigerated and UHP bricks, but half and half? I didn’t realize this was such an American thing, but damn, it is good. Years ago I had much older family members who joyfully plopped heavy whipping cream into their drop coffee, globs and all. Damn that coffee was good. Little beads of fat collected on top of the hot surface.

Cheap over the counter medicine. In Spokane I bought a pony keg each of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Okay, just kidding, but close. Close. Why is this important? No drug is cheap in Italy. Not even the most basic painkiller that looks like cat food nuggets. For comparison purposes, a total of 4800 mg of ibuprofen in Italy costs about 10 euros in a Florentine pharmacy, and not even a touristy one. In the Spokane Walgreen’s, I paid $15 for 100,000 mg of ibuprofen. Given my jake right knee, I’ve been taking 400 mg every morning to keep things smooth. (Tests have been scheduled for September; daily ibuprofen is not a long-term solution.) It’s nice to know I’ve laid in an affordable supply for this very purpose.

Nice drivers. American drivers in the Pacific Northwest seem super polite to me now, after years of clenching my teeth and making squeaking sounds when we navigate the Florence ring road (viale). They slow down. They yield. The let you in. It’s incredible.

Laundry. My god, people, in this magical land called America, you can finish a huge load of family laundry in less than 72 hours! There is a dryer! Sheets are dry! Pants are dry! Seams are dry! And if they don’t dry in one setting, you can reset it and do it again until the things are dry! And dryer sheets are magical fragrance vehicles! I feel about dryers like I feel about bacon: we probably should NOT like these things, but damn, when you have them, they are so good, even as you know they are indefensibly bad for everyone and everything else everywhere on the whole entire planet.

Coming soon: brief comments about personal international money management (endless headache) and the news out of Italy – surprising to no one who keeps up – that the current government coalition has collapsed yet again, thanks a lot Cinque Stelle. I’ll be saying a secular rosary tonight for Mattarella and Draghi. Gesù.

Update from America: Economic Cruelty Enshrined

Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash

On Sunday Jason and I drove our loaner car the 440 miles from Spokane to the Oregon Coast. We’ll be here for two weeks with a collection of family members, plenty of sea air, and a grill. The contrast from Spokane to this holiday haven is striking, for understandable reasons. A post-industrial city in the Inland Empire versus a coastal getaway for urbane Portlanders, the odd Seattleite, the occasional Californian. The streets are clean. No one is having a public breakdown. No one is shouting. The trash is in the containers and is emptied on Tuesday morning. The cars are expensive and new. The children are clean and well cared for. This is the America that most Europeans assume is the reality for most Americans. In reality it is elite. Money can buy peace and calm in certain enclaves. I am reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and her imaginative prescience is a marvel to behold. How did she imagine Los Angeles in 2024 so vividly in directions that events actually took us? The drought, the guns (the guns!), the inflation, the cost of living, the clannishness, the fear, the twisted faith. Her imagined endgame sounds an awful lot like the realistic response encouraged by a public intellectual of the left, Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, here.

How strange the drive on interstate highways, from Spokane to the Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland), Umatilla, The Dalles, dodging speeding traffic and commercial trailers on I-84, through the Columbia River valley and past the three massive hydroelectric dams (John Day, The Dalles, Bonneville) that cut the water current to convert it into an electrical current. In Gresham east of Portland, the tent encampments appeared once more and dotted the shoulder, the underpasses, the higher fields and the margin before the fences begin. The desperation is in full view. It is hard to know if the person curled into the crook of the underpass is living or dead. It is shocking that this is the considered normal. Traffic speeds by. Suffering continues. No one slows down. No one stops. We didn’t. It is what it is. It sucks and there’s little anyone can do about it, says conventional wisdom. Drops in the ocean.

I am realizing, particularly on this trip, how the U.S. enshrines cruelty in its public policies, both affirmatively and by omission. It’s noticeable after living for six years in Italy. The U.S. is a G-7 country, so the country does not have a money problem. It’s one of the top economies globally. There are plenty of dollars, no matter what anyone says. People – people in power and with little power, people with no power – who live inside this culture turn a blind eye to suffering. There is no compassion vote. Even progressive people stop seeing the suffering. Everyone in America either has compassion fatigue or is suffering deeply. Or both. It wouldn’t be too costly to make things right for people, to ensure the dignity of people, through some basic programs. But there’s little political will to do it, and in America, much more political will to not do it. Hence tent cities, healthcare, the electoral mess, a breaking judicial system, food insecurity, uncertain or nonexistent housing, unequal access to education and childcare, no guaranteed retirement.

The meta-marketing from the U.S. about the U.S. is one of wealth and liberty. Few people outside of the U.S. would believe how the culture inflicts suffering on people, our collective wealth notwithstanding, even as American products – tech especially – are possibly our biggest export with global revenue in the trillions. Where does this revenue go? Why do our corporate successes and dominant products fail to translate into a higher standard of living? A livable life, a livable city, a manageable life. A life your grandparents would want, a life that will be kind to your children. A life that you would want your loved ones to inherit. A place where you would want to live out your days.

The New York Times recently ran a clear-eyed piece on the American scam. The American economy and system are not working for anyone except perhaps those at the very top of the food chain – the fact that I even describe it as a food chain is a sign of how deeply ingrained American culture has taught us to eat or be eaten. We all stay so busy, busy, busy in America. We have to, because if we stop to catch our breath, we fall behind, declare bankruptcy, fail to survive, disappear. We have to move far away for work. We have to keep the job for the health insurance, the 401(k) retirement plan. We can’t take days off because that might make it seem like we don’t want to work, which will negatively impact our opportunities for promotions and wage increases. And everyone in America always needs a wage increase, because no one’s compensation (or fixed income) can keep pace with inflation.

Americans do not make a conscious choice to forego compassion. Community and compassion are bred out of us by the culture. Sure, I’d like to be compassionate, we think, but I’m having struggles and troubles of my own over here that are a fairly big deal to me, so take care of it, buddy. Do you best, we wish you well. Compassion requires that we slow down, look around, take stock, but the culture does not permit us to do any of those things. It’s not ethical to forbid someone to keep their earnest observations to themselves, but it is often done when an unhealthy relationship, church, community, or nation-state insists on its self-perpetuation. But truth will out, one way or another. I fear that U.S. culture will soon breed compassion out of all its people. We will be left holding a very ugly, very cruel bag indeed.

There is a deep collective fear among Americans of slipping backwards, because there is no net. Like that American tourist in Pompeii this week who tried to take a selfie on the lip of the Vesuvian crater, stumbled and fell in. To Vesuvius. An active volcano that everyone knows is active and lethal. A rescue team pulled him out unconscious from the crater shelf 45 feet below, but had his fall not been broken, he could have fallen 1000 feet. He was hiking on a closed path. He did not wish to be taken to a hospital. He will be charged with something under Italian law. I feel this is a fitting metaphor on which to end.

Wait, except for one more point. Please slow down. See things with new eyes, for what they are.

Vesuvius. Photo by Francesco Baerhard on Unsplash

Update from America: Culture Shock, and an Unexpected Ally

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

We’ll just put the boxes in the back of the car, my mom said. There are three plastic boxes and a large bag.

Ok, I said. I wasn’t sure when I would find the time in Spokane to go through the family pictures and documents. I would make time, I said.

This is about a third of it, my mom added.

Jason and I got in the loaner car and drove to Spokane for his week of meetings on the Mother Ship (Gonzaga University). The kids went to Port Angeles with my parents to recuperate from the trip. They gave us a key to a lovely small house close to campus to use for the time we’re here. Last time we were in this house, the kids were five and one, and Eleanor was still nursing. I changed her diapers on the floor of the living room. They went to the summer program at St. Aloysius across the street for two months. That walk on two blocks of sidewalk felt like a mile with two tiny kids and their snack boxes. It feels like a lifetime ago. It is good to be in a place that ties me to memories here. After twelve years living in Oklahoma, Washington felt like a true paradise. I only saw the tall trees, blue skies, and cool nights, decent ramen and nice grocery stores, and a public splash pad for the kids in a hilltop park.

And yet we never properly lived in Spokane. We were in this house as a family for nine weeks in 2016, waiting for Italian visas before we moved to Florence, and in a different house on South Hill for a couple of weeks the following year. After the setbacks in 2017 (high cost, unmanageable calendar, major theft, more) I swore I wouldn’t make this trip again until I had a more flexible schedule (I was working full-time remotely) and/or the kids were older. In 2018 both of our sets of parents came to visit us in Florence. In 2019 the nonni had some medical issues that prevented their travel (all thankfully now resolved or paused). And in 2020 and 2021 we were dealing with pandemic issues and travel restrictions. Jason came back to Spokane on his own in 2019 and 2021 for work. But the kids and I stayed behind in Italy those years. In the interim we have hosted so many Gonzaga faculty and staff that we actually have a network of friends now to catch up with, which was not at all the case in 2016, and slightly less so in 2017.

So I haven’t been to Spokane in five years. No one needs me to say a lot has changed in the U.S. since 2017, but there, I just did. I missed the last three-quarters of the T**** Administration in person, and all of the pandemic. I rolled into a small city that looked the same, but felt different. I looked closer.

I was prepared for some reverse culture shock but was caught off guard by the poverty, the low level of mental health, the hobos everywhere. The thirties are back. America is in a crisis. People are Not Well. The Spokane mayor used to be a local newscaster and no one thinks much of her. The homeless encampment between Spokane and Spokane Valley is huge. The shelves in stores are more than half empty and the sticker shock sends my head spinning. Pharmacies advertise free walk-in Covid vaccines and tests that no one is getting or picking up. The U.S. really seems to have moved beyond the pandemic, even as the pandemic has not moved on. So many hobos in varying low levels of health and hygiene, clearly struggling. I’m witnessing the crack into which people are falling, and there’s no net to catch them.

For a week now I’ve felt jittery and upset for a slate of reasons, but the human suffering on display is the hardest. And the jarring comments from locals – whose suffering seems more limited to inflation – when I mention it: the homeless are animals, they don’t want to work, they are savages, they are a money pit, it doesn’t matter how much we spend, nothing will change. The homeless pick through the our trash and recycle that we bag and place in the containers in the alley. A mentally ill woman walked down the street screaming yesterday right by our house. The neighbor across the street poked his nose in the house earlier this week because he thought we might be squatting on the property. It’s a reasonable enough concern. Other friends – colleagues we recently hosted in Florence – tell me that after time away, they too came back to Spokane and were shocked at the public suffering and obvious poverty on every block. They said that with time they too stopped “seeing” it after a few weeks back in town. They were not proud of this. It happens.

There are people who have never left Spokane, meanwhile, feel like they are in a protected and safe space compared to the “world out there.” I switched out my Italian SIM for a burner SIM at the T-Mobile store. Where do you live, the extremely local rep asked me. Italy, I said. Have you been? No, she shook her head, I have never been outside of the US. I don’t have a passport, and I won’t get one. We got customers moving to Mexico, she whispered. Oh, San Miguel de Allende, I asked. They must have great doctors and dentists there, a good place to retire. She recoiled. How did you know! Because tends of thousands of retired Americans live there, I said. It’s like the one place in Mexico people retire to. Customer service rep recoiled. I would never go there! That is the last place I would go! The crime is awful! I have a degree in criminal justice and I know what is out there! By this time I had Hello Kitty mouth and wondered if she was packing at work. I paid my sixty dollars for the burner SIM and a month of service and left the shop. At the guest house news was coming in fast about the Chicago massacre. I shook my head and wondered on what green planet that customer service rep felt like she lived in the safest place on earth.

I can’t even keep up with the news here and I am here in real-time, reading the daily reports of massacres. (The news must stop calling them shootings and shooters, and call them correctly instead massacres and murderers.) I checked in with a rattled friend in Chicago that afternoon. People are on edge. America is armed. There are more firearms in the U.S. than people (400 million next to 330 million). Many people don’t own guns, but the ones who do have a dozen or two dozen. It’s such a terrible problem that funnels attention away from other real issues like food and housing insecurity, lack of healthcare and mental healthcare, the ravaged environment and climate change, and violence in general. I could go on – that’s just the top of my list. Roe was struck down by the Supreme Court a few days before we left Italy but it already feels like old news. I don’t know what recent history people are recalling where women’s health care was plentiful and affordable. So there’s that.

As for our errant second checked bag, it was delivered and deposited to my parents’ back porch during the kid hand-off in Olympia, after both children had been completely re-provisioned with travel wardrobes in Port Angeles. Apparently the luggage did arrive in the U.S. on the same flight two days later, on July 1. But then it sat in a FedEx depot in Kent, WA for three days due to the weekend and July Fourth holiday. Fedex drove it up to the peninsula the morning of July 5th. Paris-CDG is in a total staffing meltdown, basically striking all of July. I don’t blame them. I always come down on the side of labor.

It all feels like a lot. (On the plus side, the weather is nice and cool.) Last weekend I sat down and started opening the boxes. My Post-It notes from the last time noted that I had perused these in the autumn of 2004 in Norman, Oklahoma. I reviewed at pictures (post-Civil War through the 1960s), receipts, ledgers, and my grandmother’s journals. She was a faithful journal keeper her whole life. Many of her entries stick to her personal tailoring, family visits, the almost-arguments with her then-boyfriend (my grandfather Harold), meals (especially potlucks at the various Catholic and Episcopal parishes around Grand Rapids), and seasonal weather, but her journal from 1940 covers her professional work, her engagement and marriage to my grandfather, and events large and small in the world around her. In that summer 82 years ago, she wrote

The big drive by the Nazis in England is expected this week. They are given about a fifty-fifty chance of invading England, but may hold off a year. Everybody is upset about the War talk, the election talk, and polio cases. – Esther Erway Sharp, August 19, 1940

It comforted me to read Esther’s account of her life in the 1930s and 1940s. Even as she was more or less in one place in lower Michigan (and Esther was very, very rooted to place), the world was changing around her quickly and in ways that alarmed her and others. She and my grandfather bought a trailer and were fitting it out to ride out the war, I suppose, in Florida, as my grandfather was thirty and had a medical exemption for the draft. I found her World War II ration books and gas tokens. Her work woes and comments sounded very familiar to me. (On the same day of her Nazi war report, one Gloria Buckway was also hospitalized for an indeterminate reason.)

I put aside some of the best pictures to take with me to Italy, and stacked the carefully typed family histories, and one autobiography in particular to scan and read at home. Esther passed in 1998, seven years after Harold and after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Thanks, grandma, for writing these, and for leaving them for me to find, maybe when I needed them most. They are a true gift. I hope my journals provide my grandchild with similar comfort in about 2080 or so.