Thursday, June 30, 2011

Further Musings on Things Mediterranean

Frances Mayes, one of my favorite authors (Under the Tuscan Sun), has a new book  -- Every Day in Tuscany, Seasons of an Italian Life.  It is 20 years since she bought and restored her villa in Tuscany.  This new book has a sadness and a bittersweet reality about it.   Placi, her next door neighbor, is seriously injured.  Primo Bianchi, who was the capable restorer of her Bramasole, has died.  There is a terrorism scare, when a grenade (which turned out to be harmless) is found on her property.   And she is older now.   A grandmother who is enjoying it and thinking about passing on a legacy in words, buildings and experiences to her grandson.
I love her writing.  She has a way of putting words together that moves me, sometimes almost to tears.    Her descriptions of all things Italian and her love affair with the country and its people evoke such strong feelings because they build on and draw out insights from my own life and family.  More than that, I admire someone with the courage to so consciously create a life; and to live life.  
One of my most favorite sections of her new book involves a description of how Italians eat and drink and how it differs from Americans.  She writes, "There's no dreary talk at all about glutens, portion control, fat content or calories.  Eating in Italy made me aware of how tortured the relationship to food is in my country."
She also writes about the modest consumption of wine, and the practice of pouring water into wine, something I remember my uncle doing when I visited him.  Being drunk was an embarassment, and drining too much was simply not done.  I remember my dad telling me more than once that he was never drunk in his life.  It wasn't about drinking; it was about integrating wine into the meal, not overpowering it and not making it an end in itself. 
Her descriptions about hours spent at dinner tables reminds me of memories my dad would relate, with great fondness, of how he would do so too.  And to talk, and to eat, and to talk, and to eat.  Not overeating, not worrying about how much you were eating, just eating to live, as part of being alive. 
I would be a lot better off if I could emulate my dad's approach to food.  He would do things like scrape the icing from the top of a birthday cake.  This struck me as strange; my taste is that the icing is the best part.  And, in the summer, he would eat fruit, lots of it.  He loved figs because I think it reminded him of his youth, growing up in the Abruzzo.  He ate little meat.   He seemed to have an inherent wisdom about eating and food choices that I did not inherit.
I am tired ot thinking about counting carbs and ascribing moral qualities to food choices.  Is there a way to uncorrupt decades of screwed up eating and find a more rational voice within?   

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Italian Garden Project with Cookies Too

Playing semi-tourist at home this weekend, we saw the Pirates beat the Red Sox from great seats with a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh on Friday night.  We walked the North Shore pathway along the river past the casino to get to the game, since the tailgate party we attended was about a mile away from PNC Park, but on a very walkable route.  Lots of boats, people walking, dining al fresco to the sounds of a band just off the patios of the casino and even gaggles of ducks, so we had to be careful where we walked.   And on Saturday, we wandered the Strip District and the Public Market, in search of some local produce.  I had forgotten that the Italian Garden Project was sponsoring the Italian Wedding Cookie recipe exchange there on Saturday.  What a treat.  There was an accordion player, and the first song I heard was, 'Lady of Spain', one of my father's favorites.  My dad made me take accordion lessons as a young girl and I was not fond of it.  I wished I could have played the piano like my cousin.  Playing the piano seemed more American and more feminine, although I do not know where we could ever have fit a piano in our small bungalow.  JB tasted from the cookie sampling.  I am not sure where the concept of the cookie table came from; it seems more of an Italian-American than a truly Italian thing.  The photo above includes part of the cookie table from our wedding, with my dad in the background.  Most Italian sweets seem not that sweet to me and kind of dry, except for gelato which has been a highlight of all of my trips to Italy.  Somehow any version I have tasted here in the States never quite measures up to the memories.  
I love the idea of the Public Market and I hope that it survives.  The gathering space for entertainment is small, but it contributes to a piazza-type setting that just doesn't exist much in the States.  It was one of the things that my father often spoke of, the 'town square'.  It is a fixture of Italian life and he truly missed it.  The gathering in a common place, the sharing of daily life, taking the 'passegiata'.  
I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Menniti, the driving force behind the event and the Italian Garden Project.  She gave me her card which reads, "The Italian Garden Project, Nostalgia for Yesterday, Lessons for Today".   I like that -- nostalgia, but with lessons attached.  The Project has been holding monthly events, and there is another one upcoming on July 30 on tomatoes, basil and garlic.  A lesson from Saturday?  Less cookies, more greens. 
See and join in.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Airplane Yoga

If you have noticed a paucity of posts lately, it's because I have been traveling this month.  I love to travel; and I know that it's not just the destination that matters, but the journey. But seriously, traveling coach on US Airways is no fun. My usual m.o. is to bury myself in a book and a couple of trashy magazines.  I read "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler M.D. and found it a fascinating read about how our appetites have been manipulated by the culture, the media and food manufacturers so that our bodies and our brains are totally misguided and confused; and a great profile of the newlyweds William and Catherine in Vanity Fair and a wonderfully decadent Spa magazine that made me want to immediately plan my next getaway.   But since "moving" is part of my new m.o.,  I talked myself into experimenting with airplane seat yoga.  I have taken enough gentle yoga, including chair yoga, over the past three years that I figured I could come up with some poses that would incorporate stretching, breathing and relaxation to help me tolerate two cross-country flights.
My yoga teachers, Jen in particular, focuses always and fundamentally on the breath.  She teaches four-count breathing, although I like a five-count.  In and out, rhythmically, it is calming and creates a certain mindfulness.  These are some of the poses I came up with that created more of a relaxing physical experience to complement the escapist and sometimes mindless reading I do in flight.  (OK, the lawyer in me comes out.  I am not an expert and not a yoga teacher.  Do these at your own risk!)
While breathing,
  1. Chin to Chest
  2. Chin to Ceiling
  3. Lower Ear towards the shoulder and use your arm and your head to help with the stretch.
  4. Wrist Circles
  5. Point and Flex the Feet
  6. Spread the Toes
  7. Seated Twists, putting one arm behind your back and and looking over your shoulder, with your other arm on your knee or your armrest
  8. Mini Hip Circles
  9. Open the Tray Table, rest your head on your arms and lean forward as you exhale to get a deeper stretch
  10. Mini Cat and Cows, rolling your shoulders forward and backward
  11. Eagle arms
  12. Raise your arms overhead and stretch
  13. Slide your arms forward down your legs as you bend forward, getting a deeper stretch as you exhale
  14. Pull your bellly into your spine and your spine into your belly.
  15. And for final relaxation, put your seat back and breathe. 
The photo above is of the Napa Valley and was taken from the Wine Train.  A relaxing dinner and ride that included a memorable sunset.  Makes the coach travel worthwhile. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ten Things I Still Miss About My Dad

My dad died in 2003.  He was part of that greatest generation, who served in World War II (he was in the D-Day invasion).  An Italian immigrant, he built a life and family using his tailoring skills and enjoyed life and its simplest, but most valuable pleasures.  These are the ten things I miss most about him:
  1. His Bostonian-Italian accent, especially the way he pronounced my husband's and son's names.
  2. His ability to savor a meal, and how he ate his salad after the main course.
  3. That he never minded fixing my clothes.
  4. His laugh.
  5. His enjoyment of summer fruit, a brisk walk, window shopping at a mall, engaging a stranger in conversation.
  6. His playing bocce at family reunions (and I have a photo of him, my husband and son doing so).
  7. How he always carried a comb in his shirt pocket and frequently ran it through his hair.
  8. How he dressed in a coat and dress shirt for the most casual of occasions.
  9. His pet name for me.
  10. His unconditional love.
Happy Fathers Day, Daddy.  I miss you everyday. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Regina Brett's Empathy and Gift

I think we all have a public persona worn like a coat of armor to protect us from the assaults of daily life.  It includes the pleasantries we exchange each morning with co-workers, the small talk about personal and current events and the fairly predictable and superficial interactions that make up our daily work.  But sometimes when I least expect it, something much deeper happens. 

I promised in my first post about the Empathy and Innovation Summit at the Cleveland Clinic to write more about Regina Brett.  Until last week, I had never heard of her and had only vaguely heard of her book, God Never Blinks, probably just from seeing it on a newspaper list of bestsellers.    

She’s a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and hosts a weekly call-in show on the local NPR affiliate.  As additional background, a few excerpts from her bio in the program materials:  “Her book is an inspirational collection of essays and stories about the lessons life taught her along the detours of life. God Never Blinks was written by popular demand.  When Regina turned 50, she wrote a column on the 50 lessons life taught her.  A life as an unwed mother.  A life as a single parent for 18 years.  A life interrupted by breast cancer at age 41.”   The book is an expansion of the ‘life lessons’  column that went viral. 

At the conference, there was an area with books by authors that were speaking.  Since I love to read, mostly non-fiction and self-help stuff, I picked up her book and could tell immediately that I wanted to buy it.  Actually, I bought two copies, one for me and one for someone in my life who has overcome significant adversity.

She was signing books before her keynote presentation, and I wanted her to sign both of them.  As I approached her and then began to explain why I wanted her to sign the book, I began to cry and I don’t mean just a little wet around the eyes.  In seconds, I was practically sobbing. 

She was so kind.  She wrote a lovely inscription and shared a personal story much like the one I was relating to her that told me she understood (remember the conference was about empathy).  She’s got it.  I quickly escaped into the ladies room, where I cried even harder.

My friends and family know I am pretty much a world-class crier.  It is something I have been ashamed of all my life.  I sometimes cry at movies, weddings, funerals, at Mass and when I am very happy, sad or tired.  It has always seemed to me to be a major character flaw or at least a sign of weakness. 

Her keynote was spectacular.  She encouraged those of us who work in health care to “give someone a moment.”  By that she meant to move beyond the superficial, canned customer service that you get at any number of places that provide “scripts” for relating to people. 

After returning home, I sat down to read her book in more detail.  Her Life Lesson Number 7?  "Cry with someone.  It’s more healing than crying alone.” 

I wrote to her, on paper, at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to thank her and explain in much more personal terms than I can here, the effect of our encounter. 

And in a truly lived life, there has to be more than those superficial exchanges with smiles and nods.  She sure gave me a moment I won’t ever forget.  And if you have not read the book, ask to borrow mine or buy one.  It’s worth it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

One Cigarette Butt at a Time

I confess to not understanding smokers at all.  I can relate to smoking as an addiction and appreciate that it is a compulsive behavior.   My workplace is smoke free, including buildings and grounds.  But the sidewalks and driveways approaching the front entrance are littered with cigarette butts from smokers who discard their butts on the ground.  You've surely seen smokers toss their butts indiscriminately out windows of cars or while strolling down streets.  While working last weekend and crossing the driveway from the Emergency Department to my office, I passed a newly planted flower garden littered with cigarette butts.  I've passed this particular spot dozens of times before when it was bare dirt.   A burst of anger and energy came over me, and I marched to my office, put on latex gloves that are kept there for housekeeping, and stormed back to the flower garden.  I then spent the next few minutes picking up butts that had been planted like seeds next to the flowers, in the rock beds nearby and on the sidewalk.  Today, three days later, I passed by again and no new butts!  I feel like the young man in the starfish story, making a difference, one cigarette butt at a time.  If you don't know the story, here it is. 

The Starfish

Strolling along the beach, a woman catches sight of a young man who appears to be dancing at the water's edge. The young man bends down, straightens to his full height and then casts his arm out in an arc. Drawing closer, she sees that the sand is littered with starfish and he is throwing them, one by one, back into the sea.

She says, ‘There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?’

Smiling, he stoops down and tosses another starfish out over the water, saying, ‘It made a difference to that one.’