I have been away from writing for a while, some might say I had been “busy,” and I have been, but mostly I have been distracted by the daily to-and-fro-ing of life. My life especially, half here, half where? And there is too much entry-level information swarming around; in two languages it is very distracting.
Has anyone else practically given up reading books as I have? We should all shed a tear for what we are missing, even with our Kindles and our constant connection to the cacophony of Nothing-really-important-but-all-very-interesting-indeed!” The equation “more info=less knowledge” is terrifying.
There are a lot of people in Italy who don’t read much, if at all. It is not coincidental that the most extensive initial market saturation of cell phones was in Italy, or am I drawing an unscientific conclusion? In the area where I live, finding a reader is rare, and even these few have lamented that their electronic connections have all but extinguished the activity of reading for them, too. You can leave your spare books on the curb, but nobody will take them.
I titled this collection of small paintings the “Fugue” series, because the scientific definition of the word seems to describe our current predicament poetically. Not in the musical sense, but in psychiatry, it means “a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the preceding amnesia.” Or “adreamlikealteredstateofconsciousness,lastingfrom afewhourstoseveraldays,duringwhichapersonloseshisorher memoryforhisorherpreviouslifeandoftenwandersawayfrom home.”
How will we know what we are missing? Is what we know inevitably less important than what we don’t know? The Italian verb for “to escape” is fuggire. Tempus fugit! And since it does, why do we suddenly feel that our lives are as full or fuller than they have ever been, simply for the presence of exponentially-increasing electronic pleasantries? And Italians are feeling the effects more acutely, I imagine, as their entire incredible history evaporates before their eyes, a mirage of fading greatness which, like water, is leveling out into a flat, expansive, colorless sea of…nothing much. It is finding its lowest point, for sure.
I had intended to write about archaeology, and the dig which shaped my early years here. But in remembering the thrill of digging down through history, I began to wonder if people in the future will repeat it, as the famous saying goes? If we are too distracted to read through a written account, a book, a few pages, one article…how will we arm ourselves in order to avoid repeating our blunders? What will we miss?
Will the harpies come and carry us off because we wandered away from home, not caring anymore about what was happening outside of our tiny corn-fed cosmos?
Thanks to everyone who came to the opening, and especially to Sam Yeates whose work is half of the event, and quite wonderful. The show at Davis Gallery will be up until about mid-November, so we hope you all can make it! Meanwhile, below are some of the pieces of my work that are in the show.
The Davis Gallery is located at 837 West 12th Street, in Austin, Texas.
Una mostra d’arte! A show in Italy, in a beautiful little hill town in a charming antique house, what could be better? I would love to be positive, but waxing poetic won’t put much of a shine on this experience, I am afraid.
I have a couple of dear friends, who are also women who paint. This being so, we like to get together every so often and show what we have been doing, exhibiting our new work with a relaxing meet-and-greet. I anticipate these occasions with warm feelings of camaraderie, and I wasn’t disappointed with our hours together this time; chit-chat on the couch, tarallini and some decent prosecco. Pisticci is a magical little white fairy town, an aggregation of cubic ticky-tacky dwellings, aligned as if to shout down the Italian tendency toward disorderly conduct, on top of a steeply-eroding hill. Words don’t do justice to the spectacularity of its appearance, day or night. It is the perfect ambiance in which to display one’s paintings.
Or so I thought, until our numerous visitors began to shun anything which didn’t depict either a familiar house, a favorite corner, or a relative or friend. I have always intended that my landscapes would proselytize Lucania, showing its singular charms as I see them. I am out for the “feel” of the place, and my subjects are often invented, changed-up, amalgamations of places. They are not immediately recognizable places which can be classified as “my uncle!” or “my uncles house!” I underestimated our visitors’ predilection for familiarity with the subject! So each evening progressed, our lovely, tiny little gallery having an invisible divider at half-room. It was as if a provincial deus-ex-machina had plugged in one of those ultrasound machines for mice, keeping out onlookers who might venture beyond the confines of their tiny known world. I can only imagine what reaction, or lack thereof, an abstract or conceptual piece might have instigated. I am sure that if a conceptual piece included local white houses and relatives it would have been a resounding hit!
Not all our visitors were affected by the force field, and there was an occasional request about prices…Oh mortification! Why even offer for sale in an ambiance in which potential buyers expect to get two for the price of one? I had three requests and each simply stared blankly and turned to leave after I supplied a price. To add insult to my own injury, I even misquoted a price to one gentleman, multiplied by three, and I cannot blame him for asking me, (bless him) “Isn’t that a little high?” Yes, I said, and I truly meant it. Please forgive me. I never expected to sell in this little venue, and having to quote American gallery prices, even reduced by half, is one of the things I detest most. This is where the gallery should take over, the smoothest of middlemen, to relieve the artists of being subjected to undue suffering, making them barkers at their own humble sideshow act. The bearded lady shouldn’t have to sell discounted tickets to the same people who will come to snicker and throw popcorn at her in the half-light, after all.
I packed up my wares and dashed away as quickly as possible on the last evening, with the knowledge that my best-laid plans again had gone askew. When selling is not the target, what we artists have to give our viewers is a glimpse of what we love, what we see, what we wish to say in our particular language. I don’t believe there are any artists who, having dedicated themselves to learning their craft, producing the work, putting together and publicizing a show, expect that practically no one will even look at the pieces there! It had never happened to me, up to now that is. A word of advice to the wonderful people who come to see a show, and are precious: If the artist is present, please have a look around at all four walls; it is small payment for artists who work very hard to share their work with you.
And so I am left with the impression that in some way I have given the best of myself for nothing. “First world problems, mom!” my son says, and he is right. Of course it is an exaggeration, a small tempest which has made the tea in my pot bitter. With this in mind, here are a few of my paintings of Basilicata. I hope (and I absolutely trust you will!!) that you will look at them, and they will brighten your day. Will I show again under these circumstances? Of course I will, mothers never remember the birth, after all. And there will be more work, new work, and I simply cannot resist sharing with anyone who is willing to come and see them. Thank you all for allowing me to show them to you!
I heard a song on the radio tonight, a woman singing about “America,” lamenting its propensity to become ever more unsatisfactory. I cannot disagree with her criticism, yet maybe she is just too close to be able to appreciate its positive nuances. Or maybe there is another song which sings the praises, I don’t know. It made me think about what it means to love a country, an abstract ideal of a place contained within corporeal geographical boundaries.
You might think that I, having abandoned my country, would be less than patriotic. It seemed almost effortless to go elsewhere. Actually I was born in Canada but was thoroughly absorbed into the United States by the age of about eight, whether by indoctrination or simple distraction I don’t know. I do know that when I was born my mother was gnashing her teeth at the snow and darkness, waiting for the day when she could return to a place as close to Oklahoma as her husband’s professional life would allow. I know this necessity was critical because we lived in a motel in Austin for a couple of months until my father could maneuver his way into a job at the University. He arrived confident that he would be indispensable here, and his wife’s urgent need for her “America”, as soon as possible, lit a fire under him.
I think it killed my mother’s soul that I decamped as I did, allowing myself to be absorbed in the form of duffel bags and boxes into the Italian miasma. Surely at first she couldn’t foresee the months stretching into years and decades. She and I had never liked Italy, briefly visited twice in my childhood. There was nothing of value I could see here; just shabby truckloads of tiresome paintings and architecture, broken statuary and annoying men who stared for too long. She was forever a rural Oklahoma girl, who, in her own time, could not wait to get as far away from home as possible. She was always much too diplomatic to tell me how my choices had hurt her. I wonder how her mother, in her time, had thought of her daughter’s own wanderlust and rejection of life on the farm. I am betting that she understood.
“Home Sweet Home,” mixed media on paper
It is a terrible thing to try and express provincial metaphors which no one shares. Or crack a lame joke which is met with blank stares. Or endeavor to recount a wonderful experience which becomes tedious in the telling, as every nuance must be explained in plodding precision, patiently tolerated by the listeners as long as it does not go on too long. A shared culture is a wonderful thing, do not underestimate its charms!
Imagine telling a story without being allowed to use certain ideographical expressions, or word forms such as pronouns or adjectives. Who was this Jackie Gleason fellow? What do you mean, the five second rule? Why would a person be a potato on a sofa? Why do you insist on using those bucket-sized drinking glasses? A friend once provoked me by saying that I could never really understand a certain Italian singer/songwriter because I lacked the baggage, the cultural knowledge, the historical background. So right he was. Intellectually I can understand the meaning, certainly the musical sounds, but what I hear is unavoidably different, somehow skewed and hollower than the artist intended.
I think that living in a different place, a culture where much cannot be taken for granted until it is internalized, creates a unique appreciation of provenance. Imagine a woman who finds the presence of children irritating up until the day she finds herself unable to contemplate life without her own. Suddenly she understands that her offspring have given her a stable and sustaining anchor, and she is able to love all those other children as well. She knows what they are, is able to empathise with them. Being away from my home has allowed me, as I came to absorb the Italian culture, to appreciate my American-ness. My country has become so much more important to me in its absence because I have been able to distill my ideas of it through a foreign filter. It is almost intoxicating.
So this is how I have come to be a fiercely patriotic person, and while I am forever attached to Italy with many roots, it is the United States of America that I love. Can one really love a country? No, probably not, but I carry around inside me a solid and comforting load of shapes, smells, stories, and conventions that are uniquely my own and are dearer to me than most things. My hope is that my children will also absorb this love and weave a truly wonderful tapestry out of their double load of culture. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they married members of yet other cultures? I am prepared to travel.
“Un grande paese si riconosce soprattutto dalla civiltà delle persone che lo abitano e nelle strade USA ho avuto modo di apprezzare quanto sia importante un popolo che rispetta le regole.”
(A great country is recognized above all by the civility of the people who live there, and in the streets of the USA I have had the chance to appreciate how important a populace which respects the rules can be.)
“No Roads Here” Oil on canvas
Here is a partial rundown of the article, paraphrased in italics, with my comments, of course:
Forget all the moral infractions that are committed regularly in Italy. Here are some things you will never see in the US: Cutting and zig-zagging through traffic to get past everyone Cars cutting into the line at a traffic light Using the horn intensively Super-high speeds on the highway or worse, in town Disrespect or total dismissal of the STOP sign
More rules of the road which are different in the States:
You must actually stop at the STOP sign. You cannot just slow a little as we do in Italy. It is permitted to turn right on red in many cases. (I turned right on red in Italy for about 20 years until I realized it was not allowed, never did anybody even look at me sideways…) American police are quite rigid, (and you cannot expect to talk them out of a ticket.) You are required to wear your seatbelt. Well, yes, you are. You can use your cellphone while driving, even without an earpiece. (This is funny, considering that Italy was one of the first places to prohibit driving and talking on the cellphone; just imagine one hand to hold the phone, and one hand to gesticulate, which leaves you driving with some other appendage. I have always said that most men drive with that other appendage anyway!) You cannot pass a schoolbus which is stopped, and you cannot drive with open containers of alcohol in the car, even if you are not drinking.
Here are some other curious facts about the USA:
Traffic lights may be at the center of the intersection, or on the other side.(I have always been astounded that the first in line at an Italian intersection often cannot see the light because it is almost always invisible and behind or above the line of sight.) Another sign of great civility is the 4-way STOP. Instead of giving the person on the right precedence, it is the person who arrives first who has it. In Italy something of this nature would have the inevitable consequence of immediate chaos. Idem. Carpool lanes are to be used only by cars with more than one passenger, in order to free up space: (In Italy I believe this was attempted in the Napoli area and led to a huge increase in the sale of inflatable half-dummies. Or maybe I am thinking of the seatbelt law, which led to the sale of T-shirts with the belt design stamped diagonally across the front…) Beware of road blocks caused by people driving with cruise control who refuse to speed up in the passing lane.(Hear hear!!) Beware of slamming on the brake with your left foot, thinking that the brake in the automatic transmission is the clutch. The resulting screeching halt will be perilous indeed! (My husband once brought us to a head-banging stop on the highway trying to “change gears to slow down” for an accident ahead.) In case you are stopped by the police, slow down, pull over, and keep your hands on the wheel. Fines are paid by mail and never on site (so don’t offer any money to the officer to forget the infraction, one presumes!) The cost of gasoline is quite low which explains why there are so many huge automobiles on the roads. (I would say so, my last fill-up in Italy cost me 140 Euros, about 188 dollars.)
Here are a few they forgot to add, possibly the most important ones:
Warning signs often actually correspond to road conditions. Not as in Italy, where warnings are so greatly exaggerated that no one pays the slightest attention to them. It is a practical demonstration of why someone Crying Wolf can eventually get you killed, because once in a great while the warning sign is accurate!
Traffic flow in the US is mostly an “Each Man For Himself” proposition. Not as in Italy where the entire formation will work as one organism, flowing organically together in poetic motion, while seemingly in chaos. Watch out for US drivers who, as long as they believe they are not at fault, will totally ignore other drivers. I prefer the Italian way.
Helmets in some states are not required on motorcycles, but are required on bicycles, (and recently have been proposed for soccer as well!!) Go figure.
White lines and yellow lines are actually intended to be heeded. (Not as in Italy where straddling the line is expected of most drivers, especially when passing another vehicle. After all, if I pass you I need to rub it in, no? So I will be moving over into your lane at about the level of your front door latch.)
Roadside conferences for smoking, snacking, and urinating are not allowed in the US. There are actually designated areas for these activities along most state and interstate highways! Remember that while in Italy you can stop anywhere, (after all there are two lanes for traffic on most roads, which leaves one lane empty) to chat or smoke or conference, this is severely prohibited in the US. People will likely protest loudly or threaten you in the US for stopping your vehicle in the middle of any road for no apparent reason.
Prostitutes are much more difficult to locate in the US, if this is a potential problem for you. ( You will not see them sitting on buckets by the side of the roads or standing under red fabric swatches, smoking or playing cards as they eye drivers intensely, hoping for a customer. You will not have to explain to your kids, in the US, what these dark-skinned “ladies” are doing congregating at the edges of town. Interesting to note, in a country which seems to be somewhat bigoted towards blacks and gays, that the first choice in prostitutes are black women and transvestites. Ah, but this is for another post…)
In America throwing your garbage out the windows of your car is highly frowned-upon. Roadsides do not reveal, in the autumn after catching fire, a foot-deep treasure trove of plastic and glass. There are even places where highways are maintained by private individuals! (This is a fantastic and unbelievable concept to most Italians, I know. I have often suggested that this, if a plaque could be put up to designate the parties responsible for the clean-up, might actually work in Italy. Deaf ears.)
And finally, if you must relieve your bladder, or your bowels, it is highly recommended that you stop at a gas station, roadside park, or restaurant to do it. You will rarely see a vehicle’s driver casually relieving himself, family jewels in hand and in full sight to passing traffic. You probably will not have to use a flashlight when, after dark, you stop to change drivers and are in danger of stepping in a fresh sidewalk muffin. After all, there are some things that you have to give up when traveling to a foreign country!
As I follow the developments in the new healthcare plans for the U. S., I feel it might be time to digress from whimsical cultural observances to things more serious. I wouldn’t pretend to understand every nuance, but I can tell you all a bit about what the future of “Doctoring,” (a more precise term I believe than “Healthcare”) might look like in America.
I have been living here since 1982, and for much of this time I have been part of the churning, corroded and unpredictable machine which is Italian national “healthcare.” I pay into the program, which is a single-payer one for the most part, and I partake of it (sometimes) as needed. But what I “get out of the system” is limited, and only partially indicative of the general breakdown for most Italians.
Probably the most important detail when describing the Italian system is that no one in Italy has health insurance. Insurance is mostly purchased on automobiles, as required by law, but hardly anyone has insurance on their possessions. I know of only a few people who have their farm implements insured, and no one whose house is insured. Not one person I have ever heard of has private health insurance. But those who have a full-time job are provided for by their employers, and the sheer size of the payments that are required for legal employees leads to a) high unemployment, and b) low profit margins. As might be expected, there is a huge “under the table” market for workers. The math is clear.
This said, it would widely follow that the government provides for its citizens who are required to contribute to the system for the good of all. There is only one glitch in the set-up: there isn’t ever enough money contributed by an under-employed and aging population, and the smooth functioning of the mechanism is skewed by the propensity of the culture to allow for corruption on all levels. This is changing, slowly, but the Italian bureaucracy is an old dog indeed.
When I go to the doctor, my assigned doctor, I make an appearance any morning of the working week and sit down on one of the chairs arranged in the outer office area. I wait, as appointments are not deemed appropriate. The clock here is traditionally interpreted subjectively, and the time can be used to chat with ones’ neighbors as we wait. There are many “ifs.” If there are two people ahead of me it is my lucky day. If there are fifteen, I can cross my other errands off my list. If a representative carrying a black briefcase of pharmaceutical samples arrives, he is given precedence over all. (After all, his time is important!) If, after a cursory examination and chat, my doctor deems that I need anything other than a quick prescription, I am referred to the appropriate specialist. There are given times during the week when the specialists will be on call, some in my town, some elsewhere. If I can get an appointment with one of them in a reasonable amount of time, and I agree to drive the distance within eighty miles or so of home, I will do so. If these things cannot be accomplished, I will be advised of the alternatives.
The alternatives are consultations with experts in all fields who work in private clinics, and where appointments are always available to paying customers. They may also work in the government system, but they reserve their “special” time for their clinics where they are assured a large fee for their expertise. Every city has it private clinics where folks who have the means flock for their procedures. Some facilities are quite chic, others less so. (I once had an MRI in a converted garage.) Here you will get your results quickly, because sometimes waiting two weeks to eight months is too inconvenient, or even an unbearable prospect. Health tourism is thriving in the ex-communist countries to the East, where procedures are done on-demand, and competitively priced.
What wears down the citizenry ultimately is the lack of consistency. You MAY receive excellent care, as my son did when he broke his leg in two places a few years back. He was put in a private room, had traction and surgery, wore a cast for two months and is in perfect form today. All this for a total of less than 100 dollars. Even though my husband had to sleep on the floor next to his son for a week, it was miraculous! You may not receive excellent care, however. My mother-in-law was the victim of an accelerating downward spiral of errors, a dire house of cards which ultimately ended in her death. The only thing which might have saved her would have been if her relatives were all knowledgeable doctors. We weren’t.
My brother-in-law died of cancer due to many years of managing workers in a “state-of-the-art” government chemical plant, where every single one of the hundreds of ex-employees and management have died from the same disease. He started his via crucis in a huge hospital with no air conditioning and eight people to a room, and progressed inevitably toward a hospice facility that was a nightmare. Yet when his family became an insufferable squeaky wheel, he was transferred to a wonderful hospice care facility with a large private room and all the amenities anyone could ask for. Both of these places were about forty miles from his home, over small, curvy mountain roads. The commute, for us and for him, was hard.
A close friend of mine was severely injured in an automobile accident many years ago, and the things I saw and had to do in that hospital still haunt me. And yet she is hale and healthy today thanks to one excellent emergency surgeon who happened to be on-call that day. Thank god she was able to avoid complications caused by infections, heat stroke, and the wrong intravenous fluids supplied to her by bewildered interns.
A hospital stay means that family members must camp out, often on folding chairs or on the floor next to the bed. Nurses are too harried to provide basic care, and toileting, bathing, bed changes and clothing are usually the responsibility of the family. And bring your own toilet paper and bottled water! I have been in Italy long enough to even begin to appreciate the constant milling about of other families in the communal rooms. There is always someone to chat with nearby…And one must never forget that a well-placed wad of Euro notes will probably get you what you need much faster.
But if you need a prescription, the system offers you pretty much anything the doctor orders for very low prices. Patients must pay a “ticket” (a token amount according to income level and category, either preventative or curative) for prescriptions, but generally the cost is low. Many will say that it is a positive thing that these medicines are “free.” Unfortunately the cost can be measured not in Euros saved, but in lack of services. Garbage not collected for weeks, unpaved roads, schools which are crumbling, antiquities falling to pieces; the notoriously disintegrating infrastructure of Italy is the price paid by citizens for their “free” healthcare. We pay, we pay. And every so often, too often, we lose someone dear to us.
In the end, what the Italian system does is provide a baseline availability of services, in varying forms, for people who don’t have extra funds to spend. Those who do have money can pay for excellent care and usually receive it. Those who don’t must rely on what is available, and sometimes that means waiting too long for a hospital bed, or suffering the ministrations of incompetent personnel. Some problems, such as ADHD, are simply deemed “nonexistent.” Older patients are often overlooked, and their suffering is seen as inevitable and therefore not treatable. Up until recently pain has been seen as a necessary part of illnesses and childbirth. (Another post…) And of course you are on your own for dental needs entirely.
I vowed that I would not give obvious advice in this post, but I can’t resist saying that we would be prudent if we observed places like Italy closely. If our reason for demanding government-provided healthcare is to render services equally to everyone, then we should proceed with caution. As with so many things, the distance between our good intentions to the ultimate outcome is paved with unexpected, and sometimes appalling, consequences.