I am a cat person. I have lived with, in the order of appearance, Wolfie (for Mozart), Moose (who walked with a swagger despite his small size), Salt (who was all black), Kitty (aka White and Black Kitty) and my current cat Lily, a Siamese with the sky-blue eyes of her breed.
They all had different personalities. Wolfie was laid back and loving. Kitty had a personality disorder. She wanted to get close to you, but at a certain point — which was known only to her — she’d lash out with tooth and claw. I paid for two friends and a house painter to get tetanus shots because of her.
Lily is sweet but not too bright. One evening, Bill and I were cleaning out a room in the basement and caught a quick movement among some boxes. It flashed by so fast. Then we saw it again. A mouse! A tiny field mouse. I shut the door to the room and told Bill to get Lily. Bill put her down and we waited. The mouse zipped briefly into view. Lily turned her head but didn’t shift her weight. We plopped her at the spot of the last sighting. She did nothing. She was not interested.
My real life cats are always uninteresting, needy cretins – meaning they are cats –compared to those in Shakespeare Cats. This book by Susan Herbert, first published in 1996, features drawings of cats in costume, acting out scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.
Like cute cat videos, I can’t get enough of Shakespeare Cats. I have given away more copies of this book than any other. The recipients range in age from 4 to 84. I hope that the pictures have lifted their spirits as much as they have lifted mine.
One of my favorites is “Richard the Third.” The hump, the evil glare, the marked resemblance to my White and Black Kitty.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
And from “Julius Caesar,”
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend
me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their
So let it be with Caesar.
Mark Antony’s extended paw, his steady gaze and his upraised tail all speak to his masculine strength and determination. You can tell from their eyes and their uplifted paws that the Roman mob is suspicious and unsettled.
I had such a wonderful time looking at the cat pictures with my grandson Edin, then almost four. The first page, All hail, Macbeth!, showed Macbeth in his Tartan, holding a sword and looking up at the three calico witches. I told Edin that Macbeth was afraid of the witches. He asked why when Macbeth was the one with the sword. I said, “Those witches have magic.” Edin nodded knowingly. Later I overheard him explaining to his mom that the witches have magic.
My absolute favorite is Cleopatra, a Siamese cat, of course. When I first saw her, I gasped. She was beautiful. She was exotic. Her dress was over-the-top. She was a fantasy. She was perfect.
I have read the book to Lily the cat to inspire her to greater things. She had the same reaction as she had with the mouse. She was not impressed.
I blurted this out on my first Caribbean cruise when Bill and I came upon this huge column rising out of a fountained plaza in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was called the Totem Telurico, and it commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas.
Most of the totem was a reddish brown color with irregular projections that resembled pottery shards. The clay came from all over the Americas, representing the origins of the peoples of the Americas. Shards are about all that’s left of the native island peoples who encountered Columbus and his ilk.
This was my first time to travel by cruise ship. It was a chance to travel with friends. It was a chance to drop a few dollars in post-hurricane Puerto Rico. As it turned out, I got a whole new perspective on the Caribbean as a whole. It is an epic story, spread over thousands of miles and hundred of years, like a real-life Greek tragedy.
When I hear “Caribbean,” I think of the white beaches, turquoise waters, warm weather and relaxation that I enjoyed on earlier visits to the Bahamas and Jamaica. It’s not my favorite kind of vacation. I remember being in the West End of the Bahamas some years back, and after three days of hanging out at the beach, took a moped to Freetown to check out Bahamian culture. But there was no “there” there, just shops. Despite the sights promoted in all these travel books, it felt like that these islands lacked cultural depth.
Being “discovered” by Columbus was catastrophic for the indigenous people, the Taino. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the native people were completely
wiped out within two generations. Causes include diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza for which the Indians had no immunity. Outright killing and harsh enslavement also contributed. And it wasn’t just by the Spanish. In 1626, the English and French united to kill the natives on St. Kitts. After the massacre, they resumed their war against each other.
That history of population extinction or near-extinction, the enslavement and importation of African peoples and the loss of cultural identity played out throughout the Caribbean islands irrespective of the nationality of the colonizer—Spanish, British, French, Dutch or Danish.
What remains are archaeological: petroglyphs and pottery, some ruins and a few
borrowed Taino words. (Our “hurricane” comes from the native huracán.) What is lost when an entire civilization disappears are their cultural practices, religion, food choices, music, sports and, perhaps most importantly, their founding myths. Even though the institutional memory of Taino is gone, many current inhabitants of these islands still have Taino blood because the all-male European expeditions must have mated, by force or persuasion, with the local women.
Since medieval times, sugar was a scarce, luxury item in Europe. Kings flaunted their wealth by serving sugar to their guests. Sugar cane only grew on a few islands on the African coast. The Caribbean climate was ideal for sugar cane. However, the growing, harvesting and processing of the crop required large numbers of workers. Since the small population of surviving natives was unsuited to the harsh conditions in the sugar fields, the Europeans imported slaves from Africa on an unprecedented scale.
Most of what Americans know about African chattel slavery comes from our knowledge of the slavery system in the American South. That system got its start in the 1500s in the Caribbean. If it were not for the sugar plantations that so enriched the colonists and their mother countries, the “peculiar institution” that led to the Civil War might not have happened.
Sugar was unbelievably lucrative. Some have called sugar the opiate of the 17th and 18th century. (Science is still debating whether or not
sugar causes neurophysiological changes.) No matter how much sugar was produced, demand matched it. St. Kitts, only 18 miles long and 5 miles wide, had 62 sugar plantations. By the 1780s, Saint-Domingue, modern day Haiti, the size of Hawaii, produced about 40 percent of all the sugar consumed in Europe.
All this productivity – and profit — depended on slave labor. On all these islands, slaves overwhelmingly outnumbered the Europeans. In order to keep them in line, to maximize profit and, because they could, the white owners cruelly abused the slaves. I quote a passage by an educated black man during the time of the Haitian Revolution (1789-1804)
“Have they [the French masters] not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excretement (sic)? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?” wikipedia
Slave revolts big and small kept popping up. Is there any wonder? The most successful was the Haitian Revolution that led to the first independent black republic in the Western hemisphere in 1804.
It is the descendants of these slaves who I encountered on my trip. I only got to meet
them at a very superficial level, another downside of cruising. Still, it struck me as ironic, if not downright perverse, that the sights the tour guides of these countries are showing off tend to be those related to their oppressors. Besides the Totem Telurico, we saw the statue of Ponce de Leon, yes, that Ponce de Leon, who was Puerto Rico’s first governor.
In the Dominican Republic, we toured the Alcazar, home of Christopher Columbus’s son Diego, who served as the “Governor of the Indies.” In St. Kitts, we visited Romney Manor, one of whose owners was Thomas Jefferson’s great, great, great grandfather. Aruba and Curacao had a slightly different history. The climate was too dry for sugar, but being very close to the South American mainland, they became huge slave trading depots.
These islands were more than just moneymaking engines for the European countries. These islands were also the launching pad for the conquest of Central and South America and the looting of an estimated 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver. Without the ability to amass the men, weapons and horses on the Caribbean islands, the Spanish would not have been able to launch the mainland invasions to defeat Montezuma and the Incas.
Before this trip, I had always thought that these vacation isles were politically irrelevant. I was wrong. The Caribbean islands were always pawns in global politics. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas, brokered by Pope Alexander VI, divided the whole non-European world between Spain and Portugal. In 1636, the Dutch took Aruba and Curacao from the Spanish during the Thirty Years War. Puerto Rico was “won” by the United States in the wake of the Spanish American War (1898).
During World War II, even though the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, its colonies Aruba and Curacao were not. As oil refining centers for the vast oil fields of Venezuela and Colombia, these islands supplied oil to American, British and French forces. Much oil was also shipped by tankers to the Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk to help Stalin fight the Nazis.
I now think of the Caribbean as the crucible that molded the Americas. But the cost was incredibly high to the native peoples and the imported slaves even up to today.
There is a great yearning by the descendants of these people, spread out over 7000 islands, 28 nations and dozens of languages if you include creoles and patois, for stories that explain their situation, their history, their place in this world in an authenic way.
This is a prodigious task for at least two reasons. One is the lack of origin myths and the dislocation of slavery. The other is the great and gorgeous variety of centuries of local development and adaptation. Since the 1950s, academic papers and a rich trove of literature from writers including Nobel Prize winners Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipal have explored the Caribbean landscape and identity. Marlon James, Juno Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, the musician Bob Marley are just a few of the others.
On these cruises, they show you forts and colonial palaces. They take you to beaches and shops. But, if you pay attention, 500 years of history and culture unfold in all its riot of colors and complexity right in front of you.
Tell me: What surprising things have you learned on your travels?
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends” by the Beatles
“My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.” Antonio to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice
Sometimes I need all the help I can get. Sometimes I don’t need help, but it’s still nice to have it.
William Shakespeare’s TheMerchant of Venice is all about people helping their friends. Antonio took out a loan from Shylock for money his friend Bassanio needed to woo Portia. The collateral was a pound of Antonio’s own flesh. When Antonio had to default, Shylock insisted on collecting his pound of flesh. Portia, in turn, not only plucked Antonio out of Shylock’s clutches but also wangled a favorable court decision on behalf of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.
My first encounter with Shakespeare was reading the Merchant of Venice as a high school freshman. I wish I could say that I was blown away by the genius of the greatest writer of the English language. Mostly, I was confused. So, who’s the hero? The story starts with Antonio and he’s the one who ends up in jeopardy. But Bassanio gets the girl. If she’s so smart, why doesn’t Portia try to change her father’s will that gives her hand and her land to whichever guy guesses the right strongbox? And why was everyone so nasty to Shylock?
In reading The Merchant of Venice this time, I found this 400-year-old play in which people spoke in iambic pentameter totally relatable. This time around, I realized that the plot points that confused me are what make this play so interesting. I want to say “modern,” in the way that the heroes, heroines and anti-heroes all have good sides and dark sides. I have sympathy for Shylock the way I have sympathy for Tony Soprano. I see Bassanio as a bit of a gold digger. And Portia is a bold and take-charge woman who nonetheless gives up her estate the moment Bassanio opens the lead casket.
The action of the story is mixed too, both serious and comedic. There are disguises and intentional tomfoolery that remind me of the antics on I Love Lucy. Portia and her maid, in rattling off the defects of the undesirable suitors, have the snappy dialogue of a Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell movie. The courtroom scene, on the other hand, is as taut and suspenseful as the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird or, dare I say, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.
I realize that comparing Shakespeare to the dated movies and TV shows I’m familiar with is probably sacrilegious to some. My point is that reading The Merchant of Venice this time was much, much easier. I am a more knowledgeable reader than I was a half century ago. My vocabulary is larger. My cultural references are wider. But, I also had a little help. Help came in the form of a new format: NO FEAR SHAKESPEARE.
This edition has the entire play on the left side of the page and a modern translation on the right. It is incredibly convenient and reassuring to check on the right side of the page to make sure that I didn’t miss a crucial plot point. More importantly, it solves some annoying archaic meanings. For example, when a sentence starts with “Marry,” it has nothing to do with weddings. It sort of means, “Well.” “Soft!” as an interjection means “Wait.” And “Sola” means “Hey.”
Now, that’s real help.
Before you scorn me as intellectually lazy, a wimp, a wuss, a cheater, let me say that I’ve beaten you to it. But I really don’t care. I just want access to the wonderful ways that Shakespeare devised his plots, his complex characters and their way with language. “All that glisters is not gold” (Portia) and “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Shylock) are just two examples. The Beatles incorporated Mark Antony’s line in Julius Caesar, “lend me your ears,” in their song that I used to lead off this essay.
I find supertitles at the opera extremely helpful. These are projected captions of the sung text, or a translation of the text. I remember a time when the only information about a three-hour show was a ¾ page synopsis. During a performance I would wonder, “Is this where the lovers are quarreling?” “Is this where the hero finds out he’s really a prince?” “Is this where the princess is betrayed?” “Is it over?” I’m sure this confusion was what led to the famous saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
I also received help with language in a Classical Chinese class I was taking in college. Classical Chinese is dense, aphoristic, full of archaic words and unpunctuated. It’s not even like reading Shakespeare, more like trying to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.
I struggled for hours over one tiny passage. Finally, I sought help from Professor Ho. He had long wispy white hair and an even wispier beard. He had a hippie-Zen reputation on campus. I waited for his pronouncement as to what the passage meant. Instead, he picked up my book, took a pencil, put in two commas and a period and gave it back to me. To my amazement, I could figure it out with that little bit of help!
The tables have turned now in that, instead of me trying to understand others’ writings, I am trying to get folks to understand my writings. Here again, I have help. My friends Max and Laurie, both writing professionals, read my drafts and give me editorial tips. They tell me things like,
“This is your topic sentence. You need to put it closer to the beginning.”
“This section is confusing.”
“This is the interesting part. I want you to tell me more.”
“You are burying the lede.”
As with Dr. Ho, they don’t rewrite for me, but they show me the way.
Like the quality of mercy, help is “twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” And between the Beatles and William Shakespeare, I am in the best company.
Tell me: Who or what has helped you out in your life?
This plaintive question came out of the mouth of then three-year old grandson Edin, his face at once forlorn and beseeching. We had reached the wall of the Charlottesville Alakazam toy store where the heavy machinery lived: bulldozers and excavators and dump trucks and backhoes. Edin had his eye on a cement mixer. It was so big that he had to hold it with both arms outstretched. It sported bold blue stripes on the drum (which turned!), a movable chute at the back, a hose and a detachable pail. I said, “It costs a lot of money, Edin.” That’s when he asked, “Don’t we have any money?” And that’s when Bill and I went, “Awww,” and bought it for him.
A jumble of thoughts and feelings stirred through my mind. This is a waste of money. This’ll make Edin happy, or just as importantly, he’ll not be unhappy. His parents won’t appreciate more junk in their house. What kind of example of impulse spending am I giving Edin? But then again, we can afford it, and I love to see Edin smile.
Parents and grandparents need help to sort out all those conflicting thoughts and feelings. A book by finance writer Beth Kobliner, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (even if you’re not), gives a game plan of what we need to do to teach our children to be smart and responsible about money, even three year olds!
TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT MONEY. It’s never easy, but it’s essential. In fact, I think that is where my parents failed me and where I, in turn, failed my son. My father came to America from China with no money, but he had his medical degree. He spent many financially lean years as a medical resident, working in hospitals for room and board and $10-$50 a month. (Mom, my sister and I were only able to join him seven years after his arrival in the US.) We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in South St. Louis and slept on furniture given us by nuns at Dad’s hospital.
Over time, Dad’s orthopedic practice prospered and he became well-to-do. He was incredibly generous with me, paying for college and for my medical education. In 1976, my tuition was $5000 a year, up $1500 from the year before. I thought it was outrageously high.
I was woefully unprepared when I started making my own money. It was a patient who told me that I could do better with a money market compared to a savings account. I felt completely cowed when “negotiating” for jobs and benefits. Benefits, what are they? I wish Dad had told me about work-place practices and bolstered my self-confidence when I had to talk with hospital administrators. Once, I asked him how I should go about investing my money. All he said was, “Buy mutual funds.”
My mom’s message throughout was, “Don’t spend.” And she was enough of a tiger-mom that by the time I came to America at age eight, spending money for anything I didn’t need was unthinkable. She was a savvy shopper in the Chinese way. She inspected each string bean for tenderness and snap.
My conversations about money with my son Alex, Edin’s dad, usually ran along the lines of “Those Air Jordans cost too much.” “You don’t need another Star Wars action figure, box of Legos or Ghost Rider comic book.” I did not openly share my values. I sent money to environmental and civil rights organizations, but didn’t tell Alex. I gave Alex $20 to slip into the Salvation Army kettle each Christmas, but didn’t suggest he donate his own money to causes he cared about. And now he’s grown up with a family. We never talk money. And truthfully, I don’t want to because I still feel pretty incompetent.
Kobliner assures parents that they are up to the task, even if they feel that they themselves don’t know enough or if they have made a mess of their own finances. She states that there are only a few important concepts in the world of personal finance, despite advertising by financial advice firms to the contrary. She explains what these are and how to implement them.
The “Save More” chapter says that your kid needs to get in the habit of saving. For preschoolers, she suggests a family savings pot where everyone chips in and saves for a pizza night or a trip to the waterpark. Let the child help count out the money when it’s time to spend it and figure out if there’s enough for the extra topping. This will also teach your little one about numbers and coins.
In middle school, kids can have a definite percentage of money go into savings, like a quarter for every dollar. It’s best to have this rule before he is “rolling around on his bedroom floor covered in twenties like a lottery player who’s hit the jackpot” from birthday cash or, in my family’s case, Chinese New Year’s red envelopes.
For older kids, she talks about saving for college, interest rates, CDs, even down payment for a house. Kobliner insists that “It’s never good to have no money.” The idea is that, if it wipes out all your savings to pay for something you want, it’s better to do without because everyone needs a cushion.
Each of Kobliner’s topics is full of good, practical, do-able ideas for different age groups. She shows how to do a job search and suggests investing summer job earnings and grandma’s cash gift in a tax-free Roth IRA. Her comment to elementary schoolers that “Getting rich is not a career goal,” reminds me of my son at that age telling me, “I’d make a good Lucky Lotto winner, Mom.”
Kobliner suggests kids through high school should pay in cash and buy only what they can afford to pay for now. She has a chart showing just how onerous credit card interest is and harps on how important credit ratings are, both yours and your kid’s.
She also suggests parents play the “want versus need” game with preschoolers. “We need milk and apples; we want chocolate milk and Oreos.” Or as Edin said at Charlottesville’s Atlas Coffee Shop, “I neeeeed carrot cake.” Advice to older children includes “Always buy a used car” and “Don’t shop just to feel better.”
Kobliner stresses the need for health insurance and discusses what other kinds of insurance a young adult needs and doesn’t need. She talks about ways to pay for college, including a step-by-step plan that starts with specific things to do in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. If paying for college is a concern of yours, this section is worth the price of the book.
Kobliner also has a chapter called “Give Back.” Kids need to see their parents donating time and money to causes we feel are important and to people who are worse off than we are. She cites studies that giving is also psychologically rewarding.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH. This is Kobliner’s main point to parents. Save, invest, insure, stay out of debt, give back –yes, you have to do that. But take heart, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (even if you’re not) will help you. On this part, I think my folks and I deserve passing grades. I think that Alex learned some good habits by watching my actions. As for my grandkids, I plan to give Alex and Bill’s kids a copy of this book so they’ll actually talk to their children about money!
Tell me: What parental message about money did you get?
There are only five species of todies in the world. Two live in Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and one each in Cuba, Jamaica and
Puerto Rico. I have seen THREE of them. What a kick! And now, I have met the man whose life mission is to make the Puerto Rican tody the symbol of Puerto Rico.
Todies are small, jewel-like birds, the size of a hummingbird. Their vivid emerald-green back and head are contrasted with a nail-polish-red throat patch. The red throat is accented by the thin border of white around it and by the tody’s characteristic upward head tilt. The five species show subtle differences in the coloration of the breast, some variation in the width of the bill, and one has a spot of blue on the head. They are short distance flyers and so live only on their particular island.
My first tody sighting was in Jamaica in the 1990s. At the time, I didn’t even know there was such a bird as a tody. I thought the name unattractive, too much like “toady,” but the bird was beautiful. It looked like someone wearing a green coat with a red ascot. Bill and I saw the Cuban tody in 2013. It sat quietly on a low branch in the forest at Las Terrazas Reserve. The tody was the mascot for the place.
I saw the Puerto Rican tody in February, 2018. It was almost five months after Hurricane Maria. Recovery of both natural and manmade structures was spotty. Tree leaves had grown back, but in disorganized clumps like hair sprouting from old men’s ears. Many utility poles were still down. Street signs stood at skewed angles.
It’s a wonder that the birds weren’t all swept out to sea. Our birding guide, Gabriel Lugo, told Bill and me that more birds died from starvation than from the actual storm as every tree was stripped bare and there was no food. Gabriel drove us from San Juan in the northeast of the island over the mountains all the way to the southwestern tip. We saw several todies in the dry forest (versus the rain forest).
The next day was rainy. Gabriel took us to a friend’s house that had hummingbird feeders. This was in a mountainous section that was hit especially hard by Maria. We drove through rugged terrain, passing newly repaired bridges and roofs covered with disaster-blue tarps.
Pepe, a sturdily built man with an easy grin, met us at the top of his steep driveway. I couldn’t gauge Pepe’s age: older than Gabriel, younger than us. Of course, that’s anywhere from 35 to 70. He escorted us to a covered porch fronted by a decorative metal grille. Outside of the bars was a colorful garden studded with a half dozen hummingbird feeders on poles. Scores of hummers –green mangos, Puerto Rican emeralds and Antillean mangos — chased each other from feeder to feeder to nearby bushes with ferocious intensity.
Gabriel mentioned that Pepe’s carefully selected plantings were torn up by the hurricane. Pepe said that during the storm, he and his wife anchored the feeders to the grille inside of the porch to lure the hummers to protection. I asked Pepe how he was coping with the aftermath. He was not at all emotional. He said, “One minute something is there. The next, it’s not.”
I can’t remember who first mentioned the tody, but it soon became clear that Pepe was an expert. He and his wife, Fela, travel extensively in Latin America making nature videos. They have a portmanteau professional name: FelPe. And he has a passion: to change the scientific name of the Puerto Rican tody, affectionately called “San Pedrito” or Little Saint Peter, from todus mexicanus to todus portoricensis. (Todus is Latin for “something small.” )
He presented me with his book, The Root of the Antilles: the History of the Todidae Family, which presses his case to the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The book begins with European sightings of the tody, the first one in 1687 by a Dutchman in Jamaica. In the following centuries, French, English and Dutch saw different species of the tody (on their respective islands) and tried to describe, draw and classify them.
In 1837, an Englishman, John Gould, and his wife, Elizabeth, made accurate drawings of the Cuban tody and called it todus multicolor. Unfortunately, they neglected to present their findings to the correct zoological society, so that the findings went uncredited.
The very next year, 1838, Adolphe Lesson, a doctor in the French navy, sent his brother Rene in France a description matching that of the Cuban tody. He claimed he shot it in Porto Rico. (The name Porto Rico was changed to Puerto Rico in 1932.) Rene Lesson called the Cuban tody todus portoricensis, named after Puerto Rico. Adolphe also described another tody he claimed he captured in Tampico, Mexico. Rene called this bird todus mexicanus, named after Mexico. That bird was the Puerto Rican tody. As Pepe states in the book, “At that moment our species were tied together and we have yet been unable to untie the knot.” (There aren’t and never were todies in Mexico.)
In the ways of the Nomenclature Commission, chronological precedence is very important. So, even though it seems obvious that the Puerto Rico tody should be called puertoricensis or portoricensis, this has not happened. It appears that the Cuban tody managed to escape the fate of being the “todus portoricensis,” to become the appropriately named todus multicolor because of the 1837 Gould findings.
This book shows how messy science can be. Mistakes, confusion and very bad illustrations (no photos in those days) abound, and these untruths are often copied and passed on. Pepe and Fela ((Jose Gonzalez Diaz and Felisa Collazo Torres) wrote in the book their official petition to the ICZN to change the name for scientific accuracy and to honor Rene Lesson’s intent to associate the bird with its proper location. They seek taxonomic justice.
At the time Pepe gave me the book, I was astounded and moved by the effort he and his wife had put into teasing out the history and the science of this little bird. I was impressed by how passionately they advocated for the name change. But I was also a bit puzzled. Here was a man who dismissed the destruction of his garden, being cut off from the village by the washed out bridge and living without electricity for months with a philosophical shrug. And yet, he has written an entire book because of the Latin name of a bird.
When I read the book, however, I was persuaded by Pepe’s reasoning. He wants the San Pedrito to be the emblematic bird of Puerto Rico. He wants it to be a unifying force for the community, a point of pride. He wants this pride to transfer to protection of the habitat of the bird in particular and of the environment of Puerto Rico in general. He wrote, “The apparent simple act of rectification [of the name] allows us to understand the enormous benefits that gives us the fragile and complex stability that is ultimately what assures us our survival.” I’d fight that hard for survival too.
Long live todus portoricensis!
Tell me: Do you have a passion that others may consider quixotic? What is it?
We all have an image of what our “best” life would look like. Mine would include having a perfectly supportive husband, eternally appreciative children; insightful conversations and gourmet dinners with friends; disciplined daily exercise and writing routines; and a wildly successful blog. Before I retired from doctoring, smart and considerate co-workers were important.
So, if that’s my perfect life then how is it that I am writing this essay slouched on my couch, computer heating up my lap and the St. Louis Cardinals blaring on the TV, nibbling on Trader Joe’s mango strips straight from the package? How come Bill and I always eat dinner with plates on our laps, him reading his phone and me watching PBS News? How come Bill was the only viewer on my blog site today, and I had to beg him to log on?
Guido Brunetti, a police detective, has the life I dream of. In this long running mystery series by Donna Leon, I have accompanied Guido at home and at work. I have met his family, his co-workers and his superiors. I have been with Guido walking through Venice’s maze of streets and alleys, many of them dead-ending at the water’s edge. He and I have ridden the vaporetti and the police boats in the canals and lagoons. I have fallen asleep with him while reading Thucydides, Pliny, Aeschylus and Sophocles.
As a native, Brunetti’s mental map of Venice is based on landmarks like churches, palazzos, bridges and vaporetto stations, never street addresses. Pictures of friend Larry and Bill in 2004. Notice they are holding maps!
In the Temptation of Forgiveness, Leon’s 27th novel in the series, Guido investigates an assault. His team consists of fellow detective Claudia, young, smart and intuitive, and Lorenzo, his long time sergeant. The three have an easy companionship. They speak frankly among themselves, freely floating theories and making jokes. The boss’s secretary is an ally to Brunetti and a force to be reckoned with. Brunetti’s bosses, Lieutenant Scarpa and Vice-Questore Patta, are vain, lazy and sleazily ambitious.
Brunetti spreads a wide net in search of the assailant. When he interviews the vicitm’s wife, she balks at further questions, asking, “What good would it do?”
“He [Brunetti] realized that finding the guilty person would do no one any good at all and never would. It would do bad to the person who had committed the crime and to their family.”
“’It is not my job to do good, Signora,’ he admitted. ‘Only to find the guilty person and see that they are arrested.’”
His search for a motive and a culprit lead him to uncover many sordid schemes his greedy fellow citizens are foisting on the vulnerable. He is more disappointed than surprised. Of course, in the end, he unravels the who and the why. He always does.
Whether or not the perpetrators of crimes in Venice are brought to justice, a sometime-slippery concept, is hard to predict. Forces outside of Brunetti’s control –political considerations, financial clout, social position — often hi-jack the expected “crime and punishment” sequence in a city and country rife with corruption.
Brunetti is dogged in his pursuit of criminals, but he is also philosophical. He finds solace, and sometimes instruction, in reading Greek and Roman classics. In The Temptation of Forgiveness, he is reading Sophocles’ Antigone. The heroine, Antigone, defies her uncle Creon’s ruling that her brother’s body must be left to rot. Her sister Ismene says, “We must submit to the law.” Antigone breaks the law in the service of a higher code and buries him. She pays with her life. Brunetti considers the ramifications of unjust laws on those whose job is to uphold the law.
While reading, he banters with his wife, Paola, who is also reading. He says to Paola, “Ismene tells me that ‘We are mere women, and we cannot fight against men.’” Paola mockingly replies, “So I’ve always believed.” She does not even look up from her book.
Brunetti has two teenage children, a boy and a girl. These days, they meet mostly at mealtime. Everyone delights in Paola’s cooking: gnochetti di zucca (squash gnocchi), spezzatino (stew), ciambella (bundt cake) with raisins and pumpkins, chestnut and hazelnut cake. Paola is such a richly wrought character, a professor of literature, a devotee of Henry James, someone who can hold her own in any conversation so I don’t even mind that she does all the cooking.
It is not the actual circumstances of Brunetti’s life that I want. Yes, Venice is beautiful but I know it’s overrun with tourists. They clog the streets. The cruise liners pollute the lagoon. The tourists skew the local economy by raising restaurant prices and causing the stores to be filled with “Made in China” kitsch.
Clearly Brunetti enjoys the intellectual aspects of being a detective. He likes his co-workers. But work is challenging too. And his superiors are cretins. And his enemies are numerous and powerful: industrial polluters, human traffickers, drug smugglers, corrupt politicians, and plain old bad guys (and gals).
What I want when I say that I want Brunetti’s life, is to emulate his emotional center. To capture some of his grace and equanimity. To enjoy family and friends. To keep doing my best without guaranteed results. To find beauty and humor in everyday situations. To appreciate good literature. To savor, as Brunetti said while opening a bottle of Collavini Ribolla Gialla to sip while reading Antigone “the different sensations that life could offer.” Oh, and maybe Paola’s cooking too.
Tell me: Which Fictional Character’s Life Do You Want, and why?
“The small are eating the old.” My cousin, Yu, whose name means Jade in Chinese, said these words to me when I was in China in 2016. Yu’s point is that the older generations are sacrificing too much for the youth. (In English, I call him “cousin.” In Chinese, he is the grandson of my father’s oldest brother. Yu calls me “Auntie Ling-Ling who is related on the father’s side.”)
What? I was shocked. No society treasures its children more than the Chinese. A Chinese term for being pregnant literally means “possessing happiness” ( 有喜) Traditionally, children were responsible for the care of aging parents. The more children, the more secure one’s old age. When the government enacted its “one child policy” in the 1980s, it was bucking a mighty trend. Even today, with a hit-or-miss social insurance system for retirees, children are still many pensioners’ chief support. So, why is my cousin feeling so put upon by the young?
Since my last visit to China in 1997, almost twenty years ago, all the responsibility for childcare has shifted to grandparents. Here’s how that happened. Almost everyone who lives in an urban area has to retire by age 60 to make jobs available for younger generations. As a result, fairly young grandparents have time to do childcare. Their grown children live under very competitive situations. Housing is incredibly tight and expensive. Income inequality, once unheard of, is as high as in the United States (Harvard Business Review). Both parents must work.
The working husband and wife are each the product of the one-child policy. Their child is also an only child. Moreover, as the Chinese tend not to move from city to city, it is likely that all the grandparents are in the same town. So now, there are typically six adults (two sets of grandparents and the parents) looking after this one precious child.
I paid more attention to Yu’s situation than I otherwise might have because I had read Lesley Stahl’s book Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting,” on the plane ride over. It was a birthday present from my son and daughter-in-law, the parents of my little grandson Edin.
Lesley Stahl wrote this book because she’s crazy about her grandbaby. Me too! As you can tell from my previous essay, “A Moment in Paradise,” I spent hours on the back porch just staring at the infant Edin. And since last October, Caleb is tied for the “world’s most beautiful baby” title. Besides waxing rhapsodic about her family in general, and granddaughter Jordan in particular, Stahl focused on the many permutations grandparenting takes these days.
In every category of grandparenting, I can name someone who fits. My cousin’s wife is a “granny nanny.” For several years now, she has left her home in St. Louis to live months at a time in Minnesota to care for the kids of her son and daughter-in-law, both professors. Tennis friend Jim, a grizzled Vietnam-era vet, babysits his three, soon to be four, grandkids several days and nights a week. He loves being “Papa.” An activist friend in the 1990s successfully sued her drug-addicted daughter for custody of her granddaughter. My high school friend became a grandmother after her gay son and his partner adopted a brother and sister pair of siblings.
My family is part of the mix-and-match grandparents of divorce, widowhood and remarriage. Edin and Caleb have three pairs of grandparents. In addition, I am step-grandma to my husband’s seven grandchildren. Everyone I know helps with money and some level of childcare.
Stahl talks briefly about “glammas” (glamorous grandmas?) who aren’t interested in their grandkids. Some think that grandparenthood makes them old. Two years ago, I was grandmother of the bride. I usually don’t care about being old, but that felt old. Others say, “Been there. Done that.” One man described his mother’s reaction to being with the kids, “To her, they’re exhausting, boring and nerve-racking.” Stahl gives short shrift to those grandparents who are not completely bowled over by grandkids.
She glosses over the fact that some grandparents may feel a little trapped in their caretaker role. She tells the story of a woman who left her home in Ecuador to come to the US to take care of her two grandkids. For ten years! Stahl writes, “But in the end, Gramma is fulfilled, the children benefit from the love and attention, and the parents have peace of mind…. Everyone wins.” Also, she downplays the kids’ behavior. There are difficult kids, but not in Lesley Stahl’s world.
Stahl lives a privileged life. She and her husband flew to Los Angeles from New York and stayed a week and a half for the birth of their first grandchild. They redecorated their apartment to include a nursery. They rented a house for a month in Santa Barbara for a family vacation. And a lot of her anecdotal evidence comes from her wealthy, privileged friends: Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, joint chief of staff Martin Dempsey, columnist Ellen Goodman, the movers and shakers of New York and Washington. She never acknowledges that perhaps her ability to enjoy her grandchildren is related in part to her exceptional privilege.
However extravagant and extensive the help American grandparents give to their grandchildren, in most cases, they are merely helpers or boosters to the parents. This is not the case in China. Grandparents are expected, not just to kick in financially and to do babysitting, but to be the main caregivers.
I saw a hint of this before we even got to Shanghai. Bill and I had booked a week of bird watching in the western province of Sichuan. We went with a guide and a driver. Both were men in their early thirties. Each was the father of a small child. Obviously, their jobs required them to be away from home for extended periods.
They and their wives depended on their parents, especially, the wife’s mother, for childcare. It explained why, when we found some especially delicious yak jerky at roadside stand, each of them bought a kilo for their mothers-in-law.
My cousin Yu and his wife are responsible for their four-year old granddaughter Ying, whose name means smart or clever, on the weekends. Yu complained that Ying likes her other grandparents better. But he is reluctant to say anything to his son because he is worried that his childcare hours might go up. Their modest apartment is overflowing with toys. The tiny alcove that was their son’s childhood bedroom is even more crowded now that they have bought Ying a piano.
Chinese families feel a lot of pressure for their one child to keep up with the one child of the Zhangs and the Chens and the Wangs. Not just piano lessons, but English and other languages, violin and other musical instruments, classical Chinese literature, calligraphy, art and sports, anything to give their child a competitive edge.
And the lessons are not cheap. Yu told me that one piano or English lesson for children costs as much as what he pays for a semester of the seal-carving class he takes at the “elder college.” At this point he said, “The small are eating the old.”
Yu’s younger sister Lan (Orchid) has her grandson full time because he, her son and daughter-in-law and her husband all live together. This boy is ten now. She organizes all his extra-curricular activities: soccer, classical Chinese literature and martial arts. He goes home for lunch on school days. I remember getting a picture of this cute toddler and her note that she was raising him. I was surprised. I thought it was an aberration. I was wrong.
I do not want to give the impression that the actual parents are uncaring people. They pitch in mightily to raise their son or daughter. I have seen parents on a weekend with their little one in the Shanghai Art Museum using their cellphones to provide light for the child to copy an old masters painting.
In her book, Lesley Stahl assumes that the more adult attention to the children, the better for the children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development. In China, there are typically six adults totally focused on raising each child. Do those kids have an advantage?
But, what about the stress on the grandparents? Columnist Ellen Goodman said that if you’re a full-time caregiver, there’s an element of financial sacrifice and exhaustion. Well, sometimes it is exhausting. The highest number of steps I ever recorded on my iPhone, over 24,000, was the day I took care of Edin and Caleb. This was more than the steps I clocked walking to and on the Great Wall, although the Wall had many more floors. I do not entirely agree with the statement, “…with grandchildren there is no weariness that competes with the elation and joy of being with them.”
In a bit of irony, a few months before my arrival in China, the government passed a new law allowing families to have two children. Shaking his head, Yu said, “We’re able to have two children now. But I’m not sure my wife and I have the stamina for it.”
Tell me: Were your grandparents a very big part of your life? What is the easiest or hardest part about being a grandparent?