Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Tony, Don and Ralph

I recently went to the theater to see two movies which, on the surface, seemed to have nothing in common. Except that they did, the most obvious being that both were stories about “big, strong men.”

The first film was Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, an (almost) true-to-life story about the relationship between Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga.

The story begins when Tony is temporarily laid off from his job as – well, as a big, strong man. That is, as a bouncer at the Copacabana in New York City. It is 1962 and Tony wants to stay away from the shadier side of his Italian American neighborhood so he accepts a job driving pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a concert tour through the American South. (Oh, did I forget to mention that Dr. Shirley is African American and that Vallelonga is a bona-fida [as I second generation Italian American, I stand by my spelling!] bigot?)

Now I know that there is some controversy about the way Dr. Shirley is depicted in this movie and because Tony is the one portrayed as “the hero.” But that was not how I saw it. First of all, Dr. Shirley is not just any musician, he is a prodigy who started playing at the age of two. During his career, he was one of only three pianists who played at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. He also played with (among others) the Chicago Symphony, Boston Pops, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra and with Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall. But for his concert tour, he played a kind of third stream jazz that his audiences (including Tony) loved.

At one point during this movie, both men land in a southern jail that looks remarkably like the one in Mayberry, except that their jailers were nothing like Andy, or even like Barney on his worst day. And it is not Tony who gets them out, but Dr. Shirley who demands his right to make a phone call, which he makes to – wait, I don’t want to spoil it for you!

At another point during this movie Dr. Shirley, who has three doctorate degrees and speaks eight languages, decries that he often feels as though he isn’t “black enough” for some, or “white enough” for others, and seems to be wondering where he fits in. (For me, if Dr. Shirley had a problem fitting in, it wasn’t because he wasn’t black enough or because he wasn’t white enough, but was because he was a genius and most of the rest of us are not.)

The other movie I saw (with my granddaughter Chloe) was Disney’s animated Ralph Breaks the Internet, the story about what happens when Wreck-It-Ralph gets tired of being the bad guy in a video game and wants to become "the hero." To accomplish this, Ralph offers to go to the Internet (Did you know it was a real place?) with his best friend, Vanellope, to help her find a replacement part for her racing game.

This movie is hilarious. My favorite scene occurs when Vanellope drops in on all the Disney princesses and tries to tell them that she’s a princess too:

Pocahontas: What kind of a princess are you?
Vanellope: What kind?
Rapunzel: Do you have magic hair?
Vanellope: No!
Elsa: Magic Hands?
Vanellope:  No!
Snow White: Were you poisoned?
Vanellope: No!
Cinderella: Do animals talk to you?
Vanellope: No!
Rapunzel: Do people assume that all your problems got solved because a big, strong man showed up?
Vanellope: Yes! What’s up with that?
All the Princesses: She is a princess!

I love it!

And I love that the two movies are similar in that they both recognize the giving, healing and loving nature of friendship, and because they recognize that sometimes even big, strong men have to be rescued!

So, I encourage you to go see these movies, especially Green Book, which is billed as (and is) a “feel good” movie - because there just aren’t enough of those around anymore! 

My memoir, Dear Elvis, a story about grief and loss can be found at

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Things, They are A-Changin’

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Or at least it’s beginning to feel like Christmas.

“It’s cold today,” a friend of mine said this afternoon as he held on to his car door before a gust of wind could slam it shut.

“It is and I love it!” I responded.

“Really? You like the cold?”

“No. Not the cold. I like when the seasons change. Like when summer becomes autumn, and autumn becomes winter.”

And it’s true. I do like it because everything changes and I like watching things evolve and grow. Like a grandchild becoming a young adult.

“Chloe, what do you want for Christmas?” I asked my ten-year-old granddaughter over the weekend.

“Books,” she answered.


She nodded.

What else?”

“Nothing else, just books.”

This is a grandchild after a grandmother’s heart!

On the way home from work I saw a sign that read: Be a Santa to a Senior this Year” and I laughed. On the way home, I listened to Christmas songs - to the Carpenters singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and to Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. Talk about things changing! I can’t believe I was just a child when that song first came out! 

But there’s nothing like music to put me in the mood. Maybe I will be a Santa to a senior this year! ( Just kidding!!)

So, I am looking forward to Christmas - to these last few days of November as they make way for December, and to December as it rolls toward Christmas. This is the time of year that’s all about anticipation, and anticipation isn’t just for kids. So, I hope you’re moving toward a merry little Christmas (or Kwanzaa or Chanukah or whatever holiday you celebrate), and more importantly, I hope you enjoy every little step along the way.

Godspeed, everyone!

My second memoir, Dear Elvis, a story about grief and loss can be found at

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Reindeer Fly, Don't They?

I left work at my usual time on Thursday but decided to stop first to do a little shopping and to get that bowl of cabbage beet borscht I’d been craving. So it was dark by the time I got back on the road.

I was driving along Route 73, behind the usual line of cars, just a mile or two before reaching Skippack Village when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a deer lying on the grass. Another deer was hovering above him, moving from one side of him to the other, touching his nose to the fallen deer as though he were encouraging him to get up. I wondered later if either deer ever recovered, which didn’t seem entirely impossible. Not after what I saw in November, a year ago.

I was in my school bus that time. It was early afternoon and I was driving down Valley Road when I saw a deer run out of the woods and get hit by a car two vehicles in front of me. I watched as the deer dropped to his knees and slid all the way across the highway where he stood up and ran away.  

Anyway, it’s November and, I’m told, mating season for deer who aren’t thinking about anything else so I try to be more careful than usual. But as I drove home that night, I couldn’t help wondering why Santa’s deer can fly but ours can’t. Maybe my son-in-law will know. He’s a magician, you know, and he just might know what secret Santa uses to make reindeer fly!   

My memoir, Dear Elvis, a story about grief and loss can be found at

Sunday, November 4, 2018


In order to write my last post,, I had to revisit the opera scene from the movie Philadelphia, and I’m so glad I did because it brought back memories from my childhood, memories of growing up in an Italian American household where opera flowed as freely as wine and where my sisters and I used to run through the house singing “Figaro, Figaro” at the top of our lungs.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love opera. If you think you don’t, I dare you to listen to Nessum Dorma or Pie Jesu or Summertime and then tell me you don’t!

But before you begin listening, let me warn you - opera can be addictive! I should know because for the past week I have been listening to my favorite aria, again and again, hoping to absorb it into my consciousness even as it remains just beyond my reach. The aria, Un bel di Vedremo, is from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” which tells a story about an American naval officer, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who marries a beautiful, 15-year-old Geisha girl and then abandons her.    

In this aria, Madame Butterfly declares that one fine day (un bel di), Pinkerton will return (vedremo) and she will die of happiness, which of course is not exactly what happens. In the recording I listened to, Maria Callas foretells Madame Butterfly’s death with a note so high it screams Butterfly’s pain as she plunges the samurai sword into her abdomen. And even after the last note is sung, the music continues so exquisitely, I must listen to it again because the first three notes (un bel di) are as beautiful as the last. 

Now, if you are waiting for me to come up with some moral to this story, I don’t have one - except  to tell you that, despite Butterfly’s dilemma, life is good especially when we surround ourselves with the people and things we love, even those that seem to exist just beyond our reach.

My memoir, Dear Elvis, a story about grief and loss can be found at


Monday, October 22, 2018

The Love U Keep

It begins with strings:

Andrew: “Do you mind this music? Do you like opera?”
Joe: “I am not that familiar with opera, Andrew.”
Andrew: “This is my favorite aria.”
A female voice begins to sing “La Mamma Morta” as Andrew tells Joe the name of the singer, the opera, the composer:  

“It’s Maria Callus.
Andrea Chenier
Umberto Giodano”

Callas sings, Joe looks at his watch, and Andrew continues:
“This is Maddalena saying how
during the French Revolution 
a mob set fire to her house 
and her mother died 
– saving her.” 
The music slows. 
“Do you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe?”

The music reaches a crescendo and Andrew bends from the middle as though wounded by the single cello that echoes Maddalena’s grief. 

The camera moves back and shoots from above Andrew’s head and we see the IV pole he is holding. Andrew is dying. He is emaciated. “I was alone,” Andrew continues, explaining it to Joe (as though he were a two-year-old).

“Surrounded by nothingness.
Hunger and misery.
Until love found me and said
You must live.
Heaven is in my eyes.
You are not alone.’”

There is a fireplace in the room casting light and shadow across Joe’s face until, as we watch, Joe not only feels it, he becomes one with it.

The above is, of course, a scene from the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and until last week, it was my all-time favorite movie scene (especially because it is followed by a scene in which Joe goes home, and sees his infant daughter and his wife with new eyes).

I say “until last week” because that was when I saw a scene that rivals the one above as my favorite. The movie is George Tillman Jr’s The Hate U Give, a story about an African American teenager who moves back and forth between her wealthy, white prep school, and her poor black neighborhood and family. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is the daughter of a strong mother (Regina Hall) and a loving father (Russell Hornsby) who teaches his children both black pride and how to behave in case they are stopped by a policeman.

But Starr’s childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) has had no such training and Starr is forced to watch as Khalil, who reaches for a hairbrush, is fatally shot by a policeman. At first Starr is traumatized, then enraged, and finally, she is forced to act.  

In the scene I loved, Starr faces her white, prep-school boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), who tells her, “I don’t see color. I see people.” 

And Starr, angry now, replies, “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”

“I see you,” Chris says gently as he touches his hand to her face.

And with that Tillman tells us that it is not enough to just see “blackness.” We must also isolate and recognize its beauty and applaud its courage.  

My memoir, Dear Elvis, a story about grief and loss can be found at   

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

It’s a Matter of Time

In the post, I called Oscar and Felix,
I told you why I was offered a $50 dollar gift certificate to a bookstore. Well, the gift card finally arrived and I wasted no time taking it to the Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove where I looked for the books I most wanted to read.

 The first was a book called The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli who, according to the back cover, is “the physicist known for making complex science intelligible.” (God, I hope so.) If you know me, or if you have read my memoir, Rude Awakening, you know that I have long been fascinated by the concept of time.

In that book, I wrote that one of the things I learned during my rude awakening was that “there is no such thing as linear time, and that all things happen simultaneously. I suppose that another way of saying it is that we don’t exist in time, but rather, we exist, and time is superimposed onto us” (in other words, it’s wired into our brains) “to give us a sense of structure and order much the same way the lines of latitude and longitude are placed onto a map to give us a sense of place.”

“The secrets of the universe,” I wrote, “aren’t really secrets. We all know them all the time. We simply don’t know how to access them.” Or – I am smart enough to know that the answers to all the questions lie somewhere inside of me (and you), but I am not smart enough to find them. However, according to the NPR critique quoted on the book’s back cover, Carlo Rovelli is an Italian physicist-poet who sees “the world or, more adequately, physical reality, as a lyrical narrative written in some hidden code that the human mind can decipher.” (Emphasis mine.) Wish me luck! I’m about to find out.

Of the other two books I selected, one is called The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which was recommended by my son who bought a copy of it this past summer while he was here visiting from Germany where he lives. The third book is James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, a love story he wrote back in 1974 which, I was intrigued to discover, has just been made into a movie that will be released in November.

So with these three books and the two I have yet to read for my Literature/Discussion class, I should be able to meet my Goodreads reading challenge (of 50 books) well before the end of the year.

Which reminds me, next year I am going to promise to read less than a dozen books because the ones I most want to read are some of the longest ever written, including Les Miserables, Doctor Zhivago, and War and Peace. I have, for years, been telling myself that I was saving those books for when I reach 80 which, no doubt, will arrive while I’m reading them.

My memoir, Dear Elvis, a story about grief and loss can be found at

Friday, October 12, 2018

An Excerpt from Rude Awakening

The following is an excerpt from my memoir, Rude Awakening, which is available from Amazon at

Chapter 18
In Solitude and In Silence

In high school, I started going to daily Mass. I had always loved the mysterious and exotic sounds of the Latin Mass. I found beauty in the ritual and comfort in its repetition. When the bells rang three times at the start of the Consecration, the vibrations between each brought me to a sweet, sacred silence in which I felt as though I existed inside the mind of God and, just before graduation, I became convinced that I should enter a convent.

 As summer ended and the day I was to leave arrived, it became increasingly important to me to spend my last hours at home under the awning over the front patio. That, however, turned out to be impossible because that was the day hurricane Donna, which had slammed into the Florida Keys and blown its way north, slipped into Philadelphia in the middle of the night...

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of raindrops pounding themselves against the windowpanes of my room. As I dressed, things seemed to be happening slowly. It was almost as though they were happening in slow motion and underwater.

I donned the black dress and regulation undergarments that were to become my uniform, then joined my parents in the dining room. Later as the three of us rode toward Chestnut Hill, we sat in silence. When we arrived, my father dropped my mother and me off at the door while he parked the car. My mother and I ran toward the entrance, but a gust of wind forced the rain against our backs, and we were soaked through before making it inside. (Back at home, as I later learned, the wind had just ripped the green canvas awning in two.)...

More than one hundred girls entered the convent with me that day, and although a new building had been built to accommodate all of us, it wasn’t quite complete when we arrived. There was also a delay in the arrival of our textbooks and classes were postponed indefinitely. As a result, we were left with a surprising amount of unstructured time.

If I had entered the convent hoping for intimacy and solitude, our numbers alone made that impossible. Just as in high school, I was desperate to make connections with others but found it impossible to initiate conversations. My sense of isolation heightened. There were no radios, no telephones, and no clocks in the convent, and I felt trapped inside. Never knowing the time made reality feel gossamer.

We slept in one large room on the second floor of the new building that was partitioned into tiny cells, one for each of us. At night, I would lay there, listening as too many of the other girls, all of them homesick, cried themselves to sleep. Most of the girls tried to muffle the sounds by crying into their pillows, but it didn’t help much. I never cried. Instead, I lay there, still and silent as my mind raced in every direction until finally I was convinced there was some trick to falling asleep that I had forgotten.

One night, I heard the sound of a church bell as it tolled two, three, and finally four times before I fell asleep. On another night, the ordinary sound of a car passing was enough to comfort me, and I felt less alone...until one night when I stayed awake trying to imagine what the future would hold for me if I left. Somehow, I knew there was something out there waiting for me...