(Un)Happy and Connected?

My mother and technology have always been two worlds apart, the simple tuning of radio stations was a mystery for her, just to give you an idea. So, when long long time ago she decided to buy me a mobile for Christmas, her choice could not but be based only on glamour and price, after all she would have done everything to make her beloved, spoiled, only daughter happy. It was my very first mobile and I can still remember how she was eagerly awaiting to read the surprise and joy in my eyes and how she hurried me to open my gift, after all, such new device was everybody’s wish at that time and so she assumed it was even mine. Once unwrapped my present, I remained a few seconds in silence watching the thing and said : “Give it back , I don’t want it”. It was not her choice of mobile that I disliked – a red, super expensive, flashy “Ferrari ” ( famous mobile brand isn’t it?), but that was the instinctive reaction to a thought that took possession of my mind at once : with that gizmo I could have been controlled. Even if she tried to hide it, I saw tears in her eyes. Since then and after many mobiles that thought has never abandoned me, it has been only put aside, but every now and then it comes back to claim its rights and that’s why my relationship with the connected world has always been something between love and hatred.

I cannot deny that more than once having a mobile has been more than useful , as
when I broke the axle and the axle shaft of my car while I was on my way to work
or, of course, that time I was left imprisoned in a lift and….. well, actually,
nothing more that vital I can remember. Two episodes in about 25 years! Of course, I love
chatting, texting, googling. ……but on the other hand I believe the control you
have on people being thus connected anyhow, anywhere, has increased rather than
reduced our fears and made our psychological space a bit too crowded and
suffocating. One example ? My mother. Again. I am sure whoever has an elderly parent knows well what I am about to say.  When I call her on the phone at home she rarely answers, of course, I am not worried as she might be doing something and I try and look for her on her mobile number: silence. After many unsuccessful attempts to reach her, my
mind begins to be haunted by the shadows of any possible disgrace, hence, I feel having no other choice than going and seek for her at home. And there she is, peacefully watching tv.  When I enquire about her mobile, she always answers candidly: “Oh, it’s off, my dear”. It’s her revenge for that Ferrari, I’m sure.

Whenever we want to control somebody it is often for a good reason, but hardly ever it is the consequence of a positive thought. We want to put at rest our fears, but if we take the phone any time doubts and apprehension cross our brain, we just end up reducing the freedom of others, even the freedom of making mistakes. Think about how the parent-child relationship has changed in this last decade. I see children continuously connected to their parents for any reason, much more that I used to be at their age, it is a continuous presence that can make them eventually  grow less responsible. I can witness this at school. If they forget their book, dictionary, money, snack or if they feel like having a problem with a teacher, no problem, let’s call mummy or daddy, and they’ll promptly come at any time of the day to help and solve their problems. However, they never forget their mobiles, strange indeed.

I can still remember my years abroad. I usually heard from my parents twice a month! Of course, it was B.E.M., namely, Before Mobile Era and as calls were expensive, I knew I had to manage things myself and that it was no use calling them to tell my problems, if I had any, the only result would have been making them more worried. I’m sure the flavor of those happy years wouldn’t have been the same, had my mother phoned me three times a day.

The princes, princesses and their Queen, of course.

Of course, you may guess, what I might think of Whatsapp with its blue check marks or its noisy, chatty, crowded groups: I hate them. However, I cannot ignore how it has recently become quite common at school  to form Whatsapp groups to share information. There are three kinds of them, which I will list according to the degree of danger of breaking into your privacy: level 1 – teachers (dangerous); level 2 – teachers and students (very dangerous); level -3 teachers, students and parents (madness). So far, I have unsuccessfully joined some level 1 groups.  Last June I had my chance to experience level 2. The occasion was a trip to Sicily with one of my classes. I thought about creating a group for a while, but no way, I could not, I only resolved about giving my precious telephone number to two selected students, with the solemn promise of burning or swallowing it at the end the trip. I have to say that they have been fantastic and behaved like princes and princesses, I am not joking, but even aristocracy sometimes has its faults. One day at Taormina, we were on our way to the theatre, when my two colleagues and I had to stop to help one of our boys who thought he had lost his wallet. By the time we called the coach company and check whether the wallet had been left on the coach, they had all disappeared, vanished. We hoped they had seen the huge sign to Taormina theatre and turned left, but they had not, they had gaily followed the flow and turned right. Once arrived at the solitary gates of the theatre my colleagues started to text them on Whatsapp, of course, they could easily reach all their students and give directions, but  I could not. I was mortified. I was just about to call my two chosen ones, when I saw the name of one of them on my display. He asked me where I was where I was  and assured they would have joined me soon. When they all arrived, my collegues soundly reproached them, but I did not. I could not.I just smiled.

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The Road to the Land of Red Onions

 

Rain.How long has it been since it rained the last time? Oh, dear, more than three
months ago. Since that timid, delicate drizzle of May the 19th, we have been
haunted by an incessant, suffocating, dehydrating, I-am-about-to-faint heat. Hence;
it should have been quite natural to choose as destination for the upcoming holidays
some refreshing places such as the Dolomites, Iceland, the Norwegian fjords etc. .
Anybody would have acted that wise, anybody but me. As this year it was my turn to
spot the location and being, honestly, quite fed up with going to the Dolomites, I
deliberately ignored my husband’s imploring eyes and since I am no Heidi, I was
determined, it would have been South, and deep South this time: Tropea, Calabria,

Can you guess, which is mine?

Light luggage and off we went. It is quite a long way, since Tropea is 700 kilometers far from Rome, yet we were particularly looking forward to being finally driving along the famous motorway A3 Salerno – Reggio Calabria. That fame had been earned by the world record waste of money and the prodigious length of time to have it completed: more than 40 years. For such a brilliant record we are mostly indebted to the Calabrian mafia, called N’Drangheta, of course. By the way; I cannot but rejoice by writing that I belong to that lucky generation that may say to have witnessed the end of it, as the motorway was declared eventually terminated only few months ago. After such an effort at the cost of 5.6 million euros per kilometer, what would you have expected it to be like?

Tropea red onion

Well, at that cost I would have supposed to see it supplied with any possible modern
device, Wi-Fi , service stations with jacuzzi and well-trained staff ready to massage your stiff neck after long driving hours and, why not, brass bands with singing festive children throwing rose petals at you at the moment of your departure as sign of gratitude for all the money given away in taxes all these years. That I would have expected. At least. On the contrary, we discovered it to be quite a narrow, neglected motorway. Still. After the first 53 km the three lanes become two and after a while, the emergency lane suddenly disappears never to be seen again, or at least we lost the sight of it. And for what concerns technology, I guess when long
time ago Italian novelist Carlo Levi  entitled his book “Christ stopped at
Eboli“, this choice must have been justified by the fact that right at Eboli, all the radio signals suddenly die out to be picked only intermittently every now and then. As for the service areas, there are just few of them and, as you can imagine, crowed by multitudes of thirsty, hungry people and tired, yelling kids. Nevertheless, after almost 500 km we had to stop, so we resolved to make our way to the bar for a little refreshment, which we did exactly with the same attitude Mr Darcy and Caroline Bingley attended the ball at Longbourn.We quitted as soon as possible, of course. After one hour’s driving when we started to notice stalls with piles of red onions along the way, we understood that our destination was now close.

The crystal clear water of Tropea

I guess you may have understood that Calabria is one of the poorest Italian region with little industrial development . The local control of the Mafia, and the ineffective policies in the course of the past decades have kept this land backward. Even if it is blessed by amazing rocky and sandy costs touched by a clean, blue sea, still tourism is having difficulty in taking off for the lack of adequate tourist facilities but Tropea is one of the few exceptions. At the end of the motorway we truly found our treasure.

The coastal cliff of Tropea

 

 

 

 

 

One of the many charming restaurants in Tropea

 

 

The little town sits on top dramatic coastal cliffs in the gulf of St. Euphemia and the legend says that it was Hercules who, returning from Spain stood on the Coast of Gods and made Tropea one of his ports.    We walked through the charming old town through an incredible maze of lovely lanes, restaurants and cafes till we reached a place where we could experience the most stunning and breathtaking views of the sea and beaches. Here are some pics of the sea:

And at sunset you could also see the island of Stromboli :

Stromboli

And if you feel like having an ice-cream:

We were so glad to see such beauty and organization that we often used many words of deserved praise with the locals and what I loved the most was to hear them proudly say, particularly from young people, that much more can, must be done. It’s the dawn of a new,  substantial change, I’m sure. I heartily wish them so.

A picture of me.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, is this all we need to know?

There is an afternoon which has remained impressed in my mind. I was a young and quite unexperienced teacher and the following day I was to start to work at a school where the majority of the students came from disadvantaged areas often with difficult situations. That afternoon I was suggested to attend a parent / teacher conference which was scheduled for some issues concerning discipline, so that I could have been promptly informed about that class situation, before meeting the boys, well, rather than boys, it would have been more correct to say men, as the average age of  that class, the equivalent of a twelfth grade, was 18/19.

As I was sitting in a corner of that classroom, listening to a list of some of the most bewildering life school episodes I had ever heard and wondering whether I would have ever been able to elaborate the weapons to face such a reality, my attention was captured by the innumerable drawings I could see on the walls. Those students seemed to have developed the most extraordinary talent for sketching human body, male sex organs in particular. There were at least one hundred of them, of course, of different colors, sizes and even styles, I dare say. There was one in particular, a huge one, I guess the father of them all, which stretched along the entire class, wall after wall, and majestically ended right on the class register. As I closely inspected the classroom, I could see only dirt and degradation. Many of the desks were half-broken and the blackboard chipped, but nobody seemed to notice it. They were blind and perfectly at ease, but I was not. Those drawings were the unheard voices of those students’ contempt.

Then I couldn’t help but wonder: would they have been equally destructive if their school had been more clean, organized, modern and why not, beautiful? Would they have dared take their markers and besmirch the walls again or not? Maybe they wouldn’t, if they had been taught to love and respect beauty and of course, placed in a more decent context. If beauty were a subject taught in school, we would form generations of adolescents who not only would appreciate the esthetic value of things but also their hidden ethical message. Yes, ethical, because once you have understood the importance beauty and make it a value of your life, it would be intolerable, for example, to see the dirt and the holes in the streets of your town or the beautiful coasts of your country disfigured by urbanization abuses. Your sense of beauty would not allow you to be indifferent and you would instinctively do something against all this.

Peppino Impastato, a young man and journalist from Sicily, was murdered at the age of thirty after having spent his short life to fight the mafia. He had tried to awake the consciences of the people he knew in order they could find the strength to get rid of their cowardice and that conspiracy of silence which lies in the roots of their culture. But it was in vain. Peppino understood how the love and respect of beauty would have been essential in his cultural context, that is why he wrote once :”if people were taught beauty, they would be given a weapon against resignation, fear and conspiracy of silence“.  A new “conspiracy of beauty” should come to life, hence, nobody would be left alone to fight the wrongs of any society.

The following day I met the boys of that class. They were only twelve, but when they were all in, I can tell you, they seemed a crowd to me.

Assisted suicide in Utopia

Think about a young man who for his entire life had pursued an ideal of freedom made of unconventional experiences, travels, sport and a great passion for music. A man hungry for life, a life which for him had to be a whirl of emotions rather than a sequence of strict rules of convenience and duty. That was the life he had wanted for himself and the woman he loved and the only one he had believed worth living for.Then, one day: darkness. He opened his eyes and found himself blind and quadriplegic after a car accident.

Fabiano, that was his name, tried any sort of therapy with the  hope of regaining a little independence and avoiding  being a complete burden to his family and partner. He desperately did anything he had in his powers. Nothing could ease his pain. Then, he understood: that was the only possible life he had to expect for himself for the rest of his days. He had been condemned to live in an “endless night“- these are his words – whose only way out was a door which had the name of death on. This is what he had understood and day by day the thought of death became sweeter and sweeter and even started to taste like that freedom he had dreamed for all his entire life. Of course, for anybody in his condition, it was impossible to reach that door alone, he needed the support of his family and friends, but that was not enough, as here in Italy euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, and anybody who had endeavoured to help him would have risked 12 years in jail. He  would have needed the support of all those parliamentarians who had avoided the trouble to discuss that law which had been lying in some secret drawer for years. He wanted to die, but he couldn’t and despite the clamor on tv and newspapers, everything remained intolerably still. Till one day a helping hand from a foundation, took him to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, and set him free.

In 2017 the question about whether a man has the right to put an end to his own life, whatever the nature of his decision is, really sounds so medieval to me and the restrictions of laws absolutely pitiless.  However, it was 1516, therefore 500 years ago, when Thomas More,  a churchman, in his book “Utopia” dealt with issue of the end of life with more mercy. In Utopia “nothing is left undone” to help the sick, but for those who become terminally ill and suffer greatly “the priests and magistrates” therefore, the law and the Church hand in hand – “repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and all about them, and have in reality outlived themselves, they should not cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die since they cannot live but in great misery; being persuaded, if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or allow other to do it, they shall be happy after death”.

Well, but is this not a sin from a religious point of view? Not in Utopia, as those who decide to put and end to their life “act reasonably” and “consistently with religion for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will”. Hence, “those who are wrought upon by these persuasions , either starve themselves or take laudanum”. Of course, “nobody is compelled to end his life thus” and those who do not accept such an option are treated as kindly and tenderly as before. However; in case somebody commits suicide without the assent of ” the priests and senate,they honour not the body with a decent funeral, but throw it into a ditch”.

Well, despite the creepy ending, these are the most reasonable words I have ever read about the subject. After the emotional tide caused by the death of Fabiano, that law from that secret drawer was eventually taken and discussed in Parliament. There were only 20 MPs in that day.

 

 

 

Lost in Translation

class

If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any school  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!

 

The Barbarians

bar1

It is undeniable that the new technological connected world has brought to the collapse the past idea of relation, politics, education, art and somehow given voice and shape to a very long gallery of people who would have barely seen the light before: scarcely educated, rude, arrogant, tasteless, they flood the world with their superficial, trivial, sometimes violent but incredibly effective messages. As barbarians they implacably destroy our certainties and nothing seems it can be done but walking hopelessly among those ruins of the past. The point is: are these barbarians ruthless destroyers or maybe is this only the way we perceive and fear change ? After all, whatever cannot be fully understood is often seen as a threat. Am I just growing old and losing touch with the new? Maybe, we should just modulate the way we look at things rather than feeling continuously under attack.

bar2This is what suggests Alessandro Baricco, Italian novelist and essayist, for whom the barbarians represent innovation rather than violence and destruction. In his ” The Barbarians: an essay on the mutation of culture“, Baricco remarks that the beginners of a new era have always been considered barbarians by their contemporaries, because they smashed past tradition. What they had in common was a good degree of that foolishness so dear to Steve Jobs: the clear perception of change. In the past Diderot and D’Alembert must have seemed barbarians at the eyes of the intellectual elite of the ancient regime, let alone the revolutionary music of Mozart and Romantic poetry, of course, which in fell swoop destroyed all the canons of classicism.The use of simple, unelaborated language, common themes, blank verse, for the purist of the age was a barbaric act on classic form. Actually, I myself have often  thought while reading Wordsworth‘s “Daffodils”, for example: “uhm , so puerile” and quite annoying all that flood of synonyms of the word “happy” (bliss, joy, jocund…)  as  if that were the only way to communicate the reader how happy he felt, but rather, resulting in my mind as a sort of Pharrell William walking in that wood singing and dancing wildly “because I’m happy“. And pray, don’t be offended by the word “puerile”, I borrowed it from Shelley‘s comment on the poem. All these people had to vandalize past canons to let their genius explode.

bar-3You wouldn’t believe it, but even Beethoven was considered a barbarian for his age. The critic of the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review used the following words to review his most celebrated ninth symphony in 1825: Elegance, purity and measures, which were the principles of our art, have gradually surrendered to the new style, frivolous and affected, that these days of superficial talent  have adopted. Brains that, for education and habit, cannot think of anything else but clothes, fashion, gossip, reading novels and moral dissipation, are struggling to experience the more elaborate and less febrile pleasures of science and art. Beethoven writes for those brains, and in this he seems to have some success, if I have to believe the praise that, on all sides, I bloom for his latest work.” And even the American reviews did not spare negative comments:”…very much like Yankee Doodle,” sniffed a Providence, R.I. newspaper in 1868 and “Unspeakable cheapness,” declared Boston’s Musical Record in 1899. Hence; Beethoven was only endowed with a superficial talent for them and treated like a pop musician.

bar6Baricco says that nowadays modern Barbarians are people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin who were only twenty when they invented Google and had never read Flaubert,of course; Steve Jobs, creator of the Apple world and that touch technology which is so typically childlike;  or Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has formalized the primacy of speed over accuracy. These people sincerely did not reject all the past, yet, at the time of designing the future rather than using the tools of tradition, they employed new standards with the side effect of destroying to the root, entire estates of knowledge and sensitivity that lie in a shared heritage of civilization.

So far, then, I understand that this sense discomfort that pervades me depends only on my inability of accepting the mutation of this age, as, put it in this way, the barbarians seem to be absolutely necessary for the evolution of our civilization to the same degree they accomplish the precious function of fuelling with young blood  and energy the world of ideas. But then, Baricco introduces a new category and everything becomes more clear to me. The presence of the barbarians has a physiological consequence: the growth of the numbers of the barbarized. This phenomenon has always occurred, but in an age of mass communication where everything happens so rapidly, the barbarized may eventually prevail and change the course of events, before the revolutions of the barbarians might be effectively rooted in society. Furthemore, differently from other ages, the barbarized are no longer hidden and victim of the contempt of the refined, but they are fiercely visible on tv, social media etc., some of them has even pursued a career in politics. Hence, is this what the new world is going to be like? A world in the hand of the barbarized?

 

On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy

soc2

In Book Six of Plato‘s The Republic, there is a very illuminating passage about the nature of democracy. Socrates is discoursing with Plato’s brother Adeimantus trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea“, asks Socrates “who would you ideally want to decide who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course“, says Adeimantus, ” So why then“, responds Socrates,” “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

soc1Such display of distrust in the democratic system from one of the foundling fathers of  philosophical thought and symbol of that idea of civilization which has Ancient Athens as universal icon, sounds quite striking. However, that means that since the very beginning the issue of representation was seen as the weakest aspect of democracy. Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.? Or should we presume that democracy by birthright is the greatest modern achievement?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of that ship sailing to the frightening ocean. If they are not qualified, it might very likely crash against the rocks when the first storm comes. It sounds snobbish, I know,  but he was not. For Socrates only those who” had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote”.Giving the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom could lead a system the Greeks feared above all:( demagoguery: dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading) and only education could be the most effective antidote.

soc3Ancient Athens had indeed experienced  what being ruled by demagogues meant with Alcibiades. Rich, charismatic, smooth-talking,he had slowly eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. However, any era has seen the birth of one or more Alcibiades, because their real skill is exploiting our desire for easy answers, that is all. We want to believe to their alluring world made of slogans and promises without  taking the trouble of pondering on how all could be achieved or their consequences on people. We always enjoy a good story, don’t we?

As a demonstration of how our minds work, Socrates wanted us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner’ s speech would sound more or less like this:

“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will”. Socrates asks us to consider what the reaction of the audience would be like: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’” would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? That’s why we prefer to give our vote to sweet shop owners rather than doctors.

But, if Socrates could be here among us and see who are the captains in charge of many “vessels” around the world, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?