(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.

Advertisements

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.

The Oyster dilemma

mala7Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce‘s alter ego, knew exactly what he wanted to be: an artist. He also knew that Dublin restricted society was not the most fertile soil where his artistic vein might attain and blossom. Differently from Eveline, he was determined enough to turn his back to a present made of family expectations and people who loved and knew him in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” and explore “all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). He was the Daedalus, after all, he who could flee from that labyrinth represented by Dublin. Had he stayed, he would not have been able to express his talent, thus becoming the martyr of art, as his first name seems to predict, as St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity.  But martyrdom was not in his fate, hence, once put on his wax wings, he quitted as soon as possible with not so many regrets.

mala9What would the right decision be, then? Did Joyce’s choice to go into self-exile assured him that happiness that apparently Eveline was denied by remaining at home or not? Not exactly. Freedom does not necessarily mean happiness. For example, once in Argentina, Eveline might have found out  that Frank was already married with children or that there was no trace of that home she had so longed for, but she had to live with her sick mother in law and look after her, while Frank was somewhere around the world on a ship. Hence, alone with no family and friends in such a foreign, distant land, who might have helped her?

mala10The Italian writer Giovanni Verga, would have certainly supported Eveline’s choice to stay.  Verga was convinced that all men were subjected to a merciless and cruel fate that condemn them not only to unhappiness and pain, but to a condition of immobility. Those who try to escape from the condition in which destiny has placed them cannot find the happiness dreamed, but undergo more suffering. Particularly those who belong to the group of the weak, and Eveline was one of them, need more protection and must stay connected to those family values they have grown with as an oyster clutched to a rock, in order to survive and avoid that the world, like a big powerful fish, may devour them.

mala12 Verga developed the so-called “ideal of the oyster” in his novel: I Malavoglia (1881). There is little house by a medlar tree in the picturesque little village of Aci Trezza in the Province of Catania (Sicily).  The Toscanos, a numerous family of fishermen live there. Although they are extremely hardworking, they have been nicknamed  the Malavoglia (The Reluctant Ones). The head of the family is Padron Ntoni, a widower, who lives with his son Bastian and the wife of the latter called Maria and their five children. Their main source of income is la Provvidenza (the Providence), a small fishing boat. But when Ntoni, the eldest of the children, leaves for the military service, Padron Ntoni attempts a new business and buys a large amount of lupins, in order to try and make up for the loss of income which the  absence of his nephew will cause.

mala 15Rocks are harsh and sharp, but as long as you are clutched to one them, you are safe. Starting a new business, Padron Ntoni attempts to leave his rock to swim in a new sea, hoping to find maybe a better one, but his choice will eventually lead his family to a disaster that will mine their unity. Bastian and the merchandise are tragically lost during a storm, furthermore there is the debt caused by the lupins which were bought on credit and the boat mean to repair. As this were not just enough, a long series of misfortunes will follow till the beloved house near the medlar tree, symbol of the unity of the family, has to be sold in order to repay the debt. In the end, only Alessi, the youngest of the brothers, the only one who had remained a fisherman, manages with his hard work to rebuild the family fortunes to the point at which they can repurchase the house by the medlar tree.  Padron Ntoni, who is now old and sick at the hospital, is informed of the good news. It is the last moment of happiness for the old man, who dies on the day he was to return. His last wish to die in his old house, on that harsh and sharp rock will never be granted.

Montalbano sono!!

salvo

Andrea Camilleri, interviewed by Professor Tullio De Mauro, has recently explained the reason why he chose Sicilian dialect to write the majority of his novels and his well-known series centred on his most famous creature: Il Commissario Montalbano. In his early years he had started writing poems ( the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo had offered to include them in a Sicilian anthology of poems) and short stories. Short, in fact, whenever he tried to write in Italian, it seemed as if he “ran out of breath”, he said, and couldn’t carry the narration any further.

camilleri1When his father, with whom he had always had a conflicting relationship, was diagnosed of an incurable disease, he decided to spend his last days with him. It was the last occasion to talk, to make things clear, to understand each other, if possible. In one of these daily visits, Camilleri explained to his father, that he had in mind a subject for a novel, but when it came the time to put words on paper, he just couldn’t make any progress. His father wanted to listen to his story and in the end he suggested: “Write it down, just the way you have told it to me“. In Sicilian. Certainly it couldn’t be used the pure dialect, as Camilleri, just like any other writer, wanted to be read and understood. Therefore he started to make meticulous linguistic experiments, analyzing the language that was spoken at home, for example, and after many attempts he eventually reached the perfect balance between Italian and Sicilian, that successful blend that makes Camilleri’s style of writing so appealing. Camilleri had been at his father’s bedside for a month and a half. One day the old man seemed for a while as reawaken from his state of torpor and said to his son lucidly:”Go, go to smoke a cigarette!”( Camilleri is still a heavy smoker with a raucous distinctive voice). He did what he had been said and when he came back, his father had passed away.

montalbano4_hg_temp2_s_full_lMontalbano‘s character is largely inspired by the figure of his father. The inspector is a shrewd intelligent man, not inclined to compromise, with a high moral standard and human understanding. He is also the hedonist who enjoys the pleasures of food (religiously in silence), long walks and swims, good reads, better if in solitude. In these moments the narration seems to slow down, as if to allow the reader to take part in Montalbano’s sensations and savour with him that moment of bliss and peace. These are the best moments, when he finds the right inspiration to solve the cases. Hence the slow time of hedonism and reflection gives way to the much faster time of action, when the inspector can display his natural instinct and cunning.

montalbano_liviaBeing a person who enjoys solitude, Montalbano can’t be a family man, for sure. He is eternally engaged with Lidia, who lives in Boccadasse, in Liguria, therefore far enough not to be involved in the dynamics of a couple, which he would certainly consider tedious, but he cannot escape the evening  ” sciarratine” (fights) on the phone. Even if Montalbano remains mostly faithful to Livia, apart from the last episodes, her greatest antagonist is Adelina, Montalbano’s housemaid. Adelina looks after him and cooks beautifully (while Lidia cannot cook even an egg). Whenever Lidia comes, she disappears. They hate each other heartily, but they are complementary in Montalbano’s world: the housemaid and the lover, thus avoiding all the complications of committment. Every man’s dream.

15693_montalbano09Camilleri ‘s great descriptive craft, and character building can be enjoyed in every page of his novels. The inhabitants of Vigata are a gallery of humankind, with their miseries, secrets, vices and that conspiracy of silence that Montalbano always tries to crack. The microcosm of the police station of Vigata is peopled by his colleagues, who, at least some of them, are also his closest friends. His vice inspector, Mimì Augiello is exactly his reverse. He is a “fimminaro” (womanizer), who eventually marries and names his child after him: Salvo. He is not endowed with a great instinct, which Montalbano actually sees in Fazio. Even if he is annoyed by Fazio’s pedantry, he trusts and admires him. Catarella is the clumsy simpleton with a tender heart. He maims every name, generating funny misunderstandings and even if he seems to be a little dimwit, he is a champion at Computer Science. I guess there is a subtle message here.

Montalbano’s co-star is undoubtely Sicily . Camilleri succeeds in making the reader live and enjoy all the colours and flavours of an enchanting country, which is too often in the limelight only for the criminal organizations which still control it. Food, art, culture, sea, warm weather and welcoming people are the treasures that can be found in that fortunate land; a land that Montalbano loves deeply and fights for.