Tag Archives: American society

We Do?

Do we ever feel like one person in our own bodies, but then see ourselves in photos and videos and think: “But…..that’s not who I thought I was?”

Our body language, the way our personalities play across our faces. It’s no small baffle, really. But, I’m talking about something else.

Maybe mine is a preoccupation of sorts, in more recent decades. Say, since 911.

Prior to that tragedy, being the Mediterranean in a room full of standard white people was the norm for me. To some, I was the “exotic” one, meaning of course that, to them, I was different. One guy actually saw me performing from a distance and thought he was looking at a girl straight from the Old Country. He told the conductor he wanted to meet “the woman from Italy”. And, his parents were both Italian. Go figure.

Hah. Ah, well. It was a fun year and a half. Too bad my shabby apartment, grey suede fringed boots, and acute lack of scholarly gravitas put him over the top. I was teaching marching band, for God’s sake; give me a freaking break.

Oh. Both my brothers have since been to Italy, the elder five times or more. The younger went to Rome on his honeymoon. Sure enough, he said: “All the women in Rome look like you. ALL of them.”

Okay, then.

After 911, I began to see something else in the mirror. I profiled myself, and was found wanting. I had the facial bones of a suspect.

Invigorated by regular summer travel, I’d been across much of Europe (though, not Italy) most recently for a third round to Scotland in August of that same year. Now, it was clear; no wonder the little children in Selkirk had stared balefully at me, their unblinking eyes wide with fear. I did not board a plane thereafter until 2006.

Now, as our American society becomes increasingly global in its representation, the Millennials seem completely immune to any effect from categorical differences. Whereas we from their parents’ generation notice Asians, Middle Easterners, and other fairly new nationalities as soon as they walk through a door, these kids never seem to look up. Or, if they do, the subject is addressed and dispensed with in some fleeting informality (“Are you, like, Thai? Okay. That’s cool.”) most probably because, among any group of six or more, there is likely to be a greater mix of types than ever before.

My problem, yes, so it is, might likely be related to having grown up surrounded by Anglo Saxons, never associating with my Dad’s side of the family. Being the brown one. Being the odd one. The boys took after mum. Being the only one.

In fact, I have a dear cousin I hadn’t seen in probably 15 years who, seated beside me at a family wake, kept repeating rather self-consciously: “You really look Italian.”

Hmm. Okay?

For all of these reasons, postulates, theories I see images of myself, and the first thought that takes shape is: ” I look like the girl whom many people don’t trust. I look like the villain. Hard, severe, and type-cast in my own body.”

For starters, people around this town, for multiple generations, saw a dark toned Medi and thought: “Roman Catholic, west side, multi-generational family; probably Sicilian, or Calabrese. Somebody’s niece. Father worked for the city.”

All wrong.

[Former] Sectarian Fundamentalist, east side, second generation; mom’s side indoctrinated English, nobody’s niece anymore. Dad was a barber, from Boston, and his father was Napolitan. Didn’t know what gnocchi was until I bought my house on the west side.

Wrote a short poem years ago. It’s in my original poetry; you can find it. “Ode to the Ethnic Child.” That’s actually the second title. The first one was: “Ode to the Unwanted Child.” Yeah, well. Changed it, when I thought such a moniker wouldn’t sell. I’m shrewd like that.

Oh, and just to deflect that percentage of the readership that is poised to find complimentary ways to respond, I’m really not addressing relative attractiveness. This is about what makes people feel warm, secure, safe, comfortable.  For all their attributes, “exotic” and “ethnic” to those who are neither, well, they don’t make that cut, do they.

See, the term “ethnic” has undergone its own evolution. Some social factions think the term applies to black folks. Still others think it must include Latinos. Really, “ethnic” to these people applies to any nationality not already appearing in their own DNA.

[ insert winking smiley icon]

As for “exotic”, many shop at Pier I because they want to add a certain element to their decor. More drama; striking texture; the unexpected image. To them, that’s exotic. Imports. These bring it.

(No surprise to anyone, I love Pier I. Feels like home, to me – !)

The interesting thing about the exotic element is, were people to be brutally honest and open they’d have to admit that decorating their entire home in exotic images, shapes, textures, and elements might just make them feel, well, a tad uncomfortable. Exotic elements are meant for accent pieces, or that one, relatively small room featured when they entertain.

Touche. Like the court jester, trotted out to amuse the King.

Now, all this would be a benign yawn were we not talking about a real person with, allegedly, a soul and a mind, a heart, feelings and, that load, needs. But, we are, see? We’re talking about a girl. With a look that didn’t match who she thought she was when she entered a room. With a presence that still might leave all kinds of misleading impressions in her wake.

In fact, this might be one of the reasons I started this blog. Beginning with those in closest proximity and reaching all the way across the planet, I sought to dispel myths. Myths, first, about myself, and then well beyond merely me to reach all those baseless suppositions that push people apart instead of bringing them together.

We, perhaps instinctively, seek our own. And, we self-segregate. Yes, we do. It’s about familiarity, which is synonymous with comfort. We don’t call ourselves bigots, because we don’t feel like bigots, and we certainly aren’t prejudiced because we hate prejudice and self-loathing is not healthy.

To one extent, I might be the only formally Caucasian woman who understands how black folks feel in American society. Or, the newest of Middle Eastern immigrants. Not because I have a rich Mediterranean heritage, because I actually don’t; my father was displaced from his immediate family at birth, remotely connected to them thereafter, and absolutely none of the customs of the Italian American were ever a part of my life.

How I do relate with these is as one who appears to be different. I know how it is to be superficially accepted, to be gently patronized, to be called “striking” (please stop), to be kept, ultimately, at arm’s length – just beyond the mainstream of power and influence. You know, like the “ethnics” in the perceived majority of American society.

Perhaps actors are the only group immune to all this agonizing self-examination. They probably take a frank look at their faces and body language in some Movement or Characterization class, acknowledge their “type”, and proceed to compile their qualifications into a series of head shots and demos. They learn to believe Who They Can Be and, by some mercy, can forget who others might think they are.

Maybe this is why, for all my life, I have been so transfixed by thespians. You know, the ones who can put on a thousand masks and be whatever their role asks of them. Who can enter any room at any given moment, and bring whatever they choose to be. I can’t imagine where they go for trust, or comfort, or any sense of reality. Perhaps they are as protective of their own as the rest of us, and place a premium on their families. But, beyond this, at least they have a community of distinctive and disparate individuals, all under the same tent – clowns, tragic heroes, buffoons, tyrants, ingenues, matrons, sages. Like the children of our generation, they look past type and see one another.

Can we do this, too?

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo  3/22/15; edited 7/12/18

all rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Thank you.

littlebarefeetblog.comMy beautiful picture

The Gift.

In the childhood of my generation, the word “talent” was common. A label, those who wore it seen as having been born that way, and what would later be described by the community of faith as a “gift.”

But, what of such a gift? Can I tell you?

In the spring of 1982, I took a job as a third shift waitress in a Greek dinor. In that restaurant, nobody sought talent. What was expected was skill, a product of presence of mind. The application of effort to the task at hand. And, presence of mind seemed to me to be that most elusive of traits, the mother of common sense.

Presence of mind meant that you would think only about that which was right before you in the literal world, the job to be done. And, common sense was its essential and automatic recognition.

And, so I had neither. For the first time in my life, I had willingly placed myself in an environment within which I could not function, let alone conquer. Having come to believe at the tender age of thirteen that fame meant nothing, and power meant friends, I also saw that friends brought power, I had few, and power was everything. And, here, I had no power at all.

Oh; I was twenty five years old now. Perhaps this is significant.

Yet, here we were, in a room full of people prepared to take everybody at face value. And, I was a disaster. I couldn’t pour coffee; I couldn’t make change; and, worse, I couldn’t remember how to do anything despite being given instruction by somebody who dropped the “g’s” from every active verb. I was “Vera”; I had to learn this craft.

Talent had been my identity. I “could do” things that mystified others. From childhood, from the earliest coordination of crayon to thumb and forefinger, images emerged on paper that bore their recognizable likenesses. I was at a loss to explain it. Later, years later, I would be at equal loss to defend it.

A waitress in a dinor was incognito. A table-server could hide – behind a polyester uniform, and a name tag that looked like everybody else’s. And, a good waitress could remember, and retrieve, and assess, and react, and do all of those things in constant physical motion. This wasn’t art; this was something else. Nope; not talent, as I knew it.

American society having been founded upon common sense, and through the presence of mind of its revolutionary survivors alone, it stood to reason (if nothing else) that artists and notions of talent were to be relegated to the recessive gene pool. [ see: Hitler and the extermination of Jewish artists.] And, said society gathered its own under the banner of practical, God-ordained common wisdoms. Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian; yet, among American statesmen, he marched right along with the parade of saints. Saints, who bowed at the altar of industry and hard work, both hands to the plow.

America’s athletes have been displacing its artists for decades, establishing a status in the eyes of the masses equal to that of the shamans and mystics of the East to their own people. Michael Jordan — who was he? Was he a “talent”? He appeared to have a natural, effortless ability to “do” in a distinctive, unparalleled style and at a consistently superior rate. But, Michael Jordan had rickets,and stayed after school in junior high every night to shoot a basketball into a hoop until he could do so every time. And, because he was the only boy who did, he became: Michael Jordan, an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind professional.

Talent?

If talent manifests as an effortless ability, many are alienated; if the result of effort, people respond with admiration. In early childhood, traits which distinguish one child from the group disconnect him or her from the greater society. Children with like distinguishing traits (or, like observable traits) learn that a group formed of their own kind must follow certain rules: each member must compete against the others for supremacy, to bear the banner of highest standard.

But, inborn traits are beyond the vessel which contains them. When the vessel is expected to prove its worthiness as a carrier, that vessel needs fortification to avoid springing a weak leak. Whence does this come? Love, acceptance, identification, bond….the requirements of the sustenance of life. And, how will such a child find them? How will he or she attract these if the requirement to prove inherent worth as the vessel is constant? And, if he finds them, how will he avail of their nourishment without sacrificing at the altar of social commodity?

Children born with outstanding traits learn to expect to be exploited. Their world is a small, exclusive stage, set apart from the larger social forum. As they move through the spheres of life, they do not need to be taught the meaning of commodity.

My grandmother, born in 1890, was, as a child, not regarded by any who knew her as a person of talent. She was neither a singer, nor a dancer, nor actress, nor painter, nor poet, nor a skater, a skiier, or gymnast. She learned to cook, as second maid to a wealthy Eastern Pennsylvania family, and cultivated flowers and vegetables that rivaled the Secret Garden. She opened her home to her extensive family and friends, gathering them all around her dinner table. She learned to sew, making clothes and draperies and, together with her husband, braided rugs and home made bread for all who knew her. She wrote letters to hundreds of loved ones throughout her entire life, and sat in her rocking chair praying for each one. Hers was a spiritual faith, not bound by the expectations, conventions, or systems imposed by the theater of human behavior.

Contemporary American society persists in making its own monsters. It exalts itself, represses its most treasured, and takes its own prisoners. Learned, or inborn, on the world stage Americans are its most talented actors. If, by life’s end, there is a glimmer of good to be had, may all the best gifts manifest in us all.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

circa 1997/revised 1/7/15

all rights reserved. Thank you so much.

A Twisted Evangelism.

AUGUST 4, 1998

Mom was no saint. She was much like you and me. She cared more about how others saw her than she should have, or than was healthy. A martyr to three very selfish children, she lived in denial. And, the black spot on her lower right calf, to a daughter’s more carnal visual sensibilities, was definitely malignant.

But, no cause for acknowledgement, oh no; there were the more important things to do, like cleaning the house and  keeping up all sincere appearances of pure intent and aspiring godliness. If there was a cancer, it most certainly would not appear on her body and disrupt all her determined efforts to keep the house, the peace, and everybody in the family from succumbing to the onslaught of the enemy and their own, inner corruptions.

The spot persisted, though, as cankers do, and grew, and finally met the resident’s awkward knife and the pathologist’s grim telephone call two days after Christmas. And, Mom met her own mortality as seen through the eyes of her desperate daughter, eyes that would learn to stare down an unforgiving world and develop a canniness for cancers of all kinds.

I am that daughter. In defiance of all previous announcements to the contrary, I am you. Voyeur to The Play of Fools, peering nose-pressed-to-the-looking-glass at a drama not of my own design but double-exposing what binds me to every player-as-archetype in the theater of human absolution. I am Matt Drudge, Voice of Dripping Honey in the Wilderness; President Bill Clinton, the Alleged; Lucianne Goldberg, Mouthpiece of Moral Authority; Monica Lewinsky, Dorothy on the Yello-Brick Path of Least Resistance; Linda Tripp, Recorder of All Deeds Other Than Her Own; and, Kenneth Starr, Public Accountant and Pre-Destined Confessor. Covetousness, greed, lust, slander, back-biting, busy-bodying, face-lifting…an agenda run rampant, germ war already fully precipitating. A twisted evangelism has set up its outdoor tent and all are drawn inside. Current polls indicate that 49% have joined the tour, but feel nothing; 27% don’t care; and, 24% remain unrepentant. But none are immune, and there is no vaccine.

The issue, in subtext, is a feast of moral schism, a feud at the American family reunion. We haven’t a clue what to do about it because it exploits not just the President’s seminal fluid, but all that is seminal to our social consciousness in the face of what is flawed within the system designed to deal with it. Our jargon is rife with the roots of Christian notions long since discreetly discarded: “corruption” (sin); “dishonesty” (broken commandment); “accountability” (confession); “immunity” (absolution). Is it any wonder that Christians are having a prayer fest on the one hand, and a field day on the other? Why?

Because every system (political/social/judicial – let alone religious) is forced, into the spotlight, half-dressed, to face accountability. And, the gavel is passed like a hot potato.

My seeking eye reflects relentlessly on the seemingly-expanding black spot, just beneath Mr. Starr’s left temple, as he smiles ingratiatingly into a world-wide lens. (is it my retina, or can you see it, too?) “it’s just a birthmark; I’ve always had it, ” he might contend. I wonder if, when the final act is selected from among a jury of three scenarios in a test-audience, and the show runs to mixed reviews, and the last print closes at the dollar house, Director Starr, most Independent of All Counselors, might quietly search out his own pathologies. Maybe denial is the best panacea for deadly ills; maybe one martyr is required to save what remains of the day, this protracted, post-adolescent society from its moral maelstrom.

When Mom died, the family cell gave up its nucleus to a virus, and fragmented. Which of us would step up to the bar, swear on a stack of Drudge reports, and likely volunteer?

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

August 4, 1998

all rights reserved. Thank you.