Tag Archives: National Geographic

Ebb and Flow.

[formerly titled “Mentality.”]


For many years, the shroud of mental illness draped our family.

Our father’s mother had been committed, by her brutal husband, to a Massachusetts sanitarium circa 1914. A Sicilian immigrant, she spoke no English and could not defend herself. And, she was pregnant.


Dad was born there.

Because sanitariums in those days were not equipped to house young mothers, let alone those deemed unfit, she was not permitted to raise her third child. Along with his sister Dad was first sent to a foster home, where he was regularly beaten over the back of the head with the buckle end of a strap belt, and then to a state institution.

Marvelously, being of sound constitution, he survived – drifting, riding the freight cars, playing his harmonica and bones for loose change and, then, joining the Army – to meet his future wife, on a steam train bound for New York. Years later, as grateful husband and father, he would give God all the credit.

But, our unknown grandmother wasn’t the only figure in the shadowbox.

Mum’s father was a scholar of the Old Testament, a crane builder, and a brooder. We’d never know what mood we’d find, entrenched on the recliner in the corner by the radio. Sometimes a wide, toothless grin, a wisecrack or a belly laugh. Other times, a deep, distant scowl, and scrap envelopes, scattered near the Bible or the stack of National Geographics, emblazoned repeatedly with the bold signature of his name in broad, flat, penknife-sharpened pencil.

Mum inherited a bit of that mercury. She had two faces, so distinct that, had anyone met the one, the other would be unrecognizable.

I learned early on that observing human behavior was not only fascinating, but prudent. I became all too aware that, by watching others, information would come to me continuously, most of it in very great need of being sorted out.

What we called our family was a cinematic display, its camera’s filter missing, of the most transparent aspects of humanity. Beyond dysfunctionality, each member was its cautious and dreaded subject. We never knew when the ball would drop; we only knew that it would.

And, as if to deny the reality, explosive events were often followed by years of avoidance. Being English, Mum’s side of the family called this “holding a grudge.” I remember a Christmas so volatile, so reverberant with screaming and weeping, that the cozy kitchen and grand oak table in the diningroom could hardly contain the scene. That would be the last year, truly, that the whole family would ever convene again. And, I was only eleven years old.

With the stigma of mental illness weighing heavily on the conscience of our society, I now guardedly approach what moves me to disclose. There is a very great need amongst us to identify, primarily because, most of the time, victims cannot do so themselves. Even as physicians are ultimately required to confirm diseases of the body, those who bear up under afflictions of the mind are in even greater need of being found. There are none more lost among us.

The following is a list of traits, hallmarks if you will, that suggest the presence of mental disease. Some are easily recognized, but others may not be. Included are short references to loved ones, by example.

1.) Reaction to Stress.

Those with mental conditions have weaker coping mechanisms than their healthier counterparts. What merely annoys most will sometimes derail the other.  The mentally ill person has a far longer list of stress inducers than the rest of us and, most importantly, is often ready to react to each of them with apparently little power of restraint. My mother spent much of my adolescence alternately sobbing or shrieking; only in the late evening, well after midnight when the house was quiet, would she find solace  – seated alone, at her sewing machine.

2.) Sensory Load.

While some extreme mental states produce catatonia, or an apparent absence of reaction, those with mental disease can often be more easily stimulated, and more ready to respond to stimuli. To them, the world is a maelstrom of desirable and undesirable feelings, and these can often collide over a single incident; sorting through the pleasure and the pain which simultaneously ensues is a task, and may often confound normal counterparts experiencing the same event. Our grandfather would open a family gathering with joyful and exuberant laughter, but a disagreement at the dinner table could send him into a rage that dispersed the family in all directions – to say nothing of the effect on our collective digestion.

3.) Lucidity.

So much is said about the character of a good citizen in various social environments that the trait of honesty, or veracity, seems almost mundane. But, to one who is afflicted, even the best intentions can go awry. Mental disease can cause one to both speak and write things that cannot later be defended; sometimes the language itself is ambiguous, or the content vague, the tone unmistakably that of either anger, bitterness, or undying devotion. One can set out to be the most upstanding and compassionate towards others, but be left with chaff in the wake of a verbal outburst which, long since forgotten, cannot even be recognized or acknowledged. I can recall lengthy, if earnest, handwritten letters from my mother, so convoluted that I hardly had the emotional energy to read them – and, repeated denials:  “I didn’t say that!”

4.) Immediate Gratification.

Everybody likes to get answers to important questions, or receive something nourishing. But, those with mental disease depend on a degree of satisfaction in closure which others find demanding. Furthermore, they become inordinately convinced of the reality of their needs, and wear these convictions as blinders. The unknowns which populate normal, daily landscape can be sources of fixation to one who is burdened, and obtaining what, to others, can easily wait becomes a mission. Dad, especially in his later years, was the most popular member of his neighborhood when it came to solving household problems which, to the rest of the world, were incidental; repeatedly dialing the man up the street, because he couldn’t get the wrapper off of the slice of American cheese, was the story nobody could forget.

Like all syndromes of the human frame, such burdens can have a range of expression. At moments of intense duress or demand, an otherwise healthy person might exhibit traits which could be attributed to one who has a form of disease. This likelihood is intensified if one has been closely exposed to the illness and its manifestations. But, those who are marked by such affliction will fight, on a daily basis, a chronic, inner battle.

There are likely other points which can be made about illnesses of the mind. But, for now, maybe making a mental note to save these in a secure corner of awareness for future reference would be wise. And, most of all, having a quiet conversation with self might help remind us all that we each occupy bodies which are random in their assignment. Only our souls matter, in the end.

Best that we all move through life with a mentality of acceptance, linking our virtual arms with determined commitment to bearing with each other. We are all both strong, and weak, in every way, and it is the convergence of these that both encourages and sustains the ebb and flow of life.





© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

9/25/15  All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Sharing by permission to ReBlog, exclusively. Thank you.


Dancing on Stilts.

This past Memorial weekend, I was treated by my Best Friend, Ever to a day “in the city.” To the uninitiated this is code for time in Manhattan, most of the population of nearby Long Island’s favorite haunt and tourist attraction to the globe. About the actual residents of New York City much else can be said, but I am not the one to use the words; rather, this writer is just an unknown artist from a smaller place, where pockets of extraordinary if surprising quality lurk largely unattended by the rest of the world.

Our afternoon highlight was a visit to Broadway’s LION KING. Now, a certain ex-boyfriend of mine had raved to me about award-winning designer and producer, Julie Taymor. Seems she was his elevator companion in the building where he was fortunate to reside over a temporary period which lasted seven years. My doubts as to whether she could have ever called him by name today are real, but the woman was surely known to all. All, that is, except me – a working producer of childrens’ drama in the public school, where I was ensconced for far longer than the seven years he’d spent riding that elevator.

As the opening production number unfolded all around us, we sat in the center of orchestra, main floor, and wept. Over even the full-on power of soaring African voices, the startling magnificence of Taymor’s art manifest in human sized puppetry was astounding. Gazelles, with four movable legs; an elephant, as big as an elephant; swooping and gliding birds; and, giraffes…on stilts.

Granted, this show had been running for almost twenty years. And, you’d have to be me, living in my body, working in my town, to understand why it took me over a decade and a half to finally experience the splendor. But, for such superior masterpieces, time is neither slave nor master; like sex to a virgin, once is enough, no matter the hour or generation, and my first time was as meaningful as if it had happened on opening night.

My guess is, it takes a certain brand of genius to meld pictorial artistic vision with mechanical sensibility and a grasp of physics. The giraffes were nothing more than a single, albeit muscular, acrobat on leg stilts – but leaning forward, on two more crutch-like poles for front legs, then wearing the neck and head for a hat. Sheer strength, blended with image-making, to bring to life a stately animal. One to easily gape when amazed, I stopped breathing.

Little would I know that, weeks later, though far from bearing the same frame as a circus performer, I would be called upon to become that giraffe. Only, in my scene, this would call for a much greater degree of small motor skill than mere entertainment required . In fact, looking back, I’d venture that one could describe the whole thing in terms normally used for events of minor crisis.

This was production week for the final concert of the Erie Chamber Orchestra’s season. Our executive director had given the guest flute soloist permission to choose her piece, and she’d selected boldly: Pulitzer Prize winning Melinda Wagner’s Concerto for Flute, Percussion, and Strings. And, being Eastman’s own Bonita Boyd, she’d also secured the composer herself as special guest – Ms. Wagner arriving in time for our dress rehearsal, thereafter to be on hand for the monthly, pre-concert talks. This piece, along with Beethoven’s grand Egmont, Kodaly’s sensual Dances of Marosszek, and Dvorak’s lush and beautiful Czech Suita, promised to be both richly gratifying for everyone and a supreme challenge for the orchestra.

Wagner included in her dazzling work of music numerous cello solos, the first beginning at the top of the fingerboard in a duet woven intricately with the flute’s solo line. As principal cellist, having carefully planned its lay out, marked its pitches, and shaped its phrasing, I would not have known – after the customary drill and repetition – what would unfold in my physical landscape come rehearsal week.

The cello having spent Memorial weekend at a close colleague’s condo, soaking up whatever atmospheric conditions our schizophrenic region had in store, I retrieved it late on the evening of my return. A day or so prior to our first session, I began to notice a problem: the strings had pulled remarkably far away from the fingerboard.

This phenomenon is common with the advent of summer’s warmer temperatures and increasing humidity. But, most string players have other bridges, which are cut lower, to accommodate this swelling and expanding of the wood. I, on the other hand, had never needed a second bridge; that is, I’d never had prior to having the fingerboard planed by a respected luthier over the past winter.

Plus, I’d begun to notice that the newly-installed central air conditioning was barely circulating any air through the household vents. The thermostat read 76 F; the real temperature would reach as high as 83 before I would call the installer after dress rehearsal. He would arrive around midnight, take a brief look at my compressor, and declare that someone had stolen the freon gas out of the unit in the dead of night.

So, here I was, stranded on an instrument whose silver wound strings, over 5/8 inch high, resisted contact with the board, in a home environment that promised no reprieve from the humidity-induced increasing tension. And, since the violin family, unlike the gambas or lutes, have curved fingerboards, there’s no fretting for pitch; instead, there would be major fretting over arm weight and momentum, on the ascent and descent, whenever I tried to take said fingerboard.

Without warning, I would become the giraffe in my own Broadway show.

One must Imagine the fingers as stilts. Picture them walking, across a high wire, with no net. The rate of speed required to prevent falling off the wire is a snail’s pace, alright, but instead of a balance bar to stabilize everything, the string player must place a horsehair bow on the string and drag it across until vibration of the string is generated. So, the string is vibrating, and the stilt must place itself on the vibrating wire, in precise position, without falling off.  A spongey, vibrating trampoline – traversed on stilts: so set the stage for the cello solo, in the Wagner Concerto for Flute and Percussion.

Oh; and, then, if that weren’t enough, the stilt itself had to generate its own subtle degree of: you guessed it, vibration. This is called Vibrato. Vibrato warms and colors the tone without changing its pitch.

A giraffe, knees wobbling, crawling slowly down a hill on a high wire with no net, stopping to do The Twist, just because. Step right up, folks.

The night of the concert was a hot one. In lieu of stand lamps, the stage theater lights were lit at full tilt. This meant that, the longer they remained on, the hotter they got. The ensuing, intensifying heat made the surface of the trampoline sticky. And, the stilts swollen. And, the capacity for collapse magnificent.

Not one to shirk a challenge, I’d say I was up for this one were it not for the convergence of one too many risk factors. The laws of physics teach that, the closer to the point of tension one gets to the string’s contact with the bridge, the more resistant the string becomes to sag. This, in effect, makes the high wire tighter – and, less willing to be pressed into contact with the fingerboard.

Lucky for me, the first note of the initiating solo was about an inch and a half from the precipice. The string did not want to be pushed into action on any front. And, beyond that, it was surely not going to allow any slow bow to drag seamlessly across it.

I could hear the precipitating tremolo that telegraphed my entrance. Wagner’s humor knew no bounds; at the cello solo entrance, she’d printed the direction: “Sneak in, then expand”. My stilt was set on the required F# above C1. My bow began its long trek to the right, over six interminably languid beats of the baton.

And, then it happened. Two beats remaining in an 8/8 meter, time for the shift further to G-natural for two final beats, and then two more across the bar. Here was where my bow – the string player’s lungs – and, my trapezoidal muscle, decided that – between the heat, and the humidity, and the pace, and the resistance all around – that they would just take a nap.

Now, when our tools take a little shut eye in the middle of command performance, and our muscles bail, we are sure that, beyond possessing any form of a soul, they really are the tattooed arm of the devil. The music required melodic movement at this juncture; the bow, and the giraffe riding on the wire, were supposed to move in tandem in the other direction, from a brief G# back down to D and then A and then a sweet, sustained triplet C# fade up to the original F# This giraffe had managed to pull off the whole thing in rehearsal but, at the moment of truth, there just wasn’t enough oxygen left in that rarified air.

Giraffes don’t climb mountains, do they? I’m sure Julie Taymor would know. In order to create her spectacular prototypes, she’d probably spent many hours pouring over National Geographic videos of the African bush. My brother, and his missionary-borne wife, spent their honeymoon on that continent. He took 8 hours of standard cassette tape, a gold mine of evidence of every physical law of graceful motion borne of the jungle, including hippos expelling projectile excrement across the surface of a mud pool for special effect, and then left it all in some two car garage in the Carolinas. Julie Taymor would have known the value. She’d have saved every last bit of that film, in honor of authenticity and Grand Safari.

But, she couldn’t save this giraffe from buckling legs on a high wire with no net. There was no elevator escape hatch for this mammal, no charming ex to tell the tall tale. Nope. This wasn’t Big Top entertainment. This was Survivor, in the Symphonic Wild.






© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

6/7/15  All rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Thanks.



The electronic strains of “Danse Trepak” from THE NUTCRACKER Ballet sounded its alarm via my senior citizen model cell phone at the ungodly hour of 8:10 am and, two years into retirement from teaching public school, this reminder that the lack of a full 8 hours of deep and REM sleep would chip well more than two years off my life was a rude awakening at best. Nevertheless, defying the predictable vertigo, I trudged to the bathroom to throw on the cotton pants with the elastic waistband, my sturdy Eddie Bauer down, the still-new pair of high-end, gel-insoled athletic shoes with the opalescent aqua stripes and purple laces recently purchased for yoga class, all to brave 3 degrees F to get my car into the shop for its annual physical.

Greg’s Auto had taken over Skip’s Tire and Car Care Center after John Aquino died, and we over here in Little Italy, Erie PA had wondered if anybody could ever replace our guy John and his brothers, all but one of whom had succumbed to cancer. We all pretty much knew the day would come, given the sooty veil of cigarette smoke whose progeny had bound molecularly with the plumes of gasoline and transmission fluid and oil that seeped from the service station into the office. But, all of us had been quite relieved, after grieving the passing of our John, to see new, interlocking carpet squares on the floor, a blonde desk replacing the high counter, and the color of fresh, new air in Greg’s waiting room.

When I arrived, two customers were already seated, and in high spirits. Both of them African-American, I knew from my many years teaching “urban” children that we would be “folks” at the first greeting, and made sure to make some crack about the weather as soon as we saw each other. I also made the typically-Caucasian assumption that, man and woman, they were there together to get their car fixed. My momentary sense of social cool at appreciating the diversity of patrons obviously devoted to Greg’s reputable service was soon humbled; when the woman left the room, I asked the man where his wife could have possibly gone to wait in such bitter conditions. He gracefully explained that he was a law clerk from Cleveland, and his wife was at home.

Greg, however, was an Armenian immigrant. He flipped effortlessly from adequate English to Russian and any number of Eastern European dialects to address delivery men, mechanics, and familiar patrons, each one offering a foreign greeting stranger than the first, each one built to withstand hypothermia of the highest order, all totally unfazed by the cold. Each time the door opened, a blast of frigidity confronted the heating unit, preventing the room from ever reaching a temperature comfortable enough for my small-boned, middle-aged frame which could not seem to hold a single pound of insulation around its heart. Yet, on a day like today, Greg was in his element; time for the rest of us to settle in, and bear up.

I had carried with me to what was sure to be at least an hour of sit-down time the February issue of, as my grandfather Pappy always called it, NATIONAL GEOGRAPH. The night before, its lead article – covering the latest in brain research – had left mine in an electrical tizzy; apparently, there were tens of millions of neurons, axons, dendrites, and synapses, my distant relative the field mouse holding as much data as 25,000 high-def movies in a rodent-sized hunk of grey matter no larger than a grain of salt. Hugging my chest and rocking back and forth, I marveled at Greg’s brain, wondering whether there was a region devoted to instantaneous translation and whether his could fit on the head of a pin. Surely, this speculation would keep me occupied for at least one, maybe two, car inspections.

Of course, I had to apologize for distracting the law clerk from his yellow legal pad and affidavit without making any attempt whatsoever to curb my compulsion to rattle on about the research findings. Pardon me, but did we ever think our brains devoted just one single neuron to the recognition of Jennifer Anniston’s face? He was gallant, and balanced my enthusiasm with wonder at just how they all could have designed anything capable of getting inside the brain in the first place.

We chatted away. He turned out to be an oracle for legal gems like parking your lemon across the street from the dealership and posting “Show and Tell” signs until the dealer fixed whatever you wanted. I offered my standard whine about public education and the costs and benefits of living and working in the town of my birth. We talked about family names, too, and the tendency of the largest clans to stay in Erie for generations. Greg even chimed in, telling us that the business across the street was closing after 45 years, because this generation wanted to sell. I thought about Tony’s Barber Shop, my father’s own business on 5th, surviving 44 years of devoted clientele and ethnic flux, then selling for $7000, it’s concrete exterior now painted brothel red, beckoning encroaching crime. Then, the mechanics and parts delivery men converged in our little waiting area like a committee at the tower of Babel and we returned to our own preoccupations – he, to his affidavit, and me to my magazine.

Having come to the end of the fascinating story of the brain of mammals, I turned to the next feature. Here was a grande photo essay, hallmarked by National Geographic quality, the subject of which was the life memoir of American storyteller and radio persona, Garrison Keillor. Rich and heady, each pictorial image warm with the scent of recognition, I leaned in for the ride; Garrison Keillor, after all, was almost my friend.

Though located a mere four blocks south of Greg’s Auto, the house I had purchased in 1989 was miles from my old neighborhood and precisely one world away. Raised on the east side, one block from both my grandparents, my mother’s sister and her family, and our tiny church meeting hall, my affinity with this American literary genius had begun almost at birth. His was the heart of the Mid-west, mine a largely-unknown Great Lakes port city, but we were borne and bred of the same ilk.

Even Keillor’s most ardent fans and listeners would hardly notice his numerous references over the years to the so-called Brethren, whence he came. But we in the tiny, one room church building on East Ave called the Gospel Assembly Hall always knew.

He was one of us; a non-denominational Christian fundamentalist sectarian, in allegedly happy if totally exclusive fellowship with literal Bible-believers. All twenty-nine of them, when every family member was present, and my family comprising most all. My grandmother, Mammy, two of her four daughters and all of their children, minus one son-in-law who smoked and his two sons by a previous marriage. Oh, and my grandfather, Pappy, excommunicated for railing. And, his eldest daughter, who left right after. But, we were all there, mostly, all the time: Sunday morning, Sunday night; Tuesday night Prayer Meeting, Friday night Bible Study. In junior high, Tuesday and Friday merged into Wednesday, where Mom and I would go every week right following my cello lesson. I’d sit there, biting my nails ‘til they bled, trying to figure out whether to start cleaning my room so I could go to college on permission, or stay in bed dreaming my life away like Mom was fond of saying, particularly when she was running the sweeper.

His sister, Linda, was the steadfast girlfriend of Doug, who was just about the only single person at the Hall not a member of our family. They’d sing together, he playing folk guitar, and often with tears in their eyes from the depths of their earnest souls. We’d all see each other every summer without fail at the annual Eastern Bible Conference of the Plymouth Brethren, where Doug and Linda met. Gary, as he was called, was just that much older than I, closer to my brother’s age and, by his own admission (in the memoirs) being ‘not a good man’, probably ceased attending already by the time I was old enough to notice. But, my parents would greet his parents every year, so my mother was fond of pointing out whenever the subject came up.

No longer aware of the cold or the comings and goings of the various ones in the waiting area at Greg’s Auto, I submerged myself in the parallel life of the famous author of the second featured article in the February issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. I heard my own chuckles pepper the air around me as each familial moment of his life story echoed across my firmament. There is or was no greater a narrator since Samuel Clemens, nor more pithy a commentator since Will Rogers, and I recognized his every word. He was the male counterpart to my female embodiment. His wings unfolded; mine tucked further into my chest. His sphere of influence expanded; mine reduced, like butter in a saucepan. He was bold; I was terrified. Our only mutual fear was nakedness, and nobody could help either of us, then or now.

Keillor closed his memoir with the deft fluency of one who knows how. Here his command of thought in verbal expression peaked with the fullness of a life manifest in total authenticity. I closed the magazine, returning my attention to the room I had entered two and a half hours earlier. My car was finished, its front right level arm replaced, its oil changed, its wiper blades new, its inspection complete. Greg and I made our transaction, the gentlemanly law clerk and I bid a hasty farewell, and I re-entered the blistery cold now seething beneath an ascending sun, carrying my magazine and all of my memories, safely ensconced in the synapses between the axons and dendrites of my own, still-reluctant, ever-anticipating imagination.


© Ruth Ann Scanzillo


photo of Garrison Keillor by Dennis Tryon/cropped by Ruth Ann Scanzillo, to remove herself.

all rights reserved.