Category Archives: about me

Aggiungi un Posto a Tavola – An Italian Musical

Add Another Place at the Table

I’m a huge fan of musical theater, grew up singing along with The Music Man, Camelot and Oliver. The first show I saw on stage was You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, in what must have been a local or travelling production, in San Francisco, when we were on home leave in 1969. I knew all these shows by heart, and by now know (and have seen) many more – most recently, Spamalot.

Continue reading Aggiungi un Posto a Tavola – An Italian Musical

The Hundred Years’ War

The Strange Religious History of the Straughans

shot Mar 6, 2005, 7:29 mins

Some of my recent articles have caused some readers to wonder why I have it in for Catholicism. Actually, I am even-handed in my dislike of religion: I don’t like any of them. But, due to family history, I have un dente avvelenato in particular for Catholicism, and for the American Southern Baptist church. My father’s mother was a devout Catholic, my grandfather a born-again Baptist. Why they married in the first place was never clear to me, but the decades-long war that ensued left the rest of the family with an unpleasant taste in the mouth about both their religions (none of their descendants is now Catholic OR Baptist).

While I was visiting my dad in England in March, we started what will doubtless be a very long project: getting his life, and all his stories, on video. One of my questions was: “Why did Mamaw and Pawpaw get married?” Here are his thoughts on that, and on what happened afterwards.

Side Effects

I have for a couple of years been under treatment for glaucoma – just eyedrops, but the first ones that I tried for 6 months didn’t work, so now I’m using a new kind. This is a beta blocker which, the doctor mentioned, could adversely affect my athletic performance – not a big problem!

Another potential side effect, according to the information sheet in the package, is that the drops could make my irises darker. That would be hard to notice – my eyes are already dark brown.

People assume that blonde hair perforce means blue eyes. When Rossella was born with big brown eyes, some people looked me straight in the face and said “Brown eyes! She must have got those from her father.” Actually, my eyes are darker than Enrico’s.

The side effect I have noticed is that my eyelashes have become thicker and longer. Not darker, alas – I still need mascara, but it’s a lot more effective now. Cool.

Fitting Bras

Men, you have no idea how important it is to have a bra fit well. (I suppose there might be something analogous in male attire, but probably not something that most of you have to wear every day.) Well, I’m here to tell you: it’s critical. It is extremely hard to get bras to fit right, and a constant, nagging discomfort when they don’t. Perhaps that’s why a lot of women I know hate to shop for bras. We know we’re going to spend hours rifling through racks and trying things on (when every trip in and out of the fitting room means getting undressed and redressed completely), and still go home with something that doesn’t quite work. Shopping with friends can take the edge off by making the whole situation very funny: you find the most ridiculous bras you can and try them on for each other, laughing uproariously and wondering who the hell would ever wear that for real.

One difficulty in buying bras is that they don’t all fit the same way, even within a given size. Just like clothing, bras come in different styles, and some styles work better with your body shape than others. If, like me, you wear an unusual size, finding anything at all in that size can be tricky.

There used to exist a cadre of women who actually knew how to fit bras, and worked in department stores sharing this knowledge with the benighted masses. They could tell you exactly what was wrong with each bra you tried on, and, after you’d rejected half a dozen, would trot out to the racks and instantly, unerringly, lay their hands on the item that would fit.

Macy’s used to have them, but the Macy’s ladies appear to have gone the way of the dodo. So I now know of only one place on earth where buying bras is relatively painless: Lady Grace. I just realized looking at their website that it’s actually a chain, with locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. I’ve only been to the store in Brookline. When I first started going there, thanks to a friend, around fifteen years ago, their fitters were the classic little old ladies. Now they’re young ladies, but, thank God, the wisdom has been passed on. On my recent visit to Boston, I spent an hour and a half in Lady Grace, departing with seven new bras, and a whole new world of comfort.

There’s one difficulty that a single visit can’t resolve. Many breasts are not the same size all month. Water retention before our periods makes them swell (and become tender – no touchy!), so a bra that fits well the first week of our cycle won’t later on. So, yes, there is a reason why we need about two dozen bras in service in any given month.

Bra Straps

What is it with the visible bra straps these days? There’s something in my upbringing, American or Asian, I dunno, that tells me that only sluts let their bra straps show. I could never wear spaghetti-strap tops or dresses because I absolutely need to wear a bra, and there’d be no way to hide its straps. (Yes, there are strapless bras, I have one because of a bridesmaid’s dress I had to wear once, but it’s practically a corset – doesn’t exactly fit with the carefree look one is trying to create with spaghetti straps.)

But lately I see girls and women letting the straps of their bras – and sometimes backs and fronts! – just hang out of whatever they’re wearing. I can’t help but think it looks trashy. Not to mention, in some cases, REALLY stupid (yes, even on Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex & the City). Honey, that backless black halter top with the white bra entirely visible from the back? Not workin’ for ya.

In Italy there are bras with transparent plastic shoulder straps which are supposed to resolve this problem, but it just doesn’t work. No matter how transparent, the straps are clearly not skin, especially when they’re digging into the shoulder. You might fool the eye at a distance, but that’s not really the point, is it?

So my advice to my daughter has been: enjoy the braless look while you still can, and give it up when it’s time to.

More on Bras

August 20, 2003

(Another of those articles that generated responses!)

A woman friend forwarded this to me: “A good friend is like a good bra: hard to find, very comfortable, supportive, holds you up when you are down, and always close to the heart.”

Buying bras in less-developed countries was very difficult back in the 1970s-80s. Sally Kibblewhite, who was my English teacher at Woodstock, wrote me: “The thought of you going off with seven bras reminded me of the selection I had when we set off for India, because we had been advised that bazaar bras were not ideal. I had washed them and they were drying in the sitting room of David’s brother’s house. He never forgot this vision of many pastel-coloured bras dangling from the clothes horse, and regularly asked me how my bras were going.”

I wish someone had thought to warn me about the less-than-idealness of bras in India. When we left the US for Bangladesh, my breasts weren’t large enough to worry about wearing bras, and none of us thought ahead to the time when they might be (my then-stepmother rarely wore a bra herself, being an uninhibited flower-child type, and small-breasted). By the time I got to boarding school at Woodstock 18 months later, I needed a bra. Being socially naive, I didn’t realize this until I took a dip in a cold river (wearing a T-shirt) during our 9th grade class hike, exciting much comment. Then my family had to scramble to get hold of some bras somehow. In India in those days, all bras were made the same way, of heavy cotton, with the cups sewn in a spiral to maximize pointiness – not what a blushing adolescent wants for her first bra, even if there had been any small enough to fit. We had to get my stepmother’s parents to mail me some “training” bras from Pittsburgh. (My dad’s running joke was that training bras are to train the boys how to undo them.)

Re. fitting bras in more modern times and places, Mike Looijmans suggests:

“Bring your (boy)friend and have him run up and down the aisle with bras. That saves you from having to undress and dress multiple times. He’ll have a chance to peek at half-dressed women (if all’s right, he’ll mostly be looking at you) in need of bras. Also, at the end of the afternoon, he’ll have a good idea of what size you are, so that if he wants to give you something naughty to wear, it’ll at least be somewhere near the right size.”

He adds: “I don’t think I’d take two women shopping for bras together seriously… While the two of you were doing that girlish giggling in the dressing room I’d probably be holding out a cupped hand and asking the kind lady in the shop for “about this size…” 😉 ”

In regards to my rant about today’s “anything shows” attitude, Mike and a few others pointed out that a décolleté lined with lace can look very classy instead of slutty. For the older generations (which doesn’t include Mike), back in the day when there was less flesh in general view, a mere glimpse of lingerie could be very exciting. Mike points out a solution for the straps problem: “My girlfriend has a bra that ends in two spaghetti straps on either side. If worn under something with a spaghetti strap, there’ll be a total of three straps on each shoulder, and that looks like it’s meant to be so. (strapless isn’t an option for her either).” My daughter has now found some bras like this, and they do look great. However, Benetton doesn’t have sizes to fit me!

Yesterday in the supermarket we saw another non-solution: a woman was wearing a low-backed sundress, so that the back of her bra was completely in view (and the front wasn’t entirely covered, either). I am not offended by total nudity (though I might find it surprising at the supermarket), but that, to me, just looked completely trashy. (She must have been a tourist. The ladies of Lecco often dress even more elegantly than the Milanese.)

Mike gets the final word on this one: “Now we’re on that topic anyway, am I the only guy who thinks a [full] bathing suit looks much sexier than a bikini?”

Just Wild About Harry? The Fan Fiction Phenomenon

I’ve long been an avid reader of fantasy, and even at the tender age of 39 I don’t hesitate to read books classified as for children or “young adults” (I’ll recommend a few at the end of this article). But I didn’t rush to read the Harry Potter books when they came out, and don’t consider myself a rabid Potter fan. Still, the books were fun, and I figured the movie would be, too.

Then I heard that Alan Rickman was in the film, and seeing it suddenly became imperative. In case you don’t remember, Rickman, as the evil Sheriff, upstaged Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and later upstaged the cute younger guy in Sense & Sensibility (if the younger sister had had any sense, she’d have preferred Rickman from the start; but the story was mostly about her lack of sense).

Rickman has a luscious baritone voice that it’s a crime to dub over, so I didn’t want to see “Harry Potter” until I could see it in English. To my delight, one cinema in Milan decided to show it in English for the first week of its run. (They were hardly committing commercial suicide: it’s a multiplex cinema, and the Italian version was showing on its deluxe big screen, while we English-speakers were relegated to a 126-seat hall in the basement.)

Rickman, as Harry Potter’s nemesis of a teacher, Severus Snape, didn’t get much screentime, but he made every second count… and I think I’ll stop there lest I begin to gush. Suffice to say that the critics – and Rickman’s legions of female fans – seem to agree with me.

The great thing about the Internet is that, no matter what you’re obsessed with, you can easily find thousands of other people similarly obsessed (well, sometimes that’s a bad thing). So, when I decided that a picture or two of Alan Rickman would be a fine addition to my Windows desktop, it wasn’t hard to find several very nice ones, both in and out of his Snape guise (er, waitaminute… nope, sorry, didn’t find any naked pictures).

While I was hunting for Snape pictures, I was surprised to also find a lot of fan fiction dedicated to this particular character. “Fanfic,” a phenomenon familiar from my exposure to Star Trek and Star Wars fandom, is what you get when fans make up their own stories set in the fictional universes they love, involving at least some of the original characters, often in situations that their original creators might find surprising. Fanfic runs the gamut from well to appallingly written, from humorous to depressing, and from G-rated to XXX.

Of course it’s the X stuff that gets people, ahem, exercised, especially “slash” fiction, so-called because it’s about relationships, “somebody / [slash] somebody”. Specifically, both somebodies are male. The classic example is “Kirk/Spock” fiction, which postulated that the heroes of the original Star Trek series were a good deal closer than Starfleet duties demanded.

Years ago, Richard Pini (of the husband-and-wife team that create and publish Elfquest) said in an editorial that he was aware of such stories circulating about their own two main male characters and, while not at all offended by homosexuality, he felt that it simply wasn’t appropriate for those two characters (and he felt the same about Kirk/Spock).

I wrote to him that I felt the stories were a compliment, proving the richness of what the Pinis had created: their universe had enough depth that people could picture themselves within it, and use their imaginations to help work out their own feelings and lives. This was over 15 years ago, when there weren’t many positive homosexual role models available in popular culture, so I thought it might be a psychological survival strategy for young gays: create your own gay role models, based on heroes you already love and admire.

At the time I had not actually read any slash fanfic, and was only guessing as to who was writing it. But a quote I just found online seems to bear out my thesis: “As a gay man, I don’t get to see any characters representing my experiences or viewpoint, so I co-opt one of the existing ones… and fill in their background. [The show doesn’t] seem to think my kind exist, so I have to make the themes relevant to myself.”

It appears, however, that most of the Snape fanfic, even the slash, is written by women. On one of the sites I found a link to an amusing article (“Severus Snape, Love God“), which linked to a further article (“The Trouble with Harry,” by Christopher Noxon, San Francisco Chronicle), about Harry Potter fanfic, and the predictable reaction of AOL Time Warner, guardians of the multi-billion dollar licensing property that Harry has become.

Says Noxon: “According to Henry Jenkins, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar who has tracked it since its appearance in photocopied ‘zines circulated at fan conventions, slash porn appeals to young women because it lets them experience romantic bonds in a mythological universe far removed from the more familiar (and far scarier) world of boyfriends, dating and sex.”

Given the real risks sometimes associated with boyfriends, dating, and sex (such as date rape drugs), I don’t blame these young women for preferring to work out their feelings about sex in imaginary situations as far as possible from their own reality.

Jenkins’ theory also agrees with something I read years ago, in a book about Japanese comics (manga): In Japan there are entire genres of comics aimed at adolescent girls and young women, about – you guessed it – romantic relationships between androgynous young men. That author similarly believed that these fantasies were a way for girls to indulge romantic feelings, at a comfortable remove from their own realities.

Judging from some other quotes I found online, Jenkins has very interesting things to say in his 1992 book on fanfic, Textual Poachers : Television Fans & Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication). (Amazon  UK | US) I have a few more thoughts on the phenomenon myself, but I’ll read the book before I carry on with this topic.

Oh, and the movie? It was fun.

More on Fanfic

Good article

In case you are wondering: Yes, I’m tempted to write fanfic. No, I’m not going to tell you when/if I do. <grin>

Recommended Reading

If you do like the Harry Potter books, and even if you don’t, have a look at these as well:

His Dark Materials trilogy) by Philip PullmanSearch for Philip Pullman’s books at Amazon UK | US

The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinleySearch for Robin McKinley’s books at Amazon UK | US
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones – Her Chrestomanci stories are quite Potter-esque (very English, and very, very funny), but they pre-date Harry Potter by years.Search for Diana Wynne Jones’ books at Amazon UK | US