Shrinkucci's Ramblings

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I was born at a very young age and...bud um boom...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My God--I'm Half Hungarian!

For as long as I can remember I have been intensely proud of my Italian heritage. From the time I was a little boy, my father used to say: “Ron, there are only two kinds of people—Italians and people who want to be Italian.” I believed this to be true until my high school girlfriend’s father made her break up with me because I was Italian.

Actually, her dad was misinformed. I am only half Italian. My mother was of Hungarian descent. Unfortunately, her Hungarian heritage was given short shrift by me and my siblings. Why? Because we grew up surrounded by my father’s New York and New Jersey relatives including his mother Angelina, my great-grandparents Amodio and Rose DiToro, my great uncles Don and Mike, my aunt Ann, my five uncles—Leonard, Joe, Martin, Paul and Anthony as well as scores of DiToro and Carducci cousins, half cousins and their paesan friends.

Given that they all cooked Italian, spoke “Ital-glish,” (example: “Pikinickah” for picnic), loved Perry Como and Frank Sinatra and grew plum tomatoes, sweet basil and Italian parsley in their back yards, my mom’s Hungarian heritage did not stand a chance. It never occurred to me to think of myself as anything other than Italian.

Over the years, I bought Italian shoes and Italian suits. I learned to cook, eat and appreciate Italian food. I loved to listen to my Great-Grandfather and Grandmother speak their Southern dialect Italian. I loved the loudness and the passion and the joy of being part of large family gatherings on Sundays at one house or another. I love Italian opera singers and Italian operas--the French operas have too much talking and the Germans fill the histrionic cup too soon—in short, I have been, in my mind, Italian.

This is not to say that I never experienced my Hungarian roots. I visited my Grandma Zsoka in Ohio during a number of childhood summers, and while there, ate wonderful Hungarian dishes and desserts and heard the rhythms of Hungarian being spoken by my grandmother, my mom, my aunts and uncles and friends of the family. My mom also cooked certain Hungarian dishes—pigs-in-the-blanket, cabbage and noodles, chicken paprikash, etc., but for some reason these experiences never altered my solid conviction that I was Italian.

About six months ago all of this changed due to a confluence of events. First, I came across an old audio tape that I had misplaced. On it was a one hour conversation that I and my sister had in the late 80’s with my Hungarian grandmother, Lidia Zsoka, in an old age home, shortly before she died. She discusses her life and she answers a lot of questions put to her by me and my sister. Next, I discovered an old cookbook that my grandmother had made for my mother. It was a small wire bound notebook with a number of her recipes written out longhand and in red pencil. It included a short introductory paragraph in which she named her home town and county in Hungary. I transferred the tape onto a CD and sent it to my sister. I also had the little cookbook interpreted from Hungarian into English and turned it into a little book and also sent that to my sister.

The newly discovered audio tape and cookbook combined to awaken my interest in my Hungarian heritage. Happily, my sister had exactly the same awakening and we began at that point to talk about a “roots trip” to Hungary. We decided that we wanted very much to visit Granda Zsoka’s home town. In order to enrich the trip experience, my sister visited our 89 year old Aunt Irene in order to get birthdates and any other important information she might have. Amazingly, Aunt Irene had both a letter with our Grandpa Ivan’s Hungary address and a 60 page diary written by him which is currently being translated (Grandpa Ivan was Grandma Zsoka’s second husband and her true love). To make a long story short, these discoveries by my sister at Aunt Irene’s led to finding out Grandpa Ivan’s county and home town in Hungary and now we will be able to visit both towns while we are there.

Impressively, my sister has now made contact with a lodge owner in Grandma Zsoka’s home town and is arranging for us to sleep in the little town over-night. Since Grandpa Ivan’s home town is only 40 miles away from Grandma’s town, we can now easily visit both towns over a two day period.

Additionally, Patty and I are now studying and trying to learn some rudimentary Hungarian phrases as well as re-visiting some old Hungarian recipes that my mom and grandmother had written out. This week I made a Hungarian dessert called Gumboc and both Patty and I tried making Grandma Zsoka’s farina dumplings. We have begun using simple little Hungarian phrases in our emails. In short—we are suddenly half Hungarian for the first time in our lives. It feels good to re-discover this part of myself and I cannot but feel that my mother, if she is able to pick up on all of this, is pleased. She was very outspoken and frank and so I can also imagine her saying: “Well, it’s about damn time!”

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Raising children to accept a "No"

This past week I watched a young mother sitting with her three year old boy in a restaurant. She asked him if she could have one of his chicken nuggets. He frowned and said: "No." She gave him an angry look, disregarded his negative response, speared a nugget on his plate and ate it. He became angry and began to cry. She looked at him and said sternly: "You need to learn to share! Mommy can have a nugget if she wants one!"

What is both important and interesting about this to me is that, unwittingly, this young mother was teaching her son to regard a "No" answer as unacceptable. If we buy the idea that one mark of maturity is the ability to accept either a "Yes" or a "No" with equal grace when we ask a favor of another, then this young boy was being shown that it is okay to ignore a "No" answer.

I once asked a good friend if I could borrow his sleeping bag for a camping trip. He said: "No, I'd rather not--it's too personal an item to loan out." I reacted poorly and said: "Jeez--I can't believe you won't loan it to me. That hurts my feelings." He answered: "Ron, let me get this straight--am I only allowed to say "Yes" when you ask me a favor?" After thinking it over, I apologized.

In this vein, I notice that young mothers often say to their toddlers: "Okay, we're going to go home now--okay?" When they tag the sentence with the "Okay?" they are asking a question that can be answered "Yes" or "No." When the child says "No" and is forced to leave anyway they are, again, teaching their child to ignore a "No." They are also setting up a combative situation, one that will lead to a tantrum and a win-lose ending.

Additionally, why would a mother give a toddler control over when to leave or stay? It makes no sense. It is her decision, not the toddler's. I try to teach young mothers that an essential child management skill with toddlers is to make declarative statements. For example: "Billy, it's time to go home now. Let's get your coat on and get going." To ask a toddler's permission is simply inviting trouble. They love saying "No" (which is understandable since, given their age, they have almost no interpersonal or decision making control) and then, if you ignore their "No" you're teaching them the wrong thing.

Age and Patience With Others

I was, until recently, under the impression that as we aged we became more accepting of others' shortcomings but recently I've begun questioning this. I remember that as a young man I was much more accepting of friends who had major failings. Once, 40 years ago, as a young musician, I shared an apartment for an entire summer at the Jersey shore with a junkie musician who spent most of his time scamming people for money and drugs. But, he was funny, charming and bright and I enjoyed his company. Together we once spent 20 bucks (a lot of money back in 1960) for a bag of oregano and all we did for days was laugh about how it tasted as we tried to smoke it.
It seems I had more friends back then who were seriously flawed. Now, I'm a lot more particular about who I spend time with. I find myself assessing their interpersonal style and if they are poor listeners or are not at all curious about others I find it tedious to be in their company. I seem to be paying the price for my pickiness, however, and have far fewer friends now that I have dropped a number of friendships with folks who I finally decided were just too much work or were not making an effort to enrich our friendship.
I know that much more possibility for personal growth is offered by difficult people--i.e., they force one to stretch to get big enough to tolerate them gracefully--but as I age I opt more and more to just sacrifice the growth, smoke a cigar by myself and stare at the back yard or read a book. It just takes too much energy.

O'Neill special on American Experience

There was a special about O'neill on TV last night (The American Experience series) and they spoke about the similarity between Shakespeare's King Lear and O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." They posited the idea that both dealt with our need for dreams-illusions as a way to cope with the frightening and depressing reality of life (the existential reality). They state that at the end, Lear is stripped of all his dreams-illusions about family and love as are the characters in Iceman.
The "Iceman" character has the need to believe he was insane to justify having killed his wife. Because, if he was not insane, then he killed her because he hated her (the reality) and that was too tough to accept...he needed the illusion of insanity to maintain the fiction-illusion-dream that he loved her. And, additionally, all those other characters in the play who have had their illusion stripped away can smile again because if the Iceman can maintain his illusion so can they.
Given this short overview, would you tend to agree with their claim of a similarity? Do you think Shakey was consciously examining this existential issue of our need to create fictions to make life livable and bearable?


March 28th, 2005
This photo was taken from up on the Michelangelo Piazzale overlooking Florence while Felicia and I were there in April of 2005.

I think this blogging site should be fun. Today is my first foray onto this site and I'm intrigued to see how it will turn out.