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December 9th, 2008

Pamela Dean is an ambassador from a nation where I once lived, which I love passionately, but to which I can never return: the land of childhood. (And, yes, I include Tam Lin.)

I do remember telling myself, when I was a child, that I would not be like the grown-ups when I grew up; that I would never, never, forget what it was like to be a child. Alas, I have forgotten most everything else except that promise. But she has not. Her stories evoke a profoundly deep emotional response in me, pulling me back... not into a “golden age” of childhood-as-it-never-was, but the real thing with all its frustrations. 

Childhood is when we have great dreams but no power to express them, much less fulfill them. Our art is hopeless scratches, our stories don’t come out the way we wanted, the things we build all fall apart. You live in a place not your own, where other people control the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the things you get to do. You speak the language oh so imperfectly, in a culture where no one has explained the rules and what they do tell you makes no sense. (Reminds me of me today in Italy.) This frustration at being unable to express oneself, or to be able to figure out “the rules,” is a theme that comes through all the books.

Primarily, childhood is a world of powerlessness in the face of great needs. That is in fact the theme of the Secret Country books -- where it is not only the children who can see exactly what needs to be done, but can’t get those with the power to do it, to listen to them. 

I first read Tam Lin only a few years after living as the housemaster in an honors dorm at a small college not all that different from the one described in the book, and my first impression was confusion: the college she describes was nothing like 90’s college life. Rather, it was exactly like my sense of in college in the early 1970s. (Only without Vietnam. How could you write a book set on a campus then without Vietnam? Except, of course, she couldn’t have included that elephant on the campus and told the story she needed to tell.)

But that strong identification I felt with her campus (which, it eventually is made clear, really is set in the late 60s/early 70s in some alternate Vietnam-less universe) is what was so puzzling. Fact is, the college I attended (MIT) could not have been more different from the typical liberal arts school, and the people she described were the sorts of “arts” students that I studiously avoided. Yet everything she described was so achingly familiar that I could taste, with the taste buds of memory, the experiences they were going through. 

I had a similar reaction to Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. There can hardly be a time when gender differences are more stark than in the contrast of the social worlds of boys and girls at the age she depicts; and yet, again, I had this strange sense of not so much entering into this world, but somehow remembering it as I read about it. How does she do this? (OK, so the main character being an astronomer helped. But that can’t explain it all.)

Given my lifestyle (vow of poverty, always on the road) I own very few books. I only have about two or three free shelves in my room; the books I keep are very limited indeed. Most of the ones on my shelves are select old favorites (some of them, unabashedly, pure comfort food) that I want to re-read over and over. But oddly, I am hesitant to re-read Pamela Dean’s books. Their power is rather frightening; and they are by no means comfort food. But they have space on my shelves because I do not ever want to be without them.

Latest news from Florence

So, with all my postings, I haven't been giving much news about my life in Florence, including a visit from friends of mine from Boston and my Italian lessons. To combine the two:

Ieri era l'ultimo giorno della visita dei miei amici americani. Abbiamo cenato in una trattoria vicino al loro albergo. Era un posto un può rumoroso, ma ci è piaciuto l'ambiente proprio "vero" di un ristorante che serve il popolo locale, non solo i turisti. 
 
Ho mangiato della porchetta (una cosa che non mangerei mai negli Stati Uniti), ben fatta e piena di sapore; la Kim si è scelta dei tortellini in brodo. 
 
Ma le tagliatelle, che il mio amico Dennis aveva ordinato, e la lasagna ordinata da sua moglie Jeri, non arrivavano. Finalmente, il cameriere è arrivato, e gli ha chiesto scusa per il ritardo. È tornato con le lasagne per Jeri, e gliel' ha date, e ha dato una zuppa a Dennis. Ma a Dennis piace più la pasta che la  zuppa. Beh!
 
Finalmente, dopo altri quindici minuti, è arrivata della pasta per Dennis. Ma ormai avevamo finito i nostri piatti! 
 
Furioso, Dennis s'è alzato, ha incominciato a inveire contro il cameriere, e subito hanno cominciato darsi le botte! Bottiglie di vino volavano per aria, sedie si rompevano, e presto tutti nella trattoria erano in tumulto! Finalmente sono arrivati i carabinieri, e...
 
In realtà, non è successo come. Il cameriere è tornato, ha chiesto ancora scusa, e ci hanno fatto un po' di sconto.

(As corrected; my original had thirteen grammar mistakes...)

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