Chapter 64: Oche farcite (Geese stuffing)

My readers might be expecting a small treatise on the stuffing of geese in the Mezzogiorno, but we Calabresi don’t stuff geese.

The new geese stuffers are language textbook publishers. For decades, they have been stuffing our ganders with the unabridged corpus of the Italian language, all within one year of language instruction. Their goal: to produce the best possible oca ripiena, “plump from the passato prossimo,” “fattened from fare expressions,” round from reciprocal verbs and reflexive pronouns.

So how do we stuff our geese on behalf of the language textbook publishers? We jam them into large pens with 40 or 50 students. We stuff them with subjunctives, conjunctives, disjunctives, with interrogatives, demonstratives, and hypotheticals, with participles, gerunds, and pronouns, with agreement and disagreement, with contractions, subtractions, and additions. At the end of several weeks the geese are in “prime condition.”

By then end of the school year, our students’ brains are ready to blow. They are in need of an enema!

So, what happens to our geese in prime condition?

The masochistic stay with us; they review the unabridged corpus of the Italian languages in their intermediate-level courses.

Then, they review it again in their third-year grammar and composition courses.

Then, they act in commercials for Rosetta Stone.

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Chapter 63: Imperfetto vs. passato prossimo

It’s Saturday morning. November has just passed. An unexpected rain in San Diego has freshened the air.

Next week is the last week of the semester and my Italian 100A students got stuck with a huge nut to crack: learn the imperfect, the pluperfect, and present perfect using reflexive verbs. To top it off, they’re trying to study for their comprehensive final next Saturday at 8am. They’re tired and angry as their other professors are piling up material in all of their other classes. It’s incredible how little professors know about teaching and learning!

It’s a good thing California hasn’t passed any gun possession laws!

So, I sit here brainstorming. How can I pull off this stupid assignment for the week and get my students to succeed? More importantly, I don’t want them to lose their love of Italian that I have cultivated in them from day one of the semester.

An idea mi viene in mente immediately. When I was a high school Spanish teacher in the bowels of rural Illinois, I taught all three past tenses at one time with no problem. Best of all, my students didn’t even know it they had learned all three tenses!

In my intermediate Spanish class, I had two times of bored and restless students: jocks and cheerleaders. After failing miserably to teach through a textbook, I threw the textbook out the window. I bought some copies of El Vocero, a Miami-based newspaper and soap opera digest in Spanish while visiting family in Chicago.

I gave students the choice: read sport’s articles about the Cubs and the Cardinals or a summary of their choice about the week’s action in The Young and the Restless. I asked the jocks and the cheerleaders to summarize as best as possible their article’s content. Because of prior knowledge and interest in sports and soap operas, they had little problem deciphering every article’s main points. For the rest of the semester, we read dozens of articles, designed for native Spanish speakers.

The students were pumped because they could read real newspaper articles while enrolled in second-year Spanish!

Then—came grammar time, and they didn’t even know it. I asked them to pick out all the examples of the preterite, the imperfect, and the pluperfect. They had no trouble at all recognizing these tenses. However, in past years, when I made them memorize all the conjugations of all three tenses, they failed miserably.

The key message to some of my moronic language teaching colleagues: our students can read an unlimited amount of sophisticated text in all the past tenses–if we focus first on comprehension and reading enjoyment.

The focus on immediate and forced production leads to memory overload and frustration. Memory overload and frustration lead to pissed off students. Pissed off students lead to the weakening of language programs. Let production come in later years of language study. If five years from now our students can successfully read anything they like in a second language, haven’t we done a great job as language teachers?

Next week, I’m throwing the textbook out the window like I did as a high school teacher, but I’ll have to find a classroom at San Diego State that has windows.

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Chapter 62: Lysistrata and Italian gender issues

Gender is the bane of every American student of Italian, and French, and Spanish, and Portuguese, and especially German. Nouns in these languages are either masculine or feminine. In German, add neuter to other two.

Gender makes no sense to the American language learner. What’s the need for it and why are many seemingly masculine nouns feminine?

In explaining gender to my students, I confront these issues, but my explanation doesn’t make it any better for them. Despite sharing with them some short cuts to learning which nouns are masculine and which are feminine, in the end, they have to memorize the gender marker that accompanies the meaning of each noun.

This morning I saw this post on Facebook that has something to do with the illogic of gender markers. The post states emphatically:

“If women ruled the world, there would be no wars, just a bunch of jealous countries not talking to each other.”

In Italian, most nouns associated with war are feminine! La guerra, la bomba atomica, la fanteria (infantry), la cavalleria (cavalry), la conquista, la vittoria, la sconfitta (defeat), la spada (sword). Even “aircraft carrier” (portaeri) and “battleship” (corazzata) are feminine!

I’ve always told my students how stupid this is because woman are too smart to wage war! And now the Facebook post bears it out.

So where does Lysistrata fit in?

Her name in ancient Attic Greek means “army disbander.” Aristophanes’ play is a comic account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the interminable Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta during the fourth century BC. Lysistrata unites the women of the Greek city states involved in this cruel war to withhold sex from their warring menfolk. Spartan and Athenian warriors angrily give up glory for nookie.

It’s my “tongue-in-cheek” hypothesis that whoever created gender in Italian (probably men), designated war and other warlike acts as feminine.

Their reasoning?

Revenge: to punish the memory of Lysistrata.

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Chapter 61: 88

Two people won over $574 million in the Powerball Lottery this morning. I wasn’t one of them; neither were any of my Italian 100A students.

I told my students about another lottery, one that I was intimately involved in back in 1970: The Vietnam War Lottery.

At this time of the school year, I always have to find motivational tools to get my students through the last two weeks of the semester as well as the final exam, which is always scheduled on Saturday at 8am. Naturally, one of my students asks me how I, Steve Sacco, stayed motivated in school. Of course, I’m laughing my ass off.

“Well, ragazzi, here’s the answer to your question.”

“Back in 1970 when I was a freshman, most students were highly motivated to stay in school. For love of 17th century Italian poetry? Hell, no!

If you flunked out of school, the university immediately notified your draft board. Student deferments were revoked and you got classified 1-A. generally, that meant that you got drafted within a month of expulsion.

At that point, a representative from selective service pointed you toward the army, navy, airforce or marines. If you got drafted, you most likely went to Vietnam. If you went to Vietnam, you had a good chance of dying–like many in our neighborhood, or returning without a limb–like our friend Nick the Greek.

Student deferments ended upon graduation and I graduated in four years. Fortunately, the war was over and my lottery number–88–expired.”

“What was the lottery number thing about?” one of my students asks.

“Each kid was provided a lottery number attached to their birthday. In 1970, March 23 drew 88. That’s 88 out of a total of 365.

The Defense Department drafted us starting with the lottery number 1 until their supply of young men was provided. In 1970, young men with lottery numbers up to 150 got drafted, most going to Vietnam.”

“So, you can do the math,” I told my students. “If I flunked out of college, I was going to get drafted almost immediately. So, I studied hard!

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Chapter 29: Proposition 8

The 2012 presidential election is over. Obama won, Romney lost. Thank God!

Despite the great news in congressional and senate races, my soul still aches for an election issue that crushed me during the 2008 election: Proposition 8.

Proposition 8 (or the California Marriage Protection Act) was a ballot proposition that passed in the November 2008 state elections in California. The measure provided that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Consequently, Proposition 8 restricted marriage to same-sex couples.

You might wonder what Proposition 8 has to do with me since I’m not gay. Proposition 8 unjustly hurt my gay friends and my cousin Anthony who’s been dead for 20 years.

My cousin Anthony died of HIV-AIDS on September 6, 1992. I was emotionally shattered as was the rest of our family. He was not yet 38 years old.

Anthony lived upstairs from us on Monticello Avenue with his brother Herb and his mom, my Aunt Mary Ann. In his last years, he lived in a San Francisco suburb and worked for United Airlines. At that time, he and I were the only Saccos living outside of Chicago.

Anthony was a gay man growing up in a homophobic neighborhood. At the time some of my family was homophobic. Gays were “sword swallowers,” “fags,” and other vile labels that cruel and ignorant idiots used. Kids got beat up if bullies suspected they were gay.

Anthony never revealed his gay status to me even though he knew I was not gay phobic and that I had a lot of gay friends and colleagues. It always surprised me, but I always respected his privacy.

The last time I saw Anthony was in San Francisco in December 1991. I was there attending the Modern Language Association annual conference and we got together for dinner at one of San Francisco’s many excellent Italian restaurants. I had no idea that his disease was so advanced; if I had, I wouldn’t have asked him to walk miles and miles from the Hilton to the Embarcadero and back. During dinner, we talked about my job; we laughed and talked and reminisced about our youth together Chicago. The incessant repeating of Sacco stories is always savored among the Saccos and non-Saccos. We agreed to see each other in Boise, Idaho where my family and I were preparing to move. Unfortunately, I never saw Anthony again, except at his funeral.

In 2008, Proposition 8 passed. Proposition 8 led to arguments with friends, my Alpine neighbors and even my wife. Today, when I see a car with a YES ON PROPOSITION 8 bumper sticker, I have to fight myself from throwing them the finger and yelling VAFFANCULO, STRONZO REPUBBLICANO.

Proponents of the constitutional amendment argued that exclusively heterosexual marriage was “an essential institution of society,” “Marriage will be ruined if it is extended to gays and lesbians,” argued the YES a**holes. Same-sex marriage didn’t negatively impacted my marriage, nor anyone else’s marriage I knew.

Opponents argued that “the freedom to marry is fundamental to our society,” and that the California constitution “should guarantee the same freedom and rights to everyone.” The passing of Proposition 8 created one set of rules and laws for gay and lesbian couples and another set for everyone else.”  Equality under the law lost its legitimacy in my eyes.

What angered me the most was the active involvement of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Latter-Day Saints among other churches. The Roman Catholic Church, as well as its lay fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, firmly supported Proposition 8. The Mormon Church announced its support of Proposition 8 in a letter to all Mormon congregations in California to “do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time.” About 45 percent of LDS contributions came from outside the state of California. Other religious organizations that supported Proposition 8 include the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Evangelical Christians. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and the pastor at Obama’s inauguration, also backed the measure.

Millions of dollars were spent, not to erase poverty or illness, but on a homophobic political measure.

Churches have the right to select the rules of marriage. If that means the exclusive union of a man and woman, that’s fine with me. Churches, on the other hand, have no business pushing an agenda for the state, at least in the United States.

If we were in Italy, I could accept the intrusion of the Roman Catholic Church in state affairs. For decades, the Italian state followed the lead of the Vatican for divorce and abortion. Crucifixes in public school classrooms in Italy are an example of the Vatican’s influence in state affairs.

My parish, “Our Lady of Hypocrites,” played an insipid role in the Proposition 8 debate. Every Sunday during the campaign, the parish priests, using the pulpit as a political forum, pushed hard for a yes vote from their parishioners. One Sunday after Mass, a female parishioner stopped me and strongly suggested that I sign the petition against same-sex marriage. I declined and headed for my car in the parking lot. All of a sudden, I heard the petitioner tell her young daughter that I was anti marriage. I was furious! I returned to her table and told her I was pro-equal rights for all Californians and all Americans. A heated argument ensued which attracted the attention of other parishioners, none of whom sided with me. I reported the experience to the pastor, complaining about the petitioner’s tactics to no avail.

That was the last time I ever attended Mass, except for weddings and funerals.

During the campaign, I thought often about Anthony and his partner. Anthony’s partner soon died after attending Anthony’s funeral in Chicago in 1992. His face was covered with sores and he was worn down by the ravages of HIV-AIDS. The Saccos welcomed him at the funeral as they would have welcomed a grieving spouse in a traditional marriage. Despite anti-gay comments in the past, I could see a true acceptance of Anthony’s partner and Anthony’s decision to live a gay lifestyle. I have never been so proud of my family!

I thought also of same-sex couples in California, of their mutual love and respect in their unions. I saw them being blamed for the potential destruction of marriage. I heard ridiculous claims that if same-sex marriage existed, the electorate would have to accept marriage between humans and animals.

Merda totale!

In 2012 several states passed marriage rights for same-sex couples. More states will soon adopt similar ground-breaking civil rights measures. I am happy for my gay friends and family members.

I am happy because I know Anthony is smiling.

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Chapter 60: Sepolcri

Sepolcri in Italian means tombs as in cemetery tombs.

When I returned to Miglierina in April 2001, accompanied by my uncles and aunts, one of the first places the mayor showed us was Miglierina’s cemetery, located near the town’s summit. The cemetery is a key for Italian Americans to find relatives and ancestors. For us, we wanted to find more Sacco family members so we could learn more about them through official documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates. Unfortunately for us, there were hardly any Saccos in the cemetery. How could that possibly be? Another mystery!

It wasn’t until I read Padre Antonio Caccetta’s history of Miglierina (Miglierina: un paese due campanili). Padre Antonio’s book is my greatest source of information about my nonni‘s village. His book also unveiled the mystery behind the lack of Saccos in the cemetery.

It’s a long story but I’ll keep it short.

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, having conquered Italy, issued a decree that the dead could no longer be buried in or under churches. Issued for reasons of hygiene, most Italian cities and towns in Italia Settentrionale (Northern and Central Italy) conformed to the Emperor’s decree. L’Italia Meridionale (Southern Italy) was a tougher nut for the Emperor to crack. Miglierina, for example, adhered to the decree on January 1, 1878–some 74 years later!

That means that all the Saccos, or at least those prior to 1878, were buried under the church, like Christians in the catacombs! In fact, a Sacco was the last one buried there in the church of Santa Maria. But, the story gets more interesting!

Saverio Sacco died on December 28, 1877 and was buried in the catacombs. So, who was Saverio Sacco–a name none of us had ever heard of? Saverio died at age 7 days. Saverio was the son of Cesaria Sacco. The father is incerto, uncertain.

So, mysteries remain!

Where are my nonno Cesare Sacco’s parents buried? Where’s his sister or aunt Elisabetta buried? Where are all the Saccos?

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Chapter 59: “You belong to the city!” –Glenn Frey

“You belong to the city,” Glenn Frey’s single hit in the 1980s, best describes the “sad” state of employees of the city of Chicago as Chicago requires that all employees live within the city’s limits.

So what percentage of city workers live in Chicago? Let me provide a hint: Chicago’s employees are clever–like Chicago politicians. Actually, I don’t know the answer to that question, but neither does the city of Chicago.

All Chicagoans know friends and family who work for the city but who live in the suburbs. Why would you want to live on the West Side when you could live in Winnetka?

For Chicagoans, it’s fun to watch the cat-and-mouse game between city inspectors and its employees. “Suburban” city employees all have shadow residences in the city, either owned by one’s cousins or one’s mistress. Suffice it to say, it’s safer to have the “shadow residence” with one’s cousin. More about that later!

City employees boast utilities bills, phone bills–all in their name to prove Chicago residency. When accused, they plop down their bills featuring the address of their shadow residence. City inspectors are relentless but dumb. Les Miz’s Inspector Javert was less relentless with Jean Valjean. They frequently call in the evenings or sometimes even in the middle of the night innocently asking for Tony Pasquale, for example.

” Tony’s not here right now. May I take a message?” You know it’s a city inspector when he refuses to leave a call back number or hangs up before you finish your message. Plus, it’s usually the same guy who calls.

“Yo, Tony, just to let you know, a city inspector just called,” cousin Gianni reports.

The inspector catches Tony at home as often as he gets to talk to Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. But, Tony’s safe as long as he can present his utilities bills in his name to a panel of inquiry.

One city worker I know did get caught. Let’s call him Mimmo. (Mimmo is not Calabrese because no Calabrese would be this stupid.) Mimmo breaks up with his mistress whose address happens to be the address of Mimmo’s shadow residence. Mistake #1. Mimmo’s mistress is vindictive. Mistake #2. Mistake #3 goes like this . . .

“Is Mimmo Guzzi there?” a mechanical voice inquires in the most nasal of Chicago accents.

“No”, responds the ex, “he’s at home with his wife and children in Winnetka. Would you like his number?”

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