Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pox Americana

I love books about smallpox. Not just smallpox — I also enjoy reading about cholera, yellow fever, typhus, bubonic plague, and most other epidemic diseases.

Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 is one of my favorite disease-related light reads, right up there with The Speckled Monster and The Ghost Map. That's probably not fair — Pox Americana is more scholarly than either of the two, but it's not a dense text.

In Pox Americana, Fenn traces the path of smallpox from Boston to Mexico City to Vancouver, exploring how the disease affected social, economic, and political conditions wherever it struck. The best thing about this book is that Fenn follows the disease across the continent rather than confining her analysis to the eastern seaboard. By tracing the epidemic to the Spanish southwest, Hudson Bay, and across the Great Plains, Fenn offers a broad overview of the North American situation c. 1780.

Some of the more memorable take-aways:
  • Rather than blaming opposition to inoculation on superstition or ignorance, Fenn argues that poor people opposed inoculation because it was a prohibitively expensive procedure and because the rich put everyone at risk by wandering around willy-nilly while they were contagious.
  • Many of the African-Americans who took Governor Dunmore up on his offer of freedom didn't live long enough to enjoy it. 
  • The Spanish had a pretty impressive infrastructure in place in Mexico in the 18th century, but control lessened considerably as one traveled away from Mexico City. 
  • Native Americans in the American West were part of extensive trade and kinship networks that brought them into contact with European technologies and diseases long before they had direct contact with Europeans. (not earth-shattering, but worth a reminder)
Let's end this review Reading Rainbow style:
Whether your a big fan of infectious diseases or just interested in a study of 18th-century America that goes beyond Boston, this is the book for you. Pick it up at your local library!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Old Stil"

I've written Old Style/New Style dating before, but I've never seen a stone like the Josiah Gates stone (1757) in Stow, MA. The epitaph reads,
Here Lies Buried 
The Body of Josiah 
Gates Son of Mr John 
Gates & Mrs Mary Gates
Was Born March ye 24 
1739 Old Stil & Died
March ye 30 1757
New Stile
I imagine that the carver (I think one of the Worsters — still waiting for that Forbes book in the mail) felt the need to specify OS/NS because the change had taken place relatively recently. It's a little unusual for a mid-18th c. stone to specify a birth date (they usually just have the person's age), so perhaps the carver wanted to make sure that viewers would not be confused. This specificity may have been particularly important because the Josiah Gates was born and died in March, the month with the most muddled date conversions.
This stone inspired a question: how do other carvers handle Old Style/New Style conversions in the 1750s? What's the latest date you've ever seen written with OS/NS notation (i.e. 1737/8).

Blame is Not is Plan

I wonder where David Brooks gets his numbers. In his column today, he states that in 1960, the "average American" had almost 14 years of education. I assume this number comes from the book by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz that provides his other evidence. I don't know where they pulled that from, since, according to the census and every other source I can find, fewer than 20% of American adults had even a year of college education in 1960 and the median educational level was 10.5 years (12.3 among adults between 25 and 29). The graph at right is from Education of the American Population (1976).

Of course, if you define "average American" as "average white, male American," as Brooks does, his numbers are much closer to reality.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. What struck me as the most bizarre was that, in a column on educational inequality and the achievement gap, Brooks completely ignores race.

By discussing the "average American" and focusing on the overall rate of high school completion, Brooks buries the lede, which is that the achievement gap is between students of different races. Yes, "socio-economic status" is a big part of the gap, but black, Latino/a, and Native American students are being out-performed by white and Asian students at all income levels. A lot can be achieved by erasing inequality between poor, middle-class, and wealthy students, but pretending that race does not matter is foolish.

In this column, Brooks is advocating investing in education and closing the achievement gap, and I agree with him that these are top priorities. Yet, I think heaping the blame for educational stagnation on "family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years" is wrong x 10.

I was a TFA teacher, and no one has devoted more time and energy to finding research-based evidence on the achievement gap than TFA. If you have a few free hours, go read through the data and overviews on the TFA site. After only two years in the classroom, I totally agree with the TFA research that says that funding and family are not the major problems holding kids back: a lot has to do with teacher quality, expectations, and fostering a culture of achievement. Lots of factors go into teachers'/administrators' low expectations, but I really believe that many people in education hold lower expectations for African-American and Hispanic students specifically because of their race.

I taught at a school that with a predominantly Mexican-American student body, though there were also students from Central America, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Portugal, and smaller populations of black and white students. Just like at the school I attended when I was a child, free lunch was the norm. Many of the students at our school came in with a full complement of educational disadvantages — parents with low levels of education, few English skills, low-income families, limited vocabularies in any language, etc. Some teachers dug in to fight the good fight, but others just threw up their hands and declared the situation hopeless.

It is undeniably true, as Brooks notes, that educational inequality starts early in life. By now, most educators are familiar with studies that have found that by age 3, the gap in language skills (a prerequisite for reading in any language) between the richest and poorest children is astounding. The error is in assuming that since children from some families start out at a disadvantage, they will inevitably lag behind their peers. In our current system, they will indeed lag, but it is NOT inevitable. Explicit vocabulary instruction, evidence-based pedagogy, and high expectations can do wonders for even the most disadvantaged students.

The trouble is that too many teachers and schools see poor students (particularly black, Hispanic, and Native American students) as unteachable. That might sound harsh, and I certainly don't mean all teachers or all schools, but there is a lot of that going around.

I've seen a lot of amazing teachers work wonders with kids and families, but I've also seen awful teachers who blame their own failures on the kids and the parents. A teacher cannot get the best results out of a student if that teacher assumes that the student is irredeemably lazy/ignorant/hyper/stupid/worthless. The things I've heard teachers say out loud about students would blow your hair back, and that's not even taking into account unconscious prejudices and systematic injustices (ex: systematically denying Latino students access to the Special Education services to which they are legally entitled — I'm looking at you, Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, CA).

Brooks is right on his large point: investment in human capital is necessary to the nation's health. But honestly, blaming educational stagnation on the largely mythical declension of "the home" is not a solution. By all means, invest in early childhood education. But don't pretend that race is unimportant.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Oh no! Executed Today seems to be gone. :(

It's back! Maybe my internet just sucks.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Chang's Paper Pony

In my earlier post on good history books for the K-3 crowd, I accidentally omitted Chang's Paper Pony. It's not easy to find a book about 19th-century Chinese immigration that a 7-year-old can read by herself, so you can't ignore the few that are out there.

I have found that many children's books on the subject of immigration (and slavery, Civil Rights, etc.) are what I always called "Kids' Books for Mom and Dad." You know the type — they're touching, lushly-illustrated books that look great but are never really a hit with the kids they're supposedly intended for. Mom and Dad love these books because they're works of art and have a Very Important Message, but kids rarely seek them out on their own.

I'll admit — I love KBMD and will probably buy dozens for my own children someday. I love some (When Marian Sang, Pink and Say, Nettie's Trip South) and some are pretty good (Baseball Saved Us, Teammates), but they were always the last ones on the shelves in my classroom during free reading.

Part of the problem is in the illustrations. Adults like black and white illustrations, but 95% of second graders find them boring. Kids LOVE photographs and colorful, dramatic illustrations. Charcoal sketches may be delicate and subtle, but the average elementary schooler will pass over that muted cover every time.

Another problem is the story. Kids' Books for Mom and Dad are usually about Something Very Important and, when history is involved, tend toward the epic. They're usually decent for reading one-on-one with a child because in that situation the parent can answer every question and elaborate on every vague statement, but KBMD are generally not good for independent reading. There is too much new information, typically handled in the least specific way possible.

Chang's Paper Pony is not a KBMD. It is a simple, accessible story that children can enjoy on a number of levels. On one hand, it's a story of a little boy who wants a pony. On the other, it's a jumping-off point for teachers and parents to introduce discussions about immigration, discrimination, and 19th-century America. The story is cute, but it's not the boring crap that they usually push on beginning readers, so it's great for late-blooming readers who are (understandably) bored by hundreds of books about anthropomorphic bunnies and Jimmy's new puppy. The pictures are engaging, the reading level is reasonable, and it's a serious story without getting too wrapped up in having a Very Important Message.

A must-have, especially for California teachers (great for low readers in grade 4 for CA history).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Funny How That Happens

The New York Times is running a story on the BlogHer conference. The teaser reads, "Although women and men are creating blogs in roughly equal numbers, many women believe that they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts."

This article is running in the "Fashion & Style" section, rather than the "Technology" section.

Funny how that happens.

(via Pandagon, Feministe, and surely many others)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Axe Murderers at the Library

This morning, I read a very polite letter written by a librarian to a patron who had complained about the children's book, Uncle Bobby's Wedding.

One commenter, Lou Franklin, was pretty upset that anyone would defend this book, which is about a young guinea pig who worries that her relationship with her favorite uncle will change after he marries another (male) guinea pig. Franklin wrote an unhinged response in which he declared that the book is "homosexual propaganda" and is thus wrong, wrong, wrong.

All that was pretty entertaining, but I was more interested in Franklin's assertion that public libraries do not serve the needs of all members of the community. Jamie, the librarian, pointed out that, "A public library provides material of interest for the entire community - not just those who support your own views and opinions." Franklin fired back hysterically:
The entire community? How about Klansmen? Got any children's books for them? How about neo-Nazis. No? What about pedophiles? Heroin addicts? Axe murderers? Excuse me, can you direct me to some children's books about the joys of Devil Worship? What? You don't have any?!? No, a public library does not provide material of interest for the entire community. Nor should they.
And that got me thinking — does the public library have books that could serve the needs of the groups listed here? It has been my experience that you can find a children's book on pretty much anything, so now I'm intrigued: is Franklin's over-the-top rhetoric (which resembles nothing so much as a toddler balling up his fists and shrieking, "NO, NO, NO!") accurate? Dismissing for now the bogus analogy that equates gay families with the vibrant axe murderer community, is it true that the public library does not contain books on these topics?

It is certainly true that public libraries generally contain books that could cater to adults on Franklin's list. I'm not saying that anyone who reads these books belongs to these groups, just that members of the listed groups might enjoy these books:

Klansmen: The Turner Diaries, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, American Negro Slavery
Neo-nazis: Mein Kampf, Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion
Pedophiles: the psychology section, Conversations with a Pedophile
Heroin Addicts: How to Stop Time, Methadone Treatment Manual
Axe Murderers: biographies of Lizzie Borden, Opportunities in Forestry Careers
Devil Worshippers: Satan Wants You, Raising Hell

But can we find books that might be helpful for children who may be dealing with these issues? The books Franklin objects to are books that can help children understand and cope with things that are happening in their lives. Although Franklin seems to think that public libraries should remove anything that references a subject that is objectionable to him, the truth is that kids deal with all of the issues he listed and books can help them sort out a confusing world.

Klansmen (I'm not sure here if Franklin means books that help kids deal with hate crimes or books that deliver the Klan's message. I'll include both.):
Anti-hate crime: Getting Away With Murder, Mim and the Klan, many books on slavery and civil rights
Klan-compatible: The Littlest Rebel (book and movie), The Favorite Uncle Remus, Tintin in the Congo,

Neo-nazis: same problem as before, could probably use some of those same books

Pedophilia/Abuse: My Imaginary Friend, The Right Touch, My Body is Private, The Trouble With Secrets, A Terrible Thing Happened, Maybe Days, Zachary's New Home

Heroin Addicts: Methadone, My Dad Has a Disease, An Elephant in the Living Room, some of the same books as above

Axe Murderers: more Lizzie Borden, Rotten Rulers, Cruel Crime and Painful Punishment,
My Daddy is in Jail, When Dad Killed Mom, Willie's Dad

Devil Worshippers (I know that atheists and people who practice Wicca do not consider themselves Devil Worshippers, but I'm willing to bet that Franklin does.): Aidan's First Full Moon Circle, An Ordinary Girl — A Magical Child, The Winter Solstice, A Solstice Tree for Jenny, What About Gods?, Humanism — What's That?

So it seems that there are children's books on many of those subjects. You may have to search through some antiques to cover the pro-Klan and pro-Nazi angles, but you could do it. As for the other categories, it's not even a challenge to come up with books that can help children feel safe and loved even when they are dealing with potentially confusing or scary issues.

As for whether any of these categories are at all analogous to Uncle Bobby's Wedding, I don't know. The Wiccan books are probably closest since, like with gay marriage, there's really nothing to worry about. The others all deal with real problems (hate, crime, addiction) but offer kids a chance to identify with characters or learn more about complex issues. I concede that there are few modern children's books that portray the Klan, Nazis, and pedophiles in a positive, normalizing light (though you can still find plenty of racist and fascist themes in picture books). But there seems to be a good selection for reassuring kids that even if a parent/aunt/uncle/friend is a drug addict, an axe murderer, or a heathen, everything's going to be ok.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Boston Coffee Party

On this date in 1777, John Boyle wrote the following entry in his journal:
A Female Riot. — About 100 Women from the North-Part of the Town, getting information of a Quanty. of Coffee being in the Store of Thos. Boylston, Esqr. which he refused to sell at the regulated Price, attacked him in King-Street, and demanded the Keys of his Store, which he refusing to deliver, they immediately placed him in a Cart, and threatened to Cart him out of Town, upon which he delivered them the Keys. — A Committee was appointed to keep him Custody while the Body was employed in getting the Coffee out of the Store, which they speedily effected, and went off with their booty.
This incident is better known from a letter written by Abigail Adams a week later. In 1990, Doreen Rappaport made the riot the subject of a charming children's book called The Boston Coffee Party. This was one of my very favorite books when I was in elementary school and I used it very successfully with my own second grade students.

In fact, I recommend all of the books in this series, including Sam the Minute Man, George the Drummer Boy, and The Long Way to a New Land. When I taught second grade, we had to use scripted curricula in all subjects (it was a Title 1 district and a Reading First school), but I had a little bit of wiggle room to add supplementary lessons during the English Language Development block. I tried to devise history units that focused on the historical experiences of children, and these books were great. The vocabulary is simple enough that a seven-year-old can read it on his or her own, but the issues raised are meaty. The Boston Coffee Party is my favorite because food riots are near and dear to my heart and because the protagonists are girls.

Other recommendations for introducing K-3 kids to history:

Nettie's Trip South: A young girl accompanies her journalist brother on a trip through the South just before the Civil War. There, she witnesses scenes of slavery and tries to understand them. The pictures in this book are black-and-white, so they may not grab the attention of all children. Be careful when reading this book with young children — I had several students cry during the slave auction scene. I liked starting discussions about slavery with this book rather than with a book about the Underground Railroad because it allowed students to build up some outrage before we start talking about resistance.

Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter: This is English history, but this is a great book and can be used for either social studies or science. Mary Anning (1799-1847) was the English fossil hunter responsible for discovering several important plesiosaur fossils. There are several biographies of Anning, but I like this one best — the sentences are short and easy to read, the pictures are pretty good, and the author explains how members of the Royal Society published Anning's discoveries without giving her credit. One of my brightest students was so offended by this injustice that she wrote about Anning in her journal practically every week for the rest of the year and dressed up as Mary Anning the next Halloween.

Sarah Morton's Day
Samuel Eaton's Day
Tapenum's Day: These books, illustrated with photographs of living historians from Plimoth Plantation, were a smash hit in my classroom. The books follow three children through their typical days in Plimoth c. 1625. The lesson comparing our daily routines to theirs practically writes itself. We spent a whole week on these books (making charts, writing compare/contrast essays, etc.). Other teachers spent the week teaching their students "Ten Little Indians" complete with construction paper headdresses and hand-on-mouth war whooping (I'm not exaggerating). If you must do Thanksgiving, do it with these books and Molly's Pilgrim.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More Wordle

Sorry, this is just too much fun. Here are some more representations of my thesis:


I like the last two best. Maybe I'll have a poster made.

"Sufficient to float a 74 Gun Ship"

John Boyle gets a little snarky:
May 30, 1765:
Died in the 82 year of his Age, Hon. Thomas Lechmere Esqr. formerly Surveyer-Genl. of his Majestys Customs for the Northern District of America. Tis conjectured by those who knew him, that a quantity of Maderia Wine equal to what he has drank, would be Sufficient to float a 74 Gun Ship.

Oh, John Boyle. Thanks for supplying me with that good pre-Revolutionary Boston gossip.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wordle = Love

This is just about the best thing ever. I made a bunch of "word clouds" and posted them over on American Creation (I hope they don't mind). Here are some more:

My thesis, Sally Jackson's Wedding Dress: Women’s Consumption and the Nonimportation Movement in Boston:
Connecticut Charter (1662): 
The Code of Hammurabi as translated by L.W. King:
Mississippi's Declaration of Secession:

I could do this all day.

"He's really only having this conversation with himself."

Re: James Carse's interview @ Salon

I was getting all ready to write something about this, but now I can just say +1 to this.

Free Rice

Humanist Mama found this addictive vocabulary game. For each correct answer, the sponsors donate 20 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program. You can also make a larger donation.

I got up to level 49 and donated over 6,600 grains of rice. That's only about a quarter of a pound, but I'm sure I'll go back and play again later. Since October of 2007, this game has generated donations of over 1.3 million pounds of rice.

If you're going to play a distracting internet game, why not play this one?

To learn more, check out their FAQ.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More "Depated" Stones

On Friday, I heard a story on Radio Boston about the Boston accent in which one of the linguists claimed that Massachusetts residents didn't start dropping their rs until the nineteenth century. That didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, especially since the other linguist noted that the Boston accent is a descendant of the English accents brought over by the 17th-century settlers.

A later date for dropped rs does not fit with the evidence I've been finding on my gravestones. The New England carvers have quite a problem with the word "departed," which is remarkable when you consider that it appears on at least a third of the 18th-century stones.

I found two more "depated" stones today. This brings my total up to six (more here and here).

The Abraham Gibson stone in Stow, MA dates from 1740:

The Francis Brown stone (1800) is in Lexington, MA:

Vandalism in Malden

As I noted in a previous post, the Bell Rock Cemetery in Malden, MA is not in particularly good shape. The ground is littered with debris (glass, trash, condoms, etc.) and many of the gravestones are broken or knocked over.

Many graveyards have broken/toppled gravestones and it isn't always evidence of vandalism — lawnmowers, weather, and the ravages of time all take their toll. In Malden, there is clear evidence of vandalism. Even if some of the stones haven't been broken deliberately, many have been defaced on purpose.

Here are some examples:

These are only a few of the pictures I took — other examples of vandalism were more subtle (drawing on soul effigies with pencil, initials carved into stones, etc.)

I don't know whether anything can be done about this. I was thinking about getting in touch with James Cahill, the Superintendent of Cemeteries in Malden, but I don't know if that would do any good. There are only three public cemeteries in the town, so he must already know about what's going on at Bell Rock, right? Maybe we could put together some sort of preservation/cleanup effort. What do you think, gravestone aficionados?

The earliest stone at Bell Rock is dated 1670. Just to let you know what is at stake, here's one of the stones that has not yet been mutilated:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Magnificent Mugs of Malden, Massachusetts

Let's lighten the mood around here, shall we?

Here are some excellent faces from the Bell Rock Graveyard in Malden, MA. As a side note, if you plan to visit this cemetery, you should bring a buddy with you. And tell someone where you're going. And watch out for condoms and broken glass. And maybe get a tetanus shot.

 Joseph Lynde stone (1805)
I guess by 1805, everyone had forgotten how to carve those soul effigies.

Samuel Sargent stone (1710)
I like that he seems to be looking into the grave with trepidation.

Dr. Jonathan Porter stone (1783) 
Mad-Eye Moody as soul effigy. 

 Mary Lynde stone (1781)
I like this one. It has a sense of motion.

 Rev. Eliakim Willis stone (1801)
What a goofy expression. He looks like he's been goosed.

 Peter and Mary Tufts stone (1703)
The mustache is what makes this great. 

And my personal favorite: 
Joseph Willson stone (1704)
Not seeing why this one is so special?
Try to see the death's head's eyes as nostrils and the swirls above as eyes.
Pig demon.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Grimstone Bowde

Today, we turn our spotlight onto

Grimstone Bowde

whose wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to a daughter (also named Elizabeth) in Boston on August 22, 1683.

I wanted to bring attention to Grimstone not only because his name superficially recalls my gravestone obsession, but also because he may have been a Dorset man. There are several villages in England named Grimstone, including a tiny hamlet in West Dorset, and Grimstone Bowde may have had a familial connection to that area. I am always interested in finding 17th-century New Englanders who were not East Anglians (though one of the Grimstones is in Norfolk, so he might be an East Anglian after all).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Which I Come Very Close to Kicking a Catholic Priest

On Thursday, we buried Papa and I came very close to kicking a priest. Kicking him hard in his big, fat head.

Some background:
In 1945, my Naunie and Papa were married at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, CT (as of this year, it is a basilica). Naunie's parents were also married in this church. Both Naunie and Papa have been parishioners there for a long time and they renewed their vows there on their 60th anniversary in 2005. They have not attended regularly since they moved across the state in 2007 to be nearer to their children, but it is safe to say that they are longtime members of the Immaculate Conception community. All of this will become relevant later on in this story.

As I have written previously, Papa died on July 11th after suffering the aftermath of a catastrophic stroke for almost an entire year. He was miserable, and even I, nonbeliever that I am, can agree that he is "in a better place" because the torment he underwent was excruciating just to watch. His death, though tragic, was not unanticipated, especially since he started refusing nourishment in June. Our whole family is devastated, but we've had a while to get used to the idea.

On the weekend after Papa died, the funeral director encouraged my aunt to call the Immaculate Conception in order to make sure that the organist could play the songs my Naunie requested.

Enter Father Fat Head (FFH for the remainder of this post).

In their very first encounter, he turned the Inquisition loose on my poor aunt. "Are you even Catholic?" he asked her, "Haven't you ever been to a funeral?" What was he planning to say if either of her answers were "no"? She stammered two affirmative responses. He then proceeded to lecture her on how she was too grief-stricken to do any planning and that people in her "state" don't know what they want. As this story goes along, I think it will become clear that he meant "women" when he said "people."

At the wake, FFH gave an SNL-worthy lecture on the "10 Stages of Grief," which would have included five we'd never heard of before if he had ever gotten around to covering more than three. And btw, why does the family at the wake need your lecture on grief? Especially when it comes wrapped in bullshit "wisdom" about how the women always cry at these things? Can't you just say something comforting or nice about the deceased? Or pronounce his name correctly? Barring that, stick to the Hail Mary and everyone can walk away, if not happy, at least not insulted by FFH's condescending attitude. In a room full of very smart people, it was clear that a) he thought he was the smartest and b) he was not.

All of this is not too bad so far.

On the night before the funeral, Pete and I went out for drinks with some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Around midnight, I casually asked, "So, who's doing the readings tomorrow?" Apparently, I was, along with my equally surprised cousin, Seth. No problem. Our parents have been running around crazy this past week and they forgot to tell us. Not a big deal. We still have 10 hours in which to pick readings and rehearse them. Seth and I flipped a coin — I got Old Testament.

Back in my hotel room later that night, I was dismayed to find that either the Gideons had overlooked my room or a previous guest had already stolen the Bible. Again, not a big problem, as I have the power of the internet at my fingers. After a surprisingly lengthy search (there are not a lot of Old Testament passages on generosity/hospitality that do not involve tithing or hookers), I located what seemed to me an appropriate passage: Isaiah 58:3-10. I have no idea whether this is an appropriate passage for a funeral, but it is about how piety and self-flagellation are not enough — that God says we must be compassionate toward the poor and fight oppression if we hope to have God on our side. Whether or not it makes a good funeral reading, I thought it made a good reading for Papa, so I picked it.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a printer and didn't think to copy it out on paper, assuming (stupidly, it turns out), that I would be able to find a copy of the Bible somewhere between my hotel room and the lectern.

In the morning, we arrived at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception half an hour before the service. With Seth and two of my younger cousins who were in charge of bringing up the gifts, I set off to find the priest and ask if he had any special instructions. We found him, introduced ourselves (he shook Seth's hand but not any of the 3 girls'), and asked him what we should know beforehand. He mumbled something incoherent and waved a chubby hand, dismissing us. Ok, guess anything goes. Luckily, we were able to locate the gifts on our own and I gave my terrified younger cousins the helpful advice, "Well, I guess just grab something and bring it up front."

Meanwhile, we're scoping the place out for Bibles. None. I wasn't expecting to find any in the pews (I was a Catholic for 20 years), but I thought we'd be able to find one, you know, around somewhere. This kind of thinking got us nowhere, so Pete started frantically copying out the verses, which I had had the foresight to leave up on my laptop.

Too soon, FFH started up the service and called me and "Steve" to the front to read. There's no one named Steve in our family, but we assumed he meant Seth and went with that. Out of time, I grabbed my laptop and decided to just read off the screen. I even planned to tilt it so that the Obama and Out Campaign stickers were less visible.

"Steve" went up to the lectern, gently introduced himself by his actual name, and gave a short introduction as to why he though his reading was relevant to Papa. He mentioned that it was "from Corinthians," but gave no further details. I should add here that he was reading from a page he had "borrowed" from his Gideon Bible. No problems, everything's going fine.

Since FFH called us up together, I took the podium when Seth finished, which was apparently not the right thing to do. The organist started playing (and singing) just as I was starting to speak, so I shut up and waited for him to finish too. I was not prepared for him to start singing. Imagine an old, old man with a gravelly voice and a range of half an octave singing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," with just a little swing to it and you will see why I had to bite my lip to keep a straight face.

When I was sure he was done, I started my little intro, which I reproduce here word-for-word:
"My Papa was always known for his generosity, hospitality, and compassion. In honor of those values, I have chosen to read this passage from the Book of Isaiah."

And I started to read.

I had gotten to the middle of verse 4 when I realized that FFH was standing right behind my left shoulder. I tried to ignore him and kept reading. Then, he tapped me on the shoulder with his gross, meaty finger, so I turned around and looked him square in his mismatched eyes. "What verse are you reading?" He asked me. I said, "It's Isaiah, chapter 58, verses 3-10." "Well," he said, "you have to announce that."


Sure, no problem, but maybe you could have told me that BEFORE the mass? Perhaps when I came to ask you if you had any special instructions and you declined to shake my hand or speak to me directly? Also, he looked a little disappointed that I knew the citation, though, honestly, if I had made it up, I don't think he would have known.

If I had been thinking clearly, this is where the kicking would have started.

Ok, so I turned back to the microphone and started again, this time saying the whole citation (so that people can follow along?) and beginning with verse 3 again.

Problem: my flow and concentration were both broken. Also, my Papa was dead and FFH had just touched me with the hand he had refused to extend to me in respect not 15 minutes earlier and did I mention that my Papa was dead and in a box about 3 feet away?

I got through verse 5 ok, but all through verse 6, I could feel my face collapsing and all of the control going out of my cheeks. On the last part of verse 7, I broke down and started bawling. Not sobbing decorously, mind you. No picturesque single tear for me. I mean flat out weeping, complete with gulping, violent exhaling, and sniffling, which sounds great when it's magnified through a microphone in a marble basilica. I had to turn away to catch my breath and when I tried to start again, about two words came out in this awful shrieking sob that was so loud I startled myself and just gave up and howled. I cried unrestrainedly for a minute or two, up on the altar, in front of everyone, and then got it together enough to rush through verses 8 and 10 (skipped 9 — no way I could have lasted longer) and then ran off down the steps.

My mom met me at the bottom and we held each other, crying (I'm sure quite loudly) while FFH got up behind us and kept right on with his chanting. I stumbled back to a pew after a while and missed a good chunk of the next part of the service as I tried to collect myself. The organist's incomparable rendition of "Amazing Grace" cheered me up a little, and I was able to pass off my laughter as more crying.

I got it together just in time for the homily, and what a homily it was. Turns out, FFH likes to speak in bumper sticker phrases. He led off by comparing life on earth to a sign he saw on the highway that said, "temporary inconvenience for permanent improvement," and saying that life and deeds on earth doesn't matter — it's only faith and heaven that matter. At this point, I started to doubt that the dude was Catholic, because I definitely remember some CCD lectures on salvation through faith and good works, not just faith. Pete also made the excellent point that this line of thought really belittles the dead person's life by saying it didn't matter anyway. From there, FFH went on to how young people today are so irresponsible and earth-focused, blaming this somehow on the "fact" that it is "against the law to utter the word GOD in a public school." Because it's illegal to pray in schools, we now have metal detectors in every school, which somehow relates to my Papa, though I couldn't tell you how. Next we learned that if we don't teach young people to pray, we will have more 9/11s. And that, "If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy in every way."

Can you heckle a priest? Pete wanted to know.

All that was pretty awful, but when he got into the whole, "If Pat were here today, he would say . . ." bullshit, I was 100% done. My Papa never would have said any of those things. He never would have told us to set our minds on heaven instead of doing good on earth, and he never, ever would have said anything so trite as, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." What makes a pompous jackass think that when he is addressing a room full of people who know Papa very well that he can get away with the bullshit platitudes? If you don't know the deceased (and did not bother to talk to any of his family members to find out) and did not get to know him over the 85 years that he attended your church, at least keep your remarks general, ok? Because everyone in the room knows that you are talking out of your ass and it doesn't make you look good. You may have the incense and many things made out of gold, but you don't know what the hell you're saying and you're not fooling anyone.

Next up, communion. My poor little cousins grabbed those gifts and brought them up as best they could, handed them over, and beat a hasty retreat. They were halfway back to their seats when FFH called them back, told them they'd done it all wrong and gave them a quick lecture on the right way to deliver the frackin' crackers. I have no problem with doing it the right way, but, again, couldn't this have been covered BEFORE the mass?

My aunt managed to get through the eulogy (she cried much more modestly than I did), we listened to the organist mangle "The Star Spangled Banner," and we all got the hell out of there.

The graveside service was awful, but at least it was short. There was an honor guard complete with salute and taps, and everyone cried a lot, but at least I wasn't up on a podium in front  leading the ceremonies. I tried to comfort my brother by offering to get him a microphone to cry into so that we could be even. After we placed our flowers, my uncle took the priest aside and told him that he was not welcome at the repast and that his shepherding skills could use some work.

Maybe all that doesn't sound so bad when I put it out there in bald prose, but trust me, it made a bad day a whole lot worse. The only silver lining here is that Papa would have been disappointed if we had come out of the funeral with no stories to tell, and all of this will enliven our holiday get-togethers when it isn't quite so raw. For now, I'd like to just forget the funeral and remember how we all went out for pizza after the wake and told stories about Papa and remembered how much we loved him without anybody telling us we were doing it wrong.

On the drive home, as I reflected on the day, I decided that it is completely absurd that my wonderful, strong, loving family turned over our grief into the hands of this ignorant jackass. What did he add to the service that made it more meaningful? I understand that the church part of this was important for my Naunie and great aunts to feel that they had done right by Papa, but seriously, did it make anyone feel better? Maybe it did — maybe they found some comfort in FFH's message even if the messenger was peerlessly foul. Since the religious rituals were not meaningful to me, the whole thing took a turn for the grotesque. We would never allow FFH to take over our classrooms or our kitchens or our birthday parties — why did we let him take charge and belittle us when we were most vulnerable?

If I were not already an apostate, I think that this experience would have driven me from the church (not necessarily from God, but from Catholicism). I wonder what FFH thinks his job is. Is it to be rude and picky about minutiae or is it to comfort grieving families and celebrate someone who lived the kind of life to which we should all aspire? FFH never said a kind word to any of us throughout this whole thing. He never listened to any of us, even when we were trying to make sure we met his expectations. He didn't smile or nod sympathetically or ask us to tell him about Papa. He treated the whole funeral as if it were something we were trying to usurp and disgrace, and never made an effort to act like a compassionate human being, let alone a spiritual adviser. I guess the Catholic church has to take what it can get as far as priests go and if you're not a known child rapist, you get special bonus points.

There's more I could say, but it's been tough to relive even this much, so I'll end with this:
Father Fat Head, you know who you are. You may think that you acted appropriately today, but I would like to disabuse you of that notion. The next time you all get together and have a meeting about how the people are abandoning your churches in record numbers, maybe you should keep your arrogant, over-large, inconsiderate head bowed and reflect on how you have contributed to the problem by treating a very large family of nice Italian Catholics* like crap on the day they buried the person who meant more to them all than anyone else.

*As far as I know I'm the only one to go 100% over to the dark side (so far), though a few have become Episcopalians.

Papa's Obituary

My mother wrote the obituary that appeared in Monday's Norwich Bulletin. Exhibit A in how I inherited my penchant for writing at length rather than editing for conciseness.
Pasquale Galante March 19, 1922 - July 11, 2008

BROOKLYN - Pasquale (Pat, P. Joseph) Galante, 86, long time resident of Waterbury, died July 11, 2008 in Brooklyn, Connecticut after a long illness. He was the husband of Dorothy H. (Champagne) Galante. Pat and Dot celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary on May 5th, 2008. Pat was born on March 19th, 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, one of five children of the late Luigi and Mary (DiPaolo) Galante. His family moved to Waterbury when he was a young child and he lived there until May 2007, when he and Dot moved to Brooklyn Connecticut to be close to their children and grandchildren.

Pat worked at Chase Brass and Copper Company before serving as a Radio Operator in World War II. Chosen for specialized training, Pat served with the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron. As a Staff Sergeant crewing C-47's in the China-Burma-India Triangle, Pat flew over 600 hours in hundreds of missions over some of the roughest terrain in the world. Serving with distinction, he was the awarded the two highest combat air medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster (Oak Leaf Clusters are the designation of receiving each medal more than once), the Asiatic Pacific Theater medal with three Bronze Stars and several other medals, including one from the Chinese Air Force for outstanding humanitarian service. Pat received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained when he was shot down over the CBI. The men with whom he served became his lifelong friends and he attended reunions of the 27th all over the country. After his return, Pat served in the Air Force Reserves and worked for the State of Connecticut as Chief Purchasing Agent, retiring in 1985.

Besides his wife Dot, Pat leaves his son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Janet Galante of Pomfret, CT. and his two daughters and sons-in-law, Meg Galante-DeAngelis and Mark DeAngelis of Willimantic, CT. and Michelle Galante-Plucenik and Rob Plucenik, of Brooklyn, CT. But his proudest legacy is in his grandchildren, Seth, Carlo and Emily Galante; Benjamin, Graham, Wheeler and Brighid DeAngelis; Alex and Andrea Plucenik; and Caitlin DeAngelis Hopkins and her husband, Peter, who Pat welcomed into the family with open arms last July. Pat also leaves his sisters, Dolores Ostroski and Gloria Iavasile, his brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Kathryn Galante, his sister-in-law, Lucy Galante, his best friend of 81 years, Jerome Arcaro and many nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews , great - great nieces and nephews and friends. He was predeceased by his brother, Philip Galante.

Pat loved all sorts of sports, but he was an especial fan of the Yankees. He enjoyed a good argument, whether it was about sports or politics but his ability to put people at ease usually left everyone in the conversation with a smile. Pat was a liberal who felt it was our duty to speak our minds and was a frequent caller of local, state and Federal officials when he felt they needed his voice of encouragement or disapproval. He was a man of conviction, always willing to lend a hand to a friend, a family member or a stranger without any thought of return. Pat was a great believer that the good that you do in the world comes back to you - he often said to his children, "If I am good to someone, maybe he'll be good to someone else in return." Patsy was teased by his brothers and sisters that he was his mother's favorite, and it was from her that he got his warm and open heart, his sense of humor, his love of life, and his ability to captivate with a story. He loved nothing better than to gather friends and family around a table after a great meal and regale them with stories. He will live on in these stories and his grandchildren will tell them to their grandchildren. Whether chaperoning a school field trip, sneaking an oversized refrigerator into a dorm room, cradling a grandchild in his arms, putting up a swing-set, remodeling a bathroom, traveling to New York City for a Yankee game or a Broadway show, or cooking Christmas Eve Dinner, Pat taught his family that they should always count on each other. He will live on in his children and grandchildren, who he taught to be fair and open minded, dedicated to family, hard working, strong and opinionated citizens and loyal friends. Arrangements: Funeral Mass Thursday 10 AM at the Immaculate Conception Church, 74 West Main Street Waterbury. Family and friends are asked to meet directly at the church. Burial of cremains will follow at Calvary Cemetery, with full military honors. Calling hours Wednesday at Chase Parkway Memorial/The Albini Family Funeral Home 430 Chase Parkway, Waterbury from 5 to 8 PM. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Brooklyn PTO Boundless Playground Project, 119 Gorman Road, Brooklyn, Connecticut 06234, Attention: Nathan Ives. For More Info and On-line Condolences, Visit

Pasquale J. Galante

My Papa, Pasquale Joseph Galante, died last week at the age of 86. I hope no one will mind if I take a some time to write about him here.

Papa was my mother's father. He was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1922, the second of five children. His family moved to Waterbury, CT when he was little. In 1942, he was drafted, but he always preferred to say that he "received a personal invitation from President Roosevelt." He was trained as a radio operator and served as a Staff Sergeant with the Army Air Corps in China-Burma-India in 1943 and 1944. As a member of the 14th Air Force's 27th Troop Carrier Squadron, Papa flew in C-47s over the Himalayas in order to bring troops and supplies to the Chinese Army. He flew this route, called "The Hump," dozens of times.

During his service, Papa won many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross (twice), the Air Medal (twice), the Purple Heart, and several medals from the Chinese government. His favorite medal was the Good Conduct Medal, which he would bring up for years afterward whenever he was caught redhanded in some sort of mischief.

He was shot down in Burma in 1944 and contracted malaria as he walked through the jungle back to the nearest US outpost. During this ordeal, he was shot in the face and lost all but a few of his teeth. He wore his government-issue dentures from 1944 until the late 1990s, when a horrified orthodontist convinced him to get some that fit properly. Papa insisted his old ones were just fine.

After he made it back to his unit, Papa was sent home to the US, where he was assigned the awful duty of notifying families when their loved ones were killed, wounded, or missing. On May 5, 1945, he married my Naunie (his younger sister's best friend from high school). They were on their honeymoon in Atlantic City on VE Day.

After the war, Papa worked for the State of Connecticut as a purchasing agent. He and his brother, Phil, and his best friend, Jerry, were always on the lookout for surplus anything, and working for the state put him in a good position for salvaging things. My mom says that it was years before she realized that  tuna came in cans smaller than No. 10. When I was little, the tables at our family picnics were made out of old road signs that the three of them had found somewhere. My first apartment was furnished in part with chairs and end tables with "University of Connecticut" stamped on the bottom.

Naunie and Papa had three kids: my uncle Rich, my mom, and my aunt Chelle. They lived in Waterbury, where the kids went to Catholic school and wore stupid outfits in the '60s. Later, all three kids went to college and each got married soon after graduation.

My cousins came along next — there are 10 of us (5 boys, 5 girls) — and he loved us all very much. Every Christmas, the whole family would cram into Papa and Naunie's apartment (the second floor of the 3-family house they owned). My cousin Emily and I would help Papa skin the eels (we were actually kind of disappointed when he started buying them dead and cleaned rather than alive and squirming). He taught us that you never want to cut the eel's head off because if you do, you'll have nothing to hold onto while you use a pliers to pull the skin off like a stocking. When the eel was skinned, Papa would make the sauce for the linguini alle acciughe and broil up hundreds of smelts for Christmas Eve dinner. A few years ago, we moved Christmas to Chelle's spacious house, but I will always think of Christmas as a time to cook fish in an overcrowded kitchen. Here's a picture of Papa supervising the Christmas chaos (he's almost out of the frame on the right — I'm the one in the purple dress and festive apron):

Papa loved going to reunions with his WWII buddies. He absolutely refused to fly (the last time he was in an airplane was 1945), so he and Naunie would drive all over the country. Sometimes, the whole family would go along — I've been to reunions of his in Maine, Richmond, and DC. In 2002, we all went to DC because his unit was dedicating a memorial tree in front of the chapel at Andrews Air Force Base. I remember being surprised because the guards didn't check any of our IDs at the gate (we were on a bus with the veterans), and they let us get within a hundred yards of Air Force One.

While we were there, we took him to the WWII memorial on the mall. His schedule was packed with reunion activities, so we had to visit at 6 in the morning. We had the whole memorial to ourselves and got to watch the sun rise over the Washington Monument.

This blog post is too long already, but there are so many stories I could tell about him. He took me to my first game at Yankee Stadium. Once, he stood as best man for a friend who was marrying a divorced woman when no one else would. When Carmine Galante was assassinated, Papa made a very nervous waiter set an extra place for "Uncle Carmine" at an Italian restaurant in New York. Any time he went anywhere, even to other states, he would invariably run into someone he knew and would spend hours catching up.

I'll post the official obituary later, but for now I'll just say that he was the best grandfather anyone could hope to have and that we'll all miss him terribly. If I don't post much over the next few days, it's because I'm off doing funeral-related stuff. I've set a few posts up to auto-post, but there may not be much action here until next week.