I drink more wine in Italy (duh)

When we were living in Malaysia, I reduced my wine purchases to a few bottles a month, as drinkable wine could set you back 100ringgit a pop. At an exchange rate of 4ringgit to the dollar, that’s a $25 bottle of wine. Back in the US, $7-$12 was more the range I went for.

Eventually, I found a bang-for-the-buck value wine. Piccini Chinati, from Italy, sold for 72 ringgit a bottle. It offered the optimized balance of drinkability and affordability. Still, $18USD, so ouch.

Imagine my surprise/horror, when, soon after moving to Italy, I encountered this display in the local grocery shop near our apartment in Verona:
3€ ($3.40) for wine that cost me 15€ or $18USD or 70 ringgit back in Malaysia

Did you do the math? That’s right, this bottle of wine is 5x more expensive in Malaysia.

I think it’s time to celebrate this discovery with a financially-guilt-free glass of vino. Salute.

Heroes or Helpers

Language can be powerful. Name-calling can change a person’s identity, self-confidence, and actions. We’ve seen how language can lead people to be inhumane to each other, so it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to the words we choose to use.

I wonder if we would do better if we reduced our use of the word ‘hero.’ By calling cops heroes, are we telling them they get to act by a different set of rules? By labeling our police men and women ‘heroes,’ are we telling them to go seek out enemies to be vanquished?

What if, instead, we used the language of Mr. Rogers, and called such people, ‘helpers’?

What would that change? It’s subtle, but over time, I think it could have a powerful effect.

For one thing, using the word ‘helper’ widens and shifts our focus. The word illuminates not just the actor, but also the act of helping. It also highlights the victims even as it shifts the focus away from criminals. That would be a good thing. We tend to focus on the criminals, and we might take the wind out of their sails if instead, we focused on the helpers.

Also, the word ‘helper’ more accurately teases out and reinforces the actual qualities that we value so highly in our heroes. The helper assists the weak, protects the unwitting, maintains an awareness that keeps people safe. These are all things we want in our law enforcement and military.

The word ‘hero,’ on the other hand, can have the problematic effect of casting his or her mindset into one of doing battle. The concept of heroes, after all, comes from war. There are strong associations between the word ‘hero’ and warring in super hero movies (see? the word is in the title!), to war movies, to sci fi flicks. The problem is that war should be rare. It shouldn’t be a daily reality. However, once in the warring mindset, a hero tends to see front lines and bad guys everywhere, rather than seeing humans and citizens. It’s us vs them. It’s not conducive to respectful policing.

Once in battle, normal rules of society no longer apply. And so heroes may find it easy to justify cutting corners, or compromising constitutional rights. Never mind that some citizen might have a health problem, or may be in the cross hairs due to simple misunderstanding, or simply getting on the heroes nerves because he’s exercising his 4th amendment rights, or simply driving with a lot of cash to pay for a medical procedure. The hero doesn’t see a victim, or citizen. A hero sees a baddie. As a result, the hero might act with contempt or even malice. That’s not what we want. Not when we believe people deserve to be treated with a presumption of innocence. We’ve gone the other way.

The notion of hero also confers a sense of higher knowledge, of having a superior sense of what is actually right and wrong. But I don’t know that we want that mindset in our police forces. A sense that they know best, can lead them to willingly engage in confirmation bias, and justify tricking innocent people into giving confessions.

While heroes stand on pedestals, helpers are with us. Helpers are part of our team. They wouldn’t think of putting themselves above the law. They don’t conflate a sticky situation into a battle between good and evil. They see people. Helpers act with humanity, not impunity. Helpers treat others with respect, not contempt.

I’m not saying to never use the word hero. We don’t want to go around banning language. All I’m saying is to think before you say the word. When you want to call someone a hero, do you really mean to complement them for being a helper? If so, consider using that word instead.

Revisiting my Cautionary Tale and Mentor … in Verona

Maria Callas was neither the voice, nor the diva to me. To me, she was a mix of cautionary tale, and mentor. 

Here, in Verona, I first noticed the Maria Callas Exhibition during a house hunting trip back in May. Yesterday, I bought a ticket, slipped the audio tour headphones over my ears, and slowly progressed through each exhibit room at the Palazzo Forti Verona. Each display was mildly interesting, but two specific displays brought back vivid memories. 

One detailed the timeline of Callas’s relationship with Aristotle Onassis. The other, a room of manikins wearing dresses – Biki, Yves Saint Laurent – from her post-fat diva life. 

In December 1996, I was 24 years old, and just six months into my new career at a silicon valley semiconductor company. I flew to Boston and presented at a conference in Boston’s Copley center. My talk was on using configurable processors, simple chains of multipliers and adders, to implement filters commonly used in DSP algorithms. Applications ranged from radar communications to video manipulation. I was a green engineer. My talk was mediocre, and it was at a conference organized by the company my father was a director at. So my notions of grandeur were tempered somewhat. Still, I remember wanting to feel important, like a contributor to the Science. After the talk, to about nine attendees, in a small room off to the side of the convention, I didn’t feel terribly important. But – I didn’t feel small either. I’d answered most of the questions well enough, and a couple attendees said the presentation was informative. Good enough for me – I was on my way. 

My parents were staying in a room down the hall from me. I still felt like a college student – with my parents paying for dinners and chaperoning me around. One day, my mom noted that I dressed like what a college student might think a professional dressed like, and suggested we go shopping. She noted that I now had a silicon valley salary,* so why not spend it? I responded as I usually did with my mother: I tacitly agreed that it sounded a good idea, but I took no action. 

One night, my mom and I took in a play at Boston’s Wilbur Theater. It was Master Class by Terrence McNally. Faye Dunaway played Marie Callas. It was, if I recall correctly, the first time I’d ever heard of the opera singer. But I knew Faye Dunaway from Bonnie and Clyde. 

The story was set in Juilliard in the mid 1970s, at the end of Ms. Callas’s career. By then she’d lost her voice, as well as all the people she’d ever loved. She was unreserved and harsh as she dispensed curt advice to her students. She admonished them for childish notions such as sentimentality or not giving every performance the full measure of their hearts. As each student began a song, the stage would go dark, all except for a single spotlight on Faye Dunaway, and she’d reflect on her life. Two recurring topics were Aristotle Onassis and fashion. 

Numerous times, she referred to her role in her relationship with Aristotle as being that of a bird in a cage. She was his trophy, his prize to possess. She was on display for him. She filled this role easily, as she was the preeminent songbird of their time. 

I discovered, in the Maria Callas exhibition, that, prior to meeting Arno, she’d spent a couple years losing close to 40lbs. She’d cultivated a diva persona, and taken on the role of fashionista. To match the voice, she’d groomed her plumage to match.

Ultimately, however, there was a cage between Maria and her lover, and even as she hoped to be let out, she privately knew she never would. Confirmation came when reading the paper one morning. He’d married Jacqueline Kennedy. Faye Dunaway reenacted the scene on stage. It was heartbreaking to watch, but I couldn’t help but think she was an idiot all the same. Why would you choose to get your personal fulfillment by being someone’s bird in a cage? That imagery has stayed wth me for two decades. As has the motto of Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire**, “I always rely on the kindness of strangers.” Damned fools! 

Walking through the exhibit, I discovered new information about her relationship. For example, she renounced her US citizenship in order to be legally available to marry Mr. Onassis, should he ask her. He never asked her. Also, she had his child, but Homer failed to thrive, and only lived a few hours after birth. After Ari, and the death of her baby, she was never the same. From then on, a haunting emotion came through when she sang. Watch and listen to this 1973 performance in London.  The voice, the song, the feeling. Bellissima. And Gah – that gown. I love it. 

In the play, when she snapped back to coldly lecturing her students, she gave them her thoughts on fashion, being a diva, and how to make an impression on people. She advised wearing understated but well fitting and top quality clothing. And a scarf. A scarf that said who you were – that you could wear with purpose and conviction. She configured it through the class depending on her mood, and it somehow boosted her presence. 

The next day, my mom asked me if I wanted to go shopping. I readily agreed. $300 later I owned a new, perfectly tailored suit, a couple sleek blouses, and a scarf. To this day, I’m particular about wearing clothes that fit. I tend toward pieces that convey an understated message of confidence. When the air has a bit of a chill, I wear a scarf. I still have the scarf that I bought in Boston that week I saw Maria Callas.

*note: SI Valley salaries were high back then, but nowhere near what new engineers are paid today.

** Oh Marlon Brando. Swoon. 

Verona Episode 1


Two weeks ago, my husband, my son, and I moved to Verona Italy. This is the first in a series of podcasts about a family of Americans adjusting to life in Italy.

It’s our second overseas jaunt. We come here by way of Penang, Malaysia, where we lived for four years. The first two years were as employees of a semiconductor firm. We’d moved there on an expat assignment, having worked for many years at the same Silicon Valley semiconductor company. After two years in Malaysia, we quit our jobs and began living off of savings. This is what people in the early retirement community refer to as FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early). But after four years of perpetual summer, I couldn’t take it anymore. My husband, Dirk, didn’t want to move back to the states, so I chose Italy. Now, here we are. And this is our story.

Want to know what happens next? Here’s Verona Episode 2.