Happy Irish-Italian-American Day!

[Picture of red tomatoes and a box of spaghetti above. Picture of shamrock and plaque that read “Home is where your story begins” surrounded by Celtic knots below]

I am half Irish-American and half Italian-American, more or less, give or take. On the Irish side there are a few Scottish and French ancestors, and on the Italian side we are more accurately Sicilian. This is a fairly common background for people who live near Chicago, Boston, or New York, as both of these European immigrant groups settled in these cities in large numbers. I get that it isn’t very common in the rest of the country – when I lived in Tennessee and Texas I was hard-pressed to find anyone who was either Irish-American or Italian-American, much less both.

Chicago, however, is city that dyes its river green every St. Patrick’s Day and has a bag-pipe filled parade. It is also a city that celebrates St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th with groaning tables of Italian food and the color red. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, Joseph the patron saint of Italy. It stands to reason, that in the Chicagoland area March 18th should be Irish-Italian-American Day. You know, split the difference and celebrate the best of both cultures.

My brother and I went back and forth on suggestions. Maybe of viewing of Brooklyn or Return to Me (apparently there is an Irish-Italian restaurant). I can’t remember if it is A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas that features characters who cannot be full mafiasos because they are part Irish-but I’m thinking I’m tired of Italian heritage being reduced to the mob. Maybe I’ll watch the beautifully animated Song of the Sea again.

My general feeling is that I would be best served eating Italian (and Italian-American) food while listening to Irish (and Irish-American) music. Gnocchi, lasagna, caprese salad, tiramisu, cannoli, lemon knot cookies, pizzelle, agli olio, espresso, eggplant parmesean, stuffed artichokes, pasta fagioli. Gaelic Storm, the Cheiftains, Van Morrison, Flogging Molly, U2.

The reverse would be all right too, if perhaps a tad less illustrious. I really do love a good stew, potatoes are always a favorite, and my oldest kid even likes cabbage. I can appreciate opera (Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti is heaven) and Frank Sinatra will always have my heart.

I could binge read, James Joyce and Dante, William Butler Yeats and Petrarch.

Check out the artwork of the Book of Kells, and the Renaissance.

Drink beer or wine.

And both places are beautiful.

You know, it is almost as if there is no wrong way to celebrate.

So for everyone out there who has both Irish and Italian heritage in America, in between Shamrock Shakes and sweets tables, there is one day that could celebrate both. Let’s do it!

Happy March 18th, everybody!

Vanity Mirror

Vanity Mirror

There once was a boy who had a crush on me, in 1995 or 1996, who said I looked like Jennifer Aniston. It was right around the time Ross and Rachel got together, and it was sweet and flattering and totally delusional. I have the same color eyes as Jennifer. I had her famous hair cut, and by nature my hair had the right color to it. I let my sixteen-year-old self be complimented, let myself be compared to a star and feel puffed up for a bit. I knew I would have been happier to be thought of as attractive on my own terms, but it was better than being heckled for looking mannish in the oversized t-shirts and flannel I had chosen in 1994 or 1995. Once in a while I would watch Friends and Rachel might make a face I recognized as my own, usually when she pouted or pined away or tripped up, when her face was scrunched or sad or embarrassed.

There was a drama teacher in 1996 or 1997 who was about to walk past me during a rehearsal for a musical. I was sitting, reading as I always did. My “Rachel” layers had mostly grown out and my fear that I would be taken for a boy had as well. I was wearing a larger t-shirt, biting on my nails as I concentrated on my book. He paused in front of me and said, “I have noticed something about you. You aren’t vain. The good actresses aren’t. They can’t be,” and he walked on. And I let my seventeen-year-old self be complimented and compared to a star. And some vanity crept back in with a compliment about its absence. And I let myself feel puffed up for a bit.

Sometime in 2014 or 2015, a movie named Cake was released starring Jennifer Aniston. Much has been made of how she has physically transformed for the role. She goes without makeup, her hair is greasy, her clothes dowdy, her visage twisted. In it her character is unpleasant, spiritually somewhat ugly and in constant physical pain. Or so I have read. Some people are applauding the way she abandoned her clean-cut good looks for the role, that it is a credit to her acting talent and craft. Some people aren’t as glowing in the reviews of her acting skills, but still credit her bravery in allowing her image to alter. Good actresses cannot be vain. The worst of the gossip rags exclaim how glad they are that she shows up on the red carpet as her old attractive self.

I have not seen the movie. I have seen stills from the set of the movie. I still look like Jennifer Aniston when her face is scrunched and sad and embarrassed. I still look like Jennifer Aniston, but now only when she is greasy, and dowdy and acting as if she is a woman with a chronic pain condition. The difference now is that I am a woman with a chronic pain condition, who on some days cannot help but leave the house when I am still in horrible sweatpants, matted hair and bare face. When I cannot help but grimace and cry instead of smiling politely.

Seeing Jennifer Aniston this way, this mirror of what I sometimes look like now, was ego-crushing. In this movie, she does look awful. Purposefully so, but still. So I can look pretty awful, too. Even if I don’t witness it myself, because many days I don’t even look in a real mirror, it is still there. I cried some. I growled that Jennifer Aniston wasn’t really sick, just pretending, but I was. So I might always look this way. Obsessively swiping through images, searching out all the horrible things said about Aniston’s appearance, cataloguing the disparaging adjectives, showing the pictures to my husband against his will: the tailspin I let this put me in was ugly.

Despite the compliment from my teacher, I absolutely can be vain. I don’t think I can get around that. I can give myself a break and say, “There will be some days I feel like shit. And sometimes that will show. And that is okay.”

And… despite being flattered by a teenaged boy when I was a teenaged girl, I can still decide that he was wrong, and that I look like no one but me. Mercifully I have the power to release myself from any comparisons, good or bad.

Seeing Something of Myself in a “Boy” Disney Movie


Most of my screen time is spent watching shows and movies meant for kids. I am well-versed in the Phineas and Ferb universe. I have strong opinions about there being only one girl puppy in Paw Patrol. I can tell you how the man in the yellow hat exhibits extraordinary patience in Curious George, and that in a fit of frustration with my toddler I wished I could be more like him. I can quote The Lorax, Rio, Despicable Me, Cars and Frozen without trying. I will shut down viewing of any show I think is just rubbish, but I try to see what good there may be. So, when I went to go see Planes: Fire and Rescue in the movie theater, I was glad there was enough I could appreciate.

The protagonist crop-duster, Dusty Crophopper, spent the first Planes movie learning how to believe in himself and become a famous and successful aerial racer. He accomplishes his dream, and presumably will spend the rest of his life as a racer with greater and greater success. However, at the very beginning of the second movie Dusty has discovered that his gearbox is close to complete failure. It cannot be replaced or repaired. This sudden disability will prevent him from ever racing at competitive speeds again.

I didn’t expect to see that.

Dusty, reeling from being told he has limitations he needs to accept, defies medical advice and ends up seriously injuring himself. He keeps holding out hope that someone will be able to fix his gearbox, or find a new one, only to have his hopes dashed again and again. When he decides that he will go through training to become his town’s second certified fire fighter, he is stifled by his new limitations again and cannot keep himself from being distracted by his disability. Trying to find a new purpose in his life, adjusting his expectations of what his life will be and finding he might not be able to do this new job adequately, either, is overwhelming.

I don’t ever remember seeing a kids’ movie or show that explored what a person coping with a new diagnosis or medical problem might be feeling, or the mistakes they might make.

I have gone through nearly all of the emotions that Dusty has gone through, since being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I have, in the past, decided to ignore medical advice and have pretended I was okay only to crash and burn. I have held out hope that maybe I actually had some other illness that could be somehow “fixed” or that there would be some miracle cure that would make me feel normal again. I’ve been unsure if I would ever be well enough to teach again. When I set my sights lower, thinking perhaps I could be a teacher’s aide, I felt unsure if I would be capable enough even for that. My boys have seen me go through it, though they wouldn’t be able to articulate it. Now they have a character and a movie I can refer back to when I need them to understand where I am coming from.

By the end of the movie, Dusty does get a custom-built, better-than-before gearbox. He is able, then, to fight epic fires and race, doing both jobs very successfully. I was a little disappointed that the writers didn’t trust that Dusty could still have a happy ending with a faulty gearbox. But, that they showed a character struggle with the new reality that a medical problem can bring, I was happy with that. I could probably be easily convinced to watch it again.