Saturday, October 17, 2009

How I Broke my Leg: Part I -- "Messengered"

These are our muratore (literally "wall-makers"), the Brandini brothers, Paulo (far right) and Claudio (middle). We were waiting for the cement truck to arrive so we could pour and hand trowel our concrete floors "American style." More on that later.

Once the cement was curing, I boarded a plane and flew back to New York to work for the month of July on an IMAX movie and a 6-part series for television. After working my butt numb at my desk for two weeks straight--no weekends off, barely leaving the loft--I shut down shop and stepped out onto the street on a bright, temperate, July afternoon. For your amusement, I post what I wrote to a couple of close friends the next morning, who I asked to monitor me for medical reasons. The Anthill is the german position Kirk Douglas and his suicide squad had to take in Kubrik's Paths of Glory, you'll recall.

July 25, 2009

I'm OK. Great, in fact, considering I got slammed by one of those brakeless, stoned, kamikaze bike messengers yesterday in the intersection of Broadway and Canal.

3:00 Friday afternoon. Chinatown. Rush hour. I was on my way to get my hair cut. The light was mine. I was just off the curb (and I swear Mommy I looked both ways!) and I was about to take the next step when he came gunning through the crowded intersection trying to beat the light, the gridlock and the pedestrians. One minute, we are all stepping forward and volunteering to take "The Anthill", then everyone else in the squad is taking a crisp step back. Guess who's left out there holding the target? But not until I hear a strangled cry of, I-don't-know-what actually, something like a cross between a pheasant and a capriolo (Italian barking deer), but Chinese, do I see him coming at me, 2 feet away and closing, eye-to-eye, 12:00 o'clock high. I still can't make out quite what happened next because I was basically facing him. I don't have the appropriate marks on my body for all the bike and body parts that came into such sharp resolve before I lost the horizon. The upshot is I got a free visit from some OK cops, and a bunch of nice firemen in a big red fire truck gave me oxygen as I sat on my ass in the middle of the road backing up Holland Tunnel traffic all the way to Brooklyn ... and then a free ride up to St. Vincent's with the paramedics. The event was positively explosive. And yet, I end up with only staples in the back of my head and a sore blocking shoulder? He ended up with wheels like Salvador Dali watches. Apparently I got thrown about 8 feet and did a back flip and a perfect 1-point landing onto the back of my head--very Mark Morris. Or is it Greg Lougainis? It must have looked amazing. The last thing I saw straight was my feet in the most fluffy beautiful clouds and blue sky. When I could see straight again, I kept waiting for everyone to applaud my routine. Never quite lost consciousness, but I could hear that cuckoo bird that's been mocking me at the Italian property (or is it that mocking bird that's been cucking me?). Anyway, I swear my eyes were revolving in counter-rotating circles like a chameleon's. I know, because I could see both up and down the street without turning my head. Of course, I've been in the ring before I know how to (some would say unwisely) stay on my feet and I take it on the chin. Guess I've got a well-padded brainpan. It was almost fun sitting in the middle of the road cracking jokes nobody seemed to get as half of Chinatown ogled me through a big fisheye lens and spoke in slow motion like the batteries were running down (I swear I heard the words pinhead and geek, with some Allah Akbar! thrown in). A couple of good Samaritans who managed to speak in real time kept telling me to stay put, breath, don't worry, etc.. But they wouldn't let me touch the back of my head (which I wanted badly to do because I couldn't tell if it was still there). The longer I sat there, the more horrified people looked. "What?" I taunted the crowd, "You've never seen I sit down in the middle of the road?" Then I could feel how wet the back of my shirt was getting. "Pish tush," I filliped to reassure them, "scalp wounds always overplay their part." Turns out I'd severed a vessel (they told me in the ER once when they had continuing difficulty staunching the flow). As I sat there on the warm asphalt, grateful it wasn't a hotter day, I kept asking the Samaritans how much of my brain was actually showing. They didn't think that was so funny. Which made me worry a little. Anyway, after several bottles of ice cold water from the satay vendor I had conveniently landed beside, and a tasty dim sum from some stranger I never got to thank, I was whisked away to spend the rest of the afternoon developing hypothermia in the ER, and, finally, being told to hold still while they stapled the back of my head.

For the bike messenger's point of view, you absolutely MUST go to:

This is informative too:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mending Wall

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out”

--Robert Frost

Both my parents were children of the last century’s Great Depression. They were also high-school dropouts who eloped at age 17 and somehow managed to raise four boys. They did it mostly by hard work and thrift—and some luck. How could I, their oldest, born on my father’s 18th birthday (and just one week after my mother’s), not have inherited these traits?

I know luck isn’t a trait, but reckless optimism is. I know I should have stayed off my broken leg, but I couldn’t help myself. X-rays said the fibula was knitting back together just fine, but the doctor said I wasn’t out of the woods. It was the atrophied sinew and muscle that would soon complain.

Still, I needed to do something after two months of near-zero physical activity, so a few days before visiting Giovanni, I began harvesting brick from the debris pile left by the demolition of the old stone shack at our house building site. Like the sharecroppers and contadini before me, I was obsessed with saving every stone, brick, and piece of baling wire for reuse. Because of the fossil fuel required to make and transport brick, this isn’t just thrifty, it’s the greenest kind of recycling

Above are the half of the salvaged brick that did not get incorporated in the new house. I pulled them from the floor of the ox stall in the old capanna (shack) before it was demolished, and gave myself tennis elbow chiseling the mortar off. That’s almost healed, but now I needed more brick to pave the terrace outside our back door.

Part packrat, archeologist, treasure hunter, and a guy wanting exercise, I pulled these precious ingots of terracotta from the rubble that would have otherwise been covered with more earth and forgotten. But bricks and stones were only part of the treasure I’d soon discover under the rubble.

The Japanese have a concept called wabi-sabi. It translates as serenity and rust and involves a reverence for the residue of history inherent in used objects. Wabi-sabi says antiques are alive, cracks are beautiful, patina and smudges enthrall, and simple rustic elegance rules. I agree.

I’d wanted to save some small part of the old building and incorporate it into the new, but it was too dilapidated and we had to knock it down. Now, in that paradox of self-preservation that so often thrills archeologists, the bulk of the ruined building had propped and protected a portion of itself from further collapse. Emerging from the earth and brick and stone as I worked were the lacunae of three walls erected by an 18th century serf. Even the old whitewash is still intact. I was overjoyed.

I spent the rest of the day unearthing it and contemplating Frost’s sentiment. By the end my leg was screaming at me to stop. But I was on the mend. I'd found enough brick to build another kind of wall, a horizontal one that would keep the mud and dust down outside our door. And I was left with a beautiful retaining wall that I now don't have to build, and with a piece of the history of this place I’d given up as lost. Now that's recycling!

“Something there is that doesn’t love and wall.” True, but something there is that does. Sometimes it's one and the same something.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Promiscuous Agriculture

Agricoltura promiscua. That’s what Italians call growing a bit of everything on a parcel of land. Otherwise known as mixed or integrated agriculture, it's at least linguistically ironic that in the culturally promiscuous US we are thoroughly and deeply addicted to monoculture when it comes to producing our food.

My neighbor Giovanni Mangiavacchi is a consummately promiscuous farmer, a contadino, the last of a breed of disappearing from the world. He's 73 years old, but you wouldn’t know it to shake his strong hand. From sunup to sundown, he does what it takes to survive on a small family farm. He butchers and cures his own hams. He makes wine and oil. He grows wheat for income and heats his home with wood he and his son Arnaldo cut. And he does most of it the quaint old-fashioned way, by hand and hard labor.

When we met two years ago he was tying up his grapevines with willow switches. “We need good people around here,” he said in his raspy good-natured voice. “This way of life is vanishing. No one wants to do this work anymore.” I understood because I had an interpreter. When I apologized for having no Italian, Giovanni grinned. “Work with me. You’ll learn!”

This morning, after waking to the first frost of the season, I asked him to put me to work. Voglio lavorare per te. Voglio aiutare. Voglio imparare l’arte del contadino. (I want to work for you. I want to help [unspecified reflexive object]. I want to learn the art of the Contadino.). At first he is perplexed, but when I say I want to walk around with him and talk, to learn Italian, he nods and starts off toward the barn.

The walls of his barns are festooned with ox yokes and giant sieves that would not be out of place in a shaker barn. But these are not antiques. Today he will use one to clean favalino.

A kind of small black fava bean planted and turned under when mature, to add precious nitrogen to the generally poor Tuscan soil, Giovanni pours the dried beans, 40 or 50 pounds at time, into the big crivello (sieve) suspended under a crude tripod. He swirls them like he’s panning for gold or roasting coffee beans. After several sizzling laps, the undesirable thistle and weed seeds float to the top and are discarded. Any oats, barley, and immature beans have fallen to the floor—food for pigs.

Provo? I ask. I try?

I’d like to say I succeed. But first I spill the beans, literally. Then I can’t even get the remaining ones to roll. These are not light little coffee beans. It’s like bowling with Jello or trying to juggle bread dough. Now my tennis elbow aches and Giovanni laughs good-naturedly. I’ve no choice but to laugh with him.

Then Arnaldo walks in. He looks amused. Giovanni says his 45-year-old son refuses to clean beans this way. Arnaldo confirms it. It’s just a fact. There is this old-fashioned respect for character in Italy. Meanwhile, I don’t know whether to feel better for having tried, or just a fool.

At least I can help him pour the cleaned beans into sacks. This becomes our morning’s work—200 kilos of beans, over 400 pounds, six big sacks full in 3 hours.

8 or 9 more times I try to swirl the beans over the morning. 8 or 9 more times I fail. And laugh. And am humbled when Giovanni takes the sieve and simply swishes them around.

In consolation, I'm invited to lunch. I can practice my sparse Italian at the table least.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Our medieval village, Montisi, is perched on what was once the coast of an ancient sea. The proof is in the oyster shells that tumble from the road banks after rains. And in the cockle bearing stones harvested from the ground just a few feet from our front wall, which they're now part of.

These same mollusks led Leonardo Da Vinci to argue (despite threat of excommunication) that this land had once been inundated by sea water, not Noah’s flood. And these same fossils helped Nicolaus Steno discover that the earth itself had a history worthy of a new science--geology.

As though reluctant to let go of the memory of its one-time home, water in another form often reclaims this ancient seabed. On autumn nights, ghostly mists inundate the Val d'Orcia all the way to Montisi. By morning, early rising Montisani find theirs a coastal village, while hilltop farms become offshore islands laved by silver vapor.

At least until the sun warms the veil and lifts it up.

[photo by Sally Gall]